Archive for the ‘General Tech Stuff’ Category

Goodbye Sun Ray

23/07/2013

I’d welcome comments from anyone involved in the ‘Sun desktop world’, so read to the end!

The product set that is responsible for much of this branch of the Saul family’s fortunes was cancelled by Oracle on Friday 12 July.

Thank goodness I left well before this.

Because of my personal association with Sun Ray – I attended the first ever UK training course in 1999 and became the Sun Ray architect for Sun’s SEE region in 2004 – it’s easy for me to describe this as a tragedy. Other more choice phrases might be used by the sales and development teams who were abruptly fired with no notice after a quick conference call that Friday morning.

This is the way these mega corps do things – one minute you’re on a training course in Germany with the rest of the pre-sales team, learning about the new release, the next the powers that be have decided that you are surplus to requirements and you are out, along with the entire product set and to hell with the existing customer base, partner commitments and staff. No attempt to fit you into another role elsewhere, no warning. Even customers only found out via an obscure support statement – no direct contact, explanation or time to plan. Odd.

That’s not to say the writing wasn’t on the wall. But it needn’t have been, in my opinion – and this isn’t 20/20 hindsight, this is observation based on spending a long time in the frontline, actually selling to real customers. I and my then colleagues were all saying this stuff ages ago.

I learnt a lot from my time selling Sun Rays across the large region we covered in Sun. I say we, because it wasn’t all down to me, honest, though I can safely claim I played a role.

We were successful – my region was the number 2 region for Sun Rays after the US, with a fraction of the sales staff.

So where did things go wrong? There are some basics that were never addressed during the Sun years, some technical aspects that affected sales momentum and a major strategic sales error on Oracle’s part.

Let’s address these one by one.

The basics were often missing –

Sun never got around to creating some of the basic documentation and sales material that were fundamentally required when it came to selling this sort of stuff. The type of content about which an engineer familiar with the product would say ‘but this is basic stuff and not needed as it’s all obvious’.

The point is that it wasn’t obvious – not to customers and not to partners, even the more capable ones.

When you launch a product like this, you need basic sales material – a sizing guide, an FAQ, material that covers not just your solution but the third party stuff involved as well. The field created a lot of content, but this was often duplicated effort and was not shared properly. There was ‘traditional’ documentation, but that didn’t provide the answers people often needed.

During the early days, when people would ask for a sizing guide, the response from engineering would be ‘there is no sizing guide, you need to pilot this in your customer’s environment for a few months and then you’ll know what you need’.

This is plainly nonsense. When you walk into a car showroom and explain your requirements, the car salesman doesn’t make you rent five cars to drive around in for six months so you can work out what you like, only then to tell you what they cost.

From the first customer meeting you need to be able to stand confidently in front of the customer and give realistic estimates of what deploying your product will involve. If you can’t do that, the message you are giving your customer is simply this – ‘we don’t really know how our own solution works, but spend your money and time with us and let us know what you discover, then tell us what you’d like to buy’. This is not a sales strategy that works.

The principal thing that I learnt is that even in a developing market, it is possible to sell solutions that are, on paper at least, more expensive, complicated and confusing than similar solutions on the market. My mantra was always to ‘own’ the total solution – don’t go into a customer and tell them how your product functions but then say ‘you need to talk to Microsoft, VMware, for this bit, the storage guys for that part and work out the sizing on your own’. I was paid on Sun Rays that shipped, but made sure that I and the partners I worked with presented, explained and understood the complete solution. I wrote clear proposals that answered every question that would always get asked and I put together myself several of the documents that HQ never got around to writing – fundamental things such as sizing guides, answers to the usual things that come up, example RFPs, Statements of Work for PoCs, etc, etc, sometimes alone, sometimes with the help of key colleagues.

(To be fair this situation had got better by the time I left in 2011, but the product was released in 1999…)

In addition there was very little sharing of information amongst the team and very little team spirit in the later years.

But enough about me!

Technical aspects –

The Sun Ray was way ahead of its time but, towards the end of its life, had been overtaken by other devices on the market. Sun were particularly late in the game when it came to functioning multimedia features. It still remained a good solution for many customers.

Sun should have moved more quickly to making the Sun Ray a way of accessing a Windows desktop. During the early years, the feedback from the field was always that customers were not interested in moving to a Solaris desktop with Sun Rays – the only way we’d make this a success was if we could deliver Windows desktops in a supported fashion. When this move did occur, things got a lot better a lot more quickly, but it’s a shame this didn’t happen earlier.

Later down the line, the VDI architecture became unnecessarily complicated. I don’t know if this changed in the last two years, but during my time, to have a redundant solution three servers were required. The engineering logic behind this was that we were aiming for larger enterprise customer with larger installations and those large installations would easily need three servers, probably more. This was fair enough, but ignored the sales logic that even largest customers started off with a smaller number of users and the investment required to purchase three servers that would mostly sit idle whilst running a smaller number of users was prohibitively high an entry point. It also ignored the average size of the majority of the deals that I was aware of. Make it easy!

The Sun Ray architecture was always, at first glance, ‘more complicated’ than competing solutions, but in my experience, when pitched properly, it was easy to overcome the objections – providing you had the right supporting info to hand, namely the sizing info, answers to common questions, etc.

Sun Ray didn’t have the full complement of surrounding products that a company like Citrix had, even back in the mid-2000s, but again, this is something that could easily be explained away to new customers. You wouldn’t kick Citrix out of an account, but if you were first through the door you could easily position Citrix as being overkill – there is truth in both sides of the story, as in every sales situation! Sadly, after the acquisition of Tarantella, the Citrix relationship cooled considerably, so we were always competing. Had co-operation continued with an up to date Citrix client for Solaris Sparc and x86, Citrix could have been a key ally and enabler.

