Daily Archives: January 8, 2010

HP Engineering Exodus?

LIke many people, I hear rumors occasionally. The challenge is in determining whether the source and substance of the rumor can be trusted.

If you’re dealing with a familiar source, you’re in a relatively good position to assess the veracity of what you’re being told. When that’s not the case, you’re in uncharted waters, left to navigate without a GPS or a compass — and sometimes without even a paddle. It’s in those cases that you invoke deduction and intuition.

There’s a rumor I’ve been hearing lately about engineering defections at HP’s American operations. I don’t have granularity on the numbers involved, where or in what departments the exodus is occurring, or how widespread the flight might be.

At first, I dismissed the rumor. Given the state of the economy, I wondered, where would these migrating engineers go? Still, at the top of the food chain, somebody always needs a good engineer. The best would find new employers.

But why would it be happening?

Well, under the rule of Carly Fiorina and now Mark Hurd, HP has become less the redoubt of the engineer. Under Fiorina, marketers were ascendant, and under Hurd we’ve witnessed the rise of beancounters and operational technocrats. It’s not the company of the eponymous founders, and the HP Way is as likely to be a street address as a company ethos.

Then, if you’ll remember, there was the recent Glassdoor.com survey, listing the best and worse of technology-industry employers. HP ranked as one of the lowest-rated technology companies for which to work, and Mark Hurd was not viewed favorably by HP employees.

In 2008, Hurd gave a talk bemoaning the deteriorating pool of technical talent in the USA. Said Hurd:

“In this country, we have a problem. The source of this country’s greatness has been its technical talent . . . But you have to go where the tech talent is, and right now the tech talent is in Asia.”

“We often can’t keep [engineers] in the country even after they’ve graduated from U.S. universities like Stanford.”

Hurd said that only 40 percent of HP’s then-40,000 engineers were based in the US. Previously (he did not specify an earlier date), HP employed about two thirds of its engineering staff domestically, according to the HP CEO.

The evidence suggests that HP was having an engineering problem in its home market. In his 2008 talk, Hurd rationalized HP’s engineering offshoring. It isn’t a stretch to suppose that HP’s American engineers might wish to seek employment at a company more committed to their job security.

Finally, HP recently announced the acquisition of 3Com, formerly an icon of American computer networking that has remade itself into a Chinese company with an American history. Most of 3Com’s engineering is done in China. When the deal was announced, I wondered whether HPs ProCure engineers might be the ultimate losers.

I don’t have hard data to confirm the rumor about engineers leaving HP. If the rumor were to be confirmed, though, it wouldn’t come as a shock.

Will Google Waver in Its Commitment to White Spaces?

I am excited about the potential for unlicensed white spaces, unused broadcast spectrum serving as a buffer between television channels. As a lowly user, I see its enormous potential as a high-bandwidth successor to unlicensed Wi-Fi.

My enthusiasm for white spaces probably isn’t shared by the wireless operators, though. Having largely vanquished the commercial threat once posed by Wi-Fi, they aren’t eager to see another chunk of unlicensed spectrum impinge on their profit margins and business plans.

Not sharing the biases and business models of the carriers, Google’s disposition toward white spaces is more expansive.

While speaking at a session of the Churchill Club in Menlo Park, Calif., Vint Cert, an Internet progenitor who now serves as a vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, said his company would like to see white spaces unlicensed. He also said technology exists today to enable use of white spaces.

Google recently offered to run a white-spaces database. Such a database, which could have several providers, is required to ensure that devices do not cause interference with nearby signals used for TV broadcasts. Google — along with Microsoft, HP, Motorola, Dell, and others — is a member of the White Spaces Database Group, which works on technical specifications for the database.

An early member of the White Spaces Coalition, an industry consortium that promoted the delivery of high-speed broadband Internet access over white spaces, Google also sponsored a campaign called “Free the Airwaves,” which touted white spaces as unlicensed spectrum that could be used like Wi-Fi.

As a Google product manager wrote on a company blog in the summer of 2008:

At its core, Free The Airwaves is a call to action for everyday users. You don’t need to be a telecommunications expert to understand that freeing the “white spaces” has the potential to transform wireless Internet as we know it. When you visit the site, you’ll be invited to film a video response explaining what increased Internet access could mean for you, to sign a petition to the FCC, to contact your elected officials, to spread the word, and more.

When it comes to opening these airwaves, we believe the public interest is clear. But we also want to be transparent about our involvement: Google has a clear business interest in expanding access to the web. There’s no doubt that if these airwaves are opened up to unlicensed use, more people will be using the Internet. That’s certainly good for Google (not to mention many of our industry peers) but we also think that it’s good for consumers.

As Google presses forward to establish carrier relationships for its Nexus One smartphone, we should watch closely to see whether its commitment weakens to white spaces as a complement or successor to Wi-Fi.

