Category Archives: PCs

Dell and HP Face Direction, Leadership Questions

Quarterly earnings results are on tap later today from Dell and HP. While the two companies would never be confused for twins, they have much in common. Not only do they sell similar products into similar markets, serving similar types of customers in the process, but both are bedeviled by serious questions about direction and leadership.

At HP, of course, the strange circumstances surrounding the sudden departure of former CEO Mark Hurd continue to generate more questions than answers. The details and machinations behind Hurd’s ouster might never be known. That presents a problem for a public company, because shareholders don’t usually like the firms in which they invest to be enveloped in a fog of murk, mystery, and intrigue.

For HP, the game of Clue will have to end. Whatever Mr. Hurd might have done, and how and where he might have done it, will have to take a decisive back seat to issues pertaining to HP’s direction, focus, strategies, and tactics. Investors and market watchers will be looking for clear indications tonight, when the company conducts its conference call with analysts, that HP has a firm hand on the tiller and is heading in the right direction. Given what’s transpired in the last couple weeks, HP will have to place particular emphasis on candor and clarity in its communications this evening. The substance of the message is always important, but tone now is critical for HP, too.

Nobody is Indispensable

My own view is that CEOs are like quarterbacks on football teams. They tend to get too much credit for corporate successes and too much blame for setbacks. Honest CEOs who’ve enjoyed success will tell you that they’ve been surrounded by excellent teams that contribute to the plans and bring the execution to fruition. The business media, though, likes to personalize and simplify, so it tends to focus on the CEO as the apotheosis of corporate culture. That’s not really how or why technology companies are successful, but it makes for good copy. The truth is, nobody is indispensable.

On Cisco earnings calls recently, I’ve noticed that CEO John Chambers has been giving prominent credit to his bench strength, noting the contributions of specific executives who run various parts of the company.

As much as it might pain it to do so, HP should follow Cisco’s lead and correct the ridiculous media misconception that the company’s wheels will fall off now that Mark Hurd isn’t sitting at the front of the bus. Considering that too much Mark Hurd might well have been a bad prescription for what had begun to ail HP, I think HP should be confident in showing that it knows how to correct its course.

No More Frankentablets

As for Dell, leadership issues also are on the front burner. About a quarter of votes cast at Dell’s recent shareholder meeting withheld support for Michael Dell’s re-election to the company’s board. The company’s shares are down a staggering 50 percent from where they stood in August 2008, and Dell recently paid $100 million to settle a government probe into questionable accounting practices.

Alleged accounting shenanigans aside, I think the primary problem for Dell is one of focus. It tries to have the breadth of an HP, but it doesn’t have the resources to pull it off. LIke a lot of other market watchers, I’d like to see Dell show more solution focus and market discipline.

The company is going nowhere in consumer markets. The Streak, for example, looks like something hatched by a committee that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to devise a smartphone or a tablet. Consequently, it wound up producing a Frankentablet with a five-inch display.  I have a feeling it came as much from Dell’s ODM partners as from its own design labs.

I know it won’t happen on this call — certainly not with the current composition of Dell’s board of directors — but I’d like to see the company recognize, for once and for all, that it’s out of its depth in the consumer space. I’d like to see it turn its attention, focus, and resources to the SMB and enterprise markets, and to further enhancing its evolving virtualization and cloud strategies.

It won’t happen, but it should.

RealD’s 3D Promise and Peril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dell and Microsoft have much in common.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microsoft Stumbles in Mobile Murk

This post is something of an experiment. I want to write about Microsoft’s commitment  to the tablet PC and see whether anyone cares.

I did not witness Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s opening address at his company’s Worldwide Partner Conference. Most reports suggest that Ballmer was typically loud and proud, proclaiming an imminent Microsoft revival in cloud computing, mobile operating systems, and tablet computing.

For now, in this particular post, I will limit by commentary to Microsoft’s plans for tablet computing. The other topics will be addressed at another time.

