Category Archives: Microsoft

The secret to Apple’s success?

If there’s one company that is the envy of the high-tech community these days, it’s Apple.  Steve Jobs is hailed as a genius CEO and lauded for a string of hit products. Apple’s market capitalization is over $200 BILLION dollars currently, easily ranking it in the top 10 companies in the world by market cap, and just shy of Microsoft for biggest technology company.

Everyone wants to understand the secrets of Apple’s success and hopefully emulate them. The reasons given by people for Apple’s success are many. The following are a few of the arguments made:

1. Vertical integration – Apple owns most of, if not the entire, technology stack for its key products,  and thus gives it advantages over other less vertically integrated products.

NOTE: “Vertical integration” used to be called “being proprietary” and was given as the reason for Apple’s relative lack of success against Microsoft in the OS/PC battles of the 80s and 9os. But phenomenal success has a way of changing people’s minds.

2. Making markets vs.  addressing markets – Some claim that Apple doesn’t ask people what they need but gives them products they decide they want.

Does anyone NEED an iPhone or iPad? Not really, but a lot of people seem to want them.

3. The Cool Factor – Let’s face it, Apple does make “cool” products. Attention to design and detail – fit and finish as they say – really distinguishes Apple’s products from competitors.

4. Entering markets after they’ve developed — Contrary to #2 above, some people claim that Apple doesn’t make markets but enters existing markets once they’re growing and takes  advantage of latent demand.

The iPod was not the first digital music player and the iPhone was not the first smart phone, and the iPad is not the first portable computing device. In the case of the iPad, products like the Kindle and Netbooks actually paved the way for the market to accept  small computing devices, and Apple’s iPad is riding that wave.

5. Differentiated business models – whether it was iPod+iTunes or the iPhone+App Store, Apple innovates not just on technology, but on the business model. This makes it difficult for competitors to play catch up, let alone overtake Apple once it establishes itself in a dominant position.

6. People care about the experience not technology — Apple has always been about the user experience, but for a long time, the majority of the market didn’t care about that.

The majority of desktop computer users cared about “techs and specs”.  Now the tables have turned, and the majority don’t care about the specs, they care about the experience. The iPod, with it’s “1000 songs in your pocket” motto and iTunes which radically simplified purchasing music latched onto the experience wave, and Apple has been riding it ever since.

7. Simple product offerings – Apple has a very clear and simple set of products. It’s easy to understand the differences between their products, product families and the various configurations. This makes it easy to buy an Apple product if you want to.

A lot of companies complicate things unnecessarily. How many iPhone models are there? How many Blackberry models are there? How many Nokia smart phone models are there? See the difference between Apple, RIM and Nokia?

The same is true for the iMAc, the iPod and the iPad. Granted, there are actually a number of iPod models (Nano, Shuffle, Touch etc.) but they are very distinct amongst themselves. This can’t be said for digital music players from other companies.

I’m sure there are other reasons for Apple’s success, but it’s interesting to see how much debate is happening today on this topic. What it says to me is that there is no single reason for their success. And keep in mind that Apple has had failures as well.  Notice Apple doesn’t talk much about Apple TV. And remember the G4 Cube? The 20th Anniversary Mac?  Even the ultracool MacBook Air has had far from stellar success.

So, what do you think are the reasons for Apple’s incredible success over the last 10 years?


Career paths for Product Managers

Just a quick note. I’m speaking on a panel this evening at the Toronto Product Managers Association (TPMA). The topic is Career Smarts for Product Managers. The meeting is in the usual location at Metro Hall in downtown Toronto. It starts at 6:15.

On the panel with me are David McJannet of Microsoft Canada and Lois Ellsworth of Compuware.

Look forward to seeing you there.


Keyboard “install” shouldn’t be this hard

I just installed a new keyboard. You know, I typed that last sentence fairly quickly and without thinking about what I was saying. I actually used the word “install” to refer to the action of connecting a new keyboard to my computer. Technically it’s accurate, but it implies an intricate and elaborate project, where I should just be plugging in a USB cord, then resuming work. (The dictionary example for “install” is “to install a heating system; to install software on a computer” … it’s a comment on the sad history of software usability that heating system and software installation are side-by-side examples.)

But back to my keyboard. I purchased a Microsoft keyboard for use with Microsoft Windows. Sure, it’s one of the exotic ergonomic keyboards with all the fancy multimedia buttons, but still, it has the Microsoft logo, I’m using Microsoft OS, and USB allows for pretty rich communication with and identification of devices.

