Tag: technology

The Price of Apple

By James Kwak

Last week, This American Life ran a story about the Chinese factories that produce Apple products (and a lot of the other electronic devices that fill our lives). It featured Mike Daisey, a writer and performer who traveled to Shenzhen, China, to visit the enormous factories (more than 400,000 people work at Foxconn’s, according to the story*) where electronic products are churned out using huge amounts of manual labor.

I’m sure that most of us already realized, on an intellectual level, that the stuff we buy is made by people overseas who, in general, have much less than we do and work harder than we do, under tougher working conditions. It’s harder to ignore, however, listening to Daisey talk about the long shifts (up to thirty-four hours, apparently), the crippling injuries due to repetitive stress or hazardous chemicals, the crammed dormitories, and the authoritarian rules. At one point an interviewee produces a document, produced by the Labor Relations Board (with the name of the Board on it): it’s a list of “troublemakers” who should be fired at once.

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The End of the Blog?

By James Kwak

As you may have noticed by now, Wikipedia’s English-language site is (mostly) down for the day to protest SOPA and PIPA, two draconian anti-copyright infringement laws moving through Congress, and Google’s home page looks like this:

Under existing law (the DMCA), if someone posts copyrighted material in a comment on this blog, the copyright holder is supposed to send me a takedown notice, after which point I am supposed to take the material down (if it is in fact copyrighted).

SOPA and PIPA are bills in the House and Senate, respectively, that make it much easier for “copyright holders” (like the big media companies that back the bill—or, come to think of it, authors like me) to take action not only against “bad” web sites that make copyrighted material available (against the wishes of the copyright holders), but also against web sites that simply link to such “bad” web sites. For example, the copyright holder can require payment network providers (PayPal, credit card networks) to block payments to such web sites (in either category above) and can require search engines to stop providing advertising for such web sites—simply by sending them a letter. That’s SOPA § 103(b).*

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Wall Street and Silicon Valley

By James Kwak

Whenever someone criticizes “Wall Street,” someone else tries to defend Wall Street by saying that without it we wouldn’t have Silicon Valley and all of its wonders. Most recently, A.S. at Free Exchange says this:

“What would Silicon Valley have been without venture capital and private equity? Apple’s spectacular growth was made possible by the capital it raised in financial markets (it is a public company).

“Much of Apple’s initial investment came from an angel investor (a relative or friend who provides the start-up capital). But most new companies rely on formal capital markets. In a 2009 working paper, Alicia Robb and David Robinson investigated the capital structure of start-up firms, and found that 75% primarily relied on external financing from formal capital markets, usually credit cards and bank loans in their first year. They also found that firms that used formal credit were more successful.”

As critics of Wall Street go, I probably find this more annoying than most because, well, I worked in Silicon Valley. Most of these comments are obvious, but here goes anyway.

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Steve Jobs and Me

By James Kwak

I took a short break from fiscal and monetary policy to write an Atlantic column about Steve Jobs’s retirement and what it means for the eternal debate over whether and when founder CEOs should be replaced by experienced outsiders. Along the way, I read some interesting papers on the relationship between founder CEOs and stock market returns or company valuations.

I should clarify that I’m no Apple fanboy. I use a MacBook Pro, which I consider almost a necessity given how much time I spend with my computer and the abominable state of Windows. But I don’t like the “my way or the highway approach” when it comes to hardware; I wish it had a Backspace key and a deeper keyboard, among other things.

I understand that controlling the hardware ensures a more consistent user experience and less customer dissatisfaction, but allowing hardware manufacturers to compete certainly has its advantages. Look at Android, for example: I use an Android phone, and even if the iPhone is still the best phone for the median customer (a highly debatable point), the proliferation of Android models means that for most people, there is an Android phone that is a better fit. Although I was an early iPad adopter, I’m generally disappointed with it. It’s great for playing Plants vs. Zombies, checking the weather, or watching a TV episode, but it’s too slow and the browser is too weak to do anything serious. And the fact that you can’t swap out the default Apple keyboard (as far as I know) is a classic example of the problem with the Apple approach: the thing doesn’t even have arrow keys (yes, I know how to use the magnifying glass), and every Android keyboard does a better job with special characters.

Still, there’s no question Steve Jobs is a genius, and nothing like the empty suits who parade through the Times‘s Corner Office column who talk about nothing but hiring, motivation, and teamwork.

