Category Archives: Smartphones

Amazon-RIM: Summer Reunion?

Think back to last December, just before the holidays. You might recall a Reuters report, quoting “people with knowledge of the situation,” claiming that Research in Motion (RIM) rejected takeover propositions from Amazon.com and others.

The report wasn’t clear on whether the informal discussions resulted in any talk of price between Amazon and RIM, but apparently no formal offer was made. RIM, then still under the stewardship of former co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, reportedly preferred to remain independent and to address its challenges alone.

I Know What You Discussed Last Summer

Since then, a lot has happened. When the Reuters report was published — on December 20, 2011 — RIM’s market value had plunged 77 percent during the previous year, sitting then at about $6.8 billion. Today, RIM’s market capitalization is $3.7 billion. What’s more, the company now has Thorsten Heins as its CEO, not Balsillie and Lazardis, who were adamantly opposed to selling the company. We also have seen recent reports that IBM approached RIM regarding a potential acquisition of the Waterloo, Ontario-based company’s enterprise business, and rumors have surfaced that RIM might sell its handset business to Amazon or Facebook.

Meanwhile, RIM’s prospects for long-term success aren’t any brighter than they were last winter, and activist shareholders, not interested in a protracted turnaround effort, continue to lobby for a sale of the company.

As for Amazon, it is said to be on the cusp of entering the smartphone market, presumably using a forked version of Android, which is what it runs on the Kindle tablet.  From the vantage point of the boardroom at Amazon, that might not be a sustainable long-term plan. Google is looking more like an Amazon competitor, and the future trajectory of Android is clouded by Google’s strategic considerations and by legal imbroglios relating to patents. Those presumably were among the reasons Amazon approached RIM last December.

Uneasy Bedfellows

It’s no secret that Amazon and Google are uneasy Android bedfellows. As Eric Jackson wrote just after the Reuters story hit the wires:

Amazon has never been a big supporter of Google’s Android OS for its Kindle. And Google’s never been keen on promoting Amazon as part of the Android ecosystem. It seems that both companies know this is just a matter of time before each leaves the other.

Yes, there’s some question as to how much value inheres in RIM’s patents. Estimates on their worth are all over the map. Nevertheless, RIM’s QNX mobile-operating system could look compelling to Amazon. With QNX and with RIM’s patents, Amazon would have something more than a contingency plan against any strategic machinations by Google or any potential litigiousness by Apple (or others).  The foregoing case, of course, rests on the assumption that QNX, rechristened BlackBerry 10, is as far along as RIM claims. It also rests on the assumption that Amazon wants a mobile platform all its own.

It was last summer when Amazon reportedly made its informal approach to RIM. It would not be surprising to learn that a reprise of discussions occurred this summer. RIM might be more disposed to consider a formal offer this time around.

Lessons for Cisco in Cius Failure

When news broke late last week that Cisco would discontinue development of its Android-based Cius, I remarked on Twitter that it didn’t take a genius to predict the demise of  Cisco’s enterprise-oriented tablet. My corroborating evidence was an earlier post from yours truly — definitely not a genius, alas — predicting the Cius’s doom.

The point of this post, though, will be to look forward. Perhaps Cisco can learn an important lesson from its Cius misadventure. If Cisco is fortunate, it will come away from its tablet failure with valuable insights into itself as well as into the markets it serves.

Negative Origins

While I would not advise any company to navel-gaze obsessively, introspection doesn’t hurt occasionally. In this particular case, Cisco needs to understand what it did wrong with the Cius so that it will not make the same mistakes again.

If Cisco looks back in order to look forward, it will find that it pursued the Cius for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.  Essentially, Cisco launched the Cius as a defensive move, a bid to arrest the erosion of its lucrative desktop IP-phone franchise, which was being undermined by unified-communications competition from Microsoft as well as from the proliferation of mobile devices and the rise of the BYOD phenomenon. The IP phone’s claim to desktop real estate was becoming tenuous, and Cisco sought an answer that would provide a new claim.

