The Power of Balance

I like writing about conflict because it gives you more than one dimension to a story, and there were two interesting conflicts that I ran into last week. The first, more near-term, will likely define the direction of the notebook market, and it is important because it implies an ether/or decision when most of us want both.

The other is the constant conflict inside Apple — which, as was explained to me last week, results in regular and famous screaming matches that in turn help create products like the iPhone. This last was interesting because I see in so many companies a lack of conviction, which results in products and efforts that are based on negotiated decisions and create mediocre offerings.

Finally we’ll close with my product of the week, which has to do which keeping children safe and points to Disney as the one company that is clearly doing all it can to ensure that safety. I’m a big believer in keeping kids safe.

Intel Centrino 2 vs. Puma

For most of the ’90s it looked to me like both Intel and AMD had missed a meeting. The market was moving to laptops, yet both companies built notebook computers from an energy-hungry desktop core, resulting in either small, unusable laptops or big, ugly beasts (I recall comparing one Sony box to an aircraft carrier) that no one would want to carry.

Transmeta, a company at the time which had been rumored to have technology from Area 51 (yes, alien tech), brought to market a part that damn near could have put Intel out of business. Intel went onto a war footing to create something competitive. Transmeta drove Intel to create the Pentium M and then the Centrino, which helped drive WiFi into the market.

However, Intel sucked at graphics, and one of the major trends in both consumer and business segments was a rapid increase in the need for higher-performance graphics.

AMD seemed to miss the energy conservation trend, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that it realized it simply wasn’t competitive in mobile and was at risk of being engineered out of the PC market. Seeing the graphics trend, it bought ATI to close the technology gap. If it hadn’t, I think we would be projecting AMD’s demise at the moment.

This woke up Intel to the graphics trend, and it once again went into war mode, ramping its graphics efforts. Centrino 2 begins to reflect that move. The final result from both is still months off, but near-term we have Puma and Centrino 2.

Puma promises vastly better graphics and should outperform Intel on that vector, while Intel promises good battery life and better thermals and should outperform Puma on that vector. The problem is, this isn’t an either/or market; buyers want both.

The goal is to provide an attractive laptop (think thin) that has both good graphics performance and good battery life. Whoever gets this balance right will win the segment. AMD has a graphics advantage; Intel has more money and has a lead in power efficiency. Neither path is easy, and to add to this, it’s actually the graphics side that is becoming the biggest power user. Intel has also tossed in a wild card, WiMax, which may or may not take off, but it could also give Intel a slight edge. Nvidia, another power player, appears to be aligning more with AMD, which could balance that edge out.

The real battle, however, will likely be for a product that can get people to line up at stores at launch, and a laptop probably isn’t that. Apple has demonstrated that it is a blend of a cell phone and laptop (the iPhone) which can put folks in lines, and AMD, Intel and Nvidia are starting to position around that.

Apple vs. Apple: The Battle That Leads to Greatness

Speaking of Apple, a constant battle exits there between design and engineering. With lines around the block to buy what is basically a US$2,400 phone (more than most notebooks if you factor in the required services), you’d have to agree that the result is creating some very popular — and profitable — products.

Often I meet with companies that put people who lack passion in critical roles and seem to promote people who “get along.” The result is often products like the first-generation Microsoft Zune, which should have never made it to market. To me, it is as if the company is making a choice between reducing internal conflict and having successful products.

Whenever I’ve looked at a failed product, it generally isn’t that people in the company — often those in power — didn’t know that the product was wrong. Windows Vista is a case in point; the disclosed e-mails indicate that Jim Allchin, the Microsoft executive over Vista, knew bad decisions were being made. He, for whatever reason, decided to go along and not fight. The end result was a problem product that was both incomplete and largely uninteresting. The sad thing is that Jim, who personally is just a great guy, delayed his retirement so that XP wouldn’t be his legacy, and I’ll bet he regrets that now.

Now personally, I think design is winning too many of the battles at Apple, and marketing has to take up the slack. Fortunately for Apple, that department is up to the task. The battery issues with both the Macbook Air and iPhone are not worth the seamless back on both products, and the result is people have expensive bricks more often than they should when the battery goes dead.

Even saying that, though, these products have a better balance than most offerings. The Lenovo X300 is very practical but lacks sex appeal; the Samsung Instinct and LG Dare aren’t attractive enough and need user interface work. Only the new Voodoo Envy appears to have better balance in a product than an Apple offering.

In the end it is all about balance, and sometimes you get there with conflict. Avoiding it, Apple demonstrates, is a mistake.

Product of the Week: Disney Online

Protecting children from predators, I think, is one of the most important things society can do. With the Internet and gaming, children have never been more at risk. Last Thursday, the “Today Show” ran a segment on how children are at risk through the collaboration aspects of all types of connected gaming — and even the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable weren’t safe.

Disney is the one company that sets the bar in terms of protecting children. From moderated chat rooms to scripted communications tools, which effectively prevent predators from being able to prey on children, Disney balances entertainment with safety to a degree that is unmatched by anyone else. Last week, Disney reported that it also has set a record for Web traffic with 30 million unique visitors for the month of June. This suggests that parents value this safety and kids are still having fun. The site recently tied in movie — and especially Pixar — content to make this property a benchmark, not just in safety, but in overall traffic. This drives home the point that you can be both safe and successful.

Because children are our greatest asset, because we often struggle with balancing safety and entertainment, and because this column is about balance, Disney.com is my product of the week.

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


  • I often get notes from folks who wonder why I point out the $2,400 cost of the iPhone because other things cost as much. This issue is that the folks in question don’t actually buy the other things. The iPhone has substantially expanded the smart phone market (RIM actually grew after it launched) which means folks are paying substantially more for a phone they might not actually need. On he 3G notebook comment, the reason 3G isn’t used by many is because it is too expensive for most. Or, just becasue something else you don’t want is $2,400 doesn’t justify the $2,400 iPhone price. The only thing that does is if the iPhone is worth $2,400 to you.

    • While I would not call him Rob "Never Right" Enderle because in general I find him knowledgeable and objective, I don’t understand the logic behind the $2400 iPhone. I don’t see him refering to Blackberries by their total cost of ownership. I think he objects to Apple claiming that it’s half the price. He has stated that he feels that people that can barely afford gas and food are being duped into buying something that is ultimately more expensive. Apple has lowered the cost of entry, and ATT has spread the difference over two years. This actually helps those who have difficulty buying gas and food and yet, for some reason, feel they need an iPhone. Plus, I don’t think the ATT rates are any higher for this phone than for any other smartphone. So all of these snide remarks which are really out of character for Rob are all based on "for half the price?"

  • I’m not sure why Rob "Never Right" Enderle posts that an iPhone costs "US$2,400 phone (more than most notebooks if you factor in the required services)." If you buy a notebook and want 3G access to the internet, it will cost you about US $2,400 just for the service–and that doesn’t include being a phone.

    Is there a reason people pay attention to Mr. Enderle when he is wrong so consistently?

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