Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What does the Apple/IBM partnership mean for the world of mobile?

On Tuesday, July 15th, at the end of trading, Apple and IBM announced a partnership to build iOS apps for businesses. I'm quite bullish on this move. Both companies have been languishing the past couple of years.

IBM does not have a good reputation among techies. (Trust me, I've worked with quite a few.) They do have very good relationships with higher up management who do not grok technology. IBM has a massive, talented sales force. A good friend of mine who I met at the University of Virginia, Darden School of business (WAHOOWA) just joined. This guy could sell ice to eskimos. But I digress. IBM brings enterprise software experience to the table, as well. Most of their systems are backend. They sell ERP systems, logistics management systems, CRM systems, databases, application servers (such as Websphere). Now, none of there software is best of breed, but the sell a lot of it thanks to their fantastic account management.

It's pretty obvious what Apple brings to the table. They bring a fantastic mobile experience as well as far and away the top brand in mobile. It is a luxury brand despite the fact that iPhones are ubiquitous. Apple also brings security. In the very young enterprise mobile market, there only two companies whose phones are secure enough to be allowed through Fortune 500 firewalls; Apple, and R.I.M (Blackberry). But the Blackberry is rapidly dying due to its poor U/X. Google won't be a competitor in the market in the foreseeable future. Android devices are too insecure. Google has given too much access to app developers. My contacts at Google say that won't change. Thus Google isn't a true competitor in the enterprise market.

Apple has nearly reached saturation in the domestic market. Nearly everyone in the U.S. owns a smartphone. 41.9% are iPhones. 52.1% are Android. The two OSs move up and down from time to time, but there's little growth there. Apple is pursuing an aggressive China strategy by partnering with China Mobile. Meanwhile Google's android OS is used far more broadly from set top boxes in China to drones in the US to dirt cheap smartphones in Africa. Google's position in frontier markets is very strong. Apple is unable to pursue this market without risking its premium brand. Instead it is pursuing higher margins and is focusing on the nouvelle bourgeoisie in the BRICs. Although this strategy is solid, it won't make the market sing.

So what growth strategies are available to Apple? Heisenberg-level geniuses are cooking up magic at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, but despite much espionage and clairvoyance by Apple fanboys and bloggers, we don't know what new toys are on the way.

We DO know that Apple is making a major play in the mobile enterprise market.

The market is ripe. There are no apps for accessing internal corporate systems beyond email. Of course companies want their employees to be as productive as possible. They WANT to hand out iPhones which enable employees to work 24/7.

The interaction will work like this, IBM will sell these apps. Apple will write some. IBM will write some. They'll collaborate on some. Some will be standard. A secure shell app is a secure shell app is a secure shell app. Others will be custom development. For example, Exxon-Mobile might want a special app which will allow geologists to access its own system for tracking deposits. The important point is this:


If that isn't an argument for buying Apple, I don't know what is.

When I heard about the news, I rushed to buy. I bought a lot.

I didn't buy any IBM. Why? Well my initial answer was that IBM isn't a good tech company and I didn't care to have them in my portfolio. But there's a better answer: IBM is most assuredly the junior partner. Apple could walk away and go to Oracle. Or depending on any the particular contract, it could partner with both. Or with SAP. Now IBM is probably a good play for the time being. Apple is unlikely to get in bed with anyone else until the initial partnership agreement is fulfilled. Still, Apple is definitely in charge.

So why hasn't the market reacted more strongly? I gave this tip to an anonymous family member who gave me a bad stock tip a while back. (I bought very little and then told him thanks for the tip. The stock took a nosedive.) It amused me that he quoted the efficient market hypothesis at me. So if this partnership so great, then why has AAPL lost a percent or two since the announcement?

Market confusion. I spoke with a couple of colleagues in the industry who didn't like this deal. They cited culture class, IBM's poor reputation in building quality software, Apple's inexperience with managing Enterprise contracts. Culture class is a problem. Other than that, this partnership provides a lot of synergy to the two companies. And by the time cultural problems really hurt Apple, it will have developed a lot of very close relationships with very big clients.

