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HP’s Board Gets No Respect

hardware, software By October 11, 2010 Tags: 8 Comments

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And rightly so.

You recall: Last August, HP’s Board of Directors dismissed its wunder-CEO, Mark Hurd. Well-loved by Wall Street, although not so much by employees, Hurd turned HP around after the lackluster Fiorina years. He made acquisitions, cut costs, and put the company at the very top of the IT industry. But HP’s fearless leader was accused of having entangled himself, carnally and emotionally, with a female “marketing contractor”, and of having engaged in a few financial peccadilloes in the process of covering up the relationship.

I’ll hasten to add that Hurd reached an amiable—and solid—settlement with the former soft-porn actress. By “solid settlement” I mean we’ve heard exactly nothing from the aggrieved woman, or from Gloria Allred, her highly expressive Hollywood attorney. (As a self-described “Fearless Advocate for Justice and Equality”, Ms. Allred appears to dig gold on behalf of the rejected/dejected paramours of media and sports celebrities.)

While Hurd tried to do the right thing after his alleged mistakes, HP’s Board and management repeatedly and needlessly pilloried him, barely stopping short of accusing their former CEO of fraud. (See more sorry details in this Monday Note.)

All this led Larry Ellison to publicly lambaste the HP Board for kicking Hurd to the curb—and to promptly hire him as co-president of Oracle.

Ignoring the “when you’re in a hole, stop digging” maxim, HP doubles down and sues Hurd. Their complaint? As Oracle co-president, Hurd will inevitably misuse HP’s confidential information and cause his ex-employer grievous harm.

Larry chuckles and lashes out again. He calls HP’s suit vindictive, which is true, and adds that it will make it impossible to continue as business partners, only somewhat true as each had already recently moved into the other’s business. Oracle bought Sun and HP got into software and services by acquiring EDS.

A few days later, on the eve of Oracle’s OpenWorld, the suit is settled. HP’s pain is salved by a few million dollars, and the threat of the misuse of confidential information is suddenly, mysteriously no longer an issue. One wonders about the damage HP’s Board did to the company’s reputation by treating this alleged sinner in such a bullying and ultimately lame way.

While Hurd stays out of the limelight plotting Oracle’s next moves, HP directors keep stoking the coals for their critics. In their quest for a new CEO, the Board rejects internal candidates for the third time and pick an outsider: Léo Apotheker, ex-CEO of SAP Germany. This leads to another salvo of Ellison jibes. (When Larry calls himself “speechless”, you know he’s having a good time.)

But wait, there’s more.

What does the Board do besides recruiting Apotheker? They hire Ray Lane as Chairman. As the link to his Kleiner Perkins bio proves, Lane is, without a doubt, an “industry figure”, the type Kleiner Perkins, one of the largest VC firms in the world, likes to co-opt. But the slick KPCB bio (there is, significantly, nothing on him on Wikipedia) omits an important episode: Ray’s acrimonious departure from Oracle. The more charitable souls among us hope that everything is forgiven and forgotten. But knowing the protagonists, Larry and Ray, a more realistic view is that HP’s Board brought Ray in with a specific intent: They want to strengthen the team for a fight against Oracle.

There are three problems with such a move.

First, we now have two muscular venture capitalists on HP’s BoD: Lane and Marc Andreesen, from Andreesen Horowitz (as an aside, admire the firm’s spartan site). While some argue that it’s great that HP has such connections in the VC world (as if any executive or Board member couldn’t get us VCs to return their calls), there’s a governance problem. There will be many situations in which Mark’s or Ray’s existing investments and connections will raise conflict of interest questions; they won’t be deemed independent directors.

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The Carriers’ Rebellion

hardware, mobile internet By September 26, 2010 Tags: , , , , 27 Comments

Before the Steve Jobs hypnosis session, AT&T ruled. Handsets, their prices, branding, applications, contractual terms, content sales…AT&T decided everything and made pennies on each bit that flowed through its network. Then the Great Mesmerizer swept the table. Apple provided the hardware, the operating system, and “everything else”: applications, music, ringtones, movies, books… The iTunes cash register rang and AT&T didn’t make a red cent on content.

In the eyes of other carriers, AT&T sold its birthright. But they didn’t sell cheap. The industry-wide ARPU (Average Revenue Per User per month) is a little more than $50. AT&T’s iPhone ARPU hovers above $100. Subtract $25 kicked back to Apple, and AT&T still wins. More important, AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity in the US “stole” millions of subscribers from rivals Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—more than 1 million per quarter since the iPhone came out in June, 2007.

(Legend has it that Jobs approached Verizon before AT&T, but Apple’s demands were deemed “obscene”. If the story is true, Verizon’s disgust lost them 10 million subscribers and billions in revenue—much more than it would have made in content sales putatively under its control. Another theory, unprovable but preferable, is that Apple went for the worldwide “GSM’’ standard, hence AT&T.)

To the industry at large, the damage had been done. Jobs disintermediated carriers. Consumers woke up to a different life, one where the carrier supplied the bit pipe and nothing else. Yesterday’s smartphones became today’s mobile personal computers and carriers devolved into wireless ISPs, their worst fear.

Enter Android.

Android is like Linux, it’s Open Source, it’s free. And it’s very good, and rabidly getting better. But with two important differences. Android is Linux with money, Google’s money. And Android is Linux without a Microsoft adversary. There’s no legally—or illegally—dominant player in the smartphone/really personal computer space. Nokia, Palm, Microsoft, and RIM were and still are much larger than the Disintermediating Devil from Cupertino.

Handset makers and software developers love Android, new handsets and new applications are released daily; see the Android Market here. The current guess is that Android will grab the lion’s share of the handset market by 2012. Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft may disagree with that forecast, and Apple is certain to stick to its small market share/high margin, vertical, bare-metal-to-flesh strategy.

Carriers get excited about Android, too. For two reasons. First, Android (and the very good bundled Google apps) allows handset makers to make inexpensive devices. Carriers and Google both encourage a race to the bottom where handsets are commoditized, but smart.

Second, because Android is an Open Source platform, carriers can work with handset makers, they can dictate the feature set and, as a result, revitalize the revenue stream. They can promote their favorite apps, content, and services sales that have been choked by disintermediation.

But it’s not a straight shot. Android lays out the playing field for a contest between Google and carriers.

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HP’s Board of Directors: Redemption or More Insanity Ahead?

hardware, Uncategorized By September 19, 2010 Tags: 11 Comments

HP’s Board of Directors has accumulated an impressive record of bad judgment calls, the latest being the lame lawsuit against their recently deposed CEO, Mark Hurd, who quickly joined Oracle as Co-President and Director.

The History

Once a revered Silicon Valley icon, HP was arguably the first worldwide success to emerge from pre-war Stanford where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard studied under the illustrious Frederick Terman. Unfortunately, the insiders who were groomed to replace “Bill & Dave”—first John Young, an HP lifer (1968-1992), followed by Lew Platt, another long-termer (1966-1999)—presided over the company’s long slide into comfortable bureaucracy and middling financial performance.

In 1999, HP’s Board was seduced into giving the CEO mantel to Carly Fiorina, a gerontophiliac sales exec from AT&T/Lucent…only to fire her in early 2005. Known for her posturing and opaque pronouncements, Fiorina antagonized and mystified insiders and industry observers alike. John Cooper, CNET’s Executive Editor and longtime tech writer, characterized one of her more frustrating talks as “a Star Trek script” containing “enough business-babble to reduce even the most hardened McKinsey consultant to a state of dribbling catatonia”. Nice.

To succeed Fiorina, HP went outside again and, this time, managed to snare an experienced and accomplished CEO: As head of NCR, Mark Hurd had led the company through a successful turnaround.

About a year after Hurd’s election, HP’s Board became embroiled in the Pretexting scandal. Board members spied on employees and journalists—and even on each other—in an attempt to track down leaks of confidential strategy documents. This ugly episode led to several Board and executive departures: Chairwoman Patricia Dunn was thrown under bus; HP’s General Counsel, Ann Baskins, “took the Fifth” at a Senate hearing; another director, Tom Perkins, and several employees left as well. What Mark Hurd actually knew or did in relationship to this episode has never been clarified.

Despite the scandal and the departures, Hurd made good on his reputation as a turnaround CEO and, through carefully crafted acquisitions and cost-cutting, put HP back at the top of the computer industry in just five years. His wizardry with numbers, his sober talk, and his attention to execution left the impression that HP had finally found the right helmsman.

But then disaster struck. As discussed in our August 29th Monday Note, HP’s Board unceremoniously fired Hurd, publicly berating him for conduct unbecoming a CEO and barely stopping short of accusing him of fraud. And then, after pillorying him, the company inexplicably paid off the “disgraced” Hurd to the tune of $30M to $40M. HP shareholders sued the directors and the media roasted them.

Enter Ellison

Larry Ellison and Mark Hurd have known each other for several years. They’d been business partners when HP and Oracle allied themselves in serving large government and enterprise clients—and they’re tennis buddies as well.

After harshly criticizing HP’s trustees for firing a star executive, Ellison hired Hurd. In keeping with his leadership style, Ellison made room for the new lieutenant by summarily chucking the previous tenant, Charles Phillips, who, ironically, had also become embroiled in a “relationship contretemps” with an ex-paramour. I’ll hasten to say that I prefer Larry’s summary and clean manner to HP’s: Chuck Phillips had a successful career at Oracle, Larry wished him well on his way out, the money flowed, and everyone moved on to the next stage of their lives.

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Nokia’s New CEO: Challenges

hardware, mobile internet By September 12, 2010 Tags: , , 41 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Here we are, back from last June’s Nokia science-fiction romp. The company has finally elected a new CEO to replace OPK, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo. 43-year-old Stephen Elop’s bona fides are in order: As President of Microsoft’s Business Division (since January 2008) he was in charge of the Microsoft Office money machine and was part of the company’s “Leadership Team”. He was well-paid (the 2009 proxy pegged him at $4.8M, excluding longer-term items) and rumor placed him at the top of the short list to succeed Ballmer…

So what possessed Elop to take the Nokia job?

The answer must be that he’s been given the opportunity to make his mark. Having seen Microsoft from the inside, he must have realized that he was being groomed to be no more than a competent caretaker. He might even have decided he wouldn’t get, or wouldn’t want, the big prize, the CEO crown. So, I speculate, he went for the challenges of a turn-around situation.

The goal is clear: Restore Nokia to its former glory as the ne plus ultra of smartphones. But the path to this renaissance isn’t a straight shot—it’s an obstacle course.

Numbers

Mr. Elop’s most immediate challenge lies in Nokia’s financial performance. During the last three years of OPK’s tenure, Nokia lost 75% of its market cap, plunging from $40/sh in 2007 (the year the iPhone came out) to less than $10 today, although with a nice 2% uptick following the CEO announcement:

A more direct way to look at the numbers challenge is a single datum: Today, Nokia gets about €155 ($196) per smartphone, down from €190 last year. In the meantime, Apple gets more than $600 per iPhone. (See the June 2010 Financial Times story here.)

It gets worse when the total average number is considered, smartphones and not-so-smartphones together. That average now hovers around €60, which means Nokia sells very large numbers of low-end phones that yield very little profit. They’re in great danger of being squeezed by the incoming low-end Android horde.

But the numbers are a mere proxy for the bigger trial: The product itself, the smartphone.

Once the category leader, Nokia is now struggling to catch up with HTC, Motorola, Samsung and, of course, RIM/Blackberry and Apple. Pugnacious Nokia die-hards adhere to the company’s sisu, but the market has spoken—and it enunciates more distinctly every quarter. See this Business Insider chart:

Given today’s market turbulence, one can’t help but admire the charter’s ability to “see” as far as 2014—but the trend is obvious. Will upcoming products such as the N8 reverse it? Early reviews are mixed. For Nokia, the N8 isn’t likely to do what the Razr did for Motorola in 2003 or what the latest Droids are doing now. Motorola’s conversion to Android seems to have righted the ship and Sanjay Jah, the Co-CEO in charge of the company’s mobile business, is on his way to leading a self-sustaining entity, one that could finally be spun off as planned.

Software

Today, Nokia pushes devices that use older Symbian S60 stacks, newer Symbian^3 and Symbian^4 engines, as well as a mobile Linux derivative: Meego. Imagine the chuckles in the halls of Cupertino, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. Even with plenty of money and management/engineering talent, updating one software platform is a struggle. Ask Apple, Google, or HP, and the chuckles quickly become groans. Nokia thinks it can stay on the field when it’s playing the game in such a disorganized fashion?

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Smartcameras in our future?

hardware By August 2, 2010 17 Comments

I have two cameras in front of me: My smartphone and a Canon’s S90. And I wonder: Why isn’t there an app store for this neat compact camera?

I can download any number of third-party, post-processing photo applications to my smartphone. I can crop, filter, stitch, frame… And there will be more applications tomorrow. With my “real” camera, I’m stuck with yesterday’s features.

As the saying goes, the better camera is the one you always carry. (By the way, “Better Camera” is the name of a smartphone application…) In that sense, smartphone cameras have a major advantage, they’re always at the ready.

But…smartphones cameras have tiny sensors, tiny lenses, tiny flashes. While the technology improves with each new generation, smartphone cameras will always lag behind the resolution, speed, and depth of single-purpose compact cameras, with their better lenses and bigger sensors. And, yes, compared to even “realer” cameras such as DSLRs, the compact cousin has much to learn, but try stuffing the callipygian Nikon D3s in your pocket.

Wouldn’t it be neat to have the superior picture taking capabilities of the Canon S90 (or other competitors such as the upcoming Panasonic LX-5) and the benefits of downloadable third-party applications to perform more in-camera processing and editing, to say nothing of smartphone-like communication capabilities?

Technically, such a hybrid is easier said than done. Add the circuitry (processor, memory, communications) of a smartphone to an existing compact camera and, done poorly, you’d get a “feature-rich” monstrous contraption that does more than either donor product, but that does none of them as well. Cost would also be a challenge.

But the idea is in the air.

Years ago, enterprising geeks found a way to break into and modify Canon’s DIGIC, the camera’s on-board image processor.

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Antennagate: If you can’t fix it, feature it!

hardware, mobile internet, Uncategorized By July 18, 2010 85 Comments

…and don’t diss your customer, or the media!

Rewind the clock to June 7th 2010. Steve’s on stage at the WWDC in San Francisco. He’s introducing the iPhone 4 and proudly shows off the new external antenna design. Antennae actually, there are two of them wrapped around the side. Steve touts the very Apple-like combination of function (better reception), and form (elegant design).

And now we enter another part of the multiverse. Jobs stops…and after a slightly pregnant pause, continues: The improved reception comes at a price. If you hold the iPhone like this, if your hand or finger bridges the lower-left gap between the two antennae, the signal strength indicator will go down by two or even three bars. He proceeds to demo the phenomenon. Indeed, within ten seconds of putting the heel of his left thumb on the gap, the iPhone loses two bars. Just to make sure, he repeats the experiment with his index finger, all the while making a live call to show how the connection isn’t killed.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! It’s a trade-off: Better reception in the vast majority of cases; some degradation, easily remedied, in a smaller set of circumstances.

Actually, it’s a well-known issues with smartphones. Steve demonstrates how a similar thing happens to Apple’s very own 3GS, and to Nokia, HTC/Android, and RIM phones. Within the smartphone species, it’s endemic but not lethal.

Nonetheless, adds Apple’s CEO, we can’t afford even one unhappy customer. Buy in confidence, explore all the new features. If you’re not satisfied, do us the favor of returning the phone within two weeks. At the very least, we want you to say the iPhone didn’t work for you but we treated you well. If you fill out a detailed customer feedback report, we’ll give you an iPod Shuffle in consideration for your time.

One last thing. Knowing the downside of the improved antennae arrangement, we’ve designed a “bumper”, a rubber and plastic accessory that fits snuggly around the iPhone 4’s edges and isolates the antennae from your hands. The bumpers come in six colors—very helpful in multi-iPhone 4 families—and costs a symbolic $2.99.

The antenna “feature” excites curiosity for a few days, early adopters confirm its existence as well as the often improved connections (often but not always—it’s still an AT&T world). The Great Communicator is lauded for his forthright handling of the design trade-off and the matter recedes into the background.

If you can’t fix it, feature it.

End of science fiction.

In a different part of the multiverse, things don’t go as well.

Jobs makes no mention of the trade-off. Did he know, did Apple engineers, execs, marketeers know about the antenna problem? I don’t know for sure and let’s not draw any conclusions from the way Jobs avoids holding the iPhone 4 by its sides while showing it off to Dmitry Medvedev:

There’s a more telling hint. Apple had never before offered an iPhone case or protector of any kind, leaving it to third parties. But now, for the iPhone 4, a first: We have the bumper…at $29, not $2.99. (And which, by the way, prevents the phone from fitting into the new iPhone 4 dock.)

As usual for an Apple product, the new iPhone gets a thorough examination from enterprising early adopters, and many of them discover the antenna gap “feature”. As one wrote Jobs:

It’s kind of a worry. Is it possible this is a design flaw? Regards – Rory Sinclair

Steve’s reply:

Nope. Just don’t hold it that way.

Steve, No! Don’t diss your beloved customer. No tough love with someone who’s holding your money in his/her pocket.

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Thus spake Steve Jobs: The PC isn’t dead yet

hardware By June 13, 2010 Tags: 31 Comments

Daniel Lyons, the Newsweek tech writer notorious for his Fake Steve Jobs blog, penned an epistolary piece last week (R.I.P., Macintosh) in which he asks and answers the question: “Is Apple ignoring its signature line of computers and laptops? Yup.”

The columnist claims that with the iPhone and the iPad as the Dear Leader’s new pets, Steve Jobs has kicked the Mac to the curb (or kerb for our British readers). Lyons backs his claim with the following evidence: Apple’s 2010 WWDC was focused on the iPhone OS only; there were no Best Applications awards for the Mac, only for iPhone/iPad apps; and, drum roll, the iPhone OS was renamed iOS (the name is licensed from Cisco, just as the iPhone moniker was).

Lyons may be onto something, but in his desperate quest for page views at Newsweek (itself kicked to the curb by its soon former owner, the Washington Post Company) our columnist has yielded to the crass motives and hyperbole he loves to lampoon.

Yes, Steve Jobs said the PC (including the Mac) isn’t “the future”, but he didn’t go on to euthanize it.

Let’s go back to the evening of June 1st, 2010. We’re at the D8 conference discussed here last week. Steve Jobs is interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher; you can find the entire 95-minute video here.
(Sorry, iPad users, it’s Flash…but, wait…nevermind. Although the interview shows up as Flash on my antique personal computer, when I watch it on my iPad, behold!, the site detects the iPad client and spews an H.264 video stream. We can take this as a sign that the WSJ doesn’t want to miss the advertising revenue of 100 million iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad devices out there, and as a preview of what other sites will do, as well. And perhaps it’s a problem with my old desktop machine or older eyes, but the video look better on the iPad than it does on my PC.)

I’m watching the video as I write this. It completes and, in places, corrects my recollection of the event. Whatever one thinks of Steve Jobs—and the video won’t change many minds—the conversation contains a number of gems, such as Steve’s pithy view of the enterprise market (between 28:30 and 29:15), his take on the Adobe controversy, his pronouncement of carriers as “orifices” (that was a few years ago, recalled by Walt for laughs), the importance of editorial functions (Jobs doesn’t want us to “descend into a nation of bloggers”), how he looks at his job (around 59:00), and more. I know an hour and a half is a lot, but pay attention to what’s said and not said and, just as important, the face and body language.
The bit about the future of the PC comes between minutes 45 and 51. There, Apple’s CEO lays out his vision of the post-PC era in a string of very carefully weighed statements, interspersed with personal insights into the changes in user interaction brought about by the new very personal devices.

As Apple unties the software platform from the iPhone, one can imagine a number of iOS-powered devices in its future. Apple won’t necessarily follow HP’s example, but the latter has made it clear that they’ll use the newly-acquired Palm WebOS in devices such as printers. This is a high volume business, one where the traditional embedded software is user-hostile. Just imagine a Palm Pre screen grafted onto a printer.

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The 2010 Tech Watch List

hardware, mobile internet, software By January 3, 2010 Tags: 2 Comments

Looking back at last year’s “Things to watch in 2009”, I’ll narrow the field a little bit: no more discussion of the auto industry, electric car markitecture notwithstanding, nor disquisitions of congress shenanigans, too much raw sewage material. Let’s stay with safer and generally cleaner/happier computer industry topics.

Microsoft 2.0 a.k.a. Google.

What is known: In its heyday, Microsoft strived to be all things to all people, from Office applications to Consumer Electronics (Windows CE), to Enterprise Computing (Exchange, Windows Server, SQL and Jet Servers and more), to mobile phones (WIndows Mobile just re-christened Windows Phone), to games (MSX and now the Xbox), to the Internet Explorer, .Net and now various Windows Live offerings and the Bing search product. And even more, such as various attempts at image processing for pros and consumers.
Now, we have Google with a similarly all-embracing land grab on the Web, from books to smartphones, from CAD software (yes, Sketchup) to music, video, “office” applications, collaboration, digital photography, application hosting, a payment system and more.

What is worth watching: When will Google’s “organic” growth start showing its limits? No tree ever reaches the sky. Google’s current strategy is eerily similar to Microsoft’s old “jump on anything that moves”. And, yes, it is smart to make Google a universal destination by using advertising revenue to finance free offerings that, in turn, channel more viewers to Google advertising.
But, eventually, the organism starts drowning in its toxic waste, meaning Google will face management tasks beyond its reach, or advertising revenue wont be able to subsidize everything else for ever, or it will slip and miss an important emerging trend such as social networks, see Facebook below.

Or, Google will become too powerful for the public good, destroying competition only too well and politicians will have their way with the Mountain View company. Unless Google learns, gets the better lobbyists and has its way with us like Wall Street, Big Pharma and Telecom companies, to name the best, do.

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