Daily Archives: September 30, 2009

Adobe CEO Narayen Joins Dell Board, Sparking Concerns in Apple Community

Apple and its customers might have reason to be at least mildly concerned about Shantanu Narayen, president and CEO of Adobe, joining the board of directors at Dell.

Said eponymous CEO Michael Dell in a press release announcing the appointment:

“As CEO of one of the world’s largest and most diversified software companies, Shantanu will provide us with valuable insight as we develop and deliver IT solutions to customers. In addition, he brings strong operational expertise and experience, leading a company known for its innovative culture and growth.”

Adobe’s software, including its ubiquitous Flash, is developed to run across multiple operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, Apple’s OS X, and Linux. Although not strictly a conflict of interest, Narayen’s joining the Dell board raises understandable questions in the Apple camp about Adobe’s commitment to the Mac platform.

It seems an odd move for Narayen to make. I can understand why Michael Dell would welcome him to his company’s board of directors, but I’m not sure what Narayen gets from the arrangement beyond his board stipend. I’d like to hear him explain his reasoning.

Narayen is taking a board seat vacated by Sallie L. Krawcheck, formerly a Citigroup Inc. CFO, who apparently has less free time since becoming president of Bank of America’s global wealth and investment management division.

At Dell’s annual stockholders meeting in July, Krawcheck remained seated in the front row of the audience, refusing to face shareholders, while explaining why board members didn’t accept reduced compensation during the downturn. Krawcheck reportedly received $517,679 in compensation from Dell during the 2009 fiscal year, the second-highest amount accorded to a board director.

Maybe Narayen is joining for the board compensation, after all.

Ballmer Reveals Blind Spot in Attacking IBM’s Narrow Focus

In an interview with the New York Times, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pointedly criticized strategic myopia at IBM, a company with which Microsoft enjoys a complex relationship encompassing both conflict and cooperation.

Specifically, Ballmer charged that IBM was misguided in exiting hardware businesses in networking gear, hard disks, and PCs. Technology companies, according to Ballmer, must pursue constant market expansion and diversity to stay alive and relevant.

Said Ballmer:

“IBM is the company that is notable for going the other direction. IBM.’s footprint is more narrow today than it was when I started. I am not sure that has been to the long-term benefit of their shareholders.”

First, we have to question Ballmer’s sincerity. Does he actually think IBM has gone strategically astray, or does he have ulterior motives? Perhaps he’s upset that IBM didn’t jettison businesses in which it competes with Microsoft.

Let’s put that possibility aside, though. Let’s take Ballmer at his word and assume his remarks were candid.

Networking gear? After the death of Token-Ring local-area networks (LANs), IBM was a bit player in networking, not a leader. Rather than flogging a moribund horse, IBM chose to make money by using its professional-services reach to resell other companies’ networking products (such as Cisco’s) into extensive enterprise-wide solutions.

How would IBM have achieved the same result selling undifferentiated adapter cards, hubs, and switches at wafer-thin margins? To paraphrase John McEnroe, Ballmer cannot be serious.

It was a similar story with disk drives, another business that offered unattractive margins, low growth, and not a lot of meaningful opportunities for clear competitive differentiation.

It’s when we get to PCs that the verdict becomes a little harder to render and more ambiguous. Yes, PCs are a low-margin commodity, and IBM wanted no part of the consumer market. It got tired of surrendering PC margin to the likes of Microsoft and Intel, which carved out the biggest profit percentages with operating systems and microprocessors, respectively.

Nonetheless, PCs (mobile or desktop) are included in every enterprise solution. IBM also might have been able to devise innovative value (if not outright differentiation) in the design, features, and functionality of the boxes for deployment in specialized business environments. They could have used their considerable experience and knowledge of enterprise requirements to become the un-Mac, the business-oriented inversion of Apple’s consumer mystique. It also might have saved its Global Services and other sales teams a degree of effort in sourcing and integrating PC into customer deployments.

But would it really have been worth it? Would it have provided enough value to compensate for the hassle and low margins associated with a commodity hardware business? In all likelihood, no. That’s why IBM probably made the right call.

Microsoft, of course, is the polar opposite of IBM. If Microsoft isn’t the jack of all trades and the master of none, it definitely is a hyperactive tradesman that wants to be involved in any project with commercial potential.

Its consumer forays have been more unsuccessful than successful, and they have distracted the company from extending and expanding its presence and in enterprise markets of all sizes. On the basis of opportunity cost alone, Microsoft has squandered resources on dismal consumer-oriented products (Bob and Zune, anyone?). Those resources could have been assigned to gainful, less-quixotic endeavors in the enterprise.

I am not saying that IBM is absolutely right and Microsoft absolutely wrong. We might find that IBM’s lack of networking hardware, for example, becomes a factor in its battle against Cisco and HP for supremacy in the converged data center. What I am saying is that Microsoft’s own mixed results belie Ballmer’s implicit claims of superiority.

As pointed out in the New York Times article, shares of I.B.M. are up about 30 percent since 1999, while shares of Microsoft have dropped about 30 percent during the same period. Since Ballmer invoked shareholder value as his measuring rod, it seems fair for us to beat him with it.

In the final analysis, if IBM suffers from having a focus that is too narrow, Microsoft suffers from having one that is too diffuse.

In Fusing HP’s Printer and PC Units, Hurd Continues Remaking HP in his Image

He probably wouldn’t want it portrayed as such, but HP CEO Mark Hurd is considering a move that his predecessor, aspiring politician Carly Fiorina, made several years ago.

