Jag Venugopal's Blog

June 25, 2010

A small victory for market forces

Filed under: India — Jag @ 6:47 am

It appears that the Government of India has got out of the business of subsidizing motor fuel prices. What a novel concept, and one coming just a couple decades after the collapse of that mecca of fiat pricing, the Soviet Union. Indian motorists can now pay the actual costs of their consumption without the distortion induced by either government subsidies or government cross-subsidies.

Unfortunately, the prices of kerosene (a common cooking fuel) and cooking gas are still immune to market forces. As prices of diesel and gasoline go up in lockstep with those on the global market, expect a lot more adulteration of these fuels with the still-subsidized kerosene. Additionally, expect a lot of cars to continue to be jerry-rigged to accept cooking gas as fuel.

June 24, 2010

Don’t Like Your Grades, We’ll Fix Them

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jag @ 1:46 pm

The New York Times reports that law schools are retroactively improving students’ grades to help them find a job in this economy. I can almost see the mailings now…

Dear Mr. Jar Jar Binks,

You will be happy to know that your law degree is now worth more! We have retroactively changed your CGPA from 2.0 to 3.5. We hope this will better help you find employment. Please do not forget our endowment when your new GPA starts bringing in the big bucks. If you want further improvement in your scores from a decade ago, please do not hesitate to speak with our endowment director. I’m sure we can work something out.

Sincerely,

Boss Nass

Dean

Gungan School of Law

Sachin Tendulkar for Field Marshal

Filed under: India — Jag @ 1:10 pm
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From the old country comes the news that one of its most prominent cricketers is now an Honorary Group Captain of the Indian Air Force. Sure Sachin hits a lot of balls into the air, and with great force. But does that mean he deserves an honorary Air Force appointment? Where is the connection? Whose brilliant idea was this?

I propose further awards for the Master Batsman along these lines. A few years down the road, he can be considered for Field Marshal (hitherto awarded to the likes of Sam Manekshaw and Kodanda Cariappa, who actually fought and won wars). Better still, how about an honorary government minister right now (Cabinet rank), with all the trappings, including a white Ambassador car? Wait — he’s better than that; he needs to be honorary Prime Minister. Scratch that, let’s make him honorary President.

I’ve never heard of such absurdity in the US. As far as I know, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams held no positions in the USAF, honorary or otherwise. They were professional players who were very successful. Their fans loved them, and that’s that.

PS: The rumour out of Delhi is that the Indian Government is considering anointing Fijian of Indian origin, Vijay Singh, an Admiral of the Navy in recognition of his having launched golf balls into water hazards many times over the course of his career.

June 21, 2010

Buying an eBook reader? You’ve got some great deals available

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 2:15 pm
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Barnes and Noble has now introduced a Wi-Fi only version of its Nook e-reader for $149. Additionally, the 3G version now costs $199, a reduction of $50.  Amazon has followed suit with the Kindle for $189. Be forewarned, though, that a new Kindle is expected late in summer 2010.  

Right now, the juggernaut is Apple’s iPad which can do much more than just book reading for a pricier $500. The advantage with the iPad is that its a full-page screen and can display PDFs while retaining all their formatting. Neither the Kindle nor the Nook (in their 6-inch version) will display PDFs without “reflowing”, which totally munges the formatting. For most people that can afford it, the iPad is the better purchase — it does a lot more than books, and the screen is nice and bright, and fast.

However, if you travel a lot, and want something compact that has excellent battery life, that you can carry with you, then the devices from Sony, Barnes and Noble or Amazon are all good purchases.

June 17, 2010

More Proof of H1B Misuse

Filed under: Information Technology — Jag @ 7:00 am

A while ago, the USCIS issued what is now known as the Neufeld Memo that set out various scenarios where an employer-employee relationship existed.

This memorandum was met with much opposition from the IT “Body Shopping” industry that specializes in importing workers on the H1B visa, and subcontracting them out to various temporary positions. This is in violation of the laws because there is no job opening when they are hired; most are hired, then spend a couple months applying on job sites for a temp job. When that is over, they move on to the next temp job. Additionally, in violation of the law, such “employees” are not paid when they are between projects, i.e. on the bench.