According to Ballmer, about 20 device manufacturers will unveil various shapes and sizes of slate and tablet computers based on Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system before the year ends. Among the vendors churning out Windows 7 slates and tablets will be Acer Inc, Dell Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, Toshiba Corp, Sony Corp., and numerous other hardware OEMs.

Ballmer didn’t mention HP, which procured its own operating system for smartphones, slates, and tablets when it acquired Palm and webOS. Nonetheless, Reuters reported that HP’s logo appeared on a slide listing PC makers working on Windows-based devices.

It’s hard to know how much to invest in that tidbit, however, because Phil McKinney, CTO of HP’s personal systems group, was simultaneously explaining at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat 2010 conference in San Francisco that his company bought Palm to “control the end-to-end experience” delivered by HP’s mobile devices.

It’s possible, of course, that HP will offer tablets based on Windows 7 as alternatives to its webOS products. HP might do so just to keep its relationship with Microsoft from fraying. Even so, HP will put its primary focus on the technology it acquired from Palm. To suggest otherwise is to question why HP bought Palm, and to question the sanity of HP’s executive leadership. Clearly HP did not buy Palm just so that it could license Windows for HP’s mobile devices.

Putting aside the touchy HP question, does Microsoft have what it takes to compete in a space that has been authoritatively defined by the success of Apple’s iPad? Theoretically anything can happen, but past performance and current circumstances suggest that Microsoft will not become king of this particular castle.

Let’s enumerate the reasons. First, there are questions about the technical suitability of Windows 7 for various slates and tablets. Windows hasn’t performed elegantly on netbooks — I, for one, immediately replaced the sluggish Windows Vista with Ubuntu on a low-end netbook in my possession –  and it’s an open question as to how well Windows 7 will perform on touch-based slates and tablets. A second consideration is whether Microsoft can deliver an experience that will be uniformly satisfactory across a broad range of devices from multiple vendors. Finally, it’s not 1999 anymore, and Microsoft’s isn’t the only operating-system software that device OEMs can evaluate for their new products. Google’s Android and Chrome are available, as are many variations of Linux. Microsoft isn’t the only game in town for tablet manufacturers.

Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, Microsoft seems to lack the customer intimacy and market focus that would give it a fighting chance in any competition against a strong rival with a notable head start.

Does Microsoft understand its tablet customers? Does it know who they are, what they want, and why they might choose a Windows device over one from Google or Apple? I’m not sure Microsoft has those answers. The company still seems to be pitching its products at an indeterminate intersection between the enterprise and the consumer. The trouble is, that crossroads is enveloped in darkness and fog, indistinct and poorly defined. Meanwhile, Microsoft wanders in the market’s wilderness, failing to travel on either road.

As I said earlier, though, anything is possible. Microsoft could get back on track, and it could reverse its declining fortunes in mobile devices, starting with slates and tablets and then –  yes, suspension of disbelief is required for this illogical leap — with smartphones, too. That said, Microsoft didn’t do enough today to prefigure such a bright future. From were I stand, the horizon looks murky and ominous.

Maintaining Perspective on China’s Rising Labor Costs, Currency Moves

I don’t disagree with the basic facts presented in John Boudreau’s article at the San Jose Mercury News’ SiliconValley.com website, but I think the piece overstates the degree and significance of recent developments in China.

Boudreau correctly notes that labor costs are rising in the coastal region where most of China’s electronics and technology products are manufactured. At some point, those rising costs will result in decreased margins for product vendors or in higher prices for consumers and businesses that buy products from those vendors.

It’s also true that contract manufacturers operating in China’s main manufacturing hub will begin or have begun exploring alternative arrangements. Options include setting up factories further inland, in China’s less-developed interior, or shifting some types of manufacturing to automated facilities in Taiwan or to other low-wage countries, such as Thailand or Vietnam.

