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Apple outsmarts its competitors

March 31, 2012

Unmistakable stress signs among competitors appear to herald a tectonic shift in the smartphone sector – to Apple’s advantage.

One rival RIM – maker of Blackberry – has retired hurt from the consumer ring. Another, Apple’s principal adversary in the field, is having to carefully rethink its ‘open-door’ strategy.

No surprise, perhaps, that the cracks are appearing at RIM, which has been heading for the casualty ward almost since the iPhone first appeared. After a disappointing financial year and downright disastrous Q4, new RIM chief executive Thorsten Heins has cleared out most of the old guard, including former co-CEO Jim Balsillie – still on the board – as well as the COO and CTO. And announced at the same time that RIM is all-but jettisoning the consumer market in favour of the business and public sectors.

At very least this means RIM will cease to develop content and music services. But the strategic review could signal a lot, lot more where that came from. Why exactly should business and government be interested in propping up the failing Blackberry brand, just because consumers aren’t? Even if they are, would RIM – so pared – still be a scalable global business? These are two of the questions Heins has, understandably, failed to answer so far. And yet, even at this stage, he has admitted that the future is “outsourcing” and possibly a trade sale. Echoes of Palm here, the PDA innovator which – despite a superior operating system – was eventually gobbled up by Hewlett-Packard.

More nuanced than Blackberry’s rout is Google’s response to worsening sales figures in the most hotly contested smartphones sub-sector, tablets. Here, Android-powered product is being squeezed by the exotically priced but more glamorous iPad (entry-level, $399) and the bargain-basement ($199) Kindle Fire, made by Amazon.

Reportedly, the search and smartphones titan is preparing to sell Google co-branded tablets directly to consumers through an online store.

That shocking, you say. So what?

Superficially, Google adding its awesome brand to the Android-powered tablet platform looks like a sign of strength. But that’s not what the techno-commentariat to a man and woman believes is behind the move.

On the contrary, they say, Google is attempting to shore up its position in a fracturing market. Unlike Apple, which maintains a dictatorial control over its operating system at all levels of innovation, manufacturing and distribution, Google has always favoured a laissez aller approach. By opening up its Android operating system to outside manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and ASUS. This strategy has the merit of reducing development costs and potentially speeding up market penetration, with the corollary of making a killing in the apps field. If it succeeds, that is. But the downside is a lack of quality control; meaning that the Android brand and, indirectly, Google will be tarnished by the poor performance of its weakest collaborators.

It is this perception of fragmented user experience that has driven Google to intervene more directly in the market by taking over distribution.

With what effect we shall see. Commentators have been quick to point out that Google has tried this stratagem before, with the HTC-manufactured Nexus One smartphone.

And failed. The co-venture was shut down in mid-2010.

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Google/Motorola deal opens way for game-changing Microsoft merger with Nokia

August 16, 2011

Say whatever else you like about Google’s $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola Mobile, it’s a landmark deal, defining a new inflection point in the evolution of mobile communications.

How it will do so is another matter. Commentators are widely divided over its ultimate objective or even whether, all things considered, the deal will benefit Google.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer: Last laugh?

Let’s start with something concrete: the high price. At $40 a share, paid in cash, Google’s offer represented a handsome 63% premium to the smartphone maker’s share price at the end of last week. Even allowing for the currently flustered state of world stock markets, that suggests a measure of desperation on Google’s part to get the deal done.

Why pay so much? Motorola may once have been a great mobile handset brand. But today it commands no more than 2.4% of the market that matters, smartphones – according to analyst Gartner.

Some would suggest that calling Motorola a brand at all is to miss the point. In their eyes, the deal is little more than a defensive gesture, aimed at raiding Motorola’s 17,000 innovation patents. These will bolster the already near-dominant position of the Android operating platform by allowing Google to segue, for the first time, directly into hardware development (tablets in particular). By so doing, Google thinks it will obviate increasingly destructive IP litigation. Mountain View now sees this as the tactic of choice deployed by its principal competitors Apple and Microsoft to slow up Android’s inexorable advance. Like caltrops strewn in the road to block a triumphant cavalry charge.

