War in the Valley: Apple vs. Google

It was long overdue: Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) finally resigned from Apple’s Board of Directors. Usually, these resignations are handled in the smoothest of ways: Thanks for the distinguished service and the like. This time, Steve Jobs issued a pointed statement: “Unfortunately, as Google enters more of Apple’s core businesses, with Android and now Chrome OS, Eric’s effectiveness as an Apple Board member will be significantly diminished, since he will have to recuse himself from even larger portions of our meetings due to potential conflicts of interest.” Full officialese here.

This is the Valley and its cozy relationships. By which I mean executives and directors sitting on one another’s board, competitors enjoying the same directors, venture firms “sharing” their partners around portfolio companies. For example, besides Eric Schmidt sitting on both Apple’s and Google’s boards, we have Arthur Levinson, head of Genentech, a director of both companies. Or partners at Sequoia (a very successful venture capital firm)
 sitting on boards at YouTube and Google, which might have help a successful “exit”, that is the sale of YouTube to Google.
Back to Apple, there are also lingering allegations of a no-poach agreement, one by which the companies agreed no to hire each other’s workers.
Closer to home: Be, Inc., the operating system company I founded with a few friends from Apple and elsewhere. For a while, one of our investors (and director) also sat on Microsoft’s board. Microsoft executives were investors in his firm and we ended up with Bill Gates (indirectly) owning a piece of Be. Ah well… That was a decade ago, the statute of limitations ran out.
The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), the stock market regulator, has become more aggressive in watching out for companies engaging in collusive behavior through cross-directorships. See here .

Back to Dear Leader’s words: Google enters more of Apple’s core business. More

Apple’s Jesus Tablet: What For?

If you went on vacation and renounced Internet access for the duration, you might not have heard the latest rumors concerning the iTablet a.k.a. the Jesus Tablet, Apple’s eagerly awaited entry into the putative bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook segment. I’m avoiding the n-word: for Apple, this is the no-book category…
As for the religious nickname, let’s go back to MacWorld, in January 2007. Steve Jobs walks on stage and demonstrates the “iPod of phones”. The audience reacts with such religious fervor that, for a while, wags call Steve’s latest miracle the Jesus phone. (I could go on and call AT&T’s network the iPhone’s cross, but I won’t.)

Back to 2009, for the past week, we’ve had the strongest wave to date of rumors and speculation regarding Apple’s second coming (after the Newton, see below) into the tablet space. Putting such froth down would be ignoring the desire, the hope behind the agitation. The Greater We seems to want something bigger than and iPhone and smaller than a 13” MacBook, currently Apple’s smaller laptop.

Great, but what for? More

The Real iPhone 1.0

Saint Peter offers a choice of hells to a recently dematerialized high-tech tycoon (pick your favorite sinner) with a long list of transgressions. The basic one, fire, floggings, and the premium one, plenty of music, drink, food and other pleasures of the flesh. Said tycoon picks the fun venue, Saint Peter pulls a lever, the industrialist falls to the one and only fiery hell. Agitated, feeling cheated, the sinner demands to know about the other hell, the eternal party.
Saint Peter: It’s a demo!

The joke comes to mind as I watch Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone on stage at San Francisco’s MacWorld Expo, on January 9th, 2007.
It is too good to be true, especially the part about running OS X. The demo looks magical, as with most of Steve’s acts. The iPhone looks like one shocking product. But is it real? Nothing specifically aimed at the demonstrator, I’ve seen – and given – too many demos, it’s a sinner speaking.

