Peak PC. Intel Fork.


Propelled by Moore’s Law and the Internet, PCs have enjoyed four decades of strong growth, defying many doomsday prophecies along the way. But, with microprocessor performance flattening out, the go-go years have come to an end. Intel, the emperor of PC processors, and a nobody in mobile devices needs to react.]

I’m suspicious of Peak <Anything> predictions. Some of us became aware of the notion of a resource zenith during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, with its shocking images of cars lined up at gas stations (in America!):

Gas Lines Oil Embargo

This was Peak Oil, and it spelled doom to the auto industry.

We know what happened next: Cars improved in design and performance, manufacturers became more numerous. Looking at this bit of history through my geek glasses, I see three explanations for the rebound: computers, computers, and computers. Computer Assisted Design (CAD) made it easier to design new car models as variations on a platform; Volkswagen’s MQB is a good example. Massive computer systems were used to automate the assembly line and manage the supply chain. It didn’t take long for computers to work their way into the cars themselves, from the ECU under the hood to the processors that monitor the health of the vehicle and control the entertainment and navigation systems.

Since then, we’ve had repeated predictions of Peak Oil, only to be surprised by the news that the US will soon become a net oil exporter and, as Richard Muller points out in his must-read Physics for Future Presidents, we have more than a century of coal reserves. (Unfortunately, the book, by a bona fide, middle-of-the-road physicist, can’t promise us that physics will eventually push politics aside when considering the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere…)

I’ve heard similar End of The Go-Go Days predictions about personal computers since 1968 when my love affair with these machines started at HP France (I was lucky enough to be hired to launch their first desktop machine).

I heard the cry again in 1985 when I landed in Cupertino in time for the marked slowdown in Apple ][ sales. The never-before round of layoffs at Apple prompted young MBAs, freshly imported from Playtex and Pepsi, to intone the It’s All Commodities Now dirge. I interpreted the cry (undiplomatically — I hadn’t yet learned to speak Californian) as a self-serving It’s All Marketing Now ploy. In the meantime, engineers ignored the hand-wringing, went back to work, and, once again, proved that the technology “mines” were far from exhausted.

In 1988, a Sun Microsystems executive charitably warned me: “PCs are driving towards the Grand Canyon at 100 mph!”.  A subscriber to Sun’s The Network Is The Computer gospel, the gent opined that heavy-duty computing tasks would be performed by muscular computers somewhere (anywhere) on the network. Desktop devices (he confusingly called them “servers” because they were to “serve” a windowing protocol, X11) would become commodities no more sophisticated or costly than a telephone. He had no answer for multimedia applications that require local processing of music, video, and graphics, nor could he account for current and imminent mobile devices. His view wasn’t entirely new. In 1965, Herb Grosch gave us his Law, which told us that bigger computers provide better economics; smaller machines are uneconomical.

And yet, personal computers flourished.

I have vivid memories of the joy of very early adopters, yours truly included. Personal computers are liberating in many ways.

First, they don’t belong to the institution, there’s no need for the intercession of a technopriest, I can lift my PC with my arms, my brains, and my credit card.

Second, and more deeply, the PC is a response to a frustration, to a sense of something amiss. One of mankind’s most important creations is the symbol, a sign without a pre-existing meaning: X as opposed to a drawing of a deer on a cave wall. Strung together, these symbols show formidable power. The expressive and manipulative power of symbol strings runs through the Song of Songs, Rumi’s incandescent poetry, Wall Street greed, and quantum physics.

But our central nervous system hasn’t kept up with our invention. We don’t memorize strings well, we struggle with long division, let alone extracting cubic roots in our heads.

The PC comes to the rescue, with its indefatigable ability to remember and combine symbol strings. Hence the partnership with an object that extends the reach of our minds and bodies.

Around 1994, the Internet came out of the university closet, gave the PC access to millions of servers around the world (thus fulfilling a necessary part of the Sun exec’s prophecy), and extended our grasp.

It’s been great and profitable fun.

But today, we once again hear Peak PC stories. Sales have gone flat, never to return:

PC shipments 2014-18 - PNG

This time, I’m inclined to agree.


Most evenings, my home-builder spouse and I take a walk around Palo Alto. Right now, this smallish university town is going through a building boom. Offices and three-layer retail + office + residence are going up all around University Avenue. Remodels and raze-and-build projects can be found in the more residential parts of town. No block is left unmolested.

I can’t help but marvel. None of this activity, none of Silicon Valley would exist without Moore’s Law, the promise made in 1965 that semiconductor performance would double every 18 months. And, for the better part of 40 years, it did – and rained money on the tech ecosystem, companies and people. PCs, servers, embedded electronics, giant network routers, cars…they’ve all been propelled because Moore’s Law has been upheld…until recently.

The 1977 Apple ][ had a 1MHz 8-bit processor. Today’s PCs and Mac’s reach 3.7GHz, but number that hasn’t changed in more than three years. This isn’t to say that Intel processors aren’t still improving, but the days when each new chip brought substantial increases in clock speed seem to be over.

One should never say never, but Moore’s Law is now bumping into the Laws of Physics. The energy needed to vibrate matter (electrons in our case) increases with frequency. The higher the clock frequency, the higher the power dissipation and the greater the heat that’s generated…and a PC can withstand only so much heat. Consider the cooling contraptions used by PC gamers when they push the performance envelope of their “rigs”:


To work around the physical limits, Intel and others resort to stratagems such as “multiple cores”, more processors on the same chip. But if too many computations need the result of the previous step before moving forward, it doesn’t matter how many cores you have. Markitects have an answer to that as well: “speculative branch execution”, the use of several processors to execute possible next steps. When the needed outcome appears, the “bad” branches are pruned and the process goes forward on the already-computed good branch. It makes for interesting technical papers, but it’s no substitute for a 8GHz clock speed.

If we need confirmation of the flattening out of microprocessor progress, we can turn to Intel and the delays in implementing its Broadwell chips. The move to a 14 nanometers  “geometry” — the term here denotes the size of a basic circuit building block — is proving more difficult than expected. And the design isn’t meant to yield faster processors, just less power-hungry ones (plus other goodies such as better multi-media processing).

One possible reaction to this state of affairs is to look at tablets as a new engine of growth. This is what Microsoft seems to be doing by promoting its Intel-inside Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement. But even if Microsoft tablets turn out to be every bit as good as Microsoft says they are, they aren’t immune to the flattening out of Intel processor performance. (I don’t have an opinion yet on the product — I tried to buy one but was told to wait till June 20th.)

Does this broaden the opening for ARM-based devices? Among their advantages is a cleaner architecture, one devoid of the layers of backwards compatibility silt x86 devices need. ARM derivaties need less circuitry for the same computing task and, as a result, dissipate less power. This is one of the key reasons for their dominance in the battery-powered world of mobile devices. (The other is the customization and integration flexibility provided by the ARM ecosystem.) But today’s ARM derivatives run at lower speeds (a little above 1GHz for some) than Intel chips. Running at higher speeds will challenge them to do so without hurting battery life and having to add the fan that Microsoft tablets need.

With no room to grow, PC players exit the game. Sony just did. Dell took itself private and is going through the surgery and financial bleeding a company can’t withstand in public. Hewlett-Packard, once the leading PC maker, now trails Lenovo. With no sign of turning its PC business around, HP will soon find itself in an untenable position.

