Robert X. Cringely

Apple proves that moats are for dummies

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As we all know, Apple last week announced two new iPhones, a payment service (ApplePay), and a line of Apple Watches that require iPhones to work. There’s not much I can say about these products that you can’t read somewhere else. They are bigger and better than what preceded them and -- in the case of ApplePay and the AppleWatch -- just different. They are all topnotch products that will stand out in the market and have good chances of being successful. So instead of writing about products we already know about, I’d like to write about moats to protect products from competition.

Moats, as you know, are defensive fortifications typically built to surround castles, making them harder to storm. In order to even get to the castle, first you have to get past the moat which might be filled with water and that water might, in turn, be covered with burning oil.

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Mobile carriers are trying to control your texting

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Who owns your telephone number? According to Section 251(b) of the Communications Act of 1934, you own your number and can move it to the carrier of your choice. But who owns your texting phone number? It’s the same number, just used for a different purpose. The law says nothing about texting so the major wireless carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) are claiming that number is theirs, not yours, even if you are the one paying a little extra for unlimited texting. And the way they see it, unlimited is clearly limited, with carriers and texting services not offered by the Big Four expected soon to pay cash to reach you.

Those who’ll pay to text you include mobile carriers not in the Big Four led by the largest independent, US Cellular, as well as so-called over-the-top texting service providers that presently offer free texting services. These companies include pinger.com, textplus.com, textnow.com, textme.com, and heywire.com. Service continues for now but the incumbents are threatening to shut it down any day. T-Mobile started trying to impose fees several weeks ago and Sprint, I’m told, will start trying to charge next week.

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Apple Watch Edition: Fear and loathing in Rolex-ville

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In all the coverage and hype concerning Apple’s event on Tuesday I’d like to concentrate on one easily-overlooked product I feel is by far the most revolutionary of those announced. I am of course talking about the Apple Watch Edition -- Apple’s gold watch.

Where we might expect an Apple Watch to be aimed at competitors like Samsung, LG, or even Sony, the Apple Watch Edition is aimed squarely at Rolex. It is Apple’s first-ever true luxury product.

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An economist walks into a bar…

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Did you ever see the 1991 Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life? A movie that clearly could not be made today because it includes neither super heroes nor special effects and isn’t a sequel, it’s about a schmo (Brooks) who dies only to find heaven has an entrance exam of sorts in which you literally defend your life. Well the other day I watched a very good TED talk by my friend Bob Litan in which he defended his entire profession -- economics. I know no braver man.

Few of us would defend our professions. I’m a journalist -- what is there to say about that except that being a Congressman is worse? Yet Bob Litan volunteered for this gig, which he does with remarkable energy for a guy the size of a meerkat.

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Home Depot and the smoking zip-zap machine

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I was at Home Depot on Sunday, buying flower pots and some lumber to repair the fence where Sadie the Dog has been plotting her escape. Checking-out of the Garden Department I handed my credit card to the cashier, who promptly dragged out an old zip-zap machine (that’s the technical term coined by BankAmeriCard 50 years ago) and took an impression of my card.

"You’ve been hacked," I said.

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For future computing, look (as always) to Star Trek

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"The step after ubiquity is invisibility," Al Mandel used to say and it’s true. To see what might be The Next Big Thing in personal computing technology, then, let’s try applying that idea to mobile. How do we make mobile technology invisible?

Google is invisible and while the mobile Internet consists of far more than Google it’s a pretty good proxy for back-end processing and data services in general. Google would love for us all to interface completely through its servers for everything. That’s its goal. Given its determination and deep pockets, I’d say Google -- or something like it -- will be a major part of the invisible mobile Internet.

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The age of supply, not demand

Future Man Looking

I had lunch last week with my old friend Aurel Kleinerman, an MD who also runs a Silicon Valley software company called MITEM, which specializes in combining data from disparate systems and networks onto a single desktop.

Had the Obama Administration known about MITEM, linking all those Obamacare health insurance exchanges would have been trivial. Given MITEM’s 500+ corporate and government customers, you’d think the company would have come to the attention of the White House, but no.

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The Fed suckered IBM into a failing cloud strategy?

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Economist David Stockman, who is probably best known for being President Reagan’s budget director back in the era of voodoo economics, has been particularly outspoken about IBM as a poster child for bad policy on the part of the US Federal Reserve. How this would be isn’t immediately obvious but I think is worth exploring because IBM is far from the only company so afflicted. There’s an important effect here to be understood about corporate motivations and their consequences.

