Strategies for a discontinuous future.

Consulting & advisory, research notes, in the press, about bubblegen,
next wednesdays.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

The Post screams that Rogue Prescription Deals Undermine U.S. System

It's an interesting article about how the relative strength of US regulations and prices open up the market to a massive 'grey market' for arbitrage, but the way it's pitched is so alarmist it obscures how the economics and strategy of the pharma industry make 'grey markets' like this inevitable.

-- umair // 11:54 PM //


Here's an NYT article about how George Gilder made it, lost it, and is now making it again.

I've never understood the Gilder phenomenon. Stock tips aside, read a couple of sci-fi books and you'll get a far better idea of the future than guys like him peddle. On the financial side, guys like Gilder never understand market dynamics and strategy.

Now, he's looking at South Korea, and claiming it as evidence of his 'telecosm' theory. Note to George: broadband in South Korea is pretty amazing. It's also massively subsidized by the state, since they figured that it was a natural monopoly that the market would have little incentive to maintain, and massive incentive to squabble over for years. Now that's understanding market dynamics.

-- umair // 11:42 PM //


How are the telcos responding to number portability? By using massive price competition embedded in long-term contracts to raise switching costs and generate lock-in. This is bad strategy for four reasons.

First, because it's so predictable. Second, because it denies exactly the value proposition consumers want telcos to create - low switching costs through number portability. Third, because tactics like this reduce the incentives for firms to engage in strategic innovation - trying to lock customers in means the market can't tell you what kind of revolution it wants, so you can never create it in the first place. Fourth, it opens you up to disruption - because you're too busy trying to maintain lock-in.

How do firms become 'evil'? By not addressing technological discontinuities or shifting consumer needs, and letting their strategies decay. Here we have a prime example.

-- umair // 11:40 PM //


In case you were wondering, this is what living in the third world is like. It's not just Zimbabwe - the majority of the world actually lives closer to this reality than the blogosphere's reality.

Not to hark back to my World Bank days or anything.

-- umair // 6:26 PM //


Innovation: The Bass Station. Computer + wireless hub in 80s boombox. I want one.

CEO's wish their design departments were this cool. Oh, wait - they are. They just never listen to them.

-- umair // 6:22 PM //


There's a fascinating thread on Slashdot discussing whether Baystar Capital's $50 million infusion to SCO was in fact a PIPE bought by Microsoft.

I have to admit that this is a cool possibility - when I looked at their site yesterday, I didn't notice that all they seem to do is PIPEs. Nice catch by the poster that noticed it.

I don't think it's possible that they may have done a PIPE deal in the traditional sense. Here's why:

PIPEs are financial instruments that allow firms to invest in other public firms, but do so privately. Most of the time, the instruments used to structure the PIPEs are custom-made convertible securities, which can have some nasty features.

They're mostly used in risky situations. They let capital get raised fast - but there's often a price. The fact that a firm has to resort to PIPEs means that other (primary and secondary) markets for it's debt and equity have dried up. So it has to sell a stake now, at a discount, and often, with a further embedded discount. The embedded discount takes the form of the convertible security, which often has provisions to maintain it's value nonlinearly with regards to the company prior debt and equity - so investors in the convert are ok, but investors in other securities aren't, if the firm begins to tank.

Here's an old Herring article explaining more about one kind of PIPE from a few years back:

"They work like this: investors buy heavily discounted preferred convertible bonds from the company. On the surface, there's nothing untoward about that. But with a toxic convertible, the investor includes a "reset" clause in the contract. Bonds then convert into shares based on a dollar amount instead of converting to a fixed number of shares. Thus, the lower a stock goes, the larger the percentage of the company that ends up in the PIPE investor's hands".

What they mean is this:

"The conversion price in a structured PIPE, however, is either variable or contains a re-set mechanism that automatically adjusts the conversion price downwards (i.e., allows the investor to acquire more shares) if the market price of the company�s common stock falls below the conversion or re-set price fixed at the time of issuance".

Now, SCO is currently trading at around $20. It's trend has gone nowhere but up for the last few months. So I don't think they need to resort to the PIPEs market for cash. The stock price and trend alone tell us that the market doen't want to provide SCO cash at a discount (PIPEs) but have in fact bid up the opportunity to provide it cash. So SCO should be able to go to try private placements of debt and equity first, try the regular old debt and equity markets second, the converts market third, before it needs to resort to structured PIPEs.

The only kind of 'PIPE' SCO would go for would be a vanilla convert, with no embedded contorl clauses or differential payoff.

Update: It looks like I may have been right. Here are the terms of the deal:

"The SCO investors receive nonvoting Series A preferred shares, convertible into common stock at a fixed conversion rate of $16.93 a share. That was the average closing bid price for the company's common stock for the five previous trading days prior to closing the deal".

So if it is Microsoft, it's certainly an expensive way to hold a private placement, because it costs the same as a PIPEs deal, but has none of the advantages. Why not just use the beancounters at your local friendly i-bank?

-- umair // 4:50 PM //


Speaking of evil corporations, AMC is showing They Live, which is one of the greatest evil corporation movies ever made (or one of the cheesiest movies ever made, depending on your point of view). If you haven't seen it, watch it.

They're also showing Colossus: The Forbin Project. Which is an old cold war classic about game theory gone amok. Not to mention the fact that it's incredibly well directed. Not to mention the fact that the main characters are giant robots with cheezy vocoder voices.

-- umair // 4:24 AM //

Friday, October 17, 2003

If you want to really get into the Enron story, you could start here. The general collection is here. This kind of transparency is why America is the greatest market in the world - it's pretty mindblowing (if a case of too little, too late).

-- umair // 9:55 PM //


Here is an absolutely phenomenal Economist piece by Shiller about how technology creates mechanisms driving winner-take-all markets, creating a need for people to risk-manage their lives - their incomes and careers. Stunning - read it!

-- umair // 7:17 PM //


TJ points to Tech Review's new predictive market for 'innovation' - really for funding. Interesting idea. Markets are going to be a major innovation driver of the next few decades, and are going to be used for what they're really good for - not just allocating resources, but transmitting aggregate information.

-- umair // 6:45 PM //


I'm working on an RSS feed - soon hopefully.

