About Jean-Louis Gassée

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CarPlay Thoughts

 

Who wouldn’t want an iPhone- or Android-like experience in their car instead of today’s misbegotten navigation and entertainment systems? CarPlay’s answer looks nice – until one looks at the details.

Apple’s CarPlay has an air of inevitability. Previously dubbed “iOS in the Car”, CarPlay brings the iPhone’s aesthetics, ease of use, consistency, and universe of apps to the ugly and dumbfounding world of car navigation and entertainment systems.

Seven years after the iPhone launched the Smartphone 2.0 wave, Apple kickstarts another mobile revolution…

It’s an enticing, simple vision. Instead of today’s disjointed systems — which often cost in the $1,000 range, plus $249 for a DVD of updated maps — you get a screen the size of a small tablet running iOS apps with voice and touch control (on-screen and armrest), off-air map updates, open-ended flexibility… We have arrived.

I’ve struggled with dashboard electronics from German, Japanese, and French car makers (no electronics on the old family Chevrolets), and I’ve seen what happened to Ford when it tried to use Microsoft software for its Sync system. Replacing these hairballs with an iOS system only makes sense.

But sense and reality are still living apart.

carplay2

To start, the “iOS in the Car” phrase is misleading. The iOS device “in your car” is the iPhone or iPad that you’ve brought with you — Apple isn’t about to license iOS to automakers (which may be part of the reason why Apple changed the name to “CarPlay”).

And Apple isn’t going to try to take the place of suppliers such as Delphi, VDO, and Aisin by making subsystems for carmakers — it’s not in Apple’s DNA. Not that it would matter if they tried: Automakers have made an art of pinching fractions of cents from their suppliers’ prices; they’d never tolerate Apple’s margins.

CarPlay replicates your iDevice’s screen as H.264 video spewed through an intelligent Lightning cable connected to your car’s USB port. The video format is widely accepted, so the in-car device either understands it already, or can be updated to do so.

So far, so good. As many observers have pointed out, the idea is a wired echo of Apple’s AirPlay, the technology that connects your iDevices (and other compliant products) to your television via the Apple TV black puck. Complications may arise when you consider the various in-dash screen sizes, resolution, actual uses of USB connections (my car’s USB connector is useless for anything other than charging my smartphone), and other mysterious incompatibilities that are beyond Apple’s control. Still, in general, screen replication demands little from the car maker. As with Airplay and a dumb TV set, the intelligence stays inside the smartphone.

The CarPlay proposal is much more limited than the Open Automotive Alliance, a Google initiative that implants a customized version of Android into a car’s electronics. (“Audi connect” is available today; we can expect similar collaborations with Honda, GM and Hyundai.) But if the in-car system runs Android (or QNX, as is often the case today), so much the better, from the carmaker’s point of view: Let Google or one of its partner do all the work to create an Android-based all-in-one car system and let Apple hitch a ride after the work is done. Serving both Android and iOS users is a no-brainer.

It sounds good… but I can’t help but harbor uneasy feelings about this whole “scene”.

To begin with, we have a clash of cultures. To be sure, Eddy Cue, Apple’s Senior VP of Internet Software and Services, is a dealmaking expert and, as a member of the Board of Ferrari, he has serious automotive industry connections. But the spirit that drives Apple is far from that which motivates automakers.

The automotive industry expects to be in control of everything that gets into their cars. The coup that Apple pulled off with the iPhone and AT&T — taking full control of the content, no crapware, iTunes only for media — isn’t going to happen with Mercedes-Benz, or BMW, or even Hyundai. Cars aren’t phones. We’re not going to see aftermarket Toyota CarPlay kits (let alone entire cars) in Apple Stores. Apple won’t get what it always strives for: Controlled Distribution.

Then there’s the F-word: Fragmentation. In-car electronics are a mess, a new culture grafted onto an old one, Silicon Valley and Detroit in a loveless marriage. Actually, that’s  unfair: Under the hood, embedded electronics do wonders to improve the reliability, safety, and economy of our cars. But where the union breaks down is in the User Experience domain. Competent combustion management engineers and the accountants watching over their shoulders have no empathy for smartphone-loving drivers.

The meanderings get more twisted when we consider a key difference between Google and Apple. Google could tell Audi that they’ll pay, in some form, for the user data collected by Audi connect— but Audi already makes a lot of money, they don’t want to open that can of worms. As they say in their privacy agreement:

“We will not share information about you or your Audi vehicle that is connected with your use of Audi connect’s in-car features with third parties for their own purposes without your consent.”

But what would a legally-troubled, profit-starved automaker such as GM say in response to Google’s offer to subsidize the in-car system?

Apple hasn’t played that game.

An all-in-one navigation/communications/entertainment system is a pleasant dream, it feels “right”. But the technical, business model, and cultural obstacles could make for a long, arduous march.

CarPlay could be a very smart way to hitch a ride on many in-car systems without having to struggle with their design and cost challenges, yet another ecosystem extension play.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Apple Game: New Categories vs. Ecosystem Development

 

Putting hopes for Apple’s future on a magical New Category misunderstands the company’s real direction. Instead, Apple stays the course and continues to play its Ecosystem Game. Many interpret this as a company in death throes.

The iPhone is 7 years old. The iPad was introduced 4 years ago. Since then… nothing.
Apple’s growth is gone: a mere 9% revenue uptick in 2013; only 6% for the last quarter.

It’s time to acknowledge the painfully obvious truth: Innovation has deserted Apple. Something must have gone seriously wrong if the company can no longer break into new categories.

This is the refrain that echoes through the Web… and this is the toxic waste of success.

It started back in the early 80’s when all we wanted was a better Apple ][ (or a working Apple ///)… and we were stunned by the Macintosh. We were unable to imagine a mouse + a bit-mapped display + moveable windows + pull-down menus, all the things that came to define the next iteration of personal computers. We couldn’t imagine it because we didn’t have the right words to think with.

The Mac created a template for what we’ve come to expect from Apple: A breakthrough. Now we’ve had two epochal hits in rapid succession — the iPhone and iPad — and, once again, we’re hooked. We need another fix, another burst of excitement, something New and Different. We’re no longer satisfied with the boring New and Improved.

The desire for Something New is understandable, but breakthroughs don’t happen on demand… and a “breakthrough” isn’t always necessary.

Consider the PC. In rough numbers, the PC is 40 years old. In that time, it has matured into what we now enjoy through gradual improvements to hardware and software: Better graphics, sound, displays, user interface, network connectivity.

Why don’t we take as much pleasure in the continuous flow of improvements to our smartphones and tablets?

When we regard the new categories that Apple has “failed” to create (or join) we face a number of problems.

We’ll make short work of the fantasized Apple TV set. We all know what we want: à la carte content served to us as apps through an Apple-grade device. We’ve had enough of the Soviet-era set-top boxes and tiered pricing foisted on us by cable companies.

Even if Apple wanted to head in that direction — and step into the quagmire of exploitative relationships between content creators, distributors, and de facto carrier monopolies — the impact on the company’s top and bottom lines, revenue and profit, would be moderate. Ten million set-top boxes at (say) $299 makes “only” $3B — that’s less than 2% of last year’s revenue.

(A short digression on the curse of large numbers: At Apple’s size, which is approaching $200B in yearly revenue, a “breakthrough” product would need to generate at least 5%  — $10B — in order to move the needle. That’s approximately one Facebook.)