Update: Sorry, I meant to say Delete key, not Backspace key.

What Has Microsoft Come To?

By James Kwak

From The New York Times:

“Consumers will be able to integrate the new phones with a number of Microsoft products, including Zune music and video content, the Bing search engine, business products like Microsoft’s OneNote software and the Xbox gaming platform.”

Apart from possibly the Xbox, who cares? How can it be that the master of bundling now has nothing that anyone wants as part of a bundle?

Can Someone Explain Facebook Credits to Me?

By James Kwak

The recent New York Times story on Facebook Credits was just one of a slew of articles that have been coming out recently on this topic. (Hint: When that happens, it’s usually because the company in question is putting on a PR campaign, which means they are pushing stories to the media in an attempt to build buzz.) According to the generally positive reporting, Credits are “a virtual currency system that some day could turn into a multibillion-dollar business.”

As far as I can make out,* Credits are points that you can buy with real money and that are stored with your Facebook account data on the mother ship in Palo Alto (just like your bank keeps track of the Dollars you have on account there). You can use Credits to pay for a variety of stuff in Facebook apps, and Facebook takes a cut (currently thirty percent) of the value of any transaction using Credits. The story is that in the long run, you may be able to use Credits to buy anything, not just stuff on Facebook, positioning Facebook as a potential leader in electronic payments.

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More Telecom Hell

By James Kwak

So, I wanted to transfer phone and DSL from one house to another. I went to Verizon’s web site, clicked on the promisingly named “Moving to a New Home” link, and walked through the step-by-step wizard. It said I could have unlimited domestic calling and 3 MB DSL for $55 per month, which was a better deal than I was currently getting, so I signed up. The only issue was that the scheduling calendar only allowed install dates in the next month and I wanted a date six weeks out, but the live chat representative said I could just call in later and change the install date.

A few days later I went online to check on the order status in their online system and saw that my DSL order was nowhere to be  found. So I called up and, after much misunderstanding and aggravation, I figured out that my order had been canceled by their back-end system. Even though the front-end (web) system knew that I was an existing customer (remember, I clicked on “Moving to a New Home”) and offered me a discounted bundle, the back-end (probably mainframe system) didn’t want to give discounts to existing customers and wouldn’t allow the order to be processed.* After a little arguing, the representative said that she would manually book the order at the higher price and then go in and give me the originally promised discount.

The next time I checked my order status I saw that I had three different DSL orders in their system, which made me nervous, but there was nothing to do but wait.

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Bad Software

By James Kwak

Planet Money did a story this week on the problems with medical billing. This is something I’ve been vaguely interested in for a long time; nine years ago, we seriously thought about it as a business opportunity for our company.

The Planet Money team said that there is $7 billion in waste in the medical billing process per year, which sounds like a lot until you realize that it isn’t. (Total healthcare costs in the United States are on the order of $2 trillion, I believe.) But the story had a great example of the problems with enterprise software that I’ve written about before.

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The Future of Personal Computing, Part 2

By James Kwak

(This is Part 2 of 2; Part 1 covers the shift in personal computing from the age of the standalone PC to the age of cloud computing.)

We left off with the idea that personal computing was inexorably, though slowly shifting toward a Web-based model in which our computers’ main purpose is to run browsers and we spend most of our time on the Internet. A decade ago when this idea became popular it was not particularly practical, because you simply couldn’t do very interesting things in a browser; it was originally designed, after all, for reading static web pages. But in the past decade, web sites have become much richer and interactive — think about something like Gmail, with its automatic refreshing and keyboard shortcuts, or Google Documents, which allows multiple people to edit a document at the same time — to the point where most of what people do most of the time can be done in a browser.

But then there was Apple.

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The Future of Personal Computing, Part 1

By James Kwak

This week, Apple passed Microsoft to become the most valuable technology company in the world (measured by the market value of its stock).* I’ve been wondering about Apple and, in particular, why “apps” — which at first glance struck me as a giant step backward in computing technology — have gotten so much buzz in the media. Then I bought an iPad, and while I understand apps a little better, I’m still perplexed. But since this isn’t a particularly technology-savvy audience, this is going to take some setting up. The background is here in Part 1; Part 2 will be coming shortly.

(Note that here I’m talking about personal computing, which is what people like you and I do on our own; enterprise computing is something very different that I’ve written about before, and still largely takes place on mainframe computers.)