But those moves will not happen overnight. We should recognize that, even though the cost of Chinese labor is increasing, it’s still low. What’s more, China offers other advantages — such as a ready supply chain and access to plentiful raw materials (such as rare-earth metals essential to the manufacture of many kinds of technology hardware). Additionally, China still has that low-cost interior mentioned above, where there’s more than enough labor available to provide a helping hand.

Let’s also consider the appreciation of the Chinese yuan, also known as the renminbi. China’s authorities are allowing the currency to appreciate relative to the dollar, but the yuan won’t be allowed to skyrocket. China is not a so-called “invisible hand” market-based economy; its government retains firm control over the trading range of the country’s currency. Don’t expect a dramatic rise in the near-term valuation of the renminbi to the dollar. It’s not going to happen. Instead, advances and declines will be  controlled, incremental, and measured.

Finally, there’s the question of whether, and to what degree, increased Chinese wages might result in more consumer spending on imports from the U.S. and other countries. The assumption is that Chinese workers who assemble and  build Apple iPhones and iPads — not to mention HP and Dell PCs — now will be able to buy them, too.

To a degree that might happen, but bear in mind that China wants to move up the technology industry’s value chain. China won’t be happy functioning merely as foundry and consumer market for Western brands. China’s long-term objective is to architect and develop major technology companies of its own, Lenovo and Huawei being notable examples.

Those familiar with the term “indigenous innovation” know that Chinese companies will receive government support and encouragement as they increasingly compete against major Western companies across China’s technology landscape. We in the West need to exercise caution in assuming that China’s consumer market will function similarly to its counterparts in market-based economies. Not only does China’s government actively assist domestic companies — often through direct or indirect state control — but many Chinese consumers will actively and purposefully purchase goods and services from Chinese companies instead of those offered by Western companies.

What we’re seeing in these developments — the rising labor costs, the gradually unpegging of the yuan to the dollar, the country’s desire to ascend the technology value chain — are signs of a growing, maturing economic and industrial powerhouse. I don’t think they should be construed as symptoms of Chinese volatility or weakness.

Microsoft Past Its Prime, but Even Blodget Wouldn’t Bet on Its Imminent Demise

Henry Blodget’s Business Insider is a guilty pleasure. From the tabloid headlines to the flashpoint content, carefully contrived to generate criticism and heated debate, Blodget gives you plenty of sizzle even when he forgets to put a steak on the grill.

Occasionally, though, he’ll provide some food for thought alongside the crowd-seeking sensationalism. In one of his latest pieces — portentously titled, “The Odds Are Increasing That Microsoft’s Business Will Collapse” — Blodget injects enough plausibility into his argument to evoke the image of an erstwhile software giant staggering incontinently toward an open grave.

To summarize, Blodget contends that Microsoft draws the vast majority of its profits from its Windows and Office franchises. He provides colorful charts to illustrate the point, which is indisputable. He then posits Microsoft’s predicament: the Internet, the rise of mobility (in which it has been abject), the ascent of cloud computing, and the determined competitive incursions of Apple and Google have put Microsoft’s cash cows in mortal peril.

As Blodget phrases it:

The desktop PC isn’t the center of anyone’s universe anymore. The Internet is. And the Internet doesn’t require Windows.

As for Office, he points to the rise of Google Apps, which Blodget perceives as a “classic disruptive technology” that is “cheaper, easier, and more convenient to use than Microsoft Office.”

At the end of the piece, Blodget presents three scenarios for Microsoft:

Right now, the investors are concluding that Microsoft will gradually become the equivalent of a technology utility–a boring but necessary provider of the software that runs the world’s business community.  A smaller, more optimistic crowd is still arguing that, one day, Microsoft will be able to turn its fortunes around, and fight its way back into an industry leadership position.

What almost no one is talking about is a third possibility, one that becomes more likely by the day: The possibility that, a couple of years down the road, Microsoft’s business may just completely collapse.

