Author Archive: John Dowdell

Adobe Culture, Geschke, 1998

In 1998, Quark sought to acquire Adobe, and the company underwent a massive reorganization. Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke sent out the following memo about what type of business culture he wanted to create. He also included “Adobe’s Core Values and Beliefs” from 1988 beneath it. I still hear these driving principles regularly discussed inside Adobe today.

This essay is already in the public record, a PDF hosted at Knowledge@Wharton, which I reformatted to HTML.

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Adobe Culture

The principles that define us as an organization

Charles M. Geschke
September, 1998

The word culture is defined as the “refinement of thought, emotion, manners, taste, etc.” I’ve written this short essay to describe Adobe’s culture and to capture some of the characteristics that should guide us as we represent this corporation. The last section of the piece is a document first published nearly ten years ago describing the core values of Adobe. I think it applies as well today as it did a decade ago.

Many fine books have been written about how organizations can grow and operate effectively. This essay makes no pretense of replacing those excellent materials, nor does it attempt to define all the principles and attributes that should underlie Adobe’s business culture. The topics discussed herein are primarily those that are most important for us to focus on today.

A business built with intellectual capital

The raw materials from which our business is formed are the inventive ideas and creative talent of our employees. Adobe’s strong financial balance sheet is not based on assets such as factories, warehouses, storefronts, or mining and mineral rights. The capital assets of our corporation are our people who are skilled in sales, marketing, engineering, and administration. Therefore, the way we behave and operate our culture directly affects the financial success of our business.

The following paragraphs discuss specific activities as well as some of business characteristics that critically affect our ability to perform well as an organization.

Meetings

The person who calls a meeting should clearly understand the necessity for convening it and be able to clearly articulate the purpose of the meeting to all those invited. Meetings generally fall into two classes: communication meetings and decision-making meetings. Meetings can easily be nonproductive when it is not clear to the convener and attendees exactly in which kind of meeting they are participating. Whenever possible, presentation materials should be distributed to attendees 24 hours before the meeting is held.

Decision-making meetings: These meetings should typically have no more than ten participants (preferably fewer). Someone should be appointed to take summary notes of the meeting and clearly record the decisions made and the follow-up actions that result from the meeting. These notes should be distributed to all attendees as soon after the meeting as possible. The convener (or a designee) is responsible for (1) communicating all decisions to those who need to know them (and did not attend), and (2) ensuring that follow-up actions are assigned to individuals and checking that those actions are completed.

Communication meetings: These meetings should be convened only when written communication cannot effectively convey the required information or when the opportunity to provide a forum for interactive communication and discussion of ideas is the primary purpose of the meeting.

As a global company, we constantly need to make and communicate decisions that involve participants from several locations around the world. Clearly, travel expenses for face-to-face meetings contribute significantly to our expense budget. But there are other hidden costs, including absence of the traveling participants from their local offices as well the negative impact on the quality of home and family life that result from extensive travel. Conveners should consider these factors carefully before deciding that face-to-face interaction is critical. We will continue to invest in infrastructure (broad-band networks, teleconferencing, etc.) to provide alternatives to face-to-face meetings.

Decisions

If we clearly define who has the authority for making a decision after gathering input, then that decision should not be reopened for consideration except in extraordinary circumstances. As an organization, we have a habit of frequently reconsidering decisions. This creates confusion and delays effective implementation of decisions that many members of the organization believe have already been made. The Pathfinder project provided a framework (the RAID matrix) for eliminating this indecisiveness. If this framework does not work, then let’s work to find an alternative. However, the habit of continuously re-evaluating decisions, makes us an inefficient organization.

Expenses

Going forward, we must adjust our spending levels to match our expectations for revenue growth. While the current economic crisis in Asia accentuates the issue, it is not the sole cause of our drop in profitability. Effective control of spending requires constant vigilance. Failure to control expenses has a direct impact on our earnings, growth, stock price, and profit sharing. Each employee has a role to pay in controlling our costs. We must apply the same careful thought to each dollar we spend from Adobe’s budget as we do to our personal finances.

Teamwork

A successful business organization must operate as a team, not as a loosely knit federation of individuals. Our corporate goal is to attract and hire the highest-quality employees. While each employee’s individual expertise and experience are critical criteria in the hiring decision, the overall effectiveness of Adobe can be maximized only when these individuals come together as a cohesive unit. This can occur only when each individual contributes to the overall objectives of the company by (1) understanding his/her role, (2) applying maximum effort to excel in performing his/her job functions, and (3) believing that each of his/her colleagues is performing at the same effort. Managers must (1) set clear direction and define each individual’s role, (2) monitor team performance, and (3) provide constructive feedback when individuals do not perform up to expected levels.

