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Of Apps and Men December 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Fair warning – I am eventually going to say more about Uber. The apps business is an interesting one, and some historical context is necessary to understand just why. In the PC era, we typically paid hundreds of dollars for individual applications. As a result, we would buy only a few of them. And we would use those applications only when we were seated in front of our computers. The software business was the application, and selling it made the business.

In the smartphone/tablet era, however, apps are essentially free, or at worst cost only a few bucks. People are using more apps, and using them for longer periods of time than we ever did on the PC.

But that still doesn’t quite make the bottom line sing. I mention Uber above because of its recent valuation of $41 billion, at a time when the entire annual taxi revenue of the US is $11 billion. The standard line by the VCs is that it will transform all of surface transportation as more and more people use Uber, even rather than their own cars.

I don’t buy that argument, but that is a tale for another day. But the message, I think, is fundamentally correct. The message is that you don’t build a business on an app. You will never make money, at least not sustainable money, from the app. Rather, the app is the connection to your business. You use the app simply as another connection to your products or services, or as a connection to an entirely new type of business.

But today, you are not going to use and app to build a business that was the standard fare of the software industry only a few years ago.

The corollary, of course, is that almost every business will need its own app, sooner or later.  That represents a boon for developers.

Are We Focusing on the Wrong Airport Experiences? December 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Unlike many people, I enjoy traveling, especially by airplane. We have no other service that can get you to almost anywhere in the world within a day, and usually within a few hours.

Certainly there are some less-than-comfortable aspects of this process, but it’s generally just for a few hours, so it’s not usually onerous. And I am experienced enough so that I do some of the little things that make it easier. I am a Delta Platinum Medallion (for the next year anyway), and get to choose seats with better legroom, and board early. Thanks to a long term investment years ago, and a free offer by my bank, I have entry to many airport lounges.

I’ve experienced plenty of delays and cancellations for various reasons in my travels, and all I really need is help in rescheduling. If I get ready service, I can tolerate delays.

So I’m always interested when articles talk about the future of air travel, especially from the standpoint of the airports. This particular article talks about the future of airports. In this case, CNN Money talks about a prospective airport under early development in Mexico City.

Many say that the US has lagged in building major infrastructure such as airports. While it’s true that the US hasn’t built a major airport since Denver International (and before that DFW and IAD, back in the 1960s), many of the major cities are land-constrained, more so even than their counterparts in Europe.

And that’s not to say that major construction hasn’t been occurring – new runways in Atlanta, new terminal buildings in Detroit, Las Vegas, JFK, and much more. But it is true that some airports are emotionally depressing, including all of the NYC airports, Midway, O’Hare, and LAX, to choose a few. Some people don’t care for security lines, but it is a sign of the times.

But airports, even major international airports, aren’t intended to be destinations in and of themselves. If everything goes right, you shouldn’t be spending more than 3-4 hours total in airports, even when making connections. The goal shouldn’t be to build architecturally majestic shopping destinations, but rather to move people in and out quickly.

There are some really great new airports in the world. From all accounts, Hong Kong and Incheon look really nice. I’ve been to Zurich multiple times, and I think they have modernized very well. But that’s not really the purpose of an airport. Give me something that gets me in and out fast, and I will be happy with dour surroundings and limited shopping opportunities.

Mother Nature Will Win, But Sometimes Has a Little Help November 28, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In my case, this week, that help is coming from my so-called public utility, Public Service of New Hampshire.  (otherwise known as three lies in one name) As I noted earlier, I do believe that there is little we can do when Mother Nature comes to do us harm. Mother Nature’s destructive forces are always more powerful than our attempts to mitigate them.

But my public utility is aiding and abetting. Three years ago, we had “Snotober”, the massive wet snowstorm at the end of October, just prior to Halloween. It was about a foot and a half of snow. In the city I live, there were approximately 30 utility poles down, including one across the street, a block from my house.

That was a monster. And while I was inconvenienced for five full days without power while I made my living at home (the bigger problem was that Comcast Internet was down by about the same time), I worked around it, convinced that this was truly Mother Nature at her best.

This pre-Thanksgiving storm was no such monster. It was less than a foot, just a couple of years after the utility engaged in a massive tree-clearing campaign, vowing that it wouldn’t happen again.

PSNH, I call you out. You are a fraud and a waste of my money. Because you are a public utility, I have no choice in the matter, but you do. You can do better; if you don’t, it’s because you as a company and a culture choose not to.

Prove me wrong. I know you won’t.

