mobile internet

Mobile World Clusterf#^k

It happens all the time: when CEOs don’t know what to do, they create a strategic alliance. Alone, they’re exposed. As a group, they must be doing something right because everyone  else in the herd does it too. In the early nineties, my friend Denise Caruso, a NYT columnist and editor of the Digital Media newsletter, listed over 150 such alliances.

They often amount to worse than nothing: agitation, confusion, hard-to-reconcile cultures, hidden agendas and fears of losing control of one’s destiny.

In the best of cases, the product of the announcement is the announcement, a short burst of mildly favorable publicity. I know whereof I’m speaking, I’m hereby pleading guilty to the Apple-Digital Equipment Strategic Alliance, that was in the late eighties. We know what came out of it: nothing. Luckily, once the talking heads left the stage, the engineers in both companies, in their usual fashion, disregarded executive orders and decided they had better things to do. No monstrosity was created.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. There are countless examples of companies making a huge, expensive mess of a forced attempt at harnessing groups, cultures with different agendas under a politically correct standard, in the name of a warm and fuzzy goal.

Remember AIM? Apple, IBM and Motorola, an early nineties strategic alliance. (I had no part in that one, having left Apple.) The idea was to harness the technology and people of these three companies to create a new object-oriented operating system, Pink, running on the IBM/Motorola PowerPC architecture. The whole thing was folded into a new company,  Taligent — dissolved in 1998. The whole thing cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (Fortunately, in 1997, Steve Jobs masterfully crafted a “reverse acquisition” of Apple; he promptly put the NeXT software engineers in charge and we know the rest of that story.) More

The iParanoid Scenario

I’m not through with the iPad. Actually, I’m just warming up. For today’s column, let’s focus on the perils of a closed system.

I live in a country (France) where censorship is a big deal. It comes mostly from greedy celebrities (sorry for the truism); they use a legal system that largely favors them. Often, they find a compassionate judge when it comes to extracting money as compensation for a supposed privacy violation or for some other unauthorized disclosure. Convictions are frequent and expensive; they can lead to the seizure of a magazine or even of a book. France has a long history of such practices. In the early sixties, the country was waging a colonial war in Algeria. Then, for the most avid news readers, the game was to get the weekly magazine l’Express at the kiosk as early as possible before French authorities seized it. (No such risk with today’s Gallic newsmagazines).

Let me reframe this in the context of an upcoming iPad era. An iPad newsmagazine publishes an investigative piece that triggers a legal injunction: remove that from the publication or face a $10,000 penalty per day. No, says the publisher, who has guts and money (proof this is a fiction), we want to fight in court. The plaintiff then turns to Apple. Same talk: face a huge fine, or remove the offending content. Furthermore, says the plaintiff’s attorneys, thanks to your permanent and unique electronic link to your proprietary devices and the fact that the electronic kiosk now resides on the device – yes we can argue that point, they say– , you must extend the deletion to each user’s tablet. C’mon, you keep pushing updates, and various contents bits to these gizmos, you can push a delete instruction code.

What would Apple do? This is a question of balance of power. If the legal action involves some neuron-challenged celebrity, chances are Apple won’t balk. But what if Nicolas Sarkozy or his whispering-singer wife are the plaintiffs? Truth is, given the pattern of legal actions against the press in France, it is more than certain a French judge will be tempted to request an immediate remote deletion of a presumed infringing content. Then we’ll see a replay of what happened last summer in the 1984 case, when Amazon remotely deleted a copy of George Orwell’s novel in the Kindle of buyers for copyrights issues. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos apologized profusely for the mishap (plus it involved 1984 not Alice in Wonderland, tough luck). More

iPad Thoughts

Let me start with an important caveat. For this I’ll refer you to a post from my favorite high-tech blogger, David Pogue. “Don’t pass judgment until you’ve tried it!” Wise counsel: three years ago, industry sages “knew” Apple had no business making a phone. Normal humans voted with their wallet.

Customers come in two categories: cats and dogs. Put new cat food before your feline companion, she’ll walk around the dish, indifferent to your entreaties, suspicious, bidding her time. Dogs aren’t that complicated: they jump on the new dog food and greedily scarf it down.
I’m a dog, I’ll try (almost) any new high-tech product. But, as the advertising lore likes to say: Will the dog come back to the dog food? That’s how you know you have a viable product. We’ll see in a couple of months if I keep my new iPad or if our daughter Marie resells it for me on eBay – for a fee, she’s a businesswoman.

In the meantime, five thoughts.

First, we have no idea of what the iTunes App Store will do for the iPad. As usual, the temptation is use derivative thinking: The iPad is like ___ only bigger, or smaller. A bigger iPod Touch is the more common thought. So, yes, most iPhone or iPod Touch apps will scale nicely. But this much bigger XGA (1024 by 768) screen is “more enough” for iPad applications to be genuinely different as opposed to mere derivations of iPhone apps. Apple comes up with their own iWork apps showing but one example of uses that aren’t just an extension of the iPhone world.

