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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Platform As A Service

9:28 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Cloud computing is coming of age. Its increasing and widespread adoption, especially by the enterprises, is not a surprise to anyone who understands its benefits. The consumer side, as expected, had adopted the cloud much earlier, however, enterprises are catching up rather impressively as well. Nowadays almost every company uses at least one cloud-based application in one or the other way. While cloud computing is interesting in general, I found its PaaS (Platform As A Service) segment to be a major game-changer, especially for the enterprises (startups, SMEs or MNCs). 

PaaS is a type of cloud computing utility in which one can get the computing platform and the solution stack - such as the web server or application server - as a service for developing applications. Some of the leading players in this segment have gone even further and can provide pretty much everything you need as a service in a software development project, helping you manage the lifecycle end to end. So what makes PaaS so great? Well, since the early days of programming, developers have been dreaming about being able to only focus on development without having to deal with the fuss of underlying environments. Though middleware stack promised that, it never delivered. Now it looks like we are almost there. With a third party hosting and managing all your development needs, all you are left to do is, well, just development. And this is what makes PaaS a game-changer. 

With dedicated organizations hosting and managing your platform and servers, all you need to do is write some code or get some good developers. For enterprises, adopting PaaS and SaaS (end applications running on cloud) can help save a lot of investment in people, hardware, space and electricity. An efficient adoption of cloud computing can help organizations cut down costs drastically, increasing their bottom line - a rarity these days. These cost saving potentials of PaaS can have a huge impact on the whole IT outsourcing industry. Players in this space need to prepare themselves for increased PaaS adoption as it is an eventuality waiting to happen. Partnering with clients and helping them with the transition might be a better way to handle the situation than resisting or ignoring the change. For startups, PaaS has helped create a level playing field. A small group of smart developers can create a product that can compete with established organizations, because all they need to know is how to write software, the rest will be taken care by a PaaS provider. PaaS has effectively lowered the barriers to entry, and with technology used heavily in every industry and almost every company, old order is waiting to be disrupted. 

To be honest, PaaS is actually old news now. Technology players have already realized the potential of PaaS and with major players, including VMware, RedHat, HP and Salesforce, declaring full-scale war, Gartner had declared 2011 the year of PaaS. But even with major players jumping into this war and launching their PaaS products, the race is far from over. With a plethora of technology platform options and multiple providers for every technology stack, the market is very fragmented at the moment. Startups, for example, are doing fairly well in terms of PaaS products, perhaps even better than some industry veterans. Even the king of cloud computing, Amazon, does not rule in the PaaS segment. From here we can only end up in one of two ways (or probably both), either a dominant PaaS player will emerge, just like Amazon has for the IaaS (infrastructure) layer. Or this segment will remain fragmented with some big players and some sort of inter-cloud mechanism/standard/service emerging along the way to port solutions from one cloud to the other. 

With software becoming a key aspect of our daily life, I believe PaaS will reach greater heights when it will take the complexity out of the whole development process allowing common man to create and launch applications that suite his or her requirements. Though not exactly like that, Appcelerator's Titanium is a product in that direction. It allows web developers to use their knowledge of simple web development tools and technologies for making applications even for mobile and desktop platforms. I found it particularly interesting as instead of forcing web developers to learn new tools and technologies, it helps them leverage their existing knowledge. Future of such applications might have to be a cross between a PaaS and a SaaS, so that even common user can create complex applications using simple and intuitive user interfaces. Salesforce's is probably a better example of that. And things will only get better from here, the question, again, is not if it will happen but when. Irrespective of the time it takes to reach there, PaaS is a game changer that can disrupt not just companies or industries but also economies by giving entrepreneurship a big boost and allowing companies to improve their bottom-lines.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Simple And Clear

8:40 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.
― Steve Jobs

Every now and then we keep hearing about the power of simplicity and clarity, but no one (at least in the business world) has leveraged that power and walked the talk better than Steve Jobs. His talks and presentations (such as the one below) on being absolutely simple and clear on what Apple stands for have inspired many people. 

We are constantly bombarded with information, messages and noises from the moment we wake up to the moment we go back to bed. There is so much information overload that our brains instinctively reject anything that we are not required to do and is hard to comprehend. It is this fact that requires us to be simple and clear in order to engage better with people. This is especially important to understand from a marketing perspective. With so many advertisements and PR campaigns targeted towards us every day, there are only a few that stick into our head. These are the ones that are either being repeatedly played (very expensive and not always effective, example - look around you) or are very simple and interesting (very hard to do but very effective, example - Apple's 1984 commercial). 

Being simple and clear is probably one of the most effective strategies in the current world. Look at Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Twilio, Dropbox, HearSaySocial - the list can go on and on. But then it probably is not just about being simple and clear, but about being simple and clear to an extent that you "dumb down the user". Let me explain it before you come up with your own interpretation of this. Dumbing the user down does not actually mean making a consumer stupid or going after stupid users, but about making the experience so fluid and intuitive that they do not have to put much effort into using your product/service or comprehending your message. The easier it is for a user to use your product and to get to what he wants out of it, the more chances you have that he will use that product again (obviously, given the hygiene factor that your product actually is useful). 

This simplicity, fluidity and intuitiveness is not a one-off, and needs to happen every time the user interacts with your company. Companies and consumers talk to each other regularly and are in constant dialogue. These conversations happen on various touch points. Companies talk to the consumers in many ways including product [design], websites, user guides, advertisements and price plans. And in the same way, consumers talk back to companies in many ways including product sales, customer support and feedback forums. If you analyze these touch points, you will realize that the ways in which companies talk to their users are more subtle [less obvious] than the ways in which the users talk back. That might be one of the key reasons for it to be harder for companies to being articulate and positioning themselves in front of the user in a simple and clear manner. 

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, getting mindshare has become more important than earning revenue (for sometime, and at least for startups). That is because getting the user base is really hard, but once you get it, making money out of it is much easier. This fact explains the high valuations of these new stars of the Internet. But then again, getting the mindshare is not easy as well. You have to make sure that every aspect of your product is simple, elegant and clear, 'cause in this world of big data, complexity is the last thing you and your users need.