Given enough time, anything is possible. Still, is there a strong likelihood that Microsoft’s business will “completely collapse” in two years? I doubt it. The primary reason for such doubt is that customers aren’t moving to the cloud fast enough to bring about Microsoft’s immediate demise.

Startup companies, free of established processes and prior IT investments, increasingly are adopting cloud models that tend to leave Microsoft out of the action (or with only a small piece of it). Even so, Microsoft has a Windows installed base of SME and enterprise customers that will think at least twice before abandoning the devil they know. That’s human nature, especially during a period of great and persistent economic uncertainty.

The situation is similar, though perhaps more tenuous, for Office. Google will win defections, starting in vertical markets where Microsoft’s Office pricing is most onerous and its high-end features less necessary. There’s no question that Microsoft will see erosion in its licensed and shrink-wrapped Office business, but that erosion is not likely to become a catastrophic landslide within two years.

Are Microsoft’s best days behind it? Yes, I think so. The company is extremely unlikely to reach anything approaching market leadership in mobile platforms and smartphones, its former hold on PC and mobile-device OEMs has slackened, and it’s at a perennial loss in areas such as web search and  in most consumer markets. It needs to invest more in its SME and enterprise offerings, including its business-oriented cloud services, and less in consumerist boondoggles.

But the collapse of Microsoft in two years? All things considered, I’d bet against that outcome. I tend to think Blodget would, too. Then again, he’s drawn traffic with his provocatively headlined post, so he probably won’t mind the hedging strategy.

Why ODM Evolution Puts HP and Dell at Risk

The mounting suicides at Foxconn have put that company squarely in the media spotlight, and not in a good way. Those deaths are human tragedies, and one can only hope that the factors that contributed to them will be identified and addressed so that similar incidents can be prevented.

As the vast size of Foxconn’s manufacturing plants and campuses attest, contract manufacturing has grown into an enormous business, one that continues to evolve far beyond its humble origins. In the past, contract manufacturers built or assembled finished products on a third-party basis for brand-name consumer-electronics companies. In recent years, however, their mandate has expanded.

At first, the business bifurcated between those delivering outsourced electronics manufacturing services (EMS) and those categorized as original design manufacturers (ODMs). As the names suggest, the former restricted itself to providing traditional contract manufacturing whereas the latter offered design and development as well as manufacturing services.

Until  recently, as Joseph Wei wrote last year, Foxconn, Flextronics, Jabil, Sanmina and Celestica were classified  as EMS vendors, while companies such as Compal, Quanta, Wistron, Pegatron (ASUSTek),  and Inventec were deemed ODM vendors. Increasingly, though, the distinction between the two classifications has blurred.

The aforementioned companies are extending and expanding their capabilities. Acer founder Stan Shih has noted that bare-bones EMS companies eventually will disappear or transition into what he called design manufacturing services (DMS). That’s a transformation Foxconn and others are undergoing, strengthening their R&D and design services to offer more value to consumer-brand clientele.  In adding design and development to their services portfolio, companies formerly in the EMS business mitigate distinctions between themselves and their ODM counterparts.

Although many of these firms originated in Taiwan, nearly all have Chinese operations, which are growing quickly. Like China itself, these companies are eager to ascend the value chain. Cut-price manufacturing of consumer electronics has been a good business for them, but the margins are wafer thin and the competition is fierce. (Then, of course, there are the dispiriting and sordid issues relating to sagging employee morale.) The more value a company can offer its consumer-brand clients, the more margin and profit it can make.

Now let’s turn this around, and look at it from the perspective of shareholders in the brand-name consumer-electronics companies availing themselves of the services of Foxconn, Wistron, and Quanta. For a Dell or an HP, the obvious appeal of doing business with a DMS vendor is that it reduces your development and engineering costs, especially as you outsource a greater proportion of design and development to a third party.

