View From Above

August 30, 2011  1:05 PM

HP Decision to Dump webOS Still Makes No Sense

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow we’ll be crying.
~King Crimson, Epitaph

When HP suddenly jettisoned the TouchPad and webOS a couple of weeks ago, the move shocked me because it made no sense whatsoever to dump the company’s chief mobile component. webOS and TouchPad gave HP some mobile street cred in its battle with Google, Apple and Microsoft and it gave the PC division a mobile piece it was sorely lacking.

Today, as I read about HP’s plan to spin off the PC division–which means keep it, but run it as a separate company–it makes even less sense. While the PC has a long life ahead of it, as many have written we are clearly headed into a post-PC era and this is especially true on the consumer level as smart phones and tablets replace PCs for tasks such as email, reading, playing games, watching media and so forth.

Writing on Twitter today, analyst Michael Gartenberg, criticized HP’s decision to ax the TouchPad saying:

“HP forgot the Tablet market right now is a marathon, not a sprint. It was about going the distance not speed.”

He’s right of course. HP had barely had the device on the market for 6 weeks (49 days to be exact). To just give up on it and sell off every webOS device in a cut-price fire sale makes little sense and doesn’t bode well for CEO Leo Apotheker’s leadership or vision.

Any future that doesn’t include mobile is doomed to failure in my view and revealing his plan to trash webOS devices in such a public way was simply bad business. In fact, one former HP board member was quoted in the New York Times as calling HP’s plans corporate suicide:

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as corporate suicide, but now we know that there is,” a former H.P. director, the venture capitalist Tom Perkins, told me this week. “It’s just astonishing.”

It’s hard to argue given the speed with which Apotheker has take a once mighty company and driven it straight down, apparently along with stock prices, which fell mightily on the day after HP announced it was giving up on the TouchPad and webOS, selling or spinning off its lucrative PC division and overpaying for Autonomy for $10 billion.

But the worst decision in my view is the one to walk away from the mobile strategy set in motion by former CEO Mark Hurd, who started this downward sprial when he was caught in scandal last summer and was forced to resign by the Board of Directors.

In fact, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who is never short of bombastic opinion, likened the firing to the canning of Steve Jobs at Apple in the late 1980s. I’m not sure I would go that far, but so far it has turned out to be a horrible move, made worse by hiring a man lacking any vision whatsoever in Apotheker (much like John Sculley, the man who replaced Jobs back in the day).

If HP wants to keep its PC division as a separate company, great, but to do so without a tablet and smart phone line is a recipe for failure.

In another bizarre revelation to this twisted tale, The LA Times reported today that HP may in fact bring back the TouchPad after the company spins off the PC division.

If you’re anything like me you are completely confused at this point, because if that’s the case, the TouchPad was on the market already and there was no good reason to kill it–only to bring it back at some point.

At this point, HP has lost so much credibility in the mobile space, that trying to lure back burned developers, suppliers and dealers is going to be nearly impossible.

The mobile space is so competitive to begin with, but by making a series of perplexing decisions, HP has just made it even harder for themselves and for what appears to be no good reason that I can see.

August 29, 2011  5:11 AM

Can Apple Produce The Next Big Thing Without Jobs?

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller

When Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO last week, it left a lot of questions about the future of Apple, but realistically I think the company’s mobile-cloud product road map is in place for next three to five years.

What’s in question now is what happens after that. The big gaping unknown is whether Apple can continue to innovate in the same manner to which we’ve become accustomed when Jobs was driving them forward.

For now, Apple is a train with so much momentum, nothing is going to slow it down. iPads and iPhones will continue sell like proverbial hot cakes. Apple will continue to rake in millions. New versions will come and go — but what then?

The real test for new CEO Tim Cook will not be in keeping the current crop of mobile-cloud products moving forward — he proved he could do that when Jobs went on medical leave in 2009 and again earlier this year. What will truly test Cook is the development of the next big mobile thing.

It will only be then that Cook and his executive team can show that they can execute in the same manner without Jobs’ considerable influence pushing whatever that thing is to market. What’s more, the question hangs out there as to whether Apple can continue to build excitement about that big thing without Jobs’ marketing acumen and cult of personality.

