Tim Cook Free At Last

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Trading one’s privacy for the benefit of others isn’t an easy decision. Tim Cook just made such a swap, and the reverberations are beginning to be heard.

I’m happy and relieved that Tim Cook decided to “come out”, to renounce his cherished privacy and speak of his sexual orientation in plain terms rather than veiled, contorted misdirections. The unsaid is toxic.

If you haven’t done so already, please take the time to read Tim’s I’m Proud to Be Gay Businessweek editorial. Soberly written and discreetly moving, the piece concludes with:

“…I’m doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”

It’s an admirable cause…but why should I care? Why does this 70-year old French-born American, a happily married-up father of three adult and inexplicably civilized children, care that Cook’s sexuality is now part of the public record?

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First, I like and respect Cook for what he does, how he does it, and the way he handles his critics. For the past three years he’s been bombarded by questions about Apple’s slowing growth and the absent Next Big Thing, he’s been criticized for both hastening and impeding the inevitable commoditization of All Things Apple, he’s been called a liar by the NYT. Above all, he’s had to suffer the hidden — and occasionally blatant — accusation: You’re no Steve Jobs.

Throughout it all, Cook has displayed a preternatural calm in refusing to take the bait. In a previous Monday Note, I attributed his ability to deflect the cruel jibes to his having grown up “different” in Alabama. In his editorial, Cook confirms as much:

“It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times… [but] it’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple.”

Second, I’ve seen the ravages of homophobia at close range. A salient and personal example is the young gay architect of our first Palo Alto house. He quickly sensed he could be open with us, and would tease my wife Brigitte by showing her pictures of a glorious group of young bucks on vacation in Greece, adding, “What a loss for females”. But he also told us of his shame when he became aware of his desires in his adolescence, that he kneeled down every night to pray that his god would have mercy and make him “normal”. His parents rejected him and refused to keep in touch, even after the HIV virus made him perilously sick.

One morning when we were driving to his place in San Francisco to deliver a painting Brigitte had made for him, his partner called and told us not to come. Our friend had just passed away, still unaccepted by his parents.

Another personal example. A local therapist, a gay Buddhist, told me he couldn’t work as an M.D. in his native Caracas because the oppressive culture wouldn’t allow a gay man to so much as touch another man — even as a doctor. When he decided to tell his parents he was gay, he had to take them to a California mountain and mellow them with a certain herb before they would hear him out, and even then they didn’t entirely embrace his “choice” of sexuality.

Years of conversation with the fellow — who’s exactly my age — in a setting that facilitates honesty have brought empathy and insights that aren’t prevalent or even encouraged in the Parisian culture I come from, even in the supposedly liberated Left Bank that has been the home of lionized gay men such as Yves Saint-Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. (I recommend Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall. Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, a well-document and beautifully written parallel life history.)

This leads me to my third point, brought up by my wife. Gays have always been accepted in creative milieus. In many fields — fashion, certainly, but even in high tech — it’s almost expected that a “designer” is homosexual. Despite counter examples such as  Christian Lacroix, or our own Sir Jony, the stereotype endures.

According to the stereotype, it’s okay for “artistes” (I’ve learned the proper dismissive pronunciation, an elongated ‘eee’ after the first ’t’) to be unconventional, but serious business people must be straight. When I landed in Cupertino in 1985, I became acquainted with the creative <=> gay knee jerk. True-blue business people who didn’t like Apple took to calling us “fags” because of our “creative excesses” and disregard of the establishment.

What Brigitte likes most about Cook’s coming out is that it portends a liberation of the Creative Ghetto. Cook isn’t just outing himself has a gay executive; he’s declaring that being gay — or “creatively excessive”, or unconventional — is fully appropriate at the very top of American business. It helps, she concludes, that Apple’s CEO has made his statement from a position of strength, at a time when the company’s fortunes have reached a new peak and his leadership is more fully recognized than ever.

The ripples now start. Perhaps they’ll bring retroactive comfort to many execs such as former BP CEO John Browne who, in 2007, left his job in fear of a revelation about his lifestyle – and an affirmation to myriads of “different” people at the bottom of the pyramid.

Tim Cook brings hope of a more accepting world – both inside and outside of business. For this he must be happy, and so am I.

And, while I’m at it, Happy Birthday.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Science Fiction: Apple Makes A Toaster Fridge…

 

…a supremely elegant one, naturally.

Plummeting iPad sales rekindle fantasies of a hybrid device, a version that adopts PC attributes, something like a better execution of the Microsoft Surface Pro concept. Or not.

For a company that has gained a well-deserved reputation for its genre-shifting — even genre-creating — devices, it might seem odd that these devices evolve relatively slowly, almost reluctantly, after they’ve been introduced.

It took five years for the iPhone to grow from its original 3.5” in 2007, to a doubled 326 ppi on the same screen size for the June 2010 iPhone 4, to a 5” screen for the 2012 iPhone 5.

In the meantime, Samsung’s 5.3” Galaxy Note, released in 2011, was quickly followed by a 5.5” phablet version. Not to be outdone, Sony’s 2013 Xperia Z Ultra reached 6.4” (160 mm). And nothing could match the growth spurt of the long-forgotten (and discontinued) Dell Streak: from 5” in 2010 to 7” a year later.

Moreover, Apple’s leadership has a reputation — again, well-deserved — of being dismissive of the notion that their inspired creations need to evolve. While dealing with the iPhone 4 antenna fracas at a specially convened press event in 2010, a feisty Steve Jobs took the opportunity to ridicule Apple’s Brobdingnagian smarphone rivals, calling them “Hummers”, predicting that no one will buy a phone so big “you can’t get your hand around it”.

A smaller iPad? Nah, you’d have to shave your fingertips. Quoting the Grand Master in October 2010 [emphasis mine]:

“While one could increase the resolution to make up some of the difference, it is meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of their present size. Apple has done expensive user testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff.

There are clear limits of how close you can place physical elements on a touch screen, before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.

For his part, Tim Cook has repeatedly used the “toaster-fridge” metaphor to dismiss the idea that the iPad needs a keyboard… and to diss hybrid tablet-PC devices such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro, starting with an April 2012 Earnings Call [emphasis and stitching mine]:

“You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user. […] We are not going to that party, but others might from a defensive point of view.”

Recently, however, Apple management has adopted a more nuanced position. In a May 2013 AllThings D interview, Tim Cook cautiously danced around the iPhone screen size topic — although he didn’t waste the opportunity to throw a barb at Samsung [insert and emphasis mine]:

“We haven’t [done a bigger screen] so far, that doesn’t shut off the future. It takes a lot of really detailed work to do a phone right when you do the hardware, the software and services around it. We’ve chosen to put our energy in getting those right and have made the choices in order to do that and we haven’t become defocused working multiple lines.”

Sixteen months later, Apple’s Fall 2014 smartphone line-up sports three screen sizes: the 4” iPhone 5C and 5S , the new 4.7” iPhone 6, and the 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus phablet.

Is this apostasy? Fecklessness?

Remarking on Jobs’ quotable but not-always-lasting pronouncements, Cook gives us this:

“[Jobs] would flip on something so fast that you would forget that he was the one taking the 180 degree polar [opposite] position the day before. I saw it daily. This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change. It takes courage to say, ‘I was wrong.’ I think he had that.”

