Last week I began this series on large companies in turmoil by looking at Intel, which I saw trying to guarantee its future through enlightened acquisitions that actually emulated this week’s company -- Cisco Systems.
So if Cisco already knows how to assimilate other companies and technologies to stay ahead of the market, how can it have a problem? Cisco’s problem is its market is mature and being commoditized with all boats sinking. And this time there isn’t an obvious new idea to buy.
This is the first in a series of columns on the strategic direction of several major technology companies that have faltered of late. We’ll start here with Intel, follow in a couple days with Cisco, followed by Microsoft, then see where it goes from there.
At Intel’s annual shareholders’ meeting last week the company talked about moving strongly into mobile chips and selling its stillborn OnCue over-the-top video streaming service, but the most important story had to do with expanding Intel’s manufacturing capacity. This latter news is especially important because if you look at the square footage of 14 nanometer fab facilities Intel says it will be bringing online in the next two to three years it appears that the company will shortly have more production capacity than all the rest of the semiconductor industry combined.
Amazon Web Services quietly released on Tuesday a pair of new instances on its EC2 cloud computing service. Not just new instances but a whole new type of instance aimed at 2D and 3D graphical computing. For the first time from AWS in a generally available instance, developers and users will have access to virtual machines with GPUs.
It’s like putting a PC in the cloud. More properly it is like putting your PC in the cloud. I think this has great disruptive potential. And that means we’ll see similar services coming soon from other cloud providers.
The latest Edward Snowden bombshell that the National Security Agency has been hacking foreign Google and Yahoo data centers is particularly disturbing. Plenty has been written about it so I normally wouldn’t comment except that the general press has, I think, too shallow an understanding of the technology involved. The hack is even more insidious than they know.
The superficial story is in the NSA slide (above) that you’ve probably seen already. The major point being that somehow the NSA -- probably through the GCHQ in Britain -- is grabbing virtually all Google non-spider web traffic from the Google Front End Servers, because that’s where the SSL encryption is decoded.
One thing I find ironic in the current controversy over problems with the healthcare.gov insurance sign-up web site is that the people complaining don’t really mean what they are saying. Not only do they have have little to no context for their arguments, they don’t even want the improvements they are demanding. This is not to say nothing is wrong with the site, but few big web projects have perfectly smooth launches. From all the bitching and moaning in the press you’d think this experience is a rarity. But as those who regularly read this column know, more than half of big IT projects don’t work at all. So I’m not surprised that there’s another month of work to be done to meet a deadline 5.5 months in the future.
Yes, the Obama Administration was overly optimistic and didn’t provide enough oversight. Yes, they demanded fundamental changes long after the system design should have been frozen. But a year from now these issues will have been forgotten.
My friend Dave Taht, who battles bufferbloat for us all, pointed me today to a document from the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association. It’s the WISPA CALEA Compliance Guide, which details most of the rules that wireless ISPs are required to follow by CALEA -- the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994. These rules, variants of which apply to all telcos and to ISPs of all kinds (not just wireless), say what those companies are required to do to comply with the law. More directly, it specifies how they can be required to intercept customer communications and relay that content to law enforcement agencies.
Read it if you have a moment. The document, which is chilling, explains a lot both in what it says and what it doesn’t say.
My friend Nikola Bozinovic (say that three times fast) is a very sharp software developer originally from Serbia who has, over the years, worked for most of the usual suspect American software companies. He is also the guy who restored from a grotty old VHS tape my film Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview. And as of this week he’s the CEO of Mainframe2, an exciting startup strutting its stuff at the DEMO conference in Santa Clara.
Mainframe2 claims it can put almost any Windows application into the cloud, making apps usable from any device that can run a web browser supporting html5. We’re talking Photoshop and AutoCAD on your iPad. This is a big deal.
No law is more powerful or important in Silicon Valley than Moore’s Law -- the simple idea that transistor density is continually increasing which means computing power goes up just as costs and energy consumption go down. It’s a clever idea we rightly attribute to Gordon Moore. The power lies in the Law’s predictability. There’s no other trillion dollar business where you can look down the road and have a pretty clear idea what you’ll get. Moore’s Law lets us take chances on the future and generally get away with them. But what happens when you break Moore’s Law? That’s what I have been thinking about lately. That’s when destinies change.
