Monday, August 6, 2012

Flying Across America - Part VI

At last, civilization!  Or at least, what seems to be so when the basic criteria you apply is "has a taxi service".

We'd called ahead in our never ending quest for overnight hanger space and so the airport manager had kindly agreed to leave one side of the hanger open for us, but only with the strictest instructions about not blocking-in the air ambulance!

While waiting for the taxi to arrive to take us to a nearby hotel (we were only 5 miles outside of Blythe) I heard some odd engine notes in the background and went to see what was happening.

A Pair Of Ospreys Landing Near Blythe, CA

It turned out that a flight of three Ospreys set up an approach and landing into the desert just north of the airstrip.  I've seen them on the ground as s static display, but never before when operational.  I know that the development process for these aircraft was immensely challenging, but they really are an impressive site, especially as they transition from one flight mode to the other.

Taxi; hotel; Sizzler; bed.  Another of those exciting on-the-road kind of nights, then!  Honestly, by that stage, and remembering we'd just flown 8.7 hours for five legs, all in desert heat, all I cared about was air-conditioning and sleep.

07:00 and the sole taxi (same car, same driver) was back at the hotel, and we were soon back at Blythe airport.  With luck and a final push, today should see us back at home base.

For the first leg, we aimed to do Blythe (BLH) to Barstow-Daggett (DAG).  Working through it the night before, our best option this time was to follow an old railway line north west through the desert before picking up another road, this time Route 40, to take us straight to Barstow.  With the early morning light filtering through some mid-level clouds, the desert & surrounding mountains looked beautiful as we flew across open territory.

The other joy about this sort of "off the beaten track" flying is that you come across really unexpected things, such as the small, inactive volcano and lava field we found here. Still, you can't also help pondering how long you'd have to wait for help in some of these areas if forced to set down.  (Note to self: get personal ELT beacon for next trip if aircraft doesn't have one installed!)

We made it to DAG in 2.1 hours, stopping again for fuel, weather briefing and water before tackling the next leg to Bakersfield (L45).  This would mean crossing over the lower-end of the Sierras and so we spent some time talking over the options.  However, it was already clear that one choice - the Tehachapi Pass - was off limits as the briefers warned us that a TFR was in effect due to fire-fighting operations.  Plan B was to head south towards I5 and the Grapevine, where we could either follow a VFR flyway (if it was easy to spot from ground references) or just go back to following the Interstate (also good as I had already checked the maximum altitude of the Grapevine before leaving home.)

Approaching The Grapevine (The Quarry Is A VFR Landmark)

Once again, Mother Nature was exceedingly kind to us.  Not only was visibility excellent. but the winds were light and so we crossed the Sierra ridge-line with barely a ripple.  Bakersfield was not far off, fuel looked good, and for the first time we caught sight of the Pacific.

We landed at L45 after 1.9 hours, found the self-serve 100LL and then - even better - we found the airport had a cafe (and a very nice one to boot!), albeit at the other end of the airfield.  I have to say though, it felt slightly decadent firing 2SA up again just to taxi from the fuel pumps to the cafe, where we were delighted to find helipad markings on the apron out front; just 'cos, that's where we therefore parked!

Reviewing the charts, and based on the performance we'd measured to date, we had a shot at doing the remaining part of the trip in one shot - L45 to WVI.  It would be tight fuel-wise, but do-able.  And of course, since we were now on home turf, we had a good idea of places to get fuel along the way if needed.  Therefore, that became the plan of record: head west; cross over the hills between I5 and Paso Robles; head north-west up 101 via King City, and from there it's a straight shot into the Monterey area and home.

Now, however, things changed a little.  We picked up a 20 knot headwind and hence our speed dropped and fuel consumption rose.  We got as far as Salinas (SNS) just as the auxiliary tank showed empty, a situation that ought to have left us with fuel for around 50 minutes flying.  Bearing in mind a) we didn't have that much experience of 2SA's fuel gauge accuracy, b) we still had those pesky headwinds, c) by law we had to land with a minimum of 20 minutes fuel remaining, and d) as Wendy rightly pointed out, we now ran the risk of catching "get home-itis", we decided to set down in Salinas for a splash-and-dash at the helipad; we'd been after flying for 2.7 hours by this point.

