Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jobs Takes a Sabbatical

Steve Jobs Out Until Summer

It's kind of hard to believe this headline, and it's really the biggest thing that happened last week. As much as I don't like playing into the cult of Apple, the implications are too enormous for me to not take a bit to talk about it.

The day before Macworld, Steve Jobs publicly stated that he had lost some weight (a fact that reporters were pointing to as a possible reason for why he wasn't giving the keynote) because of some therapy for a hormone imbalance and was clear that he didn't want to say any more on the matter. Early last week, he dropped the bomb that he was going to have to take 6 months off because his health situation is worse than they had previously thought. Other than cancer (a relapse?), I can't think of what would cause him to have to take 6 months off. While I don't respect him as much as I do Bill Gates because his personality bothers me, there's no doubt that he has already made history as a pioneer in technology and I definitely hope that he does recover (for his own health, I mean). He will remain CEO, but COO Tim Cook will take over day-to-day operations.

The Woz (Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple) has stated that what's going to be released over at least the next 6 months will have been under Jobs's supervision as Apple's pipeline is typically 1-2 years out (the size of the production pipeline for a technology company is not nearly as standard as it is in other industries, despite what the Woz says, but I would believe that Apple's is that long). You have to take what he says with a grain of salt because he's totally downplaying the presence that Jobs has in the company. In addition to being the company's visionary he's definitely one to micro-manage, although the extent of this in recent years isn't clear. Not too long ago though, he literally picked the manufacturers of their shirts and the magazines that carried their advertisements.

Some analysts have gone so far as to say that Jobs won't return, but I find this unlikely. I'm not saying that it's not a possibility, but he won't step down unless he absolutely has to. Obviously, his health is first so he won't endanger the company by being an unreliable CEO due to medical treatments and such, but if he gets better at all by June you can bet he will want to come back full-time. He's a passionate guy who I don't think is ready to retire yet. Some are saying that he could come back better than ever. In any case, I think that if he doesn't come back that Apple won't be the same company. It'll still be a great company, but it's future won't be signed, sealed, and delivered. If Jobs is truly a great manager, he's already groomed his successors to run the company competently, and I think he's learned a lot about that since he was overthrown way back when. The only thing you can't learn is the vision he's always had for the company, and I feel like it's been the secret sauce in the company. There are others who think that he's laid all his golden eggs already, but I don't know about that. I think that Apple will do well long after he leaves, but I would worry about their expanding into new territory or getting much bigger, in general. You have to give credit to the great minds they have working there though - their talent means that Apple won't be doomed without Jobs.

I have one last story to bring up on this topic: Dan Lyons (also known as "Fake Steve Jobs" for the blog he started) told off Jim Goldman live on CNBC for withholding that he knew a week before it was announced that Jobs was not in good health and yet he told his viewers that everything was just fine and went so far as to criticize sites like Gizmodo for reporting otherwise. I think Lyons was being kind of a jerk on the show, but it was right to call out Goldman: I don't think that's right. If you can't report on a story then you shouldn't lie and say that the exact opposite is true to cover your ass. I would call that unethical journalism.

Slightly More on Windows 7

If you haven't downloaded the Windows 7 beta yet and have a computer to spare for it, then you have a week yet to download it. Their servers cracked under the pressure of downloaders initially, so they've opened it up to an unlimited number of downloads for a limited time.

Ars Technica has been playing around with the beta and I like their rundown of the features because it's concise and informative. Some of the features are no surprises, like the large icons on the taskbar and the jump lists on these programs so that you can quickly access common features. They sound pretty impressed with how these things are implemented, but a new thing that I think is cool is that they've finally taken a stab at revamping the notification area next to the clock so that it's not a mass of irritating icons. Also cool, but something we knew about already, is how well it lets you focus on using two windows at a time. Anyway, you can read the article for more details, but it sounds like the biggest problem is that IE8 is unstable, which isn't that much of a problem if you just don't use IE (you shouldn't be, anyway). The fact that they even improved annoyances with User Account Control (UAC) tells me that they really did look at what users hate, which is something that I (and any Amazonian, actually) value highly: being customer-centric. Oh, by the way, it performs well, too. Some say even well enough to run on your old hardware you thought was junk in this Vista era.

I'm going to sneak in one last thing in this section: leaked screenshots from the next version of Office (I can't figure out why they're calling it Office 14 though - that math doesn't add up for me).

They're not terribly revolutionary, but I do like the improved feedback UI. I wonder if it'll run on Vista and/or XP? It'll likely be released alongside Windows 7, which means probably not before Q4 2009, at the earliest.


