Subba’s Serendipitous moments

October 3, 2009

Salesforce.com into financial applications

Unit 4 Agresso has now teamed up Salesforce.com — the poster boy of SaaS to create FinancialForce.com that will produce SaaS based accounting, and financial management applications.

Well SaaS has been growing, but CFOs are mostly conservative and would not want to the data to be in the cloud. Hence the success of Financialforce.com will be keenly watched.

Now there are several interesting issues that come about with this joint venture.

For a start, it seems that Salesforce.com is a minority investor. Salesforce.com’s presence will undoubtedly create higher visibility for SaaS based financial applications. Hence other vendors will follow suit giving the SaaS proposition a greater momentum. Enterrpise software vendors who offer products in the mid market space like Oracle, Microsoft and SAP will have to respond quickly to this trend.

But with this association, Salesforce.com also seem to be sending mixed signals to its App Exchange partners who use the Salesforce.com’s Force.com platform to build new applications. Well, they could build an application only to realize that Salesforce.com might one day compete with them. Recent acquisitions by Salesforce.com in many of the App Exchange parnters’ businesses have not made Salesforce.com popular with many of the partners. Yet, there’s no compelling SaaS platform currently.

It looks like Salesforce.com needs to clearly clarify its positioning, strategic goals and its partnering model.

October 2, 2009

Cisco’s brilliant acquisition of Tandberg

Recent acquisitions by Dell and Xerox have something in common. Both acquired companies which are far away from their core competencies in an effort to find stable growth. They acquired predominantly U.S. centric IT services firms. I explained my disappointment with Dell’s acquisition of Perot Systems here. Xerox recent acquisition of ACS also evoked a similar thinking in me. It is very difficult for a pure play product / technology organization to blend well with a pure play services organization. The organizational DNA are too different, growth trajectories are quite different, organizational processes lend itself to little synergy. In short, I am not very high on such acquisition moves.

Cisco is different.

Cisco announced an all- cash offer to acquire Tandberg for $ 3 billion. Tandberg — a Norwegian company sells smaller and less priced video conferencing systems. This is a perfect fit for Cisco’s more expensive TelePresence systems which has been a great success. I think this is a brilliant acquisition since Tandberg’s gross margins is 66% and has clients in US and Europe. This acquisition would enable Cisco to sell the Tandberg products to companies which cannot afford the TelePresence. With this acquisition, Cisco would dominate the video conferencing systems for some time. More importantly the acquisition came in quite cheap since Cisco just paid 11% premium over Tandberg’s closing price.

Cisco has always acquired companies that in some way or the other generated more Internet traffic creating in turn demand for its core business — the networking hardware business. The way it is going to unleash its Unified Computing strategy will of course be interesting and one has to wait and see how it provides the synergy to the networking hardware business. Cisco’s ability to shake off entrenched players in fairly established market segments will also be evident in a couple of years.

Over the last 5 years Cisco has acquired 40 companies — both big and small and they have helped Cisco plug the gaps in the technology and product roadmaps admirably well. They also have had little problems integrating them into the Cisco model.

Cisco has $35 billion in cash which means further acquisitions are on the way. I only hope they don’t go with the flavor of the month and acquire another U.S. based IT services firms !

September 30, 2009

BlackBerry’s opportunity is now.

I was taken aback when I saw the RIM’s stock suddenly drop 17% last week. By all accounts, it had a strong Q2 results: Q2 revenue was up 37% y-o-y and 2% q-o-q to $3.53 billion on shipment of 8.3 million units. Net income was $475.6 million or $0.83 per share versus $495.5 million, or $0.86 per share last year and $643.0 million, or $1.12 per share in the prior quarter. Gross margin improved to 44.1% from 43.6% last quarter due to reductions in raw material costs and shifts in the product mix. The company ended the quarter with $2.5 billion in cash, up by $78.5 million over last quarter.

It gave a conservative forecast for the quarter ahead. I think the analysts were expecting bigger revenue growth. And this explains why the stock got beaten.

Looking beyond the immediate quarters, RIM faces several strategic challenges and threats — iPhone getting entrenched within the corporate enterprise which was RIM’s sweet spot, imminent price wars with Apple and Palm and the emerging Android phones likely to hit the market anytime.

