The Age of the Platform

 

Before deciding what should comes “first” in digital, publishers must figure out the right production workflow. Each and every player must plot its very own path away from the now aging notion of publication to the broader platform model. 

Last week, I spent a few of days in Berlin at the European INMA conference. Among many interesting moments, there was our visit to the Axel Springer group, the number one print publisher in Germany that also operates scores of publications in 44 countries. In 2012, Springer had a revenue of €3.3bn and an EBIDTA of €628m; 40% of its revenue comes from digital, thanks to 160 different online properties and 120 applications. Attaining this level required an aggressive growth strategy: since 2006, Springer launched or acquired new digital activities at the stunning rate of one every two weeks!

Like most modern news outlets, Springer is obsessed with having everyone in the company work without distinction between digital and print. Its latest initiative involves the definitive transformation of the venerable daily Die Welt into a multimedia news factory. To achieve this, the company bets on the radical architecture of its brand new newsroom. Of course, Die Welt is not the first to bet on the physical setting of the workplace to accelerate changes. Among others, the UK’s Telegraph did the same several years ago (it didn’t go smoothly at first but, in the end, the effort paid back.)

Here is the floor plan of the Die Welt’s newsroom that will enter in operation within a couple of months (I reconstructed it from a picture and briefing notes) :

die_welt_newsrm_plan

The open space resembles a sound-proof cathedral on the ground floor of the Axel Springer building in the center of Berlin. It will operate from 5am to midnight. The star shape reflects the news products’ diversity and time imperatives; the closest the workstations are from the center (where on-duty management sits), the faster the treatments are supposed to be: mobile staffers will stay close to the top editors as people in charge of building pages for the daily will dwell at the outer edges. This newsroom is mostly a production center; it actually accommodates only half of the Die Welt 300+ editorial staff as reporters and some staff writers will be located in a separate room. Note how all individual offices are gone while the periphery is filled with meeting rooms of various sizes and shapes that staffers use as needed.

Management gurus often say a radical alteration of physical settings is a key instrument of change. I can’t agree more. Interestingly enough, a firm like Innovation Media Consulting I’ve known since the Nineties as mostly an art direction company now works with architects and workflow specialists to induce changes in the way newsrooms operate.

But a super-modern floor plan is only part of the equation. In last week’s Monday Note,  I addressed the need to make the story the kernel of a cluster of high value products. Both are merely components of a much deeper change, that is the creation of a true News Platform. Anglo-Saxon newsrooms enjoy several advantages over Southern Europe (for instance) ones. Since the beginning, their journalism is built on a clear separation between writers (or reporters) on one side, and editors on the other. Anglo-Saxon journalism comes embedded with a separation between the writing and the editing of journalistic material — that is not the custom in a country like France in which most interns sees themselves as potential heirs to Joseph Kessel. More seriously, here, the principle of heavy editing is much less accepted than in the US, UK or Germany where the process results in much better structured articles, and most powerful storytelling for long-form reporting. In addition, in those countries, newsrooms with top editors entirely dedicated to their role of managers are better equipped to address the needs of morphing news organizations. For the most part, these factors explain why, in the Anglo-Saxon world, the News Platform transformation is way ahead of anywhere else. Axel Springer’s management concedes that this radical news flow structure is the result of a process that started years ago — that’s why it has been smoothly accepted by the staff. Everyone now sees it as the indispensable platform to produce across all major vectors now used by the readers – mobile, tablets, web and print – with greater efficiency along with consistent quality,.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Security Shouldn’t Trump Privacy – But I’m Afraid It Will

 

The NSA and security agencies from other countries are shooting for total surveillance, for complete protection against terrorism and other crimes. This creates the potential for too much knowledge falling one day in the wrong hands.

An NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, takes it upon himself to gather a mountain of secret internal documents that describe our surveillance methods and targets, and shares them with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Since May of this year, Greenwald has provided us with a trickle of Snowden’s revelations… and our elected officials, both here and abroad, treat us to their indignation.

What have we learned? We Spy On Everyone.

We spy on enemies known or suspected. We spy on friends, love interests, heads of state, and ourselves. We spy in a dizzying number of ways, both ingenious and disingenuous.

(Before I continue, a word on the word “we”. I don’t believe it’s honest or emotionally healthy to say “The government spies”. Perhaps we should have been paying more attention, or maybe we should have prodded our solons to do the jobs we elected them for… but let’s not distance ourselves from our national culpability.)
You can read Greenwald’s truly epoch-making series On Security and Liberty in The Guardian and pick your own approbations or invectives. You may experience an uneasy sense of wonder when contemplating the depth and breadth of our methods, from cryptographic and social engineering exploits (doubly the right word), to scooping up metada and address books and using them to construct a security-oriented social graph.

We manipulate technology and take advantage of human foibles; we twist the law and sometimes break it, aided by a secret court without opposing counsel; we outsource our spying by asking our friends to suck petabytes of data from submarine fiber cables, data that’s immediately combed for keywords and then stored in case the we need to “walk back the cat“.

