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Tag: strategy

The Facebook Hamster Wheel

With a $1 billion price tag for Instagram, a $1.1 billion valuation for Tumblr, and a rumored $3 billion bid for Snapchat, many observers are probably scratching their heads, wondering: why are companies like Facebook and Yahoo willing to shell out this kind of cash for barely-in-revenue-if-at-all consumer startups?While I can’t pretend that all these valuations are “rational” in a traditional sense, I can say that it becomes more understandable if you think about Facebook’s business model. Plain and simple, Facebook’s business model revolves around taking the total amount of time users spend on Facebook and making money against it, whether its through ads or charging a “tax” on virtual goods (think Farmville items) or gifts bought on the platform.

As a result, for Facebook to grow its core business, it really has two options:

  1. Increase the total amount of time users are spending on Facebook
  2. Increase how effectively you are monetizing existing time spent on Facebook

The challenge with #2 is that there really is an upper limit to how much money you can make on a minute of user eyeball-time before you start annoying the user base (either because there are too many ads or because the ads get kind of creepy). So, what most internet media companies strive for is #1 – increase the total amount of time users spend on their websites/apps.

The challenge with #1, though, is that every additional user-minute a company gets is an incremental minute of some other activity that the user needs to give up. And, since we all only have 24 hours a day (and need to sleep), that’s a limited number of minutes to go around, especially for a company like Facebook, where its users are already pretty addicted.

This means that Facebook (and other digital media companies like Yahoo and Twitter) is in a horrifying never-ending race not only to get more precious user-minutes but just to hold on to what they already have. Any time a shiny new startup takes off which seems to suck up user-time — especially if its amongst teens/adolescents who, because they don’t have tons of friends on Facebook already, don’t have any strong reason to be on Facebook — Facebook needs to find a way to grab that time back just to stay even. It’s a hamster wheel that Facebook can never get off of short of changing its underlying business model.

It’s this attention economy that drives digital media companies to pay up for startups like Instagram or Tumblr or Snapchat — they’re new threats to Facebook’s growth and business model, as well as new opportunities to get new user-minutes. That’s why these companies are so prized – for digital media companies in the attention economy, it’s the user-minutes, stupid.

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Reading About a Childhood Hero

HannibalI took advantage of this past holiday weekend by catching up on some reading: in particular, I finished a book by Richard A. Gabriel on a childhood hero of mine: Hannibal – The Military Biography of Rome’s Greatest Enemy

Quick primer for those of you not in the know/not as enthusiastic about Hannibal as I am :-): the Carthaginian general Hannibal fought in the Second Punic War – the second of three major wars between the two great Mediterranean powers of their day: Rome and Carthage. These wars were among the first true “world wars” that the world saw – in terms of bringing great powers to war and in terms of sheer devastation of life and property– and set the stage for Rome to eventually take over the entire Mediterranean.

So, why is Hannibal a childhood hero of mine? Well:

    • He is the son of one of the greatest Carthaginian generals from the First Punic War – Hamilcar Barca — who, legend has it, made a young Hannibal swear to “never be a friend of Rome” (holy comic book origins, Batman!)
    • He was a superb commander of men: whereas the Roman armies were made primarily of Roman citizens, Hannibal’s army consisted of people who spoke many different languages and had vastly different fighting styles: Carthaginian, Spanish, North African, Gallic tribesmen, Italian, Greek, etc.
    • His army had elephants! I know that’s not too unique, but seriously – ELEPHANTS!
    • He executed one of the boldest and most daring moves in antiquity, marching a massive multicultural army from Spain across the Alps and the Pyrenees into Italy.
    • Then, for 15 years, he fought legion after legion in enemy territory, only once receiving very limited supplies and reinforcements from Carthage.
    • One of those battles he fought was the famed Battle of Cannae – one of the greatest military victories ever achieved. There, Hannibal’s army of ~50,000 faced a Roman force of ~80-90,000. Despite being outnumbered, Hannibal crushed his Roman adversaries with a brilliant enveloping maneuver – losing some 5-8,000 soldiers (10-20% of Hannibal’s forces) while killing some 40-60,000 (50% of Rome’s forces) and capturing another 5-10,000! Among those killed included one of Rome’s two consuls (the equivalent to a Prime Minister or President), a previous consul, and a number of Roman Senators! In the course of three quick battles ending at Cannae, Hannibal’s forces had killed an estimated 100,000 Romans – believed to be 20% of Rome’s military age population.

