A Wikipedia a Day Keeps Facebook Away

 

Seeing the stat that Facebook users in the US are spending 50 minutes per day on the service, I can’t help but recall Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus.

From my own review:

Cognitive Surplus starts with a potent historical parallel and an astonishing data point. Early 18th century England had a “Gin Craze” as the population tried to anesthetize themselves against dramatic social changes accompanying the industrial revolution. Shirky asserts television has played the same role over the last 50 years, absorbing the vast preponderance of free time in the developed world: “The sitcom has been our gin, an infinitely expandable response to the crisis of social transformation”. He takes a little time to catalog television’s pernicious effects, and makes the point along the way that the asymmetric dynamic between broadcasters and passive audiences of the 20th century media was an anomaly that isn’t going to be reinstated on the Internet any time soon.

The astonishing data point arises from a television producer’s reaction to his relating the story of Wikipedia: “Where do people find the time?” The impolitic answer of course is Wikipedia’s creators aren’t watching television. Shirky estimates that Wikipedia is the result of on the order of 100 million hours of work by a vast number of participants. This seems staggering until he puts it in context: Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year and “we spend roughly a hundred million hours every weekend just watching commercials.” That tees up the book: there is a vast collective cognitive surplus available to be harnessed if we can just turn off the television. What happens when billions of couch potatoes begin to participate, create and share collectively?

With 173 million daily active users in the US and Canada, 50 minutes a day means 8.65 billion aggregate minutes a day or over 144 million hours, i.e. over a Wikipedia a day. And closing in on TV with over 50 billion hours a year. Never mind the rest of the world.

So “what happens when billions of couch potatoes begin to participate, create and share collectively?” Humanity’s noblest hopes are no match for cat memes and an echo chamber of clickbait.

And then there is the mystery of declining productivity growth. I’m sure it is just a coincidence that Facebook was founded right about at the 50 year peak in productivity growth and it has been all downhill ever since.

Book Review: Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble

Dan Lyons’ “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble” is laugh-out-loud funny in places, as one would expect from Dan, creator of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, comic novelist, and a writer for HBO’s Silicon Valley. But it is also an unexpectedly personal and serious book. Dan doesn’t just lob one-liners from the sidelines, but frankly chronicles his own missteps on a not-very-successful journey of personal reinvention from career journalist to marketing professional at age 52. Along the way he raises some uncomfortable questions about the technology industry.

After being “unceremoniously dumped” as Newsweek’s technology editor and a brief stint editing an economically unsustainable website, he joins HubSpot, a Boston-area marketing automation company. As Dan notes, “Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better, either.” As if to compensate, his new employer has made “changing the world” its mantra. HubSpot turns out to be the Platonic form of the wanna-be tech company, amping every inane startup trope to 11 while neglecting the actual technology part (the company makes mediocre software with which to spam prospective customers). Most of the humor comes from simply holding a mirror up to its management (or lack thereof), “the Cult of the Orange People” culture and “adult kindergarten” workplace trappings, all of which the New York Times succinctly describes as “self-satirizing”. The excerpt in Fortune captures a lot of this.

My vote for the funniest part is the chapter about attending the Dreamforce conference and realizing that as over the top as HubSpot’s marketing antics may be, they are but a pale east coast imitation of Salesforce:

“There’s an art to this kind of horseshit, and Benioff is its Michelangelo.”

“Now, here in the Moscone Center, the P. T. Barnum of the tech industry is giving a master class in how the game is played.”

“Sure, Benioff is full of shit, but so are we, and Benioff is way better at being full of shit than we are.”

(Note to Dan: don’t rule out Salesforce as a future employer. Seriously).

Wrapped within that tortilla of humor, the book contains two meatier critiques of the technology industry, with HubSpot as poster child but hardly the only offender. One is labor practices that both exploit younger workers (who seemingly are easily distracted away from the size of their paycheck) and cast older workers in a remake of Logan’s Run, with no discernible happy medium between. As a guy who was twice the age of the average employee at HubSpot, Dan experiences the ageism firsthand (plus the CEO of HubSpot is dumb enough to advocate it in a New York Times interview). He also takes aim at tech companies that never make a profit yet whose founders and early funders do extremely well, even if no one else does. “Grow fast, lose money, go public, get rich. That’s the model.” While the book has precipitated some discussion about tech’s treatment of both the young and the olds, not so much for the second topic.

