Category Archives: Apple

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.

Fear Compels HP and Dell to Stick with PCs

For better or worse, Hewlett-Packard remains committed to the personal-computer business, neither selling off nor spinning off that unit in accordance with the wishes of its former CEO. At the same, Dell is claiming that it is “not really a PC company,” even though it will continue to sell an abundance of PCs.

Why are these two vendors staying the course in a low-margin business? The popular theory is that participation in the PC business affords supply-chain benefits such as lower costs for components that can be leveraged across servers. There might be some truth to that, but not as much as you might think.

At the outset, let’s be clear about something: Neither HP nor Dell manufactures its own PCs. Manufacture of personal computers has been outsourced to electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies and original design manufacturers (ODMs).

Growing Role of the ODM

The latter do a lot more than assemble and manufacture PCs. They also provide outsourced R&D and design for OEM PC vendors.  As such, perhaps the greatest amount of added value that a Dell or an HP brings to its PCs is represented by the name on the bezel (the brand) and the sales channels and customer-support services (which also can be outsourced) they provide.

Major PC vendors many years ago decided to transfer manufacturing to third-party companies in Taiwan and China. Subsequently, they also increasingly chose to outsource product design. As a result, ODMs design and manufacture PCs. Typically ODMs will propose various designs to the PC vendors and will then build the models the vendors select. The PC vendor’s role in the design process often comes down to choosing the models they want, sometimes with vendor-specified tweaks for customization and market differentiation.

In short, PC vendors such as HP and Dell don’t really make PCs at all. They rebrand them and sell them, but their involvement in the actual creation of the computers has diminished markedly.

Apple Bucks the Trend 

At this point, you might be asking: What about Apple? Simply put, unlike its PC brethren, Apple always has insisted on controlling and owning a greater proportion of the value-added ingredients of its products.

Unlike Dell and HP, for example, Apple has its own operating system for its computers, tablets, and smartphones. Also unlike Dell and HP, Apple did not assign hardware design to ODMs. In seeking costs savings from outsourced design and manufacture, HP and Dell sacrificed control over and ownership of their portable and desktop PCs. Apple wagered that it could deliver a premium, higher-cost product with a unique look and feel. It won the bet.

A Spurious Claim?

Getting back to HP, does it actually derive economies of scale for its server business from the purchase of PC components in the supply chain? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. The ODMs with which HP contracts for design and manufacture of its PCs would get a much better deal on component costs than would HP, and it’s now standard practice for those ODMs to buy common components that can be used in the manufacture and assembly of products for all their brand-name OEM customers. It’s not clear to me what proportion of components in HP’s PCs are supplied and integrated by the ODMs, but I suspect the percentage is substantial.

On the whole, then, HP and Dell might be advancing a spurious argument about remaining in the PC business because it confers savings on the purchase of components that can used in servers.

Diagnosing the Addiction

If so, then, why would HP and Dell remain in the PC game? Well, the answer is right there on the balance sheets of both companies. Despite attempts at diversification, and despite initiatives to transform into the next IBM, each company still has a revenue reliance on – perhaps even an addiction to — PCs.

According to calculations by Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu, about 70 to 75 percent of Dell revenue is connected to the sale of PCs. (Dell derived about 43 percent of its revenue directly from PCs in its most recent quarter.) In relative terms, HP’s revenue reliance on PCs is not as great — about 30% of direct revenue — but, when one considers the relationship between PCs and related related peripherals, including printers, the company’s PC exposure is considerable.

If either company were to exit the PC business, shareholders would react adversely. The departure from the PC business would leave a gaping revenue hole that would not be easy to fill. Yes, relative margins and profitability should improve, but at the cost of much lower channel and revenue profiles. Then there is the question of whether a serious strategic realignment would actually be successful. There’s risk in letting go of a bird in hand for one that’s not sure to be caught in the bush.

ODMs Squeeze Servers, Too

Let’s put aside, at least for this post, the question of whether it’s good strategy for Dell and HP to place so much emphasis on their server businesses. We know that the server business faces high-end disruption from ODMs, which increasingly offer hardware directly to large customers such as cloud service providers, oil-and-gas firms,  and major government agencies. The OEM (or vanity) server vendors still have the vast majority of their enterprise customers as buyers, but it’s fair to wonder about the long-term viability of that market, too.

