The Smart Home has been just around the corner for more than three decades. Now, an uneasy, not entirely frank move from one of the industry’s grandees signals a shift towards credible consumer-grade solutions.
With its new ordering system of one-push buttons spread around the home, Amazon wants to simplify lives, theirs more than ours as we’ll find out. In doing so, we’ll face – again – still unresolved issues for the Consumer version of the Internet of Things.
by Jean-Louis Gassée
Intel once turned down the opportunity to become the sole supplier of iPhone processors. Why haven’t they let go of their defocused search for the Next Big Thing and, instead, used All Means Necessary to regain the account?
Intel is a prosperous company. For the quarter ended last September, Intel scored $14.6B in Sales, 65% Gross Margin and $4.5B in Operating Income, a nice progression from the same period a year ago:
A 65% Gross Margin is enviable for any company, and exceptional for a hardware maker: Intel’s GM is up in software territory. By comparison, Apple’s Gross Margin – considered too comfortable by followers of the Church of Market Share – stands at 38.6% for the 2014 Fiscal Year ended last September.
But when we take a closer look at the numbers, the picture isn’t as rosy. Nearly 90% of Intel’s revenue — $12.9B of the total $14.6B — comes from two groups: PC and Data Center (servers, networking, storage). Intel’s presence in the mobile world? Nonexistent:
Essentially no revenue for Mobile and Communications, and a $1B loss. Looking at the past four quarters, Intel has lost about $4B in the pursuit of the mobile market (Daniel Eran Dilger says $7B in the past two years).
How did Intel handle the problem? By sweeping it under the rug. In November, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that the company was merging Mobile into the PC group and would discontinue its $51 per Android tablet subsidy in 2015. This came just weeks after Krzanich had proclaimed Mission Accomplished in the tablet field:
“‘We’ve made good progress getting into tablets’ Krzanich told reporters ahead of the annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. ‘We’ve gone from nothing to something where I consider us a real tablet manufacturer.’”
348The company’s inability to break into the mobile field — into any field other than PCs and servers — isn’t new, and it has worried Intel for decades. Company execs and strategists aren’t happy being the hardware half of Wintel, with being yoked to Microsoft’s fortunes. They like the money, but they want a “second source” for their profits, something other than the x-86 market, so they’ve embarked on a never-ending quest for the next stage in the Intel rocket.
(Of course, the company isn’t blind to the benefits of the Wintel alliance: Given two processors of equal merit, the one running Windows fetches the higher price, hence the ferocious tactics that have landed the company in court on several occasions.)
In its search for the Next Big Thing, Intel has tried alternatives to the x-86 architecture and come up with failures such as the iAPX 32 and the Itanium high-end server processor. The latter, a puzzling adoption of HP’s PA-RISC architecture, was quickly dubbed Itanic by tech wags as results failed to match lofty launch projections.
Intel has tried server farms, modems, networking equipment and, I kid you not, toy microscopes, but they somehow never got around to mobile. In the pre-iPhone days of the mobile world, the dominant players — Nokia, Motorola, Palm, Blackberry — all used processors based on the ARM architecture, processors that were too small and inexpensive to interest Intel. No money there, they cost 1/10th or less of a PC processor.
Steve Jobs offered Intel a chance to get into the mobile game: He asked the company to bid on an ARM-derivative for the iPhone. As Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO at the time, wistfully and gallantly recounted, he gave the opportunity a pass, thinking the numbers (price and quantity) were too low. (An ex-Intel acquaintance told me that the business people felt they should go after Nokia, instead, because of its huge volume at the time.)
In 2006, after missing the iPhone, Intel sold its ARM processor business to Marvell.
When iPhones and Android-based smartphones took off, Intel insisted they weren’t concerned, that they would triumph in the end: We will win because our unapproachable manufacturing technology will produce x-86 processors that are superior in every way to ARM-based competitors.
We’ve heard this line every year since. The latest version is summarized in this slide from a November Investor Meeting:
What Intel contends here is that they always have a three-year lead over their competition. — it’s just a given. What company execs fail to explain is why smartphone manufacturers have failed to see the light, and why Android tablet makers had to be bribed.
Now it seems that Intel has discovered the Internet of Things… and Wearables, of course. If you have the patience, flip through this 66-slide presentation that tells us that IoT will be huge because the objects around us will all become intelligent (a story we’ve already heard from companies such as Cisco — which is also looking for its Next Big Thing).
Naturally, wearables are in there:
This is painful. The whole presentation is an Everything And The Kitchen Sink assemblage of unoriginal ideas. There’s no focus in Intel’s Theory of Everything, no way to see when, where, and how the company will actually rise above the IoT noise.
