Monday, January 17, 2011

Is Steve Jobs Essential?

This is in the wake of reading today's announcement that Jobs is once again taking a medical leave of absence due to health issues. First of all, I wish him well. Steve is a man with billions of dollars but he's also a man with a family and the CEO of a company that thousands of people work for. For the sake of all of them (but especially the family) I hope he gets better.

How important is Steve to Apple? He's the public face and voice of Apple, and he's the veto on everything. But he's not the day-to-day manager nowadays - Tim Cook is that and by all accounts he's terrific at it. Ron Johnson is the man behind the Apple Store experience. Jonny Ive is the design guru behind the look and feel of every hardware product Apple produces (in collaboration with Jobs). Bob Mansfield makes Macs and other hardware work well. Bertie Serlet is the person behind the OS, and he's one of the NeXT vets. So is Scott Forstall, the man behind iOS.

Where Steve comes in is as the tone-setter. He makes the call to ax a product. He makes the "ship or not" decision. His DNA is infused within Apple's executive team. Can Apple continue executing without Steve Jobs? Absolutely. Most of the products they make a ton of money from don't spring from the mind of Jobs. They come from the teams under him. The place where I have concerns is in the vision side - there isn't (as far as I can see) a person there right now who can say "this is the future, this is where we are going, and it will proceed, period". If that person exists at Apple in the exec suite, now is the time for them to start becoming a mini-Steve in preparation for the day they need to take over. Hopefully it won't be for a while.

Meantime, I have a firm trust in the product pipeline. Product decisions are already made that will come in to play for the remainder of 2011 and into 2012. The iPhone 5 is done. So is the iPad 2. The iPad 3 and iPhone 6 are well underway as of now. MacOS X 10.7 is due this year. Mac hardware for the rest of the year is designed and ready, so are this year's iPods. I'm not worried about 2011, and I'm not too worried about 2012. They've made some odd decisions that affect my business as a consultant (mainly because I work extensively with Apple Retail in my business) that are odd, but that isn't stuff that is decided in the C-Suite.

My hope is to see Steve resume as much of a role as he can in the near future. If he can't do that, I'd like to see Tim Cook named CEO, Jobs remain Chairman, and some more talent come on board if needed. More than anyone not named Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs has his company and his identity intertwined. Hopefully Apple is well-prepared for that to not be so, and hopefully now is not the time to find out.

What went wrong?

True, I rarely write about stick & ball sports (I do write about NASCAR once in a while), but after the Patriots blew up their season last night I thought I should twist it around a little more before officially going into "anyone but the bleeping Jets" mode for the rest of the no-longer-interesting to me playoffs.

The game started really well, forcing the Jets into a 3 and out on the first possession. The Pats then started moving the ball easily, making mostly short passes to running backs and the tight ends and very quickly getting down the field. Even when Brady made his first pick in over 3 months, it didn't seem like a killer - the resulting defensive stand was outstanding and the field goal miss gave the ball back in good shape.

But the ensuing drive for a field goal wasn't quite as sharp as the opener, and now 2 dominant drives that resulted in a pick and only 3 points total had left the game tight early. The Patriots had been winning with early offensive execution that forced the other team into mistakes. That was the last offense we saw from the Pats until late in the third quarter.

The other killer play in the first half was the failed fake punt. Even if Chung had handled the snap fine, coverage looked like it might have gotten him anyway. A poor play call at a bad time. That resulted in what turned out to be the back-breaking score.

The way the Patriots blew up the Jets in December was to get ahead enough of them that Mark Sanchez was forced to take chances that he's not really experienced or talented enough to succeed with. He's not a terrible QB, but spotting them a lead gives the Jets a chance to cover up his weaknesses easily.

The sequence that clinched it was after the Patriots drew to 14-11 late. The defense had settled in well after the Jets got a lead and was playing effectively. But they immediately allowed the Jets to score to turn it back into a 2-score game. That took the momentum back and pretty much ended the game.

There's a lot of soul-searching that has to take place in Foxboro this winter. Right now, the Pats are losers of their last 3 postseason games and even though none of us expected a 14-2 dominant regular season, getting smoked in the divisional round by a team that we trashed a month prior (especially the Jets) is not the way to go out. The young secondary is a strength, the linebacking corps is solid, but the defensive line is thin and the Patriots' offense now has a 3-game track record of failing to show up in big playoff games. Not good. This may be a good year to use those stockpiled draft picks.

And one FOOTnote: Sitting Welker for the first series. Really bad move. Might have even contributed to the INT Brady threw. Yes, the Pats are all about discipline and marching orders, but if you can't even get out a few under-the-text gags without being punished that's just stupid. Deal with that in-house without sitting your key receiver.

Hearing that Welker was sitting was the first moment I started to have fear about this game. Winning the game is more important than maintaining the Patriot Way.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oh - it's on, baby!

Verizon now has an iPhone. Hot rumor today is that Sprint will get their own in February. LTE has been slow enough rolling out to make it worth Apple's time and effort to build a CDMA version of the iPhone. So here's what I see this meaning over the remainder of 2011:

1 - I no longer think that the iPhone 5 will be an LTE device. AT&T doesn't have anything live yet, and Verizon is really just pushing it for data at this time. Sprint is currently tied to WiMax for 4G. Plus the LTE chipsets are still very early-stage.

2 - iPhone 5 will likely be a unified device with a combined GSM/CDMA chipset. I also suspect that VoRA (Voice over Revision A) support will be built in to it, as Verizon has said that that is slated for rollout beginning this spring. Maybe it's supported by the chipset in the current iPhone 4/CDMA, but we won't know until it gets torn down.

3 - Google is scared about US Android numbers. They announced the removal of H.264 support from Chrome yesterday and that is the first shoe to drop. Google controls YouTube, the single most popular video site on the web. YouTube has been experimenting with direct H.264 encoding (I prefer it - far better performance and lower CPU usage), and Flash has been taking hits. Well, now Flash will be the only supported way to handle H.264 on Chrome with Google favoring their WebM codec for HTML5 video.

The two vendors now backing H.264 the strongest? Apple and Microsoft. Look for Google to pull H.264 support from Android in favor of their codec, and they'll try to turn YouTube into a site that only uses Flash or WebM in the hopes of killing it for iOS users. The Hail Mary pass they're throwing here is to try and convince users that Android and Chrome are the ways to get YouTube.

Personally, I think that'll just open up an opportunity for a good YouTube competitor to take over - much as Facebook defeated MySpace.

4 - Google now needs to hit a tablet home run. CES showed us all the new Android 3 tablets, but Apple just sucked most of the handset oxygen out of Vegas with the Verizon iPhone, and within a couple of weeks they'll do iPad 2 as well. The beta of iOS 4.3 dropped today, and you can safely predict that'll ship with the new iPads within 4-8 weeks. Android is likely to be relegated to the extreme low end of the market. The brilliant analyst Horace Dediu at Asymco has it pegged. Android exerts pressure downward at the cheap non-smartphone handsets. They move volume. But those aren't the users buying apps and media outside of ringtones. The iOS users (which also includes iPod Touch owners - nothing is shipping from an Android vendor yet that is comparable) are buying apps and that locks them into the platform. Apple makes a ton of money that way and has people upgrading constantly.

Apps = lock-in. Remember that.

In a market where iPhone is on one carrier, Android is great on all the other ones because it's the best the users can get if they're not on that carrier. If they can get an iPhone instead, they likely will.

Yep, it's on! And it only took 2 weeks of 2011 to get the party going.