Otellini’s Striking Confession

 

We know Intel shunned ARM processors and played virtually no role in the smartphone revolution. But we now learn Steve Jobs asked Intel to build the iPhone microprocessor. Paul Otellini, Intel’s departing CEO, admits he should have followed his gut – and made the smartphone world a very different place.

CEO valedictions follow a well-known script: My work is done here, great team, all mistakes are mine, all good deeds are theirs, I leave the company in strong hands, the future has never been brighter… It’s an opportunity for a leader to offer a conventional and contrived reminiscence, what the French call la toilette des souvenirs (which Google crudely translates as toilet memories instead of the affectionate and accurate dressing up memories).

For his farewell, Paul Otellini, Intel’s departing CEO, chose the interview format with The Atlantic Monthly’s senior editor Alexis Madrigal. They give us a long (5,700+ words) but highly readable piece titled Paul Otellini’s Intel: Can the Company That Built the Future Survive It?

Photo: Guardian.co.uk

The punctuation mark at the title’s end refers to the elephantine question in the middle of Otellini’s record: Why did Intel miss out on the smartphone? Why did the company that so grandly dominates the PC market sit by while ARM architecture totally, and perhaps irretrievably, took over the new generation of phones — and most other embedded applications?

According to Otellini, it was the result of Intel’s inertia: It took a while to move the machine.

Madrigal backfills this uneasy explanation with equal unease:

“The problem, really, was that Intel’s x86 chip architecture could not rival the performance per watt of power that designs licensed from ARM based on RISC architecture could provide. Intel was always the undisputed champion of performance, but its chips sucked up too much power. In fact, it was only this month that Intel revealed chips that seem like they’ll be able to beat the ARM licensees on the key metrics.”

Note the tiptoeing: Intel’s new chips “seem like” they’ll be fast enough and cheap enough. Madrigal charitably fails to note how Intel, year after year, kept promising to beat ARM at the mobile game, and failed to do so. (See these 2010, 2011 and 2012 Monday Notes.) Last year, Intel was still at it, dismissively predicting “no future for ARM or any of its competitors“. Tell that to ARM Holdings, whose licensees shipped 2.6 billions chips in the first quarter of this year.

Elsewhere in the article, Otellini offers a striking revelation: Fresh from anointing Intel as the microprocessor supplier for the Mac, Steve Jobs came back and asked Intel to design and build the CPU for Apple’s upcoming iPhone. (To clarify the chronology, the iPhone was announced early January, 2007; the CPU conversation must have taken place two years prior, likely before the June, 2005 WWDC where Apple announced the switch to x86. See Chapter 36 of Walter Isaacson’s Jobs bio for more.)

Intel passed on the opportunity [emphasis mine]:

“We ended up not winning it or passing on it, depending on how you want to view it. And the world would have been a lot different if we’d done it, […]

Indeed, the world would have been different. Apple wouldn’t be struggling through a risky transition away from Samsung, its frenemy CPU supplier; the heart of the iPhone would be Made In America; Intel would have supplied processors for more than 500 million iOS devices, sold even more such chips to other handset makers to become as major a player in the smartphone (and tablet) space as it is in the PC world.

Supply your own adjectives…

Indulging briefly in more What If reverie, compare the impact of Intel’s wrong turn to a better one: How would the world look like if, at the end of 1996, Gil Amelio hadn’t returned Apple back to Steve Jobs? (My recollection of the transaction’s official wording could be faulty.)

So, again, what happened?

At the end of the day, there was a chip that they were interested in that they wanted to pay a certain price for and not a nickel more and that price was below our forecasted cost. I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t one of these things you can make up on volume. And in hindsight, the forecasted cost was wrong and the volume was 100x what anyone thought.

A little later, Otellini completes the train of thought with a wistful reverie, a model of la toilette des souvenirs:

“The lesson I took away from that was, while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I’ve ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut,” he said. “My gut told me to say yes.”

The frank admission is meant to elicit respect and empathy. Imagine being responsible for missing the opportunity to play a commanding role in the smartphone revolution.

But perhaps things aren’t as simple as being a “gut move” short of an epochal $100B opportunity.

Intel is a prisoner of its x86 profit model and Wall Street’s expectations. It’s dominant position in the x86 space give Intel the pricing power to command high margins. There’s no such thing in the competitive ARM space, prices are lower. Even factoring in the lower inherent cost of the somewhat simpler devices (simpler for the time being; they’ll inevitably grow more complex), the profit-per-ARM chip is too thin to sustain Intel’s business model.

(Of course, this assumes a substitution, an ARM chip that displaces an x86 device. As it turns out, the smartphone business could have been largely additive, just as we now see with tablets that cannibalize classical PCs.)

Another factor is the cultural change that would have been required were Intel to have gotten involved in making ARM devices. As both the designer and manufacturer of generation after generation of x86 microprocessors, Intel can wait until they’re good and ready before they allow PC makers to build the chips into their next products. The ARM world doesn’t work that way. Customers design their own chips (often called a System on a Chip, or SoC), and then turn to a semiconductor manufacturer (a foundry) to stamp out the hardware. Taking orders from others isn’t in Intel’s DNA.

And now?

The answer might lie in another French expression: L’histoire ne repasse pas les plats. Google Translate is a bit more felicitous this time: History does not repeat itself. I prefer the more literal image — History doesn’t come around offering seconds — but the point remains: Will there be seconds at the smartphone repast?

Officially, Intel says its next generation of x86 processors will (finally!) topple the ARM regime, that their chips will offer more computing might with no cost or power dissipation penalty. In their parlance “the better transistor” (the basic unit of logic processing) will win.

I doubt it. The newer x86 devices will certainly help Microsoft and its OEMs make Windows 8 devices more competitive, but that won’t prevent the spread of ARM in the legion of devices on which Windows is irrelevant. For these, Intel would have to adopt ARM, a decision Otellini has left to the new tandem leadership of Brian Krzanich (CEO) and Renée James (President). Will they stick to the old creed, to the belief Intel’s superior silicon design and manufacturing technology will eventually overcome the disadvantages of the more complex x86 architecture? Or will they take the plunge?

They might be helped by a change in the financial picture.

In 2006, that is after throwing Jobs in Samsung’s arms (pun unintended), Intel sold its ARM business, the XScale line, to Marvell. The reason was purely financial: for similar capital expenditures (costly fabs), ARM processors achieved much lower per-unit profit, this because of the much more competitive scene than in the x86 space.

Now, if Intel really wants to get a place at the smartphone table with new and improved x86 devices, the company will have to price those to compete with established ARM players. In other words, Intel will have to accept the lower margins they shunned in 2006. Then, why not do it with the ARM-based custom processors Apple and others require?

JLG@mondaynote.com

—————————-

(I’ll confess a weakness for The Atlantic and, in particular, for its national correspondent James Fallows, a literate geek and instrument-rated pilot who took upon himself to live in Beijing for a while and, as a result, can speak more helpfully about China than most members of the Fourth Estate. Going back to last week’s reference to the Gauche Caviar, when my Café de Flore acquaintances fall into their usual rut of criticizing my adopted country for its lack of “culture”, I hold out that The Atlantic — which sells briskly at the kiosk next door — is one of many examples of American journalistic excellence.

