On Marc Andreessen’s Plan to Win the Future

Tad Friend, writing in The New Yorker, pens a fascinating profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (and the firm which he co-founded and is currently a general partner, a16z). A representative snippet of the man:

Something of the transporter beam clings to Andreessen, a sense that he just rematerialized from a city on the edge of forever. He’s not great at the basics of daily life: directions confound him, because roadways aren’t logical, and he’s so absent-minded about sunglasses that he keeps a “reload station” with nine pairs on his hall table. Perhaps Edison haunts his conversation because Andreessen is a fellow-tinkerer, except that his gadgets are systems and platforms, and his workshop is his own mind. He regularly reprograms his appearance and deportment—his user interface—to suit his present role, and friends refer to chapters in his life as versions of an operating system: “Marc 1.0,” “Marc 2.0,” and so on. A charismatic introvert, Andreessen draws people in but doesn’t really want them around. Though he has a crisp sense of humor, it’s rarely deployed at his own expense. He hates being complimented, looked at, or embraced, and has toyed with the idea of wearing a T-shirt that says “No hugging, no touching.” He doesn’t grasp the protocols of social chitchat, and prefers getting a memo to which he can e-mail a response, typing at a hundred and forty words a minute. He didn’t attend Netscape’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, because it combined two things from which he recoils: parties and reminiscing.

Curious what would have become of Facebook if it weren’t for Marc’s advice to Mark Zuckerberg:

In 2006, Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for a billion dollars, and Accel Partners, Facebook’s lead investor, urged Mark Zuckerberg to accept. Andreessen said, “Every single person involved in Facebook wanted Mark to take the Yahoo! offer. The psychological pressure they put on this twenty-two-year-old was intense. Mark and I really bonded in that period, because I told him, ‘Don’t sell, don’t sell, don’t sell!’ ” Zuckerberg told me, “Marc has this really deep belief that when companies are executing well on their vision they can have a much bigger effect on the world than people think, not just as a business but as a steward of humanity—if they have the time to execute.” He didn’t sell; Facebook is now worth two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.

I empathize with this philosophy for the world:

“I could never tolerate not knowing why…You have to work your way back to figure out the politics, the motivations. I always stop when I get to evolutionary psychology, and why we have tribes—oh, O.K., we’re primates cursed with emotions and the ability to do logical thinking.”

This is a key paragraph on how venture capitalism is more about errors of omission:

In venture, it’s not batting average that matters; it’s slugging average. Boldness is all. When Google Glass appeared, a16z joined a collective to seek out investments, and Andreessen declared that, without the face shield, “people are going to find they feel, basically, naked and lonely.” Google withdrew the product in January. But, he would argue, so what? His thesis is that such a16z failures as Fab and Rockmelt and Digg and Kno are not merely a tolerable by-product of the risk algorithm but a vital indicator of it. It’s fine to have a lousy record of predicting the future, most of the time, as long as when you’re right you’re really right. Between 2004 and 2013, a mere 0.4 per cent of all venture investments returned at least 50x. The real mistakes aren’t the errors of commission, the companies that crash—all you can lose is your investment—but those of omission. There were good reasons that a16z passed on buying twelve per cent of Uber in 2011, including a deadline of just hours to make a decision. But the firm missed a profit, on paper, of more than three billion dollars.

A must-read all the way through if you’re at all interested in tech, Silicon Valley, or entrepreneurship.

Walt Mossberg’s Top 12 Products in Two Decades of Tech Reviews

Walt Mossberg has been covering technology for The Wall Street Journal for 22 years. In his last column for the newspaper, he compiles 12 products which, in his opinion, have been the most influential in the last twenty years.

His criteria for selection:

First, the products had to improve ease of use and add value for average consumers. That was the guiding principle I laid down in the first sentence of my first column, in 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.”

Second, I chose these 12 because each changed the course of digital history by influencing the products and services that followed, or by changing the way people lived and worked. In some cases, the impact of these mass-market products is still unfolding. All of these products had predecessors, but they managed to take their categories to a new level.

Unsurprisingly, Apple (the company) takes 5 of the 12 spots. I have used every product/service on the list with the exception of the Newton and the Palm Pilot. If it were me, I would have added one more service which has changed how I have looked into traveling: AirBnb, which allows you to rent out spaces in other people’s apartments/homes. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by paying a fraction of the cost of hotel rooms in the last three years during my trips to Portland, Oregon.

Why Cashiers Beat Self-Checkout Machines at the Grocery Store

I agree with Farhad Manjoo’s assessment in this piece for Wall Street Journal: humans are much better at checking you out at the grocery store than machines. He explains:

They [self-checkout machines] work well enough in a pinch—when you want to check out just a handful of items, when you don’t have much produce, when you aren’t loaded down with coupons. But for any standard order, they’re a big pain. Perversely, then, self-checkout machines’ shortcomings are their best feature: because they’re useless for most orders, their lines are shorter, making the machines seem faster than humans.

In most instances where I’m presented with a machine instead of a human, I rejoice. I prefer an ATM to a flesh-and-blood banker, and I find airport check-in machines more efficient than the unsmiling guy at the desk. But both these tasks—along with more routine computerized skills like robotic assembly lines—share a common feature: They’re very narrow, specific, repeatable problems, ones that require little physical labor and not much cognitive flexibility.

At my local Kroger, the few times I have tried using those self-checkout machines have been full of frustration. For instance, one time an item I scanned went through twice, and there was no easy way to select “duplicate scan” on the screen. Cycling among various on-screen buttons for fresh fruit/vegetable selection is a chore. Until a system is built which recognizes the items you’ve placed onto the scanner without human intervention comes along, cashiers will trump self-checkout computers any day. Imagine how complicated it still is if you have in-store and/or newspaper coupons, checking out via a combination credit card/cash, and so on…

On Technology Advancements in the Grocery Store

The Los Angeles Times reports how Ralphs, a grocery store chain, is using technology to speed up checkout times for customers:

Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.

