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Quartz: Interesting… and uncertain

mobile internet, online publishing By September 30, 2012 Tags: 18 Comments


Atlantic’s new digital venture named Quartz is aimed at global business people. It innovates in many radical ways, but its business model remains dicey.

Two years ago, Atlantic Media’s president Justin Smith was interviewed by the New York Times. The piece focused on the digital strategy he successfully executed:

“We imagined ourselves as a Silicon Valley venture-backed startup whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic. In essence, we brainstormed the question: What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?”

In most media companies, that kind of statement would have launched a volley of rotten tomatoes. Atlantic’s disruptive strategy gave birth to a new offspring: Quartz (URL:, launched a couple of weeks ago.

Quartz is a fairly light operation based in New York and headed by Kevin Delaney, a former managing editor at the Its staff of 25 was pulled together from great brands in business journalism: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the New York Times. According to the site’s official introduction, this is a team with a record of reporting in 119 countries and speaking 19 languages. Not exactly your regular gang of digital serfs or unpaid contributors that most digital pure players are built on.

This professional maturity, along with the backing of the Atlantic Media Company, a 155 years-old organization, might explain the set of rather radical options that makes Quartz so interesting.

Here are a few:

Priority on mobile use. Quartz is the first of its kind to deliberately reverse the old hierarchy: first, traditional web (for PC), and mobile interfaces, second. This is becoming a big digital publishing debate as many of us strongly believe we should go for mobile first and design our services accordingly (I fall in that category).

Quartz founders mentioned market research showing their main target — people on the road interested in global economy — uses 4.21 mobiles devices on average (I love those decimals…): one laptop, one iPad, and two (!) Blackberrys. (Based on multiple observations, I’d rather say, one BB and one iPhone.)

No native mobile app. Similarly, Quartz went for an open HTML5 design instead of apps. We went through this before in the Monday Note. Apps are mandatory for CPU intensive features such as heavy graphics, 3D rendering and games. For news, HTML5 — as messy as it is — does the job just fine. In addition, Quartz relies on “responsive design”, one that allows a web site to dynamically morph in response to the specific connected device (captures are not to scale):

Here is how it looks on a desktop screen:

… on an iPad in landscape mode:


…on an iPad in portrait mode:

on a small tablet:

..on an iPhone:

and on a small phone:

(I used Matt Kerlsey Responsive Design Test Site to capture Quartz renderings, it’s an excellent tool to see how your site will look like on various devices).

A river-like visual structure. Quartz is an endless flow of stories that automatically load one below the other as you scroll down. The layout is therefore pretty straightforward: no page-jumps, no complicated navigational tools, just a lateral column with the latest headlines and the main windows where articles concatenate. Again, the priority given to mobile use dictates design purity.

A lightweight technical setup. Quartz does not rely on a complex Content Management System for its production but on WordPress. In doing so, it shows the level of sophistication reached by what started as a simple blog platform. Undoubtedly, the Quartz design team invested significant resources in finding the best WP developers, and the result speaks for itself (despite a few bugs, sure to be short-lived…).

Editorial choices. Instead of the traditional news “beats” (national, foreign, economy, science…), Quartz went boldly for what it calls “obsessions”. This triggered a heated debate among media pundits: among others, read C.W. Anderson piece What happens when news organizations move from “beats” to “obsessions”? on the Nieman Journalism Lab.  Admittedly, the notion of “beats” sounds a bit old-fashioned. Those who have managed newsrooms know beats encourages fiefdoms, fence-building and bureaucracy… Editors love them because they’re much simpler to manage on a day-to-day basis; editorial meetings can therefore be conducted on the basis of a rigid organizational chart; it’s much easier to deal with a beat reporter or his/her desk chief than with some fuzzy “obsession” leader. At Quartz, current “Obsessions” appear in a discreet toolbar. They includes China Slowdown, The Next Crisis, Modern States, Digital, Money, Consumer Class, Startups, etc.

To me, this “obsessive” way of approaching news is way more modern than the traditional “beat” mode. First, it conveys the notion of adjustability to news cycles as “obsessions” can — should — vary. Second, it breeds creativity and transversal treatments among writers (most business publications are quite boring precisely due to their “silo culture”.) Third, digital journalism is intrinsically prone to “obsession”, i.e. strong choices, angles, decisions. For sure, facts are sacred, but they are everywhere: when reporting about the last alarming report from the World Bank, there is no need to repeat what lies just one click away — just sum up the main facts, and link back to the original source! Still, this shouldn’t preclude balanced treatment, fairness and everything in the basic ethics formulary. (Having said that, let’s be realistic: managing a news flow through “obsessions” is fine for  an editorial staff of 20, certainly not so for hundreds of writers.)

Quartz business side. Quartz is a free publication. No paywall, no subscription, nothing. Very few ads either. Again, it opted for a decisive model by getting rid of the dumb banner. And it’s a good thing: traditional display advertising kills designs, crappy targeting practices irritate readers and bring less and less money. (Most news sites are now down to single digital digits in CPM [Cost Per Thousand page views], and it will get worse as ad exchanges keep gaining power, buying remnant inventories by the bulk and reselling those for nothing.) Instead, Quartz started with four sponsors:  Chevron, Boeing, Credit Suisse and Cadillac, all showing quality brand contents. It’s obviously too early to assess this strategy. But Quartz business people opted for being extremely selective in their choice of sponsors (one car-maker, one bank, etc.), with rates negotiated accordingly.

Two, brands are displayed prominently with embedded contents instead of usual formats. Quartz is obviously shooting for very high CPMs. At the very least, they are right to try. I recently meet a European newspaper that extracts €60 to €100 CPMs by tailoring ads and making special ads placements for a small list of advertisers.

Again: such strategy is fine for a relatively small operation: as it is now, Quartz should not burn more than $3-4M a year. Betting on high CPMs is way more difficult for large websites — but niches can be extremely profitable. (For more on Quartz economics, read Ken Doctor’s piece also on Nieman.)

To sum up, three elements will be key to Quartz’ success. 

1 . Quickly build a large audience. Selected advertisers are not philanthropists; they want eyeballs, too. Because of its editorial choices, Quartz will never attract HuffPo-like audiences. To put things in perspective, the Economist gets about 7M uniques browsers a month (much less unique visitors) and has 632,000 readers on its app.

2 . Quartz bets on foreign audiences (already 60% of the total). Fine. But doing so is extremely challenging. Take The Guardian: 60 million uniques visitors per month — one third in the UK, another in the US, and the rest abroad — a formidable journalistic firepower, and a mere £40m in revenue (versus $160m in advertising alone for the with half of the Guardian’s audience, that’s a 5 to 1 ratio per reader.)

