Summer Fun: The HR-Less Performance Review

The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read “Microsoft’s Lost Decade“, an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft’s Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel).

But I don’t come to bury Caesar — not, yet, I’ll wait until actual numbers for Windows 8 and the Surface tablets emerge. Instead, let’s consider the centerpiece of Eichenwald’s article, his depiction of the cultural degeneracy and intramural paranoia that comes of a badly implemented performance review system.

Performance assessments are, of course, an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organization must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. This is tournament play, after all, and the coach must “release” players who can’t help get the team to the finals.

But Microsoft’s implementation — “stack ranking”, a bell curve that pits employees and groups against one another like rats in a cage — plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.

…every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor…For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.

Employees quickly realized that it was more important to focus on organization politics than actual performance:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

This brought back bad memories of my corpocrat days working for a noted Valley company. When I landed here in 1985, I was dismayed by the pervasive presence of Human Resources, an éminence grise that cast a shadow across the entire organization. Humor being the courtesy of despair, engineers referred to HR as the KGB or, for a more literary reference, the Bene Gesserit, monikers that knowingly imputed an efficiency to a department that offered anything but. Granted, there was no bell curve grading, no obligation to sacrifice the bottom 5%, but the politics were stifling nonetheless, the review process a painful charade.

In memory of those shenanigans, I’ve come up with a possible antidote to manipulative reviews, an attempt to deal honestly and pleasantly with the imperfections of life at work. (Someday I’ll write a Note about an equally important task: How to let go of people with decency — and without lawyers.)

A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:

  • First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we’ll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
  • Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
  • Third: We’re sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I’m about to make. Now let’s talk…

This might sound a little too “different” (that’s Californian for “batty”), but there’s a serious purpose, here. We’ve all been reviewed, we all know the anxiety — and sometimes the resentment — that precedes the event. Mealy-mouthed comments about team-spirit, loyalty, how the company cares for its people and other insufferable HR pablum only makes things worse. You tune out, you can only hear the noises in your own head: Am I being led to the exit? Am I being shafted out of a raise/bonus/stock? Am I supposed to think that loyalty is its own — and only — reward?

To be heard, the reviewer must silence these questions. Hence the preamble: Your job is safe; here are the $$; we like what you do enough that you can safely continue to behave in the manner we have come to expect, no need to course-correct.

There follows a pause to let the news sink in. Anxiety quelled, the reviewee is now prepared — and willing — to listen.

On to the observations and suggestions. It’s probably a good idea to start with the minus side of the ledger — this isn’t much different from a sales pitch: Get the product’s negatives out of the way first. Stick to specific comments about goals missed, undesirable habits, and the like. “When you arrive 20 minutes late at our staff meetings, you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, including me.” Defensive reactions to the negative part of a review are unavoidable, so you sing the refrain: The objectionable behavior, while imperfect, doesn’t jeopardize your job.

(As an aside, and seriously: Objecting to a behavior that you insist will be tolerated because of the overall goodness of the relationship…this approach works wonders outside of work. It’s a lot more constructive than the comminatory “You must stop doing this”, which invites the sarcastic and unhelpful response: “And if I don’t? What? You’ll divorce me?”)

The review can now proceed to the positive, to praising the individual’s performance and giving thanks. Saccharine is to be avoided, examples are a must, and exaggeration is only welcome in moderate doses.

Finally, ask for feedback… but don’t kid yourself: Hierarchy trumps honesty, so you may have to ask twice. Explain that you understand the challenge in giving feedback to the reviewer. You might get some useful tidbits, especially if they sting a bit.

Back in the real world, this simple, direct approach might not fit a large organization where you need to protect the rest of the team from the demoralization of a metastasized employee. The habitual backstabber, the knee-jerk naysayer, the self-appointed “Fellow” must be excised before too much harm is done. It’s a difficult task that requires a degree of human judgment and courage that’s not afforded by a mechanical ranking system.

Next week, we might return to topics such as Apple’s uneasy relationship with file systems, Android tablets and phablets, or some such tech disquisition.

Saving Private RIM

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve read a number of bedtimes stories about RIM’s next move. They all start with the same trope: Once upon a time, late last century, Apple was on the edge of the precipice and still managed to come back — and how! Today, RIM’s situation isn’t nearly as dire as Apple’s was then. Unlike Apple, it doesn’t need a cash transfusion and, in the words of Thorsten Heins, RIM’s new CEO: “If you look at the platform it’s still growing, if you look at the devices we’ve got a single phone that’s sold 45 million units.” RIM will pull off an Apple-like rebound and live happily ever after.

Equating RIM 2012 with Apple 1997 is, in so many respects, delusional. Let me count the ways.

First, the context, the marketplace. In its dark days, Apple faced PC clones running Windows. With Microsoft’s 95% market share, it wasn’t even a two-platform race. Microsoft came to Apple’s rescue with a $150M investment and a commitment to continue writing apps for the Macintosh. This was enlightened self-interest on Microsoft’s part: Discreetly tucked into the agreement was the settlement of a brewing IP suit. And by keeping their highly visible (if economically unthreatening) competitor alive, Microsoft hoped to score a few goodwill points in the face of the DOJ’s antitrust investigations.

Fifteen years later, there’s no looming smartphone monopoly. We have a genuine two-horse race between Android and iOS, and a third horse, Microsoft, circling in the paddock. This is a very different world, a much rougher one with bruisers such as Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and ZTE…with this many players, there’s no rationale for investing in a fallen player.

Second, ecosystems. In Stephen Elop’s ringing (if infelicitously timed) words, yesterday’s platform struggles have become all-out ecosystem wars. To claw back into the race, let alone to return to its former CrackBerry glory, RIM must build an array of content and services that can equal or better those that will be offered by the dominant players in 2013.

This isn’t just about app stores — a challenge unto itself when developers ask why they should commit to a troubled player. Smartphone and tablet users expect entertainment, navigation, synchronization between their devices and other Cloud services.

In the Daily Telegraph interview quoted earlier, Thorsten Heins boasts that BB10, the upcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, will have “true multitasking, … potentially running a car’s navigation, entertainment and gaming systems for the whole family“. Elsewhere, he refers to a new world of applications in which your Blackberry will connect to “the embedded systems that run constantly in the background of everyday life – from parking meters and car computers to credit card machines and ticket counters“. (Home automation can’t be very far off.) Even more majestically, Heins tells us that RIM’s mission is “to build a new mobile computing platform to empower a people in a way they didn’t think possible“.

This all sounds like a noble and worthy goal…but it’s a bit vague. How will RIM’s approach be different from — or better than — the competing ecosystems?

This leads us to our third point: The engineering team (or, “it’s simply a matter of implementation”). When Steve Jobs reverse-acquired Apple in 1997, he brought with him the creators of NextStep, the likes of Avie Tevanian, Bertrand Serlet, and Scott Forstall. They led a team of talented, like-minded computer scientists whose goal was clear: Replace the decrepit Mac OS with a truly modern foundation. It took them the better part of five years to produce what we know as OS X.