Whatever happens in the future, Jobs has left Apple in an enviable position. With a reported $75 billion in cash, Apple could survive for years and years, even as an also-ran company living off its former glory — and I don’t see them sinking to such depths.

It would take a mighty big screw-up to mess with what Jobs has built with Apple, and by all reports Tim Cook is an extremely competent man in his own right.

But having management skills and being a visionary are two different things. It’s clear that Jobs’ shoes are going to be hard to fill when it comes to the vision thing.

If I were a betting man though, I think I would place my bets on Apple. Just a couple of weeks ago Apple was fighting Exxon as the most valuable company in the world! Think about that for a second. A consumer electronics company was vying to be the most valuable company in the world. It’s remarkable really.

And it’s that legacy (for lack of a better word) that Jobs leaves firmly in place as he steps down. The stock fell on his news of course, but chances are as Apple continues to sell product in the way we have come to expect, it will rise again.

None us knows of course what happens to Apple in the post-Jobs era, but we do know one thing. Apple still has the products people want and some very smart people in place — and they should be a force to reckon with in technology for some time come — with or without Steve Jobs.

August 25, 2011  5:33 AM

HP’s webOS Decision Sends Shock Waves Through Developer Community

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller

HP shocked a good part of the mobile world last week when it announced it was pulling its fledgling tablet off the market and abandoning webOS altogether. I imagine developers and IT departments that were creating apps for webOS weren’t too pleased — to say the least

It has to leave even the most jaded IT managers wondering just who they can trust when a long-standing brand with a good reputation in the enterprise just walks away from a platform, even while it seemed to be trying to recruit folks to develop applications for it.

And while we’re at it, another major mobile story broke last week when Google bought Motorola Mobility, raising questions about just how neutral Google can be about Android when it’s selling its own phones.

Lest we forget, earlier this year Nokia suddenly dropped Symbian and MeeGo and threw its weight behind Windows Phone 7.

Mobile development is a confusing landscape under the best of circumstances, but the last week in particular, just turned it on its head. I don’t want to be over dramatic about it because it’s not as though Apple abandoned iOS or Google abandoned Android, but it’s a pretty big deal that HP walked away from webOS.

It leaves me wondering how many business models were just throw into disarray by HP’s seemingly impetuous decision. While the HP TouchPad got mixed reviews, developers reportedly really liked webOS as a development platform, even if they were cautious — and it turned out with good reason — about throwing resources at it just yet.

Box. net, an online storage and collaboration company, recently announced support across all of the major platforms including HP TouchPad. They went so far as to run a promotion with HP offering a whopping 50 GB of free storage to TouchPad buyers, good for the life of the Box account (and don’t forget it’s good across many devices and platforms).

Box could not have been pleased when HP walked away from the tablets barely 7 weeks after the July 1st launch, but Box CEO Aaron Levie chose to see it in a positive light saying, “Ironically, the short-term impact has been positive: recent TouchPad sales have driven a major spike in Box signups – 30,000 Box for TouchPad app downloads to date…”

Some speculate that webOS will rise again, but it’s impossible to say what its future is right now, and I don’t see many developers supporting it at this point, even if somebody rescues it. But Box’s Levie says, he doesn’t see this having a huge impact on emerging platforms in general. Instead, he believes it may push the adoption of a more standardized approach like HTML5.

“I doubt HP’s decision will dissuade developers from building for emerging platforms in a major way. Rather, the focus will be on speeding up and standardizing cross-platform app development – for instance, leveraging HTML5 to more efficiently bring services to all devices, like we recently did with our HTML5 mobile web app,” Levie said.

Regardless, HP’s decision had to leave developers a bit shell shocked, wondering what would happen next. Maybe Levie’s right though and it will force the industry to look at a more standardized development approach where it doesn’t matter when vendors come and go like this.

August 15, 2011  6:36 AM

Google Could Sabotage Android Success with Motorola Mobility Buy

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
Google announced this morning that it was buying Motorola Mobility, an Android partner for a staggering $12.5 billion. With this move, Google has firmly inserted itself as a competitor in the Android marketplace in a move that could undermine all of the work it has done to build an Android ecosystem of phone makers and developers.