As ODMs take on more of the R&D and design associated with server-hardware production, they must question just how much value the vanity OEM vendors are bringing to customers. I think the customers and vendors themselves are asking the same questions, because we’re now seeing a concerted effort in the server space by vendors such as Dell and HP to differentiate “above the board” with software and system innovations.

Fear Petrifies

Can HP really become a dominant purveyor of software and services to enterprises and cloud service providers? Can Dell be successful as a major player in the data center? Both companies would like to think that they can achieve those objectives, but it remains to be seen whether they have the courage of their convictions. Would they bet the business on such strategic shifts?

Aye, there’s the rub. Each is holding onto a commoditized, low-margin PC business not because they like being there, but because they’re afraid of being somewhere else.

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.

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.”

Limits to Consumerization of IT

At GigaOm, Derrick Harris is wondering about the limits of consumerization of IT for enterprise applications. It’s a subject that warrants consideration.

My take on consumerization of IT is that it makes sense, and probably is an unstoppable force, when it comes to the utilization of mobile hardware such as smartphones and tablets (the latter composed primarily and almost exclusively of iPads these days).

This is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Employees are happier, not to mention more productive and engaged, when using their own computing and communications devices. Employers benefit because they don’t have to buy and support mobile devices for their staff.  Both groups win.

Everybody Wins

Moreover, mobile device management (MDM) and mobile-security suites, together with various approaches to securing applications and data, mean that the security risks of allowing employees to bring their devices to work have been sharply mitigated. In relation to mobile devices, the organizational rewards of IT consumerization — greater employee productivity, engaged and involved employees, lower capital and operating expenditures — outweigh the security risks, which are being addressed by a growing number of management and security vendors who see a market opportunity in making the practice safer.

In other areas, though, the case in favor of IT consumerization is not as clear. In his piece, Harris questions whether VMware will be successful with a Dropbox-like application codenamed Project Octopus. He concludes that those already using Dropbox will be reluctant to swap it for a an enterprise-sanctioned service that provides similar features, functionality, and benefits. He posits that consumers will want to control the applications and services they use, much as they determine which devices they bring to work.

Data and Applications: Different Proposition

However, the circumstances and the situations are different. As noted above, there’s diminishing risk for enterprise IT in allowing employees to bring their devices to work.  Dropbox, and consumer-oriented data-storage services in general, is an entirely different proposition.

Enterprises increasingly have found ways to protect sensitive corporate data residing on and being sent to and from mobile devices, but consumer-oriented products like Dropbox do an end run around secure information-management practices in the enterprises and can leave sensitive corporate information unduly exposed. The enterprise cost-benefit analysis for a third-party service like Dropbox shows risks outweighing potential rewards, and that sets up a dynamic where many corporate IT departments will mandate and insist upon company-wide adoption of enterprise-class alternatives.

Just as I understand why corporate minders acceded to consumerization of IT in relation to mobile devices, I also fully appreciate why corporate IT will draw the line at certain types of consumer-oriented applications and information services.

Consumerization of IT is a real phenomenon, but it has its limits.

Clarity on HP’s PC Business

Hewlett-Packard continues to contemplate how it should divest its Personal Systems Group (PSG), a $40-billion business dedicated overwhelmingly to sales of personal computers.  Although HP hasn’t communicated as effectively as it should have done, current indications are that the company will spin off its PC business as a standalone entity rather than sell it to a third party.

That said, the situation remains fluid. HP might yet choose to sell the business, even though Todd Bradley, PSG chieftain, seems adamant that it should be a separate company that he should lead. HP hasn’t been consistent or predictable lately on mobile hardware or PCs, though, so nothing is carved in stone.

Not a PC Manufacturer

No matter what it decides to do, the media should be clearer on exactly what HP will be spinning off or selling. I’ve seen it misreported repeatedly that HP will be selling or spinning off its “PC manufacturing arm” or its “PC manufacturing business.”

That’s wrong. As knowledgeable observers know, HP doesn’t manufacture PCs. Increasingly, it doesn’t even design them in any meaningful way, which is more than partly why HP finds itself in the current dilemma of deciding whether to spin off or sell a wafer-thin-margin business.

HP’s PSG business brands, markets, and sells PCs. But — and this is important to note — it doesn’t manufacture them. The manufacturing of the PCs is done by original design manufacturers (ODMs), most of which originated in Taiwan but now have operations in China and many others countries. These ODMs increasingly provide a lot more than contract manufacturing. They also provide design services that are increasingly sophisticated.

