Mad Dog 21/21: For Blue It’s Difficult, For Meme It’s Easy
September 16, 2013 Hesh Wiener
Thomas J. Watson started using the slogan “Think” while he was still at National Cash Register. He took it with him to CTR, which became IBM. It’s still part of IBM lore. “Think” has outlasted the typewriter, once a ubiquitous desktop symbol of IBM. “Think” is a meme, an intellectual artifact broadcast by cultural intercourse. IBM’s meme opened minds and doors to computing. Today, a different meme is the harbinger of technological progress in the white-collar workplace. It is the Staples slogan, “That was easy,” and its corporate curio kin, a red button that says “Easy.”
For more than a decade, customers for whom IBM was once the premiere supplier of end user technology cannot turn to Big Blue for this equipment. They didn’t leave IBM. Rather, IBM left them, first selling its typewriter and low end printer businesses to Lexmark, then selling its PC operations to Lenovo. Today, IBM’s former customers get their desktop PCs, laptops, scanners and office printers from other vendors, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, sometimes directly, sometimes through resellers. But these incumbents are not very secure right now. They don’t have the account control they had a decade ago, the kind of power IBM had a decade before that. Customers have more freedom to choose suppliers then they used to, but they also suffer more uncertainty surrounding their choice of vendors.
Notwithstanding their current insecurities, HP and Dell (along with their agents) have capitalized on opportunities to supply upstream equipment, software, support and services, where they compete with IBM. Particularly in small business settings, IBM has struggled to retain footprints, in part because its logo is no longer ubiquitous on office desktops. Things are different in medium and large enterprises. Among larger customers, IBM isn’t likely to be displaced as the primary supplier of central systems. Nevertheless, very often IBM is confined, retaining its legacy footprints and proprietary systems while other vendors win deals that boosting the computing, storage, and communications capacity that surrounds or cohabitates with IBM’s glass house iron.
So, it’s a mixed picture. In some of these large user organizations, IBM is quite secure. In others, IBM is well fed but awaiting Martinmas. And, it turns out, Dell and HP may be vulnerable, too, on both the client and server ends of the wire and in both goods and services.
Staples is trying to persuade its customers that computing doesn’t have to be complicated. The most visible aspects of its campaign are aimed at very small offices including solo home offices, places where the customer cannot afford support technicians . . . but cannot afford to miss out on current trends. For these end users, things just have to plug in and work or, at worst, require a very modest installation process and very little follow-up support, if any. Staples seems to be doing this pretty well. About half of the company’s $24 billion annual revenue comes from sales made through North American retail outlets and its web presence. While its trade in this segment was flat during its most recent fiscal year, that’s a lot better than Dell and HP have done. But the “That was easy” attitude also shapes the Staples that larger organizations see, the North American commercial segment of its business; it is invisible to ordinary consumers but it is big, accounting for more than a third of Staples’ intake.
The Staples approach is pretty much the opposite of the way things are done in the large systems world, where IBM is still king and where Dell and HP are rival princes hoping for a chance to depose Big Blue. The bigger the iron, it seems, the bigger the budget for software and services, expenses that can far exceed the cost of bare hardware during the useful life of a system. That “Think” motto turns out to mean “Pay IBM to think on your behalf,” and it makes sense. Users can save money by doing for themselves what IBM will happily do for them, but they first have to learn what IBM knows, and IBM knows plenty. For many IBM customers, including some of the largest and most sophisticated corporate and non-commercial entities in the world, IBM’s services offerings provide excellent value. That’s why IBM’s services business dwarfs its hardware business.
But that was before the iPhone revolution. That was before Google decided to one-up Apple, if it could, and make Apple sweat profusely to beat it if it could not. That was before Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem entered a new generation, one inspired by Senor Wences.
Let’s start with Senor Wences, the brilliant Spanish ventriloquist whose proper name was Wenceslao Moreno, and whose greatest success was achieved in the United States. His American career began with his arrival in the mid-1930s and ended when he retired at age 100. He lived to 103. In his routines, the voice heard by the audience would rapidly shift among Wences and his characters. The performance was sometimes complicated by Wences smoking a cigarette drinking or twirling plates on long sticks as he and his characters carried on their hilarious conversations. His most famous characters were Johnny, whose face was Wences’ hand and whose body was that of a small doll, and Pedro, a head in a box. Johnny’s voice was falsetto, Pedro’s deep and gruff. Sometimes Wences added a third character, Cecila Chicken, a hen.
One of Johnny’s classic lines, used in just about every performance, was his assertion, to Wences that he was better than the ventriloquist at singing. “For you is difficult,” Johnny would say, “For me is easy.” Staples must have been listening.
Late in his career, Senor Wences took his act to a higher level, using his puppets to entertain other puppets (and their hidden puppeteers) on the Muppet Show. The rapid interplay of the characters is an entertaining model of one of the most important characteristics of Amazon’s Kindle e-book service. Wences is the single source of all the interactivity that is expressed in a unique way by each of the ventriloquist’s puppets. The puppets’ voices also adapt to changing conditions, such as whether Pedro’s box is open or closed, or whether a character is on the phone.