Monday, December 12, 2011


11:10 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
As human beings it is in our nature to be uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. The degree of discomfort and the actions we take to overcome that discomfort vary for each person. Almost all of the actions we take in this case pretty much have to do with structuring - this includes measuring stuff, research, creating models and detailed planning. Human beings, in general, would like to be in control, and putting structure around things helps us be in that state. Doing so obviously has its merits, but I think it becomes a problem when you try to put structure around everything, plan everything, try to put your hands around everything. 

Structure has its merits, but so has chaos. Unfortunately, in the professional world, chaos is considered to be a taboo. Consultants and managers swear by structure. Market reports, research, detailed analysis documents, project planning. Companies try to make sure that everything is analyzed and articulated. We succumb to our natural tendency of putting structure around everything. But the fact is that real world is a lot more unstructured, fluid and ambiguous. While our tendency for planning and structure only leads us into believing that things are under control, it does not actually change things the way they are. And this difference between perception and reality leads to failure of projects and initiatives - bigger the difference, more the chances of failure. I believe that we need to embrace reality and the things that come along with it, chaos, uncertainty, ambiguity, and be prepared to unstructure. 

This disconnect between reality and human desire to be able to put fingers on something concrete has led to failures in many areas. In finance, analysts love DCF (discounted cash flow) and ratio analyses. These are two of the primary mechanisms to value companies. However, in spite of these "powerful" tools, companies still fail in M&As, investments and IPOs. In software engineering, people have tried to estimate development effort, analyze requirements and plan projects to the nth degree for a long time. But software development projects still get delayed, get over-budget and end up with a different kind of end product than asked for. In marketing, companies spend huge amounts of money on market research and still end up with failed products. 

Don't get me wrong. I am not against a directed way of working or structure or models or plans. I agree that these are important. I am against the idea that not having a structure or a plan is bad, that just trying out things is not the right way to go about. Every initiative depends on multiple factors. You can control some of these factors but not others. I am absolutely up for planning to the nth degree as long as all the factors in that initiative are in your control. If that is not the case, acknowledge that you are not in control of everything, do plan but plan in the way that it allows for things to change or fail. This is why I like frameworks, milestones and checklists more than detailed project plans, because you will rarely work on an initiative in which all factors are in your control. 

The stuff I am talking about here is definitely not new. The professional and academic world has been realizing that the real world is much more chaotic than we recognize, and has added elements of flexibility and human elements to many fields. For example, even in a hard subject such as finance, people understand that it is not as much affected by numbers and formulae, as it is by human nature and feelings (such as trust and fear). This realization has led to the growth of behavioral finance. In software, practitioners have realized that traditional waterfall model and estimation methodologies are not very effective. This has led to agile software development methodologies, such as Scrum. In marketing, experts have realized that market research and focus groups do not necessarily provide the correct picture. This has led to use of techniques and subjects such as observational studies and anthropology in the field of marketing. 

Method, structure and direction - these are definitely required for executing projects and initiatives. When combined with a healthy dose of trial-and-error, chaos and experimentation these can do wonders in getting things done. I believe that we need to realize that it is not required that we always have a detailed plan, even in the professional world. That direction, complimented by trail-and-error, can actually prove to be much more beneficial than either of these individually. That sometimes you need to unstructure, in order to do things in the right way.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Revenue Models Of The Consumer Web

11:24 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Thanks to the Internet, we are all use to free stuff now. It is not our fault. Sites such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Wikipedia have got us into this habit. I am not sure how it started, but now it is hard to think of a successful web based application that does not offer its services for free - unless its business is about selling (e.g. Amazon). On the enterprise side, web based businesses charge their customers for usage, and these customers have got use to it - in fact, they might not trust something if it is offered for free. However, it is a totally different story on the consumer side. Asking consumers to pay for a service might cause the death of that business. 

While this free movement has helped the adoption of internet and is good for customers, many businesses are struggling in getting the consumers to pay. Publishing industry is one of the worst casualties of this free movement. Not many users are willing to pay online to read news and articles, while they can access the information for free on some other site. Collusion might be the only solution to publishing industry's problem but, sadly for the participating companies, that will be illegal.

Scarcity and restrictions lead people to innovate, and revenue models used by web based companies are a good example of that. They will have to struggle making consumers pay for using their service, so they have come up with different ways of doing so. Internet based businesses use various revenue models to make money. While some of these models are more common than the others and some are older, some of these models have evolved in only last few years, thanks to the phenomenal growth of new and emerging platforms. 
  1. Plain Old Selling - You cannot beat this. No matter how much technology advances, there cannot be any substitute for plain old selling. The old knights of e-commerce, Amazon and eBay, still rule the roost. Though, these are being joined by new players, such as Etsy. 
  2. Helping Businesses Sell Their Products - Some of the internet based players also make money by helping other businesses sell their stuff to consumers and getting a commission out of it. Deals and discounts services, such as Groupon and LivingSocial, leverage this model for generating revenue. 
  3. Advertisements - This is one of the most common ways that internet-based consumer applications use to make money, and has been in use pretty much since the initial web portals. This revenue stream is a carry over from the world of media - television and radio - where advertising is the primary source of income. Within online advertisement, search ad market is bigger than the display ad. Some of the best examples of this revenue model are Google and Yahoo. 
  4. Freemium - No matter how good your product is, it is hard to get consumers to pay for it. But if you trust your product and believe that consumers will like it once they use it, you can go the freemium way. In this model, you give the consumers a taste of your product for free and give them access to basic services. Then you charge them for any extra features or usage they want. Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of this revenue model. 
  5. Marketplace For Bells and Whistles - Another way the consumer applications are making money is by helping others make it. While you might not be in the business of selling stuff, you can allow others to leverage your product and do so. Tumblr, the famous blogging platform, allows designers to create and sell premium themes that can be used on its blogs. This model is like a cross between 'freemium' and 'helping others sell their products' models mentioned previously. 
  6. Leveraging Data - Companies have been trying to understand consumers for a long time. The whole marketing function is established in companies pretty much for that purpose only. Any insight on consumer behavior is worth gold nuggets, and anybody or any service that can help get that insight is a godsend. Social networking based tools and services have been most successful in leveraging this revenue model as they are well placed for tracking user behavior on the net (by tapping social and interest graph). Twitter and Klout are some of the services that leverage this revenue model. 
  7. In-app purchases and advertisements - Another revenue model that has become very famous and successful in the recent times is the in-app model. In this model, applications allow users to purchase gifts, tools, etc while using the app. Probably the most successful implementation of this model has been done by Zynga, the social gaming leader. In a different aspect of this model, small advertisements get displayed on the user screen, while the user is using the app. These can be seen in Youtube videos and many smartphone games. The key aspect of this in-app model is that the purchases and advertisements do not come in the way of the user experience, and in fact might add to it.
While new trends and platforms have led to some new revenue models, the old ones are still pretty common on the internet. The ones I have mentioned here are the most common ones, but this by no means should be considered a definite list. I am certain that new models can be added to this list in the future. As technologies and business evolve, so will the ways of making money out of them. In case you feel that I have missed any other prominent revenue models of the consumer web, please do share those through the comments.

