Bing, Windows Phone and Solving Real Problems

I was talking to some friends yesterday, one of who had a Nokia Lumia. I asked him what he thought about the Lumia and his first words were, “you know, it’s not a bad phone. The Windows Phone OS is actually pretty good and is the best alternative to iOS right now (sorry, Android fans). But Windows Phones are not more popular for simple and (now) obvious reasons:

  1. Microsoft was late, too late in this case. Android ate their lunch and made it to market as the cheaper alternative to the iPhone and got the right partnerships in place. What Google did is what Microsoft would have done. I realize that there’s still an opportunity out there, internationally mostly, with feature phones. But the rate of adoption of Android should be scary enough to know that is going to be a dog fight. Besides, it’s a tough sell to OEMs when they have to pay Microsoft for Windows Phone licenses when Android is free (well, sorta).
  2. At the end of the day, no matter how good your OS or even your phone hardware, it comes down to how well a carrier can sell it. AT&T was in bed with the iPhone for a while, and reaped the benefits. Verizon and Microsoft have some bad blood because of the Kin. Sprint was in, but the first release of WP7 didn’t support CDMA. It didn’t matter though because AT&T and Verizon are the big dogs. A similar picture was painted internationally as well. On the other hand, we all know that the direct to consumer approach is not easy to pull off. It certainly didn’t go over very well for Google with the nexus one.
  3. Let’s just be honest – the name “Windows Phone” sucks. I understand Ballmer’s desire to brand everything Windows (to quote him: Windows is the air we breathe). But this was a different ball game – he knew it, we all knew it. And new branding could’ve actually helped. When people think Windows, they think of the clunky bloated OS that their PC ships with. People don’t want Windows (as they know it) on their phone. I was a big proponent of calling it the ZuneOS (ZOS?). But I’ll save that story for another post.

Microsoft has another headache with Bing. Bing’s has been flailing. Again, anyone who has used Bing (even non-softies) will tell you that it’s actually not a bad search engine. The similarity between Bing and Windows Phone from a consumer adoption standpoint is quite similar - these products are not good enough or differentiating enough to displace Google Search or Android. It’s time for Microsoft to stop focusing on just the competition and go back to basics – think about what problems consumers are facing, and solve those.

The interesting fact about the smartphone market is that we’ve always been “premium” customers. We pay a monthly subscription fee for using a carrier’s network. As a startuper/entrepreneur, I know that having a repeatable subscription business model (that applies to the world’s adult+teen population) is the holy grail of business success. To a lot of people, a smartphone is still considered a luxury good. My wife and I pay about $250 a month to AT&T for our two iPhones (maybe we can optimize our spend a bit). That’s affordable for us and we’re mostly happy with our service (my wife may tell you otherwise).

$0* for unlimited voice/data

I wonder how many more customers a carrier could acquire if the carrier provided the option for you to get their service for $0*. You get a phone for free and you commit to a contract for 12 months. Instead of paying $X/month (where X is typically >= 40), you get to sign up for the service for free, but, your usage of voice and data will be made up for by serving you ads. The ads will not be limited to just search related intents, but will be pervasive. You will get asynchronous notifications (push, SMS) that are geotargeted ads. There could be ‘tiles‘ that are just ad tiles and can’t be removed or moved. The ads would be hypertargeted thereby demanding higher CPMs since the carrier knows pretty much everything about you. When you call someone, instead of the typical ringtone, you, the caller, may hear an ad instead of the ringtone till the other party answers. The phone app screen could also show contextual ads while you are on a call, based on the type of conversations you are having. Sounds scary, I know, but hey, you paid $0 for this – just like you pay $0 to you use Google or Gmail. Sure, there may be issues where someone gets a phone and never uses it thereby costing Microsoft some $$. I think that number is probably going to be pretty small and negligible.

Panacea* for Microsoft?

If Microsoft were to pioneer this in to the OS, work out an ad rev share with the OEM instead of charging $ per Windows Phone OS license, and recruit a carrier like Sprint (that needs to differentiate) this could be huge. $0 is a hard price to beat and will definitely appeal to the mid-low end market. Advertisers are probably not going to flock to Bing initially if they don’t have traction, but Microsoft can throw money at that problem to pump life into the ecosystem. Bing wins, Windows Phone wins, consumer wins.

My hunch is that it would be ideal if Microsoft or Google or Apple could sell phones without the need to worry about carriers at all. Microsoft could easily do this if they had a wireless spectrum readily available and just use Skype as the de facto call app. But that is certainly not minimally viable.

What do you think - would you sign up for service with Sprint if they offered you a Windows Phone for free and charged you $0/month for unlimited voice and data, but served you with ads throughout?

@ai

PS: I’d left the Windows Phone team right about the time Windows Phone 7 launched. So I’m not privy to the details behind WP8+.

