Good Riddance to Ye Olde Trade Showes

Last spring, your editor did some fast talking and smooth persuading to break through his company's somewhat limited travel budget and get himself sent to Atlanta for Tech-Ed, Microsoft's annual conference for IT folks. And do you know what happened? Nothing.

Well, not much, anyway. There was a superb, as always, Redmond magazine party. There was some quality time spent chatting with a few third-party vendors, some more interesting than others. And there was a chance to meet fellow pixel-stained hacks and hang out with some far-flung colleagues.

But that was about it. And for the cost of a flight and hotel, food (and, uh, drink) and several days of being on an interrupted and unusual work schedule, that's not much. Granted, Microsoft didn't make a lot of big product announcements in 2011. But Tech-Ed, once kind of a big deal, didn't even feature a Steve Ballmer keynote. Microsoft made very few folks available for press interviews (and actually closed the press room early), and most of the "news" that came out of the show was a rehash of stuff we all already knew or a look at some of the more granular details of products everybody knew was coming (such as the Mango update to Windows Phone 7).

Sure, there were probably a few deals signed and some valuable networking opportunities taken. But, really, Tech-Ed felt like a dud of an event, a relic of what used to be a can't-miss spectacle. In other words, it felt like a trade show, one of the last of a dying breed that will likely see more attrition in 2012.

The funny thing is that, as lame as it was last year, Tech-Ed is the type of show that's actually likely to survive. It's put on by a single vendor and focused on a specific target audience. Its size is reasonable (somewhere in the high four figures in attendance in 2011, if memory serves), and it doesn't feature big-name entertainers or other such expensive and increasingly rare and ineffective draws. (Your editor remembers seeing Sheryl Crow and Lenny Kravitz perform at SAP's SAPphire show, circa 1999. Today, a Lenny Kravitz video playing on a tablet in the concourse of a convention hall might come off as a little ostentatious at an industry gathering. Not to mention dated.)

It's the big shows -- remember COMDEX, gone for nearly a decade now? -- that are whistling in the industry graveyard these days. Not many of them are left, of course, and the ones that are still big or trying to be big, like CES and Macworld, are losing clout and major vendor participation pretty rapidly. Apple hasn't been part of Macworld for a couple of years now. Think about that. That's like the Super Bowl without football. All that's left are a few parties and some low-level media buzz that barely cracks radio static these days.

What's in now -- and we say this not just because 1105 Media runs some of these things, although it doesn't hurt -- are smaller, localized events more focused on education and small-group networking than on in-attendees'-faces advertising and blockbuster product announcements. Learning about virtualization a few hundred miles from home (if that far) is of much greater value than traveling 2,500 miles to hear a really spirited keynote (if anybody even does those anymore). Of course, virtual events have reached critical mass in the last five or six years, too, now that the technology to support them actually works and is commonly available.

Here at RCPU, we're not exactly bemoaning the slow death of the old-school trade show. Sure, there were some fun nights out back in the '90s in San Diego, Chicago, New York and even wretched Orlando (that's where the expense report for booze came in handy), but traveling got to be a grind after a while. (There was, incidentally, never any fun in Philadelphia, ever. And it is not always sunny there, either.) We can't be the only ones who feel this way about the old fall and spring schedules. Plus, the general insanity of the huge trade show usually led more to a lot of rushing around for nothing than it did to meaningful conversations or, in our case, really important stories. We figure we're in the majority when we say that we're glad to see the COMDEX-type shows fading quickly. 

But now, even the smaller, more focused Tech-Ed-type events, the ones that are supposed to be the future of business travel in the technology industry, feel superfluous and forced. Vendors don't make big announcements at them anymore because they can't always get their stuff together well enough to break out new products on promised timelines. Technical sessions too often focus on new stuff that nobody's actually using yet or that IT folks won't ever have in their infrastructures, anyway. (That's a real complaint from a real IT person. Sometimes vendors forget just how long companies hold on to technology that required a lot of investment to acquire and implement.) Outside of the Redmond shindig, attendance at parties and other outside events is dwindling all the time. Keynotes are lame, serving less of a purpose than press releases, fact sheets and simple phone conversations about new products.

We're not trying to talk ourselves out of going to Tech-Ed in 2012 (in Orlando -- so maybe we are trying to talk ourselves out of it), and we're not saying that you shouldn't read's superb annual coverage of one of the events that does still matter, Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference. What we are saying is that in an era with very good Internet videoconferencing and product launches that increasingly happen when a vendor is good and ready rather than at scheduled events, we're happy to, say, drive to Boston for a local meeting with Microsoft or sit in on a webcast, but we're less inclined (and less able) to fly to Vegas or L.A. to go through the motions of attending a show that's a skeleton of what it used to be.

And that's fine with us. Let the vendors come to us, and not vice versa. It's about time we got to hear about new developments while sitting in comfy chairs and eating food that doesn't come pre-wrapped in a box. Lenny Kravitz wasn't all that great live, anyway.

What's your take on the future of the trade show? How often do you attend shows these days? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below or send them to [email protected].  


Posted by Lee Pender on January 03, 20121 comments

12 Stupid Technology Predictions for 2012

Predictions are stupid. They're a waste of time for the predictor and for the, uh, predictees who pay attention to them. They're almost impossible to quantify, rarely very specific ("Virtualization will be important!") and generally forgotten a few weeks after some pundit sprays them all over the Internet.

Well, it just so happens that in what is not exactly the busiest week of the year, we at RCPU have some time to kill. And we feel compelled to kill your time, too. So, we're loading up a predictions entry that will undoubtedly be...stupid. Because all predictions are stupid. But here we go, anyway, based on nothing at all:

  1. Windows 8 will be Microsoft's best operating system yet -- and a huge bust. Windows 8 won't be Vista. It'll only feel like Vista when the revenue numbers don't start rolling in. Oh, it'll be a beauty of an OS, but it'll have a major problem: Windows 7. And another major problem: the iPad (and maybe the Kindle Fire, too).

