Changing Home Communications Infrastructure

30 years ago, the then state-owned telecommunications monopoly, Telecom Australia (now Telstra) paid a visit. They were installing a pulse-dial phone service. I asked how fast a dial-up modem could go on that service. The technician showed me the pit where the copper twisted pair wire was outside in the street. He told me it was put there in the 1920s. Then he carefully explained why, for materials-sciences reasons, that wire would never be able to carry a modem signal faster than 14.4 kilobits/sec. If I was lucky, I might get 9600 baud on a modem (in 1980).

In 1985, I managed to buy a modem that boosted my 2400 baud rate to 4800. Five years later, I did get a 9600 baud modem that seemed to work OK. In 1995, 14.4K was normal. By 1997, I was getting 56K from a little card in my laptop.

Then hybrid fibre-coax cable TV came to my neighbourhood. We got an analogue cable TV box and a DOCSIS cable modem on that service. On a good day, you could get 10 megabits/sec on some websites. Most days, especially as more people got on the service, it was way less than that.

In 2001, we switched to an ADSL service for the Internet, mostly for economic (price/performance) reasons. Also, my employer – Microsoft – subsidised the home Internet service to the tune of $70/mth. We got a 1 megabit/sec down, 512K up ADSL 1 modem hooked up to the copper-twisted pair. Seems like 20 years of comms R&D had exceeded the phone technician’s 1980 bandwidth limit by 2 orders of magnitude.

In 2005, ADSL 2+ came to our local exchange. For $100/mth, we were meant to get 20 megabits/sec down and 1 meg up. We actually get 6-8 meg down and about 300K up. And that mileage varies according to transient conditions on the network.

Over the last 4 weeks, we’ve negotiated to put everything back onto the cable. Telstra has an offering for 100 megabits/sec in our neighbourhood. A product bundle gets us all the TV in Full HD (with a new set-top box), all our broadband at the higher speed (with a new DOCSIS 3 cable modem) and all our fixed-line and mobile phone charges on one bill for about $300-$400 per month. I’m sure our mileage and charges will vary too.

The most frustrating thing about this latest home communications infrastructure upgrade is the appointment(s) for installation. Telstra has rescheduled the date/time for coming to our home to install the new boxes and activate the new service 4 times in 4 weeks. Very annoying!

I guess after 30 years, a new cable, 6 orders of magnitude bandwidth/speed improvements and several generations of technology, they still haven’t learned how to run a diary for their field force. Grrrr…

Perhaps by the time the National Broadband Network comes to my home (in about 5 year’s time), the fibre-to-the-home infrastructure will give me another order of magnitude improvement in bandwidth/speed. Maybe it’ll cost about the same, if not a bit more. With any luck, the people installing it will be able to keep an appointment…

UPDATE: Almost a year later, the speed of this service seems to be holding up:

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Changes in Aspen

Aspen, Colorado is one of those places you expect to weather almost any storm – meteorological, economic, social or otherwise. In some ways, that’s true. Since the Second World War, Aspen has grown to become the playground of the rich & famous in America. It’s been one of our favourites for years. The quality of the climate and snow are legendary and, until recently, have been among the most consistent in the world. The accommodation & food have always been excellent. The people have been friendly and welcoming. All in all, a great place to be.

We’ve been there in boom-times & busts. In 1998, Aspen was riding high on a surging American & world economy. The gliterati were all there to be seen in the exclusive places. The doctors & lawyers held their conferences there. The well-off from around the world were all there in force. We went back in 2002 and were surprised how little had changed. The snow was still great, the food & hotels wonderful and people from all over were out there having a ball. But all that seemed to have changed by 2010 when we went there in February.

The last few years have been tough in America and for many ski-resorts the world over. I was expecting some visible changes in Aspen, but nowhere near what we actually saw. Somehow, the complexion of this ever-growing place has taken on an ugly façade and Aspen/Snowmass is all the worse for it. Failed property developments, incomplete construction sites and dilapidated & ageing infrastructure were only the beginning of what we noticed. People were uncharacteristically frugal almost to the point of stinginess. Retail shop-fronts were vacant and empty. Everything was discounted and the vendors spoke in hushed tones about the effects of the downturn.