-- umair // 6:09 PM //


The Economist talks about the death of the PDA. Argues that the industry needs to blur it's boundaries if it's to succeed - add phone functionality, at the very least. I think they should go even further - and aim to create a whole new set of discontinuities for the mobile industry by using cheap disruptive technologies.

-- umair // 6:04 PM //


eBay scam of the week.

But I think, at the risk of sounding kind of dumb, it might have some insight for evil corporations. This scam is in essence many corporate strategies.

Take, for example, the 'food' industry in the US. Their strategy is to strip out (costly) nutritional value, and replace it with (cheap) taste value. This is just what Jean Baudrillard said would happen - you are, in essence, buying a simulation of the food, not the food itself.

(Via LinkFilter)

-- umair // 5:55 PM //


You see, it's articles like this that highlight some of the problems with the tech industry today. It's about CRM, and tries to analyse what's worked and hasn't. The problem is that while some of the micro-level stuff is OK - massive learning costs, ROI - the macro level is totally overlooked.

That's the strategic side of the argument, or at least it should be. Is this technology a strategic fit? Can it/will it support our strategy? When questions like this go unasked, technologies get bought for the wrong reasons, and a backlash results - like with CRM.

-- umair // 5:47 PM //


Ha ha! The Economist grabs management lessons from the mafia. Nice one!

-- umair // 5:36 PM //


Interesting article detailing how no number portability created massive switching costs. Also good to review before the change happens, to see what kind of tactics the telcos will use to let number portability really happen - or not.

-- umair // 5:28 PM //


Everyon'e calling the new VoIP ruling a landmark decision.

"In a 22-page opinion released Thursday, Judge Michael J. Davis of the district of Minnesota wrote that VoIP provider Vonage is an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service" and therefore exempt from state regulation".

This is not a landmark decision. Legislation is a favorite tactic of the telcos, and VoIP is far too strategically threatening to them for them to let it go like this. Remember, the appeal to authority is a tactic that can reach a lot of powerful regulators - courts are just one of them. It can also take many different shapes and forms. This battle is going to go on for a while.

-- umair // 5:18 PM //


Versign CEO thinks that the core infrastructure of the net should be in private hands. I pretty much always argue aginst private-sector control of natural monopolies here on bubblegen, because once the firm grabs control of the monopoly, it has no incentive to ensure quality, or even maintain the network itself.

Think about it this way: the reason I haven't updated here in a day is because the place I'm staying while I'm here in Washington has a cable connection by Cox. The connection dropped for 24 hours - and Cox had no incentive to fix it, since they have a natural monopoly. They know they have me by the balls, essentially, since I need a cable modem (for now).

A lot of people are worried about the government making the net into a DRM deathstar where DHS ensures you have no privacy. I think the opposite is true: letting the private sector run the net almost forces them to monetize it ways that are extremely damaging to consumers, because monetizing it in the first place will be very difficult. In short: private-sector net is a really, really bad idea.

Statements like this should really scare you:

" Are you looking to monetize DNS lookups?

No. That base level of DNS (domain name system) response is an obligation we took on when we inherited that contract. But it would be commercially unreasonable for anyone to suggest that we shouldn't be allowed to build incremental services on top of that if they deliver value."

-- umair // 5:03 PM //


NYT editorial with the problems with the economics of the 'war' on drugs - by one of the people most affected.

-- umair // 4:59 PM //


You know, we are slowly seeing a paradigm shift in value creation and redistribution with commission-based business models like this. These models are radically different in the boundaries they set between consumers and 'the firm', and also create an ecosystem around them with completely different incentives than the one the traditional firm does.

This is the kind of the thing the net really enables, because transaction costs (despite the 'mental transaction costs' argument, which makes no economic sense) are very small - markets really are essentially frictionless. If you think about it, economics argues that neither micropayments nor e-commerce will really work, because of problems like adverse selection and massive substitution. But the economics of this model are pretty good - I think there's a very bright future for models like this.

-- umair // 4:41 PM //


The FCC is going to rule whether HDTV's must come with a decoder for a 'broadcast flag' or signal that tells the TV to disable digital recording of any TV show with the flag.

Who's pushing the rule? The TV and film industries of course. Will the bill pass? My guess is yes. What does that mean for piracy? Nothing - the provision only blocks digital recordings- so the 'analog hole' is still wide open.

Not only that, but whatever decoder system is put into place, firmware hacks will probably be made widely known by many firms themselves - because replication is a key part of HDTV's value proposition. This is exactly what happened, of course, with Macrovision's idiotic region-protection scheme for DVD's.

-- umair // 4:31 PM //


Interesting post on Slashdot notes that one of the investors behind Roxio was Baystar Capital, who've also just pumped $50 million into SCO. A quick look at Baystar tells us it's run by ex-ibankers, my favorite target. Why don't these guys understand why Roxio and SCO are bad investments?

Because they don't really get the way strategies play out differently in tech markets than they do in traditional ones. That's why they think legislation and other heavy-handed tactics are going to work - whether it's Roxio or SCO we're talking about, the strategic outlook is the same: power=profits. Unfortunately, in tech markets, it often doesn't - just look at Sun.

-- umair // 4:16 PM //

Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Lord of the Dance Strikes Back

Michael Flatley is starting a company, Cygnus, to disintermediate TicketMaster in Vegas.

"'I think we can have 20% of the Las Vegas market in the next two years, and that's a $500 million market in terms of annual revenues,' he says".

Let me take a moment here to apologise to Michael for all the times I laughed at him so hard that I thought my stomach would turn into the singularity at the end of the universe. He actually has a decent strategy to challenge one of the most insidious monopolies doing business today. Let's face it, someone needs to kill TicketMaster.

Hitting them in their strategic center ought to at least wake them up.

Just goes to show how innovation happens completely out of the blue sometimes.

-- umair // 4:28 PM //


The Reg thinks the Sony Music-Intel alliance is a big deal.

"The deal the two firms announced will see the two co-operate to bring Sony's content to Intel-based PDAs and cellphones. The pair will create applications that run on Intel's hardware yet leverages Sony's content".

"That processor is due mid-2004, and has been described by its maker as enabling an "Xbox in a phone" experience".

Umm. I don't think this is such a big deal - unless you're Motorola. But they've got bigger problems. This is just a simple tactic in line with Sony's larger strategy. And possibly an example of Sony Music trying to find it's place within that strategy.

And I take the hype about the chip with a big grain of salt.