[Image from]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

You Are Delivering A Service, Not Just An App

8:07 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , 2 comments
[Mobile] Apps are the talk of the town. A whole ecosystem, including developers, consultants and digital marketers, is currently thriving on the app economy. Almost all [technology] news sites are full of discussions around them. Startup events are all about apps as well. All of this might be well worth it and I can understand the hype around apps, but I am unable to comprehend the focus around them - especially when it comes to new tech ventures. A lot of times when I hear and read about mobile apps, I get the impression that the person I am reading or hearing to thinks of this "mobile world" as different from the web and of mobile apps as different from the web apps. Unsurprisingly, most of these people are journalists, consultants, researchers, marketers and "business idea" guys.

Yes, the mobile phones have finally become smart and the dream of mobile computing has finally come true. But these mobile devices are just a part of the equation. These are just another portal, similar to a desktop computer, to the information and content that lies on the web. And we will have more such portals in near future, such as smart televisions and smart in-car devices. People who understand technology, understand that the real work happens behind the scenes - in the network. The network has become the computer now, and all these smart devices just its front-end. 

This is why when I notice people talking on blogs and networking events about starting ventures around [mobile] apps (unless they are talking about things that are only meant for a smartphone or a tablet, e.g. games), I understand that they do not really know how this thing works. I think these people fail to realize that they should focus on developing and delivering a service - not just an app - that can be accessed anytime and anywhere. Thanks to the "magic" of distributed computing, webservices and a good architecture, people do not need to worry [much] about making applications that are specific to mobile devices or desktops. They can decouple the front-end from back-end, as is shown in the image below (note - this is just an example of a high level logical view of an application; there are obviously many possible ways to design an app or a service). This separation also helps with focusing on the right elements. For example, while on the backend side functionality, performance and scalability are the key aspects to consider, on the frontend side user experience and journey take top spot.

This concept of multi-tiered application design does not just make sense from a technical perspective, but also from a business perspective. It is important, in terms of technology, to decouple software modules and develop a multi-tiered architecture in order to make the application robust and scalable. Similarly, in terms of business, it is important to go for modular design in order to prepare for business growth, expansion into multiple channels and even improving end-user experience.

Having said all the above, I understand that you need to start somewhere and you need to start lean. So yes, may be you should start with just desktop or just mobile or may be go further and be more platform specific to, say, iPhone. But even then you should design your application in a way that extending it to Android or iPad or desktop or some other platform in future just requires adding or modifying a module. The owners/developers of these applications should understand that what they are delivering to the end users are a service, not just an app. And that the basic parameters that make a service useful and successful do not change for apps, irrespective of the platform they are running on.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Product Focus

7:24 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
One of the top news of the technology world doing rounds nowadays is Google's consolidation of its product portfolio. This consolidation is the brain child of its new CEO, Larry Page, who apparently got this advice from Steve Jobs himself. Jobs was the master of consolidation. While his competitors used to release a plethora of products in the market, Jobs used to work on just a handful. For example, while the existing leaders of the mobile phone market had dozens of models in the market, Apple put its weight behind just one, which eventually ended up changing the dynamics of the industry. 

This brings us to the key advantage of consolidation and the reason that Google is killing all these projects - focus. While one can argue that by working on all these projects Google was putting its eggs on multiple baskets and investing in future, the increased threat from the much more focused competitors, such as Apple and Facebook, required the search giant to pick its battles carefully. 

In the software world, the problem that comes up due to lack of focus is bloatedness. Almost all of the old guards of technology, such as IBM, HP, Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft, suffer from this problem - be it product portfolio or product features. It does not take a business degree for someone to understand that by consolidating the product portfolio, a company will have more resources (time, people and money) in hand to work on lesser projects. This will affect the product in every way, from product development to marketing. I think the reason companies such as the ones mentioned above become so bloated is that it is the easy thing to do. Just keep adding features to your product and keep upgrading the versions. I am not against adding features to products or increasing the product portfolio, as long as that does not come in the way of user experience, if not improve it. 

The best examples of bloatedness can be found in the enterprise software market. The truth about such products and packages is that their customers buy them not because they want to, but because they either already have a lot of investment in the older versions or there is a lack of other players with proven track record. The cost of moving on to another vendor is high. However, the consumer market is a different ballgame altogether. Consumers do not have much, if any, baggage to carry, and do not hesitate in switching vendors. This is why in the consumer market - unlike the enterprise software market - the current install base or past achievements do not matter. You might be the dominant market player in one year, and scrambling to save your declining market share the next. A better product, even from a small company, with the help of good marketing can easily prove to be a threat to an existing leader. This makes innovation very important in consumer market, and innovation demands focus. It is much harder to try to innovate on ten things than it is to on one or two. Hence the portfolio consolidation and the focused approach to product and portfolio. All current technology pioneers - Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Salesforce, Twitter and Google - either already practice this focused approach or are trying to get there. 

It is this product focus that plays in the favor of startups as well. As companies grow, they become victims of their own success. Their big size and huge budgets actually start working against them. It sounds like one of those karate lessons of using your enemies strength against them, but if you look at the technology industry, it is very true. Their big sizes do not allow them to focus on niches. Microsoft might have a huge collaboration software division with hundreds, if not thousands, of people working on the next release of their heavy duty collaboration software suite. But a small startup (such as or Dropbox) with a focused offering can still carve its own niche and be successful. In fact, startups have been playing this 'focus' card now for almost as long in the past as one can recall. 

