Hunting for New Users

Yesterday Twitter announced that their user growth was flattening up. Needless to say, their share prices dropped. Now Twitter CEO says that his number one priority is to grow the user base. I think it is a great idea.

It is a great idea not only for Twitter, but also for Facebook, Google and other corporations, which provide services to connect people. If not today, in near future, their user growth is going to stall.

It seems there are not many ways you can make more money from this business model.

  1. Upsell your services to existing users (advertisers). In order to do this, dive deeper into peoples’ data and share it with advertisers.
  2. Create new users, who have enough buying power that attracts advertising revenue, while safe-guarding existing user base.

To upsell their services, they need to mine more personal data, which can also create more backlash in the form of user attrition and regulatory scrutities. So the trick is to mine more data without appearing to be endangering the perceived privacy, while providing more value per click to the advertisers. This, I think, is a game of diminishing returns.

Creating yet another billion users with enough buying power to attract advertisers is even harder. To achieve this, these corporations have to increase their market share. For Google and Facebook, that would mean creating a whole new market and then lay claim its majority stake, because they already enjoy near monopoly on the existing market. A company can grow as much as its industry, not an inch more.

Google and Facebook already realized this and have been working on this. Beyond philanthropical goals, projects like Google Loon, is ultimately aimed to connect the “unconnected” and thus to create new markets. Which is exactly what Facebook is trying to do in China.

If Twitter wants to grow their user base substantially, they might want to sail abroad too. Not an easy thing to do, especially for Twitter, which doesn’t provide many glitters in their services, but is defenitely worth the effort.

A Request to Pocket App

Pocket is a gorgeous app, available in almost all mobile platforms and the web. It helps you to save online reading for later offline reading. You can tag the articles and have a little organization around it. With simple and elegant controls, it provides clutter free reading pleasure. It also can remember where you left off individual articles. If you haven’t used it, please check it out. Trust me, you would love it.

Pocket Hits

Once every few days, Pocket automatically curates a set of articles, which match my reading interests and sends as an email newsletter. They call it “Pocket Hits”. For me this news letter content is almost always right on target. I love to read right out of my inbox. It’s as if the algorithm can read my mind. Under each article, there is a link to save it to your Pocket account. (see picture.) Usually the newsletter contains 10 article links, for which you have to click 10 times to save them all. But it is worth the effort. Since the articles are saved for offline reading, it is perfect for subway reading, when you are completely disconnected from the web.

But …..

Wouldn’t it make sense to add an extra link like “Save all to Pocket” ? What do you say, Pocket team?

 

Rights to be forgotten

Our status updates and pictures live on servers. Where do they go to die?

Early this year, an EU court asked Google and other search engines to institute a facility to request to be forgotten and Google complied without dispute. That decision may conflict with our right to know but I save that topic for another day. Today I am not talking about that but about something related.

This year, two of my friends on Facebook passed away. Their Facebook profiles are still alive. I fear that someday a strange Facebook algorithm would pull out an old memory from their profiles and present it on my timeline. I am not sure if they had a will written on how they wanted to settle their belongings and real estate but I am sure they didn’t have means to prepare a cyber will.

This is something Facebook, Google and other service providers who trade in cloud/social networking services in exchange for our privacy, could do. As consumers who are willing to barter details of our private lives, we have a right to be forgotten after we are gone from this world. We should be able to decide how long a post, a picture or a profile should live.

What we blather often dissipate in thin air. Our books, letters and paper documents get faded, eaten by termites or get recycled. The status updates on the other hand, are God-like. Invincible, pervasive and deathless. They live limitless lives through server farms, get cloned for backups, mined for profits and surveillance and sold out for unknown ransoms without our knowledge. Your words and pictures are not yours anymore, once they bid farewell from your keyboard.

Unfortunately, true privacy is not a viable option anymore. Internet has changed the way we live our lives. Completely.

So, as customers, citizens, and most of all, as humans, who desire to live honorable and precious lives, we demand the right to be forgotten for the content we post on the web.

Our status updates too, need a time and place to die.

What should Windows do

Well, the title of the post should have been “What should Microsoft do”, but right now I am not interested in talking about Microsoft Office or XBox or Bing. For our discussion, I prefer to treat “Windows” as a stand-alone organization.

In all those places I have worked, I was required to use Windows desktops. At home, we own a couple of devices running different flavors of Windows. I am not planning to decommission Windows anytime soon from my life. As a long time Windows customer – albeit a reluctant one at times – I am worried about its future.