What’s more, Google clearly overpaid by offering a 63 percent premium over Motorola’s closing price last Friday. The deal makes little sense to me on any level.

Google created Android and made it open source for a distinct reason. It wanted Android on as many phones as possible as quickly as possible. In the process, it could provide wider access to Google services and ultimately make more money by putting more eyeballs on Google ads, which is the chief source of its revenue.

The strategy has worked amazingly well to this point.

But as of today, Google is competing with other handset makers in the marketplace. From Google’s perspective, it’s a way to take control of the Android ecosystem, In statement released on the deal, Google CEO Larry Page was quoted as saying, “Together, we will create amazing user experiences that supercharge the entire Android ecosystem for the benefit of consumers, partners and developers.”

But I’m seeing it a little differently. If I’m HTC or Samsung or one of the myriad of other handset makers that has happily incorporated Android onto its phones, I’m suddenly wondering about Google’s motives in all this. When Google is itself a handset-making competitor, can others trust that they will be getting the same access to Android technology as Google will give itself?

Even if Google maintains an even playing field, there will always be questions now about whether that’s truly the case. How can you run an open source operating system, while competing with others within the open source system?

And that’s just competitors. Google has been the subject of a lot of anti-competitive scrutiny in the United States and Europe for the last several years. You have to wonder if a deal like this, which puts Google in charge of manufacturing the handset as well as the OS, will fly with regulators, especially in the EU.

Google has spent years building up good will with handset makers to get Android on as many devices as it can. It has astonishing penetration across the world, especially in some Asian markets. I’m wondering why they would risk this success by becoming a direct competitor.

Let’s not forget that Google tried selling a phone before when it marketed the Nexus One in 2009, a move that went badly for them, but instead of learning from that experience, they invest a whopping $12.5 billion to force their way into the phone market in an even bigger way.

I’m trying to understand Google’s motivation in this deal, but I truly don’t get it. Android is the company’s golden goose. To sabotage its incredibly successful approach to marketing and distributing Android with this purchase just doesn’t make sense to me.

Time will tell if this was a good deal or not for Google, but I think history will show Google just handed Apple, RIM and Microsoft a huge opening when it could have controlled the cell phone OS market for years to come.

Update: Google in a conference call announcing the deal indicated this was a play for Motorola’s broad patent portfolio. Could Google’s effort to defend itself against patents end up damaging Android? It would be ironic if that turns out to be the case.

Photo by brionv on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

August 11, 2011  9:04 AM

Apps and Browser Are Here for the Long Haul

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
Yesterday, Venture Beat reported that Chris Webber, who is the North American president of Nokia suggested that the Android-iPhone app-centric view of the world was “outdated.” While that might have been wishful thinking on Webber’s part, it seems he wasn’t alone in wondering about the long-term viability of apps, as there were articles and discussions galore yesterday. But the fact is that apps provide information in a convenient mobile package and for that reason I don’t believe they’re going anywhere any time soon.

That’s because sometimes an app just works better than a browser. For example, I own an iPhone and I have I have a free app from AT&T that gives me a consolidated view of my family’s data and phone usage during the month, my current bill, the ability to turn services on and off and other features. Yes, I can get the same information from the AT&T web site in a browser, but because AT&T hasn’t tuned its web site for a mobile experience, it’s an exercise in frustration with lots of pinching and scrolling to see the same information I can see so easily in the app.

Yet the browser still has a key role in the mobile experience as the new Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader app clearly illustrates. In this case, Apple put up several obstacles for Amazon in its quest to place the Kindle app in the Apple App Store. So what did Amazon do? In a brilliant move, it did an end-around and found a way to display the contents of your Kindle account in a browser.

While some people, such as Tim Camody on Wired, were critical of the app, others such as Richard MacManus on ReadWriteWeb saw this as the beginning of a weakening of Apple’s walled garden and the ascendancy of HTML5.

A discussion on Google+ started by Steve Rubel had a variety of opinions on the apps-browser argument, but as one writer indicated, sometimes because of connectivity issues, it’s easier to access information in an app — not to mention that you can access some content offline in an app and you couldn’t do that in most cases in a browser.