Focus is important but also very hard to practice. A focused approach towards product development can prove to be a matter of life and death for a startup, and lack of one can lead to downfall of a market leader. Looking at Google's management restructuring and rearrangement of product portfolio, it seems that Google has finally got this message. And looking at Google's past, I am certain that they are also very capable of executing this focused approach much better than a lot of other companies.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

London Startup Events And Their Problems

11:39 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments

London is already the financial capital of Europe, and now the current government is pushing for it to become the technology capital of the continent as well. In fact, some of the journalists are already talking about London increasingly becoming a threat to Silicon Valley, but I think we are still very far from there. 

While the Silicon Roundabout is no Silicon Valley it is definitely ahead of many other places. And this is evident in the effort that the government is putting in making East London the tech city, the various startups that have been created here, the various incubators that have sprung up and the numerous tech networking events that are held here every week. 

I have attended a few of these startups events till now, and must say that though London is no Silicon Valley the spirit of entrepreneurship here is really commendable. You can feel the enthusiasm and the hunger to do something in people who attend these events. Having said that, there are some problems as well because of which, in my view, these events are not able to cover that last mile in promoting the London startup ecosystem - 

  • Few developers, mostly business and marketing guys - One of the key problems that I, and many others that I have talked to, have noticed is that these events are mostly full of business and marketing guys and do not have many developers. So while these events are good for meeting other people and finding out what others are working on, if you are looking for a techie that you can employ or partner with to start your own thing, good luck with that. In fact, I have yet to come across an event where the techies outnumber business guys.
  • Focus on apps, not creating a business around it - Probably the most disappointing and common thing that I have found in startup pitches in these events is that a lot of them are just about apps, and not really about products and businesses. While I have seen some good products and good potential businesses in these pitches, a lot of people have developed something just to put it out there. I have met a lot of "entrepreneurs" who have created apps and started calling their venture a startup, while it is no more than just another software application. Not that I am against or do not believe in serendipitous entrepreneurship, but I am sure you will understand if I become skeptical when a lot of people start trying out their luck. That is how - at the risk of being topical - bubbles form. 
  • Too much networking - Networking is good, I agree. But I also believe that there is something called too much networking or unnecessary networking. There are so many networking events for tech entrepreneurs every week here in London that attending them can pretty much become a part-time job. This makes it imperative that people choose the events they need to attend wisely. I have even met people here that attend these networking sessions so much that they have almost formed a group and discuss the next networking event they are going to attend in almost every event that they do. Some people might find that okay, but if I have to choose between creating a better product and over-networking, I will chose the former. 

Problems aside, meeting people, visiting events and sitting through pitches, I have become a big believer in London and in the fact that will become, if it has not already, one of the greatest centers of entrepreneurship in the world. It has all the resources to make that happen: top financial institutions, some of the best educational institutions, top multinational companies, government support, patrons of art and culture in addition to finance and technology, and a multi-cultural and multi-national population. I guess now it is just about walking that last mile.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Web Of Knowledge

7:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Curiosity is one of the most basic characteristics of human beings. It drives our thirst for knowledge and desire to learn. Earlier, we used to satisfy this desire through TV programs, radio, books, newspapers, magazines and talking to other people that we come in contact with. Now, the World Wide Web has completely transformed the way we learn about things. 

The web has become the single largest source of information in the world. And with the advent of new smartphones and tablets, anyone can tap into this massive source of information anytime and anywhere. The web is full of open and free sources of information. Open not-for-profit projects such as Wikipedia and KhanAcademy enable people to learn about new things free of cost. Many commercial, though free, sources also provide interesting information - YouTube has many informative videos and Quora is full of interesting questions and answers on large number of topics. In addition to that there are many interesting (and unknown) blogs and university open research and lecture programs (such as the ones from Stanford and MIT) available on the internet that most of the people are not aware of. Along with these usual sources of information and knowledge, we also learn a lot from the people around us. The web has spread its magic here as well. While earlier we could only learn from people that we used to come in direct contact with, now we can connect and learn from people almost anywhere in the world. The social networks have helped in putting together the framework for connecting people with similar interests. 

While this ocean of open and free information is a gift, it has a big problem as well - it is so vast that you can easily get lost in it and miss out on a lot of good though [relatively] unknown sources. There is so much information out there that people generally only refer to a handful of sources. Google has been very helpful in getting the [relatively] unknown sources of information to us, but it still has not been able to solve this problem. People still only refer to the few sources of information that they are use to. This situation highlights a key point that search alone is not the answer to this problem of vastness of information on the web, it has to be complimented with information assimilation and representation as well. 

This problem of vastness has a corollary, in that while there are many good and free sources of information available, these are generally good at only one aspect. For example, Wikipedia is good at information on almost every topic but it is just text, lots of it. KhanAcademy is full of good videos but only the academic types, and while YouTube has many good videos those are general purpose and a bit difficult to find amongst the pile of many irrelevant videos. Quora is another good source of information, but it is only in form of Q&A and does not provide much in-depth information on many topics. And while Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are good social networking tools they are general purpose and are not too helpful for learning and educational purposes. So while we have the right ingredients with us to improve the learning experience, we do not have the right framework that can use these different sources and provide a coherent learning experience. 

Technology has given us the tools that we can use to improve our learning experience. It has now matured enough to enable seamless exchange of knowledge, while providing great user experience. Our education system can leverage these technologies in cultivating the curiosity in students and giving them the right framework to quench their thirst for knowledge. 

Learning can be improved by engaging people, and technology can help us in increasing that level of engagement. The more a person gets involved while learning a topic, the more he or she will understand it. It comes down to using your [five] senses. The more senses you use while learning something the more entertaining and engaging the experience becomes. This is why effective learning has to be a process of both give and take. You take interesting information in by using a combination of text, sounds, images and videos, and you give by writing (blogs and comments) and talking (discussions) about it. You give by providing answers and you take by asking questions. A good learning platform will be able to harness this understanding of human nature, in creating improved and engaging learning experience, and the power of technology, in aggregating information and connecting people.