The announcement of new Windows (Windows 10) created a reasonable amount of social media buzz and somewhat lukewarm expectations from (once) software giant. The twitter crowd started joke-streaming the popular elementary school humor of “7 ate 9″.

The release schedule is going to be late 2015 – TBD. To Be Decided is the problem that Microsoft lately has. Looking around we can see that the industry has shifted to rolling out major versions of software at least once every year. Customers became more savvy of nuances of the feature set that their favorite OS vendor brings in. Millions of people started watching Apple / Google / Samsung launch events.

Traditionally Windows adopted a refresh frequency of 2-3 years. It made sense in the past because Microsoft enjoyed a universal monopoly on PC operating systems and the smallest denomination of personal computing available to customers were desktops and laptops.  That beautiful candyland doesn’t exist anymore. Mobile has become ubiquitous. Apple and Google now dominate the lion’s share of that market while Microsoft was marginalized to be a bystander. Microsoft has tried to change its strategy – quickly dumped the well designed XP/Windows 7 products and embraced the metro-style tablo-desktop-sundae-OS called Windows 8. I can’t think of a product that was hated by more number of its fanbase than Windows 8. And it took 3 years for Microsoft to release it.

With the new leadership at its helm, Microsoft announced its next version of OS last month. The new version of Windows, which is expected to clean up after Windows 8, would come out shortly – well, in 2015, TBD to be precise!

What Windows should do is to commit for shorter cycles of OS iterations, that rejuvenate the market every once in a while. If a version fails to capture the imagination of its customer base, let it fail quickly and recover from that failure faster. Windows 8 came out in October 2012. It should not take 3 years for a software behemoth to recover from a failure as staggering as that of Windows 8. (Did you say, Windows 8.1? That doesn’t count..).

The first and foremost action Windows should do is to reduce their refresh frequency. Now more than ever, we need Windows in the market place.

Two Steps to Survive a World of Humanoids

If you belong to the age group of 5 to 50, please listen up. At some point in our lives, you and I may be victims of the ruthless march of automation. On a positive note, futurists are predicting that manufacturing will see a revival soon. But most probably a robot – a Baxter variant (http://www.cnbc.com/id/49344701) with a price tag of $25,000 will be doing the work that humans were happily doing earlier. Generally speaking, a job once claimed by a robot is never going to be returned to humans. A robot doesn’t have to look like a humanoid, but a banal command line program that is silently crunching data also is equally consequential to our lives. In an ensuing “battle” of man (and woman) vs. machine, men and women are poised to lose. Big time.

honda-robot

Honda robot Asimo

Don’t get me wrong, I love to work on automation projects. I hate as much as anyone else to work on monotonous tasks day in and day out. Moreover, when I take on automating a mundane manual process, I too feel proud to see the end-product running like an automaton with tremendous speed and splendor, which a 1000 humans can’t match. Such is the power and proficiency of automation.

Automation increases productivity, produces extra wealth and creates comfort for a section of the populace. It also creates new opportunities and new ways of doing the work. The problem with automation is that it disrupts the economy by changing the way things are produced and people have been served. More often than not, the disruption means displacing the current workforce, which couldn’t adapt to the new environment. Since the changes happen in tremendous pace, for an average Joe, it is nearly impossible to keep up. It unsettles the status quo.

It bothers me personally. The disruptions and displacements, which automation would bring to our lives are not going to be always pleasant. Without exception, each one of us is vulnerable to this new reality. The impact of automation is all-pervasive and has been proceeding with such an amazing pace and vigor. All professions are vulnerable. There are no fences to run into. There are no trenches to hide.

I think the only option is to adopt an embrace and outrun strategy to survive the automation tsunami.

1. Embrace automation

If you can’t beat it, champion it. Be the forerunner of process automation. This will help us to be leading the automation efforts. If we could be agents of disruption ourselves, we could become less fearful. If a machine can do something as good as a human can, simply go ahead and automate it. If you refused to do it, someone else is going to do it anyway. In the process, it will take you down along with it. Ouch!!

2. Refuse to be a humanoid
If a machine can’t do a job as good as a human can, make sure that you opt that as your specialty. Be the best at doing it. Bring in the high game of doing that job with an ultimate human face. This is the battleground that we can confront and beat the machine with a single stroke.

If you look around, you may be able to see many people act like machines, when they have a choice to be otherwise. Do not blame me, if this reminds you of your recent visit to the doctor’s office or an encounter with an airline worker. Anyone who is reading out from a script, will be outrun by a machine, some day. It’s coming.