    On the PC, without its touch-screen capabilities and so forth (which we still maintain would be ridiculous to use on a PC), Windows 8 won't look different enough from Windows 7 for businesses or consumers who just moved from XP to 7 to get excited about it. And on tablets, where it will look fantastic and work really well, Microsoft is already so far behind that it won't be able to catch its rivals, even with a borderline revolutionary OS. See Windows Phone 7.

  2. There will be a huge cloud backlash among enterprises. We here at RCPU were once snorting bulls when it came to the cloud. While we're not exactly growling bears (although we prefer the term Bruins) yet, we're starting to think that 2012 will be a year in which hype about the cloud in the enterprise will fade a bit -- as will the number of enterprise cloud implementations. Keep in mind that we're talking about outsourcing e-mail and other critical business functions here, not people putting their pictures on Flickr, which will likely continue apace.

    A few more high-profile cloud outages and a couple more stories of organizations having trouble getting their cloud implementations up and running securely will stop even some of the most resource-strapped businesses in their efforts to swoosh to the sky. A mini-devolution will make news as companies keep important applications on-premises, and cloud computing providers will have to reinvent their wares -- or just make them better -- yet again.

  3. Microsoft will kill Windows Phone. We're not saying that Microsoft won't have a mobile OS; we're saying that the whole Windows Phone brand -- and maybe some of the functionality -- will disappear after an unsuccessful run. Everything will get shoved under the Windows 8 umbrella somehow, making marketing for the new version of the flagship OS even more confusing. And the Windows 8 mobile edition, or whatever it will be called, will look great -- and fall flat. See stupid prediction No. 1.

  4. The Consumer Electronics Show will go the way of Comdex. Oh, wait, that's already happening!

  5. Microsoft's social network will be a massive success. It has a dumb name, very little hype and probably nobody interested in using it. It's coming out five years too late. It's hard to tell exactly what users are supposed to do with it. How could not succeed? It'll be the Zune of social networks!

This entry will run out of steam before we even get halfway through our 12 predictions, so the last paragraph of our list will just be a bunch of random, possibly nonsensical and yet duly numbered thoughts:

6) XP will still control at least 25 percent of PC market share by year's end. 7) Steve Ballmer will sweat profusely during a keynote. 8) Apple users will turn their smugness away from Microsoft users and toward other Apple users who haven't upgraded to the latest version of an iWhatever. 9) CEO Marc Benioff will say nasty things about Microsoft, especially after Google buys his company. 10) Microsoft Lync will have a breakout year with Skype integrated into it, but your editor will start having to put a shirt on for meetings when he's working at home. 11) Pundits will say that Microsoft is slipping, but the company will keep crushing revenue records. 12) Somebody will write a predictions blog entry at the end of the year...and it'll be stupid.

Have a prediction for 2012? No prognostication is too ridiculous. Send yours to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

Posted by Lee Pender on December 21, 20114 comments

Happy Holidays from RCPU

As you might have noticed this year (or maybe you didn't), Scott Bekker and Jeff Schwartz have taken over most of the writing for RCPU. There are many reasons for this. One of them is not that I don't love our readers -- I do. My job has shifted over the last year, though, and Jeff and Scott -- the channel guys -- are doing amazing things with RCPU. Our benevolent queen ("editor" or "producer" just doesn't begin to cut it), Gladys Rama, is running this show like Aaron Rodgers steamrolling NFL defenses (except Kansas City's, but I'm confident that the Packers would have won that game with Gladys at quarterback).

I do plan to keep contributing to this magnificent newsletter, and I'd like to, as I do every year, thank everybody who has read RCPU faithfully in 2011 and invite you all to come back in 2012. This is our last edition of the year, so let's get on with some more thanking.

To Scott, Jeff and Gladys, thanks for doing 99 percent of the work here but somehow letting me keep the title "editor." It looks flashy on my business cards. To Becky Nagel, Kurt Mackie, Chris Paoli and our whole Web team in sunny California, thanks as always for your continued support and hard work. To Doug Barney, editor in chief of Redmond magazine and my boss, thanks for letting me continue to write for RCPU and for all the support and advice you've given me for this newsletter over the years. And again, thanks to our readers, the brightest and most interesting people in the industry. Whatever you celebrate (or don't), have a great rest of December. We'll see you in 2012. --Lee

Posted by Lee Pender on December 20, 20110 comments

LAPD Rejects Google's Cloud E-Mail

Did anybody really think this was going to work? Did Google really expect to impress Joe Friday with something called "the cloud"? Just listen to that tone, so flat and humorless. Soak in the foreboding nature of the "Dragnet" theme. This guy was going to send his e-mail -- strictly the facts, of course -- into something called "the cloud"? Think again, mister.

Google made a big splash when it won the deal to provide e-mail services in the cloud for (as Jack Webb flatly drones it) "the city, Los Angeles, California." But the tough, no-nonsense LAPD (yes, we're kind of conveniently forgetting at least the last 20 years or so here) has put the kibosh on that idea, saying that cloud e-mail didn't meet the city's security requirements for the cops.

There's so much to talk about here that we can almost feel the carpal tunnel syndrome setting in (although Joe Friday would have typed right through the pain), but we'll pick out a few things to observe. First, what a mess. Can anyone tell that public employees are at work here? Check out this revealing little passage from the Los Angeles Times story linked above:

"There was definitely a time when Google seemed positive they were going to meet the requirements," said Maggie Goodrich, the Los Angeles Police Department's chief information officer.

She noted, however, that the rules were written for law enforcement agencies that store their own data and did not consider the increasingly popular cloud computing model.