As for wearables — now fashionable in more ways than one — Intel touts its new MICA bracelet:
You can “pre-order” yours at Opening Ceremony and have it delivered in time for Christmas.
Certainly, the more “initiatives” Intel throws at the wall the higher the chances that one of them will stick. But from the outside, it feels like Intel is being driven by courtiers and PowerPoint makers, that senior management really doesn’t know what to do – and what not to do. (Krzanich says he green-lighted the MICA project because his wife approved of it “after using it for several days”.)
Of all the things Intel should and shouldn’t have done, the Apple element figures mightily. Since Intel offered a whopping $51 Android tablet subsidy, a charity that landed its mobile activities $7B in the red over two years, why didn’t the company offer Apple a $10 or $20 subsidy per processor as a way get the manufacturing relationship restarted? ‘We’ll beat Samsung’s prices, we’ll be your second source.’ If Intel’s 14nm process is so superior, how come Intel execs didn’t convince Apple to dump frenemy Samsung?
I see three possible answers.
One is that the 14 nanometer process is woefully late. Deliveries of some Broadwell chips (the nickname of the next round of x-86 processors) are now slated for early- to mid-2105. Apple might feel that Intel’s process needs to mature before it can deliver 300M units.
The second is that Intel’s claim of a three-year technology lead might be less than reliable. Samsung could be closer to delivering 14nm chips than Intel would like us (and itself) to believe.
Or perhaps Intel sees Apple as a real adversary that’s intent on designing all of its own processors, even for laptops and desktops that are currently powered by x-86 chips. But even so, why not become the preferred fabricator?
The Intel enigma remains: There’s no clear, resounding answer to the What’s Next?question, only some lingering puzzlement over What Happened?
Looking past the glitter, big names, and big money ($3.2B), a deeper look at Google’s last move doesn’t yield a good theory. Perhaps because there isn’t one.
Last week’s Monday Note used the “Basket of Remotes” problem as a proxy for the many challenges to the consumer version of the IoT, the Internet of Things. Automatic discovery, two-way communication, multi-vendor integration, user-interface and network management complexity… until our home devices can talk to each other, until they can report their current states, functions, and failure modes, we’re better off with individual remotes than a confusing — and confused — universal controller..
After reading the Comments section, I thought we could put the topic to rest for a while, perhaps until devices powered by Intel’s very low-power Quark processor start shipping.
A few hours later, Google announced its $3.2B acquisition (in cash) of Nest, the maker of elegant connected thermostats and, more recently, of Nest Protect smoke and CO alarms. Nest founder Tony Fadell, often referred to as “one of the fathers of the iPod”, takes his band of 100 ex-Apple engineers and joins Google; the Mountain View giant pays a hefty premium, about 10 times Nest’s estimated yearly revenue of $300M.
Tony Fadell mentioned “scaling challenges” as a reason to sell to Google versus going it alone. He could have raised more money — he was actually ready to close a new round, $150M at a $2B valuation, but chose adoption instead.
Let’s decode scaling challenges. First, the company wants to raise money because profits are too slim to finance growth. Then, management looks at the future and doesn’t like the profit picture. Revenue will grow, but profits will not scale up, meaning today’s meager percentage number will not expand. Hard work for low profits.
(Another line of thought would be the Supply Chain Management scaling challenges, that is the difficulties in running manufacturing contractors in China, distributors and customer support. This doesn’t make sense. Nest’s product line is simple, two products. Running manufacturing contractors isn’t black magic, it is now a well-understood trade. There are even contractors to run contractors, two of my friends do just that for US companies.)
Unsurprisingly, many worry about their privacy. The volume and tone of their comments reveals a growing distrust of of Google. Is Nest’s expertise at connecting the devices in our homes simply a way for the Google to know more about us? What will they do with my energy and time data? In a blog post, Fadell attempts to reassure:
“Will Nest customer data be shared with Google?
What else could Fadell offer besides this perfunctory reassurance? “[T]his will not change”… until it does. Let’s not forget how so many tech companies change their minds when it suits them. Google is no exception.
This Joy of Tech cartoon neatly summarizes the privacy concern:
The people, the brands, the money provide enough energy to provoke less than thoughtful reactions. A particularly agitated blogger, who can never pass up a rich opportunity to entertain us – and troll for pageviews – starts by arguing that Apple ought to have bought Nest:
“Nest products look like Apple products. Nest products are beloved by people who love Apple products. Nest products are sold in Apple stores.
Nest, in short, looked like a perfect acquisition for Apple, which is struggling to find new product lines to expand into and has a mountain of cash rotting away on its balance sheet with which it could buy things.
[…] Google’s aggressiveness has once again caught Apple snoozing. And now a company that looked to be a perfect future division of Apple is gone for good.”