Leadership

A successful manager must first be a leader. Leadership requires communicating a compelling vision, engaging the group in pursing that vision, and providing the resources and support necessary for success. Our goal should be to hire employees who are energetic, independent, and highly motivated. A manager should focus primarily on leading and not directing. A manager should work with his/her employees to set goals and objectives, measure progress, and evaluate performance. A manager is responsible for ensuring that his/her group operates in synch with the rest of the organization. The manager is therefore responsible for communicating the group’s direction and progress both horizontally and vertically within the organization. I ran across a quote from Ralph Nader: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” This quote parallels an Adobe principle often stated but not always followed that each manager hire his/her replacement. The implication is that to succeed in management, you should mentor your employees so that they can do your job as well as you can. Effectively replacing yourself is the most direct career path to a more senior management position in the company.

Global Markets

Adobe is a global company with an expectation that the majority of its revenue comes from outside the United States. While we operate locally, we must think globally. Business decisions that make sense in one geography may be completely inappropriate in another region of the world. Each functional unit in the company must understand its relationship with these global markets and take care to keep a worldwide perspective while pursuing its specific responsibilities. The global nature of our business places an even higher premium on effective horizontal communication throughout the organization.

Trust

Without trust, teamwork and leadership are worthless. To trust someone, you must know them. I have observed an insidious habit recently where groups or individuals are criticized by others who have not taken the care to investigate the underlying facts. This behavior erodes trust, which in turn disables teamwork. Unless we improve company-wide communication to provide the necessary information upon which accurate assessments can be made, we will not be able to build the level of trust required to effectively operate our business.

Honesty

The most important virtue of Adobe’s corporate culture is honesty. The only sure-fire way to be asked to leave this organization is to knowingly fail to tell the truth.

On more than one occasion, an Adobe employee has remarked to me that our company stands out from the ordinary because its culture transcends the purely economic engines that characterize many other businesses. But, let us be perfectly clear — Adobe is a business. Maintaining a warm, supportive, caring culture is not the primary mission of this organization. To maintain the important components of our culture, we must commit to excellent, predictable financial performance. Over the past sixteen years, we have demonstrated a unique ability to achieve both goals. Although our financial performance has weakened in recent quarters, with your help and commitment, we can and will correct our course while maintaining the cultural heritage that defines Adobe.

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Adobe Core Values and Beliefs

Adobe was founded on a set of core beliefs and values. As we grow, maintaining these values is critical to our continued success. When we were a small company, it was possible to communicate these values in person. The time has come to write them down for all of us to share.

  • Thrive on innovation — invent new technologies, define new markets, and build products that dominate.

  • Treat each individual with whom you interact as you would like to be treated. This fundamental principle applies to customers, vendors, and fellow employees.

  • For our customers: Deliver the best and most innovative products. License technology fairly and impartially. Maintain total confidentiality about each customer’s business. Provide the highest possible level of service.

  • For our employees: Hire the best. Treat them well. Provide a first class environment in which to work. Offer the opportunity to participate in the ownership and economic success of the company.

  • For our shareholders: Provide a fair return through predictable growth and careful husbanding of our resources.

  • For our community: Support charitable causes and public-benefit programs. Provide a good example of progressive employment and business practices.

The following pages illustrate these core beliefs as they apply to Adobe’s customers, vendors, managers, and employees. I encourage you to discuss them with one another and give me your thoughts on how to better communicate these ideals in the future.

Customers

  • Treat the customer as you would like to be treated.

  • Make the customer an ally, not an adversary.

  • Evaluate issues from the customer’s point of view.

  • Remember: your performance may have a major impact on the survival of the customer’s business.

  • Make the customer feel that we need his or her business.

  • Thank the customer frequently for his or her business.

  • “Reserve the right to be reasonable.”

Vendors

  • Treat the vendor as you would like to be treated.

  • Make the vendor an ally, not an adversary.
  • Evaluate issues from the vendor’s point of view.
  • Do not exploit Adobe’s power to force the vendor into an untenable position.
  • Thank the vendor frequently for his or her support.

Managers

  • Treat your reports, as you would like to be treated.

  • Criticize in private; praise in public.
  • Hire people smarter than you.
  • Facilitate effective, efficient communication.
  • Decision-making meetings should be small.
  • Devote time to mentoring your employees.
  • Answer your phone in person whenever possible.
  • Keep your door and your mind open.
  • It is better to “coordinate” than to “direct.”
  • “A manager is responsible for working herself out of her job.”

