About Jean-Louis Gassée


Posts by Jean-Louis Gassée:

The Death of the MSM

You probably heard of Fake Steve Jobs, Dan Lyons, the former Forbes writer. He’s built a justified reputation for using his blog to do a kind of Steve Jobs pastiche, by turns analytical, satirical, occasionally vulgar and, yes, insulting every possible target in the Valley and in the MSM (Mainstream Media).

You’ll recall I criticized the New York Times’ bosses and one of their writers, Brad Stone, in a July 2009 Monday Note titled “Brilliant insights at the NYT”. In it, as a NYT fan, I worried about the quality of reporting, concerned with the superficiality of Silicon Valley coverage, bemoaning the formulaic cut-and-past jog of quoting anal-ysts and other “usual suspects”.

Well, read this Fake Steve Jobs piece. There, Dan Lyons gives another example of the MSM missing key information, the OfferPal scams, and insights, how game companies “game” users and how social networks can put an end to such practices. For short, the scammers are companies such as OfferPal tempting on-line game users with offers for more weapons or more lives while sending a stealth tentacle into their wallets by tricking them into expensive subscription “deals”.
The NYT’s problem is it wrote a fairly positive article on the new Virtual Goods Economy while totally missing the ongoing scams controversy. See Silicon Watcher’s overview here.

Fake Steve Jobs is worth adding to your list of RSS feeds (Google Reader is a good way to manage those). Lately, Dan Lyons wrote another tart and insightful analysis of big company (IBM in this case) PR practices here. Enjoy! —JLG@mondaynote.com

The Meaning of Droid

Literally, Droid is the new Motorola phone sold by Verizon and running Google’s latest Android 2.0 release. The early reviews are good and, cleverly, Google issued a new turn-by-turn navigation application for the platform, also well received, complete with voice control and street view pictures. The Droid starts selling later this week, on November 6th, I’ll get one ASAP and report.

Earlier Android-powered phones weren’t so great, I bought a T-Mobile G1 exactly one year ago and wasn’t overwhelmed. I then called it “just a first effort” and wrote: “It’s only a question of time before most phone makers and cellular carriers offer an Android model, 12 months or less.  Motorola, for example, is building a “social networking” Android phone.  This is precisely the beauty of the Android Open Source, it lets phone makers and carriers try different implementations, specialized models, vertical applications.”

One year later, we have a new situation, a real contender for the lead position in the exploding smartphone market. How will Android impact the rest of the industry: Motorola, Garmin, TomTom, Palm, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM and, of course, the iPhone’s meteoric rise?

For Apple, the short answer is: the iPhone will continue to apply the Macintosh method, that is controlling all or most of the user’s experience, with similar results: smaller market share, disproportionally larger profits than the separate hardware-software crowd. More on this later.

Let’s start with a tip of the hat to Motorola. Last year, I questioned Motorola’s strategy and even its survival. Their “mobile devices” business was going to be spun off, the smell perhaps, from the more dignified “institutional” business, selling communications gear to government and enterprise customers. Fortunately, the new co-CEO for the mobile devices business, Sanjay Jha, came in, saw the on-going wreckage, dumped everything, starting with the Windows Mobile anchor. Then, listening to his techies’ advice, Jha bet on Google’s Android. The result is the Droid smartphone, making Motorola a strong contender again. More

Microsoft ambivalence

Lots of earnings reports this week, mostly good ones. Apple did better than expected, even by the most enthusiastic earnings seers, so did Amazon whose shares went up 26.8% today, adding more than $10B to its market cap in one day. I’m happy to see a quality company, one that treats its customer better than the vast majority of short-term oriented businesses, reap rewards for a combination of long-term vision and everyday attention to detail. We’ll get back to Amazon in a future Monday Note, when we discuss the flurry of e-book readers.

You might have heard Microsoft just launched Windows 7 this past Thursday, to good reviews and newish Apple ads, more installments of the ‘I’m a PC, I’m a Mac’ age-old campaign. The gent who plays the PC, John Hodgman, is much more than the character he’s become known for. See the speech he wrote and delivered at the June 2009 White House Correspondents dinner: he roasts the newly elected Barack Obama, calling him the first nerd president. This YouTube video won’t bore you, I’m not sure I can say the same for the latest, somewhat repetitious Apple ads.

