Posts tagged ‘IBM’

How Much Is Sucking Up To The Government Worth in the Corporate State

One potential gauge can be seen in, of all places, advertising during the Masters golf championship.

I am not a huge golf fan, but enjoy watching the Masters and the British Open (if you have never been in Britain during the Open, it is a fun experience -- people are in bars at 9AM watching).  The Masters is unique among sporting events in that it eschews getting the maximum advertising check, and instead only accepts a tasteful 2-3 corporate sponsors, who run just a few minutes of advertising an hour.  This year the sponsors were AT&T, IBM, and ExxonMobil.

AT&T and IBM had generally non-specific ads that played up their companies' innovativeness, telling well-heeled golf viewers that they would be a good business partner on technology issues.  Exxon did something very different.  They ran ads over and over about how much they cared about education, and in particular in support of common core curriculum.

In our modern mixed economy, the worst thing you can have as a corporation is a bad image.  It means that politicians will look to score points for the next election by gutting you like a fish.  ExxonMobil is the perennial leader on this dimension, though Walmart occasionally grabs the number one spot.  So one purpose of the ads is clearly to improve its image and make people like it.  It is telling that ExxonMobil does not bother to do so in its core business.  There is a great story to be told about how much technology and capital must be invested over long time horizons to get gasoline as cheap as three or four dollars to the pump, but ExxonMobil has obviously given up on this message.  Instead, it works to be liked on a subject, education, largely tangential to its core business.

But its strategy at the Masters seemed to go further.  By actively shilling for the common core curriculum, an Obama-favored initiative to further Federalize k-12 education, they are essentially sucking up to this administration.

I and most of my family worked for Exxon.  I only worked a few years at Exxon (in beautiful Baytown, Texas) but members of my family worked for Exxon their entire lives, and I have known and still know a number of Exxon execs.  And I can say with good confidence that few if any of them really believe that shifting control of education from local agencies close to parents to Washington is really going to help education very much.

So, if you watched yesterday, you saw a multi-million dollar suck-up. And the pathetic thing is that it was probably a useless exercise. The bullied often try to end bullying by sucking up to the bully -- it seldom works.

I'm Not Dead Yet

This is an interesting perspective on why Blackberry / RIM may not be dead yet.  After a weekend trying to futz with iPhone access to Gmail and a failed iPhone OS upgrade, I am sympathetic to the enterprise argument that modern iOS and Android smart phones may be lacking in the security and stability that corporations want.  There is still an enterprise market out there -- after all, IBM completely left most of the sexy and high-profile consumer markets but still does about  hundred billion in sales each year at a respectable 15% profit margin.

A Suggestion for Google

If Google wants to make the world a better place, they should consider throwing all the patents they pick up in this defensive transaction into the public domain.  And even better would be if the could entice Microsoft and Oracle and IBM and a few others to do the same.  The crazy web of really bad software patents is killing the innovation in this industry.

Google may say they are buying these defensively, but let them sit on their books long enough and someone is going to be sorely tempted to start mining them for $.  Just look at how far Micrsoft's position on anti-trust suits have come now that they are suing Google for anti-trust violations.

The State of Anti-Trust

A lot of folks believe that antitrust law is mainly used for consumer protection.  That may have once been true, but it certainly is not true today.  Antitrust laws are used today by one group of competitors to try to hamstring another competitor in their business, usually one that is kicking their collective butts.

Here is the latest example:

The Justice Department is investigating allegations that International Business Machines Corp. has monopolized the market for mainframe computers, broadening Washington's search for anti-competitive behavior in the technology industry.

The requests, a special kind of subpoena used in antitrust investigations, followed a complaint by [the Computer & Communications Industry Association"”a group with many IBM rivals among its members] to the Justice Department accusing IBM of harming businesses by abusing its dominance of the market for mainframes.

Narry a customer or consumer to be found.  So what is the complaint?

the CCIA alleges IBM began to tighten its grip on the market by not allowing its newest software to be used on competitors' machines.