Monday, November 07, 2011

From Education To Learning

11:30 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
We had an economics teacher in 8th or 9th standard (not too sure about the class). In every economics period, she used to dictate questions and their answers to us as soon as she use to enter the class, throughout the duration of that period. She use to do this religiously. No discussions, no exchanging of ideas, just dictation. This was her way to prepare us for the exams. I do not remember how much I scored in economics, but I do remember this - because of her teaching style, I started to hate economics. I hated the subject till I grew up and started taking interest in the world around me, on my own. Then during the MBA I just fell in love with economics. We had amazing professors who used various media to teach us the wonders of micro and macro economics, and their relevance in our lives. 

It is ironic, but since the time I have completed my MBA, I have started to question our whole education system. Okay, my economics teacher might be a bit of an extreme and uncommon example, but the underlying problems in the education system stay the same, and even global. These problems - such as emphasis on passing exams and getting higher grades, focus on teaching instead of making students interested in learning, a standard curriculum for all students instead of customized courses based on each student's ability and interests, and focus on hard skills - plague our education system almost on a global level.

Think of the people who have changed this world. Do you think it was their college degrees that helped them accomplish their goals? At least, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor, Peter Thiel does not think so, that is why he started the controversial "20 under 20" initiative. I agree with Peter that you learn much more in the real world than you do in the confines of a classroom.

One of the biggest problems that I find in the current education system is its emphasis towards teaching and not learning, its focus towards the institution not the student, and its closed nature instead of open. In fact, I think the problem here is that the focus is on education, instead of learning. While education is a system driven by society, learning is part of the basic human nature driven by curiosity and desire. While education is institutional, learning is individual. While education is something that is imposed on you, learning is something that you want to do. I am not sure about you but the moment I hear the word education the first images that come to my mind are benches, classrooms, teachers, periods, report cards and assignments. The feeling is much simpler, when I think of learning. 

Learning can be done anywhere and anytime, and has two key constituents: content and media. In our fast moving world, content is generated every passing minute of every hour of every day of every year. Once it is generated, this content can reach people all over the world through various media - books, television, internet, radio, friends, parents, relatives, etc. You can learn while playing games, talking to people, listening to radio, watching TV. Basically anytime you interact with anything in this world (or even outside it) is an opportunity for learning. It is one of the basic human characteristics, and cuts across all demographics, just like music.  

I think while our education system was established with the noblest of motives, we have lost it on our way to this point. The education system has turned into a breeding ground for preparing us to join a life-long rat race. I understand that this problem cannot be solved quickly, but many people and organizations are trying to do their part. There is an ongoing movement to emphasize on the importance of learning. It also helps to know that transformation of education is not just a charitable cause, but a profitable one too. Many entrepreneurs are leveraging the transformational capability of technology in order to change the education system - with more emphasis towards the individual, rather than the institution. I think one of the most interesting and pragmatic motivation in exercising your entrepreneurial aspirations in this field is the fact that there is no dominant player in education. Unlike music or movies or mobile phones, there is no monopoly or oligopoly here. 
Changes in our education system are now long overdue. There is a need and, thanks to the advancements in technology, potential to replace the institution with the individual at the centre of education

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Platforms And The "Other" User Group

10:54 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
One of the key reasons for success of many landmark technology products has been their transition from product to a platform. This is probably one of the worst kept secrets and one of the best understood business lessons in the world of technology. The greatest thing about being a platform is that, besides you, other people also invest their time and money in your product, as their interest gets aligned with yours. Some of the most famous and successful platforms are Microsoft Windows, eBay, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Facebook, and Twitter. But what is a platform and how is it different than a product? The relationship between these two can be explained best by sets. While a product (a subset) provides a utility and solves a problem, a platform (a superset) is a product on top of which other products and services are also developed. 

So when do you know that a product has become a platform? When an ecosystem starts to thrive around it. No product is a platform from day one. I believe there are two key requirements for a product to be a platform. The first and the most important is obviously that it has to be a good product to begin with that solves an actual user problem. And the second is that the product should extend its features/services and make it easy for other products and services to utilize them. The first requirement is pretty obvious. The second one, in the world of technology, maps to managing the developer community and to extending product capabilities and features via interfaces that these developers can use. All of the successful technology platforms mentioned above, and many more, extend their products using interfaces that other companies and developers all over the world use for their own offerings. 

Developers are like the "other" users of a product. While, companies need to focus on customers for building products, they need to focus on developers as well for building platforms. This obviously eats into resources of a company, and is probably the reason why it is particularly hard for startups to establish their products as platforms as they are always running low on resources. 

Types of Platforms 
There are many technology platforms out there, and these can be broadly divided into two main camps. The first allows development partners to showcase their offerings to the consumers, and the second allows them to leverage that platform for creating applications that can be used by the enterprises. The iPhone is a great example of a platform that is used by many developers all over the world to reach out to millions of consumers. Twitter, on the other hand, comes in the second category and is used by the developers for mining its firehouse for information that is useful for the enterprises. Facebook is unique in this case, as it allows both, developers to reach out to the users and also to mine the data useful for enterprises. 

Developer Community - Key For Any Platform 
No matter which type of platform a company wants to create. As long as it wants to create one, it will have to put in the effort for managing the developer community, in addition to managing the user community. There are three key elements that technology companies use for doing so - 

  • Application Programming Interface (APIs) - Good API is key for a successful platform. Developers will be using your API to leverage your product capabilities, so when you are thinking about good user experience for your product, you need to consider this "other" set of users as well. A well designed product will not just have good and comprehensive user interface, but also a neat set of APIs. Complex and difficult-to-work-with APIs will just discourage developers from using them. There is a lot of useful information available on the internet that can guide you for creating a good set of API. Apigee particularly has good library of API best practices.
  • Documentation - If developers are your users, then your product code and architecture documentation is like their user guide. And just like a good product has a good, tidy and comprehensive user guide, a good technology platform also requires good, tidy and comprehensive developer documentation. 
  • Social Networking - Just like successful products engage with their users, interact with them and provide the platform for them to interact with each other, good technology platforms also engage their developer community and provide the platform for them to interact with each other. Events, blogs, discussions forums, tweets and networking sites are some of the ways that technology companies leverage social networking for their platforms. There are many tools and services available on the net that can be used to create a good developer community

Creating a good product is definitely not an easy job, let alone creating a good platform. However, following good developer and architecture conventions and standards from the beginning can help you transform your product into a platform much easily when the time comes. In case this is not considered upfront, doing it later can prove to be a tough job. Developers and consumers are like two faces of the same coin as far as a platform is concerned. Technology companies cannot afford to ignore anyone of these users.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The War Of Mobile Platforms: Building Bridges

7:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
I closed my last blog (War Of Mobile Platforms) by briefly mentioning cross-platform mobile frameworks. I found that topic interesting and worthy of further investigation, hence this blog. Before we move forward, a disclaimer. I am not a programmer and all my research is based on the websites and articles available on the internet. You can find various good sources of information evaluating cross-platform mobile frameworks that are much technical and detailed in analysis (e.g. here and here). 

