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  • A Look at Crazy or Incompetent Corporate Executives

    December 9th, 2010

    There are no doubt some people in our audience who feel that Steve Jobs is a little loose in the head, maybe not the sanest person on the planet, but is a positively brilliant visionary and businessperson. After all, who else in the tech industry, even Bill Gates, could have taken Apple in 1997, ruthlessly jettisoned underperforming products, righted the sinking ship, and, in the ensuing years, made it an industry leader?

    That sure explains why Jobs keeps getting all those “CEO of the year” awards. Such accolades aren’t bestowed casually, and don’t forget that there are many financial and media people who have it in for Apple, and Jobs in particular. They can’t wait for the opportunity to put them down, for real or imagined indiscretions.

    At the same time, so many corporations can undergo executive realignments, departures and arrivals, and yet sales and profits seem to follow the same path dictated by the state of the economy. Visions be damned. This quarter’s sales and those for the next are what matters. For the rest, just follow the industry trends, toss a bunch of products and services to the winds, and hope a few will catch a breeze.

    When it comes to Microsoft, Steve Ballmer is most everyone’s irrational CEO. Of course, he’s a salesperson, not a designer or programmer. Put him before a PC to design the next version of Windows or Windows Phone 7 for that matter, and he wouldn’t have a clue what to do next. Ask him to parse and predict industry trends with reasonable accuracy, and he’d be way out of his element.

    It’s fair to say Bill Gates didn’t take to the corporate visionary position very well either. Sure, he had the right idea early on to dominate the business PC market, but many of his predictions for our technology future have been all or mostly wrong.

    Well, I suppose he had it somewhat right about the potential for tablet-based computers, but he envisioned something running Windows, and leveraging existing hardware. He wasn’t able to see beyond those narrow confines. But Apple did, which is why the iPad took off so fast, and the industry is engaged in a huge initiative to play catch up.

    Whether the so-called iPad killers will bear fruit is an open question. Yes, I suppose the global rollout of the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab was a reasonable success, but it’s hard to know if the initial demand will taper off. Reviews are mixed, and it may well be that there will be buyer’s remorse before long. Bear in mind that netbooks were also initially adopted rather quickly, but demand has stagnated, even as the products become less expensive. That’s because the PC industry didn’t spend much time building those designs, aside from simply finding ways to shrink the hardware, and use the cheapest components possible. It was all about being cheap, rather than providing meaningful value.

    Many customers clearly saw through the deception.

    Now when it comes to the lazy or clueless executive list, I’m wondering if you can’t add RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis, the result of his recent comments at an industry conference, Or at least according to a commentary from Daniel Eran Dilger, in his Roughly Drafted Magazine blog.

    To be fair to RIM, the BlackBerry set the tone for the smartphone industry. Here you have an independent company beating the pants off not just industry giants as Microsoft, but Palm as well. The BlackBerry, and its original physical keyboard, became big business for the Canadian tech company. Even President Obama has opted to own one, though you wonder if an iPhone isn’t on his radar.

    In any case, RIM is in a different place today. The iPhone has totally altered the smartphone landscape. Although tens of millions of units are still sold with RIM-style keyboards, many also support touch. The App Store and fancy consumer-level features may have even caught RIM flat-footed.

    It’s not that RIM doesn’t want to compete, and isn’t trying. But when Lazaridis couldn’t justify performance problems with the BlackBerry Touch beyond saying you should for next year’s models with dual-core processors, you had to wonder where his head is at. Consider that loads of Android and iOS devices offer perfectly snappy interfaces without need of such powerful hardware. Isn’t a mobile OS designed to be efficient?

    I expect even a Windows Phone 7 smartphone is fast enough.

    But the real problem with Lazaridis is that he cannot convey a single coherent vision of the state of the mobile device industry and where he hopes to take RIM to remain relevant. He wasn’t able to comprehend the differences and similarities between a smartphone and a tablet. Worse, he had no compelling reason, not a one, to convince anyone to continue to buy RIM gadgets. Why bother?

    In the real world, Android smartphones may be exceeding the iPhone in sales, but that’s for loads of models from different makers. When you compare the single product lines of two companies, Apple and RIM, the former is prospering, and RIM may be in danger of becoming an also-ran that will eventually find itself more and more irrelevant unless their executives can deliver a coherent vision for the future.



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