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Friday, April 12, 2013

Bezos’s Shout-Out for His Cloud Service

On Friday Jeff Bezos sent a mash note to the cloud.

That day Amazon published its annual report. In the accompanying letter to shareholders, the company’s founder and chief executive spends a great deal of space defending Amazon’s efforts to keep lowering prices and adding features to its products. This will, he says, win customer loyalty and repay the company over the long haul.

Not surprising stuff, for a company that has risen to dominance by all but ignoring profitability for the sake of scale. What is surprising is the amount of ink (or more properly, pixels, given that this was primarily an e-document) that Mr. Bezos gave Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing rental service.

AWS is the world’s largest public cloud, as the rental of computing, data storage and associated applications is called. Within Amazon itself, however, it is small, accounting for most of the $2.5 billion in “other” revenue Amazon made in 2012. Total revenue for the year was $61 billion.

By next year AWS, which is growing fast, may well account for more than 5 percent of company revenue, at which time it should break into its own category. In the letter, Mr. Bezos singles out the service as “a very clear example” of giving the customer more than expected:

“In 2012, AWS announced 159 new features and services,” he writes. “We’ve reduced AWS prices 27 times since launching 7 years ago, added enterprise service support enhancements, and created innovative tools to help customers be more efficient. AWS Trusted Advisor monitors customer configurations, compares them to known best practices, and then notifies customers where opportunities exist to improve performance, enhance security, or save money. Yes, we are actively telling customers they’re paying us more than they need to. In the last 90 days, customers have saved millions of dollars through Trusted Advisor, and the service is only getting started. All of this progress comes in the context of AWS being the widely recognized leader in its area â€" a situation where you might worry that external motivation could fail. On the other hand, internal motivation â€" the drive to get the customer to say “Wow” â€" keeps the pace of innovation fast.”

It is an unusual shout-out at a time when most Amazon investors don’t know, or care, much about AWS. Remember, though, that Mr. Bezos is all about the long game. Over time, top executives at AWS say, they fully expect AWS to be as big a contributor to the business as Amazon’s third-party sales.

It is not too early to get ready for that day, particularly with both Google and Microsoft increasing their own efforts in the cloud.

Test Run: What Mobile Payments Companies Can Learn From Chipotle

The lingering problem with mobile payments is that it’s usually no more convenient to pay with a phone instead of cash or credit card. Square’s wallet, for example, a feature that promises to let you pay simply by saying your name at the register of participating businesses, is clunky and has rarely worked when we have tried.

But a recent trip to a franchise of Chipotle Mexican Grill in Manhattan was a rare and shining moment where paying with a phone was frictionless and actually sped things up.

Here in New York, where good, inexpensive meals tend to be scarce, we have made it a weekly ritual to pick up lunch at either of the nearby Chipotle restaurants, where lines are so long they pop out the door. The process of ordering, choosing meat, rice and toppings, filling up a soda and paying, as well as walking to and from the restaurant, takes roughly an hour.

Lo and behold, Chipotle recently updated its smartphone app for the first time in four years, so we gave it a try. Using the app, we ordered a burrito with barbacoa, cheese, sour cream, lettuce and two kinds of salsa, and a burrito bowl, with chicken and vegetables, all three salsas, beans, guacamole and no rice. One of us (Brian) quickly created an account and entered the credit card information to pay, and the app said to pick up our order in 40 minutes. Around that time, we walked to the restaurant, skipped the long line and asked for the order the counter. Our order was brought to us in a takeout bag.

The results Everything about the order was correct. We spent 45 minutes grabbing lunch, including the wait, saving precious time. We made no compromise in how we customized our meals; in fact, before using the app we didn’t know we could order more than one kind of salsa. And we didn’t look like tech nerds because all we did was roll up to the front of the line, just like flying first class.

