THE BIGGER THEY GET …

Like everyone I know, I screwed up from time to time as a teenager, and my mother’s response was usually an evil eye, accompanied by the phrase “the bigger you get, the worse you get.”  I like to think it was her way of encouraging my personal development.

I was reminded of my mother’s early training by none other than Oracle’s chief exec Larry Ellison, one of the IT world’s behemoths and a man of reasonable means (his net worth is estimated at $33 billion), following some very public spats he’s had with two, as yet less successful IT executives in as many weeks.

The first was with Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, a British software business acquired by Hewlett Packard for over $11 billion, a transaction that will net Dr Lynch, a co-founder of the business, $900 million – not a bad return for a working class boy who was born in Ireland and brought up in Essex by his fireman father and nursing mother.

The second was with Marc Benioff, the flamboyant CEO at Salesforce.com, the original poster child for cloud computing, a former Ellison lieutenant at Oracle and no stranger to the art of self-publicity.  Benioff has amassed a personal fortune of $1.8 billion from his much talked about business that has yet to turn a meaningful profit.

Oracle and HP, the new owners of Autonomy, compete directly following Ellison’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems in January 2010.  The acquisition also brought Oracle into competition with salesforce in the rapidly growing cloud services market.  All is fair in love, war and open market competition, right?  Does it validate personal attacks among grown ups?

The gory details are the least interesting aspects but need summarizing.

Ellison publicly described Lynch as either forgetful or a liar and published on Oracle’s website what look like private documents to prove a point.  The documents had been earlier presented to Oracle’s corporate officers by an investment firm detailing Automony’s valuation in a clear attempt to tease Oracle into a bid.  This followed Lynch’s denial of an initial Ellison allegation that Automony had been ‘shopped to Oracle’ before HP opened its well-upholstered chequebook.

Then, with the Autonomy story still keeping the tech press entertained and busy, Ellison struck again, just as the world’s developers were making their way to San Francisco for the annual Oracle Openworld Conference.

According to Benioff, Ellison cancelled (the official line is that it was rescheduling) Benioff’s keynote at the get together, admittedly after Benioff had posted somewhat churlish and disparaging comments on Facebook about Ellison’s under par performance at the gathering’s opening address.

Accomplished, hugely successful businessmen should never feel the need to slag each other off in a personal and public way. It’s gratuitous and serves no purpose other than to inflate the already overblown egos of those rich enough  never to be questioned.

Maybe Larry was simply letting Lynch and Benioff know that he is still ‘the Data Daddy’ and the resulting press coverage no doubt oiled tittle-tattle among the industry at Oracle’s annual soiree. But none of this differentiates Oracle’s businesses in a changing, competitive market.  It will do not a jot to help Oracle’s customers understand better what cloud services are or help their sales teams to drive sales.  It is little more than three over-paid Tech Titans who, while they have earned unquestioned personal and professional success, haven’t yet learned to shed the schoolyard bullyboy tactics.  It’s putting personal egos before customers.

Were their respective communications departments engaged in the decisions to mount these campaigns or to react publicly to the personal attacks, or were they just given JFDI orders?  Did they agree with the attack dog strategy, or simply go along with their bosses’ personal agendas?  I suppose we’ll never know.

OK, the spats generated column inches among reporters usually weary of the black box magic these businesses perform, but this does raise questions about the personalities leading these businesses.  Each is engaged in the data management business. Core to this market is trust, the knowledge that a customer’s data is safe with whomever is charged with managing it, storing it, protecting it.  Ellison’s personal attacks and the participants’ responses don’t send out the right message.

Time will tell whether HP overpaid for Autonomy. This is what Ellison was really trying to say and in any event is an issue between HP’s Board of Directors and it’s shareholders, the same question that will eventually be answered over the $7.4 billion of shareholders’ cash that Ellison forked out for Sun eighteen months earlier.

Contrast this with the behaviour of Steve Jobs, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer this week.

Jobs was no shrinking violet.  He was a fierce and driven competitor capable of Olympic displays of petulance and rage, but who never, in my memory, publicly or gratuitously denigrated an industry peer.  A number of his paid staff will have intimate knowledge of what it means to annoy the boss, but externally, Jobs never made it personal.