-- umair // 4:02 PM //


Article about parallels between Edison's strategy and the RIAA's. Basically, control standards, and IP to establish a dominant design, and use regulation to lock it in. I think this analysis is a little naive, but some of the points about alienating the market are well taken.

It's also important to note that Edison's markets WERE fundamentally network (or virtual network) markets, so externalities, path dependence, and early-mover advantages WERE a legitimate way to establish a dominant design.

The music industry is NOT inherently a network market. The economics are not network economics. Just because it uses the Net as a distribution channel doesn't make it so - something that techie analyses like this always miss.

One of my coolest profs always used to make a great point to illustrate the power of standards and a dominant design: a lightbulb from the 20s stil screws into a standard socket today.

Now if Edison's strategy was entirely a 'mistake', as the article argues, that kind of staying power is a bit tough to explain.

-- umair // 8:22 AM //


Siebel is trying to acquire it's way out of strategy decay. It's buying a hosted services provider, and a compensation tracking firm. Note to Siebel: you can't buy a strategy. If your resources and competences are eroding, build new ones strategically - don't just go on an acquisitions spree.

At the point of strategy decay, acquisitions usually are more trouble than they're worth - because of the coordination, integration, and compromise costs that go into making them work.

-- umair // 7:48 AM //


As if on cue, Sun's CTO appears to back up one of my points from yesterday: the microprocessor as we know it won't exist in 10 years - everything we think of as the PC will be subsumed by the processors (and more).

"The things that we call computers today will become components," he said. "The Net will become the backplane".

'The Net will become the backplane' !!! They should have cast this guy in the Matrix.

-- umair // 7:42 AM //


Tom Taulli argues that new ventures shouldn't count on the old innovator's dilemma anymore, since corpocracies have learned to innovate.

"If anything, Microsoft has a sterling track record of quashing disruptive technologies. The history of tech is strewn with its victims: Novell, Netscape, Spyglass, Stac and so on".

Umm. Two things:

1) There should be a Godwin's Law for biz tech articles making their point with refs to Microsoft. It should officially mark a descent into meaninglessness. Note: you can't prove anything meaningful from analysing one data point - especially when it's the biggest outlier in the population. Call it Haque's Law from now on.

2) I am officially marking the publication of this article as the trough of the innovation cycle. Corporations haven't 'learned how to innovate' - it's just that everyone else has forgotten how to. People are only allowed to publish stuff this wack when things are at their absolute worst (or best. Hi Mary Meeker!!) .

Update: Here's a cool article from the Post that talks about the same thing.

-- umair // 7:37 AM //


Via's strategy is now focused on miniaturizing and minimalizing the chipset, rather than compete with the big boys in the MHz wars.

"Henry, who has held high-level positions at IBM and Dell, may be considered one of the fathers of the Bauhaus movement in microprocessors, which emphasizes minimalism and functionality. Rather than try to compete in megahertz or performance terms or both against Intel or Advanced Micro Devices' products, Henry and his design teams have mostly tried to reduce cost and power consumption".

Nice move.

-- umair // 7:30 AM //


Samsung's launching a Napster-branded iPod competitor, with more features, like a line-in jack, and an FM receiver and transmitter.

Now, if they're stupid, they'll cripple this so it only really works with Crapster. If they're smart, they won't - and people will buy it, and promptly forget it has anything to do with Napster. But at least Napster will have bought some kind of small consumer share that way - rather than making people even unhappier than it's already done by going corporate.

-- umair // 7:24 AM //


Cablevision launches a new HDTV satellite service, which costs $750 for the box and sub. It's got 21 exclusive commercial-free channels already, many of which are kind of lame, but with deals for more high profile ones in the pipeline.

The Street is extremely dubious about it's prospects. What a surprise - the Street knows absolutely nothing about analysing network industries.

I wouldn't write them off until after they've failed all the tests of network market strategy - complementarity, externalities, lock-in, and compatibility.

-- umair // 7:22 AM //


Juniper's new strategy is based around the 'infranet' - a kind of global network of private, secure, ultra-high-bandwidth networks. That would, no doubt, run on Juniper infrastructure.

Unlikely, because the costs of switching from the net will, I bet, massively outstrip the value to be gained by such an effort - but interesting as a strategic intent nonetheless.

-- umair // 7:15 AM //


The Battle for Consumer Share, Pt 451

Virgin introduces a low cost line of CE - CD players, portable TV's, and the like. They have absolutely no chance in this market. Their main resource - the Virgin brand - is formidable. But it's also next to useless in a market that requires completely different competences - like intuitive usability, interconnectivity, design, and ultra-miniaturization.

They're competing, obviously, not for profits, but to build consumer share - but using an imitation strategy in an already hypercompetitive market is not a smart way to do so.

-- umair // 7:08 AM //


NYT article discusses the huge setup costs involved in setting up a home theater system. Connecting all the components, placing the speakers, optimizing everything is a pretty arduous process.

This is a case of combinatorial complexity - so many components and possibilities leads to a hugely complex situation for people to deal with. To their credit, the companies that are the platform coordinators are doing their best, via calibration routines and setup discs. A good example of the kinds of problems platforms face - very different from the ones that individual goods and services do. This is why platform strategies require a whole different set of strategic insights.

-- umair // 7:03 AM //

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Video iPod may be closer than we all thought. (Hasbro, via LinkFilter).

-- umair // 9:05 PM //


Job-seeking networks are getting tapped out. Even social capital runs out. Interesting article - but it never makes the central point in this mess: HR is broken. It needs to be fixed. It's holding back people from getting jobs, firms from building strategic resources, and the economy from building a surplus.

HR is so fundamentally flawed I don't even know where to begin discussing it. The name itself is offensive. It should act as an enabler - but right now, it's incentives are all wrong, and it operates under the biggest moral hazard of any department in the firm. It is allowed to act in it's own self-interest - which is divergent from the interest of the firm (and job-seekers).

"...Many experts are baffled as to what might work for job seekers whose networks are drying up. "Sad thing to confirm, but networking has hit burnout," said Stephanie Pinson, president of the executive search firm Gilbert Tweed, in New York. "I'm not sure the best way to go about it anymore. That's why so many people are dropping out of the job market. They don't know who else to talk to, or are just getting tired of not hearing anything. It's a very different market now."

Here's a hint: fix HR. Oh, wait - recruiters are part of the incentives that broke HR in the first place.

