Managing products of the future – Business as usual?

“Managing products of the future” came up when I was thinking of a suitable title for a piece about products that look and feel very different to most products that we see today. Products such as driverless cars and voice assistants popped into my head as examples of products that are likely to dominate our daily lives before we know it.

However, these products are here already and I’m keen to look at if and how this does affect the role and focus of product management.

Will we manage products differently when the user interface of these products changes? Do we need to think differently about our products when data becomes the main output? Will customer needs and expectations evolve? If so, how? These and other questions I will start thinking about; considering the nature of machine learning, different product scenarios and their impact on the role of the product manager.

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It’s easy to get swept up by the hype surrounding AI and products based on machine learning, and to start feeling pretty dystopian about the future. But how much will actually change from a product management point of view? People will continue to have specific needs and problems. As product managers, we’ll continue to look at best ways of solving these problems. Granted, the nature of people’s needs and problemx will evolve, as it has always done, but this won’t alter the problem solving and people centric nature of product management.

To illustrate this, let’s look at some AI-base products and the customer needs and problems that they’re aiming to solve: Google Photos, Sonos One and Eigen Technologies.

Google Photos

Google Photos’ strap-line is “One home for all your photos – organised and easy to find”. Over the coming months, Google Photos will roll out the following features:

  • Using facial recognition, Google Photos will know who’s in a picture and will offer a one-tap option to share it with the person in question – provided that this person is in your phone’s contact list, Google Photos will have learned this person’s face. If that person appears in multiple images, Google Photos will even suggest to share all of them in one go.
  • Automated image editing suggestions, Google Photos will suggest different corrections based on the look and quality of the image. For example, if there issues with the brightness of the image, Google Photos will automatically display a “Fix brightness” suggestion.

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With these new features, Google Photos aim to address customer needs with regard to sharing pictures and improving image quality respectively. These needs aren’t new per se, but the ‘intelligent’ aspect of Google Photos’ approach is.

Sonos One

The Sonos One is entirely controlled by voice. The speaker works fully with Amazon Alexa, which means that if you’ve got an Amazon Alexa compatible device, you can control your Sonos sound system through Amazon Alexa. Because Alex is a native app within the Sonos platform, you don’t even need to have an external Amazon device – i.e. Echo or the Dot – installed to control your Sonos One speaker. The installation of the Alexa mobile app will be enough.

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The integration with the Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is a logical next step within Sonos’ mission to “empower everyone to listen better” and makes it easier for people to control the music they listen to. Granted, the user interface of Sonos One is different to other product; it doesn’t have buttons, for example. However, it still is a product like any other in a sense that it delivers tangible value to customers by solving their music listening needs.

Eigen Technologies

“Turn your documents into data” is London and New York based Eigen Technologies’ mission statement. The company enables the mining of documents for specific data. For example, if you work for a mortgage lender and are looking to make a decision about the credit worthiness of a home, Eigen’s data extraction technology helps to quickly pull out key ‘decision inputs’ from a number of – often very lengthy – property documents.

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The way in which Eigen Technologies use machine learning algorithms, is ultimately to improve the speed and quality of decision making. Even though the underlying technology is based on machine learning, the outcome is very much like that of any other product: a clear user interface which shows the relevant document data that a user is interested in and needs to make decisions.

Main learning point: AI and machine learning based products will no doubt change the ways in which we interact with products and what we expect of them. However, existing examples such as Google Photos and Sonos One already show that the core of the product manager’s role will remain unchanged: building the right product for the right people and building it right!


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Understanding more about Amazon Cloud Player and storing music in the cloud

Last week saw the UK launch of Amazon’s Cloud Player, a service enabling Amazon users to play their music stored in the cloud (through Amazon’s Cloud Drive) from any computer or Android device connected to the Internet. The service was launched in the US back in July, and now Amazon’s UK customers will be able to experience the same service. These are the main propositions that the Cloud Player is promising to offer:

  1. Your Music. Everywhere. – Seamless access to one’s music is rapidly becoming a ‘given’ when it comes to offering music services. Irrespective of the device one is using – smartphone, tablet, PC or ebook reader – users expect to be able to access music wherever, whenever. No surprise then that this is the main underlying promise of the Cloud Player: your music is available on a range of devices (e.g. Android, iPod, iPhone, Sonos, etc.) and the experience will be consistent across all of these devices and platforms.
  2. Import your music collection – Like iTunes Match and Google Play, Amazon’s Cloud Player will enable users to upload their own music collections, with Amazon matching the music on your PC to their 20m track catalogue. This means that music purchased from Amazon or iTunes or from ripped CDs will be matched against Amazon’s catalogue, upgraded (to a better audio quality where possible) and made available through the Cloud Player.
  3. Secure and easy to use – Amazon promises that for all the MP3 songs and albums users purchase or have purchased in the past will be automatically saved to Cloud Player, which means you’ll have a secure backup copy of the music you buy at Amazon. The ‘secure’ and ‘instant’ aspect are key to any service of this kind. I haven’t used the Cloud Player yet but this would be main challenges to any product or service which promises a great user experience. Is is easy to use? Does is ‘just work’?

