The Internet’s Adolescence: The Real World Catches Up Eventually

I started my career as an internet analyst back in the period of the dot-com bubble. They were heady days in which anything seemed possible. The world was changing in unprecedented ways and the possibilities were endless. The rules that governed the old world didn’t apply. Except they did. Investors soon twigged that dot-com startups were simply not able to deliver on their revenue promises and so pulled their funding. In an instant, the whole edifice came tumbling down. It turned out that those old fashioned and outdated concepts such as turning a profit actually applied to internet companies too. We have come a long way since the dot-com bubble, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as being a mature medium yet. Instead, it is entering its market adolescence and consequently still has a lot of growing up to do.

Regulation Comes Eventually

Although the internet and its associated technologies (apps, social, streaming, e-commerce, etc) are deeply embedded in our daily lives in the developed world (and increasingly so in emerging markets), it is still fundamentally just getting going. On a global level, each key sector of the internet economy is dominated by 1 company (Amazon/e-commerce, Google/search, Facebook/social, etc). A single dominant company is typically an indication of an early stage market and/or one that is about to be opened up with regulation. In the case of internet industries, it is likely to be a combination of both. Thus far, regulation has not yet properly caught up with internet companies. The global, borderless nature of their propositions and their relative lack of precedents makes regulation a highly challenging task. But it will happen.

Regulatory Repercussions

To be clear, regulation is not some shining panacea for business. But it is the price of being part of society and global commerce. The more deeply integrated into civic society that internet companies become, the stronger the likelihood for them to become regulated. And when regulation happens, the effects can be devastating for companies that have previously operated with free reign. When the European Commission, under lobbying pressure from Real Networks, compelled Microsoft to unbundle the Windows Media Player (then by far the most popular music player) from Windows in 2004, it was the trigger for a long period of decline for Microsoft, from which it is only just beginning to recover. Clearly, there were other market factors that contributed to its decline, but regulation was the tipping point. And the model of a competitor (Real Networks) shamelessly using regulation to give it a competitive edge over an established rival could reoccur. For example, any number of big Chinese companies looking to extend their reach to the west may view EU regulators as an opportunity to prize open the market for them.

The Pendulum Swing Of Disruption

When a new technology disrupts a traditional incumbent, it normally does so by being 3 things to the end user:

  1. Cheaper/free
  2. Quicker
  3. More convenient

Napster, YouTube, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, all of these companies have done exactly this. Because they most often build market share and presence using external funding, such companies turn existing economics upside down with loss leading tactics. The result is that audiences switch in their millions and incumbents are left in tatters. Any old business that relies on scarcity economics will be swept away.

Take Uber’s impact on taxi drivers across the world. In the UK, a black cab driver will spend 5 years riding around every street in London on a scooter, memorising every street before taking a $60,000 loan on a black cab. 8 or 9 years into the venture, a black cabbie might be in the money. In the days of Google Maps and Uber, those principles go out of the window. Uber has had such an impact in London, that the cab rank queues at train stations can be miles long because black cabs have so little street side business left. In New York, yellow taxi medallions (the city’s government certification for official taxis), once traded as high as $1.3 million each in secondary markets, but have dropped to $240,000 now that Uber and Lyft have ensured that you no longer need a medallion to operate as a taxi in New York.

This is the pendulum swing of disruption. But pendulums eventually swing back. That is when regulations, real world economics and new business model innovation come into play. The original market disruptors often either disappear or get bought. The recorded music industry is now finally building a new set of effective businesses around the disruption brought by Napster, which died as an entity before the millennium really got going. YouTube transformed video and was bought by Google, Skype cannibalized mobile carriers and was ultimately bought by Microsoft, Linkedin disrupted recruitment advertising and was also bought by Microsoft, PayPal disrupted credit card companies and was bought by eBay.

All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again

Today’s internet giants may have the appearance of being permanent features of the digital landscape, but they’re not. AOL, Yahoo, Netscape or MySpace looked immortal in their days, as the GAAF (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) do now. That doesn’t mean these companies cannot become long serving global superpowers. But history has a habit of repeating itself. Or as the fictional mythical Sacred Scrolls of Battlestar Galactica said: “All of this has happened before and will happen again.”

Never mistake normality for permanence.

 

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

Apple’s $1bn Settlement: a New Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple’s $1 billion patent infringement victory against Samsung raises a number of increasingly pressing issues about innovation in the consumer technology space. There is no doubt that Apple has done more than any other single company to shape the smartphone marketplace. It is also clear that the average smartphone form-factor and feature set look dramatically different post-iPhone than they did pre-iPhone.  And there is an argument to be had that those same form factors and feature sets bear more than passing resemblance to the iPhone. But this raises the issue of where the ‘a high tide raises all boats’ market evolution argument stops and the patent infringement one starts.