In that respect, then, the Cius was a reactionary product, driven by Cisco’s own fears of desktop-phone cannibalization rather than by the allure of a real market opportunity. The Cius reeked of desperation, not confidence.

Hardware as Default

While the Cius’ genetic pathology condemned it at birth, its form also hastened its demise. Cisco now is turning exclusively to software (Jabber and WebEx) as answers to enterprise-collaboration conundrum, but it could have done so far earlier, before the Cius was conceived. By the time Cisco gave the green light to Cius, Apple’s iPhone and iPad already had become tremendously popular with consumers, a growing number of whom were bringing those devices to their workplaces.

Perhaps Cisco’s hubris led it to believe that it had the brand, design, and marketing chops to win the affections of consumers. It has learned otherwise, the hard way.

But let’s come back to the hardware-versus-software issue, because Cisco’s Cius setback and how the company responds to it will be instructive, and not just within the context of its collaboration products.

Early Warning from a Software World

As noted previously, Cisco could have gone with a software-based strategy before it launched the Cius. It knew where the market was heading, and yet it still chose to lead with hardware. As I’ve argued before, Cisco develops a lot of software, but it doesn’t act (or sell) like software company. It can sell software, but typically only if the software is contained inside, and sold as, a piece of hardware. That’s why, I believe, Cisco answered the existential threat to its IP-phone business with the Cius rather than with a genuine software-based strategy. Cisco thinks like a hardware company, and it invariably proposes hardware products as reflexive answers to all the challenges it faces.

At least with its collaboration products, Cisco might have broken free of its hard-wired hardware mindset. It remains to be seen, however, whether the deprogramming will succeed in other parts of the business.

In a world where software is increasingly dominant — through virtualization, the cloud, and, yes, in networks — Cisco eventually will have to break its addiction to the hardware-based business model. That won’t be easy, not for a company that has made its fortune and its name selling switches and routers.

U.S. National-Security Concerns Cast Pall over Huawei

As 2011 draws to a close, Huawei faces some difficult questions about its business prospects in the United States.  The company is expanding worldwide into enterprise networking and mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, even as it continues to grow its global telecommunications-equipment franchise.

Huawei is a company that generated 2010 revenue of about $28 billion, and it has an enviable growth profile for a firm of its size. But a dark cloud of suspicion continues to hang over it in the U.S. market, where it has not made headway commensurate with its success in other parts of the world. (As its Wikipedia entry states, Huawei’s products and services have been deployed in more than 140 countries, and it serves 45 of the world’s 50 largest telcos. None of those telcos are in the U.S.)

History of Suspicion

The reason it has not prospered in the U.S. is at primarily attributable to persistent government concerns about Huawei’s alleged involvement in cyber espionage as a reputed proxy for China. At this point, I will point out that none of the charges has been proven, and that any evidence against the company has been kept classified by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Nonetheless, innuendo and suspicions persist, and they inhibit Huawei’s ability to serve customers and grow revenue in the U.S. market. In the recent past, the U.S. government has admonished American carriers, including Sprint Nextel, not to buy Huawei’s telecommunications equipment on national-security concerns. On the same grounds, U.S. government agencies prevented Huawei from acquiring ownership stakes in U.S.-based companies such as 3Com, subsequently acquired by HP, and 3Leaf Systems. Moreover, Huawei was barred recently from participating in a nationwide emergency network, again for reasons of national security.

Through it all, Huawei has asserted that it has nothing to hide, that it operates no differently from its competitors and peers in the marketplace, and that it has no intelligence-gathering remit from the China or any other national government. Huawei even has welcomed an investigation by US authorities, saying that it wants to put the espionage charges behind it once and for all.

Investigation Welcomed

Well, it appears Huawei, among others, will be formally investigated, but it also seems the imbroglio with the U.S. authorities might continue for some time. We learned in November that the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence would investigate potential security threats posed by some foreign companies, Huawei included.

In making the announcement relating to the investigation, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the committee’s chairman, said China has increased its cyber espionage in the United States. He cited connections between Huawei’s president, Ren Zhengfei, and the People’s Liberation Army, to which the Huawei chieftain once belonged.

