Jan 282015

The stunning quarterly results of Apple announced yesterday compared to Microsoft’s indifferent performance illustrate how the fortunes of two different business cultures have changed.

Apple yesterday announced a spectacular result for its quarter finishing at the end of last year with  revenues up 30%, profits by 38% and Earnings Per Share just short of fifty percent.

The announcement was an emphatic vindication for Tim Cook and his management team who made some big bets on the larger form factor iPhone 6 which paid off spectacularly with shipments growing 46% to 74.5 million and revenue reaching $51.2 billion, over two thirds of the company’s total sales.

One notable aspect of Apple’s success is the difference with Microsoft’s and this shows how different business cultures come in and out of fashion.

The Triumph of the MBA

For two decades Microsoft’s licensing business model was dominant and this confirmed the MBA view that companies should do everything they can to move design, research, manufacturing and distribution out of their operations – the virtual corporation where there was no inventory, few costs and even fewer risks was the ultimate aim of the modern manager at the turn of the century.

Microsoft encapsulated this philosophy with its licensing model, while the company made massive sales with huge margins – as it still does – all the business risks in the computer market were carried by resellers and equipment manufacturers. For many years the markets loved this.

Apple tinkered with the licensing model under John Sculley in the mid 1990s during Steve Jobs’ exile but was never really serious about giving away its hardware capabilities and in 2001 moved into retail with the opening of the first Apple Store.

Coupled with the App Store, Apple have come to control the entire customer journey from marketing, design, purchase and ongoing revenue after the product is bought.

King of the new Millennium

While the 1980s and 90s were the time of triumph for the Microsoft model, the 2000s have been good to Apple as shown by the revenue and profit figures.

Apple and Microsoft Revenues 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Revenues 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Profits 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Profits 2000-2014

The key inflection point in these charts is, of course, the iPhone’s release in 2007. Apple caught the wave of change as computer use switched from personal computers to smartphones and is now the dominant vendor.

For Microsoft the success of Apple is bittersweet; the company had a smartphone operating system in Windows CE but it was too early to the market and the devices vendors went to market with were, at best, substandard.

Microsoft’s failure with the smartphone was also echoed with tablet computers and exposed the licensing model’s reliance on vendors to supply and support decent products, even today Microsoft’s hardware partners struggle to release decent tablet systems.

Cloudy on the web

Another problem that exposed Microsoft’s weaknesses was the rise of the web where hardware and operating systems really did matter so much any more. Along with pushing out personal computer lifecycles it also had the consequence of allowing other systems into the marketplace, notably Linux and Google Android.

With OS X, Android and Linux systems no longer hampered with the compatibility issues that irritated non-Windows users in the 1990s the market was open to adopting those systems. While the PC market has remained quite loyal to Windows, although the Apple Macs are showing serious growth as well, Microsoft’s system has barely any marketshare in other device segments except servers which are also declining as business increasingly move to cloud services.

Apple have shown in the computing and smartphone business that controlling the hardware products is as important as supplying the software, a lesson that Microsoft now acknowledges with its restructure into a ‘Devices and Services’ company under former CEO Steve Ballmer.

The problem for Microsoft is its margins for hardware are a fraction of its own licensing operations and weak compared to Apple’s returns. Microsoft makes 14% profit on its phone operations while the iPhone is estimated to deliver over 60%.

Under current CEO Satya Nadella Microsoft is focusing on cloud services which also aren’t as profitable as its legacy operations but see it competing with companies like Amazon and Google who don’t boast the profits from their online operations that Apple makes from its hardware.

Microsoft aside, the lesson Apple gives the technology is pertinent for its competitors in the smartphone space as well; companies like Samsung, LG and the army of Chinese handset vendors are going to find their markets tough unless they can take control of their software development and distribution channels – relying on Google for Android and telcos to get their phones to customers leaves them exposed in similar ways to Microsoft’s partners in the last decade.

In the battle between business models, Apple is the current winner and shows throwing all of your business operations over the fence to partners and licensees is a risky strategy. How those lessons are applied in other sectors will test the limits of both management philosophies.

Photo of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates by Joi Ito through Flickr

Dec 312014

2015 will feature more boneheaded moves as over valued companies try to meet investors’ expectations, a good example is Twitter adding sponsored accounts to its lists service.

The move by Twitter, reported by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, is another attempt by the service to get revenues that justify the company’s ten billion dollar valuation. While adding little income, the move further erodes trust in the service.

Illustrating the investment mania home delivery service Instacart announced it had raised $220 million, an amount that values the company at two billion dollars.

That home delivery services are again the investment flavour of the time is a worry given similar stakes marked the peak of the first Dot Com Boom in 2000. Whether today’s equivalents are any more sustainable will be one of the questions for 2015.

Another question for 2015 will be whether Twitter can crack the magic code and justify its valuation.

Happy New Year.

Dec 282014

After twenty years the Yahoo! Directory closed down five days early reports Search Engine Land.