3 . Practically, it means Quartz will have to deploy the most advanced techniques to qualify its audience: it will be doomed if it is unable to tell its advertisers (more than four we hope) it can identify a cluster of readers traveling to Dubai more than twice a year, or another high income group living in London and primarily interested in luxury goods and services (see a previous Monday Note on extracting reader’s value through Big Data)

4 . In the end, Quartz is likely to face a growth question: staying in a niche or broadening its reach (and its content, and increasing its staff) to satisfy the ad market. Once its audience levels off, it might have no other choice than finding a way to make its readers pay. It should not be a problem as it focuses on a rather solvent segment.


Google’s Amazing “Surveywall”

advertising By September 9, 2012 Tags: , , 8 Comments


How Google could reshape online market research and also reinvent micro-payments. 

Eighteen months ago — under non disclosure — Google showed publishers a new transaction system for inexpensive products such as newspaper articles. It worked like this: to gain access to a web site, the user is asked to participate to a short consumer research session. A single question, a set of images leading to a quick choice. Here are examples Google recently made public when launching its Google Consumer Surveys:

Fast, simple and efficient. As long as the question is concise and sharp, it can be anything: pure market research for a packaging or product feature, surveying a specific behavior,  evaluating a service, intention, expectation, you name it.

This caused me to wonder how such a research system could impact digital publishing and how it could benefit web sites.

We’ll start with the big winner: Google, obviously. The giant wins on every side. First, Google’s size and capillarity puts it in a unique position to probe millions of people in a short period of time. Indeed, the more marketeers rely on its system, the more Google gains in reliability, accuracy, granularity (i.e. ability to probe a segment of blue collar-pet owners in Michigan or urbanite coffee-drinkers in London).The bigger it gets, the better it performs. In the process, Google disrupts the market research sector with its customary deflationary hammer. By playing on volumes, automation (no more phone banks), algorithms (as opposed to panels), the search engine is able to drastically cut prices. By 90% compared to  traditional surveys, says Google. Expect $150 for 1500 responses drawn from the general US internet population. Targeting a specific group can cost five times as much.

Second upside for Google: it gets a bird’s eye on all possible subjects of consumer researches. Aggregated, anonymized, recompiled, sliced in every possible way, these multiple datasets further deepen Google’s knowledge of consumers — which is nice for a company that sells advertising. By the way, Google gets paid for research it then aggregates into its own data vault. Each answer collected contributes a smallish amount of revenue; it will be a long while, if ever, before such activity shows in Google’s quarterly results — but the value is not there, it resides in the data the company gets to accumulate.

The marketeers’ food chain should be happy. With the notable exception of those who make a living selling surveys, every company, business unit or department in charge of a product line or a set of services will be able to throw a poll quickly, efficiently and cheaply. Of course, legacy pollsters will argue Google Consumer Surveys are crude, inaccurate. They will be right. For now. Over time the system will refine itself, and Google will have put  a big lock on another market.

What’s in Google’s Consumer Surveys for publishers whose sites will host a surveywall? In theory, the mechanism finally solves the old quest for tiny, friction-free transactions: replace the paid-for zone with a survey-zone through which access is granted after answering a quick question. Needless to say, it can’t be recommended for all sites. We can’t reasonably expect a general news site, not to mention a business news one, to adopt such a scheme. It would immediately irritate the users and somehow taint the content.

But a young audience should be more inclined to accept such a surveywall. Younger surfers will always resist any form of payment for digital information, regardless of quality, usefulness, relevance. Free is the norm. Or its illusion. Young people have already demonstrated their willingness to give up their privacy in exchange for free services such as Facebook — they have yet to realize they paid the hard price, but that’s another subject.
On the contrary, a surveywall would be at least more straightforward, more honest: users gives a split second of their time by clicking on an image or checking a box to access the service (whether it is an article, a video or a specific zone.) The system could even be experienced as fun as long as the question is cleverly put.
Economically, having one survey popping up from time to time — for instance when the user reconnects to a site — makes sense. Viewed from a spreadsheet (I ran simulations with specific sites and varying parameters), it could yield more money than the cheap ads currently in use. This, of course, assumes broad deployment by Google with thousands of market research sessions running at the same time.

A question crosses my mind : how come Facebook didn’t invented the surveywall?





Apple Ads Only Samsung Could Love

advertising By September 9, 2012 Tags: 8 Comments

Over the years, Apple has produced a number of memorable TV commercials. The “1984” Super Bowl spot, with its dystopian noir and portrayal of Big Blue as Big Brother, is arguably the most celebrated commercial ever made. This bit of sixty-second cinema by Ridley Scott (now Sir Ridley) — director of epoch-making films such as The Duellists, Alien, and, my favorite, Blade Runner — was, and still is, mesmerizing. After the ad was screened for the first time at Apple’s Fall 1983 Sales Meeting in Honolulu the crowd sat in stunned silence… for about three seconds.

When Steve Jobs rebooted Apple in 1997, he needed a rallying cry…and he found one that still resonates: Think Different. Richard Dreyfuss narrated the campaign’s “The Crazy Ones” commercial, but there’s another, never-aired version voiced by Jobs that still moves me to tears. (Last year, on the occasion of Jobs’ demise, AdWeek edited the famous commercial and spliced in a smiling picture of the young Steve at the ending, right after the image of the child opening her eyes… )

Then there’s the long and well-loved “I’m A Mac, You’re a PC” series, featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long (the link gives you access to all 66 TV spots of this historic campaign). It’s more than good fun, it’s a great, lasting example of a classic (a polite way of saying apparently “unoriginal”) strategy: Us vs. Them. The ads are brilliant, consistent, cleanly executed with simple, unencumbered visuals and a sly, understated humor. A joy.

Occasionally, Apple’s sense-of-commercial misses the mark, such as in this PowerMac G4 dud that features tanks and a US Army sergeant voice-over. But the missteps have been few; Apple advertising is typically well thought out and well done. Good ideas, near flawless execution.

That brings us to today. Over the past few months, Apple has put out a series of commercials that fall into two categories: a good idea poorly executed, and the great execution of a troubling concept.

First, we have the “Genius” ads. The Apple Store Geniuses provide, undoubtedly, the best tech support in the industry, leading the company’s products to top scores in customer satisfaction surveys. An ad campaign that promotes this advantage while poking subtle fun at the immodesty of the “Genius” designation should have been a straight shot. The idea lends itself to a series of humorous vignettes that end with a relieved customer, a show back on the road, a CEO in distress saved from embarrassment, and so on.

But in practice, as you can see for yourself here, here, and here, the ads fail. The worthy idea is ruined by stories that feel forced and overly cute, the message falls far short of the clarity we expect from Apple’s marketing campaigns… and they’re just not funny. Even the production seems cheap and hurried, right down to continuity problems: A sleeping Genius, garbed in his official blue t-shirt, is roused by a panicked knock on the door and appears a split-second later… with his badge-cum-business card holder now draped around his neck.

The ads were widely panned and, soon, mercifully yanked.

