Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Can Microsoft scratch the "Surface"?

I have been reading and hearing extreme reactions to Surface, Microsoft's new tablet(s). At one extreme, people have said that Microsoft is finally ready to kill Apple! At the other extreme, people have said that this is going to die as soon as they launch it because of lack of apps ecosystem. Has Microsoft confused people by announcing two devices in one shot? One is a pure tablet (Surface RT) and another is a tablet that can become an ultrabook (Surface Pro). Most of the reviews on the internet are not talking about these two products in isolation. Most people start talking about the tablet (Surface RT) and then add the features from Surface Pro (full desktop apps, ability to become laptop etc) and it all becomes a little fuzzy and seems to sound as if this tablet from Microsoft is ready to not only "kill" iPad but also laptops! Can it really do that? Let us find out!

There are two Surface products - you should know which one you want & why!

So, for clarity sake, first let us list down features of both products separately and then understand where each of them stand. I have taken these details from

The table here shows the features of the two products. Surface RT is the pure tablet which will compete with the iPad and Android tablets, not to mention other Win8 RT tablets as well! The parts where it really scores are the external ports to allow greater connectivity to other devices and its compatibility with Office – so you can be more productive and actually create some content (using the new keyboard cover!) rather than just consuming it as we mostly do on our touch devices. Flexible storage options also help. But it can only run Metro apps and not your regular desktop apps, so that is a big point to consider. Microsoft has not really been able to get too many apps on its Windows Phone also. However, as I have tried to prove earlier, it does have a lot of the basic apps that people need, so number one priority for Microsoft should be to bust the (half-true) myth that it does not have apps. Yes, it does not have as many apps as Apple and Android but its working towards it and it seems to have enough apps for the average user. So, Microsoft, please please please can you showcase a lot of apps in your advertisements of the Surface because you have done a miserable job with Windows Phone?

Is Surface Pro the "ultimate" device?

Moving to Surface Pro, this is the product that has the full power of a laptop and can serve as a new product that is both a tablet and a laptop. This will run the full Win8 and support both Metro apps and the desktop apps. There are lots of people who have raised doubts about Windows8 as Microsoft seems to always run into troubles with a new product (remember Vista?) – they fix it later and then come up with a better product (Windows7) but that image needs to be worked on. If they don't deliver well on the OS this time around, it is going to be an uphill ride from the word go! But it looks good and MS did a good job with the Windows Phone 7 also, so fingers crossed.

Now, a lot has been said about the Surface Pro being the ultimate device given its ability to work as a tablet and as a laptop. I agree that it does meet my idea of the ultimate device as well. However, I have some doubts in my mind. While these may or may not matter in your situation, my motivation behind listing out these points is to bring this point that mixing all in one may not be the only thing in the world for some people.

Can you use the Surface Pro on your bed or on your lap?
Can you put this on TOP of your LAP?
If I have to use the Surface as a laptop, I need to get the kickstand out and open up the magnetically attached cover/keyboard. While all those gorgeous pics in shining colours do impress, my doubt pertains to the actual target segment of such devices. A lot of these people will be the high flying category who will need to use their devices to work productively while in transit, at the airport, in the car, on the bed in the hotel room etc. However, the Surface seems to be useful as a laptop only when it is placed on a flat surface (forgive the pun). I can't imagine it being useful when I want to use it on "top" of my "lap" because of the wafer thin keyboard which may not be able to respond properly in the absence of a flat surface beneath it. The screen also needs a flat surface to allow the kickstand to do its magic. Having said that, not all buyers would probably face this issue 'cos some may be more than willing to use it as a computer on the table but I wanted to put that point out for consideration. If you look at the Surface from the side, you can see how much flat surface it needs to work as a pure laptop with keyboard.

Laptop and tablet in one is fine but some times two is better than one!
Next doubt is with respect to the fact that the ultimate device is a tablet and a laptop and makes me happy that I own two items when I paid for only one. But someone like my daughter may not be that happy! My daughter likes to play kids games and lots of other stuff on touch devices. So, in today's world, I could give the tablet to her so that she can play on it while I want to do some productive work on the laptop. When she is fed up of the touch games and wants to play some real games with her Barbie, I can use the tablet for my own use. But if the tablet and the computer are one and the same - how do we do that? Point is that most families will need to buy two devices anyway because of such dynamics. It is not a point against the Surface but a point to consider. Now, you could go ahead and buy two Surfaces - RT  as a real tablet and Pro as a "laptop" but then you may really go and buy a laptop as well. Food for thought!