What about wearables? It’s a lively category and will get livelier as sensors get more sophisticated, consume less energy, and benefit from software refinements. Microsoft had one years ago; Pebble, Samsung, and many others offer “smartwatches”; Fitbit and Jawbone Up manufacture “fitness bracelets”.

My take on smartwatches and bracelets (The Next Apple TV: iWatch, More iWatch Fun and Apple’s Wearable Future) is that Apple is already in that category – with the “Always With Us” iPhone and motion sensing, and with apps such as Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate app.

We now turn to cars. The CarPlay announcement at the Geneva Motor Show follows the iOS in the Car presentation at last year’s WWDC (Apple’s Developers Conference).

We have to ask: How does the CarPlay money pump work, and in which direction? Does Mercedes Pay Apple, or the other way around? On the technical and User Interface levels, how does the tightly controlled and consistent Apple experience survive the wide range of UI cultures and cost constraints so painfully obvious in today’s cars? On its CarPlay webpage, Apple makes broad promises:

“To activate Siri voice control, just press and hold the voice control button on the steering wheel.”
“If your CarPlay-equipped vehicle has a touchscreen, you can use it to control CarPlay.”

and..

“CarPlay also works with the knobs, dials, or buttons in the car. If it controls your screen, it controls CarPlay.”

We’ll have to wait and see how “the apps you want to use in the car have been reimagined” and how automakers play one smartphone ecosystem against another.

In any case, CarPlay isn’t a product that’s meant to stand on its own. In Apple’s own words, it’s part of the iPhone ecosystem:

“CarPlay is a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car. CarPlay takes the things you want to do with your iPhone while driving and puts them right on your car’s built-in display.”

A not-so-surprising  pattern emerges: Rather than play the New Category game, Apple stays the Ecosystem Development course it’s been on since the advent of the truly epoch-making iTunes. Tim Cook may claim that the $99 Apple TV black puck Tim Cook is no longer a hobby”, but its yearly revenue is in the $1B range, less than 1% of the company’s overall number. Apple may make a wearable someday, but will everyone want an iWatch the way they want an iPhone? And let’s not expect direct revenue upticks from CarPlay, just a more pleasant iPhone experience in “selected” vehicles.

This gets us to Apple’s deeply rooted fixation: From its April 1st, 1976 founding to this day, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers. Today, they come in three sizes: Macs, iPads, and iPhones. Everything else Apple creates — iTunes, the App Store, the physical Apple Stores, Apple TV pucks, CarPlay, the mythical iWatch — these are all part of the supporting cast, and they have a single mission: Prop up the volume and margins of the star products.

This isn’t to diminish the importance of the supporting cast. iTunes begat the iPod, a product once so successful it generated more revenue than the Mac in 2006. iTunes also introduced the distribution mechanism and micro-payment system that unleashed the iPhone’s full power, that made it an “app-phone”. As our friend Horace Dediu points out, iTunes by itself would rank #130 in the Fortune 500 list (yearly gross revenue of $23.5B, + 34% growth in 2103).

Nonetheless, iTunes doesn’t have a separate P&L (Profit & Loss) statement in Apple’s financials because there’s only one P&L for the entire company. There are no “line of business” numbers because there’s only one business.

As the Macalope explains, ecosystems are put to very different uses by Amazon and Google, on the one hand, and Apple:

“Amazon and Google sell tablets at cut rates in order to get people to use their ecosystems. It’s less crucial for them that people buy tablets; they just want people to use tablets to buy stuff and look at ads. Apple makes money off its ecosystem, too, but unlike Amazon and Google that’s not where it makes most of its money.”

Still, there is another possibility. Apple could get into an entirely new business, as opposed to one or more of the ecosystem-supporting products/services mentioned above. One such example is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of opening another line of product sales, fresh produce or wine, Amazon got into the business of renting servers to companies large and small. It’s not Amazon’s biggest line, it weighs less than 3% of total revenue, it’s thought to be very profitable (unlike the main lines) and grows very fast. Gartner thinks AWS is now larger than its next five competitors combined. An amazing success.

Amazon did it because it developed a superior computer services infrastructure  for its core business and decided to offer similar services to any and all.

Back to Apple, could one imagine the company using some of its hard-earned expertise to branch in a different, non personal computers business? For a not-too-serious example, Porsche makes cars and there is a Porsche Design business. But I don’t see Tim Cook telling Sir Jony to open a design studio business. And Porsche Design weighs nothing compared to the Porsche car maker. Such branching out sounds very remote.

So is it true that Apple has given up on developing its business? In 2013, Apple increased its R&D spending by 32% (you can download Apple’s entire 10-K report here); 2012 was + 39%. In the previous two fiscal years ending last September — and without entering any new category — Apple increased its R&D spending by 83% to $4.5B, 3% of revenue. And then it increased it by another 33% in the December, 2013 quarter.

Accelerated R&D spending can only mean one thing: Apple is widening the range of products under development. Let’s just hope company execs continue to be as good as they’ve been in the past at saying No, at not shipping everything they engineer.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Apple Tesla Connection: Fun and Reason With Numbers

 

Apple acquiring Tesla would make for juicy headlines but would also be very dangerous. There are more sensible ways for the two companies to make money together.

Apple has never suffered from a lack of advice. As long as I can remember — 33 years in my case — words of wisdom have rained down upon the company, and yet the company stubbornly insists on following its own compass instead of treading a suggested path.

(Actually, that’s not entirely true. A rudderless, mid-nineties Apple yielded to the pressure of pundit opinion and licensed its Mac OS to Power Computing and Motorola… and promptly lost its profits to Mac clones. When Steve Jobs returned in 1997, he immediately canceled the licenses. This “harsh” decision was met with a howl of protest, but it stanched the bleeding and made room for the other life-saving maneuvers that saved the company.)

Now that Jobs is no longer with us and Apple’s growth has slowed, the advice rain is more intense than ever… and the pageviews netwalkers are begging for traffic. Suggestions range from the deranged (Tim Cook needs to buy a blazer), to – having forgotten what happened to netbooks – joining the race to the bottom (Apple needs a low-cost iPhone!), to the catchall “New Categories” such as Wearables, TV, Payment Systems, and on to free-floating hysteria: “For Apple’s sake, DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!”

The visionary sheep point to the titanic deals that other tech giants can’t seem to resist: Google buys Nest for $3.3B; Facebook acquires WhatsApp for $16B (or $19B, depending on what and how you count). Why doesn’t Apple use its $160B of cash and make a big acquisition that will solidify its position and rekindle growth?

Lately, we’ve been hearing suggestions that Apple ought to buy Tesla. The company is eminently affordable: Even after TSLA’s recent run-up to $30B, the company is well within Apple’s means. (That Wall Street seems to be telling us that Tesla is worth about half of GM and Ford is another story entirely.)

Indeed, Adrian Perica, Apple’s head of acquisitions, met Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk last Spring. Musk, who later confirmed the meeting, called a deal “very unlikely”, but fans of both companies think it’s an ideal match: Tesla is the first Silicon Valley car company, great at design, robotics, and software. Like Apple, Tesla isn’t afraid to break with traditional distribution models. And, to top it off, Musk is a Steve Jobs-grade leader, innovator, and industry contrarian. I can see the headline: “Tesla, the Apple of the auto industry…”

But we can also picture the clash of cultures…to say nothing of egos.

I have vivid recollections of the clash of cultures after Exxon’s acquisition of high-tech companies to form Exxon Office Systems in the 1970s.