-- umair // 8:29 PM //


The Big Picture is discussing bubbles, and what light economics can shed on them.

The seminal reference on the computational side is this paper by Brian Arthur, where viral inductive expectations among agents with grossly imperfect information cause most of the behavior we've come to know and love in markets, including bubbles.

On the behavioural side, you should check out Vernon Smith, particularly this nice (pdf) intro to experimental economics, as well as Richard Thaler's work, particularly this (pdf) survey article, and, finally, Robert Shiller, and his workshops on behavioural finance.


-- umair // 7:34 PM //


Another article about spam. This time, the Reg notes that the arms race between filtes and spammers is escalating. This time, they say that subject lines are becoming easy targets for filters, because spammers are competing with themselves - and coming up with more and more absurd subject lines that are easy to filter out.

I think that once a subject-line hack against Bayesian filters is found, there will be another massive burst in spam - because it will again lower the costs of spamming. You could see our proposal to end spam for an economic approach to end spam, rather than a technological one.

It cites this (very good) report on filtering techiques and their effectiveness.

-- umair // 7:14 PM //


Look, I'm not going to post anything else about the Microsoft-Vodafone collaboration on 'open' mobile web services standards (they are setting up workshops in London that are open to all comers to work on this). There are too man articles about it, and they all miss the point.

Suffice it to say that whatever they make, it won't be open - if they make anything at all. There is a huge conflict of incentives between the two of them, making it unlikely that this partnership will work.

You know what kind of strategy this is: what Miyamoto Musashi called 'Moving Shadows' - drawing your opponent out with a decoy, a moving shadow, in order to force him to reveal his strategy - after which you can move in for the kill.

-- umair // 5:56 PM //


There were less than 500 N-Gages sold in the UK in it's launch week. Ouch!!

Nokia really blew this one. They needed to build up some unique complements - killer games - that you couldn't play anywhere else. Right now, the platform has very little value - crap games, a crap main component (the N-Gage itself), and no network externalities. No wonder no one's buying it.

They also need to build a learning capability - people have been pointing the flaws in the N-Gage for months. Obviously, ignoring them wasn't the smartest move.

-- umair // 5:48 PM //


Here's a cool interview with a strategy guy from Orange.

He talks about how opaque pricing was a strategy that only caused confusion in consumers, and price wars among rival carriers - leading to commoditization of core product the industry offered. He also claims Orange is going to shift focus to value creation, by finding out what consumers value most, and giving it to them. He hopes this will make consumers stick, by creating switching costs.

This may sound basic, but believe me, it is the beginnings of a revolution in the mobile industry - which has always, till now, focused on price competition and value extraction.

-- umair // 5:41 PM //


This is What People Think About the Bubble:

"Cassidy's theory is that the Internet stock boom wasn't just a Ponzi scheme inadvertently created out of exuberance for a remarkable new technology. It was a Ponzi scheme maliciously created by a selfishly motivated cabal of journalists, analysts, investors, politicians, entrepreneurs, and others."

HEY!! How about the investment bankers that took their asymmetric information all the way to the bank?! How the hell can you blame journalists without blaming the guys that set up the Friends of Frank?

"says Newsweek writer Adam Rogers. "The tragedy behind the popping of the dotcom bubble is that for a while it looked like technology might change the world by reshaping economies and transforming human interaction. Unfortunately, people even got the idea that they could make money in the process."

Ummm. Note to Adam Rogers: the web is reshaping economies and transforming human interaction. Been to India lately? Ever read a blog? More to the point, if history tells us anything about irrationality and technology, it's that after a bubble, there's a huge growth period of 15-20 years - that's where the social payoff really is.

There was a great article about this by Brian Arthur, but it's on Business 2.0, which is now sub only, so you'll never see it. Hey, Business 2.0, look - you just missed a chance to build consumer share. Nice one!!

-- umair // 5:35 PM //


Stelios says:

"My biggest mistake to date, and I hope of all time, was the early version of my chain of internet caf�s, called easyInternetCafe. This started life as easyEverything in 1999 and was a real child of the dot.com bubble. Internet businesses could do no wrong and I was buoyed up by vendor financing ("pay tomorrow") and bankers, who at that time could float unprofitable companies on the stock markets, provided they just had online customers.

I was new to retailing and happily went off round the world, buying up the most expensive city-centre real estate in which we put not only internet access, but webcams, internet telephony, sophisticated software and other bells and whistles, all of which were meant to earn more money. In reality, we had created financial black holes that were largely unwanted by consumers, but into which we poured money".

I used to think Stelios was dumb, and now I'm sure of it. Note to Stelios: Hindsight is 20:20, but ventures are fundamentally unpredictable. Who could have guessed SMS would be a major driver of the mobile business? If that didn't work, I'm sure someone would say exactly the same thing about SMS - it was a 'financial black hole' that people didn't want.

The quote's from this article about mistakes.

-- umair // 5:23 PM //


A VP at Dell argues that the utility model for IT is flawed. For two reasons: first, utilities can't be customized, and the economics of IT and utilities are different.

Leaving the utility argument aside (which I think is fundamentally flawed), he's basically saying that IT is or can be a strategic resource - if it's treated as such. If it's treated as a commodity and not aligned with strategy, it will just provide commoditized value.

Unfortunately for him, I think the debate is already pretty much over, no? IT is a commodity to the bean counters. I think a big reason for this is because the geeks, instead of infiltrating and subverting the corporate superstructure, disengaged and built silos where they didn't have to deal with the bean counters.

-- umair // 5:18 PM //


MT responds to BlogSpam with...a blacklist. Let the arms race begin.

-- umair // 8:14 AM //


Classic Video Game Ads. Oh yes. (Via Geisha Asobi).

-- umair // 8:10 AM //


The Reg has more about TrackBack causing Google problems.

I don't think blogs will kill Google - on the contrary, I think blogs offer a completely different search economics than the rest of the web, and when Google manages to build an algorithm exploiting that, it will have a major strategic resource on it's hands.

-- umair // 8:00 AM //


Forbes talks about the Free Software Foundation and how they rigorously enforce the GPL - creating a disincentive for businesses to use it, since it demands all derivative work be open-source as well.

