What really happened at DisplayLink?

June 30th, 2011

On Friday, Business Weekly (a small local publication not to be confused with BusinessWeek) published a most unfortunate article about recent changes at DisplayLink, entitled ‘DisplayLink Chairman Says Company Needed to Grow Up‘. Here’s an extract:

Founders Dr Andrew Fisher and Tim Glauert left the company after what the chairman described as an amicable discussion about the future direction of the business.
A number of battle-hardened industry veterans were drafted in, among them Paul Murphy as European managing director.

and

O’Keeffe said: “I am always a little nervous about jettisoning founders of a company because they can be very passionate about the business and you have to look at various angles.
“It’s often the nature of startup companies to involve themselves more with the R & D than hard commercial sales and both Tim and Andy are bright, creative engineers. To put it simply, we needed to become a proper grown-up business and get away from the research cycle. We had a discussion and felt it best to part company.

This is, to put it bluntly, outrageous.

It is hard not to read between the lines a very strong suggestion that the company has had difficulties up to now because of a couple of recalcitrant founders, and, now that they have gone and the investors and battle-hardened veterans are in control, everything will be OK.

Now, I have been interviewed a couple of times by Business Weekly in the past, and have considered them as a bit better than your average local rag. And I have reason to believe that Graham O’Keeffe is an honourable man. So I will do them both the favour of suggesting that this is a tragic breakdown of communication tied to a single rather irresponsible journalist’s reporting, which could, if unchallenged, do great damage to the careers of two of the nicest, smartest, most inventive people I know, who have poured many years of their lives into creating a company for the benefit of these same investors.

So let me try to set the record straight here.

Martin King and I founded DisplayLink, and I was the CEO for the first couple of years. Having hired an excellent replacement CEO, we moved on to our next startup project. Tim and Andy were there right from the start, and built the core technology on which DisplayLink still depends, and have been with the company ever since. DisplayLink would not be what it is today without them, and a considerable number of people have them to thank for their jobs and livelihood.

Company and investor press releases are, however, an interesting branch of mythology which is worthy of closer literary study. One theme which can often be traced in this genre is the idea that founders single-handedly make or break the company. So it’s very convenient for the VCs to be able to tell the right story about them.

And so it was that, after Martin and I left, Andy and Tim were given the title of Founders, and Martin and I were expunged from the record. I was consulted about this – at least about the first part – and readily gave my approval. Andy and Tim rightly deserved that status from the start, and the company website could proudly boast the ongoing enthusiastic involvement of the Founders.

At least while it was convenient for them to do so.

In this article, however, we see another rather different clichéd plot theme in high-tech startup mythology, about how everything turned for the better after the company finally got rid of those difficult Founders. I would have credited even Business Weekly with a little more imagination than that. You can read the history of Cisco and others to see earlier examples of this theme in the literature.

However, I am in the interesting position of still having many links into DisplayLink at all levels of the company, and yet am under no contractual obligations to toe the party line. So I can clearly state, when others might find it more difficult, that nothing I hear from inside the company would in any way suggest that Tim and Andy are at all responsible for the somewhat rocky ride it has had recently and the budgetary constraints that have forced the company to let them, and a lot of other good people, go.

Some may consider the very difficult market conditions at present. And others may notice a rather surprising fact: that the article completely fails to mention the recent departure of the latest CEO: a disastrous appointment forced on the company by the investors some while ago and yet, despite his departure at about the same time as Tim and Andy, mysteriously absent from the latest press releases….

I shall point no fingers at anyone, but leave the reader to ponder whether it is really likely that Tim and Andy’s enthusiasm for forward-thinking R&D has been the source of any difficulties. Or whether, for example, people who were actually on the board of directors might have considered doing the honourable thing and shouldering some of the blame, rather than finding scapegoats.

Sigh.

Well, DisplayLink has many very good, very smart people remaining, and some great technology, and I wish the company all the best for the future, even though it has lost some of its brightest stars.

And let me state for the avoidance of any doubt that if I ever have the chance of working with Tim & Andy again I will jump at it. And I would strongly recommend any other technology company to do the same.

And people, please remember that wise old saying which you should repeat to yourself every single morning while brushing your teeth…

    Don’t believe what you read in the papers.

Note: I have consulted none of the people mentioned before writing this article. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own – though I have reason to believe they are echoed by many.

