I Don’t Care About Google Glass. But Augmented Reality Makes Reality a Read/Write Medium.

Google Glass is in the wild and reviews are beginning to flow in.  They range from blogger Robert Scoble’s claim that “I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor)” to some pundits already describing it as a failure.  Truth be told, I don’t care about Google Glass.

Why not?  This used to be what we called a portable computer.

I carried one of these things.  It weighed about 26 pounds.  It’s one reason I needed rotator cuff surgery on my shoulder a few years ago.  Or this.

That’s then-Apple CEO John Sculley proudly holding up a Newton 20 years ago.

If we judged the future of laptops on the basis of this Compaq or the future smartphones and tablets on the basis of the Newton, how stupid would we be looking today?  The original Compaq and the Newton could charitably be called “proofs of concept.”  Less charitably, they were devices that appealed to the (very) early adopter.  (Does it surprise you that I had both of these devices, and even the Compaq’s spiritual predecessor, the Osborne 1. I once got out of jury duty because I had one of these with me in the jury box when it was time to be interviewed.)

This is how I view Google Glass, no pun intended.  Note, I have not tried Google Glass and I’ve only talked to one person who has actually used the glasses.  (He was underwhelmed.)  But I don’t need to.  Google Glass is not the present, it’s the future.  That future, more broadly, is something called “augmented reality.”  Broadly speaking, I think of augmented reality as the blurring of the lines between the physical and the digital.  This is already more prevalent than you think.  If you’re a sports fan, you’re probably already familiar with the first down line superimposed on the football field.  You’re smart enough to know that one isn’t real.  But watch a Fox baseball broadcast.  That advertising signage behind home plate?  The people in the stadium don’t see that one.

Already there are smartphone apps that will display on screen images mixed from the camera and sources on the Internet.  For instance, apps I have will point you to the nearest subway stop or will identify restaurants and other points of interest where you’re looking.  Six years before introducing the Newton, Apple produced a video called the Knowledge Navigator.  It’s a 5:46 tour de force of where technology would head, and still is headed.  If you’ve never watched the video, watch it now.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Now let your imagination run wild.  Imagine that kind of software solution with a video projection system that presented relevant information to you in a heads-up display kind of fashion or on your glasses.  Or, if we’re looking 20 years out, integrated into your retina or optic nerve.  I kid you not.  Think of the use cases.  You don’t remember a person’s name?  That’s a thing of the past.  I now have plug-ins for my email that show me the recent tweets or Facebook posts from the mail’s sender.  I’d love to have that displayed when I’m actually talking to you.  How many times have you been talking about something and gone “what’s the name of that movie?” or “when did Apple introduce that Newton?”  Pilots already use heads-up displays so they can get critical information without taking their eyes away from what’s outside.  Already there are games for your smartphone that insert geo-located objects into your phone display. And looking at your cell phone while walking is such a risky behavior that there are a variety of solutions to help you do that more safely, from the serious to the frivolous.

So let’s not judge Google Glass as a serious product.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t try it.  Maybe even like Scoble, I’d never go another day without wearing this.  Keep in mind, I’m the guy who five years ago used to wear “projector glasses” on airplanes so I could watch my own movies.  Unlike Google Glass, these were big, heavy, wrap around glasses that contained VGA screens.  You’d hook it up to your portable media player and watch movies that way.  The glasses were sufficiently heavy that if you wanted to watch anything longer than a YouTube video, you basically had to tilt your head backwards at an angle so the glasses wouldn’t slide down.  By the end of a movie, I’d be reclined around 45 degrees.  Here we are five years after that watching movies on tablets and, very soon, on flexible portable screens.

The use cases for augmented reality are myriad, and compelling.  Google Glass won’t be the product that gets us to realize that potential.  It may even prove to be the product that gets us to laugh at the potential.  But 20 years from now, we’ll laugh at the quaintness of that early effort, 10 years from now we’ll wonder how anyone could ever doubt the category and five years from now, we early adopters will all be embracing various forms of augmented reality.    If Apple had done this (and they will some day), people would be tripping over themselves to laud their vision.  Google’s track record of “the next big thing” is slightly more tarnished (to say the least), so it’s much easier to ridicule them and dismiss Glass.  Don’t.  This is our future, and the future is nearer than you think.

I attended an Augmented Reality meetup in New York last week and the line of the night was that augmented reality makes reality a read/write medium.  Think about that one.

