microsoft

The Sweet Spot On Apple’s Racket

 

iPad sales are falling – but the sky is not. We’re merely dealing with a healthy case of expectations adjustment.

The tablet computer has always felt inevitable. The desire to harness the power of a computer in the comfortable form of a letter-size tablet with a keyboard, or perhaps a stylus for more natural interaction — or why not both? — has been with us for a very long time. Here we see Alan Kay holding a prototype of his 1972 Dynabook (the photo is from 2008):

Alan_Kay_and_the_prototype_of_Dynabook,_pt._5_(3010032738)

(credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynabook)

Alan prophetically called his invention a personal computer for children of all ages.

For more than 40 years, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and captains of industry have whetted our appetite for such tablets. Before it was recast as a PDA, a Personal Digital Assistant, Steve Sakoman’s Newton was a pen-based letter-size tablet. Over time, we saw the GridPad, Jerry Kaplan’s and Robert Carr’s Go, and the related Eo Personal Communicator. And, true to its Embrace and Extend strategy, Microsoft rushed a Windows for Pen Computing extension into Windows 3.1.

These pioneering efforts didn’t succeed, but the hope persisted: ‘Someone, someday will get it right’. Indeed, the tablet dream got a big boost from no less than Bill Gates when, during his State of The Industry keynote speech at Comdex 2001 (Fall edition), Microsoft’s CEO declared that tablets were just around the corner [emphasis mine]:

“The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I’m already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits — and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.

Unfortunately, the first Tablet PCs, especially those made by Toshiba (I owned two), are competent but unwieldy. All the required ingredients are present, but the sauce refuses to take.

Skip ahead to April 2010. The iPad ships and proves Alan Kay right: The first experience with Apple’s tablet elicits, more often than not, a child-like joy in children of all ages. This time, the tablet mayonnaise took and the “repressed demand” finally found an outlet. As a result, tablets grew even faster than PCs ever did:

PNG - Tablets Fastest Ever

(Source: Mary Meeker’s regular Internet Trends 2014 presentation, always long, never boring)

In her 2013 report, Meeker showed iPads topping the iPhone’s phenomenal growth, climbing three times faster than its more pocketable sibling:

PNG - iPad 3X iPhone Meeker 2013

(Source: Mary Meeker Internet Trends 2013)

There were, however, two unfortunate aspects to this rosy picture.

First, there was the Post-PC noise. The enthusiasm for Android and iOS tablets, combined with the end of the go-go years for PC sales, led many to decree that we had finally entered the “Post-PC” era.

Understandably, the Post-PC tag, with its implication that the PC is no longer necessary or wanted, didn’t please Microsoft. As early as 2011, the company was ready with its own narrative which was delivered by Frank Shaw, the company’s VP of Corporate Communications: Where the PC is headed: Plus is the New “Post”. In Microsoft’s cosmos, the PC remains at the center of the user’s universe while smartphones and tablets become “companion devices”. Reports of the PC’s death are greatly exaggerated, or, as Shaw puts it, with a smile, “the 30-year-old PC isn’t even middle aged yet, and about to take up snowboarding”.

(Actually, the current debate is but a new eruption of an old rash. “Post-PC” seems to have been coined by MIT’s David Clark around 1999, causing Bill Gates to pen a May 31st, 1999 Newsweek op-ed titled: Why the PC Will Not Die…)

Both Bill and Frank are right – mostly. Today’s PC, the descendant of the Altair 8800 for which Gates programmed Microsoft’s first Basic interpreter, is alive and, yes, it’s irreplaceable for many important tasks. But classical PCs — desktops and laptops — are no longer at the center of the personal computing world. They’ve been replaced by smaller (and smallest) PCs — in other words, by tablets and smartphones. The PC isn’t dead or passé, but it is shape-shifting.

There was a second adverse consequence of the iPad’s galloping growth: Expectations ran ahead of reality. Oversold or overbought, it doesn’t matter, the iPad (and its competitors) promised more than they could deliver. Our very personal computers — our tablets and smartphones — have assumed many of the roles that previously belonged to the classical PC, but there are some things they simply can’t do.

For example, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tim Cook confides that “he does 80% of the work of running the world’s most valuable company on an iPad.” Which is to say Tim Cook needs a Mac for the remaining 20%…but the WSJ quote doesn’t tell us how important these 20% are.

We now come to the downward trend in iPad’s unit sales: -2.29% for the first quarter of calendar year 2014 (compared to last year). Even more alarming, unit sales are down 9% for the quarter ending in June. Actually, this seems to be an industry-wide problem rather than an Apple-specific trend. In an exclusive Re/code interview, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly says tablet sales are “crashing”, and sees hope for PCs.

