December 15, 2010

A Fable For Our Times...

In the economically struggling free-market democracy of FUD, the airline industry was comprised of four major commercial carriers. Two of the airlines dominated the industry, carrying almost 80% of passenger traffic. All of the airlines relied heavily on two aircraft manufacturers. While there had been a more competitive vender environment in the past, other companies had either shut down, been acquired, or evolved into more specialized aircraft-related industries.

Enter an up-and-coming overseas aircraft manufacturer called 21st Century - based in the economically thriving country of UhOh - which had developed an alternative approach to building aircraft, with a significantly lower cost structure, and yet more advanced technologies, industry-leading safety solutions, and none of the legacy baggage or overhead the incumbent manufacturers carried. While 21st’s approach to manufacturing planes was new and innovative, it relied for the most part on the same downstream supply chain companies, components and inputs as the other two dominant incumbents.

Needless to say, airlines across the globe welcomed the introduction of competition and innovation in the marketplace and were quick to trial and approve 21st’s planes, anticipating significantly lower capital and operating expenses in the future due to the competitive pricing of the 21st Century's aircraft, a direct result of the company's lower cost structure. The airlines looked forward to the opportunity to translate their savings into enhanced service offerings as well as lower costs to their passengers. Their shareholders in turn anticipated higher returns on their investments. 21st Century quickly experienced great success, selling hundreds of planes to major airlines in multiple markets across the globe.

But, the Government of FUD had a range of geopolitical and trade-related concerns, some quite legitimate, others perhaps less so, with the government of UhOh. In fairness to FUD government officials, UhOh was only just emerging from decades of non-democratic rule, and had only just begun to align itself with global trade rules and free-market norms. But the FUD concerns went far beyond those factors, and were colored by lingering economic malaise in FUD, as well as FUD’s cultural, societal and political struggle to accept, in an era of globalization - in large part spurred by FUD’s shining example - a role on the global political and economic stage as a leading peer among peers, rather than a sole super-powered juggernaut. FUD and UhOh were increasingly at global odds with each other, with tensions rising on multiple fronts. In this context, the Government of FUD began communicating perceptions that 21st Century was somehow connected to and a potential tool of the government of UhOh, which, in truth, was not the case.

Nevertheless, the Government of FUD began questioning 21st Century’s business practices, its financing, and, most importantly, the integrity and safety of 21st’s aircraft. FUD officials went so far as to express concerns that, should tensions between FUD and UhOh worsen, the Government of UhOh might somehow exercise influence over 21st Century to somehow endanger FUD-based airlines or passengers. 21st Century repeatedly attempted to explain to the Government of FUD that its concerns were unfounded, stressing, among other things, that 21st’s planes had been carefully inspected and reviewed and had passed major airline performance and safety requirements in markets all over the world.

Even so, select FUD Government officials persisted in attacking the company, ignoring the fact that the incumbent aircraft manufacturers serving FUD-based airlines were also building their planes in UhOh and, should the FUD concerns be real, those other aircraft would be equally subject to those fears, requiring a cross-industry solution, not singling out a single company. Yet, quite stunningly, and without any due process or other respect for national law or global trade rules, the Government of FUD dictated to a FUD-based 21st Century customer that they could not purchase 21st-Century built aircraft. Needless to say, this action – widely reported in the press – had a chilling effect, at least in the near-term, on other 21st Century business in FUD.

It was not long, however, before the real impact of the unfounded FUD interference in the market-based decision-making process was realized.

The Government of FUD hadn’t thought about the impact of its interference in the market in terms of the thousands of 21st Century employees working in FUD, nor the impact on their FUD families. They hadn’t thought about all of 21st Century’s downstream FUD-based suppliers and the tens of thousands of jobs those companies supported related to 21st Century’s billions of dollars in annual procurement. And they hadn’t thought about the multiple other ripple effects that their market-distorting action would create: Chilled much-needed investment in FUD from other UhOh-based companies, the failure of struggling FUD-based airlines that might otherwise have survived via the CAPEX and OPEX savings related to purchases of 21st Century’s planes, lost investments of shareholders in those failing FUD carriers, and, decreased competition in FUD’s airline industry in general – both in terms of manufacturers and service providers, which, of course, translated to yet poorer services and higher costs for consumers.

A sad, sad state of affairs…

The moral of this story: Governments should not express their economic and/or geopolitical fears and woes by mis-using legitimate and industry-wide concerns about issues like safety and security to veil political gamesmanship and/or good-old-fashioned protectionist and illegitimate manipulation of the market-based decision-making process. In an increasingly and forever-globalized economy, such measures are almost certain to backfire, damaging a country’s own best interests, and those of its innovators, workers, and consumers.

(All countries and companies referenced in this fable are fictitious. Any resemblance to real countries or companies are purely coincidental).

October 06, 2010

A Manifesto (of Sorts) for a Brave New World...

This is gonna be a long one...

Setting the Stage

In mere weeks, we will experience an election cycle that may well shift power in the Congress from one partisan group to another. And, the result may well be utter gridlock for the next two years, or more, perpetuating the challenges we face in terms of economic recovery, also threatening global economic growth, cooperation and security.


Now is the time to rise above partisanship and division. Now is the time to rise above the past. Now is the time to rise above nationalism. Now is the time to recognize and and leverage our role as a global leader – a leader among leaders - and to drive, as a trusted partner, global security and economic growth and development.

The last few years have been trying for Americans. Our financial system has suffered severe disruption, our housing market has yet to recover, health care remains out of reach for millions, unemployment is sky high and, terribly painful to watch, our college graduates are struggling to land their first jobs. Our national confidence is shaken. And hard.

Some Historical Perspective

You know, empires rarely fall, they usually just evolve, over time, into something new, sometimes lesser, sometimes better, richer, fuller.

China’s history of empire dates back millennia. Rome for centuries straddled multiple continents. Britain once famously ruled the waves. The Soviet Union not so long ago dominated an empire from Eastern Europe to the Bering Straits.

Today, China is evolving into a market-based global economic powerhouse, the UK remains a bastion of freedom and democracy. Rome lies at the heart of Italy, itself a member of the broader, united and peaceful European Union. The former Soviet States are a mere two decades into re-establishing themselves, but with positive momentum – and some concern - while Eastern Europe already thrives in free market democracy.

And, here, in the U.S., we are at a crossroads, a dramatic inflection point, a defining moment in time.

Ours is a unique history. We are a young nation, with a relatively short history, at least when viewed from a global perspective. While brief, our history has been at times arduous, at others terribly painful, on some occasions shameful, but most often brave, and full of promise. Ours has indeed been a history defined by a powerful belief in and commitment to what we have perceived to be our manifest destiny.

Over the last century, we have fought two World Wars and have engaged in multiple smaller, but vital, conflicts. We have endured the tension and occasional terror of almost 50 years of Cold War. We have suffered through a Great Depression, and multiple, if less dramatic, but still painful, and recent, recessions. We have survived horrific terrorist attacks on our Homeland.

Yet, through it all, we have prospered, creating entire new and marvelous industries – from aircraft to the Internet. Indeed, in many ways, as a direct result of our initiative, our leadership, our protection, our shining example of free market democracy, the world has matured around us. With obvious exceptions, democracy and free markets are flourishing. Our tide has lifted all boats.

Yet now, again, we are at a crossroads, a dramatic inflection point, a defining moment in time.

When our original thirteen colonies came together, it was no easy feat. There was great distrust among the colonies, distrust that survived the eventual Union, distrust that later fueled a brutal Civil War, distrust that still exists today, to some extent. But, through common cause, we found Union, and through common cause, we have maintained Union.

Our common cause is as strong as ever. But our status on the world stage has changed dramatically over the last two decades as a result of globalization, the spread of democracy, and the development of more and more vibrant economies overseas.

A Brave New World

The geopolitical stage is fundamentally different than it was 25 years ago. While we remain a prominent leader in the world, we are but one leader among others. And, likewise, the global economic ecosystem has fundamentally changed, and not for the short term. It is not just the manufacturing of basic mass-market goods that has spread offshore, but innovation and intellectual capital as well.

And in the midst of all of this, through and beyond our most recent recession, our financial system has suffered severe disruption, our housing market has yet to recover, adequate health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans, our unemployment rate is frighteningly high and, finally, again, terribly painful to watch, our college graduates are struggling to land their first jobs.

And, very worrisome, our culture and society are seemingly evolving from what was an historical tendency to “rally around” common causes to a new-born fear-uncertainly-and-doubt inspired inclination to “rally against” pretty much anything. Sadly, and perhaps ironically, the output of the digital revolution that fueled our growth at the turn of the last Millennium - immediate and ubiquitous digital communications - is now fueling far more radical and irrational emotion than productive and rational discourse. How else, for instance, would a seeming madman in Florida, with a congregation of mere dozens, gain not just White House but worldwide attention to his intent to burn a copy of the Koran?

Let me say it yet again: We are at a crossroads, a dramatic inflection point, a defining moment in time. The world has moved on. It is time to change our worldview.

