Archives For April 2013

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The hype about Software Defined Networking is running high, with the Open Networking Summit seeing upwards of a 1000 attendees and a large number of vendors, incumbents of the networking world and small startups alike clamoring to show off their gear. But, sitting through the sessions and walking through the vendor demos, it told me one thing – if we thought SDNs are going to bring administrative, topological or operational efficiency to networking, that is probably not going to happen.

Why am I so pessimistic about this, when the world is more or less giddy with the endless possibilities that SDNs can bring in these directions? My pessimism has nothing to do with the fundamental capabilities of the technology, but has everything to do with the fact that the space is filled with carriers (and enterprises) who want to cut costs, incumbent vendors who want to stay in business and save their falling profit margins, new vendors who want to make it big and displace the incumbents and a research community that is largely just giddy about coming out of decades of boredom that was infused by working on improvements to BGP, TCP and QoS that nobody in the real world cared about. That’s correct, nobody is really thinking about the users or about designing it right.

So, anyone that is looking to reap the benefits of the technology in any reasonable amount of time better have pockets deep enough to build it end-to-end themselves. I will refrain from making references to my employer’s SDN adoption itself. There is enough public domain information on it and for the technology enthusiast, Amin Vahdat’s talk at the ONS should provide a lot of juicy details.

Sadly, yet again, here is a technology with a lot of potential to make us rethink the way we deploy and use our networks without an ecosystem with motivations that would support that. The innumerable marketing pitches made at the ONS are a testimony to this impending future. We have seen this in the past with the cellular world. The end result of such an environment is often numerous specifications drafted with many compromises to accommodate various favorites, with very little true interoperability. Although the IETF has had better success with interoperability, it has had other issues, notably, incredibly long times to reach consensus and have a spec published. Also, there is the mess of producing large numbers of incredibly complex specs. SIP, IPv6, anyone?

Even though the SDN space is showing signs of becoming another giant mess of specs and gear, there is always the hope that people will take Nick McKeown’s talk seriously and start thinking about the core strengths of the technology. The hope is small, but all is not lost yet.

But, more importantly, I believe (and hope) that one positive thing that will come out of this SDN resolution is a massive rethinking of networking APIs and just the way the networking world approaches software. So far, it has taken people with extensive knowledge and experience in the intimate details of the vendors’ gears to be able to operate networks. That has the potential to be disrupted with the SDN wave. This won’t happen from the incumbents, but hopefully the S in SDN has attracted enough software talent to this field to cause this. Although the Internet has largely been running on software thus far, there is some feeling that SDN is bringing software to networking. Shshsh! Let’s keep it that way, in the hopes of seeing better defined programmable interfaces!

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The funny thing about data is, there are often multiple ways to slice it.  And there is never enough of it.  Take the recent (and not-so-recent, if you wish) reports on the death of the PC, for example.  Gartner and IDC produced data about how mobile shipments are taking over and PC shipments are crumbling.  As with anything, to look at the other side of the coin, there have been a lot of posts about how the PC is hardly dying, forget being dead!  Particularly this one on TechCrunch that I really enjoyed reading!

What’s all this data telling us? Is the PC dead? Could it be dying soon? Are the tablet and smartphone owners throwing out their PCs or donating them to charity?  For all practical purposes, I’m using the term “PC” here to denote all desktop and laptop computers, including the Macs – I know, that’s outrageous, but, I’m sticking to it (and yes, I love my Mac, but am not ashamed to call it a PC in the context of this post!).

So, what’s really wrong with this data that is causing all kinds of frantic debates about whether the PC is dead or alive?  For one, it is incomplete.  First, let’s see what it clearly suggests:

  • That mobile shipments are trending towards overtaking PC shipments
  • People are spending increasing amounts of time on mobile devices

Heck, we didn’t need a Gartner or IDC report to actually know that, did we?! Look around in restaurants, trains, subways, streets, malls, wherever and you know this is true – we didn’t think all these people sat around at their PCs to spend that time browsing instead of going about their lives before the era of smartphones, I hope!

