Monthly Archives: July 2010

Fear of a Converged Data Center

In a relatively short piece today, Michael Vizard has managed to cover a lot of ground. He deserves plaudits for his concision.

Quoting Ashish Nadkarni, a practice lead for Glasshouse Technologies, Vizard’s salient point is that while vendors, notably Cisco and HP, are pushing data-center convergence with fiery ardor, enterprises have not responded with reciprocal fervor.

Resistance is Manifold

The resistance to data-center convergence is manifold. CFOs are wary of anything resembling forklift upgrades accompanied by substantial capital outlays. Meanwhile, CTOs and CIOs are leery of stumbling into vendors’ trapping pits, drawn by the promise of long-term cost savings into a dungeon of proprietary servitude.

Last, and definitely not least, there is cultural and political resistance to sweeping change within IT departments. This makes perfect sense. Any student of history will know that revolutions displace and supplant power structures. The status quo gets pushed aside.

If we think about data-center convergence, we find that many potential enterprise-IT interests are threatened by its advance. As Vizard has mentioned previously, IT departments long have had their specialists. They are staffed by high priests of servers, viscounts of storage, lords of networking, and a smattering of application wizards.

Kumbaya Falls on Deaf Ears

By its very nature, data-center convergence entails that all these domain masters work in concert rather than in isolation. That scenario has theoretical appeal, and many salutary benefits could result from such IT kumbaya and common cause.

However, human beings — particularly in a realm where their positions are subject to offshoring and where job security has faded into a bitter, mocking memory– can be forgiven for eschewing collective idealism in favor of realpolitik calculations of personal survival. In their minds, questions abound.

If the data center is converged, what happens to the specialists? Who benefits, who wins and loses, who emerges from the fray with a prosperous career path and who becomes a dead man walking? These are uncomfortable questions, I know. But you can be sure many people are asking them, if only to themselves.

Answers Needed

An integrated, unified data center, with across-the-board automation and single-console manageability, has its charms — some of which are undeniable — but not necessarily to the specialists who inhabit today’s enterprise data center.

Cloud computing, whether of the private or public variety, faces many of the same issues, though the public option addresses the CFO’s concern regarding capital expenditures. Then again, cloud computing is challenged by the same cultural and political issues discussed above, and by other inhibitors, such as nagging questions about security and compliance.

I know these issues have been discussed before, here and elsewhere, such as by Lori MacVittie at F5’s DevCentral. Vendors, especially executives ensconced in boardrooms eating catered lunches, tend to overlook these considerations. Their salespeople, though, need cogent answers — and they had better be the right ones.

Strategic Considerations of Juniper’s OEM Deals

As an old business-development hand, I am curious as to how Juniper’s increasingly significant OEM relationships with IBM and Dell might factor into strategic considerations.

In my experience, OEM relationships are balancing acts that never remain at rest. A permanent equilibrium is impossible to attain. They wax or wane, but they’re always subject to dynamic tension and latent volatility.

Such, I’m sure, is the case with Juniper’s OEM relationships with IBM and Dell. The latter relationship seems to be getting closer by the minute, as the latest blog post at Juniper’s The Network Ahead attests.

The OEM Dynamic

To understand what I’m getting at, one first has to consider why companies decide to OEM products rather than build them on their own or buy them through an acquisition. Typically, it’s because a company has a gap in its product portfolio that prevents it from capitalizing on a perceived market opportunity within its installed base of customers. That opportunity usually falls into an area where the company believes it has a mandate to play.

Still, the company is tentative, uncertain as to how much it’s wiling to put into the venture. It might not have the internal resources or institutional expertise to build the product on its own, or it might be reluctant to make the necessary investments to do so.

Similarly, it might not see enough core strategic value to warrant making an acquisition to procure products, technologies, and skill sets in question. It’s basically at a point where it feels it has a mandate to enter a market, and it believes it can do well selling into that market, but it’s unable or unwilling to build the product on its own and it’s not ready to make an acquisition.

That is when an OEM relationship comes into play. It explains how and why IBM and Dell have come to rebrand and resell significant swathes of Juniper’s product portfolio.

Status Quo Not Permanent

Those relationships can go one of two ways, but a permanent holding pattern probably is not in the cards. At some point, Dell and IBM, separately, might decide to stop carrying Juniper’s gear, for one of various possible reasons, or will attempt to acquire Juniper or another company that does some or all of what Juniper does.

Meanwhile, IBM and Dell, because they’ve each invested increasingly in a relationship with Juniper, will be concerned about Juniper’s existential status. What I mean is that, as IBM or Dell becomes more confident and proficient in the sale of networking gear, it will become more concerned about losing Juniper as an OEM partner. How would that happen? Through an acquisition of Juniper by another vendor, of course.