Many explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, the most common of which is that tablets have a longer replacement cycle than smartphones. But according to some skeptics, such as Peter Bright in an Ars Technica op-ed, there’s a much bigger problem [emphasis mine]:

“It turns out that tablets aren’t the new smartphone…[t]hey’re the new PC; if you’ve already got one, there’s not much reason to buy a new one. Their makers are all out of ideas and they can’t make them better. They can only make them cheaper.”

Bright then concludes:

“[T]he smartphone is essential in a way that the tablet isn’t. A large screen smartphone can do…all the things a tablet can do… Who needs tablets?”

Hmmm…

There is a simpler – and much less portentous – explanation. We’re going through an “expectations adjustment” period in which we’ve come to realize that tablets are not PC replacements. Each personal computer genre carries its own specifics; each instils unique habits of the body, mind, and heart; none of them is simply a “differently sized” version of the other two.

The realization of these different identities manifests itself in Apple’s steadfast refusal to hybridize, to make a “best of both worlds” tablet/laptop product.

Microsoft thinks otherwise and no less steadfastly (and expensively) produces Surface Pro hybrids. I bought the first generation two years ago, skipped the second, and recently bought a Surface Pro 3 (“The tablet that can replace your laptop”). After using it daily for a month, I can only echo what most reviewers have said, including Joanna Stern in the WSJ:

“On its third attempt, Microsoft has leapt forward in bringing the tablet and laptop together—and bringing the laptop into the future. But the Pro 3 also suffers from the Surface curse: You still make considerable compromises for getting everything in one package.”

Trying to offer the best of tablets and laptops in one product ends up compromising both functions. In my experience, too many legacy Windows applications work poorly with my fingers on the touch screen. And the $129 Type Cover is a so-so keyboard and poor trackpad. Opinions will differ, of course, but I prefer using Windows 8.1 on my Mac. We’ll see how the upcoming Windows 9, code name Threshold, will cure the ills of what Mary Jo Foley, a well-introduced Microsoft observer, calls Vista 2.0.

If we consider that Mac unit sales grew 18% last quarter (year-to-year), the company’s game becomes clear: The sweet spot on Apple’s racket is the set of customers who, like Tim Cook, use MacBooks and iPads. It’s by no means the broadest segment, just the most profitable one. Naysayers will continue to contend that the prices of competing tablets are preordained to crash and will bring ruin to Apple’s Affordable Luxury product strategy…just as they predicted netbooks would inflict damage on MacBooks.

As for Peter Bright’s contention that “[tablet] makers are all out of ideas and they can’t make them better”, one can easily see ways in which Google, Lenovo, Microsoft, Apple, and others could make improvements in weight, speed, input methods, system software, and other factors I can’t think of. After we get over the expectations adjustment period, the tablet genre will continue to be innovative, productive, and fun – for children of all ages.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Microsoft’s New CEO Needs An Editor

 

Satya Nadella’s latest message to the troops – and to the world – is disquieting. It lacks focus, specifics, and, if not soon sharpened, his words will worry employees, developers, customers, and even shareholders.

As I puzzled over the public email Microsoft’s new CEO sent to his troops, Nicolas Boileau’s immortal dictum came to mind:

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease.

Clarity and ease are sorely missing from Satya Nadella’s 3,100 plodding words, which were supposed to paint a clear, motivating future for 127,000 Microsoftians anxious to know where the new boss is leading them.

LE WEB PARIS 2013 - CONFERENCES - PLENARY 1 - SATYA NADELLA

Nadella is a repeat befuddler. His first email to employees, sent just after he assumed the CEO mantle on earlier this year, was filled with bombastic and false platitudes:

“We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.”

(More in the February 9th, 2014 Monday Note)

In his latest message, Nadella treats us to more toothless generalities:

“We have clarity in purpose to empower every individual and organization to do more and achieve more. We have the right capabilities to reinvent productivity and platforms for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. Now, we must build the right culture to take advantage of our huge opportunity. And culture change starts with one individual at a time.”

Rather than ceding to the temptation of quoting more gems, let’s turn to a few simple rules of exposition.

First, the hierarchy of ideas:

328_strategy_graph

This admittedly simplistic diagram breaks down an enterprise into four layers and can help diagnose thinking malfunctions.

The top layer deals with the Identity or Culture — I use the two terms interchangeably as one determines the other. One level down, we have Goals, where the group is going. Then come the Strategies or the paths to those goals. Finally, we have the Plan, the deployment of troops, time, and money.

