With people like veteran analyst Mary-Jo Foley questioning Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s vision and ability to execute and others that the company has run out of ideas, there is obvious and growing concern about the company’s long-term viability. Coupled with that is my own overwhelming realization that there seems to be virtually zero buzz about the company among leading mobile or hosted web application developers (two of the hottest technology categories in the marketplace).

So should we be surprised that U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke likely just ‘dissed’ Microsoft on national television without realizing it?

This week CEOs from Microsoft Corp. and Goldman Sachs were part of a group of corporate leaders which the Obama administration brought together for a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The intent was to discuss U.S. business interests in China and to be frank about intellectual property (I.P.) concerns. American companies have had I.P. pirated (especially in software) or had physical goods knocked off instantly by counterfeiting Chinese companies while that government has historically looked the other way.

Watching CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning, I was listening to this segment where the show’s main anchor, Becky Quick, was interviewing Commerce Secretary Locke. While paying half attention to what was being said, I did a double-take when Locke said at the end of his talking point that the CEOs had met with President Hu Jintao and President Obama and had “reinforced the message” about  I.P. protection and stopping counterfeiting but then added these CEOs included those from…

…our big technology companies down to, ah, Microsoft.

Ouch. Here is the 40 second snippet from that segment:

In the same way that AOL screwed thousands of their customers by double-billing until they got caught, made it extraordinarily difficult to leave the service, and did this so often with practicesso egregious that almost every state in the union had its attorney general go after the company until they settled.

SayMedia, parent company of the blogging service Typepad (they acquired Six Apart this fall) among other things, has been billing for services not rendered.

After a few months of a painful migration from Typepad to WordPress—made all the more difficult by the Typepad practice of obscuring the image pathname as well as changing their permalink structure three times from 2004-2009 when I was with them—I posted about my joyful transition to a platform (WordPress) that had a pulse and some passion behind it. I cancelled my Typepad Pro service that month (June of 2009).

Now I discover today (from doing tax prep last night) that Typepad not only billed me LAST November (2009) for $149.50—probably because I was doing a blog for Scholastic Administrator running on Typepad and had logged in to Typepad in order to post to it and they must’ve matched the email and assumed I was logging in to the cancelled account—and now I found out that they billed me AGAIN for a yearly $149.50 for a year of pro service this November!

This is no accident. It is clearly intentional and, I’m guessing based on my past experiences in businesses going down the shitter like Six Apart is, that they’re sneakily and quietly billing everyone they can, hoping that some percentage will slip through the cracks.

Why do I say that? BECAUSE THEY ALSO HAVE BEEN BILLING MY WIFE WHOSE BLOG WAS *ALSO* SHUT DOWN IN JUNE OF LAST YEAR.

Typepad charges a year in advance. They just posted a credit for one charge and I’ve contacted them about additional credits for June-December of 2009 (a pro-rated amount) as well as this full year (since they charged me in November of 2009 for Dec ’09 to Dec ’10).

While using Typepad and seeing the acceleration in social media use, I was always stunned by how hidden from view Ben and Mena Trott were (the founders of Six Apart). They barely blogged, were reluctant to engage with customers or the press, and were clearly way over their head.

My interactions with former CEO Barak Berkowitz to the current one Chris Alden, as well as the former “evangelist” for them Anil Dash, my impression always one of them willing to initially engage but then they’d go strangely radio silent….in a very atypical way. I’ve worked with dozens of startups and with (and at) large software companies and the passive-aggressiveness, shyness, and what seemed like childlike timidity was one of the other reasons I abandoned Typepad. My gut told me they couldn’t possibly be successful with those attitudes, their business practices and what certainly came across as complete indifference to customers paying them money.

I’ll be one of the first ones to stand up and cheer when Six Apart goes out of business and/or shuts down Typepad (like they did Vox) because so many people have abandoned the service.

I love the idea of a free market, one “...in which there is no economic intervention and regulation by the state, except to enforce private contracts and the ownership of property.” Unfortunately only the childlike, uneducated or the naive (um, like the Simpsons) would believe that the current and coming war for the digital living room is one which won’t see enormous political machinations. Especially since corporations are now people and can spend whatever they please to get whomever they want elected and thus get the votes for legislation in their best interests.

Unfortunately those best interests are rarely in line with startups, entrepreneurs or innovators threatening incumbents.

