On Working From Home: A Personal Perspective

I have been working from home for some time.

I use the term “working” in a loose fashion, since my work involves a combination of writing activities, paid and unpaid. By nature, I am a social person, who likes conversation. However, lately, most of my day consists of an uninterrupted (and sullen) stare at a computer screen.

During breaks between work (which are quite frequent), I watch Youtube videos, read provocative news articles, Facebook, or search Google for whatever catches my fancy. Access to free and unfettered information about interesting subjects has not converted me into a human encyclopedia. Rather, I have become a compendium of useless half-baked facts. It has also resulted in an uncoordinated (and undisciplined) meander on the web that takes hours away from productive time. Although I get work done, sometimes, I crave the stimulation and discipline of human conversation.

Still, it was not always this way.

I worked for eight years in an office environment. The office was a physical space, an environment that demarcated the problems in my life. The commute to and from office disciplined my day and divided it into neat and manageable segments.

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I learned quite a lot during this time. In fact, I made few friends but several enemies during my time working. I learned about processes and, about, cultural dynamics. I did not always get along with colleagues. However, disagreements were always sorted out in person and did not last long. It was a bit like living with a spouse. Love them or loathe them, you have an incentive to work things out with your spouse because you belong to a shared physical space.

In any case, I was richer due to the interaction. Through their conversation, co-workers stimulated my thinking and provoked reactions. That feeling, I hope, was mutual. Nowadays, my reactions to screen antics are mostly limited to glassy-eyed stares.

Because I worked in the IT Services sector, part of my work was done from home, when I coordinated with the onsite/offshore team at strange hours. While working from home wasn’t frowned upon, face-to-face interaction was encouraged. In fact, some colleagues, who worked from home in another city, actually made trips to the office once a month or three. In addition, we shared photos and videos with our onsite team to get a sense of the other person.

So, I am intrigued by the kerfuffle that Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to ban working from home for Yahoo employees has raised. From all accounts, the move is a precursor to layoffs. Even otherwise, I think she is intent on tackling the overall larger culture problem at Yahoo.

The conveniences of working from home are overrated.

Working from home is supposed to remove colleague- and travel-related friction from work. After all, what can be better than working with your loved ones. It increases productivity and enables you to enjoy the comforts of home (Work in your Pajamas! Work at your own leisure! Get Household Chores done while working!).

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Of course, what no one talks about are the negatives of working from home. They don’t talk about the loneliness and absence of stimulating conversation. They don’t talk about the lack of validation (online validation can never equal in-person validation). The amount of time spent in useless interactions with your family or in running chores. They don’t talk about the blurring of distinctions between family and office lives, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Finally, they don’t talk about how the work from home facility can, sometimes, be abused and result in less productivity as compared to onsite work.

Last August, I shared a hostel room with a bright 20-year-old hacker. He spent most of his time in front of a computer screen and occasionally went out to get lunch or dinner. He mostly worked from him but wanted to work in a physical office to learn more about data visualization.

Give Marissa Mayer a break. Working from home is good but not all that it is made out to be.

India Takes A Bigger Bite Of Apple

In an earlier post, I had written about Apple’s reluctance to enter the Indian smartphone market. Tim Cook, chief executive officer for the Cupertino-based company, had cited India’s multi-layer distribution model as a key reason for the company to focus away from India “in the intermediate term,” then.

He seems to have changed his mind.

According to a Reuters article, Apple is rethinking its India strategy. The article says that Apple is redesigning its distribution model and is accompanying this change with a “heavy marketing blitz.” The “dream phone” (as the company refers to the iPhone in advertisements in India) is now available in instalment-based plans of Rs. 5,056 or $93 per month. Per unit cost of the phone, however, remains a prohibitive $840 (or, almost two months wages for an average software engineer in India).

Why Did Cook Change Its Mind?

A key reason for Apple’s volte face may relate to the math of the mobile market in India. According to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report released in December last year, India had the lowest smartphone penetration rate (four percent) among the world’s 15 largest economies in 2012.

However, at 52 percent, India also had the largest growth figures for the smartphone market among all the economies. That growth momentum is expected to continue in the coming years, as the country adds more members to the middle- and moneyed-class. In simple words, the Indian smartphone market is about to explode.

Should Apple Target The 1 percent? 

Noted technology blogger and venture capitalist Om Malik has an interesting post on this topic. He says India might be a lost opportunity for Apple currently and posits that Apple can gain a major share of the Indian market by targeting high-end customers through its Apple store. “The Apple store is the gateway drug to the all-Apple experience,” he writes. This is similar to the growth strategy followed by Apple in China, another large market.

However, China and India are completely different markets.

