The Waiting Game

Reuters had an interesting article yesterday over NTT DoCoMo – Apple negotiations over the iPhone. While reports of tense negotiations between Apple and carriers are nothing new (China Mobile pops up in the news every few months about its tough stance to Apple), I thought there were a couple of juicy bits worth pondering on from the DoCoMo article.

First, one of the sticking points of the discussion is apparently DoCoMo’s dilemma over its range of value-added-services (VAS). This is not surprising. DoCoMo was revolutionary back in the day with i-mode, which was a textbook example of a successful carrier strategy in mobile internet (so much so that a MBA case is one of the first results in a google search on i-mode). What DoCoMo was able to market with i-mode (and get people to adopt) was often considered far ahead of its time, so much so that when the iPhone first launched, quite a few people used Japan to point out that the iPhone is not “revolutionary” (see this counternotions blog┬áreferencing this).

What’s interesting to me here is one walled garden (DoCoMo’s VAS) being disrupted by another walled garden (Apple’s iPhone). The point is not that Apple is more open (it certainly is, at the App Store layer), and therefore it is winning (a big part of the iPhone’s appeal is its app ecosystem); the point is how Apple is leveraging “open-ness” at one layer to succeed with a “closed” business model. Furthermore, it certainly isn’t surprising how DoCoMo is trying to leverage Android (a far more open OS than iOS) to defend its extremely closed business model; unfortunately Japanese consumers don’t seem that engaged.

As an aside, I don’t want to use this as proof that carriers can never get services right – I don’t believe in such business inevitability (similar to how I don’t believe in “Open>Closed”). But there’s a host of organizational challenges (carriers are not known more fast moving and disrupting themselves), which is why most commentators would say “it’s not in their DNA”. I do understand the carriers’ perpetual fear of becoming just a “dumb pipe” – by definition of which they will be undifferentiated, which drives profitability down – so I think some of them will just keep trying, and a few may succeed with a deeply vertically integrated model.

Second, the Reuters article had this paragraph which I couldn’t resist commenting on:

DoCoMo’s requirement that its company logo be imprinted on all its devices also conflicts with style-conscious Apple’s insistence that its products be left as manufactured.

I would argue that this has nothing (well, almost nothing) to do with style and everything to do with brand and market power. The point is not that adding carrier logos would make the iPhone ugly; the point is this is a symbolic fight over who owns the customer – as in, did the customer buy the iPhone because of DoCoMo or because of Apple, and which brand does the customer have more affinity towards? As a reminder, a couple of years ago, Verizon had the exact same argument with Apple, and this was the result.

Some final thoughts: in this big waiting game, I think it’s a lose-lose game for the hold-out carriers (DoCoMo / China Mobile) and Apple, with clear value left on the table; however, the alternative scenario is not necessarily a win-win but quite possibly a win-lose, which is why the parties seem happy to play it out. ┬áDoCoMo is happy to bleed customers if it thinks it can extract more value from preserving its VAS with its remaining customers; and Apple does not want to budge on handset subsidies and other points (it seems happy to pay the opportunity cost in market share for unit profitability). China Mobile seems to be an even bigger hold-out (and thinks it will have a better hand the longer it waits), as recent news indicates.

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