microsoft

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

 

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.

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

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[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.]

Microsoft Reorg: The Missing Answer

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

After repeatedly tweaking its divisional structure, Microsoft tries a more radical realignment  along functional lines like, you know, that other company. The lengthy, bombastic but confusing announcement leaves one big, vital question unanswered: What happens if PC sales keep falling?

In a July 11th, 2013 memo to Microsoft employees, Steve Ballmer announces a “far-reaching realignment of the company that will enable us to innovate with greater speed, efficiency and capability in a fast changing world.”

In a few words: Microsoft will switch from a divisional to a functional organization; from what has often been labeled as silos — or even warring fiefdoms — to a set of functional groups aligned to execute the company’s new “devices and services” strategy.

Inevitably, several observers have called this new structure Apple-like, that it’s a clone of the model developed and ferociously enforced by Steve Jobs, and now shepherded by Tim Cook.

As the healthily satirical Bonkers World visualizes, Microsoft wants to move away from this…

MS Org Chart

and become more like this…

Apple Org Chart

Nick Wingfield’s NY Times article, titled Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way, puts it this way:

It is yet another sign of how deeply Apple’s way of doing things has seeped into every pore of the technology industry.

Or see Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, in Seeing Apple in Microsoft’s reorganization:

I think I’m being completely rational in my shock at Steve Ballmer’s latest reorganization of Microsoft. His long memo explaining it to employees is one long homage to the Apple that Steve Jobs re-created between 1997 and 2011. Everything about the reorg sounds like Ballmer wants Microsoft to behave more like Apple.

The comparisons to Apple, by Mssrs. Wingfield and Lashinsky, aren’t just piquant stabs at a flailing giant. They see the problems.

I’ll add my perspective.

There are enormous differences between the scorched-earth reorganization of Apple ’97 and the “far-reaching realignment” of MS ’13:

  • 16 years ago, Apple was on the ropes. The market numbers spoke loudly and cleared minds.
  • Apple’s business was extremely simple: Macintosh personal computers.
  • A charismatic co-founder returned and told everyone to Think Different – and then he enforced the diktat.

Apple came up with a string of monumental hits after Jobs’ return in 1997– iPod/iTunes, Apple Stores, iPhone, App Store, iPad. All of these offerings were facilitated by the company’s now celebrated functional structure, but none of them were created by the reorganization. Put another way, functional structure is a necessary but not sufficient condition (a point to keep in mind when considering Apple without Steve Jobs).

I greatly admire Ballmer’s determination to never give up, never admit failure, always look forward, attitudes that are well-served by his imposing physical presence, impeccable speech, and unshakable composure. But this change isn’t the sort of organizational tune-up that he has perfected over the last three years, it isn’t another iteration of spring cleaning that has resulted in the high-level departures of Robbie Bach, Ray Ozzie and, earlier this year, Steven Sinofsky (who was found guilty of Windows 8).

Removing a loyal but obdurate contradictor, sanctioning bad performance and foul politics is one thing. Reshaping the culture of a huge organization (97,000 employees) is a qualitatively and quantitatively different task. Habits of the mind and, even more challenging, of the heart are extremely hard to change. And, certainly, Microsoft’s culture needs an overhaul. It has caused the company to miss or mishandle Search, Social Networks, Advertising, Smartphones, and Tablets, and to make a meal of the latest version of their iconic Windows product.

Can a reorg suddenly bestow the vision and agility to regain lost ground, undo (at least) one bad decision, and also win the next land grab?

In attempting to answer these questions, Ballmer’s memo manages to confuse rather than reassure. In the first place, it’s way too long — over 2,700 words — and points to yet another memo that’s even longer.

The satirical site, Joy of Tech, had its way with Ballmer’s epistle. First, the executive summary…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Header

Then the details (click to enlarge)…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Body

And their effect…

Ballmer Memo Joy of Tech Ending

Read both memos and ask yourself two questions: Who writes such corpospeak (or is it copro-speak)? And what does it say about its authors’ clarity of thought?