Waaaaaaaa!  Develop your own freaking software.  The only reason these competitors have a product at all is due to another anti-trust settlement 50 years ago:

For decades, [IBM] operated under terms of a 1956 consent decree with the government that required it to license mainframe technology to competitors.

Roughly the equivalent of Coca-Cola being forced to license its formula to whoever wants it.

But I can prove this has nothing to do with consumers.  Take an earlier, similar case against IBM several years ago.

The lawsuits followed IBM's decision not to license its newest mainframe operating system, called z/OS, to customers of Platform Solutions Inc., a company that made cheaper mainframes that were compatible with IBM's.

In its complaint, Platform alleged that IBM was unlawfully "tying" its software to its mainframe hardware and requiring customers to purchase both.

Congratulations, this company was able to beat IBM on price when they bore no hardware development costs (IBM was forced to license its designs to them to copy) and obviously was a free rider on software as well.   But that is beside the point.  Here is the solution that settled the case:

That case was settled last year, after IBM purchased Platform and ended its business.

LOL.  I am pretty sure that if the anti-trust case had anything to do with customers, that increasing IBM's market share and shutting down a low cost competitor would not have been considered an appropriate fix to IBM's supposedly anti-competitive behavior.  Antitrust has devolved nearly entirely into a legal club to wack a competitor who is beating you in the marketplace.  In Europe, it has become a tool to wack foreign competitors to domestic companies without triggering trade retaliations (e.g. Microsoft, Honeywell).

Ezra Klein, There Is A Reason You Can't Get An Answer to Your Question

Ezra Klein writes:

For a long time, I took questions about stifling innovation very seriously. So did a lot of liberals. But then I realized that the people making those arguments wanted to do things like means-test Medicare, or increase cost-sharing across the system, and generally reduce costs in this or that way, which would cut innovation in exactly the same way that single-payer would hypothetically cut innovation: by reducing profits.

I also found that I couldn't get an answer to a very simple question: What level of spending on health care was optimal for innovation? Should we double spending? Triple it? Cut it by 10 percent? Simply give a larger portion of it to drug and device manufacturers? I'd be interested in a proposal meant to maximize medical innovation. I've not yet seen one.

The reason he could not get an answer to this very simple question is that it is stupid.  It is a non-sequitur.  It is, as Ayn Rand used to warn, a statist trying to force the argument to conform to his statist assumptions.

Let's take a different example, because medicine is so screwed up by government intervention that it can be confusing.  Let's imagine ourselves in the computer market in 1974.  The market is dominated by IBM mainframes, and innovation at the time was considered to be the penetration of mini computers (not to be confused with PCs, these were really just smaller mainframes) by DEC and HP.

Let's say that for some reason the US government decides it is fed up with the IBM "monopoly" and the high cost of mainframe computing and it wants to take over.  It feels like there is a lot of waste in mainframes as some people are using them for frivolous reasons while other companies who really need them can't afford them.  They might have created review boards to make sure that they thought each dollar spent on computing hardware and software was "worth it."

So, how much spending is needed to maintain innovation?  We know in hindsight that the PC revolution is looming in the next few years.  And in that context, Klein's question is absurd.  The answer is that spending per se, and even profits, in the mainframe computing market were irrelevant to the coming series of innovations.    The necessary preconditions were that entrepreneurs saw that new technology provided potential new value to consumers, and were allowed the freedom to launch these new products in hopes that the value these new products provided would be sufficiently high that consumers would pay enough for them to return their cost of manufacture and development and return them a profit.  Some succeeded, and some failed, but entrepreneurs were allowed to try, despite most "experts" predicting the PC was a silly toy.