Employees

  • Treat your fellow employees as you would like to be treated.

  • Remember that the major barrier to your career growth is you, not your colleagues.
  • Be a self-starter.
  • Whenever possible, work smart, not long.
  • Answer your phone in person whenever possible.
  • “At Adobe, everyone sweeps the floor.”
  • Keep your door open.
  • “People need to be reminded more frequently than informed.”

Non-standard bodies

Neil McAllister’s Infoworld article yesterday about WhatWG and how it differs from W3C is worth reading… the headline is rather linkbait-y about the markup spec, but it’s the dynamics of the “standard” groups themselves that’s most important in this essay.

The W3C reaches group decisions with a large variety of participants, and ends up producing something which works for all. The WhatWG is four browser vendors (intentionally omitting the most important one) and tends to reach decisions which benefit those members (as shown by the eventual progress of VIDEO, which in practice just let Apple protect its proprietary business model). Neil makes clear the difference better than I… worth the reading time.

You might want to skip the headline and implications about “HTML5″… markup will always progress, at the pace that consumers accept new runtime engines which agree on new functionality. HTML will work out fine. The W3C may be slower, but it includes a wider variety of viewpoints, that’s the main point.

(Addenda: Slashdot was one of the few venues to pick up on Neil’s article yesterday. The WhatWG’s acceptance of alternative viewpoints seems less open than Adobe’s community process for Flash. And a disclaimer, currently I’m a bit annoyed at apparent war by other means, complete with plausible deniability.)

Balancing diverse needs

Some heat around video features today… browser vendors’ VIDEO plans don’t include a doorlock, and rebuttal… not all content providers can afford to provide for less-capable audiences, and rebuttals.

Made me think of a quote from Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke a few years ago, at a Kendall Whitehouse interview for Knowledge@Wharton:

One of the things I talk a lot about is the necessity to juggle all of the constituencies that have an interest in the business: shareholders, customers, employees, vendors, and the communities in which we operate. Those constituencies are all mildly in conflict with one another in terms of what’s best for them. Your job as a leader in a company is to find an appropriate way to juggle those conflicting interests so everybody feels like they’re getting a fair deal, without letting any one dominate the others because they’ll drag your company down.

Sustainable technological solutions work for more people… balancing the needs of consumers, AND creators, AND investors, AND all the other diverse groups which are affected. If any constituency feels slighted or oppressed, then things won’t move forward as easily.

Asking video creators to create multiple interfaces for intentionally-hobbled devices, or telling creators that they can’t even install a lock on their front door… that’s as unfriendly as saying “use another browser” or “install this new plugin to watch” would be to consumers. Finding solutions which work for diverse groups is harder, but, in the long run, more fun.

Blends of native and global

Saw a few blogposts this week asserting “mobile apps must be native-code for each device”… went back and re-read them seeking the “why?” without much success. The most concrete reasons seemed to be that cross-platform work is “an uncanny valley between a web page and app” and remarks such as “I think 80% of our customers use only native”.

Not much of a case, and so not worth the fisking, but it did make me think about various angles to cross-platform work, about trying to get a good connection with a wide audience.

  • Is there often an “uncanny valley” when people encounter a new interface? Sure… lots of them. We’re all using devices which didn’t exist a year ago, new form-factors, new tasks, new operating systems and UI conventions. Whether one app chooses to make its UI “uncanny” to single-OS new users, or to make it “uncanny” to customers already using their app on a different device, that’s one of many such decisions best reserved to the developer and their audience. Their choice, but I think we humans have proven our flexibility by now.
  • Development costs are only the initial upfront costs. If you don’t add significant testing expenses, then your support costs will likely be higher later on. And projects incur ongoing update and maintenance costs as well. “It took only four weeks to port” describes just one small part of the project’s total cost. What will it cost for the version 2.0? the version 2.01? What will it cost to do consumer support for multiple system-level codebases? Much of the “go native” conversation out there seems to talk only about the increase in development time, but not the total costs of the entire project.
  • These “native or global” discussions are reminiscent of the mid-90s multimedia-authoring forums, where some insisted that CD-ROMs made using OS-specific tooling & runtimes, such as Microsoft Visual Basic or Apple Media Tool, would be more readily accepted by audiences than cross-platform Macromedia Director work. The evidence didn’t seem to bear this out.
  • Does localizing to OS-style UI conventions help make things friendlier for people stuck in that OS? Sure. But localizing “color” to “colour” makes things friendlier to those in the UK… localizing the interface’s colors themselves can make things friendlier for those in different cultures… every little bit helps. Not as import as optimizing for accessibility, but in similar vein.