What is hustling?

A few weeks ago Aaron and I met with a potential investor – arguably one of the best investors in the technology space. For about 5 years I’ve had a crush on this investor and this firm, and I was giddy about meeting with them. As is normal, some time after the presentation this investor wanted to learn more about us as humans. Aaron went first, and told his story, which included a story from when he was in middle school about starting a student run store. I did mine – ex-product @ IGN, ex-Microsoft blah blah blah. I’ve learned to read body language fairly well and this investor’s body language in response to my story appeared, well, meh… He thought my story was meh… It wasn’t till the professional board-room style meeting was coming to a close and when we learned that we had some friends in common when we got to let our guard down and talk to each other more casually. That is when we got to learn about what this investor looks for in founders he’d like to fund.

It was simple: he wants to know how long you’ve been a hustler. He didn’t want to hear your resume. He even gave us an example, which is the quintessential example of what a hustler does. I’ve facepalmed plenty since that meeting in regret of not having told my stories, but I want to share them so you know what a hustler does.

Story #1 – Tennis “Racket”

When I was 12, I took to tennis in a huge way. I absolutely loved the game. I idolized Becker, Sampras and Agassi and I’d play with whoever and whenever I could. But much like any other sport, playing the same people over and over doesn’t challenge you as much. Mixing up your opponents makes you better. So I would seek out to enroll in tournaments and play at clubs where I could mix things up and learn and grow. Unfortunately where I grew up, the nearest best tennis courts were inside elite clubs which cost some serious $$$$ to play at. It was where some of the best tennis players in the country would play. My parents were practical people and they felt playing at this club was a privilege and not a necessity. As a 12 year old impatient boy, you reach in to your instincts to try and find a way to get what you want.

This club I really wanted to play at had two tennis courts that bordered a dead pedestrian street. The wall between those courts and the street was at best 10 feet high. Between 2-4pm everyday, a tennis instructor would teach a bunch of students with his back against this wall. Invariably, between 20-30 balls would make their way over this low wall and on to the street. These were pretty bad ass tennis balls (I can’t remember what brand now), but I remember the club used to charge a mighty premium to buy these inside the club. So between 2-4pm, I’d hang outside this club against this wall and collect these overpriced tennis balls. The next day I’d sell the tennis balls that were in the best shape to people who were entering the club for a special low “street price” (something like 300 fils per ball or 2 cans of 3 balls each for 1.5 dinars, whereas the club was selling it for something north of 2 dinars for a single can of 3 balls). I made enough over a week for a single visitor pass to the club. That got me about 4-6 hours of playing time there per week.

Story # 2 – Book club

Our school library SUCKED. It had the most pathetic and antiquated collection of books I’d ever seen. Our librarian was a super friendly guy though and he often claimed that the books the school wanted to buy were too expensive and that the school didn’t stand to gain monetarily by investing in our library. I was never a big reader myself, but my friends were.

At the time, my parents and I flew a lot. We’d vacation somewhere at least once a month and we made our way over to India quite a bit. I used this opportunity to ask my parents for some extra cash to buy a few extra books. My parents would never decline such a request.

I did two things with these books: I sold some to our librarian for what was a much cheaper price than what the school was getting them for, but I was turning a profit on them. But creating a book club/marketplace with these books seemed was a sustainable business. Moreover, some kids had books they were willing to share. And this fed the needs of some other kids wanted books to read that they could never find in our library. And so my friend and I created a “marketplace” – much like a library, we charged our friends a flat fee of 500 fils a month to become members of our club to rent out up to 5 books a month for 1 week each. If one of your books were to get rented out, you’d get 100 fils off (up to 5 books a month). I was in 6th grade, and this was an amazing side business. Eventually with a non-computerized system to manage who had what, this got out of hand and out of control (I think I still owe some kids money and/or books). But it was an awesome learning experience…

It’s debatable whether someone is a “born entrepreneur” or not. What isn’t is debatable however is what you’ve done all your life. How much you’ve hustled all your life. That is your story. That also is what can make you invaluable as a startup founder. I believe there’s a reason that the Y Combinator application asks you these two questions:

  • Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved.
  • Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.
I’m not saying I have the perfect answers for these questions, but clearly (with the second question) the Y Combinator team is looking for a “hustler”.

I’ve been hustling at OnSports for a few months now. What hustling forces you to learn is that the word ‘no’ simply means you are going to find another way to get a ‘yes’.

