Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ Category

At WWDC we got another chance to see Tim Cook in action. Steve Jobs was always the master presenter and many had wondered how Apple would fare with Cook at the helm of events like WWDC. This year’s event brought us iOS 6, OSX Mountain Lion, MacBook Pro with Retina Display and some minor updates to other Apple hardware. By the time it was all done I was in lust wanting the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I can’t wait for Mountain Lion or iOS 6. Why? Heck I don’t know. I’m sure, however, that it will be great.

As time has passed I realize I can live with my old laptop another year and Mountain Lion and iOS6 will be nice when they get here but I’m doing just fine right now.  You have to admire how great a show Apple puts on. It is polished and has enough hype to excite but not so much that you stop believing. All in all a masterful job and Cook is keeping the tradition alive.

When it comes to Tim Cook at WWDC a few things thing stood out. He didn’t try to be Steve Jobs. He didn’t say “insanely great” every other sentence. He was himself while at the same time being a long term Apple employee. He exuded the culture. He was calm and confident but dressed down. Without mimicking his predecessor, the feeling that great things were being shown emanated from him. Color me impressed.

Oh how Steve Balmer needs lessons from the Apple book on giving presentations. Shortly after WWDC, Microsoft called a meeting to introduce the Surface line of tablets. Balmer looked like a person with a losing hand trying to make people believe it was great. The sad thing is that the Microsoft announcement had more meat than Apple’s WWDC event. Some of the other presenters were pretty good. The point was driven home about seeking perfection in even the small things such as how the stand sounds when you close it. That, however, just served to highlight how important the master of ceremonies is at these things. Every time the event turned back to Balmer, it was like a chill fell over the presentation.  What was needed was a Steve Jobs clone telling me how insanely great this was and making me feel that my life was going to be different because of it. It need someone who could make me believe. Balmer made me lose faith. What is sad is that, in hindsight, the Microsoft announcement is major and has long term implications including putting pressure on Apple and Google. I’ll discuss why in later posts. This post is about form over substance.

One final thought involves the effect this has on the press. After WWDC the press was mostly positive. There was disappointment at no MacBook Airs with Retina Display and some discussion that the rest of the updated MacBook Pro line was a stop gap measure. All of this was done with what Apple would consider appropriate reverence and the tone was, overall, very Apple fanboy in nature. Compare that to the Microsoft Surface announcement which led to many skeptical articles with everything being dissected – power, RT incompatibility, product line confusion, display resolution etc. Where are the raves? It seems to come down to nothing more than the fact that Microsoft isn’t cool and Apple is.

HP paid $1.2B for Palm. Now they are dumping that and more. I have been saying that the only ecosystems that will survive are Apple, Google (Android) and Microsoft. The carnage has started. WebOS was a good OS. That doesn’t matter. It was too late, too poorly marketed and never got traction. Now it is essentially dead. RIM will follow although not in the near future.

More shocking is the announcement that HP may exit the PC market. HP leads the PC market in market share. How can they possible be wanting to exit that market? To understand why HP could even be considering this you need to look a little deeper. The laptop market is very competitive. That translates to low margins for everyone except Apple. Only Apple has a customer base willing to consistently pay a premium for their laptop product. Additionally, HP’s market share has been falling. But… here is the main reason. The phone is becoming the dominant computing device. The laptop is rapidly becoming secondary. Desktops are already secondary devices. The only way to shore up laptops in a way that would maintain margins was to develop an ecosystems with laptops as part of that. WebOS was a poor attempt at that. With the failure of WebOS, HP laptops will have to compete as just another part of the Microsoft ecosystem. That’s OK now but it will be a position that gets worse each day. If you count tablets as part of mobile computing then Apple has already surpassed HP in market share. What HP is afraid of is being trapped in a market that is losing relevance, decreasing in size and so commoditized that there is little differentiation. All that will lead to little or no profit.

The big take away from this is that it is not an isolated event. It is a part of the convergence trend I have been discussing. There will be more Titanic changes to come and they will involve more than RIM.

By now most readers will be aware that Google is buying Motorola Mobility. I started to write about this when I first heard the news but I wanted to think about it and explore the implications and potential reasons. Time is up. Here are my thoughts.

The most straight forward reason is patent defense. When Google lost out to Microsoft and Apple in the bidding for the Nortel patent portfolio it left Google in a very bad position. Android violates several of the Nortel patents. Google launched an offensive claiming Apple and Microsoft were using patents, as opposed to compelling solutions, as a way to attack Google. We must remember that Google also bid for these patents and, had they won, would have probably used them against Microsoft and Apple. Furthermore, an offer to join with Microsoft and Apple in acquiring the patents was rebuked by Google. If the purchase of Motorola Mobility is indeed a defensive play then this is nothing more than another round of that old patent game “I’ll cross license mine if you will cross license yours.” Considering the large amounts of cash Google is sitting on, this might be a very sensible move.