Compare that with the typical mobile payment experience, where you walk into a coffee shop or restaurant, order and load a bar code on the screen, and scan it to pay. Not much time is saved. Sometimes scanning the bar code doesn’t work the first time; paying with cash is faster. Nothing fundamentally changed about the experience. It’s no wonder, despite all the hype, that mobile payments haven’t taken off at all.

BBC Won’t Ban ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,’ Adopted as Anti-Thatcher Anthem

The original version of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

The BBC rejected loud calls to ban the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from its airwaves on Friday, after the apparent success of a Facebook campaign to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive former prime minister, by driving sales of the tune from the “Wizard of Oz” up the British singles chart.

In a statement, the controller of BBC Radio 1, Ben Cooper, said that while he finds “the campaign to promote the song in response to the death of Baroness Thatcher as distasteful as anyone,” the channel’s weekly review of the most popular singles could not simply “ignore a high new entry which clearly reflects the views of a big enough portion of the record buying public to propel it up the charts.”

By way of compromise, Mr. Cooper said he had decided “that we should treat the rise of the song, based as it is on a political campaign to denigrate Lady Thatcher’s memory, as a news story. So we will play a brief excerpt of it in a short news report during the show which explains to our audience why a 70-year-old song is at the top of the charts.”

While acknowledging that the broadcast could offend Mrs. Thatcher’s family and supporters, Mr. Cooper added, “To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.”

Mrs. Thatcher herself made famous use of the same metaphor in 1985, shortly after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Islamist militants, when she argued:

We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted

In a television interview on Friday, one of the organizers of the Facebook campaign, Mark Biddiss, argued that for many people buying the record was “a very cathartic experience,” even if it would also enrich the corporate owners of the rights to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack.

An interview with Mark Biddiss, one of the organizers of a Facebook campaign to buy the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Other supporters of the campaign noted with satisfaction that the lyrics to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack were written by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, an American songwriter best-known for his Depression-era classic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” Mr. Harburg, who died in 1981, was blacklisted in the 1950s for his left-wing politics.

According to his Songwriters Hall of Fame biography:

Harburg, who had been a member of several radical organizations but never officially joined the Communist Party, was named in “Red Channels.” This pamphlet, distributed to organizations involved in employing people in the entertainment industry, listed 150 people who had been involved in promoting left-wing causes. This, along with his affiliation with the Hollywood Democratic Committee, led to his blacklisting by the film industry as well as the revocation of his passport.

He was not helped by the failure of his next project with composers Sammy Fain and Fred Saidy. “Flahooley” opened on Broadway in 1951 to negative reviews. Set in a toy factory, Harburg parodied the rabid anti-communist sentiment and witch hunts that pervaded 1950s America.

While The Yip Harburg Foundation does not own the publishing rights to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, a spokeswoman confirmed on Friday that it will get a small percentage profits from the new sales.

A 1966 cover of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” performed by Barbra Streisand and Harold Arlen, who composed the music.

Asked what his father might make of the controversy, the late songwriter’s son, Ernie Harburg, said Friday that his father would have been amused by it. In a statement sent to The Lede, he wrote:

Yip Harburg, lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz” film, would have been amused that “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” rose to the top of the charts when Margaret Thatcher died. W.S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw taught Yip Harburg, democratic socialist, sworn challenger of all tyranny against the people, that “humor is an act of courage” and dissent.

Those who sang the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” in the film “The Wizard of Oz” celebrated the end of tyranny at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the East. That celebration was not in L. Frank Baum’s book. Yip’s artistic leadership put it into the film. (Yip also brought the rainbow, also not in the book, into the film.)

Yip said “Humor is the antidote to tyranny” and “Show me a place without humor and I’ll show you a disaster area.” Yip believed tyranny is caused by the policies of austerity, imperialism, theocracy and class supremacy, which deny most people human rights and economic freedom from poverty and want. A song â€" music and lyrics â€" allows singers and audiences to “feel the thought” of the lyric. “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” is a universal cry against the cruelty of tyrants and a protest against the ban on laughter at that cruelty. For the 99 percent, laughing and joy are required at the funeral of a tyrant. According to Yip, humor gives us hope in hard times.

