Thursday, November 13, 2014

Music titans, like European royalty, pine for a bygone era

In reading a summary this morning of the record industry’s latest fight with free streaming services, I was struck how much it’s like the laments of former European nobility in the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe no one lost their head — or had his family wiped out by Boslehvik bullets — but the loss of power is similarly irreversible.

I first researched the industry economics in 2002 while a consultant to Live365 (the earliest free streaming music service). For my technology strategy class at UCI, I wrote a teaching case on the Napsterization of Hollywood, and how both CD unit sales and revenues peaked in 2000 in the face of MP3 piracy.

At the same time, the big six (later five, now three) recording companies consolidated market share from 79% to 83%. They had a cozy oligopoly, the ability to unilaterally set prices, and (as Michael Porter would say) low rivalry. With their limousines and executive suites they were the capitalist equivalent of the 17th and 18th century royalty of Europe.

This morning’s article in the Wall Street Journal was about how the record labels are trying to phase out the access that free streaming services (e.g. Pandora) have to their catalogs:

One major-label executive said he regretted ever having agreed to allow licensees to offer any on-demand listening features free. “In hindsight we made a mistake,” he said.
But one paragraph perfectly summarized the economics of what has happened to the industry in the last 15 years:
An average user of free, ad-supported streaming services generates revenue of around $4 a year to record companies, according to one label executive, compared with between $50 and $75 a user in the record-buying age. Spotify subscribers currently pay $120 a year, of which about 70% goes to record labels and music publishers. Users of free services such as Pandora Media Inc. ’s custom radio service far outnumber those paying for Spotify and its competitors.
In other words,
  • the labels used to have a reliable income stream from the music-buying (teen and young adult) of around $60/year; according to my notes, that totaled $14 billion in the US in 2000
  • that has been replaced by customers who listen to free streaming and pay 93% less.
  • the labels hope the current generation of customers will be nice enough to upgrade to a membership model that pays as much as their former business model. ($84 in 2014 $61 in 2000)
One small problem: customers aren’t interested. The WSJ shows the stats for streaming music
  • Spotify (global) 12.5m paid, 25m unpaid
  • Pandora (US) 3.5m paid, 73m unpaid
  • Beats Music (US) < 0.5m paid
In other words, there are about 6 freeloaders for every paid customer. Google’s new YouTube Music Key (at $10/month) will increase the number of paid users, but probably not appreciably change the ratio. Meanwhile, the services say claim that if they lose the ability to provide a 30 day free trial, they won’t get new paying subscribers.

There does appear to be one royalty that is doing well: the elite entertainers. The article reports Taylor Swift asked Spotify to limit her new album (1989) to the paid service, but the company refused. So instead, Swift pulled her album from Spotify and sold 1.7 million copies in its first two weeks — half of those as physical CDs — and perhaps the only album that will be RIAA platinum this year.

Similarly, Garth Brooks (3rd in US record sales after the Beatles and Elvis) created a new download service called GhostTunes — to host his own latest album. (It also has music by Swift, Pink Floyd and the Foo Fighters). The many zombie bands from the 60s and 70s also seem to be able to generate sales — perhaps from price-insensitive geriatric baby boomers — that insulate them from the pressures of the current market.

So — as my class used to conclude 12 years ago — the ability to set your prices without fear of competition is something every firm aspires to. (PayPal alum Peter Thiel has been saying the same thing recently in his new book, Zero to One). The problem is, there’s no way that Hollywood will ever get their monopoly pricing power back — any more than Luke Skywalker will get back his hand, his dad and his innocence, or that the original Beatles will be finally reunited in the flesh.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Google Show Greed Trumps Values Every Day

Google once promised that is mission was “to organize the world’s information”. Nominally that remains its mission today.

On the 10th anniversary of its IPO, in this morning's WSJ, Rolfe Winkler shows how that all changed:

Just before Google Inc. went public 10 years ago, co-founder Larry Page said he wanted to get the search engine's users "out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible."

