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Conversations with Microsoft: Office 2010

Thursday, July 1st, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

It is easy to forget when we are presented with a piece of software that nothing about it is random. Software does not spring forth fully formed from its developers as Athena did from Zeus; rather, it is the result of years of research, development work, and testing.

It is also easy to overlook the fact that all that work is done by people, not faceless programming automatons. It is the unique personalities and personal goals of these people that shape a product , drive innovation, and impact the end-user experience.

The users of a piece of software, however, typically doesn’t see any of this when they install and run a program. They see features, icons, wizards, and may benefit from upgrades and enhancements in new versions without really understanding – or even thinking about – how these came about.

Microsoft Office has as many as 600 million users worldwide, of which 500 million are properly licensed. That makes it the most widely-used application in the world – and the introduction of a new version can have a significant impact on millions of knowledge workers and how they work.

What we don’t get to hear very often is the perspective of the people involved in creating Office 2010 from the ground up. Microsoft allowed us to talk with its developers in the final months of the development of Office 2010 and we asked them what they did to improve worker productivity and what they were most passionate about.

You can find out what they had to say in Conversations with Microsoft.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Walter Cronkite – Before the Age of Information Overload

Friday, July 17th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

The passing of Walter Cronkite, a man so closely associated with television news that the word for news anchor in several countries is a variation of Cronkiter, serves as a demarcation between an information age and the age of information overload.

For much of the 20th century, news was delivered once a day, first for 15 minutes and later for 30. That concept is foreign to generations that have grown up in an age of CNN and, later, the Internet.   Even when Cronkite retired as managing editor of the CBS Evening News in 1981, the 24-hour news cycle was virtually unknown (CNN, the first 24-hour news network, was founded in 1980 but was virtually unheard of at the time).

Most people in America expected to get their news, including the good and the bad, from one person, Walter Cronkite (with the help of correspondents, of course).  Given the tremendous fragmentation in the media today, with dozens of 24-hour news stations competing not only against one another but also against Internet-based sources, the phenomenon of a single news source is unlikely to happen again and that also means that the world may never again see someone with the presence and stature that Cronkite had during his tenure.

Today people are used to a battery of news and information, generally from people far less informed and insightful than Cronkite, which really is a shame.  News programs today tend towards sensationalism, entertainment, and opinion – a far cry from the traditional values of in-depth reporting, verification, relevance, and context.  Today, bloggers who masquerade as journalists post stories online which they are almost certain are not true, for the sole purpose of getting more hits on their site.

Information can be a wonderful thing but too much information can have a toxic effect.  Regardless of the medium and technology, the solution to information overload is almost always better filtering systems.  For 19 years, Walter Cronkite was the filter for America’s news.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a better filter.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Third Post-Steve Jobs Era

Thursday, January 15th, 2009 by David Goldes

The third post-Steve Jobs era arrived much sooner than anyone imagined.  Shortly after the markets closed in the U.S. on Wednesday, a news release arrived with a copy of Jobs’ e-mail to Apple employees in which he wrote that he “learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought.”  The company barely survived his first, and forced, exit  (1985-1997) but did run smoothly during his absence for cancer treatment  (the second era).

It was less than two weeks ago that Jobs sent out a similar note, in which he acknowledged his weight loss and attributed it to a “hormone imbalance” for which he was already in treatment.  He termed the remedy as being “relatively simple and straightforward” and promised to continue as CEO.

Jobs is a popular figure in the computer industry, not only as the cofounder of Apple but as the revanchist CEO who ousted the regime at Apple that had ousted him in 1985, and then returned in 1997 to turn around the company.

Because Jobs is deeply involved (some say too much) in every aspect of Apple’s operations and successfully revived the then-struggling computer maker in the late 1990s with such products as the iMac, his health is a matter of concern, not only to family and friends but to Apple employees and investors.  Since a bout with cancer, treated successfully with surgery a few years back, pundits have counted his every sneeze.  The disclosure immediately sparked new concerns about a recurrence of cancer and about how much information Apple was holding back.  The hormone imbalance disclosure was roundly criticized by medical and corporate-governance experts earlier in the month as having been much too general.

The news caused the company’s shares to drop ca. 8% in after-hours trading.  Analysts suggested the stock could drop further when markets reopen and it was down almost 3% as we went to press.

The company’s COO, Tim Cook, who filled in for Jobs in 2004 when he took a leave of absence to battle pancreatic cancer, will also assume the reins now.  Cook is known more for his operations prowess than design prowess but the company has a skilled team of designers in place, all schooled in the Steve Jobs school of design, so it is likely that innovations will continue to appear from Apple for the foreseeable future.´

We don’t know what’s wrong with Steve Jobs but one doesn’t take a six-month leave of absence if it isn’t serious.  Wednesday’s note also included a promise: “As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out” so, health permitting, he will still be able to act as a kind of editor-in-chief even if not involved in day-to-day operations.  Change in any organization is a fact of life: at some point, Apple will have a new CEO and the new person will be filling some very large shoes.  Jobs has imbued the company with a mission, a way of doing things, and a very clear sense of good design.  It is likely that all of these will continue as Jobs’ legacy, when and if he should no longer be CEO.

To see how this might work out, Apple has to look no further than Redmond, where Microsoft is getting along quite well on a day-to-day basis without Bill Gates.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Whither Nortel?

Friday, November 14th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Nortel’s quarterly loss of $3.41 billion came as no surprise and the same can be said for its plans to lay off ca. 1,300 workers.  What is surprising is the inclusion of four top executives on the list of those to be laid off and that these four were recently recruited from other tech companies to aid in what one now might consider Nortel’s futile turnaround efforts.

Nortel has not caught a break since 2005, when CEO Frank Dunn was “terminated for cause” in conjunction with the discovery of his manipulation of Nortel’s financials to generate higher bonuses for himself and several colleagues.  The company has a colorful history dating back to its founding in 1895 as Northern Electric and Manufacturing, a supplier of phones and other devices spun off from Bell Telephone of Canada.  It started looking into ways of using fiber optic cable in the 1960s at which time it also began designing digital telecommunications equipment.

In 1976, the company changed its name to Northern Telecom and announced Digital World, a family of digital telecommunications products that were industry leading.  The DMS-100 became a mainstay of telephone company central offices (it could handle 100,000 subscriber lines without breaking a sweat) and the DMS line contributed greatly to the company’s profits for 15 years.

In 1998, with the acquisition of Bay Networks, the company changed its name once again, this time to Nortel Networks.  It gained prominence in the late 1990s as a manufacturer of fiber optic gear used to transport massive amounts of data over the Internet but was also one of the first casualties when the telecom bubble of the time burst, sending the company’s market capitalization from $398 billion (Canadian) in September 2000 to $5 billion in August 2002.

Now the company, which dropped “Network” from its brand but not from its legal name, will restructure into three business units: Enterprise, Carrier Networks, and Metro Ethernet Networks.  This time it looks like Nortel is preparing to sell off parts of the company as opposed to cutting costs.

Now, about those executives who were laid off: John Roese, Nortel’s CTO, spent the last 28 months trying to make sense of mishmash (yes, that’s the technical term) of technologies he found when he came on board.  He was also the public face of the company’s turnaround.  Chief marketing officer Lauren Flaherty joined Nortel from IBM just two years ago.  She too is leaving, as is Dietmar Wendt, another IBMer, who propelled Nortel into telepresence, and Bill Nelson, a recent hire from EMC and Nortel’s EVP of global sales.

It’s probably far too late for Nortel to recapture its position as an industry leader but it would be sad to see the Nortel name disappear completely from the marketplace.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.