Then there was the snow. When we got there, it was almost non-existent (in February!). The difference between the published snowfall statistics and the actual observable coverage on the ground was almost scandalous. The sun wasn’t shining but the snow wasn’t falling either. The skiing was interrupted by several lifts not running and the lift-lines were trivially small (if there were any at all). I’d never seen anything like it in a top-10 major resort in the high-season anywhere in the world over the 40-odd years I’ve been skiing on 4 continents.

The doctors’ conferences were still there but no lawyers. The television sets had been upgraded to HDTVs but the commercials were full of weigh-loss products, junk foods, legal services and automotive advertising. The doctors seemed more interested in skiing & drinking than attending their sessions. A famed physics researcher from CERN cancelled his highly-promoted lecture, disappointing an old friend of mine. The Russians were there in force but very few Europeans and almost no Asians. The Americans that were there were much more upper-middle class types than the rich & famous.

Strangely, Australians & New Zealanders were much more prominent this time than I can ever remember. It seems that Pepperidge Farms has been granted a licence to make and distribute the signature Australian cookies – Tim Tams. I even met an old high school buddy of mine from Melbourne there, quite unexpectedly. Another Australian, a former-life colleague of mine, was also there at the same time as part of a 6-week American vacation. This time, Liesa & I were not part of a minority demographic. If anything, we were part of the norm.

President’s Day weekend was the exception. People from all over America came to Aspen/Snowmass. Lift-lines grew longer and restaurants filled up. Unfortunately, the weather closed and quite suddenly and disrupted the travel plans of many. We heard from a local 4WD chauffeur than people were paying nearly US$1000 for a one-way trip into Denver when the local airport couldn’t cope. My high-school buddy missed boarding his flight home that Saturday due to crowds and logistical failures at Aspen airport; he was very “hacked-off”.

We were lucky enough to be there for a month. In mid-February, a 5-day snowstorm came in from the west. For 4 of those days, unusually damp snow fell over the Roaring Fork Valley and covered Aspen/Snowmass with almost a metre of new snow. On the last day, the climate turned much more typically Colorado-classical: cold days & much colder nights (-25C or colder), dry fluffy snow and lots of it everywhere. The moisture seemed to be sucked out of the top layer of the snow. The following day, Feb 23, was perfect by any definition: cloudless blue skies, no wind and a max temp of -7C. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had skiing and much more like the Aspen I remembered. One of the locals told me it was the best day on that mountain for 3 years. It was a privilege to have been there and certainly made our trip. Here’s a few pictures: 



There are several more (and higher-resolution) pictures from this trip elsewhere on this website.

I guess the contrast between the one perfect day and all the others was put into stark relief by all the other differences we’d noticed since we were last there. The gaudiness of the newest up-market developments seemed to have lost all of the alpine soul of the Aspen/Snowmass we knew from other trips. The older places were clearly not maintained to the standards of years past – broken toilets, shabby carpets and a general lack of cleanliness were the most obvious. The ‘best’ places were pushing the envelope on quantity rather than quality. The top restaurants were serving ridiculously large (even for American standards) portions of food that wouldn’t pass for acceptable in a bistro in Melbourne. Wine lists were enormous and the prices for the better French wines were astronomically high. Yet a modest local Italian place was selling a stunning Amarone (Masi Costasera) for less than we’d paid in Australia (or Switzerland, France & Italy). Of course, down the road in Aspen, that same wine was selling for 40% more…

It seems that Aspen has changed, and not for the better. We’ve come to expect the best of the best from the top-10 resorts in the world. The one perfect day and a few of the meals were definitely up to scratch. The best places disappointed. The newest premium places were clearly the result of over-financed, over-designed modern monstrosities that were emblematic of the times of excess in America before the global financial crisis. The weather, as we have seen in the current Winter Olympics in Vancouver, has deteriorated markedly.