Here are some other posts that talk about “hustlers” that you will find helpful:

Hustle on, homies,

Passion-Market fit meets Point of Obsession

There are a few things that kids grow up being obsessed about – video games and sports are two such things. I grew up a sports fanatic, not so much a video gamer. Sports didn’t run in the household – neither my parents nor my sister are into it. Just me. Somehow both playing and watching sports has proven to be my favorite pass time my entire life. I grew up mostly watching the NFL, Tennis, Cricket, Basketball and some English Premier League. I played Basketball, Ping Pong (Table Tennis), Tennis and Cricket in school. I was so obsessed with Basketball, I was one of those kids who had a giant posted of Jordan in my room and I now subconsciously stick my tongue out on my way to a layup.

Although I never graduated beyond amateur high school sports leagues, my passion for sports never dwindled. When I got to Purdue, my first job on campus was as a lab assistant for the Purdue Computing Center (then known as PUCC). Although many fellow lab assistants warned me against it, I ended up signing up to be the LA over at Purdue’s Intercollegiate Athletic Facility because I wanted to be as close to the sports action as possible (the IAF is also where I first met  a 6’0″ freshman named Drew Brees who needed some help with his website and said he might be starting at QB the next year). Sports was always close to my heart.

A few years ago, I thought that it’d be awesome if I could spend all my time working on sports. Or technology in sports, because I am a technologist geek by trade, and I love technology. There are several deficiencies with the existing sports media market that have bothered me as a forever as a sports fan (I won’t go into details here). The idea of wanting to do something in this space started to brew in my head.

And then back in February, Fred Wilson wrote this:

- Hunches come from being a power user of the products in your category and from having a long standing obsession about the problem you are solving.

- Domain expertise to the point of obsession is highly correlated with the most successful entrepeneurs in our portfolio. …

The seed had already been planted in my head – I saw a problem, and this problem needed a solution. Then Naval Ravikant wrote this about passion-market fit:

So the only way you’re likely to find product-market fit is if you’re almost irrationally obsessed with the market and if you’ve been working on it for a long time. Where the journey is the reward. Then, you’re likely to have unique insights (in the details) and consistent execution, through thick and thin, to find fit. Often, the best companies are ones where the product is an extension of the founder’s personality, which shouldn’t be a big surprise, since everyone is passionate about themselves.

I joined IGN last year because I saw a huge opportunity and a very nice product-market fit. But my passion for the sports industry far outweighs my passion for the video game industry. And so I’m joining Aaron Krane and the team at Hitpost, makers of the popular Sports+ app, as CTO. I get to work on disrupting the sports media industry for a living. I couldn’t possibly ask for anything more.

Thanks to all my friends at IGN who’ve helped me get better as a product manager and as a human. And special thanks to Andy McLoughlin for introducing me to Aaron.

Onward and upward,

@ai

Rethinking Mobile First

[Update: Bing is working on solving this very issue with their “auto app discovery” feature”. Read about it here: http://www.bing.com/community/site_blogs/b/search/archive/2011/06/09/iphone-mobile-app-discovery-with-bing.aspx]

I’m on my way back from Amsterdam where I was at the Mobilism conference. The opening talk was by done by LukeW on “Mobile First”. If you haven’t heard Luke speak or you haven’t seen his slides, I strongly encourage you to do so. Luke presents the state of the mobile industry and trends in a very real here-and-now sorta way. His content is very complimentary to Mary Meeker’s very forward looking slides.

I know that the mobile industry is buzzing. This industry is exploding really fast and obviously the growth rate of mobile devices is tremendous. But I think it’s too soon to be saying that all developers out there who are hatching an idea should think of doing mobile, or specifically, a mobile app only first.

There is a huge issue with AppStores today – discoverability. Let’s look at usage patterns on the desktop – the notion of searching for something (Googling for something) is very commonplace. You can’t find something – Google it. A lot of times the struggle is with phrasing your query correctly so that Google knows what set of results to give you, not necessarily that Google doesn’t know content out there exists on the web. But for the most part, it’s not so bad. And Google knows what content to serve you because they’ve done their jobs in indexing the world wide web. Easy. But you can’t compare Google, as we know it, to the search functionality in the (an?) AppStore. An AppStore search will show you results based on other things people have been searching for, or gross sales of an app, or keyword/tag matches with the app’s name and description. But that is not good enough.

Here are some examples specifically in the travel vertical:

 

See the problem? Content within apps (like within TripAdvisor) is not being indexed. More importantly even if it were, Google’s way of identifying which results to show first, PageRank, cannot be easily applied to mobile because the notion of (deep) linking to content within an app doesn’t exist. Sure, I can use the Google app or search in Safari to search for this, which would lead me to TripAdvisor’s website. But that defeats the purpose doesn’t it? BTW, Spotlight on the iPhone doesn’t index in-app content either.

I’m not against apps per se. I think the utility model of apps is awesome. But the content within an app is still limited to the app itself. Say what you want about HTML, but it had structure to it, which made it possible for Google, Yahoo and Bing to index the world’s content. When you look at the matrix of development platforms across the major mobile OSs, you’ll see that there is no such structure for the way data is represented on these mobile platforms.

