The White Screen Of Death Can Be A New Beginning of Sorts…

Well, I was greeted with the white screen of death on my MacBook Pro the other day. Similar to the blue screen of death on the Windows machine, the white screen of death means something has gone terribly wrong. It’s Apple’s way of saying “you will not be able to use this machine.”

Regardless of the situation, the reality is you are handcuffed. You are sidelined. You are “S.O.L.” as they say.

iMac-ScreenOfDeath

And it sucked.

It got me thinking how tied we are to our devices and how drastic the ramifications seem to be if something goes wrong. I don’t necessary like this dependence but the more I think about it the more I realize there is not much we can do.

Are we really at that point in society where a broken machine means a broken life? If your laptop goes down, will you still be able to be productive each day? If you are like me, the sad reality is probably not.

What would happen if your current device was stolen, lost or died? And what about the information on it? Would the information on it be lost forever?

Laptops Need TuneUps Too

As I diagnosed my situation it became clear the issue was with the OS and I was needing to re-install a new operating system.

For background, this machine was given to me by my co-founder when we started Seconds about 16 months ago. It is a 4-year old MacBook Pro, which he had used previously for his dev work before he upgraded. As he gave it to me I realized it was stack full of apps and programs used for development work – stuff I wouldn’t really be using. I also noticed it was running Lion, an older version of the operating system for Apple. I basically got lazy and didn’t upgrade when Mountain Lion came out.

During the last year or so I started to notice the ‘stress’ on the system and felt this specific outcome was approaching in the near future. I was also seeing that pesky pinwheel more and more (which I have to say is one of the most frustrating things). It was only a matter of time before the straw broke.

It broke on Sunday and I was sidelined.

Anyways, my current CTO Justin help me re-install the operating system. We went through the process and booted it up only to see a brand new experience with none of my old files there. They were all gone!

The amazing thing is I wasn’t upset.

Being Smart And Use The Cloud

When I was handed the keys to Seconds as the CEO (and handed this machine at the same time) I made a conscious decision to start storing all my important docs in the cloud. The combination of using Dropbox, Google, gmail, and Google Drive has allowed me to have pretty much everything at my fingertips, safe and ready to use on whatever web connected device I am using. I do recall a few random docs and images on my hard drive which are now gone. But nothing which would be devastating to my life or my business.

If you have not made this decision you must make it now. Do not save anything to your hard drive any more, save it to a cloud storage service. If you must save to something physical, go get a extra hard drive and start the habit of backing up once a week. But do not make the fatal mistake of saving something important to a mortal machine. You will regret it sometime in the near future.

So I am back to square one with this machine. There’ s a small amount of apps on here right now but not much more. I will need to download some design/wireframe/task oriented apps that I use during our product development cycles, but that is about it.

But it feels great to have the machine back up and running. I shedded the excess weight. The machine runs faster, and with the new OS Mountain Lion it feels swifter and more up to date. It feels like a new machine.

It also feels like a new beginning.

At times, we just need to press the “restart” button and start fresh like I have done that with my machine.

Maybe it’s something you can do in other areas of your life as well.

Hey Engineer, If You Want To Start Your Dream Company Read This Now!

I recently wrote a guest post on Mashable titled  5 High-Risk, High-Reward Steps to Starting Your Dream Company, where I squash conventional the wisdom of starting a company.  The article is quite extensive with real world examples, but this is a short list of the steps I identified one must take if they really want to commit to starting their dream company.

1. Quit Your Job

Conventional wisdom suggests, “Don’t quit your day job” while you start your new venture; only jump over when it shows promise. Unfortunately, this decision can be a recipe for disaster.  I say quit and get to work on your vision.

2. Don’t Follow The Crowd

Oddly enough, once most entrepreneurs abandon a “normal life” and set out on their own paths, they then look at what others are doing in the industry and opt to imitate instead of originate.  Following others will only get you lost in the crowd. Why not be unique and stand out from the all the rest?

3. Join Strangers, Not Friends

Conventional wisdom encourages you to bring together a few friends — people you already know and trust — to help launch your new company.  In reality, starting a company is tough and many things can go wrong. Don’t let friendship get in the way as you pursue your dream.

