Big Tech and Antitrust Hearing: A Daytime TV Show

I watched the vast majority of the antitrust hearing where Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, and Mark Zuckerberg were present to make opening remarks and then take “questions” from members of congress. I was hoping there would be more back and forth and that there would be more discussion with the CEOs of these big tech companies, but that was not the case. The direction of the topics and questions were a bit all over the place. There are many angles that came out of the hearing, one strong one being the vast insufficiency of the answers from many of the CEOs who had to use their words carefully to dance around with their answers. But the first thing I wanted to hit on, which was the most glaringly obvious, is how broken this process is and how the government will dramatically need to adapt if they want to see meaningful change around tech going forward.

Talking not Listening
This was billed as a hearing, but it was just talking. Part of that has to do with the format. Members of Congress had 5 minutes per questioning round, and because of that, they spent more time making a point than having a discussion or letting the CEOs respond accordingly. More often than not, the Congress member questioning the CEOs cut them off and rarely let them explain. For me, this is the first thing that needs to change format-wise. The 5 min per person does not allow for meaningful opportunity to engage in discussion and listen but only to make a point in a very trial/courtroom like way.

This format was not the way to have the most genuine dialogue with these CEOs. Both Pichai and Zuckerberg have shown up in person for a hearing with them individually, and I found that a much more effective format allowed for more time and more scrutiny of the answers provided. In this current COVID situation, I understand not being able to organize full-day sessions with each of these CEOs individually. Still, from the information gathered, if Congress wants to proceed, I firmly believe a follow up with each of these CEOs is necessary.

The other element this format induced was the opportunity for several members of Congress to grandstand and simply pander to their constituents vs. ask meaningful questions of the CEOs present that would help shed light on the antitrust conversation. To that degree, the conversation also went back and forth with questions to Pichai on Google and Zuckerberg on Facebook that were less about antitrust/anti-competitive behavior and more about censorship and free speech. While I understand some potential elements of overlap, this (the power of Google and Facebook and the issue of censorship and free speech) seems like something worth having more dedicated conversations about.

Predetermined Conclusions
Another bothersome element of this format was the pre-determined conclusions. There was a lot of work done in advance of this hearing and a great deal of evidence to support positions of anti-competitive behavior. While I thought several members of Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal being primary among them had very good questions and good banter back and forth, the vast majority of Congressional participants felt the need to push their agenda, or bias, in their questioning rather than meaningfully look for answers to the issues they put forth. This was unfortunate because many did bring legitimate issues to the table but attempted to force the CEOs into yes or no answers rather than seek to understand the CEO’s perspective or answer. This was also a byproduct of the 5 minute limit per person as they felt the need to rush to address all their topics. Again, a completely flawed process, in my opinion.

While I understand the need to prepare remarks, it was the pre-meditated prepared conclusion from Rep. David N. Cicilline that showed quite clearly their minds were made up before this hearing, and how the entire thing was a dog-and-pony show rather than an attempt to listen and learn. Here is a brief excerpt from his concluding remarks, which he read aloud at the end of the hearing.

This hearing has made one fact clear to me—these companies as they exist today have monopoly power.

Some need to be broken up; all need to be properly regulated and held accountable.

We need to ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age.

When these laws were written, the monopolists were men named Rockefeller and Carnegie.

Their control of the marketplace allowed them to do whatever it took to crush independent businesses and expand their power.

Well, the names have changed, but the story is the same.

Today, the men are named Zuckerberg, Cook, Pichai, and Bezos.

Once again, their control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent businesses and expand their power.

This must end.

Minds were made up before the hearing, an,d there was nothing the CEOs would say that was going to change. So again, what was the point? It was not to listen and learn, so in the big picture, was it helpful or necessary?

The Ability to Actually Compete
Being someone who appreciates observing and studying business strategy, I found troubling the emphasis on some basic competitive tactics, employed by businesses of all shapes and sizes, as being anti-competitive. Observers were noting on Twitter, as the hearing was progressing, that clearly, a new definition of monopoly or even anti-competitive practices needs to be adapted for the modern business arena. But the tone members from congress took, at least to me casually watching in, was one that these companies should not even have the right to compete. The tone and direction of much of the questioning were suggesting these companies should not have the chance to use competitive tactics to protect their businesses.