The cross-platform frameworks and tools can be divided into two main camps, developer frameworks (for developers) and do-it-yourself services (for users). Needless to say, developer frameworks are very technical in nature and require good knowledge of programming and languages, and hence give you better control over your apps; while DIY services are like simplified step-by-step guides to help non-technical users develop their own apps, trading control for ease of use. 

Developer Frameworks 
There are many mobile development players and frameworks available in the market. I explored a few and found the following three to be the most impressive among them. 

  • RhoMobile, recently acquired by Motorola Solutions, provides [following] tools and services to develop mobile apps. 
  • Rhodes Platform - A free and open source software (FOSS) platform for developing mobile apps for different smart phones (iPhone, Android, RIM, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7). It is Ruby-based and is open sourced under the MIT license
  • RhoConnect - An application integration software that connects mobile apps with backend systems. 
  • RhoStudio - An Eclipse-based plugin to facilitate development of mobile apps. 
  • RhoHub - Cloud-based service for developing mobile applications online using RhoMobile's tools and frameworks. 
  • RhoGallery - A mobile app management solution that comes along with RhoHub and allows enterprises to administer app distribution and management. 

  • Appcelerator allows web developers to develop applications for multiple platforms (smartphones, tablets and desktops). It provides following tools and services to develop cross-platform applications. 
  • Titanium Platform - Allows developers to develop native (mobile and desktop) apps using web technologies. It is free only for personal and non-commercial use
  • Titanium Studio - An Eclipse-based IDE to build, test and deploy apps. 
  • Open Mobile marketplace - A marketplace for buying and selling Titanium mobile app components. 
  • Titanium+Plus - A set of value-added modules (for commerce, analytics, communication, etc.) to extend the existing functionality provided by Titanium SDK. 
  • Titanium+Commerce - A library that allows developers to add commerce functionality to their mobile apps so that they can support features such as accepting mobile payments or implementing loyalty programs. 
  • Titanium+Geo - Allows users to visualize real-time, geo-tagged data from mobile devices. 
  • Titanium Analytics - An application analytics solution to provide insights into app usage and performance. 

  • PhoneGap provides platform and tools to web developers for developing mobile applications. Its parent entity, Nitobi, has been recently acquired by Adobe. It provides the following platform and tools for developing cross-platform apps. 
  • PhoneGap - A FOSS platform for developing mobile applications using web technologies. The platform supports a wide range of mobile platforms. It is open sourced under MIT license. The PhoneGap platform has been submitted to Apache Software Foundation for running it as an Apache project
  • PhoneGap Build - A cloud based service to build mobile applications online, which is free for individual developers, but requires fees for team use

My personal favorite amongst these frameworks is PhoneGap, because of the industry support and thriving developer community around it. Though, Appcelerator Titanium probably is a more powerful and easier to work with framework, the fact that it is not open brings it down a bit. In addition to that, if and when the PhoneGap is accepted by the Apache Foundation it will be a huge win for the framework. 

Do-It-Yourself Tools 
While the frameworks listed above are targeted towards developers, these cannot be used by regular users. These regular users/organizations mostly hire programmers or outsource app development to a specialist company. Even developing a simple app can cost organizations tens of thousands of dollars. There are several Do-It-Yourself services available on the net that can help non-technical users build their own mobiles apps without writing any code, while paying out relatively little money. 

The best DIY services I found were freemium and did not cost anything till you used their basic functionality. The best ones I found were Red Foundry, AppMakr, MobileRoadie (paid) and Appscend. These services allow app creators to create apps, manage them, analyze app usage and even monetize them. Amongst these, Red Foundry provides a very clean interface and gives more control to its users by providing its Red Foundry Markup Language (RFML). However, AppMakr is considered to be the leader of this segment, as it has been used a lot by large organizations as well. I believe the key reason for AppMakr's popularity is the fact that it allows users to create mobile apps for free and allows them to do more in that basic package. 

Overall, the mobile platform wars have allowed this cross-platform mobile app segment to grow and thrive. Though the mobile industry has transformed radically in the last few years, it is still early to declare the winner of this war. No matter how this battle turns out to be, as long as there are multiple players in the mobile devices market, the need for such cross-platform application development platforms will always be there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The War Of Mobile Platforms

11:03 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , 1 comment
I believe there have been three mega-breakthroughs in the field of computers that have completely changed the way we live and work. The first was the computer itself and the second was the Internet. Now we are witnessing the third mega-breakthrough - mobile devices (smart phones and tablets).

"Smartphones" have been around for quite sometime now, but the iPhone changed it all in 2007 - the device, the industry and the consumer perception. What iPhone did to smartphones, iPad did to tablets. While tablet market has been completely dominated by the iPad since its launch, the smartphone market has been very dynamic. The industry revolutionized by iPhone is now dominated by Android. Even though there are more players in the market, iOS and Android pretty much have ~70% of the market amongst themselves. 

Both of these players (Apple and Google) understand the importance of establishing their products as platforms. They also understand that in order to establish their products as sustainable platforms, they do not just have to please the consumers, but the developers and partners as well. The reason for doing so is that it is these developers and partners who are going to create an ecosystem of products and services around their platforms, and whichever platform has the richer ecosystem will have more chances of winning. 

