Opinion: Picking winners and losers in the coming decade of tech

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By its very nature, the first year in a new decade sets the tone for that decade. Last decade, the first year seemed to showcase a strengthening Apple, though it was still short of the first iPad.It also showcased the beginning of Steve Ballmer’s run at Microsoft and the post-dot-com run up of Google. In short, the evidence was there for the companies that would likely pull the most interest, and there was even the beginning of a hint that Yahoo and Palm would begin to slide, but RIM still looked unbeatable. There were a lot of early indicators of changes to come, but not all of them were evident yet. Let’s look at some of the early indicators from this last year.

Apple was the big winner of the last decade in technology, while Palm, which was at the top of its game at the beginning, no longer exists as a company, the big loser.Both companies were defined by their products. Apple redefined itself by going into new areas (iPod, iPhone, and iPad), while Palm was unable to successfully transition from PDA to smartphone.

Let’s meet the contenders for relevance in the decade we’ve already kicked off.

Google

Google looked at all the trouble Microsoft got in a decade ago and said to itself, “Microsoft is a wuss.” The company has been is a litigation magnet in 2011, pulling the most impressive number of lawsuits since Microsoft’s antitrust action. Even British Telecom is suing Google for stealing intellectual property. As I write this, two senators are pushing for a similar antitrust review of Google. Apple just won an initial ITC suit against HTC (too many acronyms) and Android, potentially blocking HTC Android phones from the US market next April. Steve Jobs, before he passed, claimed that Android’s destruction was worth all of Apple’s billions in reserves. Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs’ closest and most powerful friend, appears to have also put some of Oracle’s resources on this task, using Java as a weapon. Earlier, Google basically challenged Microsoft to a fight to the death. Google had a high-profile product deployment in LA and the word “sucked” was an understatement. Finally, Google lives on advertising revenue, but seems to think advertising is a sin based on its behavior, suggesting it will either need a different attitude or a different business model to survive the decade. Google enters this decade as either the company with the biggest balls or the smallest brain. I’m not actually sure which, and it may be a little of both.

HP

HP has had more scandals in the last decade than any other 10 companies I could easily name. Last year the company replaced a CEO after less than a year in service. For a company that is leading in most of the markets it’s in, HP seems a tad unstable. However, it exits 2011 with Meg Whitman at the helm, who is motivated to restore HP to its old stable strengths. Rather than focusing on her own image or cutting costs, she appears to rebuilding the company into something that might last 100 years. HP management is talking long-term strategy, starting to think of the company as a cohesive unit, and making webOS strategic.It’s strengthening its relationship with Microsoft, but remaining at war with Oracle (another large, long-term partner), and making a play for ARM-based large-scale servers. HP has the potential to become something amazing, but only if it can get out of its own way and can scale back on the number of enemies.

Facebook

This will be an interesting year for Facebook. The company appears to be on the cusp of becoming something else. However, it still largely resides under the shadow of Google, which owns much of the advertising revenue it needs to survive, and its attitude towards privacy indicates that executives likely wouldn’t feel safe using Facebook’s service. Facebook is still pre-public, and often going public puts a massive number of financial and reporting distractions on the executive staff. This is when mistresses break up marriages, substance abuse, and really bad ethics can destroy a company and its executives. The next two years will be critical for Facebook to see if it can avoid being the next Yahoo, another single-trick pony that couldn’t seem to figure out what to do next.

Twitter

Twitter will either become a real player like Facebook, or a memory like so many of the dot-com companies a decade ago. It was at the center of political unrest this year, but has also had moments where it seemed like it was losing its audience. It’s struggling to find profit at the moment, and it still seems like it should be part of something bigger like Google or Facebook. I think Twitter could become something bigger, but it will need to make a move next year, or this opportunity will likely pass to another company.

Apple

Tim Cook was selected by Steve Jobs to be CEO at a time when Steve was convinced he would get better, and Steve has always held that the position of CEO at Apple was his most beloved personal asset. That is to say, Cook was selected because Jobs knew he could always come back and replace him. Apple was designed around Steve Jobs, and will either need to be redesigned around another CEO, or it will need another leader like Jobs to lead it. Specifically it will need a guy who has a passion for the product, and that isn’t Cook. For Apple, all roads lead down, because it is at the top of its game. Already since Jobs left, it disappointed with the iPhone 4S and missed expectations on a quarterly financial review.It appears to be facing impressive and increasing competition from a variety of fronts including Google, and appears to be readying a TV (recall that Gateway, Dell, and HP all failed with TV efforts last decade). Apple remains a very good company, but it is measured on being perfect and, without Jobs, it isn’t. It will need to fix that, or the market will redefine the firm down sharply this decade.

RIM

Research in Motion needs a future. It entered last decade unbeatable, and it exits this year as beaten, largely as a result of executive mismanagement.It still has a valuable platform and a valuable user base, but it has been bleeding advocates badly, and if it doesn’t stop the bleeding it won’t make it till mid-decade, let alone to 2020.RIM desperately needs to find a product consumers want before it loses its remaining credibility and drifts into the history books like Palm did.Odds are against RIM, and the firm is likely to either collapse because its leadership held on too long, or be sold into a company that will likely kill it. RIM has, at its core, the ability to redefine itself and come out a leader again, only if it is properly led, and a new leader believes in this outcome.

Microsoft

Steve Ballmer has now led Microsoft for over a decade. Steve is an overachiever, but he has been a C to C+ CEO at Microsoft now, continually missing at least part of his performance bonus. He is being held in the job on the strength of his friendship with Bill Gates. Both men likely know this, because any other CEO with this level of performance who wasn’t a founder would have been let go by now. Under Steve’s leadership, Microsoft had the potential to beat Apple to market with the iPhone and iPad, but massively under-resourced or miss-positioned its phone and tablet offerings. Windows 8 is their Hail Mary play to get a large portion of this back, but it’s also the most complex offering ever attempted in the mass market, and with Microsoft’s tendency to under resource, it is likely to be under resourced as well. If it fails, it has the potential to take two thirds of Microsoft’s revenue and profit with it, either directly or as collateral damage over a period of three years. Microsoft has the resources to assure Windows 8’s success, but they are likely to realize this after it is too late. Microsoft’s executive office is much like John Akers’ was at IBM, and that didn’t end well either. Next year will likely define whether Microsoft is around in 2020, let alone a power. There is tremendous upside, but only if Microsoft and Steve step up to the plate and swing for the fences this time.

Looking forward into the 2010s

There are companies just starting out, like OnLive, which promise to move the PC experience into the cloud as they already do with gaming. Sonos already has the best home audio solution, which could make it a leader as we move again to the idea of the digital home. Lenovo just became the number two PC company in the world, making it a leading firm that could help turn China into the next technology power.

At the end, much like last decade, the same companies that are in the market now will be gone, and clearly some companies we don’t know will be trending.Of course, currently, I’m looking at a project called the “AIshield” which is designed to defend humanity against the smart devices we are creating. Life is never simple is it?

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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