microsoft

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

Wintel: Le Divorce Part II

 

At CES 2011, Ballmer told the world Windows would “fork”, that it would also run on lower power ARM chips for mobile devices. This was seen as a momentous breach in the long-standing Wintel duopoly. Two years later, the ARM tooth of the fork looks short and dull.

This is what I wrote almost two years ago:

After years of monogamy with the x86 architecture, Windows will soon run on ARM processors.

As in any divorce, Microsoft and Intel point fingers at one another. Intel complains about Microsoft’s failure to make a real tablet OS. They say MS has tried to shoehorn “Windows Everywhere” onto a device that has an incompatible user interface, power management, and connectivity requirements while the competition has created device-focused software platforms.

Microsoft rebuts: It’s Intel’s fault. Windows CE works perfectly well on ARM-based devices, as do Windows Mobile and now Windows Phone 7. Intel keeps telling us they’re “on track”, that they’ll eventually shrink x86 processors to the point where the power dissipation will be compatible with smartphones and tablets. But…when?

Today, a version of Windows (RT) does indeed run on an ARM processor, on Microsoft’s Surface tablet-PC hybrid. Has Microsoft finally served Intel with divorce papers?

Not so fast. The market’s reaction to Redmond’s ambitious Surface design has fallen far short of the heights envisioned in the company’s enthusiastic launch: Surface machines aren’t flying off Microsoft Store shelves. Ballmer himself admits sales are “modest” (and then quickly backpedals); Digitimes, admittedly not always reliable, quotes suppliers who say that Surface orders have been cut by half; anecdotally, but amusingly, field research by Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster (who can be a bit excitable) shows zero Surfaces sold during a two hour period at the Mall of America on Black Friday, while iPads were selling at a rate of 11-an-hour.

Traditional PC OEMs aren’t enthusiastic either. Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group, is unimpressed:

“It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it .…”

Acer exec Linxian Lang warns:

“Redmond will have to eat ‘hard rice’ with Surface…it should stick to its more readily-chewed software diet.”

To be sure, there are happy Surface users, such as Steve Sinofsky, the former Windows Division President, as captured in lukew’s Instagram picture:

(An aside: I went back to Sinofsky’s 8,000 words blog post that lovingly describes the process of developing “WOA” — Windows on ARM. At the time, WOA was presented as part of the Windows 8 universe. Later, Microsoft swapped the “8″ designation and chose to use “RT” instead. These naming decisions aren’t made lightly. Is there any wonder why WOA was moved out of the Windows 8 camp?)

It’s possible that the jury is still out… Surface sales could take off, Windows RT could be embraced by leading PC OEMs… but what are the odds? In addition to the tepid reception from customers and vendors alike, Microsoft must surmount the relentless market conquest of Android and iOS tablets whose numbers (210 million units) are expected to exceed laptop sales next year.

So, no… the Wintel Divorce isn’t happening. Intel’s x86 chips will remain the processors of choice to run Windows. Next month, we’ll have CES and its usual burst of announcements, both believable and dubious (remember when 2010 was declared the Year Of The Tablet PC?). We’ll have to sort the announcements that are merely that from those that will yield an actual device, but in the end I doubt we’ll see many new and really momentous Windows RT products out there.

Microsoft’s lackluster attempt at Post-PC infidelity doesn’t help Intel in its efforts to gain a foothold in the mobile world. Intel’s perennial efforts to break into the mobile market with lower power, lower cost x86 chips have, also perennially, failed. As a result, there is renewed speculation about a rapprochement between Intel and Apple, that the Santa Clara microprocessor giant could become an ardent (and high-volume) ARM SoC foundry.

As discussed here, some of this makes sense: Samsung is Apple’s biggest and most successful competitor in the smartphone/tablet space, spending billions more than anyone else in global marketing programs. At the same time, the South Korean company is Apple’s only supplier of ARM chips. Intel has the technology and manufacturing capacity to become an effective replacement for Samsung.

This wouldn’t be an easy decision for Intel: the volumes are high — as high as 415M ARM chips for 2013 according to one analyst — but the margins are low. And Intel doesn’t do low margins. Because of the Wintel duopoly, Intel’s x86 chips have always commanded a premium markup. Take Windows out of the picture and the margin disappears.

(As another aside, the 415,000 ARM chips number seems excessive. Assuming about 50 million iPhone 5s and 15 million iPads in the current quarter, and using the 4X rule of thumb for the following calendar year, we land somewhere between 250M and 300M ARM chips for Apple in 2013.)

Also, Intel would almost certainly not be Apple’s sole supplier of ARM chips. Yes, Apple needs to get out of its current and dangerous single source situation. But Tim Cook’s Supply Chain Management expertise will come into play to ensure that Apple doesn’t fall into a similar situation with Intel, that the company will secure at least a second source, such as the rumored TSMC.

The speculation by an RBC analyst that Intel will offer its services to build ARM chips for the iPhone on the condition Apple picks an x86 device for the iPad is nonsensical: Apple won’t fork iOS. Life is complicated enough with OS X on Intel and iOS on ARM.

Historically, a sizable fraction of Intel’s profits came from the following comparison. Take two microprocessor chips of equal “merit”: manufacturing cost, computing output, power dissipation… And add one difference: one runs Windows, the other doesn’t. Which one will get the highest profit margin?

In the ARM world and its flurry of customized chips and software platforms, the “runs Windows” advantage is no longer. ARM chips generate significantly lower margins than in the Intel-dominated world (its competitor AMD is ailing).

This leaves the chip giant facing a choice: It can have a meager meal at the tablet/smartphone fest, or not dine at all at the mobile table…while it watches its PC business decline.

In other news… Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, unexpectedly announced he’ll leave next May, a couple years ahead of the company’s mandatory 65-year retirement age. No undignified exit here. Intel’s Board pointedly stated they’ll be looking outside as well as inside for a successor, another unusual move in a company that so far stuck to successions orchestrated around carefully groomed execs. This could be seen as a sanction for Otellini missing the mobile wave and, much more important, a desire to bring new blood willing and able to look past the old x86 orthodoxy.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Apple Can Finish What Microsoft’s Sinofsky Started

 

In 2007, Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows called Vista, a grand name for what turns out to be an embarrassing dud. (Memories of my first and determining interaction with Vista can be found here.)

Steven Sinofsky, once a Bill Gates technical assistant and, at the time, head of Microsoft Office development, is given a shovel (and a pad of pink slips) and told to clean the stables. To create a new, respectable version of Windows in a mere 30 months will require great discipline, a refusal to compromise, the rejection of distracting advice, relentless attention to the schedule, as well as the merciless pruning of features and people who get in the way. Sinofsky had it all: superb technical skills, the dogged drive of a rassar, and the political will to mow down the obstacles.

In July 2009, Microsoft unveils Windows 7, a product widely acclaimed as absolving Vista’s sins, and Sinofsky is promoted to president of the Windows division, a title parsimoniously bestowed.

Sinofsky immediately begins work on the next version of Windows, following his proven strategy of adding solid, well-defined details while maintaining backwards compatibility and avoiding the rat trap of “feature creep”. But something happens along the way: In early 2010, the iPad comes out. Although the device is initially misunderstood by Microsoft — Steve Ballmer speaks of “slates and tablets and blah blah blah” — it doesn’t take long for the Redmond company to realize that it needs an answer, it needs to defend its PC empire against the interloping tablet that has been so warmly embraced by the public.