We saw some of this in Chamonix at Christmas 2008 but we did not expect what we saw in Aspen – a country gone mad with flashy and ugly over-consumption, 6-litre SUVs and a tragic loss of connection to Alpine culture. No wonder the weather has changed. What else could it possibly do.

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What a Year For Change

The last 12 months have been extraordinary in terms of change. An African-American in the White House. The Global Financial Crisis and The Great Recession. The collapse of the US Automotive Industry and the resurrection of GM & Chrysler as very different (and much smaller) companies. This morning, GM claimed their electric Chevy Volt may get 230 mpg (!) Microsoft laid off people for the first time in their history. Apple, Google, Facebook & Twitter are prospering. What a year!

Here in Australia (which has fared better than most developed nations), some of the changes have been more muted. At work, many have lost work and more have changed jobs. I’ve had 4 managers in 12 months. My clients of a year ago – GM, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda in Australia – are all in a very different place. My job changed – from the Automotive guy in an Industrial group to a guy in the Public Sector group. I changed my computer from a PC to a Mac. On the home front, we’ve switched from being a 20+ year BMW driver and bought an Audi (which arrives in a few weeks).

Car companies, financial institutions, computer companies are just some of the visible symptoms of the last year of change. It seems to have been a turning point of a long cycle. Not since 1930s & 40s has there been so much hardship across the developed world. Not since the reconstruction after the Second World War has there been so much talk of how to remake worldwide social, political and economic institutions. Alternative energy, micro-blogging, social-networking and a huge renaissance in government intervention are visible signs of this broader change.

Changing a globalised economy based on fossil-fuel energy sources is no mean feat. Hydrogen public transport in Iceland and hydrogen fuel-cell trials in California are both promising but very small-scale initiatives. Electric cars with either no or very small internal-combustion motors are another one which have yet to really come to market. Geothermal power in New Zealand, Iceland and a few other places is another renewable source. France’s enormous nuclear power industry seems to be the best example of non-fossil fuel energy source in widespread production use. Cellulosic ethanol use is also pushing up food prices in some parts of the world.

The needs of the emerging economies are daunting. China’s dependency on coal-fired power stations is frighteningly large. The urbanisation of both China & India are placing huge demands on the fossil-fuel sources. Tata’s Nano looks to be in tens of millions of households in a few year’s, each with a 700cc petrol motor that isn’t particularly efficient or environmentally friendly. South America (especially Brazil), Africa (to a lesser extent) and Eastern Europe are also emerging from some very tough effects of the recent troubles. They too – with their billions of people – will start consuming more and more energy.

Over half the planet now lives in cities. Going forward, more and more people will be urban dwellers. The road networks, utility networks and other systems will be similarly strained by the population influx. Making better use of existing infrastructure is one way to alleviate some of this stress. Building more infrastructure (which is almost certainly needed) is another. In the interim, there will be changes foisted upon the existing and new city folk. Public transportation, public housing, public healthcare and public education will all feel the pressure of more people too. It’s almost unimaginable that governments will either be able to or want to fund the required increases in these social services.

By contrast, life in the country has been spiralling towards an all-time low in modern times. Many rural-sector economic activities have become interwoven into large-scale businesses run from cities. Agri-business is the most visible form of this change. In China, displaced factory workers from the current global economic climate seldom have viable alternative places to go. Their villages and family (and collective) farms have been radically transformed. Some rural communities have disappeared. Some have been flooded by large-scale damming of rivers. Some have been deserted by the people moving to the cities. Some have no viable natural resource base left – their land is no longer arable, their water so polluted it poisons any living thing.

