Subba’s Serendipitous moments

July 27, 2009

When intuition outsmarts rationality

In October 2001, a fire crew was fighting a fire in a disused bingo hall in Leicester in the UK. Even though it was big, the fire chief decided it was safe enough to send the crew into the building.

They were starting to make progress in knocking the fire down when the fire chief decided something was wrong, and ordered his team out of the building. The team protested, unwilling to give up the progress they had made. But the fire chief insisted and as they exited the building it exploded in a massive fireball. If the decision to evacuate hadn’t been made the entire team would have been killed.

It turns out that the fire was one of the rarest and most dangerous phenomenon in firefighting – a backdraft. The fire chief had never experienced a backdraft before, he just knew that something was wrong and they needed to get out. In the ensuing investigation it turns out there were three things that were unusual: the smoke was more orange than usual, air was rushing into the building rather than out of it, and the fire was unusually quiet. The fire chief was right in his decision, he just didn’t know why at the time.

Well, all is well, that ends well.

But let’s take a moment and reflect what could have happened to the same event in a different set of circumstances. Assume that the fire chief was not the decision maker but he had to refer the decision to his boss.

There was clearly no evidence that something unusual was underway and that the teams were in disagreement with the fire chief. The teams were actually making progress and were engaged in a great endeavor to put out the fires. Normal rational thinking would have demanded that the boss would overrule the fire chief. The firemen would continue to fight the fire and the entire team would have been killed.

An investigation would have ensued and the decision would have been termed as rational and the whole thing written off as a terrible tragic accident.

July 25, 2009

Singapore’s research institutes — suffering from split personality?

Is there a synergy between advanced technology R&D and standard training to mid career professionals so that they could garner yet another certification?

Or is it merely a case of making some revenues to cover their costs?

Or worse still, is it a way for the R&D institute to do some “notional national service” when there’s no local company to use the outputs produced by the R&D organization?

The strategies adopted by Singapore’s R&D institutions especially in the IT sector has always confounded me. The latest one is the Data Storage Institute and while on the one hand they claim they do cutting edge research, they are also offering standard training courses which can lead to industry certification (SNIA).

The milestones listed doesn’t talk about any breakthroughs in research or development but merely administrative or routine events. Has DSI lost it completely?

Well as an organization, sure they have resources to do both, but should they be doing both in the first place?

The data storage industry has changed significantly over the years and if DSI doesn’t find a clear and compelling reason to exist, they should redirect their strengths somewhere. It seems to me that there’s a huge disconnect between their areas of research and the aspirations of the local industry. The result — it is research for research sake and if at all there’s any benefit, it is for the MNCs who in any case can source such research from anywhere in the world.

This leads to the question — Does DSI have a compelling reason to exist?

Long timers in Singapore would possibly recognize that the Institute of Systems Science or ISS as it was popularly known had always a confused identity– It was a research institute, training institute, did consulting projects and many other things. It used multiple identities to its advantage sometimes, but despite being given dollops of dollars, it didn’t produce anything outstanding — be in in research, consulting or training. Finally it divested its research activities and became a training service provider. It does provide good training, but the courses it offers can be provided by any training service provider in the private sector.

Looks like DSI is going the same way as ISS?

Sometime back I wrote that Singapore’s research and development needs a rethink. It led to several interesting discussions amongst friends and quite a few work in the R&D sector. The surprising thing is that they do agree that it needs a rethink.

So, when will this happen?

The iPhone’s game changer — Analysis and questions!

Enough has been written about the success of the iPhone. It’s been truly a game changer. Some recent statistics will help us keep the success in perspective.

In the first weekend after launching the 3G iPhone Apple sold 1 million phones. Compare this when Apple sold 6.4 million units of its first generation phones in one full year after launch. Based on some preliminary analysis, the gross margins for the 3G phones are above 60%. Currently the iPhone 3GS (16GB) is priced at $199 and the 32GB model at $299. Well, one can expect some price discounting, but even then the margins are pretty healthy.

If the device has been a runaway success, the App Store with over 65,000 applications and about 1.5 billion downloads has been another game changer, much in the same way the ITunes store bolstered the sale of iPod devices.

Apple has only a 3% market share of the global cellphone sales, yet it actually actually accounts for 35% of the entire industry’s operating profits. A Deutsche Bank’s report actually states that before the end of the year Apple and RIM may have a combined market share of 5%, yet account for 65% of the industry’s profit.

In contrast, Nokia the market share leader has been struggling. In the most recent quarter it reported a 25% drop in sales and a 66% drop in earnings. The company has lost over half its value in the last 12 months. Clearly the company has failed to respond adequately to the threats of Apple, RIM and Google’s Android.