Still reeling from the OPEC oil crisis, Exxon’s management was hypnotized by the BCG (Boston Consulting Group) who insisted that “Information Is the Oil of the 21st Century.” The BCG was right, Tech has its Robber Barons: Apple, Oracle, Google, Facebook, Intel, and Microsoft all weigh more than Shell, Exxon, or BP.

But the BCG was also wrong: Exxon’s culture had no ability to understand what made the computer industry tick, and the tech folks thoroughly despised the Exxon people. The deal went nowhere and cost Exxon about $4B – a lot of money more than 30 years ago.

This history lesson isn’t lost on Apple. So: If Apple isn’t “interested” in Tesla, why are they interested in Tesla?

Could it be batteries?

A look at battery numbers for the two companies brings up an interesting parallel. Tesla plans to make 35,000 Tesla S cars this year. According to Car and Driver magazine, the battery weighs 1323 pounds (600 kilograms — we’ll stick to metric weights moving forward):

Tesla S Battery 1323lbs edited

That’s 21,000 (metric) tons of batteries.

For Apple devices the computation is more complicated — and more speculative — because the company publicizes battery capacity (in watt-hours) rather than weight. But after some digging around, I found the weight information for an iPhone 4S on the iFixit site: 26 grams. From there, I estimated that the weight of the larger iPhone 5S battery is 30 grams.

I reasoned that the weight/capacity ratio is probably the same for all Apple batteries, so if a 26g iPhone battery provides 5.25 watt-hrs, the iPad Air battery that yields 32.4 watt-hrs must weigh approximately 160g. Sparing you the details of the mix of iPad minis and the approximations for the various Macs, we end up with these numbers for 2014 (I’m deliberately omitting the iPod):

100M iPads @ 130g = 13,000 tons
200M iPhones @ 30g = 6,000 tons
20M Macs @ 250g = 5,000 tons
Total Apple batteries = 24,000 metric tons

It’s a rough estimate, but close enough for today’s purpose: Apple and Tesla need about the same tonnage of batteries this year.

Now consider that Tesla just announced it will build a battery mill it calls the Gigafactory:

gigafactory process

According to Tesla, the plant’s capacity in 2020 will be higher than what the entire world produced in 2013.

A more likely explanation for Apple’s conversation with Tesla might be something Apple does all the time: Sit with a potential supplier and discuss payment in advance as a way to secure supply of a critical component.

Of course, neither Tesla nor Apple will comment. Why should they? But a partnership born of their comparable needs for battery volumes makes a lot more sense than for the two companies to become one.

–JLG@mondaynote.com

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Postscript: Certainly, Apple is no stranger to acquisitions — the company recently disclosed that it purchased 23 small companies in the last 16 months — but the operative word, here, is “small”. Apple has made two large purchases in twenty years: The late-1996 acquisition of NeXT for $429M (and 1.5M Apple shares), and the $356M purchase of Authentec in July 2012. Other other than that, Apple’s acquisitions have focused on talent and technologies rather than sheer size.

This seems wise. In small acquisitions, everyone knows who’s in charge, it’s the acquirer’s way or the highway, and failure rarely makes headlines. Bigger deals always involve explicit or implicit power sharing and, more important, a melding of cultures, of habits of the heart and mind, of “the ways we do things here”.

——–

Nokia Goes Android – Part II

 

Next week, we might see Nokia’s entry-level feature phones replaced by a low-end device running Android Open Source Project software. The phone may just be a fantasy, but the dilemma facing Nokia’s feature phone business is quite real: Embrace Android or be killed by it. 

Nokia will announce an Android phone! So says the persistent rumor, started about three months ago by an @evleaks tweet, and followed by more details as weeks went by. Initially code-named Normandy, the hypothetical feature phone is now called Nokia X, and it already has its own Wikipedia page and pictures:

Nokia X

Nokia is on the path to being acquired by Microsoft. Why introduce an Android-based phone now? The accepted reasoning is simple…

  • Even though it doesn’t generate much revenue per handset (only $42), Nokia’s feature phone business is huge and must be protected. Nokia’s Form 20-F for 2012 (the 2013 report hasn’t been published, yet) shows its phone numbers compared to the previous year:
    • 35M smartphones (-55%) at an average price (ASP) of $210 (+ 11%)
    • 300M feature phones (-12%) with an ASP of $42 (- 11%)
  • These 300 million feature phones — or “dumbphones” — keep the Nokia flag waving, particularly in developing economies, and they act as an up-ramp towards more profitable smartphones.
  • Lately, dumbphones have become smarter. With the help of Moore’s Law, vigorous competition, and Android Open Source Project (AOSP) software, yesterday’s underfed, spartan feature phones are being displaced by entry-level smartphones. Asha, Nokia’s offering in this category, has been mowed down by low-end Android devices from China.
  • Nokia can’t help but notice that these AOSP-based feature phones act as a gateway drug to the full-blown Android smartphone experience (and much larger profits) offered by competitors such as Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola’s new owner Lenovo.
  • So Nokia drops its over-the-hill Symbian software core, adopts Android, adds its own (and Microsoft’s) services, design expertise, and carrier relationships, and the result is Nokia X, a cleaner, smarter feature phone.

That’s it. Very tactical. Business as usual, only better. Move along, nothing to see.

It’s not that simple.

There’s an important difference between the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and the full Android environment that’s offered by Samsung, LG, HTC and the like.

The Android Open Source Project is really Open Source, you can download the source code here, modify it as you see fit for your application, add layers of services, substitute parts…anything you like.

Well, almost anything. The one thing you can’t do is slap a figurative “Android Inside” sticker on your device. To do that, you must comply with Google’s strict compatibility requirements that force licensees to bundle Google Mobile (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) and Google Play (the store for apps and other content). The result isn’t open or free, but smartphone makers who want the Android imprimatur must accept the entire stack.

As an added incentive to stay clean, a “Full Android” licensee cannot also market devices that use a different, incompatible version (or “fork”) of the Android code published by Google. A well-know example of forking is Amazon’s use of Android source code to create the software engine that runs its high-end Kindle Fire tablets. You won’t find a single instance of the word “Android” on these devices: Google won’t license the name for such uses.

(For more on the murky world of Android licensing, bundling, and marketing agreements, see Ben Edelman’s research paper: Secret Ties in Google’s “Open” Android.)

The hypothetical, entry-level Nokia X can’t offer an entire Android stack — it can’t be allowed to compete with the higher-end Lumias powered by Microsoft’s Windows Phone — so it would have to run an “unmentionable” Android fork.

Even without the “Android Inside” label, everyone would soon know the truth about the Android code inside the new device. This could give pause to software developers, carriers, and, the more curious users. “Where is Microsoft going with this? Won’t the Android beast inside soon work its way up the product line and displace the Windows Phone OS?”

Microsoft will make soothing sounds: “Trust us, nothing of the sort will ever happen.  Nokia X is a purely tactical ploy, a placeholder that will give Windows Phone enough time to reveal its full potential.” We know how well attempts to create a Reality Distortion Field have worked for Microsoft’s Post-PC denials.

The Redmond not-so-mobile giant faces a dilemma: Lose the Asha feature phone business to aggressive forked-Android makers, or risk poisoning its Windows Phone business by introducing potentially expansionist Android seeds at the bottom of its handset line.

Several observers (see Charles Arthur’s penetrating Guardian column as an example) have concluded that Microsoft should follow Amazon’s lead and accept the “Come To Android” moment. It should drop Windows Phone and run a familiar Embrace and Extend play: Embrace Android and Extend it with Bing, Nokia’s Here Maps, Office, and other Microsoft properties.

