iThoughts on the iPad

I wasn’t planning on writing another post this week, but after watching and reading all this stuff about today’s iPad announcement, I couldn’t help but have all these thoughts about the business implications of Steve Jobs’ latest creation. With most of the dust settled now, here are some of my reactions and questions:

The iPad looks really neat and I’m sure it will work really well, but I don’t think it will be a revolutionary product that will define both the PC industry and Steve Jobs’ career. Most people will not be giving up their laptop for an iPad. For one, it doesn’t look like you can’t do any serious work on it. As good as the on-screen keyboard may be, I can’t see myself writing an essay or making spreadsheets on it. It’s definitely more of a portable/media machine, but I’m not sure it has a competitive advantage there either. If I want to tweet or Facebook on the go, a smartphone will do just fine. It doesn’t do flash. I’m not sure I would watch a full length movie on it either because with a screen of less than 10″, it’s smaller than most netbooks.

That’s not to say the iPad’s completely irrelevant. It’s great for simple, portable, visuals driven tasks. There are rumors that the iPad could appear on 24 and I think it makes a lot of sense. I can easily see the iPad being used by law enforcement and firefighters to view maps of a city and respond accordingly to 911 calls. It could also be a great tool for salesmen and real estate agents to show clients pictures and demos.

If anything, the iPad will force Amazon to step up its game with the Kindle. The most promising aspect of the iPad is iBooks because it definitely looks nicer than the Kindle and it more functionality without being that much more expensive. In fact, $499 is a very reasonable price for Apple. The key here will be whether or not Apple can get the content to  compete with Amazon’s library. I don’t see how this will help newspapers though. If Apple and publishers think they can force consumers to pay for news articles, then we’ll see a quick death of both print media and the iPad.

Taking a step back and looking at the industry as a whole, I think we will quickly see all sorts of imitators and competitors pop up within the next year. They will try to undercut Apple on price and try to match its features with varying degrees of success. Most of them will fail but some may become viable alternatives (think Blackberry or Palm in smartphones). One potential competitor I’m going to keep an eye out for is Google. I think it’s only a matter of time before they come out with a competitor to the iPad. From a business standpoint it makes a lot of sense because a device like this is meant for cloud computing. Google already has the software with Android and Chrome OS. It even has the hardware experience with the Nexus One now, although a third party is more likely. If there is an announcement down the line, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Of course, my opinion may change completely when I finally see and touch an iPad in person. In fact, I can’t wait to go try it out when it arrives the Apple Store. I’m also jealous of all the TechTrekers who will obviously have plenty of great questions to ask at Apple this year.

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LSE Student Life

I thought I would follow up my post earlier in the month about school in the UK with this piece on student life. For better or worse, I think non-academic student life plays a bigger role here because of the way academics are structured.  I’m dividing it up into three categories: Extracurriculars, Athletics, and Social

Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars play a huge part of student life outside the classroom at LSE. Clubs here are called “Societies” and all official societies operate under the umbrella of the LSE Student Union (more on this later). This being LSE, the most popular societies have something to do with business (Finance Society is the largest) or culture (curiously no “American Society”). There are also a few political societies and a few odd balls like the Hummus Society. Arts here aren’t too big. I know we have a drama society, chorale, orchestra, and some dance groups, but no band or a capella groups as far as I know.

For the most part, I have to say I really like the Society system here. Yes there are a lot of redundancies (Chinese Student Scholars Association and Chinese Society?) and a lot of E-boards are definitely inflated to give more people resume fodder, but they actually get big things done. LSE Entrepreneurs, which I have chosen to get involved in, puts on a business plan competition called Pitch It! and I specifically am part of an Apprentice-style competition called EPIC. Other societies like the Investment Society and China Development Society put on their own conferences in fancy conference rooms with high profile speakers. The Finance Society regularly brings in bankers and traders from “The City” to talk about their jobs. The aforementioned Chinese Student Scholars Association has its own rec basketball league.