Despite its length, Ballmer’s pronouncement manages to avoid a fundamental question: What happens to Microsoft if PC shipments continue to fall?

According to the usual suspects, PC shipments fell by 11% this past quarter compared to the same period last year, marking the fifth consecutive quarter of the “longest duration of decline in the PC market’s history.” The state of the economy and the tepid reception to Windows 8 are partial explanations, but the primary reason is plain to see: Android and iOS tablets and (to a lesser extent) smartphones are cannibalizing PC sales.

According to a VentureBeat post:

Tablet shipments are expected to grow by almost 70 percent in 2013, sending desktop and laptop computer shipments into a “nosedive.”

When looking at these numbers we should keep in mind that Microsoft’s Windows 8 “tablets” or hybrid devices are counted as PCs while Gartner and IDC keep separate tabs for the PC-devouring devices, which they gingerly call “media-consumption” tablets.

Let’s take a step back and look at the history of Microsoft’s business model.

The company was reasonably prosperous even before DOS/Windows and Office, but its never-before-seen riches came from a division of labor: PC OEM vassals were left to fight among themselves for market share while the licensing overlord enjoyed monopoly pricing for its Windows + Office sales. (When Ballmer cheekily says ‘We’re all about choice’, he means the choice between PC makers racing to the bottom, not choice between Windows/Office and alternatives.)

After Local Area Networks (remember The Year of The LAN?) and then the Internet emerged, the company looked invincible. The Windows + Office stronghold yielded a natural tie to Exchange and Windows Server products.

With this in mind, the decline in Windows PC/tablet sales are bound to have a cascading effect on Microsoft’s business. Fewer PCs means smaller Windows licensing revenue and, in turn, diminishing Office dollars. The once powerful tie-in between Windows and Office now turns against Redmond.

And the cascade continues: Smaller Office volumes result in lower demand for extremely high-margin Exchange and Windows Server products. In the meantime, non-Microsoft tablets and smartphones continue to invade formerly Microsoft-only Enterprise customers. The erstwhile truism You Won’t Get Fired For Buying From Microsoft has lost its lustre.  Permission is now granted to buy from interlopers.

Microsoft greased this downward slope by clinging to its tactic of always having it both ways; that is, doing something new while preserving backwards-compatibility. The approach has been successful in the past… but it foundered Windows 8 and tablets. The step into the future was a different touch-based UI; the foot in the past was the old desktop User Interface. For customers, the result was confusion and frustration; for PC manufacturers, the outcome was lower than expected sales.

Google and Apple took a different route: Instead of shoehorning a desktop OS onto less-powerful and battery-constrained hardware, they designed operating systems that easily slide into the slimmer, sexier footwear. Under the hood, we see a similar “from scratch” approach: Tablets and smartphones aren’t just “smaller PCs”, they’re target-specific devices built around custom (System On a Chip) processors.

The market has voted: Tablets that are just tablets are trouncing Microsoft’s hybrid tablet/PC devices.

To reverse this downward spiral Microsoft needs to come out with a real tablet, not the insincere and unsuccessful ARM-based Surface RT device. This means a tablet that’s powered by Windows Phone with Office applications that are specifically, integrally designed for that OS. Once this is done, why not go all the way by selling iOS and Android versions of the same productivity suite? This would protect the rest of Microsoft’s Enterprise ecosystem, and would be much better than today’s half-baked Office apps on the iPhone, or their absence on the iPad and Android devices.

We’ll see if the new Microsoft regime can really Think Different.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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PS: Only for the technically inclined, Drew Crawford’s learned, articulate post on the effect of small RAM size on mobile device system and application software. As this long post attempts to cloud the Web vs. Native apps discussion with facts, it brings up a little-discussed fact: PCs easily offer 8Gb of RAM (as opposed to SSD “disk space”), but mobile devices are generally limited to 1Gb or less because RAM needs to be always powered on, thus limiting battery life. This significantly smaller RAM fundamentally impacts the design of the system and application software. Mobile OS and apps are not like PC products only smaller.

