software

App Store Curation: An Open Letter To Tim Cook

 

With one million titles and no human guides, the Apple App Store has become incomprehensible for mere mortals. A simple solution exists: curation by humans instead of algorithms.

Dear Tim,

You know the numbers better than anyone — I don’t need to quote them to you — but we all know that the iOS App Store is a veritable gold mine. Unfortunately, the App Store isn’t being mined in the best interests of Apple’s customers and developers, nor, in the end, in the interests of the company itself.

The App Store may be a gold mine, but it’s buried in an impenetrable jungle.

Instead of continuing with this complaint, I’ll offer a suggestion: Let humans curate the App Store.

Instead of using algorithms to sort and promote the apps that you permit on your shelves, why not assign a small group of adepts to create and shepherd an App Store Guide, with sections such as Productivity, Photography, Education, and so on. Within each section, this team of respected but unnamed (and so “ungiftable”) critics will review the best-in-class apps. Moreover, they’ll offer seasoned opinions on must-have features, UI aesthetics, and tips and tricks. A weekly newsletter will identify notable new titles, respond to counter-opinions, perhaps present a developer profile, footnote the occasional errata and mea culpa…

The result will be a more intelligible App Store that makes iOS users happier.

If I’m so convinced, why don’t I drive it myself? You might recall that I offered to do so — for free — in a brief lobby conversation at the All Things D conference a couple of years ago. The ever-hovering Katie Cotton gave me the evil eye and that was the end of the exchange.

I look back on my years at Apple with a certain affection, and would be happy to repay the company for what it did for me, so, yes, I would do it for free… but I can’t bankroll a half dozen tech writers, nor can I underwrite the infrastructure costs. And it won’t pay for itself: As an independent publication (or, more likely, an app) an App Store Guide isn’t financially viable. We know it’s next to impossible to entice people to pay for information and, as the Monday Note proves, I have no appetite for becoming a nano-pennies-per-pageview netwalker.

So, the App Store Guide must be an Apple publication, a part of its ecosystem.

Best,

JLG

PS:  We both understand that ideas are just ideas, they’re not actual products. As Apple has shown time and again — and most vividly with the 30-year old tablet idea vs. the actual iPad — it’s the product that counts. If you see the wisdom of a human-curated Apple App Guide, and I hope you do, I will not seek credit.

——————————-

Regular Monday Note readers will remember I already tilted at the App Store curation windmill: Why Apple Should Follow Michelin and  the tongue-in-cheek Google’s Red Guide to the Android App Store. Who knows, the third time might be the charm.

To play devil’s advocate, let’s consider a developer’s bad reaction to an Apple App Guide review. Let’s say MyNewApp gets a thumbs down in the Productivity section of the Guide. I’m furious; I write Tim or Eddy Cue an angry letter, I huffs and puff, threaten to take my business elsewhere — to Windows Phone, for example. I exhort my friends, family, and satisfied customers to contribute to a letter-writing campaign…

Why risk this sort of backlash? Particularly when today’s formula of “featuring” apps seems to be working:

330-Apps_curation

But…does it really work all that well? Today’s way of choosing this app over that one already upsets the non-chosen. Further, the stars used to “measure” user feedback are known to be less than reliable. A thoughtful, detailed, well-reasoned review would serve customers and developers alike.

This leads us to the Guide’s most important contribution to the app universe: Trust. An Apple-sponsored App Guide can be trusted for a simple reason: The company’s one and only motive is to advance its users’ interests by making the App Store more trustworthy, more navigable. As for developers, they can rely on a fair and balanced (seriously) treatment of their work. The best ones will be happier and the “almost best” others will see an opportunity to get their improved work noticed in a future review cycle.

There is also the temptation to shrug the suggestion off with the customary ‘Don’t fix it, it’s not broken.’  Sorry, no, it is broken. See what Marco Arment, a successful Apple developer, says on his blog [emphasis mine]:

“Apple’s App Store design is a big part of the problem. The dominance and prominence of “top lists” stratifies the top 0.02% so far above everyone else that the entire ecosystem is encouraged to design for a theoretical top-list placement that, by definition, won’t happen to 99.98% of them. Top lists reward apps that get people to download them, regardless of quality or long-term use, so that’s what most developers optimize for. Profits at the top are so massive that the promise alone attracts vast floods of spam, sleaziness, clones, and ripoffs.”

and…

Quality, sustainability, and updates are almost irrelevant to App Store success and usually aren’t rewarded as much as we think they should be, and that’s mostly the fault of Apple’s lazy reliance on top lists instead of more editorial selections and better search.

The best thing Apple could do to increase the quality of apps is remove every top list from the App Store.”

We can now turn to my own biases.

Why do I care? Good question, I’m now 70 and could just sit in zazen and enjoy the show. And there’s a lot of show to enjoy: The tech industry is more exciting now than when I was a rookie at HP France in 1968. But in today’s app stores, the excitement fades — and I’m not just talking about Apple, Android’s Google Play is every bit as frustrating. I see poorly exploited gold mines where quantity obscures quality and the lack of human curation ruins the Joy of Apps. There are caves full of riches but, most of of the time, I can’t find a path to the mother lode.

Is it a lack of courage in anticipation of imagined protests? Hunger sated by too much success too soon? An addiction to solving all problems by algorithm instead of by human judgment?

I hope its none of these, and that we’ll soon see a newsletter/blog and a reasoned, regularly enriched guide that leads us to the better App Store titles.

—JLG

 

Microsoft’s New CEO Needs An Editor

 

Satya Nadella’s latest message to the troops – and to the world – is disquieting. It lacks focus, specifics, and, if not soon sharpened, his words will worry employees, developers, customers, and even shareholders.

As I puzzled over the public email Microsoft’s new CEO sent to his troops, Nicolas Boileau’s immortal dictum came to mind:

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease.

Clarity and ease are sorely missing from Satya Nadella’s 3,100 plodding words, which were supposed to paint a clear, motivating future for 127,000 Microsoftians anxious to know where the new boss is leading them.

LE WEB PARIS 2013 - CONFERENCES - PLENARY 1 - SATYA NADELLA

Nadella is a repeat befuddler. His first email to employees, sent just after he assumed the CEO mantle on earlier this year, was filled with bombastic and false platitudes:

“We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.”

(More in the February 9th, 2014 Monday Note)

In his latest message, Nadella treats us to more toothless generalities:

“We have clarity in purpose to empower every individual and organization to do more and achieve more. We have the right capabilities to reinvent productivity and platforms for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. Now, we must build the right culture to take advantage of our huge opportunity. And culture change starts with one individual at a time.”

Rather than ceding to the temptation of quoting more gems, let’s turn to a few simple rules of exposition.

First, the hierarchy of ideas:

328_strategy_graph

This admittedly simplistic diagram breaks down an enterprise into four layers and can help diagnose thinking malfunctions.

The top layer deals with the Identity or Culture — I use the two terms interchangeably as one determines the other. One level down, we have Goals, where the group is going. Then come the Strategies or the paths to those goals. Finally, we have the Plan, the deployment of troops, time, and money.

The arrow on the left is a diagnostic tool. It reminds us that as we traverse the diagram from Identity to Plan, the number of words that we need to describe each layer increases.  It should only take a few words to limn a company’s identity (Schlumberger, oil services; Disney, family entertainment), describing the company’s goals will be just a tad more verbose (“in 5 years’ time we’ll achieve $X EPS, Y% revenue growth and Z% market share”), and so on.

The arrow also tells us that the “rate of change” — the frequency at which a description changes — follows the same trajectory. Identity should change only very slowly, if ever. At the other end, the plan will need constant adjustment as the company responds to rapidly shifting circumstances, the economy, the competition.

Using the old Microsoft as an example:
– Identity: We’re the emperor of PC software
– Goals: A PC on every desk and home – running our software
– Strategy: Couple the Windows + Office licenses to help OEMs see the light; Embrace and Extend Office competitors.
– Plan: Changes every week.

Returning to Nadella’s prose, can we mine it for words to fill the top three layers? Definitely not.

Second broken rule: Can I disagree? Any text that relies on platitudes says not much at all; in a message-to-the-troops that’s supposed to give direction, irrefutable statements are deadly. Some randomly selected examples in an unfortunately overabundant field:

“[…] we will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences, while maintaining security and privacy.”

or…

“Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.”

 or…

“Obsessing over our customers is everybody’s job.”

If I’m presented with statements I cannot realistically disagree with – We Will Behave With Utmost Integrity – I feel there’s something wrong. If it’s all pro and no con, it’s a con.