Do you use your tablet sitting on a table or lying on your bed?
The last point is something again related to how people generally use their iPads (and other tablets). It is clearly more of a consuming device rather than a productive device. A lot of people use it for going through Facebook updates of their friends, "liking" pics etc and occasionally commenting on those pics etc or reading books or news or watching videos etc - all while lying in their bed or sofa, basically, in a relaxing position and not sitting in their table and chair!
Is the keyboard radical enough to "kill" iPad?

The points above just want to highlight that just by having a keyboard as a standard accessory, the Surface may not become the ultimate device. In any case, if this experiment with the keyboard does work out well, there is nothing stopping the iPad users from buying one and using the iPad as a laptop too - even though it may never sit on the top of their laps!

Microsoft Surface Pro can run both the Metro apps as well as the regular desktop version. So, it has best of both worlds but the Surface Pro is fighting with the ultrabooks and laptops. Based on my thoughts outlined above, I believe Surface Pro is more than a tablet but lesser than a laptop. So, pricing the Pro somewhere between the tablet and ultrabooks may help otherwise it is going to be a real tough ride for Surface Pro. 

It seems to me that Microsoft has addressed some pain points of iPad users by providing external ports and compatibility with Office in the Surface RT tablet. It will probably not get the Apple lovers to move to Microsoft. But there are so many others who want more from their devices - especially the business people where looks and brand appeal matter but practicality matters too. This is classical marketing - you find the gaps in your rivals' products and serve those. However, when it comes to Surface Pro, if its price is anywhere near the price tag of ultrabooks, it may not really work as most would not want to compromise  about usability at that price.

In my opinion, Microsoft should not confuse itself as the new Apple. Apple's products have been game changers for a variety of reasons. It delivers discontinuous innovations. Microsoft has tried to deliver what could be called continuous innovation - improving upon an existing product. Microsoft should play to its strengths of providing a practical, more productive solution that is compatible with the world's most popular OS. It should work on its weaknesses in marketing so that consumers actually realize the worth of its product. If that happens, Surface will be a winner even though the iPad will not be killed.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You have changed your LinkedIn password but did your phone app also ask for a new password?

After the recent LinkedIn security drama, I got an email about my password being one of "those" leaked ones. So, I promptly changed my password on the website.

I went back to normal life.

Next morning, I was just browsing through LinkedIn app and the top news stories in their app when I suddenly realized that I should have been asked for my new password on the phone app but I wasn't!

Go to "YOU" in the top menu and tap the settings logo 

Tap on "Sign Out" and login again with new password

I have manually signed out of my LinkedIn app this morning and logged in again with the new password but shouldn't that have been an automatic process? I was getting updated content on the app even after I had changed my password on the website. It did not prompt me to enter the new password! Did you face this issue as well? Worst, have you realized that you might not have changed your password for LinkedIn on all the devices that you use to access it?

Or is it just me?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Do Tech companies from the enterprise market struggle in the consumer market?

As part of the Business to Business marketing course in MBA, students are taught how branding and marketing is equally important in enterprise (B2B) markets as much as in consumer markets. There are scores of case studies and research papers that emphasize why and how companies need to communicate the value that they offer to their client companies. Given that this has been done for a few decades now, I believe companies are doing the B2B marketing pretty fine. However, surprisingly, what I have observed recently is that some companies that do well in the enterprise segment do not seem to be doing that well in the consumer segment. B2B and B2C are different ball games for sure. Some companies that I have highlighted in the post below have / had good consumer products but still are not able to get the mix right to succeed. Marketing directly to the end consumer needs a thorough understanding of consumer behavior – something which seems to be missing in the three cases I present below.

Dell Streak – too early to be introduced or was Dell too early to exit that segment?

Samsung recently launched its latest model - the Galaxy S3 that comes loaded with a massive 4.8 inches screen and firmly places Samsung at the top end of the most desirable Androids. Its 5 inch Galaxy Note has also been flying off the shelves. That lead me to think about Dell Streak, which was probably the first 5 inch Android that came up (but didn’t succeed). The large screen made my Galaxy S feel smaller but the bulkier hardware of Streak kept me away from it.