Note that computer innovators were not required to trundle into some government computing board to justify the PC and its price, to justify how much, as Klein would say, needed to be spent on PC's.   If in fact they were forced to do so, if Jobs and Wozniak had to fly to Washington to justify the Apple I to the Computing Spending Decisions Board, they would have almost certainly been shot down.  Or told they could sell it but only for $200 and not their initial price of $2000.  We would have never had a PC revolution in a government single payer computing world, no matter how much, as Klein asks, was "spent" by the government.   It is possible that the government might eventually have greenlighted a PC (years later) just as the increasingly bureaucratic IBM did, but can you imagine how frail the PC revolution would would be if only IBM had ever sold PCs, without the slew of competitors that emerged, and if every innovation had to pass the scrutiny of a government review board before it could be launched?   Only a tiny percentage of PC innovation and of what we think of as a PC today, mostly in the basic architecture, ever came from IBM.

The very problem is that when government runs computers or health care, innovation is seen as a cost.  Klein, by asking the question in this way, is betraying exactly what is fundamentally wrong with a single-payer system.  The single-payer tends to think in terms of trying to deliver the current value proposition (ie the 2009 level of health care technology) as cheaply as possible.  The problem is that in 2039, it will still be focused on delivering the 2009 level of health care technology.  For the government -- a new drug, a new procedure, a new test -- these are all incremental costs, to be avoided.  Klein just wants a number he can plug into budget projections to say, "see, innovation is covered."  Its like Wesley Mouch asking John Galt near the end of Atlas Shrugged to tell him what orders to give.

I wrote about it just the other day.  You can see it in everything the Left writes -- increased spending is equated with increased costs which are therefore bad.  They all say that America's health care spending is rising and our per capita spending is higher than other nations and that this rising spending is somehow a problem to be fixed.  But there is a value side of the equation.  What are we getting from the spending?  When you leave out things the health care system can't do anything about (homicides and fatal accidents) Americans have the longest life expectancy in the world.  We are getting something for that extra money.  It is not just "cost" to be contained.  Is a year of life worth an extra $100,000 spending?  Everyone has a different answer, which is why we typically let each individual make these tradeoffs, and why people are uncomfortable having someone in the Post Office make the tradeoff for them.

But, the left will say, we will put really smart people on this board, who are angels of public service, who will make perfect decisions on the price-value tradeoffs of innovation (have you noticed that all their programs seem dependent on this assumption?)  Back to our computer example, these guys, they would argue, would have been smart enough to have given Jobs and Wozniak the green light.  This is a fantasy.  It never happens.  No matter how good the people, every such government entity is driven by its incentives, and this group's incentives will be to cut spending.  Innovations that result in a net total increase in spending are not going to be well-received.

Further, these boards get politicized, always.  Companies will quickly learn they have a better chance, say, of getting a new breast cancer treatment rather than a new prostrate cancer treatment past the board because the current administration is closely tied to women's groups.  Just look at current government R&D spending, this already happens.  AIDS was under-funded given its mortality because Conservative administrations thought it a disease mainly of groups it found distasteful; today, women's cancers get far more funding than men's due to the strong political activism of women's groups and the success of the pink ribbon campaign.  Drug companies will learn that the quickest way to board approval may not be winning over the board, but getting certain interest groups to lobby the board, or maybe lobby Congress to override the board.  Just look at the promise not to politicize ownership of GM -- that lasted about 2 days before Congress was passing legislation reversing internal GM decisions and GM was making plant closures based on political rather than economic concerns.