Net Neutrality and The Oatmeal November 21, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I can understand why Matthew Inman doesn’t accept email on The Oatmeal, but it does make it difficult to raise an important issue. In this case, I would like to explore his take on net neutrality. Yes, I agree that Senator Cruz is probably an idiot, or at least pandering. But beyond that, I’m wondering just who the bad guy is here. Is it Comcast Xfinity, who would like to charge premium prices to companies with real time content delivery needs? Perhaps. Or is it Netflix, who is abusing an infrastructure not designed or operated for streaming high-quality video? Hmm.

Today we tend to think of the Internet as more or less a public utility, akin to our electrical service. That’s not quite correct. Actually, not at all correct. There was a time, when I was in college, where the Internet was a private, elitist academic network, yet funded entirely by the government. If you as an individual wanted access, you had to be an academic, a government-funded researcher, or at worst a paying student at a really good university. And there was some decent content on the Internet, albeit all text-based. That was the world at the time.

In the early 1990s, the powers-that-be (I really don’t know or care to assign it to one political party or the other, and neither should you (and no, Al Gore did not create the Internet, despite his resume)) decided to commercialize it.

That, I think most people would agree, was a Good Thing. We got ISPs (okay, we had AOL and Compuserve before that, but they specifically weren’t on the Internet until later), we got decent graphics tools, and we got modems to use with our phones. It provided for a burst of innovation, an explosion of content, and a democratization of access.

The phone companies made a half-assed attempt to offer higher access speeds, but DSL was expensive, difficult to buy and configure, and slow. The cable companies realized that they already had fat pipes into homes, and rushed to compete, spending hundreds of billions of dollars (granted, our subscription dollars, but a significant investment nonetheless) on network upgrades.

So here the Internet ceased being a public utility, if it ever was one, and became a commercial venture. I agree that the exclusive contracts still oddly provided by municipalities to cable companies makes it seem that way, but there is little reason for these to still exist. And in any case, they should be up for re-bid every few years, once again making it less of a utility.

So a business like Netflix comes along, and reduces its operating cost by offering a very high usage delivery on what is at worst a low-cost fixed-price medium. Is Comcast wrong by wanting more money for this type of use? To support the Netflix business model of making money from us?

I don’t know. Apparently Matthew Inman does. Good for him.

In theory, I believe net neutrality is the way to go. But it supports some businesses over the expense of others. Just like the alternative. So I simply don’t see a compelling reason to discard either concept.

I Have My Cell Phone, So I’m Safe November 20, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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In the safety of my home in New Hampshire (where we are no strangers to snow), I am watching the emerging largely lake-effect snowfall blanket western New York with over seven feet of snow, with more to come. And at least ten people have died, though some as the result of shoveling snow rather than getting caught in it.

And I can’t help but think that technology, which has been of enormous help in saving lives, is also making us more susceptible to dying in extreme conditions. In particular, the easy availability of cell phones makes us think that someone will always come to get us, in just about any circumstances.

Yes, people died of weather tragedies prior to the advent of easy and instant communications. The unnamed hurricane hitting Galveston, Texas in 1900 killed 6000-12,000 people, the bodies of most were never found. The New England hurricane of 1938 killed perhaps 700 people. In the early 1970s as a youth, I recall reading a harrowing account of a massive snowstorm at the Batavia Rock Cut closing the New York Thruway for days, with hundreds of cars still on it.

But we lacked not only communications technology, but the ability to forecast and communicate such extreme weather. Today we have much of that information available to us, yet still choose to take risks. Perhaps more risks than we would otherwise.

And such technology is not a panacea. I also recall the James Nance book and subsequent TV miniseries, Pandora’s Clock, where a doomsday virus kept an airliner from landing, even for medical help. An ambassador on the plane, played by Robert Guillaume, was in contact with the highest level of authority worldwide through a satellite phone. Fat lot of good it did him (Richard Dean Anderson was the hero, as he often was in MacGyver).

I am (not quite, I hope) as guilty as anyone else. I run very early in the morning, well before light, in a neighborhood known to be populated by certain wild animals. I take my cell phone with me, in a pouch. Like I will be able to make a phone call if attacked by a wild animal, or have a heart attack or encounter with an automobile. Still, I irrationally feel a little more secure with it than without.

So is there a lesson here? I think that technology such as easy communications is a cautious fallback strategy. But it doesn’t make us invincible. Sometimes the cavalry just isn’t coming, or can’t come. Even with our superior technology, Mother Nature will win, without cause and without regret.