Critics, such as Peter Bright, an energetic Microsoft commenter, contend that forking Android isn’t feasible:

“Android isn’t designed to be forked. With GMS, Google has deliberately designed Android to resist forking. Suggestions that Microsoft scrap its own operating system in favor of such a fork simply betray a lack of understanding of the way Google has built the Android platform.”

Dianne Hackborn, a senior Android engineer (and a former comrade of mine during a previous OS war) contradicts Bright in great point-by-point detail and concludes:

“Actually, I don’t think you have an understanding of how Google has built Android. I have been actively involved in designing and implementing Android since early on, and it was very much designed to be an open-source platform… Android creates a much more equal playing field for others to compete with Google’s services than is provided by the proprietary platforms it is competing with. I also think a good argument can be made that Android’s strategy for addressing today’s need to integrate cloud services into the base platform is an entirely appropriate model for a ‘real’ open-source platform to take.”

In the end, Microsoft probably doesn’t trust Google to refrain from the same games that Microsoft itself knows (too well) how to play. Microsoft used its control of Windows to favor its Office applications. Now it’s Google’s turn. The Mountain View company appears set to kill Microsoft Office, slowly but surely, and using all means available: OS platforms and Cloud services.

None of this draws a pretty picture for Microsoft’s mobile future. Damned if it introduces Android bits at the low end, damned if it lets that same software kill its Asha feature phone business.

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee
———————-
PS: Almost four years ago, I wrote a light-hearted piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android. It was actually less fictional than I let on at the time. In June 2010, I was asked to give a talk at Nokia’s US HQ in White Plains, NY. I was supposed to discuss Apple but I declined to spend too much time on that topic arguing that the Cupertino company was too “foreign” to Nokia’s culture. Instead, I made two suggestions: Fire your CEO and drop your four or five software platforms — Symbian and Linux variants — and adopt Android. Nokia’s combination of industrial design expertise, manufacturing might, and long-standing, globe-spanning carrier relationships could make it a formidable Android smartphone maker.

The first recommendation was warmly received — there was no love for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the accountant cum attorney CEO.

The second was met with indignation: “We can’t lose control of our destiny”. I tried to explain that the loss had already taken place, that too many software platforms were a sure way to get killed at the hands of monomaniacal adversaries.

Three months later Kallasvuo was replaced…by a Microsoft alum who immediately osborned Nokia’s smartphone business by pre-announcing the move to Windows Phone almost a year before the new devices became available.

—–

Comcast and Us

 

Comcast tells us how much better our lives will be after they acquire Time Warner. Great, thanks! Perhaps this is an opportunity to look at other ways that we can “acquire” Cable TV and Internet access.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts thinks we’re powerless idiots. This is what his company’s website says about the planned Time Warner acquisition :

“Transaction Creates Multiple Pro-Consumer and Pro-Competitive Benefits…”

Don’t read the full legal verbiage that purports to explain the maneuver. A more productive use of your time will be had by reading Counternotion’s pointed summary in Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern:

(tl;dr: According to Comcast, the merger is “pro-sumer” if you “get past some of the hysteria,” it’s “approvable” by the regulators and won’t “reduce consumer choice at all”. Will it raise prices? “not promising that they will go down or even that they will increase less rapidly.” Given the historical record of the industry, it’s Comedy Central material.)

Let’s not loiter around Comcast’s lobbying operations, either — the $18.8M spent in 2013, the pictures of Mr. Roberts golfing with our President, the well-oiled revolving door between the FCC and the businesses they regulate. Feelings of powerlessness and anger may ensue, as trenchantly expressed in this lament from a former FCC Commissioner.

Instead, let’s use our agitation as an opportunity to rethink what we really want from Cable carriers. The wish list is long: TV à la carte instead of today’s stupid bundles, real cable competition vs. de facto local monopolies, metered Internet access in exchange for neutrality and lower prices for lighter usage, decent set-top boxes, 21st century cable modems, and, of course, lower prices.

These are all valid desires, but if there were just one thing that we could change about the carrier business, what would it be? What would really make a big, meaningful difference to our daily use of TV and the Internet?

Do you remember the Carterfone Decision? For a century (telephone service started in the US in 1877), AT&T reigned supreme in telecommunications networking. (I should say the former AT&T, not today’s company rebuilt from old body parts.) The company owned everything along its path, all the way down to your telephone handset — only MaBell’s could be used.

Then, in the late fifties, a company called Carterfone began to sell two-way radios that could be hooked up to a telephone. The device was invented by a Texan named Thomas Carter as a clumsy but clever way to allow oil field owners and managers sitting in their offices in Dallas to reach their workers out at the pumps.

AT&T was not amused.

“[AT&T] advised their subscribers that the Carterfone, when used in conjunction with the subscriber’s telephone, is a prohibited interconnecting device, the use of which would subject the user to the penalties provided in the tariff…”

Carterfone brought an antitrust suit against AT&T… and won. With its decision in favor of Thomas Carter’s company, the Federal Communications Commission got us to a new era where any device meeting the appropriate technical standards could connect to the phone network.

“…we hold, as did the examiner, that application of the tariff to bar the Carterfone in the future would be unreasonable and unduly discriminatory.”

The regulator — an impartial representative, in an ideal world — decides what can connect to the network. It’s not a decision that’s left to the phone company.

Back in the 21st century, we need a Carterfone Decision for cable boxes and modems. We need a set of rules that would allow Microsoft, Google, Roku, Samsung, Amazon, Apple — and companies that are yet to be founded — to provide true alternatives to Comcast’s set-top boxes.

Today, you have a cable modem that’s so dumb it forces you to restart everything in a particular sequence after a power outage. You have a WiFi base station stashed in among the wires. Your set-top box looks like it was made in the former Soviet Union (a fortuitous product introduction days before the merger announcement doesn’t improve things, much). You have to find your TV’s remote in order to switch between broadcast TV, your game console, and your Roku/AppleTV/Chromecast…and you have to reach into your basket of remotes just to change channels.

Imagine what would happen if a real tech company were allowed to compete on equal terms with the cable providers.

Microsoft, for example, could offer an integrated Xbox that would provide Internet access, TV channels with a guide designed by Microsoft, WiFi, an optional telephone, games of course, and other apps as desired. One box, three connectors: power, coax from the street, and HDMI to the TV set. There would be dancing in the streets.

But, you’ll object, what about the technical challenges? Cable systems are antiquated and poorly standardized. The cables themselves carry all sorts of noisy signals. What tech giant would want to deal with this mess?

To which one can reply: Look at the smartphone. It’s the most complicated consumer device we’ve ever known. It contains radios (Wifi, Bluetooth, multi-band cellular), accelerometers/gyroscopes, displays, loudspeakers, cameras, batteries… And yet, smartphones are made in huge quantities and function across a wide range of network standards. There’s no dearth of engineering talent (and money) to overcome the challenges, especially when they’re tackled outside of the cable companies and their cost-before-everything cultures.

Skeptics are more likely to be correct about the regulatory environment or, to be more precise, regulatory capture, a phrase that…captures the way regulators now work for the industries they were supposed to control. Can we imagine the FCC telling Comcast: “Go ahead and buy Time Warner…just one little condition, make sure any and all of your connection protocols and services APIs are open to any and all that pass the technical tests listed in Appendix FU at the end of this ruling.”

