Monday, December 16, 2013

Dad to SF Tech Titans: Fix the EdTech Disaster

Dear SF Tech Titans (Marc Benioff, Ron Conway, Dick Costolo, Jack Dorsey, Drew Houston, Jeremy Stoppelman, Brian Chesky, Travis Kalanick, Don Mattrick, George Lucas, and honorary member, Larry Ellison), as well as other SF Bay Area technology leaders, Mayor Ed Lee, and Superintendent Richard Carranza -

I’m a current public school dad (three times over) in San Francisco, the global epicenter of technology.  And, I’m saddened by, and ashamed of, the approach to technology in our classrooms.

So, I am using this platform to implore all of you: Think bigger (your words, Mr. Benioff) and then, perhaps more important, make it happen (my words, Mr. Benioff)!  No excuses!

To level set, I appreciate that (almost) every parent at (almost) every school (public or private) has something to be annoyed by and/or to complain about, and so I know that my issue here is more substantial than some and much less significant than others.  Please, then, view this issue and this perspective in an absolute, not relative, sense.

That said, the current state of technology in San Francisco’s public schools is appalling.  There is no other word for it.  

According to, San Francisco Unified School District’s Master Plan, hundreds of teachers in San Francisco have no computer in their classrooms at all (seriously, none!), and more than 60% of all teachers have computers that are more than 4 years old.  Many of these computers run similarly out-of-date software.  How can we expect these people to adequately teach and train the future rock stars that you will need working at your companies?  

Moreover, fewer than half of teachers have LCD projectors, document cameras, or interactive whiteboards (and, I’m willing to bet that far fewer than 50% have access to the full suite of these technologies).  

As for WiFi / connectivity — SFUSD has no idea (literally - it has no count), though my experiences would suggest that our existing capacity is painfully insufficient.

And, that’s the good news; because, when looking at student access to technology, it is an unmitigated disaster.  The student:computer ratio was a paltry 5:1, in 2012, and a petrifying 8:1 for computers less than 5 years old.  With so few computers to go around — and (obviously relatedly) a student population that lacks the requisite computer skills — less than 25% of teachers in SFUSD reported giving weekly assignments that require use of technology.

In summary, then, SFUSD has woefully under-resourced classrooms / teachers; ancient technology; and, untrained students without access.

Unacceptable, inexcusable, and pathetic!

If your companies / employees were forced to operate under these conditions, you would have been fired long ago and/or your businesses would have gone to zero.

To be clear to you and anyone else reading this, I recognize that you and your companies are not at all to blame for this state of affairs — we have years of political and bureaucratic mismanagement, among other factors, to thank for that.  

At the same time, though, you and your employees do work here and live here and are valuable members of this community; and, it would benefit you and your employees greatly over the long-term to be surrounded by a well-educated, tech-ready population for years to come.

So, Mr. Benioff, I loudly and enthusiastically applaud your extremely generous gift (and I mean that sincerely) to San Francisco’s middle schools; however, the truth of the matter is that it barely addresses the most superficial of needs.

  • iPads for teachers are a wonderful nice-to-have, but hardly a need-to-have, when the teachers that actually have computers are working on +5-year-old machines, running similarly out-of-date software that may be incompatible with current programs and/or accessory devices;
  • iPads for 750 students has to be considered progress, but it is a mere drop in the bucket relative to the daily computing needs - and the potential output — of +12,000 (guesstimate) middle schoolers in SF;
  • And, the promise of school-wide WiFi is encouraging, but a multi-year rollout of said technology is essentially bypassing the entire generation of current middle schoolers.

Fortunately, this is a readily fixable problem, especially with all of you on board!  Unlike the tragedies of homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, and/or crime, which are influenced by any number of ongoing and ever-changing socio-political factors, infusing SFUSD classrooms with technology is straightforward and easy, with a defined investment over a specific population.

And, you (Marc, Ron, Dick, Jack, etc.) are among a very small crowd to have the collective resources and wherewithal to change these dynamics almost overnight (literally)!