As for Windows 7 itself, I haven’t updated any of the four candidate computers I mentioned last week. In part because I want to hear from early upgraders before I take the plunge, I still have the expensive and painful memories of being a Vista early adopter in 2007. I was the first one in line at Fry’s, in Palo Alto, at 8:00 am on January 30th — and proud of it. When the door opened, I turned around and saw I was also the only one in line. Instead of taking the hint, I forged ahead, bought a big HP laptop and the full Office 2007 Professional DVD. I had grown reasonably adept at running Windows Xp machines and couldn’t imagine how painful the Vista experience would turn out to be. I’m more careful, this time.
There is also the money. Upgrading the four machines, including a first install on a Linux netbook will cost me about $800, plus some application software, plus my time. Upgrading five Macs in my family cost me $49 and not too much time as the process was, for me at least, uneventful.
(This said, I plan to write a few short subjects on strange bugs, UI caprice or ergonomics non-sense in Apple’s products. Being a polite optimist, I’ll marvel: if the products sell so well in spite of these kinks, imagine what would happen if these problems disappeared!) More

One Bit

This is going to be a busy week. Monday we have Apple’s earnings and, later in the week, Windows 7’s release. The deafening noise will make it hard to understand the real, lasting consequences of these events. Fortunately, deep into the bowels of a server, a smaller happening, a bit flipping from 0 to 1 portends more fun, more intelligible things to come.

The Apple Q4 (fourth quarter) 2009 numbers matter less than the volume of comments will make it appear. If the numbers are good, fans will sing ‘I told you so’ and naysayers will object the good times won’t last. If the revenue and profit indicators are less than stellar, the ‘I told you so’ and ‘it won’t last’ will switch sides.

A similar pattern applies to Windows 7’s launch: this is the greatest thing since Vista, just kidding; this is disappointing; this works; this doesn’t; this threatens Apple; this is very good for Apple. (Apparently, Apple is intent on channeling the Windows 7 noise to its own uses with an aggressive campaign, likely targeting the pain Xp users who, supposedly, will endure a particularly arduous upgrading experience. We’ll keep this for later: I’ll upgrade a few computers from Xp, Linux, Vista Ultimate and Vista Home Premium and report back.)

Sages have already offered their obligatory contributions to each part of the libretto. And, things on the Web being immortal, wags have dug up equally authoritative 2 1/2 years-old claims from the same business and tech gurus when Vista was launched. Said wags invented a term, “claim chowder”, for such an amusing or embarrassing confrontation between past and present pronouncements. If you google the phrase, you won’t get much because the ever-obliging search engine thinks you mean New England’s “clam chowder”. Fortunately, Google Reader, the blog-reading engine, is more forthcoming and offers a bevy of examples such as this one, or this one.

The confusion and contradictions are understandable: I believe the computer industry is in a transition that makes divining the future by reading today’s tea leaves more difficult than usual. For example, how and how much will Cloud Computing really change the landscape? Or, what about netbooks, a fad or a lasting trend encouraged by a bad economy pushing consumers and business towards the bottom of the price range? Will smartphones continue to eat into PC “face-time”, into out use of desktop and laptop computers and, if so, how quickly? More

The “Love Triangle”: Apple, Google and Verizon

At the end of my August 9th Monday Note, “War in the Valley, Apple vs. Google”, I committed to get into Google’s potential weaknesses in this conflict. Since then, things have gotten a tad more complicated.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

As discussed last August, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, had to leave Apple’s Board of Directors because, even for a Valley used to “coopetition”, the conflict of interest became really blatant.