Microsoft and Nokia won’t beget a Googorola clone

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Microsoft, after its highly visible 2011 bet on Nokia, could have decided to go one step further and buy Nokia to become a fully integrated smartphone. That it didn’t happen doesn’t portend a great future for Windows Phone.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal outed Microsoft’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Nokia:

Microsoft recently held advanced talks with Nokia about buying its handset business, people familiar with the matter said, as laggards in the fast-moving mobile market struggle to gain ground.

Many saw an acquisition as an inevitable next step, that by acquiring the Finnish handset maker Microsoft could “finish the job” that they started when they licensed a special Windows Phone to Nokia. It would be a blessed union of two vigilant, watchful companies: Microsoft had watched as Android and iOS made its own OS a distant also ran; Nokia, once the world’s largest cell phone maker, couldn’t help but notice that Google and Apple had killed its handset business from both the high and low ends.

But, according to the WSJ, the parlay came to a negative and apparently definitive end:

The discussions faltered over price and worries about Nokia’s slumping market position, among other issues, these people said. One of the people said talks took place as recently as this month but aren’t likely to be revived.

To call Nokia’s fall a “slump” is more than polite. The company saw its market share fall from 39% in 2009 — more than 100 million handsets per quarter — to an estimated (and angrily debated) 3% by the end of 2012.

Microsoft hasn’t done much better with its mobile software. In 2008, Windows Mobile OS held a 11% market share, even as the underlying Windows CE engine was getting long in the tooth, particularly when compared to the Unix-ish Android and iOS engines. With a modern NT kernel, Microsoft’s mobile OS was reborn as Windows Phone 8 and scored a modest 3.2% market share in Q1 2013.  This number comes from IDC, the “research” group that has assured us that come 2016, Microsoft will be the number 2 mobile OS provider with a 19.2% share:

09-table nokia

Behold the vision and precision of IDC’s psychics: Back in June 2012, they could see four years into the future and predict that Windows Phone would edge out iOS… by two tenths of a percent!

We’ve heard the Microsoft-is-buying-a-handset-maker rumors before. Starting in 2007 and recurring year after year, Microsoft was said to be eyeing RIM/Blackberry. For some, yours truly included in January 2012, the RIM story was compellingly straightforward: RIM’s clientèle of loyal, hardcore Blackberry users in businesses and governments made it an ideal fit for the Redmond giant.

Microsoft’s defenders will argue that RIM ’07 was too expensive. Priced at $200 a share (they’re running at about $14 today), RIM would have cost more than a $100B before any acquisition premium. At the time, Microsoft was valued at approximately $250B (similar to today’s $277B). Ideal or not, the match didn’t make sense for Microsoft shareholders. Then, when RIM’s price began to slide, the Blackberry was seen as having lost too much of its shine, too much of its market momentum. The company was damaged goods. (Or, as we might have forgotten, the two co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the ones who spoke in tongues, may have proved too difficult for even Steve Ballmer to deal with.)

Someday, Microsoft’s inability to grab RIM might be seen as a signal failure, a key episode in the company’s slide into irrelevance in the smartphone market. I doubt anyone will see Nokia in a similar light, as the “one who got away”.

The “MicroNokia” relationship has been challenging from the start. In February 2011, Nokia committed itself to a special partnership with Microsoft. It would ditch its operating systems (Symbian, Meego, QT) and become a beacon and standard bearer for Windows Phone 7. Money changed hands: $250M of “platform support” per quarter was sent from Redmond to Espoo in order to offset the unspecified Windows Phone licensing payments that flowed in the opposite direction.

This messy, technologically and culturally unsound arrangement only got worse when Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft exec now running Nokia, announced the switch to Windows Phone ten months before the company would end up shipping devices that ran the new (and problematic) OS. Unsurprisingly, Nokia’s revenue evaporated, leaving it with losses and a minuscule 5% market share (including Symbian-based smartphones).