Intel doesn’t have the luxury of leaving their game — they only have one. But I can’t imagine that Brian Krzanich, Intel’s new CEO, will look at Peak PC and be content with the prospect of increasingly difficult x86 iterations. There have been many discussions of Intel finally taking the plunge and becoming a “foundry” for someone else’s ARM-based SoC (System On a Chip) designs instead of owning x86 design and manufacturing decisions. Peak PC will force Intel CEO’s hand.

Time to Rethink the Newspaper. Seriously.


The newspaper’s lingering preeminence keeps pulling legacy media downward. Their inability to challenge the old sovereign’s status precludes every step of a critically needed modernization. (Part of a series).  

This column was scheduled to appear in the next two or three weeks. Then, on Thursday, the thick Innovation report by an ad hoc New Times task force came to the fore. Like many media watchers, I downloaded its 97 pages PDF , printed it (yes) and carefully annotated it. A lot has been written about it and I’m not going to add my own exegesis on top of numerous others. You can look at the always competent viewpoint from Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton who sees The leaked New York Times innovation report as one of the key documents of this media age. (Other good coverage includes Politico and Capital New York — I’m linking to the NYT tag, then you’ll have all the stories pertaining to Jill Abramson’s brutal firing as well).


This report is important one for two main reasons:

— The New York Times is viewed as one of the few traditional media to have successfully morphed into a spectacular digital machine. This backdrop gives a strong resonance to the report because many news organizations haven’t achieved half of what the NYT did, whether the metric is the performance of its digital subscription model, or its achievements in high-yield advertising – all while keeping its impregnable ability to collect Pulitzer prizes.

— We rarely, if ever, see an internal analysis expressed in such bold terms. Usually, to avoid ruffling feathers, such reports are heavily edited – which ends up being the best way to preserve the status quo. Even more, mastheads tend to distance themselves from endorsing conclusions coming from the “management crowd” – a coldly demeaning phrase. But, it the Times case, the report was expressly endorsed by the top editors (Abramson and her then second-in-command Dean Baquet who now leads the shop.)

Let’s then focus back to this column’s original intent: Why reinvent the newspaper, quickly and thoroughly.

Until last week, the reference on the matter was an email sent in January 2013 by Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor (full-text in the Guardian), in which he sets a clear roadmap to shifting resources from print to digital:

I now want to set out in detail how we propose to reshape the FT for the digital age. (…)

[We] are proposing a shift of some resources from night work to day and from print to digital. This requires an FT-wide initiative to train our journalists to operate to the best of their abilities. And it requires decisive leadership. (…)

On unified news desks, we need to become content editors rather than page editors. We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

 A year later, key numbers for the FT are impressive:

— A 2013 profit of £55m ($92m, €67m) for the FT Group (which includes the 50% stake Pearson owns in the Economist Group); that’s an increase of 17%, while sales are slightly down by 1% to £449m ( $755m, €551m)

— 415,000 digital subscribers (+31% in one year) who now account for two-thirds of the FT’s total audience (652,000 altogether: +8%, including a staggering 60% growth in corporate users at 260,000)

— A rise in digital subscribers that offsets the decline in advertising now accounting for 32% of FT Group revenue vs. 52% in 2008.

— For the first time, in 2013, FT digital content revenue exceeded print content.

The FT might be on sale – but its management did quite well.

Echoing Lionel Barber’s view of resources reassignments are the equally strong terms from The New York Times’Innovation Report:

In the coming years, The New York Times needs to accelerate its transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper. This is not a matter of semantics. It is a critical, difficult and, at times, painful transformation that will require us to rethink much of what we do every day. [page 81] 

Stories are typically filed late in the day. Our mobile apps are organized by print sections. Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies. Traditional reporting skills are the top priority in hiring and promotion. The habits and traditions built over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital — none more so than the gravitational pull of Page One. [It] has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. [page 59]

The newsroom should begin an intensive review of its print traditions and digital needs — and create a road map for the difficult transition ahead. We need to know where we are, where we’re headed and where we want to go. [page 82]

These quotes from a news organization that never gave up on great journalism will be helpful to those who desperately struggle to transform newsrooms. It is also a plea for the necessity of dumping the obdurate print-first obsession:

— It precludes modernizing the recruiting process as journalists are still too often picked for their writing capabilities while many other talents are needed.

— It limits audience development initiatives. In today’s print-oriented newsrooms, most writers and editors consider their jobs done once the story is filed in the CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately, in every fast-growing digital media outlets such as Buzzfeed, The HuffPo, Politico, Quartz, Vox Media, now part of the competitive landscape, throwing the story online is actually just the beginning. The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer.

— As stated in the Times report, convincing the masthead on the mandatory resource-shifting in only part of the journey; most of the transformation’s weight lies on the shoulders of the rank and file in the newsroom.

— At the NYT as everywhere else, the old guard (regardless of age, actually), is the main obstacle to the necessary rapprochement between the editorial and the business side. For instance, by rejecting the idea that Branded Content would greatly benefit from the newsroom expertise (although everyone agrees that a news writer should never be asked to write advertorial), or that a conference is indeed an editorial initiative directed to a valuable audience segment, such conservative postures are actually shrinking the company down to its most fragile component.

— The same goes for the analytics arsenal. I heard scores of examples in which newsrooms call for more dashboards and indicators, but seldom use them. Editors should be supported by tactical analytics teams (including at the editorial meeting level) that will provide immediate and mi-terms trends, as well as editorial decision-making tools.

One of the most difficult part of the transformation of legacy media is not addressed in the Times Innovation report nor in the FT’s exposé. It pertains to the future of the physical newspapers itself (the layout of the Times remains terribly out-of-date): How should it evolve? What should be its primary goals in order to address and seduce a readership now overwhelmed by commodity news? What should be the main KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of a modern newspapers? What about content: types of stories, length, timelessness, value-added? Should it actually remain a daily?

(To be continued…)


Misunderstanding Apple


We’ve come to expect analysts and pundits to misunderstand Apple. More puzzling is when Apple misunderstands itself.

My three-week Road Trip of a Lifetime, driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto, was interrupted by a bout of pneumonia, low blood oxygen, paroxysmal cough and, most alarming, a loss of appetite. Thankfully, all indicators are looking good and I’m back walking Palo Alto’s leafy streets.

The succession of wheel time and downtime gave me an opportunity to contemplate two recent controversies: Fred Wilson’s prediction of Apple’s imminent fall, and rumors of Apple’s purchase of Beat Electronics. These are both manifestations of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, Misunderstanding Apple.

First, Fred Wilson. At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the successful and articulate venture investor predicted that by 2020 Apple will no longer hold the #1 position in the tech world. They won’t even be in the top three. According to Wilson, Apple “doesn’t think about things they way they need to think about things”. Specifically, the company is “too rooted in hardware…[which] is increasingly becoming a commodity” and “Their stuff in the cloud is largely not good. I don’t think they think about data and the cloud.

