March 31, 2006

A Vista with no View of an EU Sunset

The European Union's competition regulator has warned Microsoft it will not be allowed to sell the new Vista operating system in Europe if it comes pre-loaded with certain features. The antitrust commissioner’s office has stated that it is concerned with Microsoft's plans for Vista's integrated internet search, DRM and document management software. Separately Google, Symantec, IBM, Sun, and Oracle have stated that they are concerned Microsoft could use its Internet Explorer 7 Web browser to unfairly direct computer users to Microsoft's own search service or use DRM to lock up documents in such a fashion that non-Microsoft office productivity applications would not be able to read the files. The genesis of the letter from the commissioner was that Microsoft had asked EU regulators to set out any Vista concerns it may have. (Some advice to Microsoft, be careful what you ask for, may just get it.)

These days it seems whenever Microsoft twitches, the industry perceives the quaking steps of a giant, and EU regulators swing into action to protect their political base from the software malfeasance they see being perpetrated by the Redmond Goliath. Regulators’ phones and email boxes quickly fill up with inbound messages from industry competitors almost always too happy to assist regulators in understanding the gravity of the situation. Although much of the discussion will entail how regulators are just looking out for the best interest of consumers and the market as a whole, after nearly a decade of this lost battle of the marketplace being replayed in the courtroom, it at times becomes difficult to understand how this is really going to help the bulk of the non-geek, non-ABM, non-I-have-an-axe-to-grind-daily crowd. Note that this previous sentence segregated out the digital literati, vendors not named Microsoft, and those with serious cash flow envy.

With Windows 95, the first consumer-based Internet oriented operating system along with Office 97, the first Internet oriented office productivity suite, Microsoft made the conscious decision to make it easy to access the Internet and share information, in part due to customers’ demands that software be easier to use. Remember DOS 5 or Windows 2.1? In some respects, this is where much of the trouble started. Microsoft obliged its customers, unfortunately, this ease of use came at the price of social reprobates exploiting this ease of sharing to develop a cornucopia of viruses, bug exploits, Trojan horses, and other just plain bad stuff. Anti-bad guy companies such as Symantec, McAfee, and others came to the rescue with the malicious code police and Microsoft tightened up the ease of use to point where seemingly receiving an email required clicking OK multiple times if it had any images, code, links, or any of that what makes it easy to share information stuff in the email. What a great solution this is for end users.

Consolidation of the once very disparate worlds of the LAN and the Internet through integration of Explorer and Internet Explorer gave users a unified view of the information resources that they were trying to share. Of course Navigator and HotJava aficionados didn’t like that, but Grandma, techno-phobes, and mere mortals largely did. Yes, let’s not forget to complain about all that unfair competition against Netscape. That competition started prior Netscape’s commercial existence when Microsoft indicated it would build a browser into its OS back in 1994; back when Mr. Andreesen was busy creating his browser over at NCSA. That unfair competition that took the form of Microsoft helping Netscape along as an ISV until such time as Andreesen and company started bashing Windows publicly as an irrelevant collection of device drivers. Is it at all odd that the Redmond crew decided to be less than helpful to Netscape going forward? And just who is irrelevant today? But, I digress…

Now desktop users are crying out for stronger security in their OS to protect them. Pontificate as you will about Windows’ security flaws, but also note that Microsoft has responded with firewalls, software updates, and a future with anti-spyware and DRM to enhance security. Of course this torques off the competition who want all of this security to be third party. It seems that some will only be placated if courts dictate that Microsoft must deliver software that is sufficiently unprotected so that third parties can malign it and then sell fixes and protection for it. “Hey that’s a nice operating system youse got dere, it would be shame if it was to be infected with viruses and malware and we brokes in and stole youse files.”

Businesses have long complained that they are required to become an IT center of excellence in order to use technology, thus diverting them from their business core competencies. Why should consumers be forced to do the same? Some will claim that this integration comes at the price of third party software having a harder time getting sold since Microsoft will bundle everything. In many cases this has been true, but it is also what many in the marketplace have been asking for, something easier and safer to use. We have heard endless harping about how open source will change all of this and stop this travesty known as Windows, or Office from being perpetrated on the marketplace. Well, until Novell announced SLED 10, the thought of mere mortal dumping commercially integrated and supported software for a collection of do it yourself technologies was laughable. SLED 10 by the way, is offered by one of those evil commercial software vendors who are trying to make some money in the marketplace. From what we can tell, they have done a damn good job of creating the first potentially competitive Linux desktop for the non-geek. But this is another digression.