And this leads me to think that Palm’s WebOS really got it right. It was a really forward thinking developer platform. It’s brought the notion of a “light weight web” dev platform to mobile.

So unless I’m missing something and there is a way to programmatically send your mobile exclusive app content to the a search engine, thinking mobile first for your app may not be the right thing to do. Building a game? Absolutely do mobile first (I mean, what else would you target?) Building a location based service or an app that relies heavily on the camera? I think you need to co-launch a web and a mobile app, if you can afford it. Anything else, especially an app heavy on content, you ought to be thinking hard about going mobile first. Because with 300K apps on iOS and growing, your app may never get discovered. Till a “Google for mobile app content” arises, mobile devices are going to continue to be an extension of what our desktops and laptops are today.

@ai

PS: A lot of apps use a 3rd party analytics provider, like Flurry for example. If one of these 3rd party providers can figure out a clever way to standardize indexing in-app content and then overlay that with an algorithm to surface results (I can’t think of how they’d do that), I think they will have solved the discoverability problem for content-heavy apps on mobile in a massive way.

 

Amazon’s Android Appstore off on the Wrong Foot?

The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) furnished an advisory yesterday warning game developers about the perils behind selling your game through Amazon’s appstore. Amazon appstore’s terms of service do sound extremely self serving. From IGDA’s post:

1) Amazon steeply discounts a large chunk of its Appstore catalog (imagine: “our top 100-rated games are all 75% off!”). Some developers will probably win in this scenario, but some developers — most likely, those near the bottom of the list — will lose, not gaining enough sales to offset the loss in revenue per sale. Amazon benefits the most, because it captures all the customer goodwill generated by such a promotion.

2) By requiring all developers to guarantee Amazon a minimum list price that matches the lowest price on any other market, Amazon has presented developers with a stark choice: abandon Amazon’s market or agree never to give another distributor an exclusive promotional window.

3) Other digital markets that compete with Amazon (both existing markets and markets yet-to-be-created) may feel compelled to duplicate Amazon’s terms, and perhaps even adopt more severe terms in an effort to compete effectively with Amazon. In essence, we’re looking at a slippery slope in which a developer’s “minimum list price” ceases to be a meaningful thing.

4) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a game that has a well-defined, well-connected niche audience. The members of that niche audience snap up the game during the promotional period, robbing the game’s developer of a significant percentage of its total potential revenue from its core audience.

5) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a hit game at a time when the game is already selling extremely well. This sort of promotional activity may attract consumers away from competing markets and into Amazon’s arms. But it might actually represent a net loss for the developer, which was already doing quite well and didn’t need to firesale its game at that moment in time.

Furthermore, Amazon is pretty strict about apps pointing back to other AppStores from within an app. From this post on Stackoverflow:

So one of my applications was rejected from the Amazon app store today. The reason was because inside my app, I linked to the paid version of the app on the Android market. Disappointing, but whatever, I guess everyone wants their cut…

The buck doesn’t just stop there. Loren Donelson shared his story about how his app was rejected by Amazon because the ads in his app (served by Greystripe) were pointing to the Android market (as opposed to the Amazon appstore). Not his app itself, an ad in his app. From Donelson’s post:

The screenshots reference a third party ad network, Greystripe, that I use to monetize the free app.  Greystripe is used by many, many Android devs including (I think) Angry Birds to monetize free apps.

In my case it looks like Greystripe presented an ad for an Android app and the advertiser’s link pointed to Google’s Android market.  That flagged me for violating Amazon TOS: all links must point to the Amazon app store.

Amazon has responded (to the IGDA) but I think more detailed communication about the rationale behind their self serving policies is definitely warranted. I wouldn’t discount Amazon’s capabilities to build an awesome appstore experience (hey, they pioneered the best webstore) but right now developers should think about how they can use Amazon’s appstore as a marketing tool as opposed to one they can bank on to make (significant) revenue.

Related posts:

@ai

The POS as a Platform

The Point of Sale (POS) as we know it is a very old and closed system. The incumbent in the (hospitality) POS market, MICROS systems was founded in 1978. However the POS has seen very little innovation since then. There are some fundamental issues with today’s POSs:

1. Cost

According to costhelper,

  • Retail or restaurant single-register “starter kits” range from $1,500-$2,500; more elaborate, multiple-station systems with features such as touch-screens, automatic ordering and sophisticated reporting capabilities can cost $15,000-$20,000 and up.
  • IBM has POS systems starting around $1,999-$2,499, but costs can increase up to $4,000 or more per station.
  • Microsoft offers its Retail Management System starting at $1,290 for a single store with one cashier’s lane.
  • QuickBooks sells its Basic POS software for $800, a Pro system for $1,050 and a multi-store version (up to 10 sites) for $1,400; with hardware included, prices start at $1,750.

