Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apple to Introduce a Netbook?

Analyst Ezra Gottheil thinks Apple is going to introduce a netbook at next month's MacWorld expo and conference.

Gottheil argues that low-cost netbooks were gaining in popularity even before the recession sunk its teeth into consumer spending, leaving Apple vulnerable at the low end of the market.

He told InfoWorld, "It looks like netbooks are real, and getting a certain amount of traction. And this recession looks serious."

But I don't think Apple is about to jettison 10 years of successful marketing strategy and product launches to bolster a low end it hasn't cared about since Steve Jobs took back the reins in 1997.

Apple's strategy has been to make high-concept products for which people are willing to pay a premium. You could even argue that the products don't even have to be all that well-made (remember early iPods often had issues with screens, battery failures, and 'freezing').

Besides, Apple already has its highly-portable, Web-based computer ready to go. It's called the iPhone.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Video Conferencing Vendors: Make Your Move

This should be boom times for telepresence or video conferencing equipment vendors. Not since 9/11, when the double whammy of a recession and fear of travel combined to make a compelling case for virtual meetings.

Vendors did see a spike, but then video conferencing revenues tanked (see below the fold) by more than 200% between 2001 and 2006, showing that customers weren't convinced that the technology could replace face-to-face contact.

Things are different today. Despite a temporary drop, we all know that gas prices are only going to rise as OPEC cuts production and supplies dwindle. Airline prices and other travel costs remain high even while enterprises lay off workers by the tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, telepresence technology is improving by leaps and bounds, and vendors have gotten better at integrating it with productivity apps.

But vendors are still having trouble closing the deal.

My friend JS, who works for a large department at Columbia University, is doing due diligence and a feasibility study to determine whether or not to invest in a video conferencing system. There are a couple of hang-ups, of course, but the main one is her fear that equipment she recommends buying today will soon become obsolete.

This is bad news for companies like Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, who have invested quite heavily in unified communications suites that they'd like to build on for years to come. If they could talk to JS, they'd tell her that anything she buys today will be built on modern infrastructure; the only thing she's likely to have to upgrade is the end-point technology.

Their message is not coming across, perhaps because they've over-promised for so long that they've created a credibility gap that will take a lot of effort to overcome.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

SaaS Customers Hold Hammer

Software-as-a-service vendors are exceptionally reliant on retaining accounts because they incur heavy up-front costs to sign up a new customer. They often don't turn a profit on a given account for several years.

Their competitors are well aware of this, and companies like Oracle put a full-court press on customers who have SaaS agreements up for renewal, knowing that even if they don't win the customer, they're costing the SaaS vendor that much more money to hold onto their account.

On the other side of the coin, SaaS vendors increase user fees and up-sell customers on new modules in the later years of their relationships with customers in order to make up the difference.

This is where an informed customer can help themselves. SaaS consultant Phil Wainewright makes the following points:

  • Inevitably, there are bound to be some discontented customers who want to evaluate alternatives
  • There will also be contented customers who are savvy enough to drive a harder bargain when renewal time comes around
  • As a trend, customers presumably are getting more comfortable with the on-demand model and therefore may be signing shorter contracts than they did when first switching from conventional licensed software with its three to five year upgrade cycles — thus giving more frequent opportunities to renegotiate renewals.
So on the one hand, SaaS vendors have successfully entered the mainstream, and no longer have to evangelize their business model. It's understood and accepted that it works. They have convinced customers that they no longer have to put up with conventional on-premise vendors who abandon them once the license fees have been cashed.

The flip side of this turn of events is that customers are now just as comfortable switching SaaS vendors as they were with switching from on-premise to SaaS in the first place.

This state of affairs gives customers, finally, the hammer over vendors that had for too many years over-promised, under-delivered, and only bothered communicating with them when it was time to sell them a new module.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Does Apple Want an Enterprise-Friendly iPhone?

Arguably one of the most attractive features of the iPhone is the ability to pinch and drag items on the screen, but a report from ABI Research notes that "capacitive" technology is incompatible with many legacy enterprise applications.

ABI analysts conclude that this will put a significant hurdle in Apple's march to enterprise adoption.

But hold on now! Computerworld's Ryan Faas has a list of ten things Apple can do to make the iPhone more attractive to business users. Faas's doesn't directly address this issue, but several of his recommendations would require Apple to make significant changes to its underlying operating system. Faas notes:

The iPhone has a lot of potential as a business device, but its ultimate success will depend on how well it responds to the real-world needs of corporate users and IT managers. To succeed, Apple will need to prove that the iPhone is more than a media player or a toy.

But maybe Apple doesn't want to become yet another enterprise device. Maybe the whole point is that the iPhone is about enjoyment and style, and making it a work tool just isn't... cool.

Really, the whole push to make Apple more enterprise-friendly comes from executives who got the iPhone as a present and are putting pressure on IT admins to make it work with Exchange so they can ditch their uncool-looking BlackBerrys.

So customers would like to see the iPhone become more enterprise-friendly. But since when has Apple shown any interest in doing what its customers want?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Amazon iPhone App and the In-Store/Online Dichotomy

Amazon launched an iPhone app that lets customers mail the online retailer a picture of an item they see in a store, according to a story published by InformationWeek. Amazon tries to match the item with something in its inventory (and other participating retailers) and then sends the results back to its customers.

