I was at Lenovo Accelerate this week and learned a number of interesting things. Lenovo is actually a very different company than its peers. Generally more hardware focused, though that is changing, it is the only firm that has both smartphones and servers, the only firm that is not only effectively bifurcated with balanced leadership in China and the U.S., and the only firm that goes back to the beginning of cell phones (Motorola) and PCs (IBM).
I would argue it is, as a result, the firm with the greatest potential and the one with the most difficulty reaching that potential because of the historically siloed nature of its business groups (particularly Motorola).
I walked away with three big takeaways this week in IoT, AR/VR and PC innovation. Let’s cover each.
One of the big issues I have with all of the IoT efforts is that everyone seemed to be starting from scratch and not a single one of the large tech companies starting down this path bought or collaborated with firms like Echelon, which had been working in this area for decades. This is the third or fourth attempt to make the IoT work and none of the proceeding attempts seemed to learn much from the waves that came before. Since I’ve been painfully involved in each of the waves, I’ve concluded that the only way to approach this effort is to first attempt to create a complete solution.
Yet, generally, everyone approaches this in parts, picking and choosing what part they want to do and arguing solution largely through partners doing things that the tech company doesn’t want to do or really learn about. That’s why we have some of the most successful work being done by customers like Amazon and its Amazon Go effort, which do work but not in a cost-effective manner. But what Amazon is learning could result in it entering this space and owning it, much like it did with AWS.
The only tech firm that is even close to this ideal is Lenovo, which has developed a tiered computer vision based solution for retail and warehousing. This starts with smart cameras, which address part of the problem with the huge data streams that traditional cameras put out. Then it has several serve/hub configurations that scale from small operations to large plants, which can either work with existing cameras or create operational synergies with its smart cameras for more cost-effective solutions, and finally, it bridges to the cloud.
This is wrapped by services and software, as well as installation partners to complete the effort.
AR/VR: HoloLens II Lite
The AR/VR effort (and coming head-mounted display effort) is focused on where it needs to be for commercial use and broadly encompasses consumer. What makes the ThinkReality AR (augmented reality) effort interesting is that it is largely based on what was learned from Microsoft’s initial HoloLens effort. Where it differs from HoloLens II, which clearly came from the same pool of customer-based experiential learning, is as follows. First, the company simplified and opened up its tool set so that customers could easily implement anyone’s hardware, not just Lenovo’s or Microsoft’s. Second, it focused on three improvements that differentiate from HoloLens II. One is the battery, which raises the weight and limits the time the headset can be in use. Lenovo remoted the battery so that it can reside on the user’s belt or in a pocket, reducing substantially the weight placed on the user’s head, and it can easily be swapped out, lengthening the time the device can be used to unlimited between charges (HoloLens II has about a four-hour battery life). Second, it addressed the controls on the headset, putting them with the battery so that the user can see what they are adjusting. Third, it cost reduced the device and bundled it with services so that the buyer gets a complete solution out of the box (this is similar to HoloLens II but wasn’t the case with the first version of HoloLens).
Finally, it has initially focused mostly on large enterprises, which is interestingly a best practice that was highlighted at BlackBerry’s event this year by Crossing the Chasm author Geoffrey Moore. He argued that you need to first build a solution yourself, then focus on customers who have their own developer resources and finally open it up to the developer community. Lenovo is correctly, according to Moore’s model, focusing its now complete solution on enterprises that can do their own final development and supplying easy-to-use basic tools to assist with that development.
In drag racing, we call this going from A to B. Lenovo is really the only firm, other than Microsoft, doing the A to B thing well in the commercial AR space.
Lenovo showcased three things that I think were truly innovative with PCs during this event. It was the first to announce the coming shipment of a foldable screen on a laptop and, unlike Samsung’s failed effort on a smartphone, this solution is flat when opened and doesn’t rely on a too easy to remove plastic shield to function. It is the second, after HP, in this decade to wrap a PC in leather to make it far more comfortable and easier to carry (something I think should be more generic now that we actually can get all-day battery life). And the firm’s use of the electronic privacy screen is now the most advanced.
Virtually every major vendors will have a similar privacy screen option for their commercial laptops. These screens protect against people reading off your screen, which is believed to be one of the most under-communicated big risks for data breaches. All of the vendors are moving to a technology that is more power efficient and provides a black, rather than the earlier white, screen, to those attempting to view the screen without permission.
What makes the Lenovo effort different is that it scans for observers and then will automatically turn the screen on if the laptop perceives someone attempting to view the screen. This not only protects the data but alerts the user to a potential attempted breach.
Wrapping Up: Unique Advantages of Lenovo
While I still haven’t seen any synergy between Motorola and the rest of the company, the advances in IoT, AR/VR and PC innovation were compelling. I should add that on servers, Lenovo also demonstrated leadership in performance and customer satisfaction, and on supercomputers, surprising market leadership. This all suggests that Lenovo’s biggest problem is that it isn’t getting the credit it deserves, but this means that it can more effectively be used to gain competitive advantage by customers, and it will likely be more cost-effective as well. This last is because the company’s advantages aren’t well known; it is more likely to be forced to compete on price. This makes it an interesting bargain for the informed customer and helps reinforce the unique advantages it brings to market.