That’s not going to happen. We must prepare ourselves for a sorry display of bad faith and financial muscle. Who knows, in the end, Comcast might give up, as AT&T did after telling us how pro-consumer the merger with T-Mobile would be.

JLG@mondaynote.com

@gassee

Nadella’s Job One

 

Microsoft has a new CEO – a safe choice, steeped in the old culture, with the Old Guard still on the Board of Directors. This might prevent Nadella from making one tough choice, one vital break with the past.

Once upon a distant time, the new CFO of a colorful personal computer company walks into his first executive staff meeting and proudly shares his thoughts:

“I’ve taken the past few weeks to study the business, and I’d now like to present my top thirty-five priorities…”

This isn’t a fairy tale, I was in the room. I didn’t speak Californian as fluently as I do now, so rather than encourage the fellow with mellifluous platitudes — ‘Interesting’ or, even better, ‘Fascinating, great vision!’ — I spoke my mind, possibly much too clearly:

“This is terrible, disorganized thinking. Claiming to have thirty-five priorities is, in fact, a damning admission: You have none, you don’t even know where to start. Give us your ONE priority and show us how everything else serves that goal…”

The CFO, a sharp, competent businessman, didn’t lose his cool and, after an awkward silence, stepped through his list. Afterwards, with calm poise, he graciously accepted my apologies for having been so abrupt…

Still, you can’t have a litany of priorities.

Turning to Microsoft, will the company’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, focus the company on a true priority, one and only one goal, one absolutely must-win battle? For Nadella, what is Microsoft’s Nothing Else Matters If We Fail?

In his first public pronouncement, the new Eagle of Redmond didn’t do himself any favors by uttering bombastic (and false) platitudes (which were broadly retweeted and ridiculed):

“We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.”

One hesitates. Either Nadella knows this is BS but thinks we’re stupid enough to buy into such pablum. Or he actually believes it and is therefore dangerous for his shareholders and coworkers. Let’s hope it’s the former, that Nadella, steeped in Microsoft’s culture, is simply hewing to his predecessor’s chest-pounding manner. (But let’s also keep in mind the ominous dictum: Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.)

Satya_Nadella

Assuming Nadella knows the difference between what he must say and what he must do, what will his true priority be? What battle will he pick that, if lost, will condemn Microsoft to a slow, albeit comfortable, slide into the tribe of has beens?

It can’t be simply tending the crops. Enterprise software, Windows and Office licenses might not grow as fast as they used to, but they’re not immediately threatened. The Online Services Division has problems but they can be dealt with later — it continues to bleed money but the losses are tolerable (about $1B according to the Annual Report). The Xbox One needs no immediate attention.

What really threatens Microsoft’s future is the ebullient, sui generis world of mobile devices, services, and applications. Here, Microsoft’s culture, its habits of the heart and mind, has led the company to a costly mistake.

Microsoft has succeeded, in the past, by straddling the old and the new: The company is masterful at introducing new features without breaking older software. In Microsoft’s unspoken, subconscious culture, the new can only be defined as an extension of the existing, so when it finally decided they it needed a tablet (another one after the Tablet PC failure), the Redmond company set out to build a better device that would also function as a laptop. The best of both worlds.

We know what happened. Users shunned Microsoft’s neither-nor Windows 8 and Surface hybrids. HP has backed away from Windows 8 and now touts its PCs running Windows 7 “Back By Popular Demand”  — this would never have happened when Microsoft lorded over its licensees. And now we hear that the upcoming Windows 8.1 update will boot directly into the conventional Windows 7-like desktop as opposed to the unloved Modern (née Metro) tiles.

Microsoft faces a choice. It can replace the smashed bumper on its truck with a stronger one, drop a new engine into the bay and take another run at the tablet wall. Or it can change direction. The former — continuing to attempt to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops  — will do further damage to the company’s credibility, not to mention its books. The latter requires a radical but simple change: Make an honest tablet using a version of Windows Phone that’s optimized for the things that tablets do well. Leave laptops out of it.

That is a priority, a single, easily stated goal that can be understood by everyone — employees and shareholders, bloggers and customers. To paraphrase a Valley wag, it’s a cri de guerre that’s so simple you can remember it even if you’re tired, drunk, and your spouse has thrown you out in the rain at 3 A.M. in your jockey briefs.

This is an opportunity for the new CEO to make his mark, to show vision, as opposed to mere care-taking.

But will he seize it?

Nadella should know the company by now. He’s been with Microsoft for over twenty years, during which time he’s proven himself to be a supremely technical executive. The company is remarkably prosperous — $78B in revenue in 2013; $22B profit; $77B in cash. This prosperity bought the Board some time when deciding on a new CEO, and should give Nadella a cushion if he decides to redirect the company.

Of course, there’s the Old Guard to contend with. Bill Gates has ceded the Chairman role to John Thompson, but he’ll stay on as a “technical advisor” to Nadella, and Ballmer hasn’t budged — he remains on the Board (for the time being). This might not leave a lot of room for bold moves, for undoing the status quo and for potentially embarrassing (or angering) Board members.
I can’t leave the topic without asking another related question.

We’ve just seen how decisive Larry Page can be. He looked at Motorola’s $2B red ink since they were acquired by Google — no end in sight, no product momentum — and sold the embarrassment to Lenovo. If regulators approve the sale, Motorola will be in competent hands within a company whose leader, Yang Yuanqing also known as YY, plays for the number one position. (Lenovo is the company that, in 2005, bought IBM’s ailing PC business and has since vaulted over Dell and HP to become the world’s premier PC maker.)

With this in mind, looking at the smartphone space where Apple runs its own premium ecosystem game, where Samsung takes no prisoners, where Huawei keeps rising, and where Lenovo will soon weigh in — to say nothing of the many OEMs that make feature phone replacements based on Android’s open source software stack (AOSP) — is it simply too late for Microsoft? Even if he has the will to make it a priority, can Nadella make Windows Phone a player?

If not, will he be as decisive as Larry Page?

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee

Apple Numbers For Normals: It’s The 5C, Stupid!

 

Today’s unscientific and friendly castigation of Apple’s iPhone 5C costly stumble: misdirected differentiation without enough regard for actual customer aspirations.

Here’s a quick snapshot of Apple’s numbers for the quarter ending December 2013, with percentage changes over the same quarter a year ago:

307TABLE JLG

We can disregard the iPod’s “alarming” decrease. The iPod, which has become more of an iPhone ingredient, is no longer expected to be the star revenue maker that it was back in 2006 when it eclipsed the Mac ($7.6B vs. $7.4B for the full year).

For iPhones, iPads, and overall revenue, on the other hand, these are record numbers…. and yet Apple shares promptly lost 8% of their value.

Why?

It couldn’t have been that the market was surprised. The numbers exactly match the guidance (a prophylactic legalese substitute for forecast) that was given to us by CFO Peter Oppenheimer last October:

“We expect revenue to be between $55 billion and $58 billion compared to $54.5 billion in the year ago quarter. We expect gross margins to be between 36.5% and 37.5%.”

(Non-normals can feast their eyes on Apple’s 10-Q filing and its lovingly detailed MD&A section. I’m sincere about the “lovingly” part — it’s great reading if you’re into it.)

Apple guidance be damned, Wall Street traders expected higher iPhone numbers. As Philip Elmer-DeWitt summarizes in an Apple 2.0 post, professional analysts expected about 55M iPhones, 4M more than the company actually sold. At $640 per iPhone, that’s about $2.5B in lost revenue and, assuming 60% margin, $1.5B in profit. The traders promptly dumped the shares they had bought on the hopes of higher revenues.

