Vincent Writes

Welcome to Vincent van Wylick's Website

Category: Apple

Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

I tend to review books like this one in several parts, because the thought-flow is so high per page that it’s simply impossible to capture everything of value. This book is particularly dense. I’m only about 20% into Becoming Steve Jobs (iBooks is not so user-friendly in telling me how far I am), but every page feels like taking a deep breath and only releasing it after the (slight criticism) overlong paragraphs finish. But there is also something else that makes it difficult to skim this book, Steve Jobs’ emotional journey is described in significant depth, which is incredibly immersive, at least to me.

That is really the insight that lead me to write this short review (which may be followed by another). We / I tended to view Apple as this great mysterious black box, something that could be speculated about because it was fun and intriguing. By my count, I’ve perhaps written dozens of times about Apple, without ever really feeling that I understood something deeper than the superficial veneer Apple was comfortable in disclosing.

This book is, to use a terrible term, a game changer. It tells us so much about the man, stuff that was perhaps revealed in news articles here and there over the last 50 years, but all combined to create a persona that we can perhaps, to the extent that it is possible, understand. Steve Jobs (pre-NeXT is revealed as a man that is far less than perfect, who put his vision far ahead of the details, who is used to employing tantrum-techniques to get his way, who managed to burn more bridges than perhaps build them.

I’ve read plenty of other good business biographies over the years (of the founders of eBay, McDonalds, Ikea, Starbucks were the ones that stood out), but this one is different in that it is only authorised after the fact. Steve Jobs, as far as I understood, could’ve picked Brent Schlender to cover his life, but perhaps didn’t because he was much too close, much too perceptive. Isaacson was chosen instead, this historical biographer of great persons like Abraham Lincoln, which is such a Jobs move, at least the Jobs you read about in this book.

The title is of course Becoming Steve Jobs, which is not really a guide to being like the man, but rather a witnessing of the transformation, evolution, descent, or ascent, depending on how you interpret this journey. The tagline reads: “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” which is quite mixed as well. It’s a testament to the unauthorised character of this biography, that it is able to show the dark sides of Jobs as well. An incredibly fascinating journey already in this short portion of Jobs’ career.

On Tech: a microscopic screen & a gigantic one

Time will tell whether yesterday’s Apple announcements were a positive for the company or not. On the surface, The Apple watch feels like we beamed back into James T. Kirk’s Star Trek (the 60s TV show). The iPhone 6 Plus along with Tim Cook’s statement that “it’s better than an Android phone in every way,” feels like Apple chasing its own tail.

What I wanted was for the “iWatch” to enable more of a connected ecosystem, but I’m not sure if I needed a watch to really come with that. That Apple did release something that looks like generation 1 (a premature statement based on looking at a tiny touchscreen and hearing bad things about the unmentioned battery life), and that it had to up itself in terms of the iPhone, feels like a desire to stay tangibly relevant, to still remain the device in everybody’s pocket or on every wrist.

It’s unfortunate to write this before seeing either device in person, which is my own need to stay relevant (as it is every journalist’s that attended the event), because I know that I’m probably somewhat wrong and presumptuous about it. I didn’t know how either the 5s or the iPad (Mini) would feel, and I’m incredibly happy with both.

I am also presumptuous, I’m sure, about the other functionalities that the iPhone, Apple Watch, and Apple software will enable. The reason is different however, because it requires for an ecosystem to to be in place that works just as well as Apple’s hardware and software is integrated. It also usually requires a high investment in adjacent devices and a rollout that’s not just in a few countries. We are not yet there today, so what is there to review, just to hope for the best? Apple Pay certainly sounds promising, as do the health functions of the Apple Watch, even though I can already replicate many of those in software. The connection in the home is what will be an interesting new challenge.

More to come in the form of hands-on experience and science fiction expectations.

On Tech: iEnabler 3 – logical conclusions of what the iWatch will be

It becomes increasingly difficult to write about the “iWatch,” as there are rumors abound, speculations about the design, the price point, and it’s battery life. There doesn’t seem to be much thought about the added value of such a device however, and I really don’t believe that it is meant to replace the functionality of an iPhone or iPod.

