March 21, 2017

The LG G6 and the Future of Computing

The LG G6 was released at MWC this year and it has since sparked a rather incongruent reaction from Android users everywhere because the aspect ratio is 2:1 and the bezels are smaller. One might ask, “Okay, what else?” and that's a good question. As far as I can tell, the answer to that question is nothing. RAM is still at 4 gigs, internal storage is essentially standard, and the screen resolution is, as usual, just a little bit better which makes me wonder why the reaction to this phone is so dramatic.

The chin and forehead bezel design is something that has been slowly phased out of the standard design for smartphones recently. I’ll grant that the smaller design of the G6 looks mildly cleaner and more sleek, but the press surrounding this minor progress seems out of proportion to the actual progress being made with the phone. The iPhone 7 was rumored to have smaller bezels, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is rumored to be moving in the same direction, and the insane hype for the LG G6 and similar products is creating an ugly feedback loop between manufacturers and the public - the kind of feedback loop that results in industry stagnation. If we are so excited about such a minor change in hardware design, then industry motivation to be truly inventive is diminished.

The frustrating thing about this feedback loop is that manufacturers are not improving the internal specs because the loudest of us are plenty excited about hardware. I want 8 gigs of application RAM and a terabyte of internal storage; I think many of us do. This kind of progress would get us closer to the dream and what many people believe to be the future of computing.

If you aren’t aware, the dream is one device for absolutely everything; the Nintendo Switch of general purpose computers. The dream is a phone that can run professional audio or video editing software. Not many people would want to edit professional content on a tiny phone screen with touch interface, but I want to know that I could. I want the engine of my computing life to be small enough to fit in my pocket, then I could plug that engine into various, bigger screens with different interfaces. Sounds appealing.

The LG G6 isn’t making much progress as far as internals are concerned. It has the Snapdragon 821 (the same as the Google Pixel) and the only unique internal spec seems to be LG’s focus on multitasking because of the longer screen. Despite the standard internal specs, the G6 has the Android community incredibly excited. Judging by the first few things I read about the phone, I assumed it was more groundbreaking. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

To be completely frank, Microsoft is making more progress as far as internals are concerned than anything else we’ve seen recently. The Surface Pro 4 is a tablet with Intel Core series chips. It’s a tablet that is actually capable of computing. It's not a popular opinion, but it is true. Meanwhile, Apple is integrating ARM processors into the Mac, Google is making a shell of a computer with the Chromebook, and Samsung is making tablets that don’t do much more than their phones (but at least they don’t explode… I guess).

The LG G6 doesn’t seem worth the hype it is receiving. It’s pretty, but it’s nothing special on the inside. And if the new Samsung series is as beautiful as the rumors say it is, then the G6 is not long for this world - assuming Samsung can bounce back from a terrible 2016. Breakthroughs in technology have become more rare than they used to be, but hyping up the screen/bezel ratio is not going to encourage true progress in the computing world. We all know that companies opt for the easiest option that will sell. If we are this excited about the size of the bezels, then I think we are fundamentally selling ourselves short.
Capitalism is a conversation between the consumer and the manufacturer. They make, we buy. In an industry like technology, that dialogue is even more influential. We tell corporations what we want by using the loudest voice we have: our wallets. If the press and the consumers cheer so loudly for such a small aesthetic change, then I fear for the onset stagnation of the entire industry.
I want more than aesthetics; I’d think the rest of us would too.

March 11, 2017

Uber and Corporate Culture

          Uber was known in 2015 as “the world’s most valuable private startup” (NASDAQ), but the company’s recent PR nightmare has really taken a toll on the company’s reputation. If you haven’t yet, you should check out Susan J. Fowler’s original blog post about the situation. Since the incident, there have been many discussions about the nature of Silicon Valley tech companies and their common tendency toward sexism. There have been protests against them recently with Uber at the center as well as widespread campaigns asking people to delete their Uber accounts, but this hasn’t yet affected Uber’s actual company value. And frankly, I don’t think it will.

          It’s not that Uber is too big to fail or that people need Uber too much to stop using the service it provides. I think the problem is that people already know what they think when it comes to gender issues. The entire topic has, unfortunately, become political. No one on the left can convince anyone on the right to come over to their team and visa-versa. Though this is horribly unfortunate and dehumanizing, it is the case. We all know where we stand on these issues. We’ve traded what should be human empathy for politics. But that is all beside the point. I think that these particular problems that Uber has had are a byproduct of something much bigger and unmoving. This HR problem is a product of the backbone of Uber. It is a product of Uber’s corporate culture.

          Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, is a very driven man. He is known for being vocal and stubborn, but he built a heavyweight company from the ground up in the matter of a few years. Two years ago, I had never heard of Uber. They were making waves in the investor community, but the company had not yet reached the public eye. Now, my grandpa knows what Uber is. He thinks it’s a German company making desktop computers, but he knows the name nonetheless. This extremely rapid growth and large-scale success is great, but there are a few structural problems with this kind of company superstardom. The main problem can be defined by the startup mentality.

          The startup mentality is when anyone in the company would do anything to help the thing succeed. To a startup, the rules aren’t as important and HR is more of a passing legal consideration. The startup mentality is a certain kind of beautiful hive-mindedness that results in a culture with fewer HR issues. This is a necessary, driving component in a young company, but when a corporation becomes a heavyweight, it needs to start acting like it. The rite of passage for an adolescent company to enter into a stable adulthood is the tedious process of defining internal policy. They must extract the DNA of the company, type it up, 3-hole-punch it, bind it, and place it on the desk of every executive. This is how a company grows up; it is a necessary step for a successful business to take. Most importantly, it defines the corporate culture. For these kinds of fast-growing, San Francisco businesses, that very binding will inevitably be the very lifeblood of the founders.

          This effect is obvious in other Silicon Valley heavyweights. The companies tend to reflect the founders. For example, look at Apple’s internal policy and their corporate culture. They are devoted people who share absolutely nothing with the public. Steve Jobs was a private, focused man; that is reflected in the company he built. In sharp contrast, there stands Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. If you have a Facebook page, you’ll know about Facebook’s openly unfair algorithm system. When something is posted to your page, the algorithm shows it to a percentage of the people who like your content, and then you are asked for money if you want more people to see it. Whether good or bad, at least they are transparent. A lot like Zuckerberg's glass office. It’s the foundation of the company’s policy because it’s the spirit of the founder. These two companies are going to stick around because they have successfully grown up. They have bound the fundamental traits of the young startup. They are structurally stable in their corporate culture.

          Eventually, every successful startup has to grow up into a stable corporation. Stable growth is fundamentally how we define success. Uber has obviously not done that - at least not well. Frankly, it is absurd that we are dealing with piggish men sexually harassing well-performing female employees in 2017. I’m all for feminism in the sense of equality, but I think there is something bigger, uglier here. This is a sign of a toxic corporate culture at Uber. The company is an extremely powerful child, and it has shown that in the childish behavior of the executive responsible for this debacle. If this kind of problem happens once, without serious restructuring, it will happen again. Uber needs to grow up and get it together before they suffer a death by lawsuit.