Category Archives: RIM

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?

Saeed

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

While this post is targeted at the innovation, funding and technology issues in Canada, it may apply to other geographies as well, particularly if you don’t live/work in technology hot spot such as Silicon Valley or Boston or Banglalore etc. This is a topic that is very dear to me, given that I currently live and work in Canada, but spent 6 years earlier this decade living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an great article in The Globe and Mail newspaper (one of Canada’s leading daily papers) entitled Canada’s innovation gap. The article, by Konrad Yakabuski, outlined what I think is both an accurate and troubling picture of the state of R&D and innovation in Canada. Here are some highlights from the article.

  • Innovation in Canada is in deep trouble. Productivity is stagnating; the manufacturing sector in imploding, and the government policy makers seem asleep at the wheel.
  • Once the flagship of Canadian high tech, Nortel is being dismantled and it’s best assets are being sold to foreign companies.
  • While Blackberry maker Research in Motion is a true global leader, and often cited as an example of what is possible in Canada, there are few if any other Canadian companies that can be held in the same light.
  • Canada’s economy is heavily resource based, and those companies spend very little of their revenues on R&D, even though they made enormous profits before the recession due to high commodity prices.
  • While Canada was moderately successful at moving from a provider of raw resources to foreign countries to a more modern economy, the last 10 years have reversed that process.
  • Historically, the  small group of elites that got rich on these resources controlled the political levers to ensure nothing changed. [Note: I personally think this still applies although not as much as it once was]
  • Innovation is the only sure way for Canada to be more productive.

I could go on. It’s a great article, and it should be a wake up call to every politician and business leader with any sense of commitment to the future and well-being of this country.

Change is a process

Change is needed on a lot of fronts. While many politicians are quick to highlight that the Canadian economy has faired better than other industrialized economies in the current economic crisis, it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge disruption in the Canadian economy, widespread layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies.

Keep in mind that billions were spent to help manufacturing companies, particularly automakers with vociferous unions, but little if any was spent or allocated to help technology companies or create environments to make investment in high-tech much easier. A quote from the article:

“Canada is not being productive because it’s not being innovative,” said Robert Brown, chief executive officer of Montreal-based CAE Inc., the world leader in aircraft flight simulators and training. “A lot of innovation occurs at the interface with the customer. But when you look at the make-up of Canada’s economy, with so much dependence on resources, there is less contact between [our biggest] companies and end users.”

I think this is a polite way of saying that there are a lot of companies that are more than happy to cut down trees or dig minerals  or pump oil out of the ground and then ship it off to some other country to be processed and have value added to it.

Aside from being innovative, Canada needs to look to add significant value to whatever industries it has. We have great R&D minds in this country, but there are problems in productizing the research and funding and scaling businesses.

My personal experience

I moved to California back in 2000 to seek better opportunity – i.e. professional and financial gain — than I could find here in Canada. One of my best friends from high school — a brilliant guy who did his undergrad at Harvard and his Ph.D at Princeton, is now a research professor at another Ivy League school, even though he really wanted to come back and live and work in Canada. He told me back in the early 90s that the opportunities just weren’t here for him. He’s a great example of the brain drain this country faces on a regular basis.

I moved back to Canada a few years ago for personal reasons and I have to say it wasn’t easy coming back. Aside from the nicer weather in California, I knew that my career opportunities would be more limited than they were there.

And trust me, there is a huge difference in the technology industry here in Toronto and that of Boston or San Francisco. Everything from the amount and quality of investment funding, to the networks of people with connections into technology giants to the breadth of skill sets of individuals, and even to the aspirations of company founders are very different.

We’ve got brilliant people

I’m not slagging anyone here. There are very bright, dedicated and passionate people here. I’m proud to know a number of them. But when it comes to goals, too often a Canadian VC or company founder sees a $50 million exit as a big win, whereas in the US, that’s on the low end of their success scale.

And that exit often means jobs moving to the US or offshore. In many cases the key people in the acquired company (the bright, dedicated and passionate ones) move down to the US to work “at corporate”, and the brain drain continues.

I don’t want to paint a completely bleak picture of the situation here. As I said earlier, there are very bright, talented and passionate people here. In fact, after I moved down to Silicon Valley in 2000, one thing I realized was that the people down there are not smarter than the people here.

But the level of investment financing, the personal networks of skilled people, the institutions like Stanford and Berkeley all provide a critical mass of infrastructure that enable risk taking and innovation on a scale we don’t really have in Canada. The infrastructure and culture there pull bright people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

The issue is not the people here in Canada, it never has been. It’s all the other business levers that innovators need to “nail and scale” their businesses to be world leaders. I personally think the co-founders of RIM (Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie) should be viewed as national heroes, on the same scale as Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe (famous hockey players for those of you who didn’t grow up on hockey!).

I’m sure Mike and Jim had numerous incredibly lucrative offers to sell their company over the years. But they didn’t. They held on, grew the company, fought off lawsuits, challenged rivals and continued to innovate and create a global leader based in Waterloo Ontario. And just recently RIM was named the fastest growing company in the world by Fortune magazine.

