Distractions distractions distractions

Google messaging, youth soccer and focus

Last week, Google announced it was retiring Allo. Allo was one of their messaging apps. Google has more messaging solutions than anyone on the planet and they don’t seem to get it right which is interesting given the platform leverage they have with Android. How hard can it be to build something like iMessage? Especially since all Android users have a Google account anyway.

It reminded me of a story from a long time ago. I was around 10 or 11-years old. As a good Dutch boy, I was in a soccer team with the local club. One day I was bored waiting for my next game and looking at an under-6 game. They play 4 against 4 on a quarter field with mini goals. The person next to me looked at me, smiled and said: “Watch what happens next.”. The soccer field was next to a train track. A minute later a train passed. This attracted the attention of the under-6 players. They forgot about the game altogether to watch the high-speed train swoosh by. You’ve to understand that these train a bright yellow in The Netherlands and more interesting to these kids than the game they were playing. And yes they do keep score in The Netherlands but parents are asked to behave.

I think back of that moment often when I encounter situations where attention is diverted due to lack of focus or clear goals. You can’t fault the under-6s for losing attention, but for everyone else, it’s a good indicator that there’s a lack of focus and goals.

Nobody doubts that Google has the engineering and design talent to build a Slack, Whatsapp or iMessage competitor. With Android, Google has the perfect platform to become the defacto standard and certainly a major player. Now they’re pushing RCS which is a GSMA standard. In essence, it’s enhanced SMS texting. As with any GSMA standard, it gives full control to the carriers. This means you’ll have to wait a decade or more before it works reliably. Remember MMS? The first spec arrived in 2004. It’s still not 100% reliable across carriers. Did I mention RCS does not support end-to-end encryption?

Throwing in the towel

Microsoft’s change to a Chromium-based browser is a major win for open source

Last week, the news came out that Microsoft is replacing their web browser Edge with a chromium-based version. This is excellent news for open source. Chromium is an open source project headed up by Google but is used by myriad companies and projects like Electron and Opera.

Open source makes more efficient software development possible. Regardless if it’s a community-driven project like the Linux kernel or a company-driven project like Chromium. Chromium is spearheaded by Google but it’s not a win – or loss – for Google. It’s a win for everyone involved. By pooling resources in software development and making it open source, we create an open environment where innovation can foster while we save money and time for everyone involved. The value created by the participating people is shared with the world.

You’ve to understand a bit of the history of web browser development and especially web browser engine development how we got here.

It all started with KHTML and KJS which was the browser and javascript engines developed by the KDE project – an open source desktop environment – back in 1998.

Then Apple forked the code, cleaned it up for code portability and ported it to OSX in 2001. It became WebKit with WebCore and JavascriptCore. Even though Apple released the code back as open source, they weren’t cooperating or participating with the community. They just did what they had to from a licensing perspective.

In 2008, Google adopted WebCore – as part of WebKit –  for their first release of the Chrome browser. The open source version of the browser was called Chromium. Chrome itself is based on Chromium with some closed source components like Widevine DRM which allows video streaming digital rights management for sites like Youtube and Netflix among others. The browser came with a new Javascript engine called V8.

Then Google forked WebCore and created the Blink web browser engine. Both V8 (for Javascript) and Blink (for web rendering) are still used today and actively developed as open source. They form the basis for Chromium, Chrome and most alternative web browsers like Opera. It’s an active open source community with proper governance. Google leads but is cooperating well with the other participants.

I think that Apple and Google realized is that the value created on the internet is not the browser engine. They understood that browsers are part of the infrastructure. Infrastructure investments work better when they’re shared among the participants. Think of it as roads. It’s kind of silly if UPS, USPS, and FedEx all would build their own roads. The internet infrastructure is much the same. With open source, we’re doing the same thing with software. The Linux kernel and all its operating system components have changed the world because of it. Most people in the world own at least one device which runs on Linux.

Open source software is the next step of the information technology infrastructure. I’m happy Microsoft is joining. It’s a win for everyone.

It’s not always fair

Reducing risk in insurance pools

When you talk about insurance, you talk about pooling risk with a group of people. That’s the essence of what insurance is. The insurance industry has always been creative in reducing the risk in their pool. There are in general two options to reduce risk:

  1. reduce the risk of your existing pool of customers
  2. raise the quality of the risk profile of applicants

The first one could be a free smoke detector with your home or renters insurance. The faster you can detect the fire, the faster it can be put out and thereby limiting the size of the claims.

The second one is more controversial. You focus on a particular group of people who have inherently a lower risk profile. Because of that lower risk profile, you can entice them with lower policy rates. The problem though is that the insurance pool is dynamic. Inherently, if some company acquires a large group of people with lower risk profiles, it will automatically increase the risk profile of the people left in the pool. That ultimately translates into higher rates and that’s not always fair and has unfavorable outcomes. The people who need it the most get shut out of insurance because it becomes unaffordable.

