August 24th, 2013

How a giant falls

FALL FROM GRACE: In four short years, BlackBerry went from dominance to being an also-ran

IN the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dominant computing device used in corporate America was a word processor made by Wang Laboratories. The company's founder and chief executive was An Wang, a brilliant Chinese immigrant who was widely hailed as a visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist.

At Wang's peak, some 80 per cent of the top 2,000 corporations used the company's word processors, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The company's rise was so heady that Wang used to keep a chart in his desk that showed when he expected to overtake the mighty IBM -- sometime in the mid-1990s.

But then IBM created its first personal computer, and that was the beginning of the end for Wang. He and his company stubbornly clung to the notion that the main thing people wanted from their computers was word processing; even after the company realised its error -- by which time Wang had foolishly installed his son as chief executive -- it always seemed to be a step behind. By 1992, Wang Laboratories was bankrupt, done in by competitors that understood that people wanted their computers to be more than glorified typewriters.

Twenty-five years after Wang Laboratories dominated with its word processor, a Canadian company, then called Research in Motion, was the dominant player in its corner of technology: the cellphone and wireless email market. The company, of course, made the BlackBerry. It is a remarkably similar story.

In its heyday, the BlackBerry was so popular that it was nicknamed the CrackBerry. Chief technology officers loved its emphasis on security. Corporate employees loved its compact keyboard, which they mastered with their thumbs. As recently as 2009, the BlackBerry had about 22 per cent of the smartphone market.

BlackBerry’s new mobile platform and devices, unveiled by CEO Thorsten Heins in January, have not helped close the gap with rivals. AFP pic
Today, of course, the company -- which recently changed its name to BlackBerry -- is in a heap of trouble. In the most recent quarter, it announced a net loss of US$84 million (RM276 million), the latest in a string of bad financial news. In the latest quarter, its share of the global smartphone market had slid to 2.7 per cent. Its board announced last week that it was "exploring strategic options", which usually means it is putting itself on the block. Just like Wang Laboratories -- and thousands of other once-dominant companies that stubbornly clung to what they thought they were instead of what they needed to be -- the maker of the BlackBerry has become an object lesson in the vagaries of capitalism.

It is not exactly news that it was the introduction of Apple's iPhone in 2007 -- followed by smartphone competitors that used Google's Android operating system -- that turned the BlackBerry from a dominant to a marginal device. But it's a little more complicated than that.

To start with, BlackBerry's co-chief executives, Mike Lazaridis and James Balsillie, simply didn't take the iPhone seriously at first -- just as An Wang didn't take the personal computer seriously. After all, the iPhone had a touch screen that made it more difficult to write the kind of long, serious, work-related emails that BlackBerry users took for granted. The iPhone was a toy, they thought, and assumed that corporations would never let their employees use them on the job.

More than that, though, "BlackBerry had a huge installed base, and they were afraid to walk away from it", said Carolina Milanesi, a research vice-president with the Gartner Group. This is a problem that often plagues dominant companies. They are so concerned with playing defence -- protecting what they have built -- that they stand paralysed as new competitors arise with business models they can't, or won't, replicate.

As it turns out, it was true that the iPhone made emailing a more cumbersome experience. But it did everything else so much better that it didn't matter. People were willing to give up some of the ease of e-mail use for everything else iPhones provided. BlackBerry had long thought of itself as a company that provided mobile phone and wireless email service. But Apple gave consumers a sense that they could have something more. In time, the iPhone became a more secure device, and technology officers succumbed to employee desires that they support it. The toy had become a tool.

In recent years, BlackBerry has introduced phones with touch screens. It set aside US$150 million to lure developers to write apps for its phones. Its latest phone got some good reviews. But the company has been consistently one step behind its competitors. Although BlackBerry could conceivably stage a comeback, it is still not a good place to be.

Was BlackBerry's fall from grace inevitable? When you look at the history of dominant companies -- starting with General Motors -- it is easy enough to conclude, yes. There are companies that occasionally manage to reinvent themselves. They are nimble and ruthless, willing to disrupt their own business model because they can sense a threat on the horizon. But they're the exception.