That brings us to the future of the iPad. In the same interview (in 2012) Cook expressed high hopes for Apple’s tablet:

“The tablet market is going to be huge… As the ecosystem gets better and better and we continue to double down on making great products, I think the limit here is nowhere in sight.”

Less than two years after the sky-is-the-limit pronouncement, iPad unit sales started to head South and have now plummeted for three quarters in a row (- 2,3%, – 9% and – 13% for the latest period). This isn’t to say that the iPad is losing ground to its competitors, unless you include $50 models. Microsoft just claimed $903M in Surface Pro revenue for the quarter ended last September, which, at $1K per hybrid, would be .9M units, or double that number if the company only sold its $499 year-old model. For reference, 12.3M iPads were sold in the same period (I don’t know any company, other than Apple, that discloses its tablet unit volume).

As Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans felicitously tweets it: There’re 2 tablet markets: next-gen computing vision, where Apple has 80%, and, bigger but quite separate, the cheap TV/casual games device.”

Still, the concern remains. Does the iPad own 80% of a shrinking market, or can the Cupertino team reboot sales and fulfill Tim Cook’s The Limit Is Nowhere In Sight promise?

What’s missing?

A hint might lie in plain sight at the coffee shop next door. We see laptops, a Kindle reader or two, and iPads – many with an attached keyboard. Toaster-fridges!

But here’s Craig Federighi, Apple’s Sr. VP of Software Engineering, who is fond of dismissing talk of touch-screen Macs:

“We don’t think it’s the right interface, honestly.”

I find Federighi’s remark a bit facile. Yes, touching the screen makes much more ergonomic sense for a tablet than for a laptop, but in view of the turnabouts discussed above, I don’t quite know what to make of the honestly part.

Frederigh may be entombed in the OS X and iOS software caves, but can he honestly ignore the beautiful Apple Wireless Keyboard proposed as an iPad accessory, or the many Logitech, Incase, and Belkin keyboards offered in the company’s on-line store? (Amazon ranks such keyboards between #20 and #30 in their bestsellers lists.) Is he suborning others to commit the crime of toaster-fridging?

In any case, the iPad + keyboard combo is an incomplete solution. It’s not that the device suffers from a lack of apps. Despite its poor curation, the App Store’s 675,000 iPad apps offer productivity, entertainment, education, graphic composition and editing, music creation, story-telling, and many other tools. As Father Horace (Dediu) likes to put it, the iPad can be “hired to do interesting jobs”.

No, what’s missing is that the iOS user interface building blocks are not keyboard-friendly. And when you start to list what needs to be done, such as adding a cursor, the iPad hybrid looks more and more like a Mac…but a Mac with smaller margins. The 128GB iPad plus an Apple Keyboard rings up at $131 less than a 11”, 128GB MacBook Air. (As an added benefit, perhaps the Apple toaster-fridge would come bundled with Gene Munster’s repeatedly predicted TV Set.)

On to better science fiction.

Let’s imagine what might happen next quarter when Intel finally ships the long-promised Broadwell processors. The new chips’ primary selling point is reduced power consumption. The Broadwell probably won’t dislodge ARM SoCs from smartphones, but a reduced appetite for electricity could enable a smaller, slimmer, lighter MacBook Air 2, with or without a double (linear) density Retina display.

Now consider last quarter’s iPad and Mac numbers, compared to the previous year:

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Mac units grew 25% year-on-year, while iPads experienced a 7% decrease.

You’re in Apple’s driver seat: Do you try to make the iPad feel more like a Mac despite the risks on many levels (internal engineering, app developers, UI issues), or do you let nature to take its course and let the segment of more demanding users gravitate to the Mac, cannibalizing iPad sales as a result? Put another way, are you willing to risk the satisfaction of users who enjoy “pure tablet” simplicity in order to win over customers who will naturally choose a nimbler Mac?

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: John Kirk just published a column titled The Apple Mac Takes Its Place In The Post-PC World where he digs up a prophetic Gates quote and explains the rise of the Mac as the weapon of choice for power users.

The two things that could hurt Google 

 

Google’s recent Search Box feature is but one example of the internet giant’s propensity to use weird ideas to inflict damage upon itself. This sheds light on two serious dangers for Google: Its growing disconnection from the real world and its communication shortcomings. 

At first, the improved Google search box discreetly introduced on September 5 sounded like a terrific idea: you enter the name of a retailer — say Target, Amazon — and, within Google’s search result page, shows up another, dedicated search box in which you can search inside the retailer inventory. Weirdly enough, this new feature was not mentioned in a press release, but just in a casual Google Webmaster Central Blog post aimed at the tech in-crowd.

Evidently, it was also supposed to be a serious commercial enhancer for the search engine. Here is what it looked like as recently as yesterday:

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Google wins on both ends: it keeps users on its own site (a good way to bypass the Amazon gravity well) while, in passing, cashing on ad modules purchased, in this case, both by Amazon.fr itself bidding for the keyword “perceuse” (drill) on Google.fr, and also by Amazon’s competitors offering the same appliance (and whose bids were lower.)

In due fairness, the Google Webmaster Blog explains how to bypass the second stage and how to make a search that lands directly to the site, Amazon.fr in our example. Many US e-commerce sites did so. Why Amazon didn’t is still unclear.

Needless to say, this new feature triggered outrage from many e-commerce sites, especially in Europe. (I captured these screenshots on Google.fr because no ads showed up for US retailers, most likely because I’m browsing form Paris).

For Google’s opponents, it was a welcome ammunition. Immediately, the Open Internet Project summoned a press conference (last Thursday Oct. 23), inviting journalists seen as supportive of their cause. In a previous Monday Note (see Google and the European media: Back to the Ice Age), I told the story of this advocacy group, mostly controlled by the German publishing giant Axel Springer AG, and the French media group Lagardère Active. The latter’s CEO, Denis Olivennes is well-know for his deft political maneuvers, much less so for his business acumen as he missed scores of digital trains in his long career in retail (he headed French retailer Fnac), and in the media business.

Realizing its mistake, Google quickly pulled back, removing the search box on several retailers’ sites, and announcing (though unofficially) that it was working on an opt-out system.

This incident is the perfect illustration of two major Google liabilities.

One: Google’s disconnect from the outside world keeps growing. More than ever, it looks like an insulated community, nurturing its own vision of the digital world, with less and less concern for its users who also happen to be its customers. It looks like Google lives in its own space-time (which is not completely a figure of speech since the company maintains its own set of atomic clocks to synchronize its data centers across the world independently from official time sources).

You can actually feel it when hanging around its vast campus, where large luxury buses coming from San Francisco pour out scores of young people, mostly male (70%) mostly white (61%), produced by the same set of top universities (in that order:  Stanford, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, UCLA…). They are pampered in the best possible way, with free food, on location dental care, etc. They see the world through the mirrored glass of their office, their computer screen and the reams of data that constitute their daily reality.