RIM acquired QNX, the foundation for BB10, a mere two years ago. After a quick bow to the work ethic and technical manhood of RIM’s engineers, one must ask if they’re in the same league as the team Jobs brought to Apple 2.0, if they can accomplish everything they need to do by early 2013. Weren’t most of these engineers already onboard when RIM fell asleep at the switch?

Fourth and last, leadership. Using Apple 1997 as the model for turning around a once-great company invites challenging comparisons. Or, more accurately, a single comparison: Is Thorsten Heins made of the same unobtainium as Steve Jobs? This isn’t a question of IQ, of neo-cortex, but of Mind, of being sufficiently agitated, of having the right animal inside.

The prodigal Jobs returned to Apple having known stellar business success with Pixar, and just-as-stellar lack thereof at NeXT (despite the company’s technical prowess). Heins, by contrast, is an insider. He’s been part of RIM’s problem since 2007.

But enough of this fantasy. Let’s turn to the latest story: RIM’s CEO has conceded that the company might have to license its platform:

To deliver BB10 we may need to look at licensing it to someone who can do this at a way better cost proposition than I can do it.

Dumbfoundingly, the licensing idea (which, presumably, will include BlackBerry Messenger), has been met with approval: ”RIM is in trouble and is seemingly finally listening to reason“.

This gambit doesn’t work. It didn’t work for Palm (twice!), nor for Nokia with Symbian. And it really didn’t work for Apple when it licensed the Mac OS to PowerComputing and Motorola in 1995. The Mac clones quickly underpriced the original products and siphoned profits out of Apple’s income statement. Jobs reversed that decision in 1997, and, after much initial criticism, was ultimately vindicated.

With these examples, what drives Heins to think that the BlackBerry 10 clones won’t underprice RIM’s own devices and empty the cash register? BlackBerry Messenger may be well-liked, but it’s also under attack by free, multi-device services such as iMessage.

So, where does this leave RIM? The use of “Private” in this note’s title isn’t a facile pun. It points to a possible avenue for the BlackBerry maker. If it decides to license the software layer of its (formerly) proprietary platform, RIM will indisputably see hardware dollars disappear much faster than software licenses can be signed. RIM will forego a known source of revenue in order to grow a new income stream that, given enough time, might be strong enough to keep the company solvent.

For a publicly-traded company, switching business models in this way is a factual impossibility, it defies business gravity. Shareholders might applaud the long-term strategy but when the cheering stops, they’ll dump the stock.

If RIM wants to do something bold, such as focusing on software and services, they might consider taking the company private. As I write this, RIM has a market cap that’s less than $4B and more than $2B in apparently unencumbered cash. Management and the Board could work with a Private Equity fund, a KKR-type organization, and buy the company from the shareholders.

The ink dries, the curtains close. Backstage, in private, the company performs painful surgery, sheds the groups and businesses that are no longer required by the new, tighter focus. This may be hard on employees, but it’s unavoidable either way: Lose some of the company now, or the entire thing soon enough.

In theory, the company re-emerges smaller but stronger, with a highly profitable software and services business model.

Will this work for RIM? I don’t think so. Given the company’s low market cap and the availability of private capital, if this were an attractive move, it would have been attempted already. Cold-hearted investors looking at the risk involved must have already asked themselves the burning question: How do you compete with free? How do you sell licenses when Android hands them out, gratis (even if licensees have to pay for a few Microsoft patents)?

Sadly for former BlackBerry fans like yours truly — or for current ones who appreciate its core functionality — there aren’t many moves left for RIM on the smartphone chessboard.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple: Three Intriguing Numbers

No Monday Note last week: I was in The Country of Sin, enjoying pleasures such as TGV trips across a landscape of old villages, Romanesque churches, Rhône vineyards — and a couple of nuclear power plants. All this without our friendly TSA.

Back in the Valley, Apple just released their latest quarterly numbers. They weren’t as good as expected, a fact that launched a broadside of comments ranging from shameless pageview whoring (I’m looking at you, Henry) to calm but worried (see Richard Gaywood’s analysis).

As I’ll attempt to explain below, Apple’s latest quarterly performance is unusual. But, stepping back a bit, the company’s numbers are nonetheless phenomenal.

Net sales, growing 23%, are more than three times larger than Amazon’s — and Apple’s net income is more than 1,000 times larger, $8.8B vs. a tiny $7M for the Seattle giant, whose shares went up after disclosing its earnings release anyway.

Turning to Google, Apple sales of $35B are more than three times Google’s $11.3B (including Motorola, for the first time), with net income numbers in a similar ratio at $8.8B and $2.8B respectively.

Ending comparisons with Microsoft, its revenue grew 4% to $18B, about half of Apple’s and, for the first time, the company posted a net loss of $492M, due to the huge $6.2B aQuantive write off, a one time event. Excluding that number, Microsoft net income would have been about $5.5B, two thirds of Apple’s. iPhone revenue at $16B for the quarter, approaches Microsoft’s number for the entire company, iPad, at $9B is about half.

For in-depth coverage of Apple’s Q3 FY 2012, you can turn to Philip Ellmer-DeWitt’s Apple 2.0 or Horace Dediu’s Asymco — possibly the best source of fine-grained industry analysis. I can also recommend Daring Fireball for John Gruber’s lapidary comments and carefully chosen links, and Brian Hall’s Smartphone Wars — vigorous commentary and insights, occasionally couched in NSFW language. Of course, you can always wade through Apple’s 10-Q SEC filing, if you have the time and inclination. Of particular interest is Section 2 MD&A, Management Discussion and Analysis, starting on page 21.

Out of this torrent of information and argument, I suggest we look at three numbers.

First, the 3% “Miss”, Wall Street’s term for failing to hit the revenue bull’s eye. I’m not referring to the guessing games played by Wall Street analysts, both the pros and the so-called amateurs. In the past, the amateurs have done a consistently better job of forecasting revenue, gross margin, profit, unit volumes, but this time, the pros won. Although almost everyone substantially overestimated Apple’s numbers, the pros weren’t nearly as optimistic as the amateurs.”

Instead of measuring Apple’s performance against the predictions of the traders and observers, we can recall what the company itself told us to expect. About a month into each quarter, management provides an official but non-committal estimate of the quarter’s revenue. This guidance is a delicate dance: You want to be cautious, you want to sandbag a little, but not so much that your numbers aren’t taken seriously. Unavoidably, a lot of second-guessing ensues.

Apple has consistently beaten its own guidance, by 19% on average over the past three years, and as much as 35% in Q1 2010. But in this past quarter, Apple “achieved” a historic low: Actual revenue came in at only 3% above the guidance number. Richard Gaywood provides a helpful graphic in his TUAW piece:

Apple management offered explanations during the conference call following the earnings release: The economy in Europe isn’t doing so well, “rumors” about the iPhone 5 have slowed sales of iPhone 4s… These might very well be the causes of the lackluster performance, but one has to wonder: Weren’t these issues known two months ago when the guidance number was announced? Apple is praised for its superbly managed supply chain, its global distribution network, its attention to detail. How is it possible that it didn’t see that the European economy was already cooling? How could management not have heard the steady murmur about an upcoming iPhone?