Moss Landing

Final leg - SNS to WVI. Adding in the final 0.4 hours for SNS-WVI gave us a grand total of 36.0 hours for the entire trip.  After covering some 2,400 nm in 4.5 days, we were finally home!

A huge shout-out to Wendy, without who I would't have even thought about doing it.  Kudos, too, to N622SA.  She never missed a beat, and settled-in to her new home very quickly, starting to earn her keep the very next day.

An epic journey was now over, and so many thanks to all concerned for both giving me the opportunity to make it, and for helping us to do so safely.  Yes, it was a tiring and, as my shoulder will attest, sometimes painful flight, but I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Flying Across America - Part V

Dawn Roll-Out. Van Horn, Texas

Another early start; another morning not quite sure how we'd get back to the airfield.  Fortunately, the hotel manager very kindly proved the thesis that, thanks to evolutionary imperatives and human social development we are all by nature altruistic, by agreeing to be woken up early just to get us back there!  Note to self: must be a lot of opportunities for setting up local private taxi services over the web, especially in smaller towns where more formal arrangements just don't exist.  Hmm, actually, that's not a bad idea at all ...

(Just as an aside, we asked what brought an enterprising young man like himself to such a - shall we say, "remote" - part of Texas?  He explained that there was a plan to open a natural gas well, i.e. a fracking project, about 100 miles north and that, as this was the nearest town, some very good times lay ahead for the hotels & other businesses in Van Horn.  Fair enough, and we both wished him every success.)

A long day was ahead of us.  Since the weather remained so weirdly storm-free, we decided to press-on to see if we could make it into California. As the crow flies, that would be something like 520 nm; alas, we would have to take a slightly more meandering route in order to a) avoid major peaks, and b) avoid a major incident by accidentally crossing over the border into Mexico.  In addition, for the last day or so I had been suffering from increasing pain emanating just behind the right shoulder blade.  It was just a by-product of holding the controls for hours-and-hours a day and only flared up after about the first hour of flying, but I can't say I was looking forward to it returning on what was now day four of the trip.  (However, I'm not the only one to feel like this on a long R22 trip, as was very well explained by Philip Greenspun : "When folks ask me for a short summary of my trip from Los Angeles to Boston in a brand-new R22, I say "For the first day, I was worried that I was going to die. On the fifth and sixth days, I was worried that I wasn't going to die." Sitting bolt upright, a bit tense on the controls, hour after hour, is not very comfortable.")

Back to following the same road once again, but now, as we started to climb, desert was giving way to desert-plus-hills, which at least improved the view!  This first leg would take us through El Paso and the controller kindly allowed us to continue to follow the Interstate and hence to get a good view of downtown and, immediately over I10, of Mexico!

Downtown El Paso

After 1.9 flying hours we landed in Las Cruces, NM (LRU) just in time to see two military helicopters taking off from the apron there.  (Fort Bliss is a major army base sitting just east of El Paso, and of course border control activities must drive a lot of additional helicopter operations as well.)  Wendy reminded me that big-rotors = big-downwash, so we jinked around a little in order to steer clear of the big-boys' toys!  More fuel, more weather briefings and then back to it: next stop, Lordsburg, NM (LRU).  We planned for a shorter legs here in order to recognise both the increasing density altitudes we were seeing (maxing out at 6,800') and fewer alternate airports on the map.

From Lordsburg (1.2 hours from LRU) we headed next for Benson Municipal (E95), a leg that got us out of New Mexico into Arizona, and a further 1.3 hours clocked-up on the Hobbs.

At Benson we were able to pick up another quart of 100W Plus oil, something that wasn't always available at every stop but which we kept an eye out for as we were using just under a quart a day.  We also saw an old Douglas R4D-8 aircraft, standing out  a bit from the usual clutch of Cessnas, Mooneys etc. you'd expect to find parked-up on airports such as this.

Seems that someone bought it at a drug-auction after it was seized by the US authorities, with the idea of re-fitting it for commercial operations; apparently, that was quite a few years ago now, so no one I talked-to was sure if she would ever fly again.

Next up, a longer flight to Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) where we'd take stock to see if a "one more leg and we're in CA" push made sense.