I have been hearing and reading a lot about this whole iOS versus Android platform debate and how one is better than the other, for quite some time now. I thought of doing my own analyses of mobile platforms to find out which one is better for the developers and partners, though there already are many such comparisons on the internet. The table below compares iOS and Android on various categories - green means that player is better in that category, red means that it lacks behind and no color means that both platforms are close.

Market Share (Q2 2011, Global)
19% 48%
68% 27%
Vendors and Models Apple iPhone (3GS, 4, 4S) and iPad (1 and 2) Highly fragmented (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony, etc.) One of the key disadvantages of Android, as developers have to test their apps for multiple models
Payment System Praised for its simple and intuitive interface which is linked with user credit card Payment system varies by app store. Google Checkout for Android Market
Distribution Apple App Store.
Apple authorization required for publishing apps. A lot of developers do not like this gatekeeper role, but many also agree that this helps in keeping the app store free from spyware, malware and other unauthorized stuff
Publication process varies for app stores. The openness of Android app stores makes it an easier target for spywares, malwares and other "junk"
Cost Of Development and Distribution Developer program annual fee is $99. Enterprise program annual fee is $299. 30% of sales revenue to Apple Varies for app stores; for Android Market (one time registration fee of $25; 30% transaction fee
Programming Language Objective C - higher learning curve for programmers Java - huge pool of experienced programmers

And The Winner Is...No One..Yet
We are still in the early stages of this mobile revolution, and as the comparison above shows, it is hard to declare a winner yet. Both, iOS and Android, platforms are very strongly placed, and this can turn out to be anyone's game. Having said that I am more comfortable with a duopoly than a monopoly, as the competition between these two platforms will force them to improve, which in effect will prove to be better for users and developers.

Apple's greatest strengths in this war are its brand, integrated approach and lead in tablet market. However, Google's greatest strength here is the "open" nature of Android. The fact that multiple vendors are pitched against Apple can go both way - work against or for Apple. Two weeks ago I would have inclined in the favor of Apple, but the loss of Steve Jobs is definitely going to make things harder for them, at least in the long term if not now. 

There are technologies and players in the market that help developers bypass the mobile platform debate. HTML 5 is the frontrunner and the key technology in this category. However, using HTML 5 instead of a particular platform, would require extra effort in making an app with good user experienceIn addition to HTML 5, there are cross-platform development frameworks that allow developers to develop mobile apps that can be run on more than one platform. Needless to say, these frameworks are new and require more refinement.

Overall, the jury is still out on the winner of mobile platform war. It is difficult to announce a winner yet, as it is a very close competition. The technology and players are still evolving. No matter how this war ends, I hope that we do not end up with a monopoly like we did in the desktop PC market.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Here is to the crazy one. RIP Steve Jobs.

7:47 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal 2 comments
When I logged into my Apple Mac Pro on the morning of 5th Oct, the first thing I saw were a lot of videos and pics of Steve Jobs on TweetDeck. I was afraid that my and millions of other people's fears have come true. And then I read the news article that confirmed it - Steve Jobs had lost his fight against cancer. I broke the news to my wife right away. It was hard for both of us to believe that Steve Jobs is not alive anymore. We felt so sad and low that morning that we hardly said a word to each other while getting ready for that day. I saw many updates on Jobs' death on Facebook and Twitter and wanted to share my thoughts as well, but then I stopped because I did not want to post a passing comment on the death of my idol. The [unfortunate] event called for more. 

My wife and I are not the only ones who felt sad that day. Millions of people around the world felt the same. In my entire life, the only other time that I saw internet and media gone this crazy over someone's death was when Michael Jackson died. And he was a pop star. Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur, just doing business! 

If greatness is measured as the number of lives one has touched positively, Steve Jobs sits amongst the greatest of the greats. I cannot think of any other person throughout history who has had such a deep impact on so many areas on a global scale. He is most famous amongst many Apple fans for the products that he has launched over the years. But his 'insane greatness' goes beyond that. His work has actually revolutionized many industries: computers (Macintosh), movies (Pixar), music (iPod and iTunes), telecom (iPhone and App Store) and tablets (iPad). The only other person that I can think of who had considerable impact on such a wide array of topics was Leonardo Da Vinci. Steve was the Leonardo of our times, or may be Leonardo was the Steve of his time. 

Steve Jobs impact on people is not just limited to the products and industries. It goes beyond the tangibles. He showed the world the beauty, importance and power of simplicity and design. His stories have long inspired people to push the limits of what can be achieved. His superhuman ability to have the grandest of the visions while caring about the minutest of details has fascinated the business world and common people alike. 

Sometimes it is incomprehensible to even imagine how a person, you have never met or talked or even heard speaking live, can have such an impact on not just yourself but millions of people all over the world. Steve Jobs' words and actions have forced people to think and encouraged them to act. I remember watching his famous Stanford commencement speech for the first time in 2007. I must say I was deeply moved by that and had started to question my daily routine. That and many speeches and presentations of Steve Jobs till date have made me [at least try to] think big and different, to focus on my goal and work towards it. He had that affect on people, even the most successful ones - Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and John Chambers to name a few. 

It is very saddening to know that such a strong and inspirational personality is not amongst us anymore. That we will not see him talking or presenting anymore. That he will not be able to come up with "insanely great" products anymore. I guess I am one of those hopefuls who wish that in the next Apple presentation there will be "one more thing" and Steve will suddenly show up on stage. Unfortunately, this is one wish that will never come true. 