I haven’t yet tried the Cloud Player, but reading user and expert reviews gives an interesting insight into this new service. The main thing that struck me is that users are restricted from buying songs through the Cloud Player app on Apple devices (think iPhone, iPad and Mac). This means that one can use the Cloud Player for listening and streaming on an Apple device but not for buying music. I know I’m biased (since I work for 7digital, a competitor of iTunes and Amazon Music) but this defeats the purpose of using a service that promises to work ‘everywhere’.

Main learning point: I guess the main caveat to this blog post is that, as I say, I work for a (smaller) competitor of Amazon in 7digital. At 7digital, we always try to concentrate on a consistent user experience that ‘just works’ irrespective of the device or operating system one uses. Services like Amazon Cloud Player are good solutions for anyone who wishes to ‘consolidate’ his/her music collection. I guess the main downside of using the likes of Amazon and iTunes is that they are pretty ‘vertical’ which means that their products only work totally seamlessly and as intended on their own devices and operating systems, which has bearing on the overall user experience.

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Learning about streaming, Part 2: ubiquitous streaming from the cloud

A few blog posts ago, I wrote about streaming and tried to clarify what this involves. One of the upcoming digital trends of 2011 is cloud-based streaming of music. Good examples of this new trend are Apple’s iCloud service and Amazon’s Cloud Drive, but also the likes of Spotify, Pandora and Google are now very active in this area (see overview below).

I’m sure that this field will further evolve in 2011 with existing providers solidifying this revenue stream and new providers jumping the bandwagon. These are some of the things that I have learned so far about music streaming:

  1. The service – On-demand streaming is all about delivering tracks and albums, providing users with easy access to online music across a number of platforms (web, mobile). With the cloud component, there’s also the option of user storing all their music. Apple’s iCloud for instance scans all of user’s music (including digital downloads not through iTunes) and matches it with the music catalogue in the iTunes Store and automatically stores it in iCloud.
  2. The business model – This kind service is either free (totally free or to an extent), supported by advertising or a paid-for model (with users subscribing to the service and providers offering basic and premium packages).
  3. Changed consumer behaviour? – I guess the long-term success of music streaming will very much  depend on whether consumers are happy to pay just for access to music (instead of downloading and owning the music). A recent US survey found that that more than half of respondents preferred to purchase music files online, the top way of consuming music.Only 13% of online music consumers preferred to pay for online streaming (see survey results below). Another recent survey indicated that streaming services discourages music purchasing, which is the kind behaviour that might well only apply to those converted to music streaming and access.

Main learning point: it will be interesting to see how providers of music streaming services will shape their business models to generate sustainable revenue from streaming. In terms of consumer uptake, will it be case of only select group of people willing to pay for streaming and the large majority of users to stick with free music (streaming)?

Profile of Select Cloud-Based Digital Music Services , 2011

Method of Purchasing or Listening to Music According to US Online Music Consumers, Sep 2011 (% of respondents)

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IBM buys DemandTec – What does this deal tell us?

IBM’s recent acquisition of DemandTec sits within IBM’s “Smarter Commerce” initiative. This strategy is all about enabling businesses to quickly adjust prices, promotions and other marketing efforts by analysing online and in-store buying trends. One could argue that this deal is just a takeover like many others. However, these are some of the things about this deal that sparked my interest:

