About Jean-Louis Gassée

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Dell Buyout: Microsoft’s Generosity

 

To perform painful surgery on its business model, Dell needs to take the company private. Seeing challenges in raising the needed $22B, Microsoft “generously” proposes to contribute a few billions. Is this helping or killing the deal?

The news broke two weeks ago: Dell wants to go private. The company would like to buy back all of its publicly traded shares.

The Apple forums are abuzz with memories of Michael Dell’s dismissal of Steve Jobs’ efforts to breathe new life into Apple in 1997:

What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.

Is it now Michael’s turn to offer a refund?

Now we hear that Microsoft wants to lend a hand, as in “several billion dollars”. The forums buzz again: It’s just like when Bill Gates came to Jobs’ rescue and invested $150M in the Cupertino company, thus avoiding a liquidity crisis.

The analogy is amusing but facile. Dell 2013 isn’t Apple 1997. A look at Dell’s latest financials shows that the company still enjoys a solid cash position ($14B) and a profitable business (3.5% net profit margin). It’s profits may not be growing (-11% year to year), but the company is cash-flow positive nonetheless ($1.3B from the latest quarter). There’s no reason to fold up the tents.

As for Microsoft’s involvement: The Redmond company’s “investment” in Apple was part of a settlement of an on-going IP dispute. Microsoft avoided accusations of monopoly by keeping alive a highly visible but not overly dangerous adversary.

So what is Dell trying to accomplish by going private? To answer the question, let’s step back a bit and explore the whys and hows of such a move.

First, we have the Management Buyout. Frustrated with Wall Street’s low valuation, executives buy back their company “on the cheap” and run it in private for their own benefit. This rarely ends well.  Second-guessing the market is never a good idea, and the enormous amount of money that’s needed to pay off shareholders puts the execs at the mercy of bigger, smarter predators who turn out to be the ones who end up running the company for their benefit.

A good reason for going private is to allow a company to shift to a radically different business model without being distracted by Wall Street’s annoying glare and hysterics. This is what Dell is trying to do. They’re not shutting down shop, they’re merely closing the curtain.

Is it necessary to privatize for such a move? For an example that never came to pass, recall Bill Gates’ suggestion, in 1985, that Apple should get out of the hardware business and, instead, license the Mac operating system. At the time, the average revenue per Mac exceeded $2,500; a putative Mac OS license would have sold for $100. The theory was that Apple would eventually sell many, many more OS licenses than it did Macs.

The pundits agreed: “Just look at Microsoft!”.  Apple would jump from one slowly ascending earnings curve to a much steeper one.

Now picture yourself as John Sculley, Apple CEO, going to Wall Street with the following message: “We heard you, we’ve seen the light. Today, we’re announcing a new era for our company, we’ll be licensing Mac OS licenses to all comers for $100 apiece. Of course, there’ll be a trough; licensing revenue won’t immediately compensate the loss of Mac hardware sales. We need am ‘earnings holiday’ of about 36 months before the huge software profits flow in.”

You just became the ex-CEO. Wall Street dumps your shares, effectively telling you to take them back and only return after your “holiday” is over.

As another example that didn’t happen but probably should have, imagine if Nokia CEO Stephen Elop had taken his company private in 2011. Instead of osborning its Symbian business, Nokia would have had the latitude to perform the OS gender change behind closed doors and reemerge with a shiny new range of Microsoft-powered smartphones.

I’ll hasten to add that these made-up examples are somewhat unrealistic: To engineer a buyout, one must raise amounts of money commensurate with the company’s current valuation. Around 1987, Apple was worth about $2B, a great deal of money a quarter of century ago. In early 2011, Nokia’s market capitalization was about $40B, an impossibly large sum.

Still, thanks to these buyout fantasies, we get the two key ideas: First, Dell wants to go private because it plans to alter its business model in ways that would scare nervous, short-term Wall Street shareholders; second, the required amount of money (Dell’s market cap is about $22B) is a potential deal-killer.

We don’t have to look very far for the changes Dell wants to make. Dell no longer likes its legacy PC business and has made efforts to reposition itself as an enterprise player (expensive iron, software and services). Going private will allow it to perform the needed surgery, stanch the bleeding, and reemerge with a much stronger income statement, rid of low-margin commodity PCs.

When we look at the money that needs to be raised, things become really interesting. Michael Dell’s 15.7% ownership of the company undoubtedly helps, but the $22B market cap is still a big hill to climb. Several buyout firms and banks got involved in preliminary discussions; one group, TPG Capital, dropped out, but another, Silver Lake, has persisted in its attempt to round up big banks and other investors with enough funds to vacuum up Dell’s publicly traded shares.

That’s when Microsoft walks in on the discussions and offers to save Private Dell.

Clearly, Microsoft’s money will help in the buyout…but will its involvement torpedo Dell’s intentions? The NY Times DealBook article makes the case for Microsoft propping up the leading PC maker:

A vibrant Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans to make Windows more relevant for the tablet era, when more and more devices come with touch screens.

This would give Microsoft some amount of control over the restructured Dell, a seat on the Board of Directors, perhaps, with ways to better align the PC maker’s hardware with Redmond’s software. Microsoft wants Dell’s reinvigorated participation in the “Windows Reimagined” business.

But note the phrasing above: “Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans…” Better vertical integration without having to pay the full price for ownership, the putative “several billion dollars” would give Microsoft a significant ownership, 10% or 15%. This is completely at odds with the buyout’s supposed intent: Getting out of the PC clone race to the bottom.

Or maybe there’s another story behind Microsoft’s beneficence: The investor syndicate struggles and can’t quite reach the $22B finish line. Microsoft generously — and very publicly — offers to contribute the few missing billions. Investors see Microsoft trying to reattach the PC millstone to their necks — and run away.

Hats off to Steve Ballmer: Microsoft looks generous – without having to spend a dime – and forces Dell keep making PCs.

JLG@mondaynote.com

iPhone Low-cost Numbers

 

For years, Apple’s been told its products were too expensive – and prospered mightily. Today, many suggest Apple should launch a low-cost iPhone. Will history repeat itself, or have the rules of the Smartphone Wars changed in ways that will force Apple to alter its strategy? 

Dismissing the prospect of a Low Cost iPhone isn’t all that difficult. Just look at Apple’s history. For years, the high tech pundits have hectored Apple for it’s inability to see the wisdom of the cheap. In the late eighties and into the nineties, they insisted that a low cost Mac was the only way the company could survive against the swarm of PC clones. Steve Jobs returned and righted the Apple ship, no LC Mac required.

A decade later, the netbook was cast as the killer torpedo that would sink the resurgent Mac business. Jobs famously dismissed the netbook as a cheap plastic device Apple would never stoop to make: “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.”

At the September 2012 iPhone 5 launch, Tim Cook announced that the MacBook is the #1 selling notebook in the US (5:30 into this video). Couple that with the success of the iPad, and the netbook is dead. And thus, by analogy, there will be no iPhone LC. Apple doesn’t do cheap. The company will focus on a premium customer experience and enjoy a high profit margin. The race to the bottom will be left to Android clones. Move along, nothing to see.

Not so fast.

Using Apple’s history — and particularly the sorry netbook story — to dismiss the iPhone LC makes questionable assumptions. As Marx (Karl, not Groucho) liked to say: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, it stutters’. Smartphones aren’t PCs, only smaller; the rules of the Macintosh game don’t apply to the iPhone. The Smartphone Wars are waged by markedly different laws, and are waged well by Google and Samsung, unencumbered by a PC past.

But let’s back up: What would a Low Cost iPhone look like, whom would it serve, and just how “low” is Low? The easiest way to picture the thing is to drag out your old iPhone 3G or 3GS. A plastic body, an “original-resolution” screen (no Retina here), a slow processor and even slower wireless connection. It’s not today’s iPhone 5, with its metal body, lovingly machined chamfers, Gorilla Glass, high-speed A6 processor, and 5 megapixel camera.