If we walk, talk and act like a robot, the profit engine will soon find a better performing Mechanical Turk. We have only one choice: leave the things that machines can do the best, to the machines and the rest to the humanity. Migrate to the new realms of work, where we can do a completely human job, that a machine can’t even “dream” of getting into.

Machines are marching forward for their ultimate world domination. Fight back like a human! Remember: machines by themselves are impotent. But when man’s greed joins hands with mighty machines, nothing can stop them!

Photo by Honda News

Accountability and Ownership


Accountability and responsibility are used synonymously in corporate settings. Accountability is supposed to evoke an employee’s commitment towards a task, a project or a mission. We conduct weekly (sometimes even daily!) accountability meetings to get things done faster. Sure, people gather around in meetings for the fear of shame (call it peer pressure) and give status updates, which we make sure garner respect and approval.

I think there is an alternative approach. Eliminate the word ‘accountability’ or ‘responsibility’ altogether from our lingo and replace it with ‘ownership’. I think this will elevate the spirit of getting things done to a higher realm.

What? How so, you may ask. What is in a mere tweak in how we use our words?

I believe that words have power. When we talk to our colleagues, friends and family members, especially our children, the word choices we make are crucial. Words can move hearts and minds just a little bit, not enough to be seen, touched or sensed, but just enough to make a small shift in our attitudes. The right words evoke right emotions.

In one study mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell‘s blockbuster book ‘Blink‘, young subjects were primed with words representing old age and found that their subsequent responses became weaker to a statistically significant extent.

Words indeed have power.

Let us get back to the word play that we are in. The difference between ownership and accountability is not subtle. The former says we are empowered. The latter says that we are in line. Ownership is all about having an asset. It is about trust and confidence the other person has in you. It triggers intrinsic motivation to do the real work. Accountability on the other hand, is about our liability. It cleverly reminds us about the hidden sticks and carrots. It hints about shadows of danger, lurking around. The psychological shift these two words could make are nothing alike.

If you want to empower people and make them feel that they are richer by an additional asset, use the word ‘ownership’.

Let us cancel our ‘weekly accountability meeting’. Next week, instead,  let us have our first ‘weekly ownership meeting’.

Why do we gossip?

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It is around 10:30 AM, about time for a mid-day coffee break. People are slowly walking away from their desks and regrouping into small subgroups in cafeteria, near the water cooler or near smoking corners. We relax ourselves and exchange pleasantries. A few of us discuss ideas, many, about recent events and most of us swiftly shift attention to discussing the “other” people. At times, they look around, lower their voices and point bayonets of their criticism towards the “other” people, who are not part of the conversation. We dearly call this behavior “gossip”.

I keep wondering, why do we gossip in the first place? What makes people additively gossip?

According to Dunbar’s calculations (Robin Dunbar), the number of individuals one can communicate is limited by the size of our neo-cortex. Dunbar empirically calculated that humans have a limit of roughly 150 people that we can directly interact with. In other words, we lack the gray matter to interact with a larger group. That can’t be true, some one says. I know, I know.. Social media stalwarts with 5,000 Facebook friends and 50,000 Twitter followers would be frowning at this idea. But we know that not all of our Facebook friends and Twitter followers are our real friends. Dunbar further theorized that gossiping was a smart way to interact with larger networks – the second level or third level of contacts. Gossiping allows us to get to know the “other” person without directly conversing with her. It helps us covertly control him without being part of his immediate social network. Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, gossiping is a powerful tool for social control and bonding.

I think there is also a psychological underpinning to our gossiping minds. As hierarchically structured social beings, we are constantly confronted with the fear of social isolation and rejection. By engaging in gossip, we derive mutual approval, at the expense of disapproving the “other” person. It elevates our sense of worth and confidence. In our constant search for ways to reach an alpha status (humans have thousands of levels of alpha statuses, unlike other great apes), every step of the way is a win-win. As we walked our way from Savannah to San Francisco, we invented strategies beyond reptilian fight-flight-freeze responses. We use gossip as a tool to divert attention to others. When we are vulnerable, instead of fighting or fleeing, we try distracting. Diverting the spotlight to the “other” person is the quickest way to the safety of our ego-cocoons.

The next time when we catch ourselves gossiping, we don’t need to feel that bad after all. We are humans. We have a 100,000 years of evolution to blame!