More and more business is moving onto mobile devices. People travel and have lives. They work more but sit at desks less. Microsoft owns desktop corporate IT. Apple and IBM will own mobile corporate IT.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

App Ecosystem Architecture

Hello, my loyal, long-suffering, readers! Many apologies for not posting for sometime. I have been busy building an app monetization service: Kundalera. Okay, so the name of the company is bad. The website is basic. Heck even the product is small. What am I gonna do? I'm building this basically by my self. (I do have a couple of "helpers".) I'm also moving across the country and looking for a day job. (The company will be really cool if I ever get funding.) The idea behind Kundalera is to provide web services and an SDK for app monetization.

    There are a few parts to it:
  1. Improved billing services
  2. Improved user acquisition
  3. Novel app monetization models
  4. Some really cool apps

But enough about that right? It's boring and no one wants to hear my secret plans to take over the world anyway. On to the good stuff: SOFTWARE ARCHITECTURE:

The app ecosystem is broken. Period. Certainly it is more broken on Android than on iOS, but lets put Apple aside for the moment. If you search "android app ecosystem broken" on Google, you get 16 million results.

It is broken for many reasons. Foremost among them are security and stability. Android runs on a very wide variety of hardware including many non-smartphone platforms. This leads to development complexity for app developers accessing features such as disk storage and the cellular transmitter that iPhone developers don't get to touch. Now you can argue that it's a bad idea for app developers to do this, but Google has given them a hammer and they have smashed their thumbs and in turn the thumbs of all of their users. Users can opt not to give apps access to these low level resources, but then they don't have functional apps. And like the developers, if you give users a hammer...

Apple doesn't face this problem. It doesn't give developers access to these low level resources. They have kept the OS abstraction barrier intact whereas Google has allowed it to be broken. And why did this happen? Google came to the party two years late. The first iPhone was released in 2007, the first Android phone in 2009. Furthermore, the original Android phones were primitive creatures compared to the quite sophisticated iPhone. Google knew that the availability of apps for Android would make or break the success of the product, so it opened up the APIs giving developers access to these low level resources that they did not have on Apple. It worked. Developers developed tons of apps. People bought Android devices. Android is now the most popular mobile OS in the world. Other OSes without a vibrant app architectures (I'm looking at you Symbian, Blackberry, Windows Phone) are struggling at best.

The mobile world has become extremely app based. Many users don't use voice functionality and spend most of their day using a handful of apps. Meanwhile, the desktop/laptop world has become increasingly web based. Most users spend a large majority of their time using a web browser and browsing a handful of sites. Ironically, these are frequently the same sites whose apps they use when on their smartphones. This forces the sites to develop two entirely separate products. If they are smart, these companies share a lot of back-end services. Regardless, the vast difference in presentation layer technology increases maintenance costs a lot.

App architecture should look like web site architecture. The web browser is a sandbox that keeps malicious or inefficient sites from doing bad things to the User's computer. So why don't companies just create some new css or a slimmed pages and go with mobile web sites?

    Two reasons:
  1. Standard web-scripting languages don't allow the flexibility of app development languages
  2. App developers want home screen real estate in the form of an app icon

We can address these concerns by adopting a true Model View Controller architecture across platforms (web, various mobile flavors). The mobile OS providers should incorporate a transparent web browser into mobile OSs that will run 'apps'. This will effectively sandbox the apps in a web browser, keeping the user's device (more) secure from malicious/incompetent apps developers. Second, this will allow developers to write web applications that will then serve as apps.

But that only solves part of the problem. The mobile app stores have become the largest consumer software distribution centers in the world. But no problem. The installation of an app can simply download the static content to the device. This static content will be different than the static content from a web application. It will fit the form factor of the device and be more touch friendly. The dynamic content will then be provided by web service calls. This will encourage developers to write code in a more service based architecture.

