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Uber bringing gender diversity to taxi drivers through safety

When I described Uber to my mother, she immediately ruled it out, saying she didn’t trust the background checks of the drivers. Both Uber and Lyft do full background checks on their drivers, at least as much as traditional taxi companies, while only Uber and Lyft give you the driver’s name, phone number, picture, and GPS tracking. This can make using an Uber arguably safer than a regular taxi.

Uber’s policies also appear to significantly improve the lifestyle for the drivers, making the profession safer and thus opening it up to more women.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that cabbies were 60 times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. Drivers often work alone, carry cash, and and travel through high-crime areas. Only about 2 percent of all U.S. taxi drivers are female.

Driving an UberX car, which is open to anyone who signs up and passed the background check, has turned out to be a much safer operation. Just like riders, drivers can see the name and rating of a potential pick-up. The rider already has a credit card on file, meaning the driver never needs to carry or handle cash. And the car is tracked completely through GPS. While this doesn’t make crime again driver or rider impossible, it significantly lowers the risk. Though Uber won’t release gender breakdowns for its drivers, casual estimates place the number around 15%.

What stands out about this discussion is how Uber has been incentive to create a superior product to traditional taxi cabs without the strong regulatory regime. The initial taxi monopoly regimes were created to encourage safety, reliability, and maintain certain standards. However, this has led to a large undeserved market, mostly from a lack of available drivers or rigid pricing regardless of demand.  Uber, incentivized to create a superior product to taxis, has put technology to innovative use, making taxi transportation far more efficient for the drivers and riders. This is why bans on Uber, as Berlin recently did, have more to do with protecting entrenched businesses or simply ignorance of how the service works.  Uber is likely also the reason demand for taxi medallions, once one of the best investments available, is now dropping.

For regulations, it’s important to recognize what the business already incentivizes. Companies can only cut costs to the point employees and customers are willing to partake in the transaction. If driving or riding an Uber became unsafe, both drivers and riders would exit to competitors. And since there is no longer an artificial limit on supply, competitors like Lyft can more easier enter the market, forcing all entrants to engage in higher levels of service. Legislation should look at what the base line of service their car sharing services offer and determine that to be what is needed for consumers to use the product and for the businesses to be able to make a profit.



Innovation in television held back by television companies, not technology

Much of the technology hype these days surrounds reinventing television. Apple has long been suspected of designing a unique television experience. Samsung and other hardware makers have already launched so-called smart TVs. The goal of smart TVs is admirable – to improve the television watching user experience, something technology companies like Apple excel at. But unfortunately, these smart TVs are not yet better experiences. The may have Netflix and other apps built in, but often they are just portals to select web services with even fewer options. What’s more unfortunate is improving the television experience is simple and obvious, yet is no where closer to being implemented. That’s because the television companies do not want a better experience.

Consider Aereo, a technology start-up attempting to compromise copyright law with useful television viewing service over the internet. Aereo will install an antenna for every subscribing user and stream them broadcast television for a monthly fee.  Their argument is it is legal to freely access broadcast television with an antenna, they just change the location of the antenna. So far the courts have upheld Aereo’s claim, which has led News Corp. COO Chase Carey threatens he may pull all Fox channels to cable. Aereo’s incredibly inefficient and costly process of offering consumers a useful product is met with legal attacks and innovation crushing tactics by the television companies.

What does this better experience look like? Well, simply, on-demand television. Let us watch the shows we want when we want to watch them. The whole concept of a TV schedule is archaic in the age of YouTube and Netflix. Rumors claim both Apple and Google have lobbied television companies to allow there shows to appear on new TV platforms, but for TV companies, the money is just too significant under the current regime for them to risk changing it.

Because television companies refuse to move toward an on-demand type model, the television experience remains sub-optimal. Television requires following someone else’s schedule (or using expensive DVR equipment), paying extremely high cable fees for channels you don’t want, and not being able to view content across multiple devices. We have wi-fi and 4g data, but never few ways to watch television over them.