There is more than enough blame to go around on how we as an industry and user base have arrived to where we are at. But many, including the EU regulators are missing the point. Huh? We are fixating on a platform with diminishing importance. No way you say! Well, consider this. The arguments about Vista are predicated on a platform (desktops and laptops) that will continue to diminish in proportion to the totality of information access devices (PDAs, phones, iPods, game consoles, to name just a few) deployed by consumers going forward. Further, the hardware requirements to run Vista will eliminate all but the most recently purchased systems or require substantial upgrades just to boot. (Microsoft is creating a great opportunity for Novell here, Jack Messman should send Steve Ballmer a bouquet of flowers and a thank you card for this one)

We don’t see equal outrage that most telephones cannot be taken from one mobile supplier to another in North America. Where is the demand for ease of third party software installation on the iPod, PDAs, phones, game consoles? Yes, France is complaining that iTunes should sell music in different formats to spur competition (this is coming from the only western country using SECAM TV standards). Nevertheless, these other devices are the consumer platforms of the early 21th century. So while regulators seem hell bent on defining what Vista will be, the true growth area of the market seems to be overlooked in the process. To us they are saying “Let’s try to fix the past while ignoring the future.” This way we can repeat the cycle and maintain perpetual employment for those with nothing better to do. Is this really the best we can do for and as an industry? Sigh.

So, I have vented my spleen. No I don’t own any Microsoft stock, they are not a big customer pumping gadzillions of dollars into my company, nor have we even received a free copy of Vista. Many of you will think we are representing the devil, others will think we are just nuts. If we have prompted you to think, that’s good enough for me. Sageza would like to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree, just be sure to spell our name correctly.

March 13, 2006

Why we won’t be talking about Open Source in the future

Being a good analyst, I attended IBM’s Open Source and Linux analyst event last week. Although it was predictably on the east coast, which means a good west coast guy like me got to spend more time in airplanes than at the event itself, I nevertheless made the trek to hear from Big Blue. While some of the issues discussed and positions taken were predictable, not in a bad sense, just that they were consistent with past communications, I started having of sense of déjà vu, with the wayback machine pointing to 1996. After asking, Mr. Peabody reassured me that it was in fact a decade later, it all started to come together for me. So just what in the world am I talking about? Read on.

There was much talk about the specialness of Open Source, not necessarily so much from IBM, but from others in attendance. While there are religious devotees who believe that the most important role of Open Source is to bankrupt Microsoft, there are many who are not on the Redmond attack squad, however, that talk about Open Source as if it remains somehow discrete, or fundamentally different than other software. Then it struck me, well, OK it struck me about 2 hours into the overbooked flight home in seat 23C when I ran out of munchies that I pilfered from the snack table at IBM event. This bifurcation of Open Source from all other software was a very familiar behavior – it is the same one that ten years ago insisted that the Internet and related technologies were discrete from IT and the datacenter. A ha! As I am fond of saying, there is little new in the world, all things old are new again.

While people have the need to segment out what is new and/or different from what they know, the reality is that from a bits and bytes perspective, open source software is no different than any other. It is code that runs on the machine and hopefully solves a problem and delivers value to the end user. The development model and the pricing model vary, as do issues related to intellectual property and ownership, but at the end of the day it is just software. In 1996 we might have asked if a given piece of software of equipment was “Internet capable”, but today, the question is never asked as networking is just an assumed attribute. Some beg the question, is this software Open Source compatible? One the surface it may seem silly, but the real question is will this software be well behaved, standards compliant, and not break my IT infrastructure? (or get me fired.) Does this mean that all software will be open source in the future? This is not very likely, but the need to somehow distinguish Open Source from all others, I believe will diminish, if not vanish altogether.

Many years ago I postulated that Java was a priceless technology -- priceless in the sense that in order for it to be successful, it had to be ubiquitous, and in order for it to be ubiquitous, it had to have a price point of nearly zero. We can argue for quite some time as to whether Sun was successful in this regard, but when we look at where Open Source is thriving, it is in delivering the minimal level of functional foundation required on which discrete can then be added. Whether this is file or print services, database, basic management etc, these are all priceless technologies as well. In 1994 the TCP/IP stack and utility business for PCs was probably about a $700 million affair. In 1995, it nearly evaporated when TCP/IP begin to be natively supported in Windows 95. Thus the stack became discreetly priceless when it was bundled into the ubiquitous OS. In many ways, Open Source software is making the same demands on the marketplace – these technologies are priceless, therefore stop trying to make money them, but instead invest those same dollars in adding value on top of the priceless technology. As a result, freely distributable, standards based, basic technology will be a given, let’s learn innovate on top of it, where the real value, and may I add, margins, will be found.