I’d be surprised by Wilson’s facile, insight-free truisms, except this isn’t the first time he’s shown a blind spot when considering Apple. Wilson is famous for dumping his Apple shares at $91 in January 2009; AAPL is now at $590 or so. (He also sold Google, which closed at $528 on Friday, for a split-adjusted $160. Perhaps there’s a difference between being a venture investor, an insider who watches and influences a young company, and an outsider subjected to forces and emotions outside of one’s control.)

Calling Apple “too rooted in hardware” misunderstands the company. From its inception, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers (which, today, includes smartphones and tablets). Indeed, Apple’s quarterly numbers show that the sale of personal computers makes up 87% of its revenue. Everything else that Apple does, from iTunes to the Apple Store, exists to make its smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops more useful, more pleasant. And this “everything else” includes the lovingly machined hardware of the MacBook Air and iPhone 5. If the supporting cast does its job well, the main acts will sell in larger numbers and at higher prices.

Customers don’t buy Apple “hardware” in the same way a weekend carpenter buy nails at the friendly neighborhood hardware store. What Fred Wilson seems to miss is that hardware is more than an inert “thing” for Apple: It’s a conduit to an entire ecosystem, and it can yield an enormous strategic advantage. One such example is the 64-bit A7 processor that took everyone by surprise: 64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months.

When the subject of commodization comes up, I invite people to look at the cars they see in the street. Are the likes of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes being commoditized? Do their owners only care that the wheels are black and round? Serendipitously, someone called “SubstrateUnderflow” answers the question in a comment on Wilson’s blog:

“…when I look around at all the cars out there, from the high end models to the most utilitarian models, almost no one buys the base stripped versions. Key devices that are central to people’s lives, comfort and utility have enough emotional SubstrateUndertow to sustain premium pricing.”

The 30-year old Mac business and its healthy margins (about 25% versus HP’s sub-5% for its PCs) shows that Apple has successfully avoided the commoditized race to the bottom that has plagued Wintel devices and is likely to accelerate for smartphones.

Wilson’s criticism of Apple’s “stuff in the cloud”, on the other hand, carries some sting. As a user of Apple’s products and services, I’m often disappointed with Apple’s Cloud offerings. I find iMessage’s quirks irritating, I see a lack of proper synchronization between iBooks on Macs and iDevices, and I’m still waiting for the Cloud version of iWorks to mature. But let’s turn to Horace Dediu for a crisp summary of Apple’s place in the Cloud:

“Not getting the cloud” means that in the last 12 months Apple obtained:
• 800 million iTunes users and
• an estimated 450 million iCloud users spending
•  $3 billion/yr for end-user services plus
•  $4.7 billion/yr for licensing and other income which includes
•  more than $1 billion/yr paid by Google for traffic through Apple devices and
•  $13 billion/yr in app transactions of which
•  $9 billion/yr was paid to developers and
•  $3.9 billion/yr was retained as operating budget and profit for the App Store.

In addition,
•  more than $1 billion/yr in Apple TV (aka Apple’s Kindle) and video sales and
• $2.7 billion/yr in music download sales and
• $1 billion/yr in eBooks sold

In summary, iTunes, Software and Services has been growing between 30% and 40% for four years and is on its way to $30 billion/yr in transactions and sales for 2014.

Horace is right; Fred Wilson clearly hasn’t done the numbers.


I was still on the road when I read about the rumored $3.2B acquisition of Beats Electronics, the company that began in the headphone business and then spawned a streaming music service.

I’m puzzled. If the rumors prove true, Apple may be guilty of misunderstanding itself.

The hardware side, headphones, is immaterial: The products may look good, but their audio quality is regularly panned. And the revenue, about $500M, doesn’t move the needle.

The current wisdom is that Apple is mostly interested in Beats Music, the subscription streaming service. But that business isn’t big, either; it has only attracted about 110K subscribers.

Maybe Apple is interested in Beats Music’s technology and its vision for the future of streaming and music curation. I took the time to watch Walt Mossberg’s interview of Jimmy Iovine in which the Beats co-founder gives hints about his plans. Iovine’s AI-with-a-human-touch solution for delivering “what comes next” is technically vague — and vaguely dystopian (“we’ll scrape your hard drivewe’ll know where you are tomorrow”). I’m not convinced.

We also have rumors that Iovine and Dr. Dre, Beats’ other co-founder, might become some kind of senior advisers to Apple management. Given what I’ve read about Dre’s troubles with the Law, including a battery charge that landed him in jail, and an assault on a female that was settled out of court, I’m troubled. How will this play inside and outside Apple?

I don’t see how such an acquisition would enhance Apple’s business model or reputation.

That said, I hope I’m as wrong as I was when I thought the iPod was doomed to fail against commoditized, yes, that word, MP3 players. I hadn’t seen iTunes behind the hardware, Cloud storage, the distribution and micro-payments infrastructure that would one day make the iPhone and App Phone.

I also see people whose intellect and motives I respect strongly support the rumored acquisition. Preeminent among them is Ben Thompson who, in his Stratechery blog, explores Why Apple Is Buying Beats. There, after positing personal computers might have reached their peak, Ben asks whether Apple is in fact reinventing itself as a kind of fashion house [emphasis mine]:

“Or are we witnessing a reinvention, into the sort of company that seeks to transcend computing, demoting technology to an essential ingredient of an aspirational brand that identifies its users as the truly with it? Is Apple becoming a fashion house? Think about it: you have Jony Ive as all-up head of design, the equivalent of a Tom Ford or Donatella Versace. There is the hire of Angela Ahrendts – why would she leave the CEO position of Burberry for a Senior VP role? You have an iPhone framed as an experience, not a product. And now you acquire an accessory maker differentiated almost completely by its brand, not its inherent technical quality.”

And ponders at the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t of such cultural change:

“Still, I can imagine the very thought of Apple positioning itself as a fashionable luxury brand is somewhat nauseating for many of my readers. It’s an understandable reaction, and one I somewhat share. I worry that Apple is losing what makes Apple, Apple, especially that desire to make the power of computing accessible for normal people. But I also know that stasis means stagnation, and over the long-run, death.”

To be continued…

The Ripple Effects of Disruptive Models


Last week, we discussed the impact of services such as Uber or Airbnb. More broadly, no sectors is immune to major overhauls. Today, we’ll have a look at the impact of Disruptors. 

Nested in Paris’ Le Marais neighborhood, a clever incubator/think-thank called TheFamily, made its mission to chronicle the digital transformation of our society. Largely inspired by the iconic Ycombinator incubator, TheFamily funds and provides all sorts of services to a hundred plus startups. But it also wants to rattle the establishment with an activist posture. Paraphrasing the “Barbarians at the Gate” book title, the incubator hosts a conference series titled Les Barbares Attaquent (Barbarians On The Attack) that examines all the sectors to be impacted by the digital tidal wave.

The latest event (#18) featured the book industry. Prior to that, human resources, retail, luxury, housing & construction, health, transportation, education, garment industry, consulting, insurance, finance and other sectors were dissected by TheFamily partners and guest speakers. Each time with a larger attendance.

One of the founders, Nicolas Colin, recently made headlines when his blog post (fr) denounced the notoriously archaic parisian taxi lobby (see previous Monday Note), triggering a lawsuit from Nicolas Rousselet, the owner of the main French taxi company G7. (Nicolas is the son of André Rousselet, himself one of former president François Mitterrand’s favorite oligarchs, anointed TV mogul in the late Eighties). By suing the blogger, Rousselet Jr. wanted to shut down any criticism of his company’s unrelenting conservatism. In fact, he completely underestimated the reaction of the French digital multitude that rallied en masse to support the blogger (and the media La Tribune, that republished the infamous post.)