The arrow on the left is a diagnostic tool. It reminds us that as we traverse the diagram from Identity to Plan, the number of words that we need to describe each layer increases.  It should only take a few words to limn a company’s identity (Schlumberger, oil services; Disney, family entertainment), describing the company’s goals will be just a tad more verbose (“in 5 years’ time we’ll achieve $X EPS, Y% revenue growth and Z% market share”), and so on.

The arrow also tells us that the “rate of change” — the frequency at which a description changes — follows the same trajectory. Identity should change only very slowly, if ever. At the other end, the plan will need constant adjustment as the company responds to rapidly shifting circumstances, the economy, the competition.

Using the old Microsoft as an example:
— Identity: We’re the emperor of PC software
— Goals: A PC on every desk and home – running our software
— Strategy: Couple the Windows + Office licenses to help OEMs see the light; Embrace and Extend Office competitors.
— Plan: Changes every week.

Returning to Nadella’s prose, can we mine it for words to fill the top three layers? Definitely not.

Second broken rule: Can I disagree? Any text that relies on platitudes says not much at all; in a message-to-the-troops that’s supposed to give direction, irrefutable statements are deadly. Some randomly selected examples in an unfortunately overabundant field:

“[…] we will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences, while maintaining security and privacy.”

or…

“Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.”

 or…

“Obsessing over our customers is everybody’s job.”

If I’m presented with statements I cannot realistically disagree with – We Will Behave With Utmost Integrity – I feel there’s something wrong. If it’s all pro and no con, it’s a con.

There are other violations but I’ll stop in order to avoid the tl;dr infraction I reproach Nadella for: Never make a general statement without immediately following it with the sacramental “For Example”.

For example:

“[…] we will modernize our engineering processes to be customer-obsessed, data-driven, speed-oriented and quality-focused.”

… would be more believable if followed by:

Specifically, we’ll ask each each software engineer to spend two days every month visiting customers on even months, and third party developers on odd ones. They will also spend one day per quarter seconding Customer Service Representatives over our phone banks.” 

Satya Nadella is an unusually intelligent man, a Mensa-caliber intellect, well-read, he quotes Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Why, then, does he repeatedly break basic storytelling rules?

Two possible explanations come to mind.

First, because he’s intelligent and literate, he forgot to use an unforgiving editor. ‘Chief, you really want to email that?’ Or, if he used an editor, he was victimized by a sycophantic one. ‘Satya, you nailed it!’

Second, and more likely, Nadella speaks in code. He’s making cryptic statements that are meant to prepare the troops for painful changes. Seemingly bland, obligatory statements about the future will decrypt into wrenching decisions:

“Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.”

In plainer English: Shape up or ship out.

Tortured statements from CEOs, politicians, coworkers, spouses, or suppliers, in no hierarchical order, mean one thing: I have something to hide, but I want to be able to say I told you the facts.

With all this in mind, let’s see if we can restate Nadella’s message to the troops:

This is the beginning of our new FY 2015 – and of a new era at Microsoft.
I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is the old Devices and Services mantra won’t work.

For example: I’ve determined we’ll never make money in tablets or smartphones.

So, do we continue to pretend we’re “all in” or do we face reality and make the painful decision to pull out so we can use our resources – including our integrity – to fight winnable battles? With the support of the Microsoft Board, I’ve chosen the latter. We’ll do our utmost to minimize the pain that will naturally arise from this change. Specifically, we’ll offer generous transitions arrangements in and out of the company to concerned Microsoftians and former Nokians.

The good news is we have immense resources to be a major player in the new world of Cloud services and Native Apps for mobile devices. We let the first innings of that game go by, but the sting energizes us. An example of such commitment is the rapid spread of Office applications – and related Cloud services – on any and all mobile devices. All Microsoft Enterprise and Consumer products/services will follow, including Xbox properties.

I realize this will disrupt the status quo and apologize for the pain to come. We have a choice: change or be changed.

Stay tuned.

Or words (about 200) to that effect.

In parting, Nadella would do well to direct his attention to another literate individual, John Kirk, whose latest essay, Microsoft Is The Very Antithesis Of Strategy, is a devastating analysis that compares the company’s game plan to the advice given by Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart, and Carl von Clausewitz, writers who are more appropriate to the war that Microsoft is in than the authors Microsoft’s CEO seems to favor.

The CEO’s July 10th email promises more developments, probably around the July 22nd Earnings release. Let’s hope he’ll offer sharper and shorter words to describe Microsoft’s entry into the Cloud First – Mobile First era.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Science Fiction: Mining My Own Exhaust

 

A few thoughts on Big Data, self-knowledge, and my hopes for the emergence of a new genre of services.