Google is a brainy but also messy company where the left hemisphere ignores what the other one does. Since the right one (the engineers) is particularly creative and productive, the left brain suffers a lot. In this recent case, a group of techies working at the huge search division (several thousands people) came up with this idea of an improved search box. Higher up, near the top, someone green-lighted the idea that went live early September. Many people from the left hemisphere — communication, legal, public affairs — might have been kept in the dark, not even willfully, by the engineering team, but simply by natural cockiness (or naiveté). However, I also suspect the business side of the company was in the loop (“Google” and “candor” make a solid oxymoron).

Two: Google has a chronic communication problem. The digital ecosystem is known for quickly testing and learning (as opposed to legacy media that are more into staying and sinking). In practical terms, they fire first and reflect afterwards. And sometimes retract. In the search box incident, the right attitude would have been to put up a communiqué saying basically, “Our genuine priority was to improve the user experience [the mandatory BS], but we found out that many e-retailers strongly disliked this new feature. As a result, we took the following steps, blablabla.” Instead, Google did nothing of the sort, only getting its engineering staff to quietly remove the offending search box.

There is a pattern to Google’s inability to properly communicate. You almost discover by accident that these people are doing stunning things in many fields. When the company is questioned, it almost never responds by providing solid data to make its point — that’s simply unbelievable from a company that is so obsessed with its reliance to hard facts. Recall Google’s internal adoption of W. Edwards Deming’s motto: In god we trust, all others bring data.

In parallel, the company practices access journalism, picking up the writer of its choosing, giving him/er a heads-up for a specific subject hoping for a good story. Here are two examples from Wired and The Atlantic.

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These long-read “exclusive” and timely features were reported respectively on location from New Zealand and Australia. They are actually great and balanced pieces since both Wired’s Steven Levy and Atlantic’s Alex Madrigal are fine journalists.

While it never miss a opportunity to mention its vulnerability, Google is better than anyone else at nurturing it. Like Mikhail Gorbachev used to say about the crumbling USSR: “The steering is not connected to the wheels”. We all know what happened.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution

 

The news media sector has become heavily dependent on traffic from Facebook and Google. A reliance now dangerously close to addiction. Maybe it’s time to refocus on direct access. 

Digital publishers pride themselves on their ability to funnel traffic from search and social, namely Google and Facebook (we’ll see that Twitter, contrary to its large public image, is in fact a minuscule traffic source.) In ly business, we hunt for the best Search Engine Optimization specialists, social strategists, community managers to expand the reach of our precious journalistic material; we train and retrain newsroom staff; we equip them with the best tools for analytics and A/B testing to see what headlines best fit the web’s volatile mood… And yet, when a competing story gets a better Google News score, the digital marketing staff gets a stern remark from the news floor. We also compare ourselves with the super giants of the internet whose traffic numbers coming from social reach double digit percentages. In short, we do our best to tap into the social and search reservoir of readers.

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Illustration by Rafiq ElMansy DeviantArt

Consequences vary. Many great news brands today see their direct traffic — that is readers accessing deliberately the URL of the site — fall well below 50%. And the younger the media company (pure players, high-performing click machines such as BuzzFeed), the lower the proportion of direct access is – to the benefit of Facebook and Google for the most part. (As I write this, another window on my screen shows the internal report of a pure player news site: In August it only collected 11% in direct access, vs. 19% from Google and 24% from Facebook — and I’m told it wants to beef up it’s Facebook pipeline.)

Fact is, the two internet giants now control most of the news traffic. Even better, they collect on both ends of the system.

Consider BuzzFeed. In this story from Marketing Land, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti claims to get 75% of its traffic from social and to not paying much attention to Google anymore. According to last Summer ComScore data, a typical BuzzFeed viewer reads on average 2.3 articles and spends slightly more than 3 minutes per visit. And when she leaves BuzzFeed, she goes back to the social nest (or to Google-controlled sites) roughly in the same proportion. As for direct access, it amounts to only 6% and Twitter’s traffic is almost no existent (less than 1%). It clearly appears that Twitter’s position as a significant traffic contributor is vastly overstated: In real terms, it’s a tiny dot in the readers’ pool. None of this is accidental. BF has built a tremendous social/traffic machine that is at the core of its business.

Whether it is 75% of traffic coming from social for BuzzFeed or 30% to 40% for Mashable or others of the same kind, the growing reliance to social and search raises several questions.

The first concerns the intrinsic valuation of a media so dependent on a single distribution provider. After all, Google has a proven record of altering its search algorithm without warning. (In due fairness, most modifications are aimed at content farms and others who try to game Google’s search mechanism.) As for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is unpredictable, he’s also known to do what he wants with his company, thanks to an absolute control on its Board of Directors (read this Quartz story).

None of the above is especially encouraging. Which company in the world wouldn’t be seen as fragile when depending so much on a small set of uncontrollable distributors?

The second question lies in the value of the incoming traffic. Roughly speaking, for a news, value-added type media, the number of page views by source goes like this:
Direct Access : 5 to 6 page views
Google Search: 2 to 3
Emailing: ~2
Google News: ~1
Social: ~1
These figures show how good you have to be in collecting readers from social sources to generate the same advertising ARPU as from a loyal reader coming to your brand because she likes it. Actually, you have to be at least six times better. And the situation is much, much worse if your business model relies a lot on subscriptions (for which social doesn’t bring much transformation when compared, for instance, to highly targeted emails.)

To be sure, I do not advocate we should altogether dump social media or search. Both are essential to attract new readers and expand a news brand’s footprint, to build the personal brand of writers and contributors. But when it comes to the true value of a visit, it’s a completely different story. And if we consider that the value of a single reader must be spread over several types of products and services (see my previous column Diversify or Die) then, the direct reader’s value becomes even more critical.

Taken to the extreme, some medias are doing quite well by relying solely on direct access. Netflix, for instance, entirely built its audience through its unique recommendation engine. Its size and scope are staggering. No less than 300 people are assigned to analyze, understand, and serve the preferences of the network’s 50 million subscribers (read Alex Madrigal’s excellent piece published in January in The Atlantic). Netflix’s data chief Neil Hunt, in this keynote of RecSys conference (go to time code 55:30), sums up his ambition by saying his challenge is “to create 50 million different channels“. In order to do so, he manages a €150m a year data unit. Hunt and his team concentrate their efforts on optimizing the 150 million choices Netflix offers every day to its viewers. He said that if only 10% of those choices end up better than they might have been without its recommendation system, and if just 1% of those choices are good enough to prevent the cancellation of a subscription, such efforts are worth €500m a year for the company (out of a $4.3bn revenue and a $228m operating income in 2013). While Netflix operates in a totally different area from news, such achievement is worth meditating upon.

Maybe it’s time to inject “direct” focus into the obligatory social obsession.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The iPad’s Future

 

The new iPad Air 2 is more than a mere iteration, but the real revolution in the iPad line may be heralded by the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus.

The new iPad Air 2 looks and feels terrific. Hold an iPad mini in one hand and an iPad Air 2 in the other —  they seem to weigh about the same. This is an illusion: The 341 gram mini is lighter than the 444 gram Air 2 (.75 vs .98 pounds; both with cellular equipment), but the Air 2 is almost impossibly thin. At 6.1 mm, the Air 2 makes the mini’s 7.4 mm feel bulky.