I’m sure executives at Dell and IBM tried (perhaps successfully) to insert restrictive clauses into their OEM deals with Juniper, attempting to account for any and all scenarios in which Juniper would be acquired by another party or otherwise cease to exist. Those contractual clauses and provisions can take many forms, but they’re all about mitigating risk. The objective is to avoid being jilted and spurned, left bereft at the altar with a gaping hole in your product portfolio and disaffected customers wondering how you’ll address their needs.

Changing Value Equation

Typically, such contractual clauses ensure that maintenance, support, and other residual services will continue in the event of the sale or dissolution of the supplier company; but there are other considerations, too.

For example, right of first refusal, in the event of a an acquisition bid from a third party, and acquisition veto clauses are two recourses that receiving OEM companies often pursue when negotiating deals. The latter usually is resisted vehemently and summarily rejected by the company providing the OEM products in question, but sometimes — if the deal is big enough and the circumstances warrant it — some consideration of the former (right of first refusal) is included in the deal.

So far, Juniper has done well in developing, managing, and maintaining its OEM relationships with IBM and Dell. The nature of those relationships is changing, though, as Juniper invests its Junos-based “3-2-1″ network architecture with increasing amounts of dynamic intelligence and automation. To the extent that Juniper is successful in impressing the value of its intelligent network infrastructure on IBM and Dell customers, IBM and Dell necessarily will take notice.

As the value equations change, so will the relationships.

Microsoft Leads Analysts Astray

Microsoft today will host its annual meeting with market analysts. The company will bring the visitors up to speed on strategic initiatives, discuss salient market and technology trends, spotlight key products and solutions, and perhaps reset or gently massage market expectations for the year ahead.

As I read what analysts had on their minds as they prepared for the gathering in Redmond, I lost hope that Microsoft finally would muster the courage to look itself the mirror and acknowledge the earnest business-solution purveyor that stares back at it. I was tempted to say that the analysts are part of Microsoft’s problem — that they’re focused on the wrong things, that they don’t understand the essence of Microsoft, that they don’t appreciate the company’s inherent strengths and weaknesses — but, you know, that just wouldn’t have been fair, much less right.

Analysts take their cues from the companies they follow. If the market watchers monitoring Microsoft are stumbling down a blind alley, that’s because Microsoft led them there, perhaps even setting the wrong GPS coordinates on a doomed Windows Mobile application.

It follows, then, that if the guests at Microsoft today are focused on the wrong things — if they’re looking for answers and guidance on markets where Microsoft shouldn’t be playing, where it should scale back its efforts and investments, or where it needs to rethink its strategy — the fault is entirely Microsoft’s. The analysts are preoccupied with Microsoft’s consumer-facing product roadmaps, revenue projections, margins, and earnings (or lack thereof) because that is where Microsoft has focused their attention.

Rather than pointing at its potential to expand its presence and to achieve further growth in its core business markets — SMBs and large enterprises, and where and how those constituencies will consume application and computing services in future — Microsoft perversely has chosen to showcase its embarrassments and warts. It’s not a pretty sight, as the Kin fiasco demonstrates.

Meanwhile, if Microsoft would only listen, its customers — even its closest partners — are trying to set it straight. Yesterday, for example, HP confirmed that it would pursue a dual-tablet strategy, providing a Windows 7-based tablet for business customers and a webOS-based tablet for consumers. HP knows where Microsoft is strong and where it’s not so strong.

Microsoft might get the message one of these days. I’m just not expecting the epiphany to arrive today.

Avaya’s Kennedy Sends Cautious Signals on Post-Nortel Business

Reading between the lines of Avaya CEO Kevin Kennedy’s recent interview with Network World, I have the strong suspicion that revenues from Nortel’s installed base of VoIP and unified communications (UC) customers are not ramping as robustly as Avaya had hoped they would.

I get that impression as much from what Kennedy doesn’t say as from what he says. He’s bold and brash when talking about combined R&D efforts and product roadmaps, but he’s reserved when discussing revenue targets and near-term sales. He doesn’t say the Avaya-Nortel combination has been a commercial disappointment, but he’s not boasting of its conquests, either.

A few market analysts are noticing that Avaya’s acquisition of the Nortel enterprise business hasn’t resulted in market-share hegemony for the merged company. These market watchers seem surprised that Avaya didn’t take the Nortel customer base by storm and leave Cisco in its rearview mirror, choking on dust and fumes.

But that failure to reconcile with reality is at least as much the analysts’ fault as it is Avaya’s. Earlier in this saga, I noted that a Nortel-fortified Avaya would be fortunate to maintain any market-share edge over Cisco. It seemed an obvious conclusion to reach.

Unfortunately, though, when unwary market analysts examine a post-acquisition scenario, they will add the market share of the two companies involved, then assume the merged entity will maintain or extend its combined market share. For many reasons, however, that rarely — if ever — happens.

In the case of Avaya’s acquisition of Norte’s enterprise business, several complicating factors suggested that the merger, from a market-share perspective, would result in less than the sum of its parts.