In Britain, where Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters are still fuming at the taboo on speaking ill of the dead being flouted, the BBC’s attempt at compromise predictably inflamed partisans at both ends of the political spectrum. From the right, the editors of The Daily Mail attacked the BBC for caving to a “campaign by Left-wing agitators” by playing even a few seconds of the tune.

From the left, there were accusations that the BBC had in fact caved in to pressure from outlets like The Mail by refusing to play the whole song.

Still some conservatives, like the former member of Parliament Louise Mensch and the leader of the U.K. Independence Party Nigel Farage, agreed with the argument that banning the record would violate principles of free speech and might just prolong the argument over the song.

Others, like the political blogger who writes as Guido Fawkes, supported a late effort to drive another song, the punk anthem “I’m in Love With Margaret Thatcher,” to the top of the chart.

What makes the viral campaign to associate the real death of Mrs. Thatcher with the fictional liberation of the Munchkins from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch of the East still more complex is that “The Wizard of Oz” film was adapted from a children’s book that has been read as an allegory of late 19th-century American politics.

As Henry M. Littlefield argued in “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” an essay published in 1964, after the film version had displaced the book in the popular imagination, the original story was written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, a journalist whose fairy tale might have been inspired by debates over American monetary policy and imperialism at the time.

In the book, Mr. Littlefield observed, “Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East’s magic Silver Shoes,” which he interprets as a parable about the use of gold and silver as money. (In the film version, the shoes were made ruby instead of silver.) The Emerald City,” Mr. Littlefield suggested, “represents the national Capitol. The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, might be any president from Grant to McKinley.”

Tech Firms Push to Hire More Workers From Abroad

Tech Firms Push to Hire More Workers From Abroad

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Vishal Sankhla, center, has a temporary work visa. He said: “It’s a constant distraction. You can’t really settle down because your visa status is uncertain.”

SAN FRANCISCO â€" Vishal Sankhla, an Indian engineer, is among those at the center of a storm over how to fix the nation’s immigration system.

Scott Corley, center, of Compete America, and Rebecca Peters of American Council on International Personnel with Enrique Gonzalez of Marco Rubio’s office.

Mr. Sankhla got a master’s degree in electrical engineering nine years ago from the University of Southern California, followed by a job at Cisco, then at a start-up that attracted $4.5 million in financing from Silicon Valley investors. There was only one wrinkle: he was in the country on a temporary work visa, with no idea whether or when he would get permanent residence.

He remains in limbo, which preoccupies him almost as much as running his business. “It’s a constant distraction,” said Mr. Sankhla, who is 32. “You can’t really settle down because your visa status is uncertain.”

Silicon Valley is battling in Washington to make the immigration process easier for thousands of people like Mr. Sankhla, many of them Indian engineers, while also pushing to hire many more guest workers from abroad.

Rarely has the industry been so single-mindedly focused on a national policy issue, with executives like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and John T. Chambers of Cisco personally involved. Its efforts seem to be paying off, as a group of eight senators negotiate details of a comprehensive immigration deal to be announced early next week.

Several lobbyists and advocates who have spoken to Senate staff members say they are optimistic about at least two items high on their wish list: a fast-track green card line for math and science graduates like Mr. Sankhla, no matter which country they come from, and a near doubling of the visas for temporary workers.

“I think we are going to get a balanced outcome, which takes advantage of the value that immigrants bring to the economy and be protective of U.S. workers,” said Scott Corley, director of Compete America, an industry coalition that includes Google and Intel.

The contentious piece of this is the potential increase in temporary workers from abroad. Critics fear that is a ruse for lowering wages. Those critics are likely to get at least one boon from a revamped law: a requirement that companies try to find qualified American workers before hiring from abroad. The law may also make it more expensive to bring in guest workers.