Yes, he had several goes at Microsoft, but only ever spoke respectfully in public about Bill Gates.  He came out strongly against Google and Andriod, but never took a direct shot at Larry Page, Sergey Brin or Eric Schmidt, the former non-executive at Apple.

Job’s corporate verdicts, usually delivered with humour and style, were designed to show his products’ or his strategy’s superiority over those of his competitors.  His frequent outbursts were about making Apple successful in the market, about differentiating his products and gaining market share.

“Some people have money and some people are rich,” said Thomas Dorsey, the father of black gospel music.

Steve Jobs was both.  Despite his many flaws, he shared his true wealth with the hundreds of millions of people that hold a little bit of him in their hands over day, and they feel connected to it.  That, in part, is why the public have mourned the death of a businessman they didn’t know and never met as they would the untimely death of a President or a Prince.

Wouldn’t it round off Jobs’ legacy nicely if the others, those who knew him, befriended him, emulated him and considered themselves to be like him, could learn that from him too?

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HURRY UP AND WAIT …

According to the latest international index published by Ookla, the company that measures all things broadband around the world, the UK (at just over 10Mbps) ranks 34th for average broadband download speeds.

Lithuania comes top, with an average of 33Mbps.  Romania, Latvia, Andorra and Iceland might all have rubbish football teams but in the Broadband World Cup, all finish above Britain’s home nations.   Even Luxemburg and Malta fare better.  I mentioned this to a mate over refreshments in the local pub.  “It’s embarrassing, Britain’s a world superpower. It’s not that long since Romania’s main export was orphans” he says.

Achieving ever-broader broadband is the space race of the 21st Century. National governments see it as a key defence against economic Armageddon. Policy makers view it as a leg up to both national and regional competitiveness, helping to attract and retain inward investment, to reverse the rise in the unemployment stats and to reduce carbon emissions.

Punters, meanwhile, who understand little about the technical or economic foundations of delivering superfast broadband, and care even less, demand unbridled, unmetered and unfettered access at a lowest possible price. The UK, incidentally, fares better in the Ookla ‘value for money’ stakes with only Luxemburg, Iceland and Denmark cheaper.

The good news for speed is that BT’s engineers are busying themselves rolling out fibre-based broadband to two thirds of homes and businesses in the UK.  This superfast service, BT claims, will soon deliver speeds of up to 300Mbps.  Where customers can access the Virgin Media network, they can enjoy high-speed access too.  Given time and continued investment, the current shortfall in fixed line speeds should get sorted for the metro-dwelling majority.  But the internet isn’t simply the preserve of townsfolk.

Operators can make fixed line broadband investments in densely populated cities and large towns with a reasonable expectation of getting their money back eventually.  But if you look out the window of your home, and the only living things you can see are cows enjoying the good life, the economics are less appealing.  That’s where wireless broadband has a critical part to play.  The lower cost of rolling out mobile internet access infrastructure across the rolling hills means the economics work better than for fixed line services.

3G mobile coverage is not bad today, but the download speeds it offers wouldn’t pass everyone’s dictionary definition of broadband.  But the boffins never rest and fourth generation mobile broadband, sometimes referred to as LTE or Long Term Evolution, could be the saviour of rural life.

Those in Finland getting Teliasonera’s LTE services today enjoy downloads at an average of 36.1Mbps, while in the US, Verizon’s 4G customers get around 6.5Mbps.  Of course, these are early days and as the number of end users on these new networks grows, that average speed could change.

But what about LTE services in the UK?  Well, here, the news is not so good.  The only trial underway involving real people is small scale and is being managed by BT and Everything Everywhere – they’ve set out to prove LTE’s application in remote areas of Cornwall and are using test spectrum, effectively that part of the airwaves that is being vacated by broadcasters as they say goodbye to analogue transmission for all things digital.

And spectrum, the airwaves necessary to carry higher speed mobile data signals, is the problem. A spectrum auction was scheduled for 2009, but squabbling among the existing operators caused delay.  The debate was really ignited by the current mobile network operators who are protecting their existing market positions, looking to build barriers to entry for others. Given how badly their balance sheets were burned in the 3G auctions, this is partly understandable, but no one forced them to play.

In July 2010, the UK Government said it would auction off the spectrum during 2011, with Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications the Creative Industries, telling Ofcom, the regulator, to get on with it and co-ordinate the auction ‘as quickly as possible’. Given his position, you’d have though him a pretty influential stakeholder.