There are other violations but I’ll stop in order to avoid the tl;dr infraction I reproach Nadella for: Never make a general statement without immediately following it with the sacramental “For Example”.

For example:

“[…] we will modernize our engineering processes to be customer-obsessed, data-driven, speed-oriented and quality-focused.”

… would be more believable if followed by:

Specifically, we’ll ask each each software engineer to spend two days every month visiting customers on even months, and third party developers on odd ones. They will also spend one day per quarter seconding Customer Service Representatives over our phone banks.” 

Satya Nadella is an unusually intelligent man, a Mensa-caliber intellect, well-read, he quotes Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Why, then, does he repeatedly break basic storytelling rules?

Two possible explanations come to mind.

First, because he’s intelligent and literate, he forgot to use an unforgiving editor. ‘Chief, you really want to email that?’ Or, if he used an editor, he was victimized by a sycophantic one. ‘Satya, you nailed it!’

Second, and more likely, Nadella speaks in code. He’s making cryptic statements that are meant to prepare the troops for painful changes. Seemingly bland, obligatory statements about the future will decrypt into wrenching decisions:

“Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.”

In plainer English: Shape up or ship out.

Tortured statements from CEOs, politicians, coworkers, spouses, or suppliers, in no hierarchical order, mean one thing: I have something to hide, but I want to be able to say I told you the facts.

With all this in mind, let’s see if we can restate Nadella’s message to the troops:

This is the beginning of our new FY 2015 – and of a new era at Microsoft.
I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is the old Devices and Services mantra won’t work.

For example: I’ve determined we’ll never make money in tablets or smartphones.

So, do we continue to pretend we’re “all in” or do we face reality and make the painful decision to pull out so we can use our resources – including our integrity – to fight winnable battles? With the support of the Microsoft Board, I’ve chosen the latter. We’ll do our utmost to minimize the pain that will naturally arise from this change. Specifically, we’ll offer generous transitions arrangements in and out of the company to concerned Microsoftians and former Nokians.

The good news is we have immense resources to be a major player in the new world of Cloud services and Native Apps for mobile devices. We let the first innings of that game go by, but the sting energizes us. An example of such commitment is the rapid spread of Office applications – and related Cloud services – on any and all mobile devices. All Microsoft Enterprise and Consumer products/services will follow, including Xbox properties.

I realize this will disrupt the status quo and apologize for the pain to come. We have a choice: change or be changed.

Stay tuned.

Or words (about 200) to that effect.

In parting, Nadella would do well to direct his attention to another literate individual, John Kirk, whose latest essay, Microsoft Is The Very Antithesis Of Strategy, is a devastating analysis that compares the company’s game plan to the advice given by Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart, and Carl von Clausewitz, writers who are more appropriate to the war that Microsoft is in than the authors Microsoft’s CEO seems to favor.

The CEO’s July 10th email promises more developments, probably around the July 22nd Earnings release. Let’s hope he’ll offer sharper and shorter words to describe Microsoft’s entry into the Cloud First – Mobile First era.

JLG@mondaynote.com

WWDC: iOS 2.0, the End of Silos

 

Apple tears down the walls between iOS applications, developer rejoice, and Tim Cook delivers a swift kick to Yukari Iwatani Kane’s derrière – more on that at the end.

In this year’s installment of the World Wide Developers Conference, Apple announced a deluge of improvements to their development platforms and tools, including new SDKs (CloudKit, HomeKit, HealthKit); iCloud Drive, the long awaited response to Dropbox; and Swift, an easy-to-learn, leak-free programming language that could spawn a new generation of Apple developers who regard Objective-C as esoteric and burdensome.

If this sounds overly geeky, let’s remind ourselves that WWDC isn’t intended for buyers of Apple products. It’s a sanctuary for people who write OS X and iOS applications. This explains Phil Schiller’s absence from the stage: Techies don’t trust marketing people. (Unfortunately, the conference’s ground rules seem to have been lost on some of the kommentariat.)

The opening keynote is a few breaths short of 2 hours. If you’d rather not drink from the proverbial fire hydrant, you can turn to summaries from Federico Viticci in MacStories, Andrew Cunningham in Ars Technica (“Huge for developers. Massive for everyone else.”), or you can look for reviews, videos, and commentary through Apple’s new favorite search engine, DuckDuckGo, “The search engine that doesn’t track you”.

For today, I’ll focus on the most important WWDC announcement: iOS applications have been freed from the rigid silos, the walls that have prevented them from talking to each other. Apple developers can now write extensions to their apps and avail themselves of the interprocess facilities that they expect from a 21st century OS.

A bit of history will help.

When the first iPhone is shipped in late June, 2007, iOS is incomplete in many respects. There’s no cut and paste, no accented characters, and, most important, there are no native apps. Developers must obey Steve Job’s dictate to extend the iPhone through slow and limited Web 2.0 apps. In my unofficial version numbering, I call this iOS 0.8.

The Web 2.0 religion doesn’t last long. An iOS Software Development Kit (SDK) is announced in the fall and released in February, 2008. When the iTunes-powered App Store opens its doors in July, the virtual shelves are (thinly) stocked with native apps. This is iOS 1.0.

Apple developers enthusiastically embrace the platform and the App Store starts it dizzying climb from an initial 500 apps in 2008 to today’s 1.2 million apps and 75B cumulated downloads.

However, developers’ affections don’t extend to Apple’s “security state”, the limits imposed on their apps in the name of security and simplicity. To be sold in the App Store, an app must agree to stay confined in its own little sandbox, with no way to communicate with other apps.

According to Apple dogma, this limitation is a good thing because it prevents the viruses and other malware that have plagued older operating systems and overly-trusting apps. One wrong click and your device is visited by rogue code that wreaks havoc on your data, yields control to remote computers, or, worst of all, sits silently and unnoticed while it spies on your keystrokes. No such thing on iOS devices. The prohibition against inter-application exchange vastly reduces the malware risk.

This protection comes with a cost. For example, when you use a word processor or presentation tool on a personal computer, you can grab text and images of any provenance and drop them into your project. On the iOS version of Pages, you can only see other Pages documents — everything else is out of sight and out of reach.

The situation becomes even more galling when developers notice that some of Apple’s in-house apps — iMessage, Maps, Calendar with Contacts — are allowed to talk among themselves. To put it a little too simply, Apple engineers can write code that’s forbidden to third party developers.

Apple’s rules for app development and look-and-feel are famously (and frustratingly) rigid, but the company is occasionally willing to shed its dogma. In 2013, for example, skeuomorphism was abandoned…do any of us miss the simulated leather and torn bits of paper on the calendar?

With last week’s unveiling of the new version of iOS, a much more important dogma has been tossed into the dustbin: An app can now reach beyond its sandbox. Apps can interconnect, workflows are simplified, previously unthinkable feats are made possible.

This is the real iOS 2.0. For developers, after the 2008 momentous opening of the App Store that redefined the smartphone, this is the second major release.

With the new iOS, a third-party word processor developer can release his app from its sandbox by simply incorporating the Document Picker:

“The document picker feature lets users select documents from outside your app’s sandbox. This includes documents stored in another app’s iCloud container or documents provided by a third-party extension.”

Users of the word processor will be able to see and incorporate all files, regardless of how they were created or where they’re stored (within the obvious physical limits). This is a welcome change from today’s frustratingly constricted situation.

iOS Extensions, a feature that lets applications offer their own services to other apps, played well when demonstrated by Craig Federighi, Senior VP of Apple Software:

“Federighi was able to easily modify Safari by adding a sharing option for Pinterest and a translation tool courtesy of Bing. Users will also be able to apply photo filters from third-party apps and use document providers like Box or OneDrive…”
Business Insider, Why You Should Be Excited for Extensions in iOS 8 

Prominent among the benefactors of iOS Extensions are third-party keyboard designers. Today, I watch with envy as my Droid compatriots Swype a quick text message. The keyboard layouts and input methods on my iPhone are limited to the choices Apple gives me — and they don’t include Swype. Tomorrow, developers will be able to augment Apple’s offerings, including keyboards that are designed for specific apps.

As expected, developers have reacted enthusiastically to the end of silo hell. Phil Libin, Evernote’s CEO, sums up developer sentiment in the Ars Technica review:

“We’re most excited about extensions, widgets, TouchID APIs and interactive notifications. We’re all over all of that…This is a huge update for us. It feels like we got four out of our top five most wanted requests!”