First, there was the product overlap, which was not insignificant. Second,  there were channel-management issues, which also were considerable. (Some Nortel partners were concerned about having to deal with Avaya.) Third, Nortel’s enterprise business had been in distress for some time, and it was suffering market-share erosion before and after Avaya took control. Fourth, even among Nortel customers still in the fold, some eventually will choose options other than those presented by Avaya.

I think Avaya anticipated most (if not all) of these challenges. Just after the acquisition closed, for example, Kennedy sought to temper post-merger expectations. He cited external factors, such as the weak economy, as well as the usual post-merger integration challenges. His tone was one of cautious optimism rather than of unchecked exuberance. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, with or without Nortel’s enterprise business.

He’s staying on message, probably for good reason.

Before Foxconn, Huawei Had Its Own Suicides

Long before the rash of deaths at the Foxconn Technology Group’s manufacturing facilities in China, another company fought to stem a wave of suicides at its Chinese operations.

That company was Huawei Technologies, and its problem with suicidal employees was covered in the media, though not as extensively as were the unfortunate events at Foxconn, part of the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd.

What partly accounts for the difference in degree of coverage, I think, is Foxconn’s connection to Apple. As we all know, Foxconn manufactures Apple’s iPhones and iPads as well as computing devices for a number of other vendors, including Dell. Everything Apple touches is high profile, so it’s no wonder that the Western media gravitated to the Foxonn suicides once  Apple was discovered among Foxconn’s brand-name customers.

Another factor, though, might be the intense secrecy that surrounds Huawei. It’s a privately held company, shrouded in mystery, run by CEO Ren Zhengfei, who emerged from the People Liberation Army (PLA), is a member in good standing of the Communist Party of China, and is said to retain close ties to China’s defense and intelligence elite.

Still, the suicides at Huawei are a matter of public record. They began ramping in the year 2000 and continued well into the decade, seemingly coming to an end — or something like one — by 2008. At their peak, they were bad enough that Ren Zengfei wrote the following to another member of the Communist Party:

“At Huawei, employees are continuously committing suicide or self-mutilation. There is also a worrying increase in the number of employees who are suffering from depression and anxiety. What can we do to help our employees have a more positive and open attitude towards life? I have thought about it over and over again, but I have been unable to come up with a solution.”

This is not exactly the sort of pitch a human-resources executive wants to feature in employee-recruitment campaigns. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that Ren recognized the problem and was thinking hard about whether his company’s “wolf culture” and “mattress culture” were sustainable models on which to build a business that could scale and compete successfully against the world’s leading telecommunications-equipment and data-networking companies.

A few reports. which are disputed, suggest as many as 38 Huawei employees died from their own hand or from exhaustion during the past decade. Like Foxconn, Huawei experienced horrific on-site suicides, in which an employee typically would throw himself to his death from the balcony of a campus building.

Some commentators have noted that the suicide rate at Foxconn is not inordinately higher than China’s overall suicide rate. Some have even argued that the rate of self-destruction at Foxconn is lower than China’s rate, even going so far as to make the claim that working at Foxconn reduces the risk of suicide for Chinese employees.

Numbers can be sliced and diced, and they can be interpreted in a number of ways. As always, one should verify the accuracy of the source data and carefully check for an inherent statistical bias. I don’t have time to chase that thread now.

So, putting aside that debate, I want to consider another aspect of these stories: the incidence of at-work suicides at both Foxconn and Huawei. The instances of on-site suicide are well documented at both companies.

Perhaps I’m missing something — let me know whether I am — but I don’t believe there ever was a similar outbreak of suicides at technology firms in North America. Cisco, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t seen its employees leaping to their deaths from the outdoor patios on Tasman Drive in San Jose. I don’t think we’ve seen anything of that sort at Juniper Networks or Brocade — or even Nortel Networks, where people have had considerable reason for despondence in recent years.

Workplace suicide is a dramatic act. It sends a powerful message. The victim makes a statement in not only how he chooses to kill himself but where he chooses to do it.

Ren Zhengfei was right to rack his brain in search of a solution to the morale problem at Huawei. However, as recent events at Foxconn and at other Chinese companies demonstrate, it isn’t a company-specific problem.

As China attempts to move up the technology value chain, from low-cost manufacturing to R&D-led innovation, it will have to find ways of motivating its employees with carrots instead of sticks.

How Brocade Might Connect with Hitachi’s UCP

Hitachi has been said to practice passive — even stealth — marketing. Whatever you call the company’s approach to self-promotion, you’d probably agree that it tends to hide its light under a bushel, at least here in North America, where the company tends to be perceived as an industry afterthought.

That’s why I don’t feel particularly bad about my abject ignorance of Hitachi’s portfolio of networking products, produced through a joint venture with NEC called Alaxala Networks Corporation. Apparently, according to information on Alaxala’s website, Hitachi owns 60 percent of the company and NEC holds the remaining 40 percent.