So, what is really the problem here? In all the hype to beat up the Microsofts, the Dells and the Intels, we are really not delving deep enough into the data here. Let’s take a closer look at the same two aspects I wrote above:

  • Shipments are trending in favor of mobile devices.  Could it be that more people are becoming owners of multiple devices? Or that the lifecycle of PCs are getting longer, as the TC post suggests? 
  • Percentage of time spent (or advertising revenue or sales, whatever) on mobile devices is up drastically.  Of course, going from nothing to some number is an infinite increase in terms of percentages!  Mobile devices, especially tablets, are still in the early years of adoption!

This data, by itself, certainly says nothing about whether the PC is dead.  The people that are writing about these massive numbers on usage, advertising revenue, internet traffic, etc. coming from PCs are all still right.  But, the really important thing here are a few subtle points that require a more nuanced look at the data.

  • Tablets and smartphones are increasingly becoming the consumption devices. They are easy to use, always-on and don’t require a drastic situation change to interact with. We don’t have to sit up in bed, we can just keep lying down and let’s admit, we love technology that allows us to be lazy!
  • The use of a PC for leisure is declining. For the same reasons as above, we don’t need to be sitting straight to be leisurely connected to the Internet.  And we can do it while watching TV.  Two things we love doing, we can now do together, all while feeling restful! Data suggests people are doing exactly this!
  • Enterprise content creation is still going strong on the PC. Okay, I’m an early adopter, but I don’t expect to be creating presentations and documents on my phone just yet. I’ve tried some of this and it is fairly painful. This needs more innovation and more importantly, we geeks are just not ready yet!

But the reality is that more innovation on the mobile for the content creation aspects will come and come fast.  We are not there yet, but it will come sooner than we think.  Perhaps not for the enterprise use cases yet, but for the leisure, user generated content, it will.  While the PC isn’t dead, it is definitely doing less than it used to.  And it is going to do lesser and lesser for more and more segments of people in the coming years.

It’s just aging, not dying yet!

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As I listened to a CEO (with an impressive background of a pipeline of senior titles) of a young, somewhat already successful company deliver a keynote at an extremely popular conference to an audience of about a 1000 people or more, I wondered about this – why are there so few execs who can really capture the audience?  I will refrain from the particulars of the individual, because it is not important.  The presentations that followed were all similarly styled – eye charts on colorful tables for the most part.  We are all familiar with this – sitting through boring presentations that page through packed bullets and tables on slides and conclude with 10 takeaways packing the last slide.  Why didn’t someone give these people a lesson on presentations?  Why do they fail to learn from the most brilliant presentations that have been delivered by a select few leaders and visionaries?

I’ve been guilty of packing a lot of material on slides, but over the years, I’ve increasingly learned that it doesn’t help.  The corporate template in a previous company I worked for was designed to fit more text than available default templates in PowerPoint.  It is really tempting to fit that one last relevant point, without which the presentation will be so incomplete!

I’m not going to say that there is a blanket rule about how to do presentations – of course, the audience and scope of the presentations should help us tune it appropriately.  And sometimes, slides are guiding material for a deeply technical discussion – a substitute for a white board (although it is a terrible idea generally speaking, it may make sense at times).  In those cases, go ahead and put your equations on the slides and pack it up with barely readable font that can be zoomed into for your discussion!  But, more often than not, you are presenting to an audience that wants the gist of your talk and is potentially coming in without the deep knowledge you have in the topic you are about to talk about.

Many people have written about how to give presentations and there are many that make a career teaching people how to present effectively.  There are a couple that I consider amazing material that is a must-read for anyone doing a talk for any sizable audience:

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Simon James On Giving A Research Talk

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Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule

The Internet is filled with tons of other content on how to do presentations, but these two are what you’ll need to check out for the most part.