NSA-Merkel-Phone

Sunday’s home page of the German site Die Welt

The reason for this panopticon is simple: Terrorists, drugs, and “dirty” money can slip through the tiniest crack in the wall. We can’t let a single communication evade us. We need to know everything. No job too small, no surveillance too broad.

As history shows, absolute anything leads to terrible consequences. In a New York Review of Books article, James Bamford, the author of noted books on the NSA, quotes Senator Frank Church who, way back in 1975, was already worried about the dangers of absolute surveillance [emphasis mine]:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology…. I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.

From everything we’ve learned in recent months, we’ve fallen into the abyss.

We’ve given absolute knowledge to a group of people who want to keep the knowledge to themselves, who seem to think they know best for reasons they can’t (or simply won’t) divulge, and who have deemed themselves above the law. General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, contends that “the courts and the policy-makers” should stop the media from exposing our spying activities. (As Mr. Greenwald witheringly observes in the linked-to article, “Maybe [someone] can tell The General about this thing called ‘the first amendment’.”)

Is the situation hopeless? Are we left with nothing but to pray that we don’t elect bad guys who would use surveillance tools to hurt us?

I’m afraid so.

Some believe that technology will solve the problem, that we’ll find ways to hide our communications. We have the solution today! they say: We already have unbreakable cryptography, even without having to wait for quantum improvements. We can hide behind mathematical asymmetry: Computers can easily multiply very large numbers to create a key that encodes a message, but it’s astronomically difficult to reverse the operation.

Is it because of this astronomic difficulty — but not impossibility — that the NSA is “the largest employer of mathematicians in the country“? And is this why “civilian” mathematicians worry about the ethics of those who are working for the Puzzle Palace?

It might not matter. In a total surveillance society, privacy protection via unbreakable cryptography won’t save you from scrutiny or accusations of suspicious secrecy. Your unreadable communication will be detected. In the name of State Security, the authorities will knock on your door and demand the key.

Even the absence of communication is suspect. Such mutism could be a symptom of covert activities. (Remember that Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was thoroughly unwired: No phones, no internet connection.)

My view is that we need to take another look at what we’re pursuing. Pining for absolute security is delusional, and we know it. We risk our lives every time we step into our cars — or even just walk down the street — but we insist on the freedom to move around. We’re willing to accept a slight infringement on our liberties as we obey the rules of the road, and we trust others will do the same. We’re not troubled by the probability of ending up mangled while driving to work, but the numbers aren’t unknown (and we’re more than happy to let insurance companies make enormous profits by calculating the odds).

Regarding surveillance, we could search for a similar risk/reward balance. We could determine the “amount of terror” we’re willing to accept and then happily surrender just enough of our privacy to ensure our safety. We could accept a well-defined level of surveillance if we thought it were for a good cause (as in keeping us alive).

Unfortunately, this pleasant-sounding theory doesn’t translate into actual numbers, on either side of the equation. We have actuarial tables for health and automotive matters, but none for terrorism; we have no way of evaluating the odds of, say, a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attack. And how do you dole out measures of privacy? Even if we could calculate the risk and guarantee a minimum of privacy, imagine that you’re the elected official who has to deliver the message:

In return for guaranteed private communication with members of your immediate family (only), we’ll accept an X% risk of a terrorist attack resulting in Y deaths and Z wounded in the next T months.

In the absence of reliable numbers and courageous government executives, we’re left with an all-or-nothing fortress mentality.

Watching the surveillance exposition unfold, I’m reminded of authoritarian regimes that have come and gone (and, in some cases, come back). I can’t help but think that we’ll coat ourselves in the lubricant of social intercourse: hypocrisy. We’ll think one thing, say another, and pretend to ignore that we’re caught in a bad bargain.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The story as gateway to knowledge (and revenue)

 

In digital journalism, the article is no longer an end in itself. Quite the contrary, it’s an entry point to the depths and riches of the web, and a significant contributor to the revenue stream.

Last week in Paris, I met the representative of a major US tech firm in charge of content-based partnerships. This witty, fast-thinking young engineer toured European capitals for an upcoming web + mobile platform, meeting guys like me in charge of digital operations in large media companies. Our discussion quickly centered on the notion of article in the digital world. Like many of his peers (I can’t  name them otherwise you might triangulate with whom I spoke), he looked at the journalistic article in an old-fashioned way: a block of text, augmented with links here and there, period.

This no longer is how it works — or how it should work.

There are many forms of digital journalistic contents. They range from the morning briefing you’ll eat up on your smartphone while inhaling your breakfast, or during your commute to work, to the long-form piece aimed at lean-back reading, preferably on a tablet and with a glass of chilled chardonnay. In between, there is the immense output of large media outlets that create good original content, hundreds of pieces every day.

If we draw a quick matrix of contents vs time and devices, chances are it will look like this:

usages, devices

As the graph shows, in a ideal world, a news stream should be broken into multiple formats to fit different devices at different times of the day. Of course, the size of the bubbles depicting usage intensity varies by market.