You should do what you find best, to reach different audiences, accomplish your own goals. Watch out for people who take a long time to say that they think you should do what they chose.

VIDEO debate, cutting to the chase

Earlier this week Google’s Chrome team announced that they’d no longer be including an H.264 video decoder in their browser. I haven’t seen any updates from them responding to the massive third-party conversation following their use of the fluffy and prone-to-dispute “because it’s open” explanation.

But that massive conversation seems to hide more than it reveals — burying us all under word fatigue. Here are some simple basics:

  • The VIDEO tag was simply not well-considered at the outset. Its original rationale was: “You don’t require a plug-in to view images… video is the next natural evolution of that.” But from the very start the practical questions about use were swept under the rug… at least until the rug started piling up too high. It wasn’t sustainable.

  • The VIDEO tag serves two different constituencies: those with an “Open Web” banner who wanted to expand their own scope (lookin’ at ya, Mozilla), and those who have invested in Apple and their devices. These two groups have had different needs. The original proponents from Mozilla and Opera saw their desires for a royalty-free codec (for royalty-free tooling) hijacked by Apple fans’ needs for an H.264-baseline implementation. It wasn’t sustainable.
  • Video publishers need the VIDEO tag for one purpose only: to support Apple’s non-standard HTML browser and its denial of third-party extensibility via APPLET, OBJECT, and EMBED. [I'm copying that linked comment below, because TechCrunch's Disqus commenting system doesn't seem very web-friendly.] Flash’s popularization of H.264 meant that much video did not need to be re-worked for Apple’s standard-breaking devices, just the tagging and — significantly — the interactive and adjunctive features of anything beyond plain linear video playback. This may have been endurable, but the demand from the start was not sustainable.
  • Does Chrome’s H.264 move affect Chrome users? I don’t know of any (non-ideological, non-Apple-only) video which uses only VIDEO/H.264. The only real effect it seems to have is to blunt Apple’s campaigning by removing a nominal incentive. iPad users may be most affected, but impact on Chrome users seems minimal. Its removal does not seem unsustainable.
  • In this week when we’ve seen Arizona shootings and the easy (and incorrect) apportionment of blame, it’s quite unsettling to see how techblogs go on about the “war” and “blood feud” and other speech which is meant to incite, and earn more ad revenue. For goshsakes, consider how you’re speaking. Reflexive hatred is not sustainable.

Beyond the pettifoggery of This Week’s Blog Outrage, a simple truth remains: We humans are now witnessing a migration of video interactivity to pocket device. People all around the world, from varied economic strata, can now capture what they see and share it with others. It’s right up there with the invention of printing and the invention of the Internet. Instead of arguing about branding issues we should be thinking of how people will want to use video, how they will need to use video. This would be more sustainable. Would be more useful, and kinder, too.

Gaming notes

Over the last year I’ve been researching the growth of casual gaming in China. Last month I was able to spend time in Yunnan in the rural southwest. But the gaming I found wasn’t the gaming I had been reading about, likely because it’s hard for a guy like me to shoulder-surf a bunch of small screens. Hope these observations are still of interest though….

Most prevalent type of gaming I saw? Realworld social gaming. Streetside Mahjong, Rummy games using western cards or narrow domino cards, crowds kibitzing a Xiangqi chess game in the park. You can see this throughout China, but it seemed particularly striking this trip, perhaps because Yunnan is less economically developed than the coast. People getting together, enjoying each others’ company over a game. Massive, a part of daily life.

This was a big contrast with Internet Bars. I had seen these parlors in other cities, but got more of a chance to peer inside on this trip to Yunnan (still don’t have deep personal experience, though). These aren’t really “Internet” bars… seem more like gaming bars, with a side-course of personal video viewing. For every twenty active screens I saw, sixteen had fullscreen games, three had video, and perhaps one had text.

Dark, cocoon-like rooms… dozens or even scores of stations… frequently in neighborhoods of similar venues. I wandered to the top of a shopping mall in Kunming and saw half a dozen Internet Bars clustered together, holding hundreds of screens. Practically empty during the day, yet full at night. Each person at their own station. Isolated.