Was Dell Streak slightly ahead of its time? Probably yes. Android, and smart touch phones, were a fairly new concept at that time and people probably did not really appreciate what all they could do with the screen real estate. Samsung, on the other hand, has worked on the Android platform consistently and delivered one good phone after another and then raised the bar by showcasing their innovation with the Note and S3. Dell seems to have got the product fundamentals right that people would want a bigger phone because of the awesome things that they can do. But this was not an enterprise selling situation where their sales staff could convince clients over a PPT presentation that Dell Streak is the product they would like. Consumer markets operate differently – you can’t possibly call all potential consumers to a detailed power point presentation! Consumers learning happens over time – their attitudes towards touch screens (not reliable, don’t work properly) needed to change. One other thing where the Streak probably failed was category membership – consumers could not understand which category Dell Streak fits in – is it a smart phone or is it a tablet? Today, when the market has learned about various devices, Galaxy Note uses the same question as its tag line!

Dell is really good at execution. Its direct delivery system allowed it to cut costs and sell customized PCs at lower costs. But once that model’s novelty faded, others have gained market share. It might also have struggled because it never had the distribution channels, so it would have had to create those channels afresh. Given that a large part of the earnings come from enterprise, Dell seems to have made its decision in favor of the enterprise market now. I am sure it will be a while before Dell tries to come back to the ultra-competitive consumer market; but it should get some consumer marketing champions in its team to capture and interpret trends.

Windows Phone – probably the first time a “Windows” device has to fight for entry in to consumers’ homes!

Another such marketing disaster seems to be happening currently with Windows Phone. While there are rave reviews about the OS and there are reports that predict Windows Phone to be taking over a huge market share shortly, I have my doubts because of the lack of proper marketing for this phone. Microsoft has never really needed to advertise its products aggressively, primarily because Windows PCs are so omnipresent. A good part of that is because of Microsoft's marketing at the enterprise level. But given that there aren't many operating systems anyway, Microsoft really hasn't had to try and understand the end consumer. MS has recently taken to advertising on televisions for its Windows 7 operating system. But even that campaign seems to be a reinforcement campaign, meant to just keep MS in the public awareness; to let people know that Windows 7 is there and they should choose that instead of sticking to the old war horse, Windows XP. I would have loved to see an advertisement for Windows Phone that would attack Android as just an “inspired” (and cheaper) version of iPhone and then show how much Windows Phone is innovative and focus on its key product features like the metro styling. It should have been positioned as an iPhone rival with proper focus on promotion of the app market ecosystem that has been created. That would have helped it move from the salience and performance levels to resonance and relationships. But, we see none of that. And God only knows what has happened to Nokia – from the way things are going, it seems it may never regain that top slot it once had. There are no top end aspirational phones like HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S3 in the Windows Phone area. Not so encouraging reviews about Windows 8 and other bad press about Microsoft in general does not help either. The imagery of Windows Phone in the consumer mind does not seem to be correct, yet but still, as I have written previously, Microsoft does not seem to be serious!

Blackberry - Good for enterprises but does the consumer care?

Blackberry is another example. Blackberry was always successful based on the value that it was bringing to the enterprises by providing push email and BBM to its executives who could become more productive but when it came to enticing the end consumer directly, they faltered. However, one must give some credit to BB for being more aggressive in the consumer market. But they seem to have missed the basic trick about understanding what differentiates them from others, as I have highlighted previously. Blackberry tried to become a consumer brand by doing the famous "Blackberry boys" campaign but my feeling is that they probably got their positioning confused with that campaign. It certainly diluted the executive phone positioning and so, if an executive has to go for a "fun" phone, why wouldn't he go for an iPhone or Android. This is a BIG why - if BB answers it correctly, it could keep laughing its way to the bank!

Conclusion: Mother's advice holds good even today: Whatever you do, do it well!

Consumer and business markets are obviously different but does it imply that brands like Dell and Blackberry which excel in enterprise markets have a native disadvantage when it comes to consumer products? It might be too harsh to term it as disadvantage but it definitely is a major challenge. But given the trends of cloud at the enterprise level and mobile devices at the consumer level (often to access the data from that cloud), these companies might do well to keep a dedicated team for both markets to leverage the advantage of convergence. And irrespective of the market they follow, they should understand that both are different and require pretty different strategies and tactics to succeed.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Flipkart closes And therein lies the first lesson of e-commerce!