So what can be done to close the innovation gap? Konrad offers some solutions in his article. I’ll get more into that in part 2.  But in the mean time, I’d like to hear what you think, particularly if you are here in Canada, or are Canadian and are living/working outside of Canada.

Saeed

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

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The New Rules of (almost) Everything?

economiccollapseEvery day there seems to be a new story about the economy that spells doom and gloom. Words like “meltdown”, “depression” and “collapse” are spoken with a frequency I don’t recall from previous downturns.

Like many others, I was living in the heart of Silicon Valley during the last downturn. I was laid off from my job just days after 9/11. Talk about a tough environment to find work.

While the last downturn was focused very much on the technology industry (hardware, software, semiconductors etc.) – I still remember how much emptier Hwy 101 was in the spring of 2002 vs. a year earlier – I’m wondering if this one won’t be equally difficult for us “techies”.

Consumers and Business are hard hit

Both consumers and corporations are in financial trouble. Consumers in the US in particular because of the housing meltdown (there’s that word again), but in general because consumers have a much higher debt load (even outside of housing) than say a decade ago.

And I don’t have to tell you about the issues in business. Finance is a mess and will take time to unravel. The interconnectedness of the worldwide financial system was laid bare these last few months. Aside from the collapse of firms like Bear Stearns, nations such as Iceland, Peru, Turkey and others, who had nothing to do with the root cause of the financial problems are being held hostage because of international investment portfolios and an international credit squeeze. Iceland’s currency has dropped almost 40% against the US dollars over the last 6 months.

When entire nations are impacted so quickly and severely by, what was originally, a financial problem in the United States, it’s clear that other industries will follow.

In Canada and the US, the automotive sector is in deep trouble. In Canada, the resource and forestry industries are lining up behind the auto companies, looking for help. The housing industry is hurting, and so is manufacturing. I don’t have data on other industries, but likely they’re not immune.

Impact on Technology Companies

One interesting thing I noticed is that not yet in this downturn, and I don’t believe in the last one, did the High Tech industry go in front of government bodies and ask for bailouts or financial assistance of any kind. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any of Cisco, HP, IBM, Yahoo, RIM,  Microsoft, Google, Oracle, Siebel etc. doing what the bankers, auto manufacturers or even in recent years, the airlines companies have done and ask for money to “save” them from collapse. Yes, most tech companies had layoffs and many failed in the last downturn, but there were no cries of the industry disappearing or industry segments disappearing.

So why is that? First, let me say that my view is somewhat biased as I work in technology and thus have a deeper insight into how the technology industry functions. I don’t have that same insight into other industries. But as a somewhat educated outsider looking in, I will say that the North American auto industry let foreign car companies (primarily Toyota and Honda) take away their marketshare.

North American (i.e Ford, GM, Chrylser) vehicles are far less reliable than those made by Honda and Toyota. Toyota has out innovated other companies with the introduction of hybrid vehicles as well. The Toyota Prius has market share numbers amongst hybrid cars that are the envy of any market sector leader.

And while it can be said that American banks have lead the world in creating new kinds of financial instruments and have “innovated”, it’s also clear that they did so in many cases for short term gain. When I moved back to Canada from the US, I once again was faced with the much more restrictive financial market here as compared to the US. On one level, the lack of variety of financial instruments makes getting a mortgage much simpler, and removes risk from the system, but I’d say this same restrictiveness makes the capital markets in Canada, and particularly the venture capital markets much less open to risk and investment.

With respect to technology companies, I see one big difference. Technology companies are built on innovation and don’t have a history of government reliance (at least in North America) to get through hard times. No one ever said anything like “What’s good for <insert large technology company name> is good for America (or Canada).”

Research in Motion (RIM) is an example of an amazing company. They’ve built great products/services that have wide adoption and have fought off competitive threats from many other companies. Over the last 5 years, their stock price has been as low as about $1.50 and as high as $140. Yes, that’s almost a 100X spread. [Wish I’d bought some stock in 2003!]. And through that I don’t recall them once going to the Feds and asking for financial help.  They ran their business, made decisions to cut staff or expenses, to invest in key areas for the future and have continued to expand their business globally.

We all can take a lesson from companies like RIM. They succeed because they deliver lasting value, not because the price of the commodity they sell goes up 100% because of market speculators or temporary demand from other nations.

So what does the future hold? I have no magic crystal ball. But similar to the period after the dot-com bubble burst, there was little talk about “the New Economy” and more talk about business focus and fundamentals. I’m certain that looking forward, the same will happen yet again.

Hey, Twitter now wants to hire a PM to figure out how to monetize their service! Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. As more companies realize that eyeballs and users and downloads and hits and PPC advertising aren’t sufficient, they’ll realize they need to understand their true value to customers and users, and hire bright people, in particular Product Managers to turn their technology company into a business.

The New Rules? Same as the Old Old Rules.