Put another way: What did you know and when did you know it? And, if you didn’t know, why didn’t you?

There is a possible alternative explanation: Samsung is making more substantial inroads than expected, as their impressive quarterly numbers just released would attest: 50.5M smartphones shipped, almost twice as many as Apple’s 26M.

Sharp-eyed readers may protest the comparison: Samsung reports the number of devices “shipped” while Apple reports units “sold”. But even if we allow for unsold inventory, Samsung’s performance is impressive.  (And, as circumstantial evidence, I noticed an unusually heavy amount of advertising for the Galaxy S III during my recent overseas trip.)

Samsung’s strong showing will almost certainly continue — so how will Apple react? A new product? Price moves? Both? In the conference call, Tim Cook assured his audience that Apple won’t create a “price umbrella” for competitors, that it won’t insist on premium price tags and thus leave small-margin money on the table.

Which leads us to the second number: Gross Margin guidance for the current quarter, ending September 30th, is 38.5%, down from 42.8% for the quarter that just ended. In consultant-speak, that’s an evaporation of 430 basis points (hundredths of percent) in just one quarter — and we’re already one month into it with no visible change in the product lineup other than the full availability of newer MacBooks (Air, Pro, Retina), and no evidence of heavy-handed discounting.

During the conference call, a Morgan Stanley analyst noted that Apple hadn’t shown Gross Margin numbers below 40% for the past two years. Would Apple care to comment?

We expect most of this decline to be primarily driven by a fall transition and to a much lesser extent, the impact of the stronger U.S. dollar.

The entire Gross Margin drop of about $34B of sales (the latest guidance) amounts to $1.5B, a sum that will shift in less than two months, and probably less than one as any momentous announcement is unlikely before Labor Day (the first Monday of September for our overseas readers). This could portend a strong price move in the “fall transition”. To put the $1.5B shift in perspective, imagine Apple dropping its “usual” Gross Margin by $100 per device (new or existing); this means 15M lower-margins devices in the three weeks of September after Labor Day. Or perhaps Apple’s CFO is sandbagging the guidance once again.

The third curious number is the most perplexing: While the entire company grew by 23% compared to the same quarter last year, Apple Store revenue grew by only 17% — and this in spite of adding 47 stores over the year, for a total of 372. Why would Apple’s much vaunted retail channel grow more slowly than the company? The weak Euro economy can’t be the explanation, there are relatively less Apple Stores there. The same can be said for “rumors” of newer devices, they impact all channels and not just company stores.

We’ll see if this last quarter was simply a manifestation of a natural “granularity” of its business (as opposed to the unnatural smoothing of quarter after quarter numbers favored by Wall Street), or if the company is entering a new chapter of the smartphone wars and, if this is the case, how it will change tactics.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Why Murdoch’s The Daily Doesn’t Fly

Is there a future for The Daily? According to last week’s reports by The New York Observer and The New York Times, News Corp’s “tablet newspaper” is on probation: Rupert Murdoch might pull the plug on The Daily which looses $30 million a year. But, in an open email to the publication’s staff, Jesse Angelo, its editor-in-chief, was quick to deny such rumors.

Eighteen months ago, The Daily was held up as embodying the newsmedia’s future. It was the first to be designed for the iPad, it bore the blessing of Steve Jobs himself (quite notable for someone who usually loathed the news sector), and it had the backing of the deep-pocketed News Corporation conglomerate. The project’s success would be measured over time (five years), supported by a considerable amount of funding. It had all it needed to be a success.

Fact is, The Daily never took-off. Six months after its high-wattage launch, it only claimed 80,000 paid-for subscribers. Today, Jesse Angelo mentions a mere 100,000 subs. It is both far from the 500,000 necessary to break-even and totally out of step with the growth of the iPad (and the iPhone, and the Android) installed base.

Something’s wrong with The Daily’s concept.

I subscribed. Twice, actually. At 99 cents a week ($39.99 a year), it was supposed to be a painless addition to my vast set of digital subscriptions. Strangely, it never succeeded in becoming part of my reading habits.

For The Daily, this might be its first problem: It is everything and nothing special at the same time. It’s not a tabloid, but it doesn’t carry in-depth, enterprise journalism either. It’s a sophisticated container for commodity news — i.e. the news that you can get everywhere, in real-time and for free. If I crave celebrity fodder, I go to TMZ or to the Huffington Post. If I want business news, I’ll find everything on CNN Money or Business Insider, all very efficiently and appealingly edited. No need to go through the tedious download of a 100 pages-plus issue.

The Daily’s inherent competition with the web (and mobile) was completely underestimated. Real time is now mandatory, so is the ability to generate conversations. For The Daily, a comparison of last weekend’s newscycle is cruel. Its coverage of the Mitt Romney tax return controversy triggered 179 comments on The Daily vs. 28,464 comments on the Huffington Post. (Note the HuffPo built it on a 150 words Associated Press story and a one minute video segment from CNN — that’s the digital version of the multiplication of the loaves…)

The Daily is like an old concept in a high-tech package. Some draw a parallel with USA Today, the first truly national newspapers launched in 1982. Two things made the paper a success:  its positioning as the first truly national newspaper in the United States, and its innovative format and layout; USA Today was designed for quick reads and explanatory journalism enhanced by graphics. That uniqueness was key to installing the paper America’s news landscape.

By contrast, The Daily does not enjoy the specificity of a “visually attractive convenience”. Its sophistication and its cognitive profusion lead to an excess of complexity which ends up leveling its content off. The Daily has no asperities, nothing to retain the reader’s attention in a recurring manner. A media is driven by its affinity for its audience. An intellectual, cultural or political affinity — or a combination of all three. The Daily lacks such engines. Even its Murdoch-induced anti-Obama stance fails to keep readers coming back.

Another key question for The Daily’s future pertains to its business model. On average, according to the Newspaper Association of America, 70% of the revenue of US dailies comes form advertising, and 14% of the ad revenue comes from digital. By any means, The Daily should have been loaded with ads. There is almost none. Including for the new “WKND” edition. This is worrisome: many papers draw a third or half of their revenue of their weekend editions. The per-copy price won’t help either. At 99 cents a week, it’s pocket change. After Apple’s 30% cut, this leaves less than 10 cents per issue. Even with a streamlined newsroom of 150, it can’t fly. (For more about The Daily’s economics, read Ken Doctor’s January 2011 Newsonomics article, or last week’s piece by Staci Kramer in PaidContent, both explain the issue pretty well.)

The Daily also illustrates the difficulty in building a digital media brand. Many tried, few succeeded. Slate, Salon, excellent as they are, journalistically speaking, never took off audience-wise. The Huffington Post made it through a unique combination of unscrupulous “aggrelooting” of contents from a variety of willing and unwilling sources, legions of unpaid bloggers, Arianna’s media footprint, and unparalleled audience-building techniques (see the previous Monday Note: Transfer of Value). A combination that proved very complicated to reproduce — even for someone as resourceful as Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian-born media mogul thought he could launch a new breed of news product from scratch. But in his quest for bold digital efficiency, he failed to see that a news product with no history, no breadth, no soul, no character could only face an uncertain future.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Business Model Dances

Apple will licence the iOS. An unexpected disturbance is apparent in Apple’s vaunted Supply Chain. It’s not what’s there, but what isn’t: In the past, each new iPhone was preceded by an increase in orders for displays, batteries, memory, cases, etc. But now, as we approach the September/October launch of the new iPhone 5, the manufacturing pipeline is only modestly full.