Unless bought through a reseller, some of these do not factor in the cost of installations, upgrades, deployment or support.

2. Extensibility

Many POS systems do not have a development platform. This severely limits the ability for 3rd parties to come to the POS. OpenTable, Shopkick and Groupon are some of the apps that come to mind that have made their way to the POS. Some time back, my friends and I did extensive research into this area.

It is not impossible to build an app for MICROS, as this Quora thread suggests. But it is not trivial. Radiant, another POS, charges you $25K to get a developer’s license (Quora thread).

Building an app for an exiting POS is non-trivial, if not entirely impossible.

3. Portability



This is not something you can move around easily. An iPad is an example of something that can be moved around easily.

4. Upgrades are not seamless

Like many other hardware+software systems that was built in the 90s, these POSs were not built for easy software upgrades. An upgrade to a POS involves downtime and can rarely be done in-house without the help of the POS vendor or reseller.

5. They Suck

When you walk in to a retail store today, you’ll likely see a very single purpose clunky system with some seriously shady software (that looks like it was built in the 90s).

POS as a Service and as a Platform
Imagine a world where POSs are purely SaaS based and shop owners can pay as they go. This eradicates #1, Cost and #4, Upgrade issues (from above) associated with existing POS systems. I’m also convinced that any web based system (or any software that has been written in this decade) can easily outdo the look and feel of many POSs have today (that solves #5 Suckiness). I’m not sure a pure software POS is the answer, so I won’t get into that. There are many companies that are doing pure web/SaaS POS systems today (VendHQ, Erply, MyMicros, CashierLive etc.) But there is something they are lacking…

Everyone knows what an iPhone app is today – what if this notion of an ‘app’ came to the POS. Imagine an entirely web based POS that had a lightweight HTML/CSS/JS “widget” based app platform (somewhat like the Facebook platform, but not as heavy weight, for starters at least). The POS can enable a marketplace for app developers to build apps that can be easily “installed” on to a POS. Imagine how easy it would be then for Foursquare or Venmo or Paypal or Perkville or a Bill-Splitter app or an E-Receipt app to come to the POS. This would solve #2, Extensibility.

I know of several 3rd parties who will pay a nice premium to get on to a POS (I’m saving you the details here, but I’ve done plenty of research in this area). And these guys are having to do some serious workarounds because of the pain involved in building something for an existing POS. Here’s an example of an iPad that Perkville gave to our neighborhood coffee shop (the founder of Perkville shares the pain of the POS not being as extensible):

 

Yes, I’ve “gotten out of the building”, in Steve Blank parlance, and spoken to several shop owners (small, big and large) to vet that this is something they’d be interested in. The most common concern that was raised: needing a permanent high speed internet connection, but almost all of them were in favor of something that would help save them money and would help them plan better for the future. 

Square

I wasn’t sold when I first heard of Square. Square only appealed to small/tiny businesses I thought. And these guys are a nightmare to market and sell to. Startups have failed because of the challenge it takes to market and sell to small businesses. But this tweet by Chris Anderson the other day piqued my interest:

Over the last year, Square has been gaining some serious mindshare. For small biz owners, the cost of acquiring the hardware doesn’t really exist. Square has most of the issues that I have listed above solved including the one that I didn’t address since it’s a non-software issue, #3, Portability. If Square does actually plan to get into bigger market segments, I think there’s a LOT of money to be made (according to TechNavio, the Global POS Software market is forecast to reach $3,377 million in 2013 from $2,328.1 million in 2009; thus, growing at a CAGR of 9.7 percent over the period 2009-2013 – and that’s just the software market).

In my opinion, Square is in pole position to be building a POS that is a platform. For the better of companies that want to get on to a POS, I hope this is one of the areas that Square grows into.

@ai

Ask More Questions

I spent the majority of my day yesterday in a training session here at IGN. The session was aimed at helping us get better at communication, teamwork and at helping us get better as leaders in the organization.

I noticed some common themes and issues surfaced during the course of the day. And somehow for me, I felt like the solution to most if not all these issues all came down to one thing – I wish everyone would ask more questions and stop making assumptions. I felt like exercising this would rid us of a whole bunch of organizational challenges.

I wonder what it is that makes us morph ourselves from having this childlike mentality where we constantly ask questions. Maybe we don’t want to come across as not being as aware or as knowledgable as everyone else around us? Maybe we’ve been around intolerant people who just don’t like being questioned? Another theory – we sit in classrooms most of our lives and we’re talked “at” and spoken “at” by teachers and instructors. We are asked not to speak unless we’re spoken to. As I think back to my years in school and college, while I wasn’t discouraged from asking questions about something I didn’t understand, interrupting class wasn’t encouraged either. The class was X minutes long, and there was a strict agenda. It may have occurred to you to interrupt and ask a clarifying question, but how often did you actually do it? Why not?