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Pardon My Disruption, Episode 3

Pardon My Disruption, Snowbound Edition

I have been working with the Stamford Innovation Center to produce a monthly show I call “Pardon My Disruption.” I am a big fan of the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” in which two literate sportscasters (no, not an oxymoron but clearly a small universe) banter about and debate the news issues of the day.  If you’ve never seen an episode of PTI, you can watch it here.  It’s a great format and if you’re interested in sponsoring this for technology in a big way, get in touch with me.  I’m really going to see if I can get this done.  Until then, I’m taking this tentative first step with the Center’s Marketing Director, Peter Propp.  We generally do this live the second Friday of every month at the Innovation Center but with Nemo hitting the region last Friday, we did the session remotely (using Google+ Hangouts).  You can enjoy the show at the link which opens this post.

Our subjects this time included:

  • Meetup.com
  • Dell goes private
  • IBM Connect trip report
  • The New York Times gets hacked: Cybersecurity

Meetup.com

Meetup is one of the best kept secrets of social media.  Some of you may remember the blockbuster 1988 business book Megatrends by John Naisbitt.  That was one of the very first business books that captivated me and to this day, I remember Naisbitt promulgating a “high tech/high touch” philosophy.  (This wasn’t the dominant theme of the book but is one of the points that sticks with me to this day.) Remember, at this time, technology was nowhere as prevalent in our lives as it is today.  At this point, Windows was still a new product, the Mac was still in its infancy and the leading PC manufacturers were Compaq and IBM.  Anyhow, Naisbitt’s point was that the more technology invaded our human lives, the more we would have need for a human touch to counter the impersonal nature of computer interactions.  Even as we move more interactions to social platforms, email and other technology-based platforms, it would be folly to forget Naisbitt’s forecast.  Tweetups — where Twitter users actually get together in a physical location — and Meetup are two of the more obvious manifestations of this phenomenon and bring with them a power that’s not present in virtual-only communities. We’ve seen this with getting Pardon My Disruption off the ground.  We tweet about, we Facebook and LinkedIn it, but the largest driver of traffic to the physical event is Meetup.  If you haven’t looked at Meetup, you should.  Some of my best meetings of a month are Meetup groups (New York Tech Meetup, New York Enterprise Tech Meetup) and I find a fair number of social activities there as well (e.g., the Bucket List Bunch).  The New York Tech Meetup is a powerful force in the New York tech community and gathers over 700 people to an NYU auditorium every month.  Getting tickets to it is akin to getting tickets to a Springsteen concert on Ticketmaster; you have to keep clicking refresh on your browser and get tickets in the first 10 minutes they’re available or basically they’re sold out.  A powerful platform to bring people together physically.  How quaint in this virtual world.

Dell

I’ve often chided Google for being a one-trick pony…but it’s a damn good trick.  Dell (nee PCs Limited) came up with a great trick 30 years ago — build PCs to order.  In the intervening years, even slow-moving behemoths like HP have caught up with that trick and it’s now an industry standard.  Meanwhile, Dell has tried to change the story, moving upstream into servers, networking and services.  But it has been a slow slog. In today’s next quarter obsessed world, it’s hard to make radical surgery on a company.  And make no mistake about it, Dell needs radical surgery.  Going private doesn’t solve their problems, by a long stretch.  Even as a public company, Dell has, charitably, underperformed in its efforts to remake itself.  You just have to scratch your head and wonder how so many tech stalwarts managed to miss the mobile and cloud revolutions. And Microsoft’s involvement in the Dell financing only complicates matters or, more troublingly, sends the message that Dell’s “reinvention” won’t be so different from today’s Dell. And this deal leaves Michael Dell firmly in charge and one has to wonder if he’s the man to lead the reinvention.  Dell has largely been off my radar screen for a decade.  We’ll see if this move leads to a more disruptive Dell or just incremental, and insufficient, changes.

IBM Connect

I’ve posted recently about IBM Connect and the remake of IBM so I won’t say much here.  The only thing I’ll add here is a few thoughts about the impact of its Smarter initiatives internally.  While suggesting that the external market may not be precisely aligned with the way IBM is selling its collaborative solutions, there’s no ignoring the fact that the Smarter message has served to focus and align the company internally.  It’s almost nauseating  how universal IBM people talk about Smarter this or that.  It permeates all levels and functions of the organization.  One of the challenges of large companies in a fast-moving world is getting all facets of an organization focused on a consistent and aggregated message.  IBM’s ability to get the disparate business units aligned around consistent messaging and even more, deep product integration is a truly remarkable accomplishment.  If customers start to align with IBM’s messaging, IBM is unassailable. No one can deliver what IBM is delivering.  It’s a big if, but as a long-time IBM watcher, a fascinating story to watch unfold.