In the more troublesome category, we have the Siri commercials featuring celebrities Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, John Malkovich, and Martin Scorsese. They’re smart and well-produced, they’re flatteringly imitable — and Samsung must love them.


Because they’re pernicious: They dilute the focus, they detract from Apple products’ own well-deserved and well-earned celebrity.

As a comparison and a template, regard the series of Louis Vuitton ads produced by the great photographer Annie Leibovitz. What, or rather, who do you see? Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Michael Gorbachev, Roger Federer, Keith Richards, Muhammad Ali…

… with a Louis Vuitton bag.

The message is cynical but clear: Our bag is no better than a Gucci or an Hermès, but if you sport our logo, you’ll have something in common with iconic athletes, artists, intellectuals… You, too, can be like Mikhail Gorbachev or Michael Phelps… if only in our accoutrements. (The Annie Leibovitz campaign is pompously called “Core Values” — or, given the roster of subjects, is this unconscious honesty?).

This is an exceedingly well-thought out and executed plan; Louis Vuitton is an astute, superbly managed company, at the top of its game. But what does it say about the iPhone if Apple feels it has to use Louis Vuitton-like tactics to entice consumers?

Until the Siri celebrity campaign, Apple products had always been the focus of Apple marketing. The product is the hero, the ad extolls what it does and how it does it. The recourse to celebrity endorsement sends a new message: The product isn’t strong enough, it needs the propinquity of the famous. And that message becomes even more dangerous because the ads are so slick, so well executed. (The Scorsese ad even includes a sweet visual joke that refers to the director’s 1976 Taxi Driver movie. A nice touch…but it has nothing to do with Apple.)

That’s why Samsung must have an extra reason to smile when they see Ms. Deschanel dance in her pajamas, and that’s why these ads should be yanked and why the celebrity strategy — a first for Apple if memory serves — should be reconsidered.

And, then, at the risk of piling on, there is the product being promoted: Siri.

Doubtless, it works for some people, but how many?

How many give up after a few tries?

I recently asked an Apple insider that very question. The individual thought a moment but couldn’t recall seeing a Siri-using colleague.

There is a difference between a beta product such as a spreadsheet exhibiting annoying but reasonably well-defined bugs — and a beta like Siri that “kind of works” and discourages some users while pleasing others.

I have no doubt Apple has thought out ambitious long term plans for Siri, plans that might unfold in time and make Siri as universally and reliably usable as a other iPhone functions and apps. But, for the time being, besides their feeble Vuitton-like recourse to celebrities, the slick Siri ads could be perceived as misleading. Another reason to shelve them.

As for the Genius campaign: Fire the ad agency, but keep the concept. Press the reset button, keep the message, rewrite the ads. The idea has potential for a series of effective and fun ads.


Why newspapers must raise their price

newspapers By September 2, 2012 24 Comments

For quite a while, I’ve been advocating a newspapers price hike. My take: the news market is undergoing an irreversible split. On one side, digital distribution (on web, mobile and tablets) will thrive through higher volumes and deeper penetration; revenue is not easy to squeeze out of digital subscribers and advertisers but, as some consolation, serving one or ten million customers costs about the same.

On the other side, print is built on a different equation: gaining audience is costly; every additional reader comes with tangible industrial costs (printing, shipping, home delivery). Having said that, each print reader carries a much better ARPU than its online counterpart (bet on a 5 to 15 times higher yield, depending on the product). And, for a long time, there will be a significant share of the audience that will favor the print version, regardless of  price (almost). Those are super loyal and super solvent readers.

Last week, my little solo tune about price hikes received independent support of people much better equipped to define prices and value. Global marketing consultants Simon-Kucher & Partners released conclusions from an in-depth study of newspaper price evolution and its impact on circulation (PDF summary here). The headline: “Calling all newspapers: A premium model is your best hope”, which the authors, Andre Weber and Kyle Poyar, sum up thusly:

Newspapers are in an unenviable, but not uncommon position: raising print prices may shrink their already anemic readership base, but may also be their best hope for staying afloat.

Headquartered in Germany, with 23 branches across the world, Simon-Kucher specializes in marketing, sales and pricing strategies. They rely on thorough analysis and models to help their clients value a wide range of products and services. For this study, they surveyed the 25 largest US newspapers (ABC’s listing here). Before that, they’d worked on quality newspapers in the UK. Their findings:

— When technological disruption causes an irrevocable market decline, “it’s almost prudent to raise prices”. To support their claim, SKP mentions AOL which, at a critical point of its existence, raised its rates and generated large amounts of cash. This helped the online service finance major shifts in its business. To the contrary, Kodak continuously lowered the price of its film products, found itself unable to invest in a digital turnaround and finally went bankrupt.

— There is no elasticity in newspaper prices. In other words, a significant price hike won’t necessarily translate into a material drop in circulation. But the extra money raised in the process will provide welcomed help for investments in digital technologies.

— Raising prices discourages price wars. Many sectors are engaged in a downward spiral that doesn’t always translate into higher volume, but guarantees weaker revenues.

They conclude:

The print business is not your legacy, it’s your bank.

For publishing companies with struggling print divisions, SKP’s shibboleth might appear a bit overstated but it still contains valuable truths.

Let’s come back to the price elasticity issue. It’s an endless debate within publishing houses. Fact is there is none. For the US market, here are the effects of specific price hikes on circulation revenues:


…In an earlier UK market study, SKP looked at the consequences of price increases between 2007 and 2010 for these quality papers:

                Price        Variation in     Variation in 
                Increase     Circ. volume     Circ. revenue
 The Times        +54%         -24%             +16.7%
 The Guardian     +43%         -19%             +15.8%
 The Independent  +43%         -21%             +13%
 The Telegraph    +43%         -25%             +7%

When I spoke with Andre Weber and Kyle Poyar, the authors of the study, they were reluctant to evaluate which part of the circulation drop was attributable to the natural erosion of print, and which part was linked to the price hike. Also, they were careful not to venture into the consequences of the drop in circulation on advertising (as ad rates are tied to the circulation.)

However, they didn’t dispute that the bulk of the drop in circulation was linked to the erosion of print caused by the shift to digital. If there is any remaining doubt, watch this chart compiled the Pew Research Center:

With the left scale showing the percentage drop (!), the plunge is obvious, even though a change in the counting system by the Audit Bureau of Circulation embellishes the situation a bit.

The price equation for print newspapers can be summed-up as follows:

#1 Price hikes –both for street price and subscriptions– only marginally impact circulation already devastated by the conversion to digital.

#2 Additional revenue coming from price hikes far outpaces the loss in circulation (which will occur anyway). Ten or twenty years ago, US newspapers drew most of their revenue (70%-sometimes 80%) from advertising. Now the revenue structure is more balanced. The NY Times, for instance, evolves into an evenly split revenue structure, as shown in its Q2 2012 financial statement:

#3 There is room for further price increases. When asked about the threshold that could trigger a serious loss in readership, Andre Weber and Kyle Poyar opine that the least loyal customers are already gone, and that we have not yet reached the critical threshold that will discourage the remaining base of loyal readers.