Could there be more to the acquisition than patents? Google has made cell phones in the past when it was jump-starting Android. But, should they be a cell phone producer? In the PC space Apple has been a small closed ecosystem compared to the loose and very diversified Microsoft ecosystem. The result was a larger, cheaper and more diversified hardware and software ecosystem for Windows (Microsoft) compared to OSX (Apple). Recall that, at one time (Apple II), Apple dominated the desktop space. The diversity of the Microsoft based environment resulted in Apple becoming a niche player. Today, despite Apple’s early lead, there is a strong possibility that Android will be the Windows of the smartphone and tablet space. I see no reason for Google to try to “out Apple” Apple. Think of the strange relationship that is going to exist with companies like HTC and Samsung. In the recent past, market pressure pushed those companies towards Google. Apple was closed to them. Microsoft Windows Phone 7 was open but Nokia was clearly customer number one and in a special, preferred customer, position. Now Google is not just a supplier but a competitor. I think Microsoft is secretly happy about all of this. It makes their relationship with Nokia look tame by comparison.

Could this be herd instinct? Apple makes the iPhone. HP bought Palm. Microsoft is in bed with Nokia. RIM makes Blackberry. Perhaps Google fell victim to the “everyone else is doing it” syndrome. Somehow I doubt it. The people at Google are nothing if not sharp. Still, it has happened at this level before.

One possible reason for the acquisition might be to push NFC. NFC requires that very specific hardware be placed inside smartphones. The Motorola Mobility arm of Google could push this. However, I think NFC can be effectively pushed without making the phones themselves. I don’t buy this as a reason for the acquisition.

That brings me to one final reason for the purchase – set top boxes. I have discussed how the real goal is a very broad and unified ecosystem. The TV is a big part of that. Google could merge GoogleTV into the Motorola Mobility set top box units. As a competitor in the set top box space they might be in a good position to drive their ecosystem. I have argued before that consumers don’t like extra boxes and hence AppleTV and even external game boxes (PS3, Wii, Xbox) are interim solutions. The one external box that has some life left is the cable box.  Google could merge the cable box, GoogleTV and Android games into one piece of hardware. Moving between cable product, internet streams and applications could be made very unified and essentially transparent to the consumer.

Summary: This acquisition is all about the patent portfolio and using it as a counter to Apple and Microsoft. However, Google is left with a hardware business that competes with key customers.

My recommendation: If I was willing to tell Apple what to do then why not another multibillion dollar company that is highly profitable? So Google, here is what you should do. Sell off the mobile device arm of Motorola Mobility but keep set top boxes. Keep all of the patents and just license them to the entity acquiring the cell phone business. Finally, merge GoogleTV into the cable box and make GoogleTV fully compatible with Android games. Use your new found cable box presence to drive a broader ecosystem that is more unified than what consumers have now.

Just about every company pays lip service to the value of hiring new college grads, NCG’s, but few do a great job utilizing this raw talent. To start with, few realize the true potential and why NCG hires are so important. They hire a few, sprinkle them around the company and are done. Some pay lip service to training but with training that is poorly targeted. Even fewer understand what they should be looking for in NCG’s.

Let’s start by understanding the fundamentals of hiring NCG’s and what to look for. To do this we need to look at what the downsides are to hiring experienced engineers. If your first thought is salary then you are way off base. When you go for experienced engineers you are rarely able to get the best people. The best people usually have golden handcuffs keeping them at their present company. You get the person below the best. He may be great. However, the interview often tells you less than you think. It is difficult to decide whether the candidate is the creative mind generating the great work on his resume or a following mind led by someone else. Knowledge is great but the ability to generate new knowledge and be creative in previously unexplored areas of engineering are what make great engineers.

Now consider hiring NCG’s. There are no golden handcuffs. They assume they will be relocating so they are very mobile and will go where you want them to. You stand a lot better chance of getting that brilliant, creative mind. You do have to aim you interview process in the proper direction. The interview questions must look at understanding and insight rather than memory work. I once got told that all you had to know to pass my interview was Ohm’s Law, Q=CV, and charge conservation. That’s a bit of a stretch but there is truth in it. I replied that to pass my interview you didn’t have to just know those items but they must be understood at a deep, inner, level to where they had become intuitive. Those people are rare, whether experienced or not. However, your best shot at hiring one is looking at NCG’s.

Once you have hired that rare, insightful mind, you need to make good use of it. That means training them, setting expectations, and generating the habits of great engineers. It does not mean throwing them onto a project and calling the hiring process done. What I have done in the past is put the NCG’s through a five to seven week  training program. A proper training program should accomplish several major goals. First, the student must learn the basics of the tools he will use. Secondly, he must come to understand the overall framework that a design process follows. This is much like a student taking general physics in college. The classes that follow, optics, mechanics, relativity, thermodynamics, etc. are elaborations of what was taught in general physics. The general physics class acts as a framework onto which the new knowledge is placed. In the engineering world it is important that it is always understood how individual processes and engineering steps fit into the overall design process. The third item that needs to be inculcated involves a number of attitudes that make up a great engineer. These attitudes are often overlooked. With experienced engineers they either have them or they don’t. With NCG’s you stand a good chance of forming a proper view of the engineering world. These attitudes are so important I will make them the subjects of separate posts. It’s just too much to include right now. It takes a lot to get these concepts ingrained but it starts with the first design review. The training program should involve designing a small part from start to finish. It should cover more than what the engineer will work on when on a real project. It is important that the NCG develop a sense of the issues confronting others and how his work will interface to their work product. The training, if successful, ends with a design review. It can be a bit brutal since it is meant to be a reality check. For that reason it is limited to senior staff who are intimately familiar with the goals of the training process. It is this review which introduces the engineer to concepts such as why 99% is a failing grade, the limits of his decision making authority, how an engineer manages his time and resources to prevent spinning his wheels, and how to properly run a design review so that the correct objectives are achieved.