"It will be difficult for law enforcement to move to a cloud solution until the [security requirements] and cloud are more in line with each other," Goodrich said.  

Uh, OK, Maggie Goodrich. So, you took everything into account in this deal except for that little bit about Google running e-mail in the cloud. Really? The cloud was the whole point of the deal -- it saves money, cuts down on need for staff and maintenance, and so forth. But now, the LAPD is saying, "Oh, wait, we don't want cloud-based e-mail after all." That's kind of like saying, "I bought a bicycle, but what I really wanted was a car. Oops!" It's a hard mistake to make.

Let's move on and go back to the L.A. Times story:

For its part, Google noted that the complicated security rules were not part of the original contract it signed with Los Angeles in 2009 and that the city raised the issue well after the deal had been completed.

"We're disappointed that the city introduced requirements for the LAPD after the contract was signed that are, in its own words, 'currently incompatible with cloud computing,'" Google spokesman Andrew Kovacs said in a statement. He also noted that 17,000 employees were successfully using the Google system and that it had already saved city taxpayers "more than two million dollars."

Hey, Google, did you think to ask about the cloud? OK, we've established that the city of Los Angeles was not at its Joe Friday finest in singing this deal. But Google, did you at any point just happen to bring up questions about the cloud and security requirements, or did you just figure you'd go ahead and implement everything and maybe nobody would notice? "Shh, ix-nay on the oud-clay...I think we've got them." Bizarre.

What's even better is that Google issued a nothing-to-see-here, everybody's-out-to-get-us defense when this issue first cropped up publicly back in October. Check this out from's own Kurt Mackie:

In December 2009, Levin had explained that the city planned to move "all 30,000 city employees to Google Apps from our existing [Novell] GroupWise email system," according to a Google blog post. She noted then that "everyone will benefit from Google's security controls." The Consumer Watchdog letter to Villaraigosa, dated Oct. 18, 2011, claimed that "a mere 17,000 city employees use the Google system while 13,000 LAPD and other employees involved in law enforcement cannot make the move."

A Google spokesperson, without clarification, issued the following statements, asserting that its competitors were engaged in a publicity stunt, and that the city introduced new requirements to meet.

"This is just the latest in a long list of press stunts from a group that admits to working closely with our competitors," Google stated. "We are meeting our commitments to the City of Los Angeles. Indeed, the City recently renewed their Google Apps contract for 17,000 employees, and the project is expected to save Los Angeles taxpayers millions of dollars.

"The City has acknowledged Google Apps is more secure than its current system. Along the way they've also introduced new requirements which require work to implement in a cloud computing environment, and we've presented a plan to meet them at no additional cost."

But wait, it gets better. Are you ready for the plan? You're not ready for the plan. It doesn't exactly involve Google actually meeting any requirements. It's way funnier than that. Let's go back to the LA Times story:

In a unanimous vote, the City Council agreed to change the terms of its $7.2-million contract with Google so that LAPD employees and others will stay on an older on-site email system. Google will pay up to $350,000 per year for those employees to use that system, which is run by Novell, a competitor.

That's the plan: Google is going to pay the LAPD to stay on GroupWise. GroupWise! At this point, your editor needs to get a Subaru to pay his wife for driving her '98 Corolla. This is just brilliant work by Google -- punt, and then pay to keep the client on an e-mail system that actually used flint and stone. (Well, not really; we can't remember what GroupWise was like.)

Hey, we're fans of the cloud here at RCPU. But this scenario does make us wonder whether we should all tap the breaks on the cloud a little bit. Yeah, there's a lot of officious government interference at work here, namely the security requirements for e-mail, that might or might not really be necessary.

But if a major law enforcement agency simply rejects cloud e-mail (forget about it being from Google; we're talking about the cloud in general here) because it doesn't deem the system secure enough, is cloud-based messaging secure enough for your business? How much is your data worth, and to what lengths will you go to protect it? It's just something to think about amid the cloud hype. We're pretty sure we know what Joe Friday would say, though.

See Also:

Posted by Lee Pender on December 15, 201113 comments

Carrier IQ and the Unwritten Rule of Privacy

What is Carrier IQ? Do you know yet? Media organizations are jumping all over each other to tell us, but it's basically a rootkit that tracks pretty much everything a user does on a smartphone, in some cases all the way down to individual keystrokes.

AT&T and Sprint have already owned up to using it, and it might even be present in some form on the iconic iPhone. Naturally, people are freaking out about this, fussing over privacy and even suggesting that Carrier IQ might violate federal wiretapping laws.

Here at RCPU, we're shrugging. Really, is this that big of a deal? OK, if it violates federal wiretapping laws, then yeah, it probably is. But what's the real impact on smartphone users? We're guessing that it's minimal. No, really. There are a few reasons why.

First of all, even if Sprint does have records of your text messages and is recording every keystroke you execute, do you really think executives in Kansas City are sitting around in some Bourne-movie-style room full of tracking screens, watching your every move and reading your every message?

If so, get over yourself. Big shots at AT&T, Sprint, Apple, Google or wherever don't have the time or the inclination to do that. They don't own black helicopters for spying purposes; if they own them, they're only for shuttling around their overpaid executives. These companies that use Carrier IQ are using the information they gather to work on demographics, figure out users' habits and do that sort of corporate-research thing. They are not trying to rat you out for being at the bar when you say you're working late.

Besides, what does your cell provider not know about you already? And it's not just cell carriers. Cable companies, Internet providers, banks, random Web sites you subscribe to -- they all ask for a load of information, much of it personal. Sometimes that even includes Social Security numbers, which still seems wrong for some reason. (Actually, isn't it technically illegal?)

