Category Archives: Google

Amazon+Whole Foods – How to read this?

Last Thursday (June 15, 2017), Amazon decided to acquire Whole Foods for a whopping $13.7B ($42 per share, a 27% premium to its closing price). On Friday, stock prices of Walmart, Target, and Costco took a hit downwards, while Amazon shares went up by more than 2%. So why did Amazon buy Whole Foods? Clearly Amazon sees groceries as an important long-term driver of growth in its retail segment. What is funny is that a web pioneer with no physical retail outlet decided to get back to the brick-and-mortar model. Amazon has also started physical bookstores at a few cities. We have come full circle.

Amazon grocery business has focussed on Amazon Fresh subscription service so far to deliver online food orders. Amazon will eventually use the stores to promote private-label products, integrate and grow its AI powered Echo speakers, boost prime membership and entice more customers into the fold. Hence this acquisition is the start of a long term strategy. Amazon is known for its non-linear thinking. Just see how it started a brand new business with AWS about 12 years back and now it is a $14B business with a 50%+ margin. It commands a powerful leadership position in the cloud computing business and competitors like Microsoft Azure or Google’s GCE are trying hard to catch up.

The interesting thing to ponder is how the top tech companies are spreading their tentacles. This was a front-page article in today’s WSJ. Apple, a computer company that became a phone company, is now working on self-driving cars, TV programming, and augmented reality. It is also pushing into payments territory challenging the banks. Google parent Alphabet built Android which now runs most PC devices. It ate the maps industry; it’s working on internet-beaming balloons, energy-harvesting kites, and self-driving technologies. Facebook is creating drones, VR hardware, original TV shows, and even telepathic brain computers. Of course Elon Musk brings his tech notions to any market he pleases – finance, autos, energy, and aerospace.

What is special about Amazon is that it is willing to work on everyday problems. According to the author of the WSJ article, this may be the smarter move in the long run. While Google and Facebook have yet to drive significant revenue outside their core, Amazon has managed to create business after business that is profitable, or at least not a drag on the bottom line. The article ends with cautionary note, “Imagine a future in which Amazon, which already employs north of 340,000 people worldwide, is America’s biggest employer. Imagine we are all spending money at what’s essentially the company store, and when we get home we’re streaming Amazon’s media….”

With few tech giants controlling so many businesses, are we comfortable to get all our goods and services from the members of an oligopoly?

Secret of Sundar Pichai’s success

I watched Sundar Pichai’s recent interaction with the students at I.I.T. (Indian Institute of Technology) Kharagpur, India, where he graduated back in 1993. Besides our common country of birth, I had never heard of Sundar until his rapid rise at Google a few years back. I have never met him or listened to him at conferences. So this was the first time, I had a chance to listen to his remarks and his answers to many questions from the audience of 3500 students at his alma mater earlier this week.

Growing up not far from I.I.T. Kharagpur, I was very aware of this institution. It was the first I.I.T. in India established during the 1950s. Other I.I.T’s like at Kanpur, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai came later. These were the original 5 Indian Institute of Technologies. Lately many new ones have been added.

Sundar did his undergraduate studies in Metallurgy (study about metals). Then how did he switch from that into software? That was one of the questions from a student. He said that he loved Fortran language during his student days and that love for programming continued. The message he was giving was for everyone to pursue their own interest & passion. He mentioned that unlike in India, students at US universities sometimes do not decide their majors, way into their 3rd or 4th year of studies. Sundar’s passion was to build products that would impact a very large number of global users. During his interview at Google, he was asked what he thought of Gmail, which he had never seen nor used. Then the fourth interviewer actually showed it to him. Subsequently, he gave his opinion to the remaining 3 interviewers on what he thought was wrong with Gmail and how to improve it. He emphasized time and again the need to step out of the comfort zone and get an all rounded experience. Today’s students need not be afraid to take some risks and be willing to fail.

Besides technical leadership, Sundar possesses an amazing quality; egoless-ness, so rare to find in Silicon Valley executive community. He said that he truly believes in empowering his team and letting them execute with full trust. This is easier said that done, based on my experience at IBM and Oracle. Large organizations suffer from ego-driven leadership causing great amount of friction and anguish. Sunder’s rise at Google was due to his amazing ability to get teams to work very effectively. From Search, he went to manage Chrome, then he was given Android. His ability to work thru the complexities of products, fiefdoms, and internal rivalries was so evident that he was elevated to the CEO position so quickly. Humility is his hallmark combined with clarity of vision and efficient execution.