Security

As much of a technology lover as I am, in my rare dark moments, I have grave concerns about the fragility of the systems we’re building.  Quite simply, no one really understands how they all work and so that leaves us vulnerable in some deeply troubling ways. From what can only be called state-sponsored cyberwarfare down to more mundane financial theft, we live in fragile and troubling times.  The solution is not simple, complicated by the disgusting politicization of this issue in Washington. I won’t turn this into a political screed but instead in the webcast, we focused on what we as individuals can do.  Bottom line:  you need better password practices.  It used to be that we didn’t want to write our passwords down because the biggest risk was someone sitting down at our computer and stealing things.  Now the biggest risk comes from someone who steals your password over the Internet.  For those of us who can’t be bothered to have different passwords for different sites, once they’ve got your password, they can harvest it in myriad ways.  So, do what I’ve done.  Get a password manager — I use Dashlane — and make sure you have strong passwords and different ones for every site.  And if you’re concerned about the security of the password vault, and it’s a legitimate concern, write your passwords down…or get used to the “reset password” function of your web sites.

—–

See you March 8 at the Innovation Center.

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Microsoft Tries to Derail the Barnes & Noble Juggernaut (!?)

In the legal morass that is Android comes the latest news that Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble, alleging patent infringement.  Think about the surface absurdity of that one.  Microsoft suing Barnes & Noble.  Even The Onion hasn’t contemplated this scenario.  So, what’s really going on here.

At a macro level, here’s what’s happening:

  • These kinds of patent lawsuits are so common that I’ve almost stopped looking at them altogether.  Usually it goes like this:
    • Someone sues someone else.
    • The someone else counter-sues.
    • The two companies exchange patent cross-licensing agreements, usually with one side or the other having to kick in some cash.
  • There’s a slight twist to the whole Android scenario, again though one that’s not uncommon.  Most of these patent lawsuits have focused on Android licensees and not the deep-pocketed Google.  It only makes sense to go after the weaker players, albeit ones with sufficient funds to pony up.

What are all these people suing in the Android space trying to accomplish?  It’s real simple.  If you’re trying to sell an operating system into a market where Google is giving it away, you need to make the OS appear not to be free.  In other words, you may not pay for the OS but by the time you factor in legal costs, your free OS all of a sudden isn’t so free.  Somewhere along the line, Google is probably going to have to ante up to help its partners by resolving all of these patent infringement issues.  It probably means Google’s going to have to write a check.  The good news:  they’ve got $34.9 billion in cash on hand and are printing more each quarter.  So much for the chilling effect on Android licensees.

What’s particularly interesting about the Microsoft/Barnes & Noble case is that presages interesting competition in the tablet marketplace.  Why should anyone be worried about Barnes & Noble or, by extension, Amazon?  The Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader actually runs on Android.  In effect, they’re selling a specialized Android tablet for $249.  How can they do that when the rest of the Android tablet marketplace is horribly overpriced as I’ve recently blogged?  Welcome to the new world of ecosystems and razors and razor blades.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble can sell these devices at low (or no) margin because the economics of incremental margin on the razor blades (books and other digital content) is so compelling and predictable that it pays to seed the market with devices.  That’s another reason why Apple, asides from supply chain efficiencies, can sell the iPad so competitively.  It can count on a reasonable income stream from the AppStore while in the Android space, those margins go to Google.

Yes, I know that the Nook and the Kindle are not general-purpose tablets.  Today.  But the color Nook is pretty darn close.  The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Arends even recently told readers how to turn their Nooks into tablets.  He overstated his case to make a point:  Barnes & Noble can do this easily and likely will.  If not, they deserve to follow Borders into bankruptcy.

Netting it out:

  • Google is likely to have to share some of its profits with its ecosystem to cover legal exposures.
  • Google is likely to have to share some of its app store revenues with partners.  Otherwise, the situation with competing app stores (already a fracturing standard) is going to get (much) worse rather than better.  They need to do this one quickly.
  • In other words, Android tablets need to get cheaper and Google will have to share its app and advertising revenues to make that happen.
  • Players like Barnes & Noble and Amazon can become strong players in the tablet marketplace because they have the economic model and ecosystem to compete with Apple.  Selling hardware alone is not much fun these days, and is only going to get worse.