My worry, should this proceed to a case and we get to a spot where remedies are enforced, is the degree that overall competition itself is harmed. The over-bearing fear of monopoly carries with it the consequence of causing companies to compete in the market with their hands tied behind their back. This would be bad for business, bad for America, and just overall bad.

I’m certainly in favor of keeping companies accountable, which is why I wish this process were better suited to gather relevant information, by knowledgeable people in the space, to suggest potential solutions that lead to better change for all. Too often, in most cases, the attempt to regulate has little to no change in the market and, in some instances, hurts consumers more than its effort to help them.

This topic isn’t going away, and in many cases, I personally was not satisfied with many of the answers given by the CEOs. I hope a follow-up, with much more discussion, ends up happening in the not too distant future.

Apple Silicon Inside

Apple’s Mac line of products may be the product line that has taken the most scrutiny in the past few years. As important as the Mac is for nearly all of Apple’s power users, early adopters, media, and arguably some of the most influential people in many segments of the tech industry, its future had seemed to constantly been in question since the launch of the iPad.

Apple’s Framing for the Transition from Intel
Apple is often one of the best storytellers and best companies when it comes to framing big ideas. That skill was on full display as they made the case as to why they were transitioning away from Intel. To lead that message was Johny Srouji SVP of Hardware Technologies.

He set the stage talking about how the high bar of the iPhone and the designs team ambitions demanded custom silicon. It is this phrase demanded custom silicon that stood out to me and hit home something I’ve tried to articulate many times before. What it means is Apple had the ambition to take the iPhone somewhere, and they could not find any vendor silicon to meet their needs. In this segment on their work developing custom silicon for iPhone, Srouji also made this statement, “this is where we developed our relentless pursuit of performance per watt.”

He then went on to talk about iPad and some specific features, like Retina Display, that also demanded custom silicon. He is trying to nail the point home that they could not find solutions from third parties to do what they wanted to do with the product, so they made it themselves.

Ultimately, this has been the theme and the biggest advantage Apple has with a world-class silicon design team under their roof. I now, more than ever, am deeply convicted that Apple’s in house silicon team is crucial to Apple’s competitive advantage.

When you have this kind of control over your products, there is almost nothing you can’t do. That’s not something you can say with confidence about Apple’s competition in the areas that run Apple silicon. This is why the glaring outliner to this equation of success and differentiation was the Mac.

Before going into the segment on what is coming for Apple silicon and Mac, Srouji sums up their work for all the products running Apple silicon with this quote:

“Our SoC’s enable each of these products with unique features and industry-leading performance per watt. And it makes each of them best in class.”

Srouji is saying Apple Silicon is the reason these products have unique features and industry-leading performance per watt. That last sentence is really quite interesting as I have not heard Apple use it quite often, and it used to be something Intel said regularly.

Moving to the Mac, Srouji showed this graphic that I thought was quite interesting.

This image may contain one of the more comprehensive list of silicon components Apple designs. Some are core, and some are companion components, but the totality comprises of the architecture Apple has developed. Even more interesting under the hood nuggets we got from Srouji was the statement about the architecture Apple developed being scaleable to meet the needs of many different product classes while still being industry-leading performance-per-watt.

Now moving to the Mac, with the stage set Srouji leads with this quote:

“Our scalable architecture contains many custom technologies that WHEN integrated with our software will bring even more innovation to the Mac.”

Here we get the whole story that has truly been the common bond of success for Apple’s products. It’s the hardware/custom silicon and software integration, which includes developer tools like Swift, Metal, etc. The silicon, the hardware design, the operating system tuned to the silicon, and the developer tools designed to run most efficiently on that hardware is the combination that drives the Apple product experience. And now all of that is coming to the Mac. Telling was Srouji’s phrase that much better performance was reason alone to transition the Mac to Apple SoCs. Apple has incredible confidence they can deliver better performance overall in Macs than Intel or AMD.

The Mac, running on Intel’s x86 platform, which once led the industry in innovation in silicon, is now the weak link in Apple’s product vision according to the way Apple framed this bold move.

The Big Unveiling Still a Mystery
Apple is offering developers a kit to help them transition their apps native to Apple Silicon by equipping a Mac Mini with the A12Z Bionic, which runs in the current iPad Pro. Srouji was clear they are developing a family of SoCs for the Mac, which means they will eventually transition off Intel entirely, so long as the vast majority of apps get optimized for Apple Silicon.

