Carefully Consider an Apple Music Subscription before signing-up….

Apple’s development of the iTunes & iPod was brilliantly conceived and executed. It remains a classic example of exploiting technology to effect discontinuities in a consumer market that had remained unchanged for decades.

It has been a precipitous fall from that position to the current state of offerings called Apple Music.

I have been a user of iTunes Match since its launch. It has been unusable for the past twelve months (on a MacBook running OSX). When invoking iTunes, the ‘spinning wheel’ appeared. When it stopped (minutes) any cursor motion would ‘restart’ the spinning wheel. When I opened ‘Force Quit’, iTunes status was ‘not responding’.

After several calls to Apple Care over 12 months, they were unable to offer a solution. The diagnostics went from “did I close and restart iTunes” to reinstalling the OS (oh, did you know that installing Music requires re-installation of OSX?). Finally on a recent call, I was told to ‘turn-off iTunes Match’; that worked,

So the solution that Apple provide was to stop using it…….

How about Music on the iPhone? I updated to iOS 9 this weekend, although usually not a good idea to install the ‘x.0’ release. However, 11 iOS 8 releases in the past 12 months (presumably to foist Apple Music on me) degraded the functionality of my iPhone 6 to a point where I could not receive email; I had hoped iOS 9 would restore eroded functionality. Today, my phone is essentially a ‘brick’; I can make phone calls and send texts, period.  I DID  have access to my Music on the iPhone, but I received an error message today, indicating that my access to MY music had expired.

My experience (with an iTunes Match library of ~ 8,000 titles; some purchased, some uploaded), and the ‘new’ Music, on both my MacBook and iPhone offers little confidence that Apple cares or can maintain quality.

I have begun using a Samsung Android tablet, using Amazon Music Player, where I can actually access my music.

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Steps toward machine intelligence…….

Futurists paint a view of an integrated man /machine ‘hybrid’, achieved by instantiating elements of human cognition into computational devices. This essay outlines several important technologies in development and /or early product launch, that form the foundation of this future.

Recent developments in new computer architectures exhibit ‘bio-mimicry’ of the function & structure of the brain. In general these new architectures are configurable, optimizing around the nature of the computational problem that is to be solved. Formerly, solution strategies were constrained by the general constructs of Von Neumann architectures that have dominated computer architecture for fifty years. Specifically, instructions to move x to location y, and perform operation z, rather they are processed in a more natural flow, whose function is analogous to those of synapses in the brain.

IBM has achieved important milestones with neurosynaptic chipsets, which step toward human cognition. The major challenges of these architectures are the absence of mature compilers, operating systems, and other development tools that can bring to bear the awesome potential of the hardware architecture. Additionally, in an industry where economies-of-scale are critical, reaching volume production determines profitability.

HP with The Machine, has introduced ‘special purpose’ processor cores, architecturally tuned toward solving problems using ‘big data’. Other examples in The Machine include memristor memory technology. Not unlike persistent memory in a human brain, memristors can preserve their state (1’s or 0’s) when power is removed. Another significant memristor benefit is to ease challenges associated with ‘queuing’ data from disks to high speed memory; a highly complex process that anticipates what data will be needed when, and to move that data from disk memory. This optimization yields significant performance benefit. Further advances involve implementing optical interconnects offer high-speed data transfer without increasing heat and signal noise that accompany smaller, faster, metal interconnect.

Beyond computational architecture, data schema changes are also evolving to accommodate a wide breadth of data types. There are multiple sources of commercial and open source ‘database management’ applications optimized for ‘unstructured’ data, as might exist for customer analytics of ‘big data’. Hadoop is a popular open sourced application, with commercial products from IBM, Marklogic, and others. Further-out on the horizon, from a commercialization perspective, are more radical approaches to computation.

Although not applicable to all computational problems, quantum computing (defined by Cheuk Chi Lo & John J.L. Morton in an article in an August 2014 article in IEEE Spectrum as “a system that can store and process information according to the laws of quantum mechanics”) holds great promise in selected applications, such as molecular engineering and cryptography.

D-Wave Systems of Burnaby, British Columbia, is offering a ‘quantum computer‘ which is implemented in exotic materials operating as superconductors that require near-absolute zero temperatures. The referenced article discusses technical developments that would implement quantum computers in silicon-based circuits operating at room temperatures; a significant advance in this field.

