Y U No Kickstart?

The presale, best typified by Kickstarter, has become a powerful tool for hardware companies to sample market demand and fund initial manufacturing. It’s not the endless beta-test that software developers have, but it moves in that direction.

Presales are not perfect:  a successful sale is not necessarily evidence of product-market fit.   Witness Ouya, which had one of the most successful campaigns ever, shipped product as promised, but then failed to create a library of compelling games. In this case, users bought into a vision that turned out to be much harder to realize than expected (namely, enabling a vibrant, non-proprietary, micro-console game development ecosystem).
In other cases, a presale may find the hard-core early adopters, but may not represent the broader market.  Kickstarter is littered with small, but successful products that never transitioned to mainstream.
However, a presell failure can be quite telling: if you can’t find (say) a few hundred or thousand buyers out of those bleeding edge adopters, how will you succeed in the main market?
Which leads to a very reasonable investor question:  if your hardware startup has no presale plan, why not?  There may be some good reasons, but that’s become the exception, not the rule.  After all, a presale yields valuable insights, early in the product cycle, for a relatively low amount of work (and work you’re mostly going to have to do anyway).  The process forces a lot of good MVP hygiene:  entrepreneurs have to describe the value clearly, converge the features & design, and understand pricing & margins.
It’s certainly possible that Kickstarter is the strategy fad of the decade, much like India offshore development was 10+ years ago.  But I don’t think so:  the hardware presale is here to stay!

Prototypes As Sales Tools

I’m continually surprised by hardware startups that meet with potential investors, advisors, or partners and don’t bring hardware to show!

If you’re making something physical and it’s transportable, bring it to your meetings.

If you don’t have something to show, consider spending some time on a prototype that you can demonstrate.  A “works-like” or “looks-like” prototype (or both) will go a long way to conveying your vision.

Why Spectrum Auctions are a Bad Idea

Unless you’re still on a flip phone, it’s hard to miss the demand for mobile wireless bandwidth. The FCC is under intense pressure to make more spectrum (frequencies) available for data services, repurposing underused spectrum and obsolete applications (e.g. old UHF TV channels).

As you might imagine, an exclusive FCC license can have significant commercial value.  Given this, the primary method of making wireless bandwidth available (as directed by Congress) is to auction it off.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable approach.  Companies shouldn’t get a government “free lunch”, and we can certainly use the cash ($60 billion to date).  Companies can’t mine Federal land without paying, and the patent system shows how exclusivity incents commercial investment.  Also, a market-based system sounds appealing.

But if our goal is driving innovation and meeting growing bandwidth needs, it’s time to consider that the policy (as the primary way to allocate bandwidth) is seriously flawed.

Unlike oil drilling, spectrum is not a commodity:  1GB used today doesn’t mean there’s less tomorrow.  And license exclusivity is not like patents:  the wireless bidders are not providing a documented technological advance.  Spectrum is a public right-of-way:  what if your local government auctioned off public roads to the highest bidder?  (To be clear:  I’m not suggesting government wireless infrastructure.)

The real problem is that we’re stuck in the translation trap that often happens when we attempt to treat intangible licenses as physical property.  The failure is becoming more clear:  much auctioned spectrum remains underused.  Winners generally have little obligation to actually do anything, and technology advances make it notoriously difficult to estimate future value and bid accurately.  Licenses are for very long periods, not matched to the rapid pace of innovation.

As a result, licenses become expensive trading cards for large wireless companies, with lawyers and regulators involved with every exchange.  Witness the arguing and posturing that’s between Sprint, Clearwire, and all the other wireless companies.  (TL;DR:  Clearwire’s WiMAX business hasn’t gone so well, Sprint wants to buy them for the spectrum value).   Spectrum ends up stuck in a slow-moving, heavy-friction “market”, without being efficiently deployed.

We need a policy that removes friction, by making more unlicensed (or lightly licensed) spectrum available.  The unlicensed bands are a source of significant innovation, starting with CB Radio, and continuing with cordless phones, the Family Radio Service, Wifi, and Bluetooth.   Where else can you buy a 150mbit radio for under $3?  We all switch our phones over to Wifi if it’s available (often provided by a $50 access point).