Now, for the mandatory “To Be Sure” paragraph…

None of this is free. I don’t mean in the financial sense, but in terms of complexity, restrictions, adapting to new ways of doing old things as well as to entirely fresh approaches. While the relaxation of Apple’s “security state” strictures opens many avenues, it also heightens malware risk, something Apple is keenly aware of. In some cases the company will put the onus on the user, asking us to explicitly authorize the use of an extension. In other situations, as Charles Arthur points out in his WWDC article for The Guardian, Apple will put security restrictions on custom keyboards. Quoting Apple’s prerelease documentation:

“There are certain text input objects that your custom keyboard is not eligible to type into. First is any secure text input object [which is] distinguished by presenting typed characters as dots.
When a user taps in a secure text input object, the system temporarily replaces your custom keyboard with the system keyboard. When the user then taps in a nonsecure text input object, your keyboard automatically resumes.”

In part, the price to pay for the new freedoms will depend on Apple’s skills in building safeguards inside the operating system — that’s what all OS strive for. Developers will also have to navigate a new labyrinth of guidelines to avoid triggering the App Store security tripwire.

That said, there is little doubt that the fall 2014 edition of iOS will be well received for both existing and new iDevices. Considering what Apple iOS developers were able to accomplish while adhering to the old dogma, we can expect more than simply more of the same when the new version of iOS is released.

Which brings us to Tim Cook and the stamp he’s put on Apple. Critics who moan that Apple won’t be the same now that Steve Jobs is gone forget the great man’s parting gift: “Don’t try to guess what I would have done. Do what you think its best.” With the Maps fiasco, we saw Cook take the message to heart. In a break with the past, Cook apologized for an Apple product without resorting to lawyerly caveats and justifications. In a real break with the past, he even recommended competing products.

We’ve also seen Cook do what he thinks is best in his changes to the executive team that he inherited from Jobs. Craig Federighi replaces 20-year NeXT/Apple veteran Scott Forstall; Angela Ahrendts is the new head of Retail; there’s a new CFO, Luca Maestri, and a new head of US Sales, Doug Beck. The transitions haven’t always been smooth — both Ahrendts’ and Beck’s immediate predecessors were Cook appointees who didn’t work out and were quickly dismissed. (Beck was preceded by Zane Browe, former CFO at United Airlines…a CFO in a Sales job?)

Inside the company, Cook is liked and respected. He’s seen as calmly demanding yet fair; he guides and is well supported by his Leadership Team. This isn’t what the PR office says, it’s what I hear from French friends who work there. More than just French, they’re hard-to-please Parisians…

I Love Rien I'm Parisien

…but they like Cook, the way he runs the show. (True to their nature, they save a few barbs for the egregious idiots in their midst.)

With this overall picture of corporate cultural health and WWDC success in mind, let’s turn to Yukari Iwatani Kane, the author of Haunted Empire, Apple After Steve Jobs.

On her Web page, Kane insists her book, exemplar of the doomed-without-Jobs attitude, is “hard-hitting yet fair”. That isn’t what most reviewers have to say. The Guardian’s Charles Arthur called it “great title, shame about the contents”; Time’s Harry McCracken saw it as “A Bad Book About Apple After Steve Jobs”; Jason Snell’s detailed review in Macworld neatly addresses the shortcoming that ultimately diminishes the book’s value:

“Apple after the death of Steve Jobs would be a fascinating topic for a book. This isn’t the book. Haunted Empire can’t get out of the way of its own Apple-is-doomed narrative to tell that story.”

Having read the book, I can respect the research and legwork this professional writer, previously at the Wall Street Journal, has put into her opus, but it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that Kane started with a thesis and then built an edifice on that foundation despite the incompatible facts. Even now she churlishly sticks to her negative narrative: Where last week’s successful WWDC felt like a confederation of engineers and application developers happily working together, Kane sees them as caretakers holding a vigil:

Kane Churlish Tweet 450

The reaction to Kane’s tweet was “hard-hitting yet fair”:

Responses to Kane 450

Almost three years after Tim Cook took the helm, the company looks hale, not haunted.

I’ll give Cook the last word. His assessment of Kale’s book:  “nonsense”.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Browser Is The OS: 19 Years Later

 

So it was declared in the early days: Web apps will win over native apps. Why let the facts cloud an appealing theory?

Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, is credited with many bold, visionary claims such as “Everyone Will Have the Web” (ca. 1992), “Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud” (1999), “Everything Will Be Social” (2004, four years before joining Facebook’s Board), and “Software Will Eat the World” (2009).

But not all of Andreessen’s predictions are as ringing and relevant. His 1995 proclamation that “The Browser Will Be the Operating System” still reverberates around the Web, despite the elusiveness of the concept.

The idea is that we can rid our computing devices of their bulky, buggy operating systems by running apps in the Cloud and presenting the results in a Web browser. The heavy lifting is performed by muscular servers while our lightweight devices do nothing more than host simple input/output operations. As a result, our devices will become more agile and reliable, they’ll be less expensive to buy and maintain, we’ll never again have to update their software.

The fly in the ointment is the word connected. As Marc Andreessen himself noted in a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:

[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.

So what do we do until we have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity?

We must build off-line capabilities into our devices, local programs that provide the ability to format and edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the absence of a connection to the big App Engines in the Cloud. Easy enough, all you have to do is provide a storage mechanism (a.k.a. a file system), local copies of your Cloud apps, a runtime environment that can host the apps, a local Web server that your Browser can talk to… The inventory of software modules that are needed to run the “Browser OS” in the absence of a connection looks a lot like a conventional operating system… but without a real OS’s expressive power and efficiency.

For expressive power, think of media intensive applications. Photoshop is a good example: It could never work with a browser as the front end, it requires too much bandwidth, the fidelity of the image is too closely tied to the specifics of the display.

With regard to efficiency, consider the constant low-level optimizations required to conserve battery power and provide agile user interaction, none of which can be achieved in a browser plug-in.

Certainly, there are laudable arguments in support of The Browser Is The OS theory. For example: Unified cross-platform development. True, developing an app that will run on a standardized platform decreases development costs, but, let’s think again, do we really want to go for the lowest common denominator? A single standard sounds comfy and economical but it throttles creativity, it discourages the development of apps that take advantage of a device’s specialized hardware.

Similarly, a world without having to update your device because the Cloud always has the latest software is a comforting thought.. but, again, what about when you’re off-line? Also, a growing number of today’s computing devices automatically update themselves.

In any case, the discussion may be moot: The people who pay our salaries — customers — blithely ignore our debates. A recent Flurry Analytics report shows that “Six years into the Mobile Revolution” apps continue to dominate the mobile Web. We spend 86% of our time using apps on our mobile devices and only 14% in our browsers:

Apps 86 Browser 14

…and app use is on the rise, according to the Flurry Analytics forecast for 2014:

Apps Web Flurry 2013 2014

So how did Andreessen get it so wrong, why was his prediction so wide of the mark? It ends up he wasn’t wrong… because he never said “The Browser Will Be the Operating System”. Although it has been chiseled into the tech history tablets, the quote is apocryphal. 

While doing a little bit of research for this Monday Note, I found a 1995 HotWired article, by Chip Bayers, strangely titled “Why Bill Gates Wants to Be the Next Marc Andreessen”. (Given Microsoft’s subsequent misses and Marc Andreessen’s ascendency, perhaps we ought to look for other Chip Bayer prophecies…) The HotWired piece gives us a clear “asked and answered” Andreessen quote [emphasis mine]:

“Does the Web browser become something like an operating system?

No, it becomes a new type of platform. It doesn’t try to do the things an operating system does. Instead of trying to deal with keyboards, mouses, memory, CPUs, and disk drives, it deals with databases and files that people want to secure – transactions and things like that. We’re going to make it possible for people to plug in anything they want.”

Nearly two decades later, we still see stories that sonorously expound “The Browser Is The OS” theory. Just google the phrase and you’ll be rewarded with 275M results such as “10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS” or “The Browser Is The New Operating System”. We also see stories that present Google’s Chrome and Chromebooks as the ultimate verification that the prediction has come true.

The Browser Is The OS is a tech meme, an idea that scratches an itch. The nonquote was repeated, gained momentum, and, ultimately, became “Truth”. We’ll be polite and say that the theory is “asymptotically correct”… while we spend more energy figuring out new ways to curate today’s app stores.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Microsoft CEO Search: Stalemate

 

The Microsoft CEO succession process appears to be stalled. This is a company with immense human, technical, and financial resources; the tech industry is filled with intelligent, energetic, dedicated candidates. What’s wrong with the matchmaking process?

Blond, Japanese, 25 years old, 15 years experience – and bisexual. This is a caricature, but only barely, of the impossible CEO job specs that executive recruiters circulate when on a mission to replace the head of a large company.