Brand is the Value

A dirty little secret your favorite PC vendor (Apple excluded) doesn’t want you to know is that it doesn’t really do any PC innovation these days. The PC-creation process today operates more along these lines: brand-name PC vendor goes to Taiwan to visit ODMs, which demonstrate a range of their latest personal-computing prototypes, from which the brand-name vendor chooses some designs and perhaps suggests some modifications. Then the products are put through the manufacturing process and ultimately reach market under the vendor’s brand.

That’s roughly how it works. HP doesn’t manufacture PCs. It does scant PC design and innovation, too. If you think carefully about the value that is delivered in the PC-creation process, HP provides its brand, its marketing, and its sales channels. Its value — and hence its margins — are dependent on the premiums its brand can bestow and the volumes its channel can deliver . Essentially, an HP PC is no different from any other PC designed and manufactured by ODMs that provide PCs for the entire industry.

HP and others allowed ODMs to assume a greater share of PC value creation — far beyond simple manufacturing — because they were trying to cut costs. You might recall that cost cutting was  a prominent feature of the lean-and-mean Mark Hurd regime at HP. As a result, innovation suffered, and not just in PCs.

Inevitable Outcome

In that context, it’s important to note that HP’s divestment of its low-margin PC business, regardless of whether it’s sold outright or spun off as a standalone entity, has been a long time coming.

Considering the history and the decisions that were made, one could even say it was inevitable.

Divining Google’s Intentions for Motorola Mobility

In commenting now on Google’s announcement that it will acquire Motorola Mobility Holdings for $12.5 billion, I feel like the guest who arrives at a party the morning after festivities have ended: There’s not much for me to add, there’s a mess everywhere, more than a few participants have hangovers, and some have gone well past their party-tolerance level.

Still, in the spirit of sober second thought, I will attempt to provide Yet Another Perspective (YAP).

Misdirection and Tumult

It was easy to get lost in all the misdirection and tumult that followed the Google-Motorola Mobility announcement. Questions abounded, Google’s intentions weren’t yet clear, its competitors were more than willing to add turbidity to already muddy waters, and opinions on what it all meant exploded like scattershot in all directions.

In such situations, I like to go back to fundamental facts and work outward from there. What is it we know for sure? Once we’re on a firm foundation, we can attempt to make relatively educated suppositions about why Google made this acquisition, where it will take it, and how the plot is likely to unspool.

Okay, the first thing we know is that Google makes the overwhelming majority (97%) of its revenue from advertising. That is unlikely to change. I don’t think Google is buying Motorola Mobility because it sees its future as a hardware manufacturer of smartphones and tablets. It wants to get its software platform on mobile devices, yes, because that’s the only way it can ensure that consumers will use its search and location services ubiquitously; but don’t confuse that strategic objective with Google wanting to be a hardware purveyor.

Patent Considerations 

So, working back from what we know about Google, we now can discount the theory that Google will be use Motorola Mobility as a means of competing aggressively against its other Android licensees, including Samsung, HTC, LG, and scores of others.  There has been some fragmentation of the Android platform, and it could be that Google intends to use Motorola Mobility’s hardware as a means of enforcing platform discipline and rigor on its Android licensees, but I don’t envision Google trying to put them out of business with Motorola. That would be an unwise move and a Sisyphean task.

Perhaps, then, it was all about the patents? Yes, I think patents and intellectual-property rights figured prominently into Google’s calculations. Google made no secret that it felt itself at a patent deficit in relation to its major technology rivals and primary intellectual-property litigants. For a variety of reasons — the morass that is patent law, the growing complexity of mobile devices such as smartphones, the burgeoning size and strategic importance of mobility as a market — all the big vendors are playing for keeps in mobile. Big money is on the table, and no holds are barred.

Patents are a means of constraining competition, conditioning and controlling market outcomes, and — it must be said — inhibiting innovation. But this situation wasn’t created by one vendor. It has been evolving (or devolving) for a great many years, and the vendors are only playing the cards they’ve been dealt by a patent system that is in need of serious reform. The only real winners in this ongoing mess are the lawyers . . . but I digress.