Concerned by the underflow, I put in a call to a friend at DigiTimes. Is this just a test run that portends a delayed release? According to my friend’s usual sources: No, the launch hasn’t been pushed back. The parts aren’t on order because Apple intends to produce the new iPhone in much smaller numbers offered through online sales only, plus a small subset of the Apple Stores worldwide (no more than 44 stores, says the rumor). But there will, nonetheless, be much rejoicing at the launch, because…

…Apple will announce a broad iOS licensing program.

This is great news for “rational” business people: Apple has finally come to its senses. I imagine the explosion in the media:

Apple sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s the Android locomotive with Samsung at the controls.

or…

Years ago, I told Apple’s CEO: ‘Mr. Jobs, break down that wall’. Thank Heaven, Tim Cook is a reasonable man: the Walled Garden is now open to all.

But I couldn’t help but ask: Why launch a new iPhone at all, why not leave the field fully open to Apple’s new partners? My friend was ahead of me; he had already asked the same question. The answer: Apple must set the proper hardware standards for the iOS platform while leaving room for its OEMs. The iPhone 5 isn’t an ordinary iPhone, its a design point.

As I put down the phone, I spin out the rest of this story:

In order to compete with Android, which is free but for the occasional payoff to the Redmond Patent Troll, the iOS license is forced to essentially zero, as well. Before its epiphany, Apple made about $400 per iPhone. Now enlightened, Apple’s margin for each design point iPhone is around $50 per unit, and the company makes nothing on the huge number of iOS clones sold by Samsung, HTC, Huawei and ZTE, RIM and Nokia (just kidding about these last two).

Within weeks (days?), the big Wall Street funds that own most of AAPL dump their shares and the most valuable high-tech company in history loses 90% of its market cap.

Let’s stop the fiction here and consider the very real peril in switching business models. Once you choose a path, you stick to it for the rest of your life, whether brutish and short, or long and prosperous.

In the mid-nineties, Apple tried to correct the errors of its un-licensing ways and almost paid with its life as Power Computing and Motorola siphoned gross margin money out of Apple’s P&L. When Jobs reverse-acquired Apple, one of the first things he did was stanch the bleeding by canceling the Mac OS licenses. It was met with noisy disapproval –  for a while.

With this in mind, let’s look at two other companies that are trying to finesse difficult business model moves: Microsoft and Google.

Microsoft announces its Surface tablets…pardon…Tablet PCs, and quickly finds itself between two business models: Are they offering a vertically integrated device, a la Xbox; or are they licensing a software platform, as in Windows/Office? As remarked upon by Horace Dediu and others, one day Ballmer says:

“We are working real hard on the Surface. That’s the focus. That’s our core.”

and the next, with equal strength of conviction:

“Surface is just a design point.”

Ballmer isn’t delusional, he knows he can’t dump his OEM vassals and become a vertically integrated tablet maker overnight, setting up manufacturing, distribution, and support for 100 million or more units a year. Also, PC+ wars of words aside, he sees that these annoying “media tablets” are gaining on Windows PCs.

The solution: Announce Tablet PCs that he hopes will spur HP, Dell, and Lenovo to imitate and even outdo Microsoft own Surface devices. In a perfectly Nixonian explanation, Ballmer promises that after years of forcing PC clone makers into a race to the bottom by constantly eating into their margins — and then condemning them for their shoddy products — the new, open Microsoft won’t cheat its business partners, they won’t withhold some of that “openness” for exclusive use by Microsoft’s own devices.

As with the presidential precursor, this could be a very shrewd move…and ultimately doomed.

If it works, Microsoft will have succeeded in “reimagining” Windows.

If it doesn’t work, Ballmer will have a “neither-nor” business model on his hands: He’ll have chased away partners without gaining the time and talent to create a Microsoft tablet business the size of Google’s and Apple’s. Perhaps, in Brian Hall’s words: “Someone should tell Microsoft that PC+ is about as likely as Minicomputer+“.

So far, traditional Windows OEMs have been quiet, with the (perhaps transitory) exception of HP which announced that it won’t make a Windows RT tablet. (That’s the ARM-based variant, as opposed to the more conventional Intel-based one.)

All subject to change, as we know from Ballmer’s constant zigs and zags.

With Google we see what could be the beginning of several contortions. Just like Microsoft, Google seems to have become impatient with their own subjects: “No one seems to be able to do a proper tablet…we’ll have to do it ourselves.” (We know what “proper” means, here: It’s a grudging recognition of the great degree of complexity that belies the iPad’s benign surface.)

So now we have Google’s 7″ Nexus tablet, the first such device to receive the highest of honors — A Tablet To Rival the iPad — bestowed by reviewers from the NYT, the WSJ, Ars Technica, and others.

(I’m getting mine. Here’s my order number: 15731260465432498277.1587861291707893. Thirty-six digits. They must be kidding, right? Or they’re making room for a lot of orders from exoplanets. Not enough for a Googol, though.)

Is Google’s “vertical” move into designing, manufacturing, selling, and supporting its own tablets the same as Microsoft’s? Probably not. In the past, they tried with phones made by HTC, but the experiment didn’t last. Because Amazon was able to pick Android’s lock and create the Android-based yet non-Android Kindle Fire, Google’s current move could be much more serious.

And it could carry serious risks, as well: The gentle folks at Samsung are not going to take this with a smile and a quick genuflection. If they’re not cowed by Apple, they certainly aren’t going to let Google eat into their tablet business. As for phones, there’s Google’s $12.5B subsidiary, Motorola Mobility, another irritant for Samsung and other Android smartphone makers.

Like Microsoft, Google now faces the toxic waste of its own licensing formula: A good, enthusiastically-adopted platform that launches a race to the bottom. With few exceptions, the low margins and the haste to produce model after model have starved engineering teams of the budgets and time they need to to come up with “proper” products. Google becomes unhappy, decides to “do something about it” — and thus pushes itself closer to a business model change in which it competes with its own partners.

For the first Nexus tablet, Google can sell it at cost (or close to it), just like Amazon. But Google doesn’t have Amazon’s ecosystem, its vast store of physical products and digital content that the Kindle Fire helps sell. Sooner or later, this could force Google to make tablets “for their own sake”, as a money-making business unit.

Or they could stick with the current Android strategy: An OEM platform that runs zillions of devices, all with the same goal: Expose the consumer to Google services, to the radiation of its advertising business, all the time, everywhere, on any device.

Or , like Microsoft, end up in a neither here nor there crack of the business model space.

This is going to be interesting.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Transfer of Value

This is a story of pride vs. geekiness: Traditional newspapers that move online are about to lose the war against pure players and aggregators. Armed with the conviction their intellectual superiority makes them immune to digital modernity, newspapers neglected today’s internet driving forces: relying on technology to build audiences and the ability to coalesce a community over any range of subjects — even the most mundane ones.