  • Solve a problem that really causes problems for people.  Simply being cool isn’t enough.
  • Figure out how to make people do what they need to do easier or quicker or cheaper.
  • Help them do something new that they couldn’t do before, but always wanted to do.
  • Understand the value you deliver and communicate it to them clearly and simply.
  • Charge a fair price for the innovation and build a scalable business around it.
  • Hire smart people to help you because you don’t have all the answers.
  • Teams of smart people have the best chance of finding creative solutions to new problems.
  • Don’t forget that the next economic downturn will come way sooner than you expect so prepare for it when times are good.

BTW, as an example of really cool, but not necessarily valuable technology, watch this video. Hopefully these guys figure out how to monetize this.

Saeed

Honey, I bought the Phone. Confessions from the Cambridge Apple Store.

Alan with his iPhoneI have a perfectly good Blackberry 8200 series, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to hit the Apple store to check out the iPhone. If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know that we’ve been paying attention to this product launch.

Finally, a trip to Boston, over a month after the release, and here I am. In fact I’m writing to you from the Apple store in Cambridge right now. It just so happens that today is a big day for Apple; they are right now announcing a new iMac design, upgrades to iWeb, a rewrite of iMovie, upgrades to iPhoto, and several other announcements. The announcement is still under way, so the staff here is still sworn to secrecy, but I’ve been getting SMS updates on my iPhone from macrumors since the announcement stared about 75 minutes ago.

Yes, I bought an iPhone. I can only say this: the thing is truly sweet, a masterpiece of design in every way. Some people have made sensible comments, such as “It’s only a phone”, and I did actually struggle with why I had the compulsion to buy it. I decided this morning on my way over to the store that I would try the phone out and just see whether I *had* to have one. It didn’t take me long. When I picked it up, saw the slick unlock button, my reserve cracked immediately.

Now after a couple of hours of playing with it (I admit that I have been playing), I realize that while this is *just* a phone, it also somehow expresses something about my tastes in product design, ease of use, and just plain beauty.

Am I being overly romantic? Tell us what you think. You can leave your comment here, or send me an iChat … awarmstrong@mac.com

(Saeed, I think we know how your feel. 😉 )

Now, 12 more minutes until I find out whether they have the new iMacs in stock here.

RIM on the iPhone

In a recent conference call, RIM co-founder Jim Balsillie gave his two cents on how much the iPhone is keeping him awake at night:

I think there’s so many dimensions to the market that we’re in, that people tend to define it too specifically… I’m not really into the ‘my input mechanism is funkier than your input mechanism’. It’s really about the user experience for us. I really don’t pay attention to all these different dynamics, because it doesn’t help me with my channels or my customers any.” via Blackberrycool

That’s right. It’s not about competitors, It’s about customers. And now that Jim has my approval on his product development process, I’m sure he’ll sleep even easier.

iPhone vs Blackberry: Fight!

Read/WriteWeb weighs in, along with 97% of the blogosphere (aka 0.0000001% of humanity), on the iPhone. Specifically, the iPhone vs the Blackberry. Their conclusion: “Watch out Blackberry!” My conclusion? Get a paper bag and breathe deeply for a few minutes because hyperventilation can be dangerous guys.

This is somewhat related to product management; let’s think about some elements of user segmentation and key features. First of all, it has been reported elsewhere that for the moment you can’t get an iPhone on a corporate AT&T account. So form a purchasing perspective, the game is over. But let’s pass on that because AT&T could chage that policy easily.The keyboard would seem to be the most obvious advantage. But, a R/WW commenter says that it will be easier for Apple to add a keyboard than for RIM to make OSX. Really? Is having a OSX-like systems really a key criteria for corporate users? Allow us to reminisce about the breakout product that launched RIM onto the world stage… the RIM 850. This pager-on-steroids was the device that first earned the name “crackberry” among Wall St users. Yes, admire that gorgeous 5-line black-on-yellow LCD display. Admire the operating system that look like it was written by some upper-year computer engineering students after an all-nighter to finish an embedded systems class project. Marvel at the 512K RAM. Enjoy the flexibility of replacing its AA battery any time you want – no messy recharging cables. No hassle sync’ing over USB because there’s no external connectors at all.

Seriously, the RIM 850 is prehistoric compared to the iPhone. It doesn’t even make phone calls! And yet it is absolutely the product that launched RIM. There would be no Pearl or Curve without the 850. So what were those killer features that made the 850 the must-have item of 1999?

  1. integration with corporate email and calendaring servers
  2. a keyboard
  3. brain-dead ease of use

Three things that the iPhone lacks. It has some Exchange support, but not the tightly integrated, seamless solution that is Blackberry Enterprise Server. It doesn’t have a real keyboard. And while I’m sure it’s quite slick, it lacks the one-handed one-two-reading-my-email simplicity of Blackberry.

So while it will be the must-have toy of the next several months, Apple neither needs nor wants to supplant RIM. And RIM will lose absolutely no sleep over the iPhone.

Related: Honey I bought the Phone: Alan buys one and blogs about it.