4. Launch A Buggy Product

Which situation will produce better results: a perfect web application that took nine months to launch, or a buggy but working prototype released in four weeks that gets immediate attention from early test users?  Think about it…

5. Build A Board of Advisors — Now

Conventional wisdom says that entrepreneurs don’t need to report to anyone. On the contrary. Developing a board of advisors as soon as possible will help keep a company on the right path.

Read the entire article on Mashable, 5 High-Risk, High-Reward Steps to Starting Your Dream Company.

@jnickhughes

Siri And The Last Mile To Utopia

The amazing Siri, Apple’s new voice recognition technology, has been the topic of much conversation over the last month.  I too am left speechless when asking questions that at first blush seem ridiculous.  Responses to questions such as “Siri, what do you look like?”  or “Siri, will you marry me?” will elicit laughter and jaw dropping looks only magicians are used to seeing.

All fun and games aside, what Apple (not Microsoft) just released represents a fundamental shift in how we will interact with computers – and to an extent the rest of the world.  Even Eric Schmidt knows we will no longer type things into a long search box and wade through a sea of links to find what we “think” we are looking for.   We will also not be required to re-identify ourselves and re-enter our credentials each time we want to make a digital purchase.  I previously believed the future of search will be found within your loose contacts and network of friends – and  still do.  But in addition to leveraging others to find information, it has become very apparent we will now leverage new blends of artificial intelligence and intelligent data systems integrated within our mobile devices to create very personal consumer experiences.  And we’ll accomplish this all this through simple text, voice and gestures thanks to natural language processing within your mobile.  Like it or not, in a very short period of time you will not be able to properly function in society without your trusty device.

Simple and inane tasks can already be accomplished through Siri.  Speaking basic directives into your phone will help to find any personal contact you have in your phone.  Such things as setting reminders, alarms, meetings, checking email, checking the weather, searching the web to look up random information and interestingly enough just having a plain conversation with your phone can now be done by voice dictation.

And the big one – sending text messages to others by speaking to Siri – has the potential to change society in ways you never thought possible.  A quick spoken message gets translated into text and sent off to the exact recipient you have determined, all without clicking or finger swiping anything is simply amazing.  And it’s now here.

Siri (or nicknamed Hubotsiriis the latest in a long line of iOS features to be stretched to the limits, enhancing functionality, capability, and allowing users to realize the full potential of technologies within their devices. Much like buying a Ferrari – you pay a lot, it looks nice, runs well and oozes luxury. Yet until you get it off-road, you can’t really see what it’s capable of due to the restrictions beset upon road users.

As impressive as Siri can be, we still hear naysayers balking at the current ineffectiveness of the technology.  They say it’s not perfect, it can’t yet complete complex tasks such as interacting with the Apps on your device, and when in doubt it defaults to a web search for your request.  Although I am fascinated with Siri I must agree we have only scratched the surface and more work is ahead.

It seems Apple has figured out how to voice activate basic tasks, but what about more practical applications that can make your everyday life easier and more fluid?  How will voice translation and Artificial Intelligence radically transform how you go about your everyday life?  Below is an attempt to peel the layers on what it will take for society to get away from the absurd  and onto the applicable.

Siri, Can You Please Make My Life Easier?

Imagine being able to say things like “send a message to the coffee shop and tell them I will be there in 10 minutes and I will have the usual” and by the time you get there your correct drink it sitting on the counter already paid for.  This is not too far off… it just requires a few more pieces to be put in place.

The answer lies in understanding what exactly Siri is, what exactly are those other pieces, and how they need come together for the above scenario to become reality.  Siri is basically a search engine, one many think has the potential to eat Googles Lunch.  Or better said, it’s a “do” engine in the sense that you can dictate what you want done and Siri will mostly carry out the task.  I say mostly because even though Siri represents the first mile, the possibilities can only become reality when something else comes in as the last mile to fulfill  your request.  Siri can accomplish any task as long as the information is readily available and in the correct form to be delivered to the user.  Would Google have worked so well if there were no links to bring back?