So why, oh why, do I have to insert a CD, and go through a 5 minute installation program? And why, when I do, should I be forced to lift the keyboard and find the exact name of this one?

Keyboard Install

And why, after I install, am I told that I might need to restart Windows? Don’t they know?


And while we’re on the topic, I thought there was a “no restart” policy as part of Microsoft compatibility certification. Maybe that’s for Vista … and Vista probably has the drivers for this keyboard. Still, like most of the world, this machine is still Windows XP, and regardless, I don’t think a keyboard should have to ship with a CD.

Next I think I might try to install my own heating system. It might be easier.

– Alan

What’s in an icon?

elvis-presleyHave you noticed that Google recently changed its standard icon? Below are the three instances of Google’s “favicon.ico” that I am aware of.

google-favicon-1 – the Google icon used for over 8 years

google-favicon-22– take 2, mid 2008

google-favicon-3 – Take 3, January 2009

The second icon (google-favicon-22) received a lot of criticism, and I personally also disliked it. There were even firefox addins to allow you to revert to the original icon. This new icon is more attractive in my (very personal) opinion. Apparently Google has been looking for an updated icon that works better for mobile devices than its original (google-favicon-1).

Does any of this really matter? I believe it does. The Google icons represent the corporate brand and visual identity, and these have their own value. But icons are also important for usability. Apple, frequently stereotyped as being easy to use, provides a great contrary example. The icons in OS X are visually confusing, and are more useful to sell their products than they are for using their OS.

old-elvisHere are some examples. I use a Mac almost exclusively, and am at the computer for many hours most days. Despite (or perhaps because of?) this frequency of use, I struggle to quickly locate the function I need. When I am looking for an address, I need to go to the address book, and I almost always get it wrong and pick the calendar. Here are the icons side-by-side, along with the mail icon, in the “Dock” of my MacBook:


On their own, they are distinguishable, I suppose, and they also seem clever. The @ symbol is, perhaps, and update on the idea of and address, and also uses a play on the first letter of “address”. The iCal is showing a peel-off calendar, and incidentally shows the current date.

But we don’t need clever when it comes to icons. To the contrary, clever things make me think. If I am thinking, time is ticking, and I am switching out of the context of my workflow to think about the mechanics of the computer. This may seem trivial, but when I switch between apps hundreds of times per day, the time and cognitive distraction adds up.

Let’s look more closely. These icons are distracting for other reasons too. The OSX interface is certainly glitzy and shiney, and even looks yummy. I mean you could just eat some of those icons they’re so pretty. Eye candy at its best. I want to play the guitar icon used for Garage Band. Yum yum yum, strum strum strum!elvis_fat_left

It’s not just the icons, either. Look at the visuals around the icons. They “reflect” off the “Dock”, making the dock look three dimensional, and there is a small spotlight indicating that the app is open. Gorgeous!

At least so I thought when I first saw the Mac interface. It’s enticing, pretty, detailed, and intricate. Very beautiful. And yet after some use, as the novelty and beauty give way to the utility of this interface, their attractiveness becomes a parody of itself. When you see a fully-populated doc, the array of icons becomes dizzying, overwhelming, and for me, extremely hard to navigate between apps. Even when I use the “Alt-Tab” task switcher, I have to switch modes and think about what I’m looking for. I now curse these icons, and long for a more basic look and feel.


All of which is just to say that more does not equal better, and in fact, in graphical design, often less is more. Compare the icons above to the sparse, simple icons of the original Mac and Windows interfaces.

Susan Kare Windows 3.0 icons and elements

Admittedly, things were simpler in these early example and there were far fewer things to represent. But we’ve lost the ease of navigation. To cope with this state of affairs, I’ve resorted to other means of finding apps, including my favorite little app called LaunchBar, which allows me to type a portion of the name of the app, and it is invoked instantly. I should probably also clean up my Dock and include only the apps that I: use frequently.

What’s your icon situation? Do you ever consider the simplicity or complexity of your icons? Do your users rely on icons to perform tasks, and if so, have you talked with them about your icons? I don’t believe that most users would mention the icons in a usability review, but whenever you watch your users use your product, keep the icon questions in mind.


– Alan

A Not so Cuil (Cool) Launch

Cuil logoTo a decent amount of fanfare, a search engine named Cuil (pronounced cool) was launched this week. Founded by ex-Googlers, Cuil was positioned as a direct competitor to Google.