The real list of requirements describes a strategist with a piercing eye for the long term… and daily operational details; a fearless leader of people, willing to inflict pain… but with a warm touch; a strong communicator, a great listener, and an upstanding steward of shareholder interests…and of the environment.

When I gently confront a recruiter friend with the impossibility of finding such a multi-talented android, he gives me the Gallic Shrug: “It’s the client, you know. They’re anxious, they don’t know what they want. So, to tranquilize their Board, we throw everything in.”

I ask the distinguished headhunter what character flaws will be tolerated in a candidate. The query is met with incomprehension: “What? No, no, we can’t have character flaws; this situation requires impeccable credentials.” And perfect teeth, one assumes.

Still in a caustic mood, I prod the gent to picture himself driving to Skyline Boulevard and walking to the top of Borel Hill, a great place to meditate. Turning away from the hills that gently roll down to the Pacific, he faces the Valley. Can he sit, quiet his mind, and visualize the gentle crowd of pristine CEOs down there?

No. He’ll see a herd of flawed men and a few women who regularly exhibit unpleasant character traits; who abuse people, facts, and furniture; and who are yet successful and admired. Some are even liked. There are no Mother Theresas, only Larry Ellisons and Marisa Mayers, to say nothing of our dearly departed Steve Jobs. (Actually, the diminutive Albanian nun was said to have had a fiery temper and, perhaps, wasn’t so saintly after all.)

For a large, established company, having to use an executive recruiter to find its next CEO carries a profoundly bad aroma. It means that the directors failed at one of their most important duties: succession planning. Behind this first failure, a second one lurks: The Board probably gave the previous CEO free rein to promote and fire subordinates in a way that prevented successors from emerging.

Is this the picture at Microsoft? Is the protracted search for Steve Ballmer’s successor yet another sign of the Board’s dysfunction? For years, Microsoft directors watched Ballmer swing and miss at one significant product wave after another. They sat by and did nothing as he lost key executives. Finally, in January of this year, Board member John Thompson  broke the bad charm and prodded Ballmer to accelerate the company’s strategic evolution, a conversation that led to the announcement, in August, of Ballmer’s “mutually agreed” departure.

Having badly and repeatedly misjudged the company’s business and its CEO, is the Board looking for an impossibly “well-rounded” candidate: the man or woman who can draw the sword from the stone, someone with a heart and mind pure enough to put the company back on track?

For some time now, we’ve been hearing rumors that Ford’s current CEO, Alan Mulally,  could become Microsoft’s new CEO. Mulally is well-respected for his turnaround experience: Since 2006, he’s been busy reviving the family-controlled Ford, the only Detroit automaker that didn’t need (or take) bailout money. Before Ford, Mulally spent 37 years in engineering and executive management positions at Boeing, where he rubbed elbows with Microsoft royalty in Seattle.

As the rumor has it, Mulally would be appointed as a transitional leader whose main charge would be to groom one of Microsoft’s internal candidates and then step aside as he or she assumes the throne. Will it be (the rumor continues) Satya Nadella, Exec VP of  Cloud and Enterprise activities? Or former Skype CEO Tony Bates, now a post-acquisition Microsoftian? Both are highly regarded inside and outside the company.

(I’m surprised there aren’t more internal candidates. Tech pilgrim Stephen Elop is sometimes mentioned, but I don’t see him in the running. Elop has served his purpose and is back in Redmond — some say he never really left — after a roundtrip to Finland during which he Osborned Nokia, thus lowering the price of acquisition by his former and again employer.)

On the surface, this sounds like an ideal arrangement.

And yet…

For all his intellectual and political acumen, his people and communication skills, Mulally possesses no domain knowledge. He has none of the bad and good experiences that would help him understand the killer details as well as the strategic insights that are needed to run Microsoft — insights that, in retrospect, Ballmer lacked.

But, you’ll say, this is no problem; he can rely on the CEO-in-waiting to evaluate situations for him and make recommendations. No. Mulally would have no way to really weigh the pros and cons outside of the streamlined charts in a fair and balanced PowerPoint presentation.

In addition, the grooming process would prolong the company’s confusing interregnum. The people who have to perform actual work at Microsoft will continue to wonder what will happen to the party line du jour when the “real” CEO finally assumes power. The uncertainty discourages risk-taking and exacerbates politics — who knows who’ll come in tomorrow and reverse course?

Fortunately, the Mulally proposition no longer seems likely. The latest set of rumors have Mulally staying at Ford until the end of 2014. Let’s hope they’re right. Wall Street seems to think so… and expressed its disappointment: After regularly climbing for weeks, Microsoft shares dropped by 2.4% on Thursday, Dec 5th, after Mulally declared that he wouldn’t jump ship.

So where does Microsoft turn, and why are they taking so long? Once you put aside the Mr./Ms. Perfect fantasy, there’s no dearth of capable executives with the brains and guts to run Microsoft. These are people who already run large corporations, or are next-in-line to do so. Exec recruiters worth the pound of flesh they get for their services have e-Rolodexes full of such people — some inside the company itself.

Now, place yourself inside the heart and mind of this intelligent candidate:

‘Do I want to work with that Board? In particular, do I want Bill Gates and his pal Steve Ballmer hovering over everything I do? I know I’ll have to make unpopular decisions and upset more than a few people. What’s in it for me – and for Microsoft – in a situation where unhappy members of the old guard would be tempted to go over my head and whine to Bill and Steve? How long would I last before I get fired or, worse, neutered and lose my mind?’

Consider it a litmus test: Any candidate willing to accept this road to failure is automatically disqualified as being too weak. A worthy contender makes it clear that he or she needs an unfettered mandate with no Office Of The Second Guessing in the back of the boardroom. Bill and Steve would have to go — but the Old Duo doesn’t want to leave.

It’s a stalemate…and that’s the most likely explanation for the protracted recruitment process.

We’ll soon know where Microsoft’s Board stands. Will it favor a truly independent CEO or will it cling to its past sins — and sinners?

Or, as a Valley wag asks: Which elephantine gestation will end first, that of Microsoft’s new CEO, or Apple’s equally well-rounded Mac Pro?

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

New iWork: Another Missed Opportunity To Set Expectations

 

With the 5.0 iWork suite we revisit Apple’s propensity to make lofty claims that fall short of reality. The repetition of such easily avoidable mistakes is puzzling and leads us to question what causes Apple executives to squander the company’s well-deserved goodwill.

Once upon a time, our youngest child took it upon herself to sell our old Chevy Tahoe. She thought her father was a little too soft in his negotiations on the sales lot, too inclined to leave money on the table in his rush to end the suffering.

We arrive at the dealership. She hops out, introduces herself to the salesperson, and then this kid — not yet old enough to vote — begins her pitch. She starts out by making it clear that the car has its faults: a couple dents in the rear fender, a stubborn glove compartment door, a cup holder that’s missing a flange. Flaws disclosed, she then shows off the impeccable engine, the spotless interior, the good-as-new finish (in preparation, she’d had the truck detailed inside and out, including the engine compartment).

The dealer was charmed and genuinely complimentary. He says my daughter’s approach is the opposite of the usual posturing. The typical seller touts the car’s low mileage, the documented maintenance, the vows of unimpeachable driver manners. The seller tries to hide the tired tires and nicked rims, the white smoke that pours from the tail pipe, the “organic” aroma that emanates from the seat cushions — as if these flaws would go unnoticed by an experienced, skeptical professional.

‘Give the bad news first’ said the gent. ‘Don’t let the buyer discover them, it puts you on the defensive. Start the conversation at the bottom and end with a flourish.’ (Music to this old salesman’s ears. My first jobs were in sales after an “unanticipated family event” threw me onto the streets 50 years ago. I’m still fond of the trade, happiest when well executed, sad when not).

The fellow should have a word or two with Apple execs. They did it again, they bragged about their refurbished iWork suite only to let customers discover that the actual product fails to meet expectations.

We’ll get into details in a moment, but a look into past events will help establish the context for what I believe to be a pattern, a cultural problem that starts at the top (and all problems of culture within a company begin at the executive level).

Readers might recall the 2008 MobileMe announcement, incautiously pitched as Exchange For The Rest of Us. When MobileMe crashed, the product team was harshly criticized by the same salesman, Steve Jobs, who touted the product in the first place. We’ll sidestep questions of the efficacy of publicly shaming a product team, and head to more important matters: What were Jobs and the rest of Apple execs doing before announcing MobileMe? Did they try the product? Did they ask real friends — meaning non-sycophantic ones — how they used it, for what, and how they really felt?

