Friday, December 15, 2006

Skype. Take a deep breath

Skype's free outbound calling to any phone in the U.S. and Canada ends at the end of the year, but they are making it easy to keep this great feature for only $15 for the next year (Link to Skype. Take a deep breath). Until the end of the year you can sign up for unlimited SkypeOut to any North American phone for 50% off. The deal includes over an hour of credit for SkypeOut Global calls. What a simple way to enable outbound calling from any location with Wi-Fi.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

You Will and They Didn't

Empty promises someone else.  Back in 1993, just before I left the company, AT&T released a series of advertisements narrated by Tom Seleck dubbed the "You Will" campaign.  These commercials described great things that AT&T will bring to consumers in the future from vast remote electronic libraries, to automated toll taking, to video on demand.  All most every innovation described in these commercials was successfully brought to market but not by AT&T.

Other companies capitalized on these innovations that frequently began in Bell Labs.  AT&T was unable to execute or capitalize successfully on a single innovation mentioned under its own name.  Although the Labs housed some of the greatest minds in science and engineering, management did not have the skills to harness probably the greatest pooling of IP in history.  One arguable exception is video on demand that the "new" AT&T is delivering with Uverse.

These failings are indicative of a company that orchestrated one of the biggest breakups in history only to completely decimate the resulting organization.  Divestiture was orchestrated by the top executives and lawyers of AT&T to maximize what they thought were its greatest opportunities:  long distance phone service, computers, and international reach.  The operating companies were perceived as a burden with their capital and labor intensive operations.  Besides the AT&T management assumed that they would still dictate the operating companies' future because they would be their biggest customers and exclusive equipment supplier.  WRONG!

What the DOJ, Judge Green, and Bob Allen and Company took apart, the free market put back together.  Last week Lucent was reunited with its distant offspring Alcatel.  If FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is allowed to vote on the AT&T/BellSouth merger, then the U.S. will be down to three strong regional, full-service telephone companies. 

At the trivestiture that separated AT&T, Lucent, and NCR, Bell Labs was divided up among the three companies.  Neither AT&T nor Lucent Technologies was able to successfully capitalize on the innovations from their respective laboratories as described in the "You Will" advertisements.  Now that the new AT&T is being managed by old SBC executives and Alcatel-Lucent by Alcatel executives, the innovations have a better chance of materializing into profitable business opportunities. Maybe it is time for AT&T to dust off the "You Will" campaign and spruce it up.  This time they may be right.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sharpcast Keeps Your Data Synchronized

Occasionally I find a product that simplifies our digital life that is worthy of mention. No, it is not another Web 2.0 social networking site. The company is called Sharpcast, and their mission is to keep our digital lives synchronized independent of the devices that we use. For years I have struggled to keep my work laptop synchronized with my home desktop computer. Since I travel frequently with my work computer, I need to manage my personal and work life from the road. Neither Apple nor Microsoft have stepped up and made it easy to keep data synchronized from one machine to the next. The best that I currently have in Microsoft's SyncToy. Now I have a web enabled phone, laptop, and desktop computers where I would like access to the same data.

Sharpcast aims to put an end to the complexities of spreading data between multiple machines. Hummingbird plans to be a universal synchronization platform for all of your files. Files can be shared between PCs, Macs, the web, and mobile phones. The software acts as a virtual drive on the device keeping data replicated on their web servers. Not only does it offer the ability to access your data anywhere from any machine; it also provides a secure off-site backup. No more mailing files to yourself at home to work on that project at home. Files can be shared between multiple users to allow for simple collaboration.

Currently the product only works with photographs, but they plan to start alpha trials with Hummingbird soon. I for one will be anxious to test this software. Hopefully they will allow for storage of a few GB of data because I presently keep about 2 GB of data in My Documents. I assume that they eventually will charge for storage, but this is a service I would gladly pay $5 per month to use.

Although the utility for the Sharpcast service is high, I wonder how they will position it to make money. Businesses will be reluctant to use it for collaboration because it lacks the features and security of Microsoft's LCS. Its performance, capacity, and security does not make it a replacement for network attached storage. Hummingbird fits nicely in the informal storage and collaboration space where companies are concerned about security. If the a business acknowledges that employees informally share information and frequently take it home, then they may see some business penetration. Their best bet it to partner with major broadband service providers to offer it as a service to residential and small business subscribers. Maybe Microsoft will absorb them into their Live Services. Just let me get my hands on it. I need it now!

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The End of an Era: Say Good-bye to Western Electric

On November 30, Alcatel and Lucent Technologies announced the completion of their merger along with a new name and corporate identity: Alcatel-Lucent. The new company will be the undisputed market leader in telecommunications equipment and solutions in almost every category. Alas, Lucent once again is the market leader, but not due to its innovation and leadership. It reached this position by selling itself to Alcatel who has built itself as a world leader in the industry through many wise acquisitions and R&D investments over the years.

Pushed as merger of equals, the new company will be led, for the most part, by Alcatel management in Paris. Although personally heartbreaking because I started my career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, it is probably for the best that Alcatel manage the new company and leverage the assets of the intellectual property contributed by Bell Labs. Lucent/AT&T Network Systems was never known for developing good managers.

Lucent Technologies grew from AT&T Network Systems that got its life after divestiture from the roots of Western Electric and Bell Labs. WECO built innovative high-quality products and managed factories like no one else as long as they were a monopoly. The problem came after divestiture when the new AT&T Network Systems emerged. All levels of management were unequipped for the new challenges of operating in a competitive marketplace that were ahead for the company. Risk taking was not encouraged. Managers that took a risk and were wrong were persecuted by their peers. Managers that avoided decisions and went with the consensus were promoted and had very successful careers. This led to the loss of leadership in digital switching, wireless, and transmission products where AT&T Network Systems was a market leader in those categories.

Hot shots and politicos rose to the top and decimated the company. Some of these managers eventually left to ruin other great engineering companies. Talented entrepreneurs and innovators left the company to take advantage of the opportunities created by the influx of V.C. money. What was left at the beginning of the millennium was an empty shell of a company that lost its edge.

Contrasting the decline, Alcatel was bent on building a company to be a global leader in telecommunications equipment and services. They formed from what was once part of AT&T: ITT. Through the years they acquired major firms like Rockwell and DSC Communications. This gave them a foothold in North America and market leadership over Lucent around the world.

So in a way Lucent has made a full circle gaining back its international arm and market leadership. Serge Tchuruk and his team will continue to lead the company with Lucent executives in mostly subordinate roles. My bet is that they will continue to leverage the great intellectual assets of Bell Labs, Rockwell, and DSC in North America. They will be a strong force in wireless, IP, mobility, and fiber optics with the knowledge of how to put it all together. Alcatel-Lucent lacks some of the software depth to provide complete triple-play and IMS solutions, but they are spending money on acquisitions and development. This ability to look forward was something that Lucent could not do very well in the last two decades.

The new company will dominate in the network equipment and services business with a growing desire to take some of Cisco's enterprise market share. This is where the next big battle will take place for Alcatel-Lucent.

So say good-bye to the Western Electric/AT&T Network Systems/Lucent Technologies/Bell Laboratories that you knew. There will never be any place like it again, but one could question the wisdom of having most of the industry's innovation in one place. What divestitures took apart, the free market put back together. Alcatel-Lucent has come a full-circle as the telecommunications leader that it once was. The only difference is that it is playing by free market rules.