But the book has become a circus unto itself, beyond the one featured in its pages. Fulfilling every author’s wildest promotional fantasy, HubSpot executives evidently tried to obtain a copy of the manuscript before publication. This led to the CMO/co-founder being fired by the board, the CEO “reprimanded”, another executive quitting before he could be fired, all with a chaser of an investigation by the FBI. HubSpot utilized a tone-deaf PR strategy of stonewalling that will surprise no one who has read the book, only allowing that there was “some fishiness” and “really aggressive tactics”. The FBI characterized those tactics as possible extortion and hacking, although they ultimately didn’t press charges. Dan has yet to get an explanation of what they tried to do to him and wonders whether he missed some bigger malfeasance HubSpot was worried would be uncovered in the book.

Reactions to these events have added to the spectacle. HubSpot sympathizers and Boston tech fanboys rallied around the company and basically acted like the Patriots fans most of them are (i.e. the type who would loudly maintain Tom Brady’s innocence – and deity status — even if he were convicted of multiple felonies based on incontrovertible evidence and a full confession). Outside of Boston, VCs who never miss an episode of Silicon Valley were disdainfully harrumphing on Twitter that they had no plans to read the book. How dare he mock these noble entrepreneurs busy changing the world? Struck a little too close to home perhaps, but it underscores the need for an alternative playbook for those companies that aren’t, in fact, “changing the world”.

I’d retain at least a modicum of sympathy for HubSpot and the ridiculous company they have created except that even after all this they’re still out hyping their culture and belief in “radical and uncomfortable transparency”. No acknowledgement whatsoever — much less explanation – of how that vaunted culture led to executive dismissals and an FBI investigation. Or how to reconcile their stonewalling on the whole episode with that deeply held commitment to transparency.

Ballmer vs. Chambers: A Corporate Cage Match

Amidst adding Cisco to Dinosaur Row, I asked someone “If Steve Ballmer got run off by Wall Street, how does John Chambers still have a job?”

Both are/were long-tenured, non-founder CEOs of two of the biggest technology companies. Both have presided over erosion of prior dominance during the course of the 21st century, even as revenues and profits kept growing. Neither has been shy about making sweeping calls about the future, yet their predictions have stubbornly refused to come to pass. Both found themselves increasingly reacting to rather then driving key industry trends (although Ballmer will eventually get credit for not missing cloud computing, which is coming for Cisco, even as Chambers continues to ply ye olde enterprise playbook in response). Ballmer’s tenure as CEO began January 1, 2000 while Chambers took the CEO chair in January 1995.

I’ve related this story before, but Steve was acutely aware of the consequences of taking office almost exactly at the top of the dot com bubble. He would bellow, not proudly, that “I’ve lost more market cap than any CEO in history”. After a couple years, he could amend that with “Thank god for John Chambers”.

Lets look at their performance during their shared tenure (January 1, 2000 to February 4, 2014). Revenue and profits are generally up and to the right, but stock performance is negative – presumably their future performance was already priced into the stocks. Microsoft’s total return is better with all the dividends, but still in the red over Ballmer’s tenure.

Total Return: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft -15.3% vs. Cisco -56.8% )

CSCO Total Return Price Chart

CSCO Total Return Price data by YCharts

Market Capitalization: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft -49.7% vs. Cisco -68.2%)

CSCO Market Cap Chart

CSCO Market Cap data by YCharts

Revenue Growth: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft +333.5% vs. Cisco +156%)

CSCO Revenue (Quarterly) Chart

CSCO Revenue (Quarterly) data by YCharts

Profit Growth: Advantage Ballmer (Microsoft +175% vs. Cisco 75.12%)

CSCO Net Income (Quarterly) Chart

CSCO Net Income (Quarterly) data by YCharts

Bigendian Suit: Advantage Chambers

John Chambers, chairman and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems

(A picture of Steve in his red v-neck sweater — or worse, forthcoming Los Angeles “America’s Team” Clippers garb — is omitted as a matter of common courtesy).

