It happens all the time: when CEOs don’t know what to do, they create a strategic alliance. Alone, they’re exposed. As a group, they must be doing something right because everyone else in the herd does it too. In the early nineties, my friend Denise Caruso, a NYT columnist and editor of the Digital Media newsletter, listed over 150 such alliances.
They often amount to worse than nothing: agitation, confusion, hard-to-reconcile cultures, hidden agendas and fears of losing control of one’s destiny.
In the best of cases, the product of the announcement is the announcement, a short burst of mildly favorable publicity. I know whereof I’m speaking, I’m hereby pleading guilty to the Apple-Digital Equipment Strategic Alliance, that was in the late eighties. We know what came out of it: nothing. Luckily, once the talking heads left the stage, the engineers in both companies, in their usual fashion, disregarded executive orders and decided they had better things to do. No monstrosity was created.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. There are countless examples of companies making a huge, expensive mess of a forced attempt at harnessing groups, cultures with different agendas under a politically correct standard, in the name of a warm and fuzzy goal.
Remember AIM? Apple, IBM and Motorola, an early nineties strategic alliance. (I had no part in that one, having left Apple.) The idea was to harness the technology and people of these three companies to create a new object-oriented operating system, Pink, running on the IBM/Motorola PowerPC architecture. The whole thing was folded into a new company, Taligent — dissolved in 1998. The whole thing cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (Fortunately, in 1997, Steve Jobs masterfully crafted a “reverse acquisition” of Apple; he promptly put the NeXT software engineers in charge and we know the rest of that story.)
In our parlance, such tremulous embraces are known as clusterf#^vs. See definitions for the term here and here. The military sanitizes the word into Charlie Foxtrot, or CF, an abbreviations we’ll use going forward.
Last week’s MWC (Mobile World Conference) provided a couple of sorry instances of the C-word in the title. Sharp-tongued Valley geeks had a grand time last week, starting with the Intel-Nokia announcement.
Do your eyes glaze over when you read such BS?
“Global leaders Intel Corporation and Nokia merge Moblin and Maemo to create MeeGo*, a Linux-based software platform that will support multiple hardware architectures across the broadest range of device segments, including pocketable mobile computers, netbooks, tablets, mediaphones, connected TVs and in-vehicle infotainment systems.”
Relax, you’re normal. Who are they kidding? Themselves, most likely.
All the holy words are there: Linux (mandatory), based (to male things clearer), platform (the p-word), multiple hardware architectures (we don’t know what we’re doing so we’re covering all bases), broadest range of device (repeat the offense just committed), segments (the word adds a lot of meaning to the previous phrase), including pocketable mobile computers, netbooks, tablets, mediaphones, connected TVs and in-vehicle infotainment systems (only microprocessor-driven Toto toilets are missing from the litany).
You think I’m harsh? Read this piece from the NY Times Bits blog. The reporter, Ashlee Vance barely contains a smirk as she quotes an Renee Jame, an Intel exec:
“Android may be fantastic, but it’s quite specific,” Ms. James said. “I don’t think they are trying to solve multidevice interaction or how people will use mobile computing over the next horizon.”
Multidevice interaction, mobile computing, the next horizon? As if Google’s intent wasn’t precisely to cover that ground with Android and its sibling, Chrome OS.
And, as the piece points out, Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini, is on Google’s Board of Directors. Oops.
Here’s what’s actually taking place.
Intel is getting zero traction in what they call the MID (Mobile Internet Devices) segment, that word again. There, the ARM processors reign. As Intel very well knows, smartphones (and closely related products) are the “next PC, only bigger”. We’ll soon have 5 billion cell phones around the world. Intel is nowhere to be seen on these devices, they’re in great danger of missing the next big wave — while living very well off the current one, personal computers.
So, Intel went to work and wrote a mobile Linux version, called Moblin, running on its low-end x86 processors, in hopes of demonstrating the viability of its current or future microchips in the emerging world of MIDs. So far, no joy.