The major error –

We were affected by some of the same malaise that affected Sun as a whole.

It’s easy to hide behind technical failings when a product is canned, but in my limited experience, blaming the product is very often the case of a workman blaming his tools. The industry is full of mediocre products that become big successes. Microsoft are an obvious example. It’s how you sell them.

For example, Sun was never very sophisticated at incentivising their channel with rebates and other tricks of the trade (to the best of my knowledge, at least. I am happy to be corrected). This sort of thing was a real eye opener during my brief tenure at HP, who incentivise their channel in all sorts of ways.

There was a culture at Sun that seemed to say to partners ‘this is obviously the best technical solution for you and your customer and if you sell it you will make money’. Perhaps having a mediocre solution encourages people to be more inventive? ‘This is obviously not the best solution on the market, but the price to customer is similar and if you sell it I will pay you a rebate so your margins are better than with anyone else’s offering’. As a partner, which solution would you push?

The Sun Ray focused channel I had available were typically very good, however – usually smaller, capable partners looking to differentiate themselves from everyone else out there, with good skills in house and the right attitude to using me and my colleagues’ time and effort. I never flew to Tunisia or Beirut and had a wasted minute, for example. When we were in competitive situations with HP and Citrix, our partner was usually streets ahead of their competition, who were simply forwarding quotes rather than putting together a total solution.

The channel could always have been better, but this isn’t where the main blame lies. The blame lies with a lack of sales management during the final days of my time at Oracle and, I am assuming, during the past two years after I left, coupled with one major mistake.

The most successful period of Sun Ray sales was when we all reported to the software sales team – there were software sales reps, ‘desktop’ product sales like me and pre-sales, all in one team, working alongside the ‘normal’ Sun account managers or regional sales managers who got paid on anything that was sold in that account or territory. There was also some kind of desktop overlay overlay team, whose role I never really understood. If a Sun Ray was sold, multiple people got paid commission. Too many people? Definitely, but the whole point of Sun Ray was that it was a growth product intended to drive new revenue in new accounts or expand business in account who had bought pretty much everything else Sun had to sell. There may have been too much overlay, but there was no fundamental problem with having a product focused sales teams to assist everyone else. The software sales team had clear targets and regular forecast calls. We were also incentivised to overachieve – doing more than 100% was well worth your while.

Sales were good.

Towards the end of Sun the software sales division was changed and Desktop split out into its own management structure – people like me now reported into the overlay overlay team mentioned above. Again, there was nothing wrong with this in principle, as the primary route to market for us – the hardware account reps on the ground – still existed.

The problem was that this overlay team either lacked direction and appeared hamstrung by internal politics as opposed to playing the role of a sales driven organisation. I will admit, it’s easy for an infantryman like me to blame the generals – I truly don’t know what was going on upstairs and I can’t attribute blame to those in charge at the time, as I don’t know what they were going through with their management. However, the fact remains that despite a dedicated field sales team, all of whom had long experience with the product set, we still didn’t see the changes the field was asking for and there was little sales direction and drive coming from above. No one seemed to own the number and drive that number. Where people did nominally own the number, it was all a bit waffly.

During my time with this team I never once had a forecast call – not once, in several months. A call where my manager grilled me on very opportunity in my pipeline, asked for my commit for the quarter and held me to it. I still can’t quite believe this state of affairs. If I missed a forecast call or report two weeks in a row at Citrix, I would be fired.

So, no one was driving the number in a ruthless, sales focused way. Even the most disciplined field sales rep needs a second set of eyes and ‘encouragement’ to ensure they are doing things right and are focusing properly. Plus, during this time, what numbers were being reported to the new Oracle overlords and how were those figures and forecasts arrived at?

Secondly, the amount of admin was ludicrous.

To manage my pipeline I had to use Siebel. Every Sun Ray opportunity I added to Siebel required 15 fields to be filled in using a very old version of Internet Explorer. Changing a field led to a screen refresh. It took ages.

To add insult to injury, about 14 of these 15 fields always had the same info as every other opportunity – region, sub-region, product set, etc. I once asked if it were possible to have these sections pre-filled in with the default entries every time I created a new opportunity. This was apparently not possible.

So you had sales guys, who are not the most disciplined people when it comes to admin, being forced through hours of tedium to add an opportunity, with no forecast calls to review the sales situation. Presumably you then had people looking at Siebel and making business decisions from numbers that were pretty shaky.

But enough reliving the agony of Siebel, it’s time to summarise the key sales mistake that I believe eventually led to Oracle canning the product. The issues described above are present in every organisation to some extent. Sun Ray failed because of something very specific.

After the Oracle takeover, Oracle decided that ‘no overlay sales teams’ would be allowed. No ‘double bubble’ commission. What this meant for us was that the account reps across my huge region with whom I worked to sell Sun Rays were no longer goaled on Sun Rays. This was the major error that stopped sales growing as they could have.

For example, a deal with $400K of Sun Rays and $80K of servers had previously represented $480K of revenue for an Oracle hardware sales rep. Well worth pursuing with Chris’s help – longish sales cycle, complex sell, but rewarding at the end.

Now, overnight, that deal was only worth $80K of revenue to that account rep.