Now you may say “but lets look at Chambers’ full tenure”, as he assumed the big boy chair five years before Ballmer. And you’re welcome to do that, even in our what have you done for me lately culture, but the record is uglier than that of the much derided Microsoft (I won’t even start digging up all those acquisitions everyone has rightly forgotten about). Will Chambers declare victory and head for the exits before the future pain becomes more evident at Cisco, or will he overstay his welcome until the hounds of Wall Street start baying for his head? Stay tuned. And then we can have a discussion about whether Cisco’s next CEO should be a product guy or another sales guy…

Dinosaur Row

IBM’s cloudy predicament is now widely understood.

BusinessWeek made IBM’s existential crisis a cover story (a concept that doesn’t really exist any more if you read the publication online):

Bloomberg Businessweek (US)

Forbes then called out recently departed IBM CEO Sam Palmasaino for his financial engineering shenanigans with “Why IBM is in Decline”. Cringely went one better with the full Gibbon in his new book “The Decline and Fall of IBM”.

To which I say, welcome to the club!

IBM employees have been crawling out of the woodwork over the last year to defend the holy EPS roadmap (even as Wall Street tells them “um, you might stop the financial engineering games and optimize for survival at this point”). While I have listened patiently, not a single Big Blue booster made an argument based on their product portfolio or confidence in their ability to innovate or adapt. They have a bad case of assuming past performance guarantees future survival.

The most compelling argument I heard from any IBMer was “Well, at least we’re not HP”. HP is in a similar situation as IBM, except a few years behind. On the plus side, HP has less software legacy (there are positives to not being a software company period). I’m waiting for HP to buy Rackspace as their SoftLayer-like “Hail Mary”, except paying more and doing it a couple years later due to the need to rebuild their balance sheet “autonomy”. But a wise man once told me “life is too short to work with HP”, so enough about them. Unlike some other vendors, I don’t think anyone really cares whether HP make the next transition or not.

The storm clouds of creative destruction blow not just in Armonk and Palo Alto. Things also look blustery in San Jose, home of another dinosaur: Cisco (or as I like to call them, “the IBM of networking”).

Cisco has many parallels to IBM:

  • Revenue has plateaued and oscillates between flat and down.
  • Competitive threats abound including fundamental technical and economic disruption.
  • They can’t innovate and have relied on buying R&D for even longer than IBM and to a greater degree.
  • Lots of acquisitions that haven’t had much discernable impact. One can argue IBM has done better with its acquisitions, where they at least milk the installed base for revenue even if the acquired products go immediately into maintenance mode.
  • They have lost the leading edge customers who prefer to build their own switches or rely on other vendors.
  • Their biggest customers may face an existential threat by continuing to rely upon them, facing competitors who don’t have that legacy dependency.
  • Their core competencies have shrunk to browbeating the press (and watch the press pay it back that the dam has finally broken on IBM after years of oppression) and manipulating Wall Street expectations (revenue only down 5.5% – it’s a beat!!!).
  • They are dismissive of the threats they face (a la “it is early days for cloud”) and take their survival and market position for granted.
  • Their product efforts focus on trying to pull innovation back into the old way of doing things (see Cisco’s ACI, which kind of misses the whole SDN point).
  • They believe they can play with the big boys in cloud but on a bonsai budget. Cisco’s Intercloud is another “multi-year, one billion dollar investment” in cloud capex that amounts to about six weeks of Google’s capex spending.

Cisco is flailing all over the place when it comes to communicating their strategy:

  • Competitive bluster and/or schizophrenia: they plan to “crush” VMware who is “enemy number one for Cisco” (but also maintain this SDN thing is not a big deal…). Yet VMware doesn’t even make their slide of competitors today or in 2018, when it seems they plan to compete exclusively with the cream of the late 20th century NASDAQ:

Cisco competitors prediction

  • Misdirection and/or distraction: “Hey, look at this $14 TRILLION dollar market over here. It isn’t just the Internet of Things, it is the Internet of Everything!” I’m a big believer in the Internet of Things (hold the “Every”) but am hard-pressed to understand what Cisco is going to do to capture any disproportionate part of that. Cisco’s IoT executives are so impressed with the opportunity they keep bailing out.
  • Safety in numbers: they would like you to believe their challenges are not unique to Cisco, but plague the whole “industry” (aka Big Old Tech with no appearances from the companies taking share). John Chambers forecasts “brutal” times ahead and provides this handy chart by which to track his self-selected cohort’s misery:

Cisco Chambers Keynote 5 Tech Revenue

Cisco picked the right peers with HP and IBM (aka Dinosaur Row), but Microsoft and Oracle are in a different class as I am sure this time series will prove out over time. We’ll be tracking the “Chambers Chart” going forward.

Small Blue and the Bonsai Datacenter

Bonsai by Andreas D., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Via Flickr

IBM today announced new datacenter investment plans to bolster its cloud computing presence. They’re going to spend $1.2 billion to build 15 new datacenters (seen above, lower shelf). After some consultation with the Twitterati on matters of long division, it appears IBM is going to spend a whopping $80 million per datacenter. That may sound impressive until you consider that the big boys in cloud can spend half a billion or more per datacenter. Google’s most recently reported quarterly capex was $2.29 billion.

Perhaps IBM is has some special sauce that lets them go toe-to-toe with the big boys on the cheap? If so, they haven’t bothered to mention it and they’re not known for their low costs or frugality. I for one am disappointed IBM has stifled its usual impulse to pitch the mainframe as the obvious choice for the workload de jour. Surely there is a story to weave about cloud computing bringing the industry back to its timesharing roots, blah, blah, blah, mainframe uber alles? Or maybe they’ve beaten their heads against that wall enough to knock some sense into them.

In the absence of special sauce, it seems more likely that IBM is either confused about what it takes to play in the big leagues and/or lacks the financial resources. They continue to confuse cloud computing with web hosting. Do they really believe their Amazon depositioning is relevant or is it just an attempt to muddy the water? What does IBM say when Amazon utters the letters C, I and A? IBM also has real constraints on their ability to invest due to their prioritization of financial engineering over engineering engineering.

I will offer IBM some free consulting for their next big initiative to help them come up with some differentiation and a storyline beyond how much money they are going to spend. What are the odds that they find themselves budgeting a billion dollars for almost every initiative? (The way we knew they had given up on AS/400 was when their grand revitalization initiative was only backed by $125 million). “One billion dollars” has been the only page in their marketing playbook for a long time. Had I more time and dedication to the cause, I would collect all the “one billion dollar” announcements and assess their subsequent market impact. Because this is capex (and because it isn’t a round billion dollars), the $1.2 billion number is probably a real number unlike most IBM investment numbers. But there is at least one real billion dollar number for IBM and that is their Q3 revenue miss.

Various evergreen belittlements aside, IBM seems to have woken up to the reality of cloud computing and the existential threat it poses. The “it is early days for cloud” speaking point seems to have been retired. They’re overreaching and flailing around with announcements and advertising. but are at least trying to get into the discussion. But they still face an extremely difficult road. IBM’s ability to develop technology (the engineering engineering thing) has atrophied (“SmartCloud? Just kidding…”) and letting others do the technology development is risky (e.g. taking an OpenStack dependency in the absence of controlling your own destiny is looking a lot riskier). And IBM is operationally unproven across multiple datacenters. It is easy to needle AWS for outages, but another to avoid outages yourself. The real question is would anyone notice an IBM outage. Finally, IBM is constrained financially relative to the competition.

Many financial observers assume that because IBM is one of the few technology companies to have survived multiple generational technology transitions, they will successfully traverse this one as well. Past performance is definitely no guarantee of future survival in technology and IBM’s past transitions are notable exceptions to the broader industry history. And this transition is different in that the workloads in play are core workloads for IBM. With the minicomputer and PC transitions (the later of which was near fatal to IBM), the workloads in question were mostly net new and didn’t directly replace mainframe workloads. The cloud is taking core workloads, so even if IBM executes well and moves existing customers to its cloud, they will take a revenue and margin hit.