Both companies make operating systems for smartphones, the new wave of personal computing. There, we have Android vs. iPhone OS. For the desktop, it’s Chrome OS vs. OS X. Yes, for the desktop: Chrome OS purports to be a Cloud-oriented netbook OS but, as explained in the same August 9th MN, Chrome smuggles very substantial desktop code under the cover of “mere” browser plug-ins, this to let Chrome OS stay useful in the absence of a Net connection. Picasa competes with iPhoto, Chrome, the browser, not the OS, competes with Safari. In July, Apple bought PlaceBase, a mapping company, whose Web site is now reduced to a set of API (Applications Programming Interface) documents, very likely to gain independence from Google Maps.
The more we dig, the more we find places where both companies want to pick the same pockets. If you think about it some more, both companies behave as if they’d want all your attention and all your money. Still ruminating, could it be both companies no longer take Microsoft seriously and, having lost a common enemy must now be at each other’s throat?

Then, we have Verizon and Apple. The “love” between these two has been hot since or, actually, before the very beginning of the iPhone. A few weeks before the inaugural June 30th, 2007 shipment of the JesusPhone, Verizon incautiously circulated the now semi-famous “iWhatever” memo to its troops, dissing the iPhone and its maker. 50 million (we’ll see the latest numbers in about 10 days) iPhones and iPod Touch(es) later, Verizon is more than ever dead set against letting Dear Leader have its way with its business model. To Verizon, AT&T’s fate is anathema: AT&T let Apple “run the table” for digital media sales over its wireless network. Put more crudely, AT&T bent over and became a “dumb pipe”, a wireless ISP in the service of the iTunes content distribution and revenue engine. For this unnatural act, AT&T got a $100 ARPU (Average Revenue Per User, the industry-wide average is about $50) and the use of the iPhone as a lure to steal Verizon subscribers. Verizon can’t stand that thought, they want to keep their birthright, that is a piece of every bit of digital content revenue moving through its network. More

A Blinding Flash of The Obvious

In the US, if Apple gave up on the AT&T exclusivity, the iPhone’s market share would double. So says Morgan Stanley’s anal-yst Kathryn Huberty. See this PC World piece here. And a CNN/Fortune Magazine piece here.

Let’s not throw stones at Ms. Huberty but, instead, question her bosses’ wisdom, work ethics or wakefulness. Is anyone editing the firm’s publications? Isn’t Morgan Stanley missing the real fight, the big struggle between Apple and carriers for mobile Internet content billions?’

First, Huberty’s thesis: If AT&T no longer had an exclusive distribution agreement for the iPhone, if, for example, Verizon also “offered” Apple’s smartphone, the device’s market share would more than double from about 4.9% to 12.2%. (In passing: what’s the last digit’s significance? Those are estimates, not measurements, good within a ± 10% margin of error, at the very best. Spreadsheet follies…)
Morgan Stanley’s seer bases her prophecy on French market share numbers after Orange lost its exclusivity and the other two carriers, SFR and Bouygues, gained access to the iPhone. The legend is the iPhone’s market share shot up by 136% as a result.

I’m sorry but that’s a lot of BS; there are no facts to substantiate such a claim.Readers probably know I’m a French-born Silicon Valley-based venture investor; I travel to the old country four or five times a year and keep reasonably close tabs on industry and political goings-on there.
Clouding the discussion with facts: The iPhone has been available from Orange since October 25th, 2007. The other carriers sued and local regulatory authorities subsequently nixed the Orange exclusivity. As a result, SFR started shipping iPhones in April of 2009, about six months ago. And Bouygues did the same about five months ago. Since 2007, Orange alone sold about 1.5 million iPhones. If Bouygues and SFR sold a generous 500,000 units since April 2009, how does this constitute a 136% market share increase?


Processors: More, yes, but better?

Last week’s Intel Developers’ Forum brought the expected crop of new CPU chips. The simplest way to summarize what’s taking place is this:

  • We’re stuck at 3GHz, so we add more processors on the CPU chip.
  • Intel continues to lead with small “geometries”, 32 nanometers today, 22 nm tomorrow.
  • The company pitches its x-86 processors for mobile devices.

More processors: Once upon a time, each year brought a significant increase in processor speed. Not to be too wistful about the early PC days, but a 1 MHz processor ran “perfectly good” spreadsheets. Like many bouts of nostalgia, this one omits important bits of context such as the complexity of said VisiCalc model, what other software ran concurrently, if any, what storage and networking devices were supported, what kind of display and audio devices were offered. Still, I’d love to see the original assembly language version of Lotus 1-2-3 run on a “bare metal” DOS configuration brought up on a 3GHz Intel machine — a CPU clock 3,000 times faster than the 1983 vintage machine.