The fact is, you're already everywhere. Marketers have your information. Google knows how to serve you ads in the least annoying way possible. You're registered in more databases than Starbucks had locations in 2003. (It's really too bad that joke doesn't work anymore.) Everything you surf is kept in some server record somewhere. Your life is public -- unless you're not reading this because you're off the grid -- and yet nobody from Great Big Corp. has ever tried to steal your identity or reveal where you really go on Friday afternoons when you take your "lunch break."

Do we here at RCPU really like this semi-invasive information gathering? Nah, not really, but we live with it. It's too big a battle to fight. Carrier IQ is just a symptom of a much, much greater condition with regard to privacy: We're choosing not to worry about it.

Besides, you know the old unwritten rule, which is unwritten for a reason: If you want to do something in secret, if you want to cover something up or keep it under wraps, never write it down. Don't type it or keystroke it or scribble it on a cocktail napkin. And don't talk about it on the phone or tape it, for heaven's sake. Keep the conversations personal and private...or just don't have stuff to hide in the first place.

How worried are you about your privacy? Sound off in the comments section below or at [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on December 01, 20119 comments

5 Holiday Smartphone Apps I Wish Existed

My favorite holiday has come and gone. Yes, for reasons neither religious nor political nor controversial in any way, I like Thanksgiving better than Christmas -- although I do celebrate Christmas. Really, what's better than a holiday that's all about gluttony and football? It's as though the day was created just for me.

With Thanksgiving in the books for 2011, though, the real holiday grind is setting in. The holidays -- whether you celebrate one, several or none of them -- are inescapable. Every time you turn on the TV, there they are. Going online doesn't provide much respite, either. Did you realize that today is Cyber Monday? Yes, you'd heard about that? And, really, we're still using the word "cyber"? Where's the next exit off this information superhighway? Where's Al Gore when we need him? Actually, never mind. We don't need him.

(On a related note, here is a real, verbatim line from an e-mail I got today about a new patient-doctor communication Web site I started using this week: "When you receive your password, use your Internet connection and a web browser to go to [the URL]." Oh, I'm supposed to use my Internet connection and a Web browser? Do you mean like Netscape or something? My 1991 self is baffled by this, but my 2011 self finds it pretty funny.)

Here in the Boston area, one sadistic radio station plays nothing but Christmas music for something like six weeks this time of year. And forget going out of the house at all to escape the holidays; every retail establishment is decked out in holiday "cheer" in a desperate attempt to get you to pull it out of the terrible economy by shopping there, and even cities and towns put holiday decorations up on lampposts and what not. If there really is a war on Christmas, then Christmas -- or, at least, the "holiday season" -- is winning. Big time.

So, what would a good blogger do in this situation? I don't know, actually, but I've decided to pile on with a holiday entry of my own. Granted, this is a stretch topic-wise even for this blog, but I've come up with a list of smartphone apps I wish existed (and might, for all I know) for the holidays. If you want to pretend that this entry is relevant to Microsoft or partners somehow, just imagine these apps exist for Windows Phone 7. See, I told you it was a stretch. Anyway, to the apps:

1. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Music Killer
It's too late for this year, but somebody needs to get to work on this for 2012. I tried to watch the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving with my 14-month-old son, who has an inordinate fascination with balloons. (Seriously, we just got his Boston Bruins balloon refilled. Yes, refilled. He wakes up in the morning pointing to the living room and saying, "Balloon, balloon!")

So, I turn on this parade for the first time in years, and what do I see? No parade, no balloons -- just mediocre Broadway numbers and sappy "holiday" songs being performed by people I'd never heard of (other than Bette Midler, and I kind of wish I'd never heard of her). What's the deal, Macy's? Haven't you ever seen a proper parade, like the Rose Parade or the Stock Show Parade in Fort Worth? Parades are supposed to move with bands and floats and balloons and such, not bore us with costume dance numbers performed by the spares of the "entertainment industry."

So, my app for Thanksgiving 2012 would allow the viewer to eliminate all musical performances from the Macy's parade TV coverage and watch only the fun stuff. Mainly, the balloons. This would make the parade about four minutes long (bringing it down from the current 19 hours or so), so it would be perfect for YouTube viewing year-round. Oh, and a Matt Lauer-elimination app would also be handy, especially since he called the Bruins the "Brewers" while hyping NBC's coverage of Thanksgiving Friday hockey. Mr. Lauer, Mr. Lucic would like a word. (Wait through the ad. It's worth it, if only for Jack Edwards' classic call.)

2. The Christmas Song Converter
OK, so there is some beautiful Christmas music, and even holiday music, out there. But the stuff we get subjected to in stores and restaurants this time of year -- you know, the easy-listening pop-star stuff and the 1950s stuff for kids -- that's just auditory murder. And let's not even get started on Bing Crosby or that lightweight Mel Torme.

This is why this holiday app would come in so handy. It would let a user's phone change every lame Christmas song to "Father Christmas" by the Kinks, the greatest Christmas song ever. What's that you say? "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is on the PA system at Chili's? I'm just getting "Father Christmas." Sting is singing some criminal version of a holiday song at JC Penney? All I can hear is the Kinks. "White Christmas" is getting its billionth public playing at the Natick Mall? Not for me. I've got "Father Christmas," again. And I'm happy about it. Very happy.

3. The Christmas Tree De-Sapper
Those of you who have artificial Christmas trees or no trees at all should consider yourselves lucky. As a lad, I was pretty violently allergic to most types of Christmas trees, so my dad and I had the pleasure of getting "Mr. Christmas" (our artificial tree -- that's really what it was called) out of the garage every year and "trimming" its shimmering plastic branches. Good times.

However, thanks to advances in allergy treatment and a wife with a bent for authenticity, I now have to endure having a real tree in my house for a month or so every year. It's not the smell that bothers me anymore. It's not even the needles, although I complain about them relentlessly. No, the worst part is the sap.