Three notes: the smartphone appears as the clear winner with high usage, spread all over the day; tablets enjoy the largest scope of contents (plus the highest engagement). As for the PC, it has been evicted as a vector for mainstream, general news. Still, thanks to its unparalleled capabilities and penetration as a productivity tool, the PC retains the most of the business uses. Consequently, the news read on a PC, largely in the context of a professional use, carry a greater value — as long as the article is linked to three different functions:

First as an audience concentrator from multiple sources, see here:

traffic drivers

Second, by building a system in which the article becomes an entry point to the web’s depths, i.e. to the trove of publicly and freely available databases. To get an idea of the open web’s riches, see the image below and click this link to dive into it:

debpedia_colored

 

This two-year old graph was designed by University of Berlin computer scientists. All these datasets are up for grabs by editors and publishers willing to expand their contents. Every single piece of news can be greatly augmented by hundreds of datasets orbiting around the DNpedia Knowledge Base (part of the Wikipedia Project.) According to its official description, the English version of DPpedia describes 4 million objects, including:

  • 832,000 persons
  • 639,000 places (including 427,000 populated places)
  • 372,000 creative works (including 116,000 music albums, 78,000 films and 18,500 video games)
  • 209,000 organizations (including 49,000 companies and 45,000 educational institutions), 226,000 species
  • 5,600 diseases.
  • When extended to the 119 available languages, the number of objects rises to 25 million.

The third way to raise the value of editorial contents is to use the article as a promotional vehicle for a broad set of ancillary products that media organizations should develop:

article upsell

(Needless to say, in this chart, Church and State must remain separated: the article is to be a journalistic product, aimed primarily at informing the public; the “promotional” aspect being only secondary.)

Until now, connecting to multiple datasets and up-selling extra products weren’t priorities for most legacy media. The main reasons are well-known: insufficient technological culture and investments  — which left the field totally open to pure players that made a modern, productive use of both datasets and new commercial channels. Things are changing though. Slowly.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

iPhone 5S surprises

 

I will withhold judgment on the new iPhone until I have a chance to play customer, buy the product (my better half seems to like the 5C while I pine for a 5S), and use it for about two weeks — the time required to go beyond my first and often wrong impressions”.

I wrote those words a little over a month ago. I’ve now played customer for the requisite two weeks — I got an iPhone 5S on October 3rd — and I’m prepared to report.

But first, some context.

iPhone launches always generate controversy, there’s always something to complain about: Antennagate for the iPhone 4, the Siri beta for the 4S, the deserved Maps embarrassment last year – with a clean, dignified Tim Cook apology.

(Whether these fracas translate into lost revenue is another matter).

As I sat in the audience during the introduction of the original iPhone, back in January, 2007, I thought the demo was too good, that Steve was (again) having his way with facts. I feared that when the product shipped a few months later, the undistorted reality would break the spell.

We know now that the iPhone that Steve presented on the stage was unfinished, that he trod a careful path through a demo minefield. But the JesusPhone that Apple shipped — unfinished in many ways (no native apps, no cut-and-paste) — was more than a success: It heralded the Smartphone 2.0 era.

iphone 5s

This year, Tim Cook introduced the riskiest hardware/software combination since the original iPhone. The iPhone 5S wants to be more than just “new and improved”, it attempts to jump off the slope with its combination of two discontinuities: a 64-bit processor and a new 64-bit iOS. Will it work, or will it embarrass itself in a noisome backfire?

First surprise: It works.

Let me explain. I have what attorneys call “personal knowledge” of sausage factories, I’ve been accountable for a couple and a fiduciary for several others. I have first-hand experience with the sights, the aromas, the tumult of the factory floor, so I can’t help but wince when I approach a really new product, I worry in sympathy with its progenitors. The 5S isn’t without its “aromas” (we’ll get to those later), but the phone is sleek and attractive, the house apps are (mostly) solid, and the many new Application Programming Interfaces (API) promise novel applications. Contrary to some opinions, there are fewer warts than anyone could have expected.

Surprise #2, the UI: I had read the scathing critiques of the spartan excesses, and, indeed, I feel the drive for simplicity occasionally goes too far. The buttons on the built-in timer are too thin, too subdued. When I meditate in the dark I can’t distinguish Start from Cancel without my glasses. But I’m generally happy with the simpler look. Windows and views get out of the way quickly and gracefully, text is neatly rendered, the removal of skeuomorphic artifacts is a relief.

The next surprise is the fingerprint sensor a.k.a. Touch ID. Having seen how attempts to incorporate fingerprint recognition into smartphones and laptops have gone nowhere, I had my doubts. Moreover, Apple had acquired AuthenTec, the company that created the fingerprint sensor, a mere 15 months ago. Who could believe that Apple would be able to produce a fingerprint-protected iPhone so quickly?

But it works. It’s not perfect, I sometimes have to try again, or use another finger (I registered three on my right hand and two on my left), but it’s clear that Apple has managed to push Touch ID into the category of “consumer-grade technology”: It works often enough and delivers enough benefit to offset the (small) change in behavior.