The contrast was profound. There’s a big social-gaming tradition already, and yet the new technology goes off into another direction, towards isolated experiences. I know I’m only seeing one small part of the picture, and that superficially, but it was one of the most striking impressions of this trip for me. People over 40 playing non-electronic games together in the sun, and people under 30 playing electronic games in the dark, in a crowd, but alone.

Something else unusual I saw this trip… arcades in transition. Some gaming parlors in Yunnan had 70s-style gaming consoles, big plywood affairs dedicated game to a single game. Amusement parks also held dusty older devices, mechanical games where you’d twist knobs and push levers to get something to happen. Small convenience stores still often have little Pachinko-like games. Some of the Internet Bars seemed to have particular computer games as their home screen, but this was the first time I saw the connection to the older mechanical games which preceded them. I don’t know if the same evolution appeared in urban coastal areas after the economy was opened up, but seeing the evidence of growth on the southwest frontier added new context for me.

Kids? Another surprise: yo-yos and hula-hoops. In other parts of China I’ve often seen the Diabolo, the “Chinese Yo-Yo”, a large set of twin hemispheres which could be disengaged from the string. But here it was straight Duncan sleeper work, with schoolboys doing Rock-The-Cradle and other standard tricks. Although Hula Hoops are sold in other cities, there were more in Yunnan storefronts, and I actually saw them in use too. I saw much less Tai Chi and Rope Dart and Staff, Spear or Sword, maybe because I didn’t hit the parks early-morning. But schoolkids in Yunnan were real big with Yo-Yo and Hula Hoop, very different from elsewhere. Maybe a legacy from The Fighting Tigers of World War II?

But the biggest gaming shock for me was a day-trip to Macau, a ferry ride away from Hong Kong. I last visited here five years ago, and since then it has surpassed Las Vegas as a gambling destination, opening the world’s largest casino, among dozens others. I knew all that, but wasn’t prepared for the collateral growth, the related buildings which have grown up among them. It’s like a whole new town suddenly popped up alongside the old one.

Easiest way to compare is to look at the former biggest gambling spot, the Casino Lisboa, next to its new big sister, the Grand Lisboa… that second Wikipedia link shows the two side-by-side. Directly across the street is the large Wynn Macau from 2006, while the even larger casinos are on reclaimed land in Cotai. Among these giant casinos has sprung up a whole network of smaller gambling houses and related businesses, running all the way out to the ferry landing, and then there’s the new Fisherman’s Wharf theme park to the south.

Growth hasn’t taken over the city… the backstreets of Macau are still as atmospheric as before. But this new landfill area… it just wasn’t there before. Macau has a long history of gambling, and is the easiest place to gamble from mainland China, but to see the massive changes in just five years… I was left, bug-eyed and slack-jawed, staring on the sidewalk in disbelief. Amazing.

So that’s what I’ve got. No insight into the private world of people using new computer games on handheld personal devices, but more insight into the tradition of people playing games, some concern about the Internet Bar scene and its lack of Vitamin D, and raw astonishment at the scale of the “house take” in organized gambling. No conclusions, just better context….

Device notes

Subjective high-level patterns, along with random low-level detail, about ways I saw people using various devices in Hong Kong and Yunnan last month.

Omnipresent devices: mobile phones, cameras, bigscreen TVs, cars and lesser vehicles. Before 1978 the great goals were a bicycle, a radio and a wristwatch. The children six years old today will have much greater expectations than ours… their change will accelerate even more rapidly than ours. Mobile phones will be as exciting to them as electric lights are to us.

Television: Still the big device… phones have the greater growth, but more people are affected by video experiences.

At least in mainland China, though, this still seems a constrained experience. Hotels in Yunnan offered dozens of channels, but (at least in the places I stayed this trip) were all national or regional networks. I’ve seen CNN and other global channels in Beijing and Shanghai. This trip, all CCTV, Yunnan TV, Hunan TV, etc. Much of the content seemed formulaic to me… historical dramas, soap operas, news, sports. But such content was prevalent in street stall disc sales, too.

Big wildcard here may be disc sales and Internet video. I’ve no idea of the distribution channels or content types here. This could be an important sector… many of the “Internet Bars” are used to watch video on demand, and there were many pocket televisions on sale. The overall video scene is growing beyond the broadcast channel.

Hong Kong hotel TV seemed quite a bit more open, with more foreign stations, a bit more risque late-night content (although still tame). On the other hand, street stalls along Temple Street offered a lot more adult discs than what I’d seen before.

Department stores this year uniformly carried flatscreen displays. Even three years ago it was 50/50 flatscreen and cathode-ray screens. This year the only CRTs I saw were in used-good markets.