Samsung is the Buffer State in Apple’s Proxy War with Google

Apple’s case against Samsung was in effect a proxy war against Android.  Samsung became the target because it was doing a better job of making Android compete against Apple than anyone else.   While competitors like Nokia and HTC have laundry lists of product names and numbers, Apple’s elegantly simple iPhone brand cuts through the smartphone name clutter like the proverbial knife through warm butter.  Among numerous other factors Samsung recognized the supreme value of establishing such clear brands (such as the Galaxy) and pivoting their portfolio around them.  Samsung became competitor #1, the Android success story, racking up a 50% share of the smartphone market in Q2012 according to IDC, which compares to just 17% for Apple.

The final impact of the ruling is yet to be seen, with countless potential challenges and subsequent actions likely to come.  There are also interesting geopolitical issues at stake, not least of which is the degree to which a Californian jury and judge will be perceived on the international stage as having the requisite impartiality to rule upon competition between a South Korean and a Californian based company.  But leaving aside the legal permutations for a moment, let’s instead take a look at the known unknowns and their likely impact on the marketplace:

  • Competitive patent strategy. Over the last couple of years we have seen an acceleration of the use of patents in the consumer technology and Internet arenas.  Patents have quickly become established as an extra part of competition strategy among big technology firms.  Now, instead of just relying on product development, marketing, pricing and positioning technology, companies can use patent claims to help strengthen their position at the direct expense of the competition.
  • Patent arms race. With the rise of patent trolls (companies’ whose sole objective is to acquire patents and then try to sue established companies for patent infringement) the big established companies themselves have started to acquire patent arsenals.  For example, earlier this year Microsoft paid AOL $1.1bn for 925 patents, 650 of which it promptly sold to Facebook for $550m.  Before that, in 2011, Microsoft teamed up with long-time rival Apple as well as with just about anyone whose anyone in the smartphone business who isn’t Android (RIM, Sony, Ericsson et) to spend $4.5 bn on 6,000+ patents from bankrupt Canadian teleco equipment maker Nortel.  Google had been on the other side of the bidding war and lost out with what was seen by some as a whimsical bidding strategy.  Google promptly went onto to buy fading handset manufacturer Motorola for $12.5bn, a company that just happened to have c.17,000 patents in its archives.  There are uncanny echoes of the Cold War with both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons.  The difference here is that the arsenals are being thrown straight into battle rather than being held back for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • Patents no longer fit for purpose? Patents raise as many questions as they provide answers for in the software and technology spaces.  Not only are they subject to legal challenge, the language used in them is often  inadequate.  What gives a piece of technology competitive edge is not having rounded corners, but the digital mechanics underneath the hood. It is the code inside a piece of software that gives it edge, not the broad user behaviour it supports.  That’s why we have market leaders in software and product categories that are crowded with lesser competitors that support the same basic user behaviour. And yet patents focus on the exact opposite of this equation.  Patents are typically vaguely worded affairs that talk about broad behaviours such as “a system for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network” (taken directly from a patent which forms the basis of Yahoo’s case against Facebook). Even the more detailed patents – such as Apple’s recent Haptics filing – have a procedural focus.  And of course they have to. Patent applications are exactly that: applications.  There is no guarantee they will be granted and so a filing company is going to be as secretive as they possibly can rather than give its competition edge.  But even if there was a guarantee there is no way in which a technology company is going to publish its source code on a publically accessible document.

And therein lies the problem, if a company is not ever going to include the secret sauce which gives its product the real edge, then what is a technology patent really going to be able to definitively cover?  If it inherently comes down to a discussion about supporting usage behaviours then we end up with an unusual and potentially restrictive lens placed upon innovation and invention.  The history of innovation and invention is that when something comes along that is good enough, it permeates through the entire market.   Sometimes this involves licensing of patents, more often than not it happens through creating similar but different inventions. Think about any consumer electronics purchase, whether that be a digital camera, a laptop or a TV: the products all have pretty much the same mix of features and form factor in their respective price tiers.  This is what has happened to date with smartphones.

However if the Apple ruling survives all challenges and is then extended it could have the effect of a forced and artificial split in innovation evolution. Instead of the touchscreen smartphone becoming another step on the innovation path it could become the sole domain of Apple and force the competition to pursue entirely different evolution paths.  Now there are obviously both positive and negative connotations of that.  But whatever your view point, it will be dramatically different from how other consumer electronics product categories have evolved.

With its origins in early 18th century England, there is an increasingly strong case for a major review of the global patent system and whether it is the right tool to strike an appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation in the 21st century consumer technology marketplace.

Who’s Competing with Who?

An interesting post-script to the Apple-Samsung case is looking at who else will potentially benefit other than Apple.  Right now there will be a host of handset manufacturers who will be hurriedly looking for a Mobile OS Plan B.  An uncertain Android future doesn’t leave them many places to turn to other than Microsoft’s Windows 8. Historically no friend of Apple but these days of course part of Apple’s Patent Pact. How long that alliance will remain intact remains to be seen, though a cynic might argue that Apple would leave it in place just long enough for Microsoft to get enough of a foothold to fragment the OS marketplace before it renews hostilities between Cupertino and Redmond. By which stage Apple could have billions worth of patent settlement dollars to wage war with…