Gizmodo has one of the few posts, among the tens of thousands of iPad-related blog entries, focusing on in-app purchases. Last Summer, a new iPhone OS release introduced the ability to make purchases from within an application, without jumping out to a Web site. As a counter-example, look at the current iPhone Kindle app: when you want to buy books you leave the app and go to a dedicated page on Amazon’s site to order the book and direct its digital delivery to your iPhone. Apple offers a simpler mechanism: buy what you need, weapons or lives in a game, virtual reality clothes, furniture or buildings from within the gaming or VR app. Apple smoothes out the transaction, billed to your iTunes account, takes 30% for its services. This is great for some merchant but Amazon doesn’t see it that way.
This is relevant to Frederic’s point about newspapers and magazines in today’s note: the Financial Times could deploy a free FT app on the iPad, complete with teasers for today’s paper or for a special research report. Click and you download the paper, or a magazine. See here what the Swedish group Bonnier thinks of the new possibilities afforded by powerful tablets. The Mag+ demo is very Apple-like, I’ll even say Jon Ive-like, complete with a veddy Briddish accent.
I can’t wait for the things I can’t imagine coming out of the brains and loins of my fellow geeks.

Second, real users, paying customers, as opposed to geeks and braying critics.

I’m going to get in trouble for this, but hear me out.

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Mobile Payments

Last week’s note on Apple licensing generated a good flow of comments, all appreciated. I’ll respond, but not before we get Apple earnings and the putative Jesus Tablet out of the way.

I’ll approach today’s topic, mobile payments, using an Apple Store moment.

Some cables keep disappearing. In particular, the ones that connect MacBooks of various vintages to conference room projectors. As much as some of us admire Apple’s minimalist fixation, the parade of video-out connector generations can grate. The world outside of Cupertino is inelegant, imperfect, we know. But that world features one universal projector connector standard: VGA.
In recent years, Apple moved from mini-VGA to DVI to mini-DVI to micro-DVI to mini-DisplayPort, creating the need for a (dis)array of “to VGA” adapter cables – see the links earlier in the sentence. Elegance at a price. Let’s hope the mini DisplayPort will stay blessed for a while.

So… Entrepreneurs come to our office for a presentation; they forgot the VGA adapter for their MacBook, I lend them one from my private stash. You know what happens next, they’re entrepreneurs. I go back to the Apple store for a replacement.
Adapter in hand, I approach an Apple Store employee with a hip-mounted sales terminal, whip out my credit card; a couple of minutes later, we’re done. No bag, receipt by email, life is good.
But, why use a credit card?
I have an iPhone, the Apple sales terminal is an iPhone as well, why can’t I just touch an icon, enter a PIN and be done? That’s what I do when I buy the Inglorious Basterds movie, a Bo Diddley Blues album or the (very buggy) Kayak application via iTunes on my iPhone.

The iPhone (as well as many other devices) contains a micro-SIM, a Smart Card module similar to what you’ll find in many European payment cards. Insert one of those in the payment terminal, key your PIN and you’re done. Why can’t we do this with a smartphone and get rid of credit cards? Simpler transactions, neatly listed on the device, if desired, and in an on-line account, as it’s done today.

The idea isn’t new. More

The Nexus One Puzzle

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 www.google.com/phone. If you already have a Google Checkout account, the purchase process can’t be simpler.
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The 2010 Media Watch List

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). More

The 2010 Tech Watch List

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. More

Droid and Android

Last Friday November 6th, the much-awaited Motorola Droid came out. Powered by the latest version of Google’s smartphone OS, Android 2.0, the new handset is exclusively distributed by Verizon. The carrier backs Motorola’s handset with an aggressive marketing campaign on its website and on TV ads.

For such a “gifted” (Motorola + Verizon + Google) product, the reviews came fast and… furious, that is very opinionated.
One gent rejoiced: Droid, was going to free him from the iPhone – at last! Small detail: as you’ll see by clicking on the link, writing on October 19th, a couple of weeks before the Droid came out, the “reviewer” helpfully admits he hadn’t used the product: “I haven’t seen the phone, but I’ve talked with someone who has worked directly with it”.
That’s why I prefer playing customer, buying the product, getting the everyday usage experience.
More “facts-based” reviews are available from MacWorld, quite positive, Endgadget, very detailed, Business Insider, with a crisp conclusion: If you don’t buy an iPhone, buy a Droid. The very geeky, well connected Gizmodo, comes to the same “if not iPhone then Droid” result. I’d be remiss if I didn’t link a summary of Walt Mossberg’s review, that’s how you know you’re an über-geek, when your reviews are reviewed. See also the Wall Street Journal’s gadgetmeister’s original oracular blessing.
A deeper discussion of OS platforms and voice applications is available here at TechCrunch. [Disclosure: one of the protagonists, British Telecom’s JP Rangaswami, bought Ribbit, an Internet phone company, imagine Skype with an API (Application Programming Interface). The venture firm where I currently work, Allegis Capital, was an investor in Ribbit.] I’ll end the procession with a vigorous critique of Verizon’s punchy ad campaign by Andy Ihnatko, another respected, witty industry columnist.

