Monthly Archives: August 2011

It’s About the Developers, Stupid!

Last week’s continued equity market shakeups were made even more volatile by a few headscratchers:  Google purchasing Motorola Mobility for USD$12.5 billion (nearly $735 thousand per issued patent held by the company), and HP musing about spinning off its PC manufacturing business and potentially buying Autonomy to become a software and consulting house, an apparent IBM redux.  Endless articles and commentaries are focusing on Google’s purchase of MMI, but the more interesting story to me is HP, and how their shift in business model is less about focusing on higher margin lines of business, but rather admitting failure in their purchase of Palm, and more generally, in building sustainable developer ecosystems.

When big companies spend big money on massive acquisitions, they take on huge amounts of explicit, intrinsic, and opportunity risk that only a carefully designed strategy will vindicate.  When the stakeholders discuss only the balance sheet terms of deals they agree to, without really understanding the cultures of the external environments they depend upon, there’s a lot of unmitigated risk, and ultimately, a lot of avoidable waste.  Arguably, Palm faltered and became an acquisition target for HP not because they had a inferior product or platform, but because they failed to nurture a strong developer ecosystem after Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left to form Handspring.  When iterations of the Palm OS failed to deliver critical platform feature requests to keep the offering competitive, Palm addressed the problem by releasing webOS, years later, and with a cavalier attitude that they could build a new developer community around the offering without needing to mend their fences with their long-time supporters.

We know what happened there – Palm stumbled, and HP picked up a compelling technology offering in webOS.  But HP made the same competitive mistake as Palm – it failed to foster a developer community to propel WebOS forward as the mobile operating system oligarchy was taking shape.  It, like Nokia with Symbian, did not appreciate the role of a thriving developer ecosystem in building a mobile brand, nor did they continue to continuously invest into it. Great technologies attract bright developers, who in turn make direct contributions to the ecosystem in the forms of apps, frameworks, and cloud services, and indirect contributions by recommending technologies to ‘the suits’ who invest resources in leveraging them for their own ends.  This generates a current of innovation that can become self-sustaining, and this fills out direct to consumer ‘app stores’ with features that intrigue consumers who make the ultimate platform selection through their purchases.  Let’s face it, when you walk into a brick and mortar mobile phone store, you’re not confronted by displays that put “smart phones” on one wall, “camera phones” on another, with old-style candy bar phones somewhere in the back – that was so four years ago!  Consumers today are targeted with marketing to compel them to choose an ecosystem — Android vs. iOS vs. Windows Mobile 7.  The hardware is become less relevant as a purchasing decision, because there’s few physical differentiators other than form factor (which Apple continues to win, hands-down).

Microsoft has understood this concept extremely well for decades, and they embrace their strategy by focusing on delivering excellent tool chains for developing applications that function on platforms (operating systems) they sell.  Despite Steve Ballmer’s fanatical espoused enthusiasm on the matter, the company actually does make good on their word on investing in developers who invest in their technology.  They virtually give away expensive integrated development environments to secondary and post-secondary schools and create extensive supportive curriculum, documentation, and living communities that attract bright people and encourage other young minds seeking to connect with the brightest of their peers working on their technology.

Microsoft’s not alone in this strategy, but they’re notable for how well they execute it.  Apple is one of the only notable exceptions to this process: attracting developers by rapidly building amazing market share.  Apple is a force to be reckoned with, for sure, but at the end of the day, “suits” decide to support iOS because of it’s market share, not because their technologists and in-house developers extol the “amazing development experience” of iOS.  Nokia tried this and failed.  RIM is failing despite having a great market share position, at one time, for a mixture of technology capability and community support reasons.

The lesson here, though, isn’t restricted to the multinational, large-cap platform developers — even small, agile start-ups must quickly understand the importance and formulate strategies for building synergies to succeed.  Whether they’re implemented through open source software, direct-to-the-community adoption initiatives, or strategic partnerships between peer companies, small businesses depend upon the rich technological feedback for continous improvement they cannot generate internally due to constrained early-stage resources.