Defensive Move

Getting back on track, we can conclude that, considering its business orientation, Google doesn’t really want to compete with its Android licensees and that patent considerations figured highly in its motivation for acquiring Motorola Mobility.

Suggestions also surfaced that the deal was, at least in part, a defensive move. Apparently Microsoft had been kicking Motorola Mobility’s tires and wanted to buy it strictly for its patent portfolio. Motorola wanted to find a buyer willing to take, and pay for, the entire company. That apparently was Google’s opening to snatch the Motorola patents away from Microsoft’s outstretched hands — at a cost of $12.5 billion, of course. This has the ring of truth to it. I can imagine Microsoft wanting to administer something approaching a litigious coup de grace on Google, and I can just as easily imagine Google trying to preclude that from happening.

What about the theory that Google believes that it must have an “integrated stack” — that it must control, design, and deliver all the hardware and software that constitutes the mobile experience embodied in a smartphone or a tablet — to succeed against Apple?

No Need for a Bazooka

Here, I would use the market as a point of refutation. Until the patent imbroglio raised its ugly head, Google’s Android was ascendant in the mobile space. It had gone from nowhere to the leading mobile operating system worldwide, represented by a growing army of diverse device licensees targeting nearly every nook and cranny of the mobile market. There was some platform fragmentation, which introduced application-interoperability issues, but those problems were and are correctable without Google having recourse to direct competition with its partners.  That would be an extreme measure, akin to using a bazooka to herd sheep.

Google Android licensees were struggling in the court of law, but not so much in the court of public opinion as represented by the market. Why do you think Google’s competitors resorted to litigious measures in the first place?

So, no — at least based on the available evidence — I don’t think Google has concluded that it must try to remake itself into a mirror image of Apple for Android to have a fighting chance in the mobile marketplace. The data suggests otherwise. And let’s remember that Android, smartphones, and tablets are not ends in themselves but means to an end for Google.

Chinese Connection?

What’s next, then? Google can begin to wield the Motorola Mobility patent portfolio to defend and protect is Android licensees. It also will keep Motorola Mobility’s hardware unit as a standalone, separate entity for now. In time, though, I would be surprised if Google didn’t sell that business.

Interestingly, the Motorola hardware group could become a bargaining chip of sorts for Google. I’ve seen the names Huawei and ZTE mentioned as possible buyers of the hardware business. While Google’s travails in China are well known, I don’t think it’s given up entirely on its Chinese aspirations. A deal involving the sale of the Motorola hardware business to Huawei or ZTE that included the buyer’s long-term support for Android — with the Chinese government’s blessing, of course — could offer compelling value to both sides.

Nokia Channels Kris Kristofferson

In reporting that Nokia would discontinue North American sales of its Symbian smartphones and its low-end feature phones to focus exclusively on its forthcoming crop of smartphones based on Windows Phone, Ina Fried of All Things Digital broke some news that didn’t qualify as a surprise.

If Kris Kristofferson was right when he said that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” then Nokia has a lot of freedom in the North American smartphone market.

The Finnish handset vendor, which began its corporate life as a paper manufacturer, wasn’t going anywhere with its Symbian-based smartphones in the USA or Canada. What’s more, North Americans have been turning away from feature phones for a while now.  Accordingly, Nokia has chosen to clear the decks, eliminate distractions, and put all its resources behind its bet-the-company commitment to Windows Phone.

Nothing to Lose

It’ll keep Symbian and the feature phones around for a while longer in other international markets, but not in North America. And, you know, it makes sense.

If Nokia wins even a modicum of business with its Microsoft-powered smarphones, it will gain share in North America. From that standpoint, it has something to gain, and very little to lose, as it debuts its Windows Phone handsets in the North American market. Nokia doesn’t need to hit a home run to spin its Windows Phone as a success here. All it needs to do is show market momentum on which can build in other markets, including those where it truly does have more to lose.

Obviously, Nokia’s success should not be taken for granted. The company has a long, potholed road ahead of it, and there’s no guarantee that it will survive the journey.

Battle for Hearts and Minds

While some observers are saying the carriers will be crucial to Nokia’s smartphone success — the Finnish handset vendor will make its phones available through operators rather than selling them unlocked at retail — I disagree.