A personal favorite surprise is Motion Sensing.

When Apple’s Marketing Supremo Phil Schiller described the M7 motion processor, I didn’t think much of it, I was serving the last days of my two-month sentence wearing the JawBone UP bracelet mentioned in a previous Monday Note. (A friend suggested I affix it to his dog’s collar to see what the data would look like.)

Furthermore, the whole “lifestyle monitoring” business didn’t seem like virgin territory. The Google/Motorola Moto X smartphone introduced last August uses a co-processor that, among other things, monitors your activities, stays awake even when the main processor is asleep, and adjusts the phone accordingly. A similar co-processing arrangement is present in Moto X’s predecessors, the Droid Maxx, Ultra and Mini.

But then I saw a Twitter exchange about Motion Sensing apps about a week after I had activated my iPhone 5S. One thumb touch later, the free Pedometer++ app asked for my permission to use motion data (granted) and immediately told me how many steps I’d taken over the past seven days.

I went to the chauffeured iPhone on my wife’s desk and installed the app. I did the same on friends’ devices. The conclusion was obvious: The M7 processor continuously generates and stores motion data independent of any application. A bit of googling shows that there are quite a few applications that use the motion data that’s obligingly collected by the M7 processor; I downloaded a number of these apps and the step counts are consistent.

(Best in class is the ambitious MotionX 24/7. Philippe Kahn’s company FullPower Technologies licenses MotionX hardware and software to many motion-sensing providers, including Jawbone and, perhaps, Apple. Wearable technologies aren’t just for our wrists…we carry them in our pockets.)

My wife asked if her iPhone would count steps from within her handbag. Ever the obliging husband, I immediately attended to this legitimate query, grabbed her handbag, and stepped out of the house for an experimental stroll. A conservatively dressed couple walked by, gave me a strange look, and didn’t respond to my evening greeting, but, indeed, the steps were counted.

A question arises: Does Apple silently log my movements? No, my iPhone records my locomotion, but the data stays within the device — unless, of course, I let a specific application export them. One must be aware of the permissions.

Other 5S improvements are welcome but not terribly surprising. The camera has been smartly enhanced in several dimensions; search finally works in Mail; and, to please Sen. McCain, apps update themselves automatically.

All of this comes with factory-fresh bugs, of course, a whiff of the sausage-making apparatus. iPhoto crashed on launch the first three or four times I tried it, but has worked without complaint since then.  A black Apple logo on a white background appeared and then quickly disappeared — too brief to be a full reboot, too sparse to be part of an app.

I’ve had to reboot the 5S to recover a dropped cellular connection, and have experienced hard-to-repeat, sporadic WiFi trouble that seems to spontaneously cure itself.(“How did you fix it?” asks my wife when her tech chauffeur gets the sullen device to work again. “I don’t know, I poke the patient everywhere until it responds.”)

From my admittedly geeky perspective, I’m not repelled by these glitches, they didn’t lose my data or prevent me from finishing a task. They’re annoying, but they’re to be expected given the major hardware and software changes. And I expect that the marketplace (as opposed to the kommentariat) will shrug them off and await the bug fixes that will take care of business.

So, yes, overall, the “discontinuous” 5S works.

[I'm also using a pre-release of Mavericks, the upcoming 10.9 version of OS X, on two Macs. There, I wonder if I'm not seeing the opposite of the iPhone 5S: less risk, more bugs. I hope things straighten out for the public release. I'll report if and when warranted.] [I can't resist: The Washington Post's Wonkblog calls the iPhone's third color... Dignified Gold. I wonder: Is it a compliment to Sir Jony's unerring taste? Or a clever, indirect ethnic slur?]

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Quartz Way (2)

 

Last week, we looked at Atlantic Media’s business site Quartz (qz.com) from an editorial and product standpoint. Today, we focus on its business model based on an emerging form of advertising. 

The Quartz business model is simple: it’s free and therefore entirely ad supported. Why? Doesn’t qz.com target a business readership that shouldn’t mind spending nine dollars a month? “It was part of the original equation: Mobile first, and free, embracing the open web”, explains publisher Jay Lauf, whom I met in Paris a couple of weeks ago. Jay is also an Atlantic Media senior vice-president and the group publisher (he once was Wired’s publisher).

jay-lauf-head-shot

Jay Lauf, Publisher (Photo: Quartz)

According to him, launching Quartz was the latest iteration of a much grander plan. Four years ago, Atlantic Media held a meeting aimed at defining their strategy: “What we will do, but also what we will not do”, says Jay Lauf. The group came up with three key priorities: #1 being a growth company (as opposed to passively manage the shift from print to digital). That idea was greatly helped by Atlantic’s ownership structure controlled by David Bradley. #2 “Digitally lead for everything”, which was not obvious for a ancient publication — Atlantic Monthly was created in 1857. #3 Atlantic must focus on “decision makers and influential people”.