Unlike Apple, RIM hasn’t made much strides with the App Store. Apple’s success is highlighted here. RIM’s App Store was launched only in April and has seen about 20 million downloads compared to Apple’s 2 billion downloads. It needs some serious work here and may be a cutting edge application. It also needs to pay serious attention to building an application eco system for business applications.

I think their deal with Verizon will be watched with interest as Verizon already has deals with Palm and Motorola’s Android. RIM is apparently coming up with several new models, but the competition is hotting up.

I think the next 2 quarters would be key for RIM to regain the momentum it seems to have lost. The opportunity is now.

Nokia’s decline — indicative of a bigger upheaval?

Just as Apple announced stellar results, Nokia the leading player is showing signs of decline. It has the company of another marquee player in Sony Ericcson. I already described the impact that Apple and RIM are having on other players here. The latest market data just reinforces the view.

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The Western Europe market in Nokia’s backyard and hence the trends here are important. The reason for the significant drop is Nokia doesn’t have the zing of the iPhone or the Blackberry and doesn’t have a great smartphone yet.

Now while the overall market has declined by 6% the smartphone sales were up 25% and about 1.7 millions were shipped. Of the 1.7 million, Apple sold 1.4 million and RIM sold 1.3. phones.

Now to add to Nokia’s troubles, it doesn’t have a significant presence in the U.S. though it has a strong presence in Asia , especially in the large markets like China and India. But with iPhone’s imminent launch in China and RIM’s increased efforts, Nokia has some tough challenges ahead.

The mobile device market is clearly headed for a major upheaval. With Andriod based phones to hit the market (18 models) and several service providers launching their own App Store, we will see interesting things happen.

Disclosure: I am a Nokia user and have admired their management style. One of my early blog posts was about Nokia’s amazing success in India here.

September 23, 2009

Dell seeks growth in Perot Systems

Dell made a surprise announcement to acquire Perot systems for close to $4 billion. Perot Systems in a IT services firms, predominantly US centric with government and the health care verticals accounting for over 70% of its revenues. By acquiring Perot Systems, Dell is just trying to follow the footsteps of IBM and HP by being a player in the IT services organization.

In my view, this is not a great step for Dell and I am disappointed. Here are the pros and cons:

Vertical presence: Perot Systems may have a great presence in the U.S. government and healthcare but outside of these verticals and outside U.S. it is a very marginal player. The healthcare sector may see some headwind thanks to the impeding reforms but the healthcare sector has been slow to innovate and have less appetite for new IT technology and services.

Margins: First Perot Systems doesn’t have great margins; in fact its margins are lower than industry standards and the last 6 months the results have been disappointing. For the 6 months ending June 2009, Perot made $59 million on a sales of $1.3 billion, which translates to a net margin of just 4.5%. Last year Perot Systems earned $117 million on sales of $2.8 billion.

Synergy: It is likely that Dell’s plan is to use Perot Systems to undertake IT services within its enterprise customers. This looks tough, as both the organizations have a different sales/engagement model. There is no significant synergy, and no integration issues as well. Dell is a $60 billion business and the Perot IT services business is relatively insignificant.

Strategic fit: While the acquisition gives Dell a services outfit, it is unlikely to be a strong strategic fit. Dell’s competencies are in supply chain, direct marketing, agility to respond and being able to sell volume products. The services business is an entirely different kettle of fish and the verticals where Perot is strong — the government and the healthcare are not noted for being agile. How this acquisition could become the “anchor” acquisition for IT services is difficult for me to understand unless Dell is planning on a roll up strategy to acquire other IT services firms.

With this step Dell also seems to be going on a different path. All trends and figures indicate that Dell’s position is becoming difficult with new areas like cloud computing, SaaS and other developments. Dell needs to bolster its offerings in that space to contend with the likes of Cisco and IBM and the Oracle-Sun combination as all of them are beefing up their offerings on the server space.

A strong product focused organization with its unique DNA and specifically strong organization culture will have to contend with several hiccups to make sense of this acquisition. IBM, HP and other It services organizations are unlikely to be impacted.

September 1, 2009

Microsoft Windows under siege.

Operating systems wars have been skirmishes. They haven’t produced any major upsets. Microsoft dominates the OS completely and despite the Linux aficionados, Microsoft’s strong hold remained unchallenged especially at the low to medium end servers and in desktops. It is a different story in the mobile space though.