I’ll admit, its not the most kid-friendly hero to have 🙂 but when it came down to it, I was amazed by his life. It takes uncanny ability, stamina, and boldness to be able to operate within enemy territory for 15 years and still win victory after victory.

GP Route of Hannibals invasion of Italy

Its with that enthusiasm that I picked up Gabriel’s book. While I think it’s a wonderful book for anyone who is deeply interested in Hannibal and military history (like your humble blogger), this is not really a biography intended for popular consumption. The book should really be thought of as an academic close read of the works of Livy and Polybius, the two Romans who wrote the most detailed account of the Second Punic War – pointing out where Livy/Polybius’s nationalism or their lack of attentiveness to detail probably led to inaccurate or revisionist accounts of what happened. Its in those moments that the author is simultaneously the most compelling (as Gabriel clearly shows off his amazing knowledge of military history and of the ancient world) and also the most frustrating (as it interferes with the narrative of Hannibal’s life in the name of the academic purpose).

With that said, ancient/military history buffs will appreciate the attentiveness to detail from the author (and his dismantling of many commonly held beliefs about Hannibal’s failure such as the lack of naval control/siege equipment), and Hannibal devotees (which may just be me :-)) will appreciate the author’s almost stream of consciousness way of describing what must have been going through Hannibal’s head as he made decision after decision.

In particular, Gabriel’s dissection of why Hannibal was doomed to failure was very compelling. To Gabriel, Hannibal made a number of key mistakes. First, he did not understand that Rome did not view war the way that the Greeks did – where a large defeat or two on the battlefield would lead to one side capitulating – Rome viewed war as a life or death situation – there was no room for negotiation unless they were winning and there was no room for capitulating. Period. Secondly, he did not understand that he was just one front of a grander geopolitical chess game between Carthage and Rome: Carthage was not especially interested in Italy (it would never realistically be able to hold its territory there even if it gained it), it was interested in preserving its holdings in Spain and in the islands of the Mediterranean. It was those two errors which doomed Hannibal to failure especially once Rome realized it could not keep throwing legion after legion at Hannibal and waged a war of attrition.

So, ultimate verdict: this is great if you’re a military history buff or really want to get into the details of Hannibal’s exploits, but there are likely much more accessible reads if you just want to learn a bit more about Hannibal’s life/Punic Wars.

(Image credit – Summa Gallicana)

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HP 2.0

The technology ecosystem just won’t give me a break – who would’ve thought that in the same week Google announced its bold acquisition of Motorola Mobility, that HP would also announce a radical restructuring of its business?

For those of you not up to speed, last Friday, HP’s new CEO Leo Apothekar announced that HP would:

    • Spend over $10 billion to acquire British software company Autonomy Corp
    • Shut down its recently-acquired-from-Palm-for-$1-billion WebOS hardware business (no more tablets or phones)
    • Contemplate spinning out its PC business

hpRadical change is not unheard of for long-standing technology stalwarts like HP. The “original Hewlett Packard”, focused on test and measurement devices like oscilloscopes and precision electronic components was spun out in 1999 as Agilent, one of the tech industry’s largest IPO’s. It acquired Compaq in 2001 to bolster its PC business for a whopping $25 billion. To build an IT services business, it acquired EDS in 2008 at a massive $14 billion valuation. To compete with Cisco in networking gear, it acquired 3Com for almost $3 billion. And, to compete in the enterprise storage space, it bought 3PAR after a furious bidding war with Dell for $2 billion. But, while this sort of change might not be unheard of, the billion dollar question remains: is this a good thing for HP and its shareholders? My conclusion: in the long-run, this is a good thing for HP. But how they announced it was very poor form.

Why good for the long-run?