From this vantage point, the future would be time where open source technology will be prevalent, found by itself, bundled into commercial solutions by business partners, and distributed and supported by major systems vendors and ISVs. It would provide key building blocks that are vetted by the large constituency and seek to ensure its widespread availability. High margin, differentiated, value added solutions would be built on top, that delivery the high value sought by the customer, combined with the support and backing of the commercial software industry. Heresy? No way. Software communism? Negatory. A smart way to focus an industry on value add and innovation? Absolutely.

So, let’s assume that the industry as a whole realizes the value in this approach. What would happen? The number of open source communities would increase. Contributions to open source communities would increase dramatically. Commercial vendors would decide to cede certain key technologies into the open source community. Business partners and solutions providers would weave together tailored solutions comprised of commercial as well as open source components for their customer bases. Notice that the end customer is probably not all that interested in modifying the code (perhaps they would take a peek inside) but rather Open Source would become simply another part of the broader ecosystem and lose that specialness that has been artificially adhered to open source technology. Suddenly, it would just be assumed to be present, and there would be no need to talk about it anymore, just like the TCP/IP stack, the Internet, or what Sun had envisioned for Java.

Not too surprisingly, when one looks beyond the hype of the moment, much of IBM’s position on Open Source seems to be following the scenario that I laid out. It is unlikely that Big Blue will suddenly cease to have any software revenue, in fact I would argue that it will ultimately rise, as the company expands it reach and boosts the market overall through its many open source contributions. While IBM is not the only vendor that appears to have seen the logic in this course of action, it is clearly the largest. With the Armonk Argonaut on board, it is likely that much of the industry will follow, and will eventually not need to talk about Open Source anymore than it does key foundational technologies.

Analyst Rant

Analyst Rant – How many toolbars does any sane human need?

Every now and then analysts have to get on their soapbox and rant.  Today’s one of my days.  I’ve been ranting lately about communications being behind computing.  So I got talking with another analyst colleague, Dale Vile who owns Freeform Dynamics about the whole thing, and I rambled on about integration and he rambled on about virtualization and without those things, communications is never going to get to the Promised Land.  And this got me thinking about lots of random bits as I was opening Yahoo to read mail there.  I caught the bit about downloading the Yahoo toolbar so I could be notified about yet another inbox deluge.

And this is what led to my current rant which ties in to my earlier ranting.  I am tired of Yahoo and Google and MSN alternating versions of toolbars, of instant messengers, and other bits of software that require me to continue to download new versions, suffer endless rounds of popup messages and so on.  I have to have all these services, because my brothers use one service, my friends back in Boston another, and my colleagues scattered about the globe a third.  The thing is, I need only one instant messenger program, and I need one toolbar.  I do not need two or three.  I may want bits from each of the three, I may want to use all three services, but the underlying service should be singular.  The services should integrate into a single platform.  That would benefit users.  And there’s really no underlying brand value in the base platform is there?  

They all look the same to me taking up all that real estate at the top of my browser.  I know Microsoft and Yahoo are getting to play nice, and there are aggregators like Trillian which I’ve used on and off over the years, but it’s the principle that annoys me.  We’re supposed to be integrating, not creating separate multiple kingdoms.  Sure, people should have choice to download what they want.  But we should also be able to download only the bits we want into the base platform.  Me?  I use Google’s toolbar. Why?  Because they have a version for Mozilla Firefox, my browser of choice. When is this industry going to realize that playing nice leads to better customer experiences than playing difficult?  This isn’t going to stifle competition.  I promise. And while you’re thinking about this, go ask Dale about the difference between an email address and a phone number.  You’ll get an interesting answer.

March 09, 2006

Samsung's Newest "I Want Toy:" The SGH i310

Samsung has announced its new phone, the i310.  Boasting an 8GB embedded hard drive, the phone operates on Windows 5.0 for Smartphone, and also has Video Recording & Messaging, a 2 megapixel digital camera with flash, MP3, dual speakers, Bluetooth technology, USB 2.0, voice recognition, document viewer, and TV-out, among other features.  It is being shown to the public at CeBIT with general availability in Europe during the second half of this year. There is no official pricing guidance as the company indicated it would most likely be dependant upon the mobile contract of the customer.