I’ll close with a few points on what should be on our minds while preparing for a talk.  Much of this is borrowed or observed from inspiring thoughts and presentations from some of the best speakers out there.

  • When slides don’t matter
    There are some truly amazing speakers.  So good they don’t need something on the monitors to engage the audience or assist with talking points.  When you are that good, skip the slides entirely.  Or, fill it up with junk.  Because, you are the focus of the audience when you are that good.  But, many of us are not in this category and hence need to focus on other points.
  • Know the key message your talk should focus on
    Every talk needs to drive home no more than one message to its audience.  Not two, not three, just one.  Focus on that and make sure the entire deck is converging towards that message.
  • Tell a story around the key message
    Humans think and connect in terms of stories rather well.  So, tell a story.  Not on your slides, but construct a flow of a story in your head, leading up to the key message.
  • Your slides are not the handout material
    Don’t treat your slides as the handout material – if you need material that will live beyond the talk, create a separate version or add notes.  Your live audience does not need to be tortured with tiny fonts because you may have other readers – after all, if your audience didn’t think the talk was great, you failed anyway!
  • Resist the temptation to use bullets
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  • Look at your audience, engage them, take cues
    Understand when you need to pivot your talk in some way by observing your audience.  It is really hard to do this when you are already nervous about the talk, but, this is as powerful as it gets.  Engage your audience when you can.  Make it interactive rather than a lecture.
  • Don’t leave your passion behind!
    Last but not the least, be absolutely, truly passionate about your talk.  If you are not passionate about the topic, try not doing the talk! There are circumstances when your job requires you to do presentations, but, try to be in it.  You’ll enjoy your job a lot more that way too!

Great ideas need to be communicated.  An idea is only worthwhile if others can see the value of it.  Presentations are clearly important.  Make a conscious effort to do them right!

I like my Android device the way it is.  I did try out Facebook Home to get a feel for it, but I won’t be going back to it anytime soon!  You can read my full review on Quora here.  In brief, it introduces a delay in all the important things I’d use my phone for.  If you need to make an emergency call, forget it – you can like and comment on Facebook news feeds while your phone is locked, but getting to the dialer for an emergency call will take a few steps! A number of the normal Facebook frustrations on the mobile are now available on all our apps!

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All in all, I uninstalled after giving it a good shot and trying out various operations.  I’m all for a contextual future – but, my contextual envelope happens to be beyond Facebook!

The debate continues about whether Sheryl Sandberg’s message about leaning in is the right message to send to the women who aspire to be in the corporate world, but struggle to make it happen for various reasons.  While some of the comments have been positive, her message has certainly received a number of harsh criticisms.

In a recent HBR post, James Allworth talks about how it is not women who should lean in, but men should step back instead.  Earlier, CNN published an article about having it all that sparked a lot of debate on whether it is women or men that have it all.  My blog post on having it all addressed that topic to highlight that it is not about having it all and rather about knowing how to navigate the environment we are in.  Also, recently, Kristin van Ogtrop of Time’s Real Simple wrote about how she would rather stand up straight.

The point in these articles is that there is more to life than trying to constantly do better and want more.  And more to life than being aggressive in one’s career or working too much.  Couldn’t agree more!  But, when I read these takeaways, it occurs to me that something fundamental has been misconstrued from Sandberg’s message of leaning in.  I don’t believe it is about working oneself to exhaustion or ignoring everything else in life.  It is about paying attention to our environments and being one among the (male dominant) corporate population that gets much of the attention.  All within the scope of what we do and more importantly, what we want to do.

For women that have navigated the corporate world, even the ones like me who are mostly just nobodys in various organizations, this distinction should be clear.  If, as some reviews of the book have suggested, men were to actually alter their behavior, then perhaps women become natural members of the corporate society and we don’t need to be talking about what it means to lean in.  But, as it stands today, for the woman that desires to be in the game, it is rather important to assume the behavior that is most familiar to the predominant decision makers and the corporate society at large.  Mostly speaking, that is all about confidence and communication – and these are not necessarily bad characteristics to adopt.