I was not alone in being in the dark about Hitachi’s status as a purveyor of network infrastructure. Considering that some of Hitachi’s own employees don’t seem to know about this arrangement, I am in relatively good company.

It’s obvious that Hitachi, despite the existence of Alaxala, hasn’t vaulted to the top of the enterprise-networking charts in North America, or in most other parts of the world.

Still, Alaxala could be an important ingredient in Hitachi’s answer to Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS) and to HP’s aptly named HP Converged Infrastructure.

Hitachi’s rejoinder to Cisco and HP’s offerings is called the Unified Compute Platform (UCP). It isn’t on the market yet, but it will be released early next year. It will comprise blade servers, storage and network hardware, plus management and orchestration software. Microsoft’s System Center is in the mix, too, as are Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization technology and and SQL Server. VMware’s ESX hypervisors also will be supported.

One of the missing pieces is fibre-channel storage networking, but Hitachi representatives, in conversations with technology blogger Nigel Poulton, intimated that the company “might be working” on fibre channel. Then again, as Poulton cautions, that conversation involved significant language barriers, so meaning might have been lost or misconstrued in translation.

As it turns out, the Hitachi Universal Storage Platform V is a key component of the Hitachi Unified Compute Platform (UCP). In that context, it is worth noting that Hitachi already has an existing relationship with Brocade. That relationship involves Brocade providing extensive SAN-switching support for Hitachi’s Universal Storage Platform V.

I think you can see where I’m going here. I’m not the subtlest of characters. There’s a very real possibility that Brocade will be involved with Hitachi’s UCP initiative. To what extent, whether the relationship might be restricted to Brocade’s SAN gear or might also include its Foundry Ethernet switches, remains to be seen.

It’s a relationship worth watching.

At NSN, Nokia and Siemens Still Grope for Exit

Let’s say two companies are involved in a joint venture that’s been an unhappy marriage. The relationship isn’t as toxic as the former partnership between Mel Gibson and Oksana Grigorieva, but it hasn’t been a day at the beach, either. Neither partner wants to remain in the business alliance; they’re both looking for a dignified exit.

With logic and reason as your guides, what would you expect their next moves to be?

Yes, one partner might approach the other, looking to sell its interest in full. It’s also possible that one company might sell its interest to an approved third party, offering a right of first refusal to its JV partner. It’s also conceivable that both partners would put the joint venture on the block, hiring an agent to discreet present it to private-equity shops and strategic buyers. They might even consider putting some lipstick on the pig and trying an IPO, hoping to benefit from auspicious timing and favorable lighting.

Okay, now throw logic and reason to the wind. What would you do now?

Maybe, as Nokia and Siemens have done at Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), you’d compound the unhappy union by acquiring a floundering telecommunications-equipment business from a vendor eager to unload it. Misery loves company, after all, so why not plunge headlong into the pit of despair? If you put on your absurdist bifocals, the move just might make sense on a surreal existential level. But we’re talking business, not Dadaism.

Just when I think there’s nothing in this crazy industry that can surprise me, something does just that. I admit, I’ve been puzzling over why NSN would buy Motorola’s networks business, which retains some wireless-operator customers, especially in North America, but also carries hefty baggage in the form of a product portfolio predicated on technologies (a large portion of its 3G gear, and its WiMAX 4G offerings) that have gone out of fashion. NSN will pay $1.2 billion for the Motorola unit, and — other than some modest scale and a minor ostensible market-share gain — I don’t see how it derives much benefit from the transaction.

Squeezed from all angles, from traditional competitors Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent and from hard-charging Huawei — when it’s not fighting an intellectual-property lawsuit launched by, of all vendors, Motorola — NSN isn’t a thriving business. As I have mentioned previously, its joint-venture partners have taken massive goodwill writedowns since forming the business back in 2007.

Digressing for a moment, I want to note that I am not a proponent of joint ventures. Many European companies seem favorably disposed to them, and I understand the underlying reasoning behind them: pool resources, share and mitigate risk, eliminate distraction to one’s core business. Unfortunately, they’re usually unworkable in practice. It’s hard enough getting people from the same company to agree on strategy and to execute successfully. When you have the political machinations inherent in a joint venture, well, the job becomes nearly impossible.

Getting back on track after that brief digressive detour, NSN is in a tough spot.

How tough became clear to me after I read an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Neither Nokia nor Siemens wants to continue participating in the joint venture, but they can’t find a way out. It’s as if Jean-Paul Sartre has rewritten No Exit and staged it in a boardroom. Hell is having to deal with other people in a joint venture.

IBM Reorganization Prompts Questions

IBM announced its latest quarterly results yesterday, but it did something else, too: It reorganized itself, shuffling some executives upward and changing the reporting structure for others.

On the surface, it’s not a big deal. It goes on all the time, especially at large companies besieged by changing markets, technological advances, bureaucratic inertia, and intracompany politics. Reorganizations help to shake things up, to keep the generals and the troops focused externally, on customers and markets rather than on solipsistic careerism (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and departmental intrigue.