The phone would serve the prepaid market, it addresses customers with little or no credit. Everything is paid for with cash up front: You pay the full, unsubsidized price for the phone and you buy “minutes” (let’s call them units of wireless network utilization) in advance. Buying units for these devices is a simpler experience than I imagined: Go to the neighborhood drugstore, pick out a phone card by a (virtual) carrier such as TracFone, and the cash register prints an activation code you then enter into the phone. Simple, pervasive, and very successful — even in a “rich” country such as the US.

So far, Apple has avoided the prepaid approach. When we give $199 to Verizon for a $650 iPhone, the $450 subsidy is an act of faith by the wireless carrier. The philanthropic organization assumes we’ll pay our bill every month for two years, by which time the carrier has recouped the subsidy. This is the postpaid world that Apple understands.

As for the pricetag, let’s assume that an iPhone LC would cost about $100 to manufacture — that’s half the cost of the basic iPhone 5. If we apply a 60% margin percentage — the same as today’s iPhone 5 — the unsubsidized iPhone LC would sell for $299.

That’s too high. Let’s try lower numbers: 50% margin gets us down to $199; 30% to $149. To get to the magic $99 unsubsidized retail, with an un-Apple 30% margin, the iPhone LC would need to be manufactured for less than $75, about one third of today’s iPhone 5.

And even $99 may not be low enough. Go to Amazon and look for prepaid cell phones. The first models start at $6.99 (not recommended, I tried one at $8.99 for my visiting Mother-in-Law, that was a mistake). Real smartphones running Android 2.2 start at $49.99 – today! For another $10 you get 2.3. The $80.73 Kyocera Rise runs the much more modern 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) version. (I checked prepaid prices in other countries and the situation is similar.)

In his earnings release conference calls, Tim Cook constantly refers to Apple’s interest in the vast prepaid market segment but so far it’s been all talk. The reason for the gap between words and deeds sits in plain view on Amazon’s prepaid cell phone page. As more devices enter the market, we can only imagine what the page will look like a year from now.

The prepaid market, without carrier subsidies, is already in a PC-like race to the bottom. For Apple to enter and prosper in this segment, it has to determine two things: What sort of premium can it get for a low cost iPhone, and what would the device mean for the rest of the product line?

Apple execs are fond of saying they’d cannibalize their products themselves rather than let competitors do it. Even if exquisitely executed and priced just so, it’s hard not to see the (putative) iPhone LC as the augur of a new era of lower Apple margins. In other words, the iPhone LC wouldn’t be born of a tactical decision to add a new set of customers, it would be a strategic move that signals a new phase in the Smartphone Wars.

Apple loves to control the game. So do Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and everyone else, of course, but Apple’s love is an unusually intense, deeply seated drive that stems from Steve Jobs’ own (carnal as opposed to deliberate) need to master and direct every aspect of the game.

In the PC business, Jobs pushed vertical integration down beyond hardware and software, and into its retail chain of Apple Stores, thus ensuring a tightly controlled delivery of the product experience. The same applied to the iPod and its integration with iTunes. The well-controlled media delivery and novel micro-payment system was a huge win: In 2006 iPod revenue outpaced the Macintosh line.

The iPhone started with Apple fully in control. AT&T stood aside and let Apple run the table, handle all aspects of the customer experience (except for call quality). Later, the App Store extended Apple’s control of the game. The iPhone became an app phone and a phenomenal success.

(We also have the counterexample of Apple TV, an exception that proves the rule. TV content owners, distributors, and carriers haven’t let the Cupertino company seize control of the customer experience, and thus Apple TV remains a “hobby”.)

Apple is still in control of its iPhone ecosystem… but things have changed. Now the company faces Google and Samsung. Google isn’t just Android, it’s also a provider of a wide set of services such a Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs and Drive, Google Voice, and on and on. Samsung is more vertically integrated, makes its own smartphones components, and spends more marketing money ($13B last year) than anyone else.

In today’s smartphone scene, can Apple still enjoy the control — and the ensuing profit potential — it craves? And if not, how will it react? Tactics or strategy?

JLG@mondaynote.com

2013: The Year Of…

 

As Samsung dominates the Android market, one has to wonder, who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now rule the Android game?

This morning’s thoughts are harder to focus than usual: I’m sitting across the street from Sciences Po — the Paris Institute of Political Studies — one of France’s elite graduate schools. As hundreds of students gather at the door, smoking (and littering the pavement with very Parisian hauteur), I’m dismayed by the thought that many of these smart, eagerly alive young people will die from lung cancer. Somber thoughts made more acute by the loss of a dear friend two days ago to that very illness — the third smoking-induced death of a close relation in a matter of months. This from a legal drug that’s much more dangerous than some that can land you in jail….

Back to less morbid topics: Like so many other high tech observers, the impending CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas has prompted me to take a guess at what — or who — will turn out to be 2103′s most important development. One name that isn’t on the list: Microsoft.

CES isn’t just an endless series of booths manned by barkers and BS artists where companies peddle their latest vacuum tube audio gear and touch-screen laptops, it’s also the venue for a conference with a series of keynote speeches. During the Golden Age of the PC, Bill Gates was the obligatory headliner on the eve of the trade show. Gates’ keynote was an opportunity for the head of the world’s most important software company to describe (and prescribe) the future according to Microsoft.

When he ceded the CEO title, Gates also passed the keynote baton to Steve Ballmer who continued the propaganda, although with progressively diminishing success. Last year’s keynote was widely trashed by the press (see here, here or here)

Microsoft CEO crashes and burns in final CES keynote.
At CES, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer Strains For Relevance

There will be no keynote address from Ballmer or any other Microsoft representative at this year’s CES.
The baton has indeed been passed, but to whom?
The ascendancy will be decided in a fight between Google and Samsung — and that could turn out to be the most important 2013 development.

Samsung is, by far, the biggest promoter and the best advertisement for the Android platform. Not only does the Korean giant dominate the Android market in unit volume — about half if we believe the company’s necessarily imprecise numbers — it also sets the standard for quality with handsets such as the Galaxy S III. And when you consider the huge amount of money Samsung has spent promoting their devices (about $13B — see Horace Dediu’s chart, below, from yet another of illuminating posts, The Cost of Selling Galaxies), you would think that the two companies would be close allies.

But as Samsung dominates ever more of the Android market, one has to wonder: Who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now set the rules in the Android game?

I don’t think Samsung’s competitors fully appreciate the implications of the company’s spare-no-expense investment in securing a dominant market share. In particular, I wonder what Apple execs think of the disproportion between their own relatively tiny marketing expenses and Samsung’s gargantuan budget. Apple has shown, time and again, that they can do more with less, but have they let Samsung secure an inexpugnable market position? Perhaps the Cupertino team was simply unwilling to waste money stimulating a demand they knew they couldn’t satisfy due to iPhone supply chain bottlenecks.

Is Google truly happy with all this free advertisement? Samsung is firing on all cylinders: great Android handsets, apparently limitless manufacturing capacity, imaginative and prolific marketing campaigns. There may be a feeling in Mountain View that the tail is starting to wag the dog, the handset vassal could end up dictating terms to the platform creator. Samsung could parlay its dominant share of Android handsets in a number of ways.

For example: The Android economy doesn’t rely on licensing revenues but on user data that flows back to the Google mothership through the use of Google applications running on platform-compliant handsets. (Such data then flows through Google’s advertising money pump, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) What if Samsung could renegotiate its Android license and demand “role-appropriate” levies for running Google apps on its market-leading handsets? We’ve heard rumors of just such a levy before: Apple is said to receive significant payments for favoring Google’s search engine in iOS devices.

Another possibility is that Samsung could emulate Amazon’s practice of picking the Android lock. By modifying the Open Source Android source code — a completely legal maneuver — Samsung could create its own set of revenue-generating apps and services and thus cut Google out of the income stream. A number of other handset makers, particularly in China, are headed down this path, proposing devices based on Android-derived platforms such as Tapas and OPhone.

Lastly, although less seriously, Samsung has announced handsets based on Tizen, an OS that has joined the chorus line of Open Source platforms: Gram (née WebOS), Jolla (Nokia émigrés), Ubuntu (née Debian), Firefox OS. My apologies for possible oversights…

Samsung can’t possibly believe it can build a viable business on Tizen. It must know that the platform itself no longer matters, that this has become an ecosystem war. Even with Samsung’s resources and determination, betting on Tizen as an alternative to the Android ecosystem isn’t realistic — and can’t possibly impress Google execs. Complicating matters, Samsung also builds handsets on Windows Phone and Bada (developed in house). Such complexity isn’t sustainable.

Over in its corner, Google has Motorola. Ostensibly acquired for its patents, Motorola could    be the piece of the puzzle that Google needs to create a fully-integrated device, a “proper” Android handset that Google execs feel their ecosystem deserves and that independent handset makers have failed to deliver. Rumors of an xPhone are in the air, but they don’t say much about what the product will do, exactly, or when it will come out.(Google protests that it won’t give its Motorola team any unfair advantage…a promise that comes from a company that gives special access to partners-of-the-moment such as HTC, Samsung, and LG.)

Of course, creating a device in the numbers that can effectively compete with leading Samsung (and Apple) devices is easier said than done. Google/Motorola will need to convince component suppliers and device manufacturers — who are “controlled” by Samsung and Apple — to free up some space on their assembly lines.

So on one side, we have Samsung, an extremely capable and determined Korean giant with huge technical and financial resources — and little regard for niceties.

On the other, we have Google with its unparalleled infrastructure, full control of the Android ecosystem through its Google apps (think Maps) and services, very strong finances, and real long-term vision. As for niceties, Google’s style may be more “polished” than Samsung’s, but it isn’t a pushover. Google can stand toe-to-toe with anyone.

In the end, ownership of the ecosystem should tip the scales: Google will win the undeclared war with Samsung. The Mountain View company will help itself to the higher value of vertically integrated products and, at best, degrade the Korean giant’s margins or, worse, drive them into a PC-like race-to-the-bottom with other handset makers.

This isn’t an outcome Samsung will take lightly.

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: Bill Clinton will attend Samsung’s CES keynote

Whitman: One Write-Off Too Far

 

Meg Whitman’s efforts to turn HP around follow a proven script. But, in her efforts to frame future results against a background of past misdeeds, she might have gone one excuse too far and engaged in a potentially embarrassing fight against Mike Lynch, Autonomy’s founder.

Turnaround Artist Manual – Chapter 1: Walk in with a frown; blame your predecessor; slash projects, budgets, people; lower expectations, loudly; and write off assets.

When you’re finished, any progress going forward will be attributed to your decisive surgery and skill at the helm. You reap the benefits of a statistical illusion: Cut something by 50%, use time, work, and a little bit of luck to bring it back to its pre-surgery size, and you’re a miracle worker! 100% growth!

When Meg Whitman became HP’s CEO in September 2011, she followed the manual to the letter, and how!

Whitman had more than one predecessor to blame: Leo Apotheker was culpable for sins that we’ll review in a moment; Mark Hurd for acquiring EDS for $13.9B, for starving R&D down to less than 2.5% of revenue, and for the ill-fated $1.2B Palm acquisition. For good measure, Whitman included Carly Fiorina in her “rotating cast of CEOs” who were at fault for their “multiple inconsistent strategic plans and executional miscues“.

Then we have the HP layoffs. Early in 2012, Meg projected 27,000 layoffs through 2014, a number that has since increased to 29,000. (HP employs about 300,000 people worldwide.)

Next in the manual: lower expectations. As reported by Business Insider, HP’s CEO calls 2013 a “fix and rebuild” year, warning that the company will experience a “broad-based profit decline”. But there’s a silver lining: Whitman promises that HP will not only hit its savings targets and complete its restructuring by the end of fiscal 2014, but that the company’s revenues will be “growing in line with gross domestic product”…by 2016. (A high-tech Valley company that won’t reach GDP growth rates for three years… really?)

Further, after stating how important smartphones are to HP…

“My view is we have to ultimately offer a smartphone because in many countries of the world, that is your first computing device.”

…Whitman makes it clear that we shouldn’t expect an HP device in 2013. Does this mean that HP will introduce a smartphone in 2014 when Samsung and Apple will have taken complete control of the market? With all due respect, Whitman shouldn’t take IDC’s bizarre and fluctuating predictions seriously (11% market share for Windows Phone by 2016). Few people do outside of Redmond.

Next up: Write-offs. Here, Meg doesn’t go for small numbers, starting with a $3.3B Palm/WebOS asset zap. As the übergizmo article points out, the Palm misadventure cost shareholders close to $5B. Imagine what a startup could do with that kind of money.

And then there’s EDS, an IT services company founded by the industry legend Ross Perot and acquired by HP in 2008. Whitman decided to write off $8B of the $13.8B purchase price (58%) and, in a masterful stroke of corpospeak, managed to convince an IDC analyst that this was “Really Good News In Disguise“. Yes, that’s exactly the point of the Turnaround Artist Manual.

The grand finale is the Autonomy write-off. Acquired in August 2011 for $11.1B, HP’s official documents at the time called the acquisition “accretive“, that it would add to shareholder wealth. It sounded like a great idea: HP would have vaulted itself into the front of the pack in the exploding unstructured data applications sector.

A year later, HP’s CEO writes down Autonomy to the tune of $8.8B — 80% of the acquisition price tag. In an alternate reality, Whitman places hand on heart and takes the blame:

“I was on HP’s Board of Directors when we made the decision to acquire Autonomy. I have been part of the problem and I will now lead the solution. I’m committed to give Autonomy the place it deserves in HP’s products portfolio.”

Wall Street grumbles a bit, but the industry — and the company — applauds Whitman’s frankness, her leadership by example.

But that’s not what happened. In the aftermath of the Autonomy fiasco, Whitman blames everyone but herself and the current HP directors. First she points a finger at her predecessor, Leo Apotheker. Leo smiles and benignly lets it be known he is ready to help: “I will make myself available, however I can, to assist HP…”

(Apotheker has since assumed a more assertive stance in reminding everyone of the role that Ray Lane, HP’s chairman, played in the Autonomy transaction: “No single CEO is ever able to make a decision on a major acquisition in isolation… and certainly not without the full support of the chairman of the board.”)

Whitman then focuses on the company’s then-CTO, Shane Robison, who led the team that performed the due diligence. Blaming the well-liked Robison, who recently — and conveniently — retired, hasn’t won Whitman any friends inside the company.

Finally, she accuses Mike Lynch, Autonomy’s founder and CEO, of “accounting improprieties”. HP considers a referral to the SEC’s Enforcement Division and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, and threatens to force Lynch to testify “under the penalty of perjury“.

The amount of the alleged fraud, around $100M, can also be explained by revenue recognition difficulties. These are not infrequent, especially when different accounting standards are involved, IFRS for most European companies (such as Autonomy), vs. GAAP in the US.

And, yes, the $100M “problem” would impact the transaction price by perhaps $1.5B, but that leaves another $5B to account for. (About $2B of the Autonomy write-off come from convolute but legit accounting mechanics tied to HP’s own stock price decline.)

Despite this discrepancy, Whitman attributes the bulk of the write-off to irregularities under Lynch’s regime. Catherine Lesjak, HP’s CFO, explains it thus [emphasis mine]:

The majority of this impairment charge [i.e. write-off] is linked to serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures and misrepresentations that occurred prior to HP’s acquisition of Autonomy and the associated impact on the financial performance of the business over the long term.”

Vague words such as “associated impact” and “long term” purposefully confound a modest revenue recognition question with a much bigger problem. Many think the accounting snafu is a smoke screen: The Autonomy acquisition was simply a bad decision.

With Autonomy, Meg Whitman may have gone one write-off too far. Mike Lynch is a Larry Ellison-grade adversary: intelligent, articulate, aggressively entrepreneurial, with a willingness to create a reality distortion field around his company and an unwillingness to back down.

Lynch immediately writes to HP’s Board and demands proof of the allegations. Nothing so far. He then launches a website to buttress his defense and counterattack. His thesis is simple:
– First, Autonomy’s books were vetted by world-class accounting and consulting firms (Deloitte and KPMG) during the acquisition’s due diligence process.
– Second, HP’s Board of Directors, which comprises industry experts such as Ray Lane (ex-Oracle) and Marc Andreessen (ex-Netscape, Opsware, and founder of the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm) to say nothing of Meg herself, unanimously supported the acquisition proposed by Léo, himself an Enterprise Software expert (22 years at SAP).
– Third, Lynch contends that HP’s ponderous bureaucracy completely misunderstood and mismanaged the entrepreneurial culture that made Autonomy successful. As a result, key people left and the business is now in shambles.

The too-convenient Autonomy write-off and the attacks on Lynch could badly backfire. Legal action against Autonomy’s founder could open a Pandora’s box of embarrassing information.

For example, at its October 3rd analyst meeting, HP tells Wall Street that 2013 profits will fall below expectations, $3.40 to $3.60 per share vs. earlier estimates of $4.16. The stock hits a 9-year low. That same day, HP puts out a lengthy (2056 words) news release as well as a link to the presentations to be used at the meeting. I downloaded the (excellent) slides, looked for the word “Autonomy”, and found a mere footnote in Meg’s presentation and, elsewhere, an upbeat slogan: “Taking Autonomy from start-up to grown-up”…. Neither the CEO nor Cathie Lesjak, the CFO, said a word to tell shareholders trouble was brewing.

Seven weeks later, HP reveals that the investigation into Autonomy’s alleged accounting improprieties had been going on since last May when an insider blew the whistle. If Whitman and her staff are invited by Lynch’s lawyers to give depositions under the  “penalty of perjury” they earlier waved in his face, they could face some painful What Did You Know and When Did You Know It questions.

HP was once a pillar of Silicon Valley, a shining example of technical and managerial culture at their best. Today, insignificance and mediocrity loom. Does Whitman, who waves a Make It Matter slogan to rally troops, really think an ugly, mud-slinging fight will make things better?

JLG@mondaynote.com

The enduring Apple TV Fantasy

 

We all want TV Done Right, free of the Soviet Era set-top box, UI and opaque contracts. We imagine Apple will put all the pieces together. But what’s desirable and “obvious” might not be so simple or soon…

“When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told . NBC’s Brian Williams “It’s an area of intense interest. I can’t say more than that.”

These words — and similar ones in a substantial Bloomberg interview — launched yet another round of frenzied speculation about the mythical Apple TV.

Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster insists that an Apple TV in 2013 is a sure thing. “It will be the biggest thing in consumer electronics since the smartphone“. (Of course, Munster has been saying this every year for the last three years…)

Another analyst, Wells Fargo’s Maynard Um, agrees that the device is inevitable, if only because a full-fledged television is “more in tune” with Apple than a simple set-top box.

Hmmm…

First, let’s take a calmer look at Tim Cook’s words. As many have noted, there’s nothing new here. Cook said essentially the same things at the D10 Conference last May and has repeated the message on earnings conference calls. The only changes to the Apple TV script in the past twelve months are the stated number of black pucks sold in the last fiscal year (more than 5 million), and an upgrade from “hobby” to “intense interest”. The actual meaning of this “interest” is widely open to interpretation.

Speculation aside, Cook has one thing right: The set-top box experience does place one back in time by 20 to 30 years:

– We still can’t order channels à la carte or search the program grid. For the latter you have to go to your tablet. And forget about the former.

– You can’t buy your own set-top box; you have to rent it from your carrier. For STB makers, there’s no incentive to build a better product.

– Add in the contorted rights and packages games played by the content providers and you end up with today’s mess.

The solution? Channels, shows, special events should all be presented as apps. Click, pay, and play, with standard fare for free. Catch the 6 pm news when you get home at 9:30; watch two programs side-by-side with Android 7 or iOS 9, all on your screen of choice: smartphone, tablet, PC, or TV.

The technology isn’t an issue. There’s enough bandwidth on cable (or pretend-fiber) networks, plenty of storage on servers, and all the required computing power in current or future TV boxes, from Apple and its competitors.

But there’s an obstacle in the tangled, encrusted business models that the Comcasts, CBSs, and Disneys cling to out of fear that Apple will wrest control of their content, that they’ll be disintermediated a la iTunes or the iPhone/iPad App Store.

Second, I simply don’t believe Apple will make, or even wants to make, a TV set. To realize the dream, as discussed previously, you need to put a computer — something like an Apple TV module — inside the set. Eighteen months later, as Moore’s Law dictates, the computer is obsolete but the screen is just fine. No problem, you’ll say, just make the computer module removable, easily replaced by a new one; more revenue for Apple…and you’re right back to today’s separate box arrangement. And you can spread said box to all HDTVs, not just the hypothetical Apple-brand set.

If carriers and content owners can be tricked, bribed, sued, or otherwise made to see the light and wisdom of higher revenue per subscriber, the TV Done Right will descend from Heaven in the form of a next generation Apple set-top box, not a TV set.

So why is Tim Cook talking about Apple TV at all?

The simplest explanation is that he’s simply answering an interviewer’s question. Possible… but not likely in such tightly choreographed exercises.

A cheekier possibility is that the answer is a head fake. Cook, a noted College Football fan, is trying to draw Google offsides, to provoke then into yet another embarrassing Google TV moment. And maybe even goad Microsoft into another WebTV dud.

Amusing… but not likely.

In Google’s case, the failed experiment has been digested and the next iteration will be much sharper. (Note well that Google’s subsidiary Motorola is putting its set-top box business up for bids, with “vendor financing possible”…)

For Microsoft, the company is happy with its successful Xbox ecosystem and its ability to provide TV content through its game console, even if that content doesn’t flow onto its phone and tablets as nicely as they would like. In any event, Tim Cook wishes Steve Ballmer no ill — au contraire, Cook wants Ballmer to stay on the job as long as he keeps helping his friends in Cupertino.

A more serious interpretation: Apple’s CEO is indicating that he’ll continue to invest talent and money until the TV obstacles are finally surmounted. In other words: “Join us and ride the wave that will sweep away the competition”.

Speaking of the competition, Sony is trying to break free from its profitless HDTV past by building a new 4K TV business.

If you have the opportunity, treat yourself to a 4K TV demo at a Sony Store. The spectacle is stunning: You see the delicate capillaries on a baby’s eyelids, feathers on birds, minute details on street scenes without any of the blurring you get on today’s HDTV.

With 3,840 by 2,160 pixels on an 80-inch TV screen, the 4K boasts 4 times the resolution of 1080p (1920 by 1080)… and an even greater price tag ratio: $25K vs $2K or less. The 4K TV is delivered with a server that contains full-resolution movies because cable and satellite carriers provide no such content — and have no plans to do so.

Sony has a valuable asset in its movie library and a need to push its new 4K TV technology. Could this portend an Apple-Sony alliance? The two companies have worked well together in the past, a CEO-level conversation could easily happen. But even if an Apple TV box provided a strong showcase for a Sony 4K TV set, carriers would still have to be shown how to milk the opportunity.

On still more sober musings, let’s consider Apple TV’s place in the company’s business. In the 2012 fiscal year ending last september, Apple’s total revenue was $156B. 5 million Apple TVs translates into $500M; that’s 0.3% of the company’s total.

Why bother? In 2014, Apple’s revenue could exceed $250B. Even if Apple TV sales were to grow by ten times, they would still represent no more than a 2% fragment of the total.

The answer is that Apple TV isn’t meant to generate revenue but to enhance the value of the more muscular, profit-making members of the ecosystem: iPhones, iPads and, to a lesser extent, Macs. In a similar, grander, and now well-understood way, iTunes isn’t in the business of making money by itself. iTunes made the iPod larger than the Mac in 2006, and it made the App Store possible — and the iPhone and the iPad as profit engines.

For Apple TV, is there a path from today’s supporting role to a $50B size, to 20% of Apple’s revenue in 2014? (Gene Munster thinks there is.)

My belief is that Apple TV sales numbers will continue to increase as the device is slowly, patiently improved and the ecosystem is enhanced. In a not-too-distant future we’ll see explicit Apple TV apps, similar to those on iPhones and iPads.

And someday, Apple will reach a limited agreement with a carrier such as Comcast. The enhanced experience will create a wedge — and will spur competitors. As a result, TV will at last become “modern” — sitting down in front of your TV set will no longer send you time traveling to 1992.

JLG@mondaynote.com

——————
Late update, an amusing coincidence: a just-discovered “Apple TV set” at Lyfe, a modern Palo Alto eatery.
With my apologies for the low quality pictures, this is the menu on five TV sets, side-by-side in portrait mode:

And, if you’re curious, you discover five Mac Minis bolted to the back of the TV sets:

Gene Munster should take a look.

Wintel: Le Divorce Part II

 

At CES 2011, Ballmer told the world Windows would “fork”, that it would also run on lower power ARM chips for mobile devices. This was seen as a momentous breach in the long-standing Wintel duopoly. Two years later, the ARM tooth of the fork looks short and dull.

This is what I wrote almost two years ago:

After years of monogamy with the x86 architecture, Windows will soon run on ARM processors.

As in any divorce, Microsoft and Intel point fingers at one another. Intel complains about Microsoft’s failure to make a real tablet OS. They say MS has tried to shoehorn “Windows Everywhere” onto a device that has an incompatible user interface, power management, and connectivity requirements while the competition has created device-focused software platforms.

Microsoft rebuts: It’s Intel’s fault. Windows CE works perfectly well on ARM-based devices, as do Windows Mobile and now Windows Phone 7. Intel keeps telling us they’re “on track”, that they’ll eventually shrink x86 processors to the point where the power dissipation will be compatible with smartphones and tablets. But…when?

Today, a version of Windows (RT) does indeed run on an ARM processor, on Microsoft’s Surface tablet-PC hybrid. Has Microsoft finally served Intel with divorce papers?

Not so fast. The market’s reaction to Redmond’s ambitious Surface design has fallen far short of the heights envisioned in the company’s enthusiastic launch: Surface machines aren’t flying off Microsoft Store shelves. Ballmer himself admits sales are “modest” (and then quickly backpedals); Digitimes, admittedly not always reliable, quotes suppliers who say that Surface orders have been cut by half; anecdotally, but amusingly, field research by Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster (who can be a bit excitable) shows zero Surfaces sold during a two hour period at the Mall of America on Black Friday, while iPads were selling at a rate of 11-an-hour.

Traditional PC OEMs aren’t enthusiastic either. Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group, is unimpressed:

“It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it .…”

Acer exec Linxian Lang warns:

“Redmond will have to eat ‘hard rice’ with Surface…it should stick to its more readily-chewed software diet.”

To be sure, there are happy Surface users, such as Steve Sinofsky, the former Windows Division President, as captured in lukew’s Instagram picture:

(An aside: I went back to Sinofsky’s 8,000 words blog post that lovingly describes the process of developing “WOA” — Windows on ARM. At the time, WOA was presented as part of the Windows 8 universe. Later, Microsoft swapped the “8″ designation and chose to use “RT” instead. These naming decisions aren’t made lightly. Is there any wonder why WOA was moved out of the Windows 8 camp?)

It’s possible that the jury is still out… Surface sales could take off, Windows RT could be embraced by leading PC OEMs… but what are the odds? In addition to the tepid reception from customers and vendors alike, Microsoft must surmount the relentless market conquest of Android and iOS tablets whose numbers (210 million units) are expected to exceed laptop sales next year.

So, no… the Wintel Divorce isn’t happening. Intel’s x86 chips will remain the processors of choice to run Windows. Next month, we’ll have CES and its usual burst of announcements, both believable and dubious (remember when 2010 was declared the Year Of The Tablet PC?). We’ll have to sort the announcements that are merely that from those that will yield an actual device, but in the end I doubt we’ll see many new and really momentous Windows RT products out there.

Microsoft’s lackluster attempt at Post-PC infidelity doesn’t help Intel in its efforts to gain a foothold in the mobile world. Intel’s perennial efforts to break into the mobile market with lower power, lower cost x86 chips have, also perennially, failed. As a result, there is renewed speculation about a rapprochement between Intel and Apple, that the Santa Clara microprocessor giant could become an ardent (and high-volume) ARM SoC foundry.

As discussed here, some of this makes sense: Samsung is Apple’s biggest and most successful competitor in the smartphone/tablet space, spending billions more than anyone else in global marketing programs. At the same time, the South Korean company is Apple’s only supplier of ARM chips. Intel has the technology and manufacturing capacity to become an effective replacement for Samsung.

This wouldn’t be an easy decision for Intel: the volumes are high — as high as 415M ARM chips for 2013 according to one analyst — but the margins are low. And Intel doesn’t do low margins. Because of the Wintel duopoly, Intel’s x86 chips have always commanded a premium markup. Take Windows out of the picture and the margin disappears.

(As another aside, the 415,000 ARM chips number seems excessive. Assuming about 50 million iPhone 5s and 15 million iPads in the current quarter, and using the 4X rule of thumb for the following calendar year, we land somewhere between 250M and 300M ARM chips for Apple in 2013.)

Also, Intel would almost certainly not be Apple’s sole supplier of ARM chips. Yes, Apple needs to get out of its current and dangerous single source situation. But Tim Cook’s Supply Chain Management expertise will come into play to ensure that Apple doesn’t fall into a similar situation with Intel, that the company will secure at least a second source, such as the rumored TSMC.

The speculation by an RBC analyst that Intel will offer its services to build ARM chips for the iPhone on the condition Apple picks an x86 device for the iPad is nonsensical: Apple won’t fork iOS. Life is complicated enough with OS X on Intel and iOS on ARM.

Historically, a sizable fraction of Intel’s profits came from the following comparison. Take two microprocessor chips of equal “merit”: manufacturing cost, computing output, power dissipation… And add one difference: one runs Windows, the other doesn’t. Which one will get the highest profit margin?

In the ARM world and its flurry of customized chips and software platforms, the “runs Windows” advantage is no longer. ARM chips generate significantly lower margins than in the Intel-dominated world (its competitor AMD is ailing).

This leaves the chip giant facing a choice: It can have a meager meal at the tablet/smartphone fest, or not dine at all at the mobile table…while it watches its PC business decline.

In other news… Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, unexpectedly announced he’ll leave next May, a couple years ahead of the company’s mandatory 65-year retirement age. No undignified exit here. Intel’s Board pointedly stated they’ll be looking outside as well as inside for a successor, another unusual move in a company that so far stuck to successions orchestrated around carefully groomed execs. This could be seen as a sanction for Otellini missing the mobile wave and, much more important, a desire to bring new blood willing and able to look past the old x86 orthodoxy.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Apple Can Finish What Microsoft’s Sinofsky Started

 

In 2007, Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows called Vista, a grand name for what turns out to be an embarrassing dud. (Memories of my first and determining interaction with Vista can be found here.)

Steven Sinofsky, once a Bill Gates technical assistant and, at the time, head of Microsoft Office development, is given a shovel (and a pad of pink slips) and told to clean the stables. To create a new, respectable version of Windows in a mere 30 months will require great discipline, a refusal to compromise, the rejection of distracting advice, relentless attention to the schedule, as well as the merciless pruning of features and people who get in the way. Sinofsky had it all: superb technical skills, the dogged drive of a rassar, and the political will to mow down the obstacles.

In July 2009, Microsoft unveils Windows 7, a product widely acclaimed as absolving Vista’s sins, and Sinofsky is promoted to president of the Windows division, a title parsimoniously bestowed.

Sinofsky immediately begins work on the next version of Windows, following his proven strategy of adding solid, well-defined details while maintaining backwards compatibility and avoiding the rat trap of “feature creep”. But something happens along the way: In early 2010, the iPad comes out. Although the device is initially misunderstood by Microsoft — Steve Ballmer speaks of “slates and tablets and blah blah blah” — it doesn’t take long for the Redmond company to realize that it needs an answer, it needs to defend its PC empire against the interloping tablet that has been so warmly embraced by the public.

The company changes course and Sinofsky gets a new mission: Windows 8 isn’t going to be a mere clean-up job, it’s not an “embrace and extend” improvement, but a new ”reimagined” Windows, a PC Plus that will straddle the PC and tablet worlds. The new OS will provide a radically new look-and-feel, a touch-screen interface in addition to a keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), and it will stray from the comfy x86 monogamy to also work on ARM processors.

A little over three years later, right after delivering Windows 8, Sinofsky is abruptly sacked.(Excuse me, he’s “amicably” sacked… by his own “personal and private” choice).

Windows 8, Windows RT, and the Surface tablet are now on full display, as are the reviews — and they’re not pretty. As summarized in this June 2012 Business Insider piece, the pundits were concerned and baffled right from the start:

“Worst of all, the traditional desktop is buried — it’s just another Metro app — but there are still some things you can only do from the desktop, and some only from Metro.” (Matt Rosoff)

“In my time with Windows 8, I’ve felt almost totally at sea — confused, paralyzed, angry, and ultimately resigned to the pain of having to alter the way I do most of my work.” (Farhad Manjoo)

“Windows 8 looks to me to be an unmitigated disaster that could decidedly hurt the company and its future… The real problem is that it is both unusable and annoying.” (John Dvorak)

Perhaps these were simply hasty judgments meant to capture eyeballs, maybe customers would ignore the critics and embrace Windows 8. But no. Five months later, Paul Thurrott, the author of the respected Windows Supersite blog, gives us this post:

“Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft’s internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing.”

As head of HP’s Personal Systems Group (PCs and printers, a $55B/year business), Todd Bradley’s opinion of Microsoft’s latest creations carries considerable weight. Last week, in a long CITEworld interview, Bradley wasn’t impressed:

“I’d hardly call Surface competition.

CITEworld: Why not?

TB: One, very limited distribution. It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it. I just don’t think it’s competitive. It’s expensive. Holistically, the press has made a bigger deal out of Surface than what the world has chosen to believe.”

As reported two weeks ago, I quickly encountered Windows 8′s split personality when I tried to use my new Surface, but I wanted the bigger picture.

Was Windows 8 running on a PC — Microsoft’s home turf — really an “unmitigated disaster”? I head over to the big Microsoft Store in the Stanford Shopping Center to buy the full version of the new OS — and they don’t have it. The upgrade version, yes, but no copies of the “System Builder” DVD that you need for a complete, from-scratch installation. Curious.

I head back home, order a copy from Amazon, buy an additional license from Microsoft for my second machine, and two days later I’m in business. The installation process is flawless (one with VMware Fusion, the other with Parallels), but things quickly go downhill. The problems I had with the Surface are just as distracting and frustrating on a PC: One moment you’re in the new, elegant, and, yes, reimagined User Interface, the next moment you’re foraging in the old Windows 7 Desktop. And, of course, existing Office apps have no place in the new UI.

It’s no wonder that customers aren’t keen to buy Windows 8. As a recent survey shows, “about one-third of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP users who are ready to buy a new personal computer say they intend to switch to an Apple product.

According to the Thurrott post mentioned earlier, the inside story is that Sinofsky was let go because of his “divisiveness”, that his departure isn’t a consequence of Window 8′s poor numbers. But if we imagine a different reality, one in which Sinofsky stands before a big Mission Accomplished banner, where critics rave about the beauty, harmony, and impeccable polish of a Windows 8 that runs flawlessly on PCs, laptops, tablets, and Surface-like hybrids…do we think for a moment Ballmer would have shown Sinofsky the door?

I think the real story behind Sinofsky’s removal contains elements of both personality and (Windows 8) performance. It’s no secret that Sinofsky made a lot of enemies while he pulled off a not-so-minor miracle with Windows 7. As a reward for his accomplishment, he was given a much more difficult assignment. Windows 8 had become a 21-blade Swiss Army knife: a great list of features on paper, dubious usability in practice. Add the need to adapt the operating system and the sacrosanct (and golden goose) Office applications to the new ARM processor and you end up with a Mission Impossible.

The same traits that made Sinofsky an extremely successful turnaround artist after the Vista mess — his monomaniacal pursuit of a clear goal — became liabilities in this reimagined world. He slipped and fell, the enemies saw their chance, the bayonets came out. Even supremely gifted [redacted] have a sell-by date.

Of course, none of this says anything about who came up with the mission. Was it Ballmer’s idea or Sinofsky’s? Microsoft isn’t talking.

Now let’s turn to Apple. The “recomplicated” Windows hands the Cupertino company an intriguing opportunity. They can capitalize on Microsoft’s misstep, extend a welcoming hand to the Windows users who intend to switch to Apple, and make the iPad the sine qua non of what a Post-PC device should be. (I use the “Post-PC” moniker for lack of a better one. For me, it doesn’t stand for the end of the PC but for its broadening into three instances: classic, tablet, smartphone.)

From the beginning, the iPad, designed to be a new genre, not a derivative, came with limitations. Yes, you could do some productivity work, but iOS’s lack of multi-tasking, a favorite whipping boy of the critics, made it difficult. To be sure, the OS supported concurrent activities inside the device, but running several applications at the same time was a no-no. The processor couldn’t handle it and, even if it could have, battery life would have been terrible.

So whether it was divine inspiration or simply a bowing to necessity, Apple shunned the temptation to make a PC-only-smaller, and created a whole new genre of personal computers. Microsoft couldn’t resist and gave us Windows Mobile with a Start button.

Almost five years have elapsed since the birth of iOS. (We’ll give a quick but deep hat tip to its ferocious and now deposed champion, Scott Forstall, and leave the discussion of his own exit for a future Monday Note.) With the latest iPad hardware, we have a fast processor and there are even faster ones in the making. Does the more muscular hardware and road-tested OS portend a future that supports the running of two applications side-by-side in a split-screen arrangement? Or perhaps a slidebar that reveals and hides the second app.

This isn’t exactly an original idea: Samsung just released a firmware update providing a split-screen multitasking view. And, of course, as explained here, the Snap feature in Windows 8 provides a neat way to run two apps side-by-side on a laptop or tablet.

Today, preparing a Keynote document that incorporates elements from other apps requires clumsy mental and physical gymnastics. Having access to the source and destination documents at the same time would be a welcome relief and a boost to business uses.

There are other quirks. You can edit a Mac-originated Pages or Numbers document on your iPad, but no such joy awaits users of Apple’s well-loved Preview. Upload a Preview PDF into iCloud from your MacBook and then grab your iPad and see if you can find it… No, you need to use DropBox or the (excellent) Microsoft SkyDrive. (One “explanation” for this state of affairs is the strong security that pervades iOS. Inter-application communication can open backdoors to malware, which is still quite rare in iOS. But if it can be done for Pages and other iWork apps…)

Now that all OS X and iOS software is under one hat, Craig Federighi‘s, perhaps we can expect these workflow speed bumps to be ironed out. Multiple concurrent applications, a document store that’s common to all apps… This is Apple’s opportunity: Stick to its guns, keep laptops and tablets clearly distinct, but make iPads easier to love by business users. The comparison between a worst-of-both-worlds Surface hybrid and the iPad would be no contest. iPad mini for media consumption, everywhere; iPad for business and everything else.

Apple can finish the job Sinofsky started.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Minding The (Apple)Store

 

As I’ve written many times in the past, I’m part of the vast chorus that praises the Apple Store. And not just for the uncluttered product displays, the no-pressure sales people (who aren’t on commission), or the Genius Bar that provides expert help, but for the impressive architecture. Apple beautifies existing venues (Regent Street in London, rue Halevy near the Paris Opera) or commissions elegant new buildings, huge ones at times.

It’s a relentlessly successful story. Even the turmoil surrounding John Browett’s abbreviated tenure as head of Apple’s worldwide retail organization hasn’t slowed the pace  of store openings and customer visits. (As always, Horace Dediu provides helpful statistics and analysis in his latest Asymco post.)

