Sunday, August 23, 2009

The iPhone and Google Voice app

In reading Apple's response to the FCC's questions concerning the apparent denial of the Google Voice app for the iPhone, one thing is clear. The Google Voice app (in its current or modified form) will eventually be approved by Apple for use on the iPhone.

Why: It would be a competitive misstep to deny iPhone users access to this service. The iPhone makes calls. But the iPhone is also conduit to sell iPhone apps. Thanks in part to the exclusive arrangement with AT&T, Apple charges an attractive fee for each iPhone sold. The fee (or price paid) by both the buyer and AT&T (via of the rich subsidy) is recognized by Apple over the two-year anticipated economic life of the phone. Beyond the issues of dollars and the intricacies of the deferred revenue accounting method used for each iPhone sold is the issue of the customer relationship or ongoing "conversation" between Apple and users of the popular device.

Apple provides two years of software upgrades on each iPhone sold at no charge (hence the deferred revenue of accounting as required by law). The iPhone is as much about the relationship between Apple and the iPhone owner as it is about the phone.

The iPhone is also about selling apps and building out a product eco-system. Apple keeps 30% of an apps selling price (inclusive of transaction fees and distribution costs). If one starts doing the simply math with reasonable projections for app sales growth the financial numbers become quite astounding. In the years ahead the iTunes app store will be a material contributor to Apple's revenue and earnings and provide a substantial aggregate investment by developers in the iPhone eco-system.

Google is also about the customer relationship, if even in an eerie, automated, detached and weird kind of way. Both Apple and Google are building technology empires on understanding the needs and desires of users and meeting those needs and desires in efficient and profitable ways. Apple isn't about to deny iPhone users use of Google Voice. it would eventually hamper sales of iPhone handsets and the corresponding sales of apps.

Google is a competitor of Apple in the device market via of the Android OS for smartphones. It's a principal reason Google's CEO was under heavy pressure from regulators to resign from Apple's Board of Directors. The two companies will increasingly become competitors as each expands their global portfolio of products and services.

But the competition between Google and Apple pales in comparison to the antithetical market approach of Google's biggest competitor and Apple's traditional rival - Microsoft. Google isn't about to let go of the potential for tens of millions of iPhone OS users to take advantage of its Google Voice service. The competition between Google and Microsoft to provide users with productivity solutions, search services and now communications tools will only get more intense with each passing day.

Google and Apple are inherently allied by business philosophy and market approach. Though competitors on an increasing number of fronts, both companies (in vastly different ways) are about the customer relationship, not the sale of individual products and services. They are naturally aligned and will increasingly become competitors without even trying, the natural alliance of the two enterprises and flash points of competition are inherent in the approaches each company uses to pursue growth in the global market.

Apple and Google will find a way to resolve the issues - both real and perhaps eloquently imagined by Apple - surrounding the Google Voice app for the iPhone. I suspect a resolution will be found within weeks. It's in the vested interest of both companies to make it work.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The 3GS iPhone Has Made Me A Believer (Again!)

I remember the fateful day 25 years ago when I saw in person the wonders of the Mac. It changed the way I viewed personal computers. Back In 1984 everything about the Mac screamed for the user to come closer to the device and put it through its paces. Roughly 13 years later the Bondi blue iMac created a similar appeal.

I had been using an original iPhone and thought digital life was good. That was until a brief vacation in June when my iPhone became my primary communications device. My fellow vacationers were zipping around the Internet with 3G iPhones while I was waiting for the EDGE network to (maybe) load pages.

Last month I bit the bullet, signed a two-year contract with AT&T and plunked down $200 plus tax for a 3GS iPhone. Similar to the excitement of using a Mac for the first time, the 3GS iPhone has changed the way I see iPhones. The big step in development from the original iPhone to the 3GS is remarkable. Pages load quite quickly on the 3GS and the variety of apps written to take advantage of the iPhone's compass and GPS abilities are also noteworthy. This products makes me an Apple believer (again!).