And, if you’re interested in more strange turns, see this other string Alexis Madrigal piece in the same Atlantic: The Time Exxon Went Into the Semiconductor Business (and Failed). I was there, briefly running an Exxon Information Systems subsidiary in France and learning the importance of corporate culture.)–JLG

Two strategies: The Washington Post vs. The NYT

 

Both are great American newspapers, both suffer from the advertising slump and from the transition to digital. But the New York Times’ paywall strategy is making a huge difference. 

The Washington Post’s financials provide a good glance at the current status of legacy media struggling with the shift to digital. Unlike others large dailies, the components of the Post’s P&L clearly appear in its statements, they are not buried under layers of other activities. Product-wise, the Post remains a great news machine, collecting Pulitzer Prizes with clockwork regularity and fighting hard for scoops. The Post also epitomizes an old media under siege from specialized, more agile outlets such as Politico, ones that break down the once-unified coverage provided by traditional large media houses. In an interview to the New York Times last year, Robert G. Kaiser, a former editor who had been with the paper since 1963, said this:

“When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business,” he said. “We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there’s a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We’ve lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways.”

The iconic newspaper has been slow to adapt to the digital era. Its transformation really started around 2008. Since then, it has checked all the required boxes: integration of print and digital productions; editors are now involved on both sides of the news production and all relentlessly push the newsroom to write more for the digital version; many blogs covering a wide array of topics have been launched; and the Post now has a good mobile application. The “quant” culture also set in, with editors now taking into account all the usual metrics and ratios associated with digital operations, including a live update of Google’s most relevant keywords prominently displayed in the newsroom. All this helped the Post collect 25.6 million unique visitors per month, vs. 4 to 5 million for Politico, and 35 million for the New York Times that historically enjoys a more global audience.

Overall, the Washington Post Company still relies heavily on its education business, as show in the table below :

 Revenue:.......$4.0bn (-3% vs. 2011)
 Education:.....$2.2bn (-9%)
 Cable TV:......$0.8bn (+4%)
 Newspaper:.....$0.6bn (-7%)
 Broadcast TV:..$0.4bn (+25%)

But the education business no is longer the cash cow it used to be. Not only did its revenue decrease but, last year, it lost $105m vs. a $96m profit in 2011. As for the newspaper operation, it widened its losses to $53m in 2012 from $21m in 2011. And the trend worsens: for the first quarter of 2013, the newspaper division’s revenue decreased by 4% vs. a year ago and it lost $34m vs. $21m for Q1 2011.

Now, let’s move to a longer-term perspective. The chart below sums up the Post’s (and others legacy media’s) problem:

Translated into a table:

                  Q1-2007   Q1-2013  Change %
 Revenue (All):....$219m.....$127m.....-42%
 Print Ad:.........$125m.....$49m......-61%
 Digital Ad:.......$25m......$26m......+4%

A huge depletion in print advertising, a flat line (at best) for digital advertising, the elements sum up the equation faced by traditional newspapers going from print to online.

Now, let’s look at the circulation side using a comparison with the New York Times. (Note that it’s not possible to extract the same figures for advertising from the NYT Co.’s financial statements because they aggregate too many items.) The chart below shows the evolution of the paid circulation for the Post between 2007 and 2013:

..and for the NY Times:

Call it the paywall effect: The New York Times now aggregates both print and digital circulations. The latter now amounts to 676,000 digital subscribers that have been recruited using the NYT’s metered system (see previous Monday Notes under the “paywall” tag). (Altogether, digital subscribers to the NYT, the International Herald and the Boston Globe now number 708,000). It seems the NYT found the right formula: its digital subscribers portfolio grows at a 45% per year rate, thanks to a combination of sophisticated marketing, mining customer data and aggressive pricing (it even pushes special deals for Mother’s Day.) All this adds to the bottom line: if each digital sub brings $12 a month, the result is about $100m that didn’t exist two years ago. But it does not benefit the advertising side as it continues to suffer. For the first quarter of 2013 vs. the same period last year, the NYT Company lost 13% in print ads revenue and 4% for digital ads. (As usual in their earning calls, NYT officials mention the deflationary effects of ad exchanges as one cause of erosion in digital ads.)

One additional sign that digital advertising will remain in the doldrums: Politico, too, is exploring alternatives; it will be testing a paywall in a sample of six states and for its readers outside the United States. The system will be comparable to the NYT.com or the FT.com, with a fixed number of articles available for free (see Politico’s management internal memo.)

It is increasingly clear that readers are more willing than we once thought to pay for content they value and enjoy. With more than 300 media companies now charging for online content in the U.S., the notion of paying to read expensive-to-produce journalism is no longer that exotic for sophisticated consumers.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Elon Musk’s Sweet Revenge

 

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, saw its latest creation, the Model S – and himself – criticized by traditional media. Now, Tesla just scored its first profitable quarter and Consumer Reports put the Model S at the top of its rankings, making it possible for Musk’s company to become more than a niche player.

Palo Alto is known, primarily, as the cradle of high-tech. Its birth registry stretches from pre-World War II Hewlett-Packard, to Cisco, Sun Microsystems (after Stanford University Network), Logitech, and on to Google and Facebook.

But there’s an aspect of the town that’s rarely remarked upon. As a happy Palo Alto resident for 25 years as well as a half-century regular at the Café de Flore and Au Sauvignon, I can attest that Palo Alto vies with Paris’ Left Bank as the cynosure of the Gauche Caviar — the Caviar Left, the Volvo Liberals as they were known eons ago. Palo Altans, like the residents of the sixth arrondissement, have money and they’re willing to spend it (this isn’t constipated New England, after all) — but they only spend it in the proper way. And there’s no better way to demonstrate that you’re spending your money in a seemly fashion than to be seen driving the proper car.

The combination of tech culture, money, and sincere (if easily lampooned) social/ecological awareness make Palo Alto an interesting place to watch automotive fashion wax and wane.

Walking Palo Alto’s leafy streets in the early 2000′s, I witnessed the rise of the Prius. Rather than grafting “green” organs onto a Camry or a disinterred Tercel, Toyota’s engineers had designed a hybrid from the tires up…and they gave the car a distinctive, sui generis look. It was a stroke of genius, and it tickled us green. What better way to flaunt our concern for the environment while showing off our discerning tech taste than to be spotted behind the wheel of a Prius? (I write “us” without irony: I owned a Gen I and a Gen II Prius, and drive a Prius V in France.) Palo Alto was Prius City years before the rest of the world caught on. (Prius is now the third best-selling car worldwide; more than a million were sold in 2012.)

The cute but artificial Volkswagen Beetle came and went. The Mini, on the other hand, has been a success. A coupling of British modesty and German engineer (the car is built by BMW), the Mini proved that Americans could fall in love with a small car.

The Smart, an even smaller car, hasn’t fared well at all. There are now more older Citroëns than Smarts on our streets. I also see some tiny Fiat 500s, but too few so far to call it a durable trend.

Then there’s Tesla. In 2008, when the Tesla Roadster came out, I watched it with mixed feelings: some in my neighborhood ended up on flatbeds, but I smiled as I saw Roadsters smoothly (and silently) outrun a Porsche when the traffic light turned green.

As much as I admired Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and a serial entrepreneur of PayPal fame, I was skeptical. A thousand-pound battery and electric drive train in a Lotus frame…it felt like a hack. This was a beta release car, a $100k nano-niche vehicle. It wasn’t seemly.

Musk muscled his way through, pushed his company onto firmer financial ground, and, in June 2012, Tesla began delivery of the Model S. This is a “real” car with four doors, a big trunk (two, actually, front and back), and a 250 mile (400 km) range. Right away, the sales lot at Tesla’s corporate store in nearby Menlo Park was packed. I started to see the elegant sedan on our streets, and within a few months there were three Model Ss in the parking garage at work. With their superior range, they rarely feed from the EV charging stations. (The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a constant suckler.)

