January 11, 2012 7:52 pm

The smart technology loser folds

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Kodak provides a lesson for companies in the grip of technological change

Eastman Kodak’s last big investor meeting ended with its executives trying to finish while a shareholder shouted at them: “You guys have no credibility. Zero.” Since then, things have got worse.

The company founded by George Eastman in 1880, which used to be a constituent of the “Nifty Fifty” blue-chip companies, is perilously close to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Antonio Perez, its chief executive, has spent six years battling to rescue Kodak from the terminal decline of its analogue film business. He may have run it into the ground.

Kodak’s experience has a lesson for companies in the grip of rapid technological change. As Kenny Rogers sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em”. Unfortunately, most public companies are run by people who hate folding ’em, and instead keep returning to the shareholders and bondholders for more chips.

The latest is Research In Motion, the Canadian maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, which has suffered a set of mishaps that have caused a 75 per cent fall in its shares in a year. Its executives have delayed until late this year an urgently needed new operating system while, as Mike Abramsky, a Royal Bank of Canada analyst, puts it, “Rome burns”.

Few senior executives, when debating options for a technology company in decline, admit defeat and run it modestly. Instead, they cast around for businesses to buy, or try to hurdle the chasm with what they have got. Sometimes they succeed but often they don’t, wasting a lot of money along the way.

It goes against their instincts to concede that the odds are so stacked against them that it is not worth the gamble. Mr Perez would have faced a hostile audience if he’d admitted it to the citizens of Rochester, Kodak’s company town in New York, but its investors would have benefited.

This is especially true in consumer technology, where a Darwinian struggle keeps on punishing the pioneers, from RIM to Palm, Yahoo and Nokia, that lose an early lead. “Managers believe they can return to dominate the market they created but it rarely happens,” says Mr Abramsky.

Conversely, the rewards for exploiting the impaired assets they possess are rising, particularly in mobile. Companies such as Nortel Networks and Motorola have sold patent portfolios for high prices – Nortel to a group of buyers including RIM – rather than waste them.

Executives who manage to turn round struggling companies – such as Steve Jobs on his return to lead Apple in 1997 – are inspiring. At the time, many advised Mr Jobs that Apple had no chance of regaining its competitive position with Microsoft. He simply ignored them.

Few possess Mr Jobs’ vision and abilities. Mostly, when a company falters in a changing industry, it takes an enormous amount of luck and very deep pockets to recover. If the rational course is to restructure or to sell, managers should not be ashamed to do so.

RIM is not in the same straits as Kodak – its revenues are growing, as are subscribers outside the US. Nor does it face the same shift from an analogue world as Kodak. It was a leader in using pager technology to send email to phones and has a network of 250,000 servers.

But it has big troubles in the US, where its market share of a third is falling in the face of Apple’s iPhone and the Google-backed Android platform. Jim Balsillie, one of it co-chief executives, admitted last month to “falling short” in its product execution and financial performance.

In theory, RIM should have been able to handle a move from second- to third- and fourth-generation data networks. In practice, it has been outpaced by Apple and has stumbled repeatedly in efforts to create strong smartphones and tablets with multi-touch screens for browsing.

It has been flummoxed by a parallel shift from a corporate-led market where it had an entrenched advantage (similar to that enjoyed by Microsoft in personal computers) to a fickle, demanding and competitive consumer-led market.

RIM is still pressing grimly ahead, promising that fortunes will improve for its current products, including its troubled PlayBook tablet, and that its next generation BlackBerry 10 smartphones will come to the rescue later this year. At the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, it unveiled new software for the PlayBook.

Mr Balsillie and his irritable co-head Mike Lazaridis could soon be replaced as chairmen by Barbara Stymiest, RBC’s head of strategy, providing an opportunity for a strategic rethink. RIM still has time to chart a more effective course, but not much, as the declines of both Nokia and Palm showed.

Ms Stymiest (or whoever becomes chairman) should take a couple of things from Kodak’s near-demise. One is that it is hard to recover from initially moving too slowly – Kodak’s first concerted effort came in 2003, when it cut its dividend in order to invest $3bn in increasing sales of digital cameras. It worked but the margins were too low.

Interactive graphic: Smartphone patent wars

Patent Wars

Patent wars are raging in the smartphone industry. What began as Apple v Google Android conflict has turned into a vast legal quagmire involving everyone from Amazon to ZTE.

The second is that there are usually alternatives. If Kodak avoids bankruptcy, it will be by selling a portfolio of 1,100 imaging patents – it holds the first digital camera patent and has sued RIM and Apple for patent infringement. RIM’s assets include its own patents and its network, which could be split from its handset operations.

An obstinate determination to get back on top is admirable if it works but there are too many examples of expensive, failed attempts in the technology industry not to temper ambition with caution. A seasoned gambler knows when to walk away from the table without others pursuing him angrily.

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