So I’ll begin with a story. Almost 40 years ago there was a study I worked on at Stanford’s Institute for Communication Research having to do with helping farmers in Kentucky be more successful by giving them access to useful government data. The study was sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and it gave portable computer terminals to farmers along with access to databases at the USDA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, etc. The idea was that with this extra knowledge farmers would be able to better decide what crops to plant, when to plant them, when to harvest them, etc.

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IBM and Apple -- Just not that big a deal

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Given that I used to work for Apple and have lately been quite critical of IBM, readers are wondering what I think of Tuesday’s announcement of an iOS partnership of sorts between Apple and IBM. I think it makes good sense for both companies but isn’t a slam dunk for either.

There are three aspects to this deal -- hardware, apps, and cloud services. For Apple the deal presents primarily a new distribution channel for iPhones and iPads. Apple can always use new channels, especially if they hold inventory and support customers who aren’t price-sensitive. Apple’s primary goal is to simply get more devices inside Big Business and this is a good way to do that.

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The coming Microsoft cultural revolution

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Last week Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took another step in redefining his company for the post-Gates/Ballmer era, sending a 3100-word positioning memo to every Microsoft employee and to the world in general. I found it a fascinating document for many reasons, some of them even intended by Nadella, who still has quite a ways to go to legitimately turn Microsoft in the right direction.

We’re seeing a lot of this -- companies trying to talk their way into continued technology leadership. Well talk is cheap, and sometimes that’s the major point: it can be far easier to temporarily move customers and markets through the art of the press release than by actually embracing or -- better yet -- coming up with new ideas. We’re at that point to some extent with this Nadella message, which shows potential but no real substance. But I think this was not written for customers so much as for the very employees it is addressed to.

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Bitcoin quietly goes legit

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The US Marshals Service doesn’t normally make economic policy but this week they apparently did so by auctioning 30,000 Bitcoins, a crypto currency I have written about before. This auction effectively legitimizes Bitcoins as part of the world economy. Am I the only one to notice this?

My first column on this subject was a cautionary tale pointing out the two great areas of vulnerability for Bitcoin: 1) the US Government might declare Bitcoins illegal, and; 2) someone might gain control of a majority of Bitcoins in which case their value could be manipulated. While number two is still theoretically possible it becomes less likely every day. And number one seems to have been put to rest by the U.S. Marshals.

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The Secret of Google X

Sergey

"All politics is local," said House Speaker Tipp O’Neill, meaning that every politician has to consider the effect that his or her positions will have on voters. What makes perfect sense on a national stage might be a disaster back in the district, where the actual voters live. And so it is, too, with big companies, where local impact is sometimes more important than national or international. Sometimes, in fact, companies can be completely re-routed solely to please or affect a single executive. I believe we are seeing precisely that right now at Google concerning Google X.

Google X is that division of the search giant responsible for self-driving cars, Google Glass, and the prospect of hundreds or thousands of balloons floating through the stratosphere bringing Internet service to grateful Polynesians. It’s those balloons, in fact, that led me to this topic.

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IBM back in the USSR?

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My book, The Decline and Fall of IBM, is now available in paperback, on the iPad and Nook, as well as on the Kindle. A dozen other platforms plus an audio book will be available shortly, but these are the big ones.

Over the weekend I received a very insightful message about the book from reader Steve Jenkins in Australia, where IBM is showing the same behavior problems as everywhere else. Steve has an insight into Big Blue that I wish I had thought to include in the book because I believe he is absolutely correct.

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Analyzing IBM analytics

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When people last week started reading my IBM eBook (available Friday in paperback from Amazon and most distributors -- make Mrs. Cringely happy and send one to all your friends) the tales of IBM customer and employee woe were generally accepted as simple fact but some people had a hard time with my assertion that IBM analytics will probably not be successful (I said IBM is already too late to that party).

One especially informed reader hit me pretty hard on the topic and I think our conversation is worth repeating here. He’s asked to remain anonymous but I assure you he’s in a position to know.

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The Decline and Fall of IBM

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Well my IBM eBook is finally available. Right now that’s just on Amazon.com for the Kindle (just click the link to the right) but by next week it will be on every eBook platform (iPad, Nook, etc.) and there will be a trade paperback as well as an audio edition. I’ll announce all of those here as they appear.

I feel I owe an explanation for the long delay in publishing this book. I finished it in early January, about a week after my mother died, only to learn that my old-school book publisher didn’t want to touch it. Or more properly they wanted me to be entirely devoted to the book they were paying me a ton of money to write and to wait on IBM even though the eBook had been in the works for two years and was completely ready-to-go.

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