A friend of mine just sent me a link to the VC Fred Wilson’s article, “TV and the Digital Living Room,” and I was going to respond by email but realized that this was a post that had to be written. Fred pointed to an article by Mark Suster wherein Suster discusses “The Future of Television and the Digital Living Room.” In it Suster starts off with this and then details his Top Ten list of issues that form his perspective:

Nobody can predict 100% what the future of television will be so I won’t pretend that I know the answers. But I do know that it will form a huge basis of the future of the Internet, how we consume media, how we communicate with friends, how we play games and how we shop. Video will be inextricably linked to the future of the Internet and consumption between PCs, mobile devices and TVs will merge. Note that I didn’t say there will be total “convergence” — but I believe the services will inter-operate.

The digital living room battle will take place over the next 5-10 years, not just the next 1-2. But with the introduction of Apple TV, Google TV, the Boxee Box & other initiatives it’s clear that this battle will heat up in 2011. The following is not meant to be a deep dive but rather a framework for understanding the issues. This is where the digital media puck is going.

Suster and Wilson both miss one, huge wildcard that might just be the biggest obstacle or the saving grace of TV as it is and as it could be. Read More

Today’s revelation that Ray Ozzie is leaving Microsoft comes as no surprise. I briefly met Ray in April of 2007 and wrote about that encounter here. I then saw him a year and a half later at the Web 2.0 Summit and wrote about the radically different Ray here. The second time it was as though he was somehow channeling a Microsoft entity and had shifted into “corporate speak mode” in a major (and not good) way. I was instantly turned off. The question I had then was: Will Ozzie change Microsoft…or will Microsoft change him?

Ray got changed.

Though he undoubtedly led many great initiatives at Microsoft, to the world of us outside of the company he was, for the most part, invisible. People I’ve talked to at Microsoft often discuss the factions and turf battles that are endemic to the Microsoft culture and questioned whether he could hope to fill the shoes of what many people at Microsoft have termed “the soul of the company”, Bill Gates.

I suspect he wasn’t able to do things big enough or fast enough within the confines of a culture that doesn’t seem all that innovation-friendly (for a company that spends billions a year on R&D…they seem to have little to show for it besides a few flipper-flappers and dweebezaarbs in the latest version of Office).

About 20 years ago I read a book by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, called The Change Masters which might give us some insight in to the challenges Ray faced with Microsoft culture. In it she discussed how, “Change is a threat when done to me, but an opportunity when done by me.” She says on her blog, “I coined this truth in my book which compared innovation-friendly and innovation-stifling corporate cultures, and then saw it in operation in personal relationships, too. Resistance is always greatest when change is inflicted on people without their involvement, making the change effort feel oppressive or constraining. If it is possible to tie change to things people already want, and give them a chance to act on their own goals and aspirations, then it is met with more enthusiasm and commitment. In fact, they then seek innovation on their own.

I suspect Ray was challenged to completely shift the Microsoft culture away from one where the desktop OS is at the center of the universe to one where the internet, and most specifically cloud computing, most certainly is. Though it’s easy to see that fact outside the company, that’s the sort of change Microsoft people really don’t want and so the resistance to Ray and his initiatives must’ve been enormous.

CEO Steve Ballmer wrote this email to employees about Ray’s departure which certainly seems like he’s admitting “the cloud” is tangential to, “bringing the great innovations and great innovators he’s assembled into the groups driving our business.” Looks like it’s more business as usual at Microsoft…

….and why every developer I talk to, conference I attend and hot tech news article I read NEVER mentions Microsoft anymore, unless they’re discussing how irrelevant the company is in today’s cloud-centric world.  If I were Ray, I’d be delighted to be getting the hell out of there.

An early Control Data system with supercomputer genius Seymour Cray at the controls

Google’s recent announcements about their focus on wind energy and these five initiatives bring up the possibility that they’re following in the footsteps of Control Data, a Minnesota corporation that took its eye off the ball and lost their lead as one of the nine most influential computer companies and are now out of business.

Control Data Corporation (CDC) was a supercomputer firm. For most of the 1960s, it built the fastest computers in the world by far, only losing that crown in the 1970s after Seymour Cray left the company to found Cray Research, Inc. (CRI). CDC was one of the nine major United States computer companies through most of the 1960s; the others were IBM, Burroughs Corporation, DEC, NCR, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, and UNIVAC. CDC was well known and highly regarded throughout the industry at one time. —from Wikipedia

William Norris, founder and CEO of CDC, was a computer visionary but also a social activist. One of his key initiatives was computer-based learning, an initiative that took an increasing amount of his time and made many people who worked there (and I know dozens and am related to many former CDC employees) continued to be befuddled over the lack of focus on core competitive moves and what seemed like an acceleration in “cause related” investments over the years. Yes, losing Seymour Cray was devastating but there was so much more to the core business than chasing the supercomputer end of it.