Disappointingly, Ofcom, whose main remit is to protect and enhance customer choice, said this week that the warring factions had come up with ‘strongly argued responses’ to its consultation. So it’s ordered another round of debate. As a result, it has delayed the auction plans again, saying it will now be the end of 2012 before any spectrum is sold.  I‘m not holding my breath.

This delay will no doubt please the lawyers and the lobbyists, but does little for those that live in rural Britain.  For many of them, it must feel like being shown the first motorcar, seeing how much faster and more useful it is than the traditional pony and trap, and then refusing to open the roads to a better life.

Whoever branded this new technology as Long Term Evolution must have had great insight into the machinations of how the mobile industry works in the UK.  While those in rural areas wait like children waiting for Santa Claus, it’s clear it’s going to be a long time before the 4G evolution arrives on these shores.  Maybe the right next step for them is to speak to an estate agent?

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A BLACK WEEK FOR BLACKBERRY

At a time when Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android handsets are making life particularly difficult for the Blackberry, the last thing manufacturer Research in Motion needed was a service meltdown across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India and parts of Latin America.

But that’s exactly what’s happened when a core switch fried at a data centre in Slough, west of London and the Blackberry network went … well, black, across large parts of the world.

We can leave to one side the question of how such a single point of failure was ever designed into the network in the first place, but for RIM, Sod Law’s timing was impeccable as always.

Today, the third day of degraded or no service for around 10 million users worldwide, RIM was holding it’s annual customer conference in London.  To add insult to injury, pre-orders for the iPhone 4S, which will introduce a new service similar to Blackberry Messenger, are going gangbusters.

The apparent ease of using today’s mobile devices such as the Blackberry belie the underlying complexity needed to make them work. They require complex, clever infrastructure and gremlins can, and will, run amok from time to time.  At such times, just like a heroin addict’s mood darkens when they’re unable to get a fix, customers unable to get their email or Facebook updates become similarly gloomy as they experience cold turkey.

It is a scientific fact that when you work with advanced technology, things will go wrong.  But that’s not really the point.  It’s about how you prepare for and manage major outages and communication with customers through the crisis that really matters.

The eye of any public storm is the time when the boys go one way and the men go another in the communications department.  The consensus among Blackberry customers on this particular communications effort:  FAIL! The customer response is unsurprising.  Managing a very public crisis is never easy – I’ve managed more than my fair share over the years, so this isn’t rear view mirror commentary.

I’d wager that if the senior executives at Vodafone, O2, Orange or T-Mobile, the people that sell the Blackberry happen to be reviewing their Christmas card lists at the moment, RIM’s executives would almost certainly be blacklisted – their customer helpdesks went into meltdown as a direct result.

A detailed poke around the Blackberry homepage by mid morning on day three of the outage found no reference to the issue.  There’s no specific statement there, no apology offered and no freefone telephone number provided for customers to call for updates.

Only when I looked at the Twitter feed did I get a sense that anything was wrong. When you face such a public problem, and you’ve got it wrong once already as RIM did, you need to make it easy for disappointed customers.

You need to communicate openly, not close your eyes and hope it goes away.  This lack of acknowledgement also means no explanation that RIM’s engineers are working around the clock to restore the service. This might have calmed the customers’ frayed nerves a little.

Maybe RIM’s one step removed position from the end customers is part of the problem.  They view the mobile network operators as their customers who in turn are responsible for the end users. After all, RIM, might argue, it’s the MNOs that get paid every month for the service.

But it would be negligent for any large company, let alone one so heavily dependant on technology supporting 70 million customers around the world, 10% of whom are based in the UK, not to have a documented, tested and ready to implement crisis communications plan. If RIM has such a thing in place, it was insufficient on this occasion. Customers were left in a vacuum.

Given the negative publicity the company received during the UK riots only a matter of weeks earlier, which included an appearance in front of the Commons Select Committee to explain it’s position on social responsibility, this should have been water tight.  It should also have ben reviewed as a priority and updated if necessary.

This afternoon, Rory O’Neill, the company’s vice president of software and services, explained that they “… thought we had got to the root cause on Monday but we did not,” adding: “We are dealing with over 20PB of data every month so you can imagine the disruption we are trying to resolve.”  Interesting and useful information to a telecoms engineer, but not a great message to the vast majority of Blackberry users who never imagine what that means.

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