"For several months, officials from the Free Software Foundation have been quietly pushing Cisco and Broadcom for a resolution. According to Free Software Foundation Executive Director Bradley Kuhn, the foundation is demanding that Cisco and Broadcom either a) rip out all the Linux code in the router and use some other operating system, or b) make their code available to the entire world".

Interesting read.

-- umair // 7:56 AM //


Sun's new (old) strategy: monetize Java and 'commoditize the desktop'.

Note to Sun: a fire-sale is not a strategy. Even an orthodox strategy involves differentiation, intent, and, something you could do in spades, leverage. A fire-sale is like the final vapor trail of strategic decay.

-- umair // 7:53 AM //


Intel thinks Chinese PC market will be bigger than US by 2010.

Umm. I was under the impression that the PC market's dynamics will have changed so much by 2010 that any forecasts made now are kind of useless. In fact, it probably won't even be called the 'PC Market' - especially not if Sony, Dell, or Microsoft succeed with their converged hub strategies.

-- umair // 7:35 AM //


I can't believe no one's really mentioned this expansion of eBay's fraud protection.

"The new program, called PayPal Buyer Protection, gives buyers up to $500 of free coverage if the item is not delivered or turns out to be "substantially not as described" if bought from certain eBay sellers. There is no processing fee.

In order to qualify, sellers must have positive comments from partners in at least 50 transactions, and must have positive feedback from at least 98% of all transactions".

This is probably the ultimate validation of reputation mechanisms on the net - or at least, by far the most significant one so far.

-- umair // 7:33 AM //


VC investors take a bigger hit than stock-market investors this year. Note to SV.com: that's what risk means.

-- umair // 7:30 AM //


Data Center Markup Language will let Data Centers speak 'utility computing' to each other. It's being backed by a fairly heavyweight consortium of players, but fundamentally by EDS and LoudCloud (now OpsWare).

Why not just use a standard web services language?

-- umair // 7:24 AM //


Dell's new line of handhelds get lighter and thinner. But the real point is that this is already a shrinking market.

"Research firm IDC has projected that worldwide handheld industry shipments will in 2003 decline for the second year in a row, shrinking by 8.4 percent to about 11.35 million units. Limited growth is expected to return in 2004, IDC said".

Why is Dell in the game? Two reasons. First, they need to own consumer share. Second, they can command decent margins because they're Dell. But one is probably a lot more important than two.

-- umair // 7:23 AM //


Fun article about Netflix, and why it works: apparently, late fees made up 12% of rental fees in 2003 ytd.

-- umair // 7:20 AM //


A rather dense article from Clay Christensen about the dynamics of disruption. You know the story by now - target noncustomers by changing the performance of the feature set, then expand into the higher-margin segments.

Most firms today still don't get this strategy. Entire industries miss it, and choose to compete via imitation strategies and price competition: the mobile industry, the marketing industry, the media industries (apart from games).

-- umair // 7:12 AM //


Ad industry groups lay out 'guidelines' for 'legitimate' marketing from 'vulgar' spam. When was the last time guidelines prevented a massive coordination failure? The problem, folks, is in the micro(economics). The incentives are all wrong - spammers pay nothing, but make something. Hence, spam. It's really that simple.

Guidelines won't do a thing. These groups should be taken to task for wasting their members' time and money.

-- umair // 7:09 AM //


NYT article about people buying more and more gadgets and then never really using them. Because of obsolescence, coordination costs (tough to interconnect), and learning costs (programming the vcr). Also talks a bit about buyers' motivation being an aspirational one. Sounds like a job for Apple.

-- umair // 7:06 AM //


Avon in the 21st century is...just like Avon in the twentieth century. Mark is a new name for their same old decentralized personal sales network thing. Kind of disappointing considering what they could have done, given blogs, the net, mobile connectivity, and teenage girls' affinity for them.

-- umair // 7:01 AM //

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

A Modest Proposal to Kill Spam

This week, Tim Bray's posted a spamonomics model.

I've talked a lot on bubblegen about how I think economic approaches to spam will be more effective then technological ones, and last week me and some buddies came up with our own spamonomics model and business plan, which has different mechanisms than Tim's.

Look - I'm never gonna find the time to give this the attention it deserves. So, in the interest of saving the world, here's a proposal complete with business model to end spam (copied from an email proposal we sent to a friend).


Here's the rub:

1) Assume a closed network, so that only members can email one another.

2) Assume a small fixed fee to join the network - maybe $10.

3) Everytime you send an email that is not read, a microamount gets deducted from your deposit. If you send more unread emails than your deposit covers, we bill you - if you don't pay, we shut you out of the network.

4) If your ratio of read mails to unread mails is greater than or equal to 1, *you don't get anything actually deducted from your deposit*. You earn the full deposit back at the end of the year (or month, or day). But if your ratio is less than 1 (or some other number we decide after trials), you get the full amount deducted from your deposit, and are also billed for the rest of the unread mails you have sent.

5) As a member, you have the option, after opening an email, to mark it as spam. If you do, the sender get charged - a microamount gets deducted from his deposit. But these deductions only *really* happen if the ratio is as described above.

6) We redistribute the money collected from spammers to people according to the amount of spam they have received (at the end of the year).

7) We make money on the float of the deposits.

As far as we can tell, this scheme ensures that spammers pay a huge cost for spamming - eventually driving them out of the network. Because the notion of read mails versus unread mails sets up a moral hazard problem for subject lines, we added the bit about being able to tag an email as spam after you have opened it. In effect, in this system, real users pay nothing to send email - but spammers pay whomever thinks their email is spam. People collectively decide who is a spammer - by simply not reading their emails in aggregate.

There are a lot of real-world issues - authentication, billing, network closure, etc - to be worked out. But we think that the 'spamonomics' approach is much more promising than the 'spam filtering' (blacklist, whitelist) approach. Also, we want to add semi-permeable network boundaries, and are working on ways to do that.


If you decide to turn this idea into something that makes $$$, cut us in. Or else we'll spam you.

Small print: we know not everyone in the world is going to sign up for this. Essentially, we expect to see what economics predicts - a stratified market, with spam-free networks worth more - and thus costing more - than spamful networks.

The problem with Bayesian filters (which are really effective these days): they just haven't been hacked yet. Once the spammers figure out how to hack em, expect a viral epidemic of more effective spam

-- umair // 4:53 PM //


Why is that design matters everywhere in the world but the States? Why does the States produce designers who can't influence business? Is is cos they're all trapped in design ghettos in NYC and SF? Why does the States consistently produce some of the ugliest products in the world?