Watson wins. Jeopardy wins. IBM wins. Next up: the rest of us?

If you know me, you’re not surprised to learn that I’ve been practically a life-long fan of Jeopardy.  That’s why when I got an invitation from IBM to watch last night’s final episode of the Watson vs. Ken Jennings vs. Brad Rutter match along with IBM’s Dr. David Ferrucci, the Principal Investigator behind Watson, I jumped at the opportunity.  I was not disappointed.  It was an exciting evening and the opportunity to chat with Ferrucci was memorable.

I’m always hesitant to write things in the afterglow of a moment like this because certainly emotion gets the better of me.  I can’t help but think, however, that we will look back on this moment as a defining moment.  In a brief conversation with eWeek‘s outstanding enterprise reporter, Darryl Taft, I talked about this accomplishment in lofty terms.  I likened it to President Kennedy’s establishing a landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the 60’s as a national priority.  I was about to write “this one isn’t quite that significant”…but maybe it is.

What did I mean by that comparison?  Well, setting a moon landing as the target accomplished two things:

  1. It set a target, unifying disparate research and development efforts towards a single common goal.
  2. It set a deadline, giving some urgency to what might otherwise have been “leisurely” scientific endeavors.

So too did winning Jeopardy create those two conditions for the team of IBM researchers who spent four years preparing for this moment.  Without Jeopardy, these advances may never have come together, at least not in this time frame.  For those who think this a frivolous activity, I’d note two things:

  1. Competing at Jeopardy is certainly a tremendous challenge for natural language processing.  If you can win at Jeopardy, many other commercial applications are feasible.
  2. IBM, sensitive to this charge, today announced an initiative whereby they’ll explore options to apply the Watson technology in the healthcare space.

So what do we make of this?

Certainly IBM gets a massive PR boost.  Winning as it did a decade ago with Deep Blue at a chess championship is interesting.  However, the last time Americans cared about chess was when Bobby Fischer was world champion.  (I was a young kid.  A long time ago.)  Jeopardy, however, is a cultural icon and also a great fit for IBM’s target audience.  It would have been one thing to win at Wheel of Fortune (easy challenge, easy competition), another thing to win at Jeopardy (harder challenge, Ken Jennings; UPDATE interview with Jennings here).

More important, perhaps, for IBM, this validates some decisions it made years ago.  Remember when they sold the PC division to Lenovo?  “How could you get out of the PC business, IBM?  It’s the future,” people cried.  Instead, IBM quietly doubled down on cloud computing and big data (although we didn’t call it those things back then).  Looking pretty prescient today, aren’t they?

Now, a lot of this stuff isn’t really commercially viable just yet.  IBM threw a lot of hardware at this problem.  10 racks of servers, 15 terabytes of RAM, 2,880 processor cores operating at 80 teraflops.  But you’ve got to love Moore’s Law.  This will be mainstream computing in 5-10 years.  It will be on your phone in 15.  Pretty exciting stuff.

A few other random observations after my conversation with Ferrucci:

  • Certainly Watson had some advantage in terms of access to information, but the humans had an incredible breadth as well.  One of Watson’s big advantages was not in the information but actually in the time to assess whether it should hazard a guess based on a significant statistical analysis involving competitive position, confidence of answer, how much time was left, etc.  Watson was just a better game player.  That’s why Ken Jennings was so visibly frustrated.  Watson made decisions faster.
  • Watson was a shrewd wagerer.  Based on their analysis of Jeopardy games, the IBM researchers concluded that most players didn’t wager enough on daily doubles.  Watson was an aggressive wagerer early in games when presented the opportunity.
  • Category names were for the most part not very helpful to Watson.  Tying those things back to answers was so nuanced as to be often not valuable.
  • As IBM added some information sources to Watson, results didn’t markedly improve and so they were removed to conserve capacity.  Wikipedia, despite widespread concern about its unreliability, was a highly regarded source, comparable to “traditional” encyclopedias.

Personally, it was an exciting evening.  I was actually rooting for the humans to win.  The fact that they did not, though, is hopefully exciting for our ability to apply computing power to important, valuable tasks that will benefit us all.  Maybe that will be the lasting legacy of the three nights:  it caused us to focus on new vistas for computing benefits and ask some interesting questions about how we might take that next quantum leap.