Sadly, those of us in Minnesota who looked up to CDC watched it slowly fade away and sell off bits and pieces of itself until it was non-existent.

The Google Self Driving Car

Google’s stated business mission? To, “…organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Beyond the mission they post items like this “Ten Things We Know to be True” manifesto which outlines core beliefs like, “Focus on the user and all else will follow” and when it comes to their primary business, search, that “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

So help me understand Google: How do windmills and self driving cars fit in to the focus of Google and everything you stand for and believe?  There’s a lot of buzz in the tech community about the “Google brain drain” as people bolt to go to Facebook and other startups and I’m not the only one that wants to see them focus, and I’d hate to see you haunted by the ghost of William Norris who’d hate to see another leading company lose its way.

I find it ironic when pundits, developers, partners and even customers cry out in seeming anguish when a company gains a successful foothold in any given marketplace — especially when those same people are the ones who lament a company who is not doing well — and this behavior is particularly pronounced in technology, especially when it comes to Apple.

I worked for Apple in the late 1990s after Steve Jobs had returned to the company. In presentations, sales calls and even at family events, I was in MAJOR DEFENSIVE MODE at all times since I was frequently bombarded by negativity from customers, prospects, family and friends. “Apple is about out of business,” was a familiar refrain as was “Borsch…you’re just a Mac fanboy” from my I.T., Windows machine toting friends and relatives. I was even given crap about owning so much of the stock (which, believe me, I’m damn glad I kept!!) and have felt vindicated as those same people have now flocked to Apple computers and “iStuff” in droves. Many rely on me for advice and assistance as well, but the irony of their previous attitudes are lost on them.

The success of the iPod, and Apple’s quick cornering of the market for music downloads, began to cause angst amongst record executives who saw not a savior of their failing business model, but a company now positioning them for success in a digital world.

Exactly the same thing is happening now with the iPhone and the iPad and Apple’s insistence on no Flash and controlling how the applications are developed and deployed on these devices. The iPhone (according to Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker) had the fastest rampup in sales of any consumer device ever. It appears that the iPad’s 1 million in sales in 28 days (which Steve Jobs said, “One million iPads in 28 days—that’s less than half of the 74 days it took to achieve this milestone with iPhone.“) may make it the fastest ramping product ever.

I’ve read many of the arguments for-and-against the closed nature of the “iApp” marketplace and am not going to delve into that in this post, but all of the recent brouhaha about Apple’s “no Flash in iStuff” policy and their supposed “stranglehold on tools to develop iApps” is an example of the concern of success and Apple’s incredible strategic thinking about the marketplace, technology landscape, and anticipating the direction we’re all moving towards and innovating with devices we’ll need to make that journey more effective. Read More

What happens when one of your favorite products sees sales dwindle and it, in effect, becomes homeless?

My favorite coffeemaker, the Senseo®, uses coffee pods that are becoming increasingly difficult to find at retail and when I do, it’s usually for a flavor I don’t drink (like the Dark Roast pictured above). Any smart techie and ‘net user like me would just go online and order them in bulk, right?

The answer is “yes” but in a strange twist on the “I can buy that cheaper online” phrase many of us use when trying to negotiate while shopping in a bricks-n-mortar store, the online purchase of coffee pods are much higher ($.50 – $1.60 more per pack) than I could buy them at Target, Cub Foods or other outlets.

What’s driving this lack of inventory at retail? I’ll boil it down to one development over the last several years: choices in coffeemakers. From traditional percolators to drop-in little ‘cups’ to several different types and sizes of coffee pods, for retailers it would be like trying to stock DVDs in half a dozen formats so they just don’t and they’re bound to be out of one of them at frequent intervals.

But it’s not just specialized coffeemaker coffee that is homeless. Read More

Do you deserve coffee?

At least a dozen times at sales meetings over the past 15 years or so, many sales leaders have trotted out this video snippet from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross and then expounded on its virtues, clearly using it as a great kick in the seat of our pants as salespeople.  I’m here to point out how that this clip (after the jump and NSFW, by the way) is relevant to anyone who has to produce…whether you’re a developer/coder, factory worker, farmer, call center or support person, or in any field where results matter.