This little Gallic tale illustrates the split between the old and the new economy. It could have happened in Brussels, Berlin or San Francisco where lobbies furiously oppose the rise of Disruptors that threaten transportation or short-term rental housing — among other things.

Before we go further, let’s look at the engine of the Disruptors’ phenomenal growth. It can be summed up to one phrase: unprecedented access to capital.

When it comes to technology, Uber or Airbnb are not rocket science. The platform and the algorithm needed to efficiently match supply & demand have been indeed brilliantly implemented, but there is no need beyond off-the-shelf technologies to set up the whole thing. By contrast, when Google started in 1998, it did stretch the limits of the technology of the day (networking and computing power); as for Facebook, despite the relative crudeness of the original concept, it had to deal very early with scalability issues. Actually on its very first day, Mark Zuckerberg’s hottest girl matching system (how nice) crashed Harvard’s network. No such headache for Uber or Airbnb who rely on proven technologies: cellular network, mapping, databases, LAMP-based softwares. As shown in the following three graphs, funding has been equally abundant for these areas:

319-google 319 facebook 319 uber 319 Airbnb

Not only have investors poured big money in Uber and Airbnb but they did so extremely fast, boosting the valuation of these two companies to staggering levels. Since there is very little technology involved, where did the money go? Mostly to market share acquisitions, the only way to leave the competition in the dust for good. Take Airbnb: in just one year, its number of listed spaces grew more than doubled to 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. Its $10bn valuation puts it head-to-head with the giant group Accor that operates 3500 brick-and-mortar hotels and 450,000 rooms.

In these new models, the American venture capital ecosystem is acting as a weapon of mass domination. When Uber collects more than $300 million in VC money to expand in 100 cities worldwide, its London-based competitor HailO got “only” $77m and when it comes to the French LeCab, it only raised €11m ($15m). It shows how anemic the French system is when it comes to funding its startups; instead of patting the registered cabs sector in the back with demagogic promises, the successive digital economy ministers would have been better advised to act decisively to stimulate access to capital.

Still, the European way of resisting these new models won’t last for long. To be sure, in Brussels, the ill-named “ministry of mobility” decided to simply forbid Uber-like system; in France, the resistance is more messy when hundreds of yelling taxi divers blocked main streets and airport accesses. But grass-root movements are likely to morph into a more anglo-saxon-like lobbying, with highly paid professional hired to defend special interests.

Consider this: between 1998 and 2013, the amount spent in Washington DC alone by various lobbies has grown x16 in constant dollars to a staggering $3.23bn. Today, tech firms are the fourth contributor after pharmaceuticals, insurance and oil & gas: when a big pharma spend $1.00 to influence lawmakers, tech companies now spend $0.63 and the gap is closing.

Why am I mentioning this? It’s because the capital raised by Disruptors will inevitably find its way to effective lobbyism in Brussels (at the European Commission), and eventually in Paris or Berlin.

Disruptors’ lobbyists will argue that new urban transportations system and peer-to-peer housing rental do more good than harm in the community. And for the most part, they might be right. Sharing cars in congested cities via system such as RelayRides definitely makes sense from a environment standpoint when any individual car stays idle 95% of the time. A survey conducted by UC Berkeley (pdf here) on a 6,000 San Francisco residents participating on car-sharing system revealed a drop of 50% in the personal car ownership (the auto industry might not like it, but our lungs will.)

On the economic side, there is no shortage or arguments either. Terminating the paid-for license system (the so-called Medallion) would free €3 billion in Paris, and $10 billion in New York, sums now immobilized and promised to an inexorable deflation. In times of raising inequality, maybe it is not such a bad idea to let people make extra money by renting their apartment or their car — with limitations, of course. To put some figures on the idea: an Airbnb host in San Francisco is making $9,300 per year on average by renting his/er property 58 nights. As for those who makes their personal car available for sharing though RelayRides, they make on average $250 a month.

As for the hotel industry, evidence shows Airbnb’s growth to have very little impact. According to the Boston University School of Management, in the state of Texas, a growth of 1% in Airbnb supply translated into only a 0,05% decrease in the revenue of 4,000 hotels surveyed, while a single percentage point of increase in the supply of regular hotels rooms translated into a 0.29% decrease — 20 times more — in Texas hotel revenues. Of course, cheap hotels are more impacted than the local Hyatt.

Between consumers who are voting with their smartphones, enjoying Uber or Airbnb, and the fact that Disruptors are undoubtedly beneficial to the community, regulators and lawmakers will have hard time defending the status quo.

In fact, they are left with two levers: making sure that the consumer is properly protected form any abuse (that’s already the case, basically) and dealing smartly with the tax issue. The digital economy has a long track-record of linking success to hubris — in practical terms, it means a strong disregard for local tax systems. Here in Europe, the first thing Uber and Airbnb did was setting most of their operations in tax-friendly places such as Luxembourg or Ireland — like Apple or Google before them. On the long run, that’s obviously a mistake as politicians will seize on the opportunity to further single out these new models. In fact, Disruptors would be well-advised to play by the rules in order to insure the sustainability of their services.

Uber, Airbnb vs Cartels and Regulators


Disruptive models for transportation or accommodations are perfect illustrations for the gap between friction-free, agile new models and the cohort of status quo defenders. For their part, regulators, lost as they are in digital translation, are worse than powerless. (Part of an series on Disruptors)  

Last week, a member of the French Parliament released a long-awaited report addressing the fight between taxi-cabs and digital-era car services such as Uber. In the meantime, the new socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is training her guns on Airbnb, the acclaimed lodging system that is making a killing in the capital.

Not all the disruptors are Ugly Americans, though. Local startups take advantage of an unfortunate side of French culture – bad service at high prices – to put a dent in established markets. To name but a few: Drivy, a car rental system between individual, offers a inexpensive service available 24/7 (most French car rental agencies in Paris downtown are closed on Sundays) and, thanks to the backing of the German insurer Allianz, the company has the resources to grow; similarly, TripnDrive offers free airport parking if you make your car available for rental (of course you get paid if the car is actually rented), again with the backing of a major insurer.

What’s going on in Europe is interesting. Let’s focus on Uber (a serious knee injury made me an assiduous customer of Uber and drivers gave me lots of details about their economics). The office of the Prime Minister commissioned a report after last January’s violent protests by registered cabs who blocked airports accesses and attacked some Uber cars. In France, every government from right to left, has a solid track record of yielding to street protests, which explains why the country is so immune to structural reforms such as the ones implemented in Canada or Sweden. To the PM’s credit, hearings where thorough and the report (PDF here in French) provides a detailed view of the situation. To make it short, city cabs are artificially limited to 17,636 cars for the Greater Paris, thanks to a license system that cost around €200,000 in Paris (€300,000 in Nice or Cannes; in New York a medallion can fetch $1 million). Such malthusian, lobby-driven policies lead to poor supply: Only 3 cabs for 1000 inhabitants in Paris, vs. 13,5 in NYC, 11 in London, 8 in San Francisco, 7 in Seoul, etc.