    • HP needed focus. With the exception of the Agilent spinoff and the Compaq acquisition, all the “bold strategic changes” that I mentioned happened in the span of less than 3 years (EDS: 2008, 3com: 2009, Palm and 3PAR: 2010). Success in the technology industry requires you to disrupt existing spaces (and avoid being disrupted), play nicely with the ecosystem, and consistently overachieve. Its hard to do that when you are simultaneously tackling a lot of difficult challenges. At the end of the day, for HP to continue to thrive, it needs to focus and not always chase the technology “flavor of the week.”
    • HP had a big hill to climb to be a leading consumer hardware play. Despite being a very slick product, WebOS was losing the war of the smartphone/tablet operating systems to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Similarly, in its PC business, with the exception of channel reach and scale, HP had no real advantage over Apple, Dell, or rapidly growing low-cost Asian competitors. It’s fair to say that HP might have been able to change that with time. After all, HP had barely had time to announce one generation of new products since Palm was acquired, let alone had time for the core PC division to work together with the engineers and user experience folks at Palm to cook up something new. But, suffice to say, getting to mass market success would have required significant investment and time. Contrast that with…
    • HP as a leading enterprise IT play is a more natural fit. With its strong server and software businesses and recent acquisitions of EDS, 3Com, and 3PAR, HP already has a broad set of assets that it could combine to sell as “solutions” to enterprises. Granted, there is significant room for improvement in how HP does all of this – these products and services have not been integrated very well, and HP lacks the enormous success that Dell has achieved in new cloud computing architectures and the services success that IBM has, to name two uphill battles HP will have to face, but it feels, at least to me, that this is a challenge that HP is already well-equipped to solve with its existing employees, engineering, and assets.
    • Moreover, for better or for worse, HP’s board chose a former executive of enterprise software company SAP to be CEO. What did they expect, that he would miraculously be able to turn HP’s consumer businesses around? I don’t know what happened behind closed doors so I don’t know how seriously Apothekar considered pushing down the consumer line, but I don’t think anyone should be surprised that he’s trying to build a complete enterprise IT stack akin to what IBM/Microsoft/Oracle are trying to do.

With all that said, I’m still quite appalled by how this was announced. First, after basically saying that HP didn’t have the resources to invest in its consumer hardware businesses, Apothekar turns around and pays a huge amount for Autonomy (at a valuation ten times its sales – by most objective measures, a fairly high price). I don’t think HP’s investors or the employees and business partners of HP’s soon-to-be-cast-aside will find the irony there particularly amusing.

Adding to this is the horrible manner in which Apothekar announced his plans. Usually, this sort of announcement only happens after the CEO has gone out of his way to boost the price he can command for the business units he intends to get rid of. In this case, not only are there no clear buyers lined up for the divisions HP plans to dump, the prices that those units could command will be hurt by the fact that their futures are in doubt. Rather than reassure employees, potential buyers, customers, and partners that existing business relationships and efforts will be continued, Apothekar has left them with little reason to be confident. This is appalling behavior from someone who’s main job is to be a steward for shareholder value as he could’ve easily communicated the same information without basically tanking his ability to sell those businesses off at a good valuation.

In any event, as I said in my Googorola post, we definitely live in interesting times :-).

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Tails of the TV

A few months ago, I posted on why the Long Tail hypothesis that technology would reduce the importance of general “hits” in favor of the “long tail” of niche products was wrong and how businesses should respond. In the Economist’s recent coverage of the television industry, they note how this has played out when it comes to how American studios have done overseas:

A few years ago there was much talk of localising television shows. Stung by charges of cultural imperialism, which were particularly loud in France, the big media conglomerates encouraged their foreign subsidiaries to develop their own programming. Although some still do so, it is no longer the rule. MTV India, for example, is dominated by local acts but MTV Poland is a vehicle for international music.

These days MTV International is run “more like a global multinational”, says Bob Bakish, its president. It produces local content where there is demand for the stuff. But it is also a co-ordinated distribution engine for American programming. Series like “Jersey Shore”, an oddly compelling show that trails Italian-American youths around beaches and bars, are now released simultaneously outside America. When Michael Jackson died, MTV quickly assembled a reel of the singer’s performances and dispatched it around the world.

imageHow could American hits possibly outcompete localized content? In my last post, I discussed some of the consumer-oriented reasons why this was true. First, an abundance of choices encourages consumers to make sure they watch the same content as the others in their social circles. Secondly, the same technology which makes it easier for people to access the “long tail” also makes it easier  to access and engage with hits through websites, chatrooms, online “webisodes”, in-show music, related graphic novels/magazines, smartphone apps, games, social media, etc. This sort of multi-platform content strategy even has a Hollywood buzzword to go with it: transmedia.