But even beyond these problems, there are Hayekian ones as well.  In the mid-seventies, there might have been only a few thousand people who were excited enough to buy an early microcomputer and see its potential.  What are the odds that one of those folks would be on the government review board, particularly since few of them were in the mainstream establishment of the computing field (heck, few of them were over 19 years old).  And even if one were on the board, would they have approved a technology with only a few initial adherents?  The fact is innovation often requires adoption of bleeding edge risk-takers who are willing to try a new technology and iron out its kinks before the mainstream catches on.   The iPod was not the first music player -- a few of us struggled for years before the iPod with large and sometimes hard to use early mp3 players  -- but if these early MP3 players had not existed, the iPod would not exist.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone makes different tradeoffs.  It may make perfect sense for some person in Washington that a biopsy is not required for certain kind of positive cancer test results.  This may make perfect price-value sense to the beauracrat, but I know a number of people who would lose months or years of their life to worry -- worry that could be short-circuited with an inexpensive biopsy.   Or consider a new cancer treatment -- is a year of life worth an extra $100,000 spending?  Would I prefer to extend my life through chemo or increase the quality of life of the time I have left by avoiding chemo?   Everyone has a different answer, which is why we typically let each individual make these tradeoffs, and why people are uncomfortable having someone in the Post Office make the decision for them.

One could say that all of this does not answer Klein's question.  That is because his question, built on the wrong premise, is unanswerable.  I suspect he knows this and is, as Brad Warbiany posited in the link above, just setting up a straw man.  All I can do is try to give a feel what what innovation does require, and help folks to understand that it has little if anything to do with Klein's question.

So, if I had to come up with a pithy one sentence answer, here it would be:

Klein:  What level of spending on health care is optimal for innovation?

Me:  The very fact that you intend to control spending centrally, at any level high or low, is what kills innovation.

Postscript: For a totally different reason, I was reading this article on the Russian T-34 tank, probably the best all-around tank for its time ever made when considering its production volume (the Panther was theoretically a better tank but volume production of the scale of the T-34, not to mention mechanical reliability, eluded the Germans).  Apropos of government boards and innovation was this:

The L-11 gun did not live up to expectations, so the Grabin design bureau at Gorky Factory No. 92 designed a superior F-34 76.2 mm gun. No bureaucrat would approve production, but Gorky and KhPZ started producing the gun anyway; official permission only came from Stalin's State Defense Committee after troops in the field sent back praise for the gun's performance.

Over-Stating Our Ability to Adopt Renewables

All those confident in our ability to ramp up things like wind and solar quickly should take a long look at T. Boone Pickens decision to virtually abandon billions of investment in wind.

One of the ways I think our potential to increase renewables is over-stated is that the government has begun lumping hydro power into wind, as in these charts.  They show "renewables" as about 9% of electricity production.   Increasing this to, say, 20% seems daunting but doable - after all, we are just doubling it.

But in fact, almost all of the 9% is hydro power, and that is not going to increase (in fact environmental presure is actually to destroy several hyrdo facilities to allow the rivers to run free).  This means that to get total renewables to 20%, other renewables like wind and solar will have to increase from about 1% to 12%, or a twelve fold increase.  This is much more daunting, especially since a raft of subsidies and incentives and programs have gotten us to just 1%.

Postscript: Owning a home in Phoenix with a big flat roof, there is no one in the world rooting for solar to be economic more than I am.  I have run the numbers recently, and taking advantage of all government subsidies, the investment has about an 8-10 year payback.  It's just not there yet.  Further, I worry that the current silicon/germanium IC technologies are dated and dead end.  I fear that buying solar now is like buying the last IBM mainframe before PCs came out.  I have a ton of confidence in the innovativeness of man, and believe that a real solar breakthrough will occur in the next 10 years.  Wind, on the other hand, is never going to work.  It is the ethanol of electricity production.

Good Money After Bad

If the world's citizens will not freely lend the Big Three automakers money of their own free will, then Congress is considering using force to make it happen.

Auto industry allies hope to secure
up to $50 billion in federal t loans this month to modernize plants and
help struggling car makers build more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Congress returns this coming week from its summer break, and the
auto industry plans an aggressive lobbying campaign for the
low-interest loans.

I wrote earlier on why we should not be afraid to let GM fail.  Paul Ingrassia makes this point:

Any
low-interest loans to develop fuel-efficient cars should be made
available to all car companies, not just the Detroit Three. The law
passed by Congress last year is framed to make this highly unlikely.
But if developing fuel-efficient and alternative-energy cars is deemed
worthy of taxpayer subsidies for public-policy purposes, it's just
common sense not to put all our eggs in Detroit's basket.