Practically, a Paris cab driver willing to work as an independent (as many do) must cough up close to €300,000 ($415,000) — that will include the mandatory license, the car, equipment, affiliation to a dispatching system, insurance —  before earning a single euro. Should h/she should choose to lease a taxi, the cost will be €4500 per month for the whole setup. No wonder why taxi drivers are jealously defending their expensive turf.

On the service side, it’s not a pretty sight: filthy cars, credit cards not accepted, beware if you don’t tip, rough manners (like in a bistro, clients are always a pain), endless tales of foreigners overcharged, no cars in sight when it rains, if you book it, expect an “approach fee” of €10-15 (plus €7 minimum fee, plus $35 per hour of waiting time or traffic jam), you’re expected have change on you, etc.  I feel bad conveying such a picture, but that is exactly the situation.

Needless to say, this left a wide open field to Uber-like systems that offer all the agility of modern digital services. Based on multiple interviews I made during my daily trips:
– Drivers are much younger than regular taxi drivers; the oldest ones are former cab drivers who hastily sold their beloved license before it depreciates.
– Above all, they enjoy the freedom of working whenever they want (especially when the demand is high) and the simplicity of the whole process.
– Most want to develop a business around it (some share a sedan with an associate and develop their own clientèle).
– The entry price is much lower. No license needed to operate, and if the driver cannot or will not invest, rental is much cheaper: €2,000/month max, versus €4,500 for a registered cab.
– A swift and friction-free system for booking and paying (no-money exchange with the driver).
– Greater security for the driver who doesn’t carry cash and whose customers are duly identified in the system.

The French government’s response? Restriction and demagoguery. After the cabs’ violent outburst, the administration decided to freeze car service registrations. Today, the report’s authors are willing to constrain Uber’s development.

For instance, it recommends to forbid what it calls “digital hailing”, i.e, the ability to visualize on the app the nearest cab and hiring it, like here:


This possibility of visual geolocation would be left exclusively to registered cabs (although none of them use any app). Uber and its likes would be restricted to advanced reservation — which turns to be a fine line: Uber’s geolocation system is powered by FourSquare’s database of various places. Practically it means booking a Uber car from the Café de Flore  by name is fine, but I can’t use the street address of the place. The parliamentary report is filled with such nonsense and betrays a deliberate disregard for the user perspective (a notion not even mentioned in the opus.)

Legislators and lobbies are missing a key point here. What users enjoy the most with services like Uber or Airbnb are two things:

(a) The lightness and the reliability of the intermediation : an app acts as a trusted third party that, in addition, will smartly address the supply and demand issue. As an example, next month, Uber is going to dispatch more than 100 of its best limo drivers for the Cannes Film Festival to address the surge in demand (apparently, there is so much work on the Croisette that local cabs are willing to tolerate the newcomers.)

(b) The frictionless and robust transaction system: The cell phone is the sole payment vector in the case of Uber, and Airbnb is acting as an escrow agent that guarantees the transaction for both parties.

By and large, the European resistance to the digital modernization of commercial services is driven by two concurrent ideological postures: defense of well-established, well-identified leagues — and strong anti-americanism.

In Brussels, on April 15th, a court order issued a straightforward ban of application-powered car services such as Uber, triggering the anger of the European commissioner for digital policies Neelie Kroes (see also her adamant blog post):

As for the socialist French MP, while his report leans only softly in favor of the old-fashion cab system that no French government wants to upset, its own website clearly expresses his personal bias again what he calls “Uber’s Cow-boy behavior” (always the long-standing cliché) and the fact that Google is behind the service.

Disruptive models are growing like weeds. Everywhere.

Next week, we’ll explore four critical issues:

1. The long term macroeconomic impact of disruptors, once they’ll have percolated in almost every sectors; how to deal with heavily funded players (Uber and Airbnb are valued at $3.5bn and $10bn respectively, and the fact they are not willing to pay taxes in their local markets).

2. The social impact for the new breed of workers who enthusiastically — sometimes naively — embrace such newcomers.

3.  The cascading effects of disruptors that will call for a modernization of many connected sectors (e.g. all sorts insurances, funding systems) and the underlying factors that pave the way for earthquake-like disruptions.

4. The upcoming transformation of industry lobbies and its political impact.

This is just the beginning of the story.

Science Fiction: Mining My Own Exhaust


A few thoughts on Big Data, self-knowledge, and my hopes for the emergence of a new genre of services.

I’m about to fulfill an old fantasy — the Great American Road Trip. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto. In that spirit, today I’ll luxuriate in another, more distant reverie: Mining my own data exhaust.

I’m spurred to this indulgence by the words of Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, at an April 15th event in San Francisco [emphasis mine]:

“The core evolution of silicon, software and hardware is putting computing everywhere humans are present,” Nadella said. “And it’s generating a massive data exhaust of server logs, sensor data and unstructured social stream information. We can use that exhaust to create ambient intelligence for our users.”

Nadella’s right. I leave a cloud of data exhaust with my Web browsing, credit card purchases, cell phone use, monthly blood tests, pharmacy purchases, and airline trips. Server logs detail the length and breadth of my social interactions on Facebook and Google+… And I don’t have to be on a computer to add to the cloud: I’m tracked by toll passes and license plate snapshots as I drive my car. The car itself monitors my driving habits with its black box recording of my speed and direction. This list, far from exhaustive [no pun intended], is sobering – or exciting, full of possibilities.

Today, we’ll skip the Orwellian paranoia and fantasize about an alternate universe where I can “turn the gratis around”, where I can buy my data back.

Google, Facebook, and the like provide their services for free to induce us to lead them to the mother lode: Our cache of product preferences, search history, and web habits. They forge magic ingots from our personal data, sell the bullion to advertisers, and thus fuel the server farms that mine even more data. I’m not here to throw a monkey wrench into this business model; au contraire, I offer a modest source of additional revenues: I’d like to buy my data back. And I’ll extend that offer to any and all entities that mine my activities: For you, at a special price today, I’m buying my data.

(We all understand that this fantasy must take place in an alternate universe. If our legislators and regulators were beholden to us and not to Google, Verizon, and “Concast” [a willful typo from Twitter wags], they would have long ago made it mandatory that companies provide us with our own data exhaust.)

Pursuing this train of thought, one can conceive of brokers scouring the world for my exhausts — after having secured the right permissions from me, of course. Once this becomes an established activity, no particular feat of imagination is required to see the emergence of Big Data processing companies capable of merging and massaging the disparate flumes obtained from cell carriers, e-merchants, search engines, financial services and other service providers.

So far, especially because it lacks numbers and other annoying implementation details, the theory sounds nice. But to what end?

The impulse can be viewed as a version of the old Delphic injunction: Know Thyself, now updated as Know Thine Quantified Self: Quantify what I do with my body, time, money, relationships, traveling, reading, corresponding, driving, eating… From there, many derivations come to mind, such as probabilistic diagnoses about my health, financial situation, career, and marriage. Or I could put my data in turnaround, mandate a broker to shop facets of my refined profile to the top agencies.

Even if we set aside mounds of unresolved implementation details, objections arise. A key member of my family pointedly asks how much do we really want to know about ourselves?