I’m about to fulfill an old fantasy — the Great American Road Trip. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto. In that spirit, today I’ll luxuriate in another, more distant reverie: Mining my own data exhaust.

I’m spurred to this indulgence by the words of Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, at an April 15th event in San Francisco [emphasis mine]:

“The core evolution of silicon, software and hardware is putting computing everywhere humans are present,” Nadella said. “And it’s generating a massive data exhaust of server logs, sensor data and unstructured social stream information. We can use that exhaust to create ambient intelligence for our users.”

Nadella’s right. I leave a cloud of data exhaust with my Web browsing, credit card purchases, cell phone use, monthly blood tests, pharmacy purchases, and airline trips. Server logs detail the length and breadth of my social interactions on Facebook and Google+… And I don’t have to be on a computer to add to the cloud: I’m tracked by toll passes and license plate snapshots as I drive my car. The car itself monitors my driving habits with its black box recording of my speed and direction. This list, far from exhaustive [no pun intended], is sobering – or exciting, full of possibilities.

Today, we’ll skip the Orwellian paranoia and fantasize about an alternate universe where I can “turn the gratis around”, where I can buy my data back.

Google, Facebook, and the like provide their services for free to induce us to lead them to the mother lode: Our cache of product preferences, search history, and web habits. They forge magic ingots from our personal data, sell the bullion to advertisers, and thus fuel the server farms that mine even more data. I’m not here to throw a monkey wrench into this business model; au contraire, I offer a modest source of additional revenues: I’d like to buy my data back. And I’ll extend that offer to any and all entities that mine my activities: For you, at a special price today, I’m buying my data.

(We all understand that this fantasy must take place in an alternate universe. If our legislators and regulators were beholden to us and not to Google, Verizon, and “Concast” [a willful typo from Twitter wags], they would have long ago made it mandatory that companies provide us with our own data exhaust.)

Pursuing this train of thought, one can conceive of brokers scouring the world for my exhausts — after having secured the right permissions from me, of course. Once this becomes an established activity, no particular feat of imagination is required to see the emergence of Big Data processing companies capable of merging and massaging the disparate flumes obtained from cell carriers, e-merchants, search engines, financial services and other service providers.

So far, especially because it lacks numbers and other annoying implementation details, the theory sounds nice. But to what end?

The impulse can be viewed as a version of the old Delphic injunction: Know Thyself, now updated as Know Thine Quantified Self: Quantify what I do with my body, time, money, relationships, traveling, reading, corresponding, driving, eating… From there, many derivations come to mind, such as probabilistic diagnoses about my health, financial situation, career, and marriage. Or I could put my data in turnaround, mandate a broker to shop facets of my refined profile to the top agencies.

Even if we set aside mounds of unresolved implementation details, objections arise. A key member of my family pointedly asks how much do we really want to know about ourselves?

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a politely cynical Parisian tailor. I ventured that he could help his customers choose a suit by snapping a picture and displaying it on a 80” flat screen TV in portrait mode. My idea was that the large scale digital picture would offer a much more realistic, a more objective image than does a look in the mirror. The customer would be able to see himself as others see him, what effect the new suit would produce – which, after all, is the point of new duds.

“No way,” said the Parisian fashionista, “are you nuts? My customers, you included,” he tartly added, “really don’t want the cruel truth about their aging bodies…”

Still, I’m curious. And not just about the shape and color of the data exhaust that I leave in my wake, about the truths — pleasant or embarrassing — that might be revealed. I’m curious about the types of companies, services, and business models that would emerge from this arrangement. Even more fascinating: How would the ability to mine and sell our own data affect our cultural vocabulary and social genetics?

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: As offered here, I recently downloaded my Facebook data set. The data doesn’t appear to be very revealing, but that could be the result of my low Facebook involvement — I’m not a very active user. I’d be curious to see the size and detail level associated with a more involved participant.

PPS: I’ll be on the road, literally, for the next three weeks and may or may not be able to post during that time.

Nokia Goes Android – Part II

 

Next week, we might see Nokia’s entry-level feature phones replaced by a low-end device running Android Open Source Project software. The phone may just be a fantasy, but the dilemma facing Nokia’s feature phone business is quite real: Embrace Android or be killed by it. 