#4 Advertising is indeed an issue, but again, its decline will occur regardless of circulation strategies. The main reason (other than difficult economic conditions): the adjustment between time spent and advertising expenditures on print that will inevitably affect print ads.

(source: Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet, KPCB)

#5 High prices on print versions will help maintain decent prices for digital paid-for contents, through subscriptions, paywalls, etc. As Weber and Poyar point out, for a publisher, the quality of print and digital products must remain connected, the two must work together (even though digital subscriptions will always be substantially lower than print.)

#6  When it comes to pricing strategies, quality rules the game. Simon-Kucher’s conclusions applies for high-end products. The New York Times, The Guardian, or The Sydney Morning Herald won’t have problems raising their prices by substantial amounts. But for tabloids or low end regional papers filled with cheap contents and newswire fodder, it’ll be another story.

#7 Pricing issues can’t be insulated from distribution.  In many countries, publishers of national dailies should consider refocusing their distribution map down to major cities only. The move would save shipping costs without too much of an impact on the advertising side as the solvent readership — the one dearly loved by advertisers — is mostly urban.



Apple Never Invented Anything

design, hardware By September 2, 2012 Tags: 111 Comments

Monsieur Voiture, you hopeless [redacted French slur], you still can’t prepare a proper mayonnaise! I’ll show you one last time while standing on one foot…”

[Bear with me, the connection with today’s title will become apparent in a moment.]

The year is 1965, I’m midway through a series of strange jobs that I take between dropping out of college and joining HP in 1968 — my “psychosocial moratorium”, in California-speak. This one approaches normal: I’m a waiter in a Paris restaurant on rue Galande, not far from Notre-Dame.

Every day, before service starts, it’s my job to make vinaigrette, remoulade, and mayonnaise, condiments for the hors d’oeuvres (French for appetizers) I’ll wheel around on a little cart — hence the Monsieur Voiture snicker from the chef.

The vinaigrette and remoulade are no problem, but the mayonnaise is not my friend: Day after day, my concoction “splits” and the chef berates me.

So now, pushed beyond limit, he grabs a cul-de-poule (a steel bowl with a round bottom), throws in the mustard, vinegar, and a bit of oil, cracks an egg on the bowl’s edge, separates and drops the yolk into the mixture — all with one hand. I see an opportunity to ingratiate myself: Obligingly, I reach for a whisk.

“No, all I need is a fork.”

Up on one foot, as promised, he gives the mixture a single, masterful stroke — and the mayonnaise begins to emulsify, I see the first filaments. The chef sniffs and walks away. I had been trying too hard…the rest was obvious: a thin trickle of oil, whisk calmly.

Clearly, the episode left its mark, and it came back to mind when I first saw the iPad.

For thirty years, the industry had tried to create a tablet, and it had tried too hard. The devices kept clotting, one after the other. Alan Kay’s Dynabook, Go, Eo, GridPad, various Microsoft-powered Tablet PCs, even Apple’s Newton in the early nineties….they didn’t congeal, nothing took.

Then, in January 2010, Chef Jobs walks on stage with the iPad and it all becomes obvious, easy. Three decades of failures are forgotten.

This brings us to last week’s animated debate about Apple’s talent for invention in the Comments section of the “Apple Tax” Monday Note:

“…moving from stylus to touch (finger) was a change in enabling technology, not some invention by Apple – even gesture existed way back before the iPhone. Have an IPAQ on my desk as a reminder – a product ahead of the implementing technology!
Unfortunately Apple have run out of real innovation…”

In other words: “Nothing new, no innovation, the ingredients were already lying around somewhere…”. The comment drew this retort from another reader:

“iPaq as a precursor to iPad?
Are you on drugs? Right now?”

Drugged or sober, the proud iPaq owner falls into the following point: The basic ingredients are the same. Software is all zeroes and ones, after all. The quantity and order may vary, but that’s about it. Hardware is just protons, neutrons, electrons and photons buzzing around, nothing original. Apple didn’t “invent” anything, the iPad is simply their variation, their interpretation of the well-known tablet recipe.

By this myopic logic, Einstein didn’t invent the theory of relativity, Henri Poincaré had similar ideas before him, as did Hendrik Lorentz earlier still. And, come to think of it, Maxwell’s equations contain all of the basic ingredients of relativity; Einstein “merely” found a way to combine them with another set of parts, Newtonian mechanics.

Back to the kitchen: Where does talent reside? Having access to commonly available ingredients or in the subtlety, the creativity — if not the magic — of their artful combination? Why are the great chefs so richly compensated and, yes, imitated? Alain Ducasse, Alain Senderens, and Joel Robuchon might be out of our price range, but Pierre Herme’s macarons are both affordable and out of this world — try the Ispahan, or the salted caramel, or… (We’ll note that he opened his first boutique in Tokyo, where customers pay attention to details.)

In cars, Brand X (I don’t want to offend) and BMW (I don’t drive one) get their steel, aluminum, plastics, rubber, and electronics from similar — and often the same — suppliers. But their respective chefs coax the ingredients differently, with markedly different aesthetic and financial outcomes.

Did IBM invent the PC? Did HP invent the pocket calculators or desktop computers that once put them at the top of the high tech world? Did Henry Ford invent the automobile.

So, yes, if we stick to the basic ingredients list, Apple didn’t invent anything…not the Apple ][, nor the Macintosh, not the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad…to say nothing of Apple Stores and App Stores. We’d seen them all before, in one fashion or another.

And yet, we can’t escape a key fact: The same chef was involved in all these creations. He didn’t write the code or design the hardware, but he was there in the kitchen — the “executive chef” in trade parlance — with a unique gift for picking ingredients and whipping up unique products.

As a postscript, two links:

— Steve Wildstrom valiantly attempts to clear up the tech media’s distortions of the patents that were — and weren’t — part of the Apple-Samsung trial:

Whatever happens on appeal, I think the jury did an admirable job making sense of the case they were given. They certainly did better than much of the tech media, which have made a complete mess of the verdict.

— This August 2009 Counternotions post provides a well-reasoned perspective on the iPhone’s risks and contributions, as opposed to being a mere packaging job. (The entire Counternotions site is worth reading for its spirited dissection of fashionable “truths”.)



The Apple Tax, Part II

Uncategorized By August 26, 2012 Tags: , 66 Comments

Once upon a time, Steve Ballmer blasted Apple for asking its customers to pay $500 for an Apple logo. This was the “Apple Tax“, the price difference between the solid, professional workmanship of a laptop running on Windows, and Apple’s needlessly elegant MacBooks.