When we have that moment of doubt, we just need to remember that such moments happen to everyone, including the men at the table.  That will help us get past it and be in the game. Not by overworking or constantly looking for more, but simply by knowing that we can do as well as our male counterparts in what we choose to do!

ImageI blogged on Quora about how I don’t expect to be dazzled by the Facebook phone!  I won’t get it to it all here again, but, the essence of it is that Facebook just hasn’t demonstrated that it gets mobile.  But, one thing the upcoming Facebook Phone is doing is endorsing Android as the platform of choice.  “iOS first” is fast becoming a mantra of the past.  The shift is not only in the developer community, but also among the users that are starting to discover the benefits of cool customizations!

The Galaxy S series of devices are not cheap.  They are cheaper to the consumer than the iPhones, but, if you take a look at the Bill of Materials (commonly called BoM), the Galaxy S3 actually has a greater BoM than the iPhone already, with the S4 costing even more.  This sparks the curiosity of whether Samsung is hurting its profit margins by selling this device (at least the S3, as we don’t know the pricing of S4 yet) for less than the iPhone, but that is not what I’m going to explore here.

So many articles have been written about the differences between the Galaxy S* devices and the iPhone.  At the end of the day, it comes out as a draw or sometimes even as the Galaxy S3 or S4 being more feature packed.  All true, if we take the totality of features into account.  But, it is useful to look at this more closely, especially to answer the question “if price was not a factor, would the Galaxy S4 still win”?  Because, if Samsung’s goal is to become known for making the best smartphone that exists, period, it has to win out on the features beyond the price.  Here are a couple of examples where Samsung (and in some cases, Android) needs to think harder about bridging the gap.

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  • Camera – Photo Quality
    Moving to a 13MP camera is not what is really needed here – great marketing stuff, but what about photo quality?  So many studies have been done on how the camera does in the two devices and some end up concluding they have comparable quality, but my own experience has been that the sharpness of the image and colors is simply better on the iPhone.  I frequently find myself asking my friends with iPhones to take the same pictures I’m taking and send it to me (that’s embarrassing, but true!).  Data gets sliced in different ways, but photography remains one of the top uses of the smartphone for users – even if it doesn’t top the list in terms of time spent.
    So, Samsung, I hope you are paying attention and really trying to up the bar on image quality with the next device!
  • Call (And Voice) Quality
    This has never been Samsung’s strong area – in the past, I’ve refused to own a Samsung phone because I didn’t tolerate its poor voice quality.  Granted it has improved a lot and I currently use phones made by Samsung (and would even think about the S4!), the voice quality is still a bit frustrating.  This study seems to claim that the iPhone call quality is good – perhaps Apple got its act together with iPhone 5 (I will admit that I haven’t used it all that much, other than times when I’ve borrowed it from a friend), but, I remember a time when the iPhone sucked in call quality (note though, that call quality and voice quality are not necessarily the same thing!).
    Even though phone calls are not the coolest thing these days, when we have to make a call, it is critical.  We cannot ignore call and voice quality just yet!
  • Battery Life
    I wrote about how the biggest fear of a smartphone user these days is running out of juice.  It is true.  Smartphone is undoubtedly my primary device at the moment.  I don’t want to have to set up smart power management apps.  I don’t want to have to moderate my use.  Admittedly, I’m a power user and I know it will take a while before I can stop worrying about my phone’s battery life.  But, my HTC Incredible II had a much better battery life than any of my Samsung phones.  And 4G is just one of the reasons.  Further, I don’t care that 4G is a reason – it is not my problem as the consumer!

There may be more to this list, but these three aspects will remain critical to making the best smartphone on the planet!