In the early 90’s, luxury was a 33MHz Pentium. Now we’re at 3GHz, apparently stuck there  for the last 4-5 years. (A history of Intel processors can be found here.).
The faster you move something around, the more power you need. Try lifting and lowering a 10 pound weight. Slowly at first, once every 5 seconds, then every second, then twice per second. Your own body temperature will give you the answer.
Inside a processor, we have transistors. These are logic gates, they open and close. In doing so, they shuttle electrons back and forth at the circuit’s clock speed. These electrons are not “weightless”, moving them consumes power, just as we do lifting weight. As the clock rate increases, more power is needed, the transistor temperature increases. There are more precise, more technical ways of expressing this; but the basic fact remains: faster chips are hotter chips. Knowing this, chip designers found ways to counter the temperature rise such as using smaller gates shuttling a smaller “mass of electrons” back and forth. Air or liquid cooling of chips does help as well. Still, we hit a wall. With today’s (and tomorrow’s foreseeable) silicon technology, we’re out of GHz.
So, what do we do for more powerful CPU chips? More

Technology: It’s Over…

In an “Entrepreneurial Thought Leader” lecture given at Stanford University earlier this year, Tom Siebel argues that all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth.

The previous sentence introduces a segment of the February 2009 Stanford lecture, see here for the event’s full video.

It’s not the first time some killjoy predicts the end of tech fun: in 1899, a Charles H. Duell, none less than the Commissioner of the US Patent and Trademark Office, the USPTO reportedly said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented”.
There is a distinct possibility the infamous quote is nothing but an urban legend but, time and again, some sage comes to a forum and tells us the great times are behind us, the tech industry has now entered a grey era of incrementalism.
I’ve personally heard it a few times. In the early 1970s, at Hewlett-Packard where Bill Hewlett told such skeptics where to file their predictions away. In 1985, when I moved to Silicon Valley to take over Apple’s Product Development. I was told Silicon Valley was doomed, it was becoming a ghost town as unheard of layoffs were taking place. In the early 90’s, when the first Gulf War and a bad economy emptied shopping centers and restaurants.
Soon thereafter, the Internet came out of the research lab closet, the browser was invented and yet another wave of innovation came about.
As for Tom Siebel, his background makes the gloomy prediction more puzzling: he’s not part of the kommentariat, he is an industry mensch, the inventor of CRM, rising to the industry’s firmament and later selling Siebel Systems to Oracle for $5.8 billion. Perhaps he was merely trying to arouse his audience and start a reaction.

Still, is he right? Have we entered an era where all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and where the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth?

Absolutely not. More

Kremlinology For Fun and Profit

I’m quite fond of kremlinology, the metaphorical one, not the literal sort. For me, it started as a hobby and ended up making me decades of fun and money. Allow me to explain before we proceed with an attempted decryption of recent Apple events and statements.

Working in Paris in the seventies, I struck an acquaintance with a Gideon Gartner analyst called Aaron Orlhansky. He came to lunch with a bunch of markitecture papers from IBM and I had fun untwisting the real meaning behind sonorous statements coming from “The Company”. That was my amateur kremlinology stint. One day, he casually mentioned his acquaintance with Tom Lawrence, Apple’s top gun in Europe. And he added: ‘Tom’s looking for someone to start Apple France’. I said I was that man, an introduction was made, Tom and I “clicked” immediately and I was hired on December 12th 1980.
Almost three decades later, I’m in the Valley, a kid let out in the candy store, watching wave after wave of exciting entrepreneurs, ideas, technology, products, cultural changes…

On to a bit of Apple kremlinology.

The biggest news was Steve’s appearance at the iPod event last week: ‘I’m vertical’, he said and proceeded to acknowledge his gratitude to the liver donor who allowed him to be there. He also thanked the Apple teams who kept the ship going while he wasn’t so even-keeled. And he encouraged us to become donors. In California, you do that with a code on your driver’s license. Nothing to decode here, everyone is happy to see Dear Leader back in the saddle. He was met with a heartfelt standing ovation.
Now, we hear complaints he’s back lording over details, putting people under tremedous pressure. Good.

