I promised a follow-up to my post from last week about IBM’s massive layoffs and here it is. My goal is first to give a few more details of the layoff primarily gleaned from many copies of their separation documents sent to me by laid-off IBMers, but mainly I’m here to explain the literal impossibility of Big Blue’s self-described "transformation" that’s currently in process. My point is not that transformations can’t happen, but that IBM didn’t transform the parts it should and now it’s probably too late.
First let’s take a look at the separation docs. Whether you give a damn about IBM or not, if you work for a big company this is worth reading because it may well become an archetype for getting rid of employees. What follows is my summary based on having the actual docs reviewed by several lawyers.
You may recall my three sons ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall for their $99 Mineserver, a multiuser Minecraft server the size of a pack (not a carton) of cigarettes. On the eve of their product finally shipping here’s an update with some lessons for any complex technical project.
At the time we shot the Kickstarter video my kids already had in hand a functional prototype. Everything seen in the video was real and the boys felt that only producing custom cases really stood in the way of shipping. How wrong they were!
This is a column I didn’t want to write. Like many of you I am tired of IBM stories and the company that was once an industry leader has become, at best, a poster child for how not to manage the later stages of a corporate life cycle. But because what’s happening at IBM is also happening right now at hundreds of other big technology companies makes it worth covering. So let me be clear: IBM is dying.
Last week a huge round of layoffs hit IBM just as I predicted back in January. The company is releasing as few details as possible. Nobody, for example, knows exactly how big is this layoff -- how many people are being let go? IEEE Spectrum found one source that said the number was 30 percent of the U.S. IBM workforce, a number which IBM says is too high. I also believe 30 percent is too high, especially if you confound it with retirements, contractors being axed, etc.
The FBI holds an iPhone that was owned by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook, and wants Apple to crack it. Apple CEO Tim Cook is defying the FBI request and the court order that accompanied it, saying that cracking the phone would require developing a special version of iOS that could bypass passcode encryption. If such a genetically modified mobile OS escaped into the wild it could be used by anyone to crack any current iPhone, which would be bad for Apple’s users and bad for Amurica, Cook says. So he won’t do it, dag nabbit.
That’s the big picture story dominating the tech news this week. However compelling, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong. Apple isn’t defying the FBI. Or at least Apple isn’t defying the Department of Justice, of which the FBI is supposed to be a part. I believe Apple is actually working with the DoJ, which doesn’t really want to compel Apple to do anything except play a dramatic and very political role.
At least twice over the past decade Apple has been close to announcing its own television. Not the Apple TV set top box but actual big screen TVs with, well, big screens. But both times I’ve heard about this Apple backed away at the last minute. And the reason why they did was because even an Apple television would be just another television with an Apple logo. Steve Jobs realized that TVs had become a commodity and there didn’t seem to be an obvious way to make Apple’s television special.
I’m not here to say Apple has finally found its TV design path as suggested in Walter Isaacson’s book and will be doing a big screen TV after all. In fact I’m pretty sure Apple will never sell its own TVs. But I think Cupertino has finally figured out a way to grab an important and profitable part of nearly all TVs, controlling the future of video entertainment in the process.
Remember the motto of the Clinton Presidential campaign back in 1992: "It’s the economy, stupid!" That election was about the economy and Clinton won as a result. Well Amazon.com this week let slip its plan to open 300-400 bookstores in U.S. cities, sending Wall Street analysts into a tizzy because bookstores look to them like a lousy business even for the world’s biggest bookseller. But this isn’t about selling books. This Amazon plan -- if it happens at all -- is about creating bases from which to fly delivery drones.
Delivery drones are to me a stupid idea except in certain rare circumstances like flying prescriptions to people living on remote islands. But Amazon is acting like it actually means it. And if it does mean it, then it’ll need a place from which to fly those drones.
My birthday was this past week. When I came to Silicon Valley in 1977 I was 24 years old. Thirty-nine years later I am 63 and a lot changed around me in those four decades. I went from young to old. The personal computer industry, of which I consider myself to be a part, went from being two years old to 41 -- an even greater change than I have experienced.
And the point of this column is to write a bit about how personal computers have matured and where they are going, because I am pretty sure the PC is going away. And I have figured out why.
