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Curious Summer

mobile internet, software By August 29, 2010 Tags: , , 14 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Nothing much happens in August, we thought. Wrong. Our three-week break has been filled with a number of “interesting” events.

Curious Yellow

Let’s start with Mark Hurd’s exit from HP after five years of great financial performance as CEO. If you missed the fireworks, you can get a refresher in this Business Insider post by Henry Blodget, or this excellent NYT piece by ace columnist Joe Nocera.

In twitter terms, it looks like this: A “marketing contractor” claims Hurd sexually harassed her; an inquiry fails to substantiate sexual harassment but finds “an inappropriate close relationship”; the investigation also reveals that expense reports were fudged in order to conceal a tête-à-tête with the female. Mistakes were made, Hurd is fired. End of story.

Not quite.

When a CEO gets the boot, a modicum of decorum is usually observed . Not this time. From HP’s General Counsel we hear that “Mark demonstrated a profound lack of judgment that seriously undermined his credibility and damaged his effectiveness in leading HP”. And that’s on the record.

In her memo to the troops, Cathy Lesjak, HP’s CFO and now interim CEO, accuses Hurd of “misusing corporate assets,” referring to the illegitimate expense reports and alleged payments to the erstwhile soft-porn actress for work not performed.

But forget the salacious details; there’s always Google for that. What puzzles most of us is the exit package story. HP maligns Hurd, accuses him of what lay people call fraud… and then grants him an exit package worth tens of millions of dollars, $35M according to unverified estimates. Attorneys, less puzzled than supercilious, sue HP’s Board on behalf of despoiled shareholders.

In the next few weeks we’re certain to get a clearer picture of the inside animosity directed at the cost-cutting, Wall Street-pleasing CEO. His alleged misconduct may turn out to have been nothing more than a convenient pretext, a word that resonates in HP’s history.

Curiouser and Curiouser

This one’s harder to explain: Intel’s acquisition of McAfee. If you own a Windows PC with Intel Inside, there’s a good chance your computer came with bundled anti-virus/anti-spam/anti-spyware software from companies such as Symantec or McAfee. Microsoft entered the fray a few years ago and provides what they call Security Essentials—for free (Microsoft also offers a free safety scan here). PC Tools, AVG, Kaspersky Labs and many others provide the now customary combination of free and paid-for software security products.

In short, this is an active, thriving scene: Symantec’s revenues are at the top of the $5B range and McAfee’s are close to $2B, despite the competition with “free” products from Microsoft and others.

So what possessed Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini to risk his reputation—and more than $7B of his shareholders’ cash—by wading into such a complex, competitive sector? Seasoned Valley observers such as the WSJ’s Don Clark are politely puzzled (see here and here). Otellini intones a new mantra: Security Is Job One. This marks “Intel’s move from a PC company to a computing company”. Sonorous words, certainly, but without a story of higher revenue and profit for the combined companies, there’s not much to back them up.


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.


Free Spy Novel

mobile internet By July 11, 2010 14 Comments

A spy thriller from the DOJ…for free!

Instead of spending your hard-earned dollars loading your Kindle or iPad with fictional potboilers, head over to Scribd and download the Department of Justice Complaint vs. Russian spies (June 2010).

Why submit yourself to the tedium of ponderous DOJ prose? Aren’t such legal documents boring, repetitive, written in an esoteric English argot meant to confuse lay people? Yes, and this one is no exception. But it also contains fascinating and, at times, amusing insights into the people, scope, and technology of the long term embedding of Russian spies into the US.

Deployed by the SVR, Russia’s spook agency and successor to the fabled KGB, the wannabe saboteurs used carefully built American identities and led “unremarkable” lives. Their exact purpose isn’t clear from the DOJ story. They didn’t seem to be engaged in active spying, they appeared to have been planted “just in case”. This could be evidence of Russia’s very long view, of the SVR’s willingness to make investments for a distant future, or of a plan to build a support base for other agents. We won’t know for awhile, and may never know. The agents have pleaded guilty to activities other than spying, such as money laundering and using false identities…and now they’re gone, handed over in a Vienna trade, just like the Good Old Cold War days.

For us geeks, the amusing part is the collection of hackerdom gems contained in the DOJ file. From social engineering to ad-hoc WiFi networking, MAC-address filtering, steganography, and unsecured passwords, these supposedly “highly trained” individuals looked more like Keystone Spooks than Hollywood superspies.

A good example of social engineering is described when one of the culprits experiences unspecified software problems with a laptop. (Sound familiar? We’ll refrain from the easy jabs.) Enter an FBI agent passing as a Russian Consulate employee, “I’m here to help”, who borrows the laptop with a promise to fix the problem. The machine is broken into, fully explored, and yields a rich trove of unprotected files.

In another case, the Feds, while “inspecting” a home (legally, of course), find a password left in the open, helpfully written down on a plain piece of paper.


Under the hood: Google Apps and Apple

mobile internet, software By May 24, 2010 16 Comments

With its Cloud Apps, Google tells a nice, simple story: All you need is a browser. Life is simple, we take care of everything, no more fighting with fat, expensive desktop bloatware.
You can access your data and our apps Anywhere, Anytime…if you have an Internet connection. If you don’t, as we’ll see in a moment, things become more complicated. More like yesterday.

Let’s start with a simple Web app. How does it work?

Somewhere, a computer runs a Web server. In turn, the Web server runs an application whose job is to pull the strings of the browser marionette hiding inside my computer at the other end of a Net connection. The app tells my browser to display ‘Monday Note’ at these coordinates inside such-and-such a window, using this font, that size, and this color. Or the Web app sends a file and tells the browser where and how to play it, and so on.
But what happens if I lose the Net connection? The server no longer pulls the string, the marionette collapses, my Web application is dead.