He made an interesting comment about the vision at Google. Larry Page said that the moonshot projects are worthwhile because the bar is so high (no competition). Even if you fail, you are still ahead with your knowledge and experience.

It was fun listening to Sundar’s simple and honest answers & remarks.

The resurgence of AI/ML/DL

We have been seeing a sudden rise in the deployment of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Deep Learning (DL). It looks like the long “AI winter” is finally over.

  • According to IDC, AI-related hardware, software and services business will jump from $8B this year to $47B by 2020.
  • I have also read comments like, “AI is like the Internet in the mid 1990s and it will be pervasive this time”.
  • According to Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, “AI is the new electricity. Just as 100 years ago electricity transformed industry after industry, AI will now do the same.”
  • Peter Lee, co-head at Microsoft Research said,  “Sales teams are using neural nets to recommend which prospects to contact next or what kind of products to recommend.”
  • IBM Watson used AI in 2011, not DL. Now all 30 components are augmented by DL (investment from $500M – $6B in 2020).
  • Google had 2 DL projects in 2012, now it is more than 1000 (Search, Android, Gmail, Translation, Maps, YouTube, Self-driving cars,..).

It is interesting to note that AI was mentioned by Alan Turing in a paper he wrote back in 1950 to suggest that there is possibility to build machines with true intelligence. Then in 1956, John McCarthy organized a conference at Dartmouth and coined the phrase Artificial Intelligence. Much of the next three decades did not see much activity and hence the phrase “AI Winter” was coined. Around 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue won the chess match against Kasparov. During the last few years, we saw deployments such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and IBM’s Watson (beating Jeopardy game show champions in 2011). In 2014, DeepMind team used a deep learning algorithm to create a program to win Atari games.

During last 2 years, use of this technology has accelerated greatly. The key players pushing AI/ML/DL are – Nvidia, Baidu, Google, IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. Many new players have appeared – DeepMind, Numenta, Nervana, MetaMind, AlchemyAPI, Sentient, OpenAI, SkyMind, Cortica, etc. These companies are all targets of acquisition by the big ones. Sunder Pichai of Google says, “Machine learning is a core transformative way in which we are rethinking everything we are doing”. Google’s products deploying these technologies are – Visual Translation, RankBrain, Speech Recognition, Voicemail Transcription, Photo Search, Spam Filter, etc.

AI is the broadest term, applying to any technique that enables computers to mimic human intelligence, using logic, if-then rules, decision trees, and machine learning. The subset of AI that includes abstruse statistical techniques that enable machines to improve at tasks with experience is machine learning. A subset of machine learning called deep learning is composed of algorithms that permit software to train itself to perform tasks, like speech and image recognition, by exposing multi-layered neural networks to vast amounts of data.

I think the resurgence is a result of the confluence of several factors, like advanced chip technology such as Nvidia Pascal GPU architecture or IBM TrueNorth (brain-inspired computer chip), software architectures like microservice containers, ML libraries, and data analytics tool kits. Well known academia are heavily being recruited by companies – Geoffrey Hinton of University of Toronto (Google), Yann LeCun of New York University (Facebook), Andrew Ng of Stanford (Baidu), Yoshua Bengio of University of Montreal, etc.

The outlook of AI/ML/DL is very bright and we will see some real benefits in every business sector.

Linux & Cloud Computing

While reading the latest issue of the Economist, I was reminded that August 25th. marks an important anniversary for two key events:  25 years back, on August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds launched a new operating system called Linux and on the same day in 2006, Amazon under the leadership of Andy Jesse launched the beta version of Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2), the central piece of Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The two are very interlinked. Linux became the world’s most used piece of software of its type. Of course Linux usage soared due to backers like HP, Oracle, and IBM to combat the Windows force. Without open-source programs like Linux, cloud computing would not have happened. Currently 1500 developers contribute to each new version of Linux. AWS servers deploy Linux heavily. Being first to succeed on a large scale allowed both Linux and AWS to take advantage of the network effect, which makes popular products even more entrenched.