The key issue seems to be centered around battery life, as no one wants a device that they have to charge once or multiple times a day. Equally, the size factor does not suggest much visual “touch screen like” functionality, meaning there has to be another appeal to it. These two together seem to suggest to me that we have to look at functionality that is both cool (in the Apple way) and consumes little energy.

The obvious leads that we have for this are homekit and healthkit, neither of which require much of a screen, instead relying more on sensors and connectivity. We know that sensors for mobility, built into the iPhone 5s M7 chip, are energy friendly, and I assume others will be too.

On the other hand, the only energy-saving connectivity technology seems to be Bluetooth LE, with cellular data being blamed as the major culprit for diminished battery life on the iPhone. With Bluetooth LE also comes Beacon technology, allowing for homekit-based interactions, so it looks like this area is covered too in terms of energy friendly connected functionality.

This just leaves the screen as an energy hog and somehow I see Apple as sacrificing this to make it a better device. So what I believe we will have is the following:

  • A slick watch, the kind you pay $500+ for.
  • Both a for-men and a for-women version, with hipper, cheaper versions to follow.
  • I would bet on it being analog in the design and aesthetic.
  • Powerful* health sensors inside (*: what is powerful though, it won’t read your blood sugar level, I guess).
  • Bluetooth LE inside.
  • Priced between $399 and $699.

The cool part being everything outside of the watch: health data, mobile payments, interaction with other devices. Launching Apple into new growth areas: devices for fashion, health, payments, and more.

This last part suggests a third or fourth product line (next to the Apple TV. Or even a fifth next to Beats), and a different naming convention altogether. A wearable line that integrates with fashion.

In conclusion, what I envisioned to be a mobile hotspot, one device to connect them all on the road, was perhaps too geeky? To limited in looking at the potential. There is so much activity around this “iWatch” concept now, the latest of which is the hiring of (watch) designer Marc Newson, which makes this quite of an open ballpark, in terms of what will be announced in just a few days.

Will it be a game changer? Clearly Apple thinks so with all of its acquisitions and new hires. Is it a big gamble? I don’t know enough about the dynamics of this new world Apple is entering into to say. I do know that fashion is a fickle and fast moving beast, but so is tech, and that brands do have staying power, as long as they innovate and deliver what its core constituents want. From Apple, we want the very best, and do far they have always delivered.

On Tech: the iEnabler

Note: This came to me in the middle of the night, so I apologize in advance if it doesn’t make perfect sense.

The iPad mini is pretty much the perfect iPad. I’m sure you’re heard that before, but it’s just a nicely shaped (size & weight) reading, gaming, and viewing experience (I have not really typed on it, I am writing this post on an iPhone 5s).

We are about to visit my girlfriend’s father, who is the proud owner of an iPhone 3G, which he was conned into by Orange, his phone provider, in 2012. I’m sure he would love the mini over the 3G, but his first question will be: can I do with it what I do with my phone? And my answer will sadly be: no.

Then I thought about the positioning of a future iWearable device. It’s small and will have little value as an iPod or iPad. But how about a hotspot of sorts? How would it be if it simply transmitted a signal to other devices, along with basic watch functionalities? It would, of course, be able to open doors and unlock your Mac, but what about bringing in a mobile wireless signal to my girlfriend’s dad’s iPad mini?

His generation is of course the perfect audience for a watch, as is anyone that ever wore one in their lives. That generation with their fat fingers and bad eyes (sorry oldies), would both love a watch and a big screen. They would love to call heir relatives on the bigs screen and… perhaps… on their watch?

What if the iWearable had basic functionalities like weather and notifications (non-vibrating please!) and could be held to your ear for an incoming call? What if it no longer requires a mobile chip to be inserted into the iPad or iPhone for that matter (the iPod touch, basically), and its price is covered by the premium iPod & iPad owners have to pay for that functionality to be built in?