In Kindle, things work perfectly in Senor Wences mode: One can begin reading a book on a Kindle e-reader, close it, open the book on a smartphone and find it is instantly at the correct page. One can then close the phone and continue with the book using an iPad, an Android tablet, or a PC, and the app in use will show the correct page in a layout that is correct for the user’s device. The Kindle system manages account security, rights permissions, and the reader’s state of progress, among other data, adapting its presentation to whatever client device the reader decides to take live. The Kindle system can manage several open books at a time, keeping accurate track of the reader’s current page in each open volume.
The Wences effect is precisely what makes it possible for cloud applications to add value in ways that functionally similar applications confined to a specific PC cannot. A well-constructed cloud environment can let a user create, view, and amend a spreadsheet, prose document, or presentation while bouncing between client devices. A project can be started on a desktop machine with a large screen, further developed using a mobile phone and later reviewed and editing on a tablet. More elaborate interchange schemes involving collaboration among multiple users can be devised and a high-grade Wences-capable cloud will make sure all the users working on the project are kept up to date, warned when their work might clash with that of another participant and given opportunities to make critical choices (or initiate forks) as appropriate. Even relatively rudimentary (from a user’s point of view) cloud storage service, like Dropbox, or a shared storage app with some additional features, such as Evernote, is built to understand the diversity of clients (some, for instance, have cameras that can provide still photos or video input, others are limited to text).
Google’s services are very client-aware and becoming more so all the time. The company’s applications shift shape and functionality as they are opened on computers, tablets, phones and, soon, watches and smart eyeglasses. Google is still learning how to provide business services such as cloud productivity apps, but it is neck-and-neck with Apple when it comes to consumer services based on location, user history, active client type and its massive database.
Apple’s application and media content ecosystem, which sparked the smartphone revolution and its second phase, tablets, remains a superior source of personalized interactivity that, like a liquid, reflows to fill whatever device the user selects. But Apple actually has a far simpler problem to solve than Google, because Apple controls its limited roster of devices while Google attempts to support most Android devices, of which there are hundreds. (Google stops short of fully catering to Amazon’s forking of Android, at least in the case of the first few Kindle Fire tablets, but still provides a useful subset of its apps to the Fire base.)
IBM, Dell, HP, and other vendors that feel they may be swept aside by the transition from networked deskbound to mobile cloud devices have had many chances to jump in with their own mix of hardware and services. So far they have not done so, in the case of IBM, or tried and failed, in the case of Dell and HP. But this phenomenon is young. New players are popping up all the time, and not just in the USA or China. In the United Kingdom, the supermarket giant Tesco is going to offer its own tablet as part of a growing information and media ecosystem. It is already a serious player in mobile telephony, and it seems to believe it can offer other services to rival those of Amazon.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, Staples, in a more limited way, is positioning itself to offer the components its customers need to create their own cloud app-based ecosystems based on mobile clients using Android, Chrome, or Windows. (Staples Canada also offers Apple products.) Staples has been building up the cloud services section of its web and reinforcing its support teams, apparently hoping that it can offer cloud-based business services and still keep things “Easy.” Actually, Staples is a bit more forceful when talking about cloud apps. Instead of “That was easy,” it is telling customers “Embrace Cloud Computing or Get Out of the Way.”
Staples really doesn’t have a choice; neither do IBM, Dell or HP. Its legacy markets are not growing. If anything its customers want to buy fewer traditional computers, use fewer printers, and print fewer pages of hard copy when they must go to paper. This transition isn’t simple for Staples or its customers, any more than IBM’s mainframe customers could readily port their data and applications to new platforms or Dell’s customers could abandon all their traditional PCs. But for Stapes, as it is for IBM, Dell, and HP, the direction is clear even if the velocity is not.
At the same time, the market for tablets seems to be exploding. The opportunity to provide these devices along with printers and networking equipment that include good tablet support is very large. In addition, Staples, with its “That was easy” attitude could, perhaps, expand into software and services for mobile users in ways remote companies like Microsoft and Google and Amazon could not. At Staples, a customer can bring a tablet to a store and learn how to solve a problem. (Similarly, a customer with a personal media issue can get help at an Apple shop Genius Bar, but other than support for email, there’s not a yet lot of help for Apple’s business and home office users.) Staples is trying to do what PC vendors cannot or will not do: help the small office and home office user. With PC applications like Office there is no cheap and cheerful Microsoft help desk. The firms that provide network and applications support to business customers are unable to reach down to the low end of the market. The result is that these support firms don’t have a very bright future because they are living off vendor failures, such as Microsoft’s inability to make Office as user friendly as a mobile baking app or Instagram.
Users and computer professionals alike prefer things to be “Easy” and in this fast changing world, are no longer pleased when told by a vendor it’s up to the customer to “Think.”