When I’m interviewing a candidate (regardless of the role they’re applying for), I start off by asking the candidate a bunch of ridiculously vague questions and I see how they start thinking about answering the questions. The best candidates usually take a step back and ask me a whole bunch of questions about my questions. That makes the candidate a “fit”, IMO, even if the answers they provide are not correct.

“how would you design a vending machine”

I once had a candidate design the most perfect cola dispensing vending machine on the planet. As soon as I’d asked the question, he didn’t say a word, went to the blackboard and just started designing the vending machine. Sure, it isn’t rocket science to design a vending machine you say. But there’s a lot to factor in. And he factored in all the right things. Then I told him, “you know, I really want to sell iPods and peripherals through these vending machines. In Japan.” The first words out of his mouth after I’d said that were, “is Japan on 100-110V or 220-240V?”

“what is the stock price of NFLX today”

If a candidate knows what the exact price of a stock is at a given time, that’s got to be just great chance. Some times the best answer is “I don’t know”. And I try to get candidates to get used to saying that. If they can learn to ask questions and say “I don’t know” in the 30-40 minutes I spend with them, I consider them a good fit.

“should I buy NFLX stock today”

None of the candidates I interview are in a position to answer if I should buy a certain stock or not – trust me. You’ll be surprised what some of the candidates say. The best answer to this question is, “I don’t know”. Or better yet “I’m not the right person to answer your question, but I may be able to point you to someone else who may be able to better answer your question.”

Having someone on your team who “takes you back to basics” with naïve question asking is a really good thing. Often times we tend to take things for granted when we’re really far along down a thought process. We made some assumptions way back when which forced us to get to the conclusion that we’re faced with today. I suggest you work with someone who is willing to challenge those basic assumption from time to time.

Asking questions is also a polite way of “influencing someone”. My old boss, Paul Murphy, did this extremely well (“Everybody loves Paul“). It’s a clever way of getting someone to provide an answer that you really want to hear.

I’m a big proponent of people asking tons of questions. It’s a cultural thing that was encouraged at Microsoft. I’d love for it be more accepted for people to ask questions, no matter how naïve the questions might be. At IGN, we’ve already started to go down this path and have culturally accepted exercising the “Five Whys“. As a society, I’d love for us learn to be more tolerant of question-askers.

@ai

The Other Chest Pain – Costochondritis

I’ve always been an avid basketball player. Of all the sports out there, I find basketball to be one of the few sports that has the fewest barriers to start playing. But living in San Francisco, a city that tends to be fairly cold year around, I find it difficult to play ball outdoors. So back in December 2006, I found one of the few full-fledged indoor basketball courts near San Francisco – a ClubOne facility in Oakland. I headed over there and played ball. I played for about 4 hours straight. The last time I’d exerted myself like that was back in high school.

Soon after I was done, I noticed that I was surprisingly short of breath. I sat in the locker room thinking about how I’d gotten through 4 hours and not felt a thing (I’ve since noticed that typically the adrenaline overrides any sensations that I may have been feeling while I play). What was bothering me even more was this heavy feeling I had in the left side of my chest. Against my best judgement, I decided to suck it up and go home. I was convinced that I wasn’t having a heart attack – I was 26 and in pretty good shape. There was no way. Right?

I woke up the next morning, and didn’t feel any better. My chest pain had gotten worse. So I headed to the ER at UCSF Parnassus and got myself checked out. After an epic wait of about 3 hours, and some fairly simple tests, the physicians concluded that I was perfectly fine. The diagnosis was … fatigue. The medication … advil. I was asked to go home and rest. Several days passed and the chest pain got better but it didn’t go away entirely. I did my due diligence and Googled the heck out of this condition. Try googling for “chest pain”. Trust me, it will scare the living daylight out of you. You will be convinced that you’re having a heart attack.

That was in late 2006. Since then, the chest pains come and go intermittently. They are extremely painful when they happen. The issue usually gets aggravated after an exerting workout. Sometimes, I think I’m on the verge of a heart attack.

I followed through after going to the ER back in 2006 and got tested by a cardiologist who concluded that there was nothing wrong with my heart whatsoever. I saw a doctor who was convinced that I had acid reflux (GERD) that was causing me the discomfort. I got on medication for fixing acid reflux. Another doctor was convinced that it was likely an issue with my throat. I was asked to participate in a swallowing study (no jokes – and I did them). Nothing was wrong. These doctors were using a process of elimination to try to figure out what was wrong with me.

There have been days when I’ve told myself that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I’d feel otherwise (I used to work out regularly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – the day after the workout, I’d feel like the muscles in my chest were in a knot). So I stopped working out. And I felt better.