The company changes course and Sinofsky gets a new mission: Windows 8 isn’t going to be a mere clean-up job, it’s not an “embrace and extend” improvement, but a new ”reimagined” Windows, a PC Plus that will straddle the PC and tablet worlds. The new OS will provide a radically new look-and-feel, a touch-screen interface in addition to a keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), and it will stray from the comfy x86 monogamy to also work on ARM processors.

A little over three years later, right after delivering Windows 8, Sinofsky is abruptly sacked.(Excuse me, he’s “amicably” sacked… by his own “personal and private” choice).

Windows 8, Windows RT, and the Surface tablet are now on full display, as are the reviews — and they’re not pretty. As summarized in this June 2012 Business Insider piece, the pundits were concerned and baffled right from the start:

“Worst of all, the traditional desktop is buried — it’s just another Metro app — but there are still some things you can only do from the desktop, and some only from Metro.” (Matt Rosoff)

“In my time with Windows 8, I’ve felt almost totally at sea — confused, paralyzed, angry, and ultimately resigned to the pain of having to alter the way I do most of my work.” (Farhad Manjoo)

“Windows 8 looks to me to be an unmitigated disaster that could decidedly hurt the company and its future… The real problem is that it is both unusable and annoying.” (John Dvorak)

Perhaps these were simply hasty judgments meant to capture eyeballs, maybe customers would ignore the critics and embrace Windows 8. But no. Five months later, Paul Thurrott, the author of the respected Windows Supersite blog, gives us this post:

“Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft’s internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing.”

As head of HP’s Personal Systems Group (PCs and printers, a $55B/year business), Todd Bradley’s opinion of Microsoft’s latest creations carries considerable weight. Last week, in a long CITEworld interview, Bradley wasn’t impressed:

“I’d hardly call Surface competition.

CITEworld: Why not?

TB: One, very limited distribution. It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it. I just don’t think it’s competitive. It’s expensive. Holistically, the press has made a bigger deal out of Surface than what the world has chosen to believe.”

As reported two weeks ago, I quickly encountered Windows 8′s split personality when I tried to use my new Surface, but I wanted the bigger picture.

Was Windows 8 running on a PC — Microsoft’s home turf — really an “unmitigated disaster”? I head over to the big Microsoft Store in the Stanford Shopping Center to buy the full version of the new OS — and they don’t have it. The upgrade version, yes, but no copies of the “System Builder” DVD that you need for a complete, from-scratch installation. Curious.

I head back home, order a copy from Amazon, buy an additional license from Microsoft for my second machine, and two days later I’m in business. The installation process is flawless (one with VMware Fusion, the other with Parallels), but things quickly go downhill. The problems I had with the Surface are just as distracting and frustrating on a PC: One moment you’re in the new, elegant, and, yes, reimagined User Interface, the next moment you’re foraging in the old Windows 7 Desktop. And, of course, existing Office apps have no place in the new UI.

It’s no wonder that customers aren’t keen to buy Windows 8. As a recent survey shows, “about one-third of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP users who are ready to buy a new personal computer say they intend to switch to an Apple product.

According to the Thurrott post mentioned earlier, the inside story is that Sinofsky was let go because of his “divisiveness”, that his departure isn’t a consequence of Window 8′s poor numbers. But if we imagine a different reality, one in which Sinofsky stands before a big Mission Accomplished banner, where critics rave about the beauty, harmony, and impeccable polish of a Windows 8 that runs flawlessly on PCs, laptops, tablets, and Surface-like hybrids…do we think for a moment Ballmer would have shown Sinofsky the door?

I think the real story behind Sinofsky’s removal contains elements of both personality and (Windows 8) performance. It’s no secret that Sinofsky made a lot of enemies while he pulled off a not-so-minor miracle with Windows 7. As a reward for his accomplishment, he was given a much more difficult assignment. Windows 8 had become a 21-blade Swiss Army knife: a great list of features on paper, dubious usability in practice. Add the need to adapt the operating system and the sacrosanct (and golden goose) Office applications to the new ARM processor and you end up with a Mission Impossible.

The same traits that made Sinofsky an extremely successful turnaround artist after the Vista mess — his monomaniacal pursuit of a clear goal — became liabilities in this reimagined world. He slipped and fell, the enemies saw their chance, the bayonets came out. Even supremely gifted [redacted] have a sell-by date.

Of course, none of this says anything about who came up with the mission. Was it Ballmer’s idea or Sinofsky’s? Microsoft isn’t talking.

Now let’s turn to Apple. The “recomplicated” Windows hands the Cupertino company an intriguing opportunity. They can capitalize on Microsoft’s misstep, extend a welcoming hand to the Windows users who intend to switch to Apple, and make the iPad the sine qua non of what a Post-PC device should be. (I use the “Post-PC” moniker for lack of a better one. For me, it doesn’t stand for the end of the PC but for its broadening into three instances: classic, tablet, smartphone.)

From the beginning, the iPad, designed to be a new genre, not a derivative, came with limitations. Yes, you could do some productivity work, but iOS’s lack of multi-tasking, a favorite whipping boy of the critics, made it difficult. To be sure, the OS supported concurrent activities inside the device, but running several applications at the same time was a no-no. The processor couldn’t handle it and, even if it could have, battery life would have been terrible.

So whether it was divine inspiration or simply a bowing to necessity, Apple shunned the temptation to make a PC-only-smaller, and created a whole new genre of personal computers. Microsoft couldn’t resist and gave us Windows Mobile with a Start button.

Almost five years have elapsed since the birth of iOS. (We’ll give a quick but deep hat tip to its ferocious and now deposed champion, Scott Forstall, and leave the discussion of his own exit for a future Monday Note.) With the latest iPad hardware, we have a fast processor and there are even faster ones in the making. Does the more muscular hardware and road-tested OS portend a future that supports the running of two applications side-by-side in a split-screen arrangement? Or perhaps a slidebar that reveals and hides the second app.

This isn’t exactly an original idea: Samsung just released a firmware update providing a split-screen multitasking view. And, of course, as explained here, the Snap feature in Windows 8 provides a neat way to run two apps side-by-side on a laptop or tablet.

Today, preparing a Keynote document that incorporates elements from other apps requires clumsy mental and physical gymnastics. Having access to the source and destination documents at the same time would be a welcome relief and a boost to business uses.

There are other quirks. You can edit a Mac-originated Pages or Numbers document on your iPad, but no such joy awaits users of Apple’s well-loved Preview. Upload a Preview PDF into iCloud from your MacBook and then grab your iPad and see if you can find it… No, you need to use DropBox or the (excellent) Microsoft SkyDrive. (One “explanation” for this state of affairs is the strong security that pervades iOS. Inter-application communication can open backdoors to malware, which is still quite rare in iOS. But if it can be done for Pages and other iWork apps…)

Now that all OS X and iOS software is under one hat, Craig Federighi‘s, perhaps we can expect these workflow speed bumps to be ironed out. Multiple concurrent applications, a document store that’s common to all apps… This is Apple’s opportunity: Stick to its guns, keep laptops and tablets clearly distinct, but make iPads easier to love by business users. The comparison between a worst-of-both-worlds Surface hybrid and the iPad would be no contest. iPad mini for media consumption, everywhere; iPad for business and everything else.