Apple post 1998 should have convinced the beancounters that there is serious money to be made in style arbitrage. Not to mention Target, Diesel, and BMW. Why don't they get it? They're too busy cutting costs and increasing efficiency.

-- umair // 4:39 PM //


WOW. Recombinative Innovation: extracting the information from a landscape, converting it to sound, and using the soundscapes to let blind people 'see'.

From a neuro point of view, it will be interesting to see how the auditory system adapts to this - how far are senses substrate-neutral? Will the auditory system evoke a kind of 'visual' perception in blind people is used enough? (Via MetaFilter)

-- umair // 4:30 PM //


Competition in the cryonics business . Here's a textbook example of pioneering costs - these firms are battling regulators, each other, and the public. First-movers also have their disadvantages

But if you can pull off the revolution, then your payoff is going to be huge, because you've created an entirely new industry that often puts several others out of business.

-- umair // 4:22 PM //


Merrill earnings rise sharply. This is probably a better leading indicator than the usual economic suspects.

-- umair // 4:09 PM //


It's not often I find a quote this classic:

"Anybody who thinks the federal government is going to do anything to reverse the outsourcing trend is smoking dope," said Mahoney."

It's from this article, about how outsourcing is a cross-industry architecture shift, rather than a short-term management fad.

I find that conclusion dubious, to say the least. Jobs will flow to where labor is the least costly - not simply the cheapest. The full costs of outsourcing have yet to be exposed - when they are, they're going to end up being a lot bigger than most people think today, because they're strategic costs, which are hard to attach to cells in Excel which are broken down per worker.

-- umair // 8:16 AM //


There is a headline on ZDNet right now that says 'Consumers Deleting, Not Reading Spam'.

I kid you not.

The article quotes a DoubleClick report that claims 'the number of consumers deleting junk e-mail without reading it has climbed to 65 percent from last year's 60 percent'.

Does anyone really believe that? 4 out of 10 of your buddies read their spam? Not even my Mom reads her spam anymore - and that's saying a lot, because she doesn't even know what Yahoo is.

Disinformation like this is part of the reason the marketing industry continues to fail it's entire market - online, branding, TV, print, the lot.

Without decent info, you can't make decent decisions. And when you rely on information-providers like DoubleClick, who are operating under a massive moral hazard - you should at least hedge your bets. Or find new sources of information entirely.

-- umair // 8:10 AM //


Interesting NYT article about adaptation vs path dependence arguments in biology.

-- umair // 8:01 AM //


Replication Economy: Kill Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is a rip-off artist. Not a talentless one, to be sure, but definitely a rip-off artist. Every few years, he jacks the work of truly innovative directors, and calls it his own. If you've seen Kill Bill, you might wanna Google two Japanese directors: Takeshi Kitano, and Takashi Miike. With special attention to two flicks called Ichi the Killer and Battle Royale.

These are two of my favorite flicks - and if you think Tarantino is good, you should check out how much better the originals are than the rip-off.

yeah, i know he cast actors from those movies in Kill Bill. A rip-off is still a rip-off, homage points or no homage points.

-- umair // 7:55 AM //


[email protected] launches a site about how things get made. For extra geek points when you're bored.

-- umair // 7:47 AM //


[email protected] talks about why corporations outsource. Worth a read if you don't know anything about BPO, but...

What is it with the business world and conflicts of interest? Not surprisingly, this article is written by the head of a consulting firm that, you guessed it, specializes in outsourcing. I'm going to start calling these guys [email protected].

The article makes the points you'd expect: corporations outsource 'non-core' functions to save costs, increase efficiency, and devote more attention to 'core' functions, and that outsourcing is moving up the value chain, from basic IT to simple back-office stuff like HR and claims processing.

They also spin like tops when they're asked about the possible erosion of competences and loss of strategic flexibility, waffling and saying that if it's strategic outsourcing, then there's no danger. Whew! I'm glad they cleared that up.

-- umair // 7:39 AM //


Antispam is increasingly going hardware.

Now that's when you know that spam is starting to cost real money.

-- umair // 7:22 AM //


DRM Deathstar mobile P2P file-sharing hits Europe.

"BMG and Warner Music are the first two major music labels to trial the technology, which is being deployed by 50 mobile phone operators across Europe including Vodafone and Swisscom."

What exactly is the point of this?

"With OMA DRM, the music labels can collect revenues for each song downloaded off a central computer server and for those that are swapped between mobile phone users."

Hey, look - they're gonna market it as 'file-sharing', and try and fool people into buying it. Why would I swap files with Bjorn if I can just download it from the central server - when the cost is the same?

Raise your hand if you think music industry + telcos = combinatorial strategic decay.

-- umair // 7:20 AM //


Gates, Microsoft, Vodafone, mobility. Blah, blah, blah.

"they plan to create open, mobile Web service standards to help boost development of mobile applications that can run on a range of devices, from PCs to mobile phones.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chief software architect, said in a statement that the partnership will help build a "healthy ecosystem" to drive usage of new mobile applications and devices."

Really?! You mean it's a total reversal of both companies strategies since as long as anyone can remember?!

Like I said - blah, blah, blah. It's crap - ignore it.

-- umair // 7:12 AM //


Replication Wars:

Apparently, the DVD market is growing, but 'piracy' is still holding it back.

"An estimated 600,000 films are downloaded a day off the Internet in the United States, while in Europe 11 percent of all DVDs in circulation in France have been illegally downloaded, 20 percent in Britain and a massive 85 percent in Russia, Chris Marcich of the Motion Picture Association of American said at a MIPCOM conference".

These numbers smell pretty dubious to me. Not to mention that the DVD industry created a massive incentive to crack their own DRM system, by making it restrictive to the point of unusability, with it's stupid region codes.

Which were even hackable by my 12 year old sister.

So let me make the point yet again: any mechanism designed to fight replication is destined to fail, unless it's microeconomics work. If it actually provides more of an incentive to hack it than not to hack it, it's never going to stop replication. Technology cannot be a solution to the Replication Wars - unless people are willing to live DRMLife. (i got that from m-life. you like it?!).

-- umair // 7:05 AM //


The Wall Street Virus, Part 1:

The boards of directors of many of the big exchanges are less than fully independent. In fact, they're actually riddled with conflicts of interest.