After the design review has been successfully completed, the NCG is ready to become part of a design team and commence work on his first project. The project lead can extend the basics the NCG has learned during training and concentrate on bringing him along as an engineer. The group, having a common set of values and attitudes, is stronger and more functional. During the early days, Microsoft was built on this idea. It is key that everyone be well integrated into a common culture which elevates getting the job done in a correct fashion and discourages destructive behavior. Properly done, this culture brings out creativity rather than stifling it while keeping divergent activities in check. After all, the goal is to sell a product and make money. We’re talking engineering and not science.

There is a caveat here. Life is gray. It’s all about balance. I have been focusing on new college graduates. There is also a place for the experienced engineer. When to go for experience and how to select that engineer is a topic for another post.

At WWDC, Apple announced iMessage. This is a direct attack on BBM. BBM has been a cornerstone RIM product. BBM has been about what makes a Blackberry different. Ouch! At every turn Blackberry seems to lose relevancy and it’s ecosystem gets passed. The Playbook is getting a lot of ad time right now but the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is just about to hit stores and it will be a much better tablet for those who eschew the Apple ecosystem. I hate to keep repeating myself but I see little from RIM to give me hope. All I see is a painful decay. In and of itself iMessage is just another small evolutionary step towards convergence and transparency similar to the nice moves Microsoft made in Mango. For RIM it is another big blow.

I didn’t publish anything Monday or Tuesday. I was busy digesting what was coming out of WWDC and E3. I won’t regurgitate the standard stuff covered better by sites such as Engadget. Rather I want to comment on what people missed or only put down as a footnote. However, I do need to go through a few big items. First, WWDC is notable for no new hardware and few surprises. Little made me go WOW! The cloud is taking on more importance. However, a lot of this has already been done by Microsoft and Google. What Apple brings, get ready for it, is better transparency of use. If you are willing to buy into the Apple ecosystem then you get data transparency in return. The same goes for Microsoft and Google but the Apple approach is more automatic and, here is that word I overuse, transparent. This is an ecosystem war. Who gets left out? Well, I’n not buying any stock in RIM.

Everyone is talking about what the cloud will do. Here is what it won’t do. Right now no one has it syncing apps or present device status. That means when you move from one device to another you don’t just pick up where you left off. Your data will be there but you will have to open an appropriate application and load the data. If you don’t have an appropriate application installed, for example Excel, then well… it won’t be installed. So, all of the new stuff  coming out is a step in the right direction but just a step.

I liked Apple’s Match announcement but it just highlights the bandwidth limitations that make a pure cloud existence less than thrilling. The bandwidth issue is one of many reasons I am less than thrilled with Google’s Chromebook concept. Also, you will have to be careful with iCloud to make sure you really have your photos backed up since they only remain in the cloud for 30 days. In the end the cloud is great for syncing and sharing but i don’t want it to be my only data storage location.

As far as E3 is concerned there was the usual plethora of game announcements. On the hardware front Nintendo showed an early version of the Wii U complete with graphics generated on Xbox 360 and PS3. Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the example graphics were actually generated on competitor’s platforms. What’s notable about the Wii U isn’t the fact that it has a faster processor or 1080p graphics. The big deal is the new touch screen controller. It lets you play without using the TV set or if you do use the TV, have a second display. Wait, isn’t this just like what I was suggesting for Apple? Oh yeah, the Nintendo controller includes accelerometers and gyros just like an iPhone. Nintendo is on the right tract. However, Apple, Google and Microsoft are all coming from stronger positions if they will just see it and actually attack this space.

Lately I’ve watch a number of interviews with Ford CEO Alan Mulally. I find a lot to like in this guy. He puts forth a good image for Ford. Moreover there seems to be substance to back up the talk. When you look at Ford you see a company on the upswing. Quality has improved to where it competes with the best out there. Furthermore I sense a spirit in the company which wants to lead rather than follow.  I don’t always agree with what’s being done but I admire the attempt. A good example is the use of Microsoft’s Sync product. It’s flawed. I have concerns because it is from Microsoft. Then again I would have concerns if it was from Apple.  It does NOT do what I think it should. Mulally seems to understand this. Here is a good interview that speaks to convergence and transparency.

Pay particular attention to the 7:40 and 10:10 time points. Mulally mentions making the digital life in the home merge with the digital life in the car. I like this guy. He accepts criticism of Sync but stands by it as the right direction even if presently flawed. I like a guy willing to believe in a direction and work to perfect it even if the initial attempt isn’t what it should be.