A couple of years ago, I found a new medical practice – the OneMedical group. I had a new “group of primary care physicians”, as opposed to just one. At the time, I was also having frequent headaches that I attribute to my bad allergies. Finally one of the doctors at OneMedical asked me to see Dr. Greenberg about my headaches. Here we go, I thought – more referrals, more running around. I went to Dr. Greenberg and he spent a solid 20 minutes asking me questions – that was unlike anything any other doctor had every done. He asked me if I had any other conditions that he should be aware of – I casually told him about the chest pains not really expecting any kind of a response.

Me: No other conditions really, just these occasional chest pains – my doctor thinks its acid reflux. I’ve had it for years.
Dr. Greenberg: Ah, Costochondritis.
Me: Wait, what? You have a name for this condition?
Dr.: Yeah, it’s not uncommon and it’s benign. No big deal. Let’s get back to the headaches.
Me: So I can ignore the chest pains? Will they go away?
Dr.: Oh yeah. Think about it – your ribs expand and contract all your life as you breathe. Occasionally, they cause discomfort if you exert yourself too much. They may not go away but nothing to worry about. Apply Volatren the next time you feel discomfort.

Holy shit. Here I thought I’ve been having mini heart attacks for the last 4 years. I’ve been diagnosed. And of course better yet, it’s not that big a deal!

Costochondritis. The other chest pain. From wikipedia:

Costochondritis is a benign inflammation of the costal cartilage, which is a length of cartilage which connects each rib, except the eleventh and twelfth, to the sternum. It causes pain in the chest that can be reproduced by pressing on the affected area between the ribs. This pain can be quite excruciating, especially after rigorous exercise. While it can be extremely painful, it is considered to be a benign condition that generally resolves in 6–8 weeks. Though costochondritis appears to resolve itself, it can be a recurring condition that can appear to have little or no signs of onset. These episodes can be years apart from one another. Treatment options are quite limited and usually only involve rest and analgesics but in a very small number of cases cortisone injections and even surgery are sometimes necessary.[1]

Costochondritis symptoms can be similar to the chest pain associated with a heart attack.

So, why am I writing about this? Why now? A few months ago my friend Cyrus pinged me on IM and told me about  a friend of his who was googling Carnaval in Rio. Turns out she stumbled upon my post on Carnaval and saw a picture of Cyrus in my post. What a small world I thought…

So I’m writing about this chest pain I’ve had on the left side of my chest for the last 4.5 years in the hope that somehow this post will get indexed. And that someone googling for chest pains who is not really having a heart attack (if you think you’re having chest pains and you’re really having a heart attack, trust me, you wouldn’t be googling it at the time) and has been through their fair share of doctors who are at best ‘guessing’ about a patient’s condition knows that there is likely another reason.

@ai

PS: I’ve been quiet about this recent onslaught upon Google and search result quality in general. This is a great example of where something like PageRank can work against you. Basically, if I were to trust Google’s results, I would have been convinced that I was having a heart attack.

IGN Mobile and HTML5: A Conscientious Effort to go Cross-Platform

Let’s start off by taking a look at some facts.

IGN’s mobile traffic is on the rise. Here’s a chart of monthly unique visitors coming to IGN.com from mobile devices.

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Monthly unique visitor traffic coming from mobile devices has doubled compared to where we were in January 2010.

What tends to be more interesting data is what percentage of our site’s total traffic is coming from mobile devices.

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Today, mobile traffic coming to all of ign.com is between 8-9% of our site’s total and growing.

Let’s take a closer look at which mobile operating systems are contributing to a majority of our traffic. The following is a graph of the percentage of all mobile traffic that certain mobile devices drive to all of IGN.com (this is a % of all mobile traffic, not a % of all traffic).

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Takeaways:

  • The iPhone has been consistently a major traffic driver to all of ign.com.
  • Traffic from Android and iPad is clearly growing.
    • Android traffic was ~9% in January 2010 and it rose to ~24% in December 2010.
    • iPad traffic was ~2.5% in March 2010, it rose to ~12% in December 2010.
  • Blackberry traffic has been consistently flat.
  • While WinMo and WebOS traffic is negligible, Symbian’s traffic drop from ~31% of the total mobile traffic in January 2010 to ~10% in December 2010 is most interesting, but not surprising.

So, we should start building an app for Android, right?

Traffic drivers are a key way for us to gauge what our users are using and how we can better serve them – simple. We’re keeping our ears to the ground and paying close attention to industry trends – yes, we know Android is growing like crazy. We want to build for Android, and we wish we could do it as soon as we like. Unfortunately, there are a myriad of issues surrounding development for Android.