Today, the goals set four years ago translate into a cluster of media brands reaching every month a highly solvent readership of 30 million people:

  • The Atlantic, the digital version of the eponymous magazine.
  • The Atlantic Wire aimed at a younger generation mostly relying on social media.
  • The Atlantic Cities, that focuses of urban centers and urban planning.
  • The National Journal that itself includes several publications, mostly about politics and society.
  • Government Executive Media, which operates a number niche publications covering the federal government (including its use of technology)
  • Atlantic Media Strategies, an independent division offering a full catalogue of advertising and marketing solutions. These range from analytics, social media campaigns and content creation, such as this one with General Electric in which a dedicated site features America’s economic futures – according to GE.

quartz_graph

All this brings us to Quartz’s business model. It relies entirely on native advertising also known as branded or sponsored content (see a previous Monday Note What’s Fuss About Native Ads?). Quartz’s implementation is straightforward: a small number of advertisers, served with high yield campaigns.

Below is yesterday’s screenshot of Quartz’s endless scroll, featuring regular displays of branded content (in this case Boeing):

qz_scroll_ads

Most of the time, the content is made or adapted especially for Quartz with a variable involvement of its advertising division (the branded content operations are kept segregated from the editorial department.) Quartz staff involvement goes from collaborating on the ad content to setting up HTML5 integration. On purpose, Quartz maintains a staff of copywriters and graphic designers assigned to assist brands in their communication. While ad spaces are clearly identified, their content is never completely dissociated from surrounding articles. Quite often, it reflects the newsroom’s “Obsessions“. Such precautions, plus the Quartz layout, warrant good click-rates and high prices. Quartz people are discreet about the KPIs, but sources in the ad community said that CPMs for its native ads content could be roughly ten times higher than traditional display ads.

Atlantic Media’s weight and bargaining power helped jumpstart the ad pump. A year ago, the site started with four brands: Chevron, Boeing, Credit Suisse and Cadillac. Today, Quartz has more twenty advertisers from the same league. Unlike other multi-page websites, its one-scroll structure not only proposes a single format, but also re-creates scarcity. (Plus the fact that Quartz does not have any mobile apps greatly simplifies the commercial process.) Still, it can be a double-edged sword: scarcity could indeed translate into high prices, but it also limits the number of available slots, therefore capping the revenue stream. Quartz’s publisher and head of sales made a tough choice — high rates vs. high volume — and so far it seems to work fine as the site is close to break-even ahead of schedule.

How far it can go remains to be seen. Quartz is a relatively small operation (50 people altogether, including 25 journalists producing 35-40 stories a day and a nice location in NYC’s Soho district.) My guess is it shouldn’t burn more than $10m a year. By extrapolating from the site’s audience, profitability sounds in reach of Quartz’s current “value model”. But the asymptote — factoring ads rates, number of slots, advertisers’ “dimension”, and traffic — could also be near and therefore constrain Quartz’s ability to scale up. That’s why the publication is now entering the crowded sector of conferences with its “Quartz Live”, featuring its customary exclusive attendance and editorial-rich ways. Will Quartz escape the temptation to launch paid-for products? Its journalistic content leaves open many opportunities in that field. For example, a mixture of semantic-assembled, high-end briefings, tailored to carefully profiled segments of its audience could generate a nice revenue stream, or ebooks and long-form features.
To be continued next year…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Microsoft Mission Impossible

 

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

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

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

msft_graph1

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

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

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

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

msft_graph2

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… What about our new CEO?

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

How would you like the job?

JLG@mondaynote.com

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

The Quartz Way (1)

 

Quartz, a web-only business publication, just turned one year old. On both editorial and business dimensions, Quartz features all components of a modern media venture. Is this a formula for the long run? To answer the question, in the first of two articles, we take a closer look at the editorial product.

Quartz (qz.com) is the kind of media most business writers would love to be part of. It’s smart, fun, witty, basic and sophisticated at the same time. Like Jony Ive design at Apple, its apparent simplicity is the combined product of deep thought and of a series of bold moves by its owner, the Atlantic Media group, publisher of the eponymous monthly. From all standpoints, content, organization or even business model, Quartz came up with innovations (see the Monday Note I wrote for the launch in September 2012).

Ten days ago, my phone interview with editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, started with a discussion of his newsroom of 25 writers and editors. On Tuesday September 24 at 9pm Paris Time, Quartz had this piece at the top of its infinite scroll:

Quartz illustr

Editorially, this epitomizes (in a way) what Quartz is about: topics addressed through well-defined angles (in this case, the idea that if Amazon hit large book retailers hard, it didn’t have much impact on small independent bookstores.) The story was short but right to the point — taking the opposite side of the now worn tale of Amazon devastating the book-selling landscape. To illustrate his piece, instead of using yet another photograph of Jeff Bezos haranguing a crowd, the writer picked this weird image of a girl showing off at a bookstore event.

Yes, at Quartz, journalists are the ones who get to select the pictures that go with their article. Most of the time, this yields better audience numbers.