A third of the people who read this column don’t live in the USA so maybe this prediction isn’t interesting to them, but I think Apple will buy Dish Network, the American direct satellite TV broadcaster. It’s the only acquisition that will give Apple the kind of entry point they want into the TV business, allowing Cupertino to create overnight an over-the-top (OTT) Internet streaming video service -- effectively an Internet cable system.
Buying Dish would be a bold move for Apple because all the benefits Cupertino seeks aren’t obviously available. True, Dish has 14 million U.S. subscribers (I am one of those) who get 100+ channels of TV from the sky. True, Dish has an existing OTT streaming service called Sling that already offers a subset of the company’s cable channels. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Dish could simply transfer its satellite content to the Internet, at least beyond what it does already with Sling.
I know I promised that my next 2016 prediction would be Apple’s big acquisition, and I will publish that prediction soon as my #10, but right now I just have to say what a perilous position Intel is in. The company truly risks becoming irrelevant, which is an odd thing to say about a huge, rich outfit that would appear from the outside to pretty much dominate its industry -- an industry the company created. Intel won’t go away, I just think there is a very good chance it’ll no longer matter.
We’re approaching the end of the closed, proprietary, single source technology era. ARM processors are freely licensed, more open, and much more cost competitive than similar products from Intel or AMD. If you need 10 million chips for your next product do you buy them from Intel? Or do you get a license from ARM and hire a foundry to make them for you?
At least one reader pointed out that I somehow missed 2016 Prediction #4, so let me throw something in right here. Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview will shortly return to Netflix worldwide!
Our movie was on Netflix in the USA and Canada for a couple of years (it’s still streaming on Netflix in the UK) but the North American deal ended sometime in November when rights reverted from Magnolia Pictures back to John Gau Productions. The film had already disappeared from iTunes and Amazon, etc., but we hadn’t noticed because, well, Magnolia didn’t bother to mention it and we’re only pretending to be movie producers.
If my last prediction about the Internet of Things becoming a security nightmare seemed a no-brainer to half of my readers, as some commenters suggested, this prediction that Apple won’t buy Time Warner will probably be a no-brainer for the other half, simply because it is always easier to say an acquisition or merger won’t happen than that it will. But I think there is something to be learned from why I don’t think this acquisition will take place -- something that says a lot about Apple as a company.
That this topic comes up at all is because, as frequently happens these days, activist investors are trying to bully Time Warner into selling all or part of itself, this after having already bullied the company into spinning-off its cable TV operation and then its print publishing operation. So now what’s mainly left at Time Warner are cable TV networks, TV and film production and distribution, and a modest online operation. All of this, but especially premium cable channel HBO, is supposed to appeal to Apple’s eye for quality.
This one is simple -- a confluence of anti-hacking paranoia combined with the Internet of Things (IoT), which will lead to any number of really, really bad events in 2016.
Remember how the CIA or the NSA or whatever agency it was hacked a few years ago the Iranian nuclear centrifuges making enriched uranium? The centrifuges updated their software over the Internet, loading doctored code that eventually caused the machines to overspeed and shake themselves to pieces, putting the Iranian nuclear program months or years behind.
When it comes to predictions it is often easiest just to take some really popular new technology and point out the obvious time it will take to be actually adopted. You could say I’m doing that here with drone deliveries and driverless cars, but I like to think my value-added is explaining why these will take so much longer than some people expect.
Amazon.com has been making a lot of noise about using small helicopter drones to deliver packages. I’m not here to say this is an impossible task or that drones won’t at some point be used for this purpose, but what I am saying is that it won’t happen this year, won’t happen next year, and in any true volume won’t happen even five or 10 years from now.
It isn’t easy being huge as both Apple and Microsoft are starting to realize. Both companies are incredibly successful and I’m not here to say either is in real danger, but both are suffering major structural challenges that will hurt them in 2016. What’s key for these predictions is how they respond.
I’ll deal with Microsoft first because there the challenges and solutions are both clearer than they are with Apple. I’ve been very impressed with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who I think hasn’t saved the company, because it didn’t need saving, but he’s a real improvement over Steve Ballmer. Nadella has done the best he can to get Microsoft in order and reinvigorated, not an easy job. His major remaining challenges involve Windows Phone and Windows 10.