Skipping some trivial examples, we land on the Maps embarrassment. To be sure, it was well handled… after the fact. Punishment was meted out and an honest, constructive apology made. The expression of regret was a welcome departure from Apple’s usual, pugnacious stance. But the same questions linger: What did Apple execs know and when did they know it? Who actually tried Apple Maps before the launch? Were the execs who touted the service ignorant and therefore incompetent, or were they dishonest, knowingly misrepresenting its capabilities? Which is worse?

This is a pattern.

Perhaps Apple could benefit from my daughter’s approach: Temper the pitch by confessing the faults…

“Dear customers, as you know, we’re playing the long game. This isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress, and we’ll put your critical feedback to good use.”

Bad News First, Calibrate Expectations. One would think that (finally!) the Maps snafu would have seared this simple logic into the minds of the Apple execs.

But, no.

We now have the iWork missteps. Apple calls its new productivity suite “groundbreaking”. Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of Internet Software and Services, is ecstatic:

“This is the biggest day for apps in Apple’s history. These new versions deliver seamless experiences across devices that you can’t find anywhere else and are packed with great features…” 

Ahem… Neither in the written announcement nor during the live presentation will one find a word of caution about iWork’s many unpleasant “features”.

The idea, as best we can discern through the PR fog, is to make iOS and OS X versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote “more compatible” with each other (after Apple has told us, for more than two years, how compatible they already are).

To achieve this legitimate, long game goal, the iWork apps weren’t just patched up, they were re-written.

The logic of a fresh, clean start sounds compelling, but history isn’t always on the side of rewriting-from-scratch angels. A well-known, unfortunate example is what happened when Lotus tried a cross-platform rewrite of its historic Lotus 1-2-3 productivity suite. Quoting from a Wikipedia article:

“Lotus suffered technical setbacks in this period. Version 3 of Lotus 1-2-3, fully rewritten from its original macro assembler into the more portable C language, was delayed by more than a year as the totally new 1-2-3 had to be made portable across platforms and fully compatible with existing macro sets and file formats.”

The iWorks rewrite fares no better. The result is a messy pile of missing features and outright bugs that educed many irate comments, such as these observations by Lawrence Lessig, a prominent activist, Harvard Law professor, and angry Apple customer [emphasis and edits mine]:

“So this has been a week from Apple hell. Apple did a major upgrade of its suite of software — from the operating system through applications. Stupidly (really, inexcusably stupid), I upgraded immediately. Every Apple-related product I use has been crippled in important ways.

… in the ‘hybrid economy’ that the Internet is, there is an ethical obligation to treat users decently. ‘Decency’ of course is complex, and multi-faceted. But the single dimension I want to talk about here is this: They must learn to talk to us. In the face of the slew of either bugs or ‘features’ (because as you’ll see, it’s unclear in some cases whether Apple considers the change a problem at all), a decent company would at least acknowledge to the public the problems it identifies as problems, and indicate that they are working to fix it.”

Lessig’s articulate blog post, On the pathological way Apple deals with its customers (well worth your time), enumerates the long litany of iWork offenses.

Srange Paste Behavior copy

[About that seemingly errant screenshot, above...keep reading.]

Shortly thereafter, Apple issued a support document restating the reasons for the changes:

“…applications were rewritten from the ground up to be fully 64-bit and to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions” 

and promising fixes and further improvements:

“We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.”

Which led our Law Professor, who had complained about the “pathologically constipated way in which Apple communicates with its customers”, to write another (shorter) post and thank the company for having at last “found its voice”…

Unfortunately, Lessig’s list of bugs is woefully short of the sum of iWork’s offenses. For example, in the old Pages 4.0 days, when I click on a link I’m transported to the intended destination. In Pages 5.0, instead of the expected jump, I get this…

[See above.]

Well, I tried…CMD-CTRL-Shift-4, frame the shot, place the cursor, CMD-V… Pages 5.0 insists on pasting it smack in the middle of a previous paragraph [again, see above].

Pages has changed it’s click-on-a-link behavior; I can get used to that, but…it won’t let me paste at the cursor? That’s pretty bad. Could there be more?

There’s more. I save my work, restart the machine, and the Save function in Pages 5.0 acts up:

Pages 5.0 Autosave Bug copy

What app has changed my file? Another enigma. I’m not sharing with anyone, just saving my work in my Dropbox, something that has never caused trouble before.

Another unacceptable surprise: Try sending a Pages 5.0 file to a Gmail account. I just checked, it still doesn’t work. Why wasn’t this wasn’t known in advance – and not fixed by now?

I have to stop. I’ll leave comparing the even more crippled iCloud version of iWork to the genuinely functional Web version of Office 365 for another day and conclude.

First. Who knew and should have known about iWork’s bugs and undocumented idiosyncrasies? (I’ll add another: Beware the new autocorrect)

Second. Why brag instead of calmly making a case for the long game and telling loyal customers about the dents they will inevitably discover?

Last and most important, what does this new fiasco say about the Apple’s management culture? The new iPhones, iPad and iOS 7 speak well of the company’s justly acclaimed attention to both strategy and implementation. Perhaps there were no cycles, no neurons, no love left for iWork. Perhaps a wise general puts the best troops on the most important battles. Then, why not regroup, wait six months and come up with an April 2014 announcement worthy of Apple’s best work?

JLG@mondaynote.com

———

This hasn’t been a good week using Apple products and services. I’ve had trouble loading my iTunes Music library on an iPad, with Mail and other Mavericks glitches, moving data and apps from one computer to another, a phantom Genius Bar appointment in another city and a stubborn refusal to change my Apple ID. At every turn, Apple support people, in person, on the phone or email, were unfailingly courteous and helpful. I refrained from mentioning iWork to these nice people.

 

Microsoft Mission Impossible

 

You’re Microsoft’s new CEO. How do you like staring at the abyss between two mutually exclusive ways of making money? The old business model, Windows and Office licensing, is going away. The Devices and Services future puts you in direct competition against the likes of Google and Apple as well as former licensing vassals such as HP and Dell. Can you take the company to the other side, or will you fall to the bottom of the business model transition canyon?

Life used to be simple and immensely profitable at Microsoft. As its name implies, the company started as a supplier of microcomputer software. Simplifying a bit, it all started with the BASIC interpreter, which found its way into many early personal computers including the Apple ][. After that came DOS, the operating system for IBM’s Personal Computer; and Multiplan, an early foray into desktop productivity. DOS begat Windows, and Multiplan was succeeded in steps by the full Office suite. Through a series of astute business and lawyerly maneuvers, the Windows + Office combo eventually spread to virtually all PC clones.

This made Microsoft the most successful software company the world had ever seen, and its founding CEO, Bill Gates, became the richest man on the planet. In 2000, the company’s market capitalization reached $540B (approximately $800B in today’s dollars). As this Wikinvest graph shows, Microsoft dwarfed all other tech companies:

msft_graph1

(At the time, the NASDAQ index of mostly tech stocks stood a little above 4,000, it closed at 3,792 this past Friday.)

Back then, Windows + Office licensing was the only money pump that really mattered. Everything else — all other software products and even sales of enterprise servers — either depended on Microsoft’s huge PC installed base, or didn’t move the needle. Hardware and entertainment lines of business were largely immaterial; online activities weren’t yet the money sink we’ve seen in recent years.

According to the company’s 2000 Annual Report, the combination of the “Windows Platforms” and “Productivity Applications” accounted for $19.3B in revenue ($9.3B and $10B, respectively). That’s 84% of the company’s $23B total revenue and, even more important, 98% of Microsoft’s Operating Income!

Moving to Q1 2013, the market capitalization picture has drastically changed:

msft_graph2

Google is in many ways becoming Microsoft 2.0, Oracle has grown nicely, and Apple is now on top.

What happened?

Mobile personal computing happened. Smartphones and tablets are displacing conventional PCs, desktops, and laptops.

To put it even more succinctly: the iPhone did it.

When Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage at MacWorld in January, 2007, there were plenty of smartphones on the market. Windows Mobile, Palm Treo, Nokia, Blackberry… But Apple’s iPhone was different. It really was a personal computer with a modern operating system. While the iPhone didn’t initially support third party apps, a Software Development Kit (SDK) and App Store were soon introduced.

Android quickly followed suit, the Smartphone 2.0 race was on, and the incumbents were left to suffer grievous losses.

Riding on the iPhone’s success and infrastructure, the iPad was introduced, with Android-powered tablets not far behind. These new, mobile personal computers caused customers to Think Different, to re-examine their allegiance to the one-and-only PC.