Steve might not be with us anymore but his ideas and work will always stay with us and keep touching our lives for eternity. We are very lucky to have lived in his time. Here is to the king of pirates, the leader of rebels, the greatest entrepreneur, visionary and innovator. Here is to the crazy one. RIP Steve Jobs.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Consumer Technology Camp Disrupting The Enterprise

10:51 AM Posted by Deepak Nayal , 2 comments
The world of technology seems to be divided into two major camps: consumer and enterprise. Enterprise is like the older brother who wears suit and tie. He is serious, talks less and is more interested in getting the job done than having fun. Consumer on the other hand is like his cool younger, jeans and T-shirt wearing, brother. He is charming, ready to try out new things that make his life easier, and likes to have fun. These two technology camps are very different in nature. 
  • Consumer tech is the talk of the town, even though, the enterprise technology market is much bigger in size 
  • Consumer technology players frequently try out new things that can enable better processing or user experience, whereas, enterprise market waits for technologies to mature before adoption 
  • Consumer side focuses more on user experience, design and intuitiveness, while enterprise focuses on features and robustness 
  • Oracle, SAP and IBM are the poster children of enterprise technology, while Apple, Google and Facebook are the icons of consumer tech 

Influence At Various Levels 
Consumer technology camp has gained more attention in recent years due to success of platforms - such as smartphones, tablets and social networks - and companies - such as Google, Facebook, Zynga and Twitter. The changes and technological improvements triggered by these platforms and companies are disrupting the status quo. While leveraging these changes and improvements can add to an enterprise's competitive advantage, ignoring these can prove to be dangerous for its existence. These disruptions are happening at various levels, and vary in their intensity, impact and adoption levels on the enterprise side. 

These disruptions are occurring at the data level in two ways. First, the increased adoption of mobile phones, tablets and social networks has led to generation of massive amounts of [structured and unstructured] data in the form of location tags, connections, texts, images and videos that can provide companies with incredibly useful information on consumers, competitors and markets. Second, consumer technology companies have led the innovations and adoption of big data tools - such as Hadoop, Cassandra, MongoDB and Rainbird - that can be used to store massive amounts of data and process it (even in real time) using inexpensive technology. Enterprise software players and customers have started to realize the importance of these disruptions at data level and are trying to find ways of riding this wave.

Various disruptions have been and still are occurring on the application level. Cloud computing is probably the most profound of them. Many consumer side companies such as Zynga and FourSquare run their applications on cloud. These companies have been able to scale fast and cheaply by leveraging cloud computing - even with millions of active users spread across the globe - thereby improving its credibility amongst the enterprise users.

Analytics is another area where consumer tech players are leading the way. Consumer tech companies are user focused and most of them are web based, allowing them to be able to track complete user journey and provide better service by analyzing the user behavior. Analytics can help enterprises in two ways: understand their customers better and track and improve their operations. Though there are software packages available for enterprises as well to monitor and analyze their systems and processes, they either do not use those tools properly (if at all) or do not leverage that data. Analytics is certainly one of those areas where enterprises can catch up faster, however, are not able to due to non-technical reasons, such as unwillingness, ignorance and bureaucracy.

Consumer tech (the web in particular) practices short release development cycles. This means that unlike the long development cycles (spanning months, sometimes years) that you see on the enterprise side, consumer web usually releases changes much more frequently (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly). This leads to quick bug fixes and new feature rollouts, improving the user experience. Though enterprises have been trying to implement such development methods (e.g. Scrum), many fail to do so or end up somewhere midway. The reason for failing to implement such development processes is that implementing such methods require not just technological but cultural changes as well, which have to be initiated at the top. And usually enterprise CTOs and CIOs are either not willing to take that risk or have other priorities or do not realize the benefits of this practice.

Nowadays, consumer applications generally are available for all devices allowing users to use these applications anytime and anywhere. Apps such as the ones provided by Google and Twitter are good examples. These can be used from your PC, tablet or mobile phone. Enterprise applications can also be made available on different devices so that employees and customers are not bound to their desktops for getting work done, leading to increase in level of satisfaction.

One of the best things about the consumer side of technology is that players in this camp are more willing to integrate with existing services out there. They extend their APIs and use the ones extended by other players. They understand that open is better than proprietary, as it leads to better integration hence better user experience. [Note that we are talking about open here, not open source - these can be two separate things.] The enterprise camp historically has not been good at this aspect and has been very closed in its approach. Though there are integrations in enterprise world these are usually within the organization and ones with partners are on a one-to-one basis. 

The disruptions on the presentation layer have been the most profound and, obviously, visible ones. The reason that consumer camp has a huge lead over its enterprise counterpart in this area is that users of consumer technology choose the products they use and if that product is hard to use, they will just stop using it or will switch to an alternative. Enterprise users, on the other hand, are not that fortunate. They pretty much have to stick with what they have got. This leads to the consumer side trying out new things in order to improve the user experience and the enterprise world being happy with what they have in most cases as long as it gets the work done.

User experience and design is given a lot of importance in the consumer camp. In order to improve the end user experience on the web and make it more fluid, the consumer side has been heavily using lightweight web technologies, such as Javascript, CSS and, more recently, HTML 5. Enterprise software, on the other hand, generally bloated and heavy, as user experience is not that high on priority.

Social networking has added to this user experience by enabling people to connect with other people and follow interesting topics. In fact, it has turned into more of a movement led by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Even though enterprise camp has using collaboration software for a long time, the concept of connections and interactions complimented by fluid and intuitive user experience has been missing from those products.

The biggest disruption caused by consumer technology camp, that the enterprise side cannot ignore, has been in the field of mobile devices, led by Apple. The smartphones and tablets have ushered us into a new world of computing, beyond the desktops. The unbelievable and phenomenal growth in user adoption of these devices has forced enterprises to stand up and take note. One of the primary reasons for this huge uptake is that these are not just devices but are part of a platform which also consists of application stores that provide desktop quality applications. This combo of powerful mobile devices and easy to setup and use applications has allowed users to do almost anything on their smartphones and tablets that they can on their desktops. This disruption has forced enterprise camp to think of ways it can use these devices to engage and empower its customers and employees.

New Breed of Enterprise Players 
Even though the enterprise camp has been trying to learn from its cooler brother and understand ways and benefits of adopting these disruptions, the rate of adoption has been slow. There are various reasons for this slow adoption. These impressive disruptions and the less impressive responses from existing enterprise software players have led to two kinds of new entrants in the enterprise camp. First are the existing consumer side players which are trying to sell their consumer side offerings to the enterprise customers. This includes behemoths such as Apple and Amazon and startups such as And second are the new entrants in software market who are leveraging these disruptions to serve enterprise customers. Companies such as Cloudera, Twilio and Zendesk are examples of such providers. 

A lot has changed in the enterprise camp over the last few years, but a lot more has yet to be changed. There definitely is a lot of potential in "consumerization of the enterprise". However, like many other things in the technology world, it is much easier said than done.