Apple can finish the job Sinofsky started.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Summer Fun: The HR-Less Performance Review

The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read “Microsoft’s Lost Decade“, an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft’s Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel).

But I don’t come to bury Caesar — not, yet, I’ll wait until actual numbers for Windows 8 and the Surface tablets emerge. Instead, let’s consider the centerpiece of Eichenwald’s article, his depiction of the cultural degeneracy and intramural paranoia that comes of a badly implemented performance review system.

Performance assessments are, of course, an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organization must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. This is tournament play, after all, and the coach must “release” players who can’t help get the team to the finals.

But Microsoft’s implementation — “stack ranking”, a bell curve that pits employees and groups against one another like rats in a cage — plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.

…every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor…For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.

Employees quickly realized that it was more important to focus on organization politics than actual performance:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

This brought back bad memories of my corpocrat days working for a noted Valley company. When I landed here in 1985, I was dismayed by the pervasive presence of Human Resources, an éminence grise that cast a shadow across the entire organization. Humor being the courtesy of despair, engineers referred to HR as the KGB or, for a more literary reference, the Bene Gesserit, monikers that knowingly imputed an efficiency to a department that offered anything but. Granted, there was no bell curve grading, no obligation to sacrifice the bottom 5%, but the politics were stifling nonetheless, the review process a painful charade.

In memory of those shenanigans, I’ve come up with a possible antidote to manipulative reviews, an attempt to deal honestly and pleasantly with the imperfections of life at work. (Someday I’ll write a Note about an equally important task: How to let go of people with decency — and without lawyers.)

A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:

  • First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we’ll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
  • Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
  • Third: We’re sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I’m about to make. Now let’s talk…

This might sound a little too “different” (that’s Californian for “batty”), but there’s a serious purpose, here. We’ve all been reviewed, we all know the anxiety — and sometimes the resentment — that precedes the event. Mealy-mouthed comments about team-spirit, loyalty, how the company cares for its people and other insufferable HR pablum only makes things worse. You tune out, you can only hear the noises in your own head: Am I being led to the exit? Am I being shafted out of a raise/bonus/stock? Am I supposed to think that loyalty is its own — and only — reward?

To be heard, the reviewer must silence these questions. Hence the preamble: Your job is safe; here are the $$; we like what you do enough that you can safely continue to behave in the manner we have come to expect, no need to course-correct.

There follows a pause to let the news sink in. Anxiety quelled, the reviewee is now prepared — and willing — to listen.

On to the observations and suggestions. It’s probably a good idea to start with the minus side of the ledger — this isn’t much different from a sales pitch: Get the product’s negatives out of the way first. Stick to specific comments about goals missed, undesirable habits, and the like. “When you arrive 20 minutes late at our staff meetings, you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, including me.” Defensive reactions to the negative part of a review are unavoidable, so you sing the refrain: The objectionable behavior, while imperfect, doesn’t jeopardize your job.

(As an aside, and seriously: Objecting to a behavior that you insist will be tolerated because of the overall goodness of the relationship…this approach works wonders outside of work. It’s a lot more constructive than the comminatory “You must stop doing this”, which invites the sarcastic and unhelpful response: “And if I don’t? What? You’ll divorce me?”)

The review can now proceed to the positive, to praising the individual’s performance and giving thanks. Saccharine is to be avoided, examples are a must, and exaggeration is only welcome in moderate doses.

Finally, ask for feedback… but don’t kid yourself: Hierarchy trumps honesty, so you may have to ask twice. Explain that you understand the challenge in giving feedback to the reviewer. You might get some useful tidbits, especially if they sting a bit.

Back in the real world, this simple, direct approach might not fit a large organization where you need to protect the rest of the team from the demoralization of a metastasized employee. The habitual backstabber, the knee-jerk naysayer, the self-appointed “Fellow” must be excised before too much harm is done. It’s a difficult task that requires a degree of human judgment and courage that’s not afforded by a mechanical ranking system.

Next week, we might return to topics such as Apple’s uneasy relationship with file systems, Android tablets and phablets, or some such tech disquisition.

Microsoft: Apostasy Or Head Fake?

My appetite whetted by three days of rumors, I went online last Monday and watched Microsoft introduce its Surface tablets. After the previous false starts — the moribund Tablet PC and the still-born Courier — Microsoft finally took matters into its own hands. Ballmer & Co. could no longer wait for OEMs to create vehicles worthy of Windows 8’s “reimagined” beauty and function, not while the A-team ran away with the tablet market.

It was a terrific performance that hit all the right notes:

• World-class industrial design by Microsoft’s guru, Panos Panay.
• An ARM-based consumer tablet running Windows RT, and an x86 enterprise version on Windows 8, both with the innovative Metro UI.
A “digital ink” stylus for handwriting and drawing, faithful to Gates’ famous dictum: “I’ve been predicting a tablet with a stylus for many years, I will eventually turn out to be right or be dead.
• Creative, thoughtful touches: the integrated kick-stand, a novel smart cover with an integrated keyboard, the magnetic stylus that sticks to the side of the device.
• MicroSD, USB 2.0, and Micro HD video connectors.
• 10.6” displays: ClearType HD for the ARM-based tablet, ClearType Full HD for the x86 device.
• Both tablets are slim and light: 9.3 mm/676 grams for the consumer model, 13.5 mm/903 grams for enterprise. (That’s .37”/1.5 lbs, .53”/2 lbs, imperial.)

47 minutes later, Microsoft has jumped to the head of the tablet race. Yesterday’s laggard is now the Big Dog. Thrilling. I want one — probably the lighter Windows RT model.

The live demo wasn’t fumble-free, as a number of critics have pointlessly pointed out. Yes, Windows Chef Steven Sinofsky had to swap out a busted tablet, but this (probably) means nothing, it happens all the time, trust me — I gave my first computer demo 44 years ago and have fumbled through a few more since then.

I smile when I imagine Ballmer on the phone to Tim Cook, letting Apple’s CEO know that a complimentary toaster/fridge – the “convergence” of his nightmares – is on its way to Cupertino’s One Infinite Loop. (Perhaps I should explain: In a recent D10 Conference interview, Cook dismissed the notion of a hybrid tablet + laptop with a quip: “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user.”)

Fantasy phone call aside, this is an historic event. Microsoft decides to make its own hardware and, straight out of the gate, unveils two attractive products that combine the best features of tablets and laptops, both supported by the huge Windows ecosystem.

Unsurprisingly, the momentous happening unleashed an orgiastic excess of premature evaluation. Reactions were fast and predictably polarized. It was, in the repurposed words of one witty blogger: Choo, choo, all aboard the Pundit Express to PageHitsVille! (He was referring to a different event, but I can’t resist repeating the epigram.)

After a few hours, a pattern started to emerge:

- Reviewers who weren’t in attendance, unencumbered by direct experience, were more inclined to view the new products through pre-existing biases and to issue clear-cut predictions.