But, consumer-oriented reasons aside, there is also a fundamental business reason for the dominance of Western television overseas: those studios with the biggest hits are also likely to have the wallets needed to pay for better directors, better cameras, better editing, and better special effects. Combine that with the impact of Moore’s Law on television quality and you have an enviable virtuous cycle which most businesses dream of getting:

Get hold of a copy of a drama made by Hollywood for American broadcast TV—“CSI”, “Glee” or “Heroes” will do fine—and, at a random moment, press the pause button. What do you see? Handsome actors, no doubt. But also a well-composed shot that resembles a photograph, with the actors well positioned within the frame. The shot will be well lit, too. Now do the same for a show made by a foreign broadcaster. The result? Probably less impressive.

Finely crafted television like this is expensive. It costs more than $3m for an hour of drama that is good enough to pass muster on an American broadcast network. The visual acuity of Hollywood’s best shows is a big reason why they can compete against home-grown products that are more culturally relevant. Their advantage is growing as households across the world invest in bigger, sharper televisions.

I don’t think this changes any of the lessons I discussed in my previous post (build a strong PR machine, find ways to cross-sell/bundle, build an efficient and repeatable content creation engine which can survive a few failures but capitalize on a hit); it only raises the stakes – if you don’t have the PR, the bundle, and the repeatable formula: your hits won’t be nearly as big and your failures will be all the more painful.

(Image credit – transmedia diagram)

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Platform perils

image One of the most impressive developments in the web and the mobile phone space has been the emergence of new platforms for software developers to target. The developer’s repertoire is no longer just Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, but Android, iPhone OS, Windows Phone 7, Facebook, Twitter, and many more.

While these new platforms are big opportunities for developers, I always find it quite amusing to see the reaction of developers as they see the platform owners aggressively expand beyond their original domains, for example:

imageI’m always shocked at how up-in-arms developers can get about these moves. Why? Because this is nothing new in the software industry. Remember when Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with their operating system and killed off Netscape? Or when Apple bundled iTunes into Mac OS and killed third-party MP3 player developers? Or IBM, widely considered a pioneer in open source, who bundles a full and very closed software stack with its UNIX servers and mainframes?

So, how does any developer succeed (seeing how most developers don’t control the platforms they develop for)? They key is to understand the economics from the platform owner’s vantage point:

  • Platform value and proliferation – When all is said and done, the business of the platform owner is to sell and proliferate its platform. So, foremost in the owner’s mind in rolling out a new feature which was once left to third party developers is whether or not that feature adds significant value to the platform. For Twitter, implementing a list feature (where formerly it was managed with custom apps like Tweetdeck) made a lot of sense as it not only helped users with organizing their Twitter usage but also helped to increase the social value of the service by helping users find other users to follow. Likewise, to me, the big surprise was not that Twitter acquired Ate Bits, but that it took them this long to buy/release official Twitter clients for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry.
  • New monetization – The full value of a platform extends far beyond the price tag on the platform and the applications being sold. It also includes advertising, virtual goods sales, content, and online transactions which take place. Is it any wonder, then, that Apple has expanded into mobile advertising with its iAd platform or content with its iTunes store? As before, the big surprise to me is that it took them this long to roll out iAd.
  • Impact of integration – There are many features where integration into the platform drives significant additional value. Whereas a cute game or widget doesn’t benefit much from being integrated into an operating system/web service, there is significant additional value to an operating system like Windows or Mac OS or Android to have an internet browser integrated, and there is a great deal of value in tying features related to security or virtual currency into a web platform like Facebook.
  • Impact on developer community – Despite what developers may believe, platform owners do care a great deal about the effect of their actions on their developer community. It doesn’t benefit a platform to have the owner unnecessarily alienate their developer base or to make the developer’s lives significantly harder. After all, a rich developer community makes platforms significantly more valuable – even giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google can’t possibly create all the games, music, videos, and features which users may want, nor can they necessarily create better apps/content than specialized third party developers. This means that, by default, platform vendors are generally loath to aggressively push their own applications –- and it in fact requires a significant value-creator from one or more of the reasons above  to get an intelligent platform owner to “step on the toes” of their developer community.