When will companies who make inferior products learn that being unethical doesn't pay? A blogger discovered that a Belkin Business Development Representative had been taking advantage of Mechanical Turk (an Amazon Web Service where you can pay trivial amounts of money to have people solve simple problems that are just too difficult for computers to handle but easy for people) to generate falsely positive feedback for their products, like their second-rate routers (which you shouldn't buy regardless of this scandal - they suck, Linksys routers are almost always better). The president of Belkin responded by condemning these acts and claiming that this representative was not actually acting on behalf of the company. They took down the postings (HITs) and fake reviews and he was even nice enough to say that the sites in question (Amazon and Buy.com, among them) were not responsible so they shouldn't be held responsible for them. I'm kind of surprised that there was no talk of reprimand for the cheating jerk that did all this or an investigation as to whether his superiors did, in fact, tell him to do this.

I ordinarily wouldn't talk about a story like this, but there are a few reasons why I wanted to. The main one is that I find it amazing that a blogger discovered this. Not an investigative journalist, but just some dude. And it spread fast enough to warrant people to actually take action and scar Belkin's image. That just speaks to the fact that we really are seeing a revolution in the media in that things are shifting more and more online. There are people with day jobs that are better journalists that some working at major newspapers, and I haven't see the newspapers take any aggressive actions to compete much better in this regard. Also funny, I think, is how ingrained the Amazon brand is in people's minds that they're outraged that someone would tamper with Amazon's customer reviews. They're really trusting Amazon to be responsible and the people who write these reviews and it demonstrates that retail has changed drastically. The bar has been raising by not only Amazon but several different retailers and it has really enriched the customer experience online and offline to the extent that people really care about what their peers have to say about a product as opposed to just some guy in a store. Anyway, I'm glad that this story has a mostly happy ending.

Google Cuts Back

I think that before the economy really went south a few months ago (marked by banks defaulting), the technology industry decided that they were going to weather this recession with just some minor bumps and bruises. I'd probably have even said to someone that we're not in trouble until Google starts laying off people. Guess what Google has started doing? They've cut about 100 people from HR. They've also cut contractors and temporary workers before this, but this is their first round of layoffs for full-time employees. Of course, I don't want to exaggerate the situation: this was probably just an indication that they're being responsible and not hiring as much as they have been in the past several years. This probably is not a sign of more layoffs for them, but it does show that they're being smart.

In the same day, they also decided to shut down several services including the Firefox extension Google Notebook for web clippings, Jaiku for social networking, and video uploads to Google Video, which I don't think anyone cares about anyway. Like I said before a while ago: the best way to get through tough economic times is to innovate. Part of innovating is taking a step back and focusing. For a very long time now, Google has been releasing more and more random products resulting in a dizzying array of hits and misses, but they did manage to stay ahead of the curve in a few instances. Initially, I was shocked that they felt that these products were really affecting their bottom line, but now I realize that this is simply a re-organization. They're re-doubling their efforts in the products they believe they'll be most successful in, and this is very smart. Neither of these things is about the money, it's about using their talent effectively.

I'm going to sneak in one more thing real quick into this section: Yahoo is still not really improving. They decided to hire 60-year-old Carol Bartz as their new CEO (to replace Jerry Yang) and investors were not happy dropping the stock to $11 a share.

Facebook Sacrifices Burger King Ad Revenues

This story just boggles my mind so much that I have to talk about it a bit. Burger King started an ad campaign on Facebook the week before last that I didn't talk about last week because I didn't think it was all that important, but it was very creative. If you deleted 10 of your friends you'd get a coupon for a free Whopper and they'd do the honor of telling your friends that you sacrificed these people for a burger. So the strangest thing happened: people thought this was hilarious and it seemed to almost endear people to the Whopper brand.

Facebook decided that advertising your sacrifices violated their privacy policy and they couldn't allow it. Is that not the picture of irony? The company that has exposed more and more information about their users to other users and to advertisers since its climb to fame first began over 4 years ago has decided that a creative advertising campaign has gone too far in publicizing information that's clearly a part of the tradeoff for a free burger. I didn't see a public outcry over this, especially since it was voluntary and there was no secret that people would know about these friend removals. I just can't believe how stupid they are. I'm sorry, but that's what they are. They've now sent the message that despite all the cool things you can do with their platform that they're the gatekeeper for any ideas that come close to pushing any of their policies with regard to advertising. Ordinarily, I would respect this resolve but I felt like this was the wrong situation to demonstrate it in since it wasn't a flagrant offense. Now they've endangered their business model: congratulations, Mr. Zuckerberg.