Following last week’s verdict against Samsung, the kommentariat have raised the specter of an egregious new Apple Tax, one that Apple will levy on other smartphone makers who will have no choice but to pass the burden on to you. The idea is this: Samsung’s loss means it will now have to compete against Apple with its dominant hand — a lower price tag — tied behind its back. This will allow Apple to exact higher prices for its iPhones (and iPads) and thus inflict even more pain and suffering on consumers.

There seems to be a moral aspect, here, as if Apple should be held to a higher standard. Last year, Apple and Nokia settled an IP “misunderstanding” that also resulted in a “Tax”…but it was Nokia that played the T-Man role: Apple paid Nokia more than $600M plus an estimated $11.50 per iPhone sold. Where were the handwringers who now accuse Apple of abusing the patent system when the Nokia settlement took place? Where was the outrage against the “evil”, if hapless, Finnish company? (Amusingly, observers speculate that Nokia has made more money from these IP arrangements than from selling its own Lumia smartphones.)

Even where the moral tone is muted, the significance of the verdict (which you can read in full here) is over-dramatized. For instance, see this August 24th Wall Street Journal story sensationally titled After Verdict, Prepare for the ‘Apple Tax’:

After its stunning victory against rival device-maker Samsung Electronics Co., experts say consumers should expect smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices that license various Apple Inc., design and software innovations to be more expensive to produce.

“There may be a big Apple tax,” said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. “Phones will be more expensive.”

The reason is that rival device makers will likely have to pay to license the various Apple technologies the company sought to protect in court. The jury found that Samsung infringed as many as seven Apple patents, awarding $1.05 billion in damages.

The $1B sum awarded to Apple sounds impressive, but to the giants involved, it doesn’t really change much. Samsung’s annual marketing budget is about $2.75B (it covers washer-dryers and TVs, but it’s mostly smartphones), and, of course, Apple is sitting on a $100B+ cash hoard.

Then there’s the horror over the open-ended nature of the decision: Apple can continue to seek injunctions against products that infringe on their patents. From the NYT article:

…the decision could essentially force [Samsung] and other smartphone makers to redesign their products to be less Apple-like, or risk further legal defeats.

Certainly, injunctions could pose a real threat. They could remove competitors, make Apple more dominant, give it more pricing power to the consumer’s detriment…but none of this is a certainty. Last week’s verdict and any follow-up injunctions are sure to be appealed and appealed again until all avenues are exhausted. The Apple Tax won’t be enforced for several years, if ever.

And even if the “Tax” is assessed, will it have a deleterious impact on device manufacturers and consumers? Last year, about half of all Android handset makers — including ZTE, HTC, Sharp — were handed a Microsoft Tax bill ($27 per phone in ZTE’s case), one that isn’t impeded by an obstacle course of appeals. Count Samsung in this group: The Korean giant reportedly agreed to pay Microsoftbetween $10 and $15 – for each Android smartphone or tablet computer it sells.” Sell 100M devices and the tax bill owed to Ballmer and Co. exceeds $1B. Despite this onerous surcharge, Android devices thrive, and Samsung has quickly jumped to the lead in the Android handset race (from Informa, Telecoms & Media):

Amusingly, the Samsung verdict prompted this gloating tweet from Microsoft exec Bill Cox:

Windows Phone is looking gooooood right now.

(Or, as AllThingsD interpreted it: Microsoft to Samsung. Mind if I Revel in Your Misfortune for a Moment?)

The subtext is clear: Android handset makers should worry about threats to the platform and seek safe harbor with the “Apple-safe” Windows Phone 8. This will be a “goooood” thing all around: If more handset makers offer Windows Phone devices, there will be more choices, fewer opportunities for Apple to get “unfairly high” prices for its iDevices. The detrimental effects, to consumers, of the “Apple Tax” might not be so bad, after all.

The Samsung trial recalls the interesting peace agreement that Apple and Microsoft forged in 1997, when Microsoft “invested” $150M in Apple as a fig-leaf for an IP settlement (see the end of the Quora article). The interesting part of the accord is the provision in which the companies agree that they won’t “clone” each other’s products. If Microsoft could arrange a cross-license agreement with Apple that includes an anti-cloning provision and eventually come up with its own original work (everyone agrees that Microsoft’s Modern UI is elegant, interesting, not just a knock-off), how come Samsung didn’t reach a similar arrangement and produce its own distinctive look and feel?

Microsoft and Apple saw that an armed peace was a better solution than constant IP conflicts. Can Samsung and Apple decide to do something similar and feed engineers rather than platoons of high-priced lawyers (the real winners in these battles)?

It’s a nice thought but I doubt it’ll happen. Gates and Jobs had known one another for a long time; there was animosity, but also familiarity. There is no such comfort between Apple and Samsung execs. There is, instead, a wide cultural divide.


Fantasy Apple TV

radio & TV By August 19, 2012 Tags: 56 Comments

On August 15th, The Wall Street Journal published yet another story about Apple’s imminent invasion of the TV business. According to people who are “familiar with the matter”, the Cupertino company is…

in talks with some of the biggest U.S. cable operators about letting consumers use an Apple device as a set-top box for live television and other content…

The article has triggered an explosion of comments, speculation, purported leaks, and ”channel checks”. After the enormous success of the iPhone and the iPad, is TV going to be Apple’s Next Big Thing?

(If you Google “Apple iTV”, you get about 32M hits; “Apple TV” yields 700M. Curiously, Microsoft’s Bing gives you only 11M and 250M. I don’t know what to make of the disparity between the Google and Bing numbers, but a cursory look shows more useful results on Bing. As we know, this now depends on who’s asking and when.)

The topic excites writers and readers alike for good reason: We’re all frustrated with TV as it is, and we have a vague, hopeful sense that a disruptor such as Apple (or Google) could break through the obstacles that have been constructed by operators (cable/satellite) and content owners (studios).

Wouldn’t it be nice to get What we want, When we want it, Where we want it, on the device we like without having to deal with brain-dead set-top box program guides and channel bundle rip-offs?

The precedent has been set: CBS Interactive offers the excellent $4.99 60 Minutes iPad app. NBC, ABC, and other networks have an array of separate apps for news, sports, and entertainment. But this is sliced and diced content, carefully picked and edited, not the real What When Where thing.

For example, where can I get the Olympics opening ceremony? I missed it, I hear it was TV Worth Watching. NBC’s site? No. I even checked the NBC Olympics Live Extra app… no joy. YouTube has a few snippets here and there, but I want the whole thing, beginning to end, the excess and the embarrassment. I’ll sit through an ad or two, if need be, or, better yet, offer me a one-click payment so I can skip the ads.

Why is this so difficult?

