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 referencing 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.  DoCoMo 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.

App Store “10x” download speed boost in China

A bit of news that has got minimal English coverage in the past couple of days: Apple seems to have rolled out a CDN update for their App Store in China, with folks talking about as much as a “10x” download speed increase for end-users.

This is the type of unsexy but critical infrastructure work that at the end of the day will make a big difference for the user experience, and therefore, a company’s top line (and bottom line). I tried updating some apps while in China a few weeks ago – it was painful to say the least. Hopefully this dramatically changes things. And this is also the kind of stuff local entrepreneurs in emerging markets need to agonize over – how do you make do with poor infrastructure, be it broadband penetration, availability of credit cards (and other payment methods), or just poor end-device computing power (cheap PCs).

I think this story is interesting for potentially another angle – I’ve always wondered how much of the iPhone sales in China are driven by luxury goods buyers, the type that are usually late tech adopters. I’ve noticed anecdotally that many owners of early version iPhones in China were the well-to-do who used it as a status symbol – I doubt these folks likely explore the App Store that much. On the other end of the scale, there was and has always been a active scene of sideloaders, and I suspect iPhone jailbreak rates are much, much higher in China. These two opposite groups of users both have little use for the official App Store – and that could be why they’ve put up with slow App Store speeds for so long.

Why predictions of the iPhone’s death (at the hands of Android) are greatly exaggerated

The comparison of the growth rates of the iPhone and Android phones is continually a topic of hot debate, in no small part propelled by the highly vocal and emotional fans of both camps. It almost seems conventional wisdom that iPhone vs. Android will be Mac vs. Windows, Part II.

Personally, I believe that on so many layers, this topic is really a non-topic. It provides entertainment value, no doubt, in the form of daily tech soap opera (bloggers jumping on every new data point released and typically extrapolating it beyond meaningfulness to arrive at flame-bait headlines). But from an industry analysis point of view, or a company analysis point of view (scrutinizing Apple / Google), the market share comparisons are really just one data point – it’s meaningful, but certainly not to the degree that the blogosphere claims it to be. Apple’s future is not in jeopardy if iPhone loses pole position to Android.

Over at Wired, Fred Vogelstein takes a crack at this topic. His main point is that if you sum up all the iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), they are still outselling Android, by as much as 42%. While this may be encouraging to the Apple camp, there is no reason we can expect this to hold, especially when other Android powered devices (e.g. Android tablets) eventually hit the market.

I don’t have any doubt that Android devices will outsell iOS devices. If it hasn’t happened already, it will happen soon. There is no reason to believe an OS from a premium manufacturer (Apple) with an extremely limited range of SKUs can outsell, on a pure volume basis, an OS that is free to use and which is backed by some of the biggest consumer electronics companies in the world. On a dollar value basis, it might be a different story, but still not that likely. On a dollars of profit generated basis though, highly possible (Apple generates more profit than rest of mobile industry combined, with only 3% unit volume share).

That said, the main reason people are obsessed with these market share numbers seem to be the underlying assumption that iPhone and its eco-system will lose its draw to developers, and by extension to consumers, if it is relegated to a minority market share. I think there are at least a couple of counter-arguments to make here.

First of all, being the minority market share platform does not translate into a lack of quality apps, to the extent that it will hamper mass-premium consumers’ (Apple’s core segment) interest in the platform. For example, if you flip the argument over the number of apps in the Android vs. iPhone app stores on its head, you may well say that even though Android has a smaller number of apps, the eco-system is already sizable enough, so that for any functionality there will be “an app for that”. Another example would be none other than Macs – what’s the market share that Mac OS holds in all personal computers? Single digits? Do mainstream Mac users complain about the lack of quality apps (note the emphasis on mainstream – specific categories like hardcore gaming is lacking on the Mac, but even that is seeing improvement)? Holding these two examples, I would argue that with the developer community Apple has already amassed, it would be hard to foresee a drastic dying out of quality apps, even if Android floods the market.