Let’s turn to the iPod announcements and to the howls of disappointment over the lack of camera in the new and improved iPod Touch. How could He do this to us, His faithful followers? When questioned, the spinmeister lets its be known the absent camera makes a lower entry price possible, $199. The iPod Touch has emerged as a major game console, you see, and you don’t need a camera on such a device.
I’d say two out of three.
Yes, the games on the 20 million iPod Touches (and 30 million iPhones) shipped so far surprised everyone, Apple first. Games aren’t a side show on the platform, they’ve become a big money maker for developers and a threat to the likes of Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. Commenting this graph, from Apple’s presentation, Business Insider says ‘the iPhone platform has almost five times the number of game and entertainment titles that Sony and Nintendo’s portable systems have combined.’
Removing the camera to get to a price point? Not convincing, camera modules cost very little, they’re everywhere on cheap cell phones. More

The Healthcare debate

Before I jump into the topic, you might want to know: Why do we, venture investors, care about the debate? Is this another case of financially comfortable people getting in touch with their inner left-winger? I can’t answer for the deeper layers of my psyche, I’ve given up on such explorations. All I can say is: We The VCs don’t like the ever escalating portion of our GDP spent on healthcare, 17.6% in 2009 and expected to rise to 19.5% by 2017.
 More specifically, for our startups, the cost of employer-sponsored health insurance has risen by 119% (!) in the last decade. We’re in the business of financing the dreams of entrepreneurs, not lining the pockets of insurance companies.

(For more on the the GDP threat and other toxic issues see my January 11th, 2009 Monday Note here.) And, on the unproven assumption we have a heart and soul, how could we like the spectacle of close to 50 million (this is likely to be the 2009 number) uninsured people?

With this out of the way, on to the debate.

First, I see a terrible error in reasoning: we can’t keep treating healthcare like a business. We’re not dealing with the financials of Boeing, Walmart or Apple. Once upon a time, an aspiring executive, I wanted to be initiated into the brotherhood of executives. Knowing my pangs and playing on them, McGraw Hill,

 the publishing giant now trying to get rid of Business Week,
 sold me a subscription to management books series. Luckily, these were good books, I fondly remember Robert Townsend’s Up The Organization! and, to today’s point, Peter Drucker’s
 The Practice of Management.

 Take a look at the enthusiastic Amazon reviews. More than thirty-five years later, one idea from the book still sticks to my mind: the difference between businesses and institutions. The Army, Congress and, according to the great management sage, hospitals all are institutions; they shouldn’t be thought of, or managed like businesses. (I won’t get into the “business” of Congress with lobbyists.)
To our now costly regret, we’ve allowed medicine to be run like a business. When doctors mortgage themselves to buy expensive imaging equipment installed right into their office, guess what happens? Medicine leaving, rightly, much to the doctor’s judgement, a doctor now motivated to run expensive diagnostics, just in case.
If you have the time and stamina, read the great New Yorker article on a Texas town, McAllen, featuring the highest per capita medical costs in the entire country. Why? The equipment and a culture of treating medicine as a business, of milking/bilking patients and, in most cases, their insurance companies. The latter always have the solution of raising premiums on customers who can’t go elsewhere for fear of being denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
If you want an even more disheartening read on the state of healthcare in the US, versus the rest of the world, grab T.R. Reid’s The Healing of America. 
Again, take a look at the Amazon reviews. The subtitle reads: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care; it foretells the awful story inside, not by a left-wing firebrand but by a moderate soft-spoken scholarly but readable writer.
In a nutshell: We, the US, are number one (we always like the sound of that) in per capita spending; but, depending on the way outcomes are measured, we rank something like thirty-seventh on the quality/efficiency of our healthcare.
To quote the author: “You don’t need an advanced degree in yajnopathy to recognize that the stars are aligned and the timing is propitious for the United States to establish a new national healthcare system.”

Yet, we’re mired in heated controversy and ugly lies. More