- The privileged few who were invited to the press event in Los Angeles were more nuanced in their analyses, but with a recurring complaint: They didn’t have an opportunity to use the product for themselves, they were hurried along in small groups to look at non-functioning machines. A couple examples:

I was only permitted to touch the device while the machine was powered off. Microsoft representatives were happy to show off the device, but they didn’t let me actually use the new tablet (Slate’s Farhad Manjoo).
As for performance, we’ll be honest: tech press were treated to about two minutes at each of several stations, some of which demoed design, and not so much the power that lies inside that thin frame.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a working demo of the keyboards. As in, we weren’t permitted to type sample sentences and feel what it’s like to hammer out characters on a flat keyboard, or on keys that have just 1.5mm of travel (Endgadget’s Dana Wollman).

With these observations in mind, I took another look at the video and realized how many other important details were omitted from the well-oiled presentation: Price, delivery dates, battery life, wireless connectivity, display resolution (could we have an unequivocal definition of the ClearType HD and ClearType Full HD?).

The missing data, the evasions, the lack of hands-on examination, even the circumstantial evidence of a stage struck device…it all smacks of products that aren’t ready — or even almost ready — for customers’ mitts and credit cards.

This leaves us with a list of questions.

First: Why now? Microsoft’s agitprop specialists aren’t new to the game. They know what happens when you show up with less than fully-baked devices and refuse to answer simple, important questions. Why not announce on, say, October 15th – the beginning of the Holiday shopping season — when they would have a better chance of running a FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) campaign against the opposition? Why the rush?

Maybe it’s the expectation that Google will announce its own Android tablet at Google I/O later this week…but I find the argument unconvincing. Microsoft would have been better off letting Google speak first so they could analyze the product and come up with a sharply targeted counter, especially if Google ships much sooner than Microsoft.

Second, the Apostasy question. For decades, the Redmond company has preached the Righteous Way of its OEM ecosystem, the wide range of hardware configurations and prices for its Windows platform. Now Microsoft pulls a 180º, they design and contract/manufacture Surface tablets by themselves, with distribution through the Microsoft Stores and online. That’s a whole different religion.

Why?

Is it because, as one supporter put it, “greedy” OEMs have become “obstacles of innovation”, that “the software giant has bled too much for OEMs far too long”? That’s one way to look at it. (Another reading of history sees that under the Windows thumb, Microsoft’s vassals have had little choice but to engage in a price war, in a race to the bottom. For PC makers, this undercut the margins they needed to design and manufacture the “innovative” products that their overlord now chides them for not having in their arsenals.)

There must be a more sensible explanation, and our friend Horace Dediu doesn’t disappoint. In his Who will be Microsoft’s Tim Cook? Dediu comes up with an eye-opening analysis that focuses on the “business model inversion” that has taken place in the last two years.

For decades, software generated much higher margins than hardware. Microsoft was admired for its extremely high margins, while Apple was criticized for stubbornly sticking to hardware and its lower profitability — to say nothing of lower volumes as a marginal PC player. But now, as Dediu points out, Apple is the company with both the higher revenue and operating margin [emphasis mine]:

If we simply divide revenues by PCs sold we get about $55 Windows revenues per PC and $68 of Office revenues per PC sold [1]. The total income for Microsoft per PC sold is therefore about $123. If we divide operating income by PCs as well we get $35 per Windows license and $43 per Office license. That’s a total of $78 of operating profit per PC.
Now let’s think about a post-PC future exemplified by the iPad. Apple sells the iPad with a nearly 33% margin but at a higher average price than Microsoft’s software bundle. Apple gives away the software (and apps are very cheap) but it still gains $195 in operating profit per iPad sold.
Fine, you say, but Microsoft make up for it in volume. Well, that’s a problem. The tablet volumes are expanding very quickly and are on track to overtake traditional PCs while traditional PCs are likely to be disrupted and decline.
So Microsoft faces a dilemma. Their business model of expensive software on cheap hardware is not sustainable. The future is nearly free software integrated into moderately priced hardware.

Which leads Horace to his killer conclusion:

For Microsoft to maintain their profitability, they have to find a way of obtaining $80 of profit per device. Under the current structure, device makers will not pay $55 per Windows license per device and users will not spend $68 per Office bundle per tablet. Price competition with Android tablets which have no software licensing costs and with iPad which has very cheap software means that a $300 tablet with a $68 software bill will not be competitive or profitable.
However, if Microsoft can sell a $400 (on average) device bundled with its software, and is able to get 20% margins then Microsoft is back to its $80 profit per device sold. This, I believe, is a large part of the practical motivation behind the Surface product.
The challenge for Microsoft therefore becomes to build hundreds of millions of these devices. Every year. Sounds like they need a Tim Cook to run it.

It’s difficult to argue with Horace’s logic, but there’s another way to look at Microsoft’s new posture: It’s just that, a posture, a way to wake up PC OEMs and force them to react. “If you do the right thing and come up with the world-class product Windows 8 deserves, we’ll back off and let you enjoy the just deserts of your efforts.” It’s a devious thought, but it could be more realistic than the notion that Microsoft will produce something in the order of 100 million Surface tablets in 2013 in order to keep their dog in the fight. (For reference, the lead PC maker, HP, currently ships about 16M devices per quarter.)

I’m also curious about Microsoft’s rigid insistence on calling these devices PCs. See their official site announcing a “New Family of PCs for Windows”:

Try as they might, Microsoft won’t be able to convince folks to refer to the Surface as anything other than a “tablet”. The Redmond team seems fixated on a best-of-both-worlds product: Everything a PC does plus the best features of a tablet. This is what John Gruber calls being caught Between a Rock and a Hardware Place. (Gruber’s post, which quotes Dediu’s, is itself quoted and felicitously expanded upon by Philip Elmer-DeWitt.)

Peter Yared offers his help with a witty clarification:

In the end, I can’t see how Microsoft can suddenly morph into a tablet, er, PC maker capable of pumping hundreds of millions of devices per year. The fuller Surface story is yet to unfold.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Lumia 800: Nokia’s Comeback?

Let’s go back to Spring 2010. Nokia friends invite me to their US headquarters in White Plains, NY, where we’ll discuss Apple with an audience of local management and remote viewers in Europe.
As the conversation proceeds, I’m struck not by what I hear but by what I don’t. They’re right to wonder about Apple, about what makes it tick…but they have an even bigger problem called Android.
I venture a few politically impolite suggestions:

1. Replace your CEO. Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, a little too proud to be a lawyer and an accountant, is way past his “best if used by” date.
2. Drop all your aging software platforms, your Symbian S60, S^3 and S^4, your Maeemo/Moblin/Meego chimera (I didn’t say clusterf#^k). You’re doomed by pursuing so many projects…and you might want to consider that your competitors are a bit better than you are at writing system software.
3. Go Android right now. Join the winning OS team.
4. Focus on your strengths: Hardware, industrial design, manufacturing, worldwide distribution.
5. Move to Silicon Valley, that’s where the action is. The future of smartphones won’t be decided in White Plains, NY.

People don’t appear overly upset. Actually, quite a few heads nod when I mention kicking the mercurial OPK upstairs. Judging by audience reaction, the Go Android suggestion isn’t news, it’s been debated already, heatedly it seems.

I get two kinds of pushback: “We’ll lose control of our destiny!” and “How will we achieve differentiation?”

With the regard to the former, by 2010 Nokia is already past the point of controlling their destiny; sales are “gaining vertical speed”…in the wrong direction. And to the differentiation objection, I suggest that the audience share my faith in Nokia’s proven hardware strengths and in their Finnish tradition of sparse, elegant designs.
It becomes an open — if occasionally pained – exchange. My hosts are visibly as concerned as I am about Nokia’s current direction.

