Dec 192014

Earlier this week BlackBerry released its Classic handset – the device the company hopes will rekindle its fortunes in the smartphone market in appealing to the thousands of loyal corporate users still wedded to their old devices.

For BlackBerry the stakes are high with the handset business still being worth over half the company’s earnings last financial year, although hardware revenue dropped 43% to $3.8 billion over that period.

“Handsets are still an important part of our business in terms of revenues,” BlackBerry’s President of Global Enterprise Services, John Sims told Decoding the New Economy in an interview last month.

The main market for the Classic are the corporate users still sitting on their old handsets, “there are tens of millions of BlackBerry users who are still sitting on their old handsets.” Sims said. “The classic, when it comes along is targeted at that market. We know people are waiting.”

“When you get on a plane people start taking out their devices I can guarantee you’ll see BlackBerry Bolds with almost every person in business and first class. They may have another device too – a Samsung or something as well.”

Sims’ belief was that bringing back the shortcuts and keyboard of the older devices would encourage users wedded to their old devices to buy the new smartphone.

The first response to the new BlackBerry Classic hasn’t been enthusiastic with Larry Dignan in the Canadian Globe and Mail describing it as “a curmudgeonly phone” – a worrying description coming from the home team. Dignan goes further in questioning BlackBerry’s hope the Classic will attract the users it needs.

BlackBerry remains convinced that its hardcore enterprise users are crying out for the unique set of features only it can offer. But after using it for several days I don’t think the Classic is old fashioned enough to please traditionalists, and its callbacks to a dead era of smartphone mobility are more than enough to cripple the device for new users.

For BlackBerry, the success or otherwise of its handsets is going to be critical in the company’s transition to a security, software and internet of things business. The early indications are that the company has a struggle ahead.

Nov 252014

“I had what my wife describes as non toxic form of midlife crisis,” says Don Katz of Audible, the company he founded in 1994 and remains CEO of today. In an interview with Decoding The New Economy, Katz describes a startup journey that covers all the bases.

As Rolling Stone’s European correspondent Katz was engaged to write a book in the early 1990s about how digital technologies were changing music and what he realised was the industry was about to go through a fundamental change.

“I had a wonderful career as a writer, I was a long form magazine writer in the glory days of ten thousand word articles,” Katz says of his life in journalism. A book commission lead him to research the future of digital distribution of written works.

Survival in the digital economy

One of the driving ideas was how creators can sustain themselves in the digital economy, “my content was already being ripped off on the Unix internet and I thought ‘how will the profession creative class sustain themselves if there’s no ability to control the distribution?'”

Having founded Audible in 1995 at a time when few people were downloading or even using the net, Katz was in the box seat of the first tech boom and subsequent tech wreck in 2001.

At the peak of the dot com boom  Audible was floated on the NASDAQ stock market, “In 1999 good companies that were leading categories went public and got massive amounts of free capital.” Katz recalls, “It was one of those weird moments, there were 1500 publicly listed internet companies at the beginning of 2000 and there were 140 by 2003.”

Surviving the dot com bust

Katz puts the company’s survival during that period to a conservative attitude towards capital and the alliances he had created with the industry’s major players — at one stage Microsoft held a 37% share in the company and Katz was one of Steve Jobs’ confidants during the early development of the iPod.

Eventually one of those alliances became critical when Katz became bored with running a listed company, “it was an amazing adventure being a public company CEO for nine and a half years. It was very exciting and an honour to serve shareholders.”

Katz’s patience ran out with being a public company CEO when automated trading came to dominate the daily operations of management, “suddenly you had this metaphysical sense of ‘who are you working for if someone wants volatility?’ That suddenly got old.”

Audible already had a relationship with Amazon who had taken five percent of the business in 2000  in return for bundling audio book links on the ecommerce giant’s book pages. Katz also found Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s long term view towards investment and returns a much more satisfying business model than the day to day grind of meeting short term shareholder demands.

In early 2008 Amazon bought Audible for $300 million and retained Katz as the company’s CEO.

Building new startups

For new startups, Katz advises “make an absolutely fearless inventory of what you know is true about this idea and what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.”

“You need to have people you can trust and believe in. Beyond that, be very sober about business models that are sustainable. There’s a lot mistakes that people make where you’re solving a problem in a piece of a value chain that isn’t sustainable. It’s easy to get confused about who the customer is.”