Put them together, and you drive a number of conclusions about where platform owners will make aggressive inroads into the domains of their developers:

  • The “cost of admission” – If there is a feature or application which is used by enough users that it needs to be integrated/bundled in order to get users “up and running” quickly, you can be pretty sure that the platform owner will build, acquire, or partner with a vendor of applications there. Examples: web browsers and multimedia players in operating systems, social features in social networks, mobile phone apps to access a popular web application/social network, common device drivers in operating systems
  • “Platform in a platform” – In war, the side which maintains control of the most important roads and resources will win. Similarly, in business, not only does disproportionate profit tends to flow to the businesses which control the key “gateways” to developers and the change of funds, control of those gateways also enables the business to better shape the consumer’s experience. In the past, this has primarily resulted in platform owners seeking greater control over the development of applications, but Apple has proven that advertising, transaction fees on application sales, and digital content delivery are also key gateways to have influence over. Examples: virtual goods/currency on social network, advertising, development tools, digital content, application store, runtime layers
  • image “Plumbing” – To a platform owner, the platform’s inner workings are sacred. After all, a platform’s performance and ability to work with content/applications is heavily tied to its “plumbing”. In the same way that you aren’t likely to trust a random stranger to do open heart surgery on you, platform owners are unlikely to trust third party hacks/modifications on their platform’s inner workings and are unhappy when third party developers clog their “pipes” with too many requests/garbage. It should be no surprise that platform owners often restrict access to and limit/prevent modifications to a platform’s inner workings. Similarly, because of the value of integrating enhancements to lower level processes into the platform itself, it is also likely that platform owners will make their own modifications when needed and heavily restrict access (if its granted at all) to those lower level processes. Examples: APIs which tap into hardware-level capabilities on operating systems, quantity limits on social network/web service API usage, device driver creation in operating systems

So, what to do if you’re a developer who doesn’t own your own platform? The following is a quick (and by no means comprehensive) list

  1. Develop a plan for dealing with a platform owner’s ire: If you go into a business venture expecting everything everything your way, you are likely delusional. This is especially true if you’ve hit a modicum of success as there is nothing which paints a bullseye on your back better than success. The recent Zynga/Facebook spat (although its recently reached a semi-amiable detente) is an example of this. Better to assume, at a relatively early point, that you will sooner or later earn the platform owner’s wrath and come up with ways to prevent/deal with it than to be caught with your pants down when it happens.
  2. Build the best app: There’s almost never a situation where building the best product isn’t a good strategy, but in this case its a very good one. Building the best product gives you a reputation among users who may put pressure on the platform owner in your favor. It also gives you a shield, especially if your app goes above and beyond “the cost of admission”, by making it harder for a platform owner to take market share from you (i.e. the strength of Oracle’s products have allowed it to maintain its lead position in databases despite attempts from IBM and Microsoft). It also gives you more options as it gives the platform owner a reason to acquire/partner with you rather than with a competitor.
  3. Make your app flexible: Flexibility creates more options for a developer. It allows the developer to potentially work with additional platforms, thus creating a larger user base and an “exit strategy” if one platform becomes too hostile. It also allows a developer to more rapidly release new features or cope with platform changes. In the case where a platform owner is also considering acquisitions/partnerships as a route, the more flexible developer has a strong leg up in that he/she can more quickly integrate with the platform, as well as provide a more competitive opponent to take on.
  4. image Ally yourself with other developers: I pointed out earlier that the reason a platform owner exists is to sell and improve the value of the platform. Because of this and because the value of a platform is dependent on having a vibrant developer community, platform developers are loath to make aggressive moves which may alienate that community. To that end, aligning oneself with other developers can help amplify one developer’s protest when a platform owner makes an aggressive move encroaching on your turf.
  5. Create stickiness: There are many ways for developer “Davids” to tilt the battlefield in their favor against platform owner “Goliaths”. Building in social functionality (i.e. social games) so as to force users to give up connections with their friends if they switch to another vendor is becoming increasingly common as a tactic to develop stickiness. Linking your applications to other commonly used applications or services is another way (i.e. pulling in data from Google and Twitter). It may be an uphill battle, but its not a hopeless one.