Our current spectrum policy is a vestige of the old “walled garden” mobile market, where the wireless carriers had exclusive control of the mobile device.  We need a policy that’s aligned with the app-store world, with more spectrum available to innovators that don’t have lawyers and billions of dollars.

This is Not Your Father’s Software Industry

The software industry has seen major changes in the past 10 years, as the business of software has gotten increasingly efficient and friction-free.  Expensive software stacks, primitive tools, million dollar server farms, and 50+ person development teams have given way to free, open source, high-quality tools, small teams, and rentable infrastructure.  There are more skilled people creating software than ever before, and the market provides ways for the best talent to find opportunity well above an annual salary.  And just when you think it couldn’t get any easier to create software, it does.

As friction goes away, things become much more fine-grained.  You don’t need $5m anymore to start a company:  a laptop and a cafe wifi connection will do.  This enables an explosion of new projects, but with smaller teams and narrower ideas.  The industry gorilla platforms fuel a “feature ecosystem”:  are those icons on your phone “apps” or “features”?  Viewed in person terms:  a thousand 100-person software teams might now be 30,000 3-person teams.  Software is no longer a sport of kings.

This effect, in turn, is flattening the industry.  Most projects now start on nearly identical footing, often with many competitors or near-competitors.  It’s like starting a civilization in a desert vs the mountains; there are far fewer strategic passes and valleys to control and extract disproportionate value from surrounding areas.  It’s a maddening conundrum for entrepreneurs and investors:  we’re all toting personal super computers, the world is bathed in wireless access, and there are millions & millions of mobile apps and Web sites.  But why does it feel harder than ever to create a $1b software company?  This is why.

Does this mean software’s dead?  Not at all, not even close.  When Marc Andreessen said “software is eating the world“, he got it exactly right.  Software & computation are fueling a level of innovation, disruption, and advancement never seen before.  But the way software companies extract value is evolving.  In the beginning, software was sold as a product;  then, rented as a service.  Now, many companies use software to enable other services and business models.

However, for the reasons outlined above, companies who are “just software” will have a much harder time achieving scale.  The real opportunities are in the next phase:  embedded software.  This might be software literally embedded in hardware, or cases where software value is embedded in (and enabling) some other business.  For example, Amazon is on their way to being the world’s largest retailer, and is the largest software company that doesn’t sell any software.  Uber is building the world’s largest virtual taxi fleet, and Airbnb has built the world’s largest vacation rental network.

My bet is that the next wave of disruptive software companies will look more like these examples, and less like Oracle, Microsoft, Facebook, or Salesforce.com.

This is not your father’s software business any more.

Game Consoles: The Last Remaining Walled Garden

The reddit user kmesithax wrote a brilliant comment yesterday about the realities of game console development, describing the tools and costs:

Well, no, there is no OpenGL or any graphics API for that matter, it’s all some stupid low-level hardware API that you have to tickle to get any 3D rendering to work.

and

So let’s say you get over your initial API shock, you have a decent handle on what all the little libraries do, and you wanna buy some development hardware now. Well, uh, okay. That’ll be anywhere from $2,600 (leaked 3DS devkit figures) to $10,000 or more (leaked Xbox 360/PS3 devkit figures).

This reminds me exactly of the pre-iPhone “walled garden” mobile app world, when you needed ~$10,000 for a development license for Qualcomm’s “BREW“.  The original article  “The Minecraft Test” (e.g. could your platform spawn the next Minecraft?) is a fabulous way to think about platform openness.  (Also see Nate Brown’s post “Stupid, Stupid Xbox!!” for an insider critique).

The console platforms have completely missed the market transition to open, low-friction developer on-ramps, and it’s no surprise the console market is now anemic.  In contrast, the new OUYA console (I have one on pre-order) has a fledgling, but very open SDK and just had a “game jam“.  The OUYA is under-powered relative to current consoles, but I bet the openness will more than make up for that issue.

Gorilla Anti-Trust Posturing

As the big four (Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) continue to wield disproportionate influence over the digital ecosystem, these gorillas are having to worry a lot more about anti-trust issues.  Nobody wants to be broken up like the Bell System.

For example, last month, Liz Gannes wrote about Facebook’s search plans:

…the fact that Facebook has finally made its search intentions known could actually be really good for Google. That’s because regulators — especially those in Europe, who are in the thick of deciding whether to settle with Google over antitrust — now have the prospect of additional search competition to consider.