Wang Laboratories is the rule. And so is BlackBerry. NYT

Joe Nocera New Straits Times Online Columnist 21 Aug 2013

It takes guts to raise children today

SUCH AN INVESTMENT: Keeping a child safe today requires superhuman efforts

CHILDREN are too expensive these days, or rather it is becoming too costly to raise them. Experts told the New Sunday Times last week that the increasing cost of childcare, education and health has contributed to lower birth rates in the country, with the fertility rate plummeting in the last four decades.

The outlook appears grim as couples choose to have fewer children or none at all.

But what looks worse is the estimated amount of money needed to raise a child from crib to college -- about half a million ringgit, and that too if the child is schooled completely in Malaysia.

Those planning to send their children abroad for tertiary education would need to be millionaires, as the figure would then spike upwards to about RM1.1 million.

It's all enough to make newlyweds with babies on their mind break out in cold sweat. Even the cloyingly sweet official photos of Prince George and his picture-perfect parents will not be able to help them stave off that churning in the gut.

Indeed, the prospect of raising a child these days is becoming increasingly daunting. And it's not just all about the money, or lack of it.

Raising children nowadays is a complicated affair. Ask any parent and they will tell you that bringing up children in these modern times is more difficult than scaling an ash- and lava-spewing mountain with a struggling yak strapped onto their backs.

Being a parent is definitely not for the feeble-spirited and faint-hearted.

For one, how do you keep your children safe, both in the real and virtual world?

It's not safe in schools, in the neighbourhood grocery store, the playground, even at home.

In moving towards zero indiscipline, school and education
authorities need to come down harder on indiscipline

Children have been abducted, viciously assaulted and murdered in the most barbarous ways imaginable. William Yau Zhen Zhong, Nurin Jazlin Jazimin, Nurul Nadirah Abdullah, Tin Song Sheng and Ang May Hong can easily be our own sons and daughters. All it takes is an opportunity, a momentary distraction, or a lapse in judgment on our parts.

In schools, student indiscipline is rife. Students have to face bullies, extortionists, gangsters and even rapists. Not too long ago, a 7-year-old girl was allegedly raped and sodomised in Kulim, Kedah, by four boys -- all just 10 and 11 years old.

One had even bragged in class that he and some friends had lured the girl into a hut and sexually assaulted her.

Students have attacked teachers and their family members and been found liable for setting fire to their schools, murder and other crimes.

Cases of mischief are experienced even in high performance schools. In one such school in Kuala Lumpur recently, a 12-year-old pupil dropped a hefty bag full of books onto the head of a classmate one floor below on purpose.

It is fortunate the victim did not die, or suffer permanent head injuries, or paralysis. The case was reported to the Federal Territory Education Department, but no action was taken against the perpetrator even though several witnesses came forward to verify details of the incident.

In moving towards zero indiscipline, school and education authorities need to come down harder on all such cases, and not try to keep them out of sight for fear of tarnishing reputations. Otherwise, how do we keep our children safe in schools?

Children are not safe even at home. How can parents keep their children safe from something they themselves do not comprehend -- the intricacies of the Internet? Social media and mobile apps available make it possible for children to be exposed to things they ought not to.

Children are sharing information and their photos online without being aware of the potentially grave impact of their actions.

Besides the threat from cyber-bullies, there is also that from paedophiles and others with ill intentions. And then, there is the possibility of children stumbling upon pornographic websites, violent or unsuitable videos and online articles while surfing.

At the same time, childcare in this country continues to be a game of chance. The prospect for a good and trained domestic helper remains dismal for now.

The outlook is similarly grim for those hoping to rely on childcare centres. Many are unregistered and a number of horrific incidents have occurred at such centres, especially in the past two years.

So yes, it is not just costly to have children, but a major challenge to raise them these days.

Thus, those who are not inclined or interested should not be pressured by well-meaning relatives to make babies in order that they conform to societal norms.