Of course, all this is possible thanks in large part to the ability for LSE Societies to obtain outside sponsorships. As a result, groups like the Finance Society have massive budgets into the hundreds of thousands of pounds thanks to lucrative sponsorships from big corporations and investment banks. It allows them to put on lavish events and hand out tons of freebies at Student Activities Day (although they still charge a nominal £1 dues). Some of them can even sponsor other societies! Granted, this emphasis on fundraising might help explain why the business-related Societies seem to have the largest presence, but I think overall this is a good example of the market bringing in much more resources than a measly “student activities fee” ever could. It makes the Society experience much richer than any club I’ve joined at BC.

Athletics

This is LSE we’re talking about and it is in London so athletics naturally would not be the LSE’s strong point. There definitely is no such thing as going to Alumni or Conte in your Superfan shirt on the weekend, but there is a variety of competitive and intramural sports available to everyone via the Athletics Union. Facilities are usually located a fair distance from the school and people don’t take it nearly as seriously since scholarships aren’t at stake, but teams do compete against other schools (apparently LSE and Kings even have a BC-BU-esque rivalry). In a sense it’s more like high school sports in the US with A teams and B teams (the equivalent of varsity and JV). Personally I joined the Tennis Society with the intention of playing for fun on free weekends, but right now it looks doubtful if I’ll ever hit the courts here (long story). In general, I think people join the AU more for the social aspect. LSE’s AU is notorious for its crazy parties and antics on Wednesday nights.

Social

London has one of the top social scenes of any city in the world. Since the drinking age here is 18, everyone is legal and as a result clubs and pubs are a big draw. Since those living in Central London generally have small flats, you don’t see many American style house parties. The real strange thing for me (aside from freshmen drinking in the hallways without RAs) is that most of the kids here go out during the week and stay in on weekends. For the most part, I think this would be inconceivable at BC (puts thirsty Thursday to shame), but in this context it actually makes some sense. With the way classes are structured, there’s not much written work you have to prepare each night. Moreover, most LSE classes are later in the day. Lastly, a lot of clubs have discount “student nights” during the week, which is a great incentive for cash strapped students. I for the most part have stuck to a relatively conservative American schedule, but if these British kids can do it their way, good for them.

Student Union (and The Beaver)

LSE’s equivalent of UGBC is called the LSE Student Union and when they say “Union,” they literally mean union (as in AFL-CIO union). Every student is automatically enrolled (thankfully there are no dues) and can therefore attend general meetings, participate in debates, and enjoy the “protection” of the Union. As a legitimate union, it also means it carries a lot more weight and power than UGBC. The LSE Student Union has successfully pushed for 24 hour library hours during finals and is currently working on re-sits for exams. In addition, the Union oversees the finances of other societies and operates its own cafe, shop, and bar on campus.

Overall though, I’m not too big of a fan of the Union. For one, I think it’s a little too militant in portraying things as an “us-against-them” struggle with the administration. In general, I think the people who run the political side of things are the self-important, egotistical, smooth talking type who will eventually become politicians. For example, Palestine is a big issue here (on both sides) and the SU regularly passes resolutions on Palestine. Come on people, what is this, model UN? (for PHS debaters, a bill demanding world peace suddenly seems plausible). I think their attitude turns the general student body off and it shows as attendance at the general meetings lately have reportedly been abysmal.

Lastly, I have to put in a little bit about The Beaver, the weekly student newspaper here. Again, I have to say I’m not a fan. I read it occasionally to get a feel of a side of the university I may not be exposed to otherwise, but I am disappointed by the quality of journalism. First of all, the appearance is kind of childish with way too many colors on the headings and such, although appearance is never a strong suit for UK newspapers in my opinion (I’m looking at you FT pink). The news articles are generally short with a minutes-like report of what happened. There’s no analysis or discussion of the larger picture. There are plenty of editorials though with all sorts of crazy views. Then there’s some ridiculously trashy stuff like a recount of the AU’s Wednesday night antics or a “Body of the Week” feature.  Overall, not a very polished or professional newspaper. I’ll stick with my Heights.