I'll get into the iPhone's sales numbers in future posts and the importance of the app store in Apple's effort to build out the iPhone's eco-system, but this product is a clear winner that not only differentiates this Apple product form competing products in the marketplace, it may very well be the first in a series of products that will destroy the underpinnings of the PC market Apple helped to create.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Google v. Microsoft: Battle of the Behemoths

In one corner we have the global leader in operating systems and in the other the undisputed champion of Internet search. Both companies dominate their respective markets with sketchy outcomes in forays into other markets.

Google and Microsoft are companies with deep pockets for research and product development and eye each other constantly from across the economic boxing ring. The areas of potential competition between the companies makes the Apple-Microsoft rivalry look like nothing more than an entertaining carnival sideshow.

What's noteworthy about this battle of the tech titans isn't so much the two companies are natural adversaries but the points of engagement are quickly moving beyond a well-defined or contained area of conflict. As both companies come out swinging at each other, the field of battle is not only expanding, it may take on the look of trench warfare with Google and Microsoft lobbing economic grenades and mortar fire at each other from both near and distant points of skirmish.

The recent Microsoft-Yahoo! deal is aimed squarely at battling Google in its core market (search) while Google's plan to release the Chrome OS is a shot across the bow of the flagship in Microsoft's revenue armada.

Apple, for its part, is drawn into this spreading conflict as an ally or antagonist to both companies as the combat between Google and Microsoft becomes a global conflagration between the two digital superpowers. Microsoft remains one of biggest Mac developers on the planet with products such as Office while Google moves the battle of productivity solutions from shrink-wrapped boxes to the cloud. For now Apple needs cooperation from Microsoft to continue Mac versions of Office and Apple product compatibility with Exchange. At the same time Apple remains a natural ally of Google in its efforts to diminish the influence of Microsoft at every point on the planet.

The recent flaps over scrutiny of close ties between Apple and Google and Apple's decision to remove certain Google products from the iTunes app store illustrate Apple's quirky involvement on both sides of the fight.

Microsoft needs the volume of Windows sales that netbooks provide. It's needed to protect Microsoft's overwhelming leverage in the global OS market. Microsoft also needs to provide Windows OEMs with higher margins on netbooks sales to make Windows licensing fees more economically acceptable to the hardware makers. Google sees the netbook market as a prime target for the release an OS to further entrench users in the use of the company's expanding array of solutions. The Chrome OS will be an attractive OS alternative to netbook makers seeking to raise margins on their own by eliminating the Windows licensing fee.

My personal view: Advantage Google.

Moving the analogy back to the boxing ring, Google has the corporate strength and depth of resources to deploy a Rope-A-Dope strategy in battling Microsoft's swings at the search and Internet advertising markets and the body blows that will come as Google moves into the OS market.

Like a fighter rather than a boxer, Microsoft has the strength to take on all comers and land blows that would fell all but the fittest of competitors. But in defending its "command and control" OS paradigm, the company is tethered to an outdated market model, reducing its reach to many areas of the economic ring. Microsoft is big and strong, but deftness is necessarily lacking as the company seeks to protect its revenue fortress from attack by the search and Internet advertising heavyweight.

Google will jab, poke and counter with right hooks, damaging the opponent while maintaining movement around the ring. Neither competitor will land an early knockout punch and the outcome will be determined by the scorecard following each round of the bout.

Apple's best position during this bout is a ringside seat watching Google fight what might have been some of Apple's biggest battles. Any crack in the foundation of Microsoft's overwhelming OS advantage is a win for Apple and provides an opening for Apple to further fracture Microsoft's control of the PC market. While Google prepares for its ring bout with Microsoft, Apple will continue its development of the iPhone eco-system unabated no matter claims Google's Android-based solutions pose a competitive threat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Google's Chrome OS

While some see Google's Chrome OS as a competitive overlap for Apple and Google, I see it as a product specifically designed to compete with Windows in the high-volume, low-margin netbook market. It's a potentially disruptive force in the Windows PC market aimed at fracturing Microsoft's command and control of this product tier.