Shutter down...
The suspense is over. Months of speculation over what Flipkart will do with Letsbuy has finally come to a close with, well, the closure of (the website).

From around the 1st of June 2012, gives you details on its home page that it has integrated operations with the largest player in the category. The decision is logical since Flipkart is the bigger brand and, without a doubt, much better at operations than Letsbuy. Two different websites doing pretty much the same thing were always going to be a liability to maintain apart from confusing their operations folks as well! Having given some time for to probably finish pending orders and to integrate backend operations, it was time to close the website.

So, while this happened, I am sure a lot of LB people working on the website would be out searching for new jobs. A friend of mine was working as a tech lead there and has recently moved on to greener (or should I say "safer") pastures. Well, this is part of the integration in the e-commerce space that is far from over with a good number of websites still offering the same kind of products at similar prices. I will leave the integration discussion to a separate post, later.

The Greatest e-Business Lesson

Even if it might appear obvious to a lot of people, I want to explicitly emphasize that this closure of the website is a stark reminder to all of those happy-go-lucky web enthusiasts who think creating a website is the solution to all of world's problems! Believe me, I have been part of many business plan presentation sessions and one is surprised to see the amount of details that are provided over how the website will use the latest Web 2.0 stuff and cloud offerings (and what not) while the "operational" part is left for one slide tucked away between the cloud computing and the number crunching slide! A website is just the front end of the offering. The real deal is the backend, which is what eventually Flipkart integrated and closed down the website. Now, for the folks who believe in the theory that Flipkart bought Letsbuy for other "covert" reasons, I just want to say that this point still holds. The website is not needed after sometime while the backend operations / warehouses of Letsbuy do make sense for Flipkart. As for the covert theory, I touch upon it again towards the end.

Look at what Amazon has done in India!

This appeared in ET in Feb 2012
As if to teach us all about the rules of e-commerce, look at what the big daddy of all online retailers has done for its entry in to India. Amazon has applied for a license for a logistics subsidiary first. It wants to establish the operational backbone in the country first, while testing the Indian consumer  preferences through And when it is ready with its backend, it won't take more than a few days for it to launch its India website. Flipkart is already anticipating Amazon's entry and Letsbuy acquisition was probably part of that readiness. Theory of Rational Expectations suggests that Amazon would also expect a big retaliation from Flipkart when it actually commences operations and would thus plan its own launch with that in mind.That would be an interesting time for e-commerce websites. The smaller ones can probably only hope that Flipkart agrees to buy them to lap up marketshare because Amazon seems ready to go the organic way.

I tried to mess around with Letsbuy redirection but they did a good job!

Let us come back to the home page. Links to various categories on the home page now take you to the corresponding category page on Flipkart. I even tried to play extra smart and checked the old letsbuy link for a TV I recently bought from Letsbuy.To my surprise, it took me to the exact same product on Flipkart. The only disappointing thing was that the price was around INR 2,000 more than what I had bought for on Letsbuy! Something tells me those 2000 bucks were part of the reason why Letsbuy got bought over!

Shouldn't Flipkart also move my order history from Letsbuy to Flipkart?

Now, when they have been so smart about the website redirection, I was wondering if Flipkart can please move the order history also to Flipkart? The message on the home page says that I have to call them to know my order history (between 8AM and 9PM). Now, I have been a customer of both LB and FK, using the same email id. If they can use that to merge my order history now, the combined data would be much more useful for FK to analyse and provide me better "suggested items" than it currently does. That would probably showcase its true intentions also for buying up Letsbuy - was it truly for more market share or was it one of the conspiracy theories that Flipkart took over Letsbuy to prevent a drop in the perceived value of ecom start ups (like itself). Right now, without porting my previous Letsbuy orders over to Flipkart, FK seems to be disregarding the relationship that customers had with Letsbuy, not to mention the loss of cross selling opportunities based on previous purchases.

That is not how a company in the B2C space should treat its customers. With its reputation of outperforming on customer service, I am sure Flipkart can do better than this - right?