But things are slowly changing and my sense is that in the next couple of years, Microsoft will face more heat compared to anything that it has ever faced on the server front.

Microsoft will have to increasingly contend with VMWare which has bolstered its arsenal with its acquisition of Springsource – maker of open-source software development tools which can analyze and optimize the application performance. This could allow VMWare to undermine the Windows operating system.

Despite all the talk about the huge growth of virtualization, the untapped market is still large. Currently virtualization has been done mostly at the data centers (which is where the complexity is and where the cost savings are) and even there the current estimate is that less than 25% of the servers are virtualized. This creates a big opportunity. It is no surprise that Cisco wants a piece of this market and it is targeting them with its Unified Computing system.

Well, there’s a desktop market and a notebook market and it will require a different approach to tackle this market. Currently the focus seems to be on the servers.

Microsoft cannot afford to ignore this market. In fact it announced Hyper V Virtual machine as part of its Windows Server 2008 and it is likely that it will offer several enhancements in time to come. Moreover, Microsoft can afford to give its Hyper V free. With other contenders like Citrix Xen, Virtual Iron remaining in the fringes, it is going to be a battle between Microsoft and VMWare. And again, this battle is not just one of functionality or product features, but increasingly fought on a business model.

In some way, it could very well resemble the browser wars of the nineties.

But from Microsoft’s standpoint the battle for the OS has another contender. Google with its web based software for office and productivity applications is also undermining the Windows operating system.

The early impact on Microsoft is here to see. However it is too early to announce the demise of Windows.

So, the skirmishes are over and the battle is being fought on many fronts.

August 4, 2009

Google and Apple are now confirmed rivals

If there was any doubt about the relationship between Google and Apple, the abrupt resignation of Eric Schmidt — Google CEO from the Apple Board should lay it to rest.

I wonder whether the FCC’s investigation of Apple yanking out Google Voice has something to do it. I wrote about their possible rivalry here, but before I could even conceive of possible actions, the resignation was announced. Coming to think of it, Google and Apple are bracing to compete with each other. Google’s Android which will soon be adopted by many device vendors will be in direct competition with Apple’s iPhone. And the Chrome OS will be competing with the Mac OSX.

But is this new? These moves have been going on for the past few years and while the conflict of interest wasn’t that sharp the yanking of Google Voice seems to have brought all that into the open.

I admire both companies. Both Steve and Eric are respected Valley veterans. They have been role models for me. Nonetheless I have to say they always had antithetical approaches to shaping the future of the consumer experience. Some day there was bound to be a conflict.

Apple believes in creating cool products, but being a walled garden. It has fans, not customers. Even though the iPhone is supposed to be open, every application must be approved by Apple. I had talked about the walled garden approach here and it seems to have worked very well for Apple.

Google has adherents. It believed in openness and its whole purpose (even for its Chrome OS) was to reduce the significance of devices in favor of applications that will reside in the cloud. And once the cloud becomes the organizing system, the devices — be it the phones or the laptops do not matter.

Google crowdsourced its innovation. Apple built an innovation value chain in-house. Both models were successful. Yet I think at the core there is a deep philosophical conflict which manifests as a fight between the open and proprietary approaches.  I wrote about it in the mobile phone industry here and hence am not surprised that a rivalry has come about.

The Google Voice episode is just the beginning. The FCC enquiry may reveal more.

And if the Google-Microsoft war and the Apple-Microsoft war, wasn’t interesting enough, we will see a third war — the Google-Apple war.

August 2, 2009

IBM girds itself against Cisco.

A few months back I wrote about Cisco’s game changing play and in the process declaring war on IBM and HP. I also indicated that an imminent realignment of alliances is likely. I have been following the subsequent developments with a lot of interest and here’s an update.

I have not seen HP do much in terms of launching an offensive to Cisco’s play. Either they do not believe in Cisco’s ability to build a carrier class digital IT infrastructure or they are tied up with other myriad issues.

IBM on the other hand has upped the ante with a series of moves. It entered into a fairly strong relationship with Juniper Networks. While IBM did mention that it was also bolstering its relationship with Cisco, for the discerning eye it was just PRspeak.