The Neufeld memo has significantly impacted body shops’ ability to conduct business as usual. Proof can be seen in the number of filings for H1B visas in 2010, which is running lower at the same point in time than it did in 2009. One would have expected the opposite situation to be true, because of the recovery in 2010, and the consequent demand for temporary jobs.

Faced with a memo that, for all intents and purposes, destroyed the business model of the body shops, they have filed suit. It is quite possible that the Neufeld memo may be overruled by the courts on various technicalities (though in the opinion of this commentator, the reasons and rationale were sound).

It is interesting to look at some of the plaintiffs in the suit:

  • Company A has 89 H1B visa holders out of 95 employees
  • Company B employs 45 H1B visa holders out of a total staff of 50

 Now, if these firms were legitimate businesses, providing staffing to the IT industry, one would find a healthy proportion of US-based workers among their staff (Green Card holders and US Citizens). Why is it that they don’t employee either of these two categories of workers? One could argue that the business model is based on providing legal cover for imported labor, and not necessarily providing any consulting services per se. Another possibility is that wages are so poor that no one with a choice of working for another employer would prefer to work with such companies (H1B visa holders are in a period of indentured servitude until they get a Green Card; for some, this process takes over a decade).

June 14, 2010

And you wonder why newspapers are failing

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 3:44 pm

Over the last few days, there was a kerfuffle involving the New York Times and a group of Stanford University students who have written an RSS Newsreader for the iPad. Looking at the NYT’s behavior in this episode, one is convinced that newspapers (at least the NYT) fundamentally do not grasp the digital side of their business, snazzy websites notwithstanding.

The Pulse newsreader is an app for the Apple iPad that retails for around $4. It displays up to 20 RSS feeds in a two-dimensional matrix that can scroll vertically and horizontally. What’s neat about the pulse is that in addition to displaying text titles, it displays thumbnail pictures for each news article. The application won mention by Steve Jobs in one of his keynote addresses. Additionally, the NYT’s own Bits blog praised the application. As it turns out, the NYT was one of the default feeds included within the application. When the user clicked one of the NYT’s stories, they were taken to the NYT’s own side (ads and all) to read the entire article. In other words, the Pulse was driving eyeballs to the NYT for free.

That’s when the knuckleheads at the NYT swung into action. Quoting some obscure provision of their terms of use, the company’s lawyers sent Apple a cease-and-desist to prevent it from selling the Pulse in the app store. The claim was that by being a commercial newsreader, and including the NYT RSS feed, the authors of the app were violating the NYT’s terms.

The NYT failed to realize that most RSS apps are built on a commercial basis. No one builds RSS readers out of a sense of altruism. Even Google’s supposedly “free” newsreader exists because it fits in with their business model for making money. In fact, the NYT should have thanked the authors of the Pulse app for including them as a default feed, and driving eyeballs to their site. But no, they found a very nice way to create negative publicity for themselves. Meanwhile, the authors of the Pulse app are profiting handsomely from all the attention they got via the NYT.

After I read about this controversy, I paid my $3.99 and downloaded the Pulse app. I am happy to report that I am now reading the NYT’s feeds every day, in supposed violation of their terms of use.

Wysocki’s Six Project Management Questions

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 1:17 pm

Bob Wysocki’s Effective Project Management, 5th Edition states that “Project Management boils down to answering six questions…”. I’m reproducing them below (words in brackets are mine). BTW the book is a great read!

  1. What business situation is being addressed? [Business Problem or Opportunity]
  2.  What do you need to do? [Solution Scope]
  3.  What will you do? [Project Scope]
  4.  How will you do it? [Project Plan]
  5.  How will you know you did it? [Project Verification]
  6.  How well did you do? [Project Performance Measurement]

    

June 11, 2010

Kindle and the College Crowd

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 4:00 pm

Businessweek is reporting that the Kindle DX flopped in a classroom trial with college students.  I don’t think that it needed a trial to know that the product would not work in a college setting. A reasonably intelligent marketing manager should have figured it out on his own.