Why Elop would make an announcement that effectively Osborned the business still mystifies and enrages Nokia supporters such as Tomi Ahonen who keeps calling for Elop’s head in long, irate blog posts. (In industry lore, to “Osborne” is to prematurely announce a product that so clearly obsoletes your current offering that it kills revenue. The suicidal maneuver is named in loving memory of portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne who destroyed his business by bragging that his next product would be so much better than the current one.)

I’m also mystified, but for another reason. I can’t fathom why Nokia picked Windows Phone instead of Android, whose explosive success was obvious even as early as 2010 when the company ditched its CEO. (I’m a little biased here as, in June 2010, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android.)

Nokia’s excuses for not adopting Android were vague, ranging from “we don’t want to lose control of our destiny”, to Microsoft being a “stronger partner” (read: They paid us). The potential-loss-of-destiny rhetoric falls flat, especially when you look at Android’s licensing terms and see the freedom Samsung and others enjoy with their interpretations of the platform. (We’ve heard that Nokia and Google once talked, but we don’t yet know the reason for their not becoming highly visible partners.)

Today, investors say Nokia is worth about $15B, a tenth of its 2007 peak (I’m excluding the 2000 Internet Bubble number from the comparison). Even with a “25% acquisition premium”, a Nokia acquisition would cost Microsoft less than 10% of its capitalization. So, contrary to the charitable explanation offered to the WSJ by “persons familiar with the matter”, price couldn’t have been an obstacle. That leaves us with Nokia’s “slump”: Microsoft thinks Nokia would be unable to carry Windows Phone to an influential, sustainable market position.

Now, what?

Nokia’s revenue keeps sliding down and, after a brief incursion into the black, it keeps losing money. Is there anything in sight that will reverse the trend? It’s doubtful that the company can try for the high end by offering better hardware than Samsung, nor can they squeeze into a low end that’s inhabited by official and unofficial Android clones that are swiftly killing off feature phones. This leaves Nokia’s future as an independent company in doubt and logically gives rise to more acquisition speculation.

And what will happen to Windows Phone? We now hear that Microsoft is paying developers as much as $100,000 to write or port an application to the platform. This is a rational move on Microsoft’s part, an attempt to create the critical mass that doesn’t seem to be able to happen naturally. But it can also be seen as desperation, an admission that Windows Phone is having trouble gaining momentum as developers and customers are embraced in a downward spiral.

One can’t imagine that Ballmer will call it a day and cede the field to Google and Apple. Personally, I admire his never-give-up attitude, always talking up the future, unfazed by past bold pronouncements gone wrong, but enthusiasm isn’t a strategy. And in the smartphone market, Microsoft doesn’t have many moves left. Regardless of the technical merits of its new mobile OS, momentum seems elusive; market forces that once worked against Windows competitors in the PC field now seem to confine Windows Phone to an insignificant market share against the two dominant and their complementary business models.

We don’t know yet how Google’s acquisition of Motorola will fare, but the Android platform is healthy enough without it. The same can’t be said of Windows Phone without Nokia, which leads one to believe there will be a forced marriage between the once proud Finnish handset maker and an ambitious player, probably Chinese — with Microsoft providing a substantial dowry once again.

In the meantime, we can count on IDC to provide fresh numbers… for 2017.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Post-PC: Wall Street Likes the View

 

The conventional PC business is now on the decline and yet share prices for of key players Microsoft and HP are moving up. Why?

In an April press release, IDC painted a bleak picture for the PC. Compared to last year’s first quarter, worldwide shipments of PCs are down 13.9%, the “steepest decline ever in a single quarter”. US numbers are about the same: -12.7%. On a graph, the trend is unmistakable:

Is this a trend Wall Street likes?

When you consider Microsoft, it seems so. In a corporate blog post titled Windows 8 at 6 months, the company proudly claims to have “recently surpassed the 100 million licenses sold mark for Windows 8.” This is an interesting number. A quarter ago, MS announced it had sold 60 million licenses, meaning that only 40 million were sold in the last three months. That’s a 33% drop…hardly a rousing success. (The “licenses sold” phrase requires caution, it doesn’t only mean “sold with new PCs”, there are also updates to existing machines, with or without enthusiasm for the new Windows OS.)