And what about the richer interaction that apps provide? The browser consortiums must solve that problem. New, better, languages, and frameworks must be developed. (I for one would love to see JavaScript die. It is horrible bastardization of an Object Oriented and a procedural programming language, but that's another rant.)

Of course, developers will have to write their applications (at this point mobile apps and web apps) in order to be more functional offline. No more 404 pages. Rather, a normal UI, but one that may provide error messages regarding network connections upon attempts to access remote content. This would be a huge improvement for web applications as well.

There is one last problem. Many apps really do need access to phone primitives, lights, Bluetooth, etc. They belong in a special category: 'real' apps, i.e. those which truly run on top of the OS instead of the web browser sandbox proposed above. These should undergo a stringent review that the app developer must pay for in order to determine their safety/performance. This review needn't be done by the mobile OS provider, but could be done by an approved third party, much the same way that SSL certificate subjects are validated.

Android provides a fantastic open platform that has reeled in many app developers and it is now the leader in the mobile OS market (by number of devices). Apple's iPhone is far more locked down. It just plain does less, but it provides a more secure, reliable, consistent user experience. The adoption of the above recommendations would allow app developers to more easily develop for both platforms and provide a better user experience on both while improving reliability AND security.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Healthcare.gov and Hypocrisy

I've been really pissed off about healthcare.gov lately. No, not the buggy website. No, not the confusing questions. No, not the confusing coverage. I've been pissed off about its media coverage and the political debate surrounding it.

The media has been criticizing Obama and his healthcare plan for more than a month now and its unfair. A role out of a website this big was sure to have some glitches and to be fair healthcare.gov had plenty of those. From my experience and the media's story, it sounded like a simple lack of capacity problem. The project managers didn't expect peak coverage to be what it was. Of course, as a technology professional, I shouldn't expect the media to understand that big projects almost always have problems. Except that the media reported the massive problems with the Denver International Airport Baggage System and Boston's Big Dig (people died in the Big Dig). In this age of 24 hour news, it seems that the media's memory is about 15 seconds long.

Even worse is the way that Republicans handled healthcare.gov. They tried to sink it and now are arguing that it doesn't work. First they obstructed it—attempting again and again to repeal it. Think that uncertainty had any effect on the project plan? Then they refused to pass any minor technical corrections to the bill. These corrections are a common practice in Congress. They make sure that laws that are passed work properly. Whether or not you, as an American citizen, like an individual bill, you still want it implemented in a way that will cause the fewest problems, right? Well, not the Republicans. They then claimed that the technical problems were evidence that the plan didn't work. That's like saying that online shopping doesn't work because Amazon.com goes down for a while. The logic is flawed.

I recently signed up for healthcare through healthcare.gov and I must say that it isn't the easiest process in the world, but it isn't the most difficult ever. Most of the difficulty is justified by security, identification, and financial concerns. I would say that the workflow is pretty well implemented.

Still there were some confusing parts. The first time through the application, I thought I had finished, but couldn't actually buy healthcare. I called the helpline. A lovely woman named Serena answered my call within 1 minute. She walked me through the process. It turned out I had missed some questions. I was then approved for a state subsidized plan at a cheap rate.

All in all, I am pretty happy with the experience.

A lot of things don't work in the government. Congress is thoroughly broken. It is more focused on obstructing the other guy than getting anything done. The state agencies are horrible. State administered unemployment, food stamps, and welfare offices are difficult beyond belief. But of course no one cares about that because only poor people have to suffer through that bureaucratic hell. It's nice to know that something in this government works: healthcare.gov. And it's a good thing that I found good healthcare through the system because this hypocrisy is making me sick.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

BREAKING: Supreme Court Rules Against "Natural" Gene Patents

We have some rare good news in the area of intellectual property (IP) law. The Supreme Court ruled today that Myriad Genetics' patents on two breast cancer gene mutations are invalid.