This was a big deal. The company had jumped straight from beta to Tesla 2.0. The bigwigs in the automotive press agreed: Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine named the Model S their 2012 Car of the Year.

Actually, not all the bigwigs agreed. The New York Times’ John Broder gushed over the Model S’s futuristic engineering (“The car is a technological wonder”), but published an ultimately negative story titled Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway. The battery wouldn’t hold a charge, the car misreported its range, Tesla support gave him bad information… The car ended up being hauled off on a flatbed.

Broder’s review didn’t evince much empathy from Elon Musk, a man who clearly doesn’t believe the meek will inherit the Earth. In a detailed blog post backed up by the data the data that was logged by the car, Tesla’s CEO took Broder to task for shoddy and fallacious reporting:

As the State of Charge log shows, the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck…
During the second Supercharge… he deliberately stopped charging at 72%. On the third leg, where he claimed the car ran out of energy, he stopped charging at 28%.

More unpleasantness ensued, ending with an uneasy statement from Margaret Sullivan, The NYT’s Public Editor: Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test, and with Musk claiming that the NYT story had cost Tesla $100M in market cap.

Other writers, such as David Thier in Forbes, rushed to Broder’s defense for no reason other than an “inclination”:

I’m inclined to trust the reporter’s account of what happened, though at this point, it barely matters. The original story is so far removed that mostly what we have now is a billionaire throwing a temper tantrum about someone who said mean things about him.

In “Why the great Elon Musk needs a muzzle” (sorry, no link; the article is iPad only) Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver Magazine condemns Musk for the sin of questioning the infallibility of the New York Times:

(There’s no need to pile onto this argument, but let’s note that the NYT’s foibles are well-documented, such as, I can’t resist, its tortured justification for not using the word “torture” when dealing with “enhanced interrogation”.)

None of this dampened the enthusiasm of customers living in our sunnier physical and psychological clime. I saw more and more Model Ss on the streets and freeways. Most telling, the Model S became a common sight in the parking lot at Alice’s Restaurant up the hill in Woodside, a place where bikers and drivers of fashionable cars, vintage and cutting edge, gather to watch and be watched.

Publishing deadlines can be cruel. A few days after Robinson’s story appeared in Car and Driver, Tesla released its quarterly numbers for Q1 2013 (click to enlarge):

Tesla’s $555M in revenue is an astonishing 20x increase compared to the same quarter a year ago. Tesla is now profitable; shares jumped by more than 37% in two trading sessions. On Wall Street paper, the company’s $8.77B market cap makes it worth about 20% of GM’s $42.93B capitalization… Musk got his “lost $100M” back and more.

Curiously, the numbers also show that while Operations were in the red, the company recorded a Net Income of $11M. How is that possible? The explanation is “simple”: If your car company manufactures vehicles that surpass (in a good way) California’s emissions standards, the state hands you Zero Emissions Vehicle Credits for your good behavior. You can then sell your virtue to the big car companies – Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda — who must comply with ZEV regulations. For Tesla, this arrangement resulted in “higher sales of regulatory credits including $67.9 million in zero emission credit sales”.

Tesla is careful to note that this type of additional income is likely to disappear towards the end of 2013. (For a more detailed analysis of Tesla’s numbers see this post from The Truth About Cars, a site that recommends itself for not being yet another industry mouthpiece.)

The numbers point to a future where Tesla can leave its niche and become a leading manufacturer in a too-often stodgy automotive industry. And, of course, we Silicon Valley geeks take great pleasure in a car that updates it software over the air, like a smartphone; that has a 17″ touchscreen; and that’s designed and built right here (the Tesla factory is across the Bay in the NUMMI plant that was previously occupied by Toyota and GM).

A last dollop of honey in Elon’s revenge: Coinciding with the Car and Driver screed, Consumer Reports gave the Model S its top test score. After driving a friend’s Model S at adequate freeway speeds, I agree, it’s a wonderful car, a bit of the future available today.

Some say the Model S is still too pricey, that it’s only for the very well-off who can afford a third vehicle, that it will never reach a mass audience. It’s a reasonable objection, but consider Ferrari: It sold 7318 cars in 2012 and says it will restrict output in 2013 to less than 7,000 to “keep its exclusivity” – in other words, it must adapt to the slowing demand in Europe and, perhaps, Asia. Last year, Land Rover sold about 43,000 cars in the US. By comparison, Tesla will sell about 20,000 cars this year and expects to grow further as it opens international distribution.

One more thing: Elon Musk is also the CEO of SpaceX, a successful maker of another type  of vehicles: space-launch rockets.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Carriers Still Think We’re Idiots

 

“Carriers are confident we won’t read the small print that contradicts their tricky advertising. Once in a while, a public servant really does his job and forces a retraction. Why so rarely?.”

‘My goal in life has been to have just enough money to ignore 8-point Helvetica!’ Thus spake a close friend one night in a quiet San Francisco bar. His objection was neither stylistic nor ophthalmologic. We were, once again, lamenting the shenanigans and ruses, the hidden fees and “some restrictions apply” (see, if you can, Sprint’s mendacious use of Truly Unlimited here and here), the roach motels of mileage plans, the nickels and dimes extracted by subterfuge, legally or not. In a word, or six, the tyranny of the fine print.

By accumulating “just enough money”, my friend has the luxury of not having to fight the schemers to the last dollar, of not spending hours on the phone arguing with a robohuman who has been cruelly programmed to confuse and outlast the overly-curious customer. His benign neglect allows him to keep a sunny view of life and a calm mind.

Lucky man.

Most of us don’t lead such a charmed life. We can’t, or shouldn’t, ignore the amendments, refinements, and exceptions that belie the marketing come-ons. But the fine printers — the airlines, credit card companies, internet providers and, most of all, the cell phone carriers — rely on our neglect, benign or not. They think they can prey on us, that we’re too stupid or lazy to fight back, to protest their obfuscating plans and bizarre bills.

Because of their ubiquity, the cell phone carriers get the most heat. They’ll sell you a $650 iPhone for a mere $200…and then recoup the $450 shortfall by adding a bit of the difference to each installment of your (mandatory) 24 month “service” contract. If you try to break the manacles, you’ll pay for the fractured iron. It’s right there in the fine print.

Last year, a group of concerned professionals called for an end to the confusing and wasteful smartphone subsidies. The group? The carriers themselves (see Carriers Whine: We Wuz Robbed!).

Verizon and AT&T make a spectacle of groaning under the weight of these awful subsidies. They get the Wall Street Journal and others to repeat their stories wholesale in articles such as this one: How the iPhone Zapped Carriers.
Horace Dediu, for one, doesn’t buy the sob story:

“I repeat what I’ve mentioned before: The iPhone is primarily hired as a premium network service salesman. It receives a ‘commission’ for selling a premium service in the form of a premium price. Because it’s so good at it, the premium is quite high.”

Dediu’s observation applies equally well to all the top smartphone brands. They’re all bait, a great way to hook the customer into a revolving 24 month agreement, with high ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User) stemming from the nature, the breadth and attractiveness of services provided by these high-end devices.