Secondly, if you take a step back and look at the broader trend in computing, it is definitely headed in the direction of platform-agnostic. Some tech purists would even decry the whole notion of apps – everything should be realized on the browser, over the web. If you look at the desktop space, there is indeed the trend of “fat” clients (local apps) losing out to “thin” clients. Indeed, Google is perhaps one of the biggest proponents of this – its whole challenge to Microsoft is based on the browser. If we believe that the same trend will apply to mobile devices, then the apps craze we are experiencing really is just a transition phase – at some point, most of the apps you want would be delivered to you on the browser, as opposed to an app you download (again, Google’s Gmail mobile version on the browser is arguably better than Apple’s Mail app). And let’s give credit where credit is due – when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs’ initial vision was to have web apps (browser-based apps) instead of local apps. The app SDK and the app store only came out a year later, due to popular demand. (So you could say that Jobs had already envisioned an end-game where the browser was the point of delivery for apps, not the app store – his vision was perhaps just ahead of its time.)

If you sum these two arguments together, the bigger point is that iPhone will not lose its richness of apps in the face of Android capturing majority market share – it’s big enough already of a market so that there will be quality apps developed, and apps will be platform-agnostic anyway down the road. As long as Apple continue to bring innovation to its devices, it should not be overly worried about losing market share leadership – its whole strategy is founded on premium products, which implies that it won’t be market leader from a revenue / volume perspective. That’s why I wrote the headline of this post.

PS: Also, for people who continually say this will be a rerun of Apple vs. Windows in the 80s, please pause for a moment and reflect on the Mac’s continual resurgence over the last decade. This is again very indicative of the broader trend. In other words, one could almost claim that the “network effects” so famously championed by Wintel is close to becoming irrelevant, because the Internet has leveled the playing field for the small market share OSes.

PS2: And even if we are to talk of the platform wars of the 80s, we should get the facts straight. The following is my reply on a Quora question (similar topic really) awhile back:

First of all, it’s not really windows vs. mac, but PC vs. Mac. I would say by the time windows 3.0 came out, the platform war between PCs and Macs (at least the first war, not including Mac’s resurgence in recent years) was already over.

If you look at this article on Ars Technica,…
as early as 1986 PCs already had over 50% market share of computers, and it over-took the mac platform’s shares a few years before that. So in that sense, there never was a windows:mac war, at least not until very recently.

I think one key distinction between the platform wars of the 80s and android:iPhone is that in the 80s it was primarily driven by b2b, not b2c. IBM was late to the personal computers space, but they were the driving force behind making personal computers legitimate for business – they could go to a sales pitch with a business client with a perhaps inferior product but still sell it, and they could generate serious developer interest in developing for the PC. The killer apps of the 80s were spreadsheets and word-processors, sold to businesses. Apple could have better versions of such products on macs, but they couldn’t sell to businesses as quickly as IBM and clones like Compaq could, which is dictated by company structure and channel strategy – they are positioned as a consumer products company, and the only verticals where they made serious progress were education and publishing (where their products were clearly far far superior). That’s where the network effect kicked in and made Macs a niche.

Flash forward 25 years, and smartphone adoption is primarily driven by consumers, not businesses (blackberries being the exception). This is in Apple’s core area of expertise. It will still be challenging to fend off a group of competitors’ collective efforts (Samsung, HTC etc.), but as long as Apple retain a significant portion of the market, it will be in good shape. Apple doesn’t need to be market leader to be hugely profitable and have a sizable eco-system of 3rd party apps etc. – just look at macs today, as a general consumer you have majority of the apps you need to be happy with it (games being one major exception, which is also therefore a good business opportunity).

So back to your original question, I’d say Android:iPhone will play out very differently compared to Windows:Mac. Android might still end up with a more market share, but iPhone will have enough share and a big enough eco-system so that Apple won’t have to go through the kind of existential challenge it had back in the mid 90s.

The complexities of the Android eco-system, and its implications

Google’s Android OS for mobile handsets is arguably Apple’s strongest competitor in the marketplace. The most recent numbers from Google are 160k activations daily, which implies a run-rate much bigger than iPhone’s recent quarter of 8.4 MM units.

There is no doubt that Android has been a success, especially in terms of offering consumers more choices. US consumers now have a perhaps overwhelming number of smartphones to choose from, across the major carriers. This is certainly a great development.

What I want to focus on in this post, however, is looking at Android from the eco-system players’ perspective – Google, the handset manufacturers, the carriers, and the app developers. My position is that while Android is full of promise as a platform, some fundamental dynamics of the eco-system will make it very challenging to navigate, especially in terms of financial gains – at the end of the day, these players are in it to profit.