The black magic from the author’s point-of-view, is the advent of machine learning, as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson, of Jeopardy fame. Early commercial offerings of artificial intelligence where named expert systems. These involved attempts to catalog a specific body-of-knowledge in its entirety (e.g., every possible chess move, and their counter move(s)); an exceedingly difficult task to undertake. (for non-deterministic problems) The set of problems to which this approach would apply are limited, and deal with identifiable and discrete options.

The machine learning approach involves the ‘computer’ learning from its responses, whether correct or incorrect, as indicators on answering future questions. The initial use model of these capabilities (referred to as ‘cognitive computing’ by IBM) are collaboration-based; e.g., medical and financial professionals who use these tools to augment their professional activity), as opposed to stand-alone ‘decision machines’.

Continued collaboration between developers and domain experts (e.g., physicians) promise workable machine-assisted decision-making. The primary goal of ‘big data’, ultimately, is the quality of decision-support analytics, a step on the path to machine intelligence, the ultimate goal; one achievable through the discipline of incremental improvement as opposed to revolutionary discovery.

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Defending against trade secret theft

An excerpt from the Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets (Executive Office of the President of the United States, February 2013) states: “foreign competitors of U.S. corporations, some with ties to foreign governments, have increased their efforts to steal trade secret information through the recruitment of current or former employees”. This is undoubtedly an issue of importance impacting the competitiveness of American technology in the marketplace.

However, as is the case with many complex issues there exists significant gray area, and well-intended legislation could cause more damage than the actual problem it is intended to resolve.

There is a section in the report titled Promote Voluntary Best Practices by Private Industry to Protect Trade Secrets. I call this out as there should be no doubt about the technology industry’s motivation to protect ‘trade secrets’, which I will refer to herein as Intellectual Property (IP)

In my professional career in the ‘high technology’ industry spanning 30 years, and my involvement in IP licensing (and litigation), I have strong opinions concerning the substantive facts of this issue. I have learned how intellectual property is a crucial strategic element in countless technology firms; the best of whom shrewdly exploit their IP portfolios to gain competitive advantage.

My comments are not intended to create a sense of overconfidence, but the situation may not be as abysmal as it appears. There are several reasons I hold these opinions as follows:

  1. Production & manufacturing: this may not be true of all IP, but in sophisticated consumer / industrial ‘technology products’, even intimate knowledge of a design (e.g., functional specifications, schematics, prototype hardware) is no guarantee that one can actually produce it. Semiconductor-based product designs in particular are notoriously difficult to replicate; even by the owners of the IP who are tasked with scaling production. The manufacturing parameters and tolerances are mind-numbingly complex. This is magnified by the multi-discipline / multi-physics aspects of modern electronic devices. This includes embedded software, hardware, and more frequently MEMs (micro-electro mechanical); all of which must inter-operate perfectly. In point of fact, the verification of these designs is often more time-consuming, and intellectually challenging, that the functional designs
  2. Innovation Competency: there is ample historical precedent for ‘fast-followers’ who can ‘pick-off’ certain products, and offer variants that have alternative performance or cost benefits, but I do not believe that leads to sustainable success. Anyone who has worked on project-based product development knows the very culture is focused on faster, better, cheaper. It resembles an athletic contest, and is extraordinarily difficult to sustain. The very DNA of an organization must reflect this. I submit that an entity based on being a fast follower that relies on IP theft, can never develop, never mind sustain, the culture needed to succeed on the bleeding edge of technology.
  3. You know the IP thief’s product roadmap: a substantial amount of PD is based on ‘platforms’ where derivative products often represent the true competitive advantage in both margin and time-to-market, I questioned the CEO of a very successful technology firm why he was so forthcoming about details of his company strategy; I received a pearl-of-wisdom in the response, as follows: “our competitive advantage comes does not involve the details of our strategy; rather, it comes from our ability to execute our strategy.
  4. The Importance of ecosystem: increasingly, APIs and partnerships are differentiators in a product’s success. There exists unique value, in same; value that may be not possible to replicate. This also applies to ‘evolutionary’ products, where forward compatibility of versions is a key customer requirement.

An opportunity that colleagues and I are contemplating is the role of subterfuge as a weapon to defend against IP theft. What-if (and this is a big what-if) the IP embodied in an electronic system, for example, included logic that could render it inoperable, or produce inaccurate result (in the case of a computational device). And what-if, that ‘function’ could be triggered at a date in the future; sort-of like a Trojan horse, but wearing a white hat.

