8.25.2011

Apple, and Computing, After Steve Jobs

We wish Steve Jobs good health and speedy recovery — but for the tech industry, his era is over.

Jobs is arguably the most influential computer-industry executive alive today. While he certainly shares the top shelf with the likes of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Google’s Larry Page, IBM’s Sam Palmisano and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, for years Jobs has been in a class all by himself.

No modern tech titan has been so intimately involved with every aspect of the business. When you look at the patents, the design decisions, the marketing concepts and the purity of execution, Jobs defined what it means to be a hands-on manager with vision.

On Wednesday, Aug. 24, Jobs announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. You’ve undoubtedly read countless stories in the general media, analysis by pundits, and tweets by your friends. At this point, don’t read too much into anyone’s prognostications; we’re all extrapolating from very little data.

For example, we don’t know how many of Apple’s recent decisions were inspired by Jobs, and how many came from Tim Cook. The newly promoted CEO had held down the fort and ran day-to-day operations during Jobs’ illness.

On the short term, Apple has many Jobs-blessed products and plans in the pipeline. But what happens when that pipeline runs dry – and when the industry shifts?

Bigger changes must come soon to Apple’s product and service mix. How much will those changes affect the company’s trendsetting sense of design, ability to create entire new technology sectors, its willingness to go it alone, its minimalistic marketing, its one-sided relationship with partners, its arrogant disdain of the media, its rampant paranoia and secrecy? Nobody knows.

Take design, the area that showcases Steve Jobs’ personal leadership and vision. When it comes to new products (beyond those already in the pipeline), Apple’s designers can either try to emulate the past by designing around a hypothetical WWJD (What Would Jobs Do?) style, or follow the instincts of a new chief designer – even if that means going in a new aesthetic direction.

Let’s hope for the latter: If Apple goes into a WWJD navel-searching spiral, that would be a disaster. You can’t invent the future by copying the past. For the sake of Apple and its customers, Cook must demonstrate strong leadership and truly make the company his own.

8.15.2011

Google to buy Motorola Mobility – it may be a patent play

Google – the company behind Android – is buying Motorola Mobility for US$12.5 billion.

Motorola, a U.S.-based telecommunications infrastructure equipment maker formed in the 1930s, spun off its Mobility handset subsidiary in January 2011. Perhaps the Google deal was in the cards all along. In any case, here are my first thoughts upon hearing about the pending acquisition this morning.

1. The Android platform will become more like the iPhone platform.

Apple’s iOS runs only on Apple’s hardware, and the company ties its hardware and software releases together. The benefit to consumers and developers is, of course, that the hardware and software work together as an integrated and seamless entity. The downside is that if you want an iOS-based device, you have few choices in form factor, features and functionality. It’s Apple’s way or the highway.

Android goes the other way: Google creates the operating system, but it’s up to the handset/tablet makers to adapt that software to fit their hardware. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the experience is not as seamless as you find with iOS; it’s always a compromise.

In the past, Google has designed and sold a few handsets, but they’ve been little more than glorified reference platforms. With the Motorola Mobility deal, however, Google can make sure that future devices from that company are 100% in tune with Android features (and vice-verse). This should result in a better experience on those devices, giving Apple more of a run for its money.

Note that with the Motorola Xoom tablet, we already saw Google willing to bend the rules – the version of Android released for the Xoom was not as open as previous versions of Android.

2. The other Android handset/tablet makers are not going to be pleased.

Firms like HTC, LG and Samsung have invested hugely in Android. They are not going to see one of their top competitors being brought inside the tent.

In the press release announcing its planned acquisition of Motorola Mobile, Google wrote,

Andy Rubin, Senior Vice President of Mobile at Google, said, “We expect that this combination will enable us to break new ground for the Android ecosystem. However, our vision for Android is unchanged and Google remains firmly committed to Android as an open platform and a vibrant open source community. We will continue to work with all of our valued Android partners to develop and distribute innovative Android-powered devices.”

To paraphrase George Orwell, all Android device manufacturers may be equal, but some may be more equal than others. It’s inevitable that Motorola Mobility will receive special treatment by Google, by the partner ecosystem and by consumers.

(Were I in charge of Microsoft’s Windows 7 Phone division, I’d be busy speed-dialing all the Android device makers instead of writing this column.)

3. The deal may be about patents, not hardware profits.

Success in the tablet and smartphone markets requires both innovation as well as intellectual property litigation. Patents are used offensively to delay and harass competitors, and they are used defensively to shield against lawsuits.

Once a company has amassed a sufficiently large patent portfolio, either through invention or acquisition, it can use its portfolio as a serious weapon. When multiple companies have large patent portfolios, they can cross-license with each other, shielding both from lawsuits while also raising barriers against players who aren’t party to the cross-licensing agreement.

Google might be calculating that Android will be strengthened by buying Motorola Mobility’s patent portfolio – either for the benefit of Google itself, or for the benefit of the entire ecosystem through licensing and indemnification. Given Google's publicly stated concerns about Android patents attacks, don’t be surprised if IP turns out to be as important as device revenue in this strategic acquisition.

