There was a time when Route 128 right here in Greater Boston was the hub, so to speak, of the technology industry. Before any number of areas with the name "Silicon" in them popped up in a significant way and pushed Massachusetts aside, Boston was the place where technology originated and lived.
Many of technology's greatest innovations and most significant ideas came to life here, and behind many of them was Ken Olsen, cofounder of Digital Equipment Corp. (Yes, we know --"digital" spelled it with a small "d.") Olsen died this week at age 84 and left behind a legacy as one of the great entrepreneurs in American history. (Incidentally, he was a tremendous supporter of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., which is the fine alma mater of your editor's lovely wife.)
Olsen envisioned the incredible shrinking computer when most machines still filled entire rooms and required experts to run them. Digital's minicomputer revolution put computing in the hands of regular workers, not just technical experts, and cleared a backlog for what we would call IT departments these days.
Olsen, of course, was known for saying that there was no reason for an individual to have a computer in his home -- a quote taken badly out of context, given that Olsen was talking about a "computer" in the room-filling machine sense and not in the PC sense. If Digital missed the PC revolution, it wasn't because Olsen didn't see it coming. Quite the contrary -- he played an enormous role in creating it. We can thank Olsen for much of the "personal" computing we do today.
Almost as a metaphor for the industry as a whole, Digital slowly declined in the '90s as it did struggle to crack the PC market, and its remnants moved west -- first, when Compaq bought the company and then when HP bought Compaq a few years later. Like the days of computing dominance on Route 128, Digital's influence is only historic now, but in an industry that always looks forward it's worth looking back on one of the great stories of success and innovation in American business and one of the executives who did the most to change people's lives in a positive way. Ken Olsen will be missed.
Posted by Lee Pender on February 09, 2011 at 11:57 AM2 comments
If this is Steve Ballmer's version of spin, then Microsoft needs to put a merry-go-round on its Redmond campus. Because Steve's spinning so slowly and poorly that he's actually standing still, not unlike Microsoft's stock price.
Strong rumors this week have it that there's an executive shakeup on the way at Microsoft. Oh, really? There's one on the way? So the fairly recent departures -- for various reasons -- of, say, Ray Ozzie, Jeff Raikes, Stephen Elop, Robbie Bach and Bob Muglia didn't count as a shakeup? Ballmer released Bach and Muglia, and just kind of let Ozzie depart, but the shakeup is apparently still to come. Oh, do tell.
What Bloomberg is reporting in the story linked above is that Ballmer wants to put engineering types in charge of various Microsoft divisions and get the more business-minded folks out of the executive suites. That doesn't really explain why Ozzie and Muglia (among others) are gone, given that they fell much more on the engineering than on the business side of the spectrum.
The most revealing paragraph in the Bloomberg story, though, is this one:
"'You see the engineering team ascending because Steve is realizing that there is a need to execute on a vision and in order to do that you have to actually understand how software is built,' said Wes Miller, an analyst at the Kirkland, Washington-based research firm Directions on Microsoft. 'It's a whole other thing to be able to say, "I've been at Microsoft, I understand software, and what you are saying will or will not work."'"
Hmm, understand how software is built...decide what will or won't work...execute on a vision... You know who did that? You know who was maybe the best ever at doing all that, who made billions doing it? You know. It was Bill Gates. Yeah, there were anomalies, but for the most part Gates' sniff test of product suggestions was the best in the industry, and his scathing reviews of employees' ideas were as legendary as they were critical to Microsoft's success.
The truth is that Microsoft has never replaced Bill Gates successfully. Oh, sure, the company still makes billions of dollars. It's doing fine. Most of its partners are doing fine. But in terms of vision, even innovation -- and certainly in terms of market and business savvy -- nobody has stepped into Gates' shoes.
Ray Ozzie couldn't do it; he wasn't that type of executive. Ballmer has never done it. He has plenty of enthusiasm (and money) but lacks Gates' cunning in dominating markets and taking down competitors. Now Ballmer, who has made Microsoft very much his company in recent years, is trying to recapture the Gates magic with an only somewhat voluntary reshuffling of names on the company org chart.
It's not going to happen. Ballmer might succeed, and his rumored shakeup might be positive for Microsoft in the long run. But Microsoft is a different company operating in a different world now compared to what it was in the 1980s and '90s, and nobody there has thus far really shown the leadership to become the next Bill Gates. That's because there won't be a next Bill Gates. There was only one.
