Of cars, charging docs and shiny new gadgets!

My laptop (a thinkpad) after faithfully serving me for 3 years was replaced with a newer, thinner and smarter-looking piece this week. The laptop has been a wonderful workhorse – serving me well after a brief starting period when the machine threw power tantrums and going into freeze mode ever so often. Many visits to the local IT doctor did not work, it played truant to all his geeky remedies. Finally, he clenched his teeth and with a determined chin took it to a closed room and I suspect from all the noises within undertook the hardware equivalent of cntl+alt+del – a procedure that made the machine a ready convert. The machine has been behaving well ever since – I suspect resigning itself to the fact that irrespective of all its intel chips/ big memory /graphic cards and such wizardry capabilities, its owner would only engage it to do powerpoints, spreadsheets and documents – and then more of the same. It’s like having Dhoni confined to the little league you say? Well, such is life – into each life some rain must fall!

The new laptop, it definitely seemed lighter – however the bag it came in weighed a ton. Wondering if they added a mini-bar as an accessory, I (hopefully!) open the bag – and out tumble tons of shiny new stuff. The DVD drive comes in a separate box, the wireless keyboard and mouse, half a dozen cables (only god knows for what), a docking station – and very importantly a contraption that looks like something out of a bruce-lee movie. This is a veritable buffet, and you can pass a very diverting hour or two simply trying to figure how they all fit in! And sadly, no mini-bar there.

Onto the machine now – I boot it and the windows OS asks me for the password, decides I am Aladdin, puts on its blue home face and goes into configuration mode as a prelude to opening its wonder wares. The “Dude, I am hungry, charge me up” low battery light blinks up and I fish around – pull a cable, connect it to another (thanks lego for teaching me skills that are relevant a few decades hence!) – I suddenly realize I don’t know where to plug in the charger. They have changed the ports! Ten minutes of searching, swearing and experimenting later, I find the new port – it’s a little squarish hole now placed at the top-left corner (it was a round pin-type contraption on the bottom-right corner on my earlier machine). So 3 years and 2 levels up, someone changed the charger ports.Talk about innovation!

This is the topic I wanted to muse on. Charging ports are like fuel cables at the local petrol station (or if you are in the us, gas station). You need them to fill your device up so it does what its supposed to – so why do they make it different on every machine? No matter which car you buy – a Ferrari, a corolla or even a hummer – you can always get it charged at any station around the world – how odd would it be if we had to carry fuel hoses everywhere I travel? Cars seem to get them, but devices don’t – and isn’t that a shame?

Or talk about docking ports – think of them as car parking slots – at most you have a small, medium and large (and if you are a burger outlet owner, perhaps you may want to bung in an extra-large version) – you don’t have a parking slot that is dedicated to a particular model and year? If you did, traffic would go nuts (where it hasn’t already that is!).

Thinking deeper, memory cards come in only a few varieties. As do sim cards (a full, micro or nano!). Software platforms (like dropbox, gmail, twitter etc.) work across as well – its only stuff that device manufacturers make that’s so unique to them.

Which brings me to the central question – why do they not standardize hardware essentials like charging ports and docks to a few types? Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place for absent-minded people like me who are always forgetting chargers – we could find a replacement in a thrice no matter we travelled to? And on that note, how do they manage all their travel – do they check in two bags everytime – one for their travel ware, and another for all the cables?!

By this time, the device is configured and inviting. I logon and am delighted. The track pad is cool. The buttons work very well. The laptop is spaced out well and the wrist feels comfortable. I like it! And yes the powerpoints and documents come up brilliantly – it passes all the regular tests with flying colours. Nice job IBM – but for that charger!

As I fire up my mails, I see a headline about Apple working on developing a car. I go day dreaming again. Come 2017 (or whenever they launch it )I’ll probably break my bank and buy the car – thinking about everyone I can demo it to and make them gasp in admiration. Driving from the showroom, I would look at the delightful interiors and rave on the performance –-at which point an elegant light on the dashboard would let me know that my tank’s near on empty. Rushing into the nearby station (remember the car is rumoured to be electric!) – I’ll breathe a sign of relief – only to have the attendant smile at me wickedly and ask me if I have brought in my charging cable? Ok that’s more a nightmare than a dream!

Takeaways from the wonderful “Steve Jobs” biography by Walter Isaacson

A few months ago having travelled to attend a conference meet in Pune, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a colleague and a respected leader at the breakfast table. We got talking about various things and the topic drifted to leadership traits when he reminisced about an exercise from long ago where everyone had to pick a leader and profile and his choice had been Steve Jobs – looking back he felt he had certainly picked the right guy – “for all his temperament and idiosyncrasies he’s an undisputed leader”. We talked about this a bit, and he recommended that I watch the movie as it brilliantly captured several shades of this iconic leader. The discussion made me realize how little I really knew about Steve – while I had been following the mercurial Jobs (as I am sure most of my generation would have), I had never really delved deep enough – and rekindled my desire to get to know more.