Once upon a time, mobile subscribers took the handsets that carriers pushed at them, but that hasn’t been the norm since Apple radically rearranged the smartphone landscape with the iPhone. Now, consumer demand determines which handsets wireless operators carry, and Nokia doubtless recognizes that reality, which is why it intends to launch a massive advertising and marketing campaign to persuade consumers that its smartphones are desirable, must-have items.

Low Expectations

Will it work? Hey, ask Nostradamus if you can reach him with a medium and a Ouija board. All I can tell you is that Nokia will have to nail its advertising campaign, hit the bull’s eye with its marketing programs, and work diligently in conjunction with Microsoft to attract the attention and support of mobile developers. Great phone designs, slick marketing, a credible mobile operating system (which Microsoft might finally have), and quality and quantity of application support will be essential if Nokia is to resuscitate its reputation as a serious smartphone player.

A lot can go wrong, and some of it probably will.

It’s not going to be easy, but the one thing Nokia has going for it in North America is low expectations. That’s why I think Nokia picked the continent as a potential springboard for its Windows Phone onslaught worldwide.

Why RIM Takeover Palaver is Premature

Whether it is experiencing good times or bad times, Research in Motion (RIM) always seems to be perceived as an acquisition target.

When its fortunes were bright, RIM was rumored to be on the acquisitive radar of a number of vendors, including Nokia, Cisco, Microsoft, and Dell. Notwithstanding that some of those vendors also have seen their stars dim, RIM faces a particularly daunting set of challenges.

Difficult Circumstances

Its difficult circumstances are reflected in its current market capitalization. Prior to trading today, RIM had a market capitalization of $11.87 billion; at the end of August last year, it was valued at $23.27 billion. While some analysts argue that RIM’s stock has been oversold and that the company now is undervalued, others contend that RIM’s valuation might have further to fall. In the long run, unless it can arrest its relative decline in smartphones and mobile computing, RIM appears destined for continued hardship.

Certainly, at least through the end of this year — and until we see whether its QNX-based smartphones represent compelling alternatives to Apple’s next crop of iPhones and the succeeding wave of Android-based devices from Google licensees — RIM does not seem to have the wherewithal to reverse its market slide.

All of which brings us to the current rumors about RIM and potential suitors.

Dell’s Priorities Elsewhere

Dell has been mentioned, yet again, but Dell is preoccupied with other business. In an era of IT consumerization, in which consumers increasingly are determining which devices they’ll use professionally and personally, Dell neither sees itself nor RIM as having the requisite consumer cache to win hearts and minds, especially when arrayed against some well-entrenched industry incumbents. Besides, as noted above, Dell has other priorities, most of which are in the data center, which Dell sees not only as an enterprise play but also — as cloud computing gains traction — as a destination for the applications and services of many of its current SMB customers.

In my view, Dell doesn’t feel that it needs to own a mobile operating system. On the mobile front, it will follow the zeitgeist of IT consumerization and support the operating systems and device types that its customers want. It will sell Android or Windows Phone devices to the extent that its customers want them (and want to buy them from Dell), but I also expect the company to provide heterogeneous mobile-management solutions.

Google Theory

Google also has been rumored to be a potential acquirer of RIM. Notable on this front has been former Needham & Company and ThinkEquity analyst Anton Wahlman, who wrote extensively on why he sees Google as a RIM suitor. His argument essentially comes down to three drivers: platform convergence, with Google’s Android 4.0 and RIM’s QNX both running on the same Texas Instruments OMAP 4400 series platform; Google’s need for better security to facilitate its success in mobile-retail applications featuring Near-Field Communications (NFC); and Google’s increasing need to stock up on mobile patents and intellectual property as it comes under mounting litigious attack.

They are interesting data points, but they don’t add up to a Google acquisition of RIM.

Convergence of hardware platforms doesn’t lead inexorably to Google wanting to buy RIM. It’s a big leap of logic — and a significant leap of faith for stock speculators — to suppose that Google would see value in taking out RIM just because they’re both running the same mobile chipset. On security, meanwhile, Google could address any real or perceived NFC issues without having to complete a relatively costly and complex acquisition of a mobile-OS competitor. Finally, again, Google could address its mobile-IT deficit organically, inorganically, and legally in ways that would be neither as complicated nor as costly as having to buy RIM, a deal that would almost certainly draw antitrust scrutiny from the Department of Justice (DoJ), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and probably the European Union (EU).