This will be no easy task.

Putting aside defense-related issues for the moment, in terms of our global economic relations, it is time for us to recall the experience of uniting thirteen colonies - our nation - around common cause. It is time to build or re-build common cause and all-important trust on a global stage - with our competitors and partners alike. Our common global tide will lift all boats. This is our manifest destiny, as redefined by globalization.

Those in the Congress and elsewhere that believe that reviving industrial age, government-inspired market-distorting barriers to trade will benefit American companies, workers and our economy in general are wrong. Such measures, in a tightly interwoven global economy with supply chains spanning borders and oceans and integrated products demanding inputs from markets around the world, will inevitably hurt us more than they help us.

For instance, U.S. companies are prevented from participating in energy sector business in Iran. The intent is laudable – we do not want to see a radical regime further its potential to develop nuclear weapons. By cordoning off our own companies, we leave the doors open for companies based elsewhere to take the business, undermining our intent. So, Congress has crafted legislation to sanction foreign-based companies that engage in Iran’s energy sector – blocking their potential business opportunities in the U.S. if they do business in Iran. As a result, major European energy companies have announced their intent to stay out or get out of Iran. But that still leaves the rest of the planet, including no shortage of Chinese-based energy companies. So, the Congress fires up the rhetoric and the Administration puts the diplomatic screws to China, further exacerbating tensions with that country that range from a growing trade imbalance, China’s currency policy, Chinese intellectual property protection, Internet freedom, cyber-security, Taiwan, Tibet, and so on and so forth. Was this our intent? No. Our intent was to prevent Iran from developing Nuclear weapons. Might we not be better off going back to square one and allow U.S. energy companies to engage in Iran? We’d certainly have better insight into what’s happening, and, well, we’d be supporting American jobs and economic benefit as well.

Similar arguments could be applied to applying countervailing duties on Chinese products to force China to allow its currency to float more freely. Who pays? U.S retailers, consumers, and other companies that rely on Chinese inputs, etc. And should China retaliate in some fashion, throw U.S. exporters into the mix as well.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am no apologist for Chinese human or intellectual property rights or other violations, nor for corruption or nuclear irresponsibility in Russia, nor for regimes of terror or suppression in countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. I’m just highlighting that industrial age tools and, for that matter, Cold War sabre-rattling, are no longer sensible in a globalized economy. We need new tools for a new age. We need to accept a new role in a new age. We need to acknowledge that we have a lot of our own historical baggage, and that we should work with global partners to help them unload theirs, perhaps faster than we did ours.

It is, again, time to adjust our worldview. We may be one of the world’s largest economies, we may well be the world’s largest consumer market, but we are only 4% of the global population. When one looks at the world stage today – from outside the U.S. – one perceives the U.S. as a leader, but not “the” leader. We are one among many.

Let us work as a trusted and equal partner to create models for further cooperation and mutual endeavor. Let us redefine globalization. Let us create opportunity and trust. Let us find common cause. Rather than putting up walls and barriers, let us recognize the realities of globalization and, for instance, create an environment, powered by tax or other incentives, and a workforce that combined are so attractive that we compel offshore multinationals to further invest in America, to create new American jobs, to support new livelihoods. It doesn’t matter where the corporate headquarters is anymore - our combined tides will lift all boats.

Our Challenges at Home

We must prioritize our challenges so that we address those that will best serve our future.

After September 11, the U.S. learned a new phrase, one that had been popular in other English speaking countries for many years: Homeland Security. The popular perception of Homeland Security is the folks working airport security and border patrols. But, of course, it goes well beyond that.

When I think of Homeland Security, however, I think about what sort of job opportunities my kids may have when they enter the workforce. I think about how we might drive true economic renewal. I think about the sacrifices that will be necessary to lay the groundwork for a true and lasting recovery.

The U.S. was once a manufacturing giant, but much of our manufacturing industry has moved offshore, where labor and infrastructure are less expensive. The U.S. was once the leading exporter of many agricultural products, but other countries are now shipping wheat and beef and the like, eclipsing our own exports. The U.S. was the birthplace of the modern “service economy,” but many of those jobs – call centers, etc. – have also moved offshore, for cost and competitiveness reasons. The U.S. delivered the world the Internet, and the world has innovated around it, with research and development also having become a global process.

Are we devoting the appropriate energy and resources to and are we educating and training our children for the job opportunities they can aspire to? Are we managing their expectations appropriately – do we want to risk another alienated generation like the one that grew up during the Internet boom, graduated from college, and waited for six figure jobs to magically materialize while their parents sought the same opportunity? Are we guiding students to leverage their strengths in terms of their ultimate occupation. Have we forgotten the concepts of apprentice, journeyman and master and trades in our headlong rush to extend the high school experience another four years vainly hoping that a degree alone will guarantee wealth and status? Have we forgotten that personal fulfillment and happiness can be achieved without wealth and status?

Our true economic recovery will begin with education. If only we might invest in training and equipping our teachers in the same way we do our soldiers…

We should look to other markets and learn from their success, and restructure our approach to education to mirror those most successful. And let’s do it right. Which means not on the cheap. Now more than ever, we need to invest in our future, in our childrens’ future.


U.S. defense spending accounts for just under one half of the entire world’s defense outlay.

Yes, we must provide for our common defense. Yes, we must be prepared to address true threats to our country, including new and sophisticated cyber threats. And yes, we must be prepared to come to the aid of allies and the severely oppressed. But, in the context of our dire need to recover and renew our economy and the livelihoods of Americans, we must also reconsider our priorities.

Since September 11, 2001, Congress had appropriated more than one trillion dollars for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world.

Even some small fraction of those funds could have rehabilitated or built and equipped all new American schools, fielded an army of high-quality and appropriately compensated teachers, and subsidized hundreds of thousands of America’s brightest to attend university without the burden of overwhelming debt upon graduation.

Another small fraction of those funds might have contributed to the build-out of truly ubiquitous broadband – extending the Internet to virtually every American – an infrastructure build-out that would rival that of the national highway system decades ago, and with an impact equally profound in terms of education, training and future innovation.

And, slightly off topic, yet another small portion of those funds could have provided adequate health care for virtually all of America’s uninsured, until such day that we actually deliver on our responsibility to craft a universal health care system that does indeed protect all Americans.

A Fundamental Mindshift

Accepting that our status in the world has changed is a challenge for Americans. Manifest destiny was not just a 19th century policy, it has been an unsung American cultural driver since that time, and through today. It guides how we feel about ourselves as a people, as a nation – a sense of our history, our people, our nation as somehow exceptional.

We are no less exceptional today than we were yesterday or one hundred years ago, or than we will be 100 years from now. America remains a shining beacon and example of hope and aspiration for peoples across the world. But our status has changed, as other countries - complementary and competing global and economic powerhouses - have closed ranks with and around us.

A new day calls for new ways. We are at a crossroads, a dramatic inflection point, a defining moment in time.

Let us meet the challenge. Let us work as a trusted and equal partner on the global stage to create models for further cooperation and mutual endeavor. Let us redefine globalization. Let us create opportunity and trust. Let us find common cause. Let us not miss the opportunity to embrace change and in so doing, recover and renew as a global leader among leaders, with a strong, healthy and resilient homeland...

September 13, 2010

Stay tuned...

...'nuff said. For now.


August 15, 2010

Online Digital Piracy: Threat and Opportunity

There’s a stand-up comic who’s routine pokes fun at the sometimes-clever Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) trailers that run in advance of movies warning against content privacy (and, for what it’s worth, there are countless YouTube videos doing the same in various manners). The stand-up’s routine focuses on a trailer that suggests: “you wouldn’t steal a car, why would you steal a movie?” The stand-up jokes: “Well, if I could select whatever car I wanted off the street, point at it, and after 30 minutes or so it would be mine, and the original owner would also still have a copy, why wouldn’t I?

And everyone laughs, notwithstanding that such a scenario would doom the global auto industry, and, frankly, given the quality, integrity and security of the digital content the stand-up is referencing, if the same were applied to “copies of cars,” our highways and byways would become just a tad more dangerous. After all, who hasn’t heard a “found” tune skip a beat, or stop abruptly, or received a special bonus bit of malware along with the tune that otherwise compromised your computer – imagine the skipped beat or the virus resulted in, oh, I don’t know – no brakes, loose lug nuts?

And yet, since the advent of young Mr. Fanning’s original Napster over a decade ago, there has remained a persistent mindset among a certain segment of the digerati that continues to drive online theft of digital content, based on the blithe perception that no-one gets hurt, everyone benefits, and, well, all those studios and labels are and have been ripping us off for decades in any event – so let’s stick it to the ill-if-ever-defined “man.”