On my return I dutifully picked Walter Isaacson’s book (the movie is on the to do list) from the local bookstore – given Jobs’ misgivings about the Android OS, it seemed appropriate that I read Jobs’ biography not on my favourite kindle but on a neatly printed, solid tome (its over 700 pages long!). It stayed tucked away in my library – until the last week when I was a touch unwell and rummaging for something to read. And let me tell you, its a wonderful page turner – guaranteed to make you live through a gamut of emotions.

This post is really about a few takeaways for me from the book – a few I trust will come in of use to you as well:

1. No one is perfect at everything. That a surprising start, but the book zeroes in on the need for self awareness and the ability to bring in complementary skills for success. You need to be aware of what you are very good at and make sure you bring in others with “greatness” skills in areas you aren’t master off. There are quite a few references about Steve Jobs’ skills at programming not being top notch (in comparison to say a Steve Woznaik or a Bill Gates) while he was a master on user-centric design – his products though were sublime in both the areas

2. Masters bring in perspectives from seemingly unconnected fields, making big leads in innovation. Jobs for instance changed the desktop publishing industry building on skills acquired from his calligraphy classes, his designs were inspired by Zen minimalism and Italian architecture, several of his greatest innovations were adaptations of the Xerox lab’s work and so on…

3. Work should arise from an intent to “scratch your own itch” – if you build products that you’d love to use, chances are they would turnout awesome. There’s one chapter on the “making of the iphone” for instance where Isaacson details how Steve (and his team) were unhappy with the existing mobile phones (“they didn’t make their heart sing!”) and designed the iPhone to overcome those limitations and be a product they were proud to use.

4. The much discussed “reality distortion field” does wonders – Steve Jobs believed in his vision (or version!) of things so much that he was able to get his team to rally around and do stuff typically considered impossible (there’s a reference to the “6 impossible things before breakfast!” from alice in wonderland in the book too!). Key takeaway – do we really, intensely believe in our work? – if we do, you can be sure people around you will catch the spirit as well and do miracles!

5. Go in search of “purity” as opposed to “compromises”. There are at least three instances quoted where Steve pauses and undertakes major redesign because he feels the work isnt perfect (for instance he completely changed the layout of the apple stores after a discussion with his partner because they found a more congruent way to do things). Time and again, we see instances where the average joe would have compromised a little and gone ahead (on the principle that 90% users wouldnt notice it anyway), steve wouldn’t. He recounts n example from his childhood where his dad encourages Steve to paint the inside of a fence (no one would know but the painter would) as well – a practice which made Steve detail stuff inside the box just as well as he did the outside in his later years.

6. Making sure your messages are very intuitive and targeted at your user . His ads (and the amount of time he spent on getting them right), the macworld appearances – you name it, the message was communicated just brilliantly. For instance the iPod ads didnt talk about memory, they talked about 1000 songs in your pocket.

7. Be brutally honest with feedback – your team will appreciate you for it– while the book lists several occasions where the receiver of the feedback took the feedback badly, there are also several instances where his Colleagues believe workign with him was an immense experience and they wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything in the world. He also is candid about experiments he got wrong (and there are several listed) – he indicates its this ability to be honest with his teams that ensures the team stays top class all the time

8. Learn from experts and share extensively – through the book you see him on long walks bouncing off ideas with extraordinary people – Larry Elison, Mickey Drexler, Andy Grove and many more – even Bill Gates. These are intense discussions – and raise the level of thought across the ecosystem (for want of a better word!). He also talks about how much he gained from others and how he’d like to give back to his country and the Silicon Valley. Worth thinking how many such discussions we seek out with experts and if we dont, maybe should schedule some huh!..

9. And my absolute favourite – he always seems to have had a higher purpose in mind – of changing the world. And the way he went about doing it was special too – check out this maxim of his “the journey is the reward”. And really the book celebrates the journey product after product.

Through the journeys are peppered many goosebumps moments (hope this isn’t a spoiler so will stop with a couple!):
– of how he considers the itunes journey more or less done only when he gets his favourite band “Beatles” onto his store – and his child-like enthusiasm on working on every aspect of getting them onto the store to maximum impact:

– the showman himself lost for words when he meets his idol “Bob Dylan” in person

– Of spending his personal finances on the creative work at pixar (even when he was running a tight ship elsewhere) because he couldn’t say no to artistry…

For those of you who are looking to know more about Steve the person – there’s plenty of stuff in too right from his “vegan” diets, to his zen and india travels in search of enlightenment, his college experience, his turbulent early years. his relationships, $1 salary…the whole nine yards.