Also, Google now has Gmail, Maps, and Chrome on the iPhone, where Apple had previously rejected apps that “duplicate the functionality” of built in iOS apps.  But it doesn’t look good (in anti-trust terms) for Apple to reject competitive apps, and Google’s smart to get as many apps as possible to dilute Apple’s platform influence.

I think it’s net-good for consumers, as it increases the chances that more of our devices and systems will interoperate.  But what we really need are some new gorillas.

IP-Delivered TV: Are We There Yet?

I’ve started watching Netflix’s new original show, House of Cards.  I’m only ~2 episodes in; it’s rough in some places, but I like it.  It definitely has a unique feel and visual style.  More deeply, it’s a $100m bet by Netflix they can “become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”  (One of the clearest strategy articulations I’ve heard in a long time.)

I think they’ve got a decent shot.  I’ve always felt television, in the limit, will be delivered over IP.  Specialized, proprietary cable TV distribution is gradually giving way to big, fast, cheap IP pipes. Your phone, tablet, and TV screens will be iOS or Android-powered, and will stream video from anyone. Of course, HTML5 & native apps will enable the long-awaited vision of “interactive TV”.

I’ve written about this before (going back years):

What’s taking so long?!?

The problem isn’t technology; it’s the business model.  The way our traditional television content is produced, financed, and distributed is balled up in a big legacy with a lot of inertia.  Payments flow in various ways between advertisers, production companies, traditional TV networks, premium networks (e.g. HBO), and cable companies.  This makes it hard for anything to change quickly; if HBO wanted to sell direct Internet subscriptions, they’d be shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s good to see Netflix getting enough critical mass to stir things up.

Letter to Carmen Ortiz about Aaron Swartz

Stepping off my usual entrepreneurship topics, here’s a letter I sent to Carmen Ortiz, Stephen Heymann, and Scott Garland (the prosecutors in the Aaron Swartz case) earlier this week.

I’m expecting precisely zero effect on anything here, but it captures my analysis of what happened.  Apart from the sadness and tragedy, I think we all need to be very mindful of the growing gaps between technology and our laws.

 

January 28, 2013

The Honorable Carmen M. Ortiz
United States Attorney for Massachusetts
John Joseph Moakley
United State Federal Courthouse
1 Courthouse Way, Suite 9200
Boston, MA  02210

Dear Mrs. Ortiz:

I’m writing you (and Mr. Heymann), as many have, regarding Aaron Swartz.  I know emotions are high, and I’m sorry the criticism has been so unfair and uninformed.  I’m sharing constructive comments I hope will be helpful as you consider this matter.  I’ve reviewed the public court documents and several relevant legal opinions.  I am a pioneer of the Internet economy, and a technology and business method expert in the subjects of this case.

It is clear Swartz did something wrong and should have been punished.  However, I have come to agree the prosecutorial stance did not match the severity of Swartz’s deeds.

I believe that you and Mr. Heymann were doing “what any good prosecutor would do”, and as you’ve noted, prosecutors don’t make the laws and penalties.  However, the CFAA is unusually broad and ambiguous, by design, to address a major policy issue.  Technology is advancing much faster than our laws, and the Justice Department has argued for legal flexibility with this Act (e.g. Richard Downing’s House Judiciary Subcommittee testimony in Nov, 2011).  That flexibility requires discretion in application, perhaps more than any other statute you prosecute.

This case is a nearly perfect test of that discretion, because it’s missing most of the typical criminal elements.  Swartz was not pursuing financial gain.  He wasn’t trafficking in credit cards, passwords, national secrets, or confidential/proprietary information.  He didn’t destroy data or access personal records.  He didn’t access something he wasn’t supposed to; he accessed more than he should have.

Swartz, like any MIT guest, was allowed to download JSTOR articles.  He enjoyed no greater access than any normal user would, but he violated JSTOR’s Terms of Service (ToS) by automating his download process.  His violation of MIT’s guest ToS is less clear:  MIT is famously and widely known for an open campus and network, and there’s a reasonable argument MIT’s effective ToS is much more permissive.  (Also, MAC address manipulation is not analogous to VIN tampering; if it were, it would criminalize the “Change MAC Address” feature available in nearly every consumer router.)