Google doesn’t need those sorts of distractions, not when it’s trying to keep a stable of handset licensees happy while also attempting to portray itself as the well-intentioned victim in the mobile-IP wars.

Microsoft’s Wait

Finally, back again as a rumored acquirer of RIM, we find Microsoft. At one time, a deal between the companies might have made sense, and it might make sense again. Now, though, the timing is inauspicious.

Microsoft has invested significant resources in a relationship with Nokia, and it will wait to see whether that bet pays off before it resorts to a Plan B. Microsoft has done the math, and it figures as long as Nokia’s Symbian installed base doesn’t hemorrhage extravagantly, it should be well placed to finally have a competitive entry in the mobile-OS derby with Windows Phone. Now, though, as Nokia comes under attack from above (Apple and high-end Android smartphones) and from below (inexpensive feature phones and lower-end Android smartphones), there’s some question as to whether Nokia can deliver the market pull that Microsoft anticipated. Nonetheless, Microsoft isn’t ready to hit the panic button.

Not Going Anywhere . . . This Year

Besides, as we’ve already deduced, RIM isn’t going anywhere. That’s not just because the other rumored players aren’t sufficiently interested in making the buy, but also because RIM’s executive team and its board of directors aren’t ready to sell.  Despite the pessimism of outside observers, RIM remains relatively sanguine about its prospects. The feeling on campus is that the QNX platform will get RIM back on track in 2012. Until that supposition is validated or refuted, RIM will not seek strategic alternatives.

This narrative will play out in due course.  Much will depend on the market share and revenue Microsoft and Windows Phone derive from Nokia. If that relationship runs aground, Microsoft — which really feels it must succeed in mobile and cloud to ensure a bright future — will look for alternatives. At the same time, RIM will be determining whether QNX is the software tonic for its corporate regeneration. If  the cure takes, RIM won’t be in need of external assistance. If QNX is no panacea, and RIM loses further ground to Apple and the Google Android camp, then it will be more receptive to outside interests.

Those answers will come not this year, but in 2012.

On Further Review, the Cius Still Looks Doomed

I’m returning to the topic of the Cisco Cius, but I promise I won’t make it an obsession.

My view of the commercial prospects for the Cius has shifted significantly during the past year, from when Cisco first announced the pseudo-tablet to now, as it prepares to ship the device, presumably in something approximating volumes. Back in the summer of 2010, I thought the Cisco Cius might have a fighting chance of currying favor within the company’s installed base, playing to IT decision makers with a practical and broad-based extension of its video-collaboration strategy.

Changing Landscape

Some things have changed since then. The Apple iPad franchise, as we all know, has gone from strength to strength. iPads now proliferate in small businesses and enterprises as well as in homes. They’ve crossed the computing rubicon from the consumer realm to the business world. They, like iPhones and other smartphones, also have helped to engender the much-discussed “consumerization of IT,” whereby consumers have insisted on bringing their favorite devices to the office, where they have been gradually and grudgingly accepted by enterprise IT departments under imperatives from CFOs to bring down IT-related capital and operating expenses.

That has cut into Cisco’s appeal. Cisco, as a big old-school enterprise player, didn’t count on consumerist employees having any appreciable say in the navigation of the enterprise IT ship. Cisco, as the Flip debacle, made obvious, is not exactly a popular consumer brand, notwithstanding the barrage of television commercials it has unleashed on couch potatoes during the last several years.

One could also argue that the commoditization of a broad swathe of enterprise-networking equipment, led by Cisco competitors, also is slashing into the giant’s dominance as well as its margins. Moreover, it remains to be seen how the inexorable march of virtualization and cloud computing will redefine the networking universe and Cisco’s role as the brightest star in that firmament.

 Penny-Pinching as New Normal

Then there are macroeconomic factors. Everywhere in the developed world, IT buyers at SMBs and large enterprises alike are trying to save hard-earned money. Cisco can wave cost-of-ownership studies all it wants, but most network and technology buyers do not perceive Cisco products as money savers. Consequently, there’s a big push from buyers, as perhaps never before, for open, standards-based, interoperable solutions that are — you guessed it — cheaper to buy than the proprietary solutions of yore.

So, it all amounts to a perfect storm driving right through the heart of John Chambers’ once-peaceful neighborhood. This is true for Cisco’s entire product portfolio, not just the Cius, but I’m writing about the Cius today — not that I’m obsessed with it, you understand — so let me pull things back into tighter focus now.