To achieve its strategic goal of displacing Microsoft Office, Google knew it had to provide an off-line version of Google Apps. Off-line capability is implemented by dropping a replica of the Cloud—a Web server, the application code running on that server, and a local cache of my data—into my computer. My work will be uploaded to the Cloud when the Net connection is restored. With today’s software technology, with abundant storage and computing power on desktops and laptops, Google’s goal isn’t unreachable.

But…the Cloud can be replicated inside my laptop?

It’s not as fantastic as it sounds. While the Cloud evokes images of Google server farms and Big Iron, even the flimsiest of netbooks now provide ample RAM space (at least 1Gbyte, often 2), plenty of disk space (160 Gb or more), and an Intel processor running at 1 GHz or faster. Recreating the server, storage, and applications is well within their power.

Furthermore, your PC/laptop/netbook already contains a Web server. Every Mac carries a copy of the Apache Web server (“the most popular HTTP server software in use” says the Wikipedia article), as so do most Linux “distros” on netbooks and DVDs. Windows provides a Web server called IIS, Internet Information Services, the “second most popular web server in terms of overall websites…” (Wikipedia). If you want Apache on Windows, it’s free and easy, go here. The Windows Installer package (née MSI) weighs in at 6Mbytes, that’s all.


The Nexus One Puzzle

mobile internet By January 10, 2010 Tags: , 15 Comments

Let me state it at the outset: I understand the buzz generated by the Google Phone a.k.a Nexus One. But, the more I look into details and their ramifications, the more I’m puzzled. What exactly is Google trying to do? Make Android, their smartphone OS platform the “Windows” of the new era of really personal computers? Or become a dominant handset player to effectively compete with RIM’s Blackberries or Apple’s iPhones? Or, third possibility, dominate the new world of mobile advertising as it does the “old” universe of Web ads for PCs?

Let’s start with the product.

It’s not really a Google Phone. Its real name is Nexus One and it’s made by HTC, the well-regarded Taiwanese handset maker that produced the first G1 and G2 Android phones — as well as their Sidekick ancestor from Danger. Microsoft bought that company but the CEO, Andy Rubin joined Google as head of the Android team.
But, you’ll object, most cell phones and smartphones are made by one company, a manufacturing subcontractor and branded and sold by another. Apple doesn’t make its iPhones, nor does RIM make any of its Blackberries, to use but two well-known examples. Indeed, the Nexus One is sold by Google at If you already have a Google Checkout account, the purchase process can’t be simpler.


The 2010 Media Watch List

advertising, magazines, mobile internet, newspapers, online publishing By January 3, 2010 Tags: , 13 Comments

No predictions, just a few of many hot topics for the newborn year.

Paywalls. 2010 could see a significant number of newspapers jumping into the paid-for option. Among the conditions to be met:

– Grouping around a toll collector. It could be Journalism Online in the US, a big media group in Europe, or even Google — should a truce occur between the search giant and publishers. From the user’s standpoint, the payment intermediary must be friction free, able to operate on any platform (web, mobile) and across brands.
Publishers will have to devise a clever price structure. If a knee-jerk move takes them back to the tired basic-content vs. premium-content duality, they are doomed.
– State-of-the-art web analytics affords much more refined tactics around users, platforms segmentation, etc. In addition, a paid-for system must be able to deal with many sources of income, such as monthly subscriptions, pay by-the-click, metering system based on downloads, time spent, etc.
– Publishers must act in concert. In every market, the biggest players will have to carefully coordinate their move to paid-models: everybody must jump at the same time. This is easier said than done: there is always the risk a rogue player will “cheat”, that is break the pact in order to secure a better market position. Also, too much “coordination” could encourage a disgruntled competitor to sue on anti-trust grounds.Daily newspapers shifting to periodicals. How many dailies in the world will shift from seven or five issues a week to three or two? Undoubtedly, many. This is a better trend than it sounds. For breaking news, print is no longer relevant, but it will remain the medium of choice for long-form pieces. Newspapers publishing a few times a week will gain by becoming more magazine-like in their news coverage; they’ll save their story-breaking capabilities for web versions. In this regard, the mobile web will soon become bigger than the original, PC-based variant.
The “instant web” such as Twitter and its offspring will thrive in 2010. The likeliest offshoot is video-twittering as pocket size camcorders continue to spread (see Gizmodo comparison here). These will be supplemented by an upcoming generation of high-definition devices with Net connectivity through wifi or 3G networks.

Advertising Disintermediation. The media buying side is definitely not the sector to be in for the next decade. First of all, ad spending will continue its adjustment to the actual time spent on various medias. In 2008, print captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of the time spent; in comparison, digital got 29% or our time but 8% of ad spending. Those numbers, those discrepancies tell us the correction is far from over.
Unless they devise smarter ways to analyze web audiences (see below, the audience measurement issue) and, as a result, clearly define the true value of each group of users, there is no longer a need for the media buyers’ costly intermediation. The trend is there: the most agile web sites will go directly to brands and advertisers, they will propose sophisticated integration mechanisms for their sites and mobile platforms. So do social networks such as the 25m users French Skyrock (see our case study).
Anyway, Google will settle the intermediation issue as its boss candidly puts it in Ken Auletta’s books (1): “Google wants to be the agent that sells the ads on all distribution platforms, whether it is print, television, radio or the internet. (…) As our technology gets better, we will be able to replace some of their [large companies] internal captive sales forces”. Media buyers, consider yourself notified: you’re toast.
As for the creative side, we hope advertising agencies will, at last, wake up and think of new ways to integrate their messages in digital media layouts (as in print), rather than trying to divert users away from media sites (see previous Monday Note on the inherent design flaws of the internet).


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.