As these products flooded the market, Microsoft went through its own version of the Stages of Grief, from denial to ultimate acceptance.

First: It’s Nothing. See Steve Ballmer memorably scoffing at the iPhone in 2007. Recall ODM Director Eddie Wu’s 2008 predication that Windows Mobile would enjoy 40% market share by 2012.

Second: There is no Post-PC…”Plus is the new ‘Post’“. Smartphones and tablets are mere companion devices that will complement our evergreen PCs. The party line was eloquently asserted two years ago by Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s VP of Communications:

“So while it’s fun for the digerati to pronounce things dead, and declare we’re post-PC, we think it’s far more accurate to say that the 30-year-old PC isn’t even middle aged yet, and about to take up snowboarding.”

Next comes Bargaining: Microsoft makes a tablet, but with all the attributes of a PC. Actually, they make two Surface devices, one using an ARM processor, the other a conventional Intel CPU.

Today comes Acceptance: We’re indeed in a Post-PC era. PCs aren’t going to disappear any time soon, but the 30-year epoch of year after year double digit growth is over. We’re now a Devices and Services company!

It’s a crisp motto with a built-in logic: Devices create demand for Microsoft services that, in turn, will fuel the market’s appetite for devices. It’s a great circular synergy.

But behind the slick corpospeak lurks a problem that might seriously maim the company: Microsoft wants to continue to license software to hardware makers while it builds a Devices business that competes with these same licensees. They want it both ways.

Real business model transitions are dangerous. By real transition I don’t mean adding a new line of peripherals or accessories, I mean moving to a new way of making money that negatively impacts the old one. The old money flow might dry up before the new one is able to replace it, causing an earnings trough.

For publicly traded companies, this drought is unacceptable. Rather than attempt the transition and face the ire of Wall Street traders, some companies slowly sink into irrelevance. Others take themselves private to allow the blood-letting to take place out of public view. When the curtain lifts some months later, a smaller, healthier outfit is relaunched on the stock market. Dell is a good example of this: Michael Dell gathered investors, himself included, to buy the company back and adapt its business model to a Post-PC world behind closed doors.

Microsoft can’t abandon its current model entirely, it can’t stop selling software licenses to hardware makers. But the company realizes that it also has to get serious about making its own hardware if it wants to stay in the tablets and smartphone race.

The key reason for Microsoft’s dilemma is Android. Android is inexpensive enough (if not exactly free) that it could kill Redmond’s mobile licensing business. (Microsoft might get a little bit of money from makers of Android-powered hardware thanks to its patent portfolio, but that doesn’t change the game.) This is why Microsoft offered “platform support payments” to Nokia, which essentially made Windows Phone free. And, now we have the belated, under duress acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone business, complete with 32,000 angry Finns.

(Microsoft is rumored to have approached HTC with an offer to dual-boot Windows Phone on HTC’s Android handsets. It’s not very believable rumor — two competing operating systems on the same smartphone? But it has a satisfying irony: In an earlier incarnation I saw Microsoft play legal hardball against anyone who tried to sell PCs with both Windows and another OS installed at the factory…)

Another example of trying to keep one foot on each side of the abyss is the Surface tablet. Microsoft tried to create a hybrid “best-of-both-worlds” PC/tablet, complete with two different UIs. I bought one and found what many experienced: It doesn’t have the simplicity and agility of a genuine tablet, nor does it offer the classic workflow found on Windows 7. We’ll have to see how helpful the upcoming Windows 8.1 is in that regard.

So… What about our new CEO?

  • S/he finds a company that’s in the middle of a complicated structural and cultural reorganization.
  • The legacy PC business is slowing down, cannibalized by mobile personal computers.
  • Old OEM partners aren’t pleased with the company’s new direction(1). They have to be kept inside the tent while the Surface tablets experiment plays out. Success will let Microsoft discard Legacy PC makers. Failure will lead Redmond to warmly re-embrace its old vassals.
  • The Windows Phone licensing business lost its clients as a result of the Nokia acquisition.
  • Integrating Nokia will be difficult, if not a slow-moving disaster.
  • The Windows Phone OS needs work, including a tablet version that has to compete with straight tablets from Android licensees and from Apple.
  • Employees have to be kept on board.
  • So do shareholders.

How would you like the job?

JLG@mondaynote.com

(1) HP’s Meg Whitman now sees Microsoft as a competitor — and introduces a Google-powered Chromebook. What we think this will do for HP’s Personal Systems Group revenue and profit is best left unsaid.

Microsoft Directors Have Much Explaining To Do

 

Blaming Steve Ballmer for Microsoft’s string of mistakes won’t do. Why did the Board of Directors keep him on the job for thirteen years, only to let him “retire” in the midst of several dangerous transitions — without naming a successor? What does this say about the Board’s qualifications to pick Microsoft’s next CEO?

For more than a decade, a team of physicians has been ministering to a patient who was once vital and robust, but now no longer thrives. Recurring diagnostic errors, stubborn inattention to symptoms, improper prescriptions haven’t yet killed the object of their care but, lately, the patient’s declining health has become so obvious that the doctors, now embarrassed and desperate, have scheduled a heart transplant.

Now comes the test: Would you entrust the patient’s future to such a confederacy of dunces?

With this metaphor in mind, let’s contemplate the record of Microsoft Directors since Steve Ballmer assumed the mantle 13 years ago, and ask if they’re qualified to appoint a successor.

Consider the Directors’ obdurate passivity while they watched the company miss opportunities, take one wrong turn after another, and fail to execute crucial transitions. Search was conceded to Google; digital music (players and distribution) is dominated by Apple; social networking belongs to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; the smartphone market is handed over to Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone; tablets from the same duo are now bleeding the Windows + Office Golden Goose; Windows Vista and now Windows 8; Surface tablets… Even the once mighty Internet Explorer browser has been displaced by Google’s Chrome running on all desktop and mobile platforms.

Blaming (and forgiving) the CEO for one or two mistakes is reasonable. But if these missteps were entirely Ballmer’s fault, why did the Directors keep him at the helm? This raises the question: How much of the company’s value did the Directors themselves let Google, Apple, and others run away with? Is Microsoft’s Board a danger to the company?

The latter question comes in sharper relief when looking at the timing and manner of Ballmer’s exit.

ballmer

On July 11th, Ballmer announces a major company reorganization. More than just the usual medley of beheadings and redistribution of spoils, Microsoft was to restructure itself away from its old divisional arrangement and move towards the type of functional organization used by companies such as Apple. In addition, the new company motto became Devices and Services, evoking a virtuous circle: Best-of-class branded devices would sell more great Microsoft services, while the latter would give a boost to Microsoft devices.

A week later, on July 18th, Microsoft releases pedestrian quarterly numbers, the lowlight of which is a $900M write-off attributed to very poor sales of Surface PC/tablets

On August 23rd, Ballmer announces his sooner-than-planned retirement — sometime in the following 12 months. No word of a successor.

And, to top everything off, on September 3rd, with Ballmer on his way out, the Board approves the emergency acquisition of Nokia’s handset business, complete with 32,000 angry Finns. (We’ll discuss their misdirected anger in a future Monday Note.)

A drastic company reorganization makes sense. Instead of one more turn of the optimizing crank, Microsoft acknowledges that it needs to Think Different.

Writing off unsold inventory is the sensible recognition of a problem; it removes an impediment by facilitating a fire sale.

There was a clear and present danger for Nokia’s handset business to fail, or to become the walking dead. Microsoft bought it to avoid the possible collapse of the Windows Phone platform. In theory (i.e., ignoring cultural realities), the acquisition gives Microsoft more control over its smartphone future.

All rational moves.

But letting Ballmer go right in the middle of two huge and complicated transitions — and without immediately appointing a successor? On its face, the timing and manner of Ballmer’s exit defies common business sense. It also raises questions about the Board’s failure to adequately plan for Ballmer’s succession. Supposedly, Succession Planning is a key component of good Corporate Governance. In plain language, a Board of Directors is obligated to identify and groom successors for key positions, starting with the CEO.

Which raises a few more questions.

Microsoft undertakes two risky, company-redefining moves: a profound structural and strategic reorganization, followed by its most foreign, most people-intensive acquisition ever. What was the overwhelming need to announce Ballmer’s departure – without naming a successor – right in the middle of such instability?

Considering its résumé, what makes Microsoft’s Board qualified to pick a new CEO?

And what are the parameters of the search for Mr. Right? Assuming Microsoft hires an industry heavyweight, will this individual be given the space and power to be his own woman or man, that is to reshuffle the Board? And what about the freedom from deferring to the company’s Founder?