Nokia will announce an Android phone! So says the persistent rumor, started about three months ago by an @evleaks tweet, and followed by more details as weeks went by. Initially code-named Normandy, the hypothetical feature phone is now called Nokia X, and it already has its own Wikipedia page and pictures:

Nokia X

Nokia is on the path to being acquired by Microsoft. Why introduce an Android-based phone now? The accepted reasoning is simple…

  • Even though it doesn’t generate much revenue per handset (only $42), Nokia’s feature phone business is huge and must be protected. Nokia’s Form 20-F for 2012 (the 2013 report hasn’t been published, yet) shows its phone numbers compared to the previous year:
    • 35M smartphones (-55%) at an average price (ASP) of $210 (+ 11%)
    • 300M feature phones (-12%) with an ASP of $42 (- 11%)
  • These 300 million feature phones — or “dumbphones” — keep the Nokia flag waving, particularly in developing economies, and they act as an up-ramp towards more profitable smartphones.
  • Lately, dumbphones have become smarter. With the help of Moore’s Law, vigorous competition, and Android Open Source Project (AOSP) software, yesterday’s underfed, spartan feature phones are being displaced by entry-level smartphones. Asha, Nokia’s offering in this category, has been mowed down by low-end Android devices from China.
  • Nokia can’t help but notice that these AOSP-based feature phones act as a gateway drug to the full-blown Android smartphone experience (and much larger profits) offered by competitors such as Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola’s new owner Lenovo.
  • So Nokia drops its over-the-hill Symbian software core, adopts Android, adds its own (and Microsoft’s) services, design expertise, and carrier relationships, and the result is Nokia X, a cleaner, smarter feature phone.

That’s it. Very tactical. Business as usual, only better. Move along, nothing to see.

It’s not that simple.

There’s an important difference between the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and the full Android environment that’s offered by Samsung, LG, HTC and the like.

The Android Open Source Project is really Open Source, you can download the source code here, modify it as you see fit for your application, add layers of services, substitute parts…anything you like.

Well, almost anything. The one thing you can’t do is slap a figurative “Android Inside” sticker on your device. To do that, you must comply with Google’s strict compatibility requirements that force licensees to bundle Google Mobile (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) and Google Play (the store for apps and other content). The result isn’t open or free, but smartphone makers who want the Android imprimatur must accept the entire stack.

As an added incentive to stay clean, a “Full Android” licensee cannot also market devices that use a different, incompatible version (or “fork”) of the Android code published by Google. A well-know example of forking is Amazon’s use of Android source code to create the software engine that runs its high-end Kindle Fire tablets. You won’t find a single instance of the word “Android” on these devices: Google won’t license the name for such uses.

(For more on the murky world of Android licensing, bundling, and marketing agreements, see Ben Edelman’s research paper: Secret Ties in Google’s “Open” Android.)

The hypothetical, entry-level Nokia X can’t offer an entire Android stack — it can’t be allowed to compete with the higher-end Lumias powered by Microsoft’s Windows Phone — so it would have to run an “unmentionable” Android fork.

Even without the “Android Inside” label, everyone would soon know the truth about the Android code inside the new device. This could give pause to software developers, carriers, and, the more curious users. “Where is Microsoft going with this? Won’t the Android beast inside soon work its way up the product line and displace the Windows Phone OS?”

Microsoft will make soothing sounds: “Trust us, nothing of the sort will ever happen.  Nokia X is a purely tactical ploy, a placeholder that will give Windows Phone enough time to reveal its full potential.” We know how well attempts to create a Reality Distortion Field have worked for Microsoft’s Post-PC denials.

The Redmond not-so-mobile giant faces a dilemma: Lose the Asha feature phone business to aggressive forked-Android makers, or risk poisoning its Windows Phone business by introducing potentially expansionist Android seeds at the bottom of its handset line.

Several observers (see Charles Arthur’s penetrating Guardian column as an example) have concluded that Microsoft should follow Amazon’s lead and accept the “Come To Android” moment. It should drop Windows Phone and run a familiar Embrace and Extend play: Embrace Android and Extend it with Bing, Nokia’s Here Maps, Office, and other Microsoft properties.

Critics, such as Peter Bright, an energetic Microsoft commenter, contend that forking Android isn’t feasible:

“Android isn’t designed to be forked. With GMS, Google has deliberately designed Android to resist forking. Suggestions that Microsoft scrap its own operating system in favor of such a fork simply betray a lack of understanding of the way Google has built the Android platform.”

Dianne Hackborn, a senior Android engineer (and a former comrade of mine during a previous OS war) contradicts Bright in great point-by-point detail and concludes:

“Actually, I don’t think you have an understanding of how Google has built Android. I have been actively involved in designing and implementing Android since early on, and it was very much designed to be an open-source platform… Android creates a much more equal playing field for others to compete with Google’s services than is provided by the proprietary platforms it is competing with. I also think a good argument can be made that Android’s strategy for addressing today’s need to integrate cloud services into the base platform is an entirely appropriate model for a ‘real’ open-source platform to take.”