There’s nothing noteworthy about Sony-Ericsson, Samsung or LG. Motorola has clearly lost the game. HTC and Palm are new players in the game and their future will be determined in 2 years time.

What’s equally amazing to me is how numerous Japanese companies like NEC, Sharp, Panasonic who make excellent cellphones have largely confined themselves to Japan and never seized the opportunity to go global. An excellent analysis of this phenomenon is covered here. The analysis is interesting (recommended reading) and highlights the fact that as the underlying ground shifts from hardware to software, the Japanese companies may be found increasingly wanting compared to the iPhone and Android.

In hindsight, everyone knows that Apple created a game changer. But hindsight is 20/20. And everyone who’s studied Apple over the years would say that this was a replication of the iPod/iTunes phenomenon.

The key thing is not just a great technology wrapped in a cool design as most people believe it to be. I believe that they took a great technology and wrapped it in a great business model. It was truly a business model innovation redistributing the billions of dollars of value.

But here are some of the questions for which I am keen to hear views:

  • Did Apple see the weaknesses of the incumbents and then develop the complete business model? Were they prescient about the future course of events?

  • Were the incumbents (Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony) too lazy or unimaginative with their competitive responses even when news got around that Apple could announce a iPhone?

  • Did Apple’s innovation with the business model, technology, and its eventual success laid bare the inefficiencies of other players?

  • Is a consolidation in the mobile phone industry imminent in the next couple of years? What are the likely scenarios?

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

July 6, 2009

Understanding competition — the Bill Gates way

I thought that I had analyzed the levels and degrees of competition fairly comprehensively. In fact, I have used that as an organizing framework to understand competitive advantage.

Recently a friend of mine sent me an excerpts of an interview with Bill Gates when he was still the CEO of Microsoft which makes interesting reading.

Flying on the Delta Shuttle with Bill Gates 12 years ago, Richard Karlgaard– the Editor of Forbes asked Bill, “What Microsoft competitor worries you most?”

“Goldman Sachs.” Richard gave Gates a startled look. Was Microsoft about to try the investment banking business? “Software,” he said, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future. I don’t worry about Lotus or IBM, because the smartest guys would rather come to work for Microsoft. Our competitors for IQ are investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.”

Getting the brightest bulbs to work at Microsoft has always been his obsession. It’s paid off. But what about now?

The best and the brightest want to work for companies like Google and Facebook. Microsoft seems to be losing the talent war. And does that explain why Microsoft has not made any ground shifting move in recent years yielding that terrain to Google and others?

Microsoft is caught in a classic dilemma of its own making. Its major revenue and profit streams continue to be Windows and Office which needs to be defended at all costs against young new attackers. Now will the smartest guys want to work for a organization where they would have to defend legacy or want to take a crack at changing the world?

The answer is obvious.

Unless you are a Singapore government scholar who has no choice but to work in the Singapore civil service because of the scholarship bond that you sign when you are 18 years old.

July 1, 2009

Social network for Government 2.0

Government 2.0 is clearly gaining momentum. I just stumbled on a social network platform to discuss government 2.0 initatives. GovLoop is the Premier Social Network for Government 2.0 connecting over 12,500 Federal, State, Local, Academics, and Good Contractors.

This is what I call tapping the wisdom of the crowd something that I have been strongly advocating. Some prefer to call it crowdsourcing.

The U.S. Government’s dashboard — Elegant and simple

After Vivek Kundra launched the open access to U.S. government data he has now launched a new U.S. government dashboard that tracks the U.S. government spending.. This tracks government spending with charts and lists ranking the largest government contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, etc.) and assistance recipients (Department of Healthcare Services, New York State Dept. of Health, Texas Health & Human Services Commission, etc.). Well, the site design is neat, user friendly but what took my breath away was the way the various trends that were displayed. Certainly they got inspired from gapminder.

This site has been built on Drupal– a open source content management software.

This clearly shows that the U.S. leads in transparency and even the Governments can innovate if they have the right leadership.

I strongly suggest all the Government CIOs visit the site.

Which other government will follow next?

Australia launches Gov 2.0. Will Singapore follow?

Another major country with pronounced democratic traditions and openness has set up a Government 2.0 task force. They rightly describe the opportunities that current technology provides, The current change in media behavior and habits is again seen as an opportunity not as a threat. The enthusiasm is clearly visible and the charter for the task force is clearly ambitious and could serve as an inspiration to other governments.

Many of the points made resonate strongly with me and I have written about it here and here. I only hope that Singapore also embraces this and does it soon.

I call it the inevitable path, because if people in government don’t wake up, the citizens will find some methods of forcing it to happen.