One oddity: few gigantic environmental displays. In Beijing and Shanghai you’ll readily see multi-story external displays in certain districts. Even Chongqing in central China boasts impressive outdoor displays. I did see one four-story tall video screen in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei district, but that’s all. Still haven’t seen any giant displays with handheld interactivity.

I did see one set of touchscreens in use, in Lijiang’s main square, Sifangjie. But these weren’t always working, and when they did, the level of interactivity seemed like a Macromedia Director kiosk circa 1999.

Striking sight: Back alley in Jinghong, gated windows with clothes drying, big 72″ flatscreen showing behind. Across the alley, in the opposite gated window, a large rooster surveying his domain.

Phones: Everywhere. But these are still simple mobile phones, used mostly for voice.

China Mobile and Unicom had the biggest number of storefronts… a staggering number of storefronts, more than seemed financially plausible. They held many models, but all seemed to be similar types of featurephones, similar size of displays. Nokia shops came next, then a few Samsung.

Saw phones among all age groups. Don’t recall seeing anyone in tribal attire with a phone.

About 70% were held to the ear, about 30% held to the eyes… more texting than I’ve seen on previous trips. Looking at screens seemed disproportionately strong among under-30 females. Yelling into phones was still more common among over-40 males.

Saw a few iPhones in use in Hong Kong… some seemed authentic, some seemed inauthentic, but mostly it was hard to tell. Saw a few people using Android interfaces on their larger phones in Hong Kong too. But these were dwarfed by featurephone use.

In Yunnan many convenience stores offered landline services. Hadn’t seen that for awhile, where you go down to the local store to make a call. Feels like a transition between communal phones and personal phones.

Tablets: Striking for their scarcity. Most of what seemed to be tablets in Hong Kong stores were actually pocket televisions, in 5″ and 7″ sizes. Signage for Samsung Galaxy Tab was noticeable in Shenzhen, and many shops in Shenzhen and Hong Kong did offer tablets for sale. Only tablets I saw for sale in Yunnan were some iPads of dubious authenticity in a university shop in Kunming.

Believe I saw a small Android tablet in Kunming… just caught a glimpse of the UI, couldn’t get a make, suspect it would have been older Android. Never saw the word “Google” anywhere (nor Baidu, for that matter). People were using digital technology, but it didn’t have the same type of branding emphasis I see in San Francisco.

Computers: These aren’t the most common consumer electronics goods. Shops usually cluster together, and do offer a good selection. Most usage seem to occur indoors.

Most of the computer screens I saw in use were part of retail operations, for cash registers. In Yunnan, a large portion of the computers I saw used were in CAD storefronts, usually connected to a plotter for printing building plans… striking. Did see a few young-professional appearing folks actually working with laptops in public.

Netbooks surprised me by their popularity… maybe 30% of the total portable-computer offerings, particularly in the larger department stores.

The Internet Bars I saw usually had a Windows 7 homescreen on their displays, although many homescreens seemed to be set to particular games.

Striking sight, in Kunming: Streetside news/juice kiosks, with the proprietor using a webcam for live video communication with another vendor elsewhere… saw this a few times. Drove home how technology adoption is driven by local social networks.

Cameras: This was the sleeper item for me… didn’t expect it to be so big, probably because I saw more domestic tourists than ever before. Many had way-big cameras, zoom lenses, multiple cameras, tripods. A personal status symbol, similar to how big your automobile is?

Also saw recurring TV infomercials comparing the results of different models, how much better a photo can look with a bigger investment.

A common small business near ethnic tourist spots: photo stations, with tribal costumes, digital cameras, a computer for light editing & selection (more Microsoft Photo than Photoshop), and a printer, perhaps some digital transfer to a personal device. Some of these stations were used to play Microsoft Solitaire.

Biggest impressions: Ready adoption of technology, as it becomes available. Tablets have not yet gained popular awareness. Phones have not yet matured. Faster adoption in urban east than rural west. And people really respond to cameras….

Two markets near Hong Kong

I spent most of November in China. Here are some notes on two electronics markets near Hong Kong, the Apliu St. “Thieves Market” in Kowloon, and the HuaQiangBei electronics district just north of Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. Nothing definitive; just anecdotal.

Hong Kong has long been known for its retail consumer electronics… one of the world’s freest economies, Southeast Asia’s gateway to mainland China. Most tourists say that the better bargains are just north of Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. But a few miles further north of that, in Sham Shui Po, is the Apliu Thieves Market [map].