  1. Big software companies are all at it – Recent weeks have seen similar deals by SAP and Oracle respectively. Like the takeover of DemandTec, the purchases of SuccessFactors (by SAP) and RightNow (by Oracle) are aimed at becoming a ‘software-as-a-service’ (SaaS) company.
  2. Software as a service (SaaS) – It sounds sexy but what does SaaS actually mean? Whereas many traditional software companies like IBM and SAP used to be about client-side servers and databases, today’s focus is shifting much more towards providing clients with web-based solutions, with users only needing an Internet browser to access the service. I started writing about this trend a while ago just because it seems quite a big strategic shift for most traditional software vendors.
  3. ‘Smarter Commerce’ sounds great but what does it mean? – I learned that Smarter Commerce is another way to phrase IBM’s intention to generate revenue out of providing businesses with cloud-based analytics products that enable them to make well-informed business decisions and to respond to customer trends in a timely and appropriate fashion. This is exactly the kind of business in which DemandTec operates.
  4. At the end of the day, it’s all about the cloud –  The aforementioned shift towards SaaS is seen as part of cloud computing which for instance means that to use the software provided by the likes of DemandTec or a user typically only needs an Internet browser and, equally significantly, the software is designed in such a way that multiple clients and users can use it for their own unique purposes.
Main learning point: the recent acquisition of DemandTec by IBM signifies an interesting strategic shift towards cloud-based ‘software as a service’ products. The kind of data analytics products which DemandTec provide are all web based, accessible through an Internet browser, and which are geared towards being applied in a wide range of user scenarios, applicable to the greatest number of customers. For software stalwarts like SAP and IBM who have a made a lot of money providing large business with customised software solutions, this seems quite a drastic change of interests. To be continued.

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First there was Niall Murphy, now there is Eric Ries

A few months ago, I went to a talk by Niall Murphy at London Business School where he talked to a large group of MBA students about “An experience & perspective from a serial startup tech entrepreneur”. Niall co-founded  The Cloud, one of the first major players in the wireless network (WiFi) market, which business was then sold for a ‘handsome sum’ to BSkyB. In his talk, Murphy described the process from “insight” (having a new business idea and turning it into a business) to “next phase / exit”. I liked how he broke this process down into some distinct stages (obviously helped by the beautiful thing that is hindsight):

  1. Insight – This is the phase where Murphy saw an an opportunity in mobile ethernet technology, when faced by the difficulty of getting Internet access in Amsterdam.
  2. Idealistic vision –  I guess it’s one thing to spot an opportunity, but how do you then assess its potential and act on it? Murphy explained his original idea of mobile Internet everywhere and then went on to stress the importance of having a vision. A vision that you must try and stick with, a set of values, an aspiration to hang onto.
  3. Wilderness and fog – Murphy took us through the ‘dark’ years; working his way through wireless technology and finding initial investment. This phase is all about finding a foothold, and developing a picture in your head of the current marketplace and the way in which it’s likely to evolve. 
  4. Clarity and catalyst opportunity – Murphy pointed out that this stage is very much an evolving process; assessing the market space and competitors, concentrating on key user scenarios, all based on your original insight.
  5. Clarity of market entry strategy and catalyst opportunity – This phase is all about creating a market entry strategy that works for your business, finding a way to ‘change the game’. In Murphy’s case this meant linking with a company that specialised in putting game computers in pubs and shops. The Cloud piggybacked on the broadband network that this company was rolling out across their game computer locations.
  6. Execution and leverage – The Cloud focused very much on so-called ‘golden events’ to create more leverage and momentum (then using their small PR machine to create leverage around these events)  as well as concentrating day-to-day business.
  7. Crisis and tough stuff – Murphy made it very clear that starting your own business is by no means a case of an upward facing curve. In the case of The Cloud, they had their fair share of internal crises, drastic business decisions and an overall fear of things falling apart.
  8. “2nd life” – They say that crises and challenges make you stronger. In the case of The Cloud, following the crisis phase, they slowed down the rate of execution, consolidated the business and thus regained their focus.
  9. Next level or exit? – Murphy explained how he had come to realise that the market in which The Cloud operated had changed. It was no longer a young market, instead it was a becoming a big, more established market. He felt that the company was at a crossroads and after careful consideration, Murphy sold The Cloud to BSkyB and became a non-executive director in June 2010.
Main learning point: Hearing someone like Niall Murphy talk through his experiences of founding and then successfully selling a startup business was insightful and inspiring at the same time. I guess what I liked particularly about Murphy’s story was the different stages he and the business went through, which he presented in an honest but exciting way. The MBA students seemed to be soaking it up and so was I.
It makes me wonder how I will feel about Eric Ries who some people regard as a ‘startup guru’ and describe as a rockstar in the startup scene. I will be going to Ries’ London book presentation tomorrow night and it looks like a lot of the great and good of young, talented UK entrepreneurs will be joining me. Will Ries’ story turn out to be as interesting and inspiring as Murphy’s? Will he be as likeable and down to earth as Murphy? Will keep you posted.