Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Failed Startup (or How I Nearly Become a 3D Animator)

Building awesome software and having the right business contacts is not sufficient to convince the latter to hand over money for the former.
There was a time in 2004/05 when, for several minutes, I thought my future lay not in compilers and debuggers, but in modelers and animation. As you can see, it turns out I don't have the skill, patience, or eye for detail required to transition from "enthusiast" to "someone who gets paid".

The journey that led me to consider adding "animator" to my resume is more interesting than my non-existent animation career. After 6 years writing oil & gas inspection software, I teamed up with a good friend and very smart guy - Big Stu - in a quixotic attempt to extract some serious coin from the bottomless money-pit that is the Western Australian oil & gas industry.

Step 1: Combine his electrical / mechanical engineering knowledge and business contacts with my ninja coding and amateur 3D animation skills to forge a killer app.
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!

Here's our Pièce de résistance:

Our output wasn't Avatar, but the cinematic eye-candy was a side-effect of the tools we used rather than the goal.

We built a system to visualize and simulate anything in a sub-sea installation. Each scene was fully interactive, and the models were based on engineering diagrams and were perfectly accurate. The field layouts were created from sub-sea survey data to perfectly depict every twist and turn of the flow-lines and anchor chains. I've still never heard of a system that provides that level of detail and accuracy for sub sea environments.

Despite the power of the tool and the shiny eye-candy it produced, our venture never gained critical mass and eventually fizzled as Stu and I went our separate ways - Stu as the admiral of a veritable navy of ROVs, and me to London.

What follows is a look back at why a great idea generated zero profit.

Some companies are born of technology, some achieve technological greatness and some have technology thrust upon them

Technology is at the very heart of Google. Any chance to advance the technology of which it was born is seized upon as an opportunity for greater success. It's the philosophy behind our endeavor to "drive the web forward".

Like Google, the oil & gas industry has an absolute dependence on technology. It simply could not exist without an army of technologists creating oil-field prediction engines and well flow models.

Like super-heroes, you can learn a lot about industries from their origin stories

The Social Network and There Will Be Blood both include generous helpings of greed and betrayal, but while getting gypped out of half a billion dollars is a pretty bad day, it's still a significantly better outcome than having your head caved in.

Don't get me wrong, in the 6 years I worked in oil & gas I never once saw anyone beaten to death, so things have progressed significantly in the past hundred years or so. But in it's soul oil & gas isn't about technology; it's a business of hard bastards drilling absurdly deep holes into the earth's crust, praying to f**k it doesn't explode, all in the hope of wringing a few more drops out of the bottom of a rapidly emptying cup.

I drink your milkshake. I drink it up.
(Value of a resource * quantity of resource extracted) - cost of extraction = profit
Finding more of a scarce resource makes it, by definition, less valuable. It's nearly impossible to increase the quality of a natural resource, so the best way to increase profits is to decrease the costs of pulling it out of the ground.

As resources become scarcer, the difficulty (and cost) of locating and extracting said resources increases. At this point your dependence on technology increases, and that technology costs money.

At Google, technology is the product. Our success has come from search and advertising, but technologies like Android, Chrome, and cloud computing offer an opportunity for more success.

In oil & gas, oil & gas is the product - and technology is simply a tool necessary to extract it. This is fundamental, and it affects the way technologists are regarded within each industry.

What they want is fancier tools - not a new cost center.

Stu and I quickly discovered that while there is a bottomless pit of cash, it is allocated almost exclusively to parts of the business that generate revenue.

They will happily pay stupid money for is a shiny box that helps you find oil reserves, or one that lets you extract said nectar from Mother Earth. What they do not want is to pay the salary of a dozen engineers (software or otherwise) that build shiny boxes.

The significant supporting industries - everything from field inspections and environmental surveys to intervention engineering and remedial work - is all just costs. Most have been outsourced and the associated budgets minimized, allocated, and fixed. Entire companies are created through such outsourcing and their goals are to lower costs as far below the allocated budget as possible.

Our technology was about lowering costs - so we should have been golden, right?

The best technology in the world isn't valuable without a customer to sell it to.

The oil companies loved our technology. The shiny graphics are like catnip to executives, and our pitch was compelling:
Using this software, we can increase efficiency by shortening each job by up to 20%. We only charge 5% for using the software, giving you a net saving of 15%.
Big smiles and firm handshakes all 'round.
You need to go speak to Our Contractor. They should definitely be using this!
Next week we bring our roadshow to the Contractor. These guys wear coveralls for a living and recognize the smell of bullshit as it pulls up in the parking lot. They know the animated movies for the smoke and mirrors they are, but they're also engineers - so we switch our focus to the accuracy of our models. So far so good, until we get to the pitch:
Using this software, we can increase efficiency by shortening each job by up to 20%. We only charge 5% for using the software, giving you a net saving of 15%."
The smiles are gone and people are starting to fidget.