Microsoft: Putting the Inmates in Charge of the Asylum

I received a Tweet the other day from a former client, the always-insightful John Taschek, VP of Strategy at Salesforce.com, asking for my take on this news story about a rumor that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is going to make significant management changes, elevating people with engineering backgrounds at the expense of those with marketing backgrounds.  There are so many ways this is just troubling when it comes to what ails Microsoft.  Let me outline just a few of them:

  • Putting engineers in charge of anything is generally a bad idea.
  • If bad marketing is Microsoft’s problem (and it’s one of them), putting engineers in charge of things does not solve that problem.
  • Microsoft’s biggest challenges are generally neither related to bad marketing nor stifled engineering.  They’re related to bigness and the innovator’s dilemma, as expressed by Clayton Christiansen.  (I find it personally exciting that this is discussed in the Wikipedia article on “disruptive technology.”  While I wasn’t using the term in 1995 when it was first ascribed by Christiansen, it has been my career since 1979 so I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to him for giving definition to my life.)

Those of you who like typical blog posts can stop now.  Those of you who know me, however, realize that these call for further discussion.

So why is putting engineers in charge a bad idea?  The best way I can explain it is through an old joke.

Talking frog

A man was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said: “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.”  He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week.”  The man took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want.” Again the man took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket.
Finally, the frog asked: “What is the matter ? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll stay with you for a week and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me ?”  The man said, “Look I’m a software engineer. I don’t have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog is cool.”

Engineers are brilliant at what they do.  Understanding what users want is not one of the things that they’re brilliant at.  I’m often asked why, in a coming up on 32 year technology career, I’ve never lived in the Bay Area.  Oh, I’ve visited there a lot, almost certainly over 100 times in that time span.  The way I always explain it?  Silicon Valley’s hometown newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, I say, has technology on the front page of the paper five out of seven days.  My hometown newspaper, the New York Times has technology on the front page of the paper five times a year, twice after an Apple product introduction and three other times…when something goes catastrophically wrong.  Engineers are great at figuring out what’s possible.  Marketers, at least good ones, are supposed to be great at figuring out what users want.  The intersection of the two is where magic is made.

Steve Jobs is not an engineer.  Steve Wozniak was Jobs’s original technological guru.  Jobs has a remarkable understanding of what consumers want, usually before they know they want it themselves.  Steve Ballmer is a marketing guy from way back.  Putting the engineers in charge is perhaps the most damning thing he could ever do.  I have known SteveB since 1987 and have been a staunch defender of his for a long time, even when it wasn’t popular, both early in his reign and lately.  If this is his strategy for returning Microsoft to its former glory, well…Steve, you just lost me.

So, what is Microsoft’s bigger issue and how do you solve it?  Microsoft does not lack for technical excellence nor innovative ideas.  The Kinect is a great example of what Microsoft can do and the business rewards it can result in.  It’s also instructive in how Microsoft works.  Microsoft has been doing research about alternative input approaches for decades.  Yet all we had in the market was the keyboard and mouse.  Oh yeah, Microsoft did tablets too.  We see where they took that.  But I digress.  How is it that the Kinect came to market?  You can bet that if Nintendo hadn’t invented the Wii, the Kinect might not have seen the light of day for another decade.  Microsoft was threatened.  Someone else had asserted market leadership and, with it, sales success.  Only then was Microsoft able to identify technologies it had that could return the Xbox to sales competitiveness.

This has been Microsoft’s response for way too long.  When threatened, they innovate…or at least get competitive.  The browser is another great example of that.  Threatened by Netscape, they came up with the competitive Internet Explorer (and used anti-competitive measures to bring it to prominence).  Almost every subsequent browser innovation from Microsoft has been spurred by, or copied from, alternative browsers.

I am aware of way too many Microsoft products and technologies that were quashed or watered down, not because of marketing, not because of engineering, but because of internal politics.  This is not a recent phenomenon but has been a Microsoft “sickness” for over a decade.

Witness Microsoft’s response to the cloud.  They have been reasonably aggressive when it comes to server-side cloud initiatives with Azure.  That’s because Microsoft’s upside is larger than its risk.  Yes, self-impact is a concern but if they can further damage Oracle/Sun, IBM or Salesforce, well, then Microsoft’s upside potential is great and the strategic beachhead is important.  Whither, however, Office for the cloud?  Oh, yes, they’re getting around to it.  They’re hardly, however, aggressive about it.  Why?  Because Office is one of the great cash cows in the history of technology and they’re in no rush to gore that cow while no one else is really threatening them.

What do you think we’d have now if Steve Jobs were in charge of Microsoft and Office?  Do I really even have to answer that question?