But I’m wondering whether the IBM move portends more than that. In disclosing the changes to IBM staff in an email, the company’s president, CEO, and chairman Sam Palmisano wrote the following about the most significant aspect of the change, the integration of IBM’s formerly independent Systems and Technology Group (STG) into the company’s Software Group:

“We know that IT infrastructure performance is greatly enhanced when every element – from microprocessors and storage through operating systems and middleware – is designed and brought to market as tightly integrated, optimized systems.”

It’s a straightforward observation, as well as a decent rationale for the change, but it might hint at something more. In recombining its hardware and software under the same executive management — and in acknowledging the enhanced infrastructure performance of “tightly integrated, optimized systems” — IBM’s move causes  one to wonder whether the company might consider becoming a purveyor of other presumably valuable pieces of optimized infrastructure.

Until now, for example, IBM has been willing to stay out of the network-infrastructure business. First, it had a partnership with Cisco, which it still invokes occasionally for mutual benefit, and more recently it has partnered with Brocade and Juniper Networks. Through those partnerships, IBM covers the networking gamut, able to offer its customers extensive solutions that reach from the network edge to the core.

It doesn’t own the gear it sells, though. And it might not feel the need to offer its own gear, even now. But circumstances have changed since it first partnered with Cisco. Back then, Cisco wasn’t trying to sell servers, and it wasn’t aggressively pushing storage from EMC, an IBM “coopetitor.” Moreover, during the same intervening period, HP has gotten more serious about network infrastructure, buying 3Com to complement its HP ProCurve business and to form HP Networking.

Even Oracle is making sounds about getting into the networking game via an acquisition. That would make IBM think twice, if not three times, about whether it needed to change tack. In fact, it’s probably giving ample thought to the matter now.

I don’t presume to know what Palmisano and his inner sanctum are saying after they pad into the boardroom on IBM’s mahogany row. But I do know that this reorganization, entirely logical and justified in its own right, makes me wonder whether the stage has been set for a different sort of move.

Why Microsoft Might Finally Acquire RIM

In the past, I have argued that a Microsoft acquisition of Research in Motion (RIM) was unlikely and unwise. Still, stuff happens in the space-time continuum — circumstances change, new dynamics come into play — that cause one to revisit earlier assumptions and to reconsider possible outcomes.

Such is the case for my thoughts about a union between Microsoft and RIM. I no longer view it as an unlikely scenario. Considering what has been happening in the industry, and in light of the daunting challenges Microsoft and RIM face in the mobile marketplace, a marriage of convenience, if not one of amorous intent, could be in the cards.

Let’s first consider Microsoft’s circumstances. The company has failed utterly and repeatedly in its bid to establish a dominant mobile platform. Its smartphone licensees are defecting in droves, running into the welcoming arms of Google’s Android proselytizers.

Microsoft’s share of the smartphone operating-system market is plummeting like sales of The Knack’s follow-up albums. Microsoft’s latest silver bullet in this market is called Windows Phone 7, but a technical preview of that software, now undergoing lab testing at wireless operators, suggests Microsoft hasn’t cracked the code. A consensus is building that Windows Phone 7 is several years too late and several hundred-hundred million dollars short of where it needs to be.

At the same time, Microsoft might be coming to the grim realization that it isn’t the consumer-electronics behemoth it sees when it looks into the Redmond funhouse mirror. Microsoft’s perception of itself, as a company that actually understands and intuitively anticipates the desires of consumers, has been unmasked as abject delusion.

Fortunately, Microsoft might be gradually coming around to reality, recognizing that it must play to its strengths, not to its weaknesses. Its strengths are in enterprise markets, from SMBs upward. That  has been increasingly obvious to many people, except to certain denizens of Microsoft’s boardroom and to a few habitues of its executive suites.

Regrettably, though, Microsoft’s mobile offerings for the enterprise, even in terms of integration with its own server-based products, are sorely lacking in nearly every respect. Microsoft has failed at mobile, and it has disregarded one of its key constituencies in the process.

Meanwhile, we have RIM. Despite not having quite the corporate breadth of, let’s say, Nokia, RIM has the benefit of market focus and an established enterprise franchise that won’t vanish overnight. RIM could remain independent and stay the course. It could retain a solid core of its enterprise customer base — especially in certain vertical markets that require the centralized control, compliance, security, and back-end integration that BlackBerry products and technologies provide — but it will see some market-share erosion at the hands of Google’s Android and even Apple’s iPhone.  If RIM had more resources at its disposal, it might be able mitigate that erosion, if not stop it.

RIM might not want to entertain a union with Microsoft — scuttlebutt suggests it has resisted Microsoft’s entreaties before — but it might be more amenable to considering a compelling proposal now. Watching what’s happening to Nokia — a death of a thousand cuts amid a river of piranha, after losing its strategic bearings in a predatory jungle — cannot be edifying viewing for the chieftains at RIM. At one time, Nokia had acquisitive interest in RIM, and now Nokia is fighting, apparently without success, to remain relevant.