In the end, Microsoft probably doesn’t trust Google to refrain from the same games that Microsoft itself knows (too well) how to play. Microsoft used its control of Windows to favor its Office applications. Now it’s Google’s turn. The Mountain View company appears set to kill Microsoft Office, slowly but surely, and using all means available: OS platforms and Cloud services.

None of this draws a pretty picture for Microsoft’s mobile future. Damned if it introduces Android bits at the low end, damned if it lets that same software kill its Asha feature phone business.

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee
———————-
PS: Almost four years ago, I wrote a light-hearted piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android. It was actually less fictional than I let on at the time. In June 2010, I was asked to give a talk at Nokia’s US HQ in White Plains, NY. I was supposed to discuss Apple but I declined to spend too much time on that topic arguing that the Cupertino company was too “foreign” to Nokia’s culture. Instead, I made two suggestions: Fire your CEO and drop your four or five software platforms — Symbian and Linux variants — and adopt Android. Nokia’s combination of industrial design expertise, manufacturing might, and long-standing, globe-spanning carrier relationships could make it a formidable Android smartphone maker.

The first recommendation was warmly received — there was no love for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the accountant cum attorney CEO.

The second was met with indignation: “We can’t lose control of our destiny”. I tried to explain that the loss had already taken place, that too many software platforms were a sure way to get killed at the hands of monomaniacal adversaries.

Three months later Kallasvuo was replaced…by a Microsoft alum who immediately osborned Nokia’s smartphone business by pre-announcing the move to Windows Phone almost a year before the new devices became available.

—–

Nadella’s Job One

 

Microsoft has a new CEO – a safe choice, steeped in the old culture, with the Old Guard still on the Board of Directors. This might prevent Nadella from making one tough choice, one vital break with the past.

Once upon a distant time, the new CFO of a colorful personal computer company walks into his first executive staff meeting and proudly shares his thoughts:

“I’ve taken the past few weeks to study the business, and I’d now like to present my top thirty-five priorities…”

This isn’t a fairy tale, I was in the room. I didn’t speak Californian as fluently as I do now, so rather than encourage the fellow with mellifluous platitudes — ‘Interesting’ or, even better, ‘Fascinating, great vision!’ — I spoke my mind, possibly much too clearly:

“This is terrible, disorganized thinking. Claiming to have thirty-five priorities is, in fact, a damning admission: You have none, you don’t even know where to start. Give us your ONE priority and show us how everything else serves that goal…”

The CFO, a sharp, competent businessman, didn’t lose his cool and, after an awkward silence, stepped through his list. Afterwards, with calm poise, he graciously accepted my apologies for having been so abrupt…

Still, you can’t have a litany of priorities.

Turning to Microsoft, will the company’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, focus the company on a true priority, one and only one goal, one absolutely must-win battle? For Nadella, what is Microsoft’s Nothing Else Matters If We Fail?

In his first public pronouncement, the new Eagle of Redmond didn’t do himself any favors by uttering bombastic (and false) platitudes (which were broadly retweeted and ridiculed):

“We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.”

One hesitates. Either Nadella knows this is BS but thinks we’re stupid enough to buy into such pablum. Or he actually believes it and is therefore dangerous for his shareholders and coworkers. Let’s hope it’s the former, that Nadella, steeped in Microsoft’s culture, is simply hewing to his predecessor’s chest-pounding manner. (But let’s also keep in mind the ominous dictum: Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.)

Satya_Nadella

Assuming Nadella knows the difference between what he must say and what he must do, what will his true priority be? What battle will he pick that, if lost, will condemn Microsoft to a slow, albeit comfortable, slide into the tribe of has beens?

It can’t be simply tending the crops. Enterprise software, Windows and Office licenses might not grow as fast as they used to, but they’re not immediately threatened. The Online Services Division has problems but they can be dealt with later — it continues to bleed money but the losses are tolerable (about $1B according to the Annual Report). The Xbox One needs no immediate attention.

What really threatens Microsoft’s future is the ebullient, sui generis world of mobile devices, services, and applications. Here, Microsoft’s culture, its habits of the heart and mind, has led the company to a costly mistake.

Microsoft has succeeded, in the past, by straddling the old and the new: The company is masterful at introducing new features without breaking older software. In Microsoft’s unspoken, subconscious culture, the new can only be defined as an extension of the existing, so when it finally decided they it needed a tablet (another one after the Tablet PC failure), the Redmond company set out to build a better device that would also function as a laptop. The best of both worlds.

