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Summary:

Today, it is increasingly pervasive in our society to have an obsession with metrics and numbers without context. And as modern technology has started to get more complex, these metrics and other numbers have become a crutch for marketing and spin.

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Unless you are a data center geek, until recently you’ve probably never heard of P.U.E., an acronym that stands for Power Usage Effectiveness. It is a way of gauging data center efficiency, and it has become the metric-to-watch when it comes to talking about how much power a data center consumes. However, lately it has started cropping up in media reports and started to get all sorts of attention. PUE represents the “arms race” between folks who own and operate large data centers – from Google to Facebook to Microsoft. But to most of us, PUE roughly translates into bupkis.

Google’s Bill Weihl, the search giant’s energy czar (watch Bill and Yahoo’s Christina Page in conversation with me at our Green:Net conference) points out that while PUE is a good talking point, it is not an absolute number and it varies with the kind of data center, location of the data center, time of the day, with seasons and even with change in weather patterns. Those kinds of nuances, however, are getting increasingly lost in today’s world, one that is obsessed with now, one that is drowning in screaming headlines, each one elbowing the other in the ribs for a nano-second of attention.

The Crutch

The data center industry’s obsession with PUE is illustrative of a mindset that has become increasingly pervasive in our society: namely, an obsession with metrics and numbers without context, and without quite understanding what they mean for us as individuals. Not a day goes by without an app developer boasting of the number of times his app has been downloaded — but since downloads don’t translate into automatic usage, the real number worth sharing would be active daily users or some sort of an engagement metric.  As my colleague Ryan Kim said, show me some user loyalty.

As modern technology has started to get more complex, these metrics and other numbers have become a crutch for marketing and spin, especially for companies that lack a coherent vision of what they do and where they are going. Wireless companies love talking about 4G technologies, though no one knows what it really means. If 3G was good, then 4G is better, and by that yardstick, the companies can pretend to be better than the next guy.

The point is that whenever new technology comes along, marketers come up with somewhat abstract metrics and banal numbers to attract customers by inspiring awe and amazement. If it is big, it must be better.  Just as two-for-the-price-of-one and super-size-it provided a big boost for consumer goods and fast food industries, the technology industry thus far has been about speeds-and-feeds. For sometime, the CPU-oomph based marketing made sense. As PCs became super powerful and focus shifted to Internet, the Gigahertz don’t influence our computer buying decisions.

Steve Crandall, a physicist and founding partner at Omenti Research, who spent many years with Bell Labs and is a lifelong disciple of technology, points out that this is not a new phenomenon. “Engineering is the art of compromise and the bag of metrics that describe something can be very complex and non-trivial even for experts in the field,” he wrote in an email. “A non-technical consumer is often overwhelmed and given a single number or two makes it easy for them to “compare” — of course the problem is the comparisons may be meaningless for their own usage requirements.”

James Watt came up with the concept of horsepower to sell steam engines (made by Watt and Mathew Boulton) and later to sell cars. In the 1950s, transistor counts were used to push radios; in the 1960s, watts were used to sell Hi-Fi systems and with the dawn of the personal computer, Intel made a fortune selling the end-users on the notion of megahertz and gigahertz.

However, with the dawn of anywhere, anytime personal computing the focus has to shift away from these metrics and instead focus on non-quantifiable concepts such as looks, ease of use, simplicity and emotional gratification. The sneaker industry is a good teacher for many of us technology sector.

Just Kick It

Unless you are a sneaker fanatic (and there are many), you don’t care who designed your sneaker or what kind of material is used to make the shoe, or what kind of grip the sole has. Instead, what makes us buy the sneakers? Looks and branding! More often it is this notion of you can “just do it” that makes you buy a sneaker.

When you look under the hood of watches, they are just like many technology products, quite complex. Despite what my friends who are watch devotees might think, in the end watches are a piece of jewelry. It doesn’t matter if is has 21 jewels or some kind of special material – what appeals to our senses is how it looks and of course how much it costs.

The smartphones of today are no different – they are devices of self-expression. When it comes to these devices, folks who don’t obsess with feeds-and-speeds make their purchasing decisions based on questions practical and abstract. Like – how does a phone look? How easy it is to use? What apps does it have? Can I get Facebook? Can I take photos and can I get email? More importantly, is it cool enough for rest of my friends?

Whenever I see a company trying to use GigaHertz or dual core chips as a marketing message, I do know one thing – they don’t quite understand how to relate to their customers. I looked over the Apple iPhone packaging – it has no mention of the kind of chip it uses.

Just as Don Draper turned a geeky slide projector into a “time machine” of memories, Apple has turned iPhone into a device that helps you do something and in the process have moments of personal achievement and satisfaction. Fortunately, there are no numbers for that. So next time you hear PUE, just smile and think – Google and Facebook are using less energy to help us find things and connect with friends and family.

  1. I think this is really key. It doesn’t matter whether you’re building a smartphone, a web startup or even a complex bio-tech startup. It’s easy when you’re building something to take your domain expertise, which is truly an advantage, and act as if you’re pitching and selling to people who know as much about that domain as you. In reality, this is very rarely the case.

    The further we move forward with smartphones, the less I care about the processor speed. It used to be how all phones were pitched to use in adverts or in the stores. I’m glad Apple has changed that. I just want a phone that does what I want and does it well. I’ve been on Android for a while, and I am quite sure my next phone will be an iPhone. This is definitely one of the main reasons.

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    1. Joel

      That is very well put. I think in the end the processor speed, client memory and the network speed have to be in complete harmony in order to achieve ideal user experience. Since tablet or device owners don’t control the network, they have to optimize the UI/UX, software and the innards.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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      1. It’s all about achieving “complete harmony”. I’m thinking of an analogy here, if I may. I was watching the NBA playoffs many years ago when one of the analysts said that 5 great players don’t necessarily make a great team but rather 5 players playing great together. It’s all about the combination. It’s the same with tech.