‘Chris, you’re a nice guy, we’ve worked well together in the past, I’ll hand over my contacts at the Ugandan Water Authority to you and you’ll have to take it from there…’

All of us ‘Desktop Sales’ people were in the same boat. I had a target that was larger than the previous year’s, but overnight my entire salesforce – the Oracle hardware sales team – had gone. It was now me, a pre-sales engineer and most of the Middle East and Africa to cover, with a channel still in disarray following the Oracle takeover.

There was some good news – I now got revenue recognition for keyboards and monitors…

With this situation it was clear I would never come close to doing my numbers, even if the other problems had all been solved. This is when I realised there was no future for me and I had to leave. Either I stayed and bumped along with no commission coming in for as long as I could, or I got out. As I couldn’t see the pain of the Oracle transition fading for the foreseeable future, I chose to leave the company. At that time I also learnt a lesson, which was not to be too loyal to a company or product – it’s arguable I should have left that role a couple of years earlier. With hindsight, I should have done my best to join VMware at the time, but that is a different story.

What was particularly odd about the supposed ‘no double bubble’ mantra is that Oracle did form overlay sales teams – there were x86 and Sparc overlay product sales teams, for example. There was no reason I can see why the desktop sales team could not have continued as it had previously, with double bubble for the desktop guys and hardware field sales reps. Had we done so, I firmly believe the product would have lived on successfully.

Oracle is a powerful brand whose name gets you direct access to senior people. If the hardware account reps had continued to be goaled on the desktop products, there would have been revenue growth coming in from the dedicated and passionate desktop sales community who had backed the product for years and made a career out of it. Fix the management layers above and you’d have had a real success story. (I hate to use the words ‘passionate’ and ‘community’, but they do fit in this case).

As it was, you had a few lonely reps trying to flog Sun Rays and compete with the noise in the top accounts against all the other Oracle sales guys in there. The targets remained the same but our extended salesforce had gone. How can the Middle East and Africa rep do direct sales across that huge region? It would be a challenge even for a rep with one country to handle. (To his credit, I believe the UK sales guy did very well, as he had been able to grow his business via a more direct model during his time in a previous role before transferring to the desktop team).

That ‘no overlay’ decision, I believe, is the main reason why revenues never grew to the level Oracle would have wanted them to be. I’m surprised things latest as long as they did, but now it’s all over.

Sad.

A classic from the photo archive

30/01/2013

Hello. I’m a serious IT person. Here I am looking glamourous, leaning against a rack and looking confident about my data centre. And my cloud. I am almost certainly crossing my arms, but you can’t see that.

The data centres I visit don’t usually look like this!

Courtesy of Cisco.

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Analogue monitoring

22/11/2012

This is fun.

Long ago, I had a daydream about putting together some old 60s style/StarTrek lights and tapes that you could fit into spare slots into a rack, to decorate your data centre, flashing or whizzing around depending on something you could measure, such as network activity.

I reckon you could probably make a little cash selling something like this over the web, though I can’t see many professional data centres allowing that sort of thing through the door. Would certainly be a talking about, as well as a good laugh though!

The joys of integration

03/04/2012

Dell are going to buy Wyse.

If you don’t know anything about the IT industry, think large lumbering corporate giant that does all sorts of things, buying small, nimble, focused company that does one thing very well.

On paper it all looks great – small, nimble company brings cool technology to lumbering giant, lumbering giant able to offer a more complete solution offering under one roof to customers.

So far so good.

In my experience of technology acquisitions, here’s what actually happens. This experience comes from watching how Sun behaved, how Oracle behaved and from observing how other companies have fared.

The best people at many companies work there out of choice. There’s another layer underneath that have some choice in terms of where they work, with a layer below who are lucky to have a job and can’t jump ship easily – or can’t jump ship due to family commitments, obligations to stay in the same location, etc.

Here’s how things unfold.

The majority of people who work at small, nimble, focused companies tend to be there because they don’t want to be part of lumbering corporate giants. They leave.

Once the integration begins, staff who are used to being free to make decisions and go their own way, start to get suffocated as they are forced to use a new set of processes, expense tools, etc, rather than focus on what matters. They leave, or become ineffective.

Staff who are used to following up on projects and deals using their own knowledge and expertise are suddenly overwhelmed with millions of unqualified opportunities coming from all over the place, sucking up time and delivering very little revenue. Nothing they do makes anyone happy. They leave or become ineffective.

Managers who were in senior positions and who could make a difference become irrelevant contributors whose revenue numbers aren’t big enough to feature on anyone’s radar. They leave or become ineffective.

Key ‘informal contributors’ lose their jobs, as no-one needs two finance departments, two sets of receptionists, etc, thus killing the office atmosphere and creating a sense of resentment. By ‘informal contributors’ I mean people who might not be directly responsible for ‘busting the number’ but who keep an office together. Think ladies (and they often are, in my experience) who always remember whose birthday it is and get cake, who help people out during tough times or emotional moments and generally provide human support that can’t be measured in dollars. When they leave, that indefinable something that made the company a nice place to work at disappears. More people leave or become ineffective.

The small, nimble, focused company typically has various alliances with various vendors, resellers and customers. The acquisition means a period of turbulence during which vendors, resellers and customers experience periods of negotiations, uncertainty and so on. Whilst lumbering corporate giant issues statements proclaiming ‘cohesive synergies’ no-one buys anything, and top performing people whose pay is linked to financial results aren’t able to earn money, through no fault of their own, so they feel resentful and look elsewhere. More people leave or become ineffective.

The lumbering corporate giant essentially ends up with with some source code and design documents (think a blue-print for a house but no-one who knows how the house was designed or how to actually build it) as well as a demoralised workforce missing its star performers.