On my way back to the Valley, I try to put a humorous spin on the discussion: I pen a Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android piece that shows the great company waking up and turning itself around. But, inside, I know humor is the politeness of despair, and I can’t avoid a somber note at the end of the otherwise lighthearted article:

In a more plodding reality, Nokia is likely to continue on its current course, believing their problem is one of execution, of putting more faith in their sisu.
The king will be deposed, Google and Apple will divide the spoils.

A few months later, Nokia’s situation worsens, OPK is deposed and Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft executive, replaces him.

A year ago exactly, Nokia’s new CEO writes his infamous Burning Platforms memo. In it, Elop makes three crucial statements:

1. The smartphone war isn’t one of platforms any more, it is a war of ecosystems.
2. Our current system software won’t win.
3. To win the war, we’re joining the Windows Phone ecosystem via a special alliance with Microsoft.

The first point is beyond dispute. Two successful ecosystems, Google’s for Android and Apple’s for the iPhone, have settled that score.
To outsiders, Elop’s second statement is merely a frank assessment of Nokia’s failure to play in the same software league as its Californian competitors. A few insiders and fans take offense but…numbers are numbers.

Things take a turn for the worse with the jump to Windows Phone. In the abstract, the decision is defensible, but by announcing the switch ten to twelve months ahead of actual shipments, Elop has effectively osborned his current product. Who will buy Symbian-based smartphones when Nokia’s own CEO tells the world it’s a has-been platform with no future? Nokia’s fans are furious; so are the shareholders. (See Tomi Ahonen’s blog for a rich, vocal, well-argued compendium of everything wrong with Stephen Elop’s move.)

Nokia’s market share and profits drop precipitously. The December 2011 quarter shows a loss with little hope of a turnaround in the short term.

But the wait is finally over: Nokia now ships Lumia smartphones running on the latest Windows Phone 7.5 release. A Nokia friend asks if I want to try a Lumia 800, the top-of-the-line model in Europe. Having read good things about both hardware and software, I jump at the chance.

When the package lands on my desk, I ask myself The Question: Is this the phone that will put Nokia and Microsoft back in the race? By late 2011, Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market stood below 2%. Does the Lumia line of devices have what it takes to regain the ground lost to Samsung’s Android devices and to iPhones?

What follows, here, is a highly impressionistic diary, with no pretense of objectivity, chronicling a week of abuse of the Lumia 800. (I’ll skip over the phone waking up speaking Finnish, or that it arrived with a European plug for the power adapter. Not a problem, we have Google Translate and I have my own stash of euro-gizmos.) For a dispassionate and professional discussion, please turn to AnandTech’s exhaustive review (12 pages).

At first glance (literally), very good: Elegant, sleek hardware with equally elegant type on the welcome screen, followed by the clean Metro UI (Nokia UK provides a nice tour here). All it takes to get a pre-paid month-to-month subscription and micro-SIM is a short walk to the T-Mobile store.

I encounter my first problem when looking for ways to take screenshots for today’s note. The documentation is mute on the subject, and all Google can offer is that I need software developer tools. Is there really nothing for normal humans? I email my friends, I tweet nokia-connects (as recommended in a nice handwritten note that came with the phone)…still nothing. A simple two-button procedure, followed by a no-hands Photo Stream upload – in other words, the iPhone method — seems to be the type of solution to aspire to.

Cognoscenti will argue over details, but I was impressed by Lumia’s email presentation and management. Setting up my Exchange, Google, and iCloud accounts is as simple and reliable as the best of what I’ve seen with Android and iOS devices. So is the polished use of type, the ease of linking and unlinking mailboxes, handling single messages, and bulk-editing an inbox loaded with spam. Office attachments read well, naturally — as they do on all leading smartphones. But while competitors read PDF docs natively, Windows Phone tells you There’s An App For That. It’s free and installs easily, as every other app I tried. But, for such a basic function, rendering PDF files, why not make it part of the device?

Surfing the Web proves less satisfying. Tabbed browsing isn’t as intuitive as on an iPhone 4S, and there’s no “Reading List” of pages you can save for later or sync with your PC. Worse, there appears to be a purplish tinge on the screen as I read Web pages and the type rendering is lackluster — I wish I had screenshots to better explain what I see. I don’t know enough about what’s under the hood to place the blame, but perhaps it’s the lower screen resolution (480 by 800 vs. 640 by 960).

Music, at least on the device I got, is also disappointing. Contrary to the claims of the Nokia Music support page, there’s no Nokia Music Streaming on my Lumia. Perhaps this is just a temporary or regional situation. Downloading music from iTunes is theoretically possible, although it seems one needs a DRM Removal Tool, followed by a batch conversion to Windows Phone music files. Spotify offers a Windows Phone application, or one can turn to the Microsoft’s Zune Unlimited Pass, both with a $9.99/month subscription. Opinion will differ as to the attractiveness of these music offerings. In any case, there’s no ‘‘iPod Inside”, as I hear an AT&T salesperson say.

The Lumia 800 features an 8 megapixel camera with a “Carl Zeiss Tessar” lens. As a test, I took side-by-side pictures using the Lumia and an iPhone 4S, both in idiot mode (auto white balance mode, auto everything else).

First, my two pigs. I found them 20 years ago in an antique shop in Arcachon, France, and christened them Victor and Charles, as in VC. This was in my early entrepreneurial days, when I thought VCs were…you know. Now that I’ve gone over to the Dark Side, I still keep them on my desk and show them to entrepreneurs who give me lip about my brotherhood.

The Lumia photo:

…and the iPhone:

To the inexperienced viewer, the iPhone 4S picture looks better

I tried another subject: Handwritten numbers on a piece of paper.

The Lumia:

…and iPhone:

Take a close look at these pictures and you’ll see that the iPhone images are marginaly sharper.

The rather dull tint of the Lumia pictures can be corrected using any decent photo processing program (I just did it in iPhoto, it works quite well). Of course, that means moving the pictures to a “real” machine.
Perhaps the dull tint is unique to the phone I got. If it isn’t, it needs to be fixed in order not to disappoint. The Autofix feature in the phone’s camera software didn’t fix the picture.

I used Microsoft’s SkyDrive, a free “drive in the Cloud” that appears as one of the sharing options in Windows Phone. It’s not as clever as DropBox, or as automated as parts of iCloud, but it works well (and reliably) on PCs, Macs, Windows Phone, Android, and iOS.

Still on the camera topic: unlike other leading smartphones, there is no front-facing camera. As a result, no video calls in Skype or FaceTime fashion.

Using Nokia-owned Navteq maps, navigation work as expected: very well.

Last item for this cursory review: battery life. The Lumia’s screen dims in a matter of seconds and shuts down soon thereafter. My unscientific impression is that the battery drains quickly if you do a lot of browsing and downloading on 3G or WiFi. A glance at AnandTech’s thorough numbers shows that this is indeed the case.

…or nearly the last item: I forgot to mention phone calls, we use smartphones for those, too. Nothing to report; voice, SMS…everything works as expected.

This is a well-made, elegantly designed, and capable phone. But let’s return to The Question: Is this the Killer Phone? Will the Lumia 800 and its siblings put Nokia and Microsoft back in contention? My answer is, regretfully, No.