It was great that there was a time when one could be a success just by building cute Twitter mobile applications that don’t do anything more than access Twitter’s basic API, but such a strategy was never going to be sustainable.  And the same thing is (or will be) true for a lot of the other new platforms.

(Image credit – Apps) (Image credit – Fish) (Image credit – Pipes) (Image credit – Fish)

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Microsoft surprise attack!

If you’ve been following the tech news, you’ll know that iPhone-purveyor Apple has launched a patent infringement lawsuit against HTC, one of the flagship (Taiwanese) phone manufacturers partnered up with Google and Microsoft to push Android and Windows phones. While HTC may be the company listed on the lawsuit, it was fairly clear that this was a blow against all iPhone imitators and especially against Google’s Android mobile phone (which was recently reported to have generated more mobile web traffic in the US than the iPhone).

But, as I’ve pointed out before, the lines between enemy and friend are murky in the technology strategy space. It would seem that Microsoft may have just thrown HTC (and hence the Android platform and other would-be iPhone-killers) a surprise lifeline:

REDMOND, Wash. — April 27, 2010 — Microsoft Corp. and HTC Corp. have signed a patent agreement that provides broad coverage under Microsoft’s patent portfolio for HTC’s mobile phones running the Android mobile platform. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties from HTC.

The agreement expands HTC’s long-standing business relationship with Microsoft.

“HTC and Microsoft have a long history of technical and commercial collaboration, and today’s agreement is an example of how industry leaders can reach commercial arrangements that address intellectual property,” said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of Intellectual Property and Licensing at Microsoft. “We are pleased to continue our collaboration with HTC.”

Why? I’d conjecture its a combination of three things:

  • Sizable royalty stream: Microsoft is an intellectual property giant. But, given Microsoft’s tenuous and potentially weakening position in mobile phones, they have probably been unable to fully monetize their own intellectual property. Why not test the waters with a company who is already friendly (HTC is a leading supplier of Windows Mobile phones), who desperately needs some intellectual property protection, and is churning out Android phones as if its life depended on it? And, if this works out, it opens the doorway for Microsoft to extract further royalties from other Android phone makers as well (and its even been suggested ominously that perhaps Microsoft is using this as an intellectual property ploy against all Linux systems as well).
  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend: Apple is the Goliath that Windows, Blackberry, Symbian, WebOS, and Android need to slay. Given Microsoft’s unique advantage from being the leading PC operating system, one potentially feasible strategy would be to simply stall its competitors from building a similar position in the mobile phone space (like by helping Android take on Apple) and, when Microsoft is nice and ready, win in mobile phones by moving the PC “software stack” into the mobile phone world and creating better ties between computers (which run Microsoft’s own Windows operating system) and the phone.
  • HTC probably made some fairly significant concessions to Microsoft: I’m willing to bet that HTC has either coughed up some extremely favorable intellectual property royalty/licensing terms or has promised to support Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 series in a very big way. Considering how quickly HTC embraced Android when it was formerly a Windows-Mobile-only shop, its probably not a stretch to believe that there were probably active discussions within HTC over whether or not to drop Microsoft’s faltering platform. An agreement from HTC to build a certain number of Windows phones or to align on roadmap would be a blessing for Microsoft who likely needs all the friends it can get to claw back smartphone market share.

Obviously, I could be completely wrong here (its unclear if Microsoft can even provide HTC with sufficient legal “air cover” against Apple), but the one thing that nobody can deny is that tech strategy is never boring.

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Keep your enemies closer

One of the most interesting things about technology strategy is that the lines of competition between different businesses is always blurry. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this, would anyone 10 years ago have predicted that:

I’m betting not too many people saw these coming. Well, a short while ago, the New York Times Tech Blog decided to chart some of this out, highlighting how the boundaries between some of the big tech giants out there (Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo) are blurring:

image

Its an oversimplification of the complexity and the economics of each of these business moves, but its still a very useful depiction of how tech companies wage war: they keep their enemies so close that they eventually imitate their business models.