In Apple’s choreographed, one-hour Earnings Call last Monday (transcript here), company execs offered a number of explanations for the shortfall (one might say they offered a few too many explanations). Discussing proportion of sales of the iPhone 5S vs. iPhone 5C. Here what Tim Cook had to say [emphasis mine]:

“Our North American business contracted somewhat year over year. And if you look at the reason for this, one was that as we entered the quarter, and forecasted our iPhone sales, where we achieved what we thought, we actually sold more iPhone 5Ss than we projected.

And so the mix was stronger to the 5S, and it took us some amount of time in order to build the mix that customers were demanding. And as a result, we lost some sort of units for part of the quarter in North America and relative to the world, it took us the bulk of the quarter, almost all the quarter, to get the iPhone 5S into proper supply.

[…]

It was the first time we’d ever run that particular play before, and demand percentage turned out to be different than we thought.

In plainer English:

“Customers preferred the 5S to the 5C. We were caught short, we didn’t have enough 5Ss to meet the demand and so we missed out on at least 4 million iPhone sales.”

Or, reading between the lines:

“Customers failed to see the crystalline purity of the innovative 5C design and flocked instead to the more derivative — but flattering — 5S.”

Later, Cook concludes the 5S/5C discussion and offers rote congratulations all around:

“I think last quarter we did a tremendous job, particularly given the mix was something very different than we thought.”

… which means:

“Floggings will begin behind closed doors.”

How can a company that’s so precisely managed — and so tuned-in to its customers’ desires — make such a puzzling forecast error? This isn’t like the shortcoming in the December 2012 quarter when Apple couldn’t deliver the iMacs it had announced in October. This is a different kind of mistake, a bad marketing call, a deviation from the Apple game plan.

With previous iPhone releases, Apple stuck to a simple price ladder with $100 intervals. For example, when Apple launched the iPhone 5 in October 2012, US carriers offered the new device for $200 (with a two-year contract), the 2011 iPhone 4S was discounted to $100, and the 2010 iPhone 4 was “free”.

But when the iPhone 5S was unveiled last September, Apple didn’t deploy the 2012 iPhone 5 for $100 less than the new flagship device. Instead, Apple “market engineered” the plastic-clad 5C to take its place. Mostly built of iPhone 5 innards, the colorful 5C was meant to provide differentiation… and it did, but not in ways that helped Apple’s revenue — or their customers’ self-image.

Picture two iPhone users. One has a spanking new iPhone 5S, the other has an iPhone 5 that he bought last year. What do you see? Two smartphone users of equally discerning taste who, at different times, bought the top-of-the-line product. The iPhone 5 user isn’t déclassé, he’s just waiting for the upgrade window to open.

Now, replace the iPhone 5 with an iPhone 5C. We see two iPhones bought at the same time… but the 5C owner went for the cheaper, plastic model.

We might not like to hear psychologists say we build parts of our identity with objects we surround ourselves with, but they’re largely right. From cars, to Burberry garments and accessories, to smartphones, the objects we choose mean something about who we are — or who we want to appear to be.

I often hear people claim they’re not interested in cars, that they just buy “transportation”, but when I look at an office or shopping center parking lot, I don’t see cars that people bought simply because the wheels were round and black. When you’re parking your two-year old Audi 5S coupe (a vehicle once favored by a very senior Apple exec) next to the new and improved 2014 model, do you feel you’re of a lesser social station? Of course not. You both bought into what experts call the Affordable Luxury category. But you’re self-assessment would be different if you drove up in a Volkswagen Jetta. It’s made by the same German conglomerate, but now you’re in a different class. (This isn’t to say brand image trumps function. To the contrary, function can kill image, ask Nokia or Detroit.)

The misbegotten iPhone 5C is the Jetta next to the Audi 5S coupé. Both are fine cars and the 5C is a good smartphone – but customers, in numbers large enough to disrupt Apple’s forecast, didn’t like what the 5C would do to their image..

As always, it’ll be interesting to observe how the company steers out of this marketing mistake.

There is much more to watch in coming months: How Apple and its competitors adapt to a new era of slower growth; how carriers change their behavior (pricing and the all important subsidies) in the new growth mode; and, of course, if and how “new categories” change Apple’s business. On this, one must be cautious and refrain from expecting another iPhone or iPad explosion, with new products yielding tens of billions of dollars in revenue. Fodder for future Monday Notes.

JLG@mondaynote.com

@gassee

 

Mac Pro: Seymour Cray Would Have Approved

 

As we celebrate 30 years of Macintosh struggles and triumphs, let’s start with a semiserious, unscientific comparison between the original 128K Mac and its dark, polished, brooding descendant, the Mac Pro.

Mac 128KMac Pro

The original 128K Mac was 13.6” high, 9.6” wide, 10.9” deep (35.4 x 24.4 x 26.4 cm) and 16.5 lb (7.5 kg). Today’s Mac Pro is 9.9″ by 6.6″ (25 by 17 cm) and weighs 11 lb (5 kg) — smaller, shorter, and lighter than its ancient progenitor. Open your hand and stretch your fingers wide: The distance from the tip of your pinky to the tip of your thumb is in the 9 to 10 inches range (for most males). This gives you an idea of how astonishingly small the Mac Pro is.

At 7 teraflops, the new Pro’s performance specs are impressive…but what’s even more impressive is how all that computing power is stuffed into such a small package without everything melting down. Look inside the new Mac Pro and you’ll find a Xeon processor, twin AMD FirePro graphics engines, main memory, a solid-state “drive”, driven by 450W of maximum electric power… and all cooled by a single fan. The previous Mac Pro version, at only 2 teraflops, needed eight blowers to keep its GPU happy.

The Mac Pro achieves a level of “computing energy density” that Seymour Cray — the master of finding ways to cool high-performance, tightly packaged systems, and a Mac user himself — would have approved of.

(I’ve long been an admirer of Seymour Cray, ever since the introduction of his company’s first commercial supercomputer, the CDC 6600. In the early nineties, I was a Board member and investor at Cray Inc.  My memories of Seymour would fill an entire Monday Note. If you’re familiar with the name but not the supercomputer genius himself, I can recommend the Wikipedia article; it’s quite well-written.)

During Cray’s era of supercomputing — the 1960’s to early 90’s — processors were discrete, built from separate components. All of these building blocks had to be kept as close to each other as possible in order to stay in sync, to stay within the same “time horizon”. (Grace Hopper’s famous “one nanosecond equals a foot of wire” illustration comes to mind.) However, the faster the electronic module is, the more heat it generates, and when components are packed tightly together, it becomes increasingly difficult to pump out enough heat to avoid a meltdown.

That’s where Cray’s genius expressed itself. Not only could he plot impossibly tight circuit paths to guarantee the same propagation time for all logic signals, he designed these paths in ways that allowed adequate cooling. He sometimes referred to himself, half-seriously, as a good plumber.

(Seymour once told me he could fold a suit, change of shirt, and underwear in his small Delsey briefcase, and thus speed through airports on the way to a fund raising meeting while his investment bankers struggled with their unwieldy Hartmann garment bags…)

I finally met Seymour in December 1985 while I was head of Apple’s Product Development. The Mac Plus project was essentially done and the Mac II and Mac SE projects were also on their way (they would launch in 1987). Having catered to the most urgent tasks, we were looking at a more distant horizon, at ways to leap ahead of everyone else in the personal computer field. We concluded we had to design our own CPU chip, a quad-processor (today we’d call it a “four-core chip”). To do this, we needed a computer that could run the design and simulation software for such an ambitious project, a computer of commensurate capabilities, hence our choice of a Cray X/MP, and the visit to Seymour Cray.

