The Wal-Martification of Microsoft
73

The Wal-Martification of Microsoft

John Gruber’s analysis of the current state of Windows really struck a chord with me, because it reminded me of an article I read a long time ago about Wal-Mart. (I blogged about it in 2006.) Gruber’s writing about Microsoft’s declining revenue and the recent news that Apple now holds 91% of the retail market for laptops that cost more than $1,000.

Here’s the key bit:

Microsoft is no longer ignoring Apple’s market share gains and successful “Get a Mac” ad campaign. But the crux of these ads from Apple is that Macs are better; Microsoft’s response is a message that everyone already knows — that Windows PCs are cheaper. Their marketing and retail executives publicly espouse the opinion that, now that everyone sees Apple computers as cool, Microsoft has Apple right where they want them.

They’re a software company whose primary platform no longer appeals to people who like computers the most. Their executives are either in denial of, or do not perceive, that there has emerged a consensus — not just among nerds but among a growing number of regular just-plain users — that Windows PCs are second-rate. They still dominate in terms of unit-sale market share, yes, but not because people don’t recognize Windows as second-rate, but because they don’t care, in the same way millions of people buy metric tons of second-rate products from Wal-Mart every hour of every day.

The older article explains why high-end lawnmower manufacturer Snapper stopped selling its products at Wal-Mart. Here’s Snapper’s then-CEO explaining why it was ending the relationship:

“As I look at the three years Snapper has been with you,” he told the vice president, “every year the price has come down. Every year the content of the product has gone up. We’re at a position where, first, it’s still priced where it doesn’t meet the needs of your clientele. For Wal-Mart, it’s still too high-priced. I think you’d agree with that.

“Now, at the price I’m selling to you today, I’m not making any money on it. And if we do what you want next year, I’ll lose money. I could do that and not go out of business. But we have this independent-dealer channel. And 80% of our business is over here with them. And I can’t put them at a competitive disadvantage. If I do that, I lose everything. So this just isn’t a compatible fit.”

The bottom line is that Snapper could not maintain their high quality or their reputation for high quality in a market where price was the main factor in purchase decisions. It doesn’t surprise me that Microsoft’s current Chief Operating Officer came from Wal-Mart.

As I side note, I just went to Apple’s online store and saw that the 17″ MacBook Pro costs $2,499. Then I went to dell.com and built a Dell Precision Workstation M6400 with nearly identical specs — the total was $2,864.

The real purpose of Food Network
12

The real purpose of Food Network

In a long and really interesting look at Julia Child’s legacy, Michael Pollan makes the following point about the Food Network:

On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Most cooking shows are not about getting people to cook, but rather giving them the vicarious experience of cooking. It’s a pity.

Stealing a penny from every transaction
11

Stealing a penny from every transaction

Everybody has heard of the famous (perhaps fictional scam) where someone embezzles millions of dollars from a bank by skimming a penny (or even a fractional penny) from every transaction and waiting. As it turns out, this sort of pocket lining is a key component of the business model for many transaction-based businesses. For example, David Pogue points out that mobile carriers increase their profits by inserting that annoying instructional message that’s played after your personal greeting but before the beep when you get someone’s voice mail.

Check out his estimate for Verizon alone:

Second, we’re PAYING for these messages. These little 15-second waits add up–bigtime. If Verizon’s 70 million customers leave or check messages twice a weekday, Verizon rakes in about $620 million a year. That’s your money. And your time: three hours of your time a year, just sitting there listening to the same message over and over again every year.

Half of me wants to be even more alert when it comes to this kind of thing, and the other half wants to figure out how I can profit from a small surcharge on a common type of transaction.

Kirrily Robert on women in open source
3

Kirrily Robert on women in open source

Go read Kirrily Robert’s OSCON presentation on women in open source. What I find interesting beyond the basic gender issues is a cultural problem often found in software development communities — a general lack of hospitality for newbies. As the article points out, when we shut people out (either unintentionally or intentionally), what we’re really doing is limiting the scope of what we can achieve.

And we should expect to have to go to extraordinarily lengths to fix this problem, because lack of diversity is a self-reinforcing problem. Non-diverse communities generally become more and more out of touch with the things they need to do if their goal is to achieve diversity. All sorts of habits that are invisible to members but incredibly off-putting to the people who are excluded creep in. Breaking that pattern is tough, but worth it.

The current state of health care reform
0

The current state of health care reform

I have been avidly devouring everything I can on the health care debate. There are certain aspects of health care reform that I’m very strongly in favor of for selfish reasons, and for reasons of conscience, I think every American should have some form of health insurance. That said, I’m not sure there’s much point in paying a whole lot of attention to the individual bills that are being drafted.

There are a bunch of bills in the works, some better than others. When each committee has completed its bill, they’ll all be mashed up into one big bill that will hopefully be decent and will go to President Obama for his signature. I think the details are very much out of our hands right now, but public outcry will help later when final bills are submitted to the floor of the House and Senate.

That said, the bill the Senate Finance Committee is working on is certain to be terrible. And I can’t help but wonder why these guys are in charge of writing it in the first place.

Disparate impact in practice
1

Disparate impact in practice

Shelley Powers describes the hoops you need to go through to submit changes to the HTML5 specification:

The draft of the HTML5 spec out at the W3C is under continuous change, the formal Working Draft hasn’t been updated for some time, so we’re having to make changes on the run. To actually make these changes requires a degree of technical proficiency that has nothing to do with HTML markup. We’re told that to propose changes to the document for consideration, we need to, first of all, send our SSH2 public key into the Michael Smith, who will then set us up so that we can check out the existing documents, using CVS. We will then need to use a variety of tools, SVN, CVS, makefiles, XSLT, and so on, just to get reach a point that our concerns and suggestions are actually taken seriously.

And here’s the effect of the barriers:

HTML is a web document markup language. It is not a programming language or operating system. It is not WebKit, the Apache project, or the Linux kernel. Why it is being treated as such is because of group demographics. The recommended processes to work through issues are symptomatic of the fact that there is little or no diversity in the HTML 5 working group, virtually none in the WhatWG group. What we have is a working group run by tech geeks: not designers, not accessibility experts, graphic artists, web authors, not even web developers. Hard core, to the metal, geeks. And to a geek, the way around a problem is to throw technology at it; the way to filter input is to use technology as a barrier.

I couldn’t make up a more perfect example that bears out the point I was making in my post on disparate impact a couple of weeks ago.

Maker’s schedule versus manager’s schedule
5

Maker’s schedule versus manager’s schedule

Paul Graham explains on how people who make things must manage their time to maximize their productivity:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

I think that the biggest sap on my own productivity is my failure to schedule my time to maximize it. I pride myself on being accessible and unperturbed by interruptions, but at the same time I think that keeps me from entering the mental state to really get things done.

Bezos apologizes for the Kindle deletion issue
2

Bezos apologizes for the Kindle deletion issue

Jeff Bezos has posted an apology for deleting books from Kindles:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.