There is much to be done to protect American firms trade secrets from foreign competitors, and their state sponsors. The ‘problem, however has an element of opportunity, which requires more thought, and judicious governmental involvement.

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When a ‘disability’ is a gift

According to The Annual Disability Statistics Compendium: 2012, there are in excess of 8 million adults (ages 18 – 64) with cognitive disabilities (CDs) in the United States.  An individual is considered as cognitively disabled if they answered ‘yes’ , when asked “if due to a physical, mental, or emotional condition, they had ‘serious difficulty remembering , or making decisions’. Of this number, approximately 1.8 million are employed, an unemployment rate of 77%.

Advances in neuroscience research is  progressing at an astounding pace to unravel the causation and effects of many CDs.  Increasing ability at diagnostics is revealing the higher incidence of many of these conditions,  such as Aspergers Syndrome, that were not well-known a decade ago. The dichotomy is that many of these individuals, (as well as those with High Functioning Autism, or, HFA) possess technical skills that are in-demand, at a time when projections indicate a growing gap between the supply / demand of those skills.  Many individuals with Aspergers posses unique abilities at testing computer software, a task that requires near obsessive attention to detail and an ability to focus.   National Public Radio recently featured examples of individuals once considered mentally impaired in many circles, in possession of unique highly-sought professional skills.

In parallel, studies around Science Technology Engineering Mathematics, (aka, STEM) predict  insufficient numbers of professionals with skills in STEM-related fields of study and industries. What is more compelling than developing these much-needed skills, critical to maintain technological competitiveness, from within a group of individuals considered ‘disabled’?

The employment of individuals with disabilities has acheived recognition as a priority including a Presidential, Executive Order 13548 — Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. Reliance on the federal government is not sufficient, and there are examples appearing from individuals and companies with foresight. A great example is Chicago-area firm Aspiritech, on the leading edge of providing individuals with these skills to well-known technology firms.

We need to re-think our own individual bias and misperceptions around a word; i.e., ‘disability’. With unrelenting progress and discovery in  ]science of the mind’, what other characteristics will appear in individuals that we now label and stereotype? It begins with changing our perceptions; perceptions that use  words like ‘different’ and ‘disabled’ to shroud  individual gifts that many have to give, but are not given the chance…….

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Three Critical Elements to Better Decisions

  • ”Every once in a while a bad idea will pay off” (Willie RobertsonCEO, Duck Commander)

I am amazed that one of the most important business processes (remember that word!) is ignored, and bereft of any training. As the quote suggests, it seems to be accepted as a fact-of-life, that decisions just ‘happen’, and will by luck occasionally be correct.

Let me establish a context for my essay on better decisions. I presume a decision involving two or more individuals that normally collaborate as a team. My background suggests this as management staffs, which regularly work, debate, and make decisions together on a regular basis. Accordingly, making decisions is a skill to be honed, and continuously improved upon.

  1. Frame the problem & charter the team or individuals responsible for a solution. A classic Einstein quote captures this beautifully: “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”  Part of the ‘problem framing’ could be a realization that sufficient expertise needs to be brought-in to assisInitially, the ‘team’ that is charged with the process needs a clear mandate. My favorite is the CAIRO method, an acronym that describes the roles of constituents as follows: C = consult, A = approve, I = inform, R = Responsible, O = Omit. There should be no ambiguity about thisOnce this scope & responsibility has been socialized, the decision teams themselves (the ‘R’ in CAIRO, as those responsible for the decision) need a structured approach to achieve their mandate.
  2. Implement a structure that will drive the decision the fact you use a process is more important than the process you use. However, some of the common attributes should be:
  • Options are formulated and examined on their relative merits. These options can be quite complex, for example, when investment alternatives are being weighed against one another. In these type of scenarios, criteria need to be formulated
  • Tradeoffs, pros/cons of each option need to be considered. What are the perceived consequences of selecting one option vs. another? What risks accompany each option’ An option may be highly desirable, but impose significant risk
  • Ramifications/ Consequences specifically, what results will occur by not selecting certain options,
  • Implementationonce selected how will the ‘decision be executed. The complexity can vary widely based on the problem / decision set. His step is a key element in gaining support and consensus.A structured process will serve as an ‘audit’ trail, if decisions are questioned in the future. The ability to demonstrate a structured approach will lend legitimacy to the decision, as well as build credibility for those involved

A decision process that I am particularly biased toward is described in the book by Hammond, Keeney, Raiffa; Smart Choices A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions, It employs a system called PrOACT (Problem, Objectives, Alternative, and Tradeoffs. It is very thorough and easy to implement.