If you need a guide for possible next steps, let me offer a few:

  • Outfit every teacher in SFUSD with a modern computer, LCD projector, document camera, and printer (for a visual point of reference as to what’s needed, look no further than one of your many office conference rooms);
  • Install / upgrade WiFi networks at all SFUSD campuses to allow for high concentrations of always-on usage (again, look no further than the networks that run inside your own businesses, or are used at the conferences you love to host)
  • Flood every middle and high school with a sufficient number of Chromebooks or Netbooks (or PCs or Macbooks, if you are so inclined) to bring the student:modern computer ratio down to 2:1;
  • Train educators on “best practices” for integrating these technologies into their classrooms and curriculum; and,
  • Donate the time of your infrastructure teams to support SFUSD’s already-stretched network / IT department.

Your companies, which are headquartered in San Francisco, set the world’s pace in technology and related services; I challenge all of you, individually and jointly, to focus that same vision, leadership, money, and resolve on the technology used by the teachers and students living in your own neighborhoods.

Make it happen.  Today.  Please!  Every child in San Francisco will be forever indebted to you for stepping up to the challenge — and, they may well repay the favor many times over as future leaders of your companies!


Derek Brown

Monday, September 16, 2013

And The Survey Says... OUCH!

As it turns out, the advertisements on Facebook and Twitter really do suck (to use a technical term)!

That’s not just my opinion anymore; it’s the collective view of the respondents to One Blind Squirrel’s recent survey on the topic.  

To be very clear, there is absolutely no statistical significance to these data, which are based on fewer than 100 responses from people more like me than not (i.e., primarily friends and family, I believe); moreover, I’m not a statistician (far from it). That said, there is, in fact, an obvious thematic significance to these responses that I think is worth dissecting.

According to the collected data, users almost uniformly find advertisements on Facebook and Twitter both very annoying and effectively irrelevant, while rarely, if ever, transacting as a result of exposure to them. Charts 1-3 (below) show the averages from all applicable respondents.

Annoying.  Irrelevant.  No impact.  Ouch!

Moreover, heavier users and lighter users of each service seem similarly dissatisfied with the advertisements they see (see charts 4-6, which show the averages from all applicable respondents).  This is both surprising and worrisome, given the unique targeting capabilities these companies are supposed to have, based on the volumes of highly personal data to which they have access.  (As an aside, an interesting perspective on usage variances between Facebook and Twitter can be found in the Addendum at the end of this note).

Overall, these views are so damning in my mind that I almost wonder if advertisers on these platforms wouldn’t be better off just giving their “social” marketing budgets away at random, rather than paying for the privilege of potentially damaging their own brands and/or their relationships with their customers, with little, if any, new revenue as an offset.

And, yet, Facebook and Twitter dominate marketers’ “social” spending, generating an estimated $6-7 billion in advertising revenue this year.

This contrast is striking to me.

In a not-so-strange way, these dynamics remind me of Yahoo! circa 1996-2000.  At that time, the company’s dominance of the Web and status as a potential “kingmaker” allowed it to command huge sums of money from companies looking to “lock-up” its prime real estate.  Yahoo! certainly wasn’t the only game in town, but it was one of the biggest and had the aura of being the best.  As a result, the line of companies anxious to deliver sacks full of money to Yahoo! stretched from Sand Hill Road to Madison Avenue and beyond.

Unfortunately for those companies — and, ultimately, for Yahoo! — the deals didn’t work financially, with returns plummeting on marketing dollars invested.  Ad rates were (way) too high.  Paying customers delivered were (way) too low.  And, both revenue and profit generated were (way) too weak.

Over time, this recurring shortfall, coupled with a variety of meaningful exogenous factors, resulted in the .com “crash” of the early-aughts, with an enormous wave of .com meltdowns and downsizings and re-caps and re-orgs and shutdowns.

Hopefully, Facebook and Twitter avoid repeating history, by quickly improving the performance of, and receptivity to, the advertisements on their platforms, and/or by being certain to price these advertisements in line with the value delivered (perhaps Twitter’s timely acquisition of MoPub will prove a meaningful step in this direction?).

After all, imagine how much revenue these two “social” companies alone could generate if the advertisements on their platforms were just mediocre / tolerable and didn’t actually suck?!?!?!


As a byproduct of this survey, I noticed a fascinating trend in usage variances between users of Facebook and Twitter.

In short, a high number of respondents seem to use Facebook all the time, whereas a fairly low number seem to use Twitter all the time. Perhaps more eye-opening, though, is the fact that a relatively high number of respondents seem to never use Twitter, while only a handful say the same of Facebook (see chart 7).