So for Siri , or any AI from a mobile device for that matter, to connect and help you easily communicate with your local community the last mile must be completed in a way that makes sense for Siri.  One can communicate with Siri in audio/voice, yet Siri communicates with databases and other systems via bits.   The last mile must be accessible via the web, enabled to send and receive text based communications, and ultimately be built from the ground up using data as the foundation.

We can see from the article How Siri Works we have a long way ahead to complete the last mile. Siri can’t understand everything. It can do a certain set of key tasks.  From the article:

  • Interact with the calendar.
  • Search contacts.
  • Read and write messages (text and email).
  • Interact with the Maps app and location services.
  • Forward search phrases to certain pre-defined data providers (Yahoo! Weather, Yahoo! Finance, Yelp, Wolfram|Alpha, or Wikipedia).

This is still an impressive and—most importantly—wildly useful set of functions. But it is a limited, focused set. And that’s what makes me think Siri’s “AI” may actually work.

It seems to me that Siri consists of three layers: a speech-to-text analyzer, a grammar analyzer, and a set of service providers. If all three of these work well, then Siri will be fun and helpful. If one of them is as troubled as traditional intelligent agents have tended to be, then Siri will go the same way those other agents went—tumbling into the trash heap of misguided innovations.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world does not make sense to Siri. Yet.  Although searching Google will bring back (s0me sort of) local merchant website for most entities in the U.S. and around the world, they are still stuck in the analog world when it comes to communication, interaction or commerce.  Most merchants still require a voice call to reach them and when wanting to transact, one must be present with cash or credit card.   “Forward thinking” merchants offer online and mobile app transaction options, yet the experience is so cumbersome most people give up and take the extra time to physically make the purchase.

Siri will truly transform your life once the last mile is complete.

Ironically the traditional telephone served as the last mile for quite some time, when the most popular connection between two recipients was voice line.   Voice ruled the land  until data – better known as text messaging – became the most popular mode of communication for our new society.  Although the web is based in ‘telephone’ connection, we now communicate in a vasty different language.  It is interesting to note more than 2.2 trillion text messages were sent in the last year, yet little to none were received by local merchants.

Yeah, you read that right.  Imagine that, the most popular mode of communication is not accepted at any place of business in your community.  This would be like you walking into a merchant and asking a question in english (the obvious main language here in the United States) and they don’t even look at you or say a word.  Yet that is exactly what is happening today with mobile messaging.  The fact that more messages will be sent next year than last year, and even more will be sent the next year should be freaking out any manager or business owner right now.  If consumer activities are to be automated through voice diction, short messaging and artificial intelligence then somethings need to change.

The last mile is comprised of a few major technological enhancements that, when adopted, will complete the transformation and bring this new vision into reality.

Merchants need a short messaging service

It is fair to say text messaging has taken over as the most common form of digital communication on the planet.  For a bit of perspective, just look at your own life.  What do you use more often with your mobile phone, text messaging or voice calls?  Local merchants must get up to speed and find a simple way to send/receive text messages to optimize their business for mobile commerce.  Arguably, this is a bigger deal than in the mid-90’s when everyone was touting “you need a website.”  We are talking about basic communications and commerce.   In the next few years we’ll see a fundamental shift in the economy as merchants and business adopt this popular method of communication and use it as new form of commerce.  An interesting note: once a merchant is set up to receive text messages, mobile users are able to simply voice dictate messages to quickly place an order with the merchant using Siri.  It’s awesome!

Customers and merchants need a personalized connection

Personalization and socialization are the new black on the web, yet even today when I call a local merchant they still ask me to identify myself and request I read my payment information (aloud) if I want to make a purchase.  Interestingly, this does not change when I am present.  As I walk in the door they have no idea who I am, how many times I have visited their location, and what my purchase history with them might look like.  In a word, they are ignorant.  They lack the necessary and vital information to not only improve their operations but also make my customer experience much much better.

A whole new world of possibilities opens up when personalized connections between customers and merchants is available.  Customers are able to quickly find and message a merchant, requesting more information and making purchases when and where they feel most compelled.  Merchants are not only afforded a more efficient method of communications, but a unique perspective on each customer and a clearer picture of their entire customer base – in real time.  The possibilities are endless when local merchants fully embrace the mobile world.