Does Being Ethically Challenged Matter in Silicon Valley? November 19, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Investor Peter Thiel offers the opinion that ride service Uber is Silicon Valley’s most ethically challenged company, even before one of the company’s executives was quoted as saying it might hire private detectives to find and publicize dirt on journalists who criticize its business practices (the company CEO eventually delivered an apology in 14 tweets, which is just plain silly).

According to various reports, Uber doesn’t play well with local and regional regulatory agencies, treats its drivers poorly, and plays various dirty tricks on competitors. To some extent, friction with a startup in a new market is likely to occur, whether because of a new business model (anyone remember the controversy caused by open source software before it became widely accepted?) or because of legal or regulatory limitations.

I will likely never use Uber, for a variety of reasons (such as not frequenting places it serves), and it certainly appears that the company breaks the boundaries of accepted good business practices and regulatory statutes. But I don’t think that will in any way drive whether or not it succeeds. Its success will be driven primarily by its being able to service customers (riders) in a fast, clean, and courteous environment.

Of course, the legal and regulatory environment plays an important role here (Uber remains banned in certain German cities), and the company’s legal arguments in response are pretty ridiculous (“The Hamburg court rejected Uber’s arguments that the ban violated Uber’s professional freedom or European freedom to offer services.”) But rather than claim an absolute right that doesn’t exist in society, why not work within the legal framework, or work with authorities in a collaborative way to adjust that framework and experiment with new models? The regulations exist for a reason, usually what was once a good reason, so it makes sense to bring about change without negating the law.

I’ll also opine that it seems like the company has intentionally cultivated an arrogant, likely inappropriate business atmosphere. It’s almost certainly not a place where I could work. But that probably only has a small, if any, impact on its probability of business success.

James Bond is Not About What You Think November 10, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I have always been a James Bond fan. There is certainly an element of tech, charisma, adventure, and even comic absurdity in his character and roles, and I’ve always appreciated that.

But there is more to Bond than that. To fully understand, you have to at some point read the original Ian Fleming novels and stories. Some of them are laughable; after an intimate encounter with Pussy Galore, called out as a lesbian in Goldfinger, Bond asks about her sexuality. “I’ve never been with a real man before,” was her irrational response. Even in my youth, I laughed out loud at that one.

But Bond was always about duty and country. He was violent, just as much so as his adversaries. It’s not always clear who the good guy is. What made him believable, and even in some ways likeable, was that he carried out his violent duties in the realm of Queen and country. His loyalty was never in question (“When do you sleep, Bond?” “Never on the Queen’s time, sir”).

Granted, there was a time when we trusted in our superiors, and our country, more than we do today. And he has certainly questioned authority, more often than not.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day in the US. I served, though not particularly well (my DD-214 does say “honorable”), but I remain proud of that service. Today, I have to ask, what would we sacrifice our lives for? Thousands of servicemen have done so over the last decade, and millions in the past. I would like to think that, beyond our political and religious beliefs, upbringing, or world view, we serve something greater than ourselves.

An Open Letter to The Epicurean Dealmaker November 10, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I doubt you will read this. My own readership is a few dozen; yours seems to be several million. I am not of your industry; I’m about as far away as anyone can be. I enjoy your writing, and it provides me with a window into a world in which I will never be, but remain mildly curious about.

But over the last 5-plus years of reading your blog, the fact is that you seem to be little more than a shill for the financial industry. Perhaps that is why you are so well-read. In most of what I have read, you seem to opine similar versions of “That’s just the way it is; deal with it.” Whether we are discussing discrimination (race or sex or otherwise), turnover, promotion, financial crimes (real or perceived), double-dealing (once again), or any other topic, your ultimate take is that it is because it is. You offer no critical analysis, criticism (except to the outsiders opining otherwise), rationale, or possible solutions. It seems that you believe no solutions are warranted, even when there is clear wrongdoing. Yes, I know, define wrongdoing.

I’m sure you make a great living in the financial industry (better than I do in tech, certainly). And I’m also sure that you make no money or notoriety off of your blog (I believe you have been outed, but I won’t recognize the name so I really don’t care), so there is some question as to why you do so. I think I might half-like you in real life, because you care enough to write without attribution. Maybe ego? I simply don’t know.

But. Your industry has issues, which may ultimately be fatal to its ongoing way of life. You could be a force for change, or at least for introspection. I realize that financial people tend not to introspect, but they have to know that they (you) are the first up against the wall when the revolution comes. I would like to think that you introspect enough to question some of the fundamental values (?) of your industry, but you end up always concluding that it’s other people’s problems, not yours.

Of course, the revolution may never come. I do believe that is what you (they) are counting on.

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