More on the Palm Pre

I didn't really have a whole lot of details on the Palm Pre last time, which was definitely the talk of CES and of my heart (I really want a phone I can love), but Engadget has been kind enough to condense most of the knowledge that's publicly available on the device now. Unlike the G1: the keyboard's keys are not flat (the keyboard is the only thing Palm ever consistently gets right in its phones) and there is a standard headphone jack. The charger for it is inductive, so no need to plug it in (there was quite a bit of this inductive charging shown off at CES, and it's just a platform for you to place a device on that charges it efficiently), which I think is a great feature for a phone (I knock mine off the nightstand quite often when it's plugged in because of on call issues). Unfortunately, there's no expandable storage, but you do get a removable battery, WiFi, and EV/DO Rev. A or 3G (depending on your carrier)!

They didn't talk a lot about the software, but they did mention that the contact syncing would work seamlessly across several sources (e.g. Gmail, Facebook, and Outlook) and there would be several touch gestures involved in navigating around. Oh, and applications for the phone will be developed in CSS, XML, and Javascript on top of system calls to Web OS specific features. I wish we had a price and a release date other than the first 6 months of 2009, but hopefully we'll get more details in the coming weeks.

Final Tidbits

It has taken me two nights already to put together this post because I've been distracted with reading new news and watching the inauguration coverage (very exciting stuff), but it was so hard to reduce the stories for this post into the bare minimum. I've been trying to keep my story count low, but some weeks it just seems impossible. Anyway, here's a quick rundown of the other stories I tagged.

While iTunes is now DRM-free you should note that you still pay a price in your privacy. Aside from being .aac and not .mp3, your e-mail address is encoded with every song. I assure you that Amazon MP3 doesn't do this.

The NSA has released their list of the top 25 most dangerous programming mistakes in 2008, which includes improper input validation (a concept I hammer on all the time), race conditions (multi-threading is hard), downloading code without integrity checks, hard-coded passwords, and many more. It's pretty much a must-read for any software engineers out there.

Obama's president-elect site (which I think is still going to be used going forward) has a list of issues that you can vote on based on the ones you care the most about, and net neutrality is one of them. Please be sure to vote this up, and if you don't know why then you must be new to my blog :) You can start by watching this short documentary presenting both sides of the issue. I feel that it's still one of the most important issues facing the future of this country and has farther implications for the whole world.

Brussels (aka Bruxelles) will be banning the sale of plasma TVs in the country due to how terrible they are about power consumption. This makes me glad that I bought an LCD - my power bill really is extremely low.

Apple has started allowing 3rd party web browsers into the iPhone app store! Will we see Firefox on the iPhone soon?

YouTube has started muting videos that violate copyright only in their background audio, which is kind of a strange approach.

I got my TiVo HD last week and I wish I could tell you guys all about how awesome it is, but that wouldn't quite be right until I get TV on it. Broadstripe blows and won't install the Cable CARD for it until February 18, so until then I can only use TiVoCast and other applications on there, which are very cool. The features in the manual and the few I can use right now on these videos are pretty ridiculously awesome. Anyway, the point is that they've released a beta version of their search that is optimized for HD TVs, auto-completes like the Firefox awesome bar, and simply offers smarter results. I may try it out myself...once Broadstripe gets its act together.

Ok, time for bed (and possibly more playing around with my wonderful new TiVo). Enjoy all the TV premieres (Lost, Burn Notice, United States of Tara, Family Guy, etc.)!


Flatman said...

Hey Elton,

I am taking a course curiously similar to your referenced EE316 from a couple of years ago. I am taking it at UTA (Arlington). Do you happend to have any notes or helpful hints/items to share? I would really appreciate it.


Elton said...

My advice is run and hide ;)

It isn't that bad, but at UT Austin it was self-paced when I took it. I heard since then that they were planing on having a teacher, so that should help things.

Part of the reason it got tough is that it was self-paced, so your brain wanted to prioritize it below your other classes, which made the end of the semester hard. Plus, the units got harder and more complex as you went along. With a teacher, they'd probably be more palatable and be better paced. Also, in the self-paced form we had to get 100% on the tests we took for each unit or else we had to do tedious homework before taking another version of the test for that unit, and had to keep going until we got 100% or failed like 5 times in a row.

My main advice in either format of the course is to stay ahead of the curve so you can ask questions earlier. If self-paced, breeze through the initial units as fast as humanly possible, and try to not to fall behind.

I don't really have any notes since I just learned from the book, but I probably would've burned them if I did =P