Friday, May 29, 2009

Engineering Leadership

Last night we have participated in the inaugural forum of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Gordon Engineering Leadership Center. In our after-forum discussion in the parking lot, some of my friends were skeptical about the role of the center. Their view was that you can not teach someone to be a leader. I would like to take a pause from broadband and ask your opinion about engineering leadership.

Below I am listing some of my questions about engineering leadership. I don't mean to ask you to answer these questions here. (But, feel free to do so if you like.) I am just asking you to think about them and acknowledge the differences between an excellent engineer and an engineer leader.

- What is your definition of engineering leadership? Can you describe it as a collection of qualities? (Gordon Center asked similar questions from some of the industry leaders. You can see their answers in a short video here.)

- Do you think a school can teach someone any of the qualities you listed above?

- How do you evaluate engineering leadership potential?

- If you are an engineer leader in your firm, do you think your engineering education in the United States gave you the non-technical tools necessary for your role? Do you think there were some classes missing from your formal curriculum?

- Do you think an engineering school like UCSD will benefit from a center for leadership development?

Next week, I will continue writing about broadband and will share with you what I think about future ways of interacting with your Internet TV.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

We want apps for TV!

On may 8th, I promised to share with you my thoughts on barriers of broadband penetration. One of the barriers I mentioned in that post was ease of use. Today, I would like to discuss how we can make it easier for people to use broadband. My short answer is "open TVs to App developers!"

Since the first TV broadcast of a commercial in the United States, in 1930, the model for controlling the television content has not changed. The big studios decide what you watch! The advent of color television revolutionized the watching experience of the TV audience, but didn't impact the model for content control. The introduction of the digital video recorder (DVR), right before the turn of the millennium, is arguably the only event that enabled viewers to be somewhat in charge. The next major event could be connecting the TV to the internet.

The TV is usually in the living room, it is intuitive to work with it and the family gathers around it. If TVs can be connected to the Internet and open up for software applications, the Internet services will be customized for the living room. You can shop online with your family, do online banking together, chat with kids' auntie, and off course, watch your customized channels sitting on your couch!

The below figure shows an HDTV streaming live video of the bride and the groom in a wedding in India. The HDTV was located on the opposite side of the wedding venue from the bride and the groom, streaming videos for guests who were far from the happenings! Consider some family members who were not able to attend the wedding; they could gather in their living room, tune to the family channel on the TV and participate in the wedding online! Today this application is possible on your PC with softwares like Skype. But unfortunately, the technical complications prevent many people from enjoying it.

You may argue that the keepers of the TV, e.g. cable companies, will not let the TV manufacturers open up their devices. I used to think like that myself. However, recently I see some silver lining for open software development for TV. I have two reasons for my belief. First, the fastest growing expense for cable companies is the cost of TV programs. The money the cable operators pay for the rights to channels like MTV, CNN and ESPN eats up almost $4 of every $10 they take in selling video service. Second, big Media like NBC, ABC, and News Corp. are considering digital medium strongly in their future planning. For more information on the digital shift I refer you to "Big Media's Digital Shuffle" article at Fortune Magazine, May 25, 2009.

This year at Consumer Electronic Show(CES) all four major TV manufacturers presented TVs with ethernet connection. The industry is still far from implementing an infrastructure that let you subscribe to applications and channels that you like, but it is at least acknowledging the demand for connecting TVs to Internet. If you are interested to learn about these products search for LG & Netflix HDTV, Samsung Internet@TV, Sony Bravia, and Panasonic VieraCast.

If one day there are TVs with open access to Internet, Samsung Internet@TV can be their possible ancestor. Samsung is integrating widgets for accessing Yahoo!, eBay and YouTube on its Internet@TV model. There are also some rumors that it is going to support a twitter widget! This is just the first baby step. The bold move is to open access to every developer to come up with its creative application for the TV! See also here.

Next week I am going to write about possible designs for interacting with our Internet TV. Stay tuned for what your future TV remote control will look like!

edited by Behnam Analui

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why a "No, thanks!" to broadband?!

Last week, we were at a bar in downtown, sipping a Martini, and gazing at the red flames in the fire place, when a question popped up: “why people choose not to subscribe for broadband access?” We deeply and truly love Internet! Why are there people in our city who do not appreciate this greatest invention of mankind?! I knew that only 51% of households in the US have broadband subscription, while 91.5% of the zip codes have three or more ways of accessing broadband; of course that night I only remembered some estimates but close enough to heat up the discussion. (These stats are based on the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) survey in Oct 2007.) I was claiming that reasons preventing some to avoid Internet got to be ease of use and cost. Firstly, it is not easy enough to use the Internet. People still associate Internet with computers. If one could easily navigate through Amazon on his or her TV, Amazon market size would have increased beyond expectations. My mom still prefers to use the old familiar phone instead of Skype. Secondly, the cost is still too high for substantial number of families. The $20-$30 per month may seem to be worth it, considering the great value Internet add to our life. But $300-$400 per year is significant when the annual household income is $50,000. Based on IRS reports, the $50,000-$75,000 is the income bracket with the most number of people in the United States. Therefore, losing a percentage of customers in this income bracket means more customers will be lost in an absolute sense. Following that night discussion, I researched more about the subject to back up my arguments with statistics. In general, it is extremely hard to study the effect of cost and ease of use separately. The lower income group have probably less education and are less comfortable with using computers. However, I found a report published by NTIA in January 2008 that shows broadband subscription has a high correlation with both income and education. The data has been collected from 117,840 householders all across the United States. Figure (1) shows the percentage of householders with broadband connection at home vs. the household income. If you exclude the bin for households with an income of less than $5,000, the data shows clearly that the chance that a householder has access to broadband at home increases with the household income. Figure (2) shows that the people in the age group of 35-44 years old subscribe to broadband more than the other age groups. It is possible to explain this graph with my theory of cost and ease of use. The 35-44 years old age group has more money comparing to the younger age groups. At the same time they are more comfortable working with a computer comparing to the older age groups. Figure (3) demonstrate very strong correlation between education and broadband usage at home. 74% of the householders with a bachelor degree or higher have access to broadband Internet at home. This is 23% more than the national average! Our discussion that night in the bar didn’t end about the causes of relatively low penetration of broadband. We also discussed solutions for increasing usage of broadband in the society. If you are interested to know "How we can make broadband free" or "How we can remove the barrier of computer interface", stay tuned for my future posts.
edited by Behnam Analui