Phoenix Bound

To reach GYR in such a way that we could continue following the Interstate meant we'd be getting too close to class Bravo airspace around Phoenix Sky Harbor, the main airport there.  Therefore, we planned to leave I10 about 15 miles south of PHX and fly northwest straight to GYR.  This would entail figuring out between the charts and what we could see out the windows, which was the big ridge we'd need to fly around the south of in order to make this work.  Well, we ended up going a bit too far up I10 and having the controller point out that we couldn't fly any closer to PHX, and so would we mind making an immediate left turn? Ooops.  No big deal though, we'd been with flight following and PHX approach control all the way-in from something like 50 miles out, and therefore they had us on their radar screens the whole time, despite us flying a lot lower than pretty much everything else they were tracking. On the plus side, however, we got a great view of Sky Harbor airport!

Getting into GYR after that was fine, at least it was once we'd figured out where they'd hidden the helipad and dealt with the strong, gusty winds that had blown up.  After taking a break, taking stock and taking some more rest time, we elected to press on and to go for crossing-off one more state on our list.  GYR to E95 had been a fairly stressful 2.2 hours but thanks to gaining a timezone and starting early, we were doing OK timewise.  California, here we come!

The Sierra Nevada Mountains Hove Into View

At last, we could finally allow ourselves the luxury of thinking we could actually get this whole trip done in under 5 days. By running five legs across three states, day four saw us flying 8.7 hours over what was at least a 12 hour day.  We were therefore really happy to see the Colorado River, marking as it does the Arizona-California border, slip by under 2SA, and even happier a few miles later to be landing at Blythe airport.  A very long day, but one that set us up for making it home in time for tea on day 5!

Flying Across America - Part IV

Here's where 622SA got to spend the night. $50 got her rather deluxe accommodations as I think you'll agree, but, in the words of Bob Dylan, it was indeed the "shelter from the storm" which we needed to find (though never actually needed anywhere along the whole route). Anyway, the entire crew got a decent nights rest and we were back at it by 07:30.

Today would be the day we'd try and get through Texas, though realising it's going to be a long, hot and largely dull journey, characterised nicely by the mantra "follow that road", in this case, I20.

Sometimes, "Follow That Road" Gets A Bit Tricky To Implement

First stop was Abilene Regional (ABI), a 2.4 hour leg, and from there to Big Spring (BPG), a quicker 1.5 hour hop that we cut a bit short in order to get down to the ground for fuel (we could have flown longer) and a rest-room break (oh no we couldn't!)  Along the way - at least for the first part of the day - there was stuff to see and green to be found .... which is of course why I turned this picture of windmills north of I20 into B&W.

In addition to being a very welcome sight (as explained above), Big Spring was a great little airport; very nice terminal, good facilities and an interesting history.  Turns out it was an ex-army airfield, first opened in 1942 to train bombardiers in high altitude, precision bombing.  It closed in 1945 but then got a second lease on life in 1952 when the Korean war required additional training facilities to come on line to supply increasing numbers of fighter pilots. A couple of Fifties-era aircraft remain on the apron and it looks like there is a fairly decent aviation museum on the airfield somewhere too.

Even Airplanes Have A Pecking Order

Rested and re-hydrated, it was time to move on. However, the heat was starting to build and the wind was getting stronger too.  One - the wind - is easier to live with than the other.  The six legs from ABI onwards all saw density altitude readings over 5,000 feet, with the highest reported as being 6,800'. Therefore, take-offs and landings had to be executed with more care and finesse than ever as, especially at full-up gross weight, we now didn't have much of a power reserve to play with.

Now we were firmly in trucking country, over-flying multiple logistics depots along the side of I20.