T-Mobile, the perennial dark horse, has been one of the more vocal plaintiffs. Besides clearly stating that the company didn’t need the iPhone, T-Mobile has hinted that it would get rid of the blood-sucking payments to handset makers altogether.
Last month, the hints became reality. T-Mobile “re-imagined” itself as the Un-Carrier:

T-Mobile’s pitch:

With no more annual service contract required, we don’t lock you into a big commitment with our Simple Choice Plan.

It’s a clever idea: T-Mobile has seemingly decoupled hardware and service. If you bring your own phone, you just pay for service. If you need a phone, T-Mobile will be happy to sell you one, let’s say a 16Gb iPhone 5 for $99…and as an added convenience (watch the left hand), they’ll offer you a 24-month contract at just $20/month! You want out before serving your 2-year sentence? No problem! Just pony up the full price of the phone; other terms and conditions may apply.

Inexplicably, some pundits (who should know better) have fallen for the pitch. Here’s David Pogue in the New York Times:

“Last week, the landscape changed. T-Mobile violated the unwritten conspiracy code of cellphone carriers. It admitted that the emperors have no clothes.”

The forums buzzed with the party line: It’s the end of contracts and subsidies.
But the company’s too-clever way with words didn’t sit well with other observers. The no-contract claim is obviously disingenuous; it only applies to people bringing their own phone, a tiny minority. For typical customers — those who get their phones from their carriers — the manacles are too familiar.
The claim also didn’t sit well with Bob Ferguson, Washington State’s Attorney General. Ferguson didn’t dither, saying “No Dice” to T-Mobile’s deceptive “No-Contract” advertising:

“As Attorney General, my job is to defend consumers, ensure truth in advertising, and make sure all businesses are playing by the rules.” 

T-Mobile backed down. The company admitted that there actually is a contract, a subsidy, and they offered to make things right with customers who accepted the agreement under murky pretenses.
Happy ending, congratulations to the vigorous AG.

Still, what were T-Mobile execs thinking? Did they really think that we’re such idiots that we can’t see a 24 month obligation as a contract? What sort of corporate culture produces this type of delusion?
In theory, T-Mobile was onto a good idea. You bring your own phone, you truly pay less and you’re not tied to a contract. Come in, stay as long or as little as you’d like, pay by the month.
But this isn’t how the market works in practice. The rapid succession of new phones makes the latest model more desirable. As a result, carriers have an opportunity to tie their customers down by offering the newest device at an artificially low price — and get a comfortable two-year income stream to recoup the subsidy.
Meanwhile, there’s other news in the carrier world:

  • Verizon is locked in difficult negotiations for the purchase of Vodafone’s 45% share of the company. This is in a context where, two years ago, Vodafone made the decision to shed its participation in other carriers such as Orange, SFR or China Mobile. In their bid/ask conversations, Vodafone and Verizon are $30B apart, Verizon offering a mere $100B while Vodafone won’t take a penny less than $130B.
  • Softbank and Dish Network are in a bidding war for Sprint, probably out of gluttony for more punishment. Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s leader, graciously spared us the carrier-as-victim lament. But if Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen prevails, we can be sure this seasoned sob story practitioner will fit right in once he becomes a cellular operator.

These are the people who tell us subsidies are killing them. They really do think we’re idiots.

JLG@mondaynote.com

This Wristband Could Change Healthcare

 

Jawbone is launching is UP wristband in Europe. Beyond the quirky gadget lies a much larger project: Changing healthcare — for better or for worst. 

 Hyperkinetic as he is, Hosain Rahman, the Jawbone founder, must be saturating his Jawbone UP wristband with data. The rubberized band, nicely designed by Yves Behar, is filled with miniaturized electronics: accelerometers and sensors monitor your activity through out the day, recording every motion in your life, from walking in the street to the micro-movements of your hand in a paradoxical sleep phase. For the fitness freak, the Up is a great stimulus to sweat even more; for the rest of us, it’s more like an activity and sleep monitoring device. (For a complete product review, see this article from Engadget, and also watch Hosain Rahman’s interview by Kevin Rose, it’s well worth your time.) Last week in Paris, after my meeting with Hosain, I headed straight to the nearest Apple Store to pick-up my Up (for €129), with the goal of exploring my sleeping habits in greater depth.

After using the device for a couple of days, the app that comes with it tells me I’m stuck in a regime of 5 to 6 hours of bad sleep — including less than three hours of slow-wave sleep commonly known as deep sleep. Interesting: Two years ago, I spend 36 hours covered with electrodes and sensors in a hospital specializing in studying and (sometimes) treating insomnia — after a 6 months on a wait list to get the test. At one point, to monitor my sleep at home, doctors lent me a cumbersome wristband, the size of a matchbox. The conclusion was unsurprising: I was suffering from severe insomnia, and there was very little they could do about it. The whole sleep exploration process must have cost 3000€ to the French public health care system, 20 times more than the Jawbone gadget (or the ones that do a similar job). I’m not contending that medical monitoring performed by professionals can be matched by a wristband loaded with sensors purchased in an electronics store. But, aside from the cost, there is another key difference: the corpus of medical observations is based on classic clinical tests of a small number of patients. On the other hand, Jawbone thinks of the UP wristband — to be worn 24/7 by millions of people — in a Big Data frame of mind. Hosain Rahman is or will soon be right when he says his UP endeavor contributes to the largest sleep study ever done.

Then it gets interesting. As fun as they can be, existing wearable monitoring devices are in the stone age compared to what they will become in three to five years. When I offered Hosain a list of features that could be embedded in future versions of the UP wristband — such as a GPS module (for precise location, including altitude), heartbeat, blood pressure, skin temperature and acidity sensors, bluetooth transmitter — he simply smiled and conceded that my suggestions were not completely off-track. (Before going that far, Jawbone must solve the battery-life issue and most likely design its own, dedicated super-low consumption processor.) But Hosain also acknowledges his company is fueled by a much larger ambition than simply build a cool piece of hardware aimed at fitness enthusiasts or hypochondriacs.

His goal is nothing less than disrupting the healthcare system.

The VC firms backing Jawbone are on the same page. The funding calendar compiled by Crunchbase speaks for itself: out of the stunning $202m raised since 2007, most of it ($169m), has been raised since 2011, the year of the first iteration of the UP wristband (it was a failure due to major design flaws). All the big houses are on board: Khosla Ventures, Sequoia, Andreessen-Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Deutsche Telekom… They all came with an identical scheme in mind: a massive deployment of the monitoring wristband, a series of deals with the biggest healthcare companies in America to subsidize the device. All this could result in the largest health-related dataset ever build.

The next logical step would be the development of large statistical models based on customers’ recorded data. As far as privacy is concerned, no surprise: Jawbone is pretty straightforward and transparent: see their disclosure here. It collects everything: name, gender, size and weight, location (thanks to the IP address) and, of course, all the information gathered by the device, or entered by the user, such as the eating habits. A trove of information.

Big Data businesses focusing on health issues drool over what can be done with such a detailed dataset coming from, potentially, millions of people. Scores of predictive morbidity models can be built, from the most mundane — back pain correlated to sleep deprivation — to the most critical involving heart conditions linked to various lifestyle factors. When asked about privacy issues, Hosain Rahman insists on Jawbone’s obsessive protection of his customers, but he also acknowledges his company can build detailed population profiles and characterize various risk factors with substantially greater granularity.