Cue mediocre performance, the death of a great brand and legacy and a less than stellar return on investment. The results are the husk of a company and a bit of human spirit crushed under a mound of press releases.

This all sounds very negative. Perhaps this acquisition will be a successful one. The point I am making is that this sort of thing is incredibly difficult to do in a way that delivers good business related results. It will be very interesting to see how Dell handle things. My experience is that big IT companies need to do this better.

My view, from my position of ignorance here in the corner of the business world, is that the best way to benefit from these sorts of acquisitions is to begin with an ‘arm’s length integration’. Own the company, but leave them independence and let them keep their brand – you might have two sets of receptionists, but the acquired company has investment and capital to give confidence to customers and you have advice to give your newly acquired ‘cousin’. Keep things at an arm’s length so that you can leverage existing agreements and partnerships and don’t scare people off through too close an association with your brand, or by introducing disruption, change and uncertainty. The EMC and VMware model springs to mind.

I know people who work at Wyse and at Dell, covering the same solutions and product set. I wish them all the best and hope that my dire predictions above get proved wrong!

New Mac

09/01/2012

My new MacBook Pro’s up and running.

Got a great deal on some old stock from a company linked with work – essentially buying the last version of the MacBook Pro, which has a slightly smaller disk than the current version, but saving myself around 400UKP in the process. Nice.

I love the new Mac. What I love most of all is the way I simply transferred all my apps, files and settings from my old Mac to the new one, overnight, over my network at home via Time Machine. Brilliant. The screen is stunning, the mousepad and gestures just great. Lightyears ahead of any Windows laptop I’ve used recently.

I do have one complaint. As with Mrs Saul’s MacBook, when not using a UK three pin plug, you get a slight vibration when touching the laptop’s aluminium body. This seems to be due to connections using the Euro plugs that the devices ship with here not being earthed properly*. Checking out the forums, it seems lots of people have this issue. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a bit irritating.

Mrs Saul got an iPhone for Christmas from me, so the apartment is slowly becoming all Apple.

* The whole of the Gulf uses the British standard three pin plug. Sadly, most of what gets sold here comes with Euro two pin plugs – or worse, crappy US fiddly two pin things. This leads to a huge market for the cheapest and dodgiest power adaptors China can produce being used all over the place.

Bold 9900

13/12/2011

Just as my trusty Bold 9000 was nearing the end of its useful life, three years after first being purchased, Citrix decided to switch us all from Etisalat to Du and give us nice new BlackBerrys or iPhones.

With the Nokia 6310i still holding the prize for ‘best mobile phone ever’, my old Bold 9000 was a close contender. True, I’d had to have its trackball replaced a couple of times and the keyboard was starting to fail, but it was still going strong – after millions of emails, calls, texts, tweets and web pages viewed. It did a great job.

I was tempted to consider getting an iPhone as a replacement – more fun and more apps and more multimedia, but after talking to various people, I decided that another BlackBerry was the best way forward, considering the amount of typing I do on the phone whilst on the road. On top of that, the BlackBerry means effectively unlimited data whilst roaming, which saves the company money.

So, I choose the latest Bold.

It’s brilliant. Well on its way to be pipping its older cousin to the post of second best mobile phone ever – nothing can quite ever shift the 6310i from its perch.

The Bold has a great mix of keyboard and touchscreen, so I can finally join the ranks of iPhone users and revel in the pleasure of browsing back and forth through photos and the like with a swift stroke of a finger. The mix works well – I find myself intuitively using the touchscreen as well as the new non-mechanical trackpad.

The keyboard is excellent – very responsive and easy to use, even for big thumbed oafs like me.

The phone looks good – I like the brushed steel.

Battery life is ok once you switch off unnecessary services.

My only complaints would be that it’s easy to accidentally hit the touchscreen when clicking on the ‘dial’ key. This means that instead of redialling the last person you called, you tend to end up dialling whoever’ s number is at the bottom of the screen, usually without realising it. This is probably just me being incompetent, but it’s easy to do. The smooth back of the phone makes it a bit harder to grip than the older Bold.

Newer features, for me at least, are an updated browser, YouTube and a choice of third party apps via the BlackBerry App World store. I have had trouble getting Google Maps to install properly, which has been annoying – I need to check the forums and see what’s going wrong.

All in all, I love the phone. It’s a great update, a real leap forward and destined to be my weapon of choice for bombarding people with those emails, calls, texts, tweets and BBMs for at least the next two years.

Ditch London’s digital signage immediately!

02/09/2011

During this summer’s visit to London, I was struck by the amount of digital signage, or rather digital advertising, that’s sprung up since I was last here.

All over the place, advertisement hoardings have been replaced by digitial screens. In the Tube, small TVs line the escalators and projectors shine onto the curved walls of the underground stations. Lots of ‘digital hoardings’ seem to have sprung up in new locations as well.

With no exceptions, I hated all the digital advertising I saw.

I don’t want to sound like a luddite. I work in the technology industry, for goodness’ sake. I have nothing against the technology per se, just the way it is implemented.

There’s clearly a time and place for digital signage. What I detest is digital signage being used for digital advertising.

I was really impressed with the digital signage I saw when we arrived at Manchester airport last Friday, for example. The content being displayed around the passport area was very well done. It was informative, helpful and projected in a way that caught your eye but wasn’t intrusive. Similarly, it’s obvious that digital signage in airport terminals, railways and other locations can be an efficient, convenient tool.

What I utterly detest is the idea of a future where we are surrounded by intrusive, mind numbing, backlit, video advertising content being shoved in our faces the moment we walk out of the door.