To be sure, RIM would not accept just any Microsoft offer. Maybe now, though, it  would not slam the door on the right offer. What might that be, though, and would Microsoft be willing to entertain it?

With more than $37 billion (and counting) in cash reserves, Microsoft has the means at tis disposal to pull off a RIM purchase involving a combination of cash and stock. RIM now has a market capitalization of $29.58 billion. Microsoft would have to pay a premium of at least 30 percent, probably more, to complete a deal. A $40-billion offer, with the right inducements, might suffice.

Clearly, that’s a lot of coin. We’re not talking about a simple, low-cost tuck-in acquisition with a modest risk profile. This would be a big deal, larger than any acquisition Microsoft has done. Until now, Microsoft’s biggest deal involved aQuantive, an online-marketing concern it bought for more than $6 billion in 2007. If Microsoft were to buy RIM, it would involve a transaction orders of magnitude greater than its purchase of aQuantive.

Indeed, the acquisition of RIM would be a scary proposition for the potentates in Redmond. It would be an off-the-scale move, a sharp deviation from Microsoft’s past practices and strategic playbook. But, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Microsoft, I believe, is very desperate. It could immediately realize revenue and profitability from RIM’s product portfolio and business model, which are more lucrative by far than anything Microsoft could offer in the mobile realm. Synergies with complementary Microsoft products and services also ought to be taken into account.

Critics might scoff, perhaps justifiably, citing two factors that argue against a deal (aside from the prohibitive price tag, which we’ve already discussed). First, they would point to technology-integration issues, arguing that Microsoft would struggle to convert RIM’s BlackBerry platform to Windows.

My response: Who says that needs to happen? RIM already integrates well with Microsoft applications and back-end systems. and Microsoft has been rewriting its mobile operating systems, practically from scratch, recently. It’s starting all over again with Windows Phone 7, which is receiving mixed reviews.

What risk would Microsoft incur by replacing Windows Phone 7, which doesn’t have an installed base, with RIM’s BlackBerry OS? I don’t see powerful arguments against the move. The cost of the transaction is a bigger impediment.
But, one might argue, what about Microsoft’s hardware licensees? What would Microsoft do about them?

Perhaps you’ve noticed, but Microsoft is losing their formerly loyal patronage. HP has bought Palm, and will begin using webOS in its mobile devices, while HTC, Motorola, and scores of others increasingly are adopting Google’s Android as their smartphone operating system. I don’t see many smartphone vendors anxiously awaiting the release of Windows Phone 7. They’ve moved on, and Microsoft knows it. What’s more, Google is giving away Android to licensees, making it all the more difficult for Microsoft to sell its smartphone operating system to handset manufacturers. Google changed the business dynamics of the OS-licensing game.

More than at any time I can recall, Microsoft is considering the merits of an integrated platform, one that involves a tight fusing of device hardware, operating-system software, uniform user experience (including a sleek, universal browser), a focused developer program, and a unified means of delivering and monetizing applications and content.

I am not saying Microsoft will buy RIM. The price alone is enough to dissuade it from doing so, and there are valid concerns about corporate integration and assimilation, about being able to get everybody moving in the same direction, about precluding needless and distracting internecine warfare and turf battles. There are good reasons, in fact, not to do such a deal, only a few of which I’ve touched on here.

But there’s desperation in Redmond. It’s palpable. Microsoft views mobile success as absolutely integral to its continued growth and prosperity. But Microsoft is no longer confident of its golden touch, especially in mobile computing, and it is more inclined to look beyond its doors for answers. RIM already has the sort of business Microsoft would like to own, with the potential for further synergies stemming from integration with Microsoft’s enterprise product portfolio and its cloud-computing strategy.

Consequently, I must revise my earlier opinion. I can no longer dismiss the possibility of Microsoft acquiring RIM.

RealD’s 3D Promise and Peril

I should have an opinion on RealD’s IPO today. Fortunately, I do have one, and I will share it with you now.

If 3D goes big, RealD will scale right along with it. The company is the leading purveyor of 3D projection systems for digital cinemas. By its own estimates, it owns more than half of that market, holding off competitors such as Dolby, Laboratories, Inc., IMAX Corporation, MasterImage 3D, and X6D Limited.

It’s interesting to see Dolby among RealD’s primary competitors. In many respects, RealD is emulating the approach Dolby used to dominate the stereoscopic sound market in cinemas worldwide. RealD has read Dolby’s playbook, and heretofore it’s done better applying it to 3D cinema than Dolby has done.