The rise and and fall of Yahoo!’s core product illustrates both the volatility of the web and how the underlying dynamics of the internet has changed; at the time Yahoo! Directory was launched, we were struggling the task of keeping track of all the information being posted online.

Even in those early days it was clear that task was becoming unmanageable and this was the problem Google set out to solve and its success destroyed the directory business along with a whole range of other industries.

Yahoo! Directories’ demise needs to be noted by today’s web and social media giants; just as these technologies are disrupting old industries, new businesses aren’t immune to those changes.


Jul 082014
Digital Day for Small Business September 2011showing how to use cloud computing and social media to grow your business

“My job is to spread good news,” says Guy Kawasaki of his role as Canva’s Chief Evangelist.

Kawasaki was speaking to Decoding the New Economy about his role in popularising the online design tool which he sees as democratising force in the same way that Apple was to computers and Google to search.

Democratisation is a theme consistently raised by startups and businesses disrupting existing industries and Kawasaki continues this theme.

“The world is becoming a meritocracy; it’s not about your pedigree, it’s about your competence,” states Kawasaki.

Falling barriers to entry

What excites Kawasaki about the present business climate are the falling barriers to starting a venture. “Things are getting cheaper and cheaper, in technology you had to buy a room full of servers, have IT staff in multiple cities. Today you call Amazon or Rackspace and host it in the sky.”

“Before you had to buy advertising for a concert, now if you’re adept at using social media – with Google Plus, Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram – you have a marketing platform that fast, ubiquitous and cheap.”

“What excites me is there are going to be more technologies, more products and more services because the barriers are so low.”

Creating a valued and viable product

For those businesses starting into this new environment, Kawasaki believes the most important thing a startup should focus on is getting a prototype to market; “at that point you will know you’re truly onto something.”

“If you build a prototype that works you may never have to write a business plan,” says Kawasaki. “You’d never have to make a Powerpoint, you may never have to raise money as you could probably bootstrap.”

Kawasaki view is the MVP – Minimum Viable Product – model of lean product development should have another two ‘V’s added for ‘Valuable’ and “Validated’.

“You can create a product that’s viable, ie you could make money, but is it valuable in that it changes the world?”

“Is your first product going to validate your vision? If it’s not then why are doing it?”

The story Kawasaki tells is the tools to deliver valued and viable products are more accessible than ever before; that’s good news for entrepreneurs and consumers but bad for stodgy incumbents.

Apr 172014

A 16 hour outage by hosting service Bluehost knocks the wind out of this site’s sails.

There’s much to say about customer engagement, engineering and management but it will have to wait for another day.

Oct 082013
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

Now microblogging service Twitter has released documents ahead of a stock market float, it’s possible to start looking at the viability and stock market valuation of the company.

When Facebook’s float was first mooted in early 2011, we looked at how the social media service stacked up against Google a decade earlier. The question was ‘is Facebook worth $50 billion?’

The stockmarket answer was resounding ‘yes’ despite an initial fall that saw investors face a 50% loss in the early days of Facebook being a public company. Today the stock has a market valuation of $122 billion, with an eye popping price/earnings ratio of 122.

So how does Twitter stack up at the valuations being discussed? Quite well it appears when we put it against Google, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Company Google Facebook LinkedIn Twitter
Market Cap 288 123 27 13
P/E 25 288 901 29

For Twitter, the real challenge is making money from the service and their latest idea is marketing the service as an essential companion to watching TV.

The discussion over how Twitter makes money exposes another problem for the service in it has no obvious revenue stream which makes comparing the platform to Facebook or LinkedIn rather problematic.

Facebook has advertising while LinkedIn has premium subscriber services both of which are problematic.

Not having an obvious revenue model may not turn out to be a problem – as LinkedIn’s P/E shows – and Twitter’s founders are probably more likely than anyway to be the digital media industry’s David Sarnoff.

It may be Twitter makes its money from giving advertisers, marketers and others access to the massive stores of data the company is accumulating.

Whatever way it turns out, Twitter’s going to be the hot IPO news for the tech industry for the rest of the year. At current prices, the investors will be lining up to buy the stock.

Jun 202013
social media workshops for executives and business owners

Yesterday was media briefing day with a number of vendor events, including a very nice lunch with IBM, on the state of the technology industry.

One thing that was particularly striking with IBM Truth Behind The Trends survey was just how out of touch many of the executives quoted in the report seem to be with responses on topics like malware and Bring Your Own Device being firmly behind the curve.

This was borne out at the earlier media roundtable with online security company Websense where they described some of the challenges facing Chief Information Officers in making company boards and senior managers aware of technology security risks.

What surprised most of the journalists in the earlier briefing was just how clueless many of the executives seem to be about online business risks, those who went along to the following IBM briefing realised why – managers genuinely don’t understand how the internet and business technology is evolving.

That should worry investors as markets are changing rapidly and managers who don’t recognise, let alone understand, the shifts happening are jeopardizing the their business’ futures.

Why exactly business leaders are so out of touch is something we look at tomorrow where we examine the background of Australia’s CEOs.