I would like to start by going through each player’s objectives from participating in the Android eco-system. Starting with Google, its objectives are:

  • Gain a permanent foothold in mobile, ensuring Google’s future when the web becomes increasingly mobile-driven
  • strategically, prevent dependence on Apple in mobile, limit its bargaining power
  • Increase traffic to Google properties, most notably search, which will in turn grow Google’s ad revenue
  • Offer users a consistent Google user experience across mobile devices
  • “Lock” users into Gmail, Google Maps, Youtube etc. (think Microsoft shipping IE with Windows)
  • Develop a mobile go-to-market channel for future Google products

In essence, it’s all about Android being the hook which will retain the user in using Google products.

What about the handset manufacturers’ objectives?

  • Develop handsets that rival the iPhone’s value proposition, capture market share in the booming smartphone segment
  • Differentiate from competitors
  • Reduce OS R&D costs

And the carriers:

  • Retain some degree of control in the device, unlike Apple’s terms with AT&T
  • Prevent becoming “dumb pipes, up-sell users on carrier VAS (value-added services) such as mobile video, ring-tones, gaming etc.
  • Reduce Apple’s bargaining power
  • Differentiate from other carriers

There is one thing all players agree on – counter the iPhone; but beyond that, there are some immediate points of tension. As smartphones seem to converge on the single big touch-screen form factor, hardware manufacturers will find it increasingly difficult to differentiate in shape and design. In that sense, HTC / Motorola / Samsung would very much want to tweak the UI or customize the OS, but that would quickly run into conflict with Google’s wish to offer users a consistent experience; and practically speaking, UI may really be too much a core part of the OS for the manufacturers to customize. Hence, manufacturers face the dreaded prospect of following the footsteps of PC manufacturers – low differentiation leads to low profits.

At the same time, carriers and Google’s interests aren’t that well-aligned, either. Google recently shuttered its Nexus One online store, which was hailed to disrupt the status quo of handset distribution by offering a contract free model instead of the typical carrier-subsidized model. Obviously this did not please its carrier partners. On the flip side, carriers perennial fear of becoming “dumb pipes” drove them to loading up Android phones with hard-to-remove bloatware, which consumers generally dislike and probably is making Google cringe – and just serves as more ammo for Apple’s value proposition of a refined experience.

My point here is that the logical implication of these interlocking conflicts is compromise. Google aggressively wants Android to become the de facto mobile OS – so much so that not only is the OS free to manufacturers, Google is also reportedly sharing search revenue with carriers / manufacturers. (Pretty amazing that you can think of this as almost the opposite of Apple’s original iPhone terms, where Apple got a share of AT&T’s revenue.) Manufacturers will get away with deals such as putting a Baidu search box on the phone, which would obviously go against Google’s interests. Carriers will get to keep their finger in the OS.

Sometimes these compromises result in degraded user experience, such as bloatware. Most often, they call into question the financial returns on Android. It would be a very difficult task to model how much incremental revenue Google will generate by owning Android, as opposed to not owning an OS and just receiving mobile search traffic from all devices. Manufacturers will get to ride the smartphone boom for a while, but then will again be hard-pressed for innovation – again, the PC manufacturers come into mind. The biggest winner from all this seems to be the carriers – especially Verizon – they finally have options other than Apple, and they can keep their old business model.

Will Flash ever work on mobile?

There’s been a couple of interesting posts on implementing Flash on mobile devices in the last few days. First, An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use flash looks at the issue from a UI perspective – namely how some of the UI design elements we take for granted on desktops / laptops, such as mouse hover-over, are not native to the touch paradigm, so that even if Flash can run on the iPad / iPhone, a lot of Flash usages still would not function properly. Instead, either the mobile OSes come up with ways to emulate a mouse interface (or introduce a lot more complicated input methods), or existing Flash apps have to be redesigned with the mobile audience in mind. The first route goes against the touch paradigm, while the second route means a lot of work for developers (so it can almost be argued they might as well forego Flash altogether).

The second post shows a fairly slick youtube video of Flash on Android, through a Farmville demo:

If you look closely enough, you can see that 1) there is an issue with mouse hover-overs; 2) for a intensely interactive Flash app, there is “money left on the table” in the sense that it is not customized for touch and the controls feel clumsy (or maybe it’s just the demo person…).