IBM is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they accelerate the move to cloud, they will undercut their existing business and miss their sacred financial roadmap. If they don’t, everyone else will partition up their existing business. Maybe they can thread that needle, but IBM has not shown any reason to believe they can successfully catch up to and compete with the leaders in cloud computing. Bonsai datacenters show IBM wants (or needs) to compete on the cheap.

A Dispatch from Cloud City

A few end of the year observations from Cloud City (aka Seattle):

Cloud City, Bespin by TK769

Image via TK769

Cloud Infrastructure

  • AWS remains a beast. Yet a chink in their armor is emerging…
  • Azure has become the clear challenger to AWS. The much maligned Mr. Ballmer is not getting credit for Microsoft’s embrace and execution on cloud. Unlike most of its cohorts rooted (mired?) in previous generations of technology, Microsoft is well on its way to making the cloud transition.
  • Despite very strong technology and an impressive operational footprint, Google Cloud Platform is still a hobby for Google. They are as yet unwilling to make the necessary non-technology investments to really compete to win here.
  • Private infrastructure clouds just aren’t happening – instead enterprises are both getting more comfortable (surrendering?) with public cloud and continuing to invest in virtualization (VMware obituaries were definitely premature).
  • OpenStack’s identity crisis is warranted. Without a credible ecosystem of OpenStack-based public cloud providers and little enterprise private cloud adoption, the OpenStack bandwagon is left providing ingredient technology to the industry itself, which doesn’t really need what the vendors are selling.
  • Rackspace’s OpenStack bet outcome is increasingly clear: they may not exit 2014 as an independent entity. They should have invested up the stack in higher value services like Amazon, not down (and to add insult to injury, I’ll wager their VMware business still is bigger than their OpenStack business). They’ve lost over half of their market cap this year. While they still sport a premium multiple, the overall trend is towards a SoftLayer kind of valuation which could put them in play for acquisition by the kind of legacy vendors who confuse hosting with cloud (isn’t HP out telling the world their balance sheet has finally recovered from Autonomy?).

Cloud Platform

  • PaaS is still a zero billion dollar category, but could PaaS end up being the level at which enterprises implement private cloud? I see more traction for PaaS than IaaS in the enterprise.

Big Data

  • In the absence of a strong set of customer successes, I think Hadoop may be spending some time in the trough of disillusionment. The challenge is not filling the data lake, the challenge is extracting meaningful and material business results from the lake. It is a data science problem far more than an infrastructure problem. How long will it take to transition to a Hadoop 2 that is robust, deployable, performance, has ecosystem support, etc.?
  • I continue to be amused that Google is so far ahead when it comes to big data that it is a material disadvantage for them. They get dismissed as proprietary while the rest of the industry is enraptured with Google’s technology from two generations back that has been awkwardly laundered through Yahoo.

What else is happening below the clouds on the ground?

Dinosaur Down: IBM’s Q3 Earnings

Scene: Armonk, New York

The earnings release speaks for itself (love that typeface – they must still do press releases on a Selectric typewriter in the IBM museum), but a few comments:

A billion dollar (as in $1,000,000,000) miss on the top line. Everything in varying levels of freefall, led by the swan dive of the hardware business (Power Series down 38%!). After a decade of the consistency so prized by Wall Street, that is three misses in a row for IBM and six straight quarters of declining revenue. Yet they beat their EPS number (modulo “other stuff”) and recommitted to the EPS roadmap for the year. Somehow, profits keep going up even as revenue declines (key contributor: a materially lower tax rate).

The earnings release in a nutshell: “Growth markets revenue down 9 percent”.

Cloud is starting to bite IBM and as I have noted, they lack a relevance amidst generational change. The company made some more detailed yet meaningless claims about cloud revenue. As with Q2, “cloud revenue up more than 70 percent year to date” but with no definition of what constitutes cloud (last week they were out making a distinction between “cloud-enabled” and actual cloud services). They did break new ground and say “$460 million is delivered as a cloud service” which presumably is mostly SoftLayer. Most glaring, IBM still doesn’t seem to have any material customer references, either in terms of the cloud technology being consumed or in terms of business impact.

IBM’s fundamental problem: they supply those being disrupted by technology, not those doing the disrupting. Today an IBM dependency can be an existential risk.