The ARM architecture yields low-power CPUs, one advantage, and is more flexible, another. You’re not tied to one hardware vendor or even to a processor model. You license the architecture (and basic designs), customize it to your heart’s content and get a “foundry”, a semi-conductor manufacturer to make it for you. For example, Samsung makes the ARM-derived processors in today’s iPhones.
Turning to Nokia. They are still the worldwide king of cell phones, but having trouble with the US market. Once upon a time, in the late nineties, Nokia’s famed 8810 was what the iPhone is today: an icon of the genre. But, today, the cell phone king’s supremacy is hotly contested by the likes of RIM, with their class-leading Blackberry, Goggle, with their Android smartphone (they like to say superphone) OS, now said to be shipping 60,000 units per day and, of course, Apple. Nokia acquired full rights to Symbian (see the June 30th, 2008 Monday Note here) and decided to make it an Open Source platform for all to enjoy. In parallel, the company declared it was staking its future on a Linux derivative, Maemo. Now, the two Linux derivatives, Moblin and Maemo are to be merged into one, MeeGo. Wikipedia defines it as “a short-lived American science-fiction sitcom”, I’m not kidding, see here.
I have a sneaking suspicion the Google guys are being cheeky again: in spite of all the fresh MWC publicity, the results page puts the “wrong” Meego at the top. You have to scroll down the page to get the “right” results. See Endgaget here.
When asked which Nokia OS is the “right one”, Symbian or Meego, the poor Nokia executive uneasily equivocated: “Symbian is the chosen platform for us for smart phones,” said Kai Oistamo, Nokia’s executive vice president for devices, in an interview. “MeeGo is about the next wave, where wireless devices will go next.”
Goo luck with the following two CF tasks: merging two OS and convincing people to keep investing in the one without a future, Symbian, while the next platform, MeeGo, is being merged. (More geeky details here.)
But, wait, there is more!
The MeeGo CF is one of modest size: it only involves two companies, managed with great authority by take-no-prisoners CEOs. Now, take a look at the WAC (Wholesale Application Community): 27 companies unite “against Apple’s insanely successful app store, currently being stuffed with tens of thousands of e-books ahead of the arrival of Apple’s iPad tablet on which to read them.”. See the VentureBeat piece here.
I must immediately make amends an apologize to our friends at Intel and Nokia. Compared to this WAC CF, MeeGo is eminently rational, streamlined and inexpensive.
Who sold this WAC thing to carriers and device manufacturers? Do the top execs know it’s utter BS? I hope so. If they don’t, it doesn’t shed a good light on their intelligence or attention.
The “idea” is to imitate Apple’s App Store and take it many steps further. Apple’s creation only works for its iPhone OS (running on the iPhone itself, the iPod Touch and, soon, the iPad). With more than 3 billion downloads and 150,000 apps in a little more than 18 months, the App Store’s success took everyone by surprise, Apple included. This is scary to carriers (“operators” in Europe), because it gives Apple the upper hand in negotiating subsidies, data plans and content sales. And it worries handset makers: how do they compete with an app-rich handset such as the iPhone.
Not to worry, said a bunch of PowerPoint and Excel jockeys, we have the solution: the universal App Store, offering all carriers and (some) handset makers a cornucopia of smartphone applications. Never mind the technical details, it’s a mere matter of software. We’ll interpose an “abstraction layer” between the universal software and the hardware or network details. (We have this today with browsers and web apps, but never mind, we need a “native but universal app store.) And never mind the diverging agendas of ferociously competitive carriers and handset makers. We’ll all have these apps! Sure. And our differentiation will be… price. Let’s race to the bottom!
Most Valley observers dismiss the whole thing as a charade, at best, or, at worst, a disaster in the making.
How does the WAC compete with, or completes Android’s Market, for example, or Nokia’s Ovi, the WACos aren’t saying.
The best comments came from the “real” players, RIM, Google, Nokia and Apple. They said strictly nothing. In public. In private they must have a good laugh.