Let’s slow down. Besides Nest itself, two companies have the best data on Nest’s sales, returns, and customer service problems: Apple and Amazon. Contrary to the “snoozing” allegation, Apple Store activity told Apple exactly the what, the how, and the how much of Nest’s business. According to local VC lore, Nest’s Gross Margin are low and don’t rise much above customer support costs. (You can find a list of Nest’s investors here. Some, like Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures, have deep links to Google… This reminds many of the YouTube acquisition. Several selling VCs were also Google investors, one sat on Google’s Board. YouTube was bleeding money and Google had to “bridge” it, to loan it money before the transaction closed.)
See also Amazon’s product reviews page; feelings about the Nest thermostat range from enthusiastic to downright negative.
The “Apple ought to have bought Nest because it’s so Apple-like” meme points to an enduring misunderstanding of Apple’s business model. The Cupertino company has one and only one money pump: personal computers, whether in the form of smartphones, tablets, or conventional PCs. Everything else is a supporting player, helping to increase the margins and volume of the main money makers.
A good example is Apple TV: Can it possibly generate real money at $100 a puck? No. But the device expands the ecosystem, and so makes MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones more productive and pleasant. Even the App Store with its billions in revenue counts for little by itself. The Store’s only mission is to make iPhones and iPads more valuable.
With this in mind, what would be the role of an elegant $249 thermostat in Apple’s ecosystem? Would it add more value than an Apple TV does?
We now turn to the $3.2B price tag. The most that Apple has ever paid for an acquisition was $429M (plus 1.5M Apple shares), and that was for… NeXT. An entire operating system that revitalized the Mac. It was a veritable bargain. More recently, in 2012, it acquired AuthenTec for $356M.
With rare exceptions (I can think of one, Quattro Wireless), Apple acquires technologies, not businesses. Even if Apple were in the business of buying businesses, a $300M enterprise such as Nest wouldn’t move the needle. In an Apple that will approach or exceed $200B this calendar year, Nest would represent about .15% of the company’s revenue.
Our blogging seer isn’t finished with the Nest thermostat:
“I was seduced by the sexy design, remote app control, and hyperventilating gadget-site reviews of Nest’s thermostat. So I bought one.”
But, ultimately, he never used the device. Bad user feedback turned him off:
“[…] after hearing of all these problems, I have been too frightened to actually install the Nest I bought. So I don’t know whether it will work or not.”
He was afraid to install his Nest… but Apple should have bought the company?
So, then, why Google? We can walk through some possible reasons.
First, the people. Tony Fadell’s team is justly admired for their design skills. They will come in handy if Google finally gets serious about selling hardware, if it wants to generate new revenue in multiples of $10B (its yearly revenue is approximately $56B now). Of course, this means products other than just thermostats and smoke alarms. It means products that can complement Google’s ad business with its 60% Gross Margin.
Which leads us to a possible second reason: Nest might have a patent portfolio that Google wants to add to its own IP arsenal. Fadell and his team surely have filed many patents.
But… $3.2B worth of IP?
This leaves us with the usual questions about Google’s real business model. So far, it’s even simpler than Apple’s: Advertising produces 115% or more of Google’s profits. Everything else brings the number back down to 100%. Advertising is the only money machine, all other activities are cost centers. Google’s hope is that one of these cost centers will turn into a new money machine of a magnitude comparable to its advertising quasi-monopoly.
On this topic, I once again direct you to Horace Dediu’s blog. In a post titled Google’s Three Ps, Horace takes us through the basics of a business: People, Processes, and Purpose:
“This is the trinity which allows for an understanding of a complex system: the physical, the operational and the guiding principle. The what, the how and the why.”
Later, Horace points to Google’s management reluctance to discuss its Three Ps:
“There is a business in Google but it’s a very obscure topic. The ‘business side’ of the organization is only mentioned briefly in analyst conference calls and the conversation is not conducted with the same team that faces the public. Even then, analysts who should investigate the link between the business and its persona seem swept away by utopian dreams and look where the company suggests they should be looking (mainly the future.)
There are almost no discussions of cost structures (e.g. cost of sales, cost of distribution, operations and research), operating models (divisional, functional or otherwise) or of business models. In fact, the company operates only one business model which was an acquisition, reluctantly adopted.”
As usual — or more than usual in current circumstances — the entire post is worth a meditative read. Especially for its interrogation at the end:
“The trouble lies in that organization also having de-facto control over the online (and hence increasingly offline) lives of more than one billion people. Users, but not customers, of a company whose purpose is undefined. The absence of oversight is one thing, the absence of an understanding of the will of the leadership is quite another. The company becomes an object of faith alone. Do we believe?”