Now, the web is full of articles describing the problems encountered by Cuil and it’s users in it’s first week.

While it claims to have indexed over 120 BILLION pages, it doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Having previously worked in the search space, I know there are a few basic things that search engines need to be able to do:

1. Actually show results to common search queries

The following screenshot shows the actual results for the search terms “cuil search engine launch”

(click to enlarge)

Shockingly it came up with no results found, which makes no sense. This happened consistently, so it’s not simply a glitch due to heavy load.

2. Update your index more than once a week

Another example. Fully 5 days after the launch of Cuil, a search for the terms “cuil launch” gives only 24 hits that look like this:

(click to enlarge)

Note the complete lack of any hits related to the actual launch of the search engine itself. Not even the site itself shows up in the results. That tells me that while they may have indexed 120 Billion pages, they’ve indexed virtually nothing new in the past 5 days. Rather unimpressive, as relevancy and currency are both necessary for modern search engines. As a comparison, the following search engines have far more matches to the same query:

  • Google: 364,000 hits
  • Yahoo: 5,970,000 hits
  • Live: 248,000 hits
  • Altavista: 5,870,000 hits
  • Excite: 56 hits (not very exciting!)
  • Ask: 5460 hits

There’s a huge disparity in the numbers, but the exception of Excite — does anyone use Excite any more? — it’s pretty clear that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pages on the web that match the search “cuil launch”. Even Excite’s paltry 56 hits is more than double that of Cuil.

3. Show results in a meaningful way

Cuil shows search results in a 3 column magazine style format. This is different the the standard ranked ist of search results that virtually every other search engine provides. I’m not sure why Cuil’s makers decided to list their results this way. Do I assume that relevance is by column or by row? A search for “Ethan Alan Saeed” — I’ve got to assume that those three names don’t appear together that often outside of our blog — gave the following:

(click to enlarge)

So which are more or less relevant? Is Cuil saying it doesn’t matter? And why is Pop Matters listed first? Yes, that page has all three names on it, but other than that, nothing.

Google, Live and Yahoo all list our blog first.

4. Images should be relevant to the search

Most search engines show images in some of the general web hits. Cuil is no different. But what I can’t figure out is what is the relationship between hits and the associated images. Take the following search — “saeed khan product management” and this set of search results:

(click to enlarge)

Each of the hits above seems to relate to me or our blog, but careful inspection shows that not to be the case. For example, the third hit on the top links to this page on Jeff Lash’s site.

But the actual page, from January 2007 doesn’t contain either my first name or my last name. Odd.

The other odd thing about the page is that the images associated with each link are not from those pages themselves, or even from those domains. For example, the Contact and About Us link — second row first column — has a prominent picture of someone. First of all, that image is not on that page, check for yourself here, and secondly, that picture is not a picture of me, and it is certainly not Ethan or Alan.

In fact, it is a picture of an Australian politician named Saeed Khan. No relation to me or our blog at all. As I look across the results on that page, it is clear to me that not a single one of the images has any relation to the link it is associated with.

My final thoughts

It’s hard to believe that Cuil was launched with such fanfare, yet so prematurely. One has to wonder why? Did someone or something force their hand to launch earlier than planned or was this simply an example of a really bad launch. The name is odd, and misspelling it — or — takes you either to a parked domain or a domain that focuses on (ahem) “parking“.

But aside from that, the various problems with the site could have been alleviated by using a simple 4-letter word: BETA.

While product success certainly depends on the product, it depends even more on setting expectations and ensuring that users and customers know what to expect when they use it. There’s no good reason why Cuil couldn’t have slapped the word BETA on their site, as Google is won’t to do for new services — and thus set expectations accordingly.

Another thing they should have done is not position themselves as a direct competitor to Google. Taking on an established and dominant competitor out of the gate, like conducting a land war in Asia, is a bad strategy.

They should have followed the axiom Nail it, then Scale it.

Let’s see how they recover from this.


Can’t we all just get along?

Having just finished a post recently defending Microsoft PM Scott Buchanan from the overwhelming force of the Cranky PM’s vituperative volley, I came across another scathing salvo from Tom Grant at Forrester.