The Lumia contains neither the revolutionary new features nor the fresh approach that any serious smartphone needs to compete with the two new giants, Samsung and Apple. The Korean company is very, very determined; it takes no prisoners — ask Sony. And Apple is no longer Little David fighting the Microsoft Goliath: Last quarter, the iPhone alone generated more revenue and profit than all of Microsoft.

I can’t help but retro-fantasize an alternate reality: In 2010, Nokia starts a secret project with Google and an Asian contract manufacturer. The industrial design is done in-house, the rest in collaboration. In February 2011, Elop announces a special relationship with Google — and starts shipping the device immediately. No osborning, no revenue gap.

This fantasy comes with a bonus: Google doesn’t have to buy Motorola and it gets Nokia’s patent portfolio – infringement of which Apple has paid more than $600M — as part of the “special relationship”.

Back to reality: Without a clearly superior product and a dominant ecosystem, Microsoft and Nokia are now forced to shell out big marketing dollars against richer adversaries. This isn’t going to be pretty: Microsoft can ill afford to be a bit player in the smartphone revolution and Nokia can’t keep bleeding money, squeezed between the new giants and the emerging Asian providers of entry-level devices.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Will Microsoft buy RIM or Nokia?

We continue along the lines of last week’s Monday Note kriegsspiel with the latest speculation Will Microsoft, at long last, buy RIM? The idea has been kicked around for at least five years: Days after the iPhone’s introduction in January 2007, Seeking Alpha suggested that the Xbox maker ought to buy RIM in order to build an XPhone. In retrospect, this would have saved both companies a lot of grief.

It’s early 2007 and the BlackBerry maker is riding high. With its Microsoft Exchange integration; a solid PIM (Personal Information Manager) that neatly combines mail, calendar, and contacts; and the secure BlackBerry Messenger network, the “CrackBerry” is rightly perceived as the best smartphone on the market. I love my Blackberry and once I manage to get a hosted Exchange account for the family, I show my un-geeky spouse the ease of over-the-air (OTA) synching between a PC and the BlackBerry. ‘No cable?’ No cable. She promptly ditches her Palm device. One by one, our adult children follow suit. For a brief time, we are a BlackBerry family.

But the Blackberry’s success blinds RIM executives. They don’t see – or refuse to believe – that the iPhone poses a threat to their dominance. A little later, Android comes on the scene. Apple and Google deploy technically superior software platforms that, by comparison, expose the Blackberry’s weaker underpinnings. In 2010, RIM acquires the QNX operating system in an effort to rebuild its software foundations, but it’s too late. The company has lost market share and shareholders see RIM squander 75% of its market cap.

Now, imagine: On the heels of the iPhone introduction in 2007, Microsoft acquires RIM and quickly proceeds to do what they’ve only now accomplished with Windows Phone 7: They ditch the past and build a modern system. This would have saved Microsoft a lot of time and RIM shareholders lots of money. Instead, Microsoft mocks the iPhone and brags that the venerable (to be polite) Windows Mobile will own 40% of the market by 2012.

Things don’t quite work as planned. Early 2010, Microsoft wisely abandons Windows Mobile for the more modern Windows Phone 7 (a moniker that combines the Windows Everywhere obsession with a shameless attempt to make us believe the new smartphone OS is a “version” of the desktop Windows 7).

And things still keep not working as planned. WP 7 doesn’t get traction because handset makers are much more interested in Android’s flexibility and, particularly, their price. Android’s Free and Open pitch works wonders; the technology is sound and improves rapidly; OEMs see Microsoft as the old guard, stagnant, while Google is on the rise, a winner.

All the while, Nokia experiences their own kind of “domination blindness”. In 2007 Nokia is the world’s largest mobile phone maker, but they can’t see the technical shortcomings of their aging Symbian platform, or the futility of their attempts to “mobilize” Linux. iOS and Android devices quickly eat into Nokia’s market share and market cap (down 80% from its 2007 high).

In 2010, Stephen Elop, formerly a Microsoft exec, takes the helm and promptly states two brutal truths: This isn’t about platforms, we are in an ecosystem war; technically, we’ve been kidding ourselves. Nokia’s new CEO sees that the company’s system software efforts – new and improved versions of Symbian or Maemo/Moblin/Meego – won’t save the company.

Having removed the blinders, Elop looks for a competitive mobile OS. Android is quickly discarded with the usual explanations: We’d lose control of our destiny… Not enough opportunities for differentiation… The threat of a race to the bottom might have entered the picture as well.

This leads Elop back into his former boss’ arms. Microsoft and Nokia embark on a “special relationship” that involves technical collaboration and lots of money. It’ll be needed: By the end of 2011, WP 7 has less than 2% market share. Nokia’s just-announced Lumia smartphone is well received by critics but will it demonstrate enough superior points to gain significant share against the Android-iOS duopoly? I’ll buy one as soon as possible in order to form an opinion.

The “MicroNokia” relationship isn’t without problems. Many Nokia fans are outraged: Elop sold out, Nokia’s MeeGo was unfairly maligned, the company has lost its independence… See Tomi Ahonen’s blog for more. (And “more” is the right word. Ahonen’s learned, analytical, and often rabid posts range between 4,000 and 10,000 words.)

The Nokia faithful have a point. In my venture investing profession, we call an arrangement such as the MicroNokia partnership “buying the company without paying the price.” Right now, Microsoft appears to control Nokia’s future since, at this stage, Nokia is as good as dead without WP 7.

But doesn’t that mean that Nokia also controls Microsoft’s smartphone future? “Statements of direction” aside, there are no notable WP 7 OEMs. (Samsung and HTC ship a few WP 7 phones, but their share is infinitesimal compared to their Android handsets.) With Android growing so fast, why would a smartphone maker commit to WP 7 while Nokia holds a privileged status on the platform?

Microsoft is making smart moves against Android by using their patent portfolio to force Android handset makers to pay (undisclosed) royalties. With LG as the latest licensee, Microsoft appears to have snared 70% of Android OEMs. The (serious) joke in the industry is that Microsoft makes more money from Android than from WP 7.

But success with patents doesn’t translate into more WP 7 OEMs, which leaves us to wonder: Will Microsoft consummate the relationship and acquire Nokia, whether the entire corpus or, at least, the fecund (smartphone) bits? For years, Microsoft has claimed they’re all about choice, and when it comes to the PC, that’s true: Businesses and consumers have a wide choice of PCs running Windows. But their customers have no real choice when it comes to WP 7: It’s Nokia or…Nokia. They might as well tie the knot and call it what it is: Microsoft or Microsoft. It works wonders for Xbox and Kinect.

Going back to RIM, we hear it’s ‘’in play’’, that they’ve hired investment bankers to “look at their strategic alternatives”. In English: They’re looking for a buyer.

But who? Microsoft is otherwise engaged. So is Motorola. And forget Samsung.

With RIM’s market share dropping precipitously, and no sign of a rebound with spanking new models until the second half of 2012, who would want to risk billions in a market that’s controlled by competitors who manage to be both huge and fast-growing? Sure, RIM is still in the black, but its cash reserves are dwindling: the Cash and cash equivalents line went from $2.7B last February to $1.1B in November 2011. What’s left will evaporate quickly if revenue and profits keep dropping, as they’re likely to do for the foreseeable future.

