People to Watch in 2006
Including a mix of familiar (Sky Dayton, anyone?) and obscure names, Unstrung's list of the half-dozen figures to keep an eye on in the next 12 months provides a glimpse of what's ahead in the wireless community.
Ed Zander, CEO, Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT): Already lauded for doing at Motorola what Carly Fiorina could not do at HP -- rejuvenate a hidebound corporate culture being whipped by nimbler, more innovative rivals -- Zander has an interesting year ahead.
Introducing the sleek Razr V3, the hottest phone on the market in 2005, the former No. 2 at Sun Microsystems guided Moto to record results this year, including an increase of 66 percent in the number of handsets shipped in the third quarter, running the company's string of profitable quarters to seven. Having launched dozens of new mobile devices, including the Pebl U6 and the Slvr L6, in the last 12 months, in 2006 Zander will oversee the release of several more new products including the highly anticipated Q, Motorola's rival to the BlackBerry. He also recently acquired Wireless Valley, an Austin-based maker of software for wireless networks, including mesh, WiMax and WiFi.
Can he stay on a roll? A lot depends on Zander's ability to keep fostering innovation by the newly invigorated Motorola R&D and design teams; but a lot also depends on whether the handset market stays red-hot in the United States.
Kevin Martin, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) : He may look like the student body president at the University of North Carolina -- in fact, the new FCC chairman was once just that -- but he's proven to be a smoother operator and a less divisive figure than his predecessor Michael Powell.
Martin has continued to back the FCC's crackdown on indecency and has ushered through several telecommunications mega-mergers while eliciting unanimous votes from the Commission, currently split between two Democrats and two Republicans with one seat vacant.
In 2006, his political skills will be tested as Martin oversees the biggest year of radio-frequency spectrum auctions by the FCC since the late 1990s. (See Back to the Spectral Future.) Some of the spectrum going on the block is the "beachfront spectrum" in the 700 MHz range, highly prized for its capability of carrying high-bandwidth mobile services such as video and Internet access. How the FCC manages the transition to digital TV and the freeing up of large slices of bandwidth will, ultimately, decide Martin's legacy far more than the revealed-flesh quotient of next February's Super Bowl halftime show.
Sky Dayton, CEO, Helio Inc. : Now on his third or fourth phase in the Internet revolution, Dayton is heading up Helio, the joint venture between EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) (which Dayton founded in 1994) and South Korea's SK Telecom. The new company is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), meaning that it will piggyback on the cell networks of big carriers Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and Verizon Wireless to offer phones and enhanced mobile multimedia and entertainment features.
Targeting young, hip users with flashy up-to-the-minute services, Helio has a $440 million warchest and a pipeline of advanced Korean phones. But it's entering a brand new niche that's already getting crowded, with Disney, ESPN, Virgin Mobile Telecoms Ltd. , and newcomer Amp'd Mobile Inc. all offering or developing MVNO products for specialized market segments (Mobile ESPN will debut at the Super Bowl in February). Dayton's record is not perfect -- anybody remember eCompanies? -- but he's a proven entrepreneur and innovator with a strong new brand and a potent partner alliance.
Ray Dolan, CEO , Flarion Technologies Inc. : Okay, technically Dolan doesn't really even have a company to manage anymore after Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s $600 million acquisition of Flarion, the creator of mobile broadband technology Flash-OFDM, in August (the deal is expected to close in January). It remains to be seen how Flarion will fit into Qualcomm's strategy for high-speed mobile connectivity, which is based on competing standard CDMA.
But Dolan, a former Marine fighter pilot, may still have a plane to fly in this unfolding scenario. While the halting of OFDM trials by Nextel, when that company was acquired by Sprint in early 2005, was a blow to Flarion's hopes for dominance in the wireless broadband market, new rollouts in Finland (where the government plans a nationwide OFDM-based wireless network) and in Slovakia (where the local T-Mobile subsidiary will launch the first commercial service using OFDM) mean that Flarion's technology could still overcome 3G and WiMax to be the mobile broadband standard.
Linda Dillman, CIO, Wal-Mart: Dillman gave a huge boost to RFID technology, which many retailers have been slow to adopt, when she instituted new requirements for Wal-Mart suppliers to include the radio-frequency tags in the goods they sell to the world's largest retailer.
Two hundred leading Wal-Mart suppliers will begin tagging shipments in January, adding to the 100 who began using RFID tags a year ago. With RFID technology currently deployed at 500 Wal-Mart stores and five of its 117 distribution centers, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant plans to double the number of its stores using tags to monitor inventory by the end of next year. Can Wal-Mart (along with the Dept. of Defense, which has instituted similar requirements for suppliers) push RFID technology over the hump of supplier and retailer resistance? She plans to use Wal-Mart's purchasing muscle to do just that.
"We've started communicating to some of the suppliers who have been reluctant -- which is a nice way of saying it," Dillman told the Financial Times last week, "to say, 'We can't invest any more time in you.'"
Ivan Seidenberg, CEO, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ): Coming off a year in which he derided his customers for wanting cellphone service in their homes ("Why in the world would you think your [cell] phone would work in your house?" he asked, in a widely ridiculed interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in April), called the idea of citywide municipal WiFi networks "one of the dumbest ideas I've ever heard" (in the same interview) and saw Verizon's bonds downgraded by Moody's as the company's share price hovered at its year-long low in December, Seidenberg has some 'splainin' to do.
Verizon is spending billions to upgrade its copper wires to fiber optics, a move that some analysts see as too slow and too costly. One bright spot: Verizon Wireless , the joint venture with Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), continues to report healthy subscriber and revenue growth. And the acquisition of MCI LLC , expected to close in Q1 '06, could position the company to better offer wireless and sophisticated IP-based services.
Our advice: Keep your mouth shut and do your job, Ivan.
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung