hardware

64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months

 

Apple’s A7 processor, the new iOS 7 and “house” apps are all industry firsts: genuine, shipping 64-bit mobile hardware and software. As we’ve seen before with the iPhone or the iPad, this new volley of Apple products is first met with the customary bursts of premature evaluations and counterfactual dismissals.

On September 10th, Apple revealed that the new iPhone 5s would be powered by its new 64-bit A7 processor. The initial reactions were less than enthused. We were treated to exhumations of lazy bromides…

“I don’t drink Kool-Aid. Never liked the stuff and I think we owe it to ourselves to collectively question whether or not Apple’s ‘reality distortion field’ is in effect when we consider how revolutionary the iPhone 5S is and if Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor under its shiny casing will be all its [sic] cracked up to be when the device hits the market in volume.” [Forbes]

…and equally lazy “markitecture” accusations…

“With current mobile devices and mobile apps, there really is no advantage [to 64 bits] other than marketing — the ability to say you’re the first to have it…” [InfoWorld]

…and breezy brush-offs, such as this tweet from an industry expert:

“We’ll see just how good Apple’s marketing team is trying to leverage 64-bit. 64-bit add more memory and maybe registers. Period.” [Twitter]

Rather than wonder what these commenters were drinking, let’s turn to AnandTech, widely regarded as one of the best online hardware magazines.

Founded by Anand Lal Shimpi when he was all of 14-years-old, AnandTech is known for its exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) product reviews. The 14-section September 17th iPhone 5S review doesn’t disappoint. Among other things, it provides detailed iPhone 5S vs. iPhone 5 performance comparisons such as this:

5S GeekBench Anand Edited

There are many other charts, comparisons, and considerations of the new 64-bit ARMv8 instruction set, the move from 16 to 32 floating-point NEON 128-bit registers, the hardware acceleration of cryptography operations… It’s a very long read, but not a boring one (at least not for interested geeks).

The bottom line is plain: The A7 processor is a substantial improvement that’s well supported by the 64-bit iOS7. (And I’d like to meet the author and bow to his encyclopedic knowledge.)

Was it because of AnandTech’s cool analysis that the doubters have changed their tune?

As I predicted, Apple A7 benchmarks well due to CPU arch (for IPC), new GPU, ARM v8′

Now that the A7 had become a Benchmarking Beast, the author of the previous week’s brush-off tweet (“more memory and maybe registers. Period”) has revised his position [emphasis mine]:

“The improvements Apple made with the A7 are truly incredible, and they really went against the grain in their choices. With an industry obsessed with more cores, they went with fewer, larger and efficient cores. With people expecting v8 and 64-bit ARM in late 2014, Apple brings it out in 2013 with full Xcode support and many performance optimizations.” [...] “Apple has done it again, but this time in unexpected fashion.”

That all-purpose defense, unexpected, provides a key to the wrong-footing of many “experts”.

When Apple entered the microprocessor field a mere five years ago with its acquisition of Palo Alto Semiconductor, the move was panned: Apple had no future competing with established industry leaders such as Intel, Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Samsung.

But with the successive, increasing refinement of the A4, A5, and A6, the designs were ultimately viewed as good, very good, roughly on par with the rest of the industry. What these processors lacked in raw power was more than made up for by they way they were integrated into Apple’s notion of a purposeful, usable mobile device: Enhanced UI responsiveness, reduced power consumption, obeisance to the unique requirements of media and communications.

The expectation was that Apple would either fail, or produce a “competent” (meaning not particularly interesting) iteration of previous A4-5-6 designs. No one expected that the processor would actually work, with all in-house apps running in 64-bit mode from day one.

But let’s back up and rewrite a bit of history, ourselves:

On September 10th, Samsung announced its flagship 64-bit Exynos processor, supported by Android 5.0, the 64-bit version of Google’s market-leading mobile OS. The new Galaxy S64 smartphone, which will ship on September 20th, features both 64-bit hardware and software components. Samsung and Google receive high praise:

“Supercomputer-class processor… Industry-leading performance… Tightly integrated 64-bit software and hardware open a new era of super high-performance applications previously impossible on mobile devices…”

And Apple gets its just deserts:

“Once again, Apple gets out-innovated…This confirms the trend we’ve seen since Tim Cook took over… iPhones have become second-class devices… The beginning of a long decline…”

Apple can be thankful this is fantasy: The real world would never treat it like this (right?).

My fantasy isn’t without basis: Within 24 hours of Apple’s September announcement, Samsung’s mobile business chief Shin Jong-kyun said his company will have its own 64-bit Exynos processor:

“Not in the shortest time. But yes, our next smartphones will have 64-bit processing functionality…” [The Korea Times]

As for Android support, no problem: 64-bit versions of the underlying Linux kernel already exist. Of course, the system software layer that resides on top of the Linux kernel — the layer that is Android — will also need to be converted to take advantage of the 64-bit processor, as will the Software Development Kit (SDK) that third-party developers use to create apps. It’s a sizable challenge, but one that’s well within the Android’s team skills and resources; the process has certainly been under way for a while already.

The real trouble starts outside of Google. Which 64-bit processor? Intel’s (the company says it will add 64-bit “capabilities” to Android)? Samsung’s? Qualcomm’s?

Who writes and supports device drivers for custom SoC modules? This sounds a lot like Windows device driver complications, but the complexity is multiplied by Google’s significantly weaker control over hardware variants.

Apple’s inherent control over all of the components in its platform will pay dividends in the speed and quality of the transition. There will be glitches — there will always be new, factory-fresh bugs — but the new 64-bit hardware is designed to run existing 32-bit apps, and it seems to actually do so in practice.

Now let’s go beyond the iPhone 5S. In his September 10th presentation, Phil Schiller, Apple’s Marketing Supremo, called the A7’s performance “desktop class”. These words were carefully calibrated, rehearsed, and approved. This isn’t a “Can’t innovate anymore? My asssaeta, blurted while seized by religious fervor at last Spring’s Apple Developers Conference.

Does “desktop class” imply that Apple could use future versions of its 64-bit processor to replace Intel chips in its Mac devices?

In the AnandTech post quoted above, several benchmarks compare Apple’s A7 to a new x86 chip, Intel’s Baytrail, with interesting results:

AnandTech Baytrail A7

So, yes, in theory, a future Apple 64-bit processor could be fast enough to power a Mac.

But let’s consider a 3GHz iMac running a high-end media creation application such as Photoshop or Autodesk. The processor doesn’t want to be constrained by power consumption requirements, it’s optimized for performance (this even ignores the upcoming MacPro and its thermal management prowess).

Can we see a split in the Mac product line? The lower, more mobile end would use Apple’s processors, and the high-end, the no-holds-barred, always plugged to the wall desktop devices would still use x86 chips. With two code bases to maintain ß OS X applications to port? Probably not.

Apple could continue to cannibalize its (and others’) PC business by producing “desktop-class” tablets. Such speculation throws us back to a well-known problem: How do you compose a complex document without a windowing system and a mouse or trackpad pointer?

We’ve seen the trouble with Microsoft’s hybrid PC/tablet, its dual Windows 8 UI which is considered to be “confusing and difficult to learn (especially when used with a keyboard and mouse instead of a touchscreen).”

The best suggestion I’ve seen so far comes from “a veteran design and management surgeon” who calls himself Kontra and proposes An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking‘ based on a multi-slot clipboard.

If Apple provides a real way to compose complex documents on a future iPad, a solution that normal humans will embrace, then it will capture desktop-class uses and users.

Until such time, Macs and iPads are likely to keep using different processors and different interaction models.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Apple Market Share: Facts and Psychology

 

Remember netbooks? When Apple was too greedy and stupid to make a truly low-cost Macintosh? Here we go again, Apple refuses to make a genuinely affordable iPhone. There will be consequences — similar to what happened when the Mac refused to join netbooks circling the drain. 

My first moments with the iPad back in April 2010 were mistaken attempts to use it as a Mac. Last year, it took a long overdue upgrade to my eyeglasses before I warmed to the nimbler iPad mini, never to go back to its older sibling.

With that in mind, I will withhold judgment on the new iPhone until I have a chance to play customer, buy the product (my better half seems to like the 5C while I pine for a 5S), and use it for about two weeks — the time required to go beyond my first and often wrong impressions.

While I wait to put my mitts on the new device, I’ll address the conventional hand-wringing over the 5C’s $549 pricetag (“It’s Too Damned High!” cry the masses).

iphone5c copie

Henry Blodget, who pronounced the iPhone Dead In Water in April 2011, is back sounding the alarm: Apple Is Being Shortsighted — And This Could Clobber The Company. His argument, which is echoed by a number of pundits and analysts, boils down to a deceptively simple equation:

Network Effect + Commoditization = Failure

The Network Effect posits that the power of a platform is an exponential function of the number of users. Android, with 80% of the smartphone market will (clearly) crush iOS by sucking all resources into its gravitational well.

Commoditization means that given an army of active, resourceful, thriving competitors, all smartphones will ultimately look and feel the same. Apple will quickly lose any qualitative advantage it now enjoys, and by having to compete on price it could easily fall behind.

Hence the preordained failure.

As a proof-of-concept, the nay-sayers point to the personal computer battle back in the pre-mobile dark ages: Didn’t we see the same thing when the PC crushed the Mac? Microsoft owned the personal computer market; PC commoditization drove prices into the bargain basement…

Interpret history how you will, the facts show something different. Yes, the Redmond Death Star claimed 90% of the PC market, but it failed to capture all the resources in the ecosystem. There was more than enough room for the Mac to survive despite its small market share.

And, certainly, commoditization has been a great equalizer and price suppressant — within the PC clone market. Microsoft kept most of the money with the de facto monopoly enjoyed by its Windows + Office combo, while it let hardware manufacturers race to the bottom (netbooks come to mind). Last quarter, this left HP, the (still) largest PC maker, with a measly 3% operating profit for its Personal Systems Group. By contrast, Apple’s share of the PC market may only be 10% or less, but the Mac owns 90% of the $1000+ segment in the US and enjoys a 25% to 35% margin.

After surviving a difficult birth, a ruthlessly enforced Windows + Office platform, and competition from PC makers large and small, the Mac has ended up with a viable, profitable business. Why not look at iDevices in the same light and see a small but profitable market share in its future?

Or, better yet, why not look at more than one historical model for comparison? For example, how is it that BMW has remained so popular and profitable with its One Sausage, Three Lengths product line strategy? Aren’t all cars made of steel, aluminium (for Sir Jony), plastic, glass, and rubber? When the Bavarian company remade the Mini, were they simply in a race to the bottom with Tata’s Nano, or were they confidently addressing the logical and emotional needs of a more affluent — and lasting — clientèle?

Back to the colorful but “expensive” 5C, Philip Elmer-DeWitt puts its price into perspective: For most iPhone owners, trading up to the 5C is ‘free‘ due to Apple’s Reuse and Recycle program. We’ll have to see if The Mere Matter of Implementation supports the theory, and where these recycled iPhones end up. If the numbers work, these reborn iPhones could help Apple gain a modest foothold in currently underserved price segments.

Still thinking about prices, I just took a look at the T-Mobile site where, surprise, the 5C is “free“, that is no money down and 24 months at $22 — plus a $10 “SIM Kit” (read the small print.) You can guess what AT&T offers: 24 months at $22/month (again, whip out your reading glasses.) Verizon is more opaque, with a terrible website. Sprint also offers a no-money-down iPhone 5C, although with more expensive voice/data plans.

This is an interesting development: Less than a week ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 5C with a “posted price” of $99 — “free” a few days later.

After much complaining to the media about “excessive” iPhone subsidies, carriers now appear to agree with Horace Dediu who sees the iPhone as a great “salesman” for carriers, because it generates higher revenue per user (ARPU). As a result, the cell philanthropists offer lower prices to attract and keep users — and pay Apple more for the iPhone sales engine.

Of course, none of this will dispel the anticipation of the Cupertino company’s death. We could simply dismiss the Apple doomsayers as our industry’s nattering nabobs of negativism, but let’s take a closer look at what insists under the surface. Put another way, what are the emotions that cause people to reason against established facts, to feel that the small market share that allowed the Mac to prosper at the higher end will inevitably spell failure for iDevices?

I had a distinct recollection that Asymco’s Horace Dediu had offered a sharp insight into the Apple-is-doomed mantra. Three searches later, first into my Evernote catchall, then to Google, then to The Guardian, I found a Juliette Garside article where Horace crisply states the problem [the passage quoted here is from a longer version that's no longer publicly available; emphasis and elision mine]:

“[There's a] perception that Apple is not going to survive as a going concern. At this point of time, as at all other points of time in the past, no activity by Apple has been seen as sufficient for its survival. Apple has always been priced as a company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall. It’s a consequence of being dependent on breakthrough products for its survival. No matter how many breakthroughs it makes, the assumption is (and has always been) that there will never be another. When Apple was the Apple II company, its end was imminent because the Apple II had an easily foreseen demise. When Apple was a Mac company its end was imminent because the Mac was predictably going to decline. Repeat for iPod, iPhone and iPad. It’s a wonder that the company is worth anything at all.”

This feels right, a legitimate analysis of the analysts’ fearmongering: Some folks can’t get past the “fact” that Apple needs hit products to survive because — unlike Amazon, as an example — it doesn’t own a lasting franchise.

In the meantime, we can expect to see more hoses attached to Apple’s money pump.

Next week, I plan to look at iOS and 64-bit processing.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple’s Wearables Future

 

Wearable technologies have a huge future. For Apple, they’ll create a new product category with an iPhone-like revenue stream! No so fast. Smartwatches and other wearable consumer products lack key attributes for breaking out of the novelty prison. 

‘I Think the Wrist Is Interesting’ Thus spake Tim Cook on the opening night of last May’s D11 conference.

When pressed to discuss his company’s position on wearable technologies, Cook was unusually forthcoming: Instead of pleading Apple’s Fifth, Cook launched into a substantial discussion of opportunities for his company to enter the field, calling wearables “a very key branch of the tree”.

But when asked about the heavily publicized Google Glass he parried the question by suggesting that people who don’t otherwise wear glasses might be reluctant to don such an accoutrement.

I don’t find Tim Cook’s dismissal of eyewear very insightful: Just go to a shopping center and count the eyewear stores. Many belong to the same rich Italian conglomerate, Luxottica, a company with about ten house brands such as Oakley, Persol, and Ray-Ban, and a supplier to more than twenty designer labels ranging from Armani to Versace. (As the perturbing Sixty Minutes exposé on Luxottica pointed out, the company nicely rounds out its vertical dominance of the sector through its ownership of EyeMed, a vision insurance business.)

Eyewear, necessary or not, is a pervasive, fashionable, rich product category, a fact that hasn’t escaped Google’s eye for numbers. The company is making an effort to transmute their geeky spectacles into fashion accessories. Courtesy of Counternotions I offer this picture of Sergey Brin and fashionista Diane von Furstenberg proudly donning the futuristic eyewear at the NY Fashion Week:

Glass Fashion Brin

On a grander scale, we have a Vogue article, Google Glass and a Futuristic Vision of Fashion:

Glass en Vogue 2

The company’s efforts to make Google Glass fashionable might be panned today for pushing the envelope a little too far but, in a not-too-distant future, they stand a chance of being viewed as truly visionary.

If eyewear doesn’t excite Tim Cook, what does? To him, the wrist feels more natural, more socially acceptable. We all wear one or more objects around our wrist(s).

The wristwear genre isn’t new (recall Microsoft’s 2004 Spot). Ask Google to show you pictures of smartwatches, you get 23M results and screen after screen like this one:

smartwatch_ggl

The genre seems to be stuck in the novelty state. Newer entries such as Samsung’s Gear have gotten mixed reviews. Others contend a 2010 iPod nano with a wristband makes a much nicer smartwatch.

Regardless, by comparison, pre-iPod MP3 players and pre-iPhone smartphones were getting better press – and more customers. Considering the putative iWatch, the excitement about Apple getting into this class of devices appears to be excessive.

The litmus test for the potential of a device is the combination of pervasiveness and frequency of use. Smartphones are a good example, they’re always with us, we look at their screens often (too often, say critics who pretend to ignore the relationship between human nature and the Off button).

The iWatch concept makes two assumptions: a) we’ll wear one and, b) we’ll only wear that one.

Checking around we see young adults who no longer wear watches — they have a smartphone; and middle-agers use watches as jewelry, possessing more than one. This defeats both pervasiveness and frequency of use requirements.

Then there’s the biometry question: How much useful information can a wearable device extract from its wearer?

To get a better idea about what’s actually available (as opposed to fantasized), I bought a Jawbone UP wristband a little over a month ago. With its accelerometers and embedded microprocessors, UP purports to tell you how many steps you took, how long you’ve been inactive during your days, it logs your stretches of light and deep sleep, and even “makes it fun and easy to keep track of what you eat”.  Once or twice a day, you plug it into your smartphone and it syncs with an app that displays your activity in graphic form, tells you how well you’re doing versus various goals and averages. It also suggests that you log your mood in order to “discover connections that affect how you feel.”

At first, I found the device physically grating. I couldn’t accept it the way I’m oblivious to my watch, and I even found it on the floor next to my bed a couple of mornings. But I stuck with it. The battery life is as promised (10 days) and I’ve experienced none of the first versions troubles. I traveled, hiked and showered with it without a hitch other than the cap covering the connecting pin getting a bit out of alignment.

Will I keep using it? Probably not.

Beyond the physical discomfort, I haven’t found the device to be very useful, or even accurate. It’s not that difficult to acquire a useful approximation of hours slept and distance walked during the day — you don’t need a device for these things.

As for accuracy, the other day it declared that I had exhibited a substantial level of physical activity… while I was having breakfast. (I may be French, but I no longer move my hands all that much as I speak.)

The app’s suggestion that I log my food consumption falls into the magical thinking domain of dieting. A Monday morning step on a scale tells us what we know already: Moderation is hard, mysterious, out of the reach of gadgets and incantations.

For a product to start a new worthy species for a company as large as Apple, the currency unit to consider is $10B. Below that level, it’s either an accessory or exists as a member of the ecosystem’s supporting cast. The Airport devices are neat accessories; the more visible Apple TV supports the big money makers — Macs, iPads and iPhones — by enhancing their everyday use.

With this in mind, will “wearables” move the needle, will they cross the $10B revenue line in their second or third year, or does their nature direct them to the supporting cast or accessory bins?

Two elements appear to be missing for wearable technologies to have the economic impact that companies such as Apple would enjoy:

  • The device needs to be easily, naturally worn all the time, even more permanently than the watch we tend to take off at night.
  • It needs to capture more information than devices such as the Jawbone do.

A smartwatch that’s wirelessly linked to my smartphone and shows a subset of the screen in my pocket…I’m not sure this will break out of the novelty category where the devices have been confined thus far.

Going back to Tim Cook’s oracular pronouncement on wearables being “a very key branch of the tree”, I wonder: Was he having fun misdirecting his competition?

JLG@mondaynote.com

—————————————–

PS: After two July Monday Notes on the company, I’ll wait for the Microsoft centipede to drop one or two more shoes before I write about the Why, When, How and Now What of Ballmer’s latest unnatural acts. There in an Analyst Day coming September 19th — and the press has been disinvited.

PPS: In coming days, to keep your sanity when trying to drink from the Apple kommentariat fire hydrant, you can safely direct your steps to three sites/blogs:

  • Apple 2.0 , where Philip Ellmer-DeWitt provides rational news and commentary, skewers idiots and links to other valuable fodder.
  • Asymco, where Horace Dediu provides the absolute best numbers, graphs and insights into the greatest upheaval the tech industry has ever seen. Comments following his articles are lively but thoughtful and civilized.
  • Apple Insider. You might want to focus on learned, detailed editorials by Daniel Eran Dilger such as this one where he discusses Microsoft and Google (partially) shifting to an Apple-like business model. Daniel can be opinionated, animated even, but his articles come with tons of well-organized data.

Blackberry’s Future

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Once the king of smartphones for business uses, Blackberry got a new CEO, a new operating system and new devices, with and without the traditional keyboard. In spite of these changes, the company’s latest numbers don’t paint a picture of revival.

Thorsten Heins doesn’t suffer a lack of enthusiasm. During the run up to the March release of its BlackBerry 10 operating system, RIM’s CEO painted an optimistic picture of a company on the rebound, a company that would correct the mistakes of the industry leaders:

“It’s still the same,” Heins said of the iPhone. “It is a sequential way to work and that’s not what people want today anymore. They want multitasking.”

Rechristened as BlackBerry, Heins told us that the company would energize the develop community and spawn devices that are too exciting to describe:

“There’s one new product I’m really excited about, but I can’t really share it,” Heins told CNET in an interview today.

Last week, the company released its latest quarterly numbers and they are exciting, although not in the sense that Heins would like. The forecast was $3.4B in revenue and $0.07 in earnings per share; the reality was $3.1B in sales and, more important, a loss of $0.13 per share.

The numbers “excited” traders so much that BBRY shares lost 28% of their value in a single trading session, putting them back to their one-year-ago level.

The earnings release was followed by the customary conference call where the CEO and CFO review the numbers and answer questions from Wall Street analysts. Courtesy of Seeking Alpha, the call transcript is here and contains the obligatory pablum, including an excessive abuse of the F-word (22 occurrences):

Embracing our heritage of mobility first is very important as we build our culture and go through this transition. We don’t have to be all things to all people and all markets, and embracing this focus allows us to drive efficiency, be flexible and agile, and to ultimately drive best-in-class innovations. [...] We’re continuing to focus on improving all areas of the business…

Curiously, there’s no breakdown of the sales of BlackBerry devices. How much of their revenue was “energized” by the BB10? Without actual numbers, we’re left in a cloud of doubt about how well the new platform is actually doing.

The disquietude continues: There are no subscriber numbers, and no guidance other than an expectation of more losses next quarter. The glowing comments about cash-flow from operations ($630M, a nice number) are undercut by the disclosure of a substantial tax refund, without which the company would have eaten through $400M to $500M of cash.

As for tablets, the Blackberry PlayBook is no more, says the CEO. He’s unhappy with the device’s performance and is determined to focus on the company’s “core hardware portfolio“. (The company’s website no longer describes the product and only offers a software update for existing customers.)

Inevitably, the How Many Moves Remain? question comes up. Blackberry professes to do more than just devices, it claims to offer strong enterprise services and says it will propagate its BBM (Blackberry Messenger) to other platforms including Android and iOS. It also promotes a form of (limited) compatibility for (some) Android apps on its newer smartphones. But is anyone buying and in numbers that can save the company?

More to the point: Who wants to buy Blackberry (the company), for what reasons, and at what price?

Let’s back up. Last week, we heard that Microsoft had once again given up on its perennial hunt to capture a handset maker. This time, the prey was Nokia, Microsoft’s “special” Windows Phone licensee.

The official explanation for the Nokia blowup was that the price tag was too high, but price clearly wasn’t an issue. Nokia’s $14B market capitalization weighs in at about 5% of Microsoft’s $288B. Even when you tack on a 25% acquisition premium, the purchase should have been a reasonably easy sell, especially given Microsoft’s desire to take the handset business into its own hands, if only to counter (or mimic) the strategy established by Google and Motorola.

There’s really only one explanation, as I speculated last week: The engagement was dissolved because of Microsoft’s bleak view of Nokia’s business, that the Finnish company no longer has the technological acumen and brand loyalty that Microsoft needs to make Windows Phone a legitimate competitor with Android and iOS.

BlackBerry’s market capitalization now stands at about $6B. That’s less than half of Nokia’s. If Nokia, supported by Microsoft, can’t gain ground on Google and Apple devices, what gives us confidence that BlackBerry isn’t sliding into insignificance?

The BlackBerry name, as a brand, is strong. But a brand only exists as the carrier of a promise. A brand writes checks that the product cashes. Without a successful product, the brand dies (go ask Kodak).

While Nokia could be acquired by someone interested in the Windows Phone business, one is hard pressed to form a similar thought for Blackberry. It may be struggling, but there is a Windows Phone ecosystem, including handset makers. There is no such thing around BlackBerry. Developers aren’t writing apps for BB10 in ecosystem-making numbers, carriers have taken a wait-and-see posture, even the core group of dedicated users (I used to be one of them) appears to be losing faith.

This isn’t a brightly optimistic picture. Today, Blackberry finds itself caught between Samsung and Apple at the high end, and a rabidly fermenting crowd of Android (official or not) clones at the lower price range.

So, why not consider heresy, or apostasy: Ditch the newer BlackBerry OS too few developers believe in, and bet on Android devices to support BlackBerry’s enterprise services.

The answer is probably the same as it is for Nokia: It’s too late.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Microsoft and Nokia won’t beget a Googorola clone

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Microsoft, after its highly visible 2011 bet on Nokia, could have decided to go one step further and buy Nokia to become a fully integrated smartphone. That it didn’t happen doesn’t portend a great future for Windows Phone.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal outed Microsoft’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Nokia:

Microsoft recently held advanced talks with Nokia about buying its handset business, people familiar with the matter said, as laggards in the fast-moving mobile market struggle to gain ground.

Many saw an acquisition as an inevitable next step, that by acquiring the Finnish handset maker Microsoft could “finish the job” that they started when they licensed a special Windows Phone to Nokia. It would be a blessed union of two vigilant, watchful companies: Microsoft had watched as Android and iOS made its own OS a distant also ran; Nokia, once the world’s largest cell phone maker, couldn’t help but notice that Google and Apple had killed its handset business from both the high and low ends.

But, according to the WSJ, the parlay came to a negative and apparently definitive end:

The discussions faltered over price and worries about Nokia’s slumping market position, among other issues, these people said. One of the people said talks took place as recently as this month but aren’t likely to be revived.

To call Nokia’s fall a “slump” is more than polite. The company saw its market share fall from 39% in 2009 — more than 100 million handsets per quarter — to an estimated (and angrily debated) 3% by the end of 2012.

Microsoft hasn’t done much better with its mobile software. In 2008, Windows Mobile OS held a 11% market share, even as the underlying Windows CE engine was getting long in the tooth, particularly when compared to the Unix-ish Android and iOS engines. With a modern NT kernel, Microsoft’s mobile OS was reborn as Windows Phone 8 and scored a modest 3.2% market share in Q1 2013.  This number comes from IDC, the “research” group that has assured us that come 2016, Microsoft will be the number 2 mobile OS provider with a 19.2% share:

09-table nokia

Behold the vision and precision of IDC’s psychics: Back in June 2012, they could see four years into the future and predict that Windows Phone would edge out iOS… by two tenths of a percent!

We’ve heard the Microsoft-is-buying-a-handset-maker rumors before. Starting in 2007 and recurring year after year, Microsoft was said to be eyeing RIM/Blackberry. For some, yours truly included in January 2012, the RIM story was compellingly straightforward: RIM’s clientèle of loyal, hardcore Blackberry users in businesses and governments made it an ideal fit for the Redmond giant.

Microsoft’s defenders will argue that RIM ’07 was too expensive. Priced at $200 a share (they’re running at about $14 today), RIM would have cost more than a $100B before any acquisition premium. At the time, Microsoft was valued at approximately $250B (similar to today’s $277B). Ideal or not, the match didn’t make sense for Microsoft shareholders. Then, when RIM’s price began to slide, the Blackberry was seen as having lost too much of its shine, too much of its market momentum. The company was damaged goods. (Or, as we might have forgotten, the two co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the ones who spoke in tongues, may have proved too difficult for even Steve Ballmer to deal with.)

Someday, Microsoft’s inability to grab RIM might be seen as a signal failure, a key episode in the company’s slide into irrelevance in the smartphone market. I doubt anyone will see Nokia in a similar light, as the “one who got away”.

The “MicroNokia” relationship has been challenging from the start. In February 2011, Nokia committed itself to a special partnership with Microsoft. It would ditch its operating systems (Symbian, Meego, QT) and become a beacon and standard bearer for Windows Phone 7. Money changed hands: $250M of “platform support” per quarter was sent from Redmond to Espoo in order to offset the unspecified Windows Phone licensing payments that flowed in the opposite direction.

This messy, technologically and culturally unsound arrangement only got worse when Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft exec now running Nokia, announced the switch to Windows Phone ten months before the company would end up shipping devices that ran the new (and problematic) OS. Unsurprisingly, Nokia’s revenue evaporated, leaving it with losses and a minuscule 5% market share (including Symbian-based smartphones).

Why Elop would make an announcement that effectively Osborned the business still mystifies and enrages Nokia supporters such as Tomi Ahonen who keeps calling for Elop’s head in long, irate blog posts. (In industry lore, to “Osborne” is to prematurely announce a product that so clearly obsoletes your current offering that it kills revenue. The suicidal maneuver is named in loving memory of portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne who destroyed his business by bragging that his next product would be so much better than the current one.)

I’m also mystified, but for another reason. I can’t fathom why Nokia picked Windows Phone instead of Android, whose explosive success was obvious even as early as 2010 when the company ditched its CEO. (I’m a little biased here as, in June 2010, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android.)

Nokia’s excuses for not adopting Android were vague, ranging from “we don’t want to lose control of our destiny”, to Microsoft being a “stronger partner” (read: They paid us). The potential-loss-of-destiny rhetoric falls flat, especially when you look at Android’s licensing terms and see the freedom Samsung and others enjoy with their interpretations of the platform. (We’ve heard that Nokia and Google once talked, but we don’t yet know the reason for their not becoming highly visible partners.)

Today, investors say Nokia is worth about $15B, a tenth of its 2007 peak (I’m excluding the 2000 Internet Bubble number from the comparison). Even with a “25% acquisition premium”, a Nokia acquisition would cost Microsoft less than 10% of its capitalization. So, contrary to the charitable explanation offered to the WSJ by “persons familiar with the matter”, price couldn’t have been an obstacle. That leaves us with Nokia’s “slump”: Microsoft thinks Nokia would be unable to carry Windows Phone to an influential, sustainable market position.

Now, what?

Nokia’s revenue keeps sliding down and, after a brief incursion into the black, it keeps losing money. Is there anything in sight that will reverse the trend? It’s doubtful that the company can try for the high end by offering better hardware than Samsung, nor can they squeeze into a low end that’s inhabited by official and unofficial Android clones that are swiftly killing off feature phones. This leaves Nokia’s future as an independent company in doubt and logically gives rise to more acquisition speculation.

And what will happen to Windows Phone? We now hear that Microsoft is paying developers as much as $100,000 to write or port an application to the platform. This is a rational move on Microsoft’s part, an attempt to create the critical mass that doesn’t seem to be able to happen naturally. But it can also be seen as desperation, an admission that Windows Phone is having trouble gaining momentum as developers and customers are embraced in a downward spiral.

One can’t imagine that Ballmer will call it a day and cede the field to Google and Apple. Personally, I admire his never-give-up attitude, always talking up the future, unfazed by past bold pronouncements gone wrong, but enthusiasm isn’t a strategy. And in the smartphone market, Microsoft doesn’t have many moves left. Regardless of the technical merits of its new mobile OS, momentum seems elusive; market forces that once worked against Windows competitors in the PC field now seem to confine Windows Phone to an insignificant market share against the two dominant and their complementary business models.

We don’t know yet how Google’s acquisition of Motorola will fare, but the Android platform is healthy enough without it. The same can’t be said of Windows Phone without Nokia, which leads one to believe there will be a forced marriage between the once proud Finnish handset maker and an ambitious player, probably Chinese — with Microsoft providing a substantial dowry once again.

In the meantime, we can count on IDC to provide fresh numbers… for 2017.

JLG@mondaynote.com