Actually, explains Kevin Delaney, the staff is supposed to produce a complete package, ready to be processed by editors, with links, headline, photos (lifted from Reuters, Getty, AP or sometime the Creative Commons trove) properly cropped and adjusted. Everything is done within a WordPress interface, chosen for its versatility, but also because most journalists already know to use it. As for headlines (the task usually handled by editors), the Quartz newsroom relies on team chats to quickly and collaboratively work on pieces.

kevin_delaney
Kevin Delaney (photo: Quartz)

The same goes for graphics like in this snapshot of Tweeter’s IPO prospectus, a part of the magazine’s comprehensive coverage of the upcoming event. To further encourage the use of graphics and charts in stories, Quartz engineering director Michael Donohoe (a NYT alumni) ChartBuilder, a bespoke, easy to use tool.  [Correction : as pointed out by Quartz'global news editor Gideon Lichfield, ChartBuilder has been developed by David Yanofsky, one of Quartz journalist/coder/data hackers...] As an internet-native company, Quartz threw its software in the open-source world (see how it looks in Github) — an unthinkable move in the close-to-the-vest legacy media world…

While listening to Delaney describing his organization, I couldn’t help but mentally itemize what separates its super-agile setup from traditional media. A couple of months ago, I met the digital management of a major UK newspaper. There, execs kept whining about the slow pace evolution of the news staff and the struggle to get writers to add links and basic metadata (don’t even think about pix or graphics) to their work product. By and large, most legacy media I know of, in France, UK and the United States, are years behind swift boats such as Quartz, Politico or the older but still sharp Slate.

I used to think the breadth and depth of older large newsrooms could guarantee their survival in a digital world plagued by mediocrity and loose ethics. But considering great pure players like Quartz — which is just the latest offspring of a larger league — I now come to think we are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of smaller, digital-only outlets that are closing the gap, quality-wise, with legacy media. In the context of an increasingly segmented and short-on-time readership, I can only wonder how long the legacy newsroom’s strategic advantage of size and scope will last.

Quartz editorial staff has nothing to do with the low-paid, poultry farm newsrooms of many digital outlets. Most of the 25 journalists and editors (out a staff of 50) were drawn from well established brands such as Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters, New York Magazine or The Wall Street Journal (Kevin Delaney, 41, is himself a former WSJ.com managing editor). “Our staff is slightly younger than the average newsroom, and it is steeped in the notion of entrepreneurial journalism”, says the Quartz editor-in-chief. “With Quartz, we had many opportunity to rethink the assumptions of traditional media”.

The original idea was to devise how The Economist would look like if it had been born in 2012 rather than in 1843, explains Delaney. It would be digital native, mostly for mobile reading, and focus on contemporary economic engines such as digital, globalization, e-commerce, the future of energy, debt, China, etc. Instead of abiding by the usual classification of business news that looks like a nomenclature from the Bureau of Labor Statistics  (Industry, Services, Markets, Trade, etc.), Quartz opted for a sexier taxonomy; its coverage is based on an evolving list of “Obsessions“, a much more cognitive-friendly way to consider the news cycle than the usual “beat” (read this on the matter). As an avid magazine reader, Delaney said he derived the idea from publications like New York Magazine.

The challenge is connecting this categorization to audience expectations… Hence the importance of the social reverberation of Quartz treatments. They translate into stunning numbers: according to Kevin Delaney, 85% to 90% of its traffic is “earned” and social referrals account 50% of the site’s traffic. In other words, the traffic coming from people typing http://qz.com in their browser accounts for only 10-15% of the volume. To put things in perspective, on a legacy media site, social traffic weighs about 5% — in some rare cases 10% — and around 40% to 50% of the pages views are generated via the home page.

Since the site is nothing else but an infinite rolling page of stories, there is no classic jumping board home page. Another obsession of Quartz founders: “We wanted to minimize friction and encourage readers to share our stories. We designed the site first for tablets, then for mobile and as a classic website, in that order,” insists Kevin Delaney. No apps in sight, but a site built in HTML5 and responsive design that adjusts to screen size. At first, the no-app choice sounded weird for a media aimed at a mobile audience, but considering the rising costs and complexity of building, managing, and maintaining native apps on multiple platforms, a single HTML design was probably the best approach.

I’m not through talking about Quartz. Next week, we’ll examine the venture’s business aspects, its bold ways of dealing with advertising.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Apple Under Siege

 

Two years after Steve Jobs left us, Apple now wears Tim Cook’s imprint and, for all the doubt and perpetual doomsaying, seems to wear it well. One even comes to wonder if the Cassandras aren’t in fact doing Apple a vital favor.