The music industry was caught unawares – unforgivably in my opinion – by the peer-to-peer revolution led by Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, Frostwire, etc., etc., and since then, carried on largely in the more efficient, faster, and arguably slightly less malware-friendly multi-peer to peer BitTorrent universe (including also The Pirate Bay, ISOHunt, Demonoid, etc.). Notwithstanding some fruitful, more often less, and sometimes absurd lawsuits filed by the music industry, and lots of noise and limited (very) success with Digital Rights Management solutions, it was Apple and iTunes that stepped into the breach to save – and suckle from – what was a hobbled, floundering music industry. Streaming services like Rhapsody have further bolstered legit consumption of music.

The video and movie industry were largely spared in these early days, largely due to bandwidth limitations, with piracy limited to snippets and/or ueber-poor quality full-length copies of video shared over P2P networks, YouTube or otherwise. Quite simply, the file sizes were just too large to move over pre-broadband networks. Video piracy was largely defined by Asian and other-market cottage industries built (and still thriving) around bootlegging and street-selling.

But, in today’s world of increasingly ubiquitous high-speed broadband – cable, fiber, WiFi and up-and-coming 4G wireless networks (LTE and WiMax) - the threat is real and the BitTorrent libraries are jam-packed with full-length, including recently released, films and full seasons of network programming.

And yet, unlike the seemingly hapless music industry, and borrowing from now well-entrenched consumer comfort with iTunes-like experiences, a host of services have emerged that make legal, online, on-demand video consumption a viable commercial proposition – Netflix and Amazon are great examples. And, moreover, anticipating the phenomenon of Internet video streaming to the big screen, Boxee, Hulu, Kylo (Hillcrest Labs) and others have built relationships with video and film content owners and created unique browsing solutions for delivering licensed content to stand-alone PCs or, increasingly, PCs integrated into home theaters and big screens.

Is torrenting a thing of the past? No, not at all. And the cost to the industry of such activity is staggering: While somewhat dated, a 2005 survey conducted by the MPAA, relying on a consumer survey conducted in several countries, found that U.S. motion picture studios lost $6.1 billion to piracy (notably not limited to online piracy) in 2005.

But, there is a generational change underway. Today’s torrenters are yesterday’s P2P pirates – 20-somethings that grew up file-sharing and for whom the concept of buying a CD or paying for a tune from iTunes borders on alien – this is the lost generation, the behavior of which will be challenging to change, until and/or unless they simply grow out of it. The good news, however, is there is a ‘tween and teen generation that has grown up with the reasonable price points, spontaneity, and utter simplicity of iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, etc. This generation is more accustomed to playing for content, and, moreover, since they have been weaned on simple, easy-to-use UI’s and online experiences – they are less likely to dive into what remains the somewhat arcane and still-dangerous world of BitTorrent.

The challenge now for the studios and networks is to nurture this generation, and to introduce services of their own to compete with the aggregators and resellers (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) lest they suffer the same fate that the music industry and artists continue to struggle with – low-to-no margins on traditional product (music tracks) shared across multiple stakeholders, and the resulting challenge to create all new experiential products to drive new revenues, new successes.

In short, online digital piracy, at this very unique moment in time, is as much opportunity as threat. The latter must be addressed, and organizations like the MPAA are well-equipped to continue the good fight. The former, however, is the greater imperative, and will require quick, creative, innovative and perhaps risky new investment and initiative from the motion picture, film and television industries.

‘Should be fun to watch (as it were)…

July 20, 2010

Illusions of Grandeur...

Interesting week for Nokia and Nokia-Siemens, resulting in not-insignificant jumps in share price for the mother company.

But why?

Two major developments: Nokia-Siemens announced its intent to buy out Motorola's non-iDEN based infrastructure business and, reportedly, a search is underway for a new CEO that could, some say, result in Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo's ouster as early as next month.

Hey, these are both big deals, but, well, they're questionably meaningful in any real commercial sense and the share-price jump is almost certainly a short-term phenomenon unless a "really big deal" (e.g. a complete and utter strategy overhaul) happens, and soon...

Considering the Nokia-Siemens acquisition of the Motorola infrastructure assets, what does this really mean? Yes, on the upside, investing over $1.2 billion could be considered a good move, given that Nokia-Siemens reported a 7% annual revenue decline in Q1 2010 while the Motorola division posted a decent $112 million operating profit, a figure which Nokia-Siemens could arguably grow should it succeed in digesting the Motorola assets and rationalizing and/or eliminating redundant spending and R&D, etc. And yes, the acquisition might boost Nokia-Siemens opportunities in its weakest market – North America – if it succeeds in leveraging the long-term and healthy relationships Motorola enjoys with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. But, let's recall that both Nokia-Siemens and Motorola were essentially shut out of recent Verizon and AT&T 4G/LTE infrastructure projects (which were awarded to the unofficial infrastructure vender duopoly of Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent) - so it's unclear what this perhaps "too little, too late" acquisition might mean in the cases of those major operators, at least in the short- to medium-term (unless Ericsson and/or Alcatel-Lucent majorly screw up in terms of their contracted deliverables, which has happened before...).

We should also recall that Motorola's strong presence in the U.S. market is a legacy one. A not-insignificant percentage of Motorola's past infrastructure revenues and related profits were the result of selling 3G equipment based on CDMA2000 to Verizon, Sprint, and others. Given that CDMA2000 is itself a legacy standard, having been trumped by LTE, where (again) Motorola's infrastructure business has failed to break through in the U.S. (not unlike Nokia-Siemens), it's unclear where the real value is to Nokia-Siemens, excepting perhaps a breakthrough opportunity in WiMAX with Sprint/Clearwire.

I'd have argued (indeed, I have argued for a year-and-a-half now, in this blog and elsewhere), that Nokia would have done better to invest that rather remarkable chunk of change in a wholesale conversion to Android-enabled devices, derailing Motorola's terminals division, rocking RIM's nebulous recovery and standing up to HTC which in less than two years has seized significant market share and, remarkably, achieved almost household brand status.

Which leads me to that second big development: The swirling rumors over the last 24 hours or so about a purported Nokia search to find a replacement for Olli-Pekka as CEO.

Not too long ago, I posted a "don't blame Olli-Pekka for the mess in the U.S." rant (see May 2, 2010 post). My thoughts have not changed. However, when a company is consistently challenged to deliver, year after year, regardless of where the fault ultimately lies, the buck's gotta stop somewhere, and, mixing metaphors, it appears this chicken's come home to roost. Assuming that the rumors are true, including the imminent timing of the change, I think the big question should not be "who will it be?," but, rather, "what will he/she do differently?" Some important strategic decisions begging resolution:

- Whither Symbian?
- Why not Android? It's late, perhaps critically so, but it's not too late...
- If Android, MeeGo as well? Why?
- What about an unholy alliance with equally-struggling Microsoft (see June 23, 2010 post)?
- Whither Ovi? It's not on a par with the Apple and Google solutions. White label for operators? Go unholy and relaunch (see bullet immediately above)?
- What about the all-important U.S. market? Overhaul a management team that has failed to deliver for almost four years? Outsource all product to exacting operator spec (beat LG and Samsung at their own game)?
- What about morale - employee and investor? Recovery will not come overnight.
- How about an iconic product? Not some N8-like thing, but something truly iconic, like the 6160 married to AT&T's one-rate plan back at the turn of the Millenium when Nokia commanded near 40% share in the U.S. alone?

Not easy challenges, not easy decisions. But the world has moved on as Nokia has serially re-org'ed for the last three-four years. It is indeed a time for wholesale and brave renewal. I wish the greatest luck to Nokia and whomever emerges as its leader - it's gonna be one hell of a bumpy ride.


July 14, 2010

My start-up flop...

A few weeks ago I marked the one year anniversary of the beginning of what turned out to be a short-lived career as President and CEO of an early stage mobile application/interactive marketing start-up. As I embark this week on the next stage of my career, completely unrelated (indeed, a return to my D.C. roots of yore - but that's another story), I'm unable to resist the urge to chronicle the sad debacle that was my start-up experience.

When leaving Nokia in February 2009, a far more bitter than sweet experience, I had a reasonable cushion upon which to mount my job search. Don't get me wrong, I was terrified from the first day of unemployment, but I was also in a position to consider a wide range of options, and I was in some sense driven to recapture the excitement and passion from that time I spent leading Nokia's maverick North American Multimedia business.

I had feelers out to every headhunter I knew, and was meeting new ones on a regular basis. I networked with former Nokia and other industry insiders at other companies in the mobile space. I flirted with one or another courting start-up, and, then, was approached with a unique and intriguing President and CEO opportunity by a headhunter I'd befriended via a mobile-related blog he managed.

What followed was a series of interviews with a range of advisers to and Members of the Board of the fledgling start-up, founded by three software platform developers who'd been together for a pair of decades and were making their first foray into the mobile space. Their solution was not rocket science, and I'll get to it in a minute, but it did indeed have the potential to be disruptive, and successful.

The start-up's Chairperson, who represented the VC that led the miniscule $750k A Round of funding (almost a third of which was already gone by the time I joined), was the prime decision-maker, and had surrounded herself with an eclectic group of well-pedigreed but oddly - seemingly - ill-fit (in terms of the start-up's offering) advisers. Hers was the decision to hire me, only after which did I get a chance to meet the Founders.