Next up was Pecos Municipal (PEQ, 1.6 hours from BPG) where the temperature gauge read 43 Celsius on landing ... and only a little bit of that was down to heat from the tarmac and engine; suffice to say, it was damnably-hot out there.  Someone came out to meet us in a golf cart and, once we parked-up and shut down, brought across a fuel tanker.  We asked for an amount of fuel we though the aircraft would take and that would get us comfortably to the next stop but without carrying the extra weight of completely topping-off the tanks.  Just as we were collecting our things to head inside to plan the next leg, we suddenly saw a cascade of 100LL running down the back of the aircraft - you know, the bit with the hot engine, still-pinging exhausts and all .... Turns out, the chap manning the fuel truck didn't realise that we had twin tanks, and that to get the quantity of fuel requested would mean filling both sides, not just one.  (The tanks cross-feed, but that doesn't happen fast enough to automatically compensate for the rate of fuel flow from a pressurised delivery system.)  Fortunately, nothing caught fire and so we avoided the spectacle of seeing what a Robinson R22 would look like fully-engulfed in flames. ("Depressing" would be what I'd expect the answer to be.)  Lesson learned, and so from then on we made sure that, where fuel was served, vs. being a self-service stop, when I was the one with that particular job, those with the big nozzle in their hands understood how things worked in an R22!

One final push would see us reach Culberson County airport, Van Horn, where we'd call it quits for the day.  Actually, things worked out well in that regard because the next leg would see us start to climb in altitude and hence would be better tackled earlier the next day, when things were cooler.  It also meant that tomorrow we'd pick-up in Texas, and our first set-down of the day would be in New Mexico - the Lone Star State would finally be behind us!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Flying Across America - Part III

Another day, another few states to check off.

While things were still relatively cool, we elected for an early start.  We'd fuelled-up the night before so once we'd snagged a lift the few miles back to the airport from the hotel, done our pre-flights and repacked our chattels, time for the off once again. The goal for today was to get into Texas, preferably as far as Dallas but otherwise over the border somewhere.  Planned route was Weedon Field, Eufaula (AL) to Demopolis (AL), from there to Hawkins Field, Jackson (MS), to Shreveport Downtown, (LA) and finally hitting Dallas Executive (TX) where options were very good for hanger space overnight and a decent hotel nearby.

Demopolis must have been about the smallest airport we hit all trip, but had the essentials of a) 100LL fuel, b) a bathroom and c) water (for the pilots).  Of course, at each stop we also got an updated weather briefing and checked the charts so we knew what to expect, where, and when.  And just as importantly, we took the opportunity to un-knot ourselves from holding the controls or generally being stuck in a very small space for hours on end.  (I wanted to do as much of the flying as possible and so Wendy got the short end of the stick by having to handle charts, airport directories and GPS systems - plural.  More of that in a minute.)

Demopolis Airport Terminal!

Somehow or another, we managed both to make good time (a tailwind helped) and avoided any hint of bad weather.  The ground rolled away beneath us and, unlike what we were going to be seeing the next day, remained fairly green, lush and interesting.

Plant For Processing Something, Somewhere In Mississippi

I mentioned the need for more than one GPS?  Turns out the installed unit in the helicopter had two issues: one expected, one not.  As is common, the Garmin unit in the panel had information loaded for the south-eastern part of the USA, hardly surprising given that's where it was based. Even so, it looked like we could get routes through to about mid-Texas, but not much further.  Wendy was already on top of the problem because she'd seen it before and so had borrowed a Garmin 496 to bring with us.  This turned out to be a double bonus because we found that, after the first day or so of use, the panel system's display washed out, rendering it almost invisible.  Golden rule?  You can never have too many backup GPS platforms!  (I had my iPad with me which was the second line of defence.  Trust me - charts are great and remain indispensable, but for basic navigation then nothing beats being able to follow that magenta DTK line!)

Maps Doing One Other Thing GPS Can't: Being A Sunshade!

By now it was becoming a very long day.  Having reached Shreveport, crossing the Mississippi River from Louisiana along the way, we'd already been in the air 6.4 hours, the last leg alone being 2.5 hours long.  But, Texas was calling!  (I think it said "moo", but couldn't be sure.)