Myriad Genetics offers a test which lets women know whether they are at increased risk for breast cancer. The test tells women whether they have BRCA gene mutations. Women with these mutations are up to 65% more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Myriad's patent covered ANY use of the mutations including ANY OTHER test for those mutations. Although Myriad claimed to allow further scientific research on these mutations, it isn't clear that they actually allowed all research to go forward. More importantly, Myriad used the patent to block all competitors from introducing other (different) tests. Patients who couldn't afford the tests had no other option. Even those who could afford the tests had to option to get a second opinion (important as no tests are fool-proof).

SCOTUS ruled today quite rightly that patents cannot cover naturally occurring genes. SCOTUS has drawn some fairly bright lines this year. Past cases have shown that patents of human transplanted genes are valid and those patents. The ruling earlier this year on the replanting of Roundup Ready Soybeans shows that those patents are broadly enforceable. This ruling shows that patents of naturally occurring genes are not valid. Note that in the Roundup Ready Soybean case, the genes in question did occur naturally, but were transplanted from a bacterium into soybeans.

UPDATE: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Monsanto in Gene Pattent Dispute

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto in the case of the agri-business giant vs. small Indiana farmer.

But the ruling was narrower than it could have been. The court ruled that Vernon Bowman violated the patent intentionally. He was in violation because he actually made an attempt to use the patented soybean seed without paying for it. It appears that those who violate the patent accidentally (because of plants spreading seed on their own) would not be considered in violation, but SCOTUS did not specifically rule on this issue. This point of law is crucial considering that genetically modified (GMO) wheat has popped up in a field in Oregon despite never having been distributed beyond test crops. On the other hand, farmers can't sue Monsanto preemptively to prevent patent enforcement on accidental cultivation of patented seed.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Clean Coal No Longer a Pipe Dream?

A new coal technology may be able to provide commercial electricity without emitting dangerous greenhouse gases.

Every one knows that climate change is a huge problem. If you don't think it is a problem then you are more in denial than the Swiss were during World War 2. But in addition to warming global temperatures, more intense hurricanes and desertification, we face the problem of ocean acidification. Very simply, the increases in atmospheric CO2 is turning the world's ocean (and lakes and ponds) into carbonic acid. The acid is dissolving coral and shellfish, disrupting the ecosystems that depend on those animals. Even climate change deniers can't deny acidification.

Solar and wind are getting cheaper and cheaper. But we still face the problem of how to run our TVs and microwaves when the sun doesn't shine. We also don't have the electric grid infrastructure to get the power from remote solar cells and windmills to American homes.

The coal industry has been pushing carbon capture technology. The emissions of coal fired power plants would be cooled down and passed through a solution which would bind with the CO2. But the world burns more than 8 billion tons of coal annually and this capture process is extremely expensive.

But there may be hope! We may have true clean coal technology soon! A group of researchers is in the process of commercialing coal direct chemical looping. What is that? Well, think about a fuel cell car. The hydrogen is not burning in a fuel cell. It is being oxidized, but it there is no fire and no loss of energy to heat. Instead the energy released is turned straight to electricity. Direct chemical looping is like that but with coal.

Very, very exciting. This technology may allow people to continue to use an extremely cheap, plentiful fossil fuel without causing further global warming.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why no recent updates?

Good day to all of my loyal (and disloyal) readers! I must apologize for the lack of recent updates. I started a new job at the beginning of April. I am managing Comodo Certificate Manager, an enterprise software platform for issuing, installing, and revoking SSL Certificates (for those of you who don't know what is, they enable secure e-commrece).

The job is awesome, but it has been a lot of work to get ramped up on the organization and technology. Even worse, I have had to move to New Jersey (without a car) and have to deal with the time sink of NJ Transit. When things settle down, I promise to post more awesome stuff for you guys!