3 Challenge objectivity I am not a trained psychologist, but I have managed long enough, and worked alongside enough colleagues to have  a rudimentary understanding of the bias and subjectivity we all bring to our professional duties, including myself. Self-awareness is a sign of maturity, and sensitivity to what ‘cognitive bias’ we each bring to our decision-making is a critical character trait. See the excellent Wikipedia article on this. My mention is merely to make you aware of the myriad ways we stifle objective decision making.

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Book Review: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

With all the business titles to choose from, I get overwhelmed maintaining a reading list of titles I will actually read, or, are worth reading.  Amazon’s Kindle ‘one-click’ has made-it way too easy to amass a virtual stack of unread books on my iPad. Of necessity, I have become more selective on what I read,

Many new business titles lack compelling value, and detract from reading some of the ‘classics’ that I regard as must reads;  The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen; On Strategy by Michael Porter; Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore;  The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt; The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable by Nicolas Taleb. This is a short list of the many excellent business titles that are required reading.

I was underwhelmed with my read of The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. I read Mr. Anderson’s article of the same name in a 2006 issue of WIRED magazine. It was a thought-provoking article, but  hardly warrants a ‘book’ version, in which I found little additional value.

The author describes changes that cause small, incremental, sales volume from more products; depicted as asymmetry in the tail of an otherwise normal statistical distribution. The depiction is accurate, but in my opinion, extremely constrained,  to some very specific markets. Specifically, products that have undergone revolutionary change in business models; e.g.,  music, film, books,

These markets experienced a ‘perfect storm’ where new customer acquisition costs plummeted, resulting from more ‘eyeballs’, thanks to Amazon, Apple iTunes, Netflix.  This was coincident with changes in packaging (digital vs. physical media), distribution (internet download vs. shipping). This convergence , with enormous ‘unserviceable demand’ (individual titles, available immediately vs. entire albums) was an unprecedented ‘disruptive’ event, period.

The author is correct that the distribution of revenue contribution is tailing-off, i.e., total revenue contribution is increasing from additional products (at a rate of lower marginal revenue contribution per unit), but this is a result of well-known micro-economic theory affecting supply & demand.

The author compares the “80 / 20 rule”, the modern-day lexicon for Pareto’s Principle (states that for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes, and named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto) with “The 98% Principle”. That ‘principle’ was coined by the experience of a firm Anderson interviewed that provided ‘jukebox’ services, specifically, 98% of their 10,000 catalog of unique songs was played once per quarter.

Namely, the acquisition costs of new customers (in this case music or books) has dropped precipitously, and the cost-of-goods-sold has decreased almost exponentially; both attributable to the internet. In the case of the former, the marginal cost of a ‘new set of eyeballs’ belonging to a prospective buyer is near zero.

The author provides ‘evidence’ of “how broadly the theory has been applied”; that’s like me taking credit for discovering gravity because I fell-off my sofa the other night, on which I was standing to change a light bulb.

In summary, there is no new dynamic or trend described in this book; it’s renaming (often inaccurately) a business trend based on Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes.

Read the article reprint in WIRED magazine; you’ll get the full benefit of the argument, it doesn’t warrant a book to explain it.

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Linked In Contact Network Visualization

Visualizing Your Contact Network in Linked In

Few books have made an impact on me as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, the seminal work by Edward Tufte.

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This work was the how to embody & represent quantitative information (i.e., numbers) in a visual form, ‘content absorb-able’ with a glance

Further reading revealed the why; specifically who cares I offer this excerpt from a book authored by Tamara Munzer on Visualization for the why:

“Visualization allows people to offload cognition to the perceptual system, using carefully designed images as a form of external memory. The human visual system is a very high-bandwidth channel to the brain, with a significant amount of processing occurring in parallel and at the pre-conscious level. We can thus use external images as a substitute for keeping track of things inside our own heads”

There has been a renaissance in the past several years on various methods and approaches that build on Tufte’s work; some personal favorites are Many Eyes (from IBM), GE Data Visualization, NodeXL, and visualizing.org.  Tufte also has a ‘bulletin board’ that ironically, is non-graphical.

A great practical example is a simple tool offered by Linked In to ‘visualize’ your own network InMaps – I visualized my LinkedIn network. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me that allowed visualization of my contacts ‘footprint’.

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