In many respects, India resembles the US in terms of market dynamics. Both economies are diverse and boast a large youth population. This population, which according to some estimates forms a major chunk of Apple’s target market, typically earns more income as compared to the average PC owner, has more disposable income, and is brand-conscious. iPhones, at least in the States, for this demographic are subsidized by carriers. In India, which is far more cost- and value-conscious as a market, this demographic lacked a suitable mechanism to invest in an iPhone, until recently. In their place, cheap Android phones flooded the Indian market.

Building out Apple stores in posh malls, which contain products priced for the elite market, will limit Apple’s reach in the Indian market. Although sales from such stores may contribute to the company’s bottom line in the short term, in the long term, it will restrict the company’s growth opportunities. The Apple stores referenced by Malik will probably remain empty and sparse in urban megacities and miss the country’s larger growth story in other, growing urban centers.

To understand Apple’s strategy, basic math might help. According to a report released in 2011, the affluent class (or, those earning more than $100,000 per annum) accounts for approximately one percent of India’s population. Apple’s target demographic in the US (see above) closely resembles that of the urban rich (or those earning more than Rs. 10 lakhs per annum (approximately $18,520 per annum at today’s rates)) in India. This class has more disposable income, as compared to the average Indian worker. The income is spent on food, travel and services such as smartphones. More importantly, this demographic comprises over five percent of the population and form a significant market for local and multinational brands.

The difference, for Apple, then, is between catering to an elite class minus subsidies, which might inflate its profits in the short-term, but will be disastrous to its market value in the long-term or catering to a rapidly expanding middle class by innovating its supply chain network.

Incidentally, the company is pursuing a similar growth strategy in China by negotiating with the nation’s largest telecom supplier, China Mobile.

On a more personal note, I worked for several years in India’s IT Services industry. To reach salary levels that fit the typical Apple customer demographic, at least five years of experience (and lots of hard work and ass kissing). Most career professionals in India just starting out are cost-conscious. That, of course, does not mean they cannot be convinced. iPhone subsidies will go a long way in convincing them to invest in a long lasting brand.

Building Out A Contextual Search Engine

I rarely post analysis about startups. It’s a bit like predicting the future. You never know how its going to turn out. However, a random thought came to mind this morning as I was reading about Vurb – a contextual search engine – and I thought it would be interesting to share it with my readers (yes, I am referring to all three of us, Mom and Dad).

As its name (with a corrupted spelling) denotes, Vurb connects the disparate elements of your life (and search experiences) under a single contextual umbrella.

Alexia Tsotsis, who has written the post, explains the concept as follows:

3f8e2b10-1cd5-4255-8c89-7c63827c6e90Sometimes humans would like to prepare a meeting using CrunchBase and LinkedIn to do due diligence. Then they want to hold that meeting at a well-reviewed restaurant, which they found on Yelp and want all the relevant information to appear in one place.

The idea of a contextual search engine is interesting; current search is piecemeal and lacks context. However, the example instantly made me think of codesharing as one of the possible benefits of a contextual search engine.

As an example, using the context provided by the search engine, businesses can construct relationships between each other. In simple words, this means that businesses can talk to each other and establish trajectories for a person’s schedule. To go back to the example provided by Alexia, CrunchBase or LinkedIn could provide recommendations for restaurants by tying up with them. In effect, the results of the search experience would be a mediated and controlled one.  Just something to think about.

Is It Time To Yahoo?

In the short span that she has been chief executive officer, Marissa Mayer has been busy. First, she gave free food to Yahoo employees.  Next, she developed a strategy for the former Internet giant. Today, she ticked off another item from her To-do list by unveiling the transformed Yahoo homepage.

Is the new Yahoo homepage cause for celebration?

Yes and No.

That Mayer could transform the homepage is cause for celebration. It is a testament to her perseverance at a company that has been stuck in limbo for quite some time.

However, that celebration should be tempered by the fact that the redesign is not radical. It redistributes elements from the previous Yahoo homepage into an interface that is clean, visual, and less cluttered than its predecessor. Thus, the number of panels remains the same; however, sections have been reconfigured into tabs. The look and number of elements in the interface also remains the same (see below).

yahoo-transformation

The pages have become longer, thanks to the introduction of feed formats that enable users to scroll for more updates. The world’s second-most visited homepage now plans to use Facebook’s open graph data to personalize user offerings. Leveraging Facebook data is smart strategy; it enables both networks to feed off each other. Facebook’s likes are propagated even more while Yahoo gets personalized data points regarding its users preferences.