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  2. And certainly neither Steve Jobs nor the media at large bothered mentioning that the iPad2 is dual-core. It never appears in their marketing materials at all. ;-) Apple wouldn’t stoop to the incorrect marketing rhetoric that two cores equals twice as fast, right?

    And GigaOm wouldn’t have an article about how it’s the iPad2 (not the pretenders to the throne) which made dual-core mainstream for the tablet.

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    1. Greg.

      Just wondering if you and I are seeing the same ads you are seeing as I am :-)

      http://www.apple.com/ipad/#ad

      No mention of the processor or anything – just focusing on what matters. And the fact that we write about these technologies is because we are a technology publication and we do care about dual cores. And we also talk about the user experience. As they say, harmony of thought ;-)

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      1. Not TOO much in the ads; you’re right that they don’t bother getting into detailed specs in their ads. Take for example the main ‘ad’ copy, which says, “Thinner. Lighter. Faster.” But they DO mention improved power. Just not in stark numbers.

        Moving on, right at the main iPad area (http://www.apple.com/ipad/) one of the top two feature-boxes states “dual-core A5 chip”. OK, so they don’t say 1Ghz, but they do say dual-core. And neither does anyone care about the label “A5″ any more than they do “1Ghz”. But it is the *exact same* rhetorical device: surely an A5 must be better than an A4 (it’s one number higher!), a chip some people may have heard of. More to my original point, though– it’s not just better, but it’s “Fast. Times Two.” (the dual-core nature is something they seemed to place at a high level of importance).

        They don’t need to mention numbers, because due to an astonishingly clever marketing department, they can get away with saying things like, “Multitasking is smoother… everything just works better.”

        …And the improved dual-core processor was mentioned heavily in the iPad2 keynote as well. As we know, the keynote is the single most important piece of marketing collateral they have. Far more important than an “ad”.

        I’m not disagreeing that they know their audience. Their audience is fine with “It just works better.” But I disagree that they don’t refer to the technology itself and its improvements. The A5. Dual-core, faster times two.

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        1. I think to an average person – everything works better is more important than dual-core. And as I said, they are talking specs to a very thin slice of the market – a very very very thin. As an iPad owner, I didn’t really care much for dual core – what I want is something that just works without too much drama and manages to make me happy as an owner of the device. For others it could be another device, but for me, when it comes to tablets, it is the iPad.

          Anyway thanks for your comments.

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  3. Speed is part of the user experience. Very important part actually.

    Quite the contrary, I don’t hear ppl ask about facebook, email and camera at the stores. Those things are standard for smartphones anyway. People still ask about megapixel, screen size, battery life etc. You can still sell a phone with metric numbers. and they weren’t just number, you can “feel” it. I was messing around with LG Optimus 2, that’s what you call a browsing experience. The time for my page to load on my own phone now feels like an eternity.

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    1. We are at the juncture where speed won’t matter as much anymore, its good enough – next!

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      1. Dan, succinctly put.

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  4. Specs improve user experience so they are a very important part, too. Plus, they future proof your device. Software can always be updated. For example if you have an iPhone 3G and still don’t want to buy a new phone, you’ll find that iOS 4.0 slows down your phone. So specs directly impact the user experience here.

    I think what you were trying to say was that specs shouldn’t be the ONLY priority, like it’s the case with many Android manufacturers. Yes, the UX should be #1 priority and everything should work flawless with whatever specs you’re using in the device when you launch it, but specs still are very important, too.

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    1. Lucian

      See my reply to the first comment. It answers your question.

      On the iPhone 3G or 4G issue — the point is that an end user doesn’t care what is inside, if it is faster chip. What matters is that the “user experience” is smooth and not slow. For that they need a newer device.

      On the iPhone 3G, there is a lot of my friends who are still using that phone and are perfectly happy with it — well as happy as one can be using AT&T network.

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  5. So the question will be:
    How will this influence me2.

    With metric it’s easy to “beat” the competition without mentioning them. Without it a product might just be perceived as a cheap copy cat.
    In other words products have to stand on their own, which hopefully will become even true for SW.

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    1. Ronald,

      What a quant idea – an original product that stands on its own merit ;-)

      As always fun to read your thoughts/comments.

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  6. One of the reasons why more people are getting Android phones these days, more than any other phones, is that Android gives people choices on their user experience. People can chose different Android phone forms- all touch screen / sliding keyboard / LTE / prepaid / Sense / Blur / or none / MilSpec / etc. etc. Not wanting to be locked into one man’s view of the world (the same man with a very dirty data center)more people are choosing their own individual user experience.

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  7. Om,
    Great way to articulate the value of “outside in” marketing !
    I do think there is a segment of the population, say some “enterprise buyers” who still look at traditional metrics to compare and decide, and hence you will still find companies trying to out-hertz one another until the broader buying behavior changes, or the cloud becomes a truly ubiquitous utility. But as a consumer (even a tech-savvy one, I daresay) the devices and services that provide the best experience and ease of use are the ones that I spend my hard-earned money on..the details under the hood are increasingly just irrelevant fine print!

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  8. “Not a day goes by without an app developer boasting of the number of times his app has been downloaded — but since downloads don’t translate into automatic usage, the real number worth sharing would be active daily users or some sort of an engagement metric.” I heartily agree, and I have a suggestion: get together with your frenemies at TechCrunch and agree that neither of you will publish any more total downloads or signups numbers – henceforth, you insist on engagement metrics. If both GigaOm and TechCrunch declared and did as much, I suspect you’d eventually bring most of the rest of tech media with you. And the world would be better for it.

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