Here are some facts about AWS. It’s launch back in 2006 was extremely timely, just one year before the smartphones came about. Apple launched its iPhone in 2007 which ushered the app economy. AWS became the haven for start-ups making up nearly two-third of its customer base (estimated at 1 million). According to Gartner Group, the cloud computing market is at $205B in 2016, which is 6% of the world’s IT budget of $3.4 trillion. This number will grow to $240B next year. No wonder, Amazon is reaping the benefits – over past 12 months, AWS revenue reached $11B with a margin of over 50%. During the last quarter, AWS sales were 3 times more than the nearest competitor, Microsoft Azure. AWS has ten times more computing capacity than the next 14 cloud providers combined. We also saw the fate of Rackspace last week (acquired by a private equity firm). Other cloud computing providers like Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and IBM (acquired SoftLayer in 2013) are struggling to keep up with AWS.

The latest battleground in cloud computing is data. AWS offers Aurora and Redshift in that space. It also started a new services called Snowball, a suitcase-sized box of digital memory which can store mountains of data in the AWS cloud (interesting challenge to Box and Dropbox). IBM bought Truven Health Analytics which keeps data on 215m patients in the healthcare industry.

The Economist article said, “AWS could end up dominating the IT industry just as IBM’s System/360, a family of mainframe computers did until the 1980s.”       I hope it’s not so and we need serious competition to AWS for customer’s benefits. Who wants a single-vendor “lock-in”? Microsoft’s Azure seems to be moving fast. Let us hope IBM, Google, and Oracle move very aggressively offering equivalent or better alternatives to Amazon cloud services.

Hello Allo – Google’s new messaging app

So this morning at Google’s annual developer conference called IO, a new messaging product called Allo was introduced. Allo integrates Google services like YouTube, Maps, and Search, and will serve up “smart replies” and let users of the app chat with a new virtual assistant. The app aims to bring together all of Google’s latest research in artificial intelligence, machine learning, voice recognition, and natural language processing.

This is in line with what Facebook launched few weeks back where “bots” inside it’s WhatsApp and Messenger messages can intelligently invoke activities such as ordering an Uber car or booking an Airbnb room. This creates an interesting challenge for Apple, as such activities will bypass the “purpose” apps in the Apple’s App Store (a source of great revenue).

Google has another product called Google Hangout which overlaps with Allo. For now Google maintains the dual strategy of keeping both products since they appeal to different audiences. Google Hangout is aimed at enterprise users whereas Allo appeals to the consumers. Google also announced another group messaging app called Spaces.

Business Insider reported, “For one, Hangouts is tied to Google’s enterprise For Work products that’s aimed at business customers, and which includes Gmail and Docs, and is available on desktop. Allo, by contrast, is mobile only, doesn’t require a Gmail account, and is focused on the power of artificial intelligence. Right now, Allo users can chat with Google’s new virtual assistant in the app, but the company also showed off an integration with OpenTable, for booking restaurants. And hinted that it plans to be very open, while not rushing into anything.”

Still it’s tough not to interpret the advent of Allo as a signal that Hangouts’ best days are behind it. After all, unless you are already using Hangouts to talk to coworkers or because you need to communicate on a desktop PC, you’re probably more likely to opt for the new amped up experience and technology that Allo offers.

In my good old days at IBM, we ended up with two database products on the mainframe, and our marketing spin was that IBM had a dual-database strategy. Google’s trio of different chat apps might not be so crazy after all, when you consider that rival Facebook has both Messenger and WhatsApp.

Hadoop, the next ten years

I attended a meetup yesterday evening at the San Jose Convention Center on the subject “Apache Hadoop, the next 10 years” by Doug Cutting, the creator of Hadoop while at Yahoo, who works at Cloudera now. That venue was chosen because of the ongoing Strata+Hadoop conference there.

It’s always fun listening to Doug recounting how Hadoop got created in the first place. Based on early papers from Google on GFS (Google File System) and Map Reduce computing algorithm, a project was launched called Nutch, subsequently renamed Hadoop (after Doug’s son’s toy elephant name). This all made sense as horizontal scaling via commodity hardware was coming to dominate the computing landscape. All the modules in Hadoop were designed with a fundamental assumption that hardware failures are common and should be automatically handled by the framework. That was all back in 2006. As an open source project, Hadoop gained momentum with community support for the overall ecosystem. Over the next seven years, we saw many new additions/improvements such as YARN, Hbase, Hive, Pig, Zookeeper, etc. Hence, Doug wanted to emphasize that there is a difference between just Hadoop and the Hadoop ecosystem.