I signed up for and logged into the Yahoo app on Facebook. None of my friends had shared any articles from the site today. In addition, only four of my 399 friends were using the app. In comparison, more than 50 of my friends were using the New Yorker app on Facebook. Because my beat is technology-focused, a majority of my friends were using the Techcrunch app. I made these comparisons to illustrate the thinking behind Yahoo’s social drive. Although it is the world’s second most-visited page, it is not social. Driving engagement by integrating social into its value-chain might make the site more attractive to advertisers in the short-term. For the long-term, however, the site will still have to bet on a changed strategy that clearly identifies core strengths within the brand and leverages them to build a substantial community.

The other part of that strategy is focused on mobile. Mayer loses no opportunity to repeat the M word to investors and press. That emphasis is also visible in the company’s new mobile site, which is simple in look and navigation. Unlike the website, the company’s mobile presence has undergone a substantial change. Instead of transposing the company’s online experience to mobile, Mayer has opted to simplify the structure. Thus, the navigation structure is built around the list view concept, with different sections as part of the list. Obviously, the idea is to draw in users to its mobile experience.

An interesting exchange about this is already happening in the comments section of Gigaom. According to one of the commenters, Yahoo should engage with third-party developers to build apps using its API. The idea is interesting and could definitely succeed, given the tremendous data store already present in sites such as Yahoo Finance. It could also fragment the site’s bloated identity and divide the site into services (much like Google), enabling easier and streamlined management internally and a clean and focused organization externally.

Adieu Dell?

It has been a newsy month for Dell. First it filed to go private. Then, major investors were unhappy with the deal. Finally, the company reported dismal numbers for its last quarter but *still* managed to beat analyst expectations.

The Round Rock manufacturer of PCs and servers reported a net income of $530 million over revenues of $14.3 billion in its last quarter today. Depending on the timeframes involved, this was good and bad news. The revenue figures were an improvement of over four percent as compared to the previous quarter. Overall, however, they represented a decrease of 11 percent on a yearly basis. The overall numbers are also indicators of Dell’s problems. While servers and networking reported strong growth, the company’s mobility and desktop business displayed sequential quarters decline. This should be a predictable state of affairs, considering that the PC market is shrinking and the company has yet to develop a comprehensive mobility strategy.

Unfortunately, the increase in revenue from servers and networking is also a mirage. Given the data center industry’s natural growth curve, it should be a cinch that Dell’s revenues in this space should increase.

However, the data center industry’s dynamics are changing. Until about four years ago, Dell was amongst the top three players in a server market that was defined by the company and its competitors IBM and HP. In the interim between then and now, several competitors have fragmented the industry. According to a story in Wired last year, there are now eight major players in the industry, including Google. The story further outlined how major companies such as Facebook and Google are building their own hardware (at the expense of major service providers). In addition, they have also partnered with each other to produce analytic platforms such as Hadoop and Hive. There are no hard numbers regarding Dell’s foray into the cloud computing space – Dell Data Center Services. Dell’s PowerEdge Servers are value servers that are used by small businesses. In other words, Dell’s market for enterprise servers has shrunk and skedaddled away from large corporations to medium-sized businesses.

Whether the Dell Dude can make a winning comeback remains to be seen.

Cyberwar Becomes Real

It is the stuff movies are made of.

Back in the day, nuclear war was the last frontier. However, cyber war seems to have opened up another front in the war between countries.

Apple and Facebook became the latest companies to join a growing list that claims to have been hacked. This list consists of some of the most powerful and largest names in the tech and media industries including Twitter, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Apart from Twitter’s hack earlier this year, there has been no comment or confirmation of data breaches.

The mainstream media has already been working on the story for some time. After claiming that it was being hacked, the New York Times published a long story about a possible location, where these hacks originated from. In addition, they highlighted a report by security firm Mandiant that claims the hacking activity can be traced back to four networks near Shanghai. According to Mandiant, the hackers have stolen large volumes of intellectual property including technology blueprints and user data. Interestingly, Bloomberg reported that the hacks originated in Eastern Europe.

Here is a brief primer on how the hacks originated.

Back in January, the Department of Homeland Security urged users to disable Java in their browsers. The problem was a security flaw in version 7 (the latest version) of Java that made it easy for hackers to access machines and steal data. In response, Oracle released a security fix in its next update that fixed the problem and re-configured default Java security settings to “high.” Java plugins are extensively used on websites for interactive and flash-based systems.

However, the zero-day exploit is still vulnerable. In all probability, hackers took advantage of an iOS programming site to access target systems. Reports say that the exploit could take upto two years to be fixed. In the meanwhile, Java will continue to remain unsafe. Then, there is also the possibility that hackers could develop other workarounds the exploit, further complicating the framework.

Unlike physical wars, this cyber war, it seems, will take some time to be decided.