Offshore jobs tend to operate on a "daily rate". So our pitch translated into something like this:
Using this software we can shorten your billable days by up to 20% and increase your operational costs by 5%, giving you a net profit reduction of 25%."
Oil Companies outsource technology for a reason, and they're not going to force their contractors to use one particular piece of new, untried technology. The aforementioned contractors have every incentive they need not to use it.

The week-to-week possibility of Croesus wealth punctuated by imminent doom were good practice for later years.

That said, it was a great idea that would likely have succeeded given more time and effort. If I hadn't been in such a hurry to move to London, we could have worked the right deals to get the Oil Companies to convince their contractors to use our tools. It would have continued to be challenging, but it had a good chance. I believe it's inevitable that others will succeed where Stu and I left-off, but in startups - like much in life - timing is everything.

The lessons I learned about business, entrepreneurship, and opportunity have proven invaluable. The pressure and excitement of seemingly imminent success parallel to equally imminent crushing failure was a brutal introduction into the Real World after years spent hiding in the dark corner of my own coding universe. It's strange, but seeing something you pour your heart and soul into fail, can be better incentive to strive than unmitigated success.

I never did persue a career in animation. After taking half a year off to travel Europe I settled in London with my passion for coding reignited. Some four years later, I found a job that offers the perfect mix of business development, technology evangelism, and hardcore coding that plays to my strengths. Oh, and did I mention we're hiring?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Using the New Android Market Stats for Fun and Profit

Earlier this week the Android Market Publisher site was updated to include some cool new statistics for your apps. You can now see the user distribution of your app in terms of the countries, languages, operating system versions, and devices on which your apps are running.

Better still, you can compare your app's distribution in each of these categories with the overall distribution for all apps in the Market.

What does this mean?

There are two axes for gaining insight from these figures:
  • The distribution of languages, OS versions, devices, and countries of your app users.
  • The variance between your app and the overall (expected) distribution.
I looked at the statistics for my three most popular / successful apps: Earthquake, Animal Translator, and Gyro Compass, and have the following observations, conclusions, and action items.

Action Items and Conclusions
  • Create a Japanese and Spanish translation of Earthquake.
  • Translate Animal Translator into Japanese.
  • Modify culturally sensitive place names for Korean users.
  • Confirm Earthquake works on small-screen devices.
  • Drop platform support for Android 1.5 and 1.6 on Animal Translator.
  • For new apps, it's may not be worth supporting Android 1.5 or 1.6.
  • For new apps, it's worth launching with localized language support for Korean and Japan.
  • When promoting apps, be aware of time-zones.
  • Build tablet-targeted versions now to get first-mover advantage.
Observations: Location and Language
  • All my apps do disproportionately well in the UK. I'm based in London, so it's likely that my tweeting and blogging have driven more people in my time-zone to my apps.
  • The proportion of Japanese and Korean users is effected by how long the app has been around. The older apps have disproportionately more US users and fewer Japanese and Korean users, so  for new apps it's worth building with Japan and Korea in mind at launch. 
  • Japanese users account for 10% of Animal Translator users (double the normal distribution). They clearly like the concept, so a japanese language version should help drive popularity.
  • Around 70% of Earthquake! users are from the US (expected distribution if 60%). This is likely due to a lot of Android users in the San Adreas fault cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
  • Earthquake has 1.5% South Korean users versus an average of 10%. Many South Korean users have complained about the USGS use of the name "Sea of Japan" which they believe should be "East Sea". This appears to have a direct impact on their usage of the app.
Observations: OS Versions
  • My apps show a trend where older apps have disproportionately more 1.5 / 1.6 users, and new apps have disproportionately fewer. This seems to suggest that owners of these older devices aren't downloading as many new apps. As a result, it might not be worth supporting 1.5 / 1.6 users for new apps.
  • Earthquake! already has 0.2% of users running Android 3.0. This suggests that building tablet-optimized versions now can give you first-mover advantage.
  • Only 8 people are running Animal Translator on a device running 1.6 or earlier, so I can probably drop support for for < 2.0 in the next update.
Observations: Devices
  • Based on the devices, there are no small-screen Earthquake! users. Does the app work on small screens?
  • The popularity of devices seems heavily affected by the country distribution of users. For my apps the HTC EVO 4G and Droid series of devices seem very popular in the US, with the HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy S very popular in Korea and Europe.
What patterns did you see?

What observations and patterns did you find looking at your app statistics?

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Does a Magnitude 8.9 Earthquake Look Like?

Today Japan was struck by a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake that caused major damage and loss of life. The quake hit off the coast which resulted in a tsunami which struck towns along the Northern coast of Japan and has resulted in tsunami alerts across the Pacific including as far away as the West coast of the US and Australia.

Seismological details on the quake are available from the Japan Meteorological Society and the US Geological Survey.

If you have friends or family in Japan, or you're in Japan and want to let people know you're ok, you can use the Google Person Finder

Aljazeera are streaming live coverage on YouTube.