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The iPad Air 2 also has an improved screen, a better camera, enhanced motion capture, faster processing, and, perhaps most important, it has Touch ID, Apple’s fingerprint recognition system. This is a bigger deal than initially reported. For businesses that have increasingly stringent security requirements, Touch ID is a welcome replacement for annoying password entry and will help the selling iPads in “compliance-burdened” enterprises. (On this, and the rest of Apple’s announcements, see Charles Arthur’s column in The Guardian, IMHO the best overview.)

And liberation from the password or, more important, from lazy security, isn’t limited to IT-controlled environments. I hear from normal humans that they love the Apple Pay + Touch ID combination for their online shopping, an activity that was previously more convenient on a conventional PC.

If a MacBook Air showed up with a comparable pile of improvements, there would be oohs and aahs all over the Kommentariat. Instead, the slimmed-down, sped up iPad Air 2 has been met with either tepid, supercilious praise (“If the iPad has never appealed to you as a product, the Air 2 probably won’t change your mind”; CNET) or borderline dismissal on the grounds that it won’t fix iPad’s slowing sales (“But it is not clear that making the iPad Air 2 the Twiggy of tablet devices will be enough to reinvigorate Apple’s iPad sales”; NYT).

Indeed, after growing faster than anything in tech history, tablets have stalled. For the past three quarters unit sales have plummeted: iPad sales fell by 2.29% in the first (calendar) quarter of 2014 versus the same quarter in 2013, and they fell by 9% in Q2:

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(A thank-you to Apple for providing actual unit and revenue numbers for their product lines— does any other company do that?)

When Apple releases its fiscal Q4 numbers this coming Monday, we’ll find out how “poorly” the iPad did in the July to September period. We don’t expect the numbers to show a turn around, neither for the quarter and certainly not for the entire fiscal year.

Some folks look at these numbers and question the device’s future (Apple iPad Fad is Over). But technological viability and short-term sales effects are two different topics.

In The iPad Is a Tease last April and The Sweet Spot On Apple’s Racket in August, I tried to separate the merits of the tablet genre, which I see as established and durable, from the unreasonable expectations that arose from the sense of liberation from PC obfuscation. If you see the tablet as a one-for-one replacement for a PC, you’ll be disappointed, and the falling iPad sales will look like an inevitable skid into obsolescence. I flirted with membership in that camp when I accused the iPad of being unsympathetic to “ambitious” users (iPad and File Systems: Failure of Empathy; in my defense, that was in early 2013 — eons ago in tech time).

I’ve since recanted. Instead of a hybrid product as promoted by Microsoft, the sweet spot in Apple’s business model seems to be a tablet and a laptop, each one used for what it does best, unencumbered by hybridization.

As Tim Cook noted last week, Mac sales (laptops, mostly) grew 18% in the last reported quarter. This time, contrary to earlier expectations, it looks like the Mac is cannibalizing the iPad… not a bad “problem” to have. And it’s nothing like the evisceration of iPod sales after the iPhone was introduced. With the advent of the iPhone, the music player became an ingredient, it was no longer a standalone genre.

The new Air 2 won’t put iPad sales back on its previous growth curve… and I don’t think Apple is troubled by this. Making the iPad Air nimbler and more useful, a stand-out in a crowd of tablets, that’s Apple’s strategy, and it’s more than good enough — for the time being.

Talk of Apple’s game plan brings us to the iPhone 6 Plus. (These lengthening product names bring bad memories form the auto industry, but what can Apple do?) Does the new, larger iPhone say something about the future of the iPad mini?

I once thought the mini was the “real” iPad because I could carry it everywhere in a jacket pocket. But about two weeks ago I bought an iPhone 6 Plus, and I haven’t touched my mini since. (As punishment for my sin, I found 52 apps awaiting an update when I finally turned on the mini this morning…) Now I have an “iPad micro” in my (front) jeans pocket…and it makes phone calls.

With the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus, the iDevices playing field has changed: A broader range of iPhones could “chase” the iPad upwards, creating opportunity for a beefier “iPad Pro”. Or perhaps Apple will use its now-proven microprocessor design muscle to make a lighter, nimbler MacBook Air.

Whatever Apple does next, the iPhone 6 Plus might prove to be a turning point.

JLG@mondaynote.com

HP’s Old Curses

 

Finally! HP did what everyone but its CEO and Board thought inevitable: They spun off the commoditized PC and printing businesses. This is an opportunity to look deeper into HP’s culture for roots of today’s probably unsolvable problems.

The visionary sheep of Corporate America are making a sharp 180º turn in remarkable lockstep. Conglomerates and diversification strategies are out. Focus, focus, focus is now the path to growth and earnings purity.

As reported in last week’s Monday Note, eBay’s John Donahoe no longer believes that eBay and PayPal “make sense together”, that splitting the companies “gives the kind of strategic focus and flexibility that we think will be necessary in the coming period”. This week, Symantec announced that it will spin off its storage division (née Veritas) so that “the businesses would be able to focus better on growth opportunities including M&A”.

And now Meg Whitman tells us that HP will be “a lot more nimble, a lot more focused” as two independent companies: HP Inc. for PCs and printers, Hewlett Packard Enterprises for everything else.

Spinning off the PC and printer business made sense three years ago when Léo Apotheker lost his CEO job for suggesting it, and it still makes sense today, but this doesn’t mean that an independent HP PC company will stay forever independent. In a declining PC market that they once dominated, HP has fallen behind Lenovo, the company that acquired IBM’s PC business and made the iconic ThinkPad even more ubiquitous. HP Inc. will also face a newly-energized Dell, as well as determined Asian makers such as Acer and Asus. That Acer is losing money and Asus’ profits have fallen by 24% will make the PC market even more prone to price wars and consolidation. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee HP Inc. shareholders agitating for a sale.

Many think that Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s future isn’t so bright, either. The company’s latest numbers show that the enterprise business, which competes with the likes of IBM, Oracle, and SAP, isn’t growing.  As with the PC business, such unexciting state of affairs leads to talk of consolidation, of the proverbial “merger of equals”.

Such unhappy prospects for what once was a pillar of Silicon Valley leads to bitter criticism of a succession of executives and of an almost surreal procession of bad Board decisions. Three years ago, I partook in such criticism in a Monday Note titled How Bad Boards Kill Companies: HP. This was after an even older column, The Incumbent’s Curse: HP, where I wistfully contemplated the company’s rise and fall.

I’m fascinated by the enduring power, both negative or positive, of corporate cultures, of the under-the-surface system of emotions and permissions. After thinking about it, I feel HP’s current problems are rooted more deeply and started far earlier than the Board’s decisions and the sorry parade of executives over the past 15 years.

Founded in 1939, HP spent a quarter century following one instinct: Make products for the guy at the next bench. HP engineers could identify with their customers because their customer were people just like them…it was nerd heaven.

HP’s line of pocket calculators is the exemplar of a company following its instincts. They worked well because they appealed to techies. The  amazingly successful HP-80 was a staple of the financial world; its successor, the HP 12-C, is still sold today.