I would have gone further and said that US automakers are perhaps the last one's one would entrust with limited capital resources to develop such a new technology.  What would have happened to the PC revolution had the government circa 1975 limited all the available investment capital for new computing technologies to IBM, DEC, Honeywell, etc.

Anti-Trust is Anti-Consumer

Pursuing what has become a familiar theme on Coyote Blog, we again revisit anti-trust, and in the process, discover why the NY Times might be better off putting its editorial inanities back behind a firewall.

Writing about Intel, the NY Times editors say:

The abuse of market power to protect a monopoly hurts consumers and
hinders innovation "” locking out smaller rivals that may have better
products with new features or lower prices. With an 80 percent to 90
percent share of the microprocessor market, Intel wields much more
power than your local supermarket. Its threat to raise prices the
moment a customer tries to buy from rival A.M.D. can lock in even the
largest computer makers "” which depend on Intel for most of their
products and can't simply swap all their processors overnight. And with
such a level of control, Intel doesn't have to exert itself to come up
with new and better products.

Which I guess is why Lotus 1-2-3 must still have a hammerlock on the spreadsheet market, Creative must still dominate in MP3 players, IBM must still own the computer market, and GM must still rule the automotive roost.  How can any sentient human being who has lived through the past 20 years doubt that, particularly in technology, market dominance is as fleeting as the next technology cycle.   In fact, AMD several years ago made a huge penetration of the market with a series of processors a year or two ahead of Intel.  Most average consumers who can't even figure out how to attach a photo to an email never noticed, but among those who understood and cared, AMD ruled the roost.

Oh, and what was Intel's crime?

They say Intel is improperly protecting its stranglehold of the
microprocessor market by offering big discounts and rebates to computer
makers who minimize the use of processors made by rival Advanced Micro
Devices, and punishing those who stray with higher prices.

Oh my god, they are offering discounts to loyal customers!  Don Boudreax gets right to the heart of it:

Monopolists raise prices; firms facing competition do not.  Intel keeps its prices
low, meaning that it behaves competitively.  Yes, Intel's pricing
practices make life more difficult for AMD and other rivals, but that's
what competition is supposed to do.

The popular myth is that anti-trust policy is about protecting consumers.  Well, it may have been at one time or another, but currently it is all about protecting competitors who have political pull.  The Europeans are shameless about this, using anti-trust as a bludgeon to hamstring US companies who are out-competing EU home-grown competitors.  Now the NY Times wants to emulate this practice, explicitly calling on the government to force Intel to raise prices to make things easier for its competitors.

Update:  By the way, is there anyone out there who thinks Dell or H-P don't get the best possible pricing from Intel, with or without AMD purchases?  The coy little personal shopping example in the opening paragraph of the editorial is probably to help the reader forget that we are talking about Intel selling to customers who are big boys too.

Channeling my Grandparents

You know how when you grew up, your parents and grand-parents always said stuff like "I remember when I was a kid, we didn't even have X", where X was airplanes, or TV's or ice or whatever.  I actually found myself having one of those moments in the OfficeMax store today.  I remember when I got my first hard drive for my IBM PC in the very early 80's.  It was 10MB, cost about $500, and my one thought at the time was "I'll never be able to fill up this thing".

Today at the office supply store at the register I made an impulse purchase for a new USB memory key.  My son stole mine to use to take stuff back and forth to school, and I wanted a larger capacity drive anyway.  So here I was buying a 1GB key, with 100x the storage of that first hard drive in a package about 1/100 of the size of that hard drive, and I was buying it at the cash register from a rack next to the gum.  Pretty cool.

However, I am not going to let scientists totally off the hook.  I am still waiting for my hover car, my jet pack, and my vacation on the moon, which I expected to have long before now.