Here in Australia, there has been a drought for most of the last decade. The last year has been particularly dry. Depression and suicide among farmers is at an all-time high. Family farms have been devastated by the twin effects of the drought and global financial crisis. My own family sold a country home on the shore of an irrigation reservoir whose shore-line retreated from the property in 1996 never to return. I drove over a bridge of that weir last weekend. A trickle in the original riverbed was all the water we could see, some 15 metres below the bridge. The district – once a thriving farming community – is now a tourist destination for the city-based people who can still afford their holiday homes. The local economy is now almost entirely dependant on people from Melbourne. The local water will be piped south to Melbourne when the (politically controversial) pipeline is finished next year.

The switch from private sector to the public sector of much of this activity is staggering. Billions and sometimes trillions of dollars of government debt are being clocked up to do all sorts of things today. From bailing out Wall St to supporting Motor-town to plain-old cash handouts to stimulate consumer spending. Pipelines and river-basin rescue programs are buried in huge government appropriations that do everything from building broadband networks to building bridges, schools, hospitals and train-lines. Government “stimulus” spending has become the new boom industry, Spending on a scale that even a year ago was just unthinkable is almost universally popular.

For me, my Audi is just as fun to drive as my BMW but it’s 30% more fuel-efficient and 35% less-polluting (at about the same price). My Mac is much more fun to use and is faster and greener than my PC at about twice the price. My new job is much more satisfying than my old one because the customer is buying. I like Obama much more than Bush despite the fact that I’m centre-right politically. I’m one of those many millions of people who contributed to his election campaign last year. Despite being a paid-up member of the Liberal Party here in Australia, I take my hat off to Mr. Rudd (and Mr. Swan) for their performance in very tough circumstances.

I feel very fortunate that I live in Australia and I work for a global company that’s in great shape. I get a lot of people asking me for advise (and sometimes for a job). I can’t say I saw this all coming but I knew something was going to happen, so I made some changes in anticipation. I’m so glad it turned out the way it did. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in other places that’ve been much more harshly affected.

 

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The Changed World Financial Situation

Over the last few weeks, the world’s governments, bankers, economist and media have been fixated on a Financial Crisis. It seems to have started as a consequence of the sub-prime mortgage practices in the US. This crisis has gripped the world with fear and panic not seen since the 1930s. It seems to be all anyone can talk about.

Some of the dimensions of this crisis are staggering. Trillions of dollars of public money has been injected into the financial system. Politicians of all complexions have become fiscal interventionists. The Swiss and American governments have bailed out their nations’ principal private banks. The UK and other European governments have nationalised some failing banks. Governments around the world have put some form of guarantee on deposits to bolster confidence in the system.

Coordinated multilateral action, albeit faltering at first, seems to be working. Central bankers from the world’s developed and emerging economies are cooperating in a way not seen since the end of World War II. At the same time, the EU now want to re-write the rules of their financial system to depart from the system agreed at Bretton Woods in 1944. Then, as I believe it will now, the US got what it wanted. But things are very different today than they were in the dying days of the War.

Today, the centre of financial gravity has moved from the US and Europe to Asia. When all the accounting has been done, I believe the recent financial crisis will mark the official transition in that process. It will declare that Asia is wealthier than America or Europe in real net present value terms. It will be a passing of the torch from the old world of money to a new world of money that will dominate this century. It is a stark and sudden way for this to happen but history is full of these disruptive transformations.

Americans, Australians and many Western Europeans have been living well beyond their means for some time now. What started with continuously improving living standards in the post-war generation (largely borne of hard work and savings) became obsessive materialism. What began as ‘keeping up with the Joneses in the streets of pre-fab suburbs like Levittown, NY in the late-40s has become almost obscene conspicuous consumption by the upper-middle-class. Even the behaviour of an entire generation (Gen "Y") is profoundly unsustainable in economic and financial terms.

Modern banking was probably invented by the Templars during the Crusades. There’s even some suggestion that after Friday 13 October 1307 (Friday the 13th), some Templars & their treasure helped establish the Swiss banking system. In the 1500s, Philip of Spain needed the House of Rothchild in Paris to finance his wars with England. Last century, the American Lend-Lease program was probably the greatest example of buy-now, pay-later. After the War, the web of financial services available to an ever-more prosperous and ever-growing middle-class scaled up into the billions of consumers. Now, as some of the titans of Wall Street, of The City (London), of Zurich and other places fall into insolvency, the road ahead looks very uncertain.