Google China

Update: This Week in Google had an excellent discussion on the Google-China story and I absolutely agree. The story here should really be about the security of Google’s cloud, but the company has brilliantly spun it into a PR win by turning it into a moral issue.

Last year, I wrote a paper for TechTrek examining Google’s failures in China and how it could improve its position in the search market there. I was hoping to update it this year with new information and data that has been released since then (such as the departure of rock-star executive Lee Kai Fu). Given the Google-China dispute that’s been making headlines though, it appears there may not be a Google China soon. So instead, I thought I would briefly weigh in on the situation (if you care to hear what a random college student has to say).

First of all, let’s make a few things clear: The U.S. government will not intervene. Even though the Obama administration and Google are pretty tight, the White House has been pretty reluctant to get too involved in human rights issues regarding China. Also, if Google does pull out, this will not cause some domino effect of American companies following suit. There are different factors and issues at stake for every company and they will respond according to their own positions. For most companies, they can hardly afford to lose a market like China under current economic conditions.

Now to the issue at hand. I don’t think Google will leave China, at least not permanently. I understand Google prides itself on not making decisions based purely on profit, but I think China is too big of a market to pass up even for them (but since this is Google, nothing’s ever completely out of the question). Some have tried to argue that China would not be losing much if it pulled out now. I beg to differ. It’s been reported that China earns $600 million in revenue a year for Google and that’s only with about 25% market share of the 25% of Chinese that are online  in a developing country of 1.3 billion. Speaking of market share, 20-25% may not be Google-esque domination, but it’s pretty good compared to how they’ve fared in other Asian markets. Despite its difficulties against Baidu, Google does have a strong following with white collar elites in China’s cities, and as the middle class continues to grow, that’s going to be the sweet spot for both Google and advertisers. And this doesn’t even take into account the possibilities with mobile search.

Instead, I think this whole episode is one big bluff on both sides. Google knows if it pulls out of China, that market will probably be lost to it for good, but it’s also frustrated by the wild west business climate there. China’s government wants to maintain its authority, especially over foreign firms, but it also doesn’t want to scare away direct foreign investment that it needs to keep growing. Therefore, I think what we have here is a classic standoff where each side is waiting for the other to fold. Google sent its employees home on vacation to show they’re serious. China quickly reassured the U.S. that it would not threaten diplomatic relations. Aside from that, both sides are relatively silent about their intentions and are clearly digging in for a long stalemate.

Barring a dramatic about face by the Chinese government on censorship rules, here are the outcomes I can foresee:

  • Google temporarily withdraws from China. Once the smoke from this incident blows over, they pick up where they left off. This will minimize damage to Google’s image while enabling it to maintain most of the foothold it has established in the market.
  • China makes a symbolic concession on some issue that positively affects Google. I’m not sure what this might be, but it won’t be an apology and it won’t be anything directly related to this issue (hacking, censorship). The last thing the Chinese government wants to do is to bow to an American corporation that is already seen in some circles as arrogant. This is good enough to give Google way to keep operating in China without appearing like a complete sellout. Given the fact that China doesn’t really need Google, especially when Chinese firms will most likely benefit from its departure, I think this scenario is less likely.

Of course, there is one other explanation for Google’s actions, and that involves looking at the big picture as opposed to Google China in isolation. Prior to this event, the biggest Google news stories were probably Android/Nexus One and Chrome OS. These are key products that could potentially change the direction of the company. Perhaps Google just wants to focus its attention and resources on developing these products instead of dealing with problems in China. Who knows, Android and Chrome may eventually become effective tools for penetrating the Chinese market.

As Google grows into all these areas, it also has to increasingly deal with the U.S. government, and this act of defiance may be a way to build ammunition for its run-ins with Washington, whether it’s questions about user privacy, the book scanning case, Google’s push for the FCC to enforce net neutrality, regulation of Google Voice, or anti-trust fears. The outcomes of these cases and disputes will likely affect Google’s core businesses. Maybe it’s just Google protecting home court.