Six months later, I’m relieved. The first iPhones ship, enterprising programmers manage to inspect the firmware’s insides and, yes, it is OS X. A trimmed-down version, of course, but the core of the iPhone’s software engine is the genuine article. More

Fun AT&T numbers

by Jean-Louis Gassée

AT&T can’t seem to catch a break. A couple of weeks ago, at All Things Digital, an industry conference, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s Chairman, got the audience to snicker and roll eyes. The conference is held by the Wall Street Journal, led by its digital guru, Walt Mossberg and, “by invitation only”, $5K a pop, gathers movers, shakers and wannabes of what is now broadly called the digital media industry.
Mr. Stephenson was on stage, answering Walt Mossberg apparently softball questions. But, when you look more closely, Walt applies a trial attorney’s precept: Only ask questions for which you already know the answers, let the jury see how the witness responds. We were the jury as Walt asked the AT&T top dog about its wireless network performance problems. The witness got off to a decent start: “Yes, when the iPhone 3G came out we weren’t ready.” Then, he proceeded to claim things had significantly improved. That’s when the snickering started. In Silicon Valley, we all know the blank spots, the bad 3G coverage, right in the heart of high-tech’s garment district. See the full interview here.

Later, Stephenson committed a faux pas of Detroit proportions: he claimed everything (phone, Internet connection, TV) worked well when he moved to his new home in Texas. Really? AT&T’s Chairman, CEO and President gets a good connection? In a further misguided attempt to connect with his audience, he even mentioned his Apple TV. Clearly, he’s one of us, a discerning Apple customer… More

Time to think seriously about the iPhone

4:00am. I find myself reading an interesting story covering Portfolio’s web site – on my iPhone. As sleep comes back, I reflexively reach for the “save” (for later reading) button that is on every iPhone news application. But I am reading from the magazine’s site, as opposed to running an app on my smartphone; web sites don’t have a save button. I just became aware of a new set of habits, barely conscious and now ingrained thoughts/actions created by reading news stories on an iPhone (or an iPod Touch). A good sign.

In the Monday Note, for quite a while, Jean-Louis and I have been discussing the development of news-related iPhone apps (our first story “Why Publishers should grab the iPhone” goes back to a year ago,
or follow the iPhone tag on the Note). Since then, several news organizations have developed specific applications (not just tailored websites) for the iPhone. More

Revenue Model Breakthrough?

Micro-payments are an old idea, some say a bad fantasy. Chief, we’re rich: I found a way to get a millicent per page view…

So far, not much has happened. Unless you look at a tidy, not tiny, little billion-dollar business called iTunes. Three years ago, in February 2006, 1 billion songs served, sold, cashed in, since 2003. July 2007, 3 billion. June 19th, 2008, 5 billion songs. January 2009, 6 billion. Tidy it is at 99 cents for every song. A little so now, with three stages, 69, 99 and 129 cents, without DRM, without copy protection.

But, you’ll justifiably object, this is a unique phenomenon, it doesn’t replicate elsewhere. How can we draw lessons from Apple’s idiosyncratic, proprietary, ferociously monolithic, militantly anal practices? True when it comes to Apple’s style, but less so when it comes to substance, to the replicability, to the potential for use elsewhere. Apple’s competitors are rushing to build their own App Store; for their smartphones, they yearn for their own applications distribution platform. This certainly makes the case for the idea’s replication.

But what idea?

What Apple did was lowering the mental cost of the transaction. More

The Future of Netbooks

You the attentive reader might ask why VCs like yours truly are interested in netbooks. Hardware made in Taiwan, running Linux or Windows, low prices, even lower margins…Where are the opportunities for entrepreneurs, and for those of us who invest in their creations?

This is a different question from: Why are netbooks successful? We know the answer to the latter: price and, to a smaller degree (no pun intended), size. This picture and this list show how this new incarnation of the personal computer has proliferated. Because of the recession, yesterday’s manly “must-have” features are now suspect frills. Small has become virile. Users who wouldn’t be seen with less than a “plus-size” keyboard have now received cultural permission to travel with a 10” netbook, perfect for flying (the rediscovered) Coach class. More

Reading from a smartphone, the smart way

I’m quite fond of Bloomberg’s iPhone application. My insomnia companion is my iPod touch, used as an alarm clock, and as a convenient bedtime newsreader. And the Bloomberg app is my favorite: good navigation, a simple bottom toolbar (News, Markets, MyStocks, StockFinder). In the News section, stories are shown as they are published and each time I open a page a banner briefly pops-up inviting me to go (or not to go, which is good) to the advertiser’s site. Articles are excellent as always, stocks charts — although depressing for those who owns any — are great, with pinch-zoom when looked in landscape mode. For a demo, you can go to this video,  or, better, download the app for free on iTunes Appstore.
Fine, but the Bloomberg app is still version 1.0. More