For choosing to have fewer children, or none at all, they should instead be lauded for playing their part towards easing the population explosion.

Chok Suat Ling New Sunday Times editor. New Straits Times Online Columnist 22 Aug 2013

Vital for all to be science-literate

BOLD POLICY RESOLVE: 'Science Literacy for All Malaysians' key to developed nation status

RELIGIONS make pronouncements of the coming of Doomsday. Science makes predictions of the end of the world. Asteroid strikes, solar flares, earthquakes, volcanoes, supernovae, collapse of the food chain, global nuclear war, genetic mutation, ionised plasma, apocalypse from outer space or man-wrought catastrophes could,   individually or collectively, cause the extinction of mankind or of the world as we know it.

Efforts to understand the universe and man's role in it must go beyond the seers, soothsayers, diviners, prognosticators or omen-interpreters. Evolution, creation, space-time and existence must be seen not just in terms of personal mortality, but also in terms of the species and Earth itself.

While the events of doomsday may come tomorrow, people have to get on with the challenges of daily living now/today. People have to make sense of the contemporary world and of personal existence and demise, of national existence, civil strife and failed states. To understand the wars of the ignorant as well as the ultimate end of the species, there has to be scientific knowledge acquired and mastered by all.

Education is never complete. To acquire good education means to go beyond basic literacies. The ideas of basic, intermediate and advanced literacies have not been examined in terms of types and levels of literacies. Education is not just about educational provisions by state or communities. There is much more to education. The learner must seek education as the learner seeks the truth.

The leaders of tomorrow are educated by the universities of the world in every nation. Last month, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), for instance, enrolled new students in undergraduate programmes.

Of the 7,000 students in the distance education programme, more than 2,772 are science students who will learn Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.

Through its various continuing initiatives, USM has become the leader in the education of human beings with the best of existing knowledge. The provisions of higher education in the sciences and professions are in the universal traditions of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Imperial College, Moscow and Beijing universities.

The contents of scientific knowledge and thought processes are more than the science subjects offered by schools and universities. In fact, a large corpus of social sciences' knowledge as well as the knowledge of the arts constitute scientific thought, creativity and imagination. The curriculum in existence in schools and universities has not captured the essential body of knowledge known to man. The curriculum then, especially those identified by professional bodies, is fragmented and strong in the silos of professional areas, but weak in multidisciplinary, multicivilisational and geoscopic contents.

Like education for all, religion for all, right values for all, thinking for all, history for all, science must be for all. Science should liberate trapped minds and, at the same time, not be trapped by scientific fallacy and unbridled fiction.

There is no clear evidence, not just in schools but also in the wider society of systematic, integrated and national agenda, with established programmes, to ensure that every Malaysian has the highest level of science literacy.

As Malaysia aspires to become an advanced society, it has to develop ecology of scientific and technological culture, including the popular culture of science. Scientific imagination and reality can be fostered side by side with religious faiths and beliefs.

Science allows for toleration of blasphemy and the raising of questions that allows minds to seek answers which are not yet found, regarding the universe, matter and energy, time-space and existence, of time long before written history, of the world of Adam and Eve and the time long after the immediate foreseeable future

Of the many inspiring initiatives in the world in education, one stands out boldly -- Science For All Americans (SFAA). Project 2061 was founded in 1985 when Halley's Comet passed by Earth. Symbolically, 2061 will be the year when the comet returns. The Project noted that: "The terms and circumstance of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human lifespan. Science, Mathematics and Technology will be at the centre of that change -- causing it, shaping it, responding to it. They will, therefore, be essential to the education of today's children for tomorrow's world."

Adult Science Literacy for all Malaysian is a critical agenda if Malaysia is really determined to become a developed nation. Adult science literacy is possible as Malaysia has been successful in implementation of many other kinds of literacy initiatives. SFAM is a matter of critical necessity. There must be bold resolve to do more than possible for the present and future generations.

Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid is a deputy vice-chancellor, INTI Laureate International University. New Straits Times Online Columnist 23 Aug 2013