Tough Questions

Fast Company has this list of questions to ask colleagues (or ourselves) from a book, “Fierce Conversations”, by Susan Scott:

What has become clear since last we met?

What is the area that, if you made an improvement, would give you and others the greatest return on time, energy, and dollars invested?

What is currently impossible to do that, if it were possible, would change everything?

What are you trying to make happen in the next three months?

What’s the most important decision you’re facing? What’s keeping you from making it?

What topic are you hoping I won’t bring up?

What area under your responsibility are you most satisfied with? Least satisfied with?

What part of your responsibilities are you avoiding right now?

Who are your strongest employees? What are you doing to ensure that they’re happy and motivated?

Who are your weakest employees? What is your plan for them?

Susan is right – these are the type of questions we certainly need to answer, but do not. Time to do some introspection…

Single Chip WiFi

Gelln Fleishmann writes about Broadcam’s announcement that it will offer a single-chip, low-power 802.11b chip[ for USD 12-13 in quantities by early 2004: “Broadcom’s new system means that cell phones, MP3s players, handhelds, cameras, and other devices could offer integral 802.11b without draining batteries or filling external slots. Broadcom has some impressive slides on power usage, noting that their standby power mode is 97 percent more miserly than the Centrino chipset.”

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Microsoft Program Manager

[via Roland Tanglao] Michael Vernal writes about one of the key job functions at Microsoft – that of a program manager. “PMs are facilitators of communication. The more gregarious, inclusive, and communicative a PM, the better.”

A Technical PM is kind of a non-code-writing developer. They’re very comfortable with architecture issues, they can write code, and they know what developers want, but they don’t actually write the code that ships in the product. Generally, PMs in the Developer Division (my division) are Technical PMs.

A Product PM is someone who knows what the end-user / customer wants, and can write specifications to that effect, but they’re not thinking in code. The canonical examples are of Office and Windows Shell PMs — they design UI, look-and-feel, etc., but they wouldn’t be the right people (necessarily) to design the underlying architecture to make that UI performant.

A Release PM is common to all teams at Microsoft. Release PMs help to define and drive the schedule, and make sure that things that get written actually get shipped. You’d be surprised how difficult the task of shepharding 200 people is.

Lastly, there is the Business PM, which is more often called a Product Manager at Microsoft. They’re the people who know market conditions, know what big customers want, and end up bringing clarity to the actual requirements for a piece of software.

It is something we should look at adopting as we want to become a software products company focused on emerging markets.

RFID Turning Point?

News.com writes about a landmark decision by Walmart which will make WiFi a reality: “Wal-Mart Stores announced that by Jan. 1, 2005, radio frequency identification technology would become a requirement for doing business with the world’s largest retailer.”

Wal-Mart’s pragmatic decision to start with RFID tags in the warehouse at the pallet and case level is quite prudent. Instead of rushing into things, Wal-Mart’s more measured approach toward RFID offers a good model. Businesses can give suppliers the capability to produce RFID pallet or case labels with minimal technology–a browser session and a remote label printer.

Then, as cases are unloaded from the truck through an RFID receiving portal, all the information associated with the tags gets captured and updated in real time for better inventory visibility. This allows businesses to experience some of the most critical benefits of RFID, including increased inventory accuracy and decreased labor costs within their facility.

As trading partners begin adopting RFID, the focus of labeling at the pallet or case level can then be extended to labeling at the unit level and so on. As with any new or emerging technology, there is incremental value with each step of an RFID implementation.

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Intel Personal Server

Linux Devices has a story on Intel’s Personal Server research:

Smaller than PDA-class devices and without traditional input/output (I/O) capabilities such as a keyboard or display, the Intel Personal Server concept prototype links wirelessly to existing infrastructure to provide ubiquitous access to personal information and applications. With a focus on miniaturization, Personal Server technology could also integrate into a PDA or cellular phone, extending the capabilities of current consumer electronic devices.

The Personal Server concept would enable any computer with a small amount of additional software installed, to perform as if it were the user’s own computer. The local computing infrastructure will support the Personal Server not only by providing a display and keyboard, but also by enabling access to other local resources such as printers, the Internet, and high-performance desktop processing.

I wish they’d spend as much time and effort creating cheaper thin clients. This is a topic I am covering in my Tech Talk series on how to open up the next billion people to the magic of computing and the Internet.

Selling Our Personal Data

News.com has an interview with John Deighton, a Harvard Business School professor, onb the issue of who owns one’s personal information. His point: “The information that is gathered about you by stores, researchers and credit agencies belongs to those companies, not to you. They in turn resell that information to others. So if our personal information is such an asset, shouldn’t we benefit from our asset as well? Why shouldn’t intelligent consumers sell their identities to stores they trust? And wouldn’t those trusted stores in return be motivated to use that information wisely?…The challenge is to give people a claim on their identities while protecting them from mistreatment. The solution is to create institutions that allow consumers to build and claim the value of their marketplace identities and that give producers the incentive to respect them.”

TECH TALK: The Next Billion: Todays PC Industry

Three companies make almost all the profits in todays PC industry: Intel, Microsoft and Dell. Intel supplies the processors (Pentiums and Xeons), Microsoft creates the operating system (Windows) and productivity applications software (Office) and Dell puts it all together super-efficiently and distributes it to the enterprise or the individual. The PC industry has consolidated around these three companies. Not that there arent others. But few have the influence, clout and pricing power of Intel, Microsoft and Dell.

The PC industry of recent times has been in a hiatus. There have been few new developments to drive adoption and upgrades among their current base of users this is changing to a small extent with WiFi driving a shift from desktops to notebooks. On the software front, Windows Longhorn (the next operating system from Microsoft) is still a couple years ago. About the most exciting thing with PCs now are the sleek-looking LCD displays. So, look at any ad for a new PC, and most of the description will be about the hardware specs which barely make a difference to the end-users. The market among existing users has saturated. One is starting to see ads from the likes of Intel on why users should upgrade their PCs after 3-4 years of usage.

The PC industry is at a stage where it has reached saturation among users in its existing markets (the developed markets). The next set of users in the worlds emerging markets are being targeted, but only just. China is buying more than 10 million PCs a year, while India is buying about 2.5 million a year. These include upgrades as well as new users. The problem with the next set of users is that they need a different price point at which they will be willing to make the purchase.

For the most part, PCs have been priced at their dollar equivalents across the world both on the hardware and software fronts. The lower incomes of the next set of buyers makes the PC a very expensive proposition. Because there are few buyers, it is harder to get the next buyers the viral impact and network effect is limited. While the solution to perceived high software pricing has been piracy, there is no alternative for the hardware. Creating special price points and solutions for the worlds emerging markets threatens the core business and profits from the existing markets for the computer industrys leading players, and is therefore not a priority.

Also, consider the architecture of the PC of today. Packing everything on a thick desktop was a good idea in the 1980s (PCs would therefore need to be self-contained units). This made software developers create software for the thick client leading to the client-server computing era of the early 1990s, which served to self-propagate the need for thick desktops. So, even as networks being faster and are now becoming ubiquitous, PCs are still set-up to be the monoliths that they have always been. This contributes to the cost and maintenance hassles. The time has come for a new architecture that cuts cost of ownership and simplifies administration.

Tomorrow: Four Key Ideas

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