You see this dynamic clearly in the US health insurance market. ACA insurances are terrible – expensive given the limited coverage. The pool this insurance is targeting are the leftovers. It’s one of the reasons that universal health care works better – especially for something for which there’s a universal need.

One of the interesting aspects of the US lending market is that age discrimination – plus race, color, national origin, marital status or sex – is prohibited. Now insurance is not federally regulated and nothing of the sort exists for insurance products. Each state has their own rules. There’s an opportunity to make insurances more universal by law. One could be just that anyone can get any insurance regardless of their background. It would lower the rates for most and increase the rates for some, but in general, we find ourselves on both sides of the table in our lifetime.

We’re not all the same

Personalized product ratings

Nowadays everything is rated. Products are rated on Amazon, TV is rated on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, venues are rated on Yelp and Google Maps and even our cab driver has a rating.

Often though I feel like the ratings do not reflect my personal experience. It makes me pause when I look at ratings in general. Can I trust them? Do they reflect how I would feel about it? Sometimes I go down the rabbit hole and actually read the reviews left by people and then I get even more confused.

To give you a few examples. I look at the 4-star rating of the Amazon Show, but I would not give the product more than 2 stars. Or with IMDB, sometimes I love a movie which has 3 stars and sometimes I dislike one which has 5-stars.

Ratings are great and helpful but only to a point. It’s very much a filter bubble of the audience of the platform and not necessarily a good reflection of your or my personal taste.

I wish that ratings could be personalized to my own expectations of a product.

College timewaster

Retro gaming: Duke Nukem 3D

This was one of the favorite multi-player games in college. We played this is so many times. Besides the great fun playing the game, it had these funny quotes (spoke by Jon St. John). For instance this one – it still cracks me up:

The gameplay held up pretty well given it is over 20 years old. It’s still fun to play.

Your data is out there

Control your personal data

This week Quora got hacked and the account information of 100M users was exposed. The week before Starwood admitted they were hacked for several years and details of an estimated 500M people were exposed. And then there were the hacks of:

  • Yahoo (3B accounts)
  • Equifax (143M accounts)
  • JPMorganChase (83M accounts)
  • Anthem (80M accounts)
  • Target (70M accounts)
  • Evernote (50M accounts)

Just to name a few. It’s safe to say:

  1. Your information is out there
  2. We’ve a major problem

Routinely companies ask for sensitive information and often they need that information. Just think about the HR department of a small corporate who collects SSN info and health care benefits data. If companies this large get hacked, you can bet that these smaller companies get hacked too. Worse is that they probably don’t even realize they are exposing that data. The problem is that as a consumer you’ve no choice in the matter, you’ve to share your data to get access to services.

I don’t think we’ll ever solve the problem that companies get hacked. We might be able to improve the situation, but it won’t make the problem go away completely.

The question is more what we can do to mitigate the need to share sensitive information with companies. Or at least put me in control of how my data is used. Why can’t I link my SSN and its activity to my email and let me approve transactions before they take place? At least, it will give me control. I can’t keep the information from leaking, but I can keep it from being abused.


Ad revenue isn’t really a lot

Would you pay 2 cents to read an article?

I’ve been using ad blocking for a long time. I wrote about that in an earlier post. I do realize that media companies need revenue and journalists need to be paid. I was wondering how a page view actually brings in revenue-wise and found this interesting analysis.

If you do the numbers, a page view brings in up to 2 cents per page view. That’s really not a lot of money. If you read 10 articles a day, it’ll cost you $6 / month. That’s less than half of what I pay for my subscription for the Economist.

Brave is trying to tackle this problem with Basic Attention Tokens (BATs), but it’s still early days. Blendle is doing the same with micropayments per page view – their average costs is 10 – 20 cents per article. It’s very expensive, but they do offer premier news and publishing outlets and they’re worth more than a buzzy article by HuffPost. 10 articles per day would set you back $45 which is just too much. The cost here is creating friction. Do I really want to read that article? You don’t really want to make that decision.

I think media subscriptions services for music and TV have determined that $10-15 / month is a good price point here in the US. And that’s for all you can eat.

There’re rumors that Apple is trying to launch something similar like Blendle but with a fixed subscription fee. We won’t know until it launches if it ever launches. Their live TV subscription never materialized either.

I do hope for a future where I can switch off my ad blocker and still have a good internet experience. I’m open to pay for that – please take my money.

An important driver for success

Who wants you to win?

An important driver for success is if you can answer the question who wants you to win? This is especially important when you’re disrupting existing industries and markets. Sometimes it’s the customer like and sometimes it’s your suppliers.