In very real terms, these pictures from The Atlantic show exactly what an 8.9 magnitude earthquake looks like. My thoughts go out to everyone affected.

Some Visualizations

A magnitude of 8.9 is big. Very big.

The Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning an increment each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude. In real terms, that makes today's earthquake in Japan is around 500 times more powerful than the 6.3 magnitude quake that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month.
The following visualizations are screen captures from my Earthquake Android app. They attempt to give an idea of the scale (relative and otherwise) of the earthquake in Japan. They are approximate, using only the magnitude of the quake to determine the areas likely to be affected. Additional factors like depth of quake, fault lines, mountains, and landscape can significantly change the areas affected.
In the image below, the giant outer circle represents the area within which people were likely to have "felt something"during the quake. That's the better part of a hemisphere reaching as far as Brisbane in Australia and touching Alaska.

By comparison, the smaller inner circle is the same "felt" area for a 7.1 magnitude aftershock.

This next image represents the area at significant risk of suffering from structural damage due to the quake. Again, the larger circle represents the initial 8.9 magnitude quake and covers around three quarters of Japan - an area that represents most of the US West coast.

For comparison, the smaller circle centered around the 7.1 marker is the damage radius for the smaller aftershock.

Just as striking is the aftershocks that inevitably follow such a significant quake. The following image shows only the aftershocks measuring above 6 ("Strong: Can be destructive in areas up to about 160 kilometers") on the Richter Scale.

The overlapping areas all occurred within two hours of each other and give a sense of just how terrifying it must be for the people affected.

My hopes and best wishes go out to everyone affected by this catastrophe.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Rise of the Tablet and the Innevitable Death of the Netbook

Last week I added a 10.1" Motorola Xoom to my gadget bag at the expense of a Netbook. As tablets grow in popularity I predict the Netbook's days are numbered.

Shortly after buying an Asus EeePC 701 in 2008 I described it to anyone who would listen as the best technology purchasing decision I'd ever made. It cost £200, was thin, light, and cheap. It booted Windows and loaded Office in under 10 seconds - only the paltry 800x600 display resolution was a legitimate cause of grief.

I used it to write most of my first book during my daily commute, and it was light and thin enough for me to throw in my bag for holidays or trips where I wasn't keen on bringing my laptop along (at the time my laptop was as 17" Vaio desktop replacement that weighed the better part of a metric fucktonne).

Light and with a full-day battery life,  Netbooks were a cheap second computer for lightweight computing tasks and surfing the web.

A one trick pony

Growing up, my parents ran a typewriter sales and repair company. I watched as the typewriter was gradually (and then very quickly) replaced with the desktop computer. For a small while "word processors" were a popular alternative - significantly cheaper than computers, and with most of the features of Word Perfect 5.1.

As PCs, laptops, and printers become cheap and ubiquitous, word processors grew more fanciful in an effort to compete. They offered more fonts and options but at a higher price. Before long, like most one-trick ponies, it was quietly covered with a sheet and put out of its misery.

I had a distinct feeling of deju-vu when late last year  I went in search of a replacement for my EeePC in the hopes of finding something cheaper, lighter, and a little faster. Instead I was presented with devices that were:
  • More expensive.
  • Thicker and heavier.
  • Slower to load and lacking SSDs.
At the same time, my new Macbook weighs around two kilograms and is no more than an inch thick. I can use it to write my book, write my code, edit photos, and pretty much anything else I could want to do.

It's true that a MBP is a lot more expensive than a Netbook - and bulkier - but it's not as though you would buy a Netbook instead of a real laptop. It's an additional device, so it's actually competing with tablets or smartphones - and a smartphone / tablet combo has a lot more to offer.

Smartphones and tablets make Netbooks a quaint irrelevancy

Modern smartphones, led by iPhone and Android, have largely filled the niche of mobile web browsing.

The arrival of the tablet is the final nail in the coffin, with a 10" tablet neatly filling the gap between smartphone and laptop.

With bright, high resolution displays, tablets offer an unparalleled experience for watching video. Games designed for tablets are created specifically for portable hardware featuring a touch screens and accelerometers. Similarly the rich ecosystem of apps is optimized specifically for smartphone and tablet platforms.

Typing on a 10.1" touchscreen is certainly no worse than typing on an undersized Netbook keyboard. Walking into meetings these days I'm increasingly finding people have left their laptops behind and are instead bringing along their tablets.

If you need to type, bring a laptop. If weight is an issue, bring your tablet

Tablets provide an optimized experience for portability, mobility, and touch-based input with a rich selection of apps and games designed with their size and power in mind.

Laptops are cheaper, lighter, and more powerful than ever before. They offer a rich ecosystem of apps and provide the perfect platform where text input is required.

Netbooks can still provide a great platform for getting online, but so can laptops and tablets. Laptops may one day give way to tablets and smartphones entirely, and apps may move entirely online, but Netbooks - like word processors in the 80's - will inevitably fall victim to competitors that offer a more dynamic ecosystem of apps, games, and features at an increasingly comparable price.