For its part, as previously mentioned, Huawei says it welcomes an investigation. Here’s a direct quote from William Plummer, a Huawei spokesman, excerpted from a recent Bloomberg article:

“Huawei conducts its businesses according to normal business practices just like everybody in this industry. Huawei is an independent company that is not directed, owned or influenced by any government, including the Chinese government.”

Unwanted Attention from Washington

The same Bloomberg article containing that quote also discloses that the U.S. government has invoked  Cold War-era national-security powers to compel telecommunication companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., to disclose confidential information about the components and composition of their networks in a hunt for evidence of Chinese electronic malfeasance.

Specifically, the U.S. Commerce Department this past spring requested a detailed accounting of foreign-made hardware and software on carrier networks, according to the Bloomberg article. It also asked the telcos and other companies about security-related incidents, such as the discovery of “unauthorized electronic hardware” or suspicious equipment capable of duplicating or redirecting data.

Brand Ambitions at Risk

The concerns aren’t necessarily exclusive to alleged Chinese cyber espionage, and Huawei is not the only company whose gear will come under scrutiny. Still, Huawei clearly is drawing a lot of unwanted attention in Washington.

While Huawei would like this matter to be resolved expeditiously in its favor, the investigations probably will continue for some time before definitive verdicts are rendered publicly. In the meantime, Huawei’s U.S. aspirations are stuck in arrested development.

To be sure, the damage might not be restricted entirely to the United States. As this ominous saga plays out, Huawei is trying to develop its brand in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia. It’s making concerted advertising and marketing pushes for its smartphones in the U.K., among other jurisdictions, and it probably doesn’t want consumers there or elsewhere to be inundated with persistent reports about U.S. investigations into its alleged involvement with cyber espionage and spyware.

Indulge me for a moment as I channel my inner screenwriter.

Scenario: U.K. electronics retailer. Two blokes survey the mobile phones on offer. Bloke One picks up a Huawei smartphone. 

Bloke One: “I quite fancy this Android handset from Huawei. The price is right, too.”

Bloke Two: “Huawei? Isn’t that the dodgy Chinese company being investigated by the Yanks for spyware?

Bloke One puts down the handset and considers another option.

Serious Implications

Dark humor aside, there are serious implications for Huawei as it remains under this cloud of suspicion. Those implications conceivably stretch well beyond the shores of the United States.

Some have suggested that the U.S. government’s charges against Huawei are prompted more by protectionism than by legitimate concerns about national security. With the existing evidence against Huawei classified, there’s no way for the public, in the U.S. or elsewhere, to make an informed judgment.

Google Move Could Cause Collateral Damage for RIM

In a move that demonstrates Google’s willingness to embrace mobile-device heterogeneity in the larger context of a strategic mandate, Google today announced that it would bring improved mobile-device management (MDM) functionality to its Google Apps business customers.

No Extra Charge

On the Official Google Enterprise Blog, Hong Zhang, a Google software engineer, wrote:

“Starting today, comprehensive mobile device management is available at no extra charge to Google Apps for Business, Government and Education users. Organizations large and small can manage Android, iOS and Windows Mobile devices right from the Google Apps control panel, with no special hardware or software to manage.

In addition to our existing mobile management capabilities, IT administrators can now see a holistic overview of all mobile devices that are syncing with Google Apps, and revoke access to individual devices as needed.

Organizations can also now define mobile policies such as password requirements and roaming sync preferences on a granular basis by user group.

Also available today, administrators have the ability to gain insights into mobile productivity within their organizations, complete with trends and analytics.”

Gradual Enhancements

Google gradually has enhanced its MDM functionality for Google Apps. In the summer of 2010, the company announced several basic MDM controls for Google Apps, and today’s announcement adds to those capabilities.

Addressing the bring-your-own device (BYOD) phenomenon and the larger theme of consumerization of IT amid proliferating enterprise mobility, Google appears to be getting into the heterogeneous (not just Android) MDM space as a means of retaining current Google Apps business subscribers and attracting new ones.