Regarding damages, JSTOR’s articles are freely available at 7,000 institutions worldwide, and many documents are public domain.   MIT’s $50,000 annual subscription amounts to $136/day, a starting point for calculating damages.  However, subscription fees have limited use in determining damages, because they mix the access costs with document value.  For example, PACER’s public documents “cost” $0.10/page, but their value is zero.  JSTOR’s quick civil settlement, their public stance in this case, and their subsequent public release of millions of articles are all extremely telling.

Swartz did not destroy or damage data or infrastructure.  There’s no (public) evidence his actions caused more than minor service outages and investigation costs at MIT and JSTOR.  Swartz’s actions were “minimally criminal”, and justice should have been sought on those terms.  (In addition, if your case had prevailed on the basis of ToS violations, there’s a solid appeal to void this interpretation for vagueness.  It’s nearly impossible to pass the “average citizen” test for defining criminal behavior with CFAA+ToS.)

At this point, you will likely say Swartz would have had every opportunity to make these arguments.  That’s true of course, but I’d respectfully say it’s disingenuous.  From the moment you indict and issue a press release, you frame the case.  The use of Secret Service resources, the home search warrant, the discovery refusal to provide raw hard drive images, the superseding indictment, and the reported plea negotiations & constraints; these all signal that Swartz’s acts were extremely serious, worthy of government resources.  Furthermore, Mr. Heymann is a seasoned prosecutor and computer crime expert;  the judges, jury, MIT, and JSTOR take cues from his stance.

Again, the unique ambiguity in the CFAA demands a prosecutorial duty of discretion above and beyond normal.  Our goal is to seek justice, and to that end, I share several suggestions.  First, I strongly recommend you proactively and immediately release all non-exempt case documents, and consider selectively waiving FOIA exemptions for other material.  The content may be unflattering, but transparency would be a very powerful leadership act on your part.  The people have a right to know how their attorneys conduct business, and the full record will help us enact the best policies.

Second, I would encourage you to support sensible CFAA revisions.  For critics, this case is a poster example of why the statute needs to be less vague.  Congress looks to Justice for advice, and you now have the best perspective of any prosecutor on finding a balance between (a) a flexible law, (b) a clear definition of criminal behavior, and (c) the prosecutor’s duty of discretion.

Third, I suggest you consider future CFAA cases more carefully, especially cases missing the obvious criminal elements.  The computer fraud case volume is relatively thin, making each case a bounds test almost by definition.

I pray you find these thoughts helpful in this sad and tragic story, and I hope they constructively capture the broader criticism about proportionality.

Finally, if an informal discussion regarding this matter (or fraud policy in general) would ever be useful, I would welcome that opportunity.

My email is <andy [at] payne [D O T] org>.

Sincerely,

Andrew C. Payne

Cc:       Stephen P. Heymann, Assistant U.S. Attorney
Scott L. Garland, Assistant U.S. Attorney

Built-in QR/Barcode Scanning?

I wish Apple (and Android) would build QR code/barcode scanning into all phones, either in the camera app or as a dedicated scanning app.qrcode.10740790

QR codes are so helpful for connecting the physical and digital worlds:  imagine scanning the bottom of a product to see the current owner’s manual, or to get reorder information.  Or scanning codes at a museum or park to get more information about an exhibit.  Or scanning the “missed delivery” door tag that FedEx left, to figure out your delivery options.

It’s not a new idea, but for the first time we’ve all got scanners in our pocket.  However, QR codes are still a little geeky:  you need to know what they are, and install an scanning app.  It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, and including scanning as a built-in phone feature would go a long way to seeding things.

Paul Graham on Hardware

I think Paul Graham’s recent essay on The Hardware Renaissance was very interesting:

 …one of the most conspicuous trends in the last batch was the large number of hardware startups. Out of 84 companies, 7 were making hardware. On the whole they’ve done better than the companies that weren’t.

After doing software for nearly 20 years, I’ve now been spending most of my time on hardware, and especially, hardware projects that have a large software component.  (See my post last year on the Coming Bits and Atoms Disruption.)

As the essay points out:  it’s getting cheaper & easier to design and build hardware projects.  I think we’re going to see a lot of interesting products over the next few years.