Mobile Payments need to be invisible

Connections between customers and merchants are great but what both are actually looking for is the almighty transaction.  The more simple and frictionless the transaction the more we, as customers, will spend.  This should be music to a merchants ears yet there seems to be some resistance to employing new digital payment technologies.   This challenge/opportunity falls back on the tech community, nudging us to continue on forward with our innovative genius at the helm.

Technically speaking, when a transaction occurs neither I, as the customer, or them as the merchant should have to do anything.  If I have already connected digitally with the merchant and my payment credentials have already been cleared, payment should be invisible from then on.  Yes other requirements such as security and merchandising are involved, but those should also be taken care of behind the scenes.  But, I am so bothered right now!  Why do I still need to stand in a line for them to swipe my card and require my signature before I leave?  This is archaic, and if enhanced to the above scenario the merchant will not only provide a better customer experience for me but increase throughput leading to an increased bottom line.

Mobile coverage needs to improve

This one needs no justification, only a fair request to the major  mobile carriers of the world.  What good is Siri if I can’t get a response?  Flat out, we need better coverage and we needed it like, yesterday.  If mobile devices are going to be the center of our lives we cannot be at the mercy of “the number of bars” we have at a certain location or the chance opportunity we still have 3G at the top of our device.  Again, we are encroaching on a time in history where if my mobile device fails me, I am hopeless.  It kind of like if at certain times my Visa card worked when swiped, and sometimes it just didn’t… for no reason at all… except for maybe the restaurant was positioned on the wrong side of the street.  Yeah, I know… This is absurd and it needs to change.

The above may seem crazy to some but to others like us it’s the reality we are working towards each day.  We live in a truly amazing time in history and when the four things I just laid out come together… only Utopia waits.

Watch Out! Downloading iOS 5 Could Automatically Erased All Your Apps

Apple seems to be having some difficulty with this new iOS release.  Planning on purchasing the 4S later this weekend, I wanted to test out the new iOS 5 with my 3GS.  Well, I connected my phone and started the download process.  The result – an entire system restore with ALL my purchased apps GONE!  You can see in the image below, there were a lot more apps yesterday.

WTF?!

Anyone looking to upgrade their iOS on their Apple device should either take extra precaution or wait a few more days until things get straigtened out.

Anyone else have this problem?  Please share in comments.

Good Lord, All I Need Is Another Darn App In My Life…

I think I am like most other people.  I use a few apps daily… like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, the weather app, email, maps, texting, and some various other ones I can’t remember their names but I do remember what they look like and where they sit on my phone.

I flip through 6 or so “screens” of apps each day just to find the one I need. This is too much in my opinion.  It feels as if we are drowning in a sea of apps.

So do we really need more apps in our life?  And should you rest your company’s future on thinking people will want to download another one to their device?

Here are some stats:

  • The most used Android apps in the US are Google Maps, Gmail and Facebook, according to research from Nielsen.
  • More than 500,000 apps have been approved in the Apple App store.
  • Total App Store revenue before the break-down is almost $3.6 billion in aggregate.

There’s half a billion apps are available for me to download… and how many will actually end up on my device?  Very little.  And once some have made it to  my iPhone, will I even use it after the first time?  I fear not…

The message here is :

1) if you are a mobile phone user, you have to dig through so much clutter to find useful apps today.  This is inconvenient and it sucks, so we will remain with our “tried and true” apps and not venture to download many more.

2) if you are a business, maybe the app store approach is not such a good idea.  Fighting for shelf space is getting more difficult as they days go by because I think most people think similar to me.  Why put such barriers to everyday usage for your web service?  My opinion is if you are  solely depending on a app store positioning, the odds are you will get lost in the clutter.

Does anyone else have this problem?

Branding – Most Important But Usually Overlooked

Branding is one of the most important aspects of building a company (or persona) but it is so often overlooked.  Consider what Larry Popelka recently wrote:

Most consumers no longer shop for products. They shop for a company. With a plethora of product choices, it has become far too difficult and time-consuming to attempt to evaluate each offering. It is much easier to determine if the company you’re buying from shares your values and is likely to provide a good experience.