As that happens, however — at least in PCs, netbooks, tablets, and even smartphones — the value of the brand-name consumer-electronics firm increasingly inheres in the commercial appeal of the brand. But in little else. If HP or Dell ceases to design and develop many of its products, what is its value in the marketplace? Moreover, what is its competitive differentiation or barrier to competitive entry? Such companies, at least in these particular markets, are only as strong as their brands.

After all, a competitor can easily contract with ODMs or DMSs to have similar, if not identical, products brought to market. As the ODM assumes a greater share of value creation in its bid to attain better margins, it effectively gains more power in the broader ecosystem. Brand names will depend on it to provide designs and development as well as manufacturing. But that design and development is not exclusive; it can be provided to any company willing to do business with it.

This is one reason why Stan Shih said earlier this year that American PC vendors HP and Dell might eventually be rendered extinct within the next 20 years. (Conceivably, it could take less time than that.)

Said Shih:

“The trend for low-priced computers will last for the coming years. But U.S. computer makers just don’t know how to put such products on the market. U.S. computer brands may disappear over the next 20 years, just like what happened to U.S. television brands.”

There’s a real danger that, at least in the realm of PCs and related products, America’s top vendors have sacrificed long-term viability for a short-term reductions in operating expenditures. In transferring design and development overseas, increasingly to China, what defenses do they have against lower-priced offerings that essentially will be the same as their own products. Their only defense will be provided by their marketing departments, which will promote brand identity and equity. The care and feeding of those marketing departments, paradoxically, will result in higher corporate cost structures than those incurred by their Asian (increasingly Chinese) rivals.

It’s a daunting dilemma, one that Apple has been keen to avoid. While Apple uses contract manufacturers such as Foxconn, it has been careful not to outsource its storied design and development to companies overseas. Unlike its North American PC rivals, Apple sees design and development as integral to the value of its brand. For Apple, the brand isn’t just, well, the brand. Instead, the brand derives its power at least as much from design and development (R&D) as from advertising and marketing prowess, though Apple is undeniably skilled in those dark arts, too.

Apple knows that product differentiation, based on the technological innovation, still matters. HP and Dell might have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Security Just One Aspect of Google’s Internal Windows Purge

The Financial Times reported yesterday that Google is phasing out internal use of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, ostensibly for security reasons.

I will not suggest that Windows doesn’t have its security problems, most of which have been well documented over the years, though new ones surface regularly. I have no doubt that the security shortcomings of Windows have been real problems for Google and its employees. Early this year, for example, Windows-based PCs running Internet Explorer were breached by Chinese hackers in what became known as Operation Aurora, resulting in a major standoff between Google and China that saw the former ultimately relocate its Chinese search operations to Hong Kong.

Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t recognize that there’s another aspect to the phasing out of Windows at Google, increasingly a competitor to Microsoft on multiple fronts that extend far beyond search and related advertising.

One of Google’s biggest pushes, of course, is cloud computing, for which it would like to serve as poster child and exemplar. Google has developed application services and even an operating system, Chrome, to better deliver its vision of cloud computing to consumers and enterprises alike. Unlike Windows, Chrome is designed from the ground up to handle web-based applications. Windows, of course, draws its lineage and its market power from a desktop-based model of computing, in which applications run wholly (or in large part) on a personal computer.

Microsoft and Google are competing to deliver their respective visions of cloud computing to consumers and business. Even in the cloud, the operating system is important, in that it frames user engagement with remote application services. While its mandate and responsibilities are changing, the operating system still owns important real estate.

For now, though, Google says its employees are free to use Macs and Linux-based systems, but not Windows-based PCs. Google employees, however, report that the company would like to see its staff, and many others besides, using more Google-based products and services, including Chrome, on a regular basis.

That’s a logical objective for Google to pursue. How can consumers and businesses have confidence in Chrome if Google doesn’t use it internally? Increasingly, for as long and as hard as Google promotes Chrome beyond its own walls, expect the company to adopt it increasingly on its own campuses. As the saying does, Google will have to eat its own dog food.