They will have Apple silicon for the full range of Macs going all the way to Mac Pro if I interpret the language correctly. Some will argue that the workstation/Pro market will still need Intel or AMD, and I can see that playing out if the pro tools don’t move to Apple Silicon. Every other Mac will move to Apple Silicon for all the reasons that Apple Silicon enables Apple’s product vision in all their other products.

There will still be an unveiling of the Apple Silicon Inside for Mac when the first line of Macs ship powered by Apple Silicon. It is then I will be fascinated to see what optimizations are made and what unique features become enabled by Apple Silicon Inside. That being said, Srouji did highlight several things that hinted at some of the experiences we should expect with Apple Silicon Inside Macs.

The first was Apple power management technology. Highlighting this, Srouji said they would maximize battery life with Macs with Apple Silicon Inside. This was always a big benefit of the Snapdragon-based Windows PCs I’ve used where they get north of 17-20 hours of battery life. I’ve always said if Arm can be successful in notebooks, we will start talking about battery life in days instead of hours. I hope Apple makes this happen as it would be a tremendously meaningful advancement for the Mac platform.

The next feature highlighted was the secure enclave. This is a point I repeatedly brought up about all the other Apple products with Apple Silicon and their advancement with security and privacy. Apple’s ability to provide industry-leading security and privacy is because they control the silicon stack, and it is a primary reason we don’t see many of the same security features on Mac. It sounds like that is all about to change.

Srouji also touched on the custom GPU Apple developed and made a point to call out pro-applications as a benefiter from Apple Silicon in Macs. Similarly, he made points about gaming, although I’m less optimistic about the gaming potential of a Mac vs. what we see in PCs. At least for now.

The last point touched on was the neural engine and machine learning accelerators Apple created claiming the Mac would become a compelling platform for machine learning applications. The part here that could be interesting is how the Mac family of silicon can run on later generation process technology if Apple wants as well as benefit from a larger die-size than what they have to do for iPhone and iPad because of size.

A key part of the debate about Apple spending the time to invest in the Mac has always centered around if it was worth the cost given Macs relatively small market share in PCs with ~10%. This was always my big question, but Apple succinctly answered that question by framing this transition that their vision for the Mac is bigger than what Intel/AMD/x86 can offer them. If Apple is right and can grow share and have the Mac appeal to more users, it benefits their whole ecosystem and customer base.

I’ve long been a fan of the phrase that Apple is blessed by its developers. iPhone would never have become the industry giant it is without Apple’s developer ecosystem. That ecosystem translated slightly to iPad, not really to Apple Watch or Apple TV, but most Apple developers first love was the Mac. While the iPad is an incredible product, for many, it is more luxury than a necessity in terms of a core computing device. The Mac, however, is an essential work machine and is more like iPhone in its necessity, and if there was any other computing platform I had a strong sense of confidence Apple’s developers would again bless them on it is the Mac.

Video Conference Fatigue and a Better Way

As we are several months into remote working, I think it is safe to assume that humans are not meant to sit through 4-5 hours of video meetings in the same way they are not meant to sit in 4-5 hours of meetings all day every day.

From early on, when COVID-19 forced economic shutdowns and many industries forced to rush into a work from home/work remote situation, we have been tracking the process. We did some research, and the chart below shows how rapidly the increase in video meetings as a normal day to day activity rose.

As we had conversations with employees at various companies of different sizes and in different industries, it has been fascinating to see the early positivity in video meetings by many we talked with. Fast forward now two months into the situation, and the sentiment as changed in several specific ways.

Early on, and in particular, as our social interactions became limited, video seemed to be a welcome way to interact with colleagues. Companies rushed to replace the day to day in-person interactions with video calls, and that was a primary reason for the spike in video meetings being reported by Zoom, Microsoft with Teams, and Google with Meet. But after about a month, video call fatigue set in, and we see it in various forms now today.

In April, I wrote about this for subscribers, and linked to this article and highlighted this paragraph.

‘One reason may be that most video calling platforms will include the user’s camera view on the call screen. It is likely that this is enhancing our self-awareness to a greater level than usual and therefore resulting in us making additional self-presentation efforts than in face-to-face interactions in the real world.

‘Another explanation for fatigue may simply be from technical restrictions and our inability to be able to fully use the usual array of social cues and non-verbal communication. Within video calls, the bandwidth of social cues is much narrower, and we have to pay additional attention to others’ behavior to enable us to monitor social interactions effectively. These extra attentional efforts can become tiring over time.