No, Microsoft’s problem isn’t that the marketers were in charge and now the engineers will come in on their white steeds to save the day.  Engineering and marketing have to work in concert, driven by a compelling vision that unifies the two, often warring, groups, espoused by a leader with the strength of character to make these groups work together when their individual priorities and incentives are not necessarily aligned.  Apple does that beautifully.  Google does that occasionally well.  Throwing a bone to John, who motivated this post in the first place:  Salesforce does that pretty well too.  Microsoft?  Not so well.

There was a time when Microsoft faced a challenge from the Internet.  Almost 16 years ago now, Bill Gates issued a famous memo, a call to arms.  That is what Microsoft needs now.  A definition of what it is and, more importantly, what it needs to be.  Again, if this were Apple, Bill Gates would make a triumphant return, leading the company back to its former glory.  But Bill has other priorities on his mind and the world is a better place for that.  Is Steve Ballmer the man for that task?  I honestly don’t know.  And that’s perhaps the most damning statement of all about Microsoft.  I don’t know.

Dear Google: Buy Adobe

Recent news reports have linked Apple and Microsoft as potential suitors for Adobe.  While Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan has thrown cold water on the Microsoft discussions and the rancorous relationship between Apple and Adobe renders an amicable partnership unlikely, one name has been absent from these discussions, and they’re the ones who should most likely want to buy Adobe, has the resources to do so and can build an extremely synergistic business case for the combination, and that’s Google.

A brief look at the financials.  Adobe at this writing has a market capitalization of a little over $14 billion.  Google has $33.4 billion cash on hand and generated over $10 billion in operating cash flow in the last 12 months.  Not only does Google therefore have the financial wherewithal to make an acquisition of this size, it’s probably one of the few acquisitions of this scale (along with Salesforce.com; market cap almost $15 billion) that it could make without significant antitrust scrutiny.  While continuing to trash Adobe, it’s not like Apple could argue compellingly that Google shouldn’t be allowed to buy it.  (While we’re at it, Google should also buy Salesforce, but we’ll talk about that later.)

So, why should Google buy Adobe?

  1. In a battle for the hearts and minds of developers, Google is missing key elements.  Yes, Android is a successful and growing platform but Google’s developer relations are no better than Apple’s, with both of them being substandard.  As Google grows out its platform ambitions, with Chrome OS on the horizon, having a well-developed developer relations program will be important in its battles with Apple and also increasingly Microsoft.  Do developer relations matter?  One could argue that one of the compelling reasons why early Windows beat IBM’s OS/2 in the marketplace after the Microsoft/IBM split in the late 80’s and early 90’s was because Microsoft had strong developer relations and after the split, IBM had to effectively start from scratch and was way behind even while having the technologically superior platform.  Developers matter, differentiated applications matter and so developer relations matter.  Adobe has a long history with them; Google has none.
  2. Google, despite its myriad product offerings, is effectively a one-trick pony:  advertising.  Of course, if you’re going to rely on one trick, this is a pretty good one to rely on, and Google is an ongoing financial juggernaut.  However, to realize their full software and platform ambitions, Google is going to need to broaden beyond advertising as the sole source of their revenue.  Adobe presents Google with great opportunities to grow into traditional software licensing models.
  3. And while offering traditional software licensing models, Adobe also presents some familiar-to-Google bottoms up enterprise opportunities.  Adobe has, shall we say, an interesting portfolio of enterprise software.  Traditional industry analysts (read:  Gartner) have always had a hard time characterizing Adobe since they don’t always neatly fit into Gartner Magic Quadrants or at least their products are missing certain features that Gartner considers key in its category definitions.  Adobe’s response has always been “we just meet actual customer needs.”  While they haven’t therefore neatly fit into architectural diagrams, Adobe has successfully penetrated enterprises with a bottoms-up, or more accurately middle-out, approach.  This fits well with Google, who <sarcasm alert> hasn’t exactly penetrated the enterprise through the front door. <end alert>
  4. While Google advertising opportunities have enabled “freemium” models to flourish on the web, paradoxically Google itself has not benefited from such models.  Over 98% of Google’s revenue derives from advertising and there are scant opportunities to upgrade from free Google products into revenue-producing ones.  Adobe offers several such opportunities, from consumer-oriented ones like moving from Picasa to Photoshop to enterprise-oriented ones like Acrobat.
  5. While Google has major cloud computing infrastructure initiatives in place, the early market has been dominated by key emerging competitors Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce.  Adobe has interesting infrastructure elements that expand Google’s presence in the cloud architecture space.
  6. As noted earlier, Google’s enterprise approach is largely lacking.  One could have said the same of Apple, who has pursued a consumer-driven strategy for virtually all of its corporate life.  It was interesting to see, therefore, Apple’s announcement earlier this week of a partnership with Unisys to better help integrate Apple technologies (notably the iPhone and iPad) into enterprise architectures.  Google, too, must pursue external relationships to meet real customer requirements but an Adobe acquisition would give Google some much-needed internal support capabilities as well.  As mentioned earlier, I still believe Google should acquire Salesforce.com to expand its software and platform capabilities and to dramatically expand its enterprise support capabilities.    Google is going to have to either acquire Salesforce or get serious about competing with them.  Either way, an Adobe acquisition would be a step in the right direction.
  7. Lastly, this makes sense as a defensive move.  To the extent Apple and/or Microsoft are seriously looking at Adobe, it would hurt Google were they to acquire Adobe, necessitating Google to adopt a piecemeal solution to the elements addressed above.