We know what happened. Users shunned Microsoft’s neither-nor Windows 8 and Surface hybrids. HP has backed away from Windows 8 and now touts its PCs running Windows 7 “Back By Popular Demand”  — this would never have happened when Microsoft lorded over its licensees. And now we hear that the upcoming Windows 8.1 update will boot directly into the conventional Windows 7-like desktop as opposed to the unloved Modern (née Metro) tiles.

Microsoft faces a choice. It can replace the smashed bumper on its truck with a stronger one, drop a new engine into the bay and take another run at the tablet wall. Or it can change direction. The former — continuing to attempt to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops  — will do further damage to the company’s credibility, not to mention its books. The latter requires a radical but simple change: Make an honest tablet using a version of Windows Phone that’s optimized for the things that tablets do well. Leave laptops out of it.

That is a priority, a single, easily stated goal that can be understood by everyone — employees and shareholders, bloggers and customers. To paraphrase a Valley wag, it’s a cri de guerre that’s so simple you can remember it even if you’re tired, drunk, and your spouse has thrown you out in the rain at 3 A.M. in your jockey briefs.

This is an opportunity for the new CEO to make his mark, to show vision, as opposed to mere care-taking.

But will he seize it?

Nadella should know the company by now. He’s been with Microsoft for over twenty years, during which time he’s proven himself to be a supremely technical executive. The company is remarkably prosperous — $78B in revenue in 2013; $22B profit; $77B in cash. This prosperity bought the Board some time when deciding on a new CEO, and should give Nadella a cushion if he decides to redirect the company.

Of course, there’s the Old Guard to contend with. Bill Gates has ceded the Chairman role to John Thompson, but he’ll stay on as a “technical advisor” to Nadella, and Ballmer hasn’t budged — he remains on the Board (for the time being). This might not leave a lot of room for bold moves, for undoing the status quo and for potentially embarrassing (or angering) Board members.
I can’t leave the topic without asking another related question.

We’ve just seen how decisive Larry Page can be. He looked at Motorola’s $2B red ink since they were acquired by Google — no end in sight, no product momentum — and sold the embarrassment to Lenovo. If regulators approve the sale, Motorola will be in competent hands within a company whose leader, Yang Yuanqing also known as YY, plays for the number one position. (Lenovo is the company that, in 2005, bought IBM’s ailing PC business and has since vaulted over Dell and HP to become the world’s premier PC maker.)

With this in mind, looking at the smartphone space where Apple runs its own premium ecosystem game, where Samsung takes no prisoners, where Huawei keeps rising, and where Lenovo will soon weigh in — to say nothing of the many OEMs that make feature phone replacements based on Android’s open source software stack (AOSP) — is it simply too late for Microsoft? Even if he has the will to make it a priority, can Nadella make Windows Phone a player?

If not, will he be as decisive as Larry Page?

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee

Microsoft CEO Search: Stalemate

 

The Microsoft CEO succession process appears to be stalled. This is a company with immense human, technical, and financial resources; the tech industry is filled with intelligent, energetic, dedicated candidates. What’s wrong with the matchmaking process?

Blond, Japanese, 25 years old, 15 years experience – and bisexual. This is a caricature, but only barely, of the impossible CEO job specs that executive recruiters circulate when on a mission to replace the head of a large company.

The real list of requirements describes a strategist with a piercing eye for the long term… and daily operational details; a fearless leader of people, willing to inflict pain… but with a warm touch; a strong communicator, a great listener, and an upstanding steward of shareholder interests…and of the environment.

When I gently confront a recruiter friend with the impossibility of finding such a multi-talented android, he gives me the Gallic Shrug: “It’s the client, you know. They’re anxious, they don’t know what they want. So, to tranquilize their Board, we throw everything in.”

I ask the distinguished headhunter what character flaws will be tolerated in a candidate. The query is met with incomprehension: “What? No, no, we can’t have character flaws; this situation requires impeccable credentials.” And perfect teeth, one assumes.

Still in a caustic mood, I prod the gent to picture himself driving to Skyline Boulevard and walking to the top of Borel Hill, a great place to meditate. Turning away from the hills that gently roll down to the Pacific, he faces the Valley. Can he sit, quiet his mind, and visualize the gentle crowd of pristine CEOs down there?

No. He’ll see a herd of flawed men and a few women who regularly exhibit unpleasant character traits; who abuse people, facts, and furniture; and who are yet successful and admired. Some are even liked. There are no Mother Theresas, only Larry Ellisons and Marisa Mayers, to say nothing of our dearly departed Steve Jobs. (Actually, the diminutive Albanian nun was said to have had a fiery temper and, perhaps, wasn’t so saintly after all.)

For a large, established company, having to use an executive recruiter to find its next CEO carries a profoundly bad aroma. It means that the directors failed at one of their most important duties: succession planning. Behind this first failure, a second one lurks: The Board probably gave the previous CEO free rein to promote and fire subordinates in a way that prevented successors from emerging.