Today, Mr. Page's Google often is doing the opposite: Providing as much information as possible to keep users in Google's virtual universe.
At first, leveraging its dominant share in search, Google was content to have people linger longer (ala Yahoo or later Facebook) to sell them to more advertisers. Now they want to monetize that customer hold directly by doing transactions and taking a piece of the action. The dead tree (and online edition) shows the before and after — Google the indexer of the Internet vs. Google the horizontally diversified Internet portal:

In other words, Google once created an ecosystem (including APIs and a two-sided advertising market) and wanted to make its ecosystem partners successful. Now, in its relentless pursuit of growth, it is crowding aside its onetime partners and trying to take more money from its customers.

This is exactly what DEC, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and countless other tech companies have done over the decades. Joining an ecosystem is a viable startup business until the ecosystem sponsor wants to take that business away. The book Keystone Advantage refers to this as an ecosystem “dominator.” Among tech companies, only IBM seems to be a reliable partner for win-win alliances, in part because its integration services business model allows it to make money with almost any sort of component.

Of course, this was inevitable. Companies like Google want to grow, because it supports the stock price and puts more money into the hands of shareholders, employees and executives. Since Larry Page and Sergey Brin are now worth $32 billion apiece, I’m guessing it’s less about the money and more about the control, the ego, the success of making the world’s most dominant influential company of all time.

As we teach in strategy, there’s only two ways to grow: reach more customers or make more money out of your existing customers. If Google is serving almost everyone on the Internet, it either has to connect more people to the Internet (who will be less profitable than their existing customers) or sell more stuff to those already locked into Google. Obviously (with its $50 billion in cash horde and 60+% gross margins) it’s doing all of these things.

Unfortunately, a dominant vertically integrated (and horizontally diversified) monoculture is bad for the economy, bad for consumers and bad for society. It takes transactions that should be happening in the market and internalizes them into an internal hierarchy. Europe has been trying to nibble at the edges of Google’s efforts at Total World Domination for years, but had little impact. The U.S. seems disinterested, because the GOP believes in free markets and the Democrats receive millions in campaign donations from Google's wealth.

Normally we can count on the curse of success to eventually kick in: big companies either become complacent, bureaucratic or otherwise lose their way (cf. GM, Microsoft). The Google founders seem determined to make sure this doesn’t happen during their lifetime, which could be 30 years (with a normal retirement) or 50 (if they last like Warren Buffett). Since I’m older than both men, I may not live to see the end game — which is a depressing thought.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Upstream vs. downstream complementarities in Apple-IBM deal

Despite coverage to the contrary, Tuesday's announcement that IBM will help sell Apple products to enterprise customers is long overdue and merely the latest example of cooperation between the firms spanning more than two decades.

The new thing is that — unlike previous deals — the cooperation announced by Apple CEO Tim Cook and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty reflects downstream complementarities rather than upstream ones.

In their seminal book Co-opetition, Brandenburger and Nalebuff defined complementarity between products X and Y as meaning that if someone bought X, then Y would be more valuable (and vice versa). This basic principle is behind nearly any positive-sum (“win-win”) strategic alliance today.

Yes, Apple’s early successes began to fade when IBM introduced its PC in August 1981, and its 1984 Macintosh introduction was aimed squarely at Big Blue and its user-unfriendly DOS PC. But the two companies have been cooperating far longer than they competed, largely through their cooperation in upstream components.

The big cooperation surprise came not in July 2014 but October 1991. Then Apple CEO John Sculley and IBM President Jack Kuehler announced that Apple would be using PowerPC CPUs based on IBM's proprietary RISC chips (Motorola was the third partner in the alliance).

At the same time, Apple and IBM launched two Silicon Valley-based software joint ventures based on a common rivalry with Microsoft. Taligent nearly killed Apple (and thus helped me find a new career) by siphoning off Apple’s top engineers to work on an operating system that it never shipped. Kaleida was intended to solve CD-ROM scripting challenges, but was swept aside by the emergence of Java and the commercial Internet.

A few years later — at the depth of Apple’s self-inflicted slide towards irrelevance — IBM helped Apple with problems creating hardware in its fastest-growing and most profitable segment, laptop computers. It sold its unique laptop hard disk to Apple (but not to HP) and also built the 1997 PowerBook 2400c for Apple at its IBM Japan division.