Personally, I’m not shocked by this divergence, given my own issues with Twitter, speculation that user growth at Twitter has fallen short of plan, as well as Facebook’s reported numbers that highlight high levels of daily usage; nonetheless, it is still an enormous “yellow / orange-ish” flag that needs to be addressed quickly by Twitter’s leadership.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Painless Feedback Needed On Facebook And Twitter

I need your help; it won’t hurt, and I promise it won’t take more than one minute of your time.

As I consider the opportunities and challenges of Facebook and Twitter, I cannot help but focus on the primary business models that both have elected to pursue (at least so far).

With that in mind, please take a moment to fill out the EIGHT-question survey below (or, open the survey in another tab). As has been pointed out to me, you will have to begin scrolling down the survey beginning at question two, in order to see all EIGHT questions.

Thank you, in advance, for your contribution!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Alone On Twitter, Without A Decoder Ring

I grew up with an Apple ][ Plus.  I know the unmistakable sound of a dial-up modem.  I used Yahoo! when its URL was  And, I purchased from when all it had were books on its virtual shelves.

Apparently, I'm old.

Perhaps, then, it should surprise absolutely no one but me (who’s obviously in denial about age), that I just don't "get" Twitter as an everyday utility.

And, I "get" most consumer Web services, content providers, technologies, etc.  Even if I don’t use them, or use them frequently, I have the ability to step outside of myself and rationalize others’ heavy utilization of, and fascination with, them.  Similarly, I am typically able to wrap my head around their utility; their potential; their opportunity; their challenges; and, their theoretical value propositions.

But, less so with Twitter.

I've tried.  I have a handle (@sfdtotheb).  I follow a healthy mix of ~130 others, including friends, industry heavy hitters, bloggers, media outlets, and companies.  I’ve used it to distribute posts from One Blind Squirrel (including, ironically, this one).  I’ve picked up a few random followers (God help them!).  And, I log in / scroll through Tweets multiple times each day.

Yet, I still feel a bit lost and oddly annoyed most of the time I’m using the service.  On some level, all I see when look at Twitter is line after line of floating statements (that I can’t follow / don’t care about) and inside jokes (that I also can’t follow / don’t care about) and “private” conversations (again, that I also can’t follow / don’t care about) and “@s” and “#s” and “RTs” and handles and links and... with a smattering of useful, insightful, intelligible comments, opinions, links, and articles sprinkled throughout.

And, this says nothing of Promoted Tweets.

It’s as if I’m missing the service’s requisite decoder ring (though, it’s possible that having it would still leave me as disappointed as Ralphie in, “A Christmas Story”).

While it may be blasphemous, I actually think Twitter’s value to me would increase (perhaps materially) if it had the ability to mandate a minimum number of characters per tweet, rather than a technology-defined maximum.  While I’m always one for brevity, I think modestly longer posts could add important context to links/photos and allow for slightly more articulated opinions on subjects, while weeding out the far-too-easy-to-unleash senseless bursts that seem to clog my feed.

All that said, I clearly appreciate the enormous value of Twitter in the context of real-time, topic-specific, crowdsourced information.  Natural disasters (e.g., Japan earthquake/tsunami).  “Movements” (e.g., Arab Spring).  Breaking news (e.g., Boston Marathon bombings/manhunt).  Targeted question/answer sessions.  Etc.  Under the right circumstances, Twitter absolutely blows the doors off other sources of information.

But in my world, these types of use cases seem to be exceptions, rather than rules, that come around very infrequently.  What am I supposed to do with it the other 358 days of the year?

I know I’m missing something (perhaps many things) about Twitter, because it’s highly unlikely that tens (or hundreds?) of millions of people around the globe use it almost religiously, if it didn’t provide incredibly meaningful value; so, I will keep at it, while awaiting my decoder ring.

In the meantime, feel free to use @sfdtotheb to air your suggestions, complaints, and thoughts or — just so it feels true to the platform for me — any fragments of your floating statements, “private” conversations, and inside jokes, etc., that you think I might find truly captivating.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Amazon's Waters Could Flood Google

Jeff Jordan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz with the Midas touch, recently opined that’s e-commerce capabilities and successes represent a meaningful threat to Google’s product-search-related advertising business.

I will take Jeff’s thesis — with which I fundamentally agree — one step (maybe even more) further by saying that I believe is one of the few companies that has the ambition, permission, structure, and, maybe most important, data, to actually beat Google at its own game.

