Continued from a previous blog post…The Digital Age Will Save Us… Uh HuhIf you haven’t noticed our world of software is changing right from under us. We rarely receive CDs or DVDs when you buy software. All the Microsoft products I use in my business all come direct via the web, downloading an installer or the ISO image of the DVD to my computer. We buy and download our music through Amazon and iTunes. Now customers have much greater access to products, and we have instant delivery of online services and software products to our customers.Fall 2008 at the Microsoft developer’s conference, Microsoft announced Windows Azure, their strategy for bringing applications and infrastructure services into the cloud. It’s a bold step but nothing short of bold will do to be able to compete against the lead created by Google and Amazon. We’re entering an age where computing power, storage and network bandwidth are services we can spin up or wind down as needed. That’s a product manager’s digital dream, right? Well, it’s never that easy.Yes there are automated processes for provisioning services and bringing new servers online, and they work, but not always in peak situations. There’s always more to it than standing up a dozen or more servers and “bring them online”. Databases, load balancers, firewalls, application software, backup/recovery, bandwidth, failover schemes… it all plays into the equation.Microsoft was down for nearly a full day reconfiguring their service to be able to handle the huge demand for the Windows 7 beta. We don’t yet think of Microsoft as hosting thousands of computers like a Google or Amazon EC2 and S3 (Amazon’s hosting and storage services). But Microsoft runs a huge infrastructure that delivers MSN Messenger, MSN email, MSNBC site content, Windows Update service (all those patches you keep receiving), automated anti-virus updates for OneCare…. see there’s a lot. So, Microsoft’s no newb at the online services hosting game and it still took them a day to get back on their feet delivering Windows 7 downloads on the Internet.It’s Not A Successful Launch Unless The Order System Gets HurtI see a trend happening. It’s obviously not intentional but it may become one of the criteria for any mind blowing, gang buster style product launch. The trend: crashing the servers.Apple’s iPhone 3G was plagued with enormous problems which revealed a single point of failure in their online and SmartPhone strategy – the iTunes service. Yes, that nice little program you have on your Mac or PC to play songs, sync up you iPod and iPhone, and buy digital songs and movies. Behind your desktop app are the iTunes service which not only provide the online store for buying digital content, it also is crucial to provisioning iPhones and delivering software upgrades. Apple unwisely chose to bring out a new iTunes and iPhone software upgrades, and convert the .MAC service to MobileMe… all within a few days of each other. Busted. When demand peaked, the iTunes servers couldn’t handle the demands and customers were impacted on all fronts.Verizon’s Blackberry Storm was plagued with similar issues when their ordering system overloaded during the first day of product launch. Call me silly but I’m pretty sure they knew the demand was coming following several very public product launch date delays, tons of attention from online on technology sites and blogs (like mine) and Verizon’s own billboards plastered around town more than a month before launch. (A consequence of moving the launch date once too often.)Don’t Do It To Yourself… or Your CustomersWhat’s the second most under appreciated component of any piece of software? Answer: The installer. And what’s the number one under appreciated component of any software product? Answer: The upgrade.My mom used to say that you don’t get to go to kindergarten until you can remember three things. (I forget what the other two things she says are, but I digress.) My adage is a product team doesn’t really know how to ship a successful software product until they can reliably do software upgrades successfully at least three times consecutively. (And not just minor upgrades.)Apple is notorious for really bad upgrades, the consequences of which are bricked iPhone, wiped out data and pissed off customers. It’s not happened with just one software release, but occurs time and again. I’ve personally had two iPods blanked from Apple’s software updates, one of them was totally DOA and not recoverable without sending it to Apple. The most recent episode smacked down my buddy Alan’s iPhone, wiping it and causing him to wait while fix was tested and posted. That one experience moved him from being an iPhone advocate to an iPhone protagonist.In IT shops software upgrades might be something we do once or twice a year. They are well planned (or should be) and timed, and include a recovery strategy should something go afoul. But that’s become much different for consumers and PCs in small and medium businesses. An upgrade or patch to Windows or Mac OS X could happen at any time, resulting in our PCs being reboot overnight or creating a capability problem you didn’t have the day before.Upgrades are crucial to a positive customer experience. Their importance is drastically increasing. In my opinion, we’re not far from the day where every company needs to learn to do upgrades flawlessly or they get to go away.The Fundamentals & Learning FasterShifting to the age of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), online hosting, services on demand, and digitally delivered products are launch and delivery strategies we all are likely to consider and use at sometime. It opens up new possibilities, gives us access to new customers and markets, and drastically decreases the time to reach customers before, during and after the sale. It also means we need to be smart about learning from our experiences and the experiences of others in market.Jumping onto some new technology often means we forget or ignore the fundamentals. Who’s the customer, what really are their needs, what will create a satisfying experience for them, positioning, messaging, the 5 P’s, etc. If anything technology accelerates and shortens the window between a buying a experience and a satisfying product experience. That means we have to learn faster, plan better and be prepared for more contingencies. We have to be open and transparent with our customers because they see the magnitude of product issues we experience and the age of whitewashing problems through some fancy PR campaign of CEO slight of hand are gone. Ask Jet Blue’s former CEO who is Passenger Bill Of Rights won over unhappy customers who sat in the plane grounded for hours.Transparency. Something I’ll talk about at another time.