But HP’s initial success bred a strain of Because We Can that led the company into markets for which its culture had no natural feeling. I’m not just referring to the bizarre attempt in 1977 to sell the HP-01 “smartwatch” through jewelry stores…

Hewlett_Packard_Digital_Watch_Modell_1_1977

No, I’m referring to computers. Not the technical/scientific desktop kind, but computers that were marketed to corporate IT departments. In the late ’60’s, HP embarked on the overly ambitious Omega project, a 32-bit, real-time computer that was cancelled in 1970. The Because We Can impulse of HP engineers wasn’t supported by a reliable internal representation of the customer’s ways, wants, and emotions. (A related but much more modest project, the 16-bit Alpha, ultimately led to the successful HP 3000 — but even the HP 3000 had a difficult birth.)

Similarly, when 8-bit microprocessors emerged in 1974, HP engineers had no insights into the desires of the unwashed hobbyist. They couldn’t understand why anyone would embrace designs that were clearly inferior to their pristine 16-bit 9800 series of desktop machines.

By the late 70’s the company was bisected into engineers who stuck to the “guy at the next bench” approach, and engineers who targeted the IT workers that they mistakenly thought they understood. Later, in 1999, the instrument engineers and products — the “real” HP to many of us — were split off into Agilent, a relatively small business that’s not very profitable. The company’s less than $7B in revenue is nothing compared to the more than $100B in yearly revenues for the pre-split HP.

In all industries, some companies manage to stick to their story, while others drift from the script. I’m thinking of Volkswagen and its 40-year old Golf (not the misbegotten Phaeton) versus Honda’s sprightly 1972 Civic hatchback that later lost its soul and turned into today’s banal little sedan. (To be fair, I see the Civic as alive and well in the Honda Fit.)

In the tech world, Oracle has kept to the plot – no doubt because the founder, Larry Ellison, is still at the helm after 37 years. Others, like Cisco, make bizarre acquisitions: Flip, a consumer camera company that it quickly shut down, and home networking company LinkSys (purchased at a time when CEO John Chambers called The Home his company’s next frontier). And now Cisco is going after the $19T (trillion!) Internet of Things.

The now dysfunctional Wintel lost the plot by letting the PC-centric intuitions that worked well for so long blind them to the fact mobile devices aren’t “PCs – only smaller”.

I have a personal feeling of melancholy when I see that the once mighty HP has drifted from its instincts. The company hired me in June 1968 to launch their first desktop computer on the French market. After years in the weeds, this was the chance of a lifetime for this geeky college drop-out. At the time I joined, HP’s vision was concentrated. They rarely acquired other companies…why buy what you can build yourself? That all changed, and in a big way, in the 90’s.

To this day, I’m grateful for the kindness and patience of the HP that took me in. It was the company that David Packard describes in The HP Way, not today’s tired conglomeration.

JLG@mondaynote.com

News Media: Diversify or Die

 

The era of news media based on single product is over. In every field, diversification is mandatory, but yields will vary. Decisive prioritization will make a big difference. 

Below is a list – by no means exhaustive – of products and services to be found in most media organizations. Their targets include both individual customers (I use the term on purpose because it goes well beyond the notion of readers), as well as corporate clients. Difficult as it may seem, I’ve assigned a tentative value to each item. In turn, the sum of items in any given mix must translate into the famous Average Revenue per User (ARPU), a number that should be everyone’s obsession. (In the end, the metric of choice ought to be the Margin Per User, but it is very complicated to assess for two reasons: one, some products take a while to take off and, two, in integrated media companies, most resources are spread across many products). These precautions aside, here is a quick overview:

338_table_diversif

Now, let’s examine each item in detail, looking at the nature of the product (or service), its business potential and its priority level.

Daily Print Occasional Reader. This is, by all means, the least valuable customer. For premium brands that increased their street price in recent years, the margin can remain significant. But, for the vast majority of media outlets, the costs of serving occasional, rare customers in remote places are staggering. The practice needs urgent reassessment. In most cases, this means eliminating the weakest point of sales.
Potential: Zero. Setting rare exceptions aside, this amounts to decay management.
Priority: Low. (Well, high priority when it comes to cleaning up this line of business.)

Daily Print Subscriber. Its indisputable value relies on a single fact: Some customers (note the emphasis) will pay almost any price to see their dead-tree copy on their doorstep or on their desk every morning. True. But less and less so. It won’t resist the generational shift nor the objective practicability – and depth – of the digital vector.
Potential: Limited due to unavoidable reader depletion
Priority: Limited. Stick to the well-known mechanism of subscribers gathering (good data management helps).

Weekend Print Occasional Readers and Subscribers. Basically, same as above – with one caveat: Some weekend print products still bring sizable advertising revenue. In the US, large dailies are said to bring half of their revenue on weekends (another reason to reconsider weekday products).

Digital Occasional Reader. Can be funneled in through SEO and similar tactics. In most cases, annual ARPU (mostly ads) remains in the single digit.
Potential: Depends on the ability to go for volume and on decisiveness in terms of advertising creation. To put it another way, if you stick to IAB-like formats, you’re doomed. Conversely, If you take control of advertising creation on your own properties, the stakes rise quickly.
Priority: High. Go beyond the usual low-yield system.

Digital Registered Users. In short, anything must be done to get your audience to leave names and email addresses. These are your high-contribution customers of tomorrow. Then, don’t spare any resource, both in terms of technology and smart people to operate it.
Potential: High.
Priority: Top.

Digital Subscribers. For quality media, this is the most precious revenue stream. (It doesn’t apply, of course, to commodity news providers or aggregators who bet solely on volume.) Hence the importance of harvesting as much registered users as possible. Next step is to work on the conversion rate. A good CRM mechanism is a plus, but a great, valuable, unique product is mandatory. User’s won’t pay for digital access (whatever the platform — desktop web, mobile, web, apps) unless they are convinced that you provide irreplaceable stuff.
Potential: High.
Priority: Top.

eBooks Publishing. Disappointing, so far. This must remain cheap to operate. Preferably, opt for partnering with an established digital publisher eager to take advantage of your brand’s reach and reputation. They’ll do the tedious part for you, sparing you most operating costs.
Potential: Average, can become a quiet and steady P&L contribution.
Priority: Low.

Intelligence & Special Reports / Customized Intelligence. This only applies to highly regarded B2B brands. It can be expensive to operate (it requires specialized staff — that must be kept small). Highly customized, bespoke intelligence reports carry significant upside, but they border on consulting.
Potential: Sizable if you are able to sell high premium products to a high-paying niche of solvent customers (every word in the phrase counts).
Priority: Average. There is a significant risk of losing money for a long time before achieving traction.

Events & Conferences. According to people who organize such, the segment is (a) very crowded, (b) highly dependent on the general business climate. Conference attendance usually is the first budget item slashed by corporations in down times. One sure thing, tough: Conferences & Event indeed are editorial products. They must be supported (ideally induced) by the news staff; like the so-called enterprise journalism, they must be the product of deep editorial thinking, with an angle; and they must be focused on providing something unique. If these boxes are checked, high margin will ensue. (Read The Eight Types of Journalism Events That Works on PBS Blog)
Potential: High if well engineered and executed.
Priority: Depends on the level of competition in your market. I’d say: High.