I can see a couple of positioning problems, but also plenty of wins for Apple. The separating of cost to consumer is one. An iPhone or iPad with a mobile chip is pretty expensive. An iPad or iPod touch without it isn’t. That expense was often covered by mobile contracts, which have generously subsidized the device cost, but competitive pressures of cheap devices are pushing down margins for everyone. What if this subsidy would only need to cover the iWearable (100-300 euro/dollars) and the other 200-400 was the bigger device, covered by consumers themselves? What if this device also allowed for thinner iPads and iPhones with longer battery lives?

An iWearable will always have limitations, but any Apple device should do one thing very well. To me it seems that being a hotspot could be that One More Thing(tm). Well, let’s see if Gruber has anything to say about it.

A not so short article explaining why the stock market loves Amazon and fears Apple

It all comes back to the simplistic but realistic view that investors have of any investment. Amazon spreads its revenue risks across many different income streams and Apple instead focusses on a few high value products. It’s not about Amazon re-investing its profits in growth, even though that is exactly its strategy enabler, but that Apple seemingly does not. The market prefers a risk averse strategy to a profitable one and along with that a transparent strategy–the antithesis of Apple’s approach.

Read the whole article here.

Thoughts on Inkling – Electronic platform for textbooks

I came across Inkling via a press release from Elsevier announcing the release of ‘Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach’ on Inkling. As a side-note, the first thing I see visiting the website Inkling.com is an advert from O’Reilly about ‘books that code.’ The site seems to market at geeks for now, perhaps because of the platforms it is targeting: iOS & the Web.

What is Inkling
In my own words, it is trying to be for textbooks what Amazon is for regular books. The result is more than books, however, the formatting is Inkling’s own, separating books into chapters that can be sold separately  including interactive elements like quizzes and graphics, and displaying the content on various devices and interfaces.

During the rest of this review, I will focus on the marketing, partnerships, selection and pricing of books, and finishing with the interface. If you have comments or feedback, leave one below!

Media Exposure
Research conducted on media-aggregators like Mediagazer as well as on Inkling.com’s news page revealed that the main media-coverage was centred around the product launch in the beginning of this year, with little more exposure afterwards, with the exception of press releases. That said, the New York Times published an article about Inkling, including the featuring of a quote by Hal Plotkin, the senior policy advisor to the Obama administration on matters of education, about how important platforms like Inkling are to the future of education. So, a pretty big deal.

Publisher Support
Another big deal is the pedigree of companies backing Inkling, both on the investment side (Sequoia Capital) and the publishing side (McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Reed-Elsevier, O’Reilly, Wolters Kluwer,  John Wiley & Sons, etc.). I find the number of major publishers supporting Inkling very encouraging to its future, though I’m sure that, like on music platforms, many of these companies are spreading their bets across multiple platforms, trying to see which one sticks.

Another side-note: you have to wonder what the definition of publisher is and whether or not Inkling classifies as one. Venturebeat has an interesting quote from the founder & CEO, Matt MacInnis, about that:

“Inkling’s goal involves using the content of an existing textbook as a skeleton, then “casting off the shackles of the book” and adding interactive and multimedia content that could only work on the iPad.” 

The site’s about-page also features the folllowing statement about what Inkling represents:

“a flexible, interactive publishing platform where the human is at the center of the creative process, not the book. Where the iPad is the canvas, not paper. And as people start to grasp the power of the platform, you’re going to see ever more exciting content inside. What we’ve done so far is just the beginning, but it’s already exciting.”

(One hell of a side-note; sorry about that.)

Educator Support
Another major element affecting Inkling’s changes of succeeding are whether or not educators adopt the platform. That’s a big sell, because it’s not just about eTextbooks, but about premium-priced electronic readers. This is possibly one reason why Inkling allows the reading of books via it’s website and relatively less expensive laptops & desktops, as well as the cheaper iPhone & iPod Touch.

Inkling.com offers information targeted specifically at educators, and Google searches revealed that there are a number of pilot programs under way in universities like Abilene Christian University, Seton Hill University, the University of Alabama, and Nova South Eastern University. But, just like the iPad, it is clear that Inkling is just in the beginning stages where it comes to using eBooks in education.