Is this the picture at Microsoft? Is the protracted search for Steve Ballmer’s successor yet another sign of the Board’s dysfunction? For years, Microsoft directors watched Ballmer swing and miss at one significant product wave after another. They sat by and did nothing as he lost key executives. Finally, in January of this year, Board member John Thompson  broke the bad charm and prodded Ballmer to accelerate the company’s strategic evolution, a conversation that led to the announcement, in August, of Ballmer’s “mutually agreed” departure.

Having badly and repeatedly misjudged the company’s business and its CEO, is the Board looking for an impossibly “well-rounded” candidate: the man or woman who can draw the sword from the stone, someone with a heart and mind pure enough to put the company back on track?

For some time now, we’ve been hearing rumors that Ford’s current CEO, Alan Mulally,  could become Microsoft’s new CEO. Mulally is well-respected for his turnaround experience: Since 2006, he’s been busy reviving the family-controlled Ford, the only Detroit automaker that didn’t need (or take) bailout money. Before Ford, Mulally spent 37 years in engineering and executive management positions at Boeing, where he rubbed elbows with Microsoft royalty in Seattle.

As the rumor has it, Mulally would be appointed as a transitional leader whose main charge would be to groom one of Microsoft’s internal candidates and then step aside as he or she assumes the throne. Will it be (the rumor continues) Satya Nadella, Exec VP of  Cloud and Enterprise activities? Or former Skype CEO Tony Bates, now a post-acquisition Microsoftian? Both are highly regarded inside and outside the company.

(I’m surprised there aren’t more internal candidates. Tech pilgrim Stephen Elop is sometimes mentioned, but I don’t see him in the running. Elop has served his purpose and is back in Redmond — some say he never really left — after a roundtrip to Finland during which he Osborned Nokia, thus lowering the price of acquisition by his former and again employer.)

On the surface, this sounds like an ideal arrangement.

And yet…

For all his intellectual and political acumen, his people and communication skills, Mulally possesses no domain knowledge. He has none of the bad and good experiences that would help him understand the killer details as well as the strategic insights that are needed to run Microsoft — insights that, in retrospect, Ballmer lacked.

But, you’ll say, this is no problem; he can rely on the CEO-in-waiting to evaluate situations for him and make recommendations. No. Mulally would have no way to really weigh the pros and cons outside of the streamlined charts in a fair and balanced PowerPoint presentation.

In addition, the grooming process would prolong the company’s confusing interregnum. The people who have to perform actual work at Microsoft will continue to wonder what will happen to the party line du jour when the “real” CEO finally assumes power. The uncertainty discourages risk-taking and exacerbates politics — who knows who’ll come in tomorrow and reverse course?

Fortunately, the Mulally proposition no longer seems likely. The latest set of rumors have Mulally staying at Ford until the end of 2014. Let’s hope they’re right. Wall Street seems to think so… and expressed its disappointment: After regularly climbing for weeks, Microsoft shares dropped by 2.4% on Thursday, Dec 5th, after Mulally declared that he wouldn’t jump ship.

So where does Microsoft turn, and why are they taking so long? Once you put aside the Mr./Ms. Perfect fantasy, there’s no dearth of capable executives with the brains and guts to run Microsoft. These are people who already run large corporations, or are next-in-line to do so. Exec recruiters worth the pound of flesh they get for their services have e-Rolodexes full of such people — some inside the company itself.

Now, place yourself inside the heart and mind of this intelligent candidate:

‘Do I want to work with that Board? In particular, do I want Bill Gates and his pal Steve Ballmer hovering over everything I do? I know I’ll have to make unpopular decisions and upset more than a few people. What’s in it for me – and for Microsoft – in a situation where unhappy members of the old guard would be tempted to go over my head and whine to Bill and Steve? How long would I last before I get fired or, worse, neutered and lose my mind?’

Consider it a litmus test: Any candidate willing to accept this road to failure is automatically disqualified as being too weak. A worthy contender makes it clear that he or she needs an unfettered mandate with no Office Of The Second Guessing in the back of the boardroom. Bill and Steve would have to go — but the Old Duo doesn’t want to leave.

It’s a stalemate…and that’s the most likely explanation for the protracted recruitment process.

We’ll soon know where Microsoft’s Board stands. Will it favor a truly independent CEO or will it cling to its past sins — and sinners?

Or, as a Valley wag asks: Which elephantine gestation will end first, that of Microsoft’s new CEO, or Apple’s equally well-rounded Mac Pro?

JLG@mondaynote.com