I am sure people had similar complaints when ‘normal’ advertising began, so it’s probably easy to dismiss my complaints as the moanings of someone who’s out of touch. Perhaps they are, but I really don’t think anyone outside of the advertising and signage industries themselves likes what’s happening now. At best, people might be indifferent – I am betting that most people dislike it.

‘Normal’ advertising is something I have grown up with, so it would be easy to argue that since I am used to it, I don’t notice it or don’t mind it. – whilst I would prefer fewer adverts on the streets, in buses, trains and so on, there’s a key differentiator between traditional advertising and its new digital version.

The new technology is intrusive. The backlit screens catch your eye, even if the content is static. Moving content is intensely intrusive and distracting. It’s the digital equivalent of invading my personal space.

I have mentioned here before how much I dislike TVs in bars and pubs. You just end up starting at whatever’s on, regardless of its relevance. At Waterloo station the other day, I caught myself and twenty others all staring gormlessly at the advert that was playing on the wall in front of us. We all looked like brain dead zombies.

I am sure the people who sell this technology have some very compelling numbers to help justify the business case. Yes, these devices consume power, but overall carbon is doubtless reduced, according to their figures, as noone has to drive around in a van to replace the paper equivalent. Doubtless the ‘engaging content’ means more eyeballs.

I don’t have the figures to show in whose favour the environmental angle is tipped. I do think that filling the Underground with 180W TVs pumping out heat during a London summer is a Bad Idea.

The engaging content doubtless causes lots of eyeballs to swivel in its direction, but is it any more effective than static, traditional advertising? I can’t, for the life of me, remember what the advert I was watching at the Tube was about, just as I can’t really remember what any of the paper hoardings were about either. Maybe there is something subliminal going on. Either way, is the intrusive digital advertising any more effective? I don’t think so. Just because an advert is dancing around in front of you doesn’t mean it’s a better advert. I am not going to start insuring my car with Insurance Company B because Insurance Company A’s ads didn’t involve a bumblebee that moved around in front of me whilst I waited for a bus.

Buying petrol at a BP garage now seems to mean being forced to stand in a queue with a TV shoved in your face, distracted, despite yourself, by an endless stream of irrelevant traffic updates and ads. I am sure the salesman wowed the people who bought this system by burbling about the number of eyeballs it would attract. He forgot to mention that it makes the whole purchasing experience at BP simply bloody awful.

If the business case made no sense at all, the companies using this technology probably wouldn’t use it. To be quote honest, I am so sick of seeing these things all over the place that I don’t care about the business case – I just hate the way it’s being deployed in its current form.

The proliferation of so many new digital hoardings, or conversion of traidtional into digital, surprises me. It’s not easy to get planning permission in London. People have trouble changing the design of their front doors – so why are the powers that be allowing something so clearly intrusive and ugly?

It strikes me that things are in a bit of a new and unregulated stage. I’m hoping, probably against hope, that people will start complaining and that the appropriate government authorities will start to take an interest. We need a London equivalent of this.

‘What about Picadilly Circus?’, people might ask. A fair question. Picadilly Circus is a one off, a show. I don’t want a Picadilly Circus on every street corner.

I’m not against the medium being used for advertising per se. I just feel that at the moment it’s too intrusive. Perhaps e-ink technology, like the sort of thing being used in the Kindle, will soon give us advertising hoardings that are digital but which don’t impinge on people so negatively. I would expect the people creating the content to up their game over time as well. The current adverts remind me of web pages circa 1998, with pointless animations distracting from the core message the page is meant to be conveying.

I’m terrified this stuff is going to start to blight Dubai. It would fit right in – I can imagine acres of hideous flashing drivel causing car crashes all day. Some malls are already ruining the shopping experience by bombarding us with video images everywhere we look. Perhaps our developer could hang some digital ads of the ‘lamp poles’ they are installing in our sidestreet.

Perhaps, by preferring a world without constant video intrusion, I am simply an anachronism. I don’t think I am. I truly believe that we are in danger of the sci-fi world shown below becoming a reality. I really don’t believe anyone thinks this level of digital signage would improve our world in the slightest.

What do my sixty or so regular readers think?

Kindle UK rip off pricing

26/08/2011

I gave a glowing review for the Kindle and said it was worth every penny.

I still think it is good value for what it can do, but I don’t see why someone in the UK should pay almost twice the US price.

US 3G capable Kindle – $138 (GBP84.50)

UK 3G capable Kindle – GBP152 ($248)

That’s a $110 difference!

That stinks. Even allowing for some differences in tax, this is crazy.

I think I’d have had trouble buying and shipping the US kindle due to not having a US address, although I could probably have got around this by using a shop and ship type service. Even with some delivery costs, I am sure I could still have got it at significantly less if I’d ordered it from the US and had it shipped around the world to Dubai, instead of ordering it in the UK and having it shipped an hour’s drive away from the Amazon Milton Keynes warehouse to Richmond.

Book prices seem similar, give or take a few cents.

Kindle Euro pricing is also very high.

Don’t rip me off, Amazon. Or is the pricing actually fair for some reason? A ten percent uplift, I can understand, but this…?

Kindle wonder

24/08/2011

I bought a Kindle last week – why did I wait so long to get one?

In recent months I’ve been feeling that my brain is getting underused – I have lots of books on the bookshelf that need reading, but schlepping them around whilst travelling for work, or even just taking them into the office to read over lunch, is not practical.