So thats it then for this post – there are few biographies that are as well written as this one. Its extremely well researched but written in a very affable way with all typical distractions from scholarly type work (footnotes, jargon etc) eliminated for the most part – the author also stays hidden (no preaching and commentary at all) and gets you into the drama like in a well-written novel.

5 stars from me for this wonderful work and am sure I will be reaching out for his other biographies as well soon…..

Sharing in the electronic world, why are we making it so tough!

Let me confess, I am a big kindle fan – and have been one for a couple of years now. The endless collections, speed of procuring the books, and the “paper-like” feel the device provides – all I am sure contribute to this positive vibe.

Last week, however I discovered a non-feature – a feature that should have been there but for some reason has been pushed to a roadmap (as the amazon.in representative on chat support informed me). Here’s what happened – I stumbled upon a book that a colleague (and friend) had been very eager to lay hands on – and decided to give him a pleasant surprise by gifting the digital version to him – only to find that I couldn’t gift books on amazon.in (amazon india) – yet – now why would they not consider that a high priority feature? Aren’t books designed to be gifted/ shared/ discussed together about in the first place?

As I got thinking about it, I realised our “digital world” had created multiple barriers for sharing – in some ways painstaking so – which kind of defeated the essence of being digital. For isn’t digital all about being able to get what you want, when you want and how you want it?

If that seems a major crib, consider this:

1. My itunes songs cannot be shared (DRM!) – except on a few of my devices. The song at its core is actually sharable, some technologist has actually put in some code to prevent the sharing (piracy concerns huh?)

2. Likewise, I cant share my books on kindle. One of the greatest pleasures of book reading is to share it with like-minded friends – again while the book is sharable in its essence, a layer of security on top of the book renders it unsharable

3. My DVD player has the capability to play DVDs purchased around the world – except that it cant. Someone has written a piece of code that will restrict this – it can now only play DVDs bought in India. Who cares that I have purchased priceless stuff from UK, USA and other travel – caveat emptor huh! You just need to google in “unlock DVD codes” to find how many people are affected by this decision….

and the list goes on. I understand that there is a sense and need for curbing piracy which is at the root of all of this – so there’s a defence alright.

But then wasn’t the “digital economy” an exercise about “investing in trust” in the first place? How can I expect to entrust apple and amazon with my credit card details and not expect them to trust me in return to use their assets in the “right spirit”?

As I look around, I realise there are alternative approaches being tried. Amazon prime is an excellent example – it allows you to share/ rent stuff on subscription basis – but is available only in the US. Leanpub.com offers DRM-free, multi-format books that are easy to share. So maybe the world is changing – and its time we embarked on this journey now? Thoughts?

Whoa! Innovation unlimited in the consumer computing space…

It’s been a fascinating period, technology-wise. Form factors have changed and parts we thought were fossilized have been dusted, given face lifts and are back looking smarter than ever.

A quick recap:

Apple decided to make the iPad smaller, so we have a smaller tablet, the iPad mini now. And they’ve brought back the 4:3 aspect ratio (everybody else sports the cinematographic 16:1 these days). And by the way, this is not a bug (they say it increases display area very significantly). It’s also got a great tag line depicting the experience – “there’s less of it, but no lessto it”.

Samsung’s decided to make the phone a little bigger – let’s welcome the new phablet Galaxy Note II. Oh God! they have also brought back part II of the stylus and it looks cooler than ever (the newly christened s-pen!). So much for Steve’s quipon the best pointing devices in the world…

Amazon has decided to put a custom amazon shop in everyone’s home and called it the Kindle Fire – and priced it at zero margins – maybe they reasoned supermarkets don’t price for the use of their shopping carts! If this move succeeds massively (and it does seem to be happening), maybe the company should call itself the Amazing Amazon?

Google showcased its beautiful chromebook at a fraction of the Mac air’s price. From a feature and capabilities standpoint, it could very well be called the cloud book (and it comes with lots of Dropbox space too) – and interestingly rather than adding, they’ve left stuff out (their new architecture allows them to knock off the fan and also become much slimmer) and decided in favor of a Samsung chip. A new ecosystem brewing here?

Microsoftprobably deserves the biggest space. Newly architected hardware( the surface), a new OS which promises a seamless operation between form factors – they are certainly headliners this year. Very interestingly, they brought back the keyboard. Instead of opening out a new genre of computing machines, have they collapsed the PCs and Tablets into one category now?

This seems to be a most interesting period in the timeline of personal computing device innovation. Computer-human interaction has increased, home-work life is blurring, SoLoMo technologies bring context like never before into the picture – and these innovations reflect the evolving times. The question of whether we will adapt to an-always-online, always-visible world or whether we will make the devices adapt to our requirements (and free up our time and lives because of the increased context and on demand nature of these innovations)is of course a matter for debate – as always…