Moocs & Training Products. One of my favorites. Three reasons: One is demographic: More and more people will have no choice but to immerse themselves in deep training simply to survive in the job market. The second is the dual market potential: Corporate for paid-in-advance products, and B2C for sponsored courses. I no longer believe in the ability for a media company to collect paid-for users since big Mooc outlets (Coursera, Audacity, Kahn Academy and others) are sterilizing the business of online education by proposing great courses at no charge. But media can leverage on their brand, reach, as well as their portfolios of advertisers.
Potential: High
Priority: Top. Because we are talking about tomorrow’s customers here. Better start showing up on their radar. Risk is limited as long as you stick to a cost structure in which productions costs are pre-guaranteed.

eCommerce. Important, but impossible to detail here: Too many possibilities. Some media are doing well selling tickets for sports events or concerts, other are more into high-priced items aimed at corporations. In the end, it depends on the performance of your lead-gathering machine. Many companies are learning fast. Potential varies widely, depending on your market.

Content Syndication. This needs serious consideration. Digital news is overwhelmed by shallow, recycled, often mediocre contents. Premium is rare because it’s expensive and risky to produce. Therefore it carries tangible value. Hence the importance of a selective dissemination towards outlets that can’t afford original production. In order to realize its full potential, quality editorial production needs the adjunction of essential attributes such as granular semantic and a powerful, API-based distribution platform.
Potential: High (especially for well-structured and well-distributed contents).
Priority: Should be on the very Top.

Again: Many more items can be added to this enumeration. But a fact insists: As journalism sees its economics faltering, diversification is mandatory. It requires agility, light structures (in some cases disconnected from the mother ship), dedicated staff who think fast and react faster. The upside is promising.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

eBay Under New Management – Again

 

Apple Pay, not even launched yet, is already making waves. Apple’s payment system has caused eBay to move people and business units around.

Early in 2012, PayPal’s President, Scott Thompson, abruptly left the company to become CEO of Yahoo. During his four-year tenure at the eBay subsidiary, Thompson had doubled PayPal’s user population and increased payment volume by 26% per year to over $120B. So why did he leave? eBay CEO John Donahoe put it this way:

“Scott wanted to be a CEO, and that’s great. He felt the opportunity wasn’t going to come along again. He had the best non-CEO job in the world, but he wanted to be a CEO, and wanted to go for it.”

Yes, Thompson wanted to be CEO…of an independent PayPal, but Donahoe and the eBay Board wouldn’t have it.

Fast forward to this year. Carl Icahn believes that PayPal would be more creative and make more money for its shareholders if it were freed from eBay tangles, so he makes a non-binding proposal to separate PayPal from its parent company.

In a January 23rd, 2014 blog post, Donahoe rebuffs the offer and doubles down on his position:

“PayPal and eBay make sense together for many reasons. Let me highlight three that we believe are among the most important [emphasis his]:
One: eBay accelerates PayPal’s success.
Two: eBay data makes PayPal smarter.
And three: eBay funds PayPal’s growth.”

Donahoe prays at the Church of Synergy and Leverage: Together, eBay and PayPal will ascend to heights neither is able to reach on its own.

That was then.

Last week, Donahoe left the Church. He and the eBay Board announced their three-part game plan for 2015:

  • PayPal will become an independent company led by Dan Schulman (American Express, AT&T, Priceline, Virgin Mobile)
  • Devin Wenig, currently president of eBay Marketplace, will replace Donahoe as eBay CEO.
  • After the separation is complete, Donahoe will no longer have an executive role but will  serve on the Board of one or both companies

(Compensation packages for the new CEOs are detailed in this SEC filing.)

What happened?

In eBay’s Investor Presentation, Donahoe extolls the union’s accomplishments, but explains that “Now the Time is Right for Two World Class Independent Platforms” and that the decision to part company “[r]eflects confidence we can preserve relationships and avoid dis-synergies through arm’s-length operating agreements”.

Spoken like a true consultant. (Prior to joining eBay, Donahoe had a stellar career at Bain & Company, where his eBay CEO predecessor Meg Whitman also worked.)

There is a shorter explanation: Apple Pay.

Apple’s new payment system, tied to the iPhone 6, is supported by American Express, Visa, and MasterCard, and recognized by a number of merchants including Walgreens, Macy’s, Target, and Whole Foods.

This changes the competitive landscape in two ways.

The first is the gravitational well, the network effect: More participants will attract more participants. It remains to be seen how well Apple Pay will perform, but we know the Touch ID feature works well — better than this skeptical user expected, and better and more securely than its current competitors.

The second way Apple Pay changes the landscape is much more alarming to competitors: Business Model Disruption. For Apple, revenue from a payment system is peripheral, it’s yet another part of the larger ecosystem that sustains the iDevice money makers. To PayPal, of course, payment revenue is all there is.

This distinction isn’t clear to everyone. In a conversation in Paris last week, an otherwise sensible friend insisted that Apple Pay will be a “huge profit opportunity”. No, Apple will earn about $1 for every $700 charged through Apple Pay. In order to reach the $10B “unit of needle movement”, Apple Pay would have to transact $7T (trillion). For reference, 2013 US retail revenue was $4.5T.

According to their 2013 Annual Report, eBay processed about $180B in payments in 2013, yielding $6.1B in transaction revenues. For that same $180B, Apple would content itself with $270M….that’s about 0.15% of the company’s overall revenue.

When eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5B in 2002, the deal made sense — it certainly made much more sense than the later acquisition and disposition of Skype. In recent years, PayPal has grown faster than eBay’s Marketplaces business, to the point where the two were roughly equal last year ($6.1B vs $6.8B). Today, Wall Street values the combined companies at approximately $67B (although it will be interesting to see how much the PayPal “half” fetches).

The fast-growth, synergistic business Donahoe vigorously guarded last January has been kicked to the curb because its business model is threatened by Apple Pay.

It didn’t have to be that way. We’ve recently heard that PayPal and Apple had been in “massive” talks earlier this year…until Apple found out about PayPal’s partnership with Samsung, thus ending any hope of a collaboration with the Cupertino team. Recall that PayPal’s President David Marcus unexpectedly left the company last June to lead Facebook’s mobile messaging initiative. The official explanation at the time was that Marcus was simply looking for a new adventure, but it’s more likely that Marcus was frustrated with Donahoe:

“eBay CEO John Donahoe pushed for the Samsung deal even though PayPal president at the time, who left for Facebook following the Apple-PayPal deal collapse, David Marcus was ‘purposely categorically against the Samsung deal, knowing that it would jeopardize PayPal’s relationship with Apple.’”

Looking at the game board three months later, Donahoe dissolved the eBay-PayPal union and deliberately wrote himself out of a job — undoubtedly with the “help” of his Board.

In the meantime, we have PayPal’s reaction to Apple Pay: An ad mocking Apple for the selfies fracas. Yes, a number of individual iCloud accounts were compromised by clever social engineering techniques and outright password theft, but no one seriously believes the iCloud infrastructure itself was penetrated. Conversely, in May of this year, eBay suffered a massive security breach requiring all users to change their passwords because hackers did gain access to the company’s servers, something PayPal management chose to ignore.

Again, we don’t yet know if Apple’s payment system will live up to its promise, but with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus looking like The Mother of All Upgrades (two weeks after the launch, people are still lining up outside Apple Stores), Apple Pay should be on solid ground on its rumored October 20th opening day. Nonetheless, with an ex-Amex exec at the helm of a soon independent PayPal, the payment game is going to be interesting.