“Ignore the Windows 8 numbers and IDC analysis”, says Wall Street. While the tech-heavy Nasdaq climbed only 6.6% in the last 60 days, Microsoft shares went up by 21%.

The same apparent illogic holds for Hewlett-Packard. Last week, the largest PC maker disclosed its second quarter numbers. Compared to the same quarter last year, they’re not exactly pretty:

Revenue down by 10% to $27.6B
Operating Margin at 5.8%, down by about 20% (HP prefers “down 1.4 points”)
EPS (Earnings Per Share) at 55 cents, down 31%

Zeroing on HP’s PC business, things look worse:

Revenue down by 20% to $7.6B
Operating Margin at 3.2%, down 44% (“down 2.2 points” sounds better)

As one would expect, Wall Street reacted, and HP shares went…up. By 17.8% the day after the announcement:

What was the good news for investors? Resorting to one of the usual bromides, HP “handily beat Street expectations” by posting Earnings Per Share (EPS) of $0.55 vs. a projected $0.30 to $0.40.

As discussed in the December 16th Monday Note, Chapter 2 of the Turnaround Artist Manual prescribes exactly what we’re seeing: Drastically lower expectations within days of taking on the job. “Things are worse than I was told. We’ll have to touch bottom before we bounce back…’”

Following the script, HP CEO Meg Whitman called 2013 a “fix and rebuild year”. Everyone should expect a “broad-based profit decline”. But a 17% rebound in the stock price can’t be explained solely by a collective sigh of relief when the actual numbers aren’t as bad as the CEO had led everyone to expect.

(In its earnings release, HP still calls itself “The world’s largest technology company”. I guess they think smartphones and tablets aren’t “technology”, but PCs and printers are…)

As quoted in a VentureBeat post, Whitman thinks that the other US PC maker, Dell, is in no better shape:

“You saw a competitor, Dell, completely crater earnings,” Whitman said in response to a question. “Maybe that is what you do when you are going private. We are setting up the company for the long term.”

Ironically, and without a hint of self-awareness, she accuses Dell of playing the Setting Artificially Low Expectations game:

She implied that Dell did that on purpose, since Michael Dell is motivated to repurchase shares in the company as cheaply as possible, and deliberately lowering earnings is a good way to get the share prices to fall.

 Actually, Whitman must envy what Dell is attempting to do: Get out of the PC clone Race To The Bottom. Because PCs make half of Dell’s revenue, getting out of that hopelessly commoditized business would cause trouble if done in public. Going private allows Dell to close the curtain, perform the unappetizing surgery out of view and, later, return to Wall Street with a smaller company endowed with a more robust earnings engine, focused on higher-enterprise gear and services.

This helps explain the apparent paradox: Wall Street doesn’t like HP and Microsoft shares despite their lower PC numbers but because of them. Investors want to believe that future earnings (the ones they count on when buying shares today) will come from “Post-PC” products and services instead of being weighed down by shrinking PC volumes and margins. In particular, those who buy HP shares must believe that the company will sooner or later exit the PC clone business. For Microsoft, the bet is that the company will artfully manage a smooth transition to higher Enterprise and Entertainment revenues and their fatter margins.

I’m not in fond of the “Post-PC” label, it lacks nuance and it’s premature. The desktop and laptop machines we’ve known for more than three decades may no longer be the sole incarnations of our personal computing – our affection, time, and money have shifted smartphones and tablets – but the PC will continue to live in our offices and homes.

Regard Lenovo, the Chinese company that seized on IBM’s PC business when Big Blue decided to exit the race. They’re doing quite well, posting a record $34B in revenue for this year.

There is life left in the PC business, just not for US incumbents.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Dell Buyout: Microsoft’s Generosity

 

To perform painful surgery on its business model, Dell needs to take the company private. Seeing challenges in raising the needed $22B, Microsoft “generously” proposes to contribute a few billions. Is this helping or killing the deal?