The Founders and I quickly bonded - good guys, if, however, in my perhaps not-fully-informed perception, set at pre-commercial Internet clock speeds when it came to development. When I came on board in late June, I was told we'd have a commercial solution in mid-July. Uh, not...

But what was it?

Well, when the iPhone SDK was released, the guys, who, again, had no mobile background, saw it as their next platform, and developed a clever mechanism to essentially circumvent the iterative iPhone application development process.

The way it was working when they birthed their brainchild, let's say in the context of a content owner, was that the content owner would hire an app developer, tell them what they wanted their app to do and feature, wait for the developer to return something that, with luck, actually met their specifications, then submit the app for Apple's review and, ultimately, publishing. If the content owner wanted to update the app, well, they'd go back to the developer, get the changes tweaked, pay for it, re-submit to Apple, re-publish, wait for iPhone users to update their apps, etc. Not a terribly dynamic process.

What they guys figured out was that the configuration file at the core of any app - the "property list" - could actually be updated without re-publishing if the originally published app's property list contained code for all of the potential functionality that might ultimately be desired in the app, even if the initial app only featured, in terms of the user experience, some subset of that functionality.

The solution, grossly simplified, was for the app, each time launched by an end user, to quickly touch the start-up's servers and, if the server-based config file had changed, so too would the app's property list, enabling what appeared to be a magically morphing app in terms of look, feel, feature set, experience, etc. Quite cool.

So, with a rudimentary, clumsy and awkward UI version of the solution, I set out to convince content owners that they should license our platform, bring their app development process in-house, and launch apps that they could continually morph, whether based on user behavior, new product launches, what-have-you...

I had a couple of working leads, pre-dating my coming on board, one a specialty marketing shop with a couple of trendy brand clients (lined up by one of the quirky advisers), the other a major educational content publisher. The former ultimately signed a contract, but never made use of the platform, instead leveraging one of the Founders to design and redesign an app that never launched. The other, sadly, bogged down in its own inertia, and, frankly, our failure to deliver a compelling design experience.

I turned my attention to richer content opportunities, engaging, for instance, a major music publishing group representing multiple labels, a couple of indie labels, and two major professional sports leagues.

What we soon learned from our very rich and intriguing conversations with these potential customers was that, in fact, they were frustrated by the entire mobile app experience. They couldn't make money off apps. Yet, they kept contracting developers to deliver them because apps had become a hygiene requirement in the mobile space.

All the while, I was fielding almost daily requests from the Board Chairperson and one or another of her advisers to consider random, alternative business model deviations and/or to consult with some newfound "expert."

Sigh... You see, the start-up was the Chairperson's first lead investment and, as I'd been warned by the Founders in my first week on the job, her constant interference reflected her fundamental lack of confidence and basic understanding of our business and the industry in which we were doing business. My failure - my key failure - was not putting my foot down early, demanding that she allow us to do our jobs rather than respond to her each and every whim.

In September, came an epiphanal conversation with the folks from that major music publishing group I mentioned.

What if, I suggested, we turned the model on its head, published one core app for free on Apple's App Store, with the richest potential configuration possible, and then launched a drop-dead simple consumer-focused site where individuals could design, publish and virally share their own configuration files? The content owners could open up their content management servers - just the basic, static stock content - and allow individuals to, for instance, create config files celebrating their passion for, e.g. Lady GaGa, or the Washington Capitals, or whatever. The config files, easily plugged into the single core app, would spread virally across social networks, libraries would emerge, hosted by content owners, or otherwise. Content owners would have a whole new distribution channel to up-sell premium content to people who had self-identified themselves as passionate about their content. And we'd get a piece of the action in terms of up-sell revenue, and everyone would benefit from advertisement- and analytics-based revenues and consumer behavioral understanding.

The major music publisher loved the idea. As did the couple of indies I was talking to, as did the two pro sports leagues, as did the Founders. I prepared an entirely new business plan around the new model, projecting viral growth of the core application and uber-viral growth of consumer-generated app configurations, but, importantly, no revenues until 2011, earliest.

With funds dwindling, even after having been augmented by an A+ Round of a couple hundred grand in November, I pitched the Board a new plan in the context of launching a B Round to fund us through 2010 until we could reap 2011 revenues. The Chairperson rejected the idea, as did her adviser. And then, the one Founder on the Board caved in, leaving me stranded, and, worse, facing demands from the Chairperson for a business plan that would drive 2010 revenues, perhaps around, sigh, custom app development... Such a pedestrian business was not what I signed up for...

...And, in short, it was not a terribly cordial parting of the ways. I believed in my plan and believed it would earn us a B Round. Indeed, I believed in it so much that I offered to work for sweat equity until we landed that B Round. But the Chairperson was adamant, and, unknown to me at the time, had already decided I was to be ousted, having recruited yet another "expert" to step into my shoes, notably bringing with him not insignificant funding.

We had some heated conversations, the Chairperson and I, but to no avail, other than her somewhat petty refusal to allow one of the willing Founders to write a recommendation for me on Linked-In.

And that, in short, and for the record, is my start-up story. A fabulous learning experience if nothing else.

Notably, and as an epitaph of sorts, since my departure in December, seven months later, the re-focused start-up has published, to the best of my knowledge unless otherwise white-labeled, exactly one app powered by their unique platform. One. And that one app was for the home-managed business of one of the Founders' spouses. And it's available for free from the app store. Sad. And, meanwhile, Google has recently launched their own custom individual consumer application configuration utility for Android apps. Go figure...

But, hey, all of that's behind me now...


June 30, 2010

IAccessibility: Policy Imperative, Industry Challenge

As Congress debates an overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a separate debate related to one of the lesser-known provisions of the 1996 Act is also underway, with the potential to critically impact on future information and communications technology innovation. What complicates this instance of digital post-convergence/pre-chaos/current collision, is the highly emotionally-charged nature and topic of the debate: Ensuring communications and Internet accessibility to individuals or varying ability or disability.

Section 255 of the 1996 Act, implementation of which was debated for many years, requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities, to the extent that such accessibility is "readily achievable." The definition of readily achievable has always meant different things to different people, but the FCC, disability advocates and industry players generally agreed it to mean “easily accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense.” Of course “much difficulty” and “much expense” were situational definitions at best.

In any event, per Section 255, if manufacturers cannot make their products accessible, then they are required to design products to be compatible with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities, again, “where readily achievable.” To the extent that adaptive equipment technology in certain instances did not keep pace with mainstream information and communications technology, manufacturers of the latter were often compelled to include what might be considered “retro” technology in otherwise cutting-edge solutions to ensure interoperability. Such compromises, in my opinion, were worthy of the goal of extending accessibility as readily achievable as possible.

In terms of the application of Section 255, it was defined to cover wired and wireless telecommunication devices, pagers, and fax machines, other products that have a telecommunication service capability, such as computers with modems and equipment that carriers use to provide services, such as a phone company’s switching equipment. Of note, the possible functions of a product are key in determining coverage. If a product can provide telecommunication services, then that portion is covered - for example, televisions generally are not covered by section 255, except where a set-top-box enables e-mail communication or Internet access, and then only that device is covered.

During the debate around the implementation of Section 255, there were moments bordering on the absurd. However well-intended (truly) the provisions were, the myriad of disability advocates demanding accessibility features threatened to overwhelm innovation – particularly in the mobile space - as debate floundered in the miasma of trying to address the broadest spectrum of abilities and disabilities in terms of accessibility. In the end, however, reason prevailed, and under the ever-nebulous “readily achievable” rubric, manufacturers did indeed innovate select creative solutions to address accessibility challenges – if not in every device, then across a portfolio of devices - while not derailing the promise of mobile broadband multimedia, and all under the auspices of light FCC regulatory oversight incorporating a reasonable and reasonably managed complaint process.

As a brief aside, related to the reference above to addressing the broadest spectrum of abilities and disabilities in terms of accessibility, consider how the Americans With Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability. While the ADA does not provide a list of disabilities, it does define a legal test to decide if a person has a condition that is severe enough to be an ADA disability. As such, the ADA defines a current disability as “a medical condition or disorder (called an impairment) that substantially limits a person in doing basic activities (called major life activities). “ Examples of major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, sitting, standing, lifting, learning, and thinking. The point of the reference in the paragraph above was to emphasize that designing every product to be accessible to such a broad spectrum of potential abilities and disabilities would be beyond readily achievable, it would be, in fact, utterly impossible.