Have you ever tried to get sap out of your clothes, out of a rug, off your skin? Once sap is with you, it's with you forever, the glue that holds your very worst holiday memories together. My smartphone app, though, would de-sap live trees so that they would only be a hassle by stinking up the house and dropping needles everywhere, not by gluing themselves to everything they touch. Somebody must surely be at work on this one.

4. The Sincerity Translator
December is the one month of the year when people who hardly know or like each other suddenly decide to get all sappy and hug and wish each other "happy holidays" with tears welling in their eyes. Why? In my world, cynicism never takes a holiday. Larry David's mantra for Seinfeld -- "no hugging, no learning" -- is one I try to live by.

So, not unlike the Christmas Song Converter, the Sincerity Translator app would convert other people's half-heartfelt wishes toward me to sarcastic comments and would, in return, make my nasty responses into half-heartfelt wishes for them. It would be kind of like one of those apps that translates phrases into other languages, except way more useful.

5. The Office Christmas Party Endrunkenizer
The awkwardness of an office Christmas party is often better experienced after a few hits of eggnog spiked with so much brandy that the liquid actually burns through the glass that's trying to hold it. But getting hammered at the office Christmas party is generally a bad idea. For one, there's a strong chance that you'll end up saying something you'll regret. On top of that, office parties usually involve a drive to and from the venue, so heavy drinking is out of the question.

Or is it? The Office Christmas Party Endrunkenizer would let cubicle workers experience the office party as though they were three sheets to the wind even if they'd never taken a drink. All the ridiculousness of office frivolity would be viewable through lenses ranging from A Couple of Beers to A Bottle of Vodka, no actual alcohol required. At the end of the party, sobriety would return just in time for the drive home. An adapted Sincerity Translator would also change all your sarcastic remarks and inappropriate language to warm, lovely holiday sentiments, so you wouldn't have to wonder whether you had a job the next day. Oh, and every lame Christmas song would be "Father Christmas," in the deluxe package, of course.

Seriously, though, I really do wish you all a blessed and wonderful holiday season. Peace on earth. (Yup, it looks as though the beta of the Translator is working.)

Have some holiday hassle you'd like to see eliminated with an app? Leave your ideas in the comments section below, or send them to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on November 28, 20110 comments

Adobe's Flash in the Can: How the Company Is Failing Its User Base

Years ago, before the company I work for now even existed, I had the pleasure of knowing -- mostly by telephone, but still -- John Warnock, the co-founder and former CEO of Adobe.

He always struck me as a good man and a kind person. I remember when Adobe laid off a significant number of employees at one point in the late '90s (enough to make the news), Warnock spoke to me of his regret about putting people out of work. He was sincere. He meant what he said. He told me that the only positive he could take out of the experience was that cutting a few jobs would ultimately help protect many others. But it was small consolation for him -- that much was easy to tell.

Warnock -- who now chairs Adobe's board with fellow co-founder Charles Geschke, another good guy -- was an old-school tech CEO. He spoke openly and honestly. He avoided CEO-speak. He wasn't flanked by an army of PR people at all times. He took phone calls. He actually answered questions. He talked happily and nostalgically about his days at Xerox PARC; he was, after all, a computer nerd at heart, not a cold-hearted executive. Today's callous world of top-level business bots could use more people like John Warnock.

During Warnock's long tenure as Adobe CEO, which ended in 2001, the company established itself as the standard in the creation and management of digital content. PDF became a ubiquitous term and an ISO standard. Acrobat rivaled just about any product other than Windows in terms of name recognition, and Photoshop achieved the ultimate in brand status -- it became (and still is) a verb.

Adobe even made a pretty good run at Quark, which dominated (and might still dominate, depending on whom you ask) the market for desktop-publishing software. The competition between the two in that market continues. Adobe actually staved off a bizarre and entirely unwelcome takeover bid from Quark in the late '90s. (I covered that story for another trade magazine, and while I endeavor to be fair in all of my writing, I have to say that Quark was the strangest company I've ever dealt with. And I don't mean that in a good way.)

Adobe survived and mostly thrived for years by putting out focused, useful technology that met users' needs and was intuitive to use. And then things got a little weird. Likely sensing a need to be more than just a document-creation and picture-editing company, Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005, thereby acquiring a technology called Flash. Suddenly, Adobe was doing rich Internet content creation, or some such catch phrase, and was moving into the market for Web-development tools.

Somehow, Flash caught on, and millions of users started getting and complying with update messages on an annoyingly regular basis, lest they not be able to watch viral videos on YouTube because their versions of Flash were obsolete (or crashing, as Flash tends to do). As mobile devices became more popular for consumption of multimedia content, Flash moved onto them as well. For a while. But not anymore.

Famously, Steve Jobs and Apple rejected Flash for the iPad, preferring HTML5 instead. And what Apple wants, Apple gets. In this case, Apple made Flash disappear, sort of. Adobe this week revealed that it is effectively killing Flash for mobile devices, moving instead to contributing to the open source HTML5. Flash had become clunky for mobile developers, anyway, so it wasn't just Apple that saw mobile Flash off to an early grave.

Some experts, such as Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates (see, Jack, I finally used something from one of your mass e-mails), suspect that the death of Flash on mobile devices is the first sign of the faltering of Flash altogether. "Adobe may ultimately gain revenue from the popularity of HTML5 development, but we believe this move signals the slow decline of Flash from the overall market," Gold wrote in an e-mail many of you might also have already read. Gold basically said that Flash was getting too expensive for Adobe to continue to develop.

I believe that the death of Flash on mobile devices and its probable march to extinction is a sign of something more, though -- a sign that Adobe, in trying to be the leader in rich Internet content or whatever it's called, lost its focus on the products that made it a successful company. Financially, things aren't exactly great at Adobe, as evidenced by the company's plan to "restructure" and lay off 750 employees (the announcement of which was accompanied this week by a requisite plunge in Adobe's stock price). 