(Chart credit)

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What is with Microsoft’s consumer electronics strategy?

image Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft’s products, you have to appreciate the brilliance of their strategic “playbook”:

  1. Use the fact that Microsoft’s operating system/productivity software is used by almost everyone to identify key customer/partner needs
  2. Build a product which is usually only a second/third-best follower product but make sure it’s tied back to Microsoft’s products
  3. Take advantage of the time and market share that Microsoft’s channel influence, developer community, and product integration buys to invest in the new product with Microsoft’s massive budget until it achieves leadership
  4. If steps 1-3 fail to give Microsoft a dominant position, either exit (because the market is no longer important) or buy out a competitor
  5. Repeat

While the quality of Microsoft’s execution of each step can be called into question, I’d be hard pressed to find a better approach then this one, and I’m sure much of their success can be attributed to finding good ways to repeatedly follow this formula.

image It’s for that reason that I’m completely  bewildered by Microsoft’s consumer electronics business strategy. Instead of finding good ways to integrate the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile franchises together or with the Microsoft operating system “mothership” the way Microsoft did by integrating its enterprise software with Office or Internet Explorer with Windows, these three businesses largely stand apart from Microsoft’s home field (PC software) and even from each other.

This is problematic for two big reasons. First, because non-PC devices are outside of Microsoft’s usual playground, it’s not a surprise that Microsoft finds it difficult to expand into new territory. For Microsoft to succeed here, it needs to pull out all the stops and it’s shocking to me that a company with a stake in the ground in four key device areas (PCs, mobile phones, game consoles, and portable media players) would choose not to use one of the few advantages it has over its competitors.

The second and most obvious (to consumers at least) is that Apple has not made this mistake. Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch product lines are clear evolutions of their popular iPod MP3 players which integrate well with Apple’s iTunes computer software and iTunes online store. The entire Apple line-up, although each product is a unique entity, has a similar look and feel. The Safari browser that powers the Apple computer internet experience is, basically, the same that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch. Similarly, the same online store and software (iTunes) which lets iPods load themselves with music lets iPod Touches/iPhones load themselves with applications.

image
That neat little integrated package not only makes it easier for Apple consumers to use a product, but the coherent experience across the different devices gives customers even more of a reason to use and/or buy other Apple products.

Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s. Not only are the user interfaces and product designs for the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile completely different from one another, they don’t play well together at all. Applications that run on one device (be it the Zune HD, on a Windows PC, on an XBox, or on Windows Mobile) are unlikely to be able to run on any other. While one might be able to forgive this if it was just PC applications which had trouble being “ported” to Microsoft’s other devices (after all, apps that run on an Apple computer don’t work on the iPhone and vice versa), the devices that one would expect this to work well with (i.e. the Zune HD and the XBox because they’re both billed as gaming platforms, or the Zune HD and Windows Mobile because they’re both portable products) don’t. Their application development process doesn’t line up well. And, as far as I’m aware, the devices have completely separate application and content stores!

While recreating the Windows PC experience on three other devices is definitely overkill, I think, were I in Ballmer’s shoes, I would recommend a few simple recommendations which I think would dramatically benefit all of Microsoft’s product lines (and I promise they aren’t the standard Apple/Linux fanboy’s “build something prettier” or “go open source”):

  1. Centralize all application/content “marketplaces” – Apple is no internet genius. Yet, they figured out how to do this. I fail to see why Microsoft can’t do the same.
  2. Invest in building a common application runtime across all the devices – Nobody’s expecting a low-end Windows Mobile phone or a Zune HD to run Microsoft Excel, but to expect that little widgets or games should be able to work across all of Microsoft’s devices is not unreasonable, and would go a long way towards encouraging developers to develop for Microsoft’s new device platforms (if a program can run on just the Zune HD, there’s only so much revenue that a developer can take in, but if it can also run on the XBox and all Windows Mobile phones, then the revenue potential becomes much greater) and towards encouraging consumers to buy more Microsoft gear
  3. Find better ways to link Windows to each device – This can be as simple as building something like iTunes to simplify device management and content streaming, but I have yet to meet anyone with a Microsoft device who hasn’t complained about how poorly the devices work with PCs.

(Image credit – Ballmer) (Image credit – Zune HD) (Image credit – Apple store)

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Try Every Flavor

image Two weeks ago, I sat down and had a long overdue chat with a partner on my case about my career and what I should do to make the most out of my consulting career.