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a politely cynical Parisian tailor. I ventured that he could help his customers choose a suit by snapping a picture and displaying it on a 80” flat screen TV in portrait mode. My idea was that the large scale digital picture would offer a much more realistic, a more objective image than does a look in the mirror. The customer would be able to see himself as others see him, what effect the new suit would produce – which, after all, is the point of new duds.

“No way,” said the Parisian fashionista, “are you nuts? My customers, you included,” he tartly added, “really don’t want the cruel truth about their aging bodies…”

Still, I’m curious. And not just about the shape and color of the data exhaust that I leave in my wake, about the truths — pleasant or embarrassing — that might be revealed. I’m curious about the types of companies, services, and business models that would emerge from this arrangement. Even more fascinating: How would the ability to mine and sell our own data affect our cultural vocabulary and social genetics?

PS: As offered here, I recently downloaded my Facebook data set. The data doesn’t appear to be very revealing, but that could be the result of my low Facebook involvement — I’m not a very active user. I’d be curious to see the size and detail level associated with a more involved participant.

PPS: I’ll be on the road, literally, for the next three weeks and may or may not be able to post during that time.

The iPad Is a Tease


As Apple is about to release its latest quarterly numbers, new questions arise about the iPad’s “anemic” growth. The answer is simple – but the remedies are not.

The iPad isn’t growing anymore. What happened? 

In anticipation of Apple’s latest quarterly numbers – they’ll be announced on April 23rd – the usual prerelease estimates swirl around the Web. You can find Yahoo’s summary of analysts’ estimates here; Paul Leitao’s Posts At Eventide provides a detailed and tightly reasoned history and forecast for the March 2014 quarter.

The consensus is that for the company as a whole, there won’t be any surprises: Apple will meet the guidance stated in its January 27th earnings call. Revenue will be down, as befits the quarter following the Christmas shopping frenzy, but profit per share (EPS) will be up a bit.

Boring. With one glaring exception:

Braeburn Group iPad Edited
(Source: The Braeburn Group)

In the same quarter for 2013, the iPad’s year-on-year growth was about 55%. Some of this phenomenal growth was due to a rebound from earlier iPad mini supply constraints, but that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop from 2013 to this year.

Are the iPad’s go-go years over?

As Philip Elmer-DeWitt reports on his Apple 2.0 site, this gloomy prediction appears to be the majority opinion among analysts. Elmer-DeWitt acknowledges that there are outliers — Horace Dediu comes in at the high end with an estimate of 21.8M units (and positive growth) — but “the consensus estimate of 19.3 million, would represent a 0.7% decline”.

It’s one thing for a product to increase in unit volume sales but still grow less than the overall market — that’s simply a loss of market share. And we know how fallacious share numbers can be in the absence of an honest disclosure of sales volumes. No, assuming the estimates are right, what we have here isn’t market share dilution, it isn’t a post-Christmas lull, it’s a year-to-year decline in absolute unit numbers.


I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

To explain, let’s go back four years.

Steve Jobs’ last creation took us by surprise, price included, and was initially panned by many in the kommentariat, from Eric Schmidt to Dan Lyons (who subsequently recanted). But normal humans joyously took to the iPad. In 1984, one of Apple’s tag line for the Mac was “Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.” Decades later, the iPad was quickly perceived as a sort of second coming. As MacWorld put it in June 2011: Now Apple’s really “for the rest of us”.

Indeed, the iPad wasn’t targeted at a particular type — or generation — of user. David Hockney has produced exquisite iPad “paintings”. Daniel Borel, Logitech’s co-founder, told me that his two-year old grandson immediately “got” the iPad (even if it was just to play games, but…he’s two). Coming out of our breakfast meeting, I crossed paths with a couple of seniors — octogenarians, probably — who proudly told me that they were going to an iPad training session at the Palo Alto Apple Store.

The iPad rose and rose. It won legions of admirers because of its simplicity: No windows (no pun), no file system, no cursor keys (memories of the first Mac). Liberated from these old-style personal computer ways, the iPad cannibalized PC sales and came to be perceived as the exemplar Post-PC device.

But that truly blissful simplicity exacts a high price. I recall my first-day disappointment when I went home and tried to write a Monday Note on my new iPad. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to create a real-life composite document, one that combines graphics, spreadsheet data, rich text from several sources and hyperlinks. For such tasks, the Rest of Us have to go back to our PCs and Macs.

I realize there are iPad users who happily perform “productivity tasks” on their iPads. Most of them use a stand and keyboard sold in a number of guises. The number of different offerings is a testament to a real need. (We’ll note that Apple doesn’t seem eager to address this issue directly. They don’t offer an “iPad-sized” keyboard — the Bluetooth keyboard I use is fine for my iMac, but feels gargantuan when I pair it with my iPad. And Apple’s iPad Dock hasn’t been updated to work with the “Lightning” connector on the newer iPads.)

The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages?

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

In his introduction of the iPad in January, 2010, Jobs himself seemed a bit tentative when positioning his latest creation. Sitting in the Le Corbusier chair, Jobs stated that his new tablet would have to “find its place between the iPhone and the Mac”.

This “in-between place” is still elusive.

Microsoft tried to find that “in-between place”, and we know how well that worked. For the Redmond company, the iPad’s limitations were an opportunity: Simply emulate the charm and intuitiveness of the market-leading tablet and cater to the needs of the “professional” user. With its touch interface and keyboard, the Surface device sounded like the solution that had eluded Microsoft’s earlier PC Tablets. In the field, customers didn’t like the dueling interfaces, nor the introduction of layers of complexity where simplicity had been promised. Surface tablets didn’t move the revenue needle and cost Microsoft a $900M write-down.

The iPad represents about 20% of Apple’s revenue; allowing iPad numbers to plummet isn’t acceptable. So far, Apple’s bet has been to keep the iPad simple, rigidly so perhaps, rather than creating a neither-nor product: No longer charmingly simple, but not powerful enough for real productivity tasks. But if the iPad wants to cannibalize more of the PC market, it will have to remove a few walls.

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

None of this is news to Apple execs, but they also know that success doesn’t depend on What, on a simple feature list. The next step in iPad growth will depend on How new features are integrated into the user experience. It’s a tricky game of the Best of Both Worlds…and it tripped up Microsoft.

When will we know? I have no idea. Perhaps at the WWDC this coming June.

Religion is a safer bet than Facebook


Facebook’s incredible global reach and success appear to forestall challenges. In the long run, though, the social network’s growth and its frantic quest for new revenue sources raise questions. (First of two articles)    

Casting doubt on Facebook’s future is like going to Rome and questioning the existence of God. It’s not the right venue to do so. First, you can’t argue with figures, they’re overwhelming. Each institution features about the same number of devotees: 1.2 billion across the world. As for financials, Facebook’s annual report shows strong growth and wealth: $7.8bn in revenue for 2013 (+ 55% vs 2012), net income at $1.5bn and a $11bn cash pile. As for the Catholic Church, since it doesn’t not issue financial statements, we are left to guesstimates. Two years ago, a story in the Economist provided a back-of-the-envelope calculation putting the operating budget of the American Catholic Church alone to $170bn, the bulk being health and educational institutions, with $11bn for parishes where hardcore users are – which, for that part, is much better than Facebook.