It has always struck me as odd that in Palo Alto, Apple’s heartland and Steve Jobs’ adopted hometown, Apple had only a modestly-sized, unremarkable venue on University Avenue, and an even smaller store in the Stanford Shopping Center.

All of that changed on October 27th when the black veil that shrouded an unmarked project was removed, and the newest Apple Store — what some are calling a “prototype” for future venues, a “flagship” store — was revealed. (For the civic-minded — or the insomniac — you can read the painfully detailed proposal, submitted to Palo Alto’s Architectural Review Board nearly three years ago, here.)

I came back from a trip on November 2nd, the day the iPad mini became available, and immediately headed downtown. The new store is big, bold, elegant, even more so at night when the very bright lights and large Apple logo on its front dominate the street scene. (So much so I heard someone venture that Apple has recast itself as the antagonist in its 1984 commercial.)

The store is impressive… but its also unpleasantly, almost unbearably noisy. And mine isn’t a voice in the wilderness. The wife of a friend walked in, spent a few minutes, and vowed to never return for fear of hearing loss. She’d rather go to the cramped but much more hospitable Stanford store.

A few days later, I heard a similar complaint from the spouse of an Apple employee. She used to enjoy accompanying her husband to the old Palo Alto store, but now refuses because of the cacophony.

‘Now you know the real reason for Browett’s firing’, a friend said, half-seriously. ‘How can you spend North of $15M on such a strategically placed, symbolic store, complete with Italian stone hand-picked by Jobs himself…and give no consideration to the acoustics? It’s bad for customers, it’s bad for the staff, it’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the brand. Apple appears to be more concerned with style than with substance!’

Ouch.

The sound problem stems from a combination of the elongated “Great Hall”, parallel walls, and reflective building materials. The visually striking glass roof becomes a veritable parabolic sound mirror. There isn’t a square inch of sound-absorbing material in the entire place.

A week later, I returned to the store armed with the SPL Meter iPhone app. As the name indicates, SPL Meter provides a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measurement in decibels.(Decibels form a logarithmic scale where a 3 dB increase means roughly twice as much sound pressure — noise in our case; +10 dB is ten times the sound pressure.)

For reference, a normal conversation at 3 feet (1m) is 40 to 60 dB; a passenger car 30 feet away produces levels between 60 and 80 dB. From the Wikipedia article above: “[The] EPA-identified maximum to protect against hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise, such as sleep disturbance, stress, learning detriment, etc. [is] 70 dB.”

On a relatively quiet Saturday evening, the noise level around the Genius Bar exceeded 75 dB:

Outside, the traffic noise registered a mere 65 dB. It was 10 db noisier inside the store than on always-busy University Avenue!

Even so, the store on that Friday was a virtual library compared to the day the iPad mini was launched, although I can’t quantify my impression: I didn’t have the presence of mind to whip out my iPhone and measure it.

Despite the (less-than-exacting) scientific evidence and the corroborating anecdotes, I began to have my doubts. Was I just “hearing things”? Could Apple really be this tone deaf?

Then I saw it: An SPL recorder — a professional one — perched on a tripod inside the store.

I also noticed two employees wearing omnidirectional sound recorders on their shoulders (thinking they might not like the exposure, I didn’t take their pictures.) Thus, it appears that Apple is taking the problem seriously.

But what can it do?

It’s a safe bet that Apple has already engaged a team of experts, acousticians who tweak the angles and surfaces in concert halls and problem venues. I’ve heard suggestions that Apple should install an Active Noise Control system: Cancel out sound waves by pumping in their inverted forms — all in real time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well (or at all) in a large space.

Bose produces a rather effective solution…in the controlled environment of headphones.

This prompted the spouse mentioned above to suggest that Apple should hand out Bose headphones at the door.

Two days after the noisy Apple store opened its doors, Browett was shown the exit. Either Tim Cook is fast on the draw or, more likely, my friend is wrong: Browett’s unceremonious departure had deeper roots, most likely a combination of a cultural mismatch and a misunderstanding of his role. The Browett graft didn’t take on the Apple rootstock, and the newly hired exec couldn’t accept that he was no longer a CEO.

Browett’s can’t be scapegoated for the acoustical nightmare in the new Apple Store. Did the rightly famous architectural firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, not hear the problem? What about the highly reputable building contractor (DPR) which has built so many other Apple Stores? Did they stand by and say nothing, or could they simply not be heard?

Perhaps this was a case of “Launchpad Chicken”, a NASA phrase for a situation where many people see trouble looming but keep quiet and wait for someone else to bear the shame of aborting the launch. It reminds me of the Apple Maps fiasco: An obvious problem ignored.

What a waste spending all that money and raising expectations only to move from a slightly undersized but well-liked store to a bigger, noisier, colder environment that turns friends away.

Having tacitly admitted that there’s a problem, Apple’s senior management can now show they’ll stop at nothing to make the new store as inviting as it was intended to be.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Tablets Trade-Offs And Compromises

 

A couple of hours after landing in SFO from Paris, I find myself setting up two new tablets: a Microsoft Surface and an iPad mini. While on the road, I had read much on both products and felt reasonably well prepared for the tasks.

This proved correct. But the product experience was another thing.

First, the Surface: Unpack, plug in, boot up, no problem. The magnetic touch keyboard and power adapter latch onto the tablet-PC without ado, the machine’s virgin launch is a breeze: I answer a few simple questions, enter my hotmail credentials and I’m in business… sort of.

In order to get a taste for the full Surface experience, I fire up Word 2013 (included with the tablet) to write this Monday Note. Not so slick, the keyboard and touchpad aren’t very helpful. When I ordered the Surface, I chose the slim $119.99 Touch Cover combo rather than the thicker $129.99 Type Cover. Building a keyboard into a protective cover is a great idea, but, as the name implies, the Touch version doesn’t have a real keyboard. Instead, you have to work with an unsatisfying, felt-like surface without tactile feedback. For “real” typing, I need the “real” Type Cover. I’m off to Stanford’s MS Store to correct my expensive mistake.

Keyboard problem solved, I hit another snag. While Word 2013 does a good job zooming using a two-finger touch, the Control Panel and other essential parts of Windows RT are (barely) touch-enabled retreads from Windows 7; they ignore your zoom. I discover this when I need to type accented characters such é or ñ, characters that, of course, don’t appear on the keyboard. Normally, this isn’t a problem; go to the Windows Control Panel, select the English International keyboard as the input mode, and you’re set. You type ~ followed by n to get ñ.

But how does this actually work in the reimagined Windows RT? I fumble around and finally find my old friend, the Control Panel:

From there, I go to Clock, Language, and Region, pop open the Input Method menu… and select the wrong mode. Because of the lack of zoom, picking the right option in a list a game of chance. You need the sanded fingertips Steve Jobs famously derided when asked about smaller tablets.

If I use the Touch Cover trackpad instead of directly touching the Control Panel on the ironically named Surface screen, things improve dramatically: My fat fingers now become delicate. This might explain why Microsoft insists on selling a keyboard with its Surface tablet. Without one, in my admittedly limited experience, it’s not quite useable.

Then there’s the UI formerly known as Metro. In the current state of Windows 8 and Windows RT, it’s only skin-deep: Using Office apps or modifying system settings quickly calls up the old Windows 7 UI. It’s not the end of the world, the UI will evolve with future versions but, in the meantime, the much-hyped Surface tablet cum PC feels far from polished and consistent. And the no-less-touted reimagination of Windows doesn’t go much deeper than the very neat and imaginative UI on its… surface.

At least the vaunted Surface kickstand works quite well… although only in landscape mode, and, even then, only if you’re sitting. If you type while standing or want landscape mode, forget the kickstand.

I’ll keep using the product in personal writing and presentations to make sure I’m not missing some killer feature. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know if Steve Ballmer or Microsoft Board Members use a Surface tablet rather than a MacBook Air running Windows 8, a truly excellent combination in my own paid-for experience.

On to the iPad mini.

Like its forebears — and its current competitors — setup is fast and easy. If you already have an iPad or an iPhone backed-up in iCloud, everything syncs and downloads nicely.