First, there’s the fear factor: Having seen how Steve Jobs dominated the music distribution industry, TV studios and operators aren’t eager to let Apple hop into the driver’s seat. The major players foresee a significant drop in ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) if viewers are allowed to unbundle channels, if we can go ”à la carte”, if we can point, click, and pay our way into the TV universe. The impression that Apple “destroyed” the music industry conveniently omits what pirates were doing when iTunes came onto the scene and provided a clean, well-lighted distribution channel, but the fear remains.

Then there’s the complexity: Today’s TV revenue stream, the money sucked out of our pockets, divides into a maze of rivulets that flow to operators, distributors, content owners, and producers. Music is relatively simple compared to TV…but even so,  remember how long it took for the Beatles to become available on iTunes? Nine years.

And is it even worth it to Apple? Although Apple TV sales keep growing — +170% year-to-year for the last quarter — the numbers are still relatively small, only 4 million units for FY 2012 so far. At $100 apiece, such volume doesn’t “move the needle”, it’s immaterial when compared to iPhone and iPad revenue and profit.

Still, are these persistent Apple TV rumors totally unfounded?

The answer lies in Apple’s one and only business model: hardware revenue.

Everything else Apple does — software, iTunes, Genius Bars — only exists to push up hardware sales and profits.

With this in mind, today’s Apple TV does more than just deliver Netflix and iTunes movies: It’s a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes Macs (now with AirPlay), iPhones, and iPads more valuable. Your iPhone vacation pictures will show quite nicely on the family TV. Go to a conference room equipped with Apple TV and make your Keynote presentation from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, no cable required. (PowerPoint doesn’t run on iPads, but a PDF output works just as well.) With the latest 10.8 rev (Mountain Lion) of OS X, all content available on the Web can now appear on your TV.

There’s another, longer term strategy at work: At some point, the growing Apple TV installed base will gain enough mass to become a viable distribution channel. (The same would apply to a successful Google TV effort.) When this happens, someone will crack. ESPN will offer its fare as apps — some free with ads, some paid-for without intrusions — and the others will follow.

It’s a nice theory, it plays into Apple’s ability to deploy the iOS platform more fully on Apple TV, to offer a UI miles ahead of today’s set-top boxes. But in order to matter, the product line will eventually have to reach revenue in the $100B range. What sort of numbers can an Apple TV bring in?

Let’s start with a modest $100/month cable bill. What portion does Apple want? We see the 30% number bandied around, I’m skeptical such a percentage would fly but let’s go with that for the order of magnintude experiment. If we look into a distant future, a time when Apple has 100 million TV subscribers (today, in the US, we have about 50M cable and 35M satellite TV customers), that’s $3B/month, about $40B per year in recurring revenue. If we assume that the new-fangled Apple TV hardware fetches $300 per box, we get an additional yield of $30B — stretched over the number of years needed to reach 100M customers.

This leaves us with difficult questions: How fast can Apple get to 100 million Apple TV-equipped homes? Will operators and content owners/distributors “give” Apple a $30 ARPU? How often will customers be willing to upgrade their TVs (certainly not as often as the iPhone/iPad)? Can Apple broaden its business model to include content and services?

I hope so, I’d love to throw away my ugly set-top box, but I have trouble seeing a path to that happy event. Apple might just continue to improve the black puck, open it to iOS app developers and, in Tim Cook’s words, see where it leads the company.

As for  a full-fledged 50″ TV set…I don’t think so. The computer inside would be obsolete well before the display goes dim. This seems to favor a separate Apple TV box.

Who knows, all this agitation might scare TV providers into providing us with better hardware and services…

(See previous Monday Notes on the subject here, here, here, and here.)


Summer Fun: The HR-Less Performance Review

hardware, software By August 12, 2012 Tags: , 8 Comments

The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read “Microsoft’s Lost Decade“, an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft’s Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel).

But I don’t come to bury Caesar — not, yet, I’ll wait until actual numbers for Windows 8 and the Surface tablets emerge. Instead, let’s consider the centerpiece of Eichenwald’s article, his depiction of the cultural degeneracy and intramural paranoia that comes of a badly implemented performance review system.

Performance assessments are, of course, an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organization must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. This is tournament play, after all, and the coach must “release” players who can’t help get the team to the finals.

But Microsoft’s implementation — “stack ranking”, a bell curve that pits employees and groups against one another like rats in a cage — plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.

…every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor…For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.

Employees quickly realized that it was more important to focus on organization politics than actual performance:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

This brought back bad memories of my corpocrat days working for a noted Valley company. When I landed here in 1985, I was dismayed by the pervasive presence of Human Resources, an éminence grise that cast a shadow across the entire organization. Humor being the courtesy of despair, engineers referred to HR as the KGB or, for a more literary reference, the Bene Gesserit, monikers that knowingly imputed an efficiency to a department that offered anything but. Granted, there was no bell curve grading, no obligation to sacrifice the bottom 5%, but the politics were stifling nonetheless, the review process a painful charade.

In memory of those shenanigans, I’ve come up with a possible antidote to manipulative reviews, an attempt to deal honestly and pleasantly with the imperfections of life at work. (Someday I’ll write a Note about an equally important task: How to let go of people with decency — and without lawyers.)

A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:

  • First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we’ll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
  • Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
  • Third: We’re sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I’m about to make. Now let’s talk…

This might sound a little too “different” (that’s Californian for “batty”), but there’s a serious purpose, here. We’ve all been reviewed, we all know the anxiety — and sometimes the resentment — that precedes the event. Mealy-mouthed comments about team-spirit, loyalty, how the company cares for its people and other insufferable HR pablum only makes things worse. You tune out, you can only hear the noises in your own head: Am I being led to the exit? Am I being shafted out of a raise/bonus/stock? Am I supposed to think that loyalty is its own — and only — reward?

To be heard, the reviewer must silence these questions. Hence the preamble: Your job is safe; here are the $$; we like what you do enough that you can safely continue to behave in the manner we have come to expect, no need to course-correct.

There follows a pause to let the news sink in. Anxiety quelled, the reviewee is now prepared — and willing — to listen.

On to the observations and suggestions. It’s probably a good idea to start with the minus side of the ledger — this isn’t much different from a sales pitch: Get the product’s negatives out of the way first. Stick to specific comments about goals missed, undesirable habits, and the like. “When you arrive 20 minutes late at our staff meetings, you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, including me.” Defensive reactions to the negative part of a review are unavoidable, so you sing the refrain: The objectionable behavior, while imperfect, doesn’t jeopardize your job.

(As an aside, and seriously: Objecting to a behavior that you insist will be tolerated because of the overall goodness of the relationship…this approach works wonders outside of work. It’s a lot more constructive than the comminatory “You must stop doing this”, which invites the sarcastic and unhelpful response: “And if I don’t? What? You’ll divorce me?”)

The review can now proceed to the positive, to praising the individual’s performance and giving thanks. Saccharine is to be avoided, examples are a must, and exaggeration is only welcome in moderate doses.