"Charles P. Nastro, the former managing director at Lehman Brothers Inc. and the co-head of its futures divisions, served as one of three "nonresident" or outside voices on the Chicago Board of Trade from 1997 to 1999."

That is truly incredible. If you don't get it, here's the problem: the CBOT is one of the biggest (and oldest) futures exchanges in the world. This quote means that the head of the options group at one of the biggest banks was helping regulate the exchange. But the banks also trade on the exchanges for massive profits and for their clients.

So there's a huge conflict of interest if a bank's trading and making the rules that govern trading. Remember, the market is also made up of large numbers of smaller traders who aren't the big banks. So, unless these guys are represented on the board too - which they never are - the governance is fundamentally balanced in favour of the big banks.

I think Wall Street is the most potent virus the US has ever seen. Guess who still has the freedom to place lots of pre-IPO shares and disclose relevant information only to their biggest clients?

-- umair // 6:57 AM //


DoCoMo is planning on bringing iMode to the UK, possibly via 3. Now that would be a serious strategic move.

If you've been living in a bubble (or the US) and you don't get the significance of iMode for the mobile industry, read...sorry, i was going to a link to a great Stanford case, but they've - what a surprise - started charging for it. How lame!!

Like they couldn't offer cases for free over the web, and still charge for use at b-schools and corporations. How hard would that be? Oh, I forgot - b-schools aren't interested in spreading knowledge anymore - they're more interested in building barriers to entry.

Anyways, it's hard to overstate the influence of iMode. It's probably one of the most successful platforms ever, like Windows, the GameBoy, and the PlayStation.

-- umair // 6:45 AM //


Beancounters, Part 693:

"Shares of online auctioneer eBay dropped Monday in heavy trade as Smith Barney cut its rating to "sell," citing concerns about growth in the company's automotive business".

You'd think that the last five years would have gotten rid of the Street's pathological focus on the short-term, and replace it with a more rational view of the future expected cash flows from a firm's strategy. Or, you could agree with me, and think that the Street is fundamentally built the wrong way, and focused on the short-term purely out of self-interest - in order to generate fat commisions on essentially meaningless noise like this.

Are concerns about near-term growth in the auto segment of eBay's business really a valid reason to slash it's rating? I think that's a pretty tough case to make - if you're rating the fundamental soundness of eBay's business.

-- umair // 6:31 AM //


Jupiter recommends usability over personalization. Because personalization is more costly, and they haven't been able to capture the benefits quantifiably.

This is a pretty shallow argument from Jupiter. It's kind of like the whole IT-productivity debate. It's not that there's no relationship, it's that the question itself is asinine. There are so many intangibles and feedbacks among the variables that it's irrelevant.

It's also a matter of strategic choice: do you want to be Google, or do you want to be Amazon? Either strategy is valid - but being stuck in the middle is where the danger lies.

-- umair // 6:22 AM //


Media Notes:

1) OK. look. There have been anti-drug ads on TV since I WAS A KID. Note to whoever the hell is funding these: they don't work - and they're $%$ing annoyingly smarmy. You should change your ad agency to one that isn't so goddamned arrogant.

2) Note to MTV: Ashton Kutcher stopped being cool in, uh, around 2001. Your brand is going to rise up and kill you soon.

-- umair // 5:24 AM //


I don't want to inject politics into my blog, but here's a decent economic point:

So I was just listening to the radio while I was driving, and a caller to a talk show made a decent point about the war. He was a historian, who pointed out that while we normally have moral objections to war profiteering, there are also serious economic ones - that profiteering creates an incentive to drag wars on longer than is necessary.

Interesting point that I haven't heard mentioned anywhere in the current debate.

-- umair // 2:39 AM //

Monday, October 13, 2003

Agent-based modelling makes the Economist.

Rumour has it that McKinsey is starting to use agent-based models.

You could check out Icosystem. And the SFI. Or just play the greatest video game ever made.

-- umair // 8:02 PM //


This is cool interview with Michael Robertson, of MP3.com and Lindows fame, who's now pushing VoIP based on SIP with his new SIPPhone. The article points out the differences in strategy - Skype's standard is proprietary but isn't tied to hardware, whereas SIPPhone is using SIP, which is more widely used, but is tied to phones.

Also interesting to note the brewing platform war issues - Robertson insists he won't support Skype. and that they should interface to him.

An alert commenter also points out that Skype has the technological edge right now, since they've solved firewall, bandwidth and encryption issues the SIP guys haven't.

-- umair // 6:21 PM //


"It is not to say that Microsoft won't invent the platforms," said Joe Schoendorf, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Accel Partners. "But there is a better-than- even chance that a small, as yet unnamed or maybe unstarted start-up somewhere in the world will do it. The idea that a platform that was invented in the last century could carry us through to the next century doesn't compute."

Yeah, right - that's what they said about keyboards, and look what happened. I guess Joe's never heard of the old QWERTY path dependency story.

The total switching costs away from Windows are really, really massive at this point. Anyone wanna calculate them? It would take serious, serious value for someone to displace the platform.

The quote's from this article about Microsoft's future.

If you don't already know, you can read more about the path dependence debate here.

Oh, Hi Microsoft. If you want to know your real threat, it's that someone will co-opt your platform, and parasitize your value - the same way you did to Intel. You think that locking up your source is stopping this - it's not. It's the fact that you are a platform coordinator, and can shut people out economically rather than technologically. But as soon as other platform interfaces become more valuable than yours, you're gonna die. But you're doing a good job of stopping that from happening...so far :)

-- umair // 4:03 PM //


Hedge funds and PE houses are getting into the high-risk lending game. Nice article.

Of course, this will go on until someone gets really blown up, and then everyone will pile out of the market like lemmings. That's what irrationality's all about.

-- umair // 6:48 AM //


Wired tells Sony to follow a leapfrogging strategy: don't knock off the iPod, make a video iPod instead.

This is bad strategic advice to Sony. I don't think it matters much which one they do - as long as they make one.

Here's why. First, the difference between the two is negligible - essentially, a screen. Other than that, they're just a couple of chips, a hard drive, and a case. Second, it follows that the marginal cost of producing one from the other is negligible. Third, the initial investment to Sony is peanuts. Fourth, Sony's networked hub strategy is centred around building a platform (with a few central components) - the rest of the stuff is low-risk experimentation, with a seriously nonlinear payoff - like a VAIO iPod.