The news broke two weeks ago: Dell wants to go private. The company would like to buy back all of its publicly traded shares.

The Apple forums are abuzz with memories of Michael Dell’s dismissal of Steve Jobs’ efforts to breathe new life into Apple in 1997:

What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.

Is it now Michael’s turn to offer a refund?

Now we hear that Microsoft wants to lend a hand, as in “several billion dollars”. The forums buzz again: It’s just like when Bill Gates came to Jobs’ rescue and invested $150M in the Cupertino company, thus avoiding a liquidity crisis.

The analogy is amusing but facile. Dell 2013 isn’t Apple 1997. A look at Dell’s latest financials shows that the company still enjoys a solid cash position ($14B) and a profitable business (3.5% net profit margin). It’s profits may not be growing (-11% year to year), but the company is cash-flow positive nonetheless ($1.3B from the latest quarter). There’s no reason to fold up the tents.

As for Microsoft’s involvement: The Redmond company’s “investment” in Apple was part of a settlement of an on-going IP dispute. Microsoft avoided accusations of monopoly by keeping alive a highly visible but not overly dangerous adversary.

So what is Dell trying to accomplish by going private? To answer the question, let’s step back a bit and explore the whys and hows of such a move.

First, we have the Management Buyout. Frustrated with Wall Street’s low valuation, executives buy back their company “on the cheap” and run it in private for their own benefit. This rarely ends well.  Second-guessing the market is never a good idea, and the enormous amount of money that’s needed to pay off shareholders puts the execs at the mercy of bigger, smarter predators who turn out to be the ones who end up running the company for their benefit.

A good reason for going private is to allow a company to shift to a radically different business model without being distracted by Wall Street’s annoying glare and hysterics. This is what Dell is trying to do. They’re not shutting down shop, they’re merely closing the curtain.

Is it necessary to privatize for such a move? For an example that never came to pass, recall Bill Gates’ suggestion, in 1985, that Apple should get out of the hardware business and, instead, license the Mac operating system. At the time, the average revenue per Mac exceeded $2,500; a putative Mac OS license would have sold for $100. The theory was that Apple would eventually sell many, many more OS licenses than it did Macs.

The pundits agreed: “Just look at Microsoft!”.  Apple would jump from one slowly ascending earnings curve to a much steeper one.

Now picture yourself as John Sculley, Apple CEO, going to Wall Street with the following message: “We heard you, we’ve seen the light. Today, we’re announcing a new era for our company, we’ll be licensing Mac OS licenses to all comers for $100 apiece. Of course, there’ll be a trough; licensing revenue won’t immediately compensate the loss of Mac hardware sales. We need am ‘earnings holiday’ of about 36 months before the huge software profits flow in.”

You just became the ex-CEO. Wall Street dumps your shares, effectively telling you to take them back and only return after your “holiday” is over.

As another example that didn’t happen but probably should have, imagine if Nokia CEO Stephen Elop had taken his company private in 2011. Instead of osborning its Symbian business, Nokia would have had the latitude to perform the OS gender change behind closed doors and reemerge with a shiny new range of Microsoft-powered smartphones.

I’ll hasten to add that these made-up examples are somewhat unrealistic: To engineer a buyout, one must raise amounts of money commensurate with the company’s current valuation. Around 1987, Apple was worth about $2B, a great deal of money a quarter of century ago. In early 2011, Nokia’s market capitalization was about $40B, an impossibly large sum.

Still, thanks to these buyout fantasies, we get the two key ideas: First, Dell wants to go private because it plans to alter its business model in ways that would scare nervous, short-term Wall Street shareholders; second, the required amount of money (Dell’s market cap is about $22B) is a potential deal-killer.

We don’t have to look very far for the changes Dell wants to make. Dell no longer likes its legacy PC business and has made efforts to reposition itself as an enterprise player (expensive iron, software and services). Going private will allow it to perform the needed surgery, stanch the bleeding, and reemerge with a much stronger income statement, rid of low-margin commodity PCs.