I can’t imagine Visa and Mastercard going broke. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people had to pay cash for their houses and cars. I can see an awful lot of "McMansions" selling for a fraction of their construction price. I can see executive compensation retreat from the extraordinary levels it has been at for some years now. I can see a great deal more people (and perhaps and number of different kinds of people) returning to saving part of their net-disposable income as a habit.

But the greatest change I can see is that what constitutes "middle-class" is going to change. It will be much less about a two-car garage in a suburban housing estate with a double-income family with two kids and a dog and/or cat. It’ll be much more about living at 75% of household income after tax and making do with less. Who knows, a few billion people saving some money might just repair the world financial crisis better than knee-jerk government intervention.

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Changing Back

The first computer I ever bought with my own money was an Apple Macintosh in 1984. Before that, personal computing meant sharing a computer with other people – at school, at work or some other place (like a college dorm room). We had a small townhouse in inner-suburban Melbourne, Australia and an even smaller desk to put it on. I was a road-warrior IT guy and a university student. Macs were an ideal computer – mobile, useful and fun.

We did everything we could to learn about the technology deeply. We went to Apple in the US for developer education, we participated in local and overseas user groups and I read everything I could get my hands on. When Steve Jobs left Apple to form NeXT, we knew something was up and we followed him on his journey. At a shop near Stanford University in Palo Alto, we saw NeXT make it’s retail debut and almost bought one. Some of our friends & colleagues bought NeXT cubes and workstations, but we stayed faithful to the Macintosh.

In 1991, we made the decision to switch everything to Windows. It was a traumatic experience. We became VB developers and refocused our business on the Microsoft ecosystem. Some years later, I went to work for Microsoft after over half-a-decade in their Partner community. I bought my last Motorola-CPU Mac in 1992 and never touched that platform again – until recently. I left Microsoft 5 years ago and exited their ecosystem a couple of years ago. It just wasn’t what we wanted to do any more.

Now, at IBM, I see some of my colleagues in Australia using Macintoshes as their work computers. It’s a supported platform inside the corporate infrastructure, although much of the software we use is still in beta on Mac. I even have one of the Solution Architects in one of my projects using a Mac everyday. Back in 1984, I never thought I’d see Apple Macintosh behind the firewall at IBM. The guys at Lotus are hard at work supporting Macintosh and the iPhone from their whole family products – Notes, Sametime, mobility and so on. Those betas have either gone public or will do so very soon.

For their part, Microsoft have continued and extended their support for the current-generation of Macintoshes and iPhones. Office 2008 for Mac is out and I see my colleagues at IBM using it everyday. The iPhone 3G has ActiveSync natively supported in the software stack. Seems like Macs and iPhones are headed to become first-class corporate citizens sanctified by both IBM and Microsoft!

Of course, Apple has changed remarkably in recent years to make this all happen. Apple’s Mac OS/X is an evolution of NeXT’s software. Steve Jobs has been back at Apple for over a decade and continues to do a great job. The iPod phenomenon has brought Apple back to commercial health and Macintosh has become a technologically respected platform. Ironically, the Macintosh did this by using IBM’s PowerPC CPU for over a decade and more recently by morphing into a great Intel PC. Apple, NeXT software & Intel hardware have come together to produce what Macs are today.

Lately, Intel announced some new CPUs – some mobile processors for notebooks and the "Nehalem" processor dubbed Core i7. I’m waiting for Apple to announce a 17" MacBook Pro. That’s the Mac I want to use everyday at work. For my private software development efforts (particularly for the iPhone), I want an Core i7 Mac desktop with a big screen at home. I’m excited and I’m anxious at the same time. I haven’t read so much technical literature at the software development and technology infrastructure level for 20 years.