Apple Support
Apple made a lot of headlines enforcing its 30% commission on apps and in-app sales. With the result that companies like Amazon completely removed any link to the shop on their website. Similarly so, you won’t find a link in the Inkling app to where the actual shop is located on the website. The effect is clumsy, especially for new apps and lesser known platforms where your first instinct is to try and buy books via the safe and reliable method that Apple offers.

I understand Apple’s perspective on this, especially towards big companies like Amazon, and because it offers competing eTextbooks to that of Inkling’s. But it seems to me that Apple still needs to make a case to educators to use its products, and it’s sad that it doesn’t support companies building on the iOS platform to reach this important market.

Selection & Pricing of Books
Inkling seperates its offering into 11 categories, ranging from business and medicine to travel and “vices” (Cooking? Blackjack?). The business category has by far the most books (100), followed by medicine (60), and technology (31). But of course quantity does not always mean quality. The law section only features 4 books, but that is an area where there are a few authoritative books that matter to students of that field (3/4 books are on bar preparation and a chapter price is already $29!).

The business category, which I can judge best, is split into different sub-categories like accounting, marketing, and strategy. I found that many books that were core-requirement for my bachelor were listed there.

Pricing-wise, it was interesting to see that books like ‘A Framework for Marketing Management’ cost $50 less than the list-price of ca. $150 (currently discounted to $122 on Amazon.com). The book ‘Operations Management’ was a full $70 cheaper than on Amazon. A big plus is also that you can buy the book per chapter, saving students a lot of money.

Also relevant to pricing/marketing, is that most books have tasters in the form of free chapter, something that enabled me and other new customers to sample the app risk free.

The Interface
The geek in me wanted to write most about this part. But due to time constraints, I will have to be brief. In the end, a cool interface/product is also only as good as the market for it.

My primary reading devices are an iPhone 4 and a Kindle, so I tend to look for applications on these two. Inkling has three interfaces, the iPad, the iPhone, and the web, but it is designed for the first and somewhat for the second.

As mentioned, I came across Inkling via a press-release, which lead me to the website, after which I installed the app. This is a logical progression, making the platform easily understood. But what if I had come across the app in the app store and installed it? The primary issue for me would’ve been to find books to read in it. The only hint about it is a text indicating that you can find books on Inkling, however, a recent update also allowed for the remote installation of free taster-chapters via the help-me file.

The help-me file itself is pretty cool: it’s basically the first few chapters of William Strunk, Jr.’s “The Elements of Style”, followed by a few chapters discussing the elements of Inkling. I like the way the chapters are split up and that it’s possible to do quizzes to test your knowledge. I had some issues before the last update, because my fingers tend to fiddle while I read and I would accidentally load the next chapter before finishing the last. Chapter loading, on an iPhone 4, takes a few seconds, interrupting your flow of reading.

The rest of the app looks more or less like the Kindle app. You have the separation of books in the cloud and on your device, and you can load the latter onto your phone/tablet. Books are however fairly large, sometimes 80mb per chapter, so loading in WiFi seems wiser.

The Web book looks fairly similar to the phone interface, except for the larger screen. As mentioned, I believe it’s to make it more accessible to schools/universities with existing infrastructure.

Overall, I think Inkling represents a good reading experience. You can highlight and define words, but you can only add notes on the Web interface. But ok, it’s not like you should be writing in your textbook anyway!

In Summary
I’ve tried to balance this review somewhat discussing the market first and the app second. In the end, a great app is nothing without a use case. Inkling has some fierce hills to climb, but has got the publisher & media support to make it happen. I’m sure that there will be many changes on this landscape a year from now, with the iPad Mini and perhaps other tables representing a good educational device for students (good = affordable, usable, relevant content).

Outlook for the physical retail of media = bleak

skitched-20080229-165004.jpgOne of the things I do on this blog is deciding on the potential of industry-segments, ranging from farming to coffee-shops, and from grocery to other types of retail. On Tech IT Easy I’ve previously expressed my scepticism at media (in which I include text, art, audio, video, and gaming), especially in terms of business-models, which I think that segment lacks.