I have to give Tom credit for two things though:

  1. He does clarify that the role of Product Manager at Microsoft is more like a Marketing Manager with outbound focus.
  2. The title of his post “Crankiness vs. Perkiness–FIGHT!” is one of the better titles I’ve seen in a while on a PM blog

But, Tom does get on Scott’s case for not being technical, pumping his fist when reading email, and having a Zune. You can read Scott’s original Business Week profile here.

In the Business Week article, written by Scott himself, he writes:

On my first day at Microsoft it took me 30 minutes just to find the latch to open my laptop…

Her Crankiness also fixated on this point, using it as evidence that Scott was somehow unfit for any job that had either of the words “Product” or “Manager”, let alone both, in the job title. Chill out a bit folks. That line is obviously a bit of self-deprecating humour.

Tom is critical of Scott’s youth stating:

He’s a bit too young and naive to blame him for doing anything but what his new employer asks him to do.

Tom also focuses on Scott’s line that his job is about “unlocking value” in Microsoft Office. Tom writes:

Use Scott’s own description of his job, “unlocking value,” you need a deep understanding of both the tool and the problem to help people understand how to use one to fix the other. If Scott lacks the technical skill to understand the tool, and he’s not devoting a lot of time to understanding the use case, then how exactly is he going to help people “unlock value?”

Give the guy a break. It’s a bit of a leap to jump from a self-deprecating line about technical aptitude, to the conclusion that he lacks the skills to understand Microsoft Office. This is Microsoft Office, not SQLServer or IIS that we’re talking about here.

I have nothing against Tom or Cranky, or Scott for that matter, but I’m really surprised at how quickly the PM community openly attacked Scott. Is that how we should be treating each other? Is that going to better our profession?

Sorry for being on a high horse, but let’s work towards a common good vs. tearing each other down.


What’s in a name? A PM by any other name…

The Cranky PM has gotten herself into a big snit over a Business Week article about a day in the life of a “Product Manager” at Microsoft. Among other things, the PM, Scott Buchanan, a recent grad of the Kellogg MBA Program, says that he’s “not technical“, and that it took him “30 minutes just to find the latch” to open his laptop. He also describes his role as “all about unlocking the value” in MS products, specifically Office which is his area of responsibility. He states:

My job is to develop strategies and tools that make the job of deploying and adopting our software as clear, simple, and inexpensive as possible.

Cranky takes this poor soul to task, decrying at the end of her post “They call this guy a Product Manager?“:

The Cranky Product Manager calls bullshit. This guy is in post-sales, not PM. What, do they give out Product Manager titles like they are soy sauce packets in Redmond? To fist-pumping morons who can’t even open their laptops? Something tells me he wouldn’t make it through the Google interview process…

So a couple of things. While the CPM has the right (in fact an obligation given her persona) to be Cranky — she once wrote on this very blog — “the CPM’s blog is ‘The CRANKY Product Manager’, not the ‘I-Love-Everyone-And-Everything Product Manager.’ — this time, it’s not really warranted.

As some of the comments by readers of her post have stated, Product Management at Microsoft is really more outbound and marketing focussed. In fact, Microsoft defines Product Management on their website:

As a Product Manager, you have the freedom to run your own business and the resources to make a global impact. The ideal candidate possesses excellent marketing and business analysis skills, well-developed strategic thinking, and the ability to communicate and coordinate with a variety of product development, marketing, sales, and business development teams.

Note the complete lack of any need for “technical” skills.

Now contrast this to Program Management at Microsoft, which is probably more like what Cranky views a Product Manager should be:

Program managers are customer focused, working to ensure that the products Microsoft produces will delight users and enable them to do their best. Program management is also an opportunity to flex technical muscles: your technical decisions and direction are what drive products and features through to completion.

Note that they are “customer focused”, and their work and products should “delight customers”. Seems more like the traditional Product Management role, though more technically focused than in some companies. I think that MS’s Program Managers are really Technical Product Managers, and their Product Managers are more like Product Marketing Managers (in my view of what TPMs and PMMs do).

Regardless of the names, Microsoft has defined and used these roles for many years in their organization. Google, as another example, has a different view of the PM role.

In the end, unlike in the movie Highlander, there can never “be only one” definition of a product manager in a technology company. Some will be more business focused, some more technical. The objective for the larger PM community is to ensure that the business community understands the role and value of the Product Management function and for us to continue to define and hone our profession.

On that note, take a look at this series of articles that I wrote on the subject, and Adam Bullied’s post entitled “The Product Management Manifesto“.


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