Going back to Mac is about going forward. 5+ years of using a Microsoft Smartphone on a 2G network and over 15 years of using Windows, Office and Exchange on slow Ethernet connected to a ever-growing Internet are over. I stopped using Outlook a couple of years ago and that was the beginning. Using an iPhone on modern 3G network is wonderful. Apparently, using a recent Mac on a fast (100 Mbps 802.11n) wireless network is fantastic. I’m looking forward to it.

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Changing the Game – Apple’s iPhone 3G

Getting an iPhone 3G in Australia has been a long wait with a wonderful surprise at the end. Like so many things Steve Jobs has done in 30 years of innovation, there’s a strange combination of secrecy and publicity surrounding every launch. It was that way with the Macintosh in January 1984. It was remarkably similar last year with the US launch of the iPhone. Anticipated, much speculated in the press, almost no pre-launch PR from Apple. A huge frenzy of pent-up demand among the customers.

I decided against standing in line on the night before the iPhone 3G became generally available in 20-odd countries around the world. July in Melbourne can be a wintry time at the best. The night of July 10/11 was particularly cold, windy and damp. As it turned out, that was a good decision. Systems melted down on July 11 with the rush and there were delays in all 3 of the Australian carriers offering iPhone 3G. Some phones couldn’t be activated for many hours after purchase. Apparently, this happened all over the world.

I did go into a telco retail shop in downtown Melbourne on the following Saturday morning. It was a very circumspect affair. We were 2 of the 8 people waiting for the door to open at 9am. When we got to the shop 5-10 minutes beforehand, there were only 4. We were immediately served by a nice young lady who explained that the day before there had been system difficulties. She tried to manage my expectations down to a level she could easily deliver to, but I was impatient and persistent. I had waited for an iPhone for 4 years.

Eventually, after a couple of attempts, my number was ported from a competing telco and my iPhone 3G was activated. I selected a few accessories from the very limited range in the shop and went to the point-of-sale. We were out of the shop in about 2 hours very relieved that I had a functioning device and service. The combination of excitement, frustration and satisfaction was intense and unfamiliar. I can’t remember getting that emotional about a technology toy in many, many years.

After a short drive home, I got all the accessories unboxed and plugged in. I then proceeded to register the phone through iTunes, buy some music and apps and subscribe to MobileMe – Apple’s re-branded .Mac service to do push email, calendar, contacts and cloud-storage. It was absolutely simple and straight-forward. Everything was done in a few minutes without looking at a manual or touching a customer support service. Satiated and hungry, we went out for lunch.

We drove up into the country for a Saturday night in a Manor house near the mountains. The 3G service from the dominant telco in Australia performed flawlessly. The iPhone 3G on this network ran at full speed in all the locations we stayed at – including a ski-resort on the Sunday. At no place along the way did I ever lose signal entirely (no mean feat for a network that’s only a year or two old). I managed to use 1GB of data traffic within the first 24 hrs and most of that was in the bush. The GPS + 3G location finder found me in a bedroom in a manor house in the country on the weekend as easily as it did in my living room at home yesterday.

Facebook and The New York Times were the first two applications I used heavily. I downloaded the Facebook app thru iTunes on my work (Windows XP) PC connected to my home broadband. I did the NYT app over the air in the country on the 3G network. Both recognised me as an existing Internet customer of some years instantly and almost without intervention. I was posting mobile photo-blogs within minutes. The resolution of the iPhone screen (160 dpi) makes reading the paper a dream. I even found out how do to a screen-shot yesterday:

My iPhone 3G

Since the weekend, I’ve been filling out the content. More music, video, podcasts and audiobooks. More mail & contacts in MobileMe from the various email services I use – Lotus Notes at work, Google gmail, Yahoo mail, MSN LiveMail, email from my local broadband provider. Getting the relationships between services right and functional has been rather more straight-forward than I’d imagined. There’s even a pre-announcement from IBM’s Lotus group about a forthcoming product for Apple’s iPhone.