Fast forward to the 21st century. IBM could have begun selling Apple's hardware at any point since it divested its PC division in 2005. This is exactly why the company exited the market segment that it had created 24 years earlier: to get rid of a low-margin commodity hardware business and give it more flexibility to sell higher-margin integration services to large corporations.

The question is: what took them so long? The iPad came out in April 2010 and Steve Jobs has been gone for nearly three years. Ever since the Macintosh (1984) and particularly the LaserWriter (1985), Apple has been making products that would appeal to large companies, but lacked the sales, support and integration capabilities needed to address their customer’s complete requirements. (Only us Mac graybeards remember the 1988 Apple/DEC alliance that was intended to address these problems.)

Today, the two companies are not just looking over their shoulders at Microsoft, but also Google as well. The iPhone and iPad have already been widely adopted in big companies — spawning the IT acronym BYOD — but the new alliance should (like other successful downstream complementaries) generate incremental revenue growth for both parties.

However, there was one glaring omission in the latest Apple-IBM collaboration announcement: cloud computing. Apple has a retail presence with its true believers that is central to its integration strategies, but lacks the scale to compete with the industry leaders, Amazon and Google. IBM is their major competitor as a wholesale supplier, but (unlike Amazon and Google) does not compete with Apple’s retail offerings.

In the long run, Apple will unable to go it alone in cloud computing. We’ve all seen the risks that companies take relying on Amazon (cf. Netflix) or Google (cf. Samsung) as a supplier who is also a competitor. As in the PowerPC days, Apple should not only be leveraging IBM’s scale but working to attract others to its platform as the last honest broker in cloud computing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nation-states, city-states and the World Cup

Productivity the world over will improve starting tomorrow with the end of the 2014 World Cup. ESPN and Nike will celebrate the unprecedented interest by American TV viewers, buoyed in part by the unexpectedly long run by Team USA.

Within Europe (at least outside of Russia) national rivalries are fought on the football field and not the River Somme, Ardennes Forest, or Fulda Gap.

Unlike in the Olympics, success seems only imperfectly correlated to depth of talent or national resources. None of the world’s 10 largest countries made it into the championship, although Brazil (#5) earned 4th place and USA (#3) made it to the round of 16. The top country in Europe (Germany) was the largest, but the top country in South America was only the 3rd largest (Argentina, with 10% of the population vs. 49% for Brazil).

But before there were nation-states, Europe in the Middle and early Modern period of Europe was organized as city states. In many cases, they were small principalities organized around a capital (like Monaco and Liechtenstein today). Even in today's German republic, three of the 16 Länder are historic city-states (Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen).

Norman Jewison’s dystopian 1975 movie Rollerball imagined a world when nation-states were gone and rivalries were channeled through city-states. The hero (James Caan) and his Houston team have a violent match against Tokyo that leaves his best friend brain-dead, the brutal climax of the movie comes when Houston fights New York in a match that ends with only Caan left standing.

While the German players tonight are exulting and the Argentineans (and Brazilians and Belgians and Americans …) are heartbroken, for most of the next 47 months their allegiance will be to the city- rather than nation-state in their full-time (professional) sports careers.

Finals hero Mario Goetze and Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer plays for Bayern München, but World Cup record holder Miroslav Klose plays for Lazio in the Italian Serie A league. Meanwhile, Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker play for Arsenal in the English Premier League. Arsenal also lists players for Belgium, Costa Rica, England, France, Spain and Switzerland. For archival Manchester United, Robin van Persie scored the winning goal for the Netherlands 3rd place finish, with other players playing for France, Mexico, Japan and Portugal. ManU also provided Team USA’s record-setting goalie, Tim Howard.

Despite (or because) of their common position in the English Premier League, Arsenal fans have no more love for ManU than American baseball fans outside NYC have for the Yankees. (Germans are similarly divided between those who love Bayern München and those who detest the team and its fans).

So for less than 5% of every four year cycle, European soccer fans are rabid nationalists, and the rest of the time they are loyal to their local city-state. In some ways, we are well along are way to Jewison’s vision (but hopefully not the dystopian part).