As a consumer, I most definitely agree with Larry.  How can you take the time to evaluate each product choice to determine the best quality, best price and most environmentally friendly?  You can’t, it’s impossible.   This is why Branding has become so important, it’s basically a short cut and a time saver to help us make buying decisions.

I touched on this in an earlier post positioning Apple vs Microsoft.  I focused mostly on how the leadership differences between Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer is determining the direction of each company.  Yet, included in that equation is the respective brands they have built.

Apple – sleek, stylish, different, consumer friendly, trendy.

Microsoft – Techy, corporate, windows, software, stiff.

Although both are great (and hugely profitable) companies, the brands could not be any more different.  In the previous post I go to great lengths and in detail as to who is the better bet for the future.  It’s all about the Brand.

This can also apply when building a personal brand.  There are millions and millions of people in the work force, and quite frankly, they are all your competition.   When 100 people apply for a position or a board of directors is evaluating 5 executives looking for one to become the new CEO, personal branding and what each person is known for will be a huge influence and make the difference between receiving an offer or not.  This is one of the main reasons I have started to write and reach out to so many different people in the technology and startup communities.  I understand I must work just as hard to build my personal brand – what other people believe I am to be – as I am working to build a company brand.  I know it will be a difference maker sometime in the near future.

Lessons for founders and entrepreneurs:

  • Define your Brand; determine what you are and what you stand for as an executive and as a company
  • Describe it in detail but simplify the meaning for people so they will remember you
  • Align your Brand and your market positioning to connect with your target market
  • Connect your Brand with a deeper consumer purpose

Image courtesy of Flickr user NiallKennedy.

Steve Ballmer’s Lack of Real Leadership

 This post was originally published on BusinessInsider.com.

Around 1975, Microsoft Corporation and Apple Inc. were created, kicking off what would become one of the most fascinating times in modern history.   During this period both have been significant players in the PC revolution, although recently as businesses they appear heading in opposite directions.

One is accelerating to new heights and one is stalling out like it forgot to refuel at the last gas station.  I think something abnormal is going on here and believe it’s more than the general “great products” vs “not so great products” argument.   Below is a view of the stock price of each company dating back to 1986.  Here is Microsoft:

(images courtesy of Yahoo Finance).

And below is a view of Apple, again viewed with a long lens dating back to 1986.  On thing to note is the scale on the right.

The last decade has seen Apple explode in value, culminating in them becoming the largest technology company in the world.  During the same time frame, Microsoft was dethroned by Apple and has pretty much remained stagnant.  Indeed, there is something peculiar going on here and anyone looking to build a consumer brand should listen closely.  The difference between Apple’s success and Microsoft’s lackluster performance can be summed up in one word – Leadership.  It takes more than smart employees, good technology and market dominance to deliver great financial results.   It also takes a Great Leader.

JobsSteve Jobs understands Leadership, Vision, Inspiration and Branding are vital to business success.  He gets it.  He understands how to position his Brand in the soul of a human being, amazingly interweaving his devices into peoples identity.  This is accomplished by casting a vision and allowing a tribe of followers to form around it.  He also understands: it is first about the vision and only then the resulting products can come in to reinforce the vision with the consumer.  Users of Apple products gladly follow when they realize the vision and resulting products make them feel better.

Jobs’ vision is one where the terms “Think Different”, “Beautiful Creation” and “It just Works” are used in description.  And although difficult to put into words as a consumer, you just feel it – viscerally.  It’s almost magical.   Jobs inspires with every word – not in a flakey, shallow and inauthentic manner – but a genuine manner.  I understand no one is perfect, but he definitely gets how to move people.

Steve Ballmer is flat out not an inspirational leader nor a visionary.

BallmerWith more than ten years at the helm of one of the largest companies in the world, Steve Ballmer has obviously done many things right.  One thing he cannot do is accurately describe the deeper purpose of Microsoft or any of their products.  When he tries, it doesn’t get anywhere close to touching the human soul.  He lacks the innate leadership quality of Inspiration.  He can run and jump, scream and yell, and do Monkey dances on stage all day long but this is not leadership.  Nor is it inspiration.  (Can you even imagine Steve Jobs doing this?)