So why should Adobe be interested in a Google acquisition?

  1. While I hardly embrace Steve Jobs’s bombast about Flash, it’s clear that HTML5 presents a significant challenge to one of Adobe’s major and enduring platforms and thus from a purely financial perspective, this may be the best time to sell.
  2. Adobe’s cross-platform arguments diminish in a world where there are fewer platforms and different requirements.  If, as I have argued, the mobile world is coalescing around Apple IOS and Google Android, and Adobe’s presence on one of those platforms is insecure at best, the rationale for an Adobe solution is dramatically diminished.  Further, with the different requirements of a mobile platform, with its lesser hardware power, the ability to support interim software layers is not as clear-cut as on the desktop, or in the cloud.  Mobile devices are heavily about the integrated experience and Adobe doesn’t play well against that requirement.
  3. Adobe is a better fit with Google.  With Microsoft and Apple both, there are significant overlaps in the product portfolio and/or minimal interest in some of the pieces with the the likely result being that core Adobe products and platforms are discontinued or sold off.  There is little to no overlap with Google and yet strong synergies; thus the ability to preserve the product portfolio, and the driving vision behind it, remains largely intact.

Google and Adobe…better together

Technology Change: Slower than I Think but Faster than You Think

Last week, I gave a presentation to a “traditional” publisher on the impact of new technologies on their business.  This is someone who has a very successful and profitable “dead trees” business and my mandate was to come in and challenge their thinking with regards to the impact of technology on their business.  Their managers feel no sense of urgency to do anything about new technology now because the existing business continues to thrive and despite the prognostications of industry pundits, they have yet to feel an impact on their current business and thus are in no rush to actually invest in new approaches (even while it’s fun to think and talk about them).

This caused me to reflect on the technological change I have seen in my lifetime.  I have spent 31 years focused on “disruptive technologies.”  I started working on PCs in 1979 — two years before IBM launched its PC — and I’ve witnessed some amazing technological change in those 31 years.  As an observer of, and advocate for, those changes, I’ve come to an interesting and important realization.  As optimistic as I am about the pace and depth of technological change, I’m usually over-optimistic about the time frames in which it happens.  This was the case in the early Internet days and I believe is once again the case with regards to a new set of disruptive technologies.

While I was never a wild-eyed proponent of Pets.com or Webvan, I am certainly guilty of feeding into the hype that led to their elevation.

So, we technology pundits are overly optimistic.  No big news there.  However, there is big news:  while we may be overly optimistic in the short-term, we’re actually overly conservative in the medium-term!  Ten years ago, the Internet bubble was about to burst.  All those wildly optimistic claims about how the Internet was about to change everything were going to be laid to waste.  Yet here we are, ten years later, and the truth is that the Internet has changed everything.  It has reached a point where, if you lose your Internet connection at work, you just go home or go somewhere where you can get that Internet connection because without it, well, you just can’t do your job.  And it’s not much different at home.  When I lose my cable TV connection, well, there are lots of other ways to entertain myself and, short of a major sporting event (on the level of the World Series), I feel no obligation to leave the house.  Lose my Internet connection?  I may wait around an hour to see if it comes back but anything longer than that and I’m contemplating a run to Starbucks or Borders or somewhere else where I can grab a Wifi connection.

The truth is that the Internet revolution is more profound than even we wild-eyed optimists thought it might be a decade ago.  We had the timing wrong but, even more significantly, we had the impact wrong, and weren’t wild-eyed enough.  And guess what?  We’re doing it again.  And this time again, it is going to happen more quickly than you think…and more quickly than the Internet took.