The current Kindle variations, as well as the Sony readers, and numerous me-too clones are all based on a technology called e-Ink. This technology produces monochrome images on a whitish grey background. The ink is formed by aligning thousands of tiny particles through an electrostatic charge.

The advantage of such e-Ink screens is that they are easy on the eyes, and are very power-efficient. There are two major disadvantages: page refreshes take very long, and there is no color yet. Both these drawbacks make it a no-no for textbook use. Students need to flip pages back and forth rapidly when they are reading or reviewing a textbook. Additionally, many textbooks benefit from color presentation (charts, graphs, etc).

A better candidate for replacing paper textbooks is the Apple iPad. Battery life is excellent for an LCD based device. The device is eminently portable. The screen is clear and legible, and in beautiful color. Page flips are fast, and so is search. Students will benefit from carrying around one light-weight device, instead of a number of heavy books. The runaway costs of textbooks can be checked by obviating the need to print and transport large full-color tomes. While the iPad is pricey, student textbooks are not exactly cheap either. Most run between $100-$200. About the only change that needs to be made is to ruggedize the device, so it can last at least two years out of a four-year program.

Publishers will likely love it because it will prevent used-textbook resale. Freed from the constraints of the paper world, they can customize content to the needs of each individual class (e.g. mixing and matching chapters, video, Internet links). And, they can sell their textbooks as either rentals or an outright sale.

Is your new iPad/iPhone a “Blood Diamond”?

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 10:38 am
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Professor Keith Murray (who BTW is dean of the Graduate Program at my Alma Mater, Bryant University) speculates on whether we can compare Apple’s latest offerings to blood diamonds. This is in light of the reported suicides and working conditions at Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn. The thought that people have killed themselves producing the goods we consume is something we find significantly disturbing. And as a result, we’ve been looking for ways to understand, and address the problem. Some of us (Dean Murray being one) seem to imply that our consumer culture forces these unfortunate occurrences. Others (e.g. Apple) have insisted that their supplier increase salaries by 30%, and have absorbed the cost.

I don’t believe we understand what is happening. We need to diagnose before we prescribe. The question is — what is causing the suicides? Is it low pay? Long hours? Lack of opportunities for socializing (most workers are migrants from rural areas according to one report)? Why did they simply not resign or look for jobs elsewhere? Given that China is booming, surely, they would have found better jobs? Also, what if the Apple-induced wage hike does not fix the suicide problem?

As I read about this unfortunate set of incidents, one thought came to mind: There is no workers’ union! In a “communist” country that declares its government to be a “dictatorship of the working classes“, it is ironic that a factory as large as Foxconn’s does not have workers’ representatives with any clout whatsoever.

One possible solution, and in fact the only robust solution I can think of, is to let employees have a voice, and form a union. And then, to have appropriate labor laws that give such unions bargaining power (e.g. recognition as bargaining representative, prohibitions against union busting, etc). The employees, through their union can bargain or agitate for what’s important to them. Western businesses and governments can pressure China to create a labor market without coercion, where employees are free to leave an employer to seek alternate employment, and if need be, to strike for better conditions. We can put our money where our mouth is — if suppliers refuse to recognize unions, we can take our business elsewhere.

Rather than tinker around with our ideas on what constitutes a living wage for a different part of the world and a set of circumstances different from ours, I would place my bets on pressuring China to ensure worker freedoms and ability to organize. And then, let the open market dictate the wages.

June 2, 2010

Lessons from Apple’s Successes

Filed under: Business,Digital Living — Jag @ 10:16 am
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When the iPad was released, I swore up and down that there was no way anyone would buy a closed system that was more expensive than a netbook and accomplished less. To say that I was mistaken was an understatement — your correspondent now has the 16GB Wi-Fi version in his gadget menagerie.
 