JLG@mondaynote.com

2011: Shift Happens

Whatever 2011 was, it wasn’t The Year Of The Incumbent. The high-tech world has never seen the ground shift under so many established companies. This causes afflicted CEOs to exhibit the usual symptoms of disorientation: reorg spams, mindless muttering of old mantras and, in more severe cases, speaking in tongues, using secret language known only to their co-CEO.

Let’s start with the Wintel Empire

Intel. The company just re-organized its mobile activities, merging four pre-existing groups into a single business unit. In a world where mobile devices are taking off while PC sales flag, Intel has effectively lost the new market to ARM. Even if, after years of broken promises, Intel finally produces a low-power x86 chip that meets the requirements of smartphones and tablets, it won’t be enough to take the market back from ARM.

Here’s why: The Cambridge company made two smart decisions. First, it didn’t fight Intel on its sacred PC ground; and, second, it licensed its designs rather than manufacture microprocessors. Now, ARM licensees are in the hundreds and a rich ecosystem of customizing extensions, design houses and silicon foundries has given the architecture a dominant and probably unassailable position in the Post-PC world.

We’ll see if Intel recognizes the futility of trying to dominate the new theatre of operations with its old weapons and tactics, or if it goes back and reacquires an ARM license. This alone won’t solve its problems: customers of ARM-based Systems On a Chip (SOC) are used to flexibility (customization) and low prices. The first ingredient isn’t in evidence in the culture of a company used to dictate terms to PC makers. The second, low prices, is trouble for the kind of healthy margins Intel derives from its Wintel quasi-monopoly. Speaking of which…

Microsoft. The company also reorged its mobile business: Andy Lees, formerly President of its Windows Phone division just got benched. The sugar-coating is Andy keeps his President title, in “a new role working for me [Ballmer] on a time-critical opportunity focused on driving maximum impact in 2012 with Windows Phone and Windows 8”. Right.

Ballmer once predicted Windows Mobile would achieve 40% market share by 2012, Andy Lee pays the price for failing to achieve traction with Windows Phone: according to Gartner, Microsoft’s new mobile OS got 1.6% market share in Q2 2011.

Microsoft will have to buy Nokia in order to fully control its destiny in this huge new market currently dominated by Android-based handset makers (with Samsung in the lead) and by Apple. In spite of efforts to ‘‘tax” Android licensees, the old Windows PC licensing model won’t work for Microsoft. The vertical, integrated, not to say “Apple” approach works well for Microsoft in its flourishing Xbox/Kinect business, it could also work for MicroNokia phones. Moreover, what will Microsoft do once Googorola integrates Moto hardware + Android system software + Google applications and Cloud services?
In the good old PC business Microsoft’s situation is very different, it’s still on top of the world. But the high-growth years are in the past. In the US, for Q2 2011, PC sales declined by 4.2%; in Europe, for Q3 this time, PC sales went down by 11.4% (both numbers are year-to-year comparisons).

At the same time, according to IDC the tablet market grew 264.5% in Q3 (admire the idiotic .5% precision, and consider tablets started from a small 2010 base). Worldwide, including the newly launched Kindle Fire, 2011 tablets shipments will be around 100 million units. Of which Microsoft will have nothing, or close to nothing if we include a small number of the confidential Tablet PC devices. The rise of tablets causes clone makers such as Dell, Samsung and Asus (but not Acer) to give up on netbooks.

In 2012, Microsoft is expected to launch a Windows 8 version suited for tablets. That version will be different from the desktop product: in a break with its monogamous Wintel relationship, Windows 8 will support ARM-based tablets. This “forks” Windows and many applications in two different flavors. Here again, the once dominant Microsoft lost its footing and is forced to play catch-up with a “best of both world” (or not optimized for either) product.

In the meantime, Redmond clings to a PC-centric party line, calling interloping smartphones and tablets “companion products’’. One can guess how different the chant would be if Microsoft dominated smartphones or tablets.

Still, like Intel, Microsoft is a growing, profitable and cash-rich company. Even if one is skeptical of their chances to re-assert themselves in the Post-PC world, these companies have the financial means to do so. The same cannot be said of the fallen smartphone leaders.

RIM: ‘Amateur hour is over.This is what the company imprudently claimed when introducing its PlayBook tablet. It is an expensive failure ($485M written off last quarter) but RIM co-CEOs remain eerily bullish: ‘Just you wait…’ For next quarter’s new phones, for the new BlackBerry 10 OS (based on QNX), for a software update for the PlayBook…

I remember being in New York City early January 2007 (right before the iPhone introduction). Jet-lagged after flying in from Paris, I got up very early and walked to Avenue of The Americas. Looking left, looking right, I saw Starbucks signs. I got to the closest coffee shop and saw everyone in the line ahead of me holding a BlackBerry, a.k.a. CrackBerry for its addictive nature. Mid-december 2011, RIM shares were down 80% from February this year:

Sammy the Walrus IV provides a detailed timeline for RIM’s fall on his blog, it’s painful.

On Horace Dediu’s Asymco site, you’ll find a piece titled “Does the phone market forgive failure?”. Horace’s answer is a clear and analytical No. Which raises the question: What’s next for RIM? The company has relatively low cash reserves ($1.5B) and few friends, now, on financial markets. It is attacked at the low end by Chinese Android licensees and, above, by everyone from Samsung to Nokia and Apple. Not a pretty picture. Vocal shareholders demand a change in management to turn the company around. But to do what? Does anyone want the job? And, if you do, doesn’t it disqualify you?

Nokia: The company has more cash, about 10B€ ($13B) and a big partner in Microsoft. The latest Nokia financials are here and show the company’s business decelerates on all fronts, this in a booming market. Even if initial reactions to the newest Windows Phone handsets aren’t said to be wildly enthusiastic, it is a bit early to draw conclusions. But Wall Street (whose wisdom is less than infinite) has already passed judgment:

Let’s put it plainly: No one but RIM needs RIM; but Microsoft’s future in the smartphone (and, perhaps, tablet) market requires a strong Nokia. Other Windows Phone “partners” such as Samsung are happily pushing Android handsets, they don’t need Microsoft the way PC OEMs still need Windows. Why struggle with a two-headed hydra when you can acquire Nokia and have only one CEO fully in charge? Would this be Andy Lees’ mission?

All this stumbling takes place in the midst of the biggest wave of growth, innovation and disruption the high-tech industry has ever seen: the mobile devices + Cloud + social graph combination is destroying (most) incumbents on its path. Google, Apple, Facebook, Samsung and others such as Amazon are taking over. 2012 should be an interesting year for bankers and attorneys.

JLG@mondaynote.com


Ballmer’s latest acquisition

In a bold move, Microsoft acquires Nokia and catapults itself to the top of the smartphone world. The full integration of Windows Phone 7 software into Nokia hardware will result in a better user experience for customers, a zero-fragmentation platform for developers, easier deployment of a smaller number of SKUs for retailers, and more reliable update management for carriers.

It’s worked before. Microsoft’s hardware/software integrated devices, Xbox and Kinect, are enjoying strong revenue growth and great margins: $1.9B revenue last quarter, 50% more than last year, with 10% operating profit.