But there's more to it than just money. I've used Adobe products for a long time, primarily for work. And I have to say in all honesty that they're getting worse. Acrobat has become slow, clunky and about as intuitive as a James Joyce novel written in Urdu. Reader isn't much better for editing PDFs -- it loads at mid-'90s speeds and responds about as well as a broken-down Yugo. I'm no developer, but it wouldn't surprise me if Flash had become a major pain to develop for. Everything Adobe seems to be headed in that direction. I've always liked Adobe, and I don't mean to be unfairly harsh here, but I think I'm reflecting reality pretty accurately.

Companies have to expand the breadth of their product offerings. Tech companies in particular can't usually stand pat on dominating one market or relying too much on one technology for revenue production. But moving into new fields shouldn't mean abandoning established ones or letting established products rot. (Just look at Microsoft and Vista. The company tried so hard to please everybody and chase all of its competitors -- catchable or not -- that it forgot to come up with a decent flagship product. Fortunately, Windows 7 has rectified that.)

I have no idea what type of leadership Adobe has these days. I don't know the current CEO. I don't know how directly involved John Warnock is as chairman of the board. But I will say that Warnock's Adobe -- at least in my view -- wouldn't have let the company's core products become afterthoughts as he was chasing some pie-in-the-sky new initiative. He was too much of a tech perfectionist to do something like that. He cared too much about users.

Warnock would have kept everything moving forward rather than getting hung up on one big new initiative at the expense of everything else. And it's that type of thinking that Adobe needs now -- because not only is Flash tanking, but so are the applications that made Adobe a powerhouse in the industry. And that can't be good for the short term or the long term. It can't be good for anybody but Adobe's competitors.


Posted by Lee Pender on November 09, 20116 comments

Microsoft's Courier Saga Highlights Ballmer's Lack of Leadership

Maybe we've been watching too much football -- if that's possible -- but we're in the piling-on mood here at RCPU. So, we're going to jump into the fray of pundits chirping about Jay Greene's excellent story for CNET, which chronicles the brief but intriguing saga of the would-have-been Microsoft Courier tablet.

The Courier, which will never be available, might have been pretty cool, and it might have actually given Microsoft a fighting chance against the iPad back when the iPad itself was brand-new. Greene lays out the tale: Two Microsoft executives, J Allard (of Xbox fame) and Steven Sinofsky (of making-people-forget-about-Vista fame), were each leading teams competing to come up with a design for the Courier.

Long story short, Allard envisioned an operating system that broke almost completely from Windows, including having an unfamiliar interface and poor or no tie-ins to the massive Office franchise. Sinofsky, who is, after all, head of the Windows division, wanted to base the tablet on the forthcoming Windows 8 operating system and make Office a key component of the user experience.

Sinofsky won. Allard left Microsoft. That's kind of the bottom line, but there are a couple of wrinkles here that are interesting. First, Allard didn't envision Outlook in his avant-garde tablet, prompting Bill Gates to ask how, exactly, users would get their e-mail. Oh, via the Web, Allard said (more or less, we suppose), at which time Gates apparently went somewhat apoplectic.

And let's face it -- Gates had a point. What's the use of a tablet that doesn't have an e-mail client? Maybe we at RCPU are in the minority here, but your editor hates Web-based e-mail interfaces; he runs his personal Gmail account through Outlook. It's just easier to use that way. A tablet is mostly about staying connected on the road, goofing around with apps and looking cool. That first part involves e-mail pretty heavily, and we're guessing that Gates was right (as he has been before) about most users wanting Outlook or something like it.

But take a look at those last couple of paragraphs. Notice anything? Who was there brokering disputes and making decisions. Bill Gates...and not Steve Ballmer. Yes, Gates, now one of the world's most charitable human beings and a very busy retiree, came in to clear the air when the two teams working on Courier couldn't see eye to eye. Where was Ballmer? Helping out, apparently, but we find it more than a little interesting that when the rubber was hitting the road (to put it nicely) it was Gates who was summoned to oversee the process.

Beyond that, the real mark against Ballmer's leadership is that the Courier effort just simply died. Hey, we weren't there, but a few quick, simple questions come to mind regarding this whole mess: Was it impossible for Allard's team to collaborate with Sinofsky's? Would it not have been possible to make an e-mail client part of Allard's creation? Was there no way to rethink Windows for a tablet and still protect the Office money-spinner? And ultimately, was it better to just kill Courier before it launched rather than try to reach some sort of compromise between the two visions for the tablet?

Having two teams come up with different visions for a product is common at Microsoft and in the industry in general. But usually, something actually comes out of at least one of the teams and becomes a product. In this case, Microsoft took two of its brightest minds, allocated some relatively important resources to a project, developed some sort of prototype and ended up creating...nothing. Nothing! How does a CEO let that happen with a product that could have been so successful and should have been so important?

Oh, sure, Microsoft will create a tablet one of these days (and is creating one, we suppose), and it might be great. But by failing to get Courier out at all and also failing to get a tablet into the market around the time the iPad launched, Microsoft has ceded market share (and certainly "mindshare," if anybody uses that word anymore) to Apple. Again.

People actually want Windows tablets. They would buy them. They would use them -- at work, where they're now trying to shoe-horn their iPads into corporate networks and infrastructures. Microsoft had a chance to give people a product they were practically begging for, at a time when it could have competed with Apple's offering. But instead, Steve Ballmer's company squabbled internally, threw up its hands and lost a couple of valuable executives. We're not saying that it's all Ballmer's fault, but somebody has to take responsibility for what ended up being a fiasco. Right? And who better to take it than the person at the top?