 Trying to Stop the Phones from Bleeding 

With the Cius, Cisco still seems to the think that the old rules, the old market dynamics, and its old customer control still apply. I thought more about this yesterday when I received an email message from a regular reader (imagine that!) who pointed out to me that Cisco is right about one thing: The Cius isn’t a tablet.

I’ll quote directly from his message:

The Cius isn’t a tablet  — it only looks like one.  It’s a desktop and video phone.  Cisco is in this business because PCs and wireless handsets are subsuming the function of the enterprise desktop phone (thanks to Microsoft Lync, Apple iPhone, Android, etc.).  Their phone business is a multi-billion dollar per year business.  I agree — the Cius is a distraction, but they have to do *something* to protect that desktop phone revenue stream.  Tough spot.

These are perceptive comments, and they’re borne out by recent articles and analysis on Cisco’s Cius push. All of which makes me feel, even more than when I wrote my Cius post of earlier this week, that the product is doomed to, as Mike Tyson said in one of his best malapropisms, “fade into Bolivian.” 

Gambit Won’t Work

Cisco has made a lot of money selling desktop IP phones, but that gravy train, like so many others, is drawing fewer passengers at each station. The trends I mentioned above — stronger consumer-oriented offerings from competitors in smartphone and tablets, the consumerization of IT, the enterprise focus on cutting IT costs wherever possible, and a concomitant pull away from premium proprietary technologies — are threatening to eviscerate Cisco’s IP phone franchise.

Hence, the Cius. But, even as a defensive bulwark, it doesn’t work. At the end of the day, CIsco might see an IP phone replacement when it looks at the Cius through its rose-colored glasses, but customers will see it for what it is — a relatively high-priced, seven-inch tablet running a smarphone-version of Android, and tied to proprietary video, voice, and collaboration solutions. Both the Cius and the AppHQ go strongly against the tide of IT consumerization and mobile-platform heterogeneity. That’s not a tide Cisco can reverse.

With sublime brevity, my reader-correspondent said it best: Tough spot.

Limited Horizons for Cisco Cius

Cisco’s Cius Android-based tablet will be available for purchase later this month, but it’s difficult to envision how or why it would be bought by anybody other than hardcore Cisco shops that have made substantial investments in Cisco’s enterprise collaboration and telepresence technologies.

With the Cius, and much else lately, Cisco seems to be predicating its strategy and tactics on an antiquated playbook (pardon the pun). While the world moves toward cost-effective, multivendor technologies and embraces consumerization of IT, Cisco still stubbornly pushes to be a one-stop shop for network infrastructure and much else besides. What’s more, the company is completely disregarding the consumerization wave, failing to recognize that corporate IT bosses and their departments are compelled to find ways to embrace the trend to cut enterprise costs and boost productivity.

It’s Not a Tablet

To make matters worse, Cisco’s Cius runs Android 2.2, not the tablet-optimized Android 2.3. It’s as if Cisco, perhaps under the assumption that its installed base of enterprise collaboration and telepresence customers will follow its lead obediently, couldn’t even be roused to deliver a competitive product. The price, at $750 per unit, also suggests that Cisco thinks its loyal customers will pay a sticker-shock premium for anything that ships with the company logo stamped on the box.

Cisco, for its part, has persuaded some analysts to believe that, appearances to the contrary, it’s not really a tablet vendor, even though it’s about to start shipping what is unquestionably a tablet at the end of July. The Cius, you see, is just, an entry point into Cisco’s collaboration ecosystem.

Counting on the Fans

I suppose that’s as good a way as any for Cisco to attempt to avoid direct comparisons between the price and performance of the seven-inch Cius and those of competing devices, including a new crop of ten-inch Android-based tablets that are about to hit the market as well as the ubiquitous Apple iPads that C-level executives have brought into their enterprises.

Cisco is hoping to use an enterprise app store, AppHQ, and security as hooks that will keep current customers in the fold and bring new ones into its tent. However, in an era of heterogeneous mobile-device management (MDM) suites and equally heterogeneous mobile-security suites — which seem to offer cost and flexibility advantages over the proprietary Cisco alternative in the vast majority of deployment scenarios — Cisco’s Cius market adoption will be limited to the vendor’s most zealous enterprise fan base.