There may have been many times that Moore’s Law has been broken. I’m sure readers will tell us. But I only know of two times -- once when it was quite deliberate and in the open and another time when it was more like breaking and entering.
In the middle of a pissing match between the President and Congressional leadership it’s good to remember that the United States isn’t the only government that seems to have lost touch with reality. I was reminded of that today when I read this story about the contaminated water problem at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Now here’s a government that is truly paralyzed!
The story from Japan Times, if you choose to read it, says Japanese Prime Minister Abe is reaching out to foreign experts in an attempt to deal with the problem of radioactive cooling water that is accumulating in hundreds of makeshift tanks that are now beginning to leak. “We want your expertise!” Abe proclaimed in a speech given in English.
Almost every week some reader asks me to write about Bitcoin, currently the most popular so-called crypto currency and the first one to possibly reach something like critical mass. I’ve come close to writing those columns, but just can’t get excited enough. So this week when yet another reader asked, it made sense to explain my nervousness. Bitcoin is clever, interesting, brilliant even, but I find it too troubling to support.
But first, why should you believe me? You shouldn’t. Though I’m year after year identified by the Kauffman Foundation as one of the top 50 economics bloggers in America, that only means I get to hang out occasionally with the real experts, eating Kansas City barbecue. Unlike them I’m not an economist, I just play one on TV. So don’t take my word for anything here: just think about the arguments I present and whether they make sense to you.
My friend Paul Tyma (ex-Google, creator of Mailinator, occasional stand-up comic) released a mobile product this week and one thing I find interesting is the difference between how he describes it and how I describe it.
Paul: "Let’s say you had an important meeting with someone you really want to impress. A smart person would probably spend a non-trivial amount of time scouring the Internet for information about that person. What are they tweeting about? If you’re LinkedIn to them, then go check out their LinkedIn profile. If you were really interested you might go look up their house on Zillow. Or see how their company’s stock price faired today on Yahoo Finance".
The Innovator’s Dilemma, a 1997 book by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, made the point that successful companies can lose their way when they pay too much attention to legacy products and not enough attention to new stuff. They are making so much money they either don’t see a competitor rising up or are too complacent to feel threatened. In either case the incumbent generally loses and the upstart (usually one of many) generally wins. The best way for successful companies to avoid this problem is by inventing the future before their competitors do.
We see this pattern over and over in high tech. Remember Lotus? Remember Word Perfect? Remember Borland? And it’s not just in software. Remember IBM sticking too long with the 80286 processor? Remember the Osbourne Executive?
Wednesday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer presented her company’s side of fighting the National Security Agency over requests to have a look-see at the data of Yahoo users. It’s a tough fight, said Mayer, and one that takes place necessarily in private. Mayer was asked why tech companies had not simply decided to tell the public more about what the US surveillance industry was up to. "Releasing classified information is treason and you are incarcerated," she said.
Go directly to jail? No.
Some readers have asked me for a post on the new Apple iPhones announced two days ago. I’ll get to that in time but prefer to do so when I actually have an iPhone 5S in my hands because I have a very specific column in mind. And no, it’s not the column you think it is. But this is still a good time to write something about Apple in general, which is how Cupertino appears to now stand at a crossroads.
There is a world of difference between Microsoft and Apple but one way they are similar is in facing a generational change. Another way they are similar is in having robust legacy businesses that both put a drag on such change (who needs change, we’re doing great!) and make it easy to wait or at least to go slowly. But no matter how much money they have in the bank, each company must eventually come to terms with how it is going to move forward in an evolving market. Neither company has.
A good friend of mine called Microsoft buying Nokia "two stones clinging together trying to stay afloat". I wouldn’t go that far but I don’t think the prognosis is very good. On the other hand, I’m not sure it has to be good for Microsoft to achieve its goals for the merger. Huh?
This is why you come here, right, for my lateral thinking? I don’t think Nokia has to succeed in order for Microsoft to consider the acquisition a success.