Means Rather Than End

At least for now, Google is offering its MDM services at no charge to Google Apps business subscribers. That suggests Google sees MDM as a means of providing support for Google Apps rather than as a lucrative market in its own right. Google isn’t trying to crush standalone MDM vendors. Instead, its goal seems to be to preclude Microsoft, and perhaps even Apple, from making mobile inroads against Google Apps.

Of course, many VC-funded MDM vendors do see a lucrative market in what they do, and they might be concerned about Google’s encroachment on their turf. Officially, they’ll doubtless contend that Google is offering a limited range of MDM functionality exclusively on its Google Apps platform. They might also point out that Google, at least for now, isn’t offering support for RIM BlackBerry devices. On those counts, strictly speaking, they’d be right.

Nonetheless, many Google Apps subscribers might feel that the MDM services Google provides, even without further enhancements, are good enough for their purposes. If that happens, it will cut into the revenue and profitability of standalone MDM vendors.

Not Worrying About RIM

Those vendors will still have an MDM market beyond the Google Apps universe in which to play, but one wonders whether Microsoft, in defense of its expansive Office and Office 365 territory, might follow Google’s lead. Apple, which derives so much of its revenue from its iOS-based devices and comparatively little from Internet advertising or personal-productivity applications, would seem less inclined to embrace heterogeneous mobile-device management.

Finally, there’s the question of RIM. As mentioned above, Google has not indicated MDM support for RIM’s BlackBerry devices, whether of the legacy variety or the forthcoming BBX vintage. Larry Dignan at ZDNet thinks Google has jolted RIM’s MDM aspirations, but I think that’s an incidental rather than desired outcome. The sad fact is, I don’t think Google spends many cycles worrying about RIM.

Can Dell Think Outside the Box?

Michael Dell has derived great pleasure from HP’s apparent decision to spin off its PC business. As he has been telling the Financial Times and others recently, Dell (the company) believes having a PC business will be a critical differentiator as it pulls together and offers complete IT solutions to enterprise, service-provider, and SMB customers.

Hardware Edge?

Here’s what Dell had to say to the Financial Times about his company’s hardware-based differentiation:

 “We are very distinct from some of our competitors. We believe the devices and the hardware still matter as part of the complete, end-to-end solution . . . . Think about the scale economies in our business. As a company spins off its PC business, it goes from one of the top buyers in the world of disk drives and processors and memory chips to not being one of the top five. And that raises the cost of making servers and storage products. Ultimately we believe that presents an enormous opportunity for us and you can be sure we are going to seize it.”

Well, perhaps. I don’t know the intimate details of Dell’s PC economies of scale or its server-business costs, nor do I know what HP’s server-business costs will be when (and if) it eventually spins off its PC business. What I do know, however, is that IBM doesn’t seem to have difficulty competing and selling servers as integral parts of its solutions portfolio; nor does Cisco seem severely handicapped as it grows its server business without a PC product line.

Consequences of Infatuation

I suspect there’s more to Dell’s attachment to PCs than pragmatic dollars-and-cents business logic. I think Michael Dell likes PCs, that he understands them and their business more than he understands the software or services market. If I am right in those assumptions, they don’t suggest that Dell necessarily is wrong to stay in the PC business or that it will fail in selling software and services.

Still, it’s a company mindset that could inhibit Dell’s transition to a world driven increasingly by the growing commercial influence of cloud-service providers, the consumerizaton of IT, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the value inherent in software that provides automation and intelligent management of “dumb” industry-standard hardware boxes.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the “PC is dead.” Obviously, the PC is not dead, nor is it on life support.

In citing market research suggesting that two billion of them will be sold in 2014, Michael Dell is right to argue that there’s still strong demand for PCs worldwide.  While tablets are great devices for the consumption of content and media, they are not ideal devices for creating content — such as writing anything longer than a brief email message, crafting a presentation, or working on a spreadsheet, among other things.  Although it’s possible many buyers of tablets don’t create or supply content, and therefore have no need for a keyboard-equipped PC, I tend to think there still is and will be a substantial market for devices that do more than facilitate the passive consumption of information and entertainment.