Finally, ask for feedback… but don’t kid yourself: Hierarchy trumps honesty, so you may have to ask twice. Explain that you understand the challenge in giving feedback to the reviewer. You might get some useful tidbits, especially if they sting a bit.

Back in the real world, this simple, direct approach might not fit a large organization where you need to protect the rest of the team from the demoralization of a metastasized employee. The habitual backstabber, the knee-jerk naysayer, the self-appointed “Fellow” must be excised before too much harm is done. It’s a difficult task that requires a degree of human judgment and courage that’s not afforded by a mechanical ranking system.

Next week, we might return to topics such as Apple’s uneasy relationship with file systems, Android tablets and phablets, or some such tech disquisition.


Saving Private RIM

hardware By August 5, 2012 Tags: , 42 Comments

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve read a number of bedtimes stories about RIM’s next move. They all start with the same trope: Once upon a time, late last century, Apple was on the edge of the precipice and still managed to come back — and how! Today, RIM’s situation isn’t nearly as dire as Apple’s was then. Unlike Apple, it doesn’t need a cash transfusion and, in the words of Thorsten Heins, RIM’s new CEO: “If you look at the platform it’s still growing, if you look at the devices we’ve got a single phone that’s sold 45 million units.” RIM will pull off an Apple-like rebound and live happily ever after.

Equating RIM 2012 with Apple 1997 is, in so many respects, delusional. Let me count the ways.

First, the context, the marketplace. In its dark days, Apple faced PC clones running Windows. With Microsoft’s 95% market share, it wasn’t even a two-platform race. Microsoft came to Apple’s rescue with a $150M investment and a commitment to continue writing apps for the Macintosh. This was enlightened self-interest on Microsoft’s part: Discreetly tucked into the agreement was the settlement of a brewing IP suit. And by keeping their highly visible (if economically unthreatening) competitor alive, Microsoft hoped to score a few goodwill points in the face of the DOJ’s antitrust investigations.

Fifteen years later, there’s no looming smartphone monopoly. We have a genuine two-horse race between Android and iOS, and a third horse, Microsoft, circling in the paddock. This is a very different world, a much rougher one with bruisers such as Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and ZTE…with this many players, there’s no rationale for investing in a fallen player.

Second, ecosystems. In Stephen Elop’s ringing (if infelicitously timed) words, yesterday’s platform struggles have become all-out ecosystem wars. To claw back into the race, let alone to return to its former CrackBerry glory, RIM must build an array of content and services that can equal or better those that will be offered by the dominant players in 2013.

This isn’t just about app stores — a challenge unto itself when developers ask why they should commit to a troubled player. Smartphone and tablet users expect entertainment, navigation, synchronization between their devices and other Cloud services.

In the Daily Telegraph interview quoted earlier, Thorsten Heins boasts that BB10, the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, will have “true multitasking, … potentially running a car’s navigation, entertainment and gaming systems for the whole family“. Elsewhere, he refers to a new world of applications in which your Blackberry will connect to “the embedded systems that run constantly in the background of everyday life – from parking meters and car computers to credit card machines and ticket counters“. (Home automation can’t be very far off.) Even more majestically, Heins tells us that RIM’s mission is “to build a new mobile computing platform to empower a people in a way they didn’t think possible“.

This all sounds like a noble and worthy goal…but it’s a bit vague. How will RIM’s approach be different from — or better than — the competing ecosystems?

This leads us to our third point: The engineering team (or, “it’s simply a matter of implementation”). When Steve Jobs reverse-acquired Apple in 1997, he brought with him the creators of NextStep, the likes of Avie Tevanian, Bertrand Serlet, and Scott Forstall. They led a team of talented, like-minded computer scientists whose goal was clear: Replace the decrepit Mac OS with a truly modern foundation. It took them the better part of five years to produce what we know as OS X.

RIM acquired QNX, the foundation for BB10, a mere two years ago. After a quick bow to the work ethic and technical manhood of RIM’s engineers, one must ask if they’re in the same league as the team Jobs brought to Apple 2.0, if they can accomplish everything they need to do by early 2013. Weren’t most of these engineers already onboard when RIM fell asleep at the switch?

Fourth and last, leadership. Using Apple 1997 as the model for turning around a once-great company invites challenging comparisons. Or, more accurately, a single comparison: Is Thorsten Heins made of the same unobtainium as Steve Jobs? This isn’t a question of IQ, of neo-cortex, but of Mind, of being sufficiently agitated, of having the right animal inside.

The prodigal Jobs returned to Apple having known stellar business success with Pixar, and just-as-stellar lack thereof at NeXT (despite the company’s technical prowess). Heins, by contrast, is an insider. He’s been part of RIM’s problem since 2007.

But enough of this fantasy. Let’s turn to the latest story: RIM’s CEO has conceded that the company might have to license its platform:

To deliver BB10 we may need to look at licensing it to someone who can do this at a way better cost proposition than I can do it.

Dumbfoundingly, the licensing idea (which, presumably, will include BlackBerry Messenger), has been met with approval: “RIM is in trouble and is seemingly finally listening to reason“.

This gambit doesn’t work. It didn’t work for Palm (twice!), nor for Nokia with Symbian. And it really didn’t work for Apple when it licensed the Mac OS to PowerComputing and Motorola in 1995. The Mac clones quickly underpriced the original products and siphoned profits out of Apple’s income statement. Jobs reversed that decision in 1997, and, after much initial criticism, was ultimately vindicated.

With these examples, what drives Heins to think that the BlackBerry 10 clones won’t underprice RIM’s own devices and empty the cash register? BlackBerry Messenger may be well-liked, but it’s also under attack by free, multi-device services such as iMessage.

So, where does this leave RIM? The use of “Private” in this note’s title isn’t a facile pun. It points to a possible avenue for the BlackBerry maker. If it decides to license the software layer of its (formerly) proprietary platform, RIM will indisputably see hardware dollars disappear much faster than software licenses can be signed. RIM will forego a known source of revenue in order to grow a new income stream that, given enough time, might be strong enough to keep the company solvent.

For a publicly-traded company, switching business models in this way is a factual impossibility, it defies business gravity. Shareholders might applaud the long-term strategy but when the cheering stops, they’ll dump the stock.

If RIM wants to do something bold, such as focusing on software and services, they might consider taking the company private. As I write this, RIM has a market cap that’s less than $4B and more than $2B in apparently unencumbered cash. Management and the Board could work with a Private Equity fund, a KKR-type organization, and buy the company from the shareholders.

The ink dries, the curtains close. Backstage, in private, the company performs painful surgery, sheds the groups and businesses that are no longer required by the new, tighter focus. This may be hard on employees, but it’s unavoidable either way: Lose some of the company now, or the entire thing soon enough.

In theory, the company re-emerges smaller but stronger, with a highly profitable software and services business model.