Earlier this month, Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) re-introduced “The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act,“ (also known, in Congressional parlance, as H.R. 3101) , which, with references to Section 255 and other related accessibility-focused regulation and legislation, would extend Section 255-like requirements to cover every provider of Internet access service and every manufacturer of Internet access equipment, unless it would be an undue burden, to make user interfaces accessible to individuals with disabilities (as defined by the Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended). “Undue burden” has stepped into the “readily achievable” space, and is defined as “significant difficulty or expense” – a seemingly significantly higher threshold. To the extent that threshold could not be achieved, like Section 255, H.R. 3101 would require that the equipment or service be compatible with existing commonly used peripheral devices or specialized customer equipment, unless, again, that requirement would be an undue burden.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act would cover a broad swath of the Internet industry, introducing rules and regulations where they may not have been applicable, or not perceived, or not enforced in the past. Of note, H.R. 3101 has a special focus on video, which offers an illustrative example of the challenges the bill, if enacted, will introduce across the digital spectrum. In terms of video, for instance, the bill would require that any apparatus that receives or plays back video programming and has a picture screen of any size be capable of decoding closed captioning, transmitting and delivering video description, and conveying emergency information. Notably, “video programming “ is specifically defined as “including programming distributed over the Internet or by other means”. Specific accessibility requirements would include mandating that any apparatus to receive or play back video, including using the Internet, allow control by individuals with disabilities and that on-screen menus, guides and/or navigational devices be accompanied by integrated or peripheral audio output and/or other accessibility solution to enable control by blind or visually impaired individuals unable to read the visual display. These requirements impact on everyone from YouTube to TV manufacturers to PC venders and beyond, including as well the accessories – mice, keyboards, remote controls – such services and/or hardware rely on.

The intent of H.R. 3101 is laudable, and yet, as the debate matures, there will doubtless be numerous exchanges bordering on the absurd as advocates representing individuals and groups across the ADA spectrum drive their individual interests while industry positions itself to both protect bottom lines and explain what is and is not technologically, commercially, and meaningfully achievable all-the-while operating within the basic laws of physical reality. There will be moments of clarity and compelling reason. There will be moments in which reason, logic and honesty are utterly ignored. The role of lawmakers and regulators throughout the process should be as an honest broker shepherding a debate that results in reasonably achievable, commercially- and humanly-meaningful compromise that drives rather than stymies innovation, market-based competition, and, of course, meaningful accessibility.

Meanwhile, there are a variety of solutions already market-tested and deployed. For instance, Microsoft’s Active Accessibility (MSAA) and UI Automation initiatives are aimed at providing better access for individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments, or disabilities. And, there are literally dozens and dozens of screen readers available for vision impaired Internet users, and equally numerous video relay and video captioning services for hearing impaired users. These are positive, if not fully comprehensive, steps in the right direction.

Going forward, Internet accessibility – as driven by both regulatory and public demand, both spurred by the increasing integration of Internet activity into our daily lives – may well prove to be a cottage industry as lucrative as “green technology” has become. Watch this space in terms of start-ups and VC activity…

June 25, 2010

Latest on Network Neutrality...

'Round and round and round we go, where we'll stop, nobody knows...

The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday (6/24/10) questioned three FCC commissioners about FCC Chairman Genachowski's oft- and passionately stated intent to assert more control over the way broadband providers manage Internet traffic by extending existing telephony authority to regulate Internet access as well. Genachowski was not present at the hearing. Not surprisingly, Committee Democrats voiced support for the FCC's actions as essential to driving ubiquitous broadband, while Republican counterparts challenged the plans, expressing concern that such regulation would stifle innovation.

The FCC proposals, which would include an overhaul of the $8 billion Universal Service Fund - which currently subsidizes phone service for low-income folk and rural areas - to instead allow for funding new Internet access in rural areas. The bigger question though, is, of course, whether the FCC has or can contrive to extend any authority over Internet traffic or services in general. Indeed, as previously blogged, Genachowski's proposals fly in the face of the April Federal Court ruling that concluded that the FCC overreached when it sanctioned Comcast for deliberately slowing some of its subscribers Internet traffic.

I applaud Genachowski's initiative in the context of it shining a brighter and brighter light on both the need for accelerated broadband deployment and the imperative to curb access provider abuse of market power. As said before, the debate itself is serving as regulatory oversight of a sort. I worry though, just a bit,that it may also serve to delay the very deployments that are critical to our broadband future...

Stay tuned.

June 24, 2010

Online Privacy: Challenges and Opportunities

Almost a decade ago, there were fierce policy debates in regulatory backrooms about how digital privacy might be managed as the commercial Internet blossomed towards the multimedia broadband wonder that it is today. The heart of the dialogue was whether or not people should “opt in” to or “opt out” of use of their personal information for advertisement, experience customization, personalization, etc.

While there were already countless laws on the books and regulations promulgated to protect consumer privacy, financial transactions, health records, etc, and so forth (although almost all drafted in the pre- or early-commercial Internet age and arguably ill-fit or un-tested in the digital world), the opt in-opt out debate – focused on driving commercial value from the Internet – was a watershed.

In markets where, for instance, direct mail and telemarketing were commonplace, the initial kneejerk was in the opt out direction – if someone didn’t like the use of their data they would have the option of stopping the process (if, of course, they even noticed). In other markets, where such practices were frowned upon (or even illegal), opt in was the preferred mechanism.

Long story short, opt in emerged as the status quo, and specifically in the context of people opting in based on the concept of “informed consent.” In other words, people had the right to a full description of how their data might be used in advance of agreeing to its use. Notably, the general public was largely unaware that this debate was taking place, nor that a common policy had been defined and agreed.

Over the last 10 years, reaching a crescendo as social networks have exploded allowing people to share more personal information, there has been growing consumer concern related to identity theft, cyber/real-world stalking (via e.g. Google Streetview or mobile location-social network mashes like Foursquare, Loopt and Gowalla), and other privacy intrusions or mis-uses of personal data. The fundamental question facing people today is: Even if I opted in, was my consent really informed?

The most recent and perhaps most resonant hullabaloo has been around Facebook’s iterative editing (and lengthening) of its privacy policy and settings, culminating in the introduction of Facebook’s “Instant Personalization Program.” Overnight, the IPP resulted in Facebook members suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of otherwise unrelated websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs.

Notwithstanding Facebook's Zuckerber Washington Post “apology” (which was not his first and anything but, and included the strangely cultish mantra “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected…a better world”), opting out of IPP is doable, yet only truly effective if all of your FB friends do as well (if any of your friends visit the other websites without opting out, they get your info anyway).

Meanwhile, in the less mainstream/not-yet discovered/feared realm, sites like Spokeo offer downright spooky profiles based on publicly available digital data. Spokeo, which bills itself as “not your grandma’s phonebook, asks for nothing more than a name and city and state.

The results: Name, phone number, street address (without the specific number), household members (an incomplete list in my case), age, ethnicity, marital status, occupation, hobbies (not sure where this wild list came from), estimated home value, gender, zodiac sign (they got it wrong for me, but only by a month), level of education, home ownership, length of residence, basic socio-economic data on your neighborhood, and, of course, a Google Earth shot of the immediate neighborhood, with your house and neighboring grayed out.

And that’s the free offering. For $2.95 a month you can get a one year membership that will fill in the blanks and add photos, videos, etc. pulled from social networks, blogs, etc., as well as (I’m really not sure what this might entail) religious and political and other affiliations.

For whatever it may be worth, Spokeo is only one of many such sites offering similar “services.”

So, with all of the above said and known, and despite the efforts of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Online Privacy Alliance, The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to better educate consumers on how to protect themselves online, the general population remains somewhat schizophrenic in it’s behavior and concerns. To wit, in a recently conducted (private) poll of a statistically relevant population (100’s, relatively affluent, ranging in age 15 to 45), the following results emerged:

• Almost 2/3’s of respondents are online daily for non-work/school experience, split more or less evenly between 1-2 hours and 3-5 hours daily.
• Few perceive benefit from personalized ads (based on service provider understanding of their online activity), half simply don’t care, almost 1/3 are slightly unnerved and 10%+ consider it an intrusion.
• Over half of the surveyed population make online purchases regularly or often, 2/3 recognize a remote possibility of identity theft, 25% are completely unconcerned, only a small percentage are deterred from online financial transactions for privacy concerns.
• 3/4 most trust their credit card companies to manage such transactions, with Paypal a second preference (essentially an extension of their credit cards), more than half neither trust nor distrust Apple and Google, while half list Facebook as least trusted.
• Over half of respondents use their mobile device to go online at least 1-5 hours a week, with another 1/3 going online 1-5 hours daily.
• ~60% rarely use location-based services (mapping, social location, etc.) on their mobile device, but almost 20% report using same more than 10 times a week or “practically always” (evenly split).
• Just over 10% perceive a benefit from customized services linked to their mobile device location but almost 50% would find it somewhat unnerving (29%) or an intrusion on their privacy (21%).
• No clear trusted party for managing such services emerged, indeed, 51% listed “no-one” as most trusted partner. To the extent trusted parties might be ranked, wireless operators/service providers edged out Google, with almost 50% listing Facebook as least trusted.