Incumbent companies are able to block innovation and new business opportunities in order to protect their own profits; profits that partially result from using free, public airwaves.  Copyright and intellectual property are supposed to be encouraging innovation, yet time and time again we see the established companies using their entrenched positions to limit consumer choice and prevent innovation.  So consumers continue to over pay for flawed products, not what capitalism and competition are supposed to be about.

How to use the data you’re already collecting

Big data appears as the solution to all our business problems, able to reveal what customers want, how to increase profits, and cut costs all by doing some fancy math. Of course, big data is more complicated than that, but amid all the zeal for collecting and analyzing big data, we’re forgetting the small data many companies already collect but don’t know how to take advantage of.  Almost every company, from doctor’s offices to web developers have some data they have already collected that can be used to improve some aspect of their business.

Data appears in many forms, not just sales numbers and conversion rates.  Anyone with a website already has mountains of data they can collect with free tools like Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. Google Analytics provides free web traffic information with many robust custom reporting tools, along with simple statistics of how many people visit each page, for how long, and how they got to your site. Even with low web traffic, looking at how people are finding your website (from Google searches or social media) can inform your marketing efforts.  Google Webmaster Tools, a little less well known, can be even more valuable than Google Analytics because it provides extensive information about how your website appears within Google searches.  Webmaster Tools tells you how high your site appears on search terms and which terms send people to your site. Because of privacy settings, Google Analytics isn’t able to give you this much information.

Beyond your website, it’s important to find the different ways you interact with clients and staff and mine these for informative data.  At a doctor’s office I consulted with, we found that patients were leaving after completing their treatment, but coming back weeks or months later for different services.  We asked a few of these patients why they returned and they said they didn’t know these services were offered before.  Often these were services they were looking for but didn’t think to ask about.  The doctor began introducing related services to patients earlier and adding additional brochures which increased the quality of care for patients and increased revenue with a minor cost and time investment.  With web development, I keep track of the number and frequency of emails with clients, during and after a project.  I use this to gauge how well I am explaining progress or issues with clients and have refined many ways I speak about web development to non-web developers.  I also assess my own efficiency after completing projects with the number of subsequent emails and whether I need to update my technical documentation or training practices.

Small data can provide small insights (and big ones) that are still beneficial, especially relative to the time and cost with finding them.  Every company has accounting records, emails, costs, sales, and other data rich with information about how well you are running your business. While all data will tell a story, not every story has to be interesting. Know where you have data and know how to understand it can be enough to open new opportunities to improve yourself work and business.

Time Warner proves competition improves broadband speed and cost

Broadband speeds have lagged in the United States, offering slower speeds for higher prices compared to most first world countries.  The U.S. ranks 9th for speed and 21st for price. Broadband providers have claimed people are using too much bandwidth, leading to data caps, reduced speeds, and other limitations.

Time Warner Cable, one of the first companies to test data caps on customers, has miraculously increased speeds and cut prices for a least one customer.  Consumerist reports a Kansas City customer received an email increasing his broadband speed 50% and lowering his monthly bill by 30 percent.  While its great to see a company lowering prices and providing more functionality, the reasoning behind it reveals ulterior motives.  Specifically, Google launched its own fiber optic internet service in Kansas City, offering 1 gigabit of speed (compared to a national average of 6.6 megabits) for a slightly higher monthly rate and offering free 5 megabit internet (which is the standard paid version from most broadband providers).

I and others have argued the dismal state of U.S. broadband is due to a lack of competition. In most markets, consumers have at most two choices for their internet service. Even in major cities, customers are locked into one option (like myself) where if we are unhappy with our speed and price, we have no option to switch.  Once a competitor enters the space, in this case Google, Time Warner finds it now has to compete for customers. No longer can it offer poor service for a high price simply because it has a monopoly on customers.  Claims of data congestion or over usage seem much weaker. 

There is speculation on whether Google intends to roll out its fiber service nationally, as that would be extremely expensive. Others suspect Google is simply showing up broadband providers, forcing them to improve their service (and show its technologically feasible and affordable to do so).  I lean more to the latter opinion.  Google favors a world where people use the internet more and faster.  Further, Google wants to be able to offer more services using the internet, and faster speeds make that a possibilities – showing more ads along the way.  As consumers, even if we may be wary of Google controlling more of our internet experience, we should be happy to see someone challenging the incumbent players who have so limited our internet experience thus far.  Competition improves services and lowers prices. Hopefully we’ll see more of this.