Last Friday, Tim Cook issued a somber remembrance to Apple employees:

Team-
Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Steve’s death. I hope everyone will reflect on what he meant to all of us and to the world. Steve was an amazing human being and left the world a better place. I think of him often and find enormous strength in memories of his friendship, vision and leadership. He left behind a company that only he could have built and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple. We will continue to honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to the work he loved so much. There is no higher tribute to his memory. I know that he would be proud of all of you.
Best,
Tim

I am one of the many who are in Steve’s debt and I miss him greatly. I consider him the greatest creator and editor of products this industry has ever known, and am awed by how he managed the most successful transformation of a company — and of himself — we’ve ever seen. I watched his career from its very beginning, I was fortunate to have worked with him, and I thoroughly enjoyed agreeing and disagreeing with him.

I tried to convey this in an October 9th, 2011 Monday Note titled Too Soon. I just re-read it and hope you’ll take the time to do the same. You’ll read words of dissent by Richard Stallman and Hamilton Nolan, but you’ll mostly find praise by Barack Obama, John Stewart, Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, and this elegant image by Jonathan Mak:

steve_silouhette

Two years later, we can look at Apple under Tim Cook’s leadership. These haven’t been an easy twenty-four months: Company shares have gone on a wild ride, execs have been shown the door, there was the Maps embarrassment and apology, and there has been a product drought for most of the last fiscal year (ending in September).

All of this has provided fodder for the Fox Newsstands of the Web, for netwalkers seeking pageviews. The main theme is simple and prurient, hence its power: Without Steve, Apple is on the decline. The variations range from the lack of innovation — Where’s the Apple TV?, the iWatch?, the next Big Thing? — to The Decline of The Brand, Android Is Winning, and Everything Will Be Commoditized.

Scan Philip Ellmer-DeWitt’s Apple 2.0 or John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and treat yourself to intelligent repudiations of this incessant “claim chowder“, discredited pontifications. I’ll extract a few morsels from my own Evernote stash:

Apple’s press conference showed a brand unraveling, or so said VentureBeat in March, 2012. Eighteen months later, Apple passed Coca-Cola to become the world’s most valuable brand.

How Tim Cook can save himself (and Apple), subtitled, for good measure: What the confused Apple CEO can do to avoid getting canned and having to slink away with nothing but his $378 million compensation package as comfort. Penned by a communications consultant who “teaches public relations at NYU”, the article features an unexpected gem: Cook should buy a blazer. You know, “to break the deleterious chokehold of the Steve Jobs’ [sic] legacy”.

Apple: The Beginning of a Long Decline? (note the hedging question mark.) This LinkedIn piece, which questions the value of the fingerprint sensor, ends with a lament:

There was no sign of a watch. So those of us in Silicon Valley are left watching, wondering, and feeling a little empty inside… Jobs is gone. It looks like Apple’s magic is slowly seeping away now too.

Shortly thereafter, Samsung’s iWatch killer came out…and got panned by most reviewers.

Last: Apple’s Board of Directors are concerned about Apple’s pace of innovation, says Fox Business News Charlie Gasparino, who claims to have “reliable sources”.

Considering how secretive the company is, can anyone imagine a member of Apple’s Board blabbing to a Fox Business News irrespondent?

Despite the braying of the visionary sheep, Tim Cook never lost his preternatural calm, he never took the kommentariat’s bait. Nor have his customers: They keep buying, enjoying, and recommending Apple’s products. And they do so in such numbers — 9 million new iPhones sold in the launch weekend — that Apple had to file a Form 8-K with the Security and Exchanges Commission (SEC) to “warn” shareholders that revenue and profits would exceed the guidance they had provided just two months ago when management reviewed the results of the previous quarter.

In Daniel Eran Dilger’s words, Data bites dogma: Apple’s iOS ate up Android, Blackberry U.S. market share losses this summer:

Apple’s increase accounted for 1.5 of the 1.6 percentage points that Android and Blackberry collectively lost. This occurred a full month before the launch of Apple’s iPhone 5s and 5c and the deployment of iOS 7.

Regarding the “Apple no longer innovates” myth, Jay Yarow tells us why Apple Can’t Just ‘Innovate’ A New Product Every Other Year. His explanation draws from a substantial New York Times Magazine article in which Fred Vogelstein describes the convergence of company-wide risk-taking and engineering feats that resulted in the iPhone:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. 

It’s a great read. But even Vogelstein can’t resist the temptation of inserting a word of caution: “And yet Apple today is under siege…” 

This is something I heard 33 years ago when I signed up to start Apple France in 1980, and I’ve heard it constantly since then. I’ll again quote Horace Dediu, who best summarizes the concern:

“[There's a] perception that Apple is not going to survive as a going concern. At this point of time, as at all other points of time in the past, no activity by Apple has been seen as sufficient for its survival. Apple has always been priced as a company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall. It’s a consequence of being dependent on breakthrough products for its survival. No matter how many breakthroughs it makes, the assumption is (and has always been) that there will never be another. When Apple was the Apple II company, its end was imminent because the Apple II had an easily foreseen demise. When Apple was a Mac company its end was imminent because the Mac was predictably going to decline. Repeat for iPod, iPhone and iPad. It’s a wonder that the company is worth anything at all.”