From a policy perspective, the good news is that EPIC, CDT, EFF and the Online Privacy Alliance seem to be united in promoting market-based as opposed to heavy-handed regulatory-based solutions to ensuring privacy protection without bringing digital commerce and social activity to a grinding halt. That said, they are also actively engaging in Washington to ensure that egregious behavior does not go unchecked – for instance, EPIC recently led 14 other organizations in filing a joint complaint with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to Facebook’s IPP. And, these groups are maintaining their initiatives to educate the general population appropriate individual protection. For instance, EFF is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely and providing clear instructions how to adjust personal settings accordingly, to the extent that Facebook makes that possible.

And, in the face of Congress preparing measures to regulate online privacy, and the FTC warning it will endorse such efforts if the industry fails to step up self-regulation, Internet companies like Yahoo and Microsoft and advertising giants like WPP are promoting a new market-based system to police privacy abuses by companies that track consumers' Web-surfing habits for ad targeting (see WSJ report).

Further good news for those of us who are fans of market-based solutions is the fact that (as also reported by the WSJ), venture capitalists – including top tier firms like Kleiner Perkins and Accel Partners - have identified privacy as a new investment opportunity and are pumping millions of dollars into privacy-related start-ups.

• Online privacy start-up ReputationDefender Inc. which provides a service to monitor what is said about an individual online and can help remove private information from certain websites, will soon disclose that it has raised $15 million in new venture funding—even though the company wasn't actively looking for new cash.
SafetyWeb Inc., which helps parents monitor their kids' online activities recently closed $8 million in funding.
• And the well-branded Truste (a not-for-profit until 2008), which offers seals of approval to websites that meet certain privacy standards, recently raised $12 million.
SocialShield Inc., funded by Venrock Associates and others, like SafteWeb has launched a web service that parents can use to help them track and analyze their children's online behavior, telling parents when others have posted and tagged photos of their kids online, giving them a chance to have them removed, among other thing.
• And, Abine Inc., funded by Atlas Venture, recently launched a product that can block online tracking and opt out of online ad networks.

As consumer awareness of privacy threats increases, even if behavior is not changing apace to address the threats, the market is responding with appropriate solutions and, hopefully, genuine commitment to self-regulation. But, all it may take to trigger potentially over-zealous lawmakers and regulators to step in will be more snafus from Facebook, a monster-scale case of identity theft, or a gruesome headline or two related to cyber-stalking.

A space worth watching, both in terms of personal security and business opportunity.


June 23, 2010

The unholy - or perhaps holiest - alliance...

Watching Nokia’s slo-mo-but-steadily-accelerating crash and burn over the last couple of years has been painful to say the least. And there seems to be no end in sight, yet, perhaps, appearances aren’t, as they say, everything…

The collapse dates back to the Nokia reorganization in the mid-00’s that took a chaotic hodgepodge of nine devices Business Units and combined them into three new and focused Groups: Enterprise Solutions (aimed at dethroning RIMM), Multimedia (driving the future of mobile computing), and Mobile Phones (delivering bread-and-butter volume feature and entry phones). The unintended result was a strong focus on the high-end in Enterprise Solutions and Multimedia, and a natural gravitation towards the low end in Mobile Phones, which sought to capture and hold emerging market share. The door was left wide open for Samsung and LG to capture the mid-range feature phone space, where they continue to dominate today.

The acceleration of the meltdown came with another reorganization at the end of 2007, this time uniting the three separate devices Groups into one. Enterprise Solutions had essentially failed, Multimedia was poised to succeed, and Mobile Phones was chugging along in the low-end, so Nokia rightfully sought to achieve the efficiencies of a single devices Group, married up to a newborn Services Group, together meant to drive new hardware-software blended experiential Solutions into the market. The unintended result, in part influenced by an ill-timed global economic crisis, was the sacrifice of high-end device momentum - just as Apple was crashing the party and Android was a glint in HTC’s eye - as Nokia laser-focused on share, share, share. And that meant moving volume. And that meant driving low-end, entry-level phones.

There have been two additional reorganizations since, neither doing much harm nor good, neither speeding things up or slowing them down – just moving the pieces and bodies around. But, meanwhile, companies like China’s MediaTek are making Nokia’s much-vaunted global scale and efficiency less relevant in the low-end, enabling multiple Indian and other Asian companies to deliver the same $27 phones with $3 margins that have been Nokia’s mainstay in entry-level devices.

So, struggling to catch up in the high-end (where Apple and Android rule), just another middling player in the mid-range, and getting pressed hard and fast on the low end, and with its “me-too” suite of Ovi-based service offerings not having taken off to add value and differentiation to the Nokia device experience, and with its share price hovering above what would have been an inconceivable 5 Euros just two years ago, what is the one-time mobile giant and leader to do?

When I left Nokia a year-and-a-half ago, I recommended to senior leadership a North American recovery built on a departure from the global cookie-cutter approach. I have since repeatedly promoted that same strategy, both in this blog and in informal exchanges with Nokia: Scrap Symbian and deliver Android-powered devices. Just in North America. Recover here, where brands are made and broken. Then leverage that success globally.

Had Nokia taken that approach a year ago, Motorola would have crumbled, HTC would not now be a household brand, and RIMM would be yet more perilously hanging on than they already are today. But with seemingly Wang-like myopia, Nokia has stayed the Symbian course, pursuing Maemo (now MeeGo) on the side.

Notwithstanding my previous recommendations, frankly, a Nokia shift to Android at this point would be if not too little, certainly too late. It just seems so hard to fathom, a company with a history of risk and innovation watching the world go by… But, again, perhaps appearances aren’t everything.

Recall that there’s another tech giant out there struggling to succeed in the mobile space, a giant with which Nokia has had an on-again-off-again collaborative relationship, and with which, based on some personal historical knowledge, Nokia has maintained a regular senior level dialogue. Microsoft.

It’s a way out of an otherwise seemingly endless downward spiral, and I’d like to believe the plans are already in place and maturing. A Nokia-Microsoft alliance would shake the mobile space to its figurative knees. Indeed, as MS is poised to launch a refreshed mobile OS at year’s end, a suite of Nokia devices powered by that OS – if it’s everything it’s promised to be - could captivate the market. Such a bold move would certainly benefit both companies’ share prices, and, related, the sheer audacity of the move would give Nokia the opportunity to jettison it’s long-term commitment to Symbian as a mobile computing OS, instead allowing that OS to become the feature phone solution it’s destined to be. Wither Meego? I’m not so sure, but in the near-term we’d see the market boil down to three mobile computing OS’s – Apple’s OSx, Google’s Android, and Windows Mobile (or whatever it may be called) championed by Nokia. Yes, this would certainly eat into Nokia’s device margins, but it might also make Ovi much more relevant, and drive revenues through that channel that make up the difference.

Just imagine…

June 16, 2010

Streaming Internet Video to the Big Screen

It's been awhile since I posted a tech tip here (if you visit the "mobile related posts" drop-down to the right of your display you'll see that it was once a staple).

In any event, and with zero focus on mobile, as streaming Internet video and content to the TV is becoming more and more commonplace, I thought I might offer some handy guidance....

Until the big CE guys (HDTV, DVR and set-top box venders) mainstream their Internet-enabled offerings, in terms of both selection and price point, (and, by the way, the potential for all of this Internet-enabled CE simply begs in advance for a consistent UI), your alternatives are multiple.

Apple TV takes a combined hardware/content approach, but has experienced limited uptake at best. And, of course, Google has announced its intent as well - Google TV - we'll wait and see what becomes of this... Even Netflix has gotten into the bundling game, teaming up with hardware partners like Roku. And, of course, if you happen to have a Wii, PS3, or XBox360 around the house that isn't otherwise in use for its primary purpose, any of the gaming consoles will support Internet streaming and, well, some limited clunky browsing as well.

Beyond the mainstream, there are any number of lesser-known hardware venders that are pushing Internet streaming-enabled HTPC's (Home Theater PC's - check out Mvix's HD Home, Acer's Aspire Revo, and Dell's Inspiron Zino for examples) and NMT's (Networked Media Tanks - check out Popcorn Hours' range of products, Western Digital's TV Live, and EGreat's somewhat chunky machine for examples) - but these things ain't any cheaper than the Apple solution (ranging from a couple hundred bucks to a thousand), nor, yet, any more mainstream.

While the hardware side of the equation has yet to mature, what most people are doing is simply hooking their PC's or laptops to their big screens and either streaming direct specific content providers (from YouTube to the networks - ABC, NBC, CBS - we've all grown up with, and beyond) or from Amazon or Netflix, or via Hulu, Boxee, or Hillcrest Lab's Kylo. The first two are basically content aggregators, Kylo is actually designed (Mozilla-based) as a true multi-functional optimized-for-TV web browser - worth checking out. Why? Because Kylo isn't just about streaming video - although it excels at that - it actually converts your big screen into a full, easy-to-view and easy-to-navigate Internet browser.