The original Hadoop with its Map Reduce computing had its limitations and lately Spark is taking over the computing part. Spark provides an interface for programming entire clusters with implicit data parallelism and fault-tolerance. It originated at UC, Berkeley’s AMPlab and is gaining fast momentum with its added features for machine learning, streaming, graph and SQL interfaces. To a question from the audience, Doug replied that such enhancements are expected and more will come as the Apache Hadoop ecosystem grows. Cloudera has created Impala, a speedier version plus the SQL interface to meet customer needs. Another example of a key addition to the ecosystem is Kafka which originated from Linked-In. The Apache Kafka project is a message broker service and  aims to provide a unified, high-throughput, low-latency platform for handling real-time data feeds. To another question on whether another general-purpose platform will replace Hadoop, Doug suggested that projects like Spark will appear to handle parts of the ecosystem better. There may be many purpose-built software to address specific needs like Kafka. He eloquently praised the “open Source” philosophy of community of developers helping faster progress compared to the speed at older companies like Oracle in enhancing its DBMS software.

From the original Hadoop meant for batch processing of large volumes of data in a distributed cluster, we are moving towards the real-time world of streaming analytics and instant insights. The popularity of Hadoop can be gauged by the growth in attendance of the San Jose Hadoop Summit…from 2700 attendees in 2013, it more than doubled last year.

Doug is a good speaker and his 40 minute talk was informative and entertaining.

Stack Fallacy? What is it?

Back in January, Tech Crunch published an article on this subject called Stack Fallacy, written by Anshu Sharma of Storm Ventures. Then today I read this Business Insider article on the reason why Dropbox is failing and it is the Stack Fallacy.  Sharma describes Stack Fallacy as “the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.”

Many companies trivialize the task of building layers above their core competency layer and that leads to failure. Oracle is a good example, where they thought it was no big deal to build applications (watching the success of SAP in the ERP layer initially built on the Oracle database). I remember a meeting with Hasso Plattner, founder of SAP back in the early 1990s when I was at Oracle. He said SAP was one of the biggest customers of Oracle at that time and now Oracle competes with them. For lack of any good answer, we said that we are friends in the morning and foes in the afternoon and welcomed him to the world of  “co-opetition”. Subsequently SAP started moving out of Oracle DB and was enticed by IBM to use DB2. Finally SAP built its own database (they bought Sybase and built the in-memory database Hana). Oracle’s applications initially were disasters as they were hard to use and did not quite meet the needs of customers. Finally they had to win the space by acquiring Peoplesoft and Siebel.

Today’s Business Insider article says, “…a lot of companies often overvalue their level of knowledge in their core business stack, and underestimate what it takes to build the technology that sits one stack above them.  For example, IBM saw Microsoft take over the more profitable software space that sits on top of its PCs. Oracle likes to think of Salesforce as an app that just sits on top of its database, but hasn’t been able to overtake the cloud-software space they compete in. Google, despite all the search data it owns, hasn’t been successful in the social-network space, failing to move up the stack in the consumer-web world. Ironically, the opposite is true when you move down the stack. Google has built a solid cloud-computing business, which is a stack below its search technology, and Apple’s now building its own iPhone chips, one of the many lower stacks below its smartphone device”.

With reference to Dropbox, the article says that it underestimated what it takes to build apps a layer above (Mailbox, Carousel), and failed to understand its customers’ needs — while it was investing in the unimportant areas, like the migration away from AWS. Dropbox is at a phase where it needs to think more about the users’ needs and competing with the likes of Google and Box, rather than spending on “optimizing for costs or minor technical advantages”.

Not sure, I agree with that assessment. Providing efficient and cost-effective cloud storage is Dropbox’s core competency and they are staying pretty close to that. The move away from AWS is clearly aimed at cost savings, as AWS can be a huge burden on operational cost, plus it has its limitations on effective scaling. In some ways, Dropbox is expanding its lower layers for future hosting. It’s focus on enterprise-scale cloud storage is the right approach, as opposed to Box or Google where the focus is on consumers.

But the Stack Fallacy applies more to Apple doing its own iPhone chips, or Dell wrongfully going after big data. At Oracle the dictum used to be, “everything is a database problem – if you have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”.