Looking past the glitter, the elegant product, the smart people, do we believe there is a purpose in the Nest acquisition? Or is Google simply rolling the dice, hoping for an IoT breakthrough?
We count on WiFi and Bluetooth in our homes, but we don’t have appliances that provide self-description or reliable two-way communication. As a result, the Internet of Things for consumers is, in practice, a Basket of Remotes.
Last Friday, I participated in a tweetchat (#ibmceschat) arranged by friends at IBM. We discussed popular CES topics such as Wearables, Personal Data, Cable and Smart TV, and the Internet of Things. (I can’t help but note that Wikipedia’s disambiguation page bravely calls the IoT “a self-configuring wireless network between objects”. As we’ll see, the self-configuring part is still wishful thinking.)
At one point, the combined pressures of high-speed twittering and 140-characters brevity spurred me to blurt this:
A little bit of background before we rummage through the basket.
In practice, there are two Internets of Things: One version for Industry, and another for Consumers.
The Industrial IoT is alive and well. A gas refinery is a good example: Wired and wireless sensors monitor the environment, data is transmitted to control centers, actuators direct the flow of energy and other activities. And the entire system is managed by IT pros who have the skill, training, and culture — not to mention the staff — to oversee the (literal) myriad unseen devices that control complicated and dangerous processes.
The management of any large corporation’s energy, environment, and safety requires IT professionals whose raison d’être is the mastery of technology. (In my fantasy, I’d eavesdrop on Google’s hypergalactic control center, the corporate Internet of Things that manage the company’s 10 million servers…)
Things aren’t so rosy in the consumer realm.
For consumers, technology should get out of the way — it’s a means, not an end. Consumers don’t have the mindset or training of IT techies, they don’t have the time or focus to build a mental representation of a network of devices, their interactions and failure modes. For example, when my computer connects to the Net, I don’t have to concern myself with the way routers work, how the human-friendly mondaynote.com gets translated into the 220.127.116.11 IP address.
Not so with a home network of IoT objects that connect the heating and cooling systems, security cameras, CO and fire sensors, the washer, dryer, stove, fridge, entertainment devices, and under-the-mattress sleep monitoring pads. This may be an exaggerated example, but even with a small group of objects, how does a normal human configure and manage the network?
For an answer, or lack thereof, we now come back to the Basket of Remotes.
I once visited the home of an engineer who managed software development at an illustrious Silicon Valley company. I was shocked, shocked to see a basket of remotes next to the couch in front of his TV. ‘What? You don’t use a programmable remote to subsume this mess into one elegant device and three of four functions, TV, DVR, VoD, MP3 music?’
‘No, it’s too complicated, too unreliable. Each remote does its separate job well, with an easy mental representation. These dumb devices don’t talk back, there’s no way for a unified remote to ask what state they’re in. So I gave up — I have enough mental puzzles at the office!’
Indeed, so-called “smart” TVs are unable to provide a machine-readable description of the commands they understand (an XML file, also readable by a human, would do). We can’t stand in front of a TV with a “fresh” universal remote – or a smartphone app – touch the Learn button and have the TV wirelessly ship the list of commands it understands…and so on to the next appliance, security system or, if you insist, fridge and toaster.
If an appliance would yield its control and reporting data, an app developer could build a “control center” that would summarize and manage your networked devices. But in the Consumer IoT world, we’re still very far from this desirable state of affairs. A TV can’t even tell a smartphone app if it’s on, what channel it’s tuned to, or which devices is feeding it content. For programmable remotes, it’s easy to get lost as too many TVs don’t even know a command such as Input 2, they only know Next Input. If a human changes the input by walking to the device and pushing a button, the remote is lost. (To say nothing of TVs that don’t have separate On and Off commands, only an On/Off toggle, with the danger of getting out of sync – and no way for the TV to talk back and describe its state…)
Why don’t Consumer Electronics manufacturers provide machine self-description and two-way communication? One possible answer is that they’re engaged in a cost-cutting race to the bottom and thus have no incentive to build more intelligence into their devices. If so, why build unbearably dumb apps in their Smart TVs? (Korean LG Electronics even dug up WebOS for integration into its latest TVs.)
A look at Bang & Olufsen’s Home Integration page might give one hope. The video demo, in B&O’s usual clean luxury style, takes us through from dining to sleep to waking up, opening curtains, making coffee, morning news on TV, and opening the garage door. But it only provides a tightly integrated B&O solution with the need for one or more IT intervention (and it’s expensive — think above $100K for the featured home).
This leaves middle class homes with an unsolved, mixed-vendor Basket of Remotes, a metaphor for the unanswered management challenges in the Consumer IoT space.