“Figure out who the real customer is. Sometime people overplay the fact that the customer is the capital, the capital will come if people have the innovation and the passion.”

Nov 172014

Has Apple Pay legitimised mobile payments? It appears so, reports the New York Times. Since the launch of Apple’s payments service, Google and other mobile payment providers are claiming usage has doubled with customers exploring the systems.

If this is true, it’s similar to how Apple legitimised the USB port in 1998 with the release of the iMac.

Prior to the iMac the USB port was a bit of an oddity, on most PCs the sockets sat unused and the few devices available on Windows computers worked reliably, as Bill Gates himself found out during a live demonstration at the 1998 Comdex show.

Unlike Apple Pay, the move to USB on Macs wasn’t welcome and it was a high stakes decision by Steve Jobs given that Apple’s existence was still precarious and its user base was still made up of largely of true believers who had been through years in the wilderness with the company.

Those users also had many thousands of dollars invested in Apple Device Bus (ADB) devices, all of which became redundant with the move to USB. Many customers at the time swore this was the last straw and they would move to Windows PCs.

Apple’s users didn’t carry out their threats and stayed with the company whose move to USB turned out to be a winner for the entire computer industry.

For Apple USB’s success meant their customers were no longer locked into a proprietary technology, for manufacturers they were able to start moving off archaic serial and parallel ports while for Microsoft the shift meant a better range of more reliable devices — although their operating systems struggled with USB until the release of the far more stable Windows XP.

It appears in this respect Apple Pay is repeating history in giving a boost to a technology that has been struggling to find traction in the market place.

The difference this time is that the payments industry is a far bigger market with far more implications for the broader economy than the computer peripherals segment.

If Apple raise the boat on payment systems, there are some incumbent businesses who are going to find themselves in a very different marketplace in five years time.

Oct 162014
using an iPad and the cloud for a point of sale cash register

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcements by Apple, the strategic leaks are happening fast on both the next version of the iPad and Google’s Nexus appearing in the media today.

The problem for tablet manufacturers is that sales have stagnated in recent times with the products no longer flying off the shelves.

Part of the reason for this is customers are happy with their existing products; a three year old tablet will do most of things a brand new one will do so there’s little reason for upgrading.

For vendors like Apple and Google it’s further proof that the PC industry model of three year upgrades is firmly dead, the sector will need something more than planned obsolescence to drive growth.

Sep 282014

On Tuesday Microsoft are expected to announce their new Windows 9 operating system at a media event in San Francisco.

If the rumours are true, then the new system will be launched almost exactly two years after Windows 8 was released amid hopes that it would stem the PC industry’s decline.

Windows 8 didn’t deliver with most people being frustrated with the system’s inconsistent interface that tried to be unified desktop, laptop and tablet operating system which managed to be unsatisfactory on all of them.

As a consequence, users avoided Windows 8 like the plague with industry analysts Netmarketshare claiming most of Microsoft’s customers are buying systems kitted out with Windows 7 or just sticking with decade old Windows XP systems.

Courtesy of Netmarketshare

Courtesy of Netmarketshare

Making matters worse for Microsoft is the decline in personal computer sales in general with IDC estimating global shipments of both portable and desktop system will drop 3.8% in 2014.

These declines are already well established in the trends being seen in Microsoft’s business with the company’s Windows division showing an accelerating decline in profit margins.

Microsoft Windows division financial performance

Microsoft Windows division financial performance ($ million)

Should that decline continue with Windows 9, it may well be that Microsoft will have to consider the future of product.

As it is, the market may be deciding for them as users increasingly switch to tablets and smartphones. We may also see a wave of cheap Chinese made laptops running versions of Google Chrome or other Linux based systems also threatening the existing PC sales base.

Either way, a lot rides on what Microsoft announces in San Francisco this week. It could be the end of an era that defined the mass adoption of computers.

Sep 252014

It’s been a tough week for Apple, after the spectacular launch of the iPhone 6 the company has had two humiliating and worrying setbacks that indicate standards may be slipping at the once untouchable giant.

The iPhone 6 Plus should have been a triumph, and for a while it was, but the news the phones bend and distort has tarnished the product.