This means serious business for the health care and insurance sectors — and equally serious concerns for citizens. Imagine, just for a minute, the impact of such data on the pricing structure of your beloved insurance company? What about your credit rating if you fall into a category at risk? Or simply your ability to get a job? Of course, the advent of predictive health models potentially benefits everyone. But, at this time, we don’t know if and how the benefits will outweigh the risks.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Apple Buys Intel

 

Getting rid of Samsung as a processor supplier and, at the same time, capturing the crown jewel of the American semiconductor industry. How could Apple resist the temptation to solve its cash problem and make history again?

Halfway through the second quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, most of Apple’s top execs meet at an undisclosed location (Eddy Cue’s chair is empty – he’s been called away to a Ferrari board meeting). They’re joined by a few trusted industry insiders: Bill “the Coach” Campbell, Apple and Intuit Director and adviser to Google’s founders, Mssrs. Page and Brin; Larry Sonsini, the Silicon Valley consigliere of more than three decades; and Frank Quattrone, the star investment banker with nine lives.

The meeting isn’t about the company’s dwindling profit margins. The smaller margins were expected and invited: The reduced-price iPad and heavy promotion of the “old” iPhone 4 as an entry-level product are part of the long term strategy of guarding Apple’s lower end (so to speak). And no whining about AAPL’s grim slide over the last six months, a problem that has only one solution: Apple needs to record a series of better quarters.

The problem of the day is, once again, what to do with Apple’s obscene pile of cash.

By the end of December 2012, the company held about $137B in cash (or equivalents such as marketable securities), including $23B from operations for the quarter.

CFO Peter Oppenheimer delivers the bad news: It looks like operations will disgorge another $35B this quarter. The stock buy-back and dividend program that was designed to bleed off $45B over the next few years (see this March 2012 Monday Note) won’t be enough if the company continues at this rate.

Apple needs something bigger.

Quattrone has been sitting quietly at the end of the table. He clears his throat and speaks:

Buy Intel.

Well, yes, Frank (says Tim Cook), we’ve been buying Intel processors for the Mac since 2005.

Not the chips. The company. The planets are aligned for Apple to strike a blow that will leave the industry forever changed. Make history, acquire Intel.

Quattrone has their attention. He unfolds the celestial calibration:

  • Apple needs to extract itself from the toxic relationship with Samsung, its ARM supplier.
  • Intel is the best large-scale silicon manufacturer in the world. They have the people, the technology, and the plant capacity to match Apple’s needs for years to come.
  • “But Intel doesn’t do ARM!” you say. Indeed, Intel has no interest in the fierce competition and small margins in the ARM-based SoC market. Joining the ARM fray would severely disrupt Intel’s numbers and infuriate Wall Street. But if Intel were to essentially “go private” as Apple’s semiconductor manufacturing arm (pun intended), catering to all of Apple’s x86 and ARM needs (and whatever else Bob Mansfield is secretly plotting), Wall Street would have no such objection.
  • Intel is flailing. The traditional PC market – Intel’s lifeblood – continues to shrink, yet the company does nothing to break into the ARM-dominated mobile sector. In the meantime, the company makes perplexing investments such as buying McAfee for $7.68B.
  • There’s a leadership vacuum at Intel. Six months after announcing CEO Paul Otellini‘s “retirement”, Intel’s Board has yet to find a replacement who can sail the ship in more competitive waters. Apple could commission Pat Gelsinger, a 30-year Intel veteran and former CTO (Intel’s first) who fled to VMware after his career stalled at Intel. Despite being a bit of a Bill Gates look-alike (once upon a time), Gelsinger is a real technologist who would fit well within Apple, especially if he were given the opportunity to really “go for” the ARM architecture instead of iteratively tweaking x86 devices.
  • Last but not least, Intel’s market cap is about $115B, eminently affordable. The company is profitable and generates a good deal of cash, even after the heavy capital expenditures required by its constant need to build new and expensive manufacturing plants.
  • …oh, and one more thing: Wouldn’t it be fun to “partner” more closely with Microsoft, HP and Dell, working on x86 developments, schedules and… pricing?

A lively discussion ensues. Imagine solving many of Apple’s problems with a single sweeping motion. This would really make Cupertino the center of the high-tech world.

It’s an interesting idea, but there will be obstacles, both cultural and legal.

The Coach goes first: “Knowing both of these companies more than a little bit, I can attest to the pride they have in their respective cultures. They’re both disinclined to reconsider their beliefs in any meaningful way. Merging these two dissimilar groups, shedding unnecessary activities such as McAfee and the like would be dangerously disruptive to Apple’s well-honed, cohesive culture. As a general rule, merging two large organization rarely succeeds… unless you consider merging airlines a success…”

Finally, the Consigliere speaks: “It’s a tempting fantasy, it will mean years of work for my firm and many, many others, but as a friend of the company, as a past confidant of your departed Founder, don’t do it. There will be too much legal trouble with the Feds, with competitors, with Intel partners. Most fantasies aren’t meant to be enacted.”

I won’t dwell on the reality of the meeting: I made it up as a way to explain why Apple really has no choice other than submit to another cash phlebotomy, this time for an additional $60B. And, as with real-world phlebotomies, the procedure will treat the problem, but it won’t cure it. With $30B from operations per quarter, the $60B lancing will have to be repeated.

Some read the decision to return gobs of cash to shareholders as an admission of defeat. Apple has given up making big moves, as in one or more big acquisitions.

I don’t agree: We ought to be glad that the Apple execs (and their wise advisers) didn’t allow themselves to succumb to transaction fever, to a mirage of ego aggrandizement held out by a potential “game changing” acquisition.

A final word on taxes. To return the additional $60B (for a total of $100B when including the ongoing program announced last year) through increased dividends and repurchased shares, Apple will have to borrow money.

Borrow? When they have so much cash?

Yes, thanks to our mangled tax code. As explained here, about $100B of Apple’s cash is stored overseas. If repatriated, it would be “heavily” (read “normally”) taxed. Like most US companies that have international operations, Apple plays complicated, entirely legal tax games that allow their international profits to be taxed at very low rates as long as the profits — and the resulting cash — stay outside Uncle Sam’s reach. And thus we have the apparent paradox of borrowing money when cash-rich.

The benefit of these tax code contortions is difficult to explain to normal humans — as opposed to legislators who allowed the loopholes.

All this now makes Apple a different company. Once a fledgling challenger of established powerhouses such as IBM, Microsoft or HP, it now makes “too much cash” and is condemned to a life of paying dividends and buying back shares — like the old fogies it once derided.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

 

What’s the Fuss About Native Ads?

 

In the search for new advertising models, Native Ads are booming. The ensuing Web vs. Native controversy is a festival of fake naïveté and misplaced indignation. 

Native Advertising is the politically correct term for Advertorial, period. Or rather, it’s an upgrade, the digital version of an old practice dating back to the era of typewriters and lead printing presses. Everyone who’s been in the publishing business long enough has in mind the tug-of-war with the sales department who always wants its ads to to appear next to an editorial content that will provide good “context”. This makes the whole “new” debate about Native Ads quite amusing. The magazine sector (more than newspapers), always referred to “clean” and “tainted” sections. (The latter kept expanding over the years). In consumer and lifestyle sections, editorial content produced by the newsroom is often tailored to fit surrounding ads (or to flatter a brand that will buy legit placements).