Motorola Xoom is not a failure because it didn’t sell iPad numbers

I’m sorry if I sound like an Android cheerleader. I love Android phones, but have an iPod Touch and an iPad 2, so I live in both camps.  What is frustrating is Android, for all its success, gets pretty unfairly criticized by even tech circles.  Take the most recent example of allegedly low sales for the Motorola Xoom, the premiere Android tablet.

The Xoom sold an estimated 100,000 units, a spec compared to the millions of iPad 2 sales over the approximately sale timespan.  But you don’t judge success against the blockbuster.  The iPad is the Avatar blockbuster compared to the the Tourist’s healthy box office.

The same comparisons of Android phones get made to the iPhone. No single Android phone will match Apple sales 1 to 1. Android hardware competes with dozens of hardware makers for carrier and shelf space.  Apple has a focused process which works very well for them.  It would be like saying the Macbook Air outsells every Windows laptop and thinking this somehow says every Windows laptop is a failure.

Also note that for most of this sales period, there was only one version of the Xoom compared to 6 different iPads.  Yes, I’m sure the top of the line iPad sold more than the Xoom, but those numbers would likely be more comparable than all iPad versions.

Let’s do some math. The Xoom, retailing for $800, sold 100,000 units. That means Motorola made $80,000,000 in about a month.  Even for a large company like Motorola, that is some respectable revenue.  It’s very possible Motorola expected higher sales. But can we please stop calling Android hardware a failure? Let’s remember how unremarkable the first Android phone, the G1, was. And yet now the total of Android phones are outselling iPhones.  This is a marathon.

Harvard Business Reviews sees Big Content is threatening innovation

It’s always exciting to see a new, mainstream publication see what I and other haves been so concerned about.  James Allworth writes a short piece for the Harvard Business Review about how Big content is strangling innovation with its misunderstanding and animosity against technology. Allworth writes:

Many in the high technology industry have known this for a long time. Despite making their living relying on it, the Big Content players do not understand technology, and never have. Rather than see it as an opportunity to reach new audiences, technology has always been a threat to them. Example after example abounds of this attitude; whether it was the VCR which was “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone” as famed movie industry lobbyist Jack Valenti put it at a congressional hearing, or MP3 technology, which they tried to sue out of existence. In fact, it’s possible to go back as far as the gramophone and see the content industries rail against new technology. The reason why? Every shift in technology is difficult for them. Just as they work out how to make money using one technology, it changes.

This is nothing new and shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows Big Content’s approach to technological innovation.   Allworth didn’t even include the TV industry fighting cable television, movie industries fighting TV, and the music industry fearing the player piano (leading to their own congressional hearings in the turn of the 20th century).

Today, Big Content is trying to stifle everything from Netflix to BitTorrent.  Viacom is continuing its billion dollar lawsuit against YouTube.  Media companies prevent web browsers on your TV or phone from viewing Hulu because they want you to pay for the privilege, limiting its usefulness.  Movie companies have announced they want to cut off Netflix’s supply of good movies. Cloud music services and news aggregators both offer products customers want, but the established content providers only see this technology as threats to their current, obsolete business models.

Let’s not forget how that VCR thing worked out. Home video eventually grew to be a larger part of the movie business than the box office.

With the DMCA already oppressively one-sided, Big Content is trying to get the COICA passed which would make legal the domain seizures the government is already engaging it (and finding it to be a complete failure).  Censorship and stifling new, innovative businesses.  Sounds like the perfect way to win the future in America.

Android fragmentation: Benefits of experimentation

The battle of mobile OSs often revolves around open and closed systems and open source and proprietary.  For many, like myself, the more open approach of Android has been a selling point, but the same openness has led to a fragmented market where hundreds of android products all handle the operating system differently.  Every iPhone (disclaimer, I have a Motorola Droid phone and an iPod Touch) however, pretty much is the same.  Fragmentation for Android has been seen as a negative for the platform, limiting app developers who can’t predict the system used by the users.  But fragmentation has other more significant benefits.