When flying, I find it hard to do much more than watch TV or read the paper or a fictional novel. Trying to manage more than 45 minutes of ‘A History of Africa’ or some kind of sales training or management book just can’t be done. All I can manage is dipping in and out of things and that means carrying several tonnes of weighty tomes with me.

The solution – get a Kindle. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe I have taken so long to get one. I was thinking of getting an iPad, but the advice I got and the research I did lead me to the conclusion that I needed something that was brilliant for reading and OK at other things, rather than the other way around. I always have a laptop when travelling, as well as a BlackBerry (hopefully soon to be replaced with an iPhone), so an iPad just isn’t necessary right now. Plus, I do read a lot when on holiday, so the Kindle’s ‘e-ink’ screen is the only option when there’s a bit of sun in the sky.

The entire Kindle experience has been brilliant from start to finish. I was on holiday in the UK, so had it delivered to my father’s house.

Unpacking it was a pleasure, getting it charged and switched on was easy – this entire part of the experience has been honed to be a real pleasure. It’s not a ‘techie’ experience at all, it really is straightforward and easy.

Once I was up and running and marvelling at the fact that I could get books delivered over 3G, for free, wherever I had a connection, I decided to make my first purchase. This is where things started to get confusing – either the device wasn’t connecting, or Amazon had nothing in their library to sell me.

Checking on the Amazon website confused me further. It seemed there were about six titles available to me. This couldn’t be right…

At this point, despite the problems I was experiencing, the whole Amazon Kindle experience continued to be just brilliant. Their web page handles things so that Amazon call you, rather than the other way around, which makes a nice change. A pleasant lady from a call centre I guess to be in the Philipines was soon helping me out. It turned out that since I had used my UAE credit card and given a Dubai address, my Kindle was locked into the Middle East Amazon Kindle store. Amazon don’t seem to be paying any attention to this market, hence the lack of titles available. The call centre lady simply re-registered the Kindle to my UK address and everything was working perfectly.

I’ve already bought several books – and read them. It’s just fantastic having everything to hand on such a pleasant looking, simple device. I love it.

Even though I am in the IT industry, I get excited about the cool things the Kindle can do. It’s brilliant fun to be sitting on a train in the middle of nowhere, buying a book over the mobile phone network and having it appear on your Kindle seconds later. Incredible.

Calibre, a free e-book application, has helped me get even more use out of the Kindle. I use it to grab The Times (subscription required), Telegraph, BBC and Economist websites every day and convert them to Kindle format. You don’t get all the pictures, but it’s good enough. I can’t get UK daily papers in most of the countries I visit, but now I have plenty of material to read every day. I should probably start getting the Guardian too, to give me something to get angry at.

Not every book I have wanted has been available in Kindle format, but I expect that to change over time. Amazon have a link to click that lets you ‘inform the publisher you’d like a Kindle version of book X’. I think the wording should be ‘please inform the publisher you didn’t buy anything as there was no Kindle version available’. That’d be a bit more likely to spur people into action.

How the Kindle affects the publishing industry is something for a whole other speculative post. For now, from my position as a ‘simple reader on the street’, all I can say is top marks to the Kindle. I love it. It wasn’t a cheap present to myself at about 150 quid, but it’s worth every penny. I expect it to get a lot of use over the coming months.

Biscuit enjoys the latest in e-book technology…

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Thoughts on the recent HP news

23/08/2011

I was baffled by the news coming from HP last week. Having just left the company and having worked for one of the divisions affected, I thought I’d write down my thoughts on the topic. A ‘view from the field’, if you like.

HP announced that they were buying Autonomy, thinking of selling off the PSG (Personal Systems Group) and were killing their new tablet device, the TouchPad. From my position of probable ignorance, I find all these decisions odd.

Let’s start with the purchase of Autonomy, a UK company that does ‘corporate search’. Selling this software doubtless involves a lot of pre-sales time, knowledgeable and skilled staff – a consultative, solutions driven approach.

This approach doesn’t exist in the HP I saw. This doesn’t mean that Autonomy won’t carry on being successful as an, erm, autonomous division within HP – I just can’t see anyone in the existing divisions selling it.

So what’s the point of buying Autonomy? They are a successful software company doing something fairly niche. HP are a systems company with almost no software that sells, beyond their systems management suites. I see no fit whatsoever, aside from buying Autonomy being an investment that will yield a return if they are left alone to carry on as normal, albeit with a bit of extra clout behind them now – I just do not see how Autonomy will drive sales of HP kit in any significant way. The situation reminds me of Sun buying MySQL, another strange decision that seemed more of a vanity purchase than anything else. Both acquisitions make me think of a middle aged man buying an expensive electric guitar he can barely play, just because he’s sort of always wanted one and it looks good in the living room.

Autonomy will have to work hard to avoid the traditional acquisition path –

– Exciting, nimble company that does cool stuff gets bought by large corporate that doesn’t really know what to do with it.

– Millions of requests for help from sales teams across the world flood in with unqualified, time wasting leads.

– Sales drop as a result.

– The good people start to leave as their souls slowly die, sucked into an interminable round of infuriating processes, badly designed corporate expense claim tools, conference calls, reports and other tedium.

– Charismatic leader who built the company up in the first place leaves his VP position and uses his billions to start up a new, exciting nimble company that does cool stuff.

– The acquirer ends up with some source code, real estate and the people who couldn’t find better jobs elsewhere, as well as some furious customers who see their investment ruined as the product shrivels and dies.

I genuinely wish Autonomy all the best, especially as they are a British success story. I am not optimistic.

So what about the PSG announcement?