While self-serving for Amazon in its current incarnation, retailers should co-opt this kind of application to help customers and keep them loyal. Maybe using barcode information instead of pictures, retailers could help customers find apparel in the right size or a different color than what they have in stock in particular location.

This would beat the customer trying to find the same product at a competing retailer or, worse, dealing with returns and customer frustration because the item they ordered online from home wasn't what they thought they were looking for.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

News Aggregation: Index Cards of the Present

Back in the early 1990s, my close friend Claude Meunier had an odd job working for French building magnate (and now telecom operator) Francis Bouygues.

Every morning at 7 AM, he got into Monsieur Bouygues' limo and handed him a stack of index cards Claude had put together over the past few hours.

Each card included a news item--ranging from serious news to the scores of important soccer matches or the amorous misadventures of a starlet.

In other words, bite-sized capsules of everything Monsieur Bouygues might need to know as he nagivated his day.

In the past we had index cards, today we have news aggregation.

News aggregation is clearly the future of journalism--not it's only future, but one of the permutations that will enjoy long-term success, if done right.

In an interesting twist to a meme that has been largely given over to automation, technology news aggregation site TechMeme--and it's political sister-site Memeorandum--is dumping its sophisticated algorithms in favor of--gasp--a human editor.

Until now, TechMeme aggregated news content using a sophisticated algorithm that many people feel does a better job of filtering news than, say, Google News.

That didn't stop some bloggers (mainly those frustrated because they weren't picked up by TechMeme's algorithm) from accusing the site of nursing a bias of some sort.

What will they think now that TechMeme's progenitor, Gabe Rivera, has decided that a human being can do a better job than the algorithm he created?

But subjective--and critical--thinking is exactly what readers need; someone who will help them cut through the noise and find the best information on the subjects they care about--at the frequency they want.

That sounds like great news--a victory for the humans against the borgs!

But before exulting too much, let's wait and see how well the new human editor does at keeping up with the volume of news.

My guess is that some automation will be needed to ensure that the editor doesn't ultimately gravitate towards the same set of sites.

Glimmers of Hope

Despite the roiling, interconnected world economy, Nokia has rolled out the N97, a new smartphone that, according to Forbes, will challenge not only its natural rival iPhone but netbook makers as well.

the real damage from the N97 could be to the emerging market for small, thin, cheap and connected laptop computers known as netbooks. After all, the Nokia N97 and even Apple's iPod Touch promise to do everything a netbook does with one key difference: You can actually slip these suckers into your pocket.

This should be hugely encouraging to anyone who either a) wants one of these 'suckers,' or b) cares to think about how this kind of competition will lower prices and improve productivity of so-called knowledge-workers.

It might seem like a stretch to imagine that the N97 is the first step out of the second big depression, but a real estate bubble isn't the only thing that cured the recession of 2001-03. It was the ongoing gains in productivity that were driven by a host of new technologies.

Back in 2007, every analyst I spoke with predicted that mobility would be one of the three biggest trends of 2008 and 2009 (virtualization and green being the other two).

It stands to reason that a more mobile workforce with better access to information will help lift our economy from the bottom-up. As our new president is fond of saying, change starts with us.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Can Free Be Enterprise Class?

One of my early mentors, Jaz-Michael King, once explained to me that all "enterprise level" means is that the product includes various pricing levels.

It was not meant as a joke.

Josh Greenbaum, a terrific analyst who makes his money consulting in the world of enterprise software, notes that free software of the sort offered by Google doesn't always work properly, and that companies who rely on free software get what they pay for.

There are lots of other examples of getting what you pay for: I recently went on Facebook to actually try to conduct some business (as opposed to the unrepentant socializing I normally use Facebook for.) That happened to be one of the moments Facebook was performing like one of the kids it was originally intended to server: balky, recalcitrant, and, in the end, largely useless for the function I was trying to get it to perform. I’ve seen Gmail do some similarly amazing things, not-ready-for-primetime things, including resetting my password randomly and being plain unavailable at the very moment I need it the most.

There are several problems with that position, one of which being that I've never seen Gmail behave the way Josh describes. Earlier in his post, Josh also described a glitch involving Google Calendar that could just as easily been user error--which is what SAP would have said if the problem had occurred on its watch.

Which brings me to the next problem with Josh's argument: enterprise software vendors have done such a good job of proving that you don't, in fact, get what you pay form that SaaS vendors like Salesforce.com have been able to bust into the market with unexpected ease by exploiting the foibles of licensed software vendors, and the anger they have engendered in their customers.

No doubt that free software has its issues--but so does software that companies pay for. Customers need to ask themselves which form of troubleshooting they'd rather pay for.

Possibilities of Collaboration

If Web 2.0 technology can be used to change the way we govern our societies, then companies ignore these tools at their own peril (or rather, at the peril that their competitors will not ignore them).

Someone in this short promo on Wikinomics notes that it's the behavior rather than the tools that need to change, but that's giving short shrift to having the right tools, as anyone who has tried to implement knowledge management can attest.

Having the right Web 2.0 strategy and structure in place is, ironically, key to unleashing the full potential of this unstructured method of collaboration (and ultimately, innovation).