It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, a Ralphs spokeswoman said.

The checkout system is part of a long-overdue effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.

I remember reading about this on Tesco’s virtual store:

In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other grocery staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.

The article cites something else worth pondering: the grocery store industry is a $518 billion business in the United States.

 

What if Apple and Google Went to Actual War? A Thought Experiment

What would happen if two of the world’s largest tech companies went to actual war? That’s the thought experiment behind this Slate feature. Dan Kois provides the introduction:

I asked two experts here at Slate to do a little wargaming with me. Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo will play Google. Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias will play Apple. I will play referee as Farhad and Matt imagine their way through a (totally speculative!) (fictional and not true!) Google vs. Apple all-out-war for world supremacy. Could Google erase Apple from the Internet? Could iPhones control killer drones over Mountain View? How different is Apple willing to think? And how evil is Google prepared to be?

Google’s offensive begins with Ghostfruit:

It’s an unseasonably overcast morning in Mountain View when Larry Page gives the Go command. He does so with a heavy heart. Though the feud with Apple has been escalating for months, Google’s CEO has never given serious consideration to the plan known internally as Operation GhostFruit. Then Apple decided to test him, first by removing Google as the default search engine on the iPhone and iPad, and then—when Google complained to regulators and launched a petition drive calling on Apple to reinstate Google—by blocking Apple devices’ access to Google.com entirely. The iPhone and iPad provide the bulk of Google’s mobile ad revenue. Page has no choice but to go nuclear.

After a big acquisitions spree by Apple, their next offensive move follows:

War is a game of coalitions. Not only are there whole countries where Google barely exists (think China), but there’s a whole world of online services companies out there who’ve been chomping at the bit for a big Google scandal to get them into the game.Bing search, Outlook webmail, Yahoo Calendar, and Dropbox for storage. Google’s one-stop shopping is a convenience, but people in Google-hostile territory can use the Web without it and the company’s behavior is frightening people. Apple’s hearty band of loyalists can shop at the Apple Store and punch apple.com into the browser just fine—and while they’re there, many of them are adding their contact information to a new page which urges Apple fans to join the “Apple Army.” The photo accompanying sign-up shows a cheerful, attractive, multicultural group massed in front of Apple headquarters, everyone wearing T-shirts of bright, primary colors. In the first week, 20,000 Apple partisans sign up. 

Read on how Google responds. The Cult of Apple, however, grows to 500,000 in the last offensive.

Astro Teller Leads Google X

Brad Stone’s piece in Business Week on Google’s secret lab wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve read on the topic, but it’s worth a read nonetheless:

Some of the real projects in Google X sound almost as outlandish. Makani Power’s newest airborne turbine prototype, called Wing 7, is a 26-foot-long carbon-fiber contraption with four electricity-generating propellers that flies in circles at altitudes of 800 to 2,000 feet, sending power down a lightweight tether to a base station. “If we’re successful, we can get rid of a huge part of the fossil fuels we use,” says Damon Vander Lind, the startup’s chief engineer. Vander Lind acknowledges it might not work, but: “If you don’t take that chance, and put a decade of your life trying to do it, no progress will get made.”

Then there’s X’s still-secret project to bring Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world. A decade ago, David Grace, a senior research fellow at the University of York, spearheaded a project to mount broadband transmitters on high-altitude balloons, as part of a multicountry initiative backed by the European Commission, called the Capanina Consortium. The initiative never progressed beyond the experimental stage. Grace now says that he has heard that Google is working on such balloon-based broadband technology.

Last month, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made the surprising pronouncement that “by the end of the decade, everyone on earth will be connected to the Internet.” Skeptics immediately noted that 60 percent of the world is not yet online and that there are many countries without even reliable telecommunications grids. Teller won’t confirm or even discuss such a project, though he concedes that wiring the planet would fall squarely into Google X’s purview. Grace says, “It does need the Googles of the world to push this forward.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about Google X? The man who runs it is named Astro Teller. You can’t make this stuff up.

Goodreads is Now Part of Amazon.com

This is an interesting move from Amazon.com: the company is buying the excellent online books social network and information portal Goodreads. I’ve used Goodreads sparingly in the past, but I know a lot of people who love the service and the recommendations. Here is the press release:

“Amazon and Goodreads share a passion for reinventing reading,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon Vice President, Kindle Content. “Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.”

“Books – and the stories and ideas captured inside them – are part of our social fabric,” said Otis Chandler, Goodreads CEO and co-founder. “People love to talk about ideas and share their passion for the stories they read. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to partner with Amazon and Kindle. We’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world. We’re looking forward to inspiring greater literary discussion and helping more readers find great books, whether they read in print or digitally.”

“I just found out my two favorite people are getting married,” said Hugh Howey, best-selling author of WOOL. “The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books – To Be Read piles everywhere must be groaning in anticipation.”

Following the acquisition, Goodreads’s headquarters will remain in San Francisco, CA. Founded in 2007, Goodreads now has more than 16 million members and there are more than 30,000 books clubs on the Goodreads site. Over just the past 90 days, Goodreads members have added more than four books per second to the “want to read” shelves on Goodreads.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Here’s what the folks at Goodreads wrote about the acquisition:

1. With the reach and resources of Amazon, Goodreads can introduce more readers to our vibrant community of book lovers and create an even better experience for our members. 
2. Our members have been asking us to bring the Goodreads experience to an e-reader for a long time. Now we’re looking forward to bringing Goodreads to the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle, and further reinventing what reading can be. 
3. Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity, under the Goodreads brand and with our unique culture.

Sounds like a great fit.