Like the Wikipedia entry above says, the diversity of goods on Apliu St. is astounding… all types of current tools, not just boxed consumer electronics. There were dozens of kinds of digital meters and calipers, which alone gives an idea of the range of tools. Prices are more reasonable too: I picked up an 18″ keychain (US$3), a pocket AM/FM radio for baseball (US$7), and a mini-screwdriver from Japan (US$3). If you’re buying bigger items, be prepared to bargain from the listed price, and doublecheck what you actually receive.

Mobile phones were still the big thing by far… dozens and dozens in each storefront, mostly Nokia and Motorola and Samsung and various PRC brands. I wasn’t savvy enough to evaluate the list prices, but it was easy to see that this was the major portion of many stores’ offerings. For every smartphone there were a hundred or more feature phones, at least in the street-level displays.

Smartphones were present, but in low volume. I saw a few iPhones, usually highlighted in the front window of a shop, but very few. And of those, most seemed to be in boxes with suspect printjobs. Android phones were spread throughout the displays, but usually with Android 2.1… some of these were global brands, but most Android handsets were from mainland brands which I did not recognize. Feature phones were in abundance… higher-power phones were available, but not yet popular.

Tablets were also few, at least at first. Most of the tablet form-factors were actually GPS displays or, in much greater volume, pocket televisions. (These pocket TVs seemed to use broadcast signal rather than digital storage, but I didn’t check for sure… surprising how many there were for sale.)

Later, towards the north end of Apliu Street I saw more Apple-branded and Android 1.6 or 2.1 tablets, and variants like “aPad” and more. The iPad boxes seemed poorly printed and did not really mention Apple… slogans like “This changes everything, Again” and “FaceTime”, but not what I’d expect from legit packaging.

No Samsung Galaxy Tabs, no Dell Streaks, no obvious Android 2.2 tablets. The vast majority of tablets felt like Shenzhen products. At the higher-end Apliu places tablets had a meaningful presence but still didn’t seem to be volume sellers.

I saw a lot of other wonderful items… dog-bark silencers, loudspeakers-on-belts, great hardware tooling like personal mini-torches and precision screwdriver keychains, laser globes, digital calipers… more than my mind could retain. Felt like Radio Shack during Tandy’s prime, just updated for 2010. Prices were cheap enough that I could easily have busted my luggage limits had I wished. If you’re in Hong Kong, the Sham Shui Po Metro station lets you off right in the middle of the action.

Big takeaway: People have rapidly adopted pocket devices. Phones for voice and text are already immensely popular, and pocket TVs are big. But personal screens with peer-to-peer interactivity are only just starting to arrive, and have not yet been socially adopted.

If Apliu St. had more detail than my mind could organize, then Shenzhen’s HuaQiangBei district just totally blew my mind apart. Shenzhen is immediately north of Hong Kong. Thirty years ago it was rice paddies and fishing boats, and was opened as China’s first Special Economics Region. Now it’s now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Here’s the Flickr tag for Huaqiangbei, although this blogpost may give a more coherent view of what’s happening there. See model for scale.

The Huiqiangbei electronics district is breath-taking. Fast-paced and hectic like an early-morning wholesale produce market… top-level consumer brands down to motherboards, sheets of silicon chips, grosses of plastic cases… buyers walking briskly, comparing the day’s prices, chatting up competitors, scouting for news… shopkeepers assembling handsets in volume for custom orders, snapping chips into chassis, keyboards scattered among noodle bowls… handcarts overloaded with bubblewrap and spools, hauling boxes throughout warrens of interconnected, multi-level buildings… dozens of street huskers chanting “you piao, you piao” for discount phonecards… wide range of electronic goods, sensors, recreational, GPS components, appliances, low-level mechanical parts, toys & tools.

Overwhelming fun, and more than my brain could process, more than my words could describe. The most impressive thing for me was the range of scales of goods and activities — not just finished big-ticket goods, but the entire ecology of components beneath those finished items. The sheer level of entrepreneurial vitality went beyond any electronics scene I’ve seen, anywhere else.

Detailed notes were impossible… too big an experience. Walking out of the giant SEG Electronics Market I salaamed three times in respect, and the door guards grinned, knowing what I meant. If you could chart the daily pulse of this enormous electronics market, then you’d have a good handle on the progress of technology throughout the world.

Anecdotally, I did see a startling amount of street-level signage for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which I think was just about to become available there. First iPad advertisements were a couple of blocks in. I was approached multiple times by street touts wanting to sell me “authentic” iPhones… funniest was an American tourist who was proud of his new iPad, with the Apple logo on the back of its (very purple) casing. I saw every global brand I could imagine, and many national brands I didn’t recognize. Impossible for me to estimate pricing… “advertised prices” are merely that, a starting point for negotiations.