I don’t know if there are some legal requirements to announce that you are thinking that you might sell off part of your business. If not, why announce that you might be selling the division off? Can this not be kept quiet until there are more concrete plans? Maybe there are some concrete plans around the corner.

Regardless, an announcement like this is going to hurt business, especially in the Middle East.

Granted, choosing what PCs to buy is not the same as picking, say, your strategic datacentre platform for the next five years. Lots of companies have a variety of PC vendors. Customers like knowing that there is a future for the products they are buying though – any hint of a question mark over a vendor’s future will have Middle East IT managers worried that they are buying something that is not 100% assured and which might cause them issues in the future, technical or administrative. These concerns affect IT managers anywhere, but this region, the Gulf especially, has a particularly conservative set of decision makers who do not want any danger of making a decision today that will make them look bad in the future.

Why sell PSG at all? The general consensus seems to be that it makes money, but not as much money as HP might like.

Selling PSG doesn’t seem to be the answer to this problem. Customers love the fact that HP are able to provide everything from mice and keyboards up to massive mission critical systems. In reality HP function very much as separate companies – PSG don’t really work with the x86 server guys, who don’t work with the Unix guys, who don’t work with the storage guys, who don’t work with the consulting guys. This means a customer can get bombarded with lots of meeting requests from various HP people who all work out of the same office but who have never actually met. I genuinely believe that customers sometimes buy HP as they are simply bombarded by millions of annoying salespeople and a purchase order is the only way to get them out of the office.

The customer is still buying from ‘one HP’, however, even if the different divisions within HP operate very independently. Sell off the PC and laptop business and you have another vendor in front of the customer, with different partners with different interests.

People point to IBM’s sale of Lenovo as an example of how this might successfully be done. Lenovo seems to be doing well, as are IBM. My feeling, being part of the desktop world, is that it makes IBM salespeople’s lives difficult not having a complete portfolio – not impossible, but harder than it would be if their PCs and laptops were still made in house.

I would be asking how to make PSG more profitable. If the margins don’t get anyone excited, how can we increase those margins? I think there are some clear areas where PSG could be made more profitable, so it can be kept part of HP proper, with the benefits that entails for HP and HP customers and partners.

The concept of ‘value add’ has been a running joke between me and friends for a long time now. It’s a cliche that is constantly trotted out. The usual irony is that what people call ‘value add’ is often referring to the basic value that a product or service brings. The ‘value add’ should be some extra bits that make the basic product or service more compelling.

PSG should start delivering some ‘value add’ in the true sense of the word.

From where I sit, PSG’s value is that they have what corporate customers need, it is in stock, a bit dull (a good thing in corporate IT), but does the job and is well priced. PSG do this extremely well. I found it very interesting to see how the business of selling boxes worked. The colleagues I worked with were paid to sell boxes and they did it brilliantly.

Shifting boxes does not usually mean high margins and PSG deliver near zero value add that might increase those margins.

Everything was driven by what the customer asked for, with very little guidance going on. There was near zero input in terms of advice around which models were better, near zero focus on how customers might manage the boxes sold, no providing services around assessing a customer’s business requirements, etc.

The result is that a customer would buy 5,000 units of a current mid-range PC, demanding that HP meet the specs they had decided on. An ideal situation with higher margins for HP would involve some consultative selling. That would have meant the customer would keep his price per unit the same, but buy, for example, 3,000 lower end PCs for users who didn’t need the power, 1,000 thin clients for his call centre, 1,000 workstations for his users who needed more number crunching, along with some installation and management services.

I was part of the ‘value team’ for my region. We focused on selling the higher margin thin clients, workstations and point of sale devices that had higher margins. Those higher margins obviously went towards a more profitable division. They could also be used to subsidise key projects where commodity PC pricing meant margins were low or negative.

Teams like ours were definitely a step in the right direction, but I felt we were fairly unique in HP in general, as well as up against a culture of box shifting. I was responsible for thin clients, a sales cycle that usually takes six to nine months and involves selling not just the device that goes on the desk, but defining a number of different requirements along the way. I was paid on thin clients, but needed to help sell all the bits inbetween, whether they were HP products or not. My take on things was that we as HP had to own the total solution, show we knew what we were talking about and make sure that we drove things forward rather than have to rely on other vendors to help us. This was the approach that helped me and colleagues be very successful at Sun when selling thin clients.

Doing this at HP proved to be quite tough. To be fair, I made some progress and had good support from my boss, but it was harder than it should have been. I was astonished to hear statements from salespeople that ‘their customer had not requested thin clients’. I then astonished them by saying ‘I don’t care what the customer wants’. Of course, I cared very much what the customer wanted – the point I was always trying to make was that a customer who has not been told about the solutions you sell is not going to ask to buy them from you.

The PSG approach I saw would never have sold any PCs back in 1981. They would have returned from customer visits saying ‘the customer requested some more typewriters’.

One of the key things that is driving new PC sales over the coming months is customers migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7. This often involves buying new hardware. If you have large installations or want to manage things properly regardless of the size of your userbase, this migration will also involve using various Microsoft or third party tools to deploy, patch and generally manage all these PCs.

Most customers need help with all this.

HP had some services built around Windows 7 migration, but they were sold by a different division and were not really suited to our region or to smaller customers.

PSG offered nothing in this space – in Dubai we were trying to put something together that would help customers along their Windows 7 migration path. In return we expected to get services revenue, better knowledge of customers and their future plans, a chance to sell our higher margin ‘value products’ rather than yet another tranche of mid-range PCs, etc, etc.