In the meantime, though, Google employees are free to use their Macs. That will change, I’m sure, as Google pushes a tandem of Chrome and Android at home as well as away.

Microsoft Loses Patience with China

It wasn’t too long ago that Microsoft’s Craig Mundie, the company’s chief research and strategy officer, offered a public lecture to Google on how it should have been more patient and flexible in its dealings with China.

Mundie’s commentary was condescending, patronizing, self-serving — and an utterly obsequious ploy by Microsoft to curry favor with Chinese authorities. Rather than chortle at Google’s apparent misfortune, Microsoft should have kept its counsel and stuck to its coding.

Now we learn that Microsoft’s own patience with China is wearing thin. Earlier today in Singapore, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said China’s weak enforcement of copyright laws has hurt his company’s revenues and compelled it to focus on other markets in Asia.

An Associated Press (AP) report containing Ballmer’s remarks also noted that China — destined to become the world’s biggest computer market this year when it overtakes the U.S. — accounts for 15 to 20 percent of global PC sales, but just one (as in 1) percent of Microsoft revenue.

Said Ballmer:

“Intellectual property protection in China is not just lower than other places, it’s very low, very, very low. We see better opportunities in countries like India and Indonesia than China because the intellectual property protection is quite a bit better.”

When Ballmer returns to head office, he might want to share that insight with Mundie.

Components Shortages Affecting Vendors Worldwide

At the moment, components shortages seem to be pervasive in the technology industry. Vendors large and small, throughout most of the world, have been affected by them to greater or lesser degrees.

The problem appears to be with us for a while. To be best of my knowledge — and I will concede at the outset that my research hasn’t been definitive — vendors everywhere in the world are having difficulty sourcing adequate numbers of many types of components. The only exception is China, where vendors in telecommunications, cleantech, and other fields have not reported that same component-sourcing difficulties that have hobbled their counterparts in Europe, North America, and other parts of Asia.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese companies aren’t affected by components shortages. All it means is that they haven’t reported them, at least in the English-speaking media I’ve perused. Still, it’s a development that bears watching. In that China does not ascribe to the tenets of unfettered capitalism, it sometimes operates according to a unique set of rules.

Today’s component shortages span various semiconductor types, including but not limited to DSPs, FETs, diodes, and amplifiers. Vendors of solar inverters, particularly those based in Europe, also have been affected.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that a shortage of basic electrical components could last into the second half of 2011, limiting the ability of telecommunications-equipment manufacturers to respond to improving market demand.

Reuters reports that memory chips and other fundamental components such as resistors and capacitors are in short supply after their makers slashed output, fired staff, put equipment purchases on hold or went out of business during the recession.
The shortages already have been blamed for weaker-than-expected results last quarter at telecommunications-equipement vendors Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, which really don’t need the added grief.

Alcatel-Lucent blamed components shortages for a large loss that it posted in its first fiscal quarter. Alcatel-Lucent’s CEO Ben Verwaayen said the said the shortages involved “everyday” low-cost components. He explained that most components come from China, where the manufacturing industry hasn’t been revamped since major cuts that followed the severe global downturn. 

We already know that the supply-chain issues that afflicted Cisco’s channel partners and customers were blamed partly on component shortages.
What’s more, Dell partly blamed shortages and higher costs of components, including memory, for its inability to maintain gross margins during its just-reported quarter.

And AU Optronics, Taiwan’s second-ranked LCD manufacturer and a supplier to Dell and Sony, reported that an LCD panel shortage is likely to last into the second half of this year.

By no means are those the only vendors affected. You only have read the recent 10-Qs or conference-call transcripts of companies involved in computer networking, telecommunications gear, personal computers, smartphones, displays, or cleantech hardware to understand that components shortages are nearly everywhere.

I just wonder — and I make no accusation in doing so — whether Chinese manufacturers are as affected by the shortages as are their competitors in other parts of the world.