Like the Hunts Point Market at 3am, mixed with Akihabara and Yongsan electronics districts, a little bit of Macy’s on Christmas eve, and strongly seasoned with the Homebrew Robotics Club… just plain awesome.

If you’re a gadget-head, and have a PRC visa, then ride Hong Kong’s East Rail Line to LoWu Station, cross immigration, take Shenzhen subway two stops north, transfer and go two stations east, then take Exit A. The Huaqiangbei electronics district extends to the northeast.

The Silicon Valley techblog scene can seem a bit of an insular hothouse, with many voices repeating what is fed to them through “planned leaks”. But if you want to see the vitality of street-level growth in the field, then Hong Kong’s Apliu St. market, and the Huaqiangbei district in nearby Shenzhen, will well repay a visit. Exhilarating.

Who needs war?

How does web video work? You’ve got a video file, compressed as On2 VP6 or VP8 or H.264 or whatever. You’ve got some type of interface layer, whether a standalone Real or QuickTime controller, or a Flash-based UI (OSMF, custom, etc). You’ve also got some markup in the HTML page to invoke the whole thing (OBJECT/EMBED, VIDEO). Then you’ve got any backend services, such as adaptive streaming, random access, access controls, clustering, advertising integration, analytics services, annotation layers.

Basically four parts: the compressed linear video itself, the user controls, the invoking markup, and any backend work.

Techmeme’s frothy again today about a blogpost from a firm which indexes videos hosted on a set of video sites. The followup headlines are rather dramatic, but here’s what was measured: “Our final tally included only video that can be delivered within HTML5’s ‘video’ tag. In the vast majority of cases, this means videos were encoded in H.264.”

From what that reads to me, and from checking the graph’s caption, it sounds like the core idea is “Across a range of video-hosting sites, 54% of the H.264 files which had a SWF-based UI also make some use of the VIDEO tag.” (open to correction)

If so, that’s reasonable… Apple’s devices have dominated the press the past year, and the world’s existing H.264 content would be invisible to that new audience without using the VIDEO tag. Considering the marketing pressure, it’s surprising this isn’t higher.

But some of the blogposts with takeaways like “Apple wins the Web” and “Victory in HTML5 war” just are over-the-top — particularly when they’re still confusing a codec (usually H.264 among these folks) with a presentation format (usually Flash).

There’s also still confusion between the VIDEO tag and a codec… Firefox and Opera are very popular on desktop and mobile, but their VIDEO tag does not equate to H.264.

“54 percent of Web video is now compatible with HTML5″… what could that mean? It seems more a phrase about branding than technology. Branding needs wars, technology doesn’t.

The reality is that we humans are gaining _far_ more communicational abilities with video now… screens on the desk, screens in the pocket, screens on the wall. What we choose to watch will be “out there”, available to all our screens. We expect to have a consistent personal experience with what we watch, regardless of the current device.

We’ll also need a diversity of backend services to create a consistent personal experience across screens, to connect those screens.

Finding ways to bring about sustainable ecologies in these new technologies… that’s more interesting and useful than a lot of the talk out there these days.

Different parts to “online video”… a compressed video file, the interface used to control it, the markup used to invoke it, and any backend services in use. They work together. Creating wars among them is more an exercise in branding than anything real.

… because Adobe’s about publishing

Big drama on Techmeme today… they picked up on that Dreamweaver integration with the Kaltura approach to video, which hit the news last week.

Shouldn’t be a surprise… just like Illustrator’s support for drawing in “HTML5″, Dreamweaver’s support for code-hinting the new tags, and Adobe’s announced intention for ongoing improvements in HTML tooling.

Even further back, look at how Adobe’s founders approached things (excerpts on standards, culture, reinventionfollowup). There’s a remarkable consistency here.

Adobe’s about helping communicators reach their audiences — about easing practical publishing — regardless of the particular means to do so. Print, film, video, websites, mobile apps… all share that same drive. Goes back to how Dreamweaver 1.0 focused on bringing animation & interactivity to diverse browser silos, despite “competing” with Shockwave and the nascent Flash.

Marketing campaigns may have reason to portray a “Flash vs HTML” battle, but that isn’t the way things really work. The most exciting thing right now is that entire new classes of digital connectivity are arriving in hands around the planet. There are big problems to solve here… as we’ll see at MAX next week…. ;-)