One final push saw us complete the Shreveport to Dallas Executive leg in a further 2.1 hours.  Ultimately, the fact that the weather was clear with no convective activity in the area sealed it - there just aren't that many windows to fly a whole day in this part of the country in July without encountering thunderstorms and so we elected to make full use of the daylight and benign skies.  However, the FBO at Dallas Executive was a very welcome sight, as was the Hampton Inn a few miles away!  8.5 hours air-time is quite tiring, but we'd made real progress and were cracking-on a treat.  Time to get some sleep.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Flying Across America - Part II

Because of operational limitations on this aircraft, we had to find a route that would avoid the need to climb over any high mountains.  This is particularly true in the summer when air that is hot, moist and high robs the helicopter of a chunk of even the limited performance it starts off with. In practice, this meant trying to avoid flying at anything more than 6,000 above MSL, and preferably even a little less than that would be good. Consequently, we opted for what's known as the "southern route", a way of crossing the USA that limits the need to cross substantial areas of terrain above 2,000 feet; indeed, the highest we saw was around 4,500 MSL, and even then only on two specific legs.

We finally got underway from MYR around 1:30 pm local time, and with the sort of luck that would follow us along the entire journey we found ourselves with no convective warnings, just a few low level, widely-spaced cumulus clouds for company (see above). Despite the later-than-ideal start, we nevertheless managed to see-off three states on the first day: South Carolina (MYR to 88J), Georgia (ACJ) and Alabama, ending up for the night in Eufaula (EUF).

In order to leave ourselves the appropriate margin mandated for helicopters (20 minutes fuel remaining on landing) we gave ourselves a maximum range of around 2.5 hours in the air, and planned our legs with alternate fuel stops if head winds or weather meant we needed to land short. That basic calculation factored in a high-end fuel consumption of 10 gallons per hour and a maximum R22 capacity of 29 gallons. On day one we did legs of 2.0, 2.2 and 0.9 hours respectively, for a flying time total of 5.1 hours.

Eufaula wasn't very large but had a decent airfield (runway 36 above!) and, something we love to see, an open hanger in which we could leave the aircraft overnight.  Especially this time of year, it's good to avoid any risk of the blades suffering hail damage because that would basically be game over, and rather  expensively so to boot.  However, it turned out that Eufaula did lack one key thing - a taxi service! Fortunately, a very kind gentleman working on his plane at the airfield took us into town that evening, and the hotel manager where we stayed just as kindly brought us back early in the morning.

Day one over and we had covered a decent amount of ground, especially given the shortened day.  Good stuff!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Flying Across America - In A Robinson R22

Earlier this year I completed my private pilot training, and hence now have a licence allowing me to fly helicopters (up to a certain weight, at least).  The aircraft I trained in - the Robinson R22 - is one of the most common training helicopters in the USA today, despite it being a bit, er, challenging to learn in, thanks in large part to its highly sensitive controls, decent amount of power & overall light weight.

The school where I trained, Specialized Aviation, in Watsonville, CA, recently acquired an additional R22 for its fleet, but one that was based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Therefore, volunteers were need to ferry it back to Watsonville, a journey of some 2,400 nautical miles.  "Oh, and BTW, please could we get our hands on it ASAP?"  How could I resist??

Fortunately for Specialized - and for me :-) - my co-pilot, Wendy, was one of their most experienced instructors, with more than 1,000 hours in Robinson helicopters and qualified to teach up IFR standards.  Phew!  Having this kind of back-up capability in the cockpit is a huge plus, turning something that could otherwise be deeply challenging into a more of a fun road-trip, though minus the arguments about what you listen to on the radio of course!

Getting to Myrtle Beach was fairly uneventful, even if Delta made me take a somewhat bizarre route. To get an even half-way decent fare meant me flying to Atlanta, which was fine and itself only about an hour from KMYR, but then I had another leg of 2 hours up to Detroit, followed by 2 hours back from Detroit to Myrtle Beach.

2SA, the aircraft we were collecting, was being bought through Huffman Helicopters, a great operation who really put in a ton of hours bringing this particular ship back up to top-notch standards (they'd bought it back from one of their clients who was trading-up, and the aircraft had been sitting outside for a while so therefore needed quite some TLC in order to get back to being fully airworthy.)

After a test flight and some final fettling, we were ready to start work on the first significant challenge - packing!  We calculated that, with full fuel tanks in this particular R22, we had a max payload, including ourselves, of 317 lbs.  Bearing in mind we had to at least bring along a set of wheels so we could move the thing, spare oil (for the heli) and water (for us), plus all the necessary paperwork, maps, FBO guides, spare GPS, small tool kit, etc. then I hope it's obvious that having two 160 lb pilots wouldn't have been optimal!  Fortunately, (i) neither of us fell into that class, and (ii) there isn't a ton of luggage space in these things anyway so apart from the essentials then we were packing very lightly (see above);fortunately, we weighed in at exactly 317 lbs and I then threw away a duplicate airport guide for the West coast which dropped a further pound off the total - job done!  We were ready for the off! (Parts II through VI follow ...)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Have you noticed how social networking ...