JLG@mondaynote.com

BlackBerry: The Endgame

 

The BlackBerry was the first truly modern smartphone, the king of Personal Information Management On The Go. But under its modern presentation lurked its most fatal flaw, a software engine that couldn’t be adapted to the Smartphone 2.0 era.

Jet-lagged in New York City on January 4th 2007, just back from New Years in Paris, I left my West 54th Street hotel around 6am in search of coffee. At the corner of the Avenue of the Americas, I saw glowing Starbucks stores in every direction. I walked to the nearest one and lined up to get my first ration of the sacred fluid. Ahead of me, behind me, and on down the line, everyone held a BlackBerry, checking email and BBM messages, wearing a serious but professional frown. The BlackBerry was the de rigueur smartphone for bankers, lawyers, accountants, and anyone else who, like me, wanted to be seen as a four-star businessperson.

Five days later, on January 9th, Steve Jobs walked on stage holding an iPhone and the era of the BlackBerry, the Starbucks of smartphones, would soon be over. Even if it took three years for BlackBerry sales to start their plunge, the iPhone introduction truly was a turning point In BlackBerry’s life.

RIM (as the company was once called) shipped 2M Blackberries in the first quarter of 2007 and quickly ascended to a peak of 14.6M units by Q4 2010, only to fall back to pre-2007 levels by the end of 2013:

337_unnamed-1

Last week, BlackBerry Limited (now the name of the company) released its latest quarterly numbers and they are not good: Revenue plunged to $916M vs. $1.57B a year ago (-42%); the company lost $207M and shipped just 2.1M smartphones, more than a half-million shy of the Q1 2007 number. For reference, IDC tells us that the smartphone industry shipped about 300M units in the second quarter of 2014, with Android and iOS devices accounting for 96% of the global market.

Explanations abound for BlackBerry’s precipitous fall.

Many focus on the company’s leaders, with ex-CEO Jim Balsillie and RIM founder Mike Lazaridis taking the brunt of the criticism. In a March 2011 Monday Note uncharitably titled The Inmates Have Taken Over The Asylum, I quoted the colorful but enigmatic Jim Balsillie speaking in tongues:

“There’s tremendous turbulence in the ecosystem, of course, in mobility. And that’s sort of an obvious thing, but also there’s tremendous architectural contention at play. And so I’m going to really frame our mobile architectural distinction. We’ve taken two fundamentally different approaches in their causalness. It’s a causal difference, not just nuance. It’s not just a causal direction that I’m going to really articulate here—and feel free to go as deep as you want—it’s really as fundamental as causalness.”

This and a barely less bizarre Lazaridis discussion of “application tonnage” led one to wonder what had happened to the two people who had so energetically led RIM/BlackBerry to the top of the industry. Where did they take the wrong turn? What was the cause of the panic in their disoriented statements?

Software. I call it the Apple ][ syndrome.

Once upon a time, the Apple ][ was a friendly, capable, well-loved computer. Its internal software was reliable because of its simplicity: The operating system launched applications and managed the machine’s 8-bit CPU, memory, and peripherals. But the Apple ][ software wasn’t built from the modular architecture that we see in modern operating systems, so it couldn’t adapt as Moore’s Law allowed more powerful processors. A radical change was needed. Hence the internecine war between the Apple ][ and Steve Jobs’ Mac group.

Similarly, the BlackBerry had a simple, robust software engine that helped the company sell millions of devices to the business community, as well as to lay consumers. I recall how my spouse marveled at the disappearance of the sync cable when I moved her from a Palm to a Blackberry and when she saw her data emails, calendar and address book effortless fly from her PC to her new smartphone. (And her PC mechanic was happy to be freed from Hotsync Not Working calls.)

But like the Apple ][, advances in hardware and heightened customer expectations outran the software engine’s ability to evolve.

This isn’t something that escaped RIM’s management. As recounted in a well-documented Globe and Mail story, Mike Lazaridis quickly realized what he was against:

“Mike Lazaridis was at home on his treadmill and watching television when he first saw the Apple iPhone in early 2007. There were a few things he didn’t understand about the product. So, that summer, he pried one open to look inside and was shocked. It was like Apple had stuffed a Mac computer into a cellphone, he thought.

[…] the iPhone was a device that broke all the rules. The operating system alone took up 700 megabytes of memory, and the device used two processors. The entire BlackBerry ran on one processor and used 32 MB. Unlike the BlackBerry, the iPhone had a fully Internet-capable browser.”

So at a very early stage in the shift to the Smartphone 2.0 era, RIM understood the nature and extent of their problem: BlackBerry’s serviceable but outdated software engine was against a much more capable architecture. The BlackBerry was a generation behind.

It wasn’t until 2010 that RIM acquired QNX, a “Unix-ish” operating system that was first shipped in 1982 by Quantum Software Systems, founded by two Waterloo University students. Why did Lazaridis’ company take three years to act on the sharp, accurate recognition of its software problem? Three years were lost in attempts to tweak the old software engine, and in fights between Keyboard Forever! traditionalists and would-be adopters of a touch interface.

Adapting BlackBerry’s applications to QNX was more complicated than just fitting a new software engine into RIM’s product line. To start with, QNX didn’t have the thick layer of frameworks developers depend on to write their applications. These frameworks, which make up most of the 700 megabytes Lazaridis saw in the iPhone’s software engine, had to be rebuilt on top of a system that was well-respected in the real-time automotive, medical, and entertainment segment, but that was ill-suited for “normal” use.

To complicate things, the company had to struggle with its legacy, with existing applications and services. Which ones do we update for the new OS? which ones need to be rewritten from scratch? …and which ones do we drop entirely?

In reality, RIM was much more than three years behind iOS (and, later, Android). Depending on whom we listen to, the 2007 iPhone didn’t just didn’t stand on a modern (if incomplete) OS, it stood on 3 to 5 years of development, of trial and error.

BlackBerry had lost the software battle before it could even be fought.

All other factors that are invoked in explaining BlackBerry’s fall — company culture, hardware misdirections, loss of engineering talent — pale compared to the fundamentally unwinnable software battle.

(A side note: Two other players, Palm and Nokia, lost the battle for the same reason. Encumbered by once successful legacy platforms, they succumbed to the fresh approach taken by Android and iOS.)

Now under turnaround management, BlackBerry is looking for an exit. John Chen, the company’s new CEO, comes with a storied résumé that includes turning around database company Sybase and selling it to SAP in 2012. Surely, such an experienced executive doesn’t believe that the new keyboard-based BlackBerry Passport (or its Porsche Design sibling) can be the solution:

337_unnamed

Beyond serving the needs or wants of die-hard keyboard-only users, it’s hard to see the Passport gaining a foothold in the marketplace. Tepid reviews don’t help (“The Passport just doesn’t offer the tools I need to get my work done”); Android compatibility is a kludge; developers busy writing code for the two leading platforms won’t commit.

Chen, never departing from his optimistic script, touts BlackBerry’s security, Mobile Device Management, and the QNX operating system licenses for embedded industry applications.

None of this will move the needle in an appreciable way. And, because BlackBerry’s future is seen as uncertain, corporate customers who once used BlackBerry’s communication, security, and fleet management services continue to abandon their old supplier and turn to the likes of IBM and Good Technology.