As an Internet equity research analyst from 1996-2009 (go ahead... throw your drink on your screen and curse me loudly enough that the barista hears you...), I had a front seat to The Show.  I covered from its days as “just” a bookseller and Google when it was still a private company, in addition to eBay, Yahoo!, Excite,, Netflix, Omniture, aQuantive, CNET, E*TRADE, and many other industry-defining companies.

From the earliest days, it was clear to me (and a few others, obviously) that was no ordinary company, at any level.  However, three attributes set it (far) apart in my mind:

  1. Vision and ambition that were orders of magnitude beyond those of other teams that I encountered (until, that is, I met Google);
  2. A cult-like dedication to customer experience / satisfaction that permeated every decision made by every person at the company; and,
  3. A business model that not only valued long-term cash flow and absolute profit potential, but also deemed near-term profits and profit margin largely irrelevant.

Individually, these characteristics have been powerful; in combination, they have been revolutionary.  Jeff Bezos’ worldview gave his entire team permission — in fact, it gave them the mandate — to think Big, with a capital “B.”  Customers’ pure delight with every interaction gave the company permission to sell (almost) anything to (almost) anyone.  And, finally, management’s clarity of financial intent (i.e., to perpetually focus on long-term potential) has, from day one, conditioned shareholders / Wall Street to expect a business that will forever be amorphous and unpredictable, with razor-thin margins.

Liberated from more typical corporate constraints, has evolved like few other companies in history — from its humble origins as an online bookstore into: Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute, Amazon Marketplace, Amazon Flexible Payments Service, state-of-the-art warehouses (~70) everywhere, Amazon Cloud Player, AmazonFresh, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Amazon Prime, A9, Amazon Simple Storage Service,, Silk, Amazon Cloud Drive, Zappos, Amazon CloudFront, Kindle...

Sound familiar?  It should, because this transformation mirrors that of Google, itself, which began as “just” a search engine company focused on “organizing the world’s information,” and has now become: Gmail, Maps, Apps, Drive, Chrome, Android, Motorola, YouTube, Wallet, Voice, Google Cloud Storage, Shopping, Chromebook, Google App Engine, Google+...

While not perfectly matching each other solution-for-solution, and Google now find themselves overlapping across, and competing within, most major categories of Internet-fueled technology and business.  SaaS.  Hardware.  e-Commerce.  IaaS.  Enterprise.  Media.  Consumer.  Applications.  Browsers.  Storage.  Payments.  Consumer.  Tablets...

And, yet, for all these evolutions and comparisons and similarities and overlaps, I actually think there’s one final aspect to’s business with which Google cannot (yet) directly compete, and which may prove to be the difference-maker in this faux-ish battle: Data.

With +17 years of history and hundreds of millions of transactions across almost every category of goods, now has massive quantities of data about the actual buying habits of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of consumers around the globe.  Not just what people are searching for (Google, though actually has it too).  Not just what people “like” (“like” that, Facebook).  Not just what people want (Pinterest, though actually has it too).  Not just what people tweet about (Twitter).  But, the items that people actually pay for with their own hard-earned dollars!

Armed with this unique transaction- and SKU-specific data, at scale, has the potential to become one of, if not the most signficant advertising platforms in the world, in my view — matching, if not besting, Google.

Look at it this way: if advertisers pay Google $44 billion per year for connecting them with consumers that it oftentimes thinks have interest in their product(s), what might those same advertisers be willing to pay for connecting them with people they know are interested in their products (or those of their competitors, or those in which they will soon have interest...)?

For instance, do you think Volvo, Toyota, Lexus, Ford, et al., might be willing to pay a small fortune to be introduced to an individual in Huntington Beach, CA, who suddenly begins buying newborn diapers by the pallet?  What about Gymboree?  Gerbers?  Whole Foods?  Safeway?  Fab?  Gap?  Pottery Barn?  Ross?  Home Depot?...

Similarly, how much interest might be generated among home decor vendors, local service providers (e.g., physicians, athletic clubs, veterinarians), home maintenance vendors, etc., by a change in shipping and billing information for one of’s long-time customers, whose pattern of purchases are highly suggestive (remember, has developed one of the best predictive commerce models in the world for its own e-commerce franchise) of a home with at least one child and one dog, an avid athlete / runner / yogini, with a taste for gourmet cooking and a passion for gardening, among other attributes?