When I discuss this with seasoned newsroom people on both sides of the Atlantic, most still firmly believe the quality of their work guarantees their survival against a techno-centric approach to digital contents.

I’m afraid they are wrong. Lethally so.

We are a facing a culture shock. On one side, legacy medias: Great franchises who grew on strong values, such as “pristine” journalism, independence, storytelling, fact-checking, solid editing, respect for the copyright… Along the way, they made their share of mistakes, but, overall, the result is great. After all, at the height of the Fourth Estate’s power, the population was better informed than today’s Facebook cherry-pickers.  Now, this (aging) fraternity faces a new generation of media people who build their fiefdom on a completely different set of values. For instance, the notion of copyright has become exceedingly elastic. A few months ago, Flipboard began to aggregate contents from French news organizations, taking large excerpts — roughly capturing the essence of a story — along with a token link back to the original content. Publishers sent polite letters saying, in substance: ‘Guys, although we are fond of your iOS applications, you can’t simply pick up our stuff without permission, we need to talk first…’

Publishers’ attitude toward aggregators has always been ambiguous. Google is the perfect example: on one hand, publishers complained about the search giant’s power; and, at the same time, they spend huge sums of money optimizing their sites, purchasing relevant keywords, all to make the best use of the very power they criticize. In Belgium, publishers challenged Google in court for the Google News product before realizing they really depended a lot on it, and begging for reintegration in the Google traffic cauldron.

Another example of the culture shock: reliance on technology. It’s a religion for the newcomers but merely a support function for traditional editors. Unfortunately, evidence shows how wrong it is to snub the traffic building arsenal. Here are a few examples.

On July 5th, The Wall Street Journal runs an editorial piece about Mitt Romney’s position on Obamacare.

The rather dull and generic “Romney’s Tax Confusion” title for this 1000 words article attracted a remarkable 938 comments.

But look at what the Huffington Post did: a 500 words treatment including a 300 words article, plus a 200 words excerpt of the WSJ opinion and a link back (completely useless). But, unlike the Journal, the HuffPo ran a much sexier headline :

A choice of words that takes in account all Search Engine Optimization (SEO) prerequisites, using high yield words such as “Squandering”, “Snafu”, in conjunction with much sought-after topics such as “Romney” and “Health Care”. Altogether, this guarantees a nice blip on Google’s radar — and a considerable audience : 7000+ comments (7x more than the original), 600 Facebook shares, etc.

HuffPo’s editors took no chance: the headline they picked is algorithm-designed to yield the best results in Google. The aggregator invested a lot in SEO tools: I was told that every headline is matched in realtime against Google most searched items right before being posted. If the editor’s choice scores low in SEO, the system suggests better terms. In some instances the HuffPo will A/B test headlines: It will serve different versions of a page to a couple of random groups and, after five minutes, the best headline will be selected. Found on Quora, here are explanations by Whitney Snyder, HuffPost’s senior news editor:

The A/B testing was custom built. We do not, however, A/B test every headline. We often use it to see if our readers are familiar with a person’s name (i.e. John Barrasso vs GOP Senator), or to play up two different aspects of a story and see which one interests readers more. We also A/B test different images.

Other examples below will prove the effectiveness of HuffPo’s approach. Here is a media story about a TV host whose position is in jeopardy; the Daily News version: a 500 words article that looks like this:

The Huffington Post summed it up in a 175 words form, but introduced it with a much more potent headline including strong, Google-friendly locutions:

Results speak for themselves:

Daily  News original version : 2 comments, 1 tweet, 1 Facebook share
HuffingtonPost version : 4601 comments, 79 tweets, 155 share.

Like no one else, the HuffPo masters eye-grabbing headline such as these :
Watch Out Swimmers: Testicle-Eating Fish Species Caught in US Lake (4,000 Facebook recommendations), or: Akron Restaurant Owner Dies After Serving Breakfast To Obama (3300 comments) or yesterday’s home: LEPAGE LOSES IT: IRS ‘THE NEW GESTAPO’ displayed in a 80 points font-size; this adaptation of the Maine’s daily Press Herald generated about 6000 comments on the aggregator.

The point is not to criticize the Huffington Post for being extremely efficient at optimizing its work. They invested a lot, they trained their people well. Of course, the bulk of HuffPo’s content  comes from : a) unpaid bloggers — 9,884 new ones last year alone according to Arianna’s count; b) content borrowed from others media and re-engineered by 170 journalists, a term that encompass various kinds of news producers and a bunch of true writers and editors; c) a small percentage of original reporting.  Each day, all this concurs to “over 1,000 stories published” that will translate into 1.4 million of Facebook referrals and 250,000 comments. Staggering numbers indeed. With some downsides, too: 16,000 comments (!) for an 200 words article about Barack Obama asking to turn off Fox News during a campaign tour is not likely to attract enviable demographics advertising-wise. The HuffPo might make a billion page views per month, but most of them only yield dimes.

The essence of what we’re seeing here is a transfer of value. Original stories are getting very little traffic due to the poor marketing tactics of old-fashion publishers. But once they are swallowed by the HuffPo’s clever traffic-generation machine, the same journalistic item will make tens or hundred  times better traffic-wise. Who is right?  Who can look to the better future in the digital world ? Is it the virtuous author carving language-smart headlines or the aggregator generating eye-gobbling phrases thanks to high tech tools?  Your guess. Maybe it’s time to wake-up.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

iPad Mini: Wishful Thinking?

Or another killer product? Or, on the pessimistic side, a loser defensive move showing Apple’s fear of competitors such as Amazon, with its Kindle Fire, and Google’s 7″ Nexus tablet?

Recent leaks from purported sources inside Apple’s traditional suppliers have ignited a new frenzy of speculation. And not just from the usual blogging suspects — often better informed and more insightful than the official kommentariat. BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal both stuck their august necks out: The so-called iPad Mini will be launched this coming September.

On this matter, my own biases are on the record.

In an August 2009 Note titled “Apple’s Jesus Tablet: What For?“, I went as far as measuring the pocket on men’s pockets. As a result, I posited a 10″ (diagonal) tablet might not provide the same desirable ubiquity as a 7″ one that men could carry in a coat or jacket pocket, and women in a purse.
(Apple once came to a similar conclusion: the original Newton project started by Steve Sakoman in 1987 was a letter-size tablet. After he and I left, the screen size was cut in half and the actual Newton came out as a pocketable product.)
Five months later, on January 27th, 2010, Steve Jobs stood up and changed the personal computing world for the third time with the 9.7″ (diagonal screen size) iPad. The take-no-prisoners price ($499 for the entry model) was a big surprise. Another one, much less obvious, was Dear Leader’s unusually tentative positioning statement: ‘We’ll see how the iPad finds its place between the iPhone and a MacBook’. (I’m paraphrasing a bit but the tone was there.)
The iPad surprised many, Apple included and, at the beginning, was often misunderstood. I recall my initial disappointment at not being able to perform the same tasks as on my laptop. A huge number of normal humans of all ages thought differently. As we know now, the iPad grew even faster than the iPhone. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s clinging to its ossified PC-centric rhetoric, this turned out to be the true beginning of the Post-PC era.