Brocade’s Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) will be offered as the IBM Converged Switch B32 and 10Gb Converged. This will strengthen the OEM agreement Brocade with IBM earlier this year to resell Brocade’s Foundry switches.

The battle for data centers will invariably shift to the cloud. And the shift may even be quicker than one can envisage. And the first vendor that are able to demonstrate that data can be moved from one cloud to another without a hitch, has a significant advantage. With the agreements with Juniper and Brocade, IBM seems to have a strong advantage over Cisco.

It looks like an interesting battle ahead between IBM and Cisco. To me, it looks like HP is still being hesitant.

Who is Google’s rival — Is it AT&T or Apple?

By now everyone is aware of how Apple managed to yank out Google Voice applications from the App Store. iPhone users will not have access to this application. This has caused an uproar in the blog world with some reputed bloggers mincing no words. The mainstream media has been quiet, proving once again that the blogging community is increasingly taking the lead in breaking news.

Unfortunately everyone who is involved — Google, Apple and AT&T have maintained a conspicuous silence.

Google Voice is clearly a major disruption. Through Google Voice, people can have one number for all of their phones, free long distance calling, and free text messaging. Two of these would obviously cut into AT&T’s bottom line, since users would no longer have to pay AT&T’s exorbitant service charges for messaging and cellular long distance.

It also is apparently easier to use than the dialer application from Apple itself.

So, in this case has AT&T been firing from Apple’s shoulder? I would believe so but for the fact that the Google Voice software works on Blackberry and so are other VoIP applications. I am not sure though whether the VoIP applications are allowed to run on AT&T’s networks though I am sure many other devices will be able to run Google Voice applications once Android phones are released in the market, which should be soon.

So, I am not entirely sure that it is AT&T which is exerting the influence to reject the Google Voice application from Apple’s Appstore.

Can it be Apple then? The only plausible claim that Apple can make is that it is a duplication of functionality as far as the dialer is concerned and that it could leave the customers “confused”. Clearly the AppStore is owned by Apple, and what it allows on the Appstore is their prerogative, but yet such a poor defence dents into Apple’s credibility. It cannot use a near monopoly position to thwart fair competition.

So, who is it that wants to block Google Voice? For those who do not know Google’s CEO — Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board.

I think the players owe an explanation. Does it not become a fit case for the regulator (in this case the FCC) to investigate?

July 25, 2009

Singapore’s research institutes — suffering from split personality?

Is there a synergy between advanced technology R&D and standard training to mid career professionals so that they could garner yet another certification?

Or is it merely a case of making some revenues to cover their costs?

Or worse still, is it a way for the R&D institute to do some “notional national service” when there’s no local company to use the outputs produced by the R&D organization?

The strategies adopted by Singapore’s R&D institutions especially in the IT sector has always confounded me. The latest one is the Data Storage Institute and while on the one hand they claim they do cutting edge research, they are also offering standard training courses which can lead to industry certification (SNIA).

The milestones listed doesn’t talk about any breakthroughs in research or development but merely administrative or routine events. Has DSI lost it completely?

Well as an organization, sure they have resources to do both, but should they be doing both in the first place?

The data storage industry has changed significantly over the years and if DSI doesn’t find a clear and compelling reason to exist, they should redirect their strengths somewhere. It seems to me that there’s a huge disconnect between their areas of research and the aspirations of the local industry. The result — it is research for research sake and if at all there’s any benefit, it is for the MNCs who in any case can source such research from anywhere in the world.

This leads to the question — Does DSI have a compelling reason to exist?

Long timers in Singapore would possibly recognize that the Institute of Systems Science or ISS as it was popularly known had always a confused identity– It was a research institute, training institute, did consulting projects and many other things. It used multiple identities to its advantage sometimes, but despite being given dollops of dollars, it didn’t produce anything outstanding — be in in research, consulting or training. Finally it divested its research activities and became a training service provider. It does provide good training, but the courses it offers can be provided by any training service provider in the private sector.

Looks like DSI is going the same way as ISS?

Sometime back I wrote that Singapore’s research and development needs a rethink. It led to several interesting discussions amongst friends and quite a few work in the R&D sector. The surprising thing is that they do agree that it needs a rethink.

So, when will this happen?

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