Which leads me to the provocative title of this post. The whole demand for Flash on the iPhone and other mobile platforms is based on how it gives consumers the “real web.” However, if you think about the main uses of Flash, which is 1) video 2) games 3) ads, I would say that consumers don’t care about whether ads can be displayed, and as the above example illustrates, games (and other forms of highly interactive Flash usages) probably need to be redesigned anyway (which calls for custom apps). Which leaves video – and this is where the competitive landscape plays an interesting role. The biggest video site, Youtube, is owned by Google, and Google is definitely going for HTML5 + H.264 and moving away from Flash. (Tangent: Google is also getting some criticism for not truly supporting the open web, as H.264 is a licensed technology.)

So the bottom line is, while Flash has dominance on the web now, it definitely faces the danger of becoming completely irrelevant in the mobile space. This may not be a terrible thing – moving to a unified standard such as HTML5 and away from proprietary codecs – except of course for Adobe.

Why the Palm Pre has been subpar

As the inaugural post for this blog, I wanted to summarize some thoughts on why the Palm Pre has not lived up to the hype. There has been recent discussions how the Pre is far from meeting Sprint’s sales targets; earlier back there were also some talks of Palm cutting back on production. This is of course in sharp contrast to the fanfare we’re used to of recent iPhone launches (long lines, stock outs etc. – from personal experience, I had to trade up to the 32GB version of the 3GS as the 16GB were out of stock at the local AT&T).

So what went wrong for a product that, if you recall, had pretty impressive hype just a few months back? Below are my two cents.

  • Poor marketing execution. This is obviously the easiest target of all, since everyone has been talking about these ads that makes no sense (see Fake Steve Jobs’ ranting analysis here). Like Fake Steve says, these ads show that Palm and Sprint seem to be confused about who their target consumer is (female smartphone users? That’s a tiny market), and the execution itself is creepily effective at driving negative PR.
  • Lost PR momentum. Somewhat related to the previous point. The Pre was announced at the CES 2009 in January, and was definitely the hit product of the show. (I remember at the time being very hyped about the phone, and wanting to buy one immediately. The phone and its UI just looked very sexy.) However, as time passed, people’s interest gradually waned – the smartphone industry is extremely competitive with lots of players vying for consumer eyeballs, and Palm is not Apple, with a loyal base of media support (e.g. TUAW). With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if Palm kept Pre under wraps until very close to the launch date (of course there will be info leaks, but that would just help fuel the PR). And certainly it didn’t help that Apple announcing the iPhone 3GS two days after Pre launched in the US.
  • iPhone’s first mover advantage. Namely, installed user-base and scaled up App Store. This is actually a huge advantage for Apple, and appears to indicate a winner-takes-all end-game – the more users, the more developers, and therefore more quality apps, which in turn attracts more users. The primary and only reason that I again bought an iPhone upon arriving in the States (and bearing with AT&T) is the App Store. This is the equivalent of the Windows eco-system on PCs. Competing OSes just lack the richness of the applications available, and for a computing device, it is all about the apps.
  • But most fundamentally, unclear target consumer and value proposition. The Pre’s most innovative feature is the webOS, which supports concurrent applications – a key feature that the iPhone has not yet opened to 3rd party developers. However, the only people who would seriously care about this feature are smartphone power users – i.e. the millions of iPhone users – who can appreciate its benefits. But to convince iPhone users to switch, the Pre is lacking one major dimension: the App Store. There is no point in being able to run multiple apps if there are no apps. So in effect, the Pre’s most talked-about feature was a no-feature.

So what are the things that Palm could do to alleviate the situation?

  • Build up the developer eco-system. It’s cliched, but it has to be done. Palm needs to have quality apps on its phones. This is an uphill battle, but one which must be fought nonetheless. One thing that Palm can do to attract developers is to have an open platform for developers to publish their work (as opposed to Apple’s draconian control on apps).
  • Re-think its marketing strategy. And not just in terms of marketing communication – the entire marketing strategy, i.e. which geographic markets and which consumer segments. We should remember that the US is not the only mobile market in the world (Nokia, which has almost no share in the US market, is still the global leader in every mobile category, including smartphones). It’s probably an wild idea, but if Palm can focus on certain markets where the iPhone has not had such an impact, it could build up some user-base scale. (Again, while Nokia is heavily entrenched in most global markets, their smartphone eco-system – or the lack thereof – leaves plenty of space for newcomers to attack. In such markets as China, it’s more about the hardware and the UI, rather than the apps, and the Pre would probably fare better?)

It’s certainly not going to be a smooth revival at Palm. But they do have a quality product, they just need to realize who to sell it to.