This excited competitors around the world: You’ll find here a list of 76 tablets announced at CES. By the end of 2011, few had accomplished anything. One exception was Amazon’s Kindle Fire, its Xmas season numbers were rumored to reach more than 4M units, even 6M by some rumored estimates. This rekindled, sorry, rumors of a smaller iPad.
In October 2010, Jobs famously dismissed the idea: “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper so users can file down their fingers.” None of the journalists present at the time had the presence of mind to ask him about the iPhone screen…
Tim Cook, Steve’s disciple put it well at the D10 conference last June when he affectionately (and accurately) called Jobs a great flip-flopper, citing examples of products features his then boss ended up endorsing after repeatedly nixing them.
In an April 2012 Monday Note, I discussed the possible end of Apple’s One Size Fits All for  iPhones and, in particular, iPads. There, I linked to an A. T. Faust III post lucidly explaining how the original 1024 x 768 resolution could easily scale down to a 7.85″ tablet and achieve a nice 163 ppi (pixels per inch) resolution, the same as pre-Retina iPhones. This leads one to believe there is abundant (and inexpensive) manufacturing capacity for such pre-Retina displays.

A few questions.

First, developers. As we saw with iOS apps for iPhone and iPad, size matters, apps don’t scale. That hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of developers for investing in app versions that take advantage of each device unique characteristics, as opposed to committing the cardinal sin of “It’s like the other one, only smaller/bigger”.
So, if developers believe a 7″ iPad would sell in large numbers, they’ll happily fire up Xcode, adapt their existing app, or write a new one. As for the belief in large unit volume for a 7″ device, the initial reception accorded to Google’s Nexus tablet shows there is potentially a lot of life in a smaller iPad.

(I ordered a Nexus tablet and will dutifully report. Last April, I bought a Samsung Note phablet and promised a report. Here it is: I’ll sell you mine for $50. A respectable product, I could definitely live with it. But, IMO, too big for a phone, too small for a tablet.)

Second, Apple was on offense. Now, competition succeeded in putting it on the defensive. While initial Kindle Fire sales were rumored to be huge, the same “sources”, checking on display supplier suppliers, now claim sales of Amazon’s tablet dropped precipitously after the Holidays. Amazon keeps mum, but is also rumored to prepare a slew of not one but several tablets for this year’s Xmas quarter.
As for the Nexus tablet, it isn’t shipping yet.
Instead of a defensive move, I think a 7″ iPad might be another take-no-prisoners move:

From the very beginning of the iPad and its surprising low $499 entry price, it’s been clear that Apple wants to conquer the tablet market and maintain an iPod-like share for the iPad. Now that Apple has become The Man, the company might have to adopt the Not A Single Crack In The Wall strategy used by the previous occupant of the hightech throne.

If this cannibalizes 10″ iPad sales, no problem, better do it yourself than let Google, Amazon or Samsung do it.

Lastly, the price/cost question. As you’ll see on this video, Todd Schoenberger, a Wall Street haruspex visibly off his meds, contends an iPad Mini is a terrible move for Apple, it would be a break with its single product version focus. Like, for the example, the one and only Macintosh, the one and only iPod. Also, he continues, an iPad Mini wouldn’t allow Apple achieve the 37% gross margin it gets from the bigger sibling.
No. If we’re to believe iSuppli, a saner authority on cost matters, the latest 32 GB 4G iPad carries a Bill Of Materials of about $364, for a retail price of $729. Even with a bit of manufacturing overhead, we’re far from 37% today. And, tomorrow, a smaller iPad, with a smaller display, a smaller battery, a correspondingly smaller processor would nicely scale down in cost from the “new” iPad and its expensive display/battery/processor combo.
To where? I won’t speculate, but Apple has shown an ability to be very cost competitive when using previous generation parts and processes. See today’s iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 prices for an example.

I have no inside knowledge and quite a few inclinations: I’d love a pocketable iPad as much as I like small computers such as the defunct Toshiba Libretto and the lively 11″ MacBook Air.

If Apple comes up with a smaller iPad later this year, I think it’ll be a killer product.

–JLG@mondaynote.com

Lessons from ProPublica

Paul Steiger is one of the men I admire the most in my profession. Five years ago, at the age of 65, and after a 16-year tenure as the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor, he seized the opportunity to create a new form of investigative journalism. Steiger created ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to the public interest and to deep dive reporting. He hired a bunch of young staffers (coached by seasoned editors and reporters) that could help him lift data journalism and computer-assisted reporting to the highest level. Thanks to wisely managed partnerships, he gave ProPublica a wide audience and the quality and breadth of his newsroom’s reporting landed it scores of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. ProPublica was the first online news organization to receive such a seal of approval.

All this in five years, with now 33 journalists. Kudos.

Last wednesday, at the end of quick hop to New York, I paid Paul Steiger a visit. His corner office nests on the 23rd floor of Broadway, overlooking Wall Street’s canyons and Manhattan’s southern tip. At 70, Steiger has a twinkle in the eye that you don’t often find in reporters half his age. Especially when he speaks about ProPublica’s most shining journalistic moments.

In late 2006, the Sandler Foundation, approached Steiger with a wish to allocate a fraction of its immense wealth to the funding of investigative reporting. The newsman made four recommendations:

– The first one was to rely on a permanent staff as opposed to hired guns. “To do the kind of journalism we wanted to do, you must have people comfortable enough to stay on the story as long as needed. You also must accept dry holes. Freelancers will starve in such conditions!”

– Two, for the biggest stories, he wanted to partner with one or two large news organizations that could be granted some exclusivity over a short period of time in exchange for good visibility.

– Three, in order to guarantee the widest reach, Paul Steiger wanted to distribute the material freely on the web.

– Four, he would solely be responsible for content; funders or other contributors would not be involved in selecting stories. (Actually, on ProPublica’s first board meeting, none of the financial backers knew what the newsroom was working on.)

The partnership proved to be a great idea and expanded much farther than anticipated. It relied quite a lot on Paul Steiger’s and Stephen Engelberg’s personal connections (Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief.) Quite often, Steiger explained, once a story neared completion, he’d place a call directly to a key editor in a major publications. “Sometimes, I could feel the excitement over the phone”, he laughs. He had to be very careful not to say too much before hammering the deal. I asked him how he handles confidential sources: “Well, we do not mind giving sources’ names to editors and lawyers, but less so to beat reporters… You know, reporters are human, and they might be tempted to call the sources themselves…”

Cooperation with other medias turned out to breed an unexpected advantage: transforming good national stories into a local ones. The best example, is the Dollars for Docs project. In a nutshell: a sizable portion of pharmaceutical firms operating in the United States are now required to reveal all direct contributions to doctors. (It’ll be 100% next year.) Needless to say, they complied reluctantly, providing a sloppy, almost useless database. As a result, the two reporters assigned to the subject were at a loss when it came to retrieve relevant data. Then, a young ProPublica in-house data specialist joined the team and solved the puzzle in a few weeks. The story was published by ProPublica’s five partners: The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, PBS, NPR and Consumer Reports. Why Consumer Reports? “Because they had polling capabilities”, Steiger said. “Pharmaceuticals companies were saying patients didn’t mind if doctors got fees from them, we proved patients actually care…” After a few days for the key partners’ exclusivity window, the database was released on the web on October 19, 2010. In an easily searchable way, it showed the status of 17,000 doctors receiving a total of $750 million. A small stimulus to keep the flow of prescriptions smooth and steady — and to contribute to the indecent cost of healthcare in America.