The new immigration measure will almost certainly fix a situation that keeps people like Mr. Sankhla stuck in limbo for so long. The current law limits how many green cards can be issued to people from any single country, no matter how populous.

That effectively means that applicants from countries like India and China, with a large supply of young engineers often educated in American universities, wait far longer for permanent residence than those from almost every other country. The temporary employment visa, usually an H-1B, has become a kind of way station for them.

The Senate is considering eliminating the per-country quotas for those who graduate from United States universities with math, science and engineering degrees. The debate in Congress perfectly illustrates how immigration law, codified in 1965 and last revamped substantially in 1990, has lagged behind the demands of a rapidly changing economy. Unemployment in the technology industry hovers below 4 percent, far less than the national average.

In that climate, temporary visas are in such heavy demand that the total number available for the coming year â€" 65,000 for skilled workers and 20,000 for those with a master’s degree or higher â€" were snatched up in less than five days. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said Monday that it had received 124,000 applications in that time and had resorted to a lottery to make the final cut.

The measure being considered by lawmakers could nearly double the H-1B visas allotted yearly and possibly admit more temporary workers during periods of high demand, said several advocates who have discussed the matter with Congressional staff members and who declined to be named because the final language has not yet been released.

“If you were the human resources vice president of the United States, you would want to have a rule that says if things get busy and you need skilled people you can bring in people,” said Dan Siciliano, a law professor at Stanford. “At the same time you would want a way to bring highly skilled people in and perhaps at your choosing convert them to status that lets them stay much longer.”

A version of this article appeared in print on April 12, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Waiting and Waiting for Green Cards.

Daily Report: Digital Money Is Gaining Champions in the Real World

Silicon Valley and Wall Street are taking note of bitcoin, which has drawn prominent investors like the Winklevoss twins, Nathaniel Popper and Peter Lattman report on Friday in The New York Times.

The twins, Cameron and Tyler â€" Olympic rowers, nemeses of Mark Zuckerberg â€" are the first prominent figures in the largely anonymous bitcoin world to publicly disclose a big stake. They say they own nearly $11 million worth. Or at least $11 million as of Thursday morning, when trading was temporarily suspended after the latest and largest flash crash left a single bitcoin worth about $120 and the whole market worth $1.3 billion. At one point, the price had plummeted 60 percent.

To skeptics, the frenzy over the bitcoin network, which was created by anonymous programmers in 2009, looks more like the mania for Dutch tulip bulbs in the 1600s than the beginnings of an actual currency. “To say highly speculative would be the understatement of the century,” said Steve Hanke, a professor specializing in alternative currencies at Johns Hopkins University.

Whatever else it is, bitcoin has become the financial phenomenon of the moment. In addition to the Winklevoss twins, Silicon Valley investment firms, while not holding bitcoins, are starting to show interest in the technology. On Thursday, a group of venture capitalists, including Andreessen Horowitz, announced that it was financing a bitcoin-related company, OpenCoin.

The Winklevosses say this week’s tumult is just growing pains for a digital currency that they believe will become a sort of gold for the technorati. “People say it’s a Ponzi scheme, it’s a bubble,” said Cameron Winklevoss. “People really don’t want to take it seriously. At some point that narrative will shift to ‘virtual currencies are here to stay.’ We’re in the early days.”

While little is known about the creator of bitcoin, or whether it even was a single person, the work involved serious programming chops, building a system that could live on borrowed computer space around the world. It was determined that only a finite number of bitcoins could be created â€" the count is currently around 11 million. New coins are “mined” by programmers who solve mathematical riddles and can sell their coins on upstart exchanges.

For now, there are few places where bitcoins can be used. One marketplace is an online bazaar, Silk Road, where narcotics are reportedly the main wares for sale. But bitcoin believers imagine a future where the e-cash can be used at their local Starbucks. The Winklevosses have paid in bitcoin for the services of a Ukrainian computer programmer who has worked on their Web site.