I recently experienced a small epiphany: I think the never-ending worry about Apple’s future is a good thing for the company. Look at what happened to those who were on top and became comfortable with their place under the sun: Palm, Blackberry, Nokia…

In ancient Rome, victorious generals marched in triumph to the Capitol. Lest the occasion go to the army commander’s head, a slave would march behind the victor, murmuring in his ear, memento mori, “remember you’re mortal”.

With that in mind, one can almost appreciate the doomsayers — well, some of them. They might very well save Apple from becoming inebriated with their prestige and, instead, force the company to remember, two years later and counting, how they won it.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

News: Personalized or Serendipitous?

 

Every digital news designer faces the question: should the traditional serendipity of contents be preserved or should we go full steam for personalization? It turns out Google is already working on ways to combine both — on its usual grand scale.

Serendipity always seemed inseparable from journalism. For any media product, taking readers away from their main center of interest is part of the fabric. I go on a website for a morning update and soon find myself captured by crafty editing that will drive me to read up on a subject that was, until now, alien to me. That’s the beauty of a great news package.

Or is it still the case? Isn’t it a mostly generational inclination? Does a Gen Y individual really care about being drawn to a science story when getting online to see sports results?

Several elements concur to the erosion of serendipity and, more generally, curiosity.

First, behavioral among digital readers are evolving. These extend far beyond generations: Regardless of her age, today’s reader is short on time. At every moment of the day (except, maybe, in the loo or in bed at night), her reading time is slashed by multiple stimuli: social teases, incoming mail, alerts or simply succumbing to distractions that lie just one click (or one app) away. That’s one of the tragedies of traditional news outlets: When it comes to retaining the commuter’s attention, for instance, Slate or The Washington Post are in direct competition with addictive products such as Facebook or Angry Birds…

Second, the old “trusted news brand” notion is going away. Young people can’t be bothered to leaf though several titles to get their feed of a variety of topics; that’s why aggregators thrive. The more innocuous ones, such as Mediagazer, mostly send traffic back to the original news provider; but legions of others (Business Insider, The Huffington Post…) melt news brands into their own, repackage contents with eye-grabbing headlines and boost the whole package with aggressive marketing.

Below, see how BuzzFeed summed up the New York Times story on the NSA monitoring social traffic: 80 words in BF that capture the substance of a 2000 words article by two experienced journalists who collected exclusive documents and reported from Washington, New York and Berlin. buzzfeed nyt

(Note that BuzzFeed is serving a more appealing headline and a livelier photograph of general Keith Alexander, head of NSA.) How many BuzzFeed glancers did click on the link sending back to the original story? I’d bet no more that 5%. (Anyway, judging by the 500 comments that followed it, the NYT did well with their article.) This trends also explains why the Times is working on new digital products that take into account both time scarcity and the Gen Y way with news.

This leads us the third reason to wonder about personalization: the economics of digital news. In the devastated landscape of online advertising, it became more critical than ever to structure news content with the goal of retaining readers within a site. That’s why proper tagging, use of metadata, semantic recommendation engines and topic pages entries are so important. More pages per visit means more ads exposure, then more revenue. Again, pure players excel at providing incentives to read more stuff within their own environment, thus generating more page views.

Coming back to the customization issue, should we turn the dial fully to the end? Or should we preserve at least some of the fortuitous discovery that was always part of the old media’s charm?

Let’s first get rid of the idea of the reader presetting his/her own preferences. No one does it. At least for mainstream products. Therefore, news customization must rely on technology, not human input.

Last week, I spoke with Richard Gingras, the senior director of news and social products at Google (in other words, he oversees Google News and Google + from an editorial an business perspective). Richard is a veteran of the news business. Among many things, he headed Salon.com, one of the first and best online publication ever.

gingras

According to him, “Today’s news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts”. And that’s a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google’s efforts on predictive search. (Read for example With Personal Data, Predictive Apps Stay a Step Ahead in the MIT Technology Review, or Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do in the NYTimes).

The idea is to connect all of Google’s knowledge, from the individual level to his/her social group context, and beyond. This incredibly granular analysis of personal preferences and inclinations, set in the framework of the large macro-scale of the digital world, is at the core of the search giant’s strategy as summed-up below:

google infos2

On the top of this architecture, Google is developing techniques aimed at capturing the precious “signals” needed to serve more relevant contents, explains Richard Gingras. Not only in the direct vicinity of a topic, but based on center of interests drawn from concepts associated to individuals’ online patterns analyzed in a wider context. In doing so, Gingras underlines the ability of Google News to develop a kind of educated serendipity (term is mine) as opposed to narrowing the user’s mind by serving her the unrefined output of a personalization engine. In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts — matched against hundreds of millions of others — Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper’s when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria. That’s not customized news in a restricted sense, but that not straightforward serendipity either. That’s Google’s way of anticipating your intellectual and emotional wishes. Fascinating and scary.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Microsoft Directors Have Much Explaining To Do

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ballmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All rational moves.

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

Which raises a few more questions.

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

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

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

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

All interesting questions.

JLG@mondaynote.com

————————-

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