Update, just a few hours later: Good! The contents of my inbox this morning confirm that I am indeed very far from being alone in these views.

Exbiblio RIP and IP

June 27th, 2011

I haven’t been able to talk about it before now, but thanks to the USPTO it appears to be public knowledge that the Exbiblio patent portfolio was recently acquired by Google. (The company basically closed down after Martin King passed away last year.)

As is so often the case with my exploits, by the time they actually make any money I no longer have any financial stake in them! But it’s encouraging to think that the weeks and months that I and others put into writing those patents did at least produce something that others found valuable enough to pay reasonably substantial sums for them.

Congrats to all concerned!

The Final Cut is the Deepest

June 24th, 2011

There’s a big storm going on – a lot of very angry people – this week. And there are some rather happy people as well. But it’s quite possible you’ve missed all of this emotional turmoil unless you’re in the world of high-end video editing.

Apple have just released a completely new version of Final Cut Pro, their flagship video-editing suite, which has grown over the last few years to make up around half of the ‘pro’ market. FCP was a game-changer when launched because, at around $1000, it was a tiny fraction of the price of the market-leading product from Avid. This made it the backbone of many a small video-production bureau, yet it was also powerful enough to be used for major Hollywood movies.

In fact it’s a fairly daunting program for new users and can take years to master. Yet, like Photoshop, and maybe even to a greater degree, it repays the time invested. There are those who do spend years mastering it and so acquire skills which keep them and their families fed and clothed. And there is a large industry that provides training, books, software plugins, and other peripheral extras.

I’m a very humble user in comparison – I know my way around it enough to get things done, but I don’t have every keyboard shortcut embedded deep in my muscle memory in the way that the true Jedi of the movie-editing world do. At home I have its lighter-weight but still impressive sibling, Final Cut Express, which was decidedly cheaper, though I’ve often been tempted by the Pro version.

Well, that’s the background. And the big rumpus this week is that the new Final Cut Pro X (pronounced ‘ten’) is a radical change and has upset a lot of people’s… errm… Apple carts. While technically impressive, it looks as different from the old FCP as iMovie did after its rewrite a few years back (which many of us still consider to have been a retrograde step). But for most people, iMovie changes were a matter of personal preference when editing one’s holiday video. With FCP, there are a lot of people who have a lot more riding on it. And it isn’t just cosmetic changes – there are many bits missing which ordinary users might never notice but which are vital for those with complex workflows spanning multiple organisations and software packages. Especially if they still have to support older formats, like tape… And many still do.

David Pogue, who reviewed it in the NYT a few days ago, has followed up with a further post providing a bit more information about the changes to try and calm the madding crowds. “In 10 years of writing Times columns”, he says, “I’ve never encountered anything quite like this.”

The big questions causing concern are whether Apple is abandoning its hard-core FCP supporters by replacing it with a product aimed more at the larger audience of people like me, in which case those years invested in gaining FCP expertise may be lost. And whether some of the older formats, protocols and capabilities which are missing from this first rewrite are now gone for good, or will return in future updates, at which point FCP7 users can upgrade with a sigh of relief…

All very uncertain. But, as I say, there are some happy people around too. I imagine, for example, there are a lot of smiling faces in the marketing groups at Avid. And at Adobe, too: Adobe Premiere, a product which used to fall far short of the competition has, by all accounts, improved dramatically in recent times, and it may well win a lot of new converts in the next few months.

Another happy group will be people like me, who could never quite justify paying more than $1000 for a software package unless their livelihood depended on it.

Final Cut Pro X, however, is available on the Apple store for £179, and nothing before has ever offered that kind of power for that kind of price, which is why I really must stop writing now, because I have to go and start downloading…

Update: If you do decide to go for FCPX, I recommend investing in the excellent tutorial video series from Ripple Training.

What goes around comes around…

June 18th, 2011

It’s – wow! – almost twenty years since we set up the original Trojan Room coffee pot camera.

Now some cunning Danish developers have a demo of how you can monitor the level of your coffee using a Management Pack plugin for Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007, which is quite fun, and I imagine is even more useful if you’ve ever actually heard of Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007…

Thought for the day – gut feelings

June 4th, 2011

Q. When are gut feelings a bad thing?

A. When they leave you feeling gutted.

(Inspired by a question from David Shores about the effects of strong curry…)