OPINION

RIM Punishes Customers, Google Plays Dot-Com and Fiorina Returns

A lot of interesting things happened last week. RIM finally released its plan to work around NTP’s patents, Google decided to use some of the massive amount of cash it got from investors to buy real estate on desktop PCs, and ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina stepped back into the limelight, talking about how she screwed up at the company. After all that, it’s hard not to feel somewhat dizzy.

RIM: Fighting NTP by Shooting Customers

Recall that RIM could have initially settled with NTP for a small amount of cash and it is only because it tried to falsify a presentation in court that the amount RIM now may owe NTP has reached astronomical, but still affordable, levels. RIM likely would agree that none of this is, by any stretch of the imagination, its customers’ fault. So why would its rebellious response to NTP, particularly after the U.S. government came to its defense, be to punish U.S. BlackBerry customers?

This probably falls into the category of “suicidal” and implies that RIM would rather destroy the business than give NTP its due. On top of this, the U.S. government is demonstrating some incredibly bizarre behavior in deciding to protect the interests of a Canadian company found guilty by a U.S. court of taking advantage of a U.S. inventor — simply because government officials don’t want to be inconvenienced. I guess the message is, as long as you are providing a service the Justice Department likes, U.S. laws are optional. It all kind of makes you want to move to Switzerland doesn’t it?

Anyway, RIM’s latest plan basically requires its U.S. customers to turn off the features in the BlackBerry that make it compelling. Not only do these corporations and government entities have to downgrade their BlackBerries, morphing them into products very much like now-obsolete offerings from Microsoft and Palm, they also have to load new software onto the devices to enable the downgrade.

I’m having a hard time imagining why any sane customer would load this software. This seems to be the plan here, but many users are likely already getting the wink and nod that tells them no one is really going to do anything to them if they don’t load this software.

In the end, though, why would any company do this to its customers? At the same time that Microsoft and a lot of open source companies are moving to indemnify their customers, RIM is making BlackBerry users synonymous with cannon fodder. That just doesn’t seem smart to me, particularly as we’re about to see some of the strongest BlackBerry-competitive offerings that have ever hit the market. I wonder how stupid RIM thinks its customers, particularly its government customers, really are. I guess we’ll all find out together in a few weeks.

Google Buys Valueless Desktop Real Estate

Sometimes I look back at the dot-com era with fondness. There was a time you didn’t need to worry about the difficult task of making a profit. All you had to do was focus on simply getting folks to give you money, which they would do if you could spell “Internet” and then prove you could spend that money with abandon. Google’s plan to buy onto the desktops of Dell and other vendors calls those days to mind for me.

Initially the program seems to entail Google paying Dell to put Google Search on Dell desktops. Google then makes this money back through its relatively successful search service, which is tied to advertising. With the exception of the “relatively successful” part, this is classic dot-com thinking: You spend hard dollars up front in the hope of getting soft dollars later on.

The problem is that Google’s plan to buy this particular property isn’t defensible. The situation is not like Microsoft’s, which has a built-in customer loyalty factor tied directly to the massive infrastructure it has set up over decades. Here, there is no long-term reason the vendors can’t go to someone else and then resell this same property later on. There’s also no reason the users can’t be enticed to switch after they take their PCs — or OEMs might decide they want all of the search pie later, and then what will Google do?

A Typical Problem

This was a typical problem among dot-com companies. They could buy into a market, but the people they got that way were easily bought and simply moved from subsidized deal to subsidized deal, and no one made money off them in the end. On the contrary, these opportunistic customers were money holes. Whether it was “free” PCs or other incredible incentives — once the benefit was given, most moved on to the next vendor and the next benefit.

What is most important is building a long-term, sustainable partnership. There are many ways to achieve this, and perhaps we’ll see additional aspects of the Dell-Google deal that fit the bill. However, given that Google is, at the end of the day, a dot-com company, concerns that it may be behaving like one of the dead ones are probably valid.

Carly’s Back and There’s Going to Be Trouble

Last week Carly Fiorina was featured in a number of articles focused on her recent engagements to speak in venues around the world on how to be a good leader. Given that her lack of leadership was exactly why she failed at HP, this either implies that she learned her lesson the hard way, or that she now lives in Bizzaro world.

Before this starts to look like a Fiorina-pounding session, let’s be clear. I’ve followed her closely for a number of years, I’ve heard her speak on leadership, and I’ve even met her in person on one occasion. Of all of the CEOs I’ve ever met, she was the closest in potential to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Fiorina is incredibly articulate, very intelligent in terms of grasping concepts, and she is one of few who understand more about vision than how to spell it. She is also a charismatic speaker, and with a little training I think she could have gone head to head with Jobs in terms of stage presence — as well as in terms of loyalty to customers. I think the HP board that hired her saw all of that too. Unfortunately, just like Jobs, she has her shortcomings and several were deadly at HP.

The most deadly was that even though she came out of AT&T, she didn’t seem to really understand corporate politics and somehow thought loyalty came with the job. She didn’t build it — she demanded it. When it came time for key people to stand up for her, she found herself standing alone and exposed. Interestingly, it may have been the defection of one of her closest lieutenants to Apple that was the last straw.

Learning From Mistakes

Fiorina didn’t understand operations, and while that actually isn’t a requirement for a CEO, she didn’t seem to understand how exposed this shortcoming left her. If she had, she would have assured that she had a strong, trusted lieutenant who was just as good operationally as she was in articulating a vision — but she didn’t. Operational mistakes plagued most of her tenure as a result.

Every leader has weaknesses. Apple’s Jobs didn’t seem to understand his in the early years with Apple, NeXT and Pixar, but clearly he learned from his mistakes and has surrounded himself with individuals who make up for his weaknesses now. A great CEO isn’t a monolith — he or she is a team leader. His or her success is based on the balance and loyalty of the team.

Finally, Fiorina didn’t stay focused on the job at hand, and that’s why her HP tenure came to an end. Near the end, she seemed to have lost interest in HP and appeared to be more focused on getting George Bush re-elected. While she undoubtedly did the Bush campaign a lot of good, she wasn’t hired to be a George Bush supporter. If HP had been meeting or exceeding its objectives, I doubt this would have mattered much — but it wasn’t. Like any employee who chooses not to do a job, she got canned.

The three lessons we can all take away from this:

  1. Loyalty is earned, not given or bought. Without it, no manager, executive or officer is fully competent.
  2. If you don’t know and mitigate your own weaknesses, they will severely limit your success.
  3. Stay focused. Never move on to the next job before the current job is done, or you may find yourself out of a job — and unable to get the job you were hoping for.

If Fiorina has learned these lessons, she has within her the potential to be truly great — a potential that many have seen and, unfortunately, bet on in the past. Jobs learned similar lessons the hard way, and now he is much better for them. I wonder if Fiorina might realize her true potential in the future as well. Wouldn’t it be cool if she did?


Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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