Nilay Patel from The Verge tweeted this yesterday, which is a sentiment I have heard from dozens of friends and colleagues already who want to go back to audio calls and not a video for 1:1 interactions or with people you are familiar with.

I noticed this early on as well in my own experiences where being on video, where someone was watching you, took another level of focus and energy as an element of participation. I like to multitask, stand, walk around to think, and more, and that is very hard to do when sitting looking present in front of a camera.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with friends who simply find it refreshing to talk audio-only rather than Zoom. Nilay’s point was well-received on Twitter, with many commenters agreeing with him.

There is a time for video meetings, and there is a time for audio calls, and the refinement in criteria is what is being worked out right now. However, as a result of this exercise, I firmly believe those refinements in the process will trickle down to impact in-person meetings once people are allowed to go back to the office, and some sense of in-person work returns to normalcy. Not every meeting needs to be a physical meeting. Physical meetings also require a great deal of energy and, limited them to the absolute necessity will have a positive impact on everyone’s productivity.

That being said, if I’m directionally correct in this shift, then it means we need much more innovation in the software, tools, services, and even hardware, to make remote collaboration even better than if it was done in person or over a video call. This is the challenge but also the opportunity to innovate on many levels.

For me, this whole experience has brought to light new understandings of what the failures are of real-time remote collaboration as well as the failures and challenges of in-person meetings. While I know the effectiveness of in-person meetings and subsequent best practices have been studied, I still think there is more digital solutions have to offer that can marry the best of both worlds. There is no perfect solution, and there may never be, but I firmly believe there is an opportunity to innovate here. Those who do may end up gaining a stronghold on digital transformation and the new era of collaboration that sits ahead of us.

The Remote Work Shift and Debate

The conversation around remote working continues to get more interesting. The topic of remote work is now coming from all aspects of the tech industry, and the news from Twitter that all their employees have the option to work remotely forever has many believing this will be the new trend.

Many believe Twitter’s move to allow permanent remote work will set a trend that many Silicon Valley companies will follow. I tend to think this is true, to a degree, as a new perk of the job may very well be the option to work from home more or permanently. I’ve been having several conversations with friends at various tech companies around the valley and have asked if they think they will try to work from home more going forward. One constant phrase I hear from these conversations is, “now that I know I can work from home.” What this tells me are most workers who have been able to work remotely have overcome the hurdle that existed prior, which may have simply been a question as to whether they could effectively work from home. What this current situation has presented us with is enlightenment as to what is possible when it comes to remote working.

As more workers become aware of the potential for them to work from home, my guess is they will get at least one to some of the time, even if for only a day or two a week. This means that from a competitive hiring standpoint, many more companies will have to embrace the freedom for workers to work from home or risk losing quality candidates to other companies.

While I don’t think the vast majority of workers will choose to work from home remotely, I do think the option will be necessary for most companies to offer. Depending on the industry, the approximation of people who work full time from home is between 13-15%. My gut guess would be that number could go up to over 25-30% of the workforce at least working remotely some of the time and potentially growing at a rapid rate as companies adopt more work from home options.

That being said, this shift brings up even more questions once we embrace it as not just possible but also extremely likely.

A major question being one of wages. I’ve seen multiple debates on Twitter talking about a remote worker leaving they valley and moving to another state and whether they would still make silicon valley wages. My guess would be the answer is no, given the company should not have to pay the high cost of living wages in an area where the cost of living is not as high as California but, this remains an open question.

Similarly, what about the perks one gets when going into the office in terms of free Internet, often free food, access to an on-campus gym and services, etc. Where this matters to some people, likely younger workers, I imagine the lure of working remotely all the time is not as high. But the question will be one of the trade-offs. Just like there are benefits to working in an offices from perks or social standpoint, there are many benefits to working from home. To me, the most important point here, and the one I believe will emerge from this situation, is simply one of having the option. If someone wants to go to the office they can, if they want to work from home or anywhere they choose they can. The choice is up to the employee, and that is not a situation that was universal before COVID-19 came onto the scene.

Of course, there will be exceptions. There was news Apple will look to start bringing people back to the office in the fall, which is viewed as a bucking of the trend of other valley companies like Google and Facebook who have said their employees can work from home for at least the rest of 2020.