Posted by Lee Pender on November 03, 201111 comments

It's Time To Be Positive about Windows Phone 7

RCPU guzzles cynicism the way one of those "extreme" athletes swigs Red Bull or an SUV drinks gas. We get that. But we're setting it aside today, just for a little while. Let's put it this way: When your editor's mother told him, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything all," he didn't speak for 15 years.

OK, that last part's not true (at all), but it doesn't matter. Today, we are not only looking on the bright side of an issue, we're actually going to be nice about one of our favorite targets: Windows Phone 7. (A YouTube link to something from this century? This really is a new era for RCPU.)

Yes, Microsoft's mobile operating system, heavily carried by struggling device maker Nokia, has a long way to go to catch the iPhone and Android. We get that. Everybody gets that. But some of the new Nokia devices actually look pretty cool (and they're bendy!), and Windows Phone 7 has had, since the beginning, a really pleasing interface.

Now, we still believe that Microsoft should focus more on the enterprise market for mobile devices -- currently left wide open by the faltering RIM and BlackBerry -- and worry less about consumers. But we're also not convinced that consumers will just reject Microsoft's effort out of hand. The company's going to have to do some clever marketing, something it's very hit-or-miss at, as well as get app development ramped up in a serious way.

So, since we're all about sunshine and rainbows today, we're going to be positive about Windows Phone 7. We think it can actually carve out a bit of market share and get a foothold, even among consumers. And Nokia might not be dead yet, either. A bendy phone? We actually think that's pretty cool. No sarcasm involved.

Posted by Lee Pender on October 27, 20116 comments

Why Is Yahoo Suddenly Some Sort of Prize?

Not since Brett Favre unretired for the second time has there been so much attention paid to a broken-down old war horse that should have already been put out to pasture. But here we are with Microsoft and Google batting for Yahoo, the Willie Mays with the Mets of the Internet industry.

As the old folks have been known to say, c'est la vie -- it goes to show you never can tell. Seriously, though, how did we get here? How is Yahoo even still alive, much less possibly sought after now by both Microsoft, which was laughing not long ago about not having bought the struggling online pioneer, and Google, which seems to hardly need Yahoo's services?

And then there's the Chinese company, Alibaba, with a moniker that makes it sound like a wrestler from the old Dallas Sportatorium or a racially insensitive cartoon character from the '30s. (Although Ali Baba is, in fact, a character from Arabic literature, if you believe Wikipedia, as we all should all the time.) Even Alibaba is on the chase for Yahoo, making the whole thing even more perplexing.

The simple explanation for all this seems to be that Yahoo is probably going to go pretty cheaply when it does go. But what would a buyer get out of it? Well, we suppose Alibaba (a friend of the Iron Shiek, perhaps?) would get some sort of entry into the U.S. search game, although China doesn't exactly seem like a shrinking market. And the U.S. isn't exactly wide-open in terms of consumer search.

Microsoft pretty much already pulls Yahoo's strings, so a buy here might make the most sense -- or the least. Microsoft made noise about buying Yahoo a few years back then whiffed on the deal, and then it pretty much co-opted Yahoo's technology to run Bing. Something about a cow and getting the milk for free comes to mind here. Why would Microsoft spend the money to buy Yahoo all the way out? Desperation to catch the market leader? Has that worked for Microsoft yet?

That brings us, of course, to Google, which almost certainly doesn't want to actually buy Yahoo but is probably just in the mix, admirably somehow, to screw it up for everybody else. The regulatory tangle of a Google-Yahoo buy would be almost incomprehensible, and what does Yahoo have that Google actually needs? The attention of Microsoft -- that's what. Google just wants to drive up the price somebody else (we're honestly guessing Microsoft, or some Microsoft-backed consortium) will have to pay.

The net result of all of this is...well, nothing, really, for most of us. (We all use Google, anyway, right? Or we just do stuff with apps on our phones and tablets now.) It's just a funny tale of how a little attention from a couple of rivals can turn a junkyard clunker into a would-be sports car in no time at all.

So, who will win the race for Yahoo? Google will, of course, by not buying Yahoo but still managing to goad some rival into overpaying for it. That's how it goes in today's industry: Everybody tries very hard, and in the end Google and Apple win.


Posted by Lee Pender on October 26, 20118 comments

Novell, Microsoft Turn Back the Clock with Antitrust Trial

We thought about opening this post with one of those pseudo-clever retrospectives about where we were in the '90s when Novell and Microsoft were doing battle, but frankly the '90s are getting to be so long ago that we don't remember them all that well.

If you want a throwback headline, though, look no further than this one in the Seattle Times: "Bill Gates expected to testify at Microsoft-Novell antitrust trial."

What in the name of Frasier Crane is going on here? (OK, so we indulged in one '90s -- and Seattle -- reference. We have no self-control.) Seriously, though, this has to be a joke, right? Bill Gates might testify at an antitrust trial involving Novell? What? How? Novell isn't even Novell anymore. Well, it is in name, but the company is part of Attachmate now.

And the notion of Microsoft having to endure an antitrust trial now just seems silly. Has nobody in Utah, where the trial will take place, noticed that Microsoft has under-innovated itself in the last decade or so to the point of being smaller than IBM and Apple? Does nobody involved with this trial use a search site called Google or an Android phone?

Microsoft's monopoly crumbled not so much because the government jumped all over the company in the '90s but because smarter, faster rivals found ways to compete with and beat the one-time behemoth. If Novell never did that, it's not Microsoft's fault. It's Novell's. Apple and Google, at the very least, figured it out. Even Firefox, which doesn't even come from a major corporation, has been eating away at Internet Explorer's market share for years.

The suit in question was filed in 2004. 2004! The world has changed a little since then -- right, Boston Red Sox fans? Even worse, check out what it involves. Again, we turn to the Seattle Times:

"The jury trial beginning today is to resolve the remaining issue of whether Microsoft delayed releasing Windows 95 to keep Novell's WordPerfect word-processing program and Quattro Pro spreadsheet application from gaining a place in the market. Novell is seeking $500 million to $2.5 billion in compensation."