Major Ramifications from HP’s Palm Buy

Microsoft was one of the primary reasons I did not think HP would pursue an acquisition of Palm. Simply put, I though HP would tap Microsoft as its operating-system partner in the mobile space. I calculated that HP wouldn’t do anything that would endanger its extensively business and technology partnerships with Microsoft.

Well, I was wrong.

In buying Palm, HP sent shockwaves through the industry. It’s time to review and challenge the assumptions and orthodoxies that underpin our understanding of the information-technology universe. This move will have repercussions beyond the mobile space, which is increasingly important in its own right.

Even if HP fails utterly with its acquisition of Palm — even if it spins its wheels as a fringe player in the mobile space with smart phones, tablets, and netbooks running webOS — it has sent a powerful message that is being carefully digested in boardrooms worldwide.

Microsoft, once the capo di tutti capi of the industry, is no longer a feared and respected force. In choosing to buy Palm, in choosing to have an mobile operating system of its own over anything its longtime partner could provide, HP is speaking volumes not only about its own objectives and the changing dynamics of the mobile space, but also about Microsoft’s downwardly mobile place in the world.

The HP-Microsoft partnership is or was exceptionally close, far closer than any dalliance HP had with Cisco. HP and Microsoft partnered across product portfolios, markets, business units, and geographies. If Microsoft developed software, one could be sure it would run on an HP system, be it a server, PC, or mobile device. The companies co-marketed and sold into nearly every addressable market.

Even though executives from HP and Microsoft say the relationship will remain strong, that it will endure, one has to wonder. HP has wounded Microsoft grievously, and both parties know it. What’s more, the rest of the vendor community knows it, too.

Everything must be reconsidered now. How and where else will HP deviate from its Microsoft alliances? Watch for changes to HP’s collaboration and unified-communications strategy, especially for HP to enhance and extend 3Com’s VoIP product portfolio from its mid-market perch. Watch also for HP to bolster its videoconferencing capabilities.

What does Microsoft do now? Now that HP has kicked it in the gut, its other mobile operating-system licensees will question, even more than before, whether Windows Phone 7 Series is really for them. Those doubts are turning into negative judgments, decisions to look elsewhere for what they need.

I would have to think everything is back on the table at Microsoft, even acquisitions of other mobile players, something that would have been unthinkable before HP’s acquisition of Palm. For Microsoft, mobile is too important a space for it to be seen as week and irrelevant.

Irrespective of whether HP succeeds in squeezing value from Palm, it has set off an interesting chain reaction.

Dell Makes Right Move Providing Financing for SMB Customers

Dell is being more aggressive in extending financing to its SMB customers, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Although I recognize the risks inherent in providing relatively generous credit terms to SMBs, many of which have suffered inordinately during the savage economic downturn and the current joyless recovery, Dell is doing the right thing, for itself and for the economy.

As the money spigots are turned tightly off by banks and other traditional sources of credit, Dell and other vendors that depend on the ongoing patronage of SMBs confront a difficult dilemma: refuse to provide vendor financing to these customers, and see them perish or go to other vendors willing to extend financial largesse; or provide them with the financing they need to buy your products and services, incurring the risk that some of them will fail anyway and not repay your loans.

The second option is better, particularly if Dell is selective in how and to whom it provides its vendor financing. In that regard, Dell, which derives about 23 percent of its revenue from SMBs (companies with fewer than 500 employees), is taking a conservative, prudent approach in assessing the credit risks of its clientele.

That’s good practice, of course. But it’s also good practice for Dell to reach out and help those customers who can be helped, and who will continue buying Dell PCs, servers, and services when times improve. The concept of enlightened self-interest in business often is viewed cynically, and there’s no question that it features a hard edge of commercial realpolitik. It can work, though, delivering benefits for all involved, and this is one example where it definitely serves more than one party’s interests.

Dell has $7 billion in credit available for small companies, and it extends most of the credit itself rather than through financial intermediaries. Good for Dell, and good for the companies and organizations that qualify for the financing.