By the way, white spaces are mentioned only incidentally in the InfoWorld article on Vint Cert’s remarks to the Churchill Club. He talks about other issues, too, including the need for data-portability standards in cloud computing.

Google Dismissive of Microsoft as Mobile Rival

When it comes to the world of smartphones, the mainstream business press likes to fixate on an imaginary zero-sum death match between Apple’s iPhone and Google Android-based handsets, including Google’s very own Nexus One.

On the surface, it seems a great story. You have Apple’s enormously successful iPhone serving as the protagonist, setting the benchmark as the “one to beat.” Journalists and market watchers have been searching tirelessly for an “iPhone killer,” somebody to take the fight to Apple and complete the narrative. The Apple antagonist they’ve found, it seems, is Google.

Never mind that the story doesn’t make sense, that it’s more hype than substance. That doesn’t matter. What matters is being able to trot out a hoary narrative mythology – hey, it’s Apollo Creed versus Rocky, Coke versus Pepsi — perspective and reality be damned. If the storyline puts bums in the seats or readers on the site, it will endure.

It’s sad, really, because there’s an even better smarphone story, one that’s just as compelling but anchored firmly in the real world. It involves Google on one side, yes, but its adversary isn’t Apple. No, across the smartphone ring from Google, girding for a battle to win the votes of the judges – represented, in this context, by handset OEMs – is none other than Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft.

It isn’t that Google and Microsoft are fighting for mobile-market dominance. Microsoft fell out of that contest a long time ago. It’s well behind the likes of Apple, RIM, and Nokia, and it is rapidly losing ground to newcomer Google.

Still, Microsoft and Google are destined to fight fiercely against one another for the affections of the handset vendors who don’t have mobile-operating systems of their own. These vendors – Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson and the like – license their mobile software, from Microsoft historically and now, increasingly, from Google.

All of which makes Google’s decision to release a handset of its own somewhat perplexing. Crusty marketing types like to say you can’t suck and blow at the same time. But Google – in licensing Android to handset vendors while effectively competing against most of them (HTC partially excepted) with an Android-based handset of its own – is doing just that.

Microsoft is drawing attention to Google’s contradictory approach. In a Bloomberg story, Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, argued that Google will have difficulty attracting partners to its mobile platform after introducing its own Nexus One handset.

Bach reasoned that because Google now sells its own phone, handset makers are likely to be concerned that their software partner might favor its own handset over theirs. Such a scenario, he deduced, would drive Android licensees out of Google’s embrace, presumably into Microsoft’s welcoming arms.

Said Microsoft’s Bach of Google’s conflicted game plan:

“Doing both in the way they are trying to do both is actually very, very difficult. Google’s announcement sends a signal where they’re going to place their commitment. That will create some opportunities for us and we’ll pursue them.”

Microsoft needs all the help it can get. Its Windows Mobile operating system has been a nearly unmitigated disaster, serving to put out a welcome mat and open the door for Google’s Android-based appeals to Microsoft’s stable of handset-vendor licensees. If Microsoft had done its job, Google wouldn’t be enjoying the marketing opportunity it’s now exploiting with Android and Nexus One.

Google, for its part, tells us not to believe our lying eyes. Notwithstanding appearances, Google says all is peace and love around the Android campfire. Said Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman:

“It’s not our objective to compete with our partners. Our expectation is that the Nexus One will push the entire mobile ecosystem forward, driving greater innovation and consumer choice. We look forward to working with other hardware manufacturers to bring more Google-branded devices to market.”

In other words, there’s nothing to see here.

But that probably will sound like marketing pabulum to Android’s licensees. It’s all well and good for Google to say that Nexus One “will push the entire mobile ecosystem forward,” but, as the legendary Alan Partridge once said to a Geordie, “that’s just noise.” Google can be in league with its partners or working against them. And, if it chooses the latter course, you wonder how long they’ll remain Google’s partners.

Michael Gartnernberg, an analyst with market-research firm Interpet LLC, explains Google’s mobile dilemma:

“No one has ever succeeded in selling their own device while trying to license to partners simultaneously. As much as Google can say it’s not a Google phone, the phone says Google on it. They’re going to have to convince their licensees they’re not in competition with them.”

Gartenberg would be right, of course, if the mobile universe were unfolding as it should. But it isn’t – and the problem is Microsoft.

My supposition is that Google is breaking with convention partly because it can. At least in the mobile space, Google doesn’t respect Microsoft. It looks at the sad state of Windows Mobile, and it figures that Microsoft doesn’t offer handset vendors a viable alternative to Android. It’s arrogant and cocky of Google – and it’s entirely dismissive of Microsoft – but that seems to be the position Google has taken.

Google thinks it can have its cake and eat it, too – serving handset OEMs slices of Android while putting some aside for the Nexus One – because it believes its licensees aren’t about to visit the cake shop in Redmond.

It’s too bad Microsoft doesn’t appear capable of proving Google wrong.