Equally so, I see fairly little space for it in the physical retail segment, simply because it is so much more convenient to purchase and consume it via digital means. The PC (and other tech-gadgets) have essentially become the hub for all things media, and creating barriers to that experience just leads consumers to pursue more convenient ways of experiencing that media. That search for convenience is something that I’ve also approached in a previous post on this blog.

Let’s look at some media-types and how they are being sold online.

For Video – there’s iTunes, consoles, and set-top boxes that are controlled by media-producers. In any case, the power-differentials between producers and intermediaries is very unbalanced and it isn’t a nice segment to enter as a retailer. Also, let’s not forget the free alternatives: YouTube et. al and piracy.

For Audio – again iTunes, Rhapsody, and Amazon MP3 Store, but also smaller digital store for independent artists, like CD-Baby (which operates through iTunes also). Let us again not forget piracy and the fact that much of music is being produced through digital means and it makes sense to organise distribution that way also.

For text – there’s again online outlets like Amazon for eBooks (Kindle) and Zinio for magazines. And let’s not forget that 99% of text-based media is viewable for free online. Still, admittedly, electronic devices for consumption are not yet able to compete with paper-based methods, at least where price is concerned. Also Audible should not be forgotten as a source for audio-books, recently bought up by Amazon and partially distributed through iTunes again.

For Gaming – I’m not too familiar with the online market for this one. Even so, there’s Steam, a digital distribution system by Valve, a platform which they recently opened up for use by other game-publishers. There’s also plenty of smaller games being distributed through Xbox-live, the future Playstation Home, and of course the internet.

Finally, Art – here the situation is more complex, while on the other hand being relatively simple. It is complex for artists like my mother, who paints, and conducts business on a personal level by interacting with her customers. On the other hand, there’s photography and digital art, arguably the evolution of traditional art, which is easy (for some) to produce digitally and distribute online. I suppose every industry has that friction between the traditional way of doing things and “the new way.”

All in all, I don’t see media as a big cash-cow for physical retail. I like to think that, because production and distribution becomes cheaper, that its cost will eventually fall to a very low price, allowing for it to be included as an added-value component in the service-proposition of physical retail-outlets (to which I also include restaurants, etc.). I also like to think that creating environments that make the consumption of media a comfortable process (e.g. cinemas) also has some potential.

But my outlook for selling media as a product, something that could easily be sold digitally, remains bleak. Please let me know if there are arguments against my point of view, as I’m here to learn.

Interlude: Technology-inspired Hiatus


There are few things in this world I hate more than electronical problems. Yesterday, I had a new harddrive installed in my Mac-laptop. I could have done it myself, but, by my estimates, it would have required me unscrewing and rescrewing approximately 40 screws. So, no thanks! I was in Germany on this occasion and gave the shop my mobile number. The only problem, I found out later, was that my phone refused to roam.

While I was waiting, I saw some beautiful atmospheric places, which I wanted to photograph. Only on that day, my neverfailing camera decided it was a good day to never turn on again… great!

When I came home, I tried to install OS X Leopard (the new Mac-OS), but it somehow screwed up and I was up until 2 a.m., trying to fix it (i.e. re-install). Along with that, my new harddrive makes some strange popping sounds every five minutes, which I unsterstand is a software-issue, but since this drive was advertised to be quiet as a mouse, it’s annoying nevertheless.

So, yesterday could very well be described as bland and just plain uninspiring. I’ll take a few days off from this blog, to focus on the essentials, and will hopefully be back in full force by this weekend.

Porter’s 5 forces – how they work, 3 examples, and why it’s better to be a thief

Porters_five_forces.PNGThe five-forces model, as developed by Micheal E. Porter, illustrates the biggest factors that may enter into the strategic decision-making process. These are, on a vertical level, suppliers and customers, on a horizontal level, competition from products, new entrants (can also be vertical), and rivals.