8.12.2011

Memories of two keyboards: IBM’s Selectric and Personal Computer

The IBM Personal Computer was introduced on August 12, 1981. The IBM Selectric typewriter debuted July 31, 1961. What a world of difference between the two devices – but both made a tremendous mark on global business and on today’s society.

My introduction to the IBM Selectric came in the 1970s. Through high school and then into college, I earned good money typing term papers, theses and dissertations. A good typist could earn serious money, especially if you were both fast and accurate – and, without adopting any false modesty, I was both. At first, I used a Smith-Corona cartridge typewriter, but in college I had easy access to lots of Selectric typewriters.

The Selectric II was heavenly. I could type like the wind on that beautiful, perfect, silky keyboard. Because you could change the golf-ball-shaped head, I could offer grad students and professors a couple of different typefaces – and even insert italics instead of merely underlining for emphasis. (I charged extra for pages with italics.)

I still own that Smith-Corona typewriter, and occasionally fire it up to frighten editorial interns. I never did purchase a Selectric typewriter, though. They were far too expensive, and worse, they earned a reputation for frequent breakdowns that required costly service contracts or ruinous repair bills.

The Selectric typewriter, with its type ball and lack of moving carriage, took up very little space on an office desk, and for many businesses, was a wise investment for turbocharging secretaries and typing pools. The mag tape version of the Selectric – which I never used – was a stepping-stone to the world of dedicated word processing machines. IBM made word processing machines, but that market was dominated by Wang.

It was the ridiculously high cost of dedicated word processing machines that led to early adoption of the IBM Personal Computer in many companies. A floppy-based IBM PC and printer and word processing software (such as MultiMate) was much less expensive than a Wang machine.

When the IBM PC came out in 1981, I was working as a programmer for System/370-series mainframes. Some IBM sales guys (black suits, white shirts) came out and demonstrated the IBM PC to a rapt audience. They left one with us to evaluate – this was the original model with the 4.77MHz processor, a floppy drive and a green text-only monitor. We had no idea what to do with it. Eventually, the IBMers took it away. Certainly we didn’t miss it.

Mainframe programmers didn’t want the IBM PC, but secretaries and other office workers did. The IBM PC found a place (especially when the IBM PC/XT appeared in 1983 with its built-in hard drive) doing simple office tasks – like word processing, a true business-critical application. (Secretaries weren’t happy with the IBM PC, since its early word-processing software wasn’t anywhere near as a versatile and reliable as the Wang machines machines. But the hardware and software improved rapidly, and the cost savings was huge.)

Except in the sciences and in special applications, the IBM PC was often considered a piece of office equipment, not computing equipment. A company’s IT staff rarely got involved with these stand-alone appliances, any more than they would have maintained Selectric typewriters or Wang word-processing machines.

When did IT become involved? For most organizations, the tipping point arrived by the mid-to-late 1980s, when administrators began supporting custom software, terminal access and local-area networking. The drivers for LANs, of course, was to provide shared access to expensive laser printers and file servers. Distasteful though it was to many glass-house professionals, it was clear that the IBM PCs were computers, not office equipment.

Thanks to innovations like Lotus 1-2-3 macros, Novell NetWare and the need to build and support business-enhancing software written in BASIC, Turbo Pascal and dBase II, the IBM PC turned into a true enterprise IT resource instead of a glorified typewriter. The Selectric was dead. Long live the IBM PC.

The rest, as they say, was history.

8.08.2011

Perforce is now versioning everything

When you find what you’re good at, double-down. That’s the message from Perforce, a company that’s well-known for its source-code management system, also called Perforce.

The company, reaching the milestone of its 15th birthday, faced a decision: What to do next? The company had been investing in and improving its SCM software for years, but wanted to find a vision, find a next step in growing the company’s offering beyond adding features in each incremental release.

Perforce’s executives toyed with the notion of trying to expand into the full range of application lifecycle management software – developing requirements management tools, for example. But that didn’t seem to fit their technological strengths, or fill a real need in the market. Instead, the company has chosen a new direction: becoming a version management company.

Along with a new modern logo and a tagline that says, “Version Everything,” the company’s founder and president, Chris Seiwald, laid everything out in a keynote address at the 2011 Perforce User Conference, held earlier this summer.

What does that mean? It means a new web content management system, Chronicle, expected soon. It means new tools for working offline, called Sandbox, due to go into beta this September. It means enhanced functions for streams, that is, containers for branching and merging. It means new back-end systems to support very widely distributed version control, including cloud-based hosted services. And it means a new developer and administrator ecosystem that brings Perforce’s customers together using social media.

Perforce sees itself expanding beyond its traditional developer audience (and a focus on source code and related media files, artifacts and blobs) into entire new markets. It’s a big transition for the company, but as it builds on its SCM foundations, I feel optimistic about the direction Perforce is taking.

About Me

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.