Why, then, question Facebook’s future? Mainly for two reasons: ARPU evolution and diversification.

Let’s look at a few metrics. The most spectacular is the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) base: 1.23 billion people for the entire world. An interesting way to look at that number is to break down the global MAUs into geographic zones and combine those with ARPU numbers (calculated from the quarterly figures stated in the annual report). The results look like this:


Facebook’s long term challenge comes from these two factors: North American growth will be flat this year, and the rest of the world doesn’t bring much. The company is heavily and increasingly dependent on advertising: from 85% of its revenue in 2012 to 89% last year. Logically, its only option is to squeeze more money per user — which it steadily managed to do thus far. But, in the Facebook ecosystem, making more money from ads means milking more cash from users’ data. This, in turn, will lead to a greater invasion of privacy. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother Mark Zuckerberg, who is a transparency apologist.

Actually: Is he or was he?

As author David Kirkpatrick pointed out in his excellent opus, The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg once said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (and judging by FB’s content policy, anyone can wonder if putting a breast-feeding pictures a sign of depravation?)

That was then.

Now, to address privacy concerns, Facebook is said to consider anonymous logins. It’s probably a good idea to back off a bit on the totalitarian pitch quoted above, but since the extensive data-mining performed by the network is made much more valuable by its use of real user names, anonymous logins are sure to impact the ARPU in the more mature markets. Along that line of thought, in Europe, Facebook’s ARPU is less than half of what it is in the US & Canada: $8.04 vs. $18.70. This significantly lower number stems from privacy concerns that are much more developed in European countries. There, the 20-25 segment seems especially worried about the consequences of spending too much time on Facebook.

A remaining lever is what I’ll call the Big Tobacco strategy: Do elsewhere what you can no longer do on your home playing field. Facebook might not be as cynical as Philip Morris (reborn as Altria as an attempt to erase the stain), but it is undoubtedly bound to try and replicate its successful collect-and-milk consumer data mechanism.

This might take a while to achieve.

First because of the ultra-slim ARPU generated by emerging markets users. You might object that the Indian market, as an example, currently enjoys growth along two dimensions: more users, with growing incomes. Granted. But the more sophisticated the India market becomes, the more inclined it will be to create a social network much more attuned to its own culture than a Menlo Park-based system manned by geeks in hoodies. Never underestimate the power, nor the determination of locals. And, let’s not dream too much about a huge Chinese version of Facebook.

Also, for Facebook, the cost of operating its service will make the ARPU question one of growing urgency. Again, based on the 2013 annual report, FB’s Cost of Revenue — mostly infrastructure —  amounts to $1.9bn. Divided by the 757 million DAUs, it costs $2.5 per year to serve a single daily user, that is connecting to his/er pals, hosting photos, videos, etc. If we aggregate all the cost structure components (networking, giant data centers and also R&D, sales & marketing, administrative), the cost of taking care of a single daily user rise to $6.69 per year and $4.12 for a monthly user. It’s still fine for an American and a European, much less so for an Asian who brings a yearly ARPU of $3.15, or an African who brings a mere $2.64 (in theory, the strain on the infrastructure is roughly the same, regardless of user location).

But some will argue Facebook is doing quite well on mobile. Out of its 1.23 billion monthly users, FB says 945 million reach its service via a mobile each month and 556 million do so on a daily basis. And, as stated in its 10-K, mobile is at the core of Facebook’s future:

There are more than 1.5 billion internet users on personal computers, and more than three billion mobile users worldwide according to GSMA Wireless Intelligence, and we aspire to someday connect all of these people. 

Fine, but once again, the ARPU weakens the ambition. While a mobile subscriber in the US and Europe brings respectively $69 and $38 each year (source: GSMA), according to the Cellular Operator Association of India, a Indian mobile subscriber yields only $1.72 per year. This makes advertising projections a tricky exercise.

As it expands, Facebook’s current model will inevitably yield less and less money per user. Hence, its frenetic quest for diversification and service extensions — a topic we’ll address in a future Monday Note.

As for the Church, it certainly is a safer bet than Facebook: The user base is less volatile, the interface blends much better into local cultures, barriers to competitive entries are stronger (and much older), and believers have long sacrificed their privacy to articles of faith.


The Browser Is The OS: 19 Years Later


So it was declared in the early days: Web apps will win over native apps. Why let the facts cloud an appealing theory?

Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, is credited with many bold, visionary claims such as “Everyone Will Have the Web” (ca. 1992), “Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud” (1999), “Everything Will Be Social” (2004, four years before joining Facebook’s Board), and “Software Will Eat the World” (2009).

But not all of Andreessen’s predictions are as ringing and relevant. His 1995 proclamation that “The Browser Will Be the Operating System” still reverberates around the Web, despite the elusiveness of the concept.

The idea is that we can rid our computing devices of their bulky, buggy operating systems by running apps in the Cloud and presenting the results in a Web browser. The heavy lifting is performed by muscular servers while our lightweight devices do nothing more than host simple input/output operations. As a result, our devices will become more agile and reliable, they’ll be less expensive to buy and maintain, we’ll never again have to update their software.

The fly in the ointment is the word connected. As Marc Andreessen himself noted in a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:

[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.

So what do we do until we have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity?

We must build off-line capabilities into our devices, local programs that provide the ability to format and edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the absence of a connection to the big App Engines in the Cloud. Easy enough, all you have to do is provide a storage mechanism (a.k.a. a file system), local copies of your Cloud apps, a runtime environment that can host the apps, a local Web server that your Browser can talk to… The inventory of software modules that are needed to run the “Browser OS” in the absence of a connection looks a lot like a conventional operating system… but without a real OS’s expressive power and efficiency.

For expressive power, think of media intensive applications. Photoshop is a good example: It could never work with a browser as the front end, it requires too much bandwidth, the fidelity of the image is too closely tied to the specifics of the display.

With regard to efficiency, consider the constant low-level optimizations required to conserve battery power and provide agile user interaction, none of which can be achieved in a browser plug-in.

Certainly, there are laudable arguments in support of The Browser Is The OS theory. For example: Unified cross-platform development. True, developing an app that will run on a standardized platform decreases development costs, but, let’s think again, do we really want to go for the lowest common denominator? A single standard sounds comfy and economical but it throttles creativity, it discourages the development of apps that take advantage of a device’s specialized hardware.

Similarly, a world without having to update your device because the Cloud always has the latest software is a comforting thought.. but, again, what about when you’re off-line? Also, a growing number of today’s computing devices automatically update themselves.

In any case, the discussion may be moot: The people who pay our salaries — customers — blithely ignore our debates. A recent Flurry Analytics report shows that “Six years into the Mobile Revolution” apps continue to dominate the mobile Web. We spend 86% of our time using apps on our mobile devices and only 14% in our browsers:

Apps 86 Browser 14

…and app use is on the rise, according to the Flurry Analytics forecast for 2014:

Apps Web Flurry 2013 2014

So how did Andreessen get it so wrong, why was his prediction so wide of the mark? It ends up he wasn’t wrong… because he never said “The Browser Will Be the Operating System”. Although it has been chiseled into the tech history tablets, the quote is apocryphal. 