Then the local mechanics kicked in. In the months afterwards, no less than 125 local outlets picked up the story, extracting relevant local information from the database and adding context. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of ProPublica’s work: its ability to cause a national interest story to percolate down to the local news organizations which, in turn, will give the story more depth by connecting it to its relevant community. (ProPublica now has 78 partners)

I asked Paul Steiger if he believes this model could be translated into a classic business. After all, why not gather half a dozen non-competiting news outlets, happy to split the price of large journalistic projects — each costing from $100,000 to $200,000 to produce — in addition to a small fee from local news? Paul Steiger says it cannot be made to work. To sum it up, by asking a newspaper or a TV network to pay, ProPublica would directly compete with their clients’ internal economics. Inevitably, someone will say, hey, last year, we paid x thousands dollars in fees for ProPublica’s stories, that’s the equivalent of y staffers. Not to mention the state of the news industry with, in fact, very few companies willing (and able) to pay extra editorial costs. The consequence would be a down spiral: deprived of the vast audience it now enjoys, the organization would have a hard time attracting clients for its content, nor would it be able to attract donations. Fact is, such syndication doesn’t work. California Watch, which operates on the same beat as ProPublica, burns more than $2 million a year but collects less than… $30,000 dollars in syndication fees.

That’s why ProPublica plans to stick to its original structure. Next year, Paul Steiger will step down as ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and chief executive, he’ll become executive chairman, a position in which he will spend most of his time raising money for the organization. As it stands today, ProPublica is on a sound path. The first two years of operation were solely funded by the Sandler family, for about $10 million a year. This year their contribution will be down to $4 million, with $6m coming from other sources. In 2013, the breakdown will be $3m and $7 million. Not only did ProPublica put itself at the forefront of the public interest, high quality, digitally boosted, modern journalism, but it also created a sustainable way to support it.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

What’s next for RIM?

A sad coincidence provides a stark contrast between the fortunes of two high tech companies, titans present and past. Last week, on (almost) the same day that the iPhone celebrated its fifth birthday, RIM issued very bad quarterly numbers: Down 43% year-to-year to $2.8B; a $518M net loss compared to a $695M profit in the same quarter last year.

A short five years ago, the BlackBerry was sine qua non in the smartphone world. Today, the future looks gloomy: RIM admits that they expect “the next several quarters to be very challenging”; they announce “a global workforce reduction of approximately 5,000 employees”; and, last but not least, they tell us that the new BB10 OS, initially promised for the end of the year, will be delayed until Q1 2013.

The downward trend has been evident for some time. It led to the replacement of RIM’s historic co-CEOs, Messrs. Lazaridis and Balsillie, with former co-COO Thorsten Heins – and it leads us to ask a series of questions about RIM’s survival.

Will BB10, RIM’s answer to iOS and Android — the company’s “number one priority” — ever ship? And, if it does, will it matter?

Probably not…and probably not.

To start with, BB10 isn’t a next-generation OS, it’s not a version N+1. It’s a whole new infrastructure based on QNX. Certainly, QNX is robust, venerable, and respected — but over its nearly 30 years, it has evolved into the premier OS for real-time applications embedded in consumer electronics, medical devices, and automobiles, not smartphones. From the QNX website:

QNX software is the preferred choice for life-critical systems such as air traffic control systems, surgical equipment, and nuclear power plants. And its cool multimedia features have QNX software turning up in everything from in-dash radios and infotainment systems to the latest casino gaming terminals.

When RIM acquired QNX from Harman International in 2010, the OS came with a handful of sophisticated but narrow, focused tool kits and libraries. Tool kits that let developers build “high-value consumer-grade solutions that range from simple media players to multiple-node systems with intra-vehicle multimedia sharing.” Algorithms that “improve the clarity, quality, and accuracy of voice communications for the most challenging acoustic environments … from conference rooms to automobiles.”

Admirable, certainly, but can they do Angry Birds?

What QNX lacks is a general-purpose application framework for developers. This is the most important (and fattest) part of the smartphone operating system. To app developers, the app framework manifests itself as APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). There are more than 1,000 APIs in Android and iOS. Building such a framework is a complex, time consuming task. A vital one, too: No app framework means no developers, no apps, no sale in the smartphone era.

RIM’s CEO saw that the company’s engineers needed more time, bowed to reality, and announced that BB10 would be delayed until “Q1 2013”.

In normal times, delaying an OS release by a few months is almost routine, part of an always arduous development process. But these times aren’t normal: In the smartphone wars, nine months is a very long time. And we suspect there will be further delays: How many of the company’s software engineers will lash themselves to the mast as RIM continues to lose money, market share, partners, credibility? How many of their best techies have already fled to companies where their work will have a chance to matter, to be enjoyed by fellow app developers and by legions of paying customers?

But let’s assume BB10 finally ships (and that it doesn’t suffer from too many early release bugs). Will it matter? By Q1 2013, Android and iOS will be even more entrenched; BB10 — and whatever new hardware RIM can manage to produce while it sinks and lays people off — will have to be strikingly superior to reverse the company’s slide into insignificance. RIM will have to build a real ecosystem (app store, media, companion devices, payment system) that can compete with what Apple and Google deploy…to say nothing of what Samsung appears to be building.

We could stop here. If BB10 doesn’t matter, that’s the end of the road for RIM. Investors seemed to agree. The day after the quarterly earnings release, RIM shares lost 19% of their value. Subtracting RIM’s $2.2B in cash from its latest $3.8B market cap, the company is left with a (putative) enterprise value of $1.6B. Since its high in June 2008 — a mere four years — RIM has lost about 95% of its value.

Which raises another question: Under the circumstances, why are investors now buying RIM shares? (78M shares last Friday, more than 4X the average daily volume.) Are they philanthropists and necrophiliacs…or astute traders? What prospective endgame justifies the uptick?

There are two theories.

First, RIM will be cut up and sold in pieces: A BB10 licensing business, a BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) operation, an entry-level hardware unit. On closer examination, however, this doesn’t make much sense.

– CEO Heins says RIM licensing will be “fully open”, by which he probably means even more open than Android. Right. Who needs a fledgling OS — without an ecosystem?

– BlackBerry Messenger is/was well-loved, and for good reason, but it doesn’t make sense on its own. Which smartphone platform would it run on? Android, iOS, Windows Phone? Or Tizen for high-end feature phones?

– As to the hardware unit, Huawei, ZTE, and others already produce low-cost BlackBerry killers sold in developing countries and, soon, everywhere. They don’t need RIM’s imprimatur, particularly if BBM and BB10 are no longer part of the brand.