You can peruse RealD’s prospectus yourself, but here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

As of December 25, 2009, there were approximately 16,000 theater screens using digital cinema projectors out of approximately 149,000 total theater screens worldwide, of which 4,286 were RealD-enabled (increasing to 5,966 RealD-enabled screens as of June 1, 2010). In 2009, motion picture exhibitors installed approximately 7,500 digital cinema projectors, an approximately 86% growth rate from 2008, and in 2008, motion picture exhibitors installed approximately 2,300 digital cinema projectors, an approximately 36% growth rate from 2007. Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, or DCIP, recently completed its financing that is providing funding for the digital conversion of up to approximately 14,000 additional domestic theater screens operated by our licensees AMC, Cinemark and Regal. We believe the increasing number of theater screens to be financed by DCIP provides us with a significant opportunity to deploy additional RealD Cinema Systems and further our penetration of the domestic market.

The salient point is that the addressable market is large, the overall penetration rate for 3D projection systems is relatively low, and the market stage is nascent. Moreover, this is worldwide opportunity, not one restricted to the North American marketplace.

That’s a good thing, too, though RealD — like everyone else with valuable intellectual property — is concerned about the fate that might befall it in China. Among noted risk factors in the company’s prospectus, we find the following:

Our business is dependent upon our patents, trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and other intellectual property rights. Effective intellectual property rights protection, however, may not be available under the laws of every country in which we and our licensees operate, such as China.

Even though that’s a legitimate concern, it isn’t RealD’s biggest worry. The real worries in my view are industry dynamics (namely, 3D’s spread from cinemas to consumer electronics such as televisions, PCs, cell phones, and game consoles), the quantity and qualify of 3D entertainment fare (also known as content), and the ability of the industry ecosystem and consumers to foot the 3D bill.

3D has proven marketable in cinemas, but now it is trying to expand its empire into consumer electronics. That’s an opportunity and a threat for RealD, which obviously wants to extend its hegemony beyond the three-dimensional silver screen.

RealD will have to rejig its business model and its technologies to capture consumer-electronics markets. It will have to enter into new relationships, build or buy new products and capabilities, and market and sells its wares differently. And that’s presuming that 3D makes a successful commercial leap into living rooms, mobile devices, and other display-bearing devices. Much remains to be done on that front.

Then we come to the content issue. You might have noticed that not all 3D films have the box-office wallop of Avatar. Movie exhibitors like the premium they charge consumers for watching 3D movies (though they are less enamored of the added cost of 3D projection systems), but the willingness of the masses to pay more per view is contingent on cinemas offering them experiences they deem worthy of the 3D surcharge.

I’ve scanned the lineup of 3D films slated to hit theaters over the several months. I am noticing — how shall I say? — the pungent whiff of ripe schlock arresting my olfactory senses, even though, incredibly, RealD has not entered the “Smell-O-Rama” business yet.

Sadly, a lot of cheesy horror movies are queued up for the 3D treatment. That’s not good. I’m of the aesthetic view that ostentatious protrusive effects, used to goose the shock value of severed heads and buzzing saws, aren’t the best utilization of 3D technology. I like the immersive depth 3D can bring to quality entertainment and live sports, but I’m not sold on the viability of cheap gimmicks, or of 3D as ornamental gossamer for bad content. Look, a crap movie is crap movie. A 3D turd is still a turd.

And a proliferation of 3D turds will not do the 3D industry any good. Does anybody in Hollywood remember the 1950s . . . or perhaps read history?

Anyway, presuming that 3D is used naturally, that it is applied to good movies rather than as a decorative wrapper for bad ones, RealD still will have to contend with the nasty array of macroecoomic uncertainties that beset all us all.

There’s considerable risk in RealD as an investment vehicle, and there’s also a commensurate measure of promise. Today, on their first day of trading, RealD shares were snapped up eagerly by investors who see more promise than peril. The stock was up sharply from the open, and the company was able to price its offering well above expectations.

That’s an important consideration, by the way. Earlier in this post, I mentioned that RealD intends to take its 3D technology to consumer electronics. As part of that foray, the company is also looking at developing autostereoscopic (3D without glasses) technologies to eventually supersede its stereoscopic (3D with glasses) technology.

All things considered, I don’t think the glasses are going to cut it for casual television viewing in living rooms; nor do I think anybody but the geekiest of geeks will want to be wearing 3D glasses for extended periods while using a mobile device or playing a game console. The company that does autostereoscopic 3D right stands to reap massive rewards. RealD wants to be that company, but it’s not alone — Sony, Samsung, Dolby, 3M, Nintendo, and many others are in the mix, and their advances are closely monitored by HP, Dell, Apple, IBM, Cisco, and other major players.

RealD needs a warchest to fight that battle. Today’s IPO delivers it, as the company makes clear:

We will continue to develop proprietary 3D technologies to enhance the 3D viewing experience and create additional revenue opportunities. Our patented technologies enable 3D viewing in theaters, the home and elsewhere, including technologies that can allow 3D content to be viewed without eyewear. We will also selectively pursue technology acquisitions to expand and enhance our intellectual property portfolio in areas that complement our existing and new market opportunities and to supplement our internal research and development efforts.