And what must the mood be like at Microsoft? “When you receive an order, do absolutely nothing and wait for the countermanding directive.” This ancient Army saying must now be popular in Redmond. It’s not that people working there don’t care, but they just don’t know what the next CEO will want, and they certainly don’t know when. How can one not expect damaging paralysis and politicking when the CEO is let go without a successor?

All interesting questions.

JLG@mondaynote.com

————————-

[I'll leave alone rumors such as Ford's CEO Alan Mullally replacing Ballmer. Notwithstanding the obligatory congratulations, there would be much giggling in Mountain View and Cupertino. Competent management is a necessary but not sufficient condition...see Ballmer.]

The Rebirth of Windows Mobile

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

The decline of PC sales finally caught up with Microsoft, resulting in weak quarterly results that force Steve Ballmer to admit a strategic mistake and propose a radical change of direction.

Last week’s Monday Note focused on Microsoft’s conversion from a divisional to a functional organization. It resulted in interesting discussions in the comments section as well as in e-mail exchanges and conversations around a couple of Valley watering holes. Some thought Microsoft’s statements had the sincerity of a death-bed conversion, others pointed to the challenges in remaking a cricket team into a football squad, most expressed doubts about Microsoft’s ability to successfully adapt to a world where the PC no longer reigns supreme.

On Thursday, Microsoft released its numbers for the quarter ending in June, the last of their 2013 fiscal year. They were not good. MSFT lost more than 11% the following day, taking its long-suffering partner HP (- 4.5%) with it.

Wall Street’s brutal dumping of the stock after “shockingly” bad news isn’t surprising, but what should we make of the dogged complacency of the financial seers leading up to the announcement? Did they really not see this coming? Despite a historic five-quarter decline in PC sales, investors hadn’t wavered in their belief that Microsoft would find ways to compensate for plummeting Windows + Office profits.

Perhaps I ought to have written cronyism instead of complacency, above. Before the SEC frowned on the excesses of “managed earnings“, Microsoft was famous, and comfortable, for always emerging just a penny above its wink-and-nudge guidance. To pull off this funambulist exploit, the company shuffled money in and out of the Unearned Revenue cupboard and other reserves. To paraphrase the old saying, You Didn’t Get Fired For Owning Microsoft.

If you think the accusation of cronyism is too strong, take a stroll through the latest Earnings Call Transcript, courtesy of Morningstar, especially the Q&A section. With such an earnings surprise, you’d expect Wall Streeters to inflict company execs with combative questioning and probing follow-ups; you’d look for Steve Ballmer to be front and center, explaining and hectoring. Instead, we have Amy Hood, the newly appointed (but very experienced) CFO, parrying deferential questions (and very few follow-ups) with mind-numbing answers such as this one:

I think I feel good. I think in some ways the reorg we announced last week along with our increased focus and our single strategy has allowed us to really look and say what are the things we’re going to put behind and focus and to improve our execution and so I feel quite good about our ability to do that. And you have heard us say before many of the reasons we did this reorg are about doing things better and more efficiently.

Pity the long-suffering analyst… and if their suffering continues, perhaps we should expect Ballmer himself to show up at the late September analyst indoctrination event in Redmond.

The Microsoft surprise, dubbed by TechCrunch Its Biggest Drop Of The Century, has infused the discussions of the company’s future, what Ballmer will do with his new organization now that the Redmond Giant (finally!) seems to be aware that it’s playing catch up in a Post-PC era.

As luck would have it, I got a draft of Ballmer’s memo to a small group of Microsoft execs. I can’t vouch for its authenticity — it was “regifted” through a series of contacts, friends and foes of old OS wars — but I hope you’ll find it interesting:

[Confidential - Burn Before Reading]

From: Steve Ballmer
To: Microsoft Leadership Team – Do not Distribute
Date: July 20, 2013, 6 a.m.
Subject: Windows Mobile 9

It’s time for me to confess a serious strategic mistake – and to ask for your commitment to change course and breathe new life into our legacy business.

This is about tablets.

Our own unsuccessful attempts to enter the tablet market (Widows for Pen Computing in 1991, and the Tablet PC in 2002) lured us into thinking there was “no there there”. Because of this, we downplayed the impact of a new wave of devices from Apple and Android licensees.

Neither our PR campaign to negate the advent of a Post-PC era nor Frank Shaw’s valiant efforts to position the new devices as “PC Companions” has had any effect on the market. We even leveraged our long and cosy relationship with IDC and Gartner and got these to firms to create a dismissive category label for these new machines: media-consumption tablets – with the clear implication that they were unsuitable for business uses. All these exertions were for naught. For five consecutive quarters, we’ve watched PC sales decrease and tablet shipments skyrocket.

This has become a significant threat to the very foundation of our business model.

For more than two decades, the Windows + Office tandem has been a source of incredible power and wealth, it has enhanced the life of more than a billion users and has allowed our company to expand into other high-margin Enterprise products and services.

For all these years, we scrupulously followed McKinsey’s “Not A Single Crack In The Wall” advice, we’ve managed to successfully Embrace and Extend each and every possible threat to the Windows + Office combo.

While we initially underestimated these new tablets, their threat soon became obvious and we started thinking of ways to protect our franchise. 

That’s when I took the company in the wrong direction. 

To prevent these tablets from penetrating the Office market, I followed our Embrace and Extend strategy and endorsed the creation of hybrid software and hardware: The dual-mode (Desktop and Touch UI) Windows 8 and Surface tablets.

The results are in. Windows 8 hasn’t taken the market by storm. The Windows 8 tablets manufactured by our hardware partners are sitting in warehouses.  We just took a $900M write-off on our RT tablets, now on fire-sale.

It doesn’t matter who actually proposed or implemented the failed strategy, I endorsed it. What matters most — the only thing that matters — is what we’re going to do now.

I have a plan. It’s conceptually simple but I won’t sugarcoat the situation. It will be extremely difficult to execute, particularly given the urgency.

First, I am tasking Terry Myerson, our EVP Operating Systems, with creating Windows Mobile 9, a tablet-capable version of Windows Phone 8 that will serve all of our mobile products. Until last week’s reorg, Terry was leading our Windows Phone group and is therefore ideally suited to the new task.

Qi Lu, EVP Applications and Services, will work with Tim to deliver a full, real Windows Mobile Office without the limitations imposed by RT. And, in keeping with our strategic need to spread Office everywhere and to provide the widest base for our on-line Office 365, Qi Lu will also produce Office versions for Android and iOS platforms.

Moving to hardware, we cannot rely on Nokia and other hardware partners to create enough momentum for this new platform, so I’ve asked our JLG (Julie Larson-Green) to develop first-party mobile devices — a Microsoft smartphone and a Microsoft tablet — that run Windows Mobile 9. The use of the somewhat damaged Surface name for these products will be evaluated as we go.

Everyone else in the company, from Operations to Evangelism, from HR to Finance is expected to give their full support to this most urgent, most vital initiative. In particular, our most recent hire, Mark Penn, EVP Advertising and Strategy, is tasked to come up with the right narrative for the strategic transition to Windows Mobile 9. Earned in unforgiving Washington politics, Mark’s long experience with complicated situations will help us navigate the troubled media waters ahead of us.

I know you love this company as much as I do. Thanks for pouring all your energy into this effort.

Steve

I know I didn’t fool anyone with this apocryphal memo. While it could be viewed as satirical, it’s actually deadly (that’s the right word) serious. And it raises serious questions.

First, there’s the small matter of implementation. To mangle Brooks’ law, nine engineers can’t gestate an operating system (or an Office Suite) in one month. Coming up with a “sincere” tablet OS and the corresponding Office version will take time, time during which Android and iOS tablets will continue to cannibalize PCs — and gain hardware and software muscle. This leads to the inevitable question: Has Microsoft arrived too late to the tablet feast?

Then there’s the question of price and its impact on Microsoft’s financials. Software on today’s tablets is either free, or priced at a fraction of its desktop PC equivalent. (In retrospect, significantly lower prices for tablet software might have played a role in Microsoft’s “safe” decision to stick with a PC/tablet hybrid.) If they go the real tablet route, Ballmer & Co. will have to tell shareholders to expect lower numbers, even if Office 365 subscriptions partially compensate for the loss in Windows licenses and conventional desktop software.