The digital era pushes the trend several steps further. Today, legacy media brands such as Forbes, Atlantic Media, or the Washington Post have joined the Native Ads bandwagon. Forbes even became the poster child for that business, thanks to the completely assumed approach carried out by its chief product officer Lewis DVorkin (see his insightful blog and also this panel at the recent Paid Content Live conference.) Advertising is not the only way DVorkin has revamped Forbes. Last week, Les Echos (the business daily that’s part of the media group I work for) ran an interesting piece about it titled “The Old Press in a Startup mode” (La vielle presse en mode start-up). It details the decisive — and successful — moves by the century-old media house: a downsized newsroom, external contributors (by the thousand, and mostly unpaid) who produce a huge stream of 400 to 500 pieces a day. “In some cases”, wrote Lucie Robequain, Les Echos’s New York correspondent, “the boundary between journalism and advertorial can be thin…” To which Lewis DVorkin retorts: “Frankly, do you think a newspaper that conveys corporate voices is more noble? At Forbes, at least, we are transparent: We know which company the contributor works for and we expose potentials conflicts of interests in the first graph…” Maybe. But screening a thousand contributors sounds a bit challenging to me… And Forbes evidently exposed itself as part of the “sold” blogosphere. Les Echos’ piece also quotes Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab who finds the bulk of Forbes production to be, on average, not as good as it was earlier, but concedes the top 10% is actually better…

As for Native Advertising, two years ago, Forbes industrialized the concept by creating BrandVoice. Here is the official definition:

Forbes BrandVoice allows marketers to connect directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content – and participate in the conversation – on the Forbes digital publishing platform. Each BrandVoice is written, edited and produced by the marketer.

Practically, Forbes lets marketers use the site’s Content Management System (CMS) to create their content at will. The commercial deal — from what we can learn — involves volumes and placements that cause the rate to vary between $50,000 to $100,000 per month. The package can also include traditional banners that will send traffic back to the BrandVoice page.

At any given moment, there are about 16 brands running on Forbes’ “Voices”. This revenue stream was a significant contributor to the publisher’s financial performances. According to AdWeek (emphasis mine):

The company achieved its best financial performance in five years in 2012, according to a memo released this morning by Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. Digital ad revenue, which increased 19 percent year over year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue for the year, said Perlis. Ten percent of total revenue came from advertisers who incorporated BrandVoice into their buys, and by the end of this year, that share is estimated to rise to 25 percent.

Things seemed pretty positive across other areas of Forbes’ business as well. Newsstand sales and ad pages were up 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, amid industry-wide drops in both areas. The relatively new tablet app recently broke 200,000 downloads.

A closer look gives a slightly bleaker picture: According to latest data from the Magazine Publishers Association, between Q1 2013 and Q1 2012, Forbes Magazine (the print version only) lost 16% in ads revenues ($50m to $42m). By comparison, Fast Company scored +25%, Fortune +7%, but The Economist -27% and Bloomberg Business Week -30%. The titles compiled by the MPA are stable (+0.5%).

I almost never click on banners (except to see if they work as expected on the sites and apps I’m in charge of). Most of the time their design sucks, terribly so, and the underlying content is usually below grade. However, if the subject appeals to me, I will click on Native Ads or brand contents. I’ll read it like another story, knowing full well it’s a promotional material. The big difference between a crude ad and a content-based one is the storytelling dimension. Fact is: Every company has great stories to tell about its products, strategy or vision. And I don’t see why they shouldn’t be told  resorting to the same storytelling tools news media use. As long as it’s done properly, with a label explaining the contents’ origin, I don’t see the problem (for more on this question, read a previous Monday Note: The Insidious Power of Brand Content.) In my view, Forbes does blur the line a bit too much, but Atlantic’s business site Quartz is doing fine in that regard. With the required precautions, I’m certain Native Ads, or branded contents are a potent way to go, especially when considering the alarming state of other forms of digital ads. Click-through rates are much better (2%-5% vs. a fraction of a percentage for a dumb banner) and the connection to social medias works reasonably well.

For news media companies obsessed with their journalistic integrity (some still do…), the development of such new formats makes things more  complicated when it comes to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Ultimately, the editor should call the shots. Which brings us to the governance of media companies. For digital media, the pervasive advertising pressure is likely keep growing. Today, most rely on a Chief Revenue Officer to decide what’s best for the bottom line such as balancing circulation and advertising, arbitraging between a large audience/low yield or smaller audience/higher yield, for instance. But, in the end, only the editor must be held accountable for the contents’ quality and the credibility — which contribute to the commercial worthiness of the media. Especially in the digital field, editors should be shielded from the business pressure. Editors should be selected by CEOs and appointed by boards or better, boards of trustees. Independence will become increasingly scarce.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The App Store: Good Deeds, Poor Communication

 

Apple does the right thing when striving to keep its App Store free from promotional trickery – but fails to shed light on the process and, as a result, damages its reputation.

Earlier this month, the Apple App Store removed the popular AppGratis application from its shelves. Then, last week, the App Store censors delivered a decisive blow by suppressing AppGratis’ push notifications to installed apps.
Apple’s reason for the ban: “… the app circumvented App Store rules preventing applications promoting other apps and direct marketing.”

AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat took to the airwaves, loudly protesting his innocence. The aggrieved entrepreneur criticized Apple’s arbitrary and inconsistent approval process and “out of the blue” removal of AppGratis. He launched an online petition that gathered 571K signatures in just a few hours. He convinced Fleur Pellerin, France’s Minister of Digital Technologies, to run to the wounded company’s bedside and join the protest. Minister Pellerin added a bit of saber-rattling, calling Apple’s actions “brutal” and hinting at plans to ask the EU to examine the takedown.

But then the PR tide turned. An AppGratis document leaked to Business Insider by a “source in the developer community” hints at the company’s unspoken business model: AppGratis will raise your app’s rating in the App Store – for a fee.

Specifically, AppGratis gives developers an estimate of where in Apple’s App Store rankings an App can land based on how much the developer is willing to pay… [The] document shows AppGratis estimates a ~$300,000 buy will land an app in the top five slot in the US version of the App Store.

$300k is a lot of money for a small app developer, but the promise is that the higher ranking will result in increased revenue that will more than cover AppGratis’ “service fee”.

Before the e-dust could settle, Dawlat posted a long-winded blog entry that I assume was meant as a rebuttal. Here’s an excerpt:

People have “accused us” of gaming the top. But the reality is that with or without the “rankings,” our community will still drive millions of installs for the apps we feature. Independently from the App Store. We have never based our business on ranking exposure, because we’ve always expected Apple to chime in at some point, and change that. 

He then went on to announce AppGratis’ “crazy cool” old-yet-new direction [emphasis mine]:

And even more exciting, we’re back to our roots. A crazy cool daily newsletter with millions of subscribers, that will very soon be complemented by the newest and nicest HTML5 WebApp you’ll ever see. Two things we fully own, and that no one can take away from us. So when I stated a week ago that the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated, I wasn’t kidding. Not kidding at all. AppGratis is just getting started.
Because from the bottom of our hearts, we know we add value to this whole ecosystem.
And we intend to keep doing just that.

To shed light on this complicated situation, let’s use an analogy. And since this about a French company, Apple will be represented by Carrefour, the hypermarché giant — something like Walmart, but less polite. If you ask to have your groceries packed up, the cashier throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to do it yourself. You’ll be playing Simon Dawlat.

You approach Carrefour with your unique line of heirloom yogurts made from free range goat milk. It’s an interesting product, but is Carrefour obligated to give you shelf space? Of course not. The store may be inelegant and the staff is rude, but the company has its standards. Carrefour offers to take you on if you agree to its rules concerning shelf displays and promotional activities.