So, what is “it”?  Regular followers know that I have been talking about the “perfect storm” of disruptive technologies — social, mobile and cloud — for over three years now.  My premise is that each of these, while an interesting phenomenon in their own right, actually serve to amplify each other such that the overall market impact is greater than if any one of these phenomena were occurring in isolation.  That amplification effect is one reason why I think that the medium-term impacts of these technologies tend to get understated.

There are two other unique characteristics of these new technologies that I think will cause their impact to be so significant more quickly:

  • Pace of change
  • Economics

With regards to pace of change, the fact that we’re heavily Internet-connected enables us to embrace new capabilities much more quickly.  In the early Internet days, we were faced with the daunting challenge of upgrading connectivity models from dial-up to broadband and to deploying new software (the browser) on a large number of machines.  Having done that now, we’re in a position to embrace new Internet models of distribution (e.g., cloud computing) with very little friction.

Mobile also has some radically different market dynamics than the desktop that enables, and leads to, a faster pace of change.  First of all, we’re embracing the mobile Internet even faster than we did the desktop Internet, as famously called out in a Morgan Stanly report.  In fact, they project that the number of mobile Internet users will pass the number of desktop users in the next 3-4 years.  The dynamics of the mobile market are also very different than those of the desktop, enabling more rapid change.  First of all, this is a much larger market.  Cell phones of all kinds (not just Smartphones) are shipping approximately 1 billion units per year, or about 4x that of the desktop market.  These will rapidly shift to Smartphones across the entirety of the market as prices plummet (in Moore’s Law fashion).  Even more striking, the average lifespan of a desktop or laptop computer is in the 3-5 years range whereas the average lifespan of a mobile device is 21 months.  That means we are changing over the installed base of a multi-billion unit market every two years or so.  There is very little installed base drag in the mobile marketplace!  And this perhaps understates the pace of change.  Granted, we’re in a period of software immaturity but the leading mobile software platform providers (e.g., Apple, Google, RIM) are upgrading their software platforms with significant new capabilities (both software and form factor) every 3-6 months.  That contrasts sharply with the desktop, where software advances are measured in 3-7 year cycles and are often met with significant market resistance because of the cost and disruption of upgrades.

Bigger market, faster turnover, greater pace of change.  Yes, the impact is going to be felt faster than you think.

Economics are also contributing to a faster-than-you-think impact of new technologies.  I refer particularly here to the impact of cloud computing.  In the past, for businesses to embrace this kind of technological change would have required massive capital investments on their part to deploy infrastructure to exploit the new platforms.  Cloud computing now enables companies to embrace new technologies in a much more flexible fashion, requiring little to no capital investment and as a result, much faster and more scalable implementations.

I don’t want to get into an argument here about cloud computing.  That’s a discussion for another day.  Security?  Red herring.  In fact, I posit that over time you’ll find cloud computing solutions will have better security than on-premises solutions because the cloud computing providers have greater incentive to provide that security.  I have come across many CIOs who have an immediate negative reaction to the cloud.  I’ll ask them “if you were starting a business today…” and usually before I can complete the question, they’ll go “well, of course then I wouldn’t own infrastructure.”  The question therefore isn’t whether or not to do cloud but rather how and when.  But I digress.

Bottom line, the flexible economics of cloud computing enable a more rapid embrace of new technologies than would be the case if companies had to make massive capital investments to support new software platforms like social and mobile.

It’s easy to ignore we proponents of massive technological upheaval in the early days.  Yes, we’re probably overstating how impactful these technologies will be in 2010 and maybe even 2011.  However, ignore our forecasts for 2012 and beyond at your own peril.  And if you wait until then to start embracing the change, you will find the pace of the market change then to be so fast that you’re unable to keep up, let alone catch up.  My advice to that publisher was this is absolutely the best time to be embracing technological change, while you’ve still got a successful business to fund that change.  If you wait until your existing businesses start to feel the impact from technological upstarts, you might find yourself in a very uncomfortable position, akin to the way Barnes & Noble and Borders feel about Amazon.  It’s not inconceivable that one or both of them will be out of business within a year.  They didn’t feel the urgency to get involved early — and probably saw the demise of Pets.com as validating their thinking — but when things happened faster than they thought, they had already lost the innovation edge and, more importantly, the customer.

We overstated the timing but understated the impact before.  I think we’re doing it again, and this time the change is going to be even greater, and so should your urgency.