There are lots of sayings that suggest it could all end in tears: a leopard can?t change its spots; you can?t teach an old dog new tricks; and the less well known, you can lead a horse to water but you can?t make it do the washing up. They all refer to the difficulty of change and the even more difficult concept of convincing people that change is possible.
These sayings all refer to animals, maybe reinforcing this idea that once we know something as one thing it will always be thus. This probably doesn?t bode well for that well known handheld animal Psionus Smallus Organisus which is not only changing its spots but is changing is shape as well.
We have known Psion since the 80s, when it made its name off the back of the Filofax boom, its early handheld device looking like something out of Star Trek ? but without the realism. It would be overstating the case to say the company leads the way, but it certainly built a niche for itself and attracted a following of enthusiasts that thought nothing of inputting screeds of data via its telephone-like keypad.
After a while the Series 3 came along and enjoyed the same success. By now the Psion handheld was established as something just above an executive toy ? it was just far enough forward from the Newton?s Cradle and stress balls to see it though the Thatcher yuppie years and into the caring, sharing, groupwaring 90s. But once in the 90s, Psion had to do something ? it had to come up with something to do ? so it immediately went to work with its early 90s strategy. The plan was breathtakingly simple ? it did nothing.
Sure, it tweaked the Series 3; first we had the Series 3a and just last year we had the Series 3c (it is a reflection of Psion?s subtlety that we didn?t get a Series 3b, it quietly ignored our protestations with a knowing smile). The 1996 launch of the 3c also gave us a new toy, the cut-down version of the Psion, the Siena. But Psion still hadn?t moved away from its traditional user: someone who likes the feel of technology in their pocket, but not necessarily someone who sees themselves as a computer user.
As of Monday that changed. On 16 June Psion revealed its first real attempt at spot changing ? it launched its new device the Series 5. The machine is aimed fair and square at the corporate market, the very same corporate market that the likes of Compaq are aiming Microsoft-driven CE machines at. And as the Series 5 isn?t a CE machine, this means Psion is not only hoping to out-gun Compaq but Microsoft as well. Maybe the leopard isn?t changing its spots, maybe it?s just having a mental breakdown.
Liz Harboard, product manager of CE products at Compaq, is infinitely more polite about Psion, playing David to Microsoft?s ? and the rest of the known world?s ? Goliath. ?I think Psion are very brave to go another route,? she says frankly. ?But with the work they?re putting behind Windows CE and the marketing money Microsoft are putting behind it, I don?t think CE is going to fail.?
Compaq doesn?t have to take Psion seriously, but Harboard is generous about Psion and politely refuses to say anything negative about it. ?Psion have been a strong handheld player for a long time, so they are starting in a strong position,? she says. All the same, the company line will out, and does. ?Compaq are very strong in the corporate market,? she says, stating the obvious. ?And we see the CE very much being a handheld for the corporate market.? In other words she doesn?t hold out much hope.
So what of the Psion view? Kevin Vaughan Smith is Psion?s corporate solutions director and was recruited specifically to make Psion a corporate supplier. He has been working on this for about a year now and claims to be seeing a sea change. ?We are seeing a growing need to supply corporates with palmtops,? says Vaughan Smith. ?They have developed from being just a personal information manager to a full-blown business solution, a computing solution.
This view is supported by Liz Harboard. ?I think handhelds are being recognised by corporates as part of their overall IT solution,? she says.
So, at least the two companies agree; right up to when someone mentions CE, then it starts getting a bit difficult. Not surprisingly, Vaughan Smith has some well rehearsed comments when it comes to the Series 5 not being a CE machine.
?I think our applications are the best in the market. They may not start off a Windows icon bar, but that doesn?t worry me. Once they?ve started, they are very much faster than Windows.? Which is nice and jolly, but surely when the CE market gets going Psion is going to get trampled on in the rush to CE?
Vaughan Smith is having none of it. ?We don?t see it as a threat, we see it as something that will both expand the market and the understanding of it dramatically. We think this will create an enormous volume growth in the market and we are going to take advantage of it.? A noble sentiment indeed, but history records very few companies that arm-wrestled Microsoft and got to keep their arm ? let alone win.
Psion?s next battle is to convince its customers that it isn?t a company wedded to the Dixons mentality, but is a lean, mean channel-driven company that knows how to support its resellers.
This presumably is a bit daunting for Vaughan Smith, but if it is he doesn?t show it. ?Our strength in the past has been in the high street with the retail sales of palmtops, but our industrial variants have always been sold through the direct corporate sales force.?
He points to a wide range of blue chip companies that already deal with Psion. ?All the major high street banks, many of the financial institutions and a lot of the big oil companies already use our products.? But the point is that a lot of these machines have been bought by individual executives who are buying them for themselves.
Which highlights Psion?s problem, it has already convinced individuals that the product is good, but now it has to convince the companies. Vaughan Smith understands the problem. ?Because it is going from a personal usage device to being part of a corporate solution, there are things that IT managers and IT directors expect which we need to supply and they are the services that go with the product ? things like software development, support services, maintenance services, technical back- up, consultancy.?< So, Psion has been working on the corporate ?package?, but why should the channel be bothered with this? Vaughan Smith argues that corporates are still looking for a strategy for palmtops and portable computers. ?And part of that strategy is procurement and in order to meet their needs, my view and that of our board is to expand our use of the channel,? he says.
Psion claims some previous experience with the channel and has been using that experience to prepare itself for the new push. ?The channel has been very successful for us on our industrial products,? says Vaughan Smith. ?And we have made sure that inside Psion there were no internal conflicts that could jeopardise channel sales.? This, he hopes, will make the channel more confident of Psion?s actions.
But the argument he thinks most persuasive is money ? and he may well be right. For a start, he argues that it isn?t economical to give everybody #1,200 notebooks, most users don?t need that sort of processing power, whereas the Psion is so much cheaper, saving money for the user.
Then there is money for the reseller. ?The last time I was selling PCs we were making, what, six or seven points on them. I suspect it is even less these days. But the margin on our products is significantly more than that,? says the Psion man playing his trump card.
?In terms of pound notes on the bottom line it is probably as good to sell one Series 5 as it is to sell one PC.? It will come as no surprise that Vaughan Smith gets decidedly coy when talking actual figures, and rather than removing the seventh veil will just agree to say: ?The margins on these products are much more attractive than they are on PCs.?
In the end, this could be enough to swing it. But Psion needs to get out there before the CE market takes off ? the new version of Windows CE is slated for the end of this year, and the current one doesn?t seem to be doing its impersonation of hot cakes yet, so there is still time.
Psion has to convince everyone that it is a proper grown-up corporate supplier and that none of this is kids? stuff any more. That will depend not only on the product and the margin it gives, but on whether it has changed its spots The signs are that it has shed its skin and is wearing a new one, but we won?t know if the new one will last as long as the old. If it is going up against Microsoft and Compaq, it had better hope that, if nothing else, the new skin is thick.
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