A second look at 3G

by Jean-Louis Gassée
Revelation or revelator?  I’m referring to the iPhone, of course. We’ll quickly skip over the revelation part, enough praise (and some well-deserved barbs) already.  Instead, we’ll look at the light the iPhone sheds on the cellular infrastructure and on the culture of operators.
The symptoms: spotty 3G coverage, bad reception, ‘bandwidth’ (meaning download speed) far from the “twice as fast” claims, poor battery performance.  To say nothing of software reliability complaints.  Add Apple’s lofty claims and relative inexperience in cellular telephony and you get a nice target.  As the French like to say, the higher the monkey climbs, the more people see his… mistakes.
This being America, we now have three lawsuits broadly accusing Apple and AT&T of false claims. At the same time, the chattering classes, read the blogosphere and the aging MSM (Mainstream Media), promptly filled up with comments, explanations and accusations.  More confusion than light.
Apple first clammed up in its usual imperious style but, soon, emails from Dear Leader himself leaked out.  Steve Jobs replied a couple of customers, acknowledged the contribution of software bugs to battery and connection issues and promised fixes in September.  All along, the company refrained from implicating carriers.
However, as more facts emerged, we began to see a different picture.
The magazine Wired conducted a nationwide study that pointed the finger at the carrier, AT&T.  Then, a Swedish lab took it upon itself to test the iPhone reception (story on Cnet and in the Göteborg Posten), comparing it to leading 3G handsets.  The result?  With regards to radio performance, the 3G iPhone was indistinguishable from Nokia or Sony Ericsson handsets.
Then, it transpired that Orange, in France, was ‘throttling’ the 3G iPhone. Throttling?  Here the word refers to Orange deliberately limiting the transfer speed, the bandwidth provided to iPhones to 384Kbps (Kilobits per second), which seems to be the ‘legal’ minimum of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), not the 1Mbps or more ‘sold’ by the carriers.  [I went to the ITU site and entered 3G in the Search field.  The answer is: “The component required for this action is not available”.  This in both Simple and Advanced search.  Fortunately, Google provides the usual abundance of links and things become even less clear.  Regarding the 384Kbps number, some interpret it as the maximum rate for slowly moving devices, such as a handset carried by a walking user.  Others quote the IMT-2000 standard and ominously remind us: “The total max bandwidth of 2.4 Mbits are to be shared by all users within a single cell sector. One cell normally has 3 sectors to cover the full 360 degrees area around a cell antenna tower”.
Confused?  Let’s step back a bit.
When we look again at the Orange item, one implication becomes explicit: the network knows it is serving an iPhone.  A dialog, a protocol sets up the connection, identifies the phone/customer for billing, etc…  The “etc” part is very sophisticated as it allows the network to regulate the phone’s radio power, for example, no need to “shout” if the cell tower is near.  This, in turn, points to the ‘client’ side, to the iPhone’s role in the protocol.  Hence the acknowledgement by Apple of connection and power management bugs, hopefully corrected by this past Friday’s 2.1 update.  (I installed it and have nothing useful to report yet – which could be good news.)
On the carrier side, a set of facts emerges. To begin with, carriers weren’t prepared for the iPhone, because it isn’t really a phone, it is an Internet device with a phone thrown in.  As noted here before, Google found that the iPhone provided 50 times more search traffic than the next smartphone down the list.  In the past, carriers touted smartphones as having browsing and multimedia messaging capabilities but these were hard enough to use to be hardly used.  The iPhone comes in with the first real smartphone browser and the naïve customers use it.  So much so that the network buckles under the load or, in Orange’s case, tries to survive by spreading the penury.  (In recent statements Orange appeared to promise to be back at 1.5Mbps “in September”.) See also how iTunes wireless download are only allowed with a WiFi connection, not 3G.
So far, carriers have managed to maintain an oligopoly, a market with a very small number of suppliers. Economic theory holds an oligopoly suppresses real competition and leads to various forms of implicit or even active price fixing, as we’ve seen in France.  The lower level of competition allows carriers to delay investments and ‘milk’ their network (and their customers) just like the good old cable networks operators.  In downtown Palo Alto, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, there still are ‘white spots’, places where you have No Service.
In keeping with the carriers’ culture, we see a combination of small print and outright misrepresentations of services.  Summarizing: your payment is mandatory, our performance is optional.  No wonder ‘trial lawyers’ are rising to this tempting occasion, this after courts started taking another look at the dreaded
mandatory arbitration clauses
carriers use to prevent disgruntled customers from seeking redress in court.
This is unfortunate.  Cellular networks are wonderful, when they work.  The voice and data services they strive to provide make our lives more productive, more fun and emotionally more connected.  (I know, there are also terribly annoying and dehumanizing uses too.)  For the technically curious, wireless networks are both admirable and ugly, an ever evolving patchwork of high-tech bits and pieces striving to appear seamless.
We can only hope regulatory authorities will pay more attention to the gap between what carriers promise (and ruthlessly charge for) and what they deliver. As for the tall markitecture tales of 4G networks, today they’re just a way to move the debate away from today’s shortcomings by touting a bright future. –JLG