With this in mind, unlike most opining individuals above, I went to a Verizon store and paid my own money to get a Droid. I did this on the very Droid-day, Friday November 6th, at the University Avenue Verizon store in Palo Alto, around 11:30 am. No line, I waited two minutes for a salesperson, a simple transaction as I already have a Verizon account. The activation turned out to be just a bit more problematic: ‘Too much traffic’ said the sales gent. I left the phone with him, went back to my office one block away. When I returned by lunchtime, everything was in order. Easy enough. More

Microsoft ambivalence

Lots of earnings reports this week, mostly good ones. Apple did better than expected, even by the most enthusiastic earnings seers, so did Amazon whose shares went up 26.8% today, adding more than $10B to its market cap in one day. I’m happy to see a quality company, one that treats its customer better than the vast majority of short-term oriented businesses, reap rewards for a combination of long-term vision and everyday attention to detail. We’ll get back to Amazon in a future Monday Note, when we discuss the flurry of e-book readers.

You might have heard Microsoft just launched Windows 7 this past Thursday, to good reviews and newish Apple ads, more installments of the ‘I’m a PC, I’m a Mac’ age-old campaign. The gent who plays the PC, John Hodgman, is much more than the character he’s become known for. See the speech he wrote and delivered at the June 2009 White House Correspondents dinner: he roasts the newly elected Barack Obama, calling him the first nerd president. This YouTube video won’t bore you, I’m not sure I can say the same for the latest, somewhat repetitious Apple ads.

As for Windows 7 itself, I haven’t updated any of the four candidate computers I mentioned last week. In part because I want to hear from early upgraders before I take the plunge, I still have the expensive and painful memories of being a Vista early adopter in 2007. I was the first one in line at Fry’s, in Palo Alto, at 8:00 am on January 30th — and proud of it. When the door opened, I turned around and saw I was also the only one in line. Instead of taking the hint, I forged ahead, bought a big HP laptop and the full Office 2007 Professional DVD. I had grown reasonably adept at running Windows Xp machines and couldn’t imagine how painful the Vista experience would turn out to be. I’m more careful, this time.
There is also the money. Upgrading the four machines, including a first install on a Linux netbook will cost me about $800, plus some application software, plus my time. Upgrading five Macs in my family cost me $49 and not too much time as the process was, for me at least, uneventful.
(This said, I plan to write a few short subjects on strange bugs, UI caprice or ergonomics non-sense in Apple’s products. Being a polite optimist, I’ll marvel: if the products sell so well in spite of these kinks, imagine what would happen if these problems disappeared!) More

The “Love Triangle”: Apple, Google and Verizon

At the end of my August 9th Monday Note, “War in the Valley, Apple vs. Google”, I committed to get into Google’s potential weaknesses in this conflict. Since then, things have gotten a tad more complicated.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

As discussed last August, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, had to leave Apple’s Board of Directors because, even for a Valley used to “coopetition”, the conflict of interest became really blatant.

Both companies make operating systems for smartphones, the new wave of personal computing. There, we have Android vs. iPhone OS. For the desktop, it’s Chrome OS vs. OS X. Yes, for the desktop: Chrome OS purports to be a Cloud-oriented netbook OS but, as explained in the same August 9th MN, Chrome smuggles very substantial desktop code under the cover of “mere” browser plug-ins, this to let Chrome OS stay useful in the absence of a Net connection. Picasa competes with iPhoto, Chrome, the browser, not the OS, competes with Safari. In July, Apple bought PlaceBase, a mapping company, whose Web site is now reduced to a set of API (Applications Programming Interface) documents, very likely to gain independence from Google Maps.
The more we dig, the more we find places where both companies want to pick the same pockets. If you think about it some more, both companies behave as if they’d want all your attention and all your money. Still ruminating, could it be both companies no longer take Microsoft seriously and, having lost a common enemy must now be at each other’s throat?

Then, we have Verizon and Apple. The “love” between these two has been hot since or, actually, before the very beginning of the iPhone. A few weeks before the inaugural June 30th, 2007 shipment of the JesusPhone, Verizon incautiously circulated the now semi-famous “iWhatever” memo to its troops, dissing the iPhone and its maker. 50 million (we’ll see the latest numbers in about 10 days) iPhones and iPod Touch(es) later, Verizon is more than ever dead set against letting Dear Leader have its way with its business model. To Verizon, AT&T’s fate is anathema: AT&T let Apple “run the table” for digital media sales over its wireless network. Put more crudely, AT&T bent over and became a “dumb pipe”, a wireless ISP in the service of the iTunes content distribution and revenue engine. For this unnatural act, AT&T got a $100 ARPU (Average Revenue Per User, the industry-wide average is about $50) and the use of the iPhone as a lure to steal Verizon subscribers. Verizon can’t stand that thought, they want to keep their birthright, that is a piece of every bit of digital content revenue moving through its network. More