After you've hooked your PC to the TV (a simple process for weekend geeks but perhaps a challenge for the average Facebooker), the extended user experience - from the couch, as it were - is still a challenge. A wireless mouse and keyboard make it easier, and Hillcrest's Loop Pointer - a Wii-like remote - is a true marvel. Again, the latter is worth checking out (and, strangely enough, the Hillcrest technology incorporated in the Loop in part powers the Wiimote as well).

And there are other solutions as well. For those of you who are iPhone or iTouch owners, ASRock's AIWI is another clever solution. Strangely, there is no Mac version of the software, but if you download the free client to your PC and install the free app on your iPhone/iTouch, you get a WiFi- or Bluetooth-powered remote of sorts for your PC. In short, the iPhone/iTouch app allows you to use the touchscreen as a virtual mouse (and, in terms of the online gaming solutions ASRock is powering, the app also harnesses the iPhone/iTouch accelerometer for a pretty cool experience, albeit still quite limited in terms of game selection).

'Nuff said for now... Later.

June 02, 2010

Let the wireless broadband tiering begin...

Mobile operators are taking first steps to introduced tiered billing for wireless broadband access, laying the groundwork and creating the model for fixed broadband to follow - the market-based (as opposed to regulatory-based) solution to network management (not "neutrality") that I've been discussing in recent posts on the topic.

For more detail, check out Verizon's approach; AT&T Mobility's approach.

May 24, 2010

Landscaping - One Year Later

About a year ago, I was invited by to moderate a dialogue within the INmobile community focused on the mobility space, wondering "who eats who?," and including a parallel conversation pondering the nebulous space between fixed and mobile, what I deemed "nomadic," specifically in the context of netbooks. I was recently asked to update my viewpoint and, since INMobile is closed to non-members, my update (slightly tweaked) is copied below (and, notably, blends in multiple musings from other recent blog posts).

What a difference a year makes...

Let's re-set the stage. Imagine a consumer electronics continuum - a simple line stretching from "mobile" at one end, through "nomadic" in the middle, ending at "fixed" at the far end. In the mobile bubble, you find cellphones, single-purpose devices like music players, digital cameras, gaming units, etc. - all meant for on-the-go, mostly-everywhere use, some connected to a network, others connectible, some requiring an intermediary (e.g. a PC) to connect. In the nomadic bubble, up until about a year ago, you'd find laptops, e-Readers, GPS devices, portable video players and the like. Portable, yes, but designed for a more nomadic experience - sort of "fixed on the go," most capable of a network - wired or wireless - connectivity. In the fixed bubble, you'll find TVs - big ones these days - desktop computers, gaming consoles, DVRs, even component stereo systems for true audiophiles (maybe even a turntable).

Now, overlay across that continuum both a component layer (chip-sets, cables, routers, and the like) and a software layer (OS's designed, until recently, to support individual classes of devices in individual bubbles, bolstering the unique nature of each individual bubble). Now further imagine a brilliantly-colored rainbow stretching behind the continuum, representing the richness and vast depth of multimedia content - music, video, Internet, etc. And, yet further, imagine a vast grid behind your continuum and rainbow, representing the various flavors of connectivity, from copper to coax to fiber to 4G - the world of access. And, finally, imagine the whole mix floating in a sometimes-stormy, sometimes-calm cloud-like mass - the Internet.

This is the world we live in. Or lived in. A year ago. Today, convergence is taking place in some areas, collision in others, chaos in yet others.

Most interesting to watch over the last year has been the bulging and overlapping of the mobile and nomadic bubbles. Apple's iPhone burst free of the mobile bubble two years ago in a bold foray towards nomadic with the world's first true mobile computer. Google's Android is capitalizing and mainstreaming this momentum, with HTC, and to a lesser extent Motorola (which has bet the farm on Android), and a host of others deploying or planning to deploy that mobile computer OS in true numbers. Meanwhile, in the wake of Apple's iPhone introduction, we witnessed the nomadic bubble push its edge towards the mobile bubble, with last summer's much-hyped netbook revolution. A short-lived revolution to be sure - the advent of the iPad and the multitude of clones to follow have very likely set the stage for a exit for the netbook players.

Some CE venders span the continuum from a hardware perspective, e.g. Samsung and LG, which deliver phones, smartphones, laptops and TVs. HP's acquisition of Palm strengthens their potential in this context, but that's a story yet to be written, and I wouldn't assume (nor, however, entirely rule out) a happy ending. Yet others - Apple and Google - have grander aspirations. Apple has had phenomenal success in tapping the content rainbow to bolster its hardware and software solutions, has also built an entirely new industry around mobile applications, and has even made a not-yet-successful foray into bridging further into the fixed realm with Apple TV. Google, leveraging it's Internet roots, has delivered a world-class mobile OS married to its online solutions, is also fiddling with breaking through to the home big screen with Google TV, and, yet one step further, is now deploying high-speed broadband in select markets to get into the access game (and I' hazard a guess that a Google wireless MVNO is a not-too-distant prospect). One-time global wireless leader Nokia is also attempting to break out of the mobile bubble with its Ovi-based content and application solutions, but is trailing, and not terribly closely, and has some critical decisions to make about its aging Symbian OS. And then there's Microsoft, the ultimate wild card...

I guess what I'm getting to here is, well, the end of the wireless industry as we once knew it. While that may sound overly-provocative, please understand that I'm not saying that wireless broadband isn't key to our digital future, rather, that wireless-enabled devices are merely additional nodes on the Internet. Mobile phones, smart phones, mobile computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets, e-readers, digital cameras, e-meters, etc., etc., are all just nodes on the net. The industry is broadband, connected devices, and multimedia content and services - wireless is just one flavor of access. The cloud is absorbing the bubbles.

So what does all of this mean for the key players in what was a "wireless" industry? Some potential implications:

- From the mainstream, volume-oriented CE manufacturing side, HTC, Samsung and LG are best positioned to continue to succeed. Motorola, which does not manufacture its own devices nor develop its on OS, has effectively become a sales and marketing organization.

- From the mobile device OS perspective, Google's Android has the best shot at near-term dominance and a clear chance at becoming a truly global de facto standard (and not just in mobile devices). The other contenders, the Nokia-Intel MeeGo and the LiMo Foundation's open mobile Linux, will need to accelerate at dramatic rates if they are to stay in the game (Nokia needs to stop re-organizing and re-discover its history of innovation and execution). As long as the Apple ecosystem remains closed to other venders, scalability to Android levels is unlikely, all-the-more so if multitasking and Flash are not enabled in its devices (both forgivable in my opinion in terms of the iPhone, but not at all forgivable on the iPad).

- That said, Apple will continue to maintain its innovative edge, and should be expected to disrupt the market again, setting new trends, new directions and a new pace for others to follow. Indeed, while Apple will no doubt continue to successfully evolve its business model leveraging its strong position vis a vis content delivery, where I'd really like to see their next innovation would be in yet further simplifying the user experience (and here's where I borrow from my most recent post). Take QWERTY for instance. While those of my generation and the one or two that have followed might still have an affinity for this user interface, it's dated, and, frankly, not terribly efficient. What will we be using in 10 years? Touch is all the rage today, and will remain a key element of the UI experience. Voice activation will also become more and more common, but has it's downsides in terms of use in public places (privacy, ambient noise, etc.). Gesturing certainly has promise, as does facial recognition and/or expression reading, as well as virtualization. I would not be surprised if over the next decade Apple's innovation makes QWERTY and old-school telephony keypad UI's the exception, not the rule.

- Network operators - fixed and wireless - will continue their battles of the bundles, but from a consumer solutions perspective, there's is increasingly a utility business, like it or not. We will see more and more mergers as this field winnows down to two or three at best. (Side note: The real value growth for operators is in the enterprise space - providing SMEs and MNCs alike high-value, end-to-end communications and hosted and/or cloud-based enterprise services).

- The major content players will continue to struggle, just as operators will, to evolve their business models so that players like Apple and Google cannot continue to suck the value out of them.

It's a brave new world...

May 10, 2010

Restrooms and mainframes...

In a recent chat with one of the architects of the early Internet (who remains quite active as a leader in its evolution), we touched on the inherent chaos embedded in the process of technological evolution.

I introduced the concept by remarking on the curiosity of today's public restroom experience. You can pretty much count on an automatic flush. Whether or not to wave your hands under a tap or manually turn knobs to wash your hands is less certain. Soap almost always requires a pump or two, but I've experienced the wave in that case as well. As for paper towels, it's 50/50 whether they'll dispense themselves at your waved command or whether you'll need to pull and tear. Air driers, however, seem almost universally automatic these days. In any event, in most cases, what you end up with is a mixed experience, waving at some things and turning or pulling at others, sometimes appearing a bit foolish in the process. Bottom line: Evolution takes place at different paces, even in a public restroom.