... has made us all less social? Sitting in Starbuck's, I cannot help but notice that every single customer, me included, is staring at a screen. We are all completely absorbed in our own micro-world, the source of which is some sort of screen-centric device, be it a PC, smartphone or tablet. But on the plus side, it is quiet in here!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Iron Lady

I was 21 years old when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, 33 when she resigned. It was clear to all even then that Britain was changing beyond recognition. Thatcher's government accelerated a process of dramatic reinvention the country had been going through since the end of the second world war, largely through a protracted series of battles fought simultaneously on many fronts, from organised labour to European integration and even the Argentine junta on the seas of the South Atlantic.  Thatcher's legacy is clearly visible today and, love her or loathe her (because she pretty much polarised people into one camp or the other) no one can really question  her pivotal role in changing the course Britain was on in the nineteen seventies.  However, it's not clear to me that this film manages to capture any of that, except perhaps in en passant fashion, which is a great shame because that's a story that still needs to be told.

The Thatcher we see here is old, confused and delusional.  Dementia consumes her to the point where she's plagued by the ghost of Dennis, her two-decades-dead husband, continually popping up with that fifties-era "buck up old girl, everything will turn out all right" spirit anyone over 40 will recognise.  Yup, the stuff of Shakespeare, but unfortunately without a script to match.  Instead, her current condition seems to be not much more than a vehicle through which to cover standard bio-pic fare about her upbringing in Grantham as a grocer's daughter, her hard-fought climb through the ranks of the conservative party and culminating with her becoming what no one - even Thatcher herself - thought was possible: Britain's first woman prime minister.  Don't get me wrong, the historical stuff is done well (even if there is quite some licence taken in places) and likely much more interesting to audiences outside of the UK or those who grew up after she was ousted than it was for me. And to be fair, Streep's performance in this film really is extremely good, to the point where most viewers would need to see the two Thatcher's, real and acted, side-by-side in order to tell the difference. However, I was hoping for something more focused, more engaging, more intellectual if you will; something that captured the sweeping change my generation went through with Thatcher as she literally reshaped the socio-political landscape.  What we actually got in this film seemed more a commentary on just how much dementia sucks, and we really don't need a statesman laid low as the focal point in order to understand that problem. (Go and see instead the Iris Murdoch bio-pic, also, interestingly, with Jim Broadbent in the role of long-suffering partner, for a picture of the misery and loss Alzheimer's brings with it.)

Bio-pics can work, but you have to come away with a real understanding of what made the subject tick, what drove them, and perhaps more importantly what they lost or gave up along the way.  The use of her on-going dementia as a framework around which this film is built gets in the way of that.  Her present state blunts a critical examination of the radicalism her premiership was suffused with, implying instead that she was just a tough old bird who had to become more manly than the men around her in order to succeed.

What I'd like to see instead would be a film that explores the end game of her reign as leader of the conservative party, the point where she was no longer seen as an asset by the Tory grandees but rather as a liability.  Now that would indeed be a tragedy worth of WS's finest penmanship!  Politics at its worst - that story's got it all!

(Professionals have of course written much more perceptive reviews of this film than I, and so I urge you to check out at least this one in the Guardian because it really does a much better job of it than I have.  And don't get me wrong, it's a film that's definitely worth seeing, despite the above!)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Apple: So What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The last post looked at a myriad of things that Apple seems to be doing right, and I have to say that even then it was only a partial list. For example, iCloud is clearly a major new initiative that promises plenty of innovation ahead, and we've all seen published excerpts from the Steve Jobs biography that talk about how he's finally "cracked the code" on Apple TV. Even so, Apple will stumble at some point, it's just inevitable. No technology-based business that I can think of, has ever been able to sustain the sort of tear Apple is on for more than a couple of decades at most, and it's now just over ten years since the iPod first hit the market & fifteen years since Jobs returned via the purchase of NeXT.