Another thought arises from Ballmer’s (actual, not mythical) reference to “first-party devices”, meaning smartphones and tablets made by (for) Microsoft and sold by the company, whether through its own stores, its intramural booths at the likes of Best Buy, or through more conventional retail channels. The math could be attractive: 30% Gross Margin on a $500 device sure beats 85% on $50 or less of licensing revenue — as long as the hardware unit volume cooperates.

For Microsoft, going for such a business model apostasy, renouncing software licensing for hardware revenue, is easier said than done: an “earnings trough” looms if the old model collapses faster than expected and if the new profit engine takes too much time to come on line. One might bring up the Xbox as an example of Microsoft successfully moving to a vertically integrated business model, but this would be forgetting there was no perilous transition away from juicy operating system licenses, the Xbox was vertically integrated at birth.

The coming months are going to become even more interesting as Microsoft must progress beyond grand statements about its new functional organization and explain in detail what the new team will actually do.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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Additional reading:

 

Microsoft Reorg: The Missing Answer

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

After repeatedly tweaking its divisional structure, Microsoft tries a more radical realignment  along functional lines like, you know, that other company. The lengthy, bombastic but confusing announcement leaves one big, vital question unanswered: What happens if PC sales keep falling?

In a July 11th, 2013 memo to Microsoft employees, Steve Ballmer announces a “far-reaching realignment of the company that will enable us to innovate with greater speed, efficiency and capability in a fast changing world.”

In a few words: Microsoft will switch from a divisional to a functional organization; from what has often been labeled as silos — or even warring fiefdoms — to a set of functional groups aligned to execute the company’s new “devices and services” strategy.

Inevitably, several observers have called this new structure Apple-like, that it’s a clone of the model developed and ferociously enforced by Steve Jobs, and now shepherded by Tim Cook.

As the healthily satirical Bonkers World visualizes, Microsoft wants to move away from this…

MS Org Chart

and become more like this…

Apple Org Chart

Nick Wingfield’s NY Times article, titled Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way, puts it this way:

It is yet another sign of how deeply Apple’s way of doing things has seeped into every pore of the technology industry.

Or see Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, in Seeing Apple in Microsoft’s reorganization:

I think I’m being completely rational in my shock at Steve Ballmer’s latest reorganization of Microsoft. His long memo explaining it to employees is one long homage to the Apple that Steve Jobs re-created between 1997 and 2011. Everything about the reorg sounds like Ballmer wants Microsoft to behave more like Apple.

The comparisons to Apple, by Mssrs. Wingfield and Lashinsky, aren’t just piquant stabs at a flailing giant. They see the problems.

I’ll add my perspective.

There are enormous differences between the scorched-earth reorganization of Apple ’97 and the “far-reaching realignment” of MS ’13:

  • 16 years ago, Apple was on the ropes. The market numbers spoke loudly and cleared minds.
  • Apple’s business was extremely simple: Macintosh personal computers.
  • A charismatic co-founder returned and told everyone to Think Different – and then he enforced the diktat.

Apple came up with a string of monumental hits after Jobs’ return in 1997– iPod/iTunes, Apple Stores, iPhone, App Store, iPad. All of these offerings were facilitated by the company’s now celebrated functional structure, but none of them were created by the reorganization. Put another way, functional structure is a necessary but not sufficient condition (a point to keep in mind when considering Apple without Steve Jobs).

I greatly admire Ballmer’s determination to never give up, never admit failure, always look forward, attitudes that are well-served by his imposing physical presence, impeccable speech, and unshakable composure. But this change isn’t the sort of organizational tune-up that he has perfected over the last three years, it isn’t another iteration of spring cleaning that has resulted in the high-level departures of Robbie Bach, Ray Ozzie and, earlier this year, Steven Sinofsky (who was found guilty of Windows 8).

Removing a loyal but obdurate contradictor, sanctioning bad performance and foul politics is one thing. Reshaping the culture of a huge organization (97,000 employees) is a qualitatively and quantitatively different task. Habits of the mind and, even more challenging, of the heart are extremely hard to change. And, certainly, Microsoft’s culture needs an overhaul. It has caused the company to miss or mishandle Search, Social Networks, Advertising, Smartphones, and Tablets, and to make a meal of the latest version of their iconic Windows product.

Can a reorg suddenly bestow the vision and agility to regain lost ground, undo (at least) one bad decision, and also win the next land grab?

In attempting to answer these questions, Ballmer’s memo manages to confuse rather than reassure. In the first place, it’s way too long — over 2,700 words — and points to yet another memo that’s even longer.

The satirical site, Joy of Tech, had its way with Ballmer’s epistle. First, the executive summary…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Header

Then the details (click to enlarge)…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Body

And their effect…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Ending

Read both memos and ask yourself two questions: Who writes such corpospeak (or is it copro-speak)? And what does it say about its authors’ clarity of thought?

Despite its length, Ballmer’s pronouncement manages to avoid a fundamental question: What happens to Microsoft if PC shipments continue to fall?

According to the usual suspects, PC shipments fell by 11% this past quarter compared to the same period last year, marking the fifth consecutive quarter of the “longest duration of decline in the PC market’s history.” The state of the economy and the tepid reception to Windows 8 are partial explanations, but the primary reason is plain to see: Android and iOS tablets and (to a lesser extent) smartphones are cannibalizing PC sales.

According to a VentureBeat post:

Tablet shipments are expected to grow by almost 70 percent in 2013, sending desktop and laptop computer shipments into a “nosedive.”

When looking at these numbers we should keep in mind that Microsoft’s Windows 8 “tablets” or hybrid devices are counted as PCs while Gartner and IDC keep separate tabs for the PC-devouring devices, which they gingerly call “media-consumption” tablets.

Let’s take a step back and look at the history of Microsoft’s business model.

The company was reasonably prosperous even before DOS/Windows and Office, but its never-before-seen riches came from a division of labor: PC OEM vassals were left to fight among themselves for market share while the licensing overlord enjoyed monopoly pricing for its Windows + Office sales. (When Ballmer cheekily says ‘We’re all about choice’, he means the choice between PC makers racing to the bottom, not choice between Windows/Office and alternatives.)

After Local Area Networks (remember The Year of The LAN?) and then the Internet emerged, the company looked invincible. The Windows + Office stronghold yielded a natural tie to Exchange and Windows Server products.

With this in mind, the decline in Windows PC/tablet sales are bound to have a cascading effect on Microsoft’s business. Fewer PCs means smaller Windows licensing revenue and, in turn, diminishing Office dollars. The once powerful tie-in between Windows and Office now turns against Redmond.

And the cascade continues: Smaller Office volumes result in lower demand for extremely high-margin Exchange and Windows Server products. In the meantime, non-Microsoft tablets and smartphones continue to invade formerly Microsoft-only Enterprise customers. The erstwhile truism You Won’t Get Fired For Buying From Microsoft has lost its lustre.  Permission is now granted to buy from interlopers.

Microsoft greased this downward slope by clinging to its tactic of always having it both ways; that is, doing something new while preserving backwards-compatibility. The approach has been successful in the past… but it foundered Windows 8 and tablets. The step into the future was a different touch-based UI; the foot in the past was the old desktop User Interface. For customers, the result was confusion and frustration; for PC manufacturers, the outcome was lower than expected sales.

Google and Apple took a different route: Instead of shoehorning a desktop OS onto less-powerful and battery-constrained hardware, they designed operating systems that easily slide into the slimmer, sexier footwear. Under the hood, we see a similar “from scratch” approach: Tablets and smartphones aren’t just “smaller PCs”, they’re target-specific devices built around custom (System On a Chip) processors.

The market has voted: Tablets that are just tablets are trouncing Microsoft’s hybrid tablet/PC devices.

To reverse this downward spiral Microsoft needs to come out with a real tablet, not the insincere and unsuccessful ARM-based Surface RT device. This means a tablet that’s powered by Windows Phone with Office applications that are specifically, integrally designed for that OS. Once this is done, why not go all the way by selling iOS and Android versions of the same productivity suite? This would protect the rest of Microsoft’s Enterprise ecosystem, and would be much better than today’s half-baked Office apps on the iPhone, or their absence on the iPad and Android devices.

We’ll see if the new Microsoft regime can really Think Different.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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PS: Only for the technically inclined, Drew Crawford’s learned, articulate post on the effect of small RAM size on mobile device system and application software. As this long post attempts to cloud the Web vs. Native apps discussion with facts, it brings up a little-discussed fact: PCs easily offer 8Gb of RAM (as opposed to SSD “disk space”), but mobile devices are generally limited to 1Gb or less because RAM needs to be always powered on, thus limiting battery life. This significantly smaller RAM fundamentally impacts the design of the system and application software. Mobile OS and apps are not like PC products only smaller.