And, like a good MBA/consultant, he put together a framework – although instead of it being a 2 x 2 (as is most common in business/consulting circles), he put together a 3 x 3:

Strategy Diligence Operations
Analysis
Team
Client

Across the top are the three basic types of consulting projects that most management consulting firms partake in:

  • Strategy work: Helping a company develop a winning strategy or a successful response to a competitor
  • Diligence: Helping either a company or a private equity/venture capital/holding company conduct strategic and financial diligence on a potential acquisition target
  • Operations: Helping a company streamline its decision-making or business processes (e.g. manufacturing, call center, etc)

Across the left-hand side are the three types of tasks that consultants need to master to add value to their clients and their firm:

  • Analysis: Understanding the analytics and business drivers to allow you to solve the key questions a business needs to answer
  • Team: Contributing to team by providing leadership and support for one’s teammates
  • Client: Being able to successfully create a meaningful partnership with the client

My partner’s advice to me, unsurprisingly, was to make sure to touch every aspect of the job. Unwilling to go for a simple “diversity is good” argument (as I’m not especially fond of the long hours of diligence work that my firm performs for private equity clients), I pressed him on the reason for this.

In response, he told me about a conference call he had with several other senior partners to discuss the technology client’s future. On the call, the operations-centric partners and the strategy-centric partners all saw different aspects of the project.

The operations partners saw the client through an operational lens – they felt the client was secure due to its strong market position and profitability. They saw opportunities for rapid improvement (cutting out extra waste, etc) to further fund the company’s ability to develop the technology it needed to stay competitive.

The strategy partners saw a different picture. They saw the client as sub-scale in a scale-driven industry. They saw the client chasing the wrong technology and saw the client’s differentiation eroding as the client’s competitors pursued a path towards greater integration with other technologies.

My partner, on the other hand, because of his involvement in cases along each of these dimensions over his 15 years as a consultant, painted a more holistic picture. What he saw was a company that would be in a strong position in the near team (as the operational partners were saying), but would be in a poor competitive position over the long haul (as the strategic partners pointed out). But, to this, he added the perspective he had received from his numerous diligence projects – instead of chasing a strategic or operational strategy to maximize the client’s chances of winning in its market, he advocated that the company figure out how best to sell itself.

image In his mind, the client’s struggles was just a small part of a greater backdrop involving two enormous technology titans who would eventually run straight into each other. And much as many developing countries learned to play both sides of the Cold War to their benefit, my partner’s recommendation was for the client to figure out how to capitalize on this struggle to better position the client to win in a new market or to sell itself to the victor.

Of course there’s no way to tell if he’s right or not, but the ability to see the holistic view is something I would value. And, given my lack of experience thus far in the operations and client-facing side of equation, I’ve currently preferenced that my next staffing assignment be an operations-heavy and more client-facing role.

(Image Credit) (Image Credit)

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Successful Consulting

… looks like this (courtesy of Dilbert):
image

One of the tasks that any executive (or consultant for that matter) needs to be able to do is to take crazy assumptions and to test them to see what would happen if they were true. What if some upstart competitor develops a technology which makes our product outdated? What if the government decides to heavily regulate our industry? What if someone completely out-of-left-field enters our market by buying our largest competitor?

These scenarios may seem far-fetched, and the assumptions they rely on may seem extreme, but that’s exactly why this exercise needs to be done:

  1. It helps establish a list of test-able hypotheses to verify which of these scenario’s are plausible (What criteria would an out-of-left-field player need to fulfill to be interested in my market? What would cause the government to start regulating my industry?) and which are not. This then informs the executives which are credible threats (both in terms of likelihood of happening and in terms of damage) to actively manage and monitor and which can be put on the back-burner.
  2. It forces executive teams to formulate contingency plans. No firm can afford to be caught off guard. Look at the example of Polaroid or Blockbuster – caught completely off guard by the onslaught of the digital camera revolution and Netflix/broadband video respectively. The companies are now has-beens, as they were not only unready for the destruction of their market, they were slow to react and loss the opportunities to use their strong market positions to their benefit.
  3. It gives management a list of trigger points to monitor for and to move quickly on. If our competitor looks like its interested in acquiring supplier X, we need to take action quickly to make that deal a lot more painful to swallow, or make our own move to counter that threat.
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