So what could possibly go wrong? Well, here are just a few potential maggots I can think of that could invade Apple's core businesses:

Forcing competition into being: as has been argued elsewhere, Apple's five year exclusive deal with AT&T for the first iPhone models basically brought into being the only real competitive threat Apple has in that space today: Android. The very success that Apple saw forced Verizon to respond in kind when AT&T started leaching away customers in their droves; Google's Android was a tailor-made, open-source spoiler, and Verizon gave them a guaranteed market. Between them and the likes of HTC and Samsung, Android rapidly developed into a real competitor, to the point where device shipments for the two platforms are running neck-and-neck. And because Apple is now so broad in its product line offerings, you can see similar alliances popping up elsewhere with perhaps the Microsoft/Nokia pairing being the one most likely to bring new arms to bear in this war. (It's therefore interesting to note that Microsoft is reputedly paying an initial $250 million to get Nokia moving to Windows 7, and that's real money, even in Silicon Valley.)

As Apple looks to conquer new markets, the temptation must be great to do the same sort of thing again. After all, financially it did work extremely well, allowing Apple to focus on getting the iPhone right before moving-on to support other wireless technologies. So you could imagine, for example, an exclusive deal with Sony for iTV or perhaps Ford for the iCar entertainment system, as a way of getting deeply immersed in those spaces before allowing others to join the party. OK, perhaps we are out in the weeds somewhat, but you get the point. The risk with exclusive deals is either that they go sour at a point where divorce is difficult or, when they go well, they cause stronger alliances to emerge elsewhere in order to compete effectively.

Ticking-off the DoJ: so far, Apple has sat resolutely-planted on top of its cash mountain, refusing to spend large on major acquisitions of the sort an Oracle or HP would see as almost routine.  However, as that pile of money fast approaches $100 billion there are some signs emerging that this could change.  But, as the old maps never used to say, "here there be dragons".  Apple is now of a size, and has achieved such dominance in many of its chosen markets, that there will be those who are just itching for an excuse to break it up, and there's nothing like a big, headline-grabbing acquisition to give them exactly what they are looking for by way of an excuse to probe into every dark corner of what is surely one of the world's most secretive companies.  Indeed, my take is that Apple must have already passed on a bunch of opportunities for just this reason and so will be extremely careful if and when a larger play is made, that they think they can manage the vagaries of the process, both in the USA and of course in Europe, where Apple has already had run-ins before.

The patent war goes nuclear: oh boy. The fragile peace that's existed in the arcane world of technology patents, held in place for many a long year by a gentleman's agreement amongst companies not to sue the bejesus out of each other, is rapidly breaking down. The temptation became just too great, the prize too rich. To date, disputes have been settled (either in or out of court), money has changed hands and every one's life has continued much as before; "it's just business", as the Mafioso would say. However, just as with the national nuclear deterrents, it all relies upon the concept of mutually assured destruction. No tech company yet feels strong enough to wage all out war on their foes because to date all the major players have had enough patents in their armoury to mount a pretty devastating counter offensive if they so choose.  Now, though, with all the M&A activity going on specifically in order to round up more patent ammunition (Motorola, anyone?), it's quite possible that someone, somewhere might be able to collect enough of an arsenal to feel safe in pushing the big, red button, unleashing a legal Armageddon from which in practice few could could emerge unscathed.

Market saturation: an obvious one, perhaps, but a real problem nevertheless.  I mean, just how many iPods does anyone need?  (I have three of differing generations but only regularly use one of them, and feel no real compulsion to upgrade the older ones any time soon.)  Ditto iPhones Macbooks, etc.  At some point, the pace of innovation just isn't high enough to keep you reaching for your credit card with every new announcement out of Cupertino.

Competing with partners: perhaps as a by-product of a larger acquisition, or just because, quarter-by-quarter, the machine gets hungrier and hungrier but still needs feeding, Apple may find itself competing with those who today view themselves as partners.  The music industry; all of Apple's extensive supply chain providers; cell phone carriers; Hollywood; all could fall neatly into that category.  Depending upon the size of the perceived threat, the magnitude of the response could be sufficient to trigger some major realignments in the industry.  Suppose, for example, Apple bought Warner Brothers.  Would other labels still license their content to Apple, or would they decide instead to run the risk of losing sales by fracturing the markets, giving rights to the likes of Microsoft, Samsung or someone else, any of whom could be seen as much less of a threat?