HP, though, doesn’t understand or doesn’t appreciate the “how” of building a real, working platform ecosystem is critical not only for innovative start-ups, but also for large-cap software firms.  And though HP may be throwing in the towel for mobile devices, this is a lesson critically important for any software company no matter what their distribution channel is: mobile, tablet, desktop, or enterprise servers.  The fact HP doesn’t get it or is too encumbered to act on it, is the biggest threat to HP spinning off their low-margin, but reliable revenue generating manufacturing segment and plugging ahead.

Ballmer should do his good deed for 2011 and ring them up with a tip: It’s all about the developers, stupid!

1 Comment

Posted by on August 21, 2011 in Technology Policies


Will State Treasuries Get Wise to Geolocation?

Slowly, mobile users are becoming increasingly complacent with giving up the last remaining visages of privacy when it comes to using a mobile web browser or using mobile native apps to do the most rudimentary tasks.  Just five years ago, imagine the adoption rate an application would have that required your exact geographic location and the rights to read the names and phone numbers of your entire digital Rolodex to let you read the front page headlines of news.  It would fester in digital obsolescence through right-out rejection!  Today, it’s a different ballgame.

There’s some interesting changes I can foresee that will come out of these shifting norms that have nothing to do with the overblogged concepts of targeted advertising or the erosion of our privacy.  There’s an awesome company called Square has a nifty credit card reader that plugs directly into the audio port of a mobile device to create instant point of sale devices with a lot of flexibility and little capital investment.  Even this can’t be called new  by today’s blogosphere standards, but something that caught my attention in beta testing this service was its requirement to continuously track your fine GPS location as an anti-fraud measure.  Pretty sensical, but also, pretty telling of things to come.

Anyone’s whose been following the tech world recalls the recent tiffs between Amazon and various states, most recently of those being California, that have tried to get a slice of the revenue generated by sales addressed to their state.  Large corporations can keep playing evasive maneuvers with state legislatures, and small business brick-and-mortar retailers as well as state coffers continue to feel the squeeze as shoppers become continuously comfortable and familiar with making large ticket purchases online, both to comparison shop, but also, quite obviously, to avoid paying state and local sales taxes.  A looming federal debt crisis that is decades away from a meaningful resolution means less distributions to states, leaving each to pick up a larger share of the tab for basic services, infrastructure improvements, and some types of entitlements.  States have reacted two-fold: to try to squeeze the large online retailers with legislation, and secondly, to require state taxpayers to volunteer their “fair share” by paying use tax.

Who accurately reports their online sales for the last tax year for the purposes of paying use tax?   Anyone that knows me is well aware of my almost maniacal love for and usage of budgeting tools that allow me to easily pull up a report of every online purchase I’ve made in a given time period in a matter if seconds.  But many people who owe hundreds in state use taxes file their returns the same as my parents, who purchase nothing online, and report zero in this box.

It would be relatively trivial from a technology perspective, but predictably forthcoming from a policy perspective, that this free ride is about to end.  One-third of smartphone owners have made a mobile online purchase from their phone, and a full 20% use their device as a fully-fledged mobile wallet.  47% of smartphone owners and 56% of tablet owners plan to purchase more products on their respective devices in the future.  With the skyrocketing adoption of mobile as a valid, trusted payments platform, it won’t be long before a majority of physical goods transactions are made with these devices.  In the name of “safer, more secure transactions”, consumers will likely be prompted to, and likely won’t think twice about, revealing their location from which they make that purchase.

No matter how much we might muse to the contrary, legislators, nor their more technically savvy aides, aren’t oblivious to the coming opportunity this shift will provide:  Imagine a requirement that any purchase made would log the location of the purchaser at the time the transaction was made, and charge online sales tax based on that location.  Since most mobile users spend their lives in their home location, this would keep a high percentage of taxes collected in this manner in the municipalities that provide services to the end consumer, reclaiming unreported taxable sales in a manner consistent with the collections prior to this massive behavioral shift.  It also levels the playing field for small retailers, who have to collect the same rates on their purchases.

It’s an intriguing scenario, and one not far from reality.  It may be this, and only this, that creates a consumer backlash against the complacent acceptance of leaking geolocation for anything other than maps or yellow page-type applications.  It may create scenarios where people travel to an adjoining town which creates a digital “tax haven” by instituting free municipal WiFi and low tax rates to drive a new form of digital tax haven tourism.

In any case, it’s definitely something to think about.