But what about the “mini” part?

I bought a Nexus 7 when it came out and liked the fact I could pocket it, whether in jeans or in jacket. The iPad mini is larger than the Nexus, slightly more than half an inch (14.7mm) wider. Still, the “mini” will fit inside the front pocket of most jeans. Unfortunately, it’s too tall for most shallower back pockets, but it’ll fit nicely in outside jacket and topcoat pockets (as measured in this August 2nd, 2009 Monday Note where I hoped for a pocketable Apple tablet) — and doctors’s and nurses’ lab coats…

Regardless of how you carry it, the iPad mini’s hardware is neatly detailed. It’s thin and light and the “aluminium”, as Sir Jonathan Paul Ive (KBE) rightly pronounces it in the Queen’s English, works well with the white front bezel. The (stereo) speakers sound good although, to my ears, they’re surprisingly no better or louder than the latest iPhone’s, themselves a marked improvement over earlier generations.

Turning to the screen, I agree with the many who are less than thrilled with the mini’s display. I think this is the result of a compatibility decision: The mini has the same number of pixels (1024 by 768) as the iPad 2, but at a higher density (163 pixels per inch vs. the original 132 ppi). With the same pixel count as the iPad 2, all apps run unchanged, their screen rendition is just smaller. The visual experience isn’t as pleasant as on the iPad 2 itself, let alone the iPad “3″ and its higher pixel density display.

When you read a Kindle or iBook novel, a magazine such as Bloomberg Businessweek, or the NY Times on your iPhone, the content isn’t simply the iPad version squeezed to fit into the phone’s tiny display. These applications reformat their content, they adapt to be legible… no squinting, no eye strain. Let’s hope these apps will be updated to make better use of the iPad mini screen, as opposed to offering squished iPad 2 rendering.

(We’ve also read the complaints that the mini isn’t a “Retina” device…but on this topic, I must recuse myself: I’ve twice mistaken an iPad 2 for the higher resolution device. Last Spring, as I had just gotten a new high-resolution iPad, at Soho’s Les Amis bistro, I watched a gentleman at the next table flip through beautiful pictures on his iPad. I leaned over and asked how he liked his new iPad “3″. ‘What? No, it’s last year’s iPad 2…’.

A few days later in Paris, I reset my iPad 2 in order to hand it to my Mother-In-Law, a replacement for the MacBook Air that was giving her — and me — headaches. Oops, I actually reset my new Retina iPad, mistaking it for the older iPad 2. No harm done, the iCloud backup resuscitated my new tablet.)

So, which of these two devices will enjoy the brighter future? The “inadequacy” of the mini’s screen quality is an issue — and could become a problem as both Android and Amazon ecosystems keep improving (and continue to undercut Apple’s prices). But I think the improved portability (size, weight), the elegant design and material quality, plus the instant compatibility with the hundreds of thousands of iPad apps will count for a lot.

As for the future of Microsoft’s Surface, as Peter Bright (a noted Microsoft analyst) concludes in his review of Redmond’s new tablet, it really needs a keyboard and pointing device in order to be usable with Office applications. This makes a good case for Apple’s decision to keep laptops and tablets separate, freeing each to do what it does best.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

What happened to the iPad?

 

On October 23rd, Apple announced the widely expected iPad mini. The company also surprised most by also introducing a faster “4th generation” iPad, swiftly replacing the one launched on March 7th this year, seven and a half months ago.
That same day, Tim Cook proudly proclaimed a an iPad milestone: 100 million shipped since its April 2010 debut. Impressive.
No less impressively, Wall Street analysts quickly did their subtractions and concluded Q4 iPad shipments — to be officially announced two days later — were going to miss expectations.
They were right.
Where seers expected somewhere between 15 and 16 million iPads, the actual Q4 number was 14 million. Using the Average Selling Price (ASP) we’ll discuss in a moment, a “miss” of 2 million units translates into more than $1B in missed revenue.

Compared to the 17 million iPads shipped in Q3 (ending in June), Q4′s 14 million units look like a steep decline. This isn’t in keeping with the fast growth the iPad had shown since its 2010 beginning. On a “Quarters After Launch” basis, the iPad used to grow faster than the iPhone. Now, we see a decline from the 15.4 million units shipped in Q1 (ending December 2011), and only a modest 26% increase from last year’s Q4. Where are the go-go days of 70% or even 100% year-to-year growth?
Two days later, at the October 25th Earnings Conference Call, Apple’s CEO tried to put a better face on that strangely anemic 26% growth. As noted by Horace Dediu, Tim Cook pointed to a different number: sell-thru, units actually delivered to customers, grew by 44%. Not great, but not as tepid as 26%.
(See Philip Ellmer-Dewitt’s detailed explanation here. In essence, when product ships, it “changes hands”: the channel partner “takes title”, meaning it moves from Apple’s books to the reseller’s. For Apple, the items thus shipped count as revenue, even if they’re not sold-thru, that is sold to end customers. When the volume of products Apple ships to retailers is less than the volume sold-thru, channel inventories decline, more sales out than shipments in. This is how Apple sees revenue go up by 26% while sell-thru increases by 44%. A likely explanation for last quarter’s depletion of channel inventory is making room for the two new iPad models.)
Resorting to sell-thru numbers as a way to put iPad numbers in a better light could be habit-forming, it could force Apple’s management to provide more detailed inventory numbers more regularly.
On the end-customer demand side, Apple execs attributed the low Q4 iPad number to several months of intense and detailed rumors ahead of the iPad mini launch.
So, the iPad story could look this: Last year, the yearly iPhone refresh moved from June to October; as a result, Q4 iPhone shipments disappointed; but fast growth resumed once the new model shipped; the pattern now applies to the iPad as well.

No, the iPhone and the iPad behave more differently than in the above scenario. I went back to SEC filings and extracted data for the following graph tracking iPhone and iPad ASP’s for the past eight quarters:

The iPhone ASP is stable. Carriers keep indulging in (wooden) saber-rattling, complaining about “excessive” iPhone subsidies. Here, subsidy means the difference between the price carriers pay for a handset and the typical end-user price: $199 for the phone with a two-year contract. In such a $199 arrangement, for the past five years, Apple has been able to extract more money from carriers than any of its competitors. Paraphrasing Horace Dediu, the explanation for such an enduring advantage is a simple one: For carriers, the iPhone is a better salesman, it generates more revenue, a higher ARPU (Average Revenue Per User). As a result, carriers pay the iPhone salesman a higher commission, meaning a higher handset price. (And they sound like the grouchy bosses who complain their star sales person makes too much money…)

For the iPad, there is no such arrangement, no two-year contract, no subsidy. For example, AT&T will sell an iPad with a no-commitment, month-to-month wireless data contract. Without a two-year commitment, carriers have no incentive to sell the iPad at a particularly attractive price, causing customers to face the price without a subsidy fig-leaf. (One might argue smartphone contracts lead customers to borrow money, the $400+ subsidy, at usurious rates, but such habits are hard to break. Rare is the carrier that will offer a cure, a lower monthly contract if you pay full price for the phone.)

How do iPad customers react to the cold price truth? All we know is the ASP has been falling for five quarters. And we can also surmise price figures more actively in competitive situations than it does with smartphones. Or, for that matter, with notebooks and desktop computers: ASP for Macs is stable or growing a little, from $1282 last year to $1344 last quarter. These prices don’t prevent Apple from being number one on desktops and notebooks in the US — as Tim Cook reminded everyone on October 23rd.

The surprise iPad refresh can be seen as a reaction to competitive pressures, existing or upcoming ones. And, for the iPad mini, we have an interesting combination: premium price and an avowed lower gross margin, ‘significantly below our cooperate average‘ says Apple’s CFO during the October 25th Earnings Conference Call.

The iPad definitely behaves differently, neither a bigger smartphone, nor a smaller PC, thus confirming it belongs to a new category whose rules are still being established. The next few quarters will be even more interesting than recent ones: Google, Amazon and Microsoft have new products worth watching, they all intend to fight for a dominant role in the new space.

JLG@mondaynote.com