Today’s IPO will help RealD pursue its strategic plan. Numerous external factors, however, are beyond its direct control.

Not Showy, but Dell OEM of Microsoft System Center Essentials Makes Sense

Dell and Microsoft have much in common.

They’re both companies that rode the PC to fame and fortune. They both leveraged client-server computing to grow their businesses. They both do extremely well in the SMB space. They both struggle with branding challenges occasioned by stupendous misadventures in consumer markets. And they both are seeking to reinvent themselves for an era of widespread virtualization and increased adoption of cloud computing.

Dell’s Windows Azure partnership with Microsoft was noted in this august forum earlier in the week. That pitch was directed primarily at larger enterprises and service providers. Now I’d like to turn my attention to a  comparatively modest announcement Dell made Wednesday that speaks volumes about how well it understands its notable SMB customer base.

Sure, in announcing the availability of available a Dell OEM version of Microsoft System Center Essentials 2010, Dell wasn’t revolutionizing the SMB space. It wasn’t even revolutionizing its own approach to that market. What it was dong, however, was continuing to give its customers new options for effectively managing their Microsoft and Dell systems and environments.

By integrating Microsoft System Center Essentials with Dell’s OpenManage portfolio of Dell Management Packs, PRO-pack, and Update Catalogs, Dell will allow its customers to use a single interface to manage technology infrastructure comprising Dell PowerEdge servers, PowerVault and EqualLogic storage, and other products.

Dell will start pricing of its OEMed version of Microsoft Systems Center Essentials 2010 at approximately $5,000. Dell will make money sales of the software, but the overriding objectives are to give customers management options, to make life easier for them, to save them time and money, and — not coincidentally — to keep them in the Dell camp.

The solution is designed for SMBs with up to 50 physical or virtual server operating systems and 500 client devices, and it  provides systems management for virtualized and nonvirtualized environments.

I was briefed on this announcement by Forrest Norrod, VP and GM of Dell’s Server Platform Group, and Enrico Bracalente, senior strategist of system-management product marketing in Dell’s Enterprise Product Group. From that discussion, I understand that Dell is seeing strong and widespread  demand for virtualization from its midrange enterprise customers. The company expects that interest to intensify, and I think you will see Dell continue to build, partner, and buy to address it.

Another takeaway from that discussion is that Dell and Microsoft recognize that they can provide mutual reinforcement for one another, in enterprise markets generally, but particularly in the SMB realm. Dell and Microsoft have a long history of working together, of course, and neither depends exclusively on the other. Still, it’s a relationship that remains far from enervated.

That will surprise the casual observer, but only because the Dell and Microsoft brands have been tainted by their consumer-market follies. On the enterprise side, and especially in SMB, these companies have a lot to offer, as customers will readily attest. In that regard, it’s not surprising that Dell would become the first major vendor to OEM Microsoft System Center Essentials and put it into a bigger-picture customer context.

On its own, this announcement isn’t a particularly glamorous milestone, and it doesn’t rank high on the industry hype meter; but it does qualify as the sort of practical blocking and tackling that keeps SMB customers in the fold. There’s something to be said for that.

Rumor Mongers of Summer

It’s like being in a hall of mirrors this evening. But instead of being filled with mirrors, this hall echoes with furtive whispers about potential acquisitions involving networking-industry notables.

Some of these rumors are unadulterated disinformation, propagated for one reason or another by vested interests (of which, I can assure you, I am not one).

In fact, before I continue, allow me to make full disclosure (as opposed to full monty, which is another thing entirely) and issue an important disclaimer: I have no financial interest or investment position in any of the companies or rumors I am about to discuss. If you should be foolhardy enough to trade on uncorroborated information presented in this blog post, you should seek psychiatric and financial help forthwith.

I will tolerate a lot of nonsense around here, but I will not countenance anybody blaming me for the loss of hard-earned money on the stock market. Buyer beware — and a little paranoia probably doesn’t hurt.

Okay, with those formalities out of the way, let’s get started on the sudden wave of madness that overtook the Intertubes beginning this afternoon. The rumors have been rife, coming from all manner of cranks, dealers, freaks, and schemers. One of these rumors might even prove to be true, but don’t count on it.

At this moment, one can hear chatter of Dell interest in Brocade; of IBM interest in Juniper; of a technology integration involving F5 and Juniper that might result in something more; of HP acquiring Fortinet; of Arris talking with suitors; and of Huawei, not Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), being the company Motorola is trying to interest in its telecommunications-equipment business.

Meanwhile, a few crazies even think Cisco is kicking RIM’s tires. In my view, Microsoft — once it shakes off the cold sweats and horrific flashbacks associated with its gruesome Kin debacle — is more likely to troop to Waterloo with checkbook in hand.

It’s the middle of summer, but the industry natives are restless for hot-and-heavy investment-banker action. The investment bankers are ready to put on a show, too. The question is, will vendors pull the trigger on a deal or deals?

We can only wait, watch, and listen.