Further, while it’s all well and good to find a way to bypass the App store as Amazon did, you have to wonder, considering the popularity of the app metaphor, if it’s a wise move from a business perspective, at least in the short-term.

These are all open questions, but for now I don’t see apps going anywhere. Perhaps the browser will eventually become the predominant way we access web sites and services as HTML5 matures, just as it always has been on the desktop, but I believe apps and the browser will live side by side for some time into the future because they each have a key role in the mobile experience.

Photo by Ed Yourdon on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

August 9, 2011  2:04 PM

Amazon, Microsoft Data Centers Go Down Without Much Fanfare

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
It finally happened. We had a fairly significant cloud outage the other day and we didn’t have a lot of hand-wringing about the perils of cloud computing. Could it be that we have finally reached a point where we don’t have to defend the future of cloud computing each time a data center has problems, or is it just that everyone is on vacation in August and nobody was paying attention?

In this case, the data centers in Dublin run by Amazon and Microsoft got hit by lightning the other day causing them to go down. These things happen and it’s best if everyone stays calm when they do. Amazon certainly stayed calm as they stated the nature of the problem on the company web site — lightning struck the transformer next to the data center — and they even recommended a work-around while they fixed the problem, which was to launch another instance on a zone that was working. Not ideal, but it keeps you going right?

Microsoft similarly took it in stride and returned to normal operation later in the day. Not so bad right? It’s worth noting that Amazon did continue to have some problem due to a reported problem in its EBS (Elastic Block Storage) software.

The Microsoft outage affected a portion of the Business Productivity Online suite (BPOS). Business users were probably inconvenienced by the outage, but as I’ve written before, enterprise software goes down all the time and it’s just the way it is. Whether it’s cloud or on-premise, stuff like a lightning strike is going to happen and it’s really beyond anyone’s control.

Interestingly, some of the companies affected by the Amazon outage included high profile services Netflix and foursquare. I don’t want to minimize the effect any outage has on users because it can have a tremendous impact, but you also have to understand that one of the ways these services are even in business is by using cheap cloud computing power supplied by services like Amazon’s.

If foursquare and Netflix had to build their own data centers, it would have required a tremendous investment that might have been so prohibitive, these companies probably wouldn’t even exist without this ability to buy cheap server and storage space as a service.

If you do a quick perusal of the stories on Google News on the matter, there are couple with a sensational bent, but most of them are just straight news stories reporting on the nature of the problem. This is in stark contrast to previous outages where we have had reports of the end of cloud computing, harsh scolding of the companies involved and cries of general outrage.

Even a quick Google blog search, where you would expect more attitude and perhaps a dash of outrage is pretty tame.

So what does it all mean? It could mean we have reached a level of maturity I’ve been clamoring for. Or it could simply be that the dog days of August are upon us when fewer people are around to pay attention, and those that are, are too busy sweating in the heat to care about one outage in Ireland.

Either way, you can be sure there will be more outages, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’m hoping it won’t even be worth blogging about because it will be part of doing business in the cloud (just as it’s part of doing business on-site). That’s the day I’m still waiting for.

Photo by mikebaird on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

August 4, 2011  12:06 PM

How Do You Measure Smart Phone Market Success?

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
When you look at the smart phone market today, the easiest way to analyze it is to find which OS has the most market penetration and call it the winner. When you look at it that way, Android clearly has the lion’s share, but is it really accurate?

I have a couple of problems with a pure numbers-driven approach. First of all, Android is a free operating system, that means that Google is giving it away as a means of promoting use of its other services with the ultimate goal of putting eyeballs on its ads where it makes the bulk of its money.

As a free OS, anyone can take it and put on a phone, customize it and deliver it to the market. It’s fair enough, but since there is really no pure Android OS option, is it really fair to say that it’s all a single OS? Further, if you look at the numbers in the graph in this piece on Search Engine Land by by analyst Greg Sterling, you’ll see results from a Nielsen study that the shows most popular Android phones by manufacturer in the US.