The company isn’t in danger of a sudden financial death: Chen has more than $3B in cash at his disposal and the company burns about $35M of it every quarter. Blackberry’s current stock price says the company is worth about $5B, $2B more than its cash position. Therefore, Chen’s endgame is to sell the company, either whole or, more likely, in parts (IP portfolio, QNX OS…) for more than $2B net of cash.

Wall Street knows this, corporate customers know this, carriers looking at selling Passports and some services know this. And potential body parts buyers know this as well… and wait.

It’s not going to be pretty.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Brace For The Corporate Journalism Wave

 

 [Updated with fresh data]

Corporations are tempted to take over journalism with increasingly better contents. For the profession, this carries both dangers and hopes for new revenue streams. 

Those who fear Native Advertising or Branded Content will dread the unavoidable rise of Corporate Journalism. At first glance, associating the two words sounds like of an oxymoron of the worst possible taste, an offense punishable by tarring and feathering. But, as I will now explain, the idea deserves a careful look.

First, consider the chart below, lifted form an Economist article titled Slime-slinging Flacks vastly outnumber hacks these days. Caveat lector, published in 2011. The numbers are a bit old (I tried to update them without success), but the trend was obvious and is likely to have continued:

336_PRvsJ_516px

Update:
As several readers pointed out, I failed to mention a Pew Research story by Alex T. Williams that contains recent data that further confirm the trend: (emphasis mine)

There were 4.6 public relations specialists for every reporter in 2013, according to the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] data. That is down slightly from the 5.3 to 1 ratio in 2009 but is considerably higher than the 3.2 to 1 margin that existed a decade ago, in 2004.

[Over the last 10 years], the number of reporters decreased from 52,550 to 43,630, a 17% loss according to the BLS data. In contrast, the number of public relations specialists during this timeframe grew by 22%, from 166,210 to 202,530.

 Williams also exposes the salary gap between PR people and news reporters:

In 2013, according to BLS data, public relations specialists earned a median annual income of $54,940 compared with $35,600 for reporters.

And I should also mention this excellent piece in this Weekend FT, on The invasion of Corporate News. –

In short, while the journalistic staffing is shrinking dramatically in every mature market (US, Europe), the public relation crowd is rising in a spectacular fashion. It grows in two dimensions: the spinning aspect, with more highly capable people, most often former seasoned writers willing to become spin-surgeons. These are both disappointed by the evolution of their noble trade and attracted by higher compensation. The second dimension is the growing inclination for PR firms, communication agencies and corporations themselves to build fully-staffed newsrooms with editor-in-chief, writers, photo and video editors.

That’s the first issue.

The second trend is the evolution of corporate communication. Slowly but steadily, it departs from the traditional advertising codes that ruled the profession for decades. It shifts toward a more subtle and mature approach based on storytelling. Like it or not, that’s exactly what branded content is about: telling great stories about a company in a more intelligent way versus simply extolling a product’s merits.

I’m not saying that one will disappear at the other’s expense. Communication agencies will continue to plan, conceive and produce scores of plain, product-oriented campaigns. This is first because brands need it, but also because there are often no other ways to promote a product than showing it in the most effective (and sometimes aesthetic) fashion. But fact is, whether it is to stage the manufacturing process of a luxury watch, or the engineering behind a new medical imagery device, more and more companies are getting into a full-blown storytelling. To do so, they (or their surrogates) are hiring talent — which happens to be in rather large supply these days.

The rise of digital media is no stranger to this trend. In the print era, for practical reasons, it would have been inconceivable to intertwine classic journalism with editorial treatments. In the digital world things are completely different. Endless space, the ability to link, insert expandable formats all open new possibilities when it comes to accommodating large, rich, multimedia contents.

This evolution carries both serious hazards for traditional journalism as well as tangible economic opportunities. Let’s start with the business side.

Branded content (or native advertising) has achieved significant traction in the modern media business — even if the quality of its implementation varies widely. Some companies (that I will refrain from naming) screwed up big time by failing to properly identify what was paid-content as opposed to genuine journalistic production. And a misled reader is a lost reader (especially if there is a pattern). But for those who pull out good execution, both in terms of ethics and products, native ads carry a much better value than banners, billboards, pushdowns, interstitials, or other pathetic “creations” massively rejected by readers. I know of several media selling dumb IAB formats that find out they can achieve rates 5x to 8x higher by relying on high quality, bespoke branded contents. These more parsimonious and non invasive products achieve a much better audience acceptance than traditional formats.

For media companies, going decisively for branded content is also a way to regain control on their own business. Instead of getting avalanches of ready-to-eat campaigns from media buying agencies, they retain more control on the creation of advertising elements by dealing with the creative agencies or even with the brand themselves. Such a move goes with some constraints, though. Entering branded content at a credible scale requires investments. To serve its advertising clients, BuzzFeed maintains 50 people in its own design studio. Relative to the size of their entire staff, many other new media companies decided from the outset to build fairly large creative teams (including Quartz). That’s precisely why I believe most legacy media will miss this train (again). Focused on short-term cost control, also under pressure from conservative newsrooms who see branded content as the Antichrist, they will delay the move. In the meantime, pure players will jump on the opportunity.

Newsrooms have reasons to fear Corporate Journalism — in the sense of the ultimate form of branded content entirely packaged by the advertiser — but not for the reasons editors usually put forward. Dealing with the visual segregation of native ads vs. editorial is not utterly complicated; it depends mostly on the mutual understanding between the head of sales (or the publisher) and the editor; the latter needs to be credible enough among his peers to impose his/er choices without yielding to corporatism-induced demagoguery.

But the juxtaposition of articles (or multimedia contents) produced on one side by the newsroom and on another hand by a sponsor willing to build its storytelling at any cost might trigger another kind of conflict, around means and sources.

In the end, journalism is all about access. Beat reporters from a news media will do their best to circumvent the PR fence to get access to sources, while at the same time the PR team will order a bespoke story from its own staff writers. Both teams might actually find themselves in competition. Let’s say a media wants to write a piece on the strategy shift of major energy conglomerate with respect to global warming; the news team will talk to scores of specialists outside the company, financial analysts who challenge management’s choices, shareholders who object to expensive diversification, advocacy group who monitor operations in sensitive areas, unions, etc. They will also try to gain access to those who decide the fate of the company, i.e. top management, strategic committees, etc. Needless to say, such access will be tightly controlled.

On the corporate journalism side, the story will be told differently: strategist and managers will talk openly and in a very interesting way (remember, they are interviewed by pros). At the same time, a well-crafted on-site video shot in an oil-field in Borneo, or on a solar farm in Africa will reinforce the message, in a 60 Minutes way. The whole package won’t carry silly corporate messages, it will be rich, carefully balanced for credibility and well-staged. Click-wise, it is also likely to be quite attractive with its glowing, sleek videos and great text that will have the breadth (but not the substance) of professional reporting.

I’m painting this in broad strokes. But you get my point: Authentic news reporting and corporate journalism are bound to compete as audience could increasingly enjoy informative, well-design corporate production over drier journalistic work — even though it is labelled as such. Of course, corporate journalism will remain small compared to the editorial content produced by a newsroom, but it could be quite effective on the long run.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com