Apple is unique in its culture that it would be very hard for their employees to work from home all the time. Apple has a very collaborative culture, and they work on physical products which I also think adds an element of difficulty to do remote. That being said, I know Apple employees have much demanded of them. I have many friends who work there who have told me work/life balance is hard working for Apple, which leads me to the conviction that Apple should offer employees the chance to work from home at least now and then if not once a week if possible. This goes back to my point of options, that the choice of working from home becomes a perk of the job.

One last question I have with this is if big companies see larger portions of their workforce want to work from home or move away from Silicon Valley to another state, what happens to the companies culture? Every company strives to inject a certain culture that drives company and product vision, and I wonder how that is implemented and maintained if a large portion of the workforce is remote. I have no answer to this question, but it is something I’m interested to observe if we do see a broader shift in remote work going forward.

Apple’s Most Versatile Computer = iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard

I have so many thoughts about the iPad and the new Magic Keyboard. Since 2010, outside of the role smartphones are playing on our daily computing lives, iPad has been one of the hardware products I have spent the most time thinking about.

I go back to the day Steve Jobs launched iPad. It was there Steve Jobs framed the iPad in a way that has stuck with me. He said the iPad was unique because it was more intimate than a notebook and more powerful than a smartphone. So perfectly succinct, and it was this description that was his answer as to why iPad should exist.

iPad has evolved much through the years. It has become more powerful, more capable, and added an array of iPad only apps. But there has been a continuous debate as to if it can—-or should—-replace a notebook. I’ve long believed the iPad was the most approachable computer Apple has ever made. But as it has evolved, so has my thinking and I would now consider iPad the most versatile computer Apple has ever made.

This distinction is important and it is outlined in this video by SVP of software Craig Fedhereighi where he doubles down on iPad’s value as being its versatility. It can be used in computer like ways and it can be used in smartphone like ways that are unique to its form and the iPadOS platform. It’s only limitation, until now, has been the types of input it supported.

What has been fascinating to observe, was how iPad has increased in function to eek closer to a full-fledged productivity device as the core OS has adapted. But one of the main struggles has remained the lack of a cursor. Many in the “iPad can’t do real work” camp use the touch input as a main criticism. They seem content a keyboard exists, but their complaints show what they really wanted was a cursor. Apple may have hoped more applications from a work based standpoint would adapt to support or even innovate on touch inputs but that did not happen. Now that iPad has mouse/cursor support, and I have been spending time with the Magic Keyboard, it has become glaringly clear one of iPad’s struggles is that it had been battling an uphill existence in the mouse/cursor-based world of productivity, collaboration, and enterprise software.

Frankly, there are just some times when a mouse/cursor is the superior input mechanism.

When it Comes to Work, It is a Cursor Based World
I have long fought the idea of iPad supporting a mouse/cursor. I hated the idea in fact because I felt it would take away from the original vision and be a compromise. Part of me still wishes the software world of productivity would have evolved and innovated around touch instead of cursor but it did not.

This is where the interesting approach Apple took to the cursor comes in. Apple took the initiative and didn’t just duplicate the Mac/PC cursor and trackpad but rather innovated upon it uniquely for the world of iPad and iPadOS.

While the iPad supports a mouse/cursor it is unlike any mouse/cursor input you have tried before. It is context-aware whether it is clicking or dragging, or selecting text, etc., the shape and state of the cursor intelligently changes. Apple has created a software situation where innovation can now come from both the touch-based input as well as the cursor-based input as developers now have more choices of which input mechanisms to support at their disposal.

What has always differentiated iPad from a product like Microsoft Surface, which is the only real tablet/computer competitor to iPad, is the world of iOS apps. I love my Surface Pro but the app ecosystem lacks compared to the world of iPad apps. Apple now has blended the best of two worlds from an input standpoint of mouse/cursor and touch/pen and the world of iPad apps, desktop productivity apps, creativity apps, entertainment apps, games and more and created a truly versatile computer and as of now that versatility is truly unmatched.

The evolution of the iPad has always been to be whatever you want it to be. It is, at its core design, a slate and on that canvas can be whatever the user wants it to be. What I had not appreciated in my criticism of mouse/cursor support was how adding it took the iPad one more step deeper toward this vision. By supporting every type of input, and truly excelling at all of them, iPad now meets that true vision of a blank canvas and a platform that will allow the product to do anything and everything.