Will this work for RIM? I don’t think so. Given the company’s low market cap and the availability of private capital, if this were an attractive move, it would have been attempted already. Cold-hearted investors looking at the risk involved must have already asked themselves the burning question: How do you compete with free? How do you sell licenses when Android hands them out, gratis (even if licensees have to pay for a few Microsoft patents)?

Sadly for former BlackBerry fans like yours truly — or for current ones who appreciate its core functionality — there aren’t many moves left for RIM on the smartphone chessboard.


Apple: Three Intriguing Numbers

Uncategorized By July 29, 2012 Tags: , 17 Comments

No Monday Note last week: I was in The Country of Sin, enjoying pleasures such as TGV trips across a landscape of old villages, Romanesque churches, Rhône vineyards — and a couple of nuclear power plants. All this without our friendly TSA.

Back in the Valley, Apple just released their latest quarterly numbers. They weren’t as good as expected, a fact that launched a broadside of comments ranging from shameless pageview whoring (I’m looking at you, Henry) to calm but worried (see Richard Gaywood’s analysis).

As I’ll attempt to explain below, Apple’s latest quarterly performance is unusual. But, stepping back a bit, the company’s numbers are nonetheless phenomenal.

Net sales, growing 23%, are more than three times larger than Amazon’s — and Apple’s net income is more than 1,000 times larger, $8.8B vs. a tiny $7M for the Seattle giant, whose shares went up after disclosing its earnings release anyway.

Turning to Google, Apple sales of $35B are more than three times Google’s $11.3B (including Motorola, for the first time), with net income numbers in a similar ratio at $8.8B and $2.8B respectively.

Ending comparisons with Microsoft, its revenue grew 4% to $18B, about half of Apple’s and, for the first time, the company posted a net loss of $492M, due to the huge $6.2B aQuantive write off, a one time event. Excluding that number, Microsoft net income would have been about $5.5B, two thirds of Apple’s. iPhone revenue at $16B for the quarter, approaches Microsoft’s number for the entire company, iPad, at $9B is about half.

For in-depth coverage of Apple’s Q3 FY 2012, you can turn to Philip Ellmer-DeWitt’s Apple 2.0 or Horace Dediu’s Asymco — possibly the best source of fine-grained industry analysis. I can also recommend Daring Fireball for John Gruber’s lapidary comments and carefully chosen links, and Brian Hall’s Smartphone Wars — vigorous commentary and insights, occasionally couched in NSFW language. Of course, you can always wade through Apple’s 10-Q SEC filing, if you have the time and inclination. Of particular interest is Section 2 MD&A, Management Discussion and Analysis, starting on page 21.

Out of this torrent of information and argument, I suggest we look at three numbers.

First, the 3% “Miss”, Wall Street’s term for failing to hit the revenue bull’s eye. I’m not referring to the guessing games played by Wall Street analysts, both the pros and the so-called amateurs. In the past, the amateurs have done a consistently better job of forecasting revenue, gross margin, profit, unit volumes, but this time, the pros won. Although almost everyone substantially overestimated Apple’s numbers, the pros weren’t nearly as optimistic as the amateurs.”

Instead of measuring Apple’s performance against the predictions of the traders and observers, we can recall what the company itself told us to expect. About a month into each quarter, management provides an official but non-committal estimate of the quarter’s revenue. This guidance is a delicate dance: You want to be cautious, you want to sandbag a little, but not so much that your numbers aren’t taken seriously. Unavoidably, a lot of second-guessing ensues.

Apple has consistently beaten its own guidance, by 19% on average over the past three years, and as much as 35% in Q1 2010. But in this past quarter, Apple “achieved” a historic low: Actual revenue came in at only 3% above the guidance number. Richard Gaywood provides a helpful graphic in his TUAW piece:

Apple management offered explanations during the conference call following the earnings release: The economy in Europe isn’t doing so well, “rumors” about the iPhone 5 have slowed sales of iPhone 4s… These might very well be the causes of the lackluster performance, but one has to wonder: Weren’t these issues known two months ago when the guidance number was announced? Apple is praised for its superbly managed supply chain, its global distribution network, its attention to detail. How is it possible that it didn’t see that the European economy was already cooling? How could management not have heard the steady murmur about an upcoming iPhone?

Put another way: What did you know and when did you know it? And, if you didn’t know, why didn’t you?

There is a possible alternative explanation: Samsung is making more substantial inroads than expected, as their impressive quarterly numbers just released would attest: 50.5M smartphones shipped, almost twice as many as Apple’s 26M.

Sharp-eyed readers may protest the comparison: Samsung reports the number of devices “shipped” while Apple reports units “sold”. But even if we allow for unsold inventory, Samsung’s performance is impressive.  (And, as circumstantial evidence, I noticed an unusually heavy amount of advertising for the Galaxy S III during my recent overseas trip.)

Samsung’s strong showing will almost certainly continue — so how will Apple react? A new product? Price moves? Both? In the conference call, Tim Cook assured his audience that Apple won’t create a “price umbrella” for competitors, that it won’t insist on premium price tags and thus leave small-margin money on the table.

Which leads us to the second number: Gross Margin guidance for the current quarter, ending September 30th, is 38.5%, down from 42.8% for the quarter that just ended. In consultant-speak, that’s an evaporation of 430 basis points (hundredths of percent) in just one quarter — and we’re already one month into it with no visible change in the product lineup other than the full availability of newer MacBooks (Air, Pro, Retina), and no evidence of heavy-handed discounting.

During the conference call, a Morgan Stanley analyst noted that Apple hadn’t shown Gross Margin numbers below 40% for the past two years. Would Apple care to comment?

We expect most of this decline to be primarily driven by a fall transition and to a much lesser extent, the impact of the stronger U.S. dollar.

The entire Gross Margin drop of about $34B of sales (the latest guidance) amounts to $1.5B, a sum that will shift in less than two months, and probably less than one as any momentous announcement is unlikely before Labor Day (the first Monday of September for our overseas readers). This could portend a strong price move in the “fall transition”. To put the $1.5B shift in perspective, imagine Apple dropping its “usual” Gross Margin by $100 per device (new or existing); this means 15M lower-margins devices in the three weeks of September after Labor Day. Or perhaps Apple’s CFO is sandbagging the guidance once again.

The third curious number is the most perplexing: While the entire company grew by 23% compared to the same quarter last year, Apple Store revenue grew by only 17% — and this in spite of adding 47 stores over the year, for a total of 372. Why would Apple’s much vaunted retail channel grow more slowly than the company? The weak Euro economy can’t be the explanation, there are relatively less Apple Stores there. The same can be said for “rumors” of newer devices, they impact all channels and not just company stores.

We’ll see if this last quarter was simply a manifestation of a natural “granularity” of its business (as opposed to the unnatural smoothing of quarter after quarter numbers favored by Wall Street), or if the company is entering a new chapter of the smartphone wars and, if this is the case, how it will change tactics.