Fiction: How Steve Jobs Cuckolds AT&T

Steve shimmers into a bar, materializes next to Dan Hesse, Sprint’s CEO, crying in his mojito and whispers: I can fulfill your fondest dream. You’re the Devil, go away! No, I’m merely Steve Jobs and I want nothing to do with your soul or your chiseled body. Relax, it’s just about money.

A little bit of context before we move to the How of Steve’s bargain.

In the US, we have three main carriers (sorry, T-Mobile), AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. Verizon appears to have the better, more modern (EVDO) network.
AT&T is rapidly upgrading to what is known as 3G, a world standard, competitive but not compatible with EVDO. Sprint, the smaller one, has EVDO, almost identical to Verizon, it is losing ground to the two big ones. The Sprint-Nextel merger is a disaster, to the point where Sprint wants to get rid of the company it acquired for $35 billions in 2005. Sprint’s revenue is falling: -11% when compared to the same second quarter last year, this in spite of introducing a $99 Everything plan, unlimited voice, data, music, video. “Some restrictions apply”: look at the minuscule print here, at the bottom of the screen, tiny white characters on a black background. In the almost illegible but instructive gibberish, they have the nerve to add: “Other restrictions apply. See store or sprint.com for details”. But I am on the Details Page on sprint.com!
(Intrigued, I checked: Verizon does a better job of spelling out its conditions and AT&T has the best organized one of all three.)

And, for the first six months of 2008, Sprint has lost 2 million subscribers, nothing to do with the reality and the perception of Apple smartphone sales: probably more than 10 million units in 2008, a majority of in the US.
Now we understand why the CEO is in his cups.

Steve whispers: Dan, look at the iPod Touch here. We’ve added a microphone, already available from third parties, and we grafted a Sprint radio, liberated from Jeff’s Kindle. It’s not a telephone. No, we have this exclusivity agreement with Ma Bell. In 2007, we let them say it was for five years. Now, with our 3G product, it’s been “extended” to 2010. Who knows, next year we’ll extend it to 2009.

Offer this iPod Touch with one of your All You Can Packetize plans. I’m sure the iPhone developers will put one or more Skype-like applications on it, VoIP software. You won’t mind, right? You’re not as uptight as AT&T outlawyering the use of an iPhone as a 3G laptop modem. This iPod is not a phone, it’s an Internet device, you’ll sell millions of them, your errant subscribers will return to Sprint’s fold. And you’ll keep your job. What do you say?

Awright, stop drinking that stuff and sign here. –JLG