When we look at the money that needs to be raised, things become really interesting. Michael Dell’s 15.7% ownership of the company undoubtedly helps, but the $22B market cap is still a big hill to climb. Several buyout firms and banks got involved in preliminary discussions; one group, TPG Capital, dropped out, but another, Silver Lake, has persisted in its attempt to round up big banks and other investors with enough funds to vacuum up Dell’s publicly traded shares.

That’s when Microsoft walks in on the discussions and offers to save Private Dell.

Clearly, Microsoft’s money will help in the buyout…but will its involvement torpedo Dell’s intentions? The NY Times DealBook article makes the case for Microsoft propping up the leading PC maker:

A vibrant Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans to make Windows more relevant for the tablet era, when more and more devices come with touch screens.

This would give Microsoft some amount of control over the restructured Dell, a seat on the Board of Directors, perhaps, with ways to better align the PC maker’s hardware with Redmond’s software. Microsoft wants Dell’s reinvigorated participation in the “Windows Reimagined” business.

But note the phrasing above: “Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans…” Better vertical integration without having to pay the full price for ownership, the putative “several billion dollars” would give Microsoft a significant ownership, 10% or 15%. This is completely at odds with the buyout’s supposed intent: Getting out of the PC clone race to the bottom.

Or maybe there’s another story behind Microsoft’s beneficence: The investor syndicate struggles and can’t quite reach the $22B finish line. Microsoft generously — and very publicly — offers to contribute the few missing billions. Investors see Microsoft trying to reattach the PC millstone to their necks — and run away.

Hats off to Steve Ballmer: Microsoft looks generous – without having to spend a dime – and forces Dell keep making PCs.

JLG@mondaynote.com

2013: The Year Of…

 

As Samsung dominates the Android market, one has to wonder, who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now rule the Android game?

This morning’s thoughts are harder to focus than usual: I’m sitting across the street from Sciences Po — the Paris Institute of Political Studies — one of France’s elite graduate schools. As hundreds of students gather at the door, smoking (and littering the pavement with very Parisian hauteur), I’m dismayed by the thought that many of these smart, eagerly alive young people will die from lung cancer. Somber thoughts made more acute by the loss of a dear friend two days ago to that very illness — the third smoking-induced death of a close relation in a matter of months. This from a legal drug that’s much more dangerous than some that can land you in jail….

Back to less morbid topics: Like so many other high tech observers, the impending CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas has prompted me to take a guess at what — or who — will turn out to be 2103′s most important development. One name that isn’t on the list: Microsoft.

CES isn’t just an endless series of booths manned by barkers and BS artists where companies peddle their latest vacuum tube audio gear and touch-screen laptops, it’s also the venue for a conference with a series of keynote speeches. During the Golden Age of the PC, Bill Gates was the obligatory headliner on the eve of the trade show. Gates’ keynote was an opportunity for the head of the world’s most important software company to describe (and prescribe) the future according to Microsoft.

When he ceded the CEO title, Gates also passed the keynote baton to Steve Ballmer who continued the propaganda, although with progressively diminishing success. Last year’s keynote was widely trashed by the press (see here, here or here)

Microsoft CEO crashes and burns in final CES keynote.
At CES, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer Strains For Relevance

There will be no keynote address from Ballmer or any other Microsoft representative at this year’s CES.
The baton has indeed been passed, but to whom?
The ascendancy will be decided in a fight between Google and Samsung — and that could turn out to be the most important 2013 development.

Samsung is, by far, the biggest promoter and the best advertisement for the Android platform. Not only does the Korean giant dominate the Android market in unit volume — about half if we believe the company’s necessarily imprecise numbers — it also sets the standard for quality with handsets such as the Galaxy S III. And when you consider the huge amount of money Samsung has spent promoting their devices (about $13B — see Horace Dediu’s chart, below, from yet another of illuminating posts, The Cost of Selling Galaxies), you would think that the two companies would be close allies.