Alec Baldwin is on screen for less than seven minutes and, in my and many other people’s views, his is the defining performance of that movie and incredibly powerful. The premise, according to the Wikipedia article about the film, “Early in the movie Blake (Alec Baldwin) is sent by Mitch and Murray (the faceless owners of the real estate office in which the main characters work), to motivate them by announcing, in a torrent of verbal abuse, that only the top two sellers will be allowed the more promising “Glengarry” leads, and everyone else will be fired.” This confrontation sets up the rest of the film: the motivations that the characters feel that this rainy night is a make-or-break one; the reason the incident with the Glengarry leads that occurs later on; and the promise that — if only each salesman was better at closing like Blake — that they could achieve the same sorts of results as a guy that made $920k, drove an $80k BMW and sports a $25k gold Rolex.

Anyone whose been in sales for any length of time knows that there are many variables that enable one to achieve wildly successful sales numbers. An enterprise software salesperson in New York, L.A. or Chicago has more opportunity than one in Kansas City, for example, and top performers are usually in major markets. Same thing holds true for those who sell into vertical markets where they canvas accounts across many geographies.

But any salesperson who has been even modestly successful also knows one fundamental truth, and it’s a truth that cuts across all professions and labors.

Read More

Salman Khan of KhanAcademy.org

I’m biased, but there’s no question that I fundamentally believe that the future of education is online. Talking to my daughter yesterday, a student at the University of Minnesota, she’d mentioned how dismayed she was having to take the bus to campus, walk to the one class she had that day, sit in a lecture, and then go home. “What a waste of time,” she said, “But I have to go since my prof takes attendance.” So I inquired if they streamed the lecture online. “Are you KIDDING ME!?!” she exclaimed. “Most of these professors and TA’s can barely hook up their computers!

What you’re about to view is an excellent example of the types of teaching that are exploding on the ‘net. From Instructables to Howcast (the latter is where I learned how to fix the overflow valve on my toilet) to this young man, Salman Khan of Khan Academy, most of this sort of teaching will be pooh-poohed by traditionalists and seen as augmenting existing meatspace education in buildings.

Fortunately, people like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen see things differently. Christensen has described the three stages of disruption, the status quo will first see disruptors like Khan as “crappy” and ignore them, then they’ll become “less crappy” and early adopters will flock to them, and when they become “good enough” is the tipping point when disruptors kill status quo industries and yes, education is an industry since they still teach using an industrial age, factory model.

Watch this six minute video (discovered via Sid Yadav) and you’ll see what I mean about what one disruptor guy is doing for math education:

This is the new design of the U.S. penny being minted now. The kicker? According to this March 2008 ABC News article, “It costs almost 1.7 cents to make a penny,according to U.S. Mint director Ed Moy. Each year, the U.S. Mint makes 8 billion pennies, at a cost of $130 million. American taxpayers lose nearly $50 million in the process. The penny’s not alone. It costs nearly 10 cents to make a nickel.

Why not just ditch the penny? “One reason there is a lasting attachment to those coins is because they are a part of our country’s history,” Moy said in that article. I’ll accept that or some of the other things I’ve read that it will kickstart inflation. Why? Because sellers will “round up” and not “round down” with prices so there will be an immediate jump in costs for everything from toothpaste to TVs.

How could technology make our paying with pennies more efficient? With more and more of us walking around with smartphones, micropayments may be one answer. This would be a method where each of us would have an account that incremental sums (i.e., amounts in pennies) would be sent to or subtracted from during a transaction. I shudder, however, when I think about all the systemic and behavioral changes something like that would require.

Funny (and admittedly tangential) story about pennies happened when I was 16 years old. There was a guy who owned a gas station near our house and he was a complete jerk and especially so to young people. My friend Jeff and I were in his Mom’s car and stopped for gas. The guy inadvertently put in $10 worth in the tank and we had $5 with us and Jeff had told him he wanted $5 worth…but the guy then blew his stack and threatened to call the police on us until we agreed to go get the $5 and come back (he also wrote down Jeff’s license number).

We came back an hour later and Jeff handed him a jar with 500 pennies. “Goddammit!” the owner screamed. “I don’t have to accept these pennies!” but Jeff put it on the counter and we turned around and left. The owner never did anything and, in fact, was out of business two years later (I assume for being a jerk and driving customers away).

When I think about micropayments, I’d actually like having an online slush fund for paying a penny, nickel or dime to read an article online. This would be trivial to do and might help fund an otherwise declining media base. But another thing to consider with payments becoming virtual are the privacy, free speech and other concerns. For a complete and exhaustive paper on the subject, read The Digital Imprimatur by Autodesk founder John Walker from 2003.