About Jean-Louis Gassée

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Google’s Red Guide to the Android App Store

 

As they approach the one million apps mark, smartphone and tablet app stores leave users stranded in thick, uncharted forests. What are Google and Apple waiting?

Last week, Google made the following announcement:

Mountain View, February 24th, 2013 — As part of an industry that owes so much to Steve Jobs, we remember him on this day, the 58th anniversary of his birth, with great sadness but also with gratitude. Of Steve’s many achievements, we particularly want to celebrate the Apple App Store, the venerable purveyor of iPhone software. 

Introduced in 2008, the App Store was an obvious and natural descendant of iTunes. What wasn’t obvious or foreseen was that the App Store would act as a catalyst for an entire market segment, that it would metamorphose the iPhone from mere smartphone to app phone. This metamorphosis provided an enormous boost to the mobile industry worldwide, a boost that has benefitted us all and Google more than most.

But despite the success of the app phone there’s no question that today’s mobile application stores, our own Google Play included, are poorly curated. No one seems to be in charge, there’s no responsibility for reviewing and grading apps, there’s no explanation of the criteria that goes into the “Editors’ Picks”, app categorization is skin deep and chaotic.

Today, we want to correct this fault and, at the same time, pay homage to Steve’s elegant idea by announcing a new service: The Google Play Red Guide. Powered by Google’s human and computer resources, the Red Guide will help customers identify the trees as they wander through the forest of Android apps. The Red Guide will provide a new level of usefulness and fun for users — and will increase the revenue opportunities for application developers.

With the Google Play Red Guide, we’ll bring an end to the era of the uncharted, undocumented, and poorly policed mobile app store.

The Red Guide takes its name from another great high-tech company, Michelin. At the turn of the 20th century, Michelin saw it needed to promote automotive travel in order to stimulate tire sales. It researched, designed and published great maps, something we can all relate to. To further encourage travel, Michelin published Le Guide Rouge, a compendium of hotels and restaurant. A hundred years later, the Michelin Red Guide is still considered the world’s standard; its inspectors are anonymous and thus incorruptible, their opinions taken seriously. Even a single star award (out of three) can put an otherwise unknown restaurant on the map — literally.

Our Red Guide will comprise the following:

- “Hello, World”, a list of indispensable apps for the first time Android customer (or iPhone apostate), with tips, How-To guides, and FAQs.
– “Hot and Not”. Reviews of new apps and upgrades — and the occasional downgrade.
– “In Our Opinion”. This is the heart of the Guide, a catalogue of reviews written by a select group of Google Play staff who have hot line access to Google’s huge population of in-house subject matter experts. The reviews will be grouped into sections: Productivity, e-Learning, Games, Arts & Creativity, Communication, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, Spirituality, Travel, Entertainment, Civics & Philanthropy, Google Glass, with subcategories for each.

Our own involvement in reviewing Android apps is a novel — perhaps even a controversial — approach, but it’s much needed. We could have taken the easy path: Let users and third-parties provide the reviews. But third party motives are sometimes questionable, their resources quickly exhausted. And with the Android Store inventory rapidly approaching a million titles, our users deserve a trustworthy guide, a consistent voice to lead them to the app that fits.

We created the Red Guide because we care about our Android users, we want them to “play safe” and be productive, and we feel there’s no better judge of whether an application will degrade your phone’s performance or do what it claims than the people who created and maintain the Android framework. For developers, we’re now in a position to move from a jungle to a well-tended garden where the best work will be recognized, and the not-so-great creations will be encouraged to raise their game.

We spent a great deal of time at Google identifying exactly the right person to oversee this delicate proposition…and now we can reveal the real reason why Google’s Motorola division hired noted Macintosh evangelist, auteur, and investor Guy Kawasaki as an advisor: Guy will act as the Editor in Chief of the Google Play Red Guide.

With Guy at the helm, you can expect the same monkish dedication and unlimited resources we deployed when we created Google Maps.

As we welcome everyone to the Google Play Red Guide, we again thank Steve Jobs for his leadership and inspiration. Our algorithms tell us he would have approved.

The Red Guide is an open product and will be published on the Web at AppStoreRedguide.com as well as in e-book formats (iBookstore and Kindle formats pending approval) for open multi-platform enjoyment.
——– 

No need to belabor the obvious, you’ve already figured out that this is all a fiction. Google is no better than Apple when it comes to their mobile application store. Both companies let users and developers fend for themselves, lost in a thick forest of apps.

That neither company seems to care about their online stores’ customers makes no sense: Smartphone users download more apps than songs and videos combined, and the trend isn’t slowing. According to MobiThinking:

IDC predicts that global downloads will reach 76.9 billion in 2014 and will be worth US$35 billion.

Unfortunately, Apple appears to be resting on its laurels, basking in its great App Store numbers: 40 billion served, $8B paid to developers. Perhaps the reasoning goes like this: iTunes served the iPod well; the App Store can do the same for the iPhone. It ain’t broke; no fix needed.

But serving up music and movies — satisfying the user’s established taste with self-contained morsels of entertainment — is considerably different from leading the user to the right tool for a job that may be only vaguely defined.

Apple’s App Store numbers are impressive… but how would these numbers look like if someone else, Google for example, showed the kind of curation leadership Apple fails to assert?

JLG@mondaynote.com

iPad and File Systems: Failure of Empathy

 

The iPad placed a clear bet on simplicity — and was criticized for it. The bet won. But now, can the iPad evolve toward more business applications without sacrificing its simplicity, without becoming a “fridge-toaster”?

Three years ago, the iPad came out. The device was an immediate hit with customers and (most) critics. Steve Jobs’ latest — and, unfortunately, last — creation truly deserved the oft-abused game changer moniker.

But, as always, there were grumblings up in the cheap seats. As Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design observed:

“Following along on Twitter I was seeing things like ‘underwhelming’, ‘meh’ , ‘it’s not open’, ‘it’s just a big iPhone’, etc. And most of this stuff was coming from people who design and build interactive experiences.”

Monteiro penned a sharp, relevant response to the naysayers. Titled “The Failure of Empathy“, his post is summarized by this picture:

A generation ago, geeks were the arbiters of taste in the world of personal computing. Programmers, designers, hobbyists and tinkerers…these were the inhabitants of “user space”, and we built computers with them in mind. By designing the Apple ][ for himself (and his fellow travelers) Steve Wozniak hit the bull’s eye of a large, untapped target.

Today, geeks are but a smallish subset of computer users. Their (typically exaggerated) negative comments may have some sting if you’re responsible for engineering the “brain dead” backing store for a windowing system, but in the real world, no one cares about “byte sex” or “loop unrolling”. What counts is how non-technical users think, feel, and respond. Again, from Monteiro’s post:

“As an industry, we need to understand that not wanting root access doesn’t make you stupid. It simply means you do not want root access. Failing to comprehend this is not only a failure of empathy, but a failure of service.”

This was written in February 2010; I doubt that anyone at the time thought the iPad would ascend to such heights so quickly: 65.7M sold in 2012, 121M since the 2010 debut, rising even faster than the iPhone.

This is all well and good, but with success comes side effects. As the iPad gets used in ways its progenitors didn’t anticipate, another failure of empathy looms: Ignoring the needs of people who want to perform “complicated” tasks on their iPads.

When the iPad was introduced, even the most obliging reviewers saw the device as a vehicle for consumption, not creation. David Pogue in the New York Times:

“…the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on.”

This is still true…but that hasn’t stopped users from trying — struggling — to use their iPads for more ambitious tasks: Building rich media presentations and product brochures, preparing course material, even running a business. Conventional wisdom tells us that these are tasks that fall into the province of “true” personal computers, but these driven users can’t help themselves, they want to do it all on their iPads. They want the best of both worlds: The power of a PC but without its size, weight, (relative) unresponsiveness, and, certainly, price.

The evidence is all around us. Look at how many people in cafés, offices and airport lounges use a keyboard with their iPad, such as this Origami combo:

Or the Logitech Keyboard Cover:

Both keyboards are prominently displayed in the Apple Store. We’ll assume that shelf space isn’t doled out by lottery (or philanthropically), so these devices must be selling briskly.

Of course, this could just be anecdotal evidence. What isn’t anecdotal is that Apple itself claims that the iPad has penetrated a large proportion of Fortune 500 companies. In some of its stores, the company conducts sessions to promote the use of iPads in business applications.

I attended one such gathering last year. There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad’s presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can’t the iPad access all the documents — not just iWork files — that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.

This brings us to a major iPad obstacle: On a “real” PC the file system is visible, accessible; on the iPad, it’s hidden. The act of creating, arranging, accessing files on a PC is trivial and natural. We know how to use Finder on the Mac and Explorer on Windows. We’re not perplexed by folder hierarchies: The MyGreatNovel folder might contain a lengthy set of “MGN-1″, “MGN-2″, “MGN-3″ drafts, as well as subfolders such as ArtWork, Reference, and RejectionLetters, each of which contain further subfolder refinements (RejectedByGrove, RejectedByPenguin, RejectedByRandomHouse…).

On an iPad you don’t navigate a file system but, instead, you launch an app that has it’s own trove of documents that it understands — but it can’t “see” anything else.

For example: Keynote doesn’t let you see the graphics, videos, and PDFs that you want to assemble into your presentation. Unlike on the Mac, there’s no Finder, no place where you can see “everything” at one glance. Even more important, there’s no natural way to combine heterogeneous documents into one.

On the other hand, we all know users who love the iPad for its simplicity. They can download and play music, read books, respond to email and tweets, view photos, and stream movies without having to navigate a file hierarchy. For them, the notion of a “file system” is neither natural nor trivial — it’s foreign and geeky. Why throw them into a maze of folders and files?

Apple’s decision to hide the iOS file system from iPad (and iPhone) users comforts the non-geek and is consistent with Steve Jobs’ idea that applications such as Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iCal, and Contacts shouldn’t reveal their files and folders. Under the hood, the application stores its data in the Mac’s file system but, on the surface, the user sees appointments, photo albums and events, mailboxes and messages.

Still, some of us see this as the storage equivalent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: No File System For You!

App developers and customers keep trying. iOS apps such as GoodReader and File Manager Pro valiantly attempt to work around the iPad strictures. PhoneView will expose and manipulate your iPad’s file system (not recommended). But success with any of these apps is limited and comes at a price: The iPad’s simplicity and fluidity is long gone by the time you achieve the desired result, the multimedia brochure or HR tutorial.

This places Apple at a fork on the road. On the left is the current path: more/better/lighter/faster of the same. Only evolutionary changes to the simple and successful worldview. This is today’s trajectory, validated by history (think of the evolution of the MacBook) and strong revenue numbers.

On the right, Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft’s PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.

The easiest decision is no decision. Let’s have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers. Such dual-mode systems haven’t been very popular so far, it’s been tried without success on PCs and Macs. (Re-reading this, I realize the Mac itself could be considered such a dual-mode machine: Fire up the Terminal app and you have access to a certified Unix engine living inside…)

The drive to “pervert” the iPad is unmistakable. I think it will prove irresistible in the end. But I have trouble forming a coherent picture of an evolution that would let Apple open the iPad to more demanding users — without sacrificing its great simplicity and falling into the fridge + toaster trap.
It’s a delicate balancing act.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Next Apple TV: iWatch

 

Rumors don’t actual Apple products make, see the perennial Apple TV — and the latest iWatch rumors. This is an opportunity to step back, look at Apple’s one and only love –personal computers — and use this thought to sift through rumors. 

Every week brings new rumors of soon-to-be-released Apple products. The mythical Apple TV set is always a favorite: Gossip of an Apple buyout of troubled TV maker Löwe has sent the German company’s stock soaring. We also hear of a radio streaming service that will challenge Pandora and Spotify, and there’s the usual gaggle of iPhone, iPad, and Mac variations. More interesting is the racket surrounding Apple’s “stealth” projects:  an iWatch and other wearable devices (and “racket” is the right word — see these intimations of stock manipulation).

There is a way to see through the dust, to bring some clarity, to organize our thoughts when considering what Apple might actually do, why the company would (or wouldn’t) do it, and how a rumored product would fit into the game plan.

The formula is simple: Apple engineers may wax poetic about the crystalline purity of the software architecture, execs take pride in the manufacturing chain and distribution channels (and rightly so), marketing can point to the Apple Customer Experience (when they’re not pitching regrettable Genius ads or an ill-timed campaign featuring Venus and Serena Williams). But what really floats their bots, what hardens Apple’s resolve is designing, making, and selling large numbers of personal computers, from the traditional desktop/laptop Mac, to the genre-validating iPad, and on to the iPhone — the Very Personal Computer. Everything else is an ingredient, a booster, a means to the noblest end.

Look at Apple’s report to its owners: there’s only one Profit and Loss (P&L) statement for the entire $200B business. Unlike Microsoft or HP, for example, there is no P&L by division. As Tim Cook put it:

We manage the company at the top and just have one P&L and don’t worry about the iCloud team making money and the Siri team making money…we don’t do that–we don’t believe in that…

Apple’s appreciation for the importance and great economic potential of personal computers — which were invented to act as dumb servants to help us with data storage, text manipulation, math operations — may have been, at first, more instinctual than reasoned. But it doesn’t matter; the company’s monomania, it’s collective passion is undeniable. More than any other company, Apple has made computers personal, machines we can lift with our hands and our credit cards.

With these personal computer glasses on, we see a bit more clearly.

For example: Is Apple a media distribution company? Take a look at Apple’s latest 10-Q SEC filing, especially the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section starting page 21. iTunes, now reported separately, clocked $3.7B for the last quarter of 2012.  Elsewhere, Horace Dediu sees $13.5B for the entire year. A big number indeed, and, certainly, iTunes is a key to Apple’s success: Without iTunes there would have been no iPod, Apple’s “halo product“, proof that the company could come up with a winner.  Later, iTunes begat the App Store, a service that solidified the App Phone genre.

Some misguided analysts look at the numbers and argue that Apple ought to spin off iTunes. They use the old “shareholder value” gambit, but the “value” simply isn’t there: Horace Dediu puts iTunes margins in the 15% region, well below Apple’s overall 38%. iTunes is a hugely important means to the personal computer end, but it’s not a separate business.

How about Apple as a retail company? The success of the Apple Store is stellar, a word that’s almost too weak: The Apple Stores welcomed three times more visitors than all of the Disney parks, and generated more than $20B in revenue last year — that works out to an astonishing $6000 per square foot, twice as much as the #2 shop (Tiffany and Co.). But Apple’s 400 stores aren’t a business, they only exist to create an experience that will lead to more sales, enhanced customer satisfaction, and, as a consequence, increased margins.

Apple as a software company? No. The raison d’être for OS X, iOS, iWork, and even Garage Band is to breathe life into Apple hardware. By now, the calls for Apple to see the error of its ways, to not repeat the original sin of not licensing Mac OS, to sell iOS licenses to all comers have (almost) died.
During my first visit to Apple’s hypergalactic headquarters and warehouse in February 1981, I was astonished at the sight of forklifts moving pallets of Apple ][ software. The term “ecosystem” wasn’t part of the industry lingo yet, but I had witnessed the birth of the notion.
Apple had a much harder time building a similarly rich set of applications for the Macintosh, but the lesson was eventually learned, partly due to the NeXT acquisition and the adoption of object oriented programming. We now have a multi-dimensional macrocosm — a true ecosystem — in which our various forms of personal computing work together, share data, media, services.

Where does the current Apple TV device (the black puck, not the mythical TV set) fit into this scheme? Apple TV runs on a version of iOS, and it knows how to communicate with a Bluetooth keyboard — but that doesn’t mean the device is a personal computer. Perhaps Apple will (someday) provide a TV Software Development Kit (SDK) so developers can adapt existing iOS apps or write new ones. But I still see it as a lean-back device, as opposed to a lean-forward PC.

In any case, sales of the $100 black puck don’t move the needle. Four million Apple TVs were sold in 2012; even if ten million are sold this year — and that’s a very optimistic estimate — it won’t make a noticeable difference, at least not directly. Apple TV is a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes iPhones, iPads, Macs and our iTunes libraries more valuable, but it’s still just a member of the supporting cast.

This brings us back to the putative iWatch. Computer history buffs will recall the HP 01 watch. Buoyed by the success of its handheld calculators, including the programable HP 65 with its magnetic card reader, HP convinced itself it could make a calculator watch, introduced in 1977:

A technology tour de force, fondly remembered by aging geeks, but a market failure: too expensive, too hard to use, ill-fitting distribution channels.

Apple is in a different spot. Today, you can find a number of iPod watchbands such as this one:

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would merely integrate an existing accessory into a new iPod. Sales of the iPod proper are decelerating, so the iPod-as-iWatch could give the line a much needed boost, but it’s difficult to reconcile the rumors of “100 people” working on the project if it’s just a retrofit job. Is Apple working on an iWatch that can be experienced as an Even More Personal personal computer — an “intimate computer”? If so, many questions arise: user interface, sensors, iOS version, new types of apps, connection with other iDevices… And, of course price.

This would be much more interesting than the perennially in-the-future Apple TV set. Of course, iWatch and Apple TV aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If the Löwe buyout rumors are true, Apple could do both — the company could develop its own watch device and repurpose Löwe’s TV. (I still doubt the TV set part, as opposed to enhancing the black puck.)

But once we understand what Apple’s only business is, and that the related software, retail, and services are simply part of the supporting cast, Apple’s attitude towards big acquisitions becomes clearer. Apple isn’t looking at buying a big new business, it already owns The Big One. So, no movie studio, no retail chain or cable company, no HP or Dell, or Yahoo!. (But… a big law firm, perhaps?) Integrating a large group of people into Apple’s strong, unbending culture would, alone, prove to be impossible.

A small acquisition to absorb technology (and talented people) makes sense. The cultural integration risks remain, but at a manageable scale, unlike what happened to Exxon in the early eighties when it burned $4B (that was real money, then) in a failed attempt to become an information systems company — you know, the Oil of the Twenty-First Century.

Let’s just hope Apple doesn’t talk itself into a “because we can” move.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

iPad Pro: The Missing Workflow

 

The iPad started simple, one window at a time, putting it in the “media consumption” category as a result. Over time, such category proved too narrow, the iPad did well in some content creation activities. Can the new 128 GB iPad continue the trend and acquire better workflow capabilities?

Last week, without great fanfare, Apple announced a new 128 GB version of its fourth generation iPad, a configuration popularly known as the “iPad Pro“. The “Pro” monicker isn’t official, but you wouldn’t know that from Apple’s press release:

Companies regularly utilizing large amounts of data such as 3D CAD files, X-rays, film edits, music tracks, project blueprints, training videos and service manuals all benefit from having a greater choice of storage options for iPad. 

Cue the quotes from execs at seriously data storage-intense companies such as AutoCAD; WaveMachine Labs (audio software); and, quirkily, Global Aptitude, a company that makes film analysis software for football teams:

“The bottom line for our customers is winning football games, and iPad running our GamePlan solution unquestionably helps players be as prepared as possible,” said Randall Fusee, Global Apptitude Co-Founder. 

The naysayers grumble: Who needs this much memory on a “media tablet”? As Gizmodo put it:

The new iPad has the same retina display as its brothers, and the same design, and the same guts, with one notable exception: a metric crap-ton of storage. More storage than any decent or sane human being could ever want from a pure tablet…

(Increased storage is…indecent? This reminds me of the lambasting Apple received for putting 1 — one! — megabyte of memory in the 1986 Mac Plus. And we all recall Bill Gates’ assertion that 640 Kbytes ought to be enough for anyone. He now claims that the quote is apocryphal, but I have a different recollection.)

Or maybe this is simply Apple’s attempt to shore up the iPad’s average selling price ($467, down 18% from the year ago quarter), which took a hit following the introduction of the lower-priced iPad mini. (What? Apple is trying to make more money?)

The critics are right to be skeptical, but they’re questioning the wrong part of the equation.

When we compare iPad prices, the Pro is a bargain, at least by Apple standards:

The jump from 16GB to 32GB costs $100. Another doubling to 64GB costs the same $100. And, on February 5th, you’ll get an additional 64GB for yet another mere $100. (By comparison, extra solid state storage on a MacBook costs between $125 and $150 per 64GB.)

We get a bit more clarity when we consider the iPad’s place in Apple’s product line: As sales of the Mac slow down, the iPad Pro represents the future. Look at Dan Frommer’s analysis of 10 years of Mac sales. First, the Mac alone:

This leads Dan to ask if the Mac has peaked. Mac numbers for the most recent quarter  were disappointing. The newer iMacs were announced in October, with delivery dates in November and December for the 21.5″ and 27″ models respectively. But Apple missed the Xmas quarter window by about a million units, which cut revenue by as much as $1.5B and margin by half a billion or so (these are all very rough numbers). We’ll probably never find out how Apple’s well-oiled Supply Chain Management machine managed to strip a gear, but one can’t help wonder who will be exiled to Outer Mongolia Enterprise Sales.

Now consider another of Dan Frommer’s graphs:

This is units, not revenue. Mac and iPad ASPs are a 3 to 1 ratio but, still, this paints a picture of a slow-growth Mac vs. the galloping iPad.

The iPad — and tablets in general — are usurping the Mac/PC space. In the media consumption domain, the war is all but won. But when we take a closer look at the iPad “Pro”, we see that Apple’s tablet is far from realizing its “professional” potential.

This is where the critics have it wrong: Increased storage isn’t “insane”, it’s a necessary element…but it isn’t sufficient.

For example, can I compose this Monday Note on an iPad? Answering in the affirmative would be to commit the Third Lie of Computing: You Can Do It. (The first two are Of Course It’s Compatible and Chief, We’ll be in Golden Master by Monday.)

I do research on the Web and accumulate documents, such as Dan Frommer’s blog post mentioned above. On a PC or Mac, saving a Web page to Evernote for future reference takes a right click (or a two finger tap).

On an iPad, things get complicated. The Share button in Safari gives me two clumsy choices: I can mail the page to my Evernote account, or I can Copy the URL, launch Evernote, paste the URL, compose a title for the note I just created, and perhaps add a few tags.

Once I start writing, I want to look through the research material I’ve compiled. On a Mac, I simply open an Evernote window, side-by-side with my Pages document: select, drag, drop. I take some partial screenshots, annotate graphs (such as the iPad Pro prices above), convert images to the .png format used to put the Monday Note on the Web…

On the iPad, these tasks are complicated and cumbersome.

For starters — and to belabor the obvious — I can’t open multiple windows. iOS uses the “one thing at a time” model. I can’t select/drag/drop, I have to switch from Pages to Evernote or Safari, select and copy a quote, and then switch back to the document and paste.

Adding a hyperlink is even more tortuous and, at times, confusing. I can copy a link from Safari, switch back to Pages, paste…but I want to “slide” the link under a phrase. I consult Help, which suggests that I tap on the link, to no avail. If I want to attach a link to a phrase in my document, I have to hit the Space key after pasting, go to Settings and then enter the text that will “cover” the link — perfectly obvious.

This order of operations is intuitively backwards. On a Mac (or PC), I select the target text and then decide which link to paste under it.

Things get worse for graphics. On the iPad, I can’t take a partial screenshot. I can take a full screenshot by simultaneously pressing the Home and Sleep buttons, or I can tap on a picture in Safari and select Save. In both cases, the screenshot ends up in the Photos app where I can perform some amount of cropping and enhancing, followed by a Copy, then switch back to Pages and Paste into my opus.

Annotations? No known way. Control over the image file format? Same answer. There’s no iPad equivalent to the wonderful Preview app on the Mac. And while I’m at it, if I store a Preview document in iCloud, how do I see it from my iPad?

This gets us into the more general — and “professional” — topic of assembling a trove of parts that can be assembled into a “rich” document, such as a Keynote presentation. On a personal computer, there are plenty of choices. With the iPad, Apple doesn’t provide a solution, there’s no general document repository, no iCloud analog to Dropbox or Microsoft’s Skydrive, both of which are simple to use, quasi-free and, in my experience, quite reliable. (One wonders: Is the absence of a Dropbox-like general documents folder in iCloud a matter of technology or theology?)

Simply throwing storage at the problem is, clearly, not enough to make the iPad a “Pro” device.  But there is good news. Some of it is anecdotal, such as the more sophisticated editing provided by the iPad version of iPhoto. The better news is that iOS is a mature, stable operating system that takes advantage of fast and spacious hardware.

But the best news is that Apple has, finally, some competition when it comes to User Experience. For example, tablets that run Microsoft or Google software let users slide the current window to show portions of another one below, making it easier to select parts of a document and drop them into another. (Come to think of it, the sliding Notifications “drawer” on the iPad and iPhone isn’t too far off.)

This competition might spur Apple to move the already very successful iPad into authentically “Pro” territory.

The more complex the task, the more our beloved 30-year-old personal computer is up to it. But there is now room above the enforced simplicity that made the iPad’s success for UI changes allowing a modicum of real-world “Pro” workflow on iPads.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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