Windows 95?! Really? Novell wants a minimum of half a billion dollars for something that Microsoft might or might not have done 16 years ago? Seriously, Windows 95. Just think about that for a while. And are we really going to drag Bill Gates into this? He's busy quite literally saving the world now. He shouldn't have to waste his time testifying in a case about an operating system that would be old enough to get its driver's license if it were a person.

Even the most venomous enemy of Microsoft -- and really, how many are left? -- would have to admit that this case actually going to court is just a little bit ridiculous. Some folks in the industry might be nostalgic for the go-go '90s, but we're guessing nobody but corporate lawyers misses Microsoft being on trial. Let's let this stuff stay in the past where it belongs.

Here's something to really put it into perspective: In 1995, relatively few consumers had Internet access. In his Framingham office, your editor has a copy of Application Development Trends from late 1994. (It just kind of turned up one day.) There's not a Web address to be found in the whole book -- not even in the ads. It's like something out of a time capsule, if those even still exist. That's the era we're talking about with this antitrust case. It should all just be part of history by now. 

Posted by Lee Pender on October 17, 20111 comments

Goodbye, Steve Jobs

Over the next few days, and probably for years to come, many people will write superlatives about and tributes to Steve Jobs. And most of them will be brilliant and thought-provoking and entirely true and worthwhile. There's nothing I can say here about the great Steve Jobs that somebody somewhere else isn't already saying.

So I'll just tell a story. This might seem like a post all about me, but it's not. Circa 1982, my father brought home some huge boxes around Christmas time. (In case you've been wondering, I'm only 37.) In one of them was something almost nobody else I knew had: a computer. In the others were a monitor and a dot-matrix printer. The price tag for the whole set would buy a crate of iPads today. It was an investment.

And it was incredible. The computer was an Apple IIe, which had 64 KB of memory and ran on floppy disks (the big kind from the '80s, not the smaller kind from the '90s). It had not one but two disk drives. It was a marvel. We turned it on for the first time, and it spoke to us. Well, sort of -- words showed up, letter by letter, on the color screen and said something like, "We're in here, and you're out there." And it went on from there. Absolutely astonishing.

Over the next few years, I used the computer for school -- something downright revolutionary in the days when most kids couldn't type and wrote everything longhand on notebook paper. I wrote reports on it with Bank Street Writer, possibly the worst word processor of all time but still way better than pen and paper. Once, in the fourth grade, I wrote a report on the lives of frontier lawmen. (Hey, I'm from Texas. We did that sort of thing.) It was full of formatting errors and might have even been typed in all-caps. Still, when I brought the printed report to school, kids marveled at it. My teacher looked at it almost in awe. A typed report? From a computer? This was a first, at least in my little hometown around 1983.

That computer got a lot of use. A lot of use. My mother, an English teacher at all levels of school in my hometown, used the Apple IIe for nearly two decades. When we had finished with it as a family, she took it to school, where her students played little word games on it. She used it in her classroom into the 2000s before she finally retired. In fact, I think she gave it away after that -- somewhere, somebody might still be using an Apple IIe from the first Reagan administration.

I can say without hyperbole that the Apple IIe changed my life. It changed the way I studied, the way I thought about working and the way I played. It helped me learn to type, which was a big deal at the time. It became a magnet for the kids in the neighborhood. My dad used to talk about having the first TV on the block in 1949. Well, in 1982, I had the first computer in the neighborhood, and everybody wanted to see it. I'm convinced that some of my grades in elementary school and junior high were higher than they should have been just because a typed report looked so good next to something handwritten.

Many machines have come and gone for me since then, some of them Macs and some of them PCs. (And then there was the PC that crashed for the last time circa 2000, prompting my ex-wife to hand me the phone and say, "Call Apple and buy a Mac," which I did. We used that computer, an original iMac, for six years before I sold it and actually managed to get decent money for it. It might be in use to this day, too.) But the Apple IIe will always be special to me.

I don't know if I ended up in the technology industry because I used such a great computer (which it was for the time) at such a young age, but it didn't hurt. The old Apple certainly got me interested in computers. I do know that being able to type on the IIe rather than having to scratch things out longhand or clang on a typewriter encouraged me to write, and that definitely helped lead me to a career in journalism. (In case you're wondering, I consider that a good thing.)

I remember the Apple IIe probably more fondly than I remember bygone pets and maybe even a few old friends. Say what you will about that, but I think of it the way some other folks think of a first car or a first baseball glove. It sticks in my memory. And that's because of Steve Jobs. He created it, along with much of computing as we know it today. The funny thing is that most people today will write about iPads and iPods and Macs, Jobs's most notable accomplishments. And that makes sense.

But I was just a kid in small-town Texas when something Steve Jobs invented -- before he was 30, incidentally, which I now realize is amazing -- had a significant impact on my life. The Apple IIe was formative to me in my childhood. Steve Jobs helped change my life; he helped make it better. When I think about how many people he did that for all over the world for years -- when I think about being just one of millions his creations positively affected -- I'm staggered by the impact he had on humanity. Seriously.

I never met Steve Jobs. I've hardly ever covered Apple. But Jobs transcends mere industry notoriety. He'll be in textbooks -- or whatever textbooks will end up becoming -- for generations to come. Kids decades from now will know his name. Scholars and business students will study his life. I just hope he enjoyed his run on this planet because it was tragically cut way, way too short. He never got a victory lap; he had to leave when he was on the top of his game. To me, that's the saddest part of this story. But I'd like to thank Steve Jobs, again, for everything he did for me.

Share your thoughts and memories about Steve Jobs in the comments section below or at [email protected]


Posted by Lee Pender on October 07, 20114 comments