But as Samsung dominates ever more of the Android market, one has to wonder: Who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now set the rules in the Android game?

I don’t think Samsung’s competitors fully appreciate the implications of the company’s spare-no-expense investment in securing a dominant market share. In particular, I wonder what Apple execs think of the disproportion between their own relatively tiny marketing expenses and Samsung’s gargantuan budget. Apple has shown, time and again, that they can do more with less, but have they let Samsung secure an inexpugnable market position? Perhaps the Cupertino team was simply unwilling to waste money stimulating a demand they knew they couldn’t satisfy due to iPhone supply chain bottlenecks.

Is Google truly happy with all this free advertisement? Samsung is firing on all cylinders: great Android handsets, apparently limitless manufacturing capacity, imaginative and prolific marketing campaigns. There may be a feeling in Mountain View that the tail is starting to wag the dog, the handset vassal could end up dictating terms to the platform creator. Samsung could parlay its dominant share of Android handsets in a number of ways.

For example: The Android economy doesn’t rely on licensing revenues but on user data that flows back to the Google mothership through the use of Google applications running on platform-compliant handsets. (Such data then flows through Google’s advertising money pump, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) What if Samsung could renegotiate its Android license and demand “role-appropriate” levies for running Google apps on its market-leading handsets? We’ve heard rumors of just such a levy before: Apple is said to receive significant payments for favoring Google’s search engine in iOS devices.

Another possibility is that Samsung could emulate Amazon’s practice of picking the Android lock. By modifying the Open Source Android source code — a completely legal maneuver — Samsung could create its own set of revenue-generating apps and services and thus cut Google out of the income stream. A number of other handset makers, particularly in China, are headed down this path, proposing devices based on Android-derived platforms such as Tapas and OPhone.

Lastly, although less seriously, Samsung has announced handsets based on Tizen, an OS that has joined the chorus line of Open Source platforms: Gram (née WebOS), Jolla (Nokia émigrés), Ubuntu (née Debian), Firefox OS. My apologies for possible oversights…

Samsung can’t possibly believe it can build a viable business on Tizen. It must know that the platform itself no longer matters, that this has become an ecosystem war. Even with Samsung’s resources and determination, betting on Tizen as an alternative to the Android ecosystem isn’t realistic — and can’t possibly impress Google execs. Complicating matters, Samsung also builds handsets on Windows Phone and Bada (developed in house). Such complexity isn’t sustainable.

Over in its corner, Google has Motorola. Ostensibly acquired for its patents, Motorola could    be the piece of the puzzle that Google needs to create a fully-integrated device, a “proper” Android handset that Google execs feel their ecosystem deserves and that independent handset makers have failed to deliver. Rumors of an xPhone are in the air, but they don’t say much about what the product will do, exactly, or when it will come out.(Google protests that it won’t give its Motorola team any unfair advantage…a promise that comes from a company that gives special access to partners-of-the-moment such as HTC, Samsung, and LG.)

Of course, creating a device in the numbers that can effectively compete with leading Samsung (and Apple) devices is easier said than done. Google/Motorola will need to convince component suppliers and device manufacturers — who are “controlled” by Samsung and Apple — to free up some space on their assembly lines.

So on one side, we have Samsung, an extremely capable and determined Korean giant with huge technical and financial resources — and little regard for niceties.

On the other, we have Google with its unparalleled infrastructure, full control of the Android ecosystem through its Google apps (think Maps) and services, very strong finances, and real long-term vision. As for niceties, Google’s style may be more “polished” than Samsung’s, but it isn’t a pushover. Google can stand toe-to-toe with anyone.

In the end, ownership of the ecosystem should tip the scales: Google will win the undeclared war with Samsung. The Mountain View company will help itself to the higher value of vertically integrated products and, at best, degrade the Korean giant’s margins or, worse, drive them into a PC-like race-to-the-bottom with other handset makers.

This isn’t an outcome Samsung will take lightly.

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: Bill Clinton will attend Samsung’s CES keynote