For technology enthusiasts, August is usually the most boring month of the year. And aside from the Windows 95 launch 16 years ago, not much has ever happened in August, tech-wise. August 2011, however, defied all norms. It was easily the most eventful month in tech history.
This summer had already seen high tech's version of the Cold War as August began, with various mobile industry companies circling one another like wary predators, ready to strike. Microsoft, Apple, and a cabal of other companies hit first, buying up Nortel's patent cache for $4.5 billion. It seemed like a heady price to pay at the time.
Google responded, uncharacteristically, like a child whose candy had been snatched away by a bully. In a blog post in early August, Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond whined that the mobile patents Microsoft, Apple, and others would wield against it were likely "bogus"—while never offering up any proof. He also suggested that the US government should investigate the legality of other high tech companies allying against Google's dominant Android platform in this way. He then threatened—yes, really—that maybe Google would have to defend itself against patent holders by buying up its own bogus mobile patents.
(I raised a side issue about the legality of Google's dominant Android platform, as it turns out, noting that Google had possibly obtained this dominance by "dumping" Android in the market for free. I got my wish just a week later when the FTC revealed that it was in fact investigating Google for various antitrust abuses, including illegal bundling of Google services in Android.)
Oh, poor Google. Poor, dominant Google.
Sadly for the online giant, Microsoft called its bluff. It turns out that that "cabal" of tech companies had in fact invited Google to join in on the Nortel patent purchase (as well as a related Novell patent purchase). But Google refused to join and protect Android from possible patent-infringement lawsuits. "Partnering with others and reducing patent liability across [the] industry is not something [Google] wanted to help do," Microsoft Head of Corporate Communications Frank Shaw wrote in a blog post, exposing Google's lies (and faux indignation). Score one for the software giant.
Faced with innumerable patent-infringement lawsuits—Android, after all, borrows heavily from virtually every mobile system that preceded it, and yet Google had so far refused to cross-license or license any patented mobile technologies—the online giant surprised onlookers by purchasing Motorola Mobility for a stunning $12.5 billion. This sum should have made the Nortel patent purchase look like a weekend visit to the $1 store by comparison, but our industry is full of history rewriting. Some claimed that Google had in fact secretly duped Microsoft, Apple, and others into raising their Nortel patent bids, driving up the price.
That wasn't the case. Google's interest in Motorola is a recent affair, and as for driving up prices, when you compare the number of patents Google got from Motorola—and consider the price it's paying—you'll discover that it results in roughly the same cost-per-patent as the Nortel patent purchase did. So, if Google's goal was to drive up prices for its competitors, it failed. Everyone paid about the same per patent. But at least Google now has some patents of its own, which it can use to defend Android and cross-license with others.
Now if only the US government would address that dumping charge.
Google's exploits would have made August 2011 pretty momentous on their own. But sometimes, HP happens.
As part of its quarterly earnings announcement, HP revealed that it would halt development of its Palm webOS mobile platform—previously the linchpin of a new strategy for its personal computing devices, including PCs, going forward—and would sell or spin off its PC business entirely. This was particularly exciting because HP's business isn't struggling in the slightest. In fact, HP is the number-one PC maker in the world, by far, and it sells over 50 percent more PCs than its closest competitor does.
Clueless tech analysts pointed to the rise of tablet devices such as the iPad as the reason for HP's "downfall": One New York Times article noted that PC sales were slow while "tablets are flying off the shelves," a curious comment in a year in which PC sales will grow to approximately 400 million sold, compared with less than a tenth that figure for tablets. (Like so many other tech writers, this guy confused "unit sales"—where the PC is still experiencing growth—with "growth"—where tablets are of course experiencing more momentum, because hardly any were being sold last year. This is the same crowd that started wondering whether Microsoft should buy HP's PC business. Sigh.)
But HP's problem isn't the change in PC usage, real or imagined; it's that the company is too big and slow to compete with the faster young upstarts in the PC industry (and with Apple, which is fast but not young). HP's PC business made a $2 billion profit last year, for crying out loud.
HP is really just an example of a company that can't communicate effectively (let alone act decisively). In fact, HP completely bungled its announcement of what it intended to do with webOS and its PC business. The company is not halting development of webOS at all; it's halting development of its webOS mobile devices only and wants to license webOS to others. Furthermore, it still has plans to ship webOS for PCs.
And as for that PC business, HP may or may not sell or spin off the PC business, and if it does, it may only drop the consumer portion of that business. HP says it will do whichever makes the most sense financially for the company.
Way to go, HP. You made Google look like a master communicator by comparison. No small feat in this crazy month.
With the month winding down, we received the biggest shock of all—though of course anyone paying attention had to think this could possibly have happened at any time: Apple's mercurial Steve Jobs suddenly and sadly announced he was stepping down as CEO because he "could no longer meet [his] duties." This was a clear reference to his years of health issues, which left Jobs a wan shadow of his former self and made recent press conference appearances somewhat difficult to watch.
Jobs' almost endless contributions to technology products—PCs, of course, but also MP3 players and digital media, smartphones, and now tablet devices—reveal him to be the single most important person in the history of our business and the possessor of a greatness none of us will ever truly understand. I've compared him with Edison, simply because there are so few other people who have impacted so many lives. And that's true whether you've purchased an Apple product or not.
Many are debating whether Apple can survive without Jobs. Of course it can. But it will be severely diminished—already is, really. For a time, those who remember Steve Jobs at Apple will make decisions based on what they believe he would do, and many believe this is a viable strategy. It's not. Jobs is a cipher, and attempting to think through his ever-changing moods and methods is of course impossible. Apple will continue to deliver great, but not insanely great, products. Eventually, they'll just be very good.
More important, I think, is Jobs himself. We seem to forget sometimes that there is a person there, behind the aura, and a relatively young one at that. I wish him the best.