The really odd thing about Ballmer's alleged shakeup talk (remember, this is all still hearsay at this point) is that as part of his consolidation of power, he has made Microsoft a somewhat leaner, much more cost-focused company. Everybody in Redmond now works under the steely gaze of powerful COO Kevin Turner, who not only isn't an engineer but actually came to Microsoft from Walmart. He's not even a technology guy.
Together, Ballmer and Turner have slashed experimental projects (as well as jobs) and have cracked down on spending on anything that doesn't look like an absolutely guaranteed winner. If anything, there is less innovation at Microsoft now than there was 10 years ago -- or, at least, the atmosphere there is less amenable to new ideas and off-the-wall thinking.
All of the talk, then, about Ballmer wanting a more engineering-focused company with less influence from business types seems a bit odd, to say the least, given the power afforded the business-oriented Turner. And it also seems odd for Microsoft to be talking about an executive shakeup (although, to be fair, Microsoft has said nothing on the issue so far -- only "sources" have talked) given that most of the recently departed executives did the shaking themselves.
So goes life on the post-Gates Microsoft leadership merry-go-round. Round and around it goes, but where it stops—well, you get the idea.
What's your take on the leadership situation at Microsoft? Send it to [email protected]
Posted by Lee Pender on February 09, 2011 at 11:57 AM7 comments
First and foremost, many thanks to Scott Bekker and Jeff Schwartz for writing this newsletter last week while your editor was tied up with other things. Bekker and Schwartz were also tied up with other things, but they stepped up in your editor's time of need.
We'd love to start this entry with some sort of Super Bowl reference...but we really just don't have one. So, uh, congratulations to the Packers...and people of Wisconsin. Hopefully this will make up for your state university's loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl.(Yes, your editor is still giddy about that.)
So, in a post-Super Bowl world, where the snowy plains of winter stretch to the horizon and the sun hides behind a murky haze, there is news from not-so-sunny Finland, home of Nokia. Old Microsoft pal Stephen Elop, a major honcho in Redmond before he left to take over Nokia, is looking at teaming up with his old crew.
Extremely specific rumor has it that Nokia and Microsoft will announce this week a Windows Phone 7 partnership. This is a tale of three ships adrift on the sea of the mobile device market. Apparently Nokia, now a shadow of the powerful brand it once was, is looking to cut back considerably on its use of the flagging Symbian operating system in favor of the fledgling Windows 7. No question there as to who got that deal started.
There are lots of other questions, though. Is Windows Phone 7 ready for prime time? The answer is maybe, which is better than the answer we would have given to the same question a few months ago -- definitely not. Is Windows Phone 7 strong enough to lift Nokia out of smartphone mediocrity? That seems kind of unlikely, but who knows? Android was once a silly little competitor to the iPhone; Symbian used to own the mobile-OS market, and BlackBerry was once synonymous with a phone that had Internet capabilities. This market isn't closed yet.
In fact, rather than take our usual tack of bashing Microsoft's mobile strategy, we've decided here at RCPU to be bullish in this (possible) deal. We're not saying that Apple or RIM should be shaking in their boots necessarily, but Microsoft and Nokia aren't bit players in the industry. If they can focus on innovation rather than feature bloat, and if they can listen to customers rather than arbitrarily trying to please all of the people all of the time, they've got a shot to be a contender.
Remember, the Packers had two 1-4 stretches during the season and even lost to Detroit. And look where they ended up…
What's your take on a Microsoft-Nokia mobile partnership? Send it to [email protected]
Posted by Lee Pender on February 07, 2011 at 11:57 AM5 comments
You know that famous photo of the Microsoft staff from 1978? Well, somebody (not for the first time--but it's still interesting) caught up with all the folks in that photo and provided updates on what they're up to
these days. Some are millionaires, some less so--and only one is no longer with us. One is even a cattle rancher, which we find very cool. Plus, there's '70s hair and clothing to be re-admired. That alone made the story worthwhile to us.
Posted by Lee Pender on January 27, 2011 at 11:57 AM0 comments
When your editor first read this
, he thought it said "Online Services Support Lifestyle Policy." Turns out it says "lifecycle," which makes more sense but seems far less intriguing somehow.
Posted by Lee Pender on January 27, 2011 at 11:57 AM0 comments
Huh. We could have sworn that Windows Phone 7 was going to be another Microsoft laughing stock following in the rich tradition of Vista and the Kin phone. We might have even mentioned something to that effect in this space once or twice.
Well, as it turns out, we were wrong. No, really! Microsoft doesn't exactly have an iPhone rival yet, but it did ship 2 million units last quarter. Hey, that's not bad at all, even though units shipped doesn't necessarily mean units sold.