Here are a few examples.

Google Android won because the industry wanted to offer a smartphone which could compete with the iPhone. Most phone manufacturers did not have the in-house talent or organization nor market share to go at it alone. This was the time that Microsoft could step in and offer an alternative. But they had none. For Microsoft, it is too late now and they’ll never be able to get a foothold in the mobile operating system arena. They’ve tried but it is impossible to build an ecosystem like IOS and Android from scratch. The only option they have is to go down from desktops to tablets and keep pushing Windows into smaller form factors. They certainly have a great position on the desktop which they can leverage to get into tablets. It certainly looks like this is the current strategy at Microsoft, but it’s going to take them a decade or more to get back even if they can succeed.

Google is doing the same with Google Chrome where they are moving upwards to the desktop. Chromebooks are a success because of their price point and simplicity. Removing the burden of the Windows tax – both in licensing cost, hardware requirements and software complexity – enables manufacturers to offer better and lower priced laptops compared to those running Windows. OEM laptop manufacturers can reach markets which they barely could reach before.

Of course, it all started with netbooks. Initially many of these netbooks came with some version of Linux. It was a brief rise of for Linux on the desktop but was ultimately replaced with XP because Linux proved to be complex and user unfriendly and Microsoft acted quickly to defend their position by offering the even then aging OS Windows XP for super low licensing fees to netbook OEMs. Netbooks didn’t survive because of the introduction of the tablet and problematic form factor. Chromebooks basically took over that market.

Linux did win on the server market and now runs the majority of servers connected to the internet. Linux won because it came without licensing fees and was in many ways technically superior – less mature but more than secure than Windows back in the day. Servers are typically ordered without operating systems and relied on admins for that. Nowadays we just spin up a server in the cloud and choose our operating system from a drop-down. Admins and technology companies wanted Linux to win because it reduced cost, more secure and better performance. Now the ecosystem around Linux is so mature that Microsoft has a feature called Windows Subsystem for Linux which is a compatibility layer for running Linux binaries on Windows. Microsoft used to warn their customers not deploy Linux because the GPL license under which Linux was distributed could pose significant risks to protecting the intellectual property of the organization. Linux has come a long way, even in Microsofts mindset.

The success of iTunes can be attributed to the fact that the music industry saw their revenue plummet because of the free MP3 sharing services like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire. They had no idea how to offer an alternative online for their offline products. Steve Jobs offered them a great option with iTunes. The industry quickly rallied around the iTunes store not only by offering (part) of their music catalogs on iTunes but also helping in promoting it as a legal alternative for online MP3 sharing. Ultimately we ended up with music subscriptions and a decade before revenues of the music industry increased again in 2016. But the reason Apple could successfully launch the iPod with iTunes was that the music industry wanted Apple to win.

It’s often better to work together than to fight, but to cooperate they need to want you to win.

A16Z’s view on Insuretech

Managing risk and uncertainty

If you’re into insurance and startups, this is an excellent presentation by Angela Strange from a16z. In only 25 minutes – and without speaking like bat out of hell – she gives a great overview on the opportunities and challenges of starting a company in the insuretech – interestingly enough she doesn’t use that term once in the whole presentation.

Here’s the presentation:

It ain’t done when it’s done

Little things

A few years ago, I bought a car. I had a great conversation with the sales guy and the whole experience was very pleasant. I got to test drive it and we discussed a couple of things which were wrong with it and they would fix them. At closing, I asked if they could put on license plate holders without any markings on it. It’s a personal thing, but I don’t want to drive around with free advertising for the dealer. After a couple of days, I picked up the car and the sales guy was happy to see me. We had a short pleasant chat and then he asked me to pick up the plate holders from the parts desk. I was a bit confused by that but did as asked. He had them set “aside” for me. I went over and they gave me my plate holders. They were exactly as I wanted them. And then they charged me $39 for them.

I picked up my car and never went back to them. My car is maintained somewhere else.

The moral of the story is that little things matter. Overall the $39 was peanuts compared to the sales price of the car. It wasn’t even worth debating over, but it did set a tone which made me choose another dealer to maintain my car. I’m typically a very loyal person to a business. If you treat me well, you’ve a customer for life. If you don’t, I couldn’t care less. I think this applies consciously or subconsciously to many transactions you do. The transaction doesn’t end when the signature is on the paper and the money has exchanged hands. It’s a continuous effort to get someone’s business and do the best you can.

The first transaction with a new company like in this story is the most critical. You’ve no creds as a business with this customer. If this would’ve happened to a dealer I’ve been doing business with for years, I would’ve said something. Now I let it go, I’ve nothing to lose. I’ve no relationship with you and I rather spent my effort on building one with someone else.