I set about trying to understand what would prompt millions to put down a minimum of $500 for a device that only replicates existing functionality available through PCs and smartphones. Here’s what I learned from Apple’s experience with the iPhone and the iPad. Most of the comparisons I make are with Microsoft and its Windows-based products, because they’re the closest competitors to Apple.
 
1. User experience is paramount
 
When purchasing an Apple product, the company controls the entire user experience, right from retail, through the hardware and software to the services that are sold with the device. And in each step, usability and user experience are key issues that are addressed. Each store has a “genius bar” where you can take your questions to, whether it be in hardware, software, services or content. Apple is the sole point of contact for most issues, whether they be hardware or software.
 
By contrast, with a Windows product, the user experience is a mess. In most cases, there is not a working model of the product in the store, and neither are there trained salespeople to demonstrate it. The hardware, software, drivers, peripherals and OS are all sold by different vendors. When there is a problem, much finger-pointing results. The user experience is fragmented and disjoint. The same is the case with most Sony products. The Sony outlet in Wrentham, MA has all three versions of the Sony reader available… behind glass, so no one can touch and feel the device.
 
2. What you won’t do is just as important as what you will do
 
Having a Windows PC that can run all manner of software is indeed a benefit in certain circumstances. However with the Apple iPad, less is more. They won’t run Flash. And I’m inclined to give Steve Jobs the benefit of the doubt when he states that the reason they won’t allow Flash on the device is because its buggy and a power hog. You cannot download applications from all over the Internet and download it on the iPad. Developers are constrained to use Apple’s APIs and development tools. 
 
With the iPad, you cannot develop software on it, cannot run arbitrary applications not downloaded from the App Store, and there are no USB ports for peripherals.  The mail client does not have spam filters. The Safari browser does not have any extension widgets like Firefox has.
 
In the bargain, you get a device that is very fast for what it does do. The iPad is a device that is positioned for consuming content, between a smartphone and a PC. Content includes audio, video, books, news and the web. Virtually everyone that has used it agrees that it’s great at what it does (which is limited).
 
3. You succeed by getting people excited
 
When the iPad was first released, cartoonists had a field day depicting Steve Jobs coming down like Moses from the mountain, holding an iPad in each hand, with the masses waiting for him. While some levity was intended, there was a fair amount of truth, too. Before any Apple release, people can be seen lined up outside stores waiting for them to open. 
 
Consider another data point, closer to home: we wandered into the Apple store in Natick, MA one night. My six year old son happened to try one of the demonstration iPads in the store. He immediately got excited and declared that he had to have the device. Better still, he said, buy two. One for daddy and one for me.
 
While we may laugh over the fanaticism of the Apple fanboys, we also need to acknowledge that Apple has created a buzz surrounding its products that makes eager and enthusiastic fans out of customers. When was the last time people got excited at a Steve Ballmer speech? When was the last time people lined up overnight for a Microsoft product?
 
4. Sophistication = ease of use
 
Most of us conflate sophistication with additional knobs, buttons, tweaks, bells and whistles. If something has a lot of dials and buttons, it must be very sophisticated, right? Wrong! A sophisticated device ought to be easier to use, not harder. By any reckoning the iPad hardware and software are pretty sophisticated, right down to the 3-d icons. Are they more difficult to use than, say, Windows? Emphatically not!
 
On the other hand, the complexity of Windows seems to be about the same or increasing with each release. I can’t speak for Windows 7, but with Vista, setting up a home network can be quite the chore. Much worse, in fact, than the corresponding Windows XP experience.
 
5. Build it, and they will come
 
 When the iPad was first introduced, it was derided as nothing but an oversized iPhone without the phone and camera. But if sales are any indication, the acceptance trajectory is steeper than even the iPhone’s way back in 2007. With hindsight, I believe that the reason the iPad succeeded was because it is a paradigm-changing product. It defies conventional notions of what a computer ought to be. to Apple’s credit, they had the courage to invest in a product that no one had ever imagined, much less wanted.
 