Fragmentation also means experimentation.

There are Android phones with and without keyboards, large and small screens, lots or limited on board memory, slow and faster processors, high and low priced, etc.  This is all about testing and innovating the marketplace and finding out what consumers really want.  Remember Android is just over two years old (released September 2008).  It sees rapid software upgrades and even faster hardware releases, each time out innovating the previous generation.

Right now this is a slightly controlled chaos.  Many parallels can be seen between the early Mac OS and Windows battle for desktop supremacy where Apple again chose to offer limited options for its OS while Microsoft let anyone able to pay its license.  Google does not even charge to use Android. This pretty much means anyone can choose to put Android in their hardware (even a set of headphones have their own operating system).

For now Android looks like somewhat controlled chaos.  While Apple’s iPhone comparably looks sleek and simple, it is one-size fits all.  To its benefit it is a very nice size and thus has widespread appeal, but in the long-term, this is just as limiting as it was for the Mac OS.  Already patterns are emerging in leading Android hardware developers, focusing on faster processors and larger screens which only a year ago started catching up to the iPhone’s processing power but are now boasting higher specs.  This is innovation benefited by competition.  Android handset makers must compete and outpace each other while and Apple.  It’s in all of these handset makers to make Android as appealing as possible. Only Apple cares about making iOS and the iPhone better.

For now this means Apple, with its head start and compelling product, is a formidable opponent.  But this is marathon, not a sprint, as Google seems perfectly aware. Constant small upgrades and enhancements over the long term can add up to something pretty amazing.

Video games making athletes better athletes

maddenfootball Hand eye coordination and faster reaction times often get credited as benefits to playing video games, but how about strategic thinking or even the way athletes play their games?  Chris Suellentrop from Wired explains on how the current generation of athletes, now college graduates who grew up playing sport video games, are changing the way sports, especially football, are changing.

Similar to the computer opponents in chess and online poker players, video games simulations of football, like the popular Madden series, have become so detailed and accurate, that athletes and their coaches are using these games to train for games and research possible plays and outcomes. Madden has even been used to correctly predict the winners of five of the last six Super Bowls and the AFC and NFC Championship winners within 3 points.

With years of basically computer training, athletes moving up from high school to college and then professional have a better understanding of the game – they can read the other team better and make faster decisions, requiring less apprenticeships. Wired goes into detail:

At the Pop Warner Super Bowl in 2006, the winning team had 30 offensive plays, which it had learned through Madden. (”I programmed our offense into Madden to help me memorize our plays,” one 11-year-old told Sports Illustrated. “It was easier than homework.”) Dezmon Briscoe, an all-conference wide receiver for the University of Kansas, credited Madden 2009 with teaching him how to read when defenses “roll their coverages” — move their defensive backs to disguise their strategy. Chuck Kyle, a high school coach who has won 10 state championships in football-mad Ohio, has programmed his team USA playbook into Madden and uses it to teach players their assignments. So have coaches at Colorado State, Penn State, and the University of Missouri, among other schools. An offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the videogame as a preparation tool for an entire season, scouting his opponents digitally. While even-more-sophisticated software is available for virtual sports training, coaches and players at all levels of football say that Madden’s off-the-shelf simulation is good enough.

It’s likely much of the next decade will have a lot of “now that the gaming generation” type stories (hell, I’ve done two is as many weeks) as we start seeing the next generation of gamer movie makers, marketers, and other areas we can’t even predict. And so far, these gaming influences were far from intended but open up exciting possibilities for what can games, and technology, do next.

Computer chess revolution

Chess master Garry Kasparov pens a review of Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind, revealing how computers have changed the game.

Kasparov made headlines in 1997 when he lost to a computer.  IBM’s Deep Blue was a revolution in artificial intelligence, evaluating 200 million chess moves per second. Kasparov considered this inevitable, recognizing now that the average home PC has chess programs able to beat most grandmasters.

The fear of computers rising as chess masters meant few would be interested in the game, but the opposite is happening. With chess a standard program on most new computers, people and especially children can be exposed to the game even in areas where the game is rarely played. Moreover, the computer is influencing the style of the next generation of grandmasters, particularly that of no style (but lots of substance). Kasparov writes:

It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

Grandmasters are getting younger and younger, likely thanks to the readily available computer partner.

In the pre-computer era, teenage grandmasters were rarities and almost always destined to play for the world championship. Bobby Fischer’s 1958 record of attaining the grandmaster title at fifteen was broken only in 1991. It has been broken twenty times since then, with the current record holder, Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin, having claimed the highest title at the nearly absurd age of twelve in 2002. Now twenty, Karjakin is among the world’s best, but like most of his modern wunderkind peers he’s no Fischer, who stood out head and shoulders above his peers—and soon enough above the rest of the chess world as well.

The growth of computer’s computational power is fascinating. As summarized by Kasparov, “Before 1994 and after 2004 these [computer versus human] duels held little interest. The computers quickly went from too weak to too strong.” A computer program is has broken down checkers to become unbeatable (either outright win or tie, but it will never lose) and it’s creator has now set his sights on poker. Chess’ complexity likely means an unbeatable computer is many years away, but that only makes the challenge more exciting.

Just to add another layer of analysis, several human/computer chess teams were pit against each other finding that a great chess player with a simple computer can best the best computer, but amateur chess players with an okay computer and an excellent process of analyzing that data can beat a great chess player with an even better computer. Computers, it seems, are yet to make the human mind obsolete, but rather can best supplement our reasoning skills to make us smarter or more efficient.

When one business closes, opportunities open up

The internet is successfully ravaging almost every industry from music to real estate. Technology has, throughout history, caused the end of many industries, removing millions of jobs from the economy. What looks scary in the short term ends up being a long-term boon, with technology often replacing those jobs with better jobs, larger markets, and more efficient allocation of resources.

This weekend, Thomas Friedman wrote about the “Do-It-Yourself” economy where, even in this Great Recession, companies with fewer dollars and less manpower are finding ways to do more. He highlights marketing firm Greer & Associates whose budget has been cut 20 percent. Using online collaborative tools, cheap stock photography, and crowd sourced voiceover work, they have been able to produce far more than they could with a full budget.

Greer paid far less for these services. Voice talent that once cost up to $500 was 10 percent its original cost. Thousands of dollars of stock photography could be had for a few dollars.

Friedman sadly doesn’t go far enough highlighting how amazing this ultra-efficiency is. While people will pay less for stock photography, more people can afford it now. It’s feasible for someone making a birthday card or personal website to spend a few dollars for really professional photography. The market is far larger – elastic pricing at work.

But what about the poor photographer you say? Focus only true scarce goods. Stock photography, especially in the age of cheap digital cameras and photo editing software, is a glutted market pushing the price down to zero. That’s competition and it’s a good thing. All this stock photography makes commissioned photography, long the bread and butter of any photographer, more valuable, especially when they can show samples of their work in active use.

With more efficiency and less costs, Greer can put more resources into creativity and making actual marketing products. It’s so cheap and easy to distribute music, musicians can save those resources to engage with fans and sell scarce goods (like time, concert tickets, etc.) to those fans. Greer’s clients and a musicians fans save money they once spent on high-priced voice-overs or CDs can put that money to other areas of the economy, creating other jobs.

Look at 15-20 years ago how many jobs didn’t exist before the internet and computers become ubiquitous. There are search engines, SEO specialists, social media sites, online gaming, life streaming, GPS, cell phone data plans, and more. All of these provide more jobs even if they replace others. It’s like the automobile industry replacing horses and buggies or phones replacing the telegraph. Agriculture is my favorite example, as the majority of the U.S.’s jobs used to be in agriculture, replaced by manufacturing because agriculture became so efficient. Now manufacturing is more efficient, those jobs are disappearing. They will be replaced by new jobs, whether online or in other areas not yet discovered.

Companies need to stop fearing the changing marketplace and embrace the new opportunities, even if it means radically changing your business model. The market makes the decisions and companies just come along for the ride.