Monday, January 9, 2012

Time for the Rochester media to step up

Thousands of high school kids from throughout upstate NY show up for an event featuring science, technology, engineering and math.  It's an event as exciting as the first NASCAR race of the year, or the first baseball thrown out at the beginning of the season for these kids, and their mentors.  In fact, it's filled with even more suspense because unlike those events in this event they'll discover the challenge they're going to try to tackle for the next 6 weeks as they build a FIRST Robotics Challenge robot to compete for glory.
Over the next 6 weeks kids from these teams will be working on their robots as much as 3 evenings a week, plus all day on each weekend day, putting hundreds of hours in - all while maintaining excellent grades in school.  At the end of the 6 weeks they'll be delivering the robots to compete at a regional event, and hopefully an international one.  These regionals are every bit as exciting and engrossing as a great basketball game or football game, featuring both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

In the meantime they'll have learned programming, design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, math, science, embedded systems, how to run a lathe and a drill press, how to work as a team and collaborate, as well as leadership, public relations, marketing, and team spirit. After a 4 year experience in FIRST 85% and more of graduates go on to college, and 70% of them go into much needed engineering fields.  FIRST Robotics offers millions in scholarships to FIRST Robotics Alumni at major technical colleges all over the US.

Doesn't this sound like something that our community and culture should be promoting at every opportunity?  Doesn't it sound important enough to warrant television, newspaper and online media coverage?  Pictures? Video?  Profiles of the teams and individual superstars on those teams? It does to me.  Apparently not to those who actually run and prioritize media stories however.  They seem to think that it's much more important to post stories about who is the best baseball, football, basketball, - heck even water polo is covered in more detail than FIRST Robotics.  In fact recently the Democrat and Chronicle posted a 36 page special on the best individual athletes in traditional sports - on the same day that they completely failed to cover the event mentioned above.  Apparently "Driver ticketed for 2 car crash" and "Local swimsuit model competes" is more important than "Thousands of High School kids get an opportunity to be professional engineers".

Our culture today promotes sports and our high schools spend millions on sporting equipment, fields, and infrastructure.  Think what a change we could make in our society if we instead spent those dollars and that effort on promoting academic challenges.  Think what a difference it could make for urban kids if all of them had the opportunity to participate in one-on-one mentoring and building a possible career, instead of sports where maybe one or two out of thousands of participants might someday go professional.

I hereby challenge the Rochester Media to step up this year.  Go select a couple of FIRST Robotics teams - Email me if you need some leads - and give them the same coverage you would give a high school sports teams.  Don't just cover the FIRST Regional event in March from the point of view of a "bunch of geeks getting together" - post the scores the next day.  Post the winners.  Tell us who won what awards.  Highlight where they're going and follow them if they move on to Championships or compete in other regionals.  Follow a couple FIRST high school seniors and see where they end up in terms of colleges. Let's make academic challenge just as important as athletic challenges.  We need to in order to survive and compete as a community.  And you don't have to stop with FIRST teams - other great challenges like Science Olympiad and Odyssey of the Mind are also deserving of your coverage, recognition etc.  Those kids deserve to have their success documented like every athlete in your 36 page athletic section do.  This means YOU Rochester Democrat and Chronical, and ALL of you in the news media (WHEC, WHAM, WROC, etc).

Some say that the media should just follow culture - I say that you can have a positive effect on the Rochester region by highlighting not just our athletic successes but our academic ones as well.  Do something good for your community.  And don't just stick us in the back of a local section - do feature stories.  For the good of Rochester.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Microsoft and Kodak - same company, different timeline?

As Rochester, NY residents we wax perhaps a bit more philosophically about our local "founding" company Kodak.  I've been alive long enough to know Kodak in the heyday of photography when nothing seemed to be able to bring the "Big Yellow Box" down, to today's more sobering announcement in the Wall Street Journal that they are relying on a sale of some of their most important digital photography patents (not licensing or enforcing mind you - selling) to prevent bankruptcy.  I predicted their demise into a tiny office selling patents downtown filled with lawyers and brokers from one of the largest and most diverse photographic giants 10 years ago when they started selling off profitable divisions to fund quarterly stock price expectations and a long tradition of paying out unsustainable "profit sharing bonuses" to employees.