No less significantly, the Motorola acquisition will enable Google to improve Android user experience. Complete control over a handset manufacturer will mean, in theory at least, fewer glitches (compared with, say, the already intergrated iPhone experience) when it comes to software upgrades. Which in turn means more happy customers and apps developers.

So far, so positive. But, from here on in, the deal looks more risky. Google may not choose to highlight the issue of brand conflict, but Motorola’s competitors most certainly will. And it just so happens that some of these competitors, namely Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony Ericsson, are Android’s most important customers. Without them, their awesome distribution and massive marketing budgets, the “inexorable” advance of Android would be stopped in its tracks. So Google will have to work very hard at convincing them that Motorola will not get first-mover advantage in the event of some major piece of market innovation.

Cynically, Google may well have calculated that Android’s other “carriers” have little choice but to toe the line, there being no visible alternative to its own operating system at this moment.

But that would be to underestimate Microsoft (never a wise thing to do) and what is likely to be the most significant and unforeseen consequence of the Motorola deal. Which is: Microsoft buying Nokia – still the biggest, if no longer the best, mobile phone brand.

That would indeed be an irony. Without the catalyst of the Google/Motorola deal, Microsoft and Nokia might never have been able to convince their shareholders to go the whole hog and commute a peripheral collaboration deal into a fully-fledged merger. With what consequences for Google and Apple we can only guess.


Blackberry and Nokia: Twilight of the cellphone idols

June 17, 2011

Nothing dates quite like fashion, and nowhere is this truer than the technology sector – as Blackberry-maker RIM and Nokia are finding to their cost. In 10 years’ time, it’s conceivable that Blackberry will be no more than an extension in someone else’s brand repertoire, and Nokia – still, if only just, the market-leading brand in handset manufacturing – will have no more resonance than Ericsson does today. They are the brand equivalents of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Salience in the consumer technology sector is all about keeping abreast of the latest trends. And it is clear that Nokia and RIM have not. Nokia has failed to conquer the smartphone market, while RIM has failed to continue dominating it. Both companies are now beset by lengthy delays in product launches, increasing investor pessimism and, that natural corollary, plunging share prices.

At a technical level, both these companies seemed singularly blind to the two-pronged threat from the iPhone and Android operating system until it was right on top of them. Nokia has belatedly discovered, under its new chief executive Stephen Elop, that its smartphone operating system is not up to snuff and is having to broker a last-minute and doubtful marriage with Microsoft’s superior version. RIM, on the other hand, had grown complacent about its apparently unassailable position in the elite corporate sector, with the result that it failed to adequately prepare for the advent of the touchscreen phone and the 10in tablet.

A case of sclerotic corporate cultures fatally mesmerized by their legacy of previous success? Only up to a point. Nokia and RIM, looked at more strategically, are victims of haphazard technological convergence. Who, 10 years ago, could have seen that mobile communications would come to be dominated by a formerly ailing computer manufacturer and an ingredient brand dreamed up by the world’s largest search engine? And who, even once the trend had become established 3 years ago, would have had the corporate courage, or foolhardiness, to bet all their assets and legacy on it being the inexorable path of the future?

It’s a sad truism that companies spend billions of dollars every year on insight and trend-spotting. But usually lack the judgement or willpower to make proper use of it.

UPDATE 4/7/11: “RIM is the Wang of mobile phones.” That was how Charles Dunstone (CEO of Carphone Warehouse Group) referred to the Canadian Blackberry-maker at last week’s Google ThinkMobile conference. Wang was a classy corporate-oriented computer company that specialised in just one thing, word processing. But it was blown away by Microsoft’s Office. Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and eventually disappeared into Netherlands-based Getronics in 1999, never to be seen again. I wish I had thought of that parallel first, Charles…


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