The ability to compete depends on great vision
To be a great athlete, one must possess great vision. The greatest athletes possess other-worldly vision. Take the baseball player Ted Williams for example. When the Boston Red Sox slugger entered the Navy during World War II, his vision was measured at 20/10. It was said that he could read the label on a record spinning at 78 rpm; the typical person can do this at 33 rpm, no more. This ability came in quite handy in determining the spin of a baseball as it moved towards him, helping him to discern quickly whether the pitch was a fastball or a slider, which look remarkably similar until the latter darts at the last moment.
Great vision can be measured in other ways. The football player Gale Sayers possessed phenomenal peripheral vision that allowed him to evade defenders with now legendary cutbacks that left tacklers grasping at air. (If you’ve never seen Sayers, give yourself a treat and check him out at You Tube.) It always seemed that Sayers had eyes in the back of his head.
It takes great vision to succeed in the business world as well. Last week, EFJohnson Technologies celebrated its 85th anniversary. As I wrote in my blog yesterday, I can’t speak to the relative merits of its products because I don’t use mobile or portable radios in my line of work, other than to say that the company has its followers. But I can speak to the noteworthiness of surviving so long in a relatively small marketplace—at least compared to the commercial wireless sector—that long has been dominated by a behemoth in Motorola.
I spoke last week with Max Safavi, EFJ’s chief operating officer and Ed Kelly, its vice president of marketing, to get a better idea of how the company has survived all these years. They told me that the answer in large measure can be found in the company’s willingness to take a chance. A case in point was EFJ’s decision to become an early adopter of IP technology, introducing it to its core network in 2004. That decision raised more than a few eyebrows among customers, not to mention a plethora of questions. Chief among them: Would an IP-based network be secure enough for first responders? Would the company be able to deliver the quality of service that first responders require?
Safavi conceded that the concept of IP in an RF environment was “a little bit radical” at the time, given the comparatively nascent state of IP and the conservative nature of the first responder marketplace. But the company never wavered once the decision to embrace IP was made. “We took some chances, but we knew IP would be big,” he said.
That made me smile just a bit. I remember well the grief we got when we first started writing about IP at about the same time EFJ came to its decision to embrace it. My colleague Donny Jackson and I had spent several years writing and editing for Telephony, another Penton publication, and had seen how quickly IP technology was evolving. We believed it only was a matter of time before the worlds of IP and RF became one, and told readers to be patient. Today you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in public safety who doesn’t acknowledge that the IP will be a big part of first responder communications going forward.
The embracing of IP led EFJ to another bold move: the relocation of its headquarters from Waseca, Minn.—“An old-school RF town,” Safavi said—to Dallas, which is a hotbed of technology talent. Though the move resulted in 80% employee turnover, it was the right move because the transition to IP required personnel with different skill sets and perspectives, Safavi said. “We needed fresh people with fresh ideas.”
Considering that it took considerable vision to see the potential for IP and an equal amount of fortitude to act upon that vision, it seems odd that EFJ is trailing right now in the race to deliver software-defined and cognitive radios. Early this year, both Thales and Harris introduced software-defined multiband radios and Motorola jumped into the race this summer, while EFJ is still stuck in the lab. However, Kelly isn’t very worried about ceding the first-mover advantage to the competition, though he concedes it will be several more years before EFJ unveils its device.
According to Kelly, EFJ’s design will leverage a single transceiver. In contrast, its competitors use multiple transceivers, “which is the most expensive and power hungry solution you could possibly find out there.” EFJ hopes its competitors will prime the pump for SDR products; then it will swoop in with a lower-cost design, something the company believes will resonate with customers who are arch-conservatives when it comes to spending money—attitudes that only will exacerbate in a tough economy that already has seen diminishing tax revenues.
“We think we know how to build the better mousetrap,” Kelly said.
We’ll see. There’s a lot of value in being the first to market with a product for which many are clamoring, and Kelly simply might be putting on brave face. What else is he going to say—that EFJ is getting beat?
However, I wouldn’t bet against EFJ on this matter. As evidenced by its decision to embrace IP when very few others would, they’ve been right before.
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