End . . . or Means to an End?

Notwithstanding the PC market’s relative health, the salient question here is whether HP or Dell can make any money from the business of purveying them. HP decided it wanted the PC’s wafer-thin margins off its books as it drives a faster transition to software and services, whereas Dell has decided that it can live with the low margins and the revenue infusion that accompanies them. In rationalizing that decision, Michael Dell has said that “software is great, but you have to run it on something.”

There’s no disputing that fact, obviously, but I do wonder whether Dell is philosophically disposed to think outside the box, figuratively and literally. Put another way, does Dell see hardware as a container or receptacle of primary value, or does it see it as a necessary, relatively low-value conduit through which higher-value software-based services will increasingly flow?

I could be wrong, but Michael Dell still seems to see the world through the prism of the box, whether it be a server or a PC.

For me, Dell’s decision to maintain his company’s presence in PCs is beside the point. What’s important is whether he understands where the greatest business value will reside in the years to come, and whether he and his company can remain focused enough to conceive and execute a strategy that will enable them to satisfy evolving customer requirements.

Intel-Microsoft Mobile Split All Business

In an announcement today, Google and Intel said they would work together to optimize future versions of the  Android operating system for smartphones and other mobile devices powered by Intel chips.

It makes good business sense.

Pursuit of Mobile Growth

Much has been made of alleged strains in the relationship between the progenitors of Wintel — Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Intel’s microprocessors — but business partnerships are not affairs of the heart; they’re always pragmatic and results oriented. In this case, each company is seeking growth and pursuing its respective interests.

I don’t believe there’s any malice between Intel and Microsoft. The two companies will combine on the desktop again in early 2012, when Microsoft’s Windows 8 reaches market on PCs powered by Intel’s chips as well as on systems running the ARM architecture.

Put simply, Intel must pursue growth in mobile markets and data centers. Microsoft must similarly find partners that advance its interests.  Where their interests converge, they’ll work together; where their interests diverge, they’ll go in other directions.

Just Business

In PCs, the Wintel tandem was and remains a powerful industry standard. In mobile devices, Intel is well behind ARM in processors, while Microsoft is well behind Google and Apple in mobile operating systems. It makes sense that Intel would want to align with a mobile industry leader in Google, and that Microsoft would want to do likewise with ARM. A combination of Microsoft and Intel in mobile computing would amount to two also-rans combining to form . . . well, two also-rans in mobile computing.

So, with Intel and Microsoft, as with all alliances in the technology industry, it’s always helpful to remember the words of Don Lucchesi in The Godfather: Part III: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Bad and Good in Avaya’s Pending IPO

We don’t know when Avaya will have its IPO, but we learned a couple weeks ago that the company will trade under the symbol ‘AVYA‘ on the New York Stock Exchange.

Long before that, back in June, Avaya first indicated that it would file for an IPO, from which it hoped to raise about $1 billion. Presuming the IPO goes ahead before the end of this year, Avaya could find itself valued at $5 billion or more, which would be about 40 percent less than private-equity investors Silver Lake and TPG paid to become owners of the company back in 2007.

Proceeds for Debt Relief

Speaking of which, Silver Lake and TPG will be hoping the IPO can move ahead sooner rather than later. As parents and controlling shareholders of Avaya, their objectives for the IPO are relatively straightforward. They want to use the proceeds to pay down rather substantial debt (total indebtedness was $6.176 billion as of March 31), redeem preferred stock, and pay management termination fees to its sponsors, which happen to be Silver Lake and TPG. (For the record, the lead underwriters for the transaction, presuming it happens, are J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs & Company.)

In filing for the IPO, Avaya has come clean not only about its debts, but also about its losses. For the six-month period that end on March 31, Avaya recorded a net loss of $612 million on revenue of $2.76 billion. It added a further net loss of $152 million losses the three-month period ended on June 30, according to a recent 10-Q filing with the SEC, which means it accrued a net loss of approximately $764 million in its first three quarters of fiscal 2011.