And these hypotheticals say absolutely nothing of the extraodinary value could (theoretically) deliver to its customers / partners by sharing with them relevant online transaction activity that might follow said advertisements, effectively offering a closed loop marketing environment unlike any other.

By some accounts, has (finally) started focusing on the business potential of advertising.  For years, it has run ads on its own sites.  Then, in late-2010, the company also began serving advertisements on others’ sites, introducing what is, in effect, a full-fledged online advertising network.  But, these are just warm-ups in my mind — methodically experimenting (as is its custom) and purposefully tiptoeing around the edges of its potential.

I’m convinced the day will come — sooner rather than later — when unleashes its data and announces itself as an advertising powerhouse.  And, when it does, I think the gloves officially come off and the real battle with Google commences.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Android Worm Keeps Eating Apple's Core

Android, it seems, is the worm that continues to eat away at Apple's core.

According to Gartner, Android-based handsets outsold iOS-based handsets 4-to-1 on a worldwide basis in Q1:2013, up from a ratio of about 2.5-to-1 in Q1:2012.  As such, Android accounted for 74% of global smartphone sales last quarter, up from 57% in Q1:2012, while iOS accounted for just 18%, down from ~23% last year.

Apple bulls / fans (and even some critics) will likely race to highlight that: Apple didn't have a major new release last quarter; tablet sales should be weighed in this discussion; the installed base of iOS devices should be taken into account; developers still generate more revenue through iOS than Android; and, that Apple continues to generate the majority of the industry's profit, among other defenses.  

Blah.  Blah.  Blah.

All very true; unfortunately, though, also largely irrelevant going forward, given the alarming rate at which consumers worldwide are speaking with their wallets and selecting Android handsets over iOS handsets.  With just a few more quarters like this, coupled with the cumulative effect of similar such sales data over the past 2-3 years and the likely coming wave of Android-based tablets, it is a given (to me, anyway) that Android will be soon be effectively ubiquitous around the globe.

In the world of technology platforms, ubiquity matters (a lot) when developers, manufacturers, etc., are considering future products / solutions.

And, so, I will reiterate the view I've held for some time now: the mobile battle that Apple started, first with the launch of iPod in 2001 and then moved into hyperdrive with the introduction of iPhone and iPad in 2007 and 2010, respectively, is over (or, will be over shortly), and Google / Android is the victor.

Make no mistake, Apple will clearly continue to play a prominent role in the industry and maintain leadership in some respects.  It will also continue to boast a large installed base and a substantial number of loyalists and devotees.  But, the company's days of dominance, let alone being an effective monopolist, are behind it.

To this point, I urge pundits, analysts, and investors to get their heads wrapped around one simple notion: Apple's product cycle and performance between 2001-2012 was a once-in-a-generation event.  In my view, no company in history has had (or, likely, will soon have) so many successive "grand slams" as did Apple with iPod, iTunes, Mac, iOS, iPhone and, finally, iPad.  The company's hardware, software, and "it-just-works" approach to integration absolutely annihilated existing competition and ignited massive new markets in which Apple had a multiyear near-monopoly and from which Apple was able to generate once-in-a-generation revenue growth and profitability.

As unfair as it may be, the inevitable comparisons to those days are going to be bleak for Apple for some time.  The hard reality is that the company's future — even under the best of circumstances — will likely reflect diminished influence and declining revenue (perhaps substantially so), with the prospect of shrinking margins to boot.

To make matters worse for Apple, I think the company is poorly positioned for the battleground of tomorrow: Web (or, cloud) services that function like utilities — seamlessly, across all devices, across all operating systems, all the time — at low or no incremental cost.

As discussed in prior post on One Blind Squirrel, “Welcome to Google’s Playground, Apple,”  the increasing importance of Web services substantially diminishes the value of Apple’s closed-loop hardware/software core, while simultaneously highlighting the strengths of Google’s business.  To this end, Web services are Google's lifeblood, and the company prints money, either directly or indirectly, from use of many of these cloud-based services, even if those services are accessed via an Apple device (e.g., Maps or Gmail for iOS).  Apple, on the other hand, is almost at ground zero and, as a result, may be forced to acquire a string of services that have proven themselves in the hands of consumers at scale.

Fun days for Apple, I know.  But, hey, at least it's not Dell!