Hurd is considering merging his company’s printer and PC businesses, putting them under the purview of Todd Bradley, chief of the company’s PC group. Fiorina combined the two businesses back in 2005, before she was ousted in a palace (well, boardroom) coup.

When Hurd took the reins at HP, he separated the businesses. Now he’s on the cusp of bringing them back together, though for different reasons than Fiorina had when she combined them.

Back then, the printer unit was the redoubtable cash cow and the PC unit was struggling. While the printer business hasn’t fallen off the face of the earth — it’s still a huge contributor to HP’s earnings — its growth has stagnated. Meanwhile, the PC group has done relatively well, taking share from Dell, competing effectively in business and consumer segments, and doing particularly well in higher-growth notebooks.

Some think Hurd would like to transmit some of that PC mojo to the printer group — hence the mooted change. But one has to keep in mind that Hurd is a relentless cost cutter. Before joining HP, his raison d’etre was his merciless focus on lean and mean operations. He brought that spartan philosophy to HP, and he’s been fervently pursuing reductions in operating expenditures ever since he got there.

I suspect the reasoning behind this move, should it occur, is not predicated on a strategic stroke of visionary brilliance visited upon Hurd during a spell of intense meditation. No, I think this has been driven primarily, if not exclusively, by methodically calculated cost-cutting considerations.

Hurd hired Bradley because he liked the severe cut of his jib. He probably believes his man is eminently suited to bring discipline and order — not to mention scores of potential employment redundancies — to a printer business run by an old-school HP veteran, Vyomesh “V.J.” Joshi, who’s been with the company since 1980.

There’s no growth strategy behind this move, but you will find an obsessive emphasis on reducing costs to boost the bottom line. Hurd is continuing what he sees as his mission to remake HP in his own image.

Cramer Gets 3Com Egregiously Wrong

We can respectfully argue as to whether 3Com will rise again as a meaningful contender in enterprise networking. My view is that 3Com won’t make the cut, but I respect the opposing positions others have taken.

Some of 3Com’s advocates point to its cash holdings, its low debt, its standing as a low-cost enterprise-networking alternative to Cisco, its global scope and potential to grow in developing markets (Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia), and its relatively broad product portfolio.

Those are salient data points, and I think a plausible case can be made for 3Com. I disagree as to whether 3Com has the network-management and software smarts to stitch together and orchestrate its disparate point products into comprehensive solutions that can compete effectively against those from Cisco, HP, and Juniper. Still, I understand that others have a factual basis for saying that 3Com has decent product breadth and could, if the stars align just so, combine its TippingPoint intrusion-prevention systems (IPS) with its networking products to constitute something of an alternative to its bigger rivals.

Personally, I don’t think 3Com made the right choice in attempting to retarget itself at the high-end enterprise. In my view, it should have remained focused on small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), where a relatively simple switch with a price advantage still can, as often as not, win the business. Even with Nortel’s enterprise-networking products, obtained through its acquisition of Bay Networks, scattering to the winds in recent years, solid enterprise competition for Cisco already exists in the form of HP and Juniper. At best, 3Com will serve as third or fourth banana.

Again, though, that’s an argument one can have with others respectfully, through different interpretations of the same sets of factual data.

What shouldn’t be countenanced, though, are blatant factual errors, especially those that easily could have been avoided by basic fact checking. Tub-thumping television stock hawker Jim Cramer made an egregious error last week when he mistakenly suggested that 3Com’s erstwhile joint venture with China-based Huawei remained not only intact, but that it was flourishing.

Here’s a summary of Cramer’s remarks on the subject, as excerpted from his blog at CNBC:

3COM has another force driving sales right now as well, China, where it’s been growing steadily since 2003. Remember, China committed $40 billion to build out its wireless infrastructure, and 3COM, through its joint venture with Huawei, will take advantage of that. The company already controls 32% of the Ethernet-switch market and 33% of the router market there. Cisco is bigger in the Middle Kingdom, but those numbers are still significantly higher than 3COM’s standing throughout the rest of the world: just 3%. And 3COM’s direct business in China accounts for 40% of total sales, and it’s growing.

H3C, as the joint venture is called, sells to larger enterprise clients than 3COM’s main business, which focuses on small to mid-sized companies. H3C’s branded products recently launched outside of China, and Cramer’s predicting that even a small bump in market share outside of the company’s geographical base “could be huge for 3COM’s earnings.”

That’s just wrong. 3Com’s joint venture with Huawei no longer exists. 3Com bought Huawei’s stake in the JV and kept the name. Huawei is pursuing an entirely course, with a different set of products. Increasingly, Huawei competes against, rather than cooperates with, 3Com.

That’s why Huawei’s contribution to 3Com’s revenues is shrinking. Effectively, after 3Com bought out the Chinese firm’s stake in the joint venture, Huawei became nothing more than a sales channel for 3Com. That sales channel is rapidly vaporizing.

Those changing dynamics explain why 3Com is aggressively trying to expand into other geographic markets. That’s also why the company is trying, yet again, to claim a leading role in enterprise networking. The dissolution of the 3Com-Huawei joint venture and the ensuing diminution of Huawei as a 3Com sales channel sales are fundamental keystones to understanding 3Com’s current predicament.

I am discouraged, though not surprised, that Cramer got it wrong so egregiously.

He could have averted the error with just a modicum of fact checking. If he had listened to 3Com’s analyst conference call, read the transcript of that call, or perused the company’s previous quarterly reports, he would have avoided the mistake. That he didn’t bother suggests that you should treat much of what he says with a mountain of salt.