For the design of the chip, the plan was to work with AT&T Microelectronics — not the AT&T we know now, but the home of Bell Labs, the birthplace of the transistor, Unix, the C language, cellular telephony and many other inventions. Our decision to create our own CPU wasn’t universally well-received. The harshest critics cast Apple as a “toy company” that had no business designing its own CPU chip. Others understood the idea but felt we vastly underestimated the technical challenges. Unfortunately, they turned out to be right. AT&T Microelectronics ultimately bailed out of the microprocessor business altogether.

(Given this history, I couldn’t help be amused when critics scoffed at Apple’s decision to acquire P.A. Semiconductor in 2008 and, once again, attempt to design its own microprocessors. Even if the chip could be built, Apple could never compete against the well-established experts in the field… and it would cost Apple a billion dollars, either way. The number was widely off the mark – and knowing Apple’s financials wouldn’t matter anyway. We know what happened: The 64-bit A7 device took the industry by surprise.)

Thirty years after the introduction of the original Mac, the Mac Pro is both different and consistent. It’s not a machine for everyone: If you mostly just use ordinary office productivity apps, an iMac will provide more bang for less buck (which means that, sadly, I don’t qualify as a Mac Pro user). But like the 128K Mac, the Mac Pro is dedicated to our creative side; it serves the folks who produce audio and video content, who run graphics-intensive simulations. As Steve put it so well, the Mac Pro is at the crossroad of technology and liberal arts:

Crossroads

Still, thirty years later, I find the Mac, Pro or “normal” every bit as seductive, promising – and occasionally frustrating – as its now enshrined progenitor.

As a finishing touch, the Mac Pro, like its ancestor, is designed and assembled in the US.

JLG@mondaynote.com

————————–

Postscript. At the risk of spoiling the fun in the impressive Making the all-new Mac Pro video, I wonder about the contrast between the powerful manufacturing operation depicted in the video and the delivery constipation. When I ordered my iMac early October 2013, I was promised delivery in 5-7 business days, a strange echo of of the December 2012 quarter iMac shipments shortfall. The machine arrived five weeks later without explanation or updated forecast. Let’s hope this was due to higher than expected demand, and that Apple’s claim that Mac Pro orders will ship “in March” won’t leave media pros wanting.

Puzzling Over Google’s Nest Acquisition

 

Looking past the glitter, big names, and big money ($3.2B), a deeper look at Google’s last move doesn’t yield a good theory. Perhaps because there isn’t one.

Last week’s Monday Note used the “Basket of Remotes” problem as a proxy for the many challenges to the consumer version of the IoT, the Internet of Things. Automatic discovery, two-way communication, multi-vendor integration, user-interface and network management complexity… until our home devices can talk to each other, until they can report their current states, functions, and failure modes, we’re better off with individual remotes than a confusing — and confused — universal controller..

After reading the Comments section, I thought we could put the topic to rest for a while, perhaps until devices powered by Intel’s very low-power Quark processor start shipping.

Well…

A few hours later, Google announced its $3.2B acquisition (in cash) of Nest, the maker of elegant connected thermostats and, more recently, of Nest Protect smoke and CO alarms. Nest founder Tony Fadell, often referred to as “one of the fathers of the iPod”, takes his band of 100 ex-Apple engineers and joins Google; the Mountain View giant pays a hefty premium, about 10 times Nest’s estimated yearly revenue of $300M.

Why?

Tony Fadell mentioned “scaling challenges” as a reason to sell to Google versus going it alone. He could have raised more money — he was actually ready to close a new round, $150M at a $2B valuation, but chose adoption instead.

Let’s decode scaling challenges. First, the company wants to raise money because profits are too slim to finance growth. Then, management looks at the future and doesn’t like the profit picture. Revenue will grow, but profits will not scale up, meaning today’s meager percentage number will not expand. Hard work for low profits.

(Another line of thought would be the Supply Chain Management scaling challenges, that is the difficulties in running manufacturing contractors in China, distributors and customer support. This doesn’t make sense. Nest’s product line is simple, two products. Running manufacturing contractors isn’t black magic, it is now a well-understood trade. There are even contractors to run contractors, two of my friends do just that for US companies.)

Unsurprisingly, many worry about their privacy. The volume and tone of their comments reveals a growing distrust of of Google. Is Nest’s expertise at connecting the devices in our homes simply a way for the Google to know more about us? What will they do with my energy and time data? In a blog post, Fadell attempts to reassure:

“Will Nest customer data be shared with Google?
Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

What else could Fadell offer besides this perfunctory reassurance?  “[T]his will not change”… until it does. Let’s not forget how so many tech companies change their minds when it suits them. Google is no exception.

This Joy of Tech cartoon neatly summarizes the privacy concern:

Thermostats

The people, the brands, the money provide enough energy to provoke less than thoughtful reactions. A particularly agitated blogger, who can never pass up a rich opportunity to entertain us – and troll for pageviews – starts by arguing that Apple ought to have bought Nest:

“Nest products look like Apple products. Nest products are beloved by people who love Apple products. Nest products are sold in Apple stores.
Nest, in short, looked like a perfect acquisition for Apple, which is struggling to find new product lines to expand into and has a mountain of cash rotting away on its balance sheet with which it could buy things.
[...] Google’s aggressiveness has once again caught Apple snoozing. And now a company that looked to be a perfect future division of Apple is gone for good.”

Let’s slow down. Besides Nest itself, two companies have the best data on Nest’s sales, returns, and customer service problems: Apple and Amazon. Contrary to the “snoozing” allegation, Apple Store activity told Apple exactly the what, the how, and the how much of Nest’s business. According to local VC lore, Nest’s Gross Margin are low and don’t rise much above customer support costs. (You can find a list of Nest’s investors here. Some, like Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures, have deep links to Google… This reminds many of the YouTube acquisition. Several selling VCs were also Google investors, one sat on Google’s Board. YouTube was bleeding money and Google had to “bridge” it, to loan it money before the transaction closed.)

See also Amazon’s product reviews page; feelings about the Nest thermostat range from enthusiastic to downright negative.

The “Apple ought to have bought Nest because it’s so Apple-like” meme points to an enduring misunderstanding of Apple’s business model. The Cupertino company has one and only one money pump: personal computers, whether in the form of smartphones, tablets, or conventional PCs. Everything else is a supporting player, helping to increase the margins and volume of the main money makers.

A good example is Apple TV: Can it possibly generate real money at $100 a puck? No. But the device expands the ecosystem, and so makes MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones more productive and pleasant. Even the App Store with its billions in revenue counts for little by itself. The Store’s only mission is to make iPhones and iPads more valuable.

With this in mind, what would be the role of an elegant $249 thermostat in Apple’s ecosystem? Would it add more value than an Apple TV does?

We now turn to the $3.2B price tag. The most that Apple has ever paid for an acquisition was $429M (plus 1.5M Apple shares), and that was for… NeXT. An entire operating system that revitalized the Mac. It was a veritable bargain. More recently, in 2012, it acquired AuthenTec for $356M.

With rare exceptions (I can think of one, Quattro Wireless), Apple acquires technologies, not businesses. Even if Apple were in the business of buying businesses, a $300M enterprise such as Nest wouldn’t move the needle. In an Apple that will approach or exceed $200B this calendar year, Nest would represent about .15% of the company’s revenue.