One day, a store manager notices the coupons you’ve enclosed in your yogurt packs. These coupons promote other products that Carrefour stocks, offered at lower prices when purchased on-line. When asked about it, you finally admit that, yes, some of the other manufacturers pay you to include their coupons with your yogurt. Carrefour management throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to pack up and go home. Their store, their rules.

(The analogy is both transparent and flawed. There’s no perfect physical retail analogue for AppGratis’ virtual schtick — getting paid to bubble an app up the App Store rankings. And the App Store doesn’t have a great real-world analogue, either. The App Store’s raison d’être is to make iPhone and iPads more valuable; it’s not a business in itself. But you get the idea.)

To touch on the obvious, Apple isn’t obligated to publish AppGratis or any other app, regardless of a developer’s adherence to the rules.

As for the rules themselves, I read through the App Store Review Guidelines, bracing myself for Apple’s usual hauteur. What I found was a personable, (mostly) well-written document that addresses a number of complicated issues while (mostly) avoiding the opaque legalese found in the licensing agreements we all stopped reading long ago.

The rule that’s most pertinent to the AppGratis case is this [emphasis mine]:

If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your Apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.

There seems little doubt that AppGratis crossed this line: Its business model is precisely one of artificially enhancing an app’s ratings.

This isn’t a new issue. In September 2012, Apple added a clause (section 2.25) to the Guidelines:

Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.

A good deal of discussion ensued, most of which made clear what awaited AppGratis and others such as FreeAppADay, AppoDay, Daily App Dream, and App Shopper. As explained in a PocketGamer post [emphasis mine]:

The wording is typically vague, but clause 2.25 appears to give Apple carte blanche to put any app that promotes titles from a different developer out of action.
At the moment, we understand Apple’s likely prime targets are pure app promotion services, such as (but not necessarily including) FreeAppADay, AppoDay, AppGratis, Daily App Dream and AppShopper, amongst others.

That clause 2.25 was introduced more than six months ago puts Dawlat’s claim that Apple acted “out of the blue” and Minister Pellerin’s accusation of “brutality” in a different light: Dawlat had ample notice of Apple’s intent.

(Minister Pellerin might now be wondering if her staff performed sufficient research before letting her run to Dawlat’s rescue…or maybe not. Half-baked technopolicy is becoming politics-as-usual in France. Last year, the newly-elected government ran afoul of high-tech entrepreneurs when it announced legislation that would greatly increase taxes on their equity gains, only to beat a hasty half-retreat, leaving the tax question muddier than ever. Perhaps the AppGratis snafu was perceived as an opportunity to earn back some of the lost credit, especially when portraying the situation as a French David vs. an American Goliath.)

Ultimately, Dawlat’s cry of foul will probably be seen as disingenuous and tiresome, not to mention a wasteful distraction… Do the critics of the App Store approval process consider the noise level that approvers must endure? To get to the current 700,000 apps, the company has to scrutinize more than 3,000 new entries a week plus revisions of existing apps. Mistakes will be made. Some apps will be approved only to be yanked when their scheme becomes obvious. Developers will be incensed, and Apple, sensibly, has anticipated the backlash:

If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

So it’s case closed, right?

Not quite. There remains the problem of perception.

I can’t provide a link to the Guidelines in this Note because the document is only accessible to dues-paying developers (of which I am one). There’s nothing mysterious, secret, or dangerous about these words, they provide no competitive insight that could work to Apple’s disadvantage. Charging a developer just to read the rules gains nothing, and contributes to Apple’s negative image. Attempting to keep them out of the public eye is insulting and futile – developers freely leak and comment on the content.

Far worse is that Apple appears to have a policy (with very few allowances) of refusing to publicly explain its App Store decisions. I realize that some judgments are ineffable, matters of taste, as explained in the Guidelines:

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

Apple isn’t wrong to reserve the right to make such decisions. Although insiders may depict the company as obsessive control freaks, “normal” customers seem to appreciate Apple’s efforts to keep the App Store a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

But maintaining a stony silence when imposing a judgment call is a bad choice, it distances developers, and it inevitably triggers controversy. A few words of explanation would invite respect for having courageously taken a difficult stance.

As already discussed in a recent Monday Note (Apple is Losing The War – Of Words), I find the company’s refusal to engage in more public debate harmful and disrespectful. While the AppGratis incident in itself isn’t overly important, it could be an opportunity for Apple to reconsider its ways.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

A lesson of Public e-Policy

 

The small Baltic republic of Estonia is run like a corporation. But its president believes government must to play a crucial role in areas of digital policy such as secure ID. 

Toomas Hendrik Ilves must feel one-of-a-kind when he attends international summits. His personal trajectory has nothing in common with the backgrounds of other heads of state. Born in Stockholm in 1953 where his parents had taken refuge from the Soviet-controlled Estonia, Ilves was raised mostly in the United States. There, he got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1991, when Estonia became independent, Ilves was in Munich, working as a journalist for Radio Free Europe (he is also fluent English, German and Latin.) Two years later, he was appointed ambassador to — where else? — the United States. In 2006, a centrist coalition elected him president of the republic of Estonia (1.4m inhabitants).

One more thing about Toomas Hendrik Ilves: he programmed his first computer at the age of 13. A skill that would prove decisive for his country’s fate.

Last week in Paris, president Ilves was the keynote speaker at a conference organized by Jouve Group, a 3,000 employees French company specialized in digital distribution. The bow-tied Estonian captivated the audience with his straight speech, the polar opposite of the classic politician’s. Here are abstracts from my notes:

“At the [post-independence] time, the country, plagued by corruption, was rather technologically backward. To give an example, the phone system in the capital [Tallinn] dated back to 1938. One of our first key decisions was to go for the latest digital technologies instead of being encumbered by analog ones. For instance, Finland offered to provide Estonia with much more modern telecommunication switching systems, but still based on analog technology. We declined, and elected instead to buy the latest digital network equipment”.  

Estonia’s ability to build a completely new infrastructure without being dragged down by technologies from the past (and by the old-guard defending it) was essential to the nation’s development. When I later asked him about the main resistance factors he had encountered, he mentioned legacy technologies: “You in France, almost invented the internet with the Minitel. Unfortunately, you were still pushing the Minitel when Mosaic [the first web browser] was invented”. (The videotext-based system was officially retired at last in… 2012. France lost almost a decade by delaying its embrace of Internet Protocols.)

The other key decision was introducing computers in schools and teaching programming on a large scale. Combined to the hunger for openness in a tiny country emerging from 45 years of Soviet domination, this explains why Estonia has become an energetic tech incubator, nurturing big names like Kazaa or Skype (Skype still maintains its R&D center in Tallinn.)

“Every municipality in Estonia wanted to be connected to the Internet, even when officials didn’t know what it was. (…) And we played with envy…. With neighbors such as Finland or Sweden, the countries of Nokia and Ericsson, we wanted to be like them.”  

To further encourage the transition to digital, cities opened Internet centers to give access to people who couldn’t afford computers. If, in Western Europe, the Internet was seen as a prime vector of American imperialism, up in the newly freed Baltic states, it was seen as an instrument of empowerment and access to the world:

“We wanted a take the leap forward and build a modern country from the outset. The first public service we chose to go digital was the tax system. As a result, not only we eliminate corruption in the tax collection system — a computer is difficult to bribe –, but we increased the amount of money the state collected. We put some incentives in: When filing digitally, you’d get your tax refund within two weeks versus several months with paper. Today, more than 95% of tax returns are filed electronically. And the fact that we got more money overcame most of the resistance in the administration and paved the way for future developments”. 