Needless to say, I’m interested to see how all this will unfold.

We don’t need no education…

Hi all, it’s been a while. Winter break is coming to a close and classes will be starting soon, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do my post on the UK education system. (I’m going to focus on higher ed because I really don’t understand the primary and secondary education system. All I know is that it involves something with A-levels, O.W.L.s, and public schools that are really private schools.)

To sum it up, there are some pretty big differences and I like the American system better. Undergraduate degrees at LSE are 3 years and masters are 1. We’re technically on a trimester system with Michaelmas in the fall, Lent in the spring, and Summer in well…late spring. However, you take your finals in Summer term so it’s almost more of a semester system. One of the great benefits of this setup for study abroad students is that we get a 5 week long spring break between Lent and Summer terms plus you get several reading/review weeks before taking finals in Lent term. The downside of all this is you go 10 weeks straight with no breaks during term time and you get out later in the summer which is tricky for juniors because of internships.

Another major difference is we take four year long classes instead of the four or five per semester at BC. In addition, I’m in class about half as much as at BC. Each course typically has an hour long lecture where you listen to a professor talk for an hour and then you go to an hour long class when you go over homework, expand on concepts, and discuss issues from the week’s lecture. I’m not a big fan of this setup. Personally I’ve gotten used to the extra face time at BC to reinforce concepts and absorb knowledge in more manageable morsels. I also think the separation of lecture and discussion destroys some of the continuity you get with the instruction. The classes are taught by grad student TAs, so quality varies greatly. Professors typically aren’t the friendly, helpful types you get at BC. You’ll be lucky if you get a chance to talk to them at all. I don’t know, maybe I’ve been spoiled by BC.

I also don’t like the grading system. They fudge it a little for study abroad students, but for everyone else almost nothing matters except for the final exam. That means there is little incentive to do any work during the year and not surprisingly few people do. Then come spring break and Summer term, it’s mad cramming session that from what I understand puts Bapst cramming to shame. I don’t think this is a really effective way to learn. Most of the finals are selective types where you get a choice of questions to answer so theoretically you could ace a course without ever learning certain concepts. The incentives are really screwed up. You’d think the London School of Economics would have a better understanding of these things.

Of course, not to be completely negative, the British system does give students more independence and responsibility for their work. It also gives students more opportunities to pursue specific topics that interest them. It also gives them more time to focus on internships and extracurriculars (I’ll do another post on student life later). I also like the specialization (although they seem to love the liberal arts education) especially in contrast to the sometimes overwhelming double whammy of the A&S and CSOM cores at BC. That being said, I still prefer the American university system to the British. Now for the curious:

Course I’m taking at LSE

Corporate Finance, Investments, and Financial Markets: Third year finance class that’s half investments, half corporate finance. Pretty typical subject matter, but the investment portion at least has been more theoretical than what most American universities would offer.

Business and Economic Performance since 1945: Britain in International Context: Possibly my most interesting class at LSE. We basically look at why British economic growth has been disappointing since WWII. The school has one of the first economic history departments in the world and I have to say I’ve learned a lot, not only about British economic history but recent British history and society as well. Also I have my best professor at LSE for this class. He kind of reminds me of a British economic history version of John Gallaugher.

Organizational Theory and Behaviour: Those who have taken OB at BC will probably know the story. Interesting class on how to organize and motivate people in the workplace, but a lot of it seems really soft and subjective. Having taken AP Psych in high school, this feels a lot like psychology lite.

Structure of International Society: Your intro to international relations course. Had I planned my schedule better and not taken language courses for fun freshman and sophomore year, I may have worked this into an international studies minor, but as it is it’s purely for fun. IR is interesting especially given the diversity of viewpoints at LSE (discussion on the war in Iraq is going to be great). Again, it seems a little subjective to me with most lectures ending in “we don’t know” and too much of the subject still uses a Cold War mindset.