Looking at this measurement, the most popular Android phones from HTC have half the marketshare of Apple with 14 percent for HTC compared to 28 percent for Apple

But that doesn’t tell the story either because a study by Canalys found amazing worldwide growth for Android phones with ridiculous penetration of 83 percent in South Korea and 71 percent in Taiwan. Those numbers are impossible to ignore

Yet because Android is a free OS, it doesn’t really make any money for Google. So is it really the most successful phone? If you think of phone sales in terms of profits, it’s certainly not. In that case, Apple is the clear winner and even Windows Phone 7, which is still selling modestly throughout the world comes out on top of Android.

So there are lots of ways to parse these numbers. Any way you slice it, however, Android is a tremendously successful phone across a variety of markets and price points. iPhone is also tremendously successful for Apple, generating huge sales and profits.

It seems like the two companies have distinctly different market approaches, so maybe it doesn’t even make sense to compare them, but the tendency is to see everything from politics to phone sales as a horse race. It’s a simple way to break it down and the simplest way to do that, is to look at pure percentages, but remember it’s not always as clear as it might seem and success is in the eyes of the beholder. And how you choose to break down the numbers.

Photo by tim geers on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

August 2, 2011  10:33 AM

Cloud Computing May Not Be As Bad for Environment As We Thought

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
When you think of cloud computing, especially large public cloud vendors such as Google, Yahoo! and Amazon, you probably picture massive data centers, sucking resources as they use tons of electricity to power their server farms and even more air conditioning systems to keep these monsters from overheating.

But a recent article in the New York Times suggests that this picture might not be completely accurate.  In fact, due to a number of factors, data centers are using less power than they were projected to back in 2007 in spite of predictions at the time to the contrary.

This information comes from a report by Jonathan G. Koomey, a consulting professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford University. The report was commissioned by the New York Times.

Koomey found that the world financial crisis in 2008 decreased demand for cloud services, which meant fewer data centers and that technological innovation produced systems that used less power.

“Mostly because of the recession, but also because of a few changes in the way these facilities are designed and operated, data center electricity consumption is clearly much lower than what was expected, and that’s really the big story,” said Mr. Koomey in the New York Times article.

Koomey was comparing the results of his study to a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency report which predicted the situation would be much worse at this point than it actually is.

Whether a data center is efficient, however, has to do with a lot of factors including where it’s located. A data center in Germany that is powered by a near-by wind farm is going to have a much smaller environmental impact, then one located in Ohio near a plant that burns coal to generate electricity.

Over the last several years, companies like Amazon, Google and Yahoo! have been working hard to generate greener data centers, and it’s probably not because these companies are concerned about the environment (although they may very well be), but more because the cost of generating electricity at these data centers is in fact, a substantial part of their cost of doing business.

If these companies can find ways to generate electricity and cool these centers more efficiently, it’s not only going to help keep the environment cleaner, it’s going to have a positive impact on their bottom line.

Even though this report paints a rosier picture than believed, the amount of consumption is bound to go up, and over the next several years, these companies and many others are going to be looking for other ways to innovate — whether it’s through greener energy production, more efficient chip technologies that use less electricity or innovative cooling techniques — because as more companies shift to the cloud, finding ways to run data centers more efficiently is going to be increasingly necessary.

Companies that can come up with ways to help achieve this will be helping maintain a cleaner planet for future generations, while providing the cloud services we demand.

Photo by nortinirt on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

July 27, 2011  3:39 AM

Nokia Takes it on Chin in China

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller

As though Nokia needed any more bad news, its latest quarterly figures reveal that it has lost substantial market share in China, a market it has dominated over the years.

In fact, it was reported that Android passed Nokia’s Symbian OS for the first time, and Reuters was quoting a Gartner analyst who was predicting that Android would control 50 percent of the Asian market by 2015.

If that weren’t enough, Apple passed Nokia in worldwide market share for the first time. It’s all part of a continuing decline for a mobile phone maker that once controlled the market, particularly in areas like China where its lower end phones sold extremely well.

But as you are no doubt aware, Nokia made the decision earlier this year to abandon the Symbian and MeeGo phone operating systems in favor of a Windows Phone 7 strategy. The announcement came long before any Nokia phone running Windows was close to ready. leaving the company effectively in limbo.