In a prepared statement, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says:

‘I welcome Stephen Elop back into my executive staff. His brief leave of absence has allowed us to more fully explore the possibilities of combining the best smartphone hardware, Nokia’s, with the best OS, Windows Phone 7.
Google’s anticompetitive Android free and open licensing practices unfairly tilted the playing field against our better product; they made it impossible for us to sell Windows Phone 7 software. Instead, we‘re now ready to do battle with Apple from a superior position: a stronger product carrying the Windows Everywhere flag, wider carrier distribution around the world, and more retail partners in US, Europe, and BRIC nations. With our acquisition of Nokia, we’re now a $100B company, back where we belong: at the top of the high-tech industry.’

When I woke up, I heard a different story: Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5B.

We all know Skype: free voice and video calls from computer to computer, plus paid services if you need to dial a phone. As Skype prepared for its long-awaited IPO, we got financial data from their S-1 filing with the SEC. S-1s are always instructive: This is usually the first time a private company opens the kimono — and the SEC watches closely as you prepare to sell shares to widows and orphans.

The Profit & Loss statement in Skype’s S-1 looks like this:

With revenue of $860M in 2010, Skype’s Operating Profit is a modest $20M, with a Net Loss of $69M due to interest expenses stemming from $686M in long-term debt. Except for in 2008, when they saw a $42M profit, Skype has racked up huge losses, including $1.4B in 2007 and $370M in 2009.

(Technically, these figures straddle two different corporate structures because of Skype’s complicated history. Started in 2003 as an independent European company, Skype was acquired by eBay in 2005 for a price pegged between $2.6B and $3.1B. After the acquisition, eBay discovered its ownership of Skype was “encumbered”: A crucial piece of Skype’s technology was owned by another company, Joltid, which was essentially in the hands of Niklas Zennström, one of Skype’s founders. eBay settled with Joltid for about 14% of Skype. This caused wags to say the crafty Skype founders sold the company twice — and it certainly didn’t make the ex-management consultants running eBay look so sharp. In 2009, eBay sold 70% of Skype to private equity and venture investors in a transaction that valued the company at $2.75B.)

Why did Microsoft pay $8.5B — 10 times the company’s revenue – for a business that has changed hands so many times, never made money, and comes with substantial debt? (Admittedly, the $686M debt number is manageable — for Microsoft).

One eloquent answer comes from Ben Horowitz, a partner at the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm started by Netscape’s founder. Horowitz invokes the network effect: A large number of users attracts more users and so on, in a kind of gravitation well:

- 500,000 new registered users per day
- 170 million connected users
- 30 million users communicating on the Skype platform concurrently
- 209 billion voice and video minutes in 2010

And he concludes:

Today, I tip my hat to an old rival, Microsoft. By acquiring Skype, Microsoft becomes a much stronger player in mobile and the clear market leader in Internet voice and video communications. More importantly, Microsoft gets a team, ably led by the exceptional Tony Bates, that can compete with anyone.

Well, this is a nice encomium to the guys who transformed the venture firm’s $50M investment in Skype a few months ago into a $150M payday. My own venture investor hat is tipped to MM. Andreessen and Horowitz.

But not so much to Steve Ballmer.

Looking at Microsoft’s recent quarterly numbers, we see the continuation of a now old and getting older tradition: losses in the Online Services Division. Only a few weeks ago, TechCrunch wondered: When Will Microsoft’s Internet Bloodbath End? Business Insider provided a vivid illustration for the problem:

In just the past 12 months, Microsoft has lost $2.5B in its Online business. They spend $2 to make $1 in revenue. Buying and “integrating” Skype will make the picture even redder.

So, again, why spend $8.5B on Skype?

The official explanation is that Skype will be targeted at professional users. For these, Microsoft already has a product called Lync, although not many have heard of it. And they have Messenger for consumers. (Actually, it’s Windows Live Messenger for Windows and Microsoft Messenger for the Mac.) I don’t think it’s unfair to ask how, how well, and when Microsoft’s Grand Unified Messaging platform will effectively exist, and how it will be monetized.

Given Microsoft’s track record, there isn’t much evidence of its ability to perform such integration, nor of its ability to move a big platform forward at a competitive pace, certainly not faster than what Google seems able to do with Google Voice, Talk and Google Video for Business.

The theory must be that every Windows PC will come with “Skype inside.” But that isn’t much progress: There are already 170 million connected Skype users, and 500,000 new registrations everyday. And imagine how carriers will react when they see a Skype client bundled with every Windows Phone 7 device, further pushing them towards their preordained destination: dumb pipes.

Today, Skype is joyfully used in both consumer and business environments. It’s not perfect, but the price is right and Skype is now a verb. The next thing we know, Microsoft will take a good if imperfect service and “improve” it by integrating it with Office or SharePoint (a good product on its own). And, at some point, Microsoft will try to make us pay for it. In more ways than one.

But, again, the history isn’t there. Microsoft’s ability to successfully charge for a formerly free product is lacking.

Reactions to the Skype deal have been negative, if not downright derisive. Many see the Skype acquisition as more evidence that Microsoft can’t innovate, or even effectively copy and out-implement anymore. One local exec asked, rhetorically, how much it’d take to re-implement Skype. $100M? $1B? It’s not a question of money. Microsoft spends tons in R&D: 15% of sales, about $9B per year. (Apple spends 2% of revenue, less than $2B.) Think of iTunes: it’s been out there for close to ten years and there’s no iTunes clone coming out of Redmond. Microsoft has to buy what it no longer has the people or the culture to create — or copy.

David Pogue, the NY Times’ tech guru, thinks this acquisition will go where so many went before: to failure by mediocrity and to poisoning by matrix management.

Ben Brooks, a Microsoft shareholder — and not the disgruntled kind — comments on the Skype deal and concludes: The Ballmer Days Are Over. Perhaps, but who can tackle the job of turning Microsoft around?

In last year’s May 30th Monday Note, I wrote Ballmer had opened the “Second Envelope”. He was running out of explanations: first blame your predecessor, then fire a few subordinates. Next, you’re out of excuses and out the door.

Since then, a few more subordinates have decided to “spend more time with their families”: CTO Ray Ozzie, who wrote a long, long farewell memo (don’t do that, it doesn’t make you look good); Tablet executive Bill Mitchell; Bob Muglia, President of the Server and Tools Division. We’ll exclude Stephen Elop, the President of the Business Division who went on to rescue Nokia, as he might have left of his own volition — or of his seeing Ballmer looking for the next excuse.

Last year, I noted Microsoft’s stock had been stagnant for almost ten years. Things haven’t improved since then:

In the past 12 months, Microsoft’s stock has fallen by 11% while the Nasdaq climbed 25%, Google 7%, and Apple 44%.

Having run out of ideas and envelopes, is Ballmer spending $8.5B of Microsoft’s $50B cash, its biggest acquisition so far, as a desperate tentative to keep the company, or himself, in the game?

Back to the fantasy: Today, Nokia’s market cap is about $32B, a bit less than four times Skype’s price. In theory, Microsoft would have to pay a premium…but imagine Nokia’s situation if Microsoft hadn’t generously “lent” them Stephen Elop and struck a Windows Phone 7 deal “worth billions” to the Finnish company. What would be the market cap for a rudderless Nokia?

And Nokia comes with revenue, about $40B last year. The Nokia Devices and Services business alone makes about $3B in profits per year — almost as much as Microsoft’s Online division lost in 2010.

That would get attention, and credibility, and criticism, and hope. Instead, we got a yawn.

JLG@mondaynote.com