  1. Fragmentation – The Android smartphone market is ridiculously fragmented. Take a look at this chart by Google:


    from http://developer.android.com/resources/dashboard/platform-versions.html

    This is a chart based on the number of Android devices that have accessed Android Market within a 14-day period ending on January 4, 2011.

    This is just the Android operating systems. While most Android devices run on some kind of a standard resolution, this is not a given.  Bottom-line: the hardware Android runs on complicates this chart even further.

  2. Developing for Android is a bitch not easy – Android apps are written in Java. We’re a lean mobile team, and while some of us here dig Java, I doubt you will hear that we want to develop in Java. Eclipse is a monstrous beast and has poor design time support (compared with Visual Studio, for example). Not to mention that the Android dev environment is just super painful and the Android emulator is ridiculously buggy and unpredictable.
  3. Do we really another native app? – Seguing from the previous point, we are not confident that we want to invest in another code base. We have a v1 of our iOS app that is available today, we are investing in a  v2 of our app with a  brand new codebase, but that process has been less than easy (the Apple dev tools are equally bad, BTW).
  4. Android on GoogleTV? On Android Tablets? – Supposedly Android is coming to GoogleTV. It already powers Android tablets.  Potentially more fragmentation.

Long story short, we want to build for Android. But when we do, we want the experience to be truly rich, and we want it to cater to all platforms and form factors that Android powers.

What we’ve done for the interim is we’ve wrapped up http://m.ign.com into a native app and made it available on the Android market (I wish I could link to the actual app itself, but apparently this is not feasible – WTF?) This caters to the users who use the Android market to search for IGN, but it’s true that the experience is less than desirable and doesn’t provide anything more than the mobile optimized version of our website. This was a tactic on our part to cater to our Android users, our longer term strategy involves a native app.

But what about the iPad? And Windows Phone 7?

We really don’t want to be stuck with multiple code bases. We still run in to issues with our current iOS app – intermittent crashes and issues that we need to go back and investigate. And in spite of what people say, the iOS development environment is not an easy one to work with. I can’t imagine having to do this for a Java app, a Silverlight app, an iOS-iPad app and whatever-else-is-going-to-be-the-next-big-thing. No way.

HTML5 is our savior

In an ideal world, we’d want to have one code base, written beautifully with an model-view-controller (MVC) architecture and the ability to switch out the view based on the device’s UI so that the style and theme of the phone this app is being run on, applies automatically. This may sound easier than is to implement (especially in the case of a unique UI like that of Windows Phone 7’s, but I’m less worried about that than having to write the same app all over in Objective C, Java, C# etc.)

So we’ve decided that we’re going to make a concerted effort to create all of our new projects in HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript. For one of our upcoming mobile projects we’ve decided to use Sencha Touch for our framework and we will be coupling it with PhoneGap. Yes, I know we’re foregoing the ability to do certain things that are truly native to a phone. But we don’t have any such immediate needs. So for our upcoming project, we will have a single code base that will cater natively to iOS and Android devices – these two OSs combined represent 86% of all the traffic that comes to IGN.com from mobile devices.

I’m bullish that more mobile devices will support HTML5 and this will help us bring our apps to other devices more easily than ever before.

@ai

PS: If you’re wondering why Sencha and not jQueryMobile

Android v iPhone–is the gap really closing?

I live in San Francisco, a metropolitan city, some 50 odd miles from Silicon Valley, the heart of everything technology to the world. This place is filled with “technology early adopters” and  can be considered as the Apple fanboy mecca of the world.

Bear with me for a sec as we look at the scope of just *my* observations… Furthermore, if we were to narrow down the scope of Apple products to just phones…I went to 5 group dinners with anywhere from 4-10 friends in October 2010. Every friend that I went to dinner with, had an iPhone. I take public transportation pretty regularly, I usually see a majority of the people carrying iPhones (an overwhelming majority – more than 70%). I used travel a lot in my previous job, and at SFO, I used to see more people with iPhones than any other device. I started noticing this trend back in 2007:

iphones at panera

But like everyone else, I’ve been hearing all the buzz about how Android based devices are starting to become more mainstream, moreso than iPhones (Nielsen: Android Soars). Which is strange to me because clearly what I see everyday is not what the reality seems to be.

So I decided to look at the number of unique visitors visiting IGN.com from iPhones and Android based devices over the course of the year (I’ve deliberately hidden the scale):

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Weekly Unique Visitors to IGN.com from Android (blue) and iPhone (red)

That’s pretty staggering data. We see very similar trends when we compare “Pageviews” on IGN.com from Android based devices and iPhones.

In conclusion, clearly, I live in my own “iPhone/Apple” bubble. There is a growing number of gamers visiting IGN.com from their Android based devices.

What about you? Does what you see in the real world map to the kind of traffic you see from smartphones?

@ai