“At some point we decided to give to every citizen a chip-card… In other words, a digital ID card. When I first mentioned this to some Anglo-saxon government officials, they opposed the classic ”Big Brother” argument. Our belief was, if we really wanted to build a digital nation, the government had to be the guarantor of digital authentication by providing everyone with a secure ID. It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that someone who connects to an online service is the right person. All was built on the public key-private key encryption system. In Estonia, digital ID is a legal signature.The issue of secure ID is essential, otherwise we’ll end-up stealing from ourselves. Big brother is not the State, Big Brother lies in Big Data.”

“In Estonia, every citizen owns his or her data and has full access to it. We currently have about 350 major services securely accessible online. A patient, never gets a paper prescription; the doctor will load the prescription in a the card and the patient can go to any pharmacy. The system will soon be extended to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, as our citizens travel a lot. In addition, everyone can access their medical records. But they can chose what doctor will see them. I was actually quite surprised when a head of State from Southern Europe told me some paper medical records bear the mention “not to be shown to the patient” [I suspect it was France...]. As for privacy protection, the ID chip-card works both ways. If a policeman wants to check on your boyfriend outside the boundaries of a legal investigation, the system will flag it — it actually happened.” 

As the Estonian president explained, some good decisions also come out of pure serendipity,:

“[In the Nineties], Estonia had the will but not all the financial resources to build all the infrastructure it wanted, such as massive centralized data centers. Instead, the choice was to interconnect in the most secure way all the existing government databases. The result has been a highly decentralized network of government servers that prevent most abuses. Again, the citizen can access his health records, his tax records, the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], but none of the respective employees can connect to another database”.

The former Soviet Union had the small Baltic state pay the hard price for its freedom. In that respect, I recommend reading CyberWar by Richard Clarke, a former cyber-security advisor in the Clinton administration, who describes multiple cyber-attacks suffered by Estonia in 2007. These actually helped the country develop skillful specialists in that field. Since 2008, Tallinn harbors NATO’s cyber defense main center in addition to a EU large-scale IT systems center.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves stressed the importance of cyber-defense, both at the public and private sector level:

“Vulnerability to a cyber attacks must be seen as a complete market failure. It is completely unacceptable for a credit card company to deduct theft from its revenue base, or for a water supply company to invoke cyber attack as a force majeure. It is their responsibility to protect their systems and their customers. (…) Every company should be aware of this, otherwise we’ll see all our intellectual property ending up in China”. 

–frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Privacy: You Have Nothing To Fear

 

Pervasive sensors and IP connections, coupled with the “infinite” storage and computing power in the Cloud, threaten our privacy. We need to defend ourselves and get control of our personal data amassed by private companies and government agencies.

Optimists and pessimists may inhabit opposing camps, but they do have one thing in common: Their inclinations lead to behaviors that verify their prophecies. I’ve chosen my side: I’m an optimist and have been rewarded accordingly. As a reminder of my attitude, to make sure that the occasional frustrations don’t derail my determination, I keep a little figurine from the Provençal Crèche (Nativity Scene) on my desk. He’s called Lou Ravi, the Enraptured One:

The traditional characterization is that of a gent who wanders the world, innocently marveling at the simplest of miracles. (At times, I wonder if he isn’t just a polite version of the village idiot.)

Recently, a seemingly trivial incident cast a shadow over my life-long optimism, an event that awakened dark thoughts about technology’s impact on our privacy.

As I’m driving on the A10 not-so-freeway towards the Loire châteaux, I see my license plate displayed on a sign that tells me that I’m exceeding the speed limit (130kph, about 80mph). This is novel… where we used to have an anonymous flashing nag, now we’re individually fingered. On the one hand, it’s certainly more helpful than a broad, impersonal warning; on the other, it’s now personal.

Stirred from my enraptured stupor, I start counting other ways in which we’re targeted.

Staying within the realm of license plates, we have an official, Wikipedia-sanctioned acronym: ALPR, the Automatic License Plate Reader, a device that’s used (or mis-used) by municipalities to scan every vehicle that enters the city’s limits. An ALPR system is already operational in ritzy Tiburon just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s being considered in ritzier Piedmont, an island of wealth surrounded by Oakland. The NYPD has used mobile license plate readers to build a “database of 16 million license plates, along with locations where the car was spotted”. (A Google search for Automatic License Plate Reader yields more than 1M hits.)

We also have various flavors of “event data recorders” in our cars. Similar to a plane’s black box, an EDR can regurgitate the sequence of events that preceded a crash. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), 96% of all 2013 vehicles carry such a device and there is a proposal to make them mandatory in 2015 models.

Insurance companies see the EDR as an opportunity to better evaluate risk so they can offer lower premiums to good drivers. Privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used for less benevolent purposes:

Though the information is being collected with the best of intentions – safer cars or to provide drivers with more services and conveniences – there is always the danger it can end up in lawsuits, or in the hands of the government or with marketers looking to drum up business from passing motorists.

Again, if you Google “car black box recorder”, you get about 6M hits and a wide range of third-party devices. Some come with a dashboard camera such as we see in American patrol cars (and that have been adopted by a huge number of Russian drivers); others plug into the OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostic) connector that’s present on all modern cars. Combined with accelerometers and precision GPS recording, these draw a very accurate picture of everything we do at the wheel, where, when and how.

It’s not all sinister: With appropriate software, weekend track drivers can visualize and analyze their braking, acceleration, and effective use of apexes. Still, the overall picture is one of omnipresent surveillance. And I’m certainly not encouraged when I read that “anyone with a handheld scanner and access to the port under your steering column can download a wealth of information about your vehicle.”

The regard for privacy that’s demonstrated by the public sector — the government agencies that can have an enormous impact on our lives — is also less than encouraging. We now realize that the IRS reads our email without requiring any authorization or judicial supervision; the DEA complains about iMessage encryption; we have National Security Letters that confer broad and little-supervised snooping powers to US government agencies.

On the private side, Google, Facebook, and cellular carriers amass and trade on our personal data, again, with little or no practical oversight. Try asking any of these companies what sort of information they have on you, to whom they sell it, and if you can have a peek at it.

The litany goes on: Escalating healthcare expenditures give insurers equally escalating incentives to acquire personal behavior data in order to improve their risk calculation (and reject claims). We’re photographed, videoed, and, now, face-recognized everywhere. Try counting the cameras that see you on the street, in stores, elevators, offices.

When we worry about such practices, we get the sort of rote retort infelicitously typified by Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. All you need to do is lead a pristine life. Drive carefully; wait for the green light before you cross the street; eat a balanced diet; don’t take, view, or exchange the wrong pictures; don’t consort with undesirable people; don’t say or write bad words; don’t inhale the wrong smoke…

This is unrealistic.

If there is nowhere to hide, how can disagreements safely ferment in political life, at work, in relationships? By definition, change disturbs something or annoys someone. And, moving to paranoia, or full awareness, the age-old question arises: Who will guard us from the guardians?

Returning to my now slightly-strained optimism, I hope we’ll support the people and organizations, such as the ACLU and many others, who work for our privacy, and that we’ll use our votes to unseat those who sell us out to private and state encroachers. We can start with demanding a handle on who has what data on us. Playing on Habeas Corpus, it’s already called Habeas Data.

I’m curious to see what Google, Verizon, Orange, Facebook, Amazon and many others know about me. Insights await…

JLG@mondaynote.com