If you create products (or run a business that does), it’s your professional and personal goal to create something everyone wants so badly that products fly off the shelves like Nintendo Wii’s at Christmas (and most of the year, actually).
There are countless examples of this kind of demand, including the Wii, XBox’s, iPhone, Tickle Me Elmo, and Cabbage Patch Kids to name just a few. Now we’re seeing the online equivalent of customers banging down the virtual doors of our servers and networks to get at products. Rockies world series tickets and Apple’s MobileMe service are examples where servers cratered over the demand by users within a very short time window.
A very recent example is the public-beta of Windows 7, the successor to the much maligned Windows Vista. Microsoft had to shut down their download servers and regroup on Friday as too many requests were coming over the gun walls, causing a bad experience for everyone trying to get new bits.
As a product creator I haven’t (yet) been fortunate to have that kind of success for a product. (But you gotta believe you’ve got that in ya 🙂 ).
Limited Supply Can Be A Good Thing
In the recent Blackberry Storm SmartPhone product launch, much was made about the Storm being the device to knock the iPhone off the top of the leader board. While the Storm certainly didn’t do that, it was a very successful product launch. It’s no doubt by anyone there would be high demand for the Storm, but Verizon stores had limited supplies of them on hand the day of the product launch. The store I visited at 6am on a Friday morning only had an allotment of 30 Blackberry Storms. All stores only had a limited few phones, and before I left with mine in hand, other Verizon stores were calling the into the store I was in looking for more phones. The warehouse was out by days end.
Certainly Verizon and Blackberry anticipated high demand upon launch of the Storm. But did they purposefully limit the number of units available on day one to help keep demand for the Storm high and in the buying market’s mind? Or were they just being prudent and protecting themselves on the backside from an over supply if the product’s acceptance didn’t live up to the pre-launch hype. The only recent product I’m pretty certain has been purposefully kept in short supply is the Wii. There’s been a shortage of Wii’s (at least a perceived shortage) virtually since the gaming console came out.
It’s A Manufacturing Problem
Then there’s the “RAM factory burned down in Japan” or “manufacturing can’t keep up” situation. Now that’s something no product manager wants to have happen. The customers are there but the product can’t get to the customer due to manufacturing.
There’s a flip side to this dilemma too. At a training course (I think it was a Florida Power and Light Quality course, but I’m not sure) we played something called the “beer game”. No, it wasn’t a drinking game like you’re thinking. It was to show how decisions in the supply chain can run afoul. You come out with the hottest new beer on college campus’ but no one anticipated that outrageous demand you’re seeing. Beer isn’t like CDs, you can’t just stamp out more… it takes time to cook. Long story short, folks in the supply chain start over ordering attempting to raise their position in the queue, and fill demand for beer money that’s been left on the table, and then… demand suddenly drops off, that beer’s not in vogue anymore. Suddenly everyone’s cancelling orders and sitting on more product than they know what to do with. It was a very enlightening scenario, which emphasized the need for systemic thinking.
Note: I always tell clients and friends I coach about blogging and social media to keep it short, three paragraphs or so. With that in mind, I’ll break this up in to more than one post.
To be continued…