Big Losses Disclosed

Prior to that, Avaya posted a net loss of $871 million in its fiscal 2010, which closed on September 30 of 2010, and also incurred previous losses of $835 million in fiscal 2009 and a whopping $1.3 billion in fiscal 2008.

Revenue is a brighter story for the company. For the one months ended June 30, Avaya had revenue of more than $2.2 billion, up from $1.89 billion in the first nine months of fiscal 2010. For the third quarter, Avaya’s revenue was $729 million, up from $700 million in the corresponding quarter a year earlier.

What’s more, Avaya, which bills itself as a “leading global provider of business collaboration and communications solutions,” still sits near the front of the pack qualitatively and quantitatively in  the PBX market and in the unified-communications space, though its standing in the latter is subject to constant encroachment from both conventional and unconventional threats.

Tops Cisco in PBX Market

In the PBX market, Avaya remained ahead of Cisco Systems in the second quarter of this year for the third consecutive quarter, according to Infonetics Research, which pegged Avaya at about 25 percent revenue share of the space. Another research house, TeleGeography, also found that Avaya had topped Cisco as the market leader in IP telephony during the second quarter of this year. In the overall enterprise telephony equipment  market — comprising sales of PBX/KTS systems revenues, voice gateways and IP telephony — Cisco retains its market lead, at 30 percent, with Avaya gaining three points to take 22 percent of the market by revenue.

While Infonetics found that overall PBX spending was up 3.9 percent in the second quarter of this year as compared to last year, it reported that spending on IP PBXes grew 10.9 percent.

Tough Sledding in UC Space

Meanwhile, Gartner lists Avaya among the market leaders in its Magic Quadrant for unified communications, but the threats there are many and increasingly formidable. Microsoft and Cisco top the field, with Avaya competing hard to stay in the race along with Siemens Enterprise Networks and Alcatel-Lucent. ShoreTel is gaining some ground, and Mitel keeps working to gain a stronger channel presence in the SMB segment. In the UC space, as in so many others, Huawei looms as potential threat, gaining initial traction in China and in developing markets before making a stronger push in developed markets such as Europe and North America.

There’s an irony in Microsoft’s Lync Server 2010 emerging as a market-leading threat to Avaya’s UC aspirations. As those with long memories will recall, Microsoft struck a valuable UC-centric strategic alliance — for Microsoft, anyway — with Nortel Networks back in 2006. Microsoft got VoIP credibility, cross-licensed intellectual property, IP PBX expertise and knowledge — all of which provided a foundation and a wellspring for what Microsoft eventually wrought with  Lync Server 2010.

The Nortel Connection

What did Nortel get from the alliance? Well, it got some evanescent press coverage, a slippery lifeline in its faltering battle for survival, and a little more time than it might have had otherwise. Nortel was doomed, sliding into irrelevance, and it grabbed at the straws Microsoft offered.

Now, let’s fast forward a few years. In September 2009, Avaya successfully bid for Nortel’s enterprise solutions business at a bankruptcy auction for a final price of $933 million.  Avaya’s private-equity sponsors saw the Nortel acquisition as the finishing touch that would position the company for a lucrative IPO. The thinking was that the Nortel going-out-of-business sale would give Avaya an increased channel presence and some incremental technology that would help it expand distribution and sales.

My feeling, though, is that Avaya overpaid for the Nortel business. There’s a lot of Nortel-related goodwill still on Avaya’s books that could be rendered impaired relatively soon or further into the future.  In addition to Nortel’s significant debt and its continuing losses, watch out for further impairment relating to its 2009 purchase of Nortel’s assets.

As Microsoft seeks to take UC business away from Avaya with expertise and knowhow it at least partly obtained through a partnership with a faltering Nortel, Avaya may also damage itself through acquisition and ownership of assets that it procured from a bankrupt Nortel.