Unfortunately for Ballmer, Microsoft is stuck between so many business markets it’s almost impossible to tie them together coherently to form a strong brand identity.  Without a unique purpose and vision, there is no brand identity.  The latest Microsoft slogan urges me to “Be What’s Next.”  I am not sure what that means… consumers need to be able to viscerally understand the brand and why they should be using it.  Like it or not, this responsibility rests on the leaders shoulders.  Ballmer has failed to communicate these fundamental aspects of Microsoft on a level that connects with everyday consumers.  He just doesn’t get it.

Is it any coincidence the maxim of Microsoft’s value as a company (January 2000) is pretty much the exact date Ballmer stepped into the CEO role?  And incidentally enough, the first real growth in Apple’s market cap appears not long after Steve Jobs arrives for his second coming as CEO in 1996.  The Leadership difference between these two men has made all the difference in respect to their company’s results.

Looking back at Microsoft’s stock price you can notice a time of incredible growth, back in the 90’s.  Who was the leader at this time in their history?  Iconic founder Bill Gates, an inspiring visionary in his own right was in charge at that time.  He inspired the world with the vision of “a computer on every desktop” during the emergence of the PC and Enterprise Revolutions (and thus the software running on them became a hot market).  Indeed Gates vision expanded the perspectives of all employees and rallied them to become the largest technology company in the world for many years.  But things have changed and today consumer devices are the rage.  What’s the overarching, game changing, ever growing Microsoft vision now?  I don’t see this type of world changing leadership and inspiration radiating out of Redmond any more (and I live 15 miles away).  Suffice it to say Apple saw this New World Order coming and Microsoft didn’t.

People follow leaders who embody a sense of purpose that inspires those around them.  Notice how consumers wait in lines for hours just to have a chance to own an “i-whatever”, the newest product that will touch their soul.  People give standing ovations and watch streaming online video during Steve Jobs inspiring  keynotes speeches.  All these happen for Apple because of Steve Jobs and his Leadership.  They create a mystic aurora which parlays towards the next round of  product announcements.

All this became very apparent to me recently as I observed the response to both companies announcements – Apple’s at their WWDC conference and Microsoft’s at the E3 conference.  The world huddled around their screens in anticipation of an announcement regarding Apple’s next mobile operating system, the iOS5.  In fact, there were no less than 37 individual posts covering Apple on SAI alone, Monday June 6th, the day of the announcement and.  Also 17 posts covering anything that is Apple appeared on Techcrunch.  Alternately, Microsoft’s announcements were an afterthought, an oh-by-the-way-this-happened byline with 3 posts that same day.  Succinctly put, no one really cared.

This unfortunate reality for Microsoft is directly tied back to Ballmer’s lack of Leadership, Vision and Inspiration.  People would have cared about Microsoft’s announcements had the products touched their souls with a deeper purpose.  Right now, go to Apple.com and Microsoft.com and see what I am talking about.  I am like most, finding it impossible to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes Apple… Apple.  All I can say is Steve Jobs knows something Steve Ballmer doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we are talking about a great company in Microsoft, one that still does more than $60 billion in yearly revenue and employs some of the smartest and most talented people in the world.  They hold dominant positions in numerous markets.  But it pains me to write these words and acknowledge the reality of Microsoft’s future.  I am a Seattle resident and appreciate the value Microsoft has added not only to the world but specifically to Seattle.  We owe much of our regional economy to Microsoft.  They have done great things and the enterprise software ecosystem they created is quite amazing.

Yet, I see a company waning at a time when they really need to figure out their guiding purpose.  When I look at Apple, I feel secure they know where they are going.  When I glance across Lake Washington to figure out what Microsoft is doing, I am at a loss for words.  And this is scary for me.  I can only imagine what it’s like for the employees and the executives.

Lessons for us younger founders and entrepreneurs:

  • Find a deeper purpose to associate with your products and business
  • Cast your vision with simple, strong and relatable words
  • Become (or find) a leader who can connect with people and continually inspire them toward action

I don’t know who it will be but Microsoft is in desperate need of a Leader, an inspirational visionary who can turn this boat around – NOW.

Disclaimer: I have no personal connection with either Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer and this is in no way personal towards either one of them.   My opinions are purely anecdotal and from observations as both an entrepreneur and consumer.