Someone out-innovates them: for sure unlikely, at least in the near term, but not impossible.  For example, you can easily argue that Netflix is fast becoming to video downloading what iTunes was to music retailing (and if you wanted an interesting candidate as to where Apple might spend some of it's cash, here's a good place to start your idle speculation from, especially with their recent precipitous drop in stock price!)  Similarly, Apple's position in the enterprise, while growing rapidly now thanks to the iPad, is still relatively weak (though, alas, so too  are many of the other players who are targeting major corporations, and in the case of RIM, seemingly getting weaker with each passing quarter.)  In short, the tech world is still evolving rapidly and even Apple has its limits.  Other pretenders to their crown will come along, and one of them may just be quick enough or savvy enough to cause a major upset.

Again, all of the above is hardly an extensive analysis, and I couldn't do more than guess at this point which, if any, of the threats discussed are the most pressing.  All you can say for certain is that, at some point, Apple will miss. When it does it will be a big shock to the system (and to the markets) and a lot of people will come out of the woodwork saying "I told you so" and acting all smug and righteous.  Regardless of how or when all this plays out, I'll nevertheless do what I can to resist the urge to be one of them because, and despite all of the above, I think we all want them to continue to do what they do best: give us new stuff to play with that's fun, amazing and actually, at times, even useful.  And that really is a very difficult thing to do, to do well, and to do well enough in order to dominate multiple markets.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Simply Stunning

Early-on in the silicon revolution, Intel recognized that the way to build a world-beating company was to drive semiconductors to being seen as a basic domestic commodity, in the much same way as soap powder or cornflakes already were.  And it's hard to argue that they didn't succeed, at least given just how many microprocessors we are surrounded by on a daily basis.  However, with their latest set of results, Apple is now showing that it's possible to take another route to that same goal, that of affordable aspiration.

Apple just posted 1Q12 revenues in excess of $46 billion, a sales performance that yielded a profit of $13 billion.  The jaw-dropping numbers continue: 15 million iPads, 37 million iPhones, 5 million Macs. In three months. Wow.

The highly-tuned Apple ethos of making sleek, highly-capable devices that can delight users, regardless of their level of technical expertise, has changed how the world thinks about technology, and also what we now expect from all other manufacturers.  Time and again, Apple produces things we don't even know we want, but do so in such a way as to ensure that overnight the latest, greatest device somehow becomes a must-have item, rapidly becoming as close to a commodity purchase as it's possible to get, at least as far as personal discretionary spending goes.

Thanks to their canny pricing practices, we can all aspire to being connected with what the Apple brand represents: cutting edge technology married with leading edge design, and all that a price that's just within reach.  It's cool, chic, and, almost at the level of a bonus feature; hell, it's actually useful, too, and hence very easy to justify buying.  "Sure, it might be a bit of an indulgence, but go ahead.  You deserve it, and anyway it will make [insert favourite task here] easier", says the voice inside your head.  Of course, we don't need it at all, but so what?  This is all about wanting, about temptation, and you know how good we humans are at resisting that particular urge. 

There is no better place to be in terms of selling stuff.  Sure, I could aspire to owning a Ferrari, but I'm never going to be able to afford one, at least not the one I'd want.  However, the next Macbook refresh is only months away and my personal laptop is 5 years old now, so I'm already starting to think about what the specifications might look like, especially if the rumoured high-resolution displays do indeed show up.  And judging by their last quarter results, I'm not alone in playing that game.

In their own way, Apple has also achieved high-tech nirvana with their business model: they are the market leader, can command premium prices, and get to enjoy the lowest supply-chain costs in the business.  In every single segment in which they participate, they are the leaders; they lead financially, they lead in branding and image, they lead in innovation.

Today, they have (again) overtaken Exxon in terms of market capitalization, regaining top-dog status as the most valuable U.S. company.  With their momentum showing little signs of slowing, it's a position they look likely to hold for quite some time yet to come.

Apple:every home should  have one, and pretty soon they probably will.