Another problem, which we were making progress with but which seemed endemic all over the place, was a lack of co-operation between PSG and the server teams. Thin client sales involves servers and storage, but the different divisions didn’t really seem to work together at all.

So, in summary, if HP want to improve PSG margins when selling to corporate customers, they need a more consultative approach to selling, they need to kick the different divisions up the bottom and force them to work together and they need to compensate the sales people in a way that helps encourage them to be less reactive and more involved with being a real vendor who helps a customer drive his IT strategy, rather than just reacting to ‘requests’. Selling PSG will cost money and time and leave HP with a gaping hole in their product line and their key value proposition of being able to deliver everything a customer needs from top to toe.

I can understand HP selling their consumer PC and laptop division, however. Tiny margins, little opportunity to improve margins with ‘value added’ services and so on.

I upset some of my HP colleagues on a couple of occasions, by openly stating what I think is clearly the truth. In terms of their PC and laptop products, HP make boring kit that is unlikely to set the consumer world alight. Their corporate kit is equally boring. HP’s value proposition is that they have what you need, it’s well put together, well priced and is in stock via a large number of partners.

That’s it – dull kit, but it does what’s needed.

There is nothing wrong with this, at least in the corporate world – the PSG division that sells PC and laptops does this very well. As I’ve mentioned already, my colleagues were selling well and meeting their targets. A travelling salesman’s laptop or an accountant’s PC doesn’t need to look cool, it just needs to work, have a good warranty and be well priced.

The colleagues I upset seemed to think that HP’s laptop and PC range was exciting in some way, whereas I thought it wasn’t. I had a couple of conversations about why people bought Apple products – one senior HP colleague in particular couldn’t understand why anyone would buy an Apple laptop when the HP equivalent cost a bit less and had ‘a larger SATA drive’. This thinking appeared to be fairly dominant and showed to me that there was little understanding of how to make consumer kit that people liked.

The way HP display their wares, in the Middle East at least, encourages customers just to buy on price and specs. Tens of models, crammed together, screensavers displaying Ghz and RAM and disk sizes. Two inches away, a similar display from Asus, another from Acer and so on. The Apple section, meanwhile, has three models laid out on a nice white table with plenty of space. Specs are available, but aren’t displayed on the screen itself, leaving you to appreciate this lovely box that’s in front of you. Yes, it’s more expensive, but the whole sales experience encourages you to buy the MacBook, even if the grey HP thing in the same shop costs less and has a bigger SATA drive.

So ditch the consumer stuff. I don’t have the figures in front of me, so maybe I am doing this division a disservice, but if you don’t like low margins and there is little way of improving what is now a total commodity market, maybe it’s best to get out of it. The corporate world could clearly have some changes made that would improve profitability.

This brings me to the HP TouchPad.

I am amazed that HP just cancelled this product so quickly. Before I left there were still lots of rousing emails being sent by chief execs about how the TouchPad was going to revolutionise computing. As The Register mentioned in one article, HP’s PR company were still arranging the shipment of demo units to journalists on the day HP announced they were ditching the things.

I always felt that HP were being a bit unrealistic with the TouchPad. What was the likelihood of HP creating something as cool as the iPad? Probably near zero. Why even set yourself a goal like that? You are doomed to failure. My prediction was that the TouchPad would be ‘a bit crap compared to the iPad, but it’d be in stock, reasonably priced and would pretty much do what was needed’.

Aside from initially being overpriced, that’s exactly what it was – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Consumers were always going to be unlikely to buy the TouchPad. Corporate were surely the target market. The average IT manager has management and employees badgering them about tablet computers. There are mixed reasons for this – some people just want a free iPad from work, others could genuinely benefit from the form factor of what The Register has wonderfully christened ‘fondle slabs’. IT Managers also have the problem of people bringing in their own iPads and Galaxies and demanding that they be able to use them.

HP are (or were) perfectly positioned to clean up the corporate tablet sector. Customers buy lots of stuff from HP already – here’s another device that does what’s required, along with the tools a corporation would need to embed them into their current set ups. The only criticism a user might have of it is that it’s not an iPad. Well, users, just as the IT department gives you boring but functional HP laptops that cost half what a MacBook would, you’d be getting a boring but functional tablet that would also be well priced when corporate pricing comes into play. Unfortunately, it’s not an IT department’s job to give us all the toys we’d all like to have.

The TouchPad was the perfect fondle slab to use to keep users happy and to provide a tablet when a TouchPad type device was genuinely needed.

The TouchPad has gone though. As has a lot of management credibility and the trust of employees who now look like idiots after having talked the device up to their customers for several months.

A lot of the corporate messaging at HP reminded me of the last days of Sun. HP’s slogans and statements just didn’t really match what it did well and didn’t seem to resonate with customers who loved HP for its solid kit. Just as Jonathan Schwartz was warbling on about open source and MySQL, something in which the customers who generated the company’s profits generally had little interest, HP was talking about ‘Everybody On’. Everybody On is supposed to be HP’s vision for getting everyone connected. I am not sure who ‘Everybody On’ is supposed to speak to. Consumers don’t think of HP as being a cool company whose message they would take notice of. Corporate customers want boring but reliable kit and do not care about ‘context aware’ connections to the internet.

Maybe I am being naive, but if Sun’s marketing had played more to its strengths, we might still all be there, still happily working for a great company. I wonder where HP is heading?

There’s a damning article here that probably says things more succinctly than I have in this slightly rambling post.

I wish my HP PSG colleagues the best of luck. I really enjoyed working with most of them, but I am quite glad to be out of the commodity business and back in the world of solutions that solve business problems.