Compounding the bendable phone problem are the claims users are being charged to replace their damaged handsets.

On its own this problem might have been manageable like the iPhone4’s antenna problems in 2010, however today’s news that the latest iOS8 has had to be withdrawn after user complaints indicates a sloppiness has crept into the company.

Both problems, or all three problems if it turns out the stories of Genius Bars charging to replace damaged phones, show Apple isn’t paying attention to detail to the degree they’ve become known for.

The botched iOS8.0.1 rollout is sloppy work while the bendable phone is very much an uncharacteristic lapse in design.

For a premium brand with a large dose of arrogance, shipping defective products is both an embarrassment and damages the company’s name.

This inattention to detail is horribly reminiscent of Microsoft’s horror days at the turn of the Century where the company repeatedly rushed incomplete products to market — Windows ME being the most notorious example.

So maybe we are seeing Apple become the new Microsoft and the iPhone 6 Plus as the Windows ME of our time.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see the end of Apple, Microsoft is still a huge corporation, but it may be the tech industry’s most iconic business is beginning to lose its edge.

Image of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates via Wikipedia

Sep 152014

The future of retail is being fought out on three fronts believes eBay’s Michael Camplin  — global, local, mobile and data.

At eBay’s Commerce Innovation Showcase at its San Jose head office Champlin shows visiting partners, media and government officials part of the payments giant’s vision for that future.

“It’s about connecting buyers and sellers across the globe,” says Champlin. “Local is important for us because even with the growth of the online ecommerce revolution that we’re in the middle of right now we still see 75% of commerce happens within fifty miles of the customer and 90% of that happens in bricks-and-mortar stores.”

“So to be able to connect buyers and sellers in those local stores is a major push we have at eBay.”


The first presentation in the tour demonstrates a day in the life of an eBay customer from the bedroom of a fictional customer, Reese McLaren, a funky young guy shopping for new equipment ahead of a camping trip. Champlin illustrates how Reese can order, pay and collect through a store’s integrated online service from his home.

On the other side of the transactions, store employees use the PayPal apps like Red Lazer and Braintree to complete the order. A key part of that is using beacon technologies to log a customer into the store to alert staff that a customer has arrived to collect an order.


At the next stage of the tour, we visit some demonstration stores; first we start with the Burger Bistro where eBay’s Eric Armstrong shows how restaurant’s point of sale system is integrated with PayPal services, showing waitstaff who is logged in through the company’s app.

Integrating PayPal’s services into the establishment’s point of sale system means customers can order through the PayPal Wallet service and waitstaff know if a customer has paid through the app.


The app also speeds up settling customers’ bills as diners can pay the check through their phone and not bother with using cash or swiping credit cards.

One key point with PayPal Wallet is that users can enter any payment form that suits them and choose whichever option suits them at the time including direct bank transfers and credit cards.


Another area that PayPal are pushing out are coupon offers. At present the company is subsidising them as they test how the services work. The objective is to offer a digital equivalent of everything people currently have in their wallets.

For staff, eBay are offering the ability to bring your own device for point of sale systems with cloud base apps turning staffs’ tablets and smartphones into POS terminals.



Tying into the Point of Sale capability is the PayPal Now service that allows establishments to swipe credit cards directly into the app through a dongle that reads the chip or stripe. Despite the rise of online payment services, swiping credit cards is still the main way US customers pay their bills.


Despite the continued popularity of credit cards, eBay are hoping to move customers over to the online services through ease of service; the one stop authentication service means customers are logged into the payment platform as soon as they check into a location.

One area PayPal sees great opportunity in stadiums and major events where attendees automatically check in and can then access food and souvenir stands without having to re-authenticate or authorise each purchase they make.


A key part of eBay’s retail strategy is the use of beacons to monitor customers entering establishments. The one illustrated is the PayPal beacon that was a limited release earlier this year. The device doesn’t have its own battery, instead relying on a USB socket for power.

Two weeks after this tour Apple launched its Pay service with its range of integrated APIs to offer many of things shown in this showcase. eBay and its Braintree subsidiary was conspicuously missing from the listed partners.

For PayPal and eBay the field has suddenly become more competitive, this is a sector that is now at the forefront of the battle between today’s internet empires.