One would be hard pressed to think of a more effective target than the release of a no-cost OS into a product tier in which margins per unit are practically nil and provides the specific functionality desired by consumers shopping in this tier of the PC market. People shopping for netbooks aren't planning to do graphic design or scientific analysis on the devices. They are shopping for a low-cost PC that provides Internet access and productivity suite functionality. Google provides Internet-based solutions including cloud-based productivity products.

Apple is quickly moving to expand the presence of iPhone OS products in the marketplace and Google is following what might be seen as a similar but actually different path. This is not a market in which Apple and Google will be competing for the same customers. The much-anticipated Apple tablet is not a netbook nor do I believe will it be intended to compete in the familiar laptop product tiers. Rather, I expect a product that will further the monetization of hardware, the commoditization of software and deliver iPhone OS apps to the end-user as efficiently and profitably as possible. I suspect we will see a product that serves as an always connected Internet device for the delivery of movies, music, books and information and provides a productivity space for the user larger in size than the iPhone and iPod touch.

Google and Apple are on different paths and the Chrome OS will be much more of a competitor to Microsoft's presence in the netbook market than it will present a challenge to Apple in the emerging digital device product segment Apple is desiring to create and exploit for the delivery of iTunes store products to the consumer.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Apple v. Microsoft: A Clash of Cultures

During a recent conference with analysts, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer referred to Apple's recent gains in market share as a rounding error. In fact, he goes on to say Apple's worldwide Macintosh market share costs Microsoft nothing. This, while acknowledging the number of Macs in use by those in attendance. Mr. Ballmer moves on to tackle Linux and what he sees as a more formidable global threat to Microsoft's control of the OS market.

I'm not creating this blog post to lambast Mr. Ballmer. He's CEO of one of the most successful technology companies in the world and by some accounts that company's most vocal cheerleader and public booster. He went on to tell those in the audience it was OK to use Macs as long as they were using Office as their productivity suite.

It's a clash of cultures between Apple and Microsoft, not a battle for control of the OS market. Apple doesn't seek control of the OS market, Apple, to the point of obsession, seeks to control the quality of the company's products from development to design to the end user experience.

What Microsoft can't control is the quality of the hardware sold with its OS nor can the company control the consumer desire for ever-lower PC prices. To maintain control, the company must address all price points in the PC industry. In Mr. Ballmer's discussion with analysts, he suggests Linux, lacking a fixed design point, is chaotic and doesn't deliver a value proposition when desiring to build an eco-system to support it as a product.

Both Apple and Microsoft are fixated on control but come at those efforts from vastly different vantage points and practices. It's a clash of cultures.

In the Mac camp are many people with long memories. They remember Microsoft ripping off Apple's designs even the "look and feel" of the Mac for Windows. Microsoft proved in court the company did this legally, based on clauses in the contracts between the two companies. Microsoft has always been one of the largest Mac developers on the planet. It wasn't that Windows was as good as the Mac, but it was "good enough" to satisfy the taste of most consumers and Microsoft's zeal for control of the OS market.

In the Windows camp are people who have a vehement distaste for the Mac. It's seen as a disruptive force and one for which the Intel transition has taken away most of the arguments. Macs no longer run on some kind of obscure chip architecture, but share the same innards as many Windows PCs. The iPod and now the iPhone are products those in the Windows camp don't see as a threat to Windows OS hegemony and they have provided an opportunity for detente. Windows zealots now only had to hate half of Apple and could safely admit some of the products from the folks in Cupertino are pretty darned cool. The fact is, iTunes has made Apple one of the largest Windows developers on the planet based on installs even if the software is provided free.

Back in the Mac camp, enthusiasts determined it's OK for Apple to play nice with Microsoft because to make Apple products available in the enterprise market the company has to deal with Exchange and other dreaded elements of the Microsoft OS command and control structure. Besides, Apple won the digital music player market by such a margin the resentment over Microsoft's success in the past could at least be partially put to rest. Similar to the way Red Sox fans responded after an 86-year drought as World Series Champions.

Where does it all go from here?