While doing a little bit of research for this Monday Note, I found a 1995 HotWired article, by Chip Bayers, strangely titled “Why Bill Gates Wants to Be the Next Marc Andreessen”. (Given Microsoft’s subsequent misses and Marc Andreessen’s ascendency, perhaps we ought to look for other Chip Bayer prophecies…) The HotWired piece gives us a clear “asked and answered” Andreessen quote [emphasis mine]:

“Does the Web browser become something like an operating system?

No, it becomes a new type of platform. It doesn’t try to do the things an operating system does. Instead of trying to deal with keyboards, mouses, memory, CPUs, and disk drives, it deals with databases and files that people want to secure – transactions and things like that. We’re going to make it possible for people to plug in anything they want.”

Nearly two decades later, we still see stories that sonorously expound “The Browser Is The OS” theory. Just google the phrase and you’ll be rewarded with 275M results such as “10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS” or “The Browser Is The New Operating System”. We also see stories that present Google’s Chrome and Chromebooks as the ultimate verification that the prediction has come true.

The Browser Is The OS is a tech meme, an idea that scratches an itch. The nonquote was repeated, gained momentum, and, ultimately, became “Truth”. We’ll be polite and say that the theory is “asymptotically correct”… while we spend more energy figuring out new ways to curate today’s app stores.

Lessons from a good vertical:


For digital media companies, creating good verticals that breed small but valuable audiences has become essential. On that subject, here are my takeaways following a conversation with Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of In 20 months, Rafat’s company has become a reference in the travel intelligence business. 

There is no excuse for not trying to build a vertical digital service (web site & mobile app) for a strong media company shifting to digital. As long as you have a powerful (not to be confused with profuse) newsroom coupled with a well-structured contents system, trying a foray in a specific domain is worth considering. As an example, see Atlantic Media, one of the most innovative media brands, as it deploys a series of verticals nested in its Government Executive Media Group. These units all generate small but extremely valuable and loyal audiences — and enviable revenue per user (more on the Atlantic in a future Monday Note).

Building a vertical is a mere matter of implementation, you might say. But a look below the surface shows how such process demands much more than merely putting a small group of good writers in a digital stable, and asking them to gather news on a specific subject.

That’s why drew my attention. In less than twenty months, manned by only 9 people crammed in an mid-town Manhattan office, has become a strong voice and a reference in the travel industry: airlines, booking systems, hotels, tour operators – and all the the sector’s disruptors.


I met Rafat Ali five years ago in Hyderabad, India; we were both of speaking at the same conference. Rafat was about to exit his first and remarkable startup, (a terrible name he now laughs off), one of the first blogs decoding the media industry’s transformation. After building it from scratch and spending eight exhausting years producing and editing stories, Rafat sold it to the Guardian for a reported $30m – right before the 2008 crisis. (Last year, PaidContent was acquired by GigaOm).

After a short transition, Rafat was free to go. So did he. In 2010, at the age of 36, he left for a two-year series of trips to Oman, Iceland, Burma, India (where he has family), radiating from his bases in New York and London. At last out of PaidContent’s trenches, he took the time to read a hundred books during his journeys. Following @rafat on Twitter, you could feel his excitement, and also his growing interest in the travel sector.

‘You have to remember, it was 2010, the iPad had just been launched, everyone was thinking about what to build on it’, said Rafat. His first idea was to re-invent the travel guide book for the iPad. But he soon realized how crappy the whole travel industry’s information ecosystem was: ‘I was blown away.’ While the transactional part of the travel business had been completely broken apart by a massive, unprecedented disintermediation — benefiting the customer, trade information remained frozen in the past, with its sets of professional printed publications perpetuating a jargon-filled verbiage offering little or no actionable intelligence, nor useful data

Nature (and digital business) abhors vacuum, so does Rafat Ali, who decided to fill the void. When asked to define Skift in a nutshell, he said this: ‘In late 2011, we wanted to build the Bloomberg News of travel’. (When it comes to business information, this is quite a goal. Never aim low, I can’t agree more.) Rafat’s wanted to build something based on a few concepts: rely heavily on data, capitalize on the open-web, use APIs aggressively (to connect with third party data sets), aim at professionals, consultants, experts, and — last but not the least — prosumers who often know more than merchants. (Read Rafat’s post on the “Mediata” Startups).

The other key to Skift’s concept — which means shift in Danish — was tearing apart the silo culture that plagued the travel industry for decades: ‘You have airlines, airports, cruises, hotels, technology… All of these silos have collapsed in global interconnected megatrends, and we knew we could make our voice heard across all…’, explained Rafat while pointing at this graph:

Graph ©

As far as editorial is concerned, Rafat believes journalistic content is needed to create addiction, daily use, while-data related products generate usefulness, stickiness, loyalty and, ultimately, monetization. Content-wise, at the beginning, the site was built on four “legs”: aggregation (collecting headlines); curation (with a tweet-length phrase to describe a story); licensed content (full articles brought from news providers); and originally produced articles. Today, Skift is down to two items: 40% of articles are licensed (mostly Newscred) and 60% are original content — about 15-20 short business stories (produced by a staff of three…)

Business-wise, Skift positioned itself primarily as a B2B company, then secondarily as B2B-2C. Its traffic is still modest (1m UVs/mo), but growing fast; so does its newsletter business, expected to reach 75,000 subscribers by year end. No mobile apps in sight as the mobile web works well for Skift: mobile users account for 35% of web traffic and 50% of newsletters readings.

Skift sells few but high yield ads, to the point that Rafat is about to create a tiny studio to create bespoke brand contents. (Maintaining the mandatory Chinese wall could be tricky in such a small structure.)

But Skift’s true gem is its industry dashboards and data collection system, a well-structured tree that leads to scores of statistics and rankings. Inside, you’ll learn that AirBnB — whose valuation is now higher than Hyatt — has a Skift Score (a combination of indicators) roughly twice the “bookings & tools” industry average. Or that Dutch airline KLM scores way better than the hippest Virgin Atlantic. Or that Hertz masters the social ecosystem way better than the trendy Über.

Using data analytics, Skift produces reports — short and updated twice a month (as opposed to quarterly “bibles” prone to quick obsolescence.) ‘We will focus mainly on marketing, strategy and technology to produce competitive intelligence’, said Skift’s CEO. Rafat’s intense focus on doing few things but doing them well extends to the obligatory conference business: Skift intends to do just a single event about the Future of Travel, in a similar fashion to Quartz’sThe Next Billion conference (see the #qznextbillion hashtag for a list of tweets linking to videos). In both cases, these events are built on strong editorial concepts, ‘We want to make a conference about leadership instead of a vendors-to-vendors type…’ said Rafat.

What’s next for Skift? First, an off-site staff meeting in Iceland. Actually, Rafat Ali is considering a global franchise set in Reykjavik. Less anecdotal, Skift founder wants to apply his news and contents formula beyond the travel industry to what he feels are interconnected sectors — at least in discretionary spending — namely food & beverage and retail sectors.

One final note. Looking at the state of travel information, I can’t help but discern a complete failure of traditional, legacy journalism. Too cozy with the main players and their corrupting PR machines, too filled-up with press junkets and freebies, the mainstream media coverage of this $6.5 trillion/260 million jobs sector has become mostly illegible. This leaves a large open field to new players.