Which leads us to the second theory: RIM sold as a whole to a muscular player such as one of the Chinese companies already mentioned. This could present a different sort of problem: BlackBerries are still popular with many government agencies around the world and Huawei, for one, isn’t. As for other wholecloth buyers: Samsung is busy with four platforms already (Bada, Tizen, Windows Phone, Android). Microsoft has its own story with Nokia. Who else?

Speaking of Ballmer & Co., yet another line of thought is that RIM will ditch BB10 and jump on the Windows Phone platform. Easier said than done, we saw what happened when Nokia osborned its Symbian and MeeGo devices. The move would need to be done in secret and quickly. (Allegedly, Nokia got its first Windows Phone devices from Compal, an experienced Taiwanese supplier; that might be a place to look for a quick transition.) Running BBM on top of Windows Phone 8 would please customers. Microsoft’s ecosystem would also help.

Would Microsoft want to see RIM join the Windows Phone party? Probably…but RIM’s CEO nixed that move. Moreover, Heins nixed all such moves, including joining the Android camp: He wants RIM to stay on its own platform.

Can Heins stick to his guns? We’ll see what he has to say after his brand new (effective July 1st) General Counsel, Steve Zipperstein, takes him aside and whispers in his ear about shareholder lawsuits. For almost 10 years, RIM’s new legal eagle worked for the US Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor…

RIM’s $2.2B in cash, no debt, gives it a bit of maneuvering room: It’s a lot easier to sell your company, or parts of it, when there is money in the bank. Further, the 55 days (of average sales) in channel inventory isn’t completely bad news, some of it could be flushed — at a loss — to generate additional cash and more “runway”. But for how long?

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Insidious Power of Brand Content

Dassault Systemes is one of the French industry’s greatest successes. Everyday, unbeknownst to most of us, we use products designed using DS software: cars, gadgets, buildings and even clothes. This €2bn company provides all the necessary tools for what has become known as Product Lifecycle Management: starting from the initial design, moving to the software that runs the manufacturing process, then to distribution logistics and, at the end of its life, disposing of the product.

Hence a simple question: What could be the axis of communication for such a company? The performance of its latest release of CAD software? Its simulation capabilities?

No. Dassault Systemes opted to communicate on an science-fiction iceberg-related project. The pitch: a French engineer — the old-fashion type, a dreamer who barely speaks English — envisions capturing an iceberg from a Greenland glacier and tugging it down to the thirsty Canary Islands. The DS mission (should it choose to really accept it): devise all the relevant techniques for the job, minimize melting, maximize fuel-efficiency. The result is a remarkable and quite entertaining documentary, a 56 minutes high-tech festival of solutions for this daunting task’s numerous challenges. I watched it in HD on my iPad, in exchange for my email address (the one I’m dedicating to marketers). It’s a huge, multimillion video production, with scores of the helicopters shots, superb views of Greenland and, of course, spectacular 3D imaging, the core DS business. The budget is so high and the project so ambitious, that the documentary was co-produced by several large European TV channels such as France Televisions and the German ZDF. Quite frankly, it fits the standard of public TV — for such a genre.

But this is neither journalism nor National Geographic film-making. It’s a Brand Content operation.

In advertising, Brand Content is the new black. You can’t bump into an ad exec without hearing about it. It’s the new grail, the replacement for the other formats that failed and the latest hope for an ailing industry. But there are side effects.

Let’s have a closer look.

1/ What defines Brand Content as opposed to traditional advertising?

In a good BC product, the brand can be almost absent. It’s the content that’s front and center. In France, advertisers often quote a series made by the French Bank BNP-Paribas titled “Mes Colocs” (My roommates). The title says it all. Launched two years ago, it featured 20 shorts episodes, later supplemented by… 30 bonus ones, all broadcast on YouTube and DailyMotion. Mes Colocs became such a success that two cable TV channels picked it up. The brand name does not appear — except in the opening credits. But, far from being a philanthropic operation, its performance was carefully monitored. BNP-Paribas’ goal was obvious: raising its awareness among young people. And it seems to have worked: the operation translated into a 1.6% increase in accounts opening and a rise of 6.5% in the number of loans granted to young adults (details in this promotional parody produced by the agency.)

This dissociation between brand and content is essential. An historical French brand has been rightly celebrated for being the first to do brand content decades before the term was coined: Michelin with its eponymous guides provided a genuine service without promoting its tires (read Jean-Louis’ Monday Note Why Apple Should Follow Michelin.)

The following opposition can be drawn between traditional advertising and content-based message :

2 / Why the hype ?

First of all, medias are increasingly fragmented. Advertisers and marketers have a hard time targeting the right audience. BC is a good way to let the audience build itself — for instance through virality. It is much more subtle than relying on the heavily (and easily) corrupted blogosphere.

Second, most digital formats are faltering. Display advertising is spiraling down due to well-known factors: unlimited inventories, poor creativity, excessive discounts, bulk purchasing, cannibalization by value killing ad networks, etc. Behavioral targeting is technically spectacular but people get irritated by invasive tracking techniques (see my previous take: Pro (Advertising) Choice.)

Three, marketers have matured. The caricatural advertorial grossly extolling a product is long gone.  Today’s contents are much smarter, they provide information (real or a respectable imitation), and good entertainment. Everything is increasingly well-crafted. Why? Because — and that is reason #4 for growth in BC — there is a lot of available talent out there. As news media shrink, advertising agencies find an abundance of writers, producers, film-makers all eager to work for much more money they could hope to get in their former jobs. Coming in with a fresh mindset, not (yet) brain-washed by marketing, they will do their job professionally, accepting “minor” constraints in exchange for great working conditions — no penny pinching when you do a web series for a global brand.

Five, compared to traditional advertising messages, Brand Content is cheap. As an example, see the making of a recent and highly conceptual Air France commercial shot in Morocco; the cost ran into seven figures. Now, imagine how many brand content products can be done with the same investment. Brand content allows an advertiser to place multiple bets at the same time.

3/ The risks. (Here comes the newsman’s point of view)

Brand content is the advertiser’s dream come true. The downfall of the print press has opened floodgates: publishers become less and less scrupulous in their blurring of the line between editorial and promotion — which is precisely what ad agencies always shoot for. Most women magazines, the luxury press, and now mainstream glossies allocate between 30% and 70% to such “tainted” editorial: nice “journalistic” treatment in exchange for favors on the advertising side. I’m not blaming publishers who do their best to save their business, I’m just stating the facts.

The consequence is obvious: readers are not informed as they should about products. Less and less so. (Although islands of integrity like Consumer Reports remain.) That is not good for the print media as it feeds the public’s distrust. While many publications lose what’s left of their credibility by being too cosy with their advertisers, brands are becoming increasingly savvy at producing quality contents that mimic traditional editorial. As brands tend to become full blown medias, the public will get confused. Sooner or later, it will be difficult to distinguish between a genuine, editorially-driven prime-time TV show and another one sponsored by an advertiser. Call it the ever shrinking journalism.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com