-- umair // 6:09 AM //


One of my old profs helps explain why musicians always get the girls.

-- umair // 5:56 AM //


Gadget heads: Japan Direct.

I want this one.

(via Linkfilter)

-- umair // 5:49 AM //


The Economist talks about a cool model for rising executive pay:

"Most boards appointing a new chief executive will seek the advice of a pay consultant, who will tell them the going rate. The trouble is, no board wants to pay the average for the job. The above-average candidate which directors have just selected as CEO, they invariably reason, deserves more. And so bosses' pay spirals upwards".

This is like an unintended Red Queen effect.

-- umair // 5:47 AM //


Sharp's 3D Notebook, complete with 'parallax barrier' (sorry, no graphics, but I think I just found the word of the week).

Update: here's an article with a pic.

-- umair // 5:29 AM //


Oh yeah: Digitalnet IPO does ok. Promising, but don't sell the Berkshire just yet.

-- umair // 5:24 AM //


the Journal has an extremely interesting article about a new strategy in the Replication Wars - the waiting list (sub may be required - sorry!). Apparently, more and more firms are limiting the supply of their products. This strategy has trickled way down the status chain, and now even Banana Republic is using it.

Is exclusivity (or reverse quantity competition if you want) an effective strategy against replication? Well, what it does is to create a bigger gap in value (and thus reputation) between the authentic and the replica than if the authentic was produced to demand. In this sense, it is an effective strategy - for the guys at the top. Here's why:

The problem isn't the risk of losing customers because of underproduction (as the Journal claims) - the problem with this strategy is that it's going to change the dynamics of buzz, by creating an arms race of exclusivity trickling down the status chain.

The person at the bottom - ie, the guy that waits two months for a pair of Banana Republic jeans no one thinks are cool anyways - is going to look and feel pretty dumb. What's his best response? Stop buying Banana Republic, and shift up the status chain, where his marginal cost doesn't increase so much, because he only pays a little bit more in money, and an equivalent amount in time, but his marginal benefit is much greater - he's now waiting for Diesel jeans, which have a bigger 'coolness' payoff.

So this is going to reinforce the players with the most exclusivity, at the cost of the players with the least - a kind of subsidy, if you like.

What the Banana Republics of the world should be doing is what Zara and H&M are doing: replicating and recombining the innovations from higher up the status chain. Of course, they won't do it - because their management doesn't really understand the competitive dynamics of the market, or consumer needs in the fashion marketplace.

Still, a decent strategy in the short term - just because it changes the rules of the game.

speaking of fashion, here's a link to my new favorite jeans. these are no joke.

-- umair // 5:20 AM //


NYT talks about the problems in shifting to digital cinemas. Basically, the same problems in coordinating any platform shift - misaligned incentives, the rapidly dropping cost of new technology, and uncertainty.

What's more interesting is to think about the possibilities for business model change such a shift opens up, across the entire ecosystem of the film & cinema industry. These are difficult to say, but one thing's certain: this shift is going to seriously start to blur the boundaries of this industry.

-- umair // 5:06 AM //


More geeky econ today - links to collected Nobel lectures. Now don't all go at once.

My personal favorites:






(Via...my Dad!)

-- umair // 4:50 AM //


You see, this is what I'm talking about. I shouldn't have to pay SSRN five bucks to d/l an academic paper. Those are my public goods, too!

-- umair // 4:44 AM //


BlogSpam is arriving. It's about bloody time. I mean, the blogosphere has been such a ripe target for so long...seems like there are threshold effects since it sputters in and out every so often.

-- umair // 2:26 AM //

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Apparently, Google has a calculator. That can also do this.

I could lay some heavy theory on you now, but really, either you get why this is the greatest kind of strategy in the universe, or you're a beancounter. Simple as that.

-- umair // 6:22 PM //


Death of Cool, part 374

Manga makes it to BusinessWeek.

-- umair // 4:49 PM //


Here's a decent Observer article with some nice quotes from Stiglitz about the state of the economy:

'More jobs have been lost under Bush than since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression,' he said in an interview. 'In the private sector more money has been wasted through misallocation of capital in the stock-market bubble than the government could ever manage.'

'The image is Adam Smith. The reality is Enron'.

I think I may have to make that that last one my blog slogan.

-- umair // 4:24 PM //


Skype talks about monetization:

"The company does not earn any money right now, but is betting that consumers will eventually pay for premium services, like voice mail. This winter, Skype plans to introduce a feature that will enable users to call people on regular telephones - for a fee it says will be 'substantially lower'' than current phone service".

Nice one. It's tough to beat a strategy based around complementarity with durable goods people have a massive investment in already. It's also tough to outstrategize people who enjoy doing something disruptive because they believe it's good - like the guys behind Skype.

Apparently, they've already had more than a million downloads.

Small print: I made a mistake last week when I conflated Sharman and Skype - these guys sold Kazaa to Sharman, but it's not clear who own Skype (beyond the cryptic Skyper Limited).

-- umair // 5:46 AM //


So I've been writing a paper for the idiotic music industry all day, and I've had the TV on for background noise.

Why is it that in London I get 5 channels, and there is usually something interesting on, but in the States I have 200 channels, and everything that's on is crap? I can't believe that there is such a market failure in American media today - and that no one is responding to it.

Instead, we've got Clear Channel ripping the guts out of the radio industry. Note to Clear Channel (and other media giants): You've got to replace them with something that people want - not the tripe that's currently on. Your regulated monopoly on consumer access isn't gonna last forever - as a matter of fact, I think you better look at the music industry right about now, so you can see what making your consumers hate you does when they get control of their own access again.

Other thoughts:

Ads in the States are EVEN WORSE than I remembered. That's saying a lot. What happened to David Ogilvy's 'the consumers is not a moron'? These ads boggle the mind with their stupidity.

What's with all the punditry? Why is everyone trying to always sound smarter and more 'official' than they really are? Where does this bizarre cultural norm come from?

E on MTV ?! This is the official death of cool for MTV. Everything they used to stand for was the opposite of E - Everything. Oh wait, that was before Viacom. Please, someone kill MTV - they're making it SO EASY...

God, the American media market is a seriously ripe target for total destruction and recreation.

-- umair // 12:51 AM //



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