If you look back over the timeline for Kodak, one of the key things that jumps out at you are their lost opportunities.  One of the reasons that digital photography patents exist in Kodak's portfolio at all is that for a large part - they invented it.  And yet once invented it was quietly killed by an internal team stuck in the past - looking at chemical sales and the blade/razor effect and refusing to think that someday that might not work for them and digital would make them obsolete.  Love those cool OLED displays?  Also invented at Kodak, but they never made any instead selling the patent to LG Electronics to make some quick cash.  They similarly bet wrong in the videotape arena, refusing to believe it would replace handheld film - getting into it too late to matter and choosing and betting on the wrong platform (Beta not VHS).  Another misstep was the inability to identify the importance of instant photography from competitor Polaroid.  Recently they've entered the consumer printing market, well after it had become commoditized.

So let's look now at Microsoft's recent timeline.  Beholden to inertia they've now missed the boat on at least 3 of the most recent 4 innovation thresholds.  Their windows phone 7 for all it's evolutionary but not revolutionary technological superiority is too little too late in a mobile marketplace now dominated by Android and Apple.  They bet that something better than Windows Mobile (which never held more than 7 or 8% of the market) was all they had to make and that they could roll it out after everyone else - hubris of the worst kind.  Sales of windows 7 phones lag behind usage of their now no longer sold windows 6.5 phones - hardly a promising beginning a year after release. 

Similarly their tablet effort has been derailed by tying it directly to the windows OS - with usable tablets from Microsoft now not due until 2013, they might as well just throw in the towel.  The market will be saturated with cheap Android and high end iPad tablets by that point, and they'll be stepping into a well established commodity market yet again.  If they get 5% of it I'll be surprised.  Similarly the trend away from big hardware and iron and towards the cloud is being only 1/2 well managed by Microsoft.  Though they have a powerful and well managed cloud offering in Office365, competition with the server and desktop divisions within their company has rendered them ineffective at competing with Google, Amazon and other providers, with their offerings significantly more expensive and complex to manage than those of their competitors.  Even partners are getting confused messages about what to sell to whom, and their sales and marketing have been woeful in trying to clarify why Office365 vs other platforms like Gmail, probably due to fear of cannibalizing their currently fat server and office divisions that run the rest of the company financially.

Microsoft could learn a thing or two from Kodak's fate:  if you let the line of business guys decide what to market and be innovative with you are doomed to fail.  Disruptive technologies like the iPad are DESIGNED from scratch to be disruptive.  Did you see Apple's laptop division try to kill the iPad - no you did not.  The reason is that they would rather create an innovative and competitive new product than retain the tail end of a laptop sales era they could see disappearing in the future.  They looked at more than next quarter.  Similarly Zune, though they have a superior service to Apple came in too little, too late to compete with the iPod juggernaut.  Even the Android crowd hasn't yet figured out how to break that barrier.  The only real success Microsoft has had is with the Xbox360 and Kinect.  One gaming platform a company doesn't make.  Kinect like devices could completely change the way we interact with all sorts of devices - laptops, tablets, kiosk displays.  But if we leave it to the LOB folks at Microsoft, Apple and Android will have competing camera based products out there eating their lunch by the time they actually get anything in the hands of consumers.

This is really a hard post for me to put up there.  I've been a staunch Microsoft advocate for years, and I despise Apple's rigid control over their platform hardware and sales process - don't even get me started on the whole iTunes thing.  But I gotta say Microsoft - if you stay on this path - in 10-15 years you could find your stock under a $1 and be the host of a bunch of patent lawyers squabbling over who gets your most valuable stuff before you go the way of the Dodo.  Microsoft needs to take a hard look at itself and make some significant changes to the way they think about innovation and being first to market.  Because second to market with a 2-3 year lead time is no longer an option.  If they don't think it can happen to them - look at Kodak 15 years ago.  Then tell me it can't.