To explain the horizontal/vertical, often when you talk of horizontal, you mean companies and products that are on the same level as you, competing for the attention of the same customers (and suppliers). Vertical relationships are those which a company depends on, either their relationship with suppliers or their relationship with customers. Each of these also operates on their own horizontal axis. The more powerful players on that level become, the more they can affect players on the other levels.

There are different levels of importance per force, depending on the context and type of the firm. When a company is more powerful horizontally, a market-leader, even a monopolist, it does not have to worry about suppliers as much, and is perhaps able, financially, to integrate vertically, taking over some of its suppliers and/or some of the middle-men that stand between the company and its customers. Vertical integration can be important when you want to control the supply chain for some reason, e.g. to increase the level of quality of your products. It can also become important if competition on your horizontal axis is threatening or may become so in the future.

3 examples
You can see this play out in a number of retail-situations. Apple, which is strictly focussed on design and marketing, outsources the manufacturing of most of its products, but is fairly vertically orientated towards the customer-side, doing most of its business in its retail-locations and online stores. Because of this concentration of power in the middle and proximity to the customer, it also has more power over its suppliers, able to make strong demands, and it’s also better equipped to compete with horizontal players like HP or Sony, who are not as vertically integrated towards the consumer. The added benefit of a close customer-presence is also that you can use this as an opportunity to create customer-focussed products, something a lot of non-verticallly integrated players are not so good at.

Another fascinating company is Amazon, who spotted an opportunity to surpass brick & mortar stores, by becoming a distributor with a web-based store-front. Traditionally, the book-industry was organised as follows. A book gets printed, it then gets distributed, it then lands in a store, and then the customer buys it. Amazon integrated three of these functions: distribution, store, and customers (four, if you include ebooks into the formula). The end-result was that the customer became empowered: he could review books, even sell books second-hand. Which disempowered other stores where this was not possible, and publishers, who were before able to simply push out best-sellers downstream. Publishers are still powerful of course, essentially acting as a gatekeeper to writers, but this will change as soon as online publishing can be consumed comfortably.

A final example is Ikea, which is surprisingly similar to Amazon. It also started as a distributor, back in the day when a store-front was a newspaper-advert and phone-line. Ikea saved money, by working closely together with manufacturers in Poland, even building and buying machinery for them. The end-result were standardised designs, at low costs, and produced on a massive scale. It became close to the customer, by using its warehouses as store-fronts, and enabling customers to buy via catalogue and later via the web-site. Its competition was the traditional furniture store, conservative and producing designs that were both expensive and focussed on exclusivity (which translates to small-scale production). Because of this perceived strength, they were arrogant enough to not worry so much about prices on the vertical axis, both from their suppliers and for their customers. All of which could be exploited by some frugal and out-of-the-box thinking (a combo which fits surprisingly well together).

These are all three examples of durable goods. If you get into food however, even restaurants, the formula changes. But that is a story for another day.

Be a thief
Isn’t 5-forces fun? I think so. So what can we learn from this? For one, that it’s important to consider strategy on multiple axes. How will a business deal with its suppliers, its customers, its competition?

Also, it is actually a weakness to be too vertically or horizontally integrated, as that creates a certain arrogance and/or passivity towards how you deal with these parties. New entrants will eventually come, and probably on a different axis all-together. Being too integrated, means that the business has many dependancies, which will make it all that more slower to react to changes.

What I think always pays off, is to be close to customers. By constantly adjusting your strategy, so that the value proposition for customers is increased and personalised for them, you ensure a certain loyalty (which gives you time to change) and you can sense it sooner when their attention drifts towards other types of products.

A final thought. Business is very much an art-form and in art there is one great saying: “Good artists copy, great artist steal.” The copying refers to that everything has been done to a degree. People have sold computers, books, furniture, and those products are clearly fulfilling a demand, which, for now, continues to exist. Where people can innovate is in creating new combinations of things. In other words, if you copy a competitor’s business-model, you gain only the part of the market that does not already get served by the existing business-model.

If instead you steal the good parts from other business models, and create your own combinations of these good things, you can create greater value-propositions for customers than already exist. This applies just as much to combinations of five forces, as it does for anything else.

© 2018 Vincent Writes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