Our blogging seer isn’t finished with the Nest thermostat:

“I was seduced by the sexy design, remote app control, and hyperventilating gadget-site reviews of Nest’s thermostat. So I bought one.”

But, ultimately, he never used the device. Bad user feedback turned him off:

“[…] after hearing of all these problems, I have been too frightened to actually install the Nest I bought. So I don’t know whether it will work or not.”

He was afraid to install his Nest… but Apple should have bought the company?

So, then, why Google? We can walk through some possible reasons.

First, the people. Tony Fadell’s team is justly admired for their design skills. They will come in handy if Google finally gets serious about selling hardware, if it wants to generate new revenue in multiples of $10B (its yearly revenue is approximately $56B now). Of course, this means products other than just thermostats and smoke alarms. It means products that can complement Google’s ad business with its 60% Gross Margin.

Which leads us to a possible second reason: Nest might have a patent portfolio that Google wants to add to its own IP arsenal. Fadell and his team surely have filed many patents.

But… $3.2B worth of IP?

This leaves us with the usual questions about Google’s real business model. So far, it’s even simpler than Apple’s: Advertising produces 115% or more of Google’s profits. Everything else brings the number back down to 100%. Advertising is the only money machine, all other activities are cost centers. Google’s hope is that one of these cost centers will turn into a new money machine of a magnitude comparable to its advertising quasi-monopoly.

On this topic, I once again direct you to Horace Dediu’s blog. In a post titled Google’s Three Ps, Horace takes us through the basics of a business: People, Processes, and Purpose:

“This is the trinity which allows for an understanding of a complex system: the physical, the operational and the guiding principle. The what, the how and the why.”

Later, Horace points to Google’s management reluctance to discuss its Three Ps:

“There is a business in Google but it’s a very obscure topic. The ‘business side’ of the organization is only mentioned briefly in analyst conference calls and the conversation is not conducted with the same team that faces the public. Even then, analysts who should investigate the link between the business and its persona seem swept away by utopian dreams and look where the company suggests they should be looking (mainly the future.)
There are almost no discussions of cost structures (e.g. cost of sales, cost of distribution, operations and research), operating models (divisional, functional or otherwise) or of business models. In fact, the company operates only one business model which was an acquisition, reluctantly adopted.”

As usual — or more than usual in current circumstances — the entire post is worth a meditative read. Especially for its interrogation at the end:

“The trouble lies in that organization also having de-facto control over the online (and hence increasingly offline) lives of more than one billion people. Users, but not customers, of a company whose purpose is undefined. The absence of oversight is one thing, the absence of an understanding of the will of the leadership is quite another. The company becomes an object of faith alone.  Do we believe?”

Looking past the glitter, the elegant product, the smart people, do we believe there is a purpose in the Nest acquisition? Or is Google simply rolling the dice, hoping for an IoT breakthrough?

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Internet of Things: The “Basket of Remotes” Problem

 

We count on WiFi and Bluetooth in our homes, but we don’t have appliances that provide self-description or reliable two-way communication. As a result, the Internet of Things for consumers is, in practice, a Basket of Remotes.

Last Friday, I participated in a tweetchat (#ibmceschat) arranged by friends at IBM. We discussed popular CES topics such as Wearables, Personal Data, Cable and Smart TV, and the Internet of Things. (I can’t help but note that Wikipedia’s disambiguation page bravely calls the IoT “a self-configuring wireless network between objects”. As we’ll see, the self-configuring part is still wishful thinking.)

At one point, the combined pressures of high-speed twittering and 140-characters brevity spurred me to blurt this:

Remotes Basket Case

A little bit of background before we rummage through the basket.

In practice, there are two Internets of Things: One version for Industry, and another for Consumers.

The Industrial IoT is alive and well. A gas refinery is a good example: Wired and wireless sensors monitor the environment, data is transmitted to control centers, actuators direct the flow of energy and other activities. And the entire system is managed by IT pros who have the skill, training, and culture — not to mention the staff — to oversee the (literal) myriad unseen devices that control complicated and dangerous processes.

The management of any large corporation’s energy, environment, and safety requires IT professionals whose raison d’être is the mastery of technology. (In my fantasy, I’d eavesdrop on Google’s hypergalactic control center, the corporate Internet of Things that manage the company’s 10 million servers…)

Things aren’t so rosy in the consumer realm.

For consumers, technology should get out of the way — it’s a means, not an end. Consumers don’t have the mindset or training of IT techies, they don’t have the time or focus to build a mental representation of a network of devices, their interactions and failure modes. For example, when my computer connects to the Net, I don’t have to concern myself with the way routers work, how the human-friendly mondaynote.com gets translated into the 78.109.84.91 IP address.

Not so with a home network of IoT objects that connect the heating and cooling systems, security cameras, CO and fire sensors, the washer, dryer, stove, fridge, entertainment devices, and under-the-mattress sleep monitoring pads. This may be an exaggerated example, but even with a small group of objects, how does a normal human configure and manage the network?

For an answer, or lack thereof, we now come back to the Basket of Remotes.

I once visited the home of an engineer who managed software development at an illustrious Silicon Valley company. I was shocked, shocked to see a basket of remotes next to the couch in front of his TV. ‘What? You don’t use a programmable remote to subsume this mess into one elegant device and three of four functions, TV, DVR, VoD, MP3 music?’

‘No, it’s too complicated, too unreliable. Each remote does its separate job well, with an easy mental representation. These dumb devices don’t talk back, there’s no way for a unified remote to ask what state they’re in. So I gave up — I have enough mental puzzles at the office!’

Indeed, so-called “smart” TVs are unable to provide a machine-readable description of the commands they understand (an XML file, also readable by a human, would do). We can’t stand in front of a TV with a “fresh” universal remote – or a smartphone app – touch the Learn button and have the TV wirelessly ship the list of commands it understands…and so on to the next appliance, security system or, if you insist, fridge and toaster.

If an appliance would yield its control and reporting data, an app developer could build a “control center” that would summarize and manage your networked devices. But in the Consumer IoT world, we’re still very far from this desirable state of affairs. A TV can’t even tell a smartphone app if it’s on, what channel it’s tuned to, or which devices is feeding it content. For programmable remotes, it’s easy to get lost as too many TVs don’t even know a command such as Input 2, they only know Next Input. If a human changes the input by walking to the device and pushing a button, the remote is lost. (To say nothing of TVs that don’t have separate On and Off commands, only an On/Off toggle, with the danger of getting out of sync – and no way for the TV to talk back and describe its state…)

Why don’t Consumer Electronics manufacturers provide machine self-description and two-way communication? One possible answer is that they’re engaged in a cost-cutting race to the bottom and thus have no incentive to build more intelligence into their devices. If so, why build unbearably dumb apps in their Smart TVs? (Korean LG Electronics even dug up WebOS for integration into its latest TVs.)

A look at Bang & Olufsen’s Home Integration page might give one hope. The video demo, in B&O’s usual clean luxury style, takes us through from dining to sleep to waking up, opening curtains, making coffee, morning news on TV, and opening the garage door. But it only provides a tightly integrated B&O solution with the need for one or more IT intervention (and it’s expensive — think above $100K for the featured home).

This leaves middle class homes with an unsolved, mixed-vendor Basket of Remotes, a metaphor for the unanswered management challenges in the Consumer IoT space.

JLG@mondaynote.com

@gassee