A Little Background

Rather than recap the entire history of computing (hilarious synopsis here, hat tip Brad DeLong), I’ll start in the early 1990s. At this point, many people had personal computers, but for the most part they weren’t connected to anything except maybe a printer. (Actually, in the early 1980s my father brought home one of those primitive modems where you actually placed your phone receiver into a socket to communicate, so we could log into the mainframe at his university, but that was the exception.)

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Why Does Steve Ballmer Still Have a Job?

By James Kwak

So, after questioning the iPad, I bought one.* My primary motivation was that I wanted to be able to watch old TV episodes on the commute to and from my internship this summer, and I think an iPod Touch is just too small. I also bought an Android phone, because my three-year-old Motorola RAZR2 v9m (who comes up with these product names, anyway?) developed a crack in the hinge, and because I wanted the best camera I could get on a phone. (My #2 use for a phone is not email — it’s taking pictures and videos of my daughter.)

Anyway, catching up on the last three years of mobile technology has provided ample food for thought. I have a long post on the Apple-Google(-Microsoft) war rolling around in my head somewhere, which I will hopefully write down later this week. In the meantime, here’s John Gruber‘s verdict on Microsoft:

“Three years ago, just before the original iPhone shipped, here’s what Steve Ballmer said in an interview with USA Today’s David Lieberman:

‘There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent of them, than I would to have 2 percent or 3 percent, which is what Apple might get.’

“Not only was he wrong about the iPhone, but he was even more wrong about Windows Mobile. Three years ago Ballmer was talking about 60, 70, 80 percent market share. This week, Gartner reported that Windows Mobile has dropped to 6.8 percent market share in worldwide smartphone sales, down dramatically from 10.2 percent a year ago.”

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The Cost of “Multitasking”

By James Kwak

“I’ve given lectures on incivility around the globe. When I ask audiences whether anyone considers sending e-mail or texts during meetings uncivil, almost everyone raises their hand.

“Then, when I ask whether anyone in the audience sends texts or e-mail during meetings, about two-thirds acknowledge the habit. (Presumably, there are still more who don’t want to admit it.)”

That’s Christine Pearson, from her article in The New York Times.

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Bye-Bye, Facebook

By James Kwak

I recently deleted most of my personal information in my Facebook account. (I am keeping the Baseline Scenario page up for the convenience of people who want to read the blog within Facebook, and I need to have my personal account in order to manage that page.) This is only a tiny bit related to the fact that, for several days recently, Facebook was blocking access to this blog. It’s mainly because I’ve decided that the costs of Facebook outweigh the benefits.

First, take a look at this fantastic graphic by Matt McKeon (hat tip Tyler Cowen). You have to click on it to advance through time; it shows what information is, by default, available to whom, and how that has changed over time. (Click on the link to the “image-based version” if you’re having trouble.) Then come back here.

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Download the Blog – New and Improved!

By James Kwak

I finally came up with a better way to create a downloadable blog archive (always available via the “Download the Blog in PDF” link under Navigation in the right-hand sidebar). Now the archive is up to date (through April 2010) and you can download it in PDF, Kindle, or EPUB format. And it has clickable bookmarks for each individual post.

Thanks go to Joss Winn, Martin Hawksey, Feedbooks, and Yahoo! Pipes. See the archive page itself for a technical description.

“Every Moment Counts”

By James Kwak

No, it’s not a line from a pop song. It’s part of my hopeless, Luddite anti-smart phone campaign. This is from an interview with Tachi Yamada, president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program.

“When you actually are with somebody, you’ve got to make that person feel like nobody else in the world matters. I think that’s critical.”So, for example, I don’t have a mobile phone turned on because I’m talking to you. I don’t want the outside world to impinge on the conversation we’re having. I don’t carry a BlackBerry. I do my e-mails regularly, but I do it when I have the time on a computer. I don’t want to be sitting here thinking that I’ve got an e-mail message coming here and I’d better look at that while I’m talking to you. Every moment counts, and that moment is lost if you’re not in that moment 100 percent.”

Yamada is just one person; because he feels this way doesn’t prove that you should, too. But I bet some of you will agree with him, and will start switching your BlackBerrys off when you are talking to other people. But over time, you will find yourself leaving it on, and then you will find yourself surreptitiously checking it under the table. It’s like chocolate ice cream; it’s too hard to say no to.