There’s a ton of free Wi-Fi hotspots around that the phone recognises. Getting my home Wi-Fi network in order proved to be a much bigger challenge than I’d imagined. Someone from the telco will be coming to fix that next Monday. It seems that my PayTV, home phone, home broadband and now home wireless network – all from the same company – need some special attention to all work together. Good thing they’re not charging me for that remediation service. That would be something to complain about.

I’m waiting for my next phone bill with some trepidation. I’m sure I’ve been a heavier user of the 3G service this month than I plan to be over time. No Wi-Fi at home will do that. After the home & work Wi-Fi issues are sorted out, I’m sure I’ll be as satisfied economically as I am functionally. I never thought a phone could have so much of a computer in it, despite all my time in the industry. Undoubtedly, my next step (excuse the pun) will be to the SDK to write my first app. But that’ll be another post.

The game has been changed. The device you carry in your pocket has now become the phone, email, browser, blogger, social-networking and location-service device. No other device seems to have captured the public imagination like Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone 3G is a wonderful upgrade to a wonderful concept. Sure, the camera could be better – but I already have a really good (12 MP) camera. Sure it could do videos, but my other camera does that just fine. Sure there’s always more to do, but I figure they’ll get around to that in successive releases, For me, I’m delighted.

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Changing of the Guard at Microsoft

Bill Gates’ widely-reported departure from Microsoft yesterday is the kind of event that aptly evokes cliches like "end of an era". Demonised by many, revered by others, Gates’ exit has been a remarkably gradual and more importantly a managed affair. As a Microsoft employee of 5-10 years ago, I recall the beginning of the end vividly. Despite working for IBM, I’ve been personally touched by the moment.

Steve Ballmer has been the (rather unimpressive) CEO for the last 8 years. I understand from insiders that Bill & Steve first spoke about Gates retiring in 2004. Ray Ozzie, arguably the best hire at Microsoft in recent times, has been doing the Chief Software Architect job for some time now. Since it was announced 2 years ago, there have been endless pieces in the media on Bill leaving from almost every angle. Over the last week, the media coverage has been extraordinary, particularly in blogs.

But it’s not just a media feeding frenzy. Just 2 days ago, a former colleague from Microsoft in Melbourne retired after 15 years. I wasn’t the only one of the "old guard" at his small invitation-only farewell celebration. A few of them still work there; only 3 of us don’t. Despite the intimacy of the gathering, the guy leaving couldn’t help himself making an oblique reference to Gates "having his Microsoft chip removed too". The mood in the room was palpable.

Both Steve & Bill were brought to tears in public at the handing-over of a scrapbook on the final day. They’re not the only ones weeping. Ballmer and his team have their work cut out for them. New threats to (and opportunities for) Microsoft are everywhere – Google & Apple among them. The majority of the senior leadership in Redmond are long-time employees. The company is bigger than ever. Can the old guard change something so big and commercially successful?

Calls for Ballmer to retire are mounting. The disappointment with Windows Vista alone would have brought any other CEO unstuck. It has certainly cost some senior execs their jobs. Renewal may well need to come with new blood at the top. Changing the company sooner rather than later is widely thought to be a decisive factor in its future. Shedding the tarnish of the anti-trust case(s) will need some serious successful delivery of new and better products & services, not just marketing, PR and perception-management. Buying Yahoo was never going to do it.

If "cloud computing" and wireless handheld devices are the future, no wonder Google & Apple are doing so well. Eric Schmidt & Steve Jobs must feel just wonderful, as they were both roundly beaten when they competed with Microsoft before. Personally, I’ve been waiting for Microsoft to offer me me everything as an online consumer that they offered me as an online employee. 5 years after leaving Microsoft. I’m still waiting for much of it.

Change doesn’t often happen until the pain of staying the same exceeds the perceived worst-case pain of change. If that day comes for Microsoft, as it did for IBM in their near-death experience of the early 1990s, it will be traumatic. Maybe a changing of the guard will help.

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