With the latest in mobile listening technology and up to 4GB hard drive space devoted to music, those who enjoy listening to their tunes on their phone will have about 2000 songs to choose from.  However, this swanky little unit is more than just Samsung’s answer to the iPod.  It also takes movies and pictures and downloads documents from your PC.  And oh yeah, it can make phone calls, too. So another androgynous techno gizmo makes it on the scene.

True mobility continues to get one step closer every year, and the technology to combine all platforms into one seems to be rapidly becoming a reality and will likely be market-driven.  There is a scene in the newest version of the movie Freaky Friday, in which part of the mother’s get-ready-for-the-office morning routine consists of her unplugging about 4 different platforms from their respective chargers and piling them in her purse.  That level of organization seems to be beyond the average person that we’ve met; and as the public loses patience with multiple units, we most likely will be looking for a single platform that can do everything we need it to do.  

Samsung’s SGH i310 is a step in that direction.  Of course, once every application is combined into one mobile platform, then a person’s identity will most likely be compromised when, immediately after downloading all of their pertinent information, they promptly lose the unit. And then again, the sheer demands for all the different kinds of activities we engage these devices in tends to dictate ever more powerful, and larger, form factors, which in turn leads to more miniaturization and the cycle repeats itself. While this is not quite as crazy as the clothing embedded PDAs we have seen demonstrated in shows past, the device still begs the question of how many different ways can it be used and abused. Nevertheless, not that long ago 8GB was unheard of on a laptop, much less a phone. And this new phone has more computing ability than that elderly laptop. Stay tuned…we will be looking back on this in the future laughing on how small the drive on that oversized phone was anyway.

March 06, 2006

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide – Telcom Meets Computing

I admit I am an infrastructure analyst and not a telco analyst.  So my biases should all be readily apparent from the start.  Having said that, I will add that I have been spending quite a bit of time lately on the telco/mobile /networking side of the world, and it’s been an interesting experience.  I’ve come up with some thoughts I wanted to share.

The way I see it, there’s been a bit of a battle going on between the telephony model which to generalize charged for the network but not the equipment, and the computing model which charged for the equipment but not the network. According to all the research one sees floating about, the computing model seems to have won, in the sense that telephony is being integrated into corporate IT rather than the other way around.  Mind you, I’m still thinking more about infrastructure than applications (which is another topic I’m going to leave aside just now.)  Anyhow, it appears that computing is the winning model group for infrastructure provisioning, and that’s having some repercussions going forward for service providers (SPs.)

Perhaps VoIP is the best example of this phenomenon.  Since the network is essentially free in most people’s eyes (assume I’m speaking of a wireline network here), VoIP is taking off, even if quality is less than perfect (most people equate this with the adage “you get what you pay for” anyhow.) This has put fear into the traditional SPs because if they don’t change their model they could just become bit pipes – a less than attractive business model, and hardly a competitive differentiator, so off they go in pursuit of services, new ways to attract and retain business and consumer customers and so forth.

The problem is that the computing industry is 3-5 years ahead of telephony and it shows.  I’m not talking about technology here.  I’m talking about the way the industry thinks, how it sees the future and what it’s focused on.  For anyone who has ever traveled around Europe, think of the way you have to change networks in every country, and how many SPs you have to deal with.  Now imagine if your application infrastructure was that complexly organized.

Or instead, look at the way joint innovation, collaboration and open standards are driving computing.  Look at the way vendors and partners are building ecosystems to drive complete end-to-end solutions for users that combine products, applications and services.  That kind of collaboration is not yet happening in telephony.  The closest we come is the ecosystem in the mobile world, but even there joint collaboration cannot be described yet.  The whole notion of open standards bodies (please do not confuse this with open source or tell me that this is free software – again another issue) and building next generation capabilities together is moving more slowly.  Part of this is due to the lingering presence of government in telephony that has never quite plagued computing.  The telephony network was once quaintly a national issue and you can see the problems that kind of thinking causes if just once you purchase a household appliance in Germany and then try to use it in Italy.

I remain hopeful however, because we’re starting to see groups like the MultiService Forum arise.  Whether or not these groups can be successful is of course dependent on each particular group, but it’s good to see SPs starting to think along these lines.  The continuing strength of companies like Cisco and HP’s quasi-stealth ProCurve networking business are also encouraging.  These companies have feet planted firmly on both sides of the industry and if they’re clever will leverage the strengths of both sides.  For now however, telephony is going to have to go through a bit more angst before it breaks on through to the other side.