Beyond generating an initial chuckle, my observation prompted my friend to pose a question he says he regularly asks: Imagine yourself going back in time 50 years and how you would experience the world around you, and how your experiences would be perceived by others. He suggested, among other things, that we'd all end up with broken noses. People would ask, "why did you walk straight into that door?" "Because where I come from, doors open automatically." People would wonder (perhaps not aloud) "why didn't he flush?" "Because where I come from, toilets flush automatically." And so on, and so forth... Then my friend suggested: Imagine yourself 50 years in the future, returning to our age. What things would you expect to experience that we've not today yet fathomed? Cool exercise. Indeed, a potentially endless exercise. You could drown in the imagining...

...So, I'm not gonna go there. Yet. Instead, let's focus on the more near-term, as we ended up doing in my recent chat, and, first, in the context of a topic I regularly blather about.

For starters, know it or not, the wireless industry is dead.

Okay, so that was perhaps overly provocative, and it's certainly not to say that's that wireless broadband isn't key to our digital future, rather, that wireless-enabled devices are merely additional nodes on the Internet. Mobile phones, smart phones, mobile computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets, e-readers, digital cameras, e-meters (wirelessly-enabled water, electricity, gas, or whatever meter that used to be or may still be read by a union-protected human being), etc., etc., are all just nodes on the net. The industry is broadband access - wireless is just one flavor.

Now let's think about user interface, looking a bit forward, not fifty years (I'm just not ready), but a few, a decade maybe... Take the qwerty layout for instance. While those of my generation and the one or two that have followed might still have an affinity for this user interface, it's dated, and, frankly, not terribly efficient beyond the fact that we've developed a comfort and familiarity for the experience over the years. What will we be using in 10 years? Touch is all the rage today, and will remain a key element of the UI experience. Voice activation will also become more and more common, but it has it's downsides in terms of use in public places (privacy, ambient noise, etc.). Gesturing will certainly play a role in some limited use cases (remote control, for instance, not of TVs, but of, well, practically anything), as will facial recognition and/or expression reading, as well as virtualization (projected and interactive displays). But will we still be fiddling with devices with old-school telephony keypads or qwerty data input layouts? Some, yes. But I'll hazard a guess that if not in 10 years, then certainly in 20, it may well be the exception, not the rule.

But let's go back to that public restroom scenario. And in a different context, yet another I tend to rant about - regulation- vs. marketplace-driven solutions to ensure competition, commercial success and consumer benefit.

There is certainly a need for baseline sanitary regulations and relevant plumbing and interoperability standards in the public restroom environment. But would it be sensible for a regulator to define the form factor and experience provided by every sink, toilet, spigot, hand drier, etc., or to dictate universal availability of the same? Of course not. And, while regular readers of this blog may now be thinking I'm going to dive into yet another network neutrality/network management discussion, I'll resist that temptation (but you can easily see how easily the parallel could apply), and drill down instead into that interoperability question, and in the context of a different regulatory debate.

IBM has been or is actively being investigated by both U.S. and European authorities. The question at hand: Are IBM's mainframe business and its actions related to that business anti-competitive - are challengers precluded from entering the marketplace? Is this an instance where antitrust or competition authorities should intervene to ensure a fair and open marketplace? Pretty arcane stuff, huh? Curious stuff too. Given that in an ever-evolving marketplace where cloud-based and distributed computing and faster, more efficient, more capable servers are providing new businesses with cost-effective mainframe alternatives and aging mainframe-established businesses with smoother and smoother migration paths to those same alternatives, is it any wonder that IBM's mainframe market share is in the single digits in the overall server marketplace. Indeed, many argue that the mainframe is a dinosaur, well-past retirement age (this, by the way, is not true). So does IBM's mainframe business represent a monopoly?

No. Just as in previous posts I've argued that network operators have the fiduciary right to reap the benefits of the billions they've invested in their networks (not, however, to the extent of precluding competition or consumer choice of devices, services and content), so too does IBM have the right and responsibility to monetize its investments and to continue to compete for market share. And yes, there is an interoperability question that merits attention - IBM's mainframes (anyone's mainframes) are a marriage of hardware and software and to the extent that the software side of the equation is closed there are indeed challenges to companies competing to introduce or desiring to implement migration paths to the alternatives referenced above. But this is not a case of plumbing in a public restroom or basic sanitary mandates governed (if not enforced - have you ever been to the toilet at Penn Station in NYC?) by the appropriate regulatory authorities. The workarounds exist and are being deployed, indeed, IBM itself is competing in the alternative space.

There will come a day, when the pubic restroom experience will be a touch-less one, everything automatic and/or gesture-driven. The technology exists, it just a matter of the evolution taking place, as the marketplace dictates. There may well also come a day when mainframes are a thing of the past (or not) - the technology exists, it's just a matter of the evolution taking place, as the marketplace dictates. It's inevitable. Government intervention simply stymies the process, disadvantages one player, and, quite likely, advantages others. Indeed, to this latter point, it is interesting to note the overlap of membership in The Mainframe Migration Alliance,, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the former two which are promoting alternatives, the latter which is leading the charge against IBM in Europe. You see, sometimes governments and regulatory authorities are bent to action with the best of intent, yet at the commercial will of clever competitors seeking to disrupt the momentum of one or another leaders in their competitive space.

And now, in that context, think again about the network neutrality/network management debate, and the players on both sides... Stay tuned.

May 07, 2010

Let the Broadband Games Begin (Continually)...

Almost one month from the day that a Federal Appeals Court ruled that the FCC exceeded its authority when it sanctioned Comcast in 2008 for deliberately slowing Internet traffic for some users (see my April 6 post), FCC Chairman Genachowski announced in a speech yesterday his intent to propose that the FCC issue a public notice to seek comment on a new legal framework to govern broadband Internet access providers.

Here we go again again...

Genachowski characterized his goal as an effort to "restore the broadly supported status quo consensus that existed" concerning regulation of broadband Internet access providers prior to the Comcast v. FCC decision (Comcast). He further said his approach as consistent with the "bipartisan consensus" that the FCC should adopt a restrained approach to regulating broadband communications, but emphasized that "consumers need basic protection against anticompetitive or otherwise unreasonable conduct by companies providing the broadband access service (e.g., DSL, cable modem, or fiber) to which consumers subscribe for access to the Internet."

Following the speech, applause echoed from Silicon Valley and, of course, gasps of horror and screams of outrage emerged from carriers. Yawn.

Nothing has changed. This debate has been raging for years and will continue to simmer and/or burn endlessly and, frankly, I have to agree to some extent with the carriers who have called it a waste of energy that could otherwise be directed to the acceleration of broadband deployment that the FCC/Administration hopes to drive, including via measures such as announced by Genachowski yesterday.

On the other hand, the FCC announcement and related actions is serving an important purpose - in the absence of clear regulatory authority (depending which side you're on) and in the context of launching yet another round of the debate, the FCC is providing the very "regulatory" spotlight that is demanded to ensure that consumers are not abused. The debate itself has become the process of regulatory oversight...

May 02, 2010

Don't Blame Olli-Pekka for U.S. Mess

An April 30 engadget report on a Reuters piece is making it's way like wildfire across the 'net, titled "Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo being replaced to soothe frustrated investors?"

The report stresses that there are no hard sources behind the swirling rumors, and I'll leave it to others to debate whether Symbian^3 delays merit a CEO's ouster, but let's be clear on one point - I know the buck's gotta stop somewhere, and ultimately that's the CEO, but don't blame Olli-Pekka for the Nokia mess in the U.S.

Per the engadget report, "OPK pledged to build up Nokia's US presence when he took over, and he's obviously failed to deliver on that promise -- US marketshare has fallen from 20 percent to 7 percent, prompting one analyst quoted in the Reuters piece to wonder if 'Nokia really has the desire to fix the problem.'"

Yeah, Nokia is suffering badly in the U.S. Two successive regional leaders and leadership teams have failed or are in the process of failing to develop and execute a unique strategy for what is a unique marketplace. Rather, in both cases, drawing from legacy Nokia Networks experience, leadership focused less on unique U.S. technology and consumer trends, and more on leveraging one-time relationships and stature (Nokia and personal) with carriers, married to measly drive-slot marketing sops, to drive tweaked variants of global product.

Um, that doesn't seem to be working, at least so far (after all, we keep hearing that the strategy's gonna pay off soon).

So, yeah, I know, that buck-stopping concept is a real one, and blaming regional leadership ultimately means blaming global leadership, which endorsed the regional strategy. But in this case, notwithstanding Olli-Pekka's brief tenure in the U.S. in the '90's which gives him some insight into the uniqueness of the market, Nokia U.S. leadership was specifically and unusually vested with a mandate to rebuild, repair, restore and/or renew Nokia in the U.S., and in whatever fashion necessary dictated by that very market uniqueness that Olli-Pekka recognized demanded on-the-ground expertise. In other words, the Nokia U.S. organization was free from global cookie-cutting - technology, product, business model or otherwise - if it chose to be. With that level of autonomy should come commensurate accountability.

If there's house-cleaning to be done, do it where it needs to be done. Don't axe the remote landlord because the building manager can't keep the place in order. Get a new building manager. Indeed, you might want to think about remodeling in the process (see the conclusion of my March 2 post which touches on this concept).