Contrast this with the Microsoft Tablet PC release of a year ago. It was a thin veneer of stylus-sensitivity grafted on to the existing Windows model, without any consideration given to improving the interface for touch. For them, the stylus acted merely as a different kind of mouse. 
 
Most products from Sony, Dell or Microsoft incorporate incremental improvements, if that. Clearly the market values innovation, and they’re willing to pay a premium price for Apple’s products and its shares.
 
6. Great hardware requires great software
 
If I were to look at hardware alone, I love Sony. They made some of the most beautiful Walkmans (Walkmen?) out there in their day. Even with the onset of digital music, they made digital MP3 CD players and Walkmans that were a joy to hold and behold. Alas, their software sucked rocks. Those that suffered through it will agree that Sony’s Connect software singlehandedly made it a non-entity in the digital music player market. Sony appears to be repeating the same blunders with its eReaders. The Sony Pocket Reader (which I own) is an amazing little device, let down by miserable software.
 
Apple’s software (on-device and on the PC) is head-and-shoulders above the likes of Sony and even Microsoft. While I find iTunes to be slow, I would rather put up with iTunes than deal with Windows Media Player any day. Within the device, there is no comparison between, say, Apple’s iPhone/iPad software and any version of Windows Mobile.
 
 7. Touch is fundamentally different from the mouse
 
HP valiantly tried to make a slate device with Windows 7, before throwing in the towel. There is now talk of selling the slate running Palm’s soon-to-be-acquired WebOS. A blogger on the web used mouse-overs as an example of why touch OS’es need to be designed from the ground up. Windows 7 uses desktop widgets such as mouse-overs that have no meaning in the touch world. Neither for that matter do numerous tiny widgets such as checkboxes, radio buttons, tabs and the like. Touch is inherently imprecise. It requires larger widgets to accommodate the size of a human finger, and it requires fewer of them. Spend a week with the iPad and you will realize that every aspect of its GUI is designed specifically for touch, and not a mouse paradigm grafted over.
 
8. You can make good money off the consumer market
 
Microsoft, Dell and HP are conspicuous by their absence in the consumer space. Sure, Microsoft sells Windows 7 and the modibund Zune, and Dell and HP sell various desktops to consumers, but fundamentally, the consumer is an afterthought for them. Business sales are their bread and butter. Apple’s recent success has showed that a computer company can make money, and lots of it, by building an entire infrastructure around consumers.
 
 9. One tyrannical genius can produce products better than a hundred mediocre saints
 
Stories of Steve Jobs’s tyranny and hubris are legion. Whether it is his abrasive late night arguments with bloggers, or his total and absolute “No” to Adobe on Flash, its clear he’s in charge. However there is no gainsaying his contribution to Apple’s success (anyone remember the pre-Jobs, Gil Amelio days?). The company has put out hit after hit under his watch. Not just products, but products with revenue streams that continue long after the sale (iTunes, iPhone fees, App Store, etc).
 
The open source movement has a number of well-meaning, equally intelligent people. Yet, not one has come up with a game-changing idea in the mode of Steve Jobs. It can be argued that this is an unfair comparison — open source contributors often work for no money. But, keep in mind, I am not looking for out of the box implementations, I am looking for out of the box ideas. The less said about Microsoft’s many managers, the better. They have done a good job of turning Microsoft into a version of pre-Gerstner IBM.
 
10. Design matters
 
Apple’s computers and peripherals are all designed to be functional and beautiful. By contrast, anything that’s available on Windows (with the possible exception of some Sony Vaio laptops) is made of black or beige plastic, and looks like it was put together by the lowest bidder. It is no wonder that consumers of Windows compatible hardware scour around the Internet looking for the cheapest components (there’s nothing to differentiate them from the rest of the pack). Apple on the other hand, sells its PC’s for 2-3 times as much. The iPhone and iPad are not cheap either, but have people lining up to buy them. No one hears of people standing in line to buy a Dell PC, a Samsung phone or an HP handheld. They’re generic. Apple stands out for its design.
 
Postscript: For an example of truly ghastly design, I present you the Aluratek Libre e-Reader.

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