The results have been exceedingly ugly as Nokia has jettisoned market share in huge numbers, even in markets like China in which it was traditionally strong. In fact, Bloomberg reported that Nokia’s sales in China dropped a whopping 41 percent from last year, while European sales dropped by 30 percent.

Meanwhile Nokia reported selling 16.7 million phones in the most recent quarter compared with over 20 million iPhones That’s astonishing really when you consider there are many, many Nokia phones across a range of price points, while Apple just has just a few iPhones, all sold at a much higher price that probably won’t do as well in Asia.

It’s easy to criticize CEO Stephen Elop’s strategy, but the fact is that Nokia was stuck with an old OS nobody really wanted anymore, and while MeeGo looked promising, as Sarah Perez pointed out on ReadWriteWeb, it would not likely have been enough to be competitive with Android and Apple.

This leaves Nokia in the unenviable position of trying to find a way to sustain its market presence in the midst of transitioning to an entirely new line of phones running Windows..

It seems clear at this point that Android and iOS will control the top two spots moving forward, and the remaining battle will be for third place. Microsoft is betting that by affiliating itself with Nokia, it can help cement that third place position, while Nokia is hoping that Windows can revive its flagging phone sales

It still remains to be seen if this approach can work for either company, but it is clear that in the short term, Nokia continues to take it on the chin in China, as well in other markets it once dominated, and it has to hang on until those Windows phones are ready and see where the chips fall.

July 18, 2011  12:39 PM

Security Could Still Be RIM’s Ace in the Hole

Ron Miller Ron Miller Profile: Ron Miller
It’s not exactly a secret that RIM has been losing North American market share in bunches over the last couple of years, but in environments where security is paramount, RIM still has a strong case to make.

As the consumerization trend has swept the enterprise, IT has been reduced to overseers, rather than dictators of technology choices. And users don’t want Blackberries. They want Apple and Android phones, But in highly secure environments, total freedom to choose your cell phone just isn’t practical and IT must maintain control.

Take the government for instance. My sister-in-law works for the Australian government and she has been issued a Blackberry for government business. When I asked her why, she indicated because communication was forced through a secure server helping ensure that the messages she exchanged with politicians and colleagues remained confidential.

The implication was clear, the other choices while more fun to use were not nearly as secure and that could be the focus of RIM’s strategy moving forward.

I also noticed that when I was in Germany last year for the CeBIT conference, the organizers were also issued Blackberries. Security was tightly controlled and German users were not even allowed to download Blackberry-approved apps. Perhaps RIM can use this conservative approach to IT to its advantage in overseas markets.

At one time, as recently as Fall, 2009, RIM was the most dominant cell phone maker in North America with 40 percent of market share. Today that’s all changed and with each passing quarter, RIM loses more and more of this market. In fact, the April Comscore market share statistics have RIM in third place with 25.7 percent down 4.7 points from the previous quarter.

What’s worse, it feels like a company in disarray. As its market share numbers slip, the strategy has been to release a the Blackberry PlayBook tablet, which by all reports was an admirable try, but one which was clearly released too soon — and RIM is not a company that can afford at this point to make many missteps. Meanwhile, its two-headed CEO approach seems like a strange idea at best, and one that shows a clear lack of leadership at worst.

But RIM has always been the enterprise choice for cell phones. As Apple and Android have developed far more sexy choices, and users have grown tired of carrying two phones–one for work and one for themselves, Blackberry’s domination has disappeared. Yet RIM remains a secure choice in environments whose work demands it, as my sister-in-law’s case clearly shows.

What’s not clear, however, is if  in most enterprises, IT has lost control of these choices. And if that’s the case, RIM’s road is going to continue to be rough. Unless the upcoming series of phones provides both the sex appeal users want and the security IT requires (at least in some cases), as we’ve written here before, RIM could be in serious trouble.

If, however, it can use its security to its advantage, especially in overseas markets, it could continue to do reasonably well outside of North America, and that might be enough to keep it going, or at least make it a reasonable take-over target for another company.

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