Friday, August 30, 2013

On the ubiquity of chicken rotisseries

Once upon a time, long long ago -- i.e. 1995 -- rotisserie chicken was a huge business.

The trend was started with Boston Chicken (now Boston Market). The idea was making a healthier, classier, more expensive alternative to fast food. The original founder of Boston Chicken bought the idea and franchised it (not unlike Ray Kroc) because the owners were ringing up an average of $13.75 per bill.

Many clones popped up in the early-90s. The rotisserie chicken craze was big enough such that Seinfeld once featured Kenny Rogers Roasters on the show:

In 1993, Boston Chicken had a massive IPO. By 1998, the company was bankrupt. Kenny Rogers roasters was bankrupt slightly beforehand.

What happened?

The key issue with rotisserie chicken is that it takes almost no space and no overhead to do it. A 10 or 20 chicken rotisserie will cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $5K. So every Safeway, Dominicks, Costco and Walmart in America soon had their own rotisserie installed and were undercutting the crap out of these businesses that made it their sole business to cook rotisserie chicken.

Is this at all sounding like a lesson that might be applicable to the tech world in Silly Valley? You betcha.

I happened to watch Morning Joe yesterday, and they were broadcasting from Detroit. In talking about the history of the city, Packard cars and various other aspects, someone mentioned "Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its time." And holy crap, they nailed it. Detroit had attracted the brightest minds. They were innovating on cars, and dominating the landscape from the early 1900s to the 1960s.

Then... what happened? They got rotisseried. The technology for making cars, especially autonomously (i.e. robotics) became ubiquitous. And margins dropped. And they got crushed. And high-end cars like BMW started building a better brand in the states, and they crushed the high end.

A lot of people blame the union pensions at these companies, and I'm sure that has something to do with the cost structure problems. But the overall cause of the issue was that the technology to provide the product consumers wanted (cars, or rotisserie chickens) became easy to replicate.

And now it's time to evaluate for yourself: what's a business's rotisserie machine? What's the component that makes it valuable, and how does that component become easily replicable? Apply this metric to companies that are building tech especially -- what happens when their custom tech becomes commodity?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Returned Chromebook.... again

Earlier in the year, I bought my wife a Chromebook that we then returned because Citrix did not work for her on the Chromebook. I didn't use it much so... I decided to give one a try when I found myself without a laptop last week.

But.. I returned it just now. Here's why:

  • Dreadfully slow.

    The $250 Samsung ARM-based Chromebook is very, very slow for Google's own web properties. I would be unable to type this blog post on that machine -- it cannot keep up with my typing within the Blogger window, or Gmail, or Google docs. Yes, I type faster than most folks but so do Google's developers.

    Probably the most damning thing is how badly this machine performs on G+. It's unusably slow. It's even worse than Facebook on the machine.

    Google: shipping Chromebooks that can't keep up with G+ seems like a lost cause given your goals on both fronts.
  • Chromecast support (lack of)

    Netflix, because it uses a specialized player on Chromebook, does not support Chromecast on the platform. This is a must-have given our newfound Chromecast dependence in the house.

    I have yet to understand Google's Chromecast strategy when it comes to Netflix. They shipped a version of the Netflix app that would freeze your phone and even after that only kinda-sorta works.They don't support Chromecasting Netflix from their own hardware (which is still the #1 laptop on Amazon, BTW).

    If the idea is "iterate on it", that doesn't work with consumer products. This is something that Steve Jobs understood well. Consumers want something that works as its supposed to out of the box.
I think the problem here for Google is one of dogfooding. I was around the Google campus a couple times recently and saw people using Chromebook Pixels and Macs. I didn't see people using the Samsung Chromebook.

A really good rule of thumb when shipping a product is not to ship something you wouldn't use yourself. I think this is where the Samsung Chromebook lies in Google's strategy. The hardware is nice though -- if it had an intel chip in it, that might have worked.

By the way, can IBM or Intel please save us from ARM already? C'mon guys. Get it together!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hubris: the biggest security risk

A couple days ago on Hacker News, the thread about Chrome's security for stored password erupted and culminated with one of Chrome's security mavens posting responses. Within that chain, he posted this quip:

I appreciate how this appears to a novice, but we've literally spent years evaluating it and have quite a bit of data to inform our position. And while you're certainly well intentioned, what you're proposing is that that we make users less safe than they are today by providing them a false sense of security and encouraging dangerous behavior. That's just not how we approach security on Chrome.

This response rubbed me really the wrong way, I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. The obvious thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the patronizing "novice" bit, but it was more than that. Patronizing responses are par for the course on the internet. Why did this particular one stick in my craw?

Then it dawned on me: prior experience should have nothing to do with evaluating security. It's essential to evaluate any and all opinions about security, over and over and over. Security is the ultimate area requiring a meritocracy to succeed. No subject can ever be put to rest, having been decided forever and ever.

Case in point for Google: my brand new Chromebook comes configured out of the box to allow someone to view all of my saved Chrome passwords. It doesn't require a password when I open it up by default (edit: when I close it and re-open it later after having logged in). Google itself is shipping Chrome, on their own box, with no security for saved passwords. If they believed in these best practices for securing web passwords by securing the machine, maybe they should re-evaluate their own products.

The funny thing is, all you need to do to see the same claim made about "putting users in control of their own machine security" is go back to 1996. Check out this thread about ActiveX. It's up to the user to secure their machine by clicking no, of course! How'd that work out?

My advice to the Chrome team is to take a long, hard look at how you form your opinions about users, be open to changing those opinions. And if you have security practices that you believe in, you have to make sure your entire org is following them. Because right now, any user with a Chromebook, by default, is absolutely unsecured when they close it and leave it.