Still, people like Windows Phone 7. Customer satisfaction is way up, and the mobile operating system looks like a legitimate alternative to the iPhone and Android--even though Windows Phone 7 is still way behind them in sales and probably in functionality as well.
Everything considered, this is a bright spot for Microsoft, a giant that has let categories such as mobile phone and tablet computers slip away to competitors in recent years. Yeah, OK, the bar was low here to begin with. But given that the Kin might have had a sales number in the single digits without the word "million" (or even "thousand"...or "hundred?") attached to it, Windows 7 is an unexpected and welcome success.
Have you used a Windows Phone 7 device? What do you think of it? Sound off at lpende[email protected].
Posted by Lee Pender on January 27, 2011 at 11:57 AM3 comments
OK, we'll admit it -- we like the Bing ads where people shout random things at some poor person who just wants an answer to a simple question. If only Bing were that much better than Google search, we'd be devotees of Microsoft's engine. But we really don't see that big of a difference between the two, other than the pretty pictures Bing has in the background of its start page.
That's OK, though, because Microsoft is getting ready to woo us with a Bing cool offensive, which includes deals with rapper Jay-Z (who, if he was still cool, probably isn't anymore) and destroyer of college football ESPN. Of course, Microsoft isn't cool and never will be, so this campaign will likely be a mitigated success at best. Bing's market share is growing, though, so maybe something in the scatter-shooting of advertising and marketing Microsoft is doing is working.
Posted by Lee Pender on January 26, 2011 at 11:57 AM4 comments
And back in the world of boring but really important stuff, Amazon has launched a cloud-based bulk e-mail service called SES. What's that? SES reminds you of that old Abba song "SOS," too? Well, you read our minds. (Be patient through the brief advertisement. The '70s camera effects in this video are well worth the wait. As are those Swedish harmonies...although it's pretty clear that this video came out before the era of cosmetic dental surgery.) You're welcome.
Posted by Lee Pender on January 26, 2011 at 11:57 AM0 comments
The doomsday forces are out again. Microsoft is in peril, trouble, turmoil, danger...and this time, the threat is the beloved iPad.
Yes, the iPad is invading the enterprise, or so worries Microsoft. To her credit, Mary Jo Foley posted an internal Microsoft slide show about the iPad without predicting impending doom in Redmond. The Microsoft presentation is aimed at partners and is intended to show them how to compete against the dreaded interloper from Apple that is suddenly moving from living rooms into cubicles.
Other observers have not been so staid in their reactions to Microsoft's slide deck. Hints at the iPad ripping enterprise market share away from Window are dropping like gentle snowflakes now, but we have to wonder whether there's a blizzard to come.
There's one thing the pundits are consistently getting right: Microsoft has a lousy (read: no) tablet strategy. And positioning the complexity of Windows against the simplicity of the iPad -- one of Microsoft's tactics -- is a bad idea and shows how far Microsoft has to go before it begins to understand the appeal of the tablet. To be fair, we at RCPU also have a ways to go on that front -- we're still not convinced that tablets are anything special. But people seem to like the look and simplicity of them, two factors that Windows just can't deliver on a tablet right now.
So, the iPad is here to stay. It's grabbing consumer market share, and folks are starting to bring it to zwork, thereby planting seeds for it in the enterprise. But the notion that the iPad is on its way to forcing PCs out the office door is premature at best. Observers keep asking whether companies and users will still need PCs once they have the supposed beauty and simplicity of the iPad at their fingertips.
The answer is of course they will -- at least for now. The iPad is not a full enterprise machine. It's not meant to be. Maybe it will be someday, but for now it's still (for instance) immensely easier to type this document on your editor's Windows XP netbook than it would be on an iPad. Oh, we know, there are keyboards for the iPad and what not, but it's still not ready for the enterprise prime time. It's a machine for consumption and display more than for production.
That's not to say that Microsoft can sit around and continue to blow hot air about tablets without producing anything useful. It's obvious that for whatever reason, people love the iPad and the tablet concept in general. This has caught Microsoft totally off guard -- although how, we don't know. Even as tablet skeptics, we could see the popularity of these things coming just from the hype they generated.
Redmond needs to come up with a product -- not slides -- that can take on the iPad among consumers and in the enterprise. And it needs to do better than it did with, say, the Zune. Something closer to the Xbox would be nice. But the time frame for battling the iPad isn't quite as tight as some in the pundisphere would suggest -- Windows, even Windows XP, has quite a while longer to live in the enterprise.
Do you use an iPad for work? Could you replace your full-featured PC or laptop with it? How and why? Answer at [email protected]
Posted by Lee Pender on January 26, 2011 at 11:57 AM1 comments