I remember the release of Windows 95. From an end-user standpoint it didn't go nearly as well as history might remember. It created a boon for the Microsoft eco-system: OEMs, peripheral makers, upgrade component makers and developers. I suspect Windows 7 will create its own set of issues but nothing that will threaten Microsoft's control of the OS market in the maturing and declining PC market. It may, however, create more of a blip on the sales radar screen for Macs that might just be more than a "rounding error" for the folks in Redmond. By comparison Snow Leopard will be received without nearly the same issues and will be a competitive contrast for the Mac in the inevitable comparisons between the two products.

For Apple, the company chose to finally build out an eco-system first with accessory makers for the iPod and now with developers for the iPhone and iPod touch. It's a page from Microsoft's path to success.

Microsoft will keep its monopoly standing in the OS market to satisfy the needs of the company's eco-system. Apple will continue to gain high-end market share to satisfy the needs of it shareholders. The iPhone will continue its global assault and roll-over what remains of the Windows Mobile market.

The clash of cultures will reignite when Microsoft makes a run at the iPhone with a revamped Windows Mobile solution and the coming Mac tablet hits at the PC laptop market with a resounding blast, threatening the volume numbers Microsoft needs to support its OEMs and developers.

Add the Google folks to the fun with a Chrome OS for netbooks, an OS for smartphones and we can all take sides in the coming clash of cultures played out on new battlefields with strange alliances the likes of which we have never seen before.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Windows 7: So What?

Get ready for the endless hype. Windows 7 is being readied for release. No matter the release of the latest iteration of the Windows franchise presents Apple with an excellent Mac sales opportunity (the hype of Windows 7 won't match the reality), Windows 7 may represent the last major release of a failing product paradigm.

Many of us began our computing life with MS-DOS. The company first lost my interest with the release of Windows. It was no match for the Mac. Windows 95 was exploited by PC OEMS, peripheral makers and developers to drive sales of both hardware and software products. Its release coalesced an odd alliance throughout the industry to make Win 95 a success. The same conditions have not been seen since and may not be seen again.

Personally, I liked Windows NT. It was the most intuitive Windows product I had ever seen. Somehow its successors only succeeded in junking up the works. XP, for all of its issues, has remained in service for eight long years. Vista was a debacle and Windows 7 is being billed as Windows "done right." Even if it is, the PC market itself has passed the point of no return on Windows.

With handheld devices such as the iPhone and iPod touch taking Web share from PCs and netbooks as the only growing segment of the Windows PC industry at this time, there's little room for another version of the Windows OS that isn't developed with the small device market in mind. Google now sees an opportunity for a netbook OS in Windows 7's wake.

The overriding challenge faced by Microsoft with Windows 7 is a challenge of the company's own making. The Windows hardware market has been commoditized in favor of Microsoft and its rich margins on operating systems and the Office productivity suite. As hardware costs have been driven ever lower, the cost of a Windows 7 upgrade is a high percentage of the cost of a new cheap box or netbook. Upgrade sales will not power revenue. The hassles involved in upgrading a box or laptop from XP to Windows 7 also works against a robust OS upgrade market.

Hardware margins for OEMs are razor-thin. Without pricing control in the hardware market, it will be challenging at best for Microsoft to command rich margins for the more powerful versions of Windows 7 from OEMs. In short, unless hardware prices rise, there's little room for Microsoft to sell its higher-priced versions of the new OS.

Expect an effort to push PC prices higher with the release of Windows 7. OEMs will be hawking the virtues of new PCs equipped with Microsoft's latest Windows release and will be looking for ways to increase prices to raise margins. However, competition remains high and Windows PC makers are already challenged differentiating brands in a market that shares one operating system between the makers.

To make Windows 7 more than a modest success Microsoft has to carry the baggage of commodity-priced PCs on its shoulders. It may be the modern-day version of the mythical Sisyphus who was destined to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as he neared the apex. Reworking the orientation of consumers in the Windows PC market from a focus on price to a focus on Windows 7 as a value proposition to justify higher PC prices won't come cheap and won't be easy.

Meanwhile consumers continue the migration from desktops and even laptops to handheld computing devices unabated. We'll see lots of hype. But Windows 7 looks more and more like the answer to yesterday's Windows problems, not the solution that will drive consumers into the personal computing world of tomorrow.