Note to readers: apologies for not blogging recently, but due to travels, office meetings and research deadlines (including WOIC 2014) I’ve been unable to finish several posts during the past month.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fractalization (and trivialization) of technological innovation

My friend Frank Piller this morning shared a witty story from last week’s New Yorker. The title and subtitle say it all:

“Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry”
Silicon Valley is in a bubbly race to wash your clothes better, faster, and cooler. This is not a metaphor. Unless, you know, it is.
The story about IT-enabled laundry delivery services focuses on Washio, a LA-based seed-funded startup. The three founders cruise along confident in the brilliance of their idea until they run across three Bay Area rivals (Laundry Locker, Prim, Rinse) — one incubated by Y Combinator — and eventually five more from NYC and two from Chicago.

Author Jessica Pressler makes only a feeble effort to restrain her sarcasm. In commenting why so many other tech entrepreneurs are addressing the same need:
In reality, when people in a privileged society look deep within themselves to find what is missing, a streamlined clothes-cleaning experience comes up a lot. More often than not, the people who come up with ways of lessening this burden on mankind are dudes, or duos of dudes, who have only recently experienced the crushing realization that their laundry is now their own responsibility, forever. Paradoxically, many of these dudes start companies that make laundry the central focus of their lives.
But even in this segment, “new innovations are dying from the day they are born… There’s a term for this. It’s called the hedonic treadmill.”

Some of it has an anthropologist-visits-the-strange-tribe-of-Silicon-Valley feel. Even though their main office is in Santa Monica, Washio has the same (post-Amazon) disrupting of the physical world that brought us and Uber. Their goal is to be “the Uber of laundry," and their share a common seed stage investor.

But early on, Pressler raises a more fundamental question:
We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam. Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems.
Certainly Amazon and Google and Facebook (mostly) allow us to do things we did before, just more quickly and cheaply and conveniently. Yesterday, my sister-in-law could have mailed pictures of her daughter’s graduation to her friends and relatives, but instead she posted them on Facebook and they were instantly available.

Like Pressler, many of these activities seem trivial when I compare this to other “big” innovations, like trying to get mankind back into space or provide enough food and energy to bring 5 billion of the world’s 7 billion people up to developed world living standards. After changing jobs three years ago, life at my new employer reminds me that the life sciences have many important unsolved problems, whether it be preventing deaths from malaria and tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa or finding a cure for cancer.

But on another level, Pressler’s article would come as no surprise to my innovation strategy students of the past eight years (whether at KGI, UCI or SJSU). The pattern is straight out of Dealing with Darwin, the grand unified theory of innovation by Geoff Moore (best known for Crossing the Chasm).

One reason I use the book is that it offers a cogent explanation of the role of innovation in mature industries. He subdivides such innovation into two categories, operational excellence (cheaper) and customer intimacy (better). For the latter, he uses the metaphor of “fractalization”, as illustrated by this diagram from Chapter 6:
As Moore explains (p. 111-112)
Figures 1 through 3 represent the early, middle, and late stages of a growth market. ... As the figures indicate, the driving dynamic at this point is a single-minded attempt to acquire new customers and claim market share.

By the time we hit figure 3, however, the market for the basic offering has become saturated. One can no longer grow simply by adding new customers to the category because the bulk of them have already been added. After virtually every home has a phone, every garage a car, every child a personal sound system, what do you do next?

Thus, from the mass-market Model T car, for example, the automotive industry first generated line extensions: a sedan, a station wagon, a truck, a couple, a limousine.

Increasingly fine-grained fractalization can and will continue as long as there are discretionary dollars to spend in the system and the category as a whole has not become obsolete.
We do need to recognize the contributions of the laundry app innovators (even if they go the way of the sock puppet). By moving the realm of innovation from the physical world to the digital world, they are enabling new form of experimentation and innovation — as happened in retail, communications, advertising, journalism and other established industries.

Pressler makes clear that the laundry apps still depend heavily on their contract laundry suppliers who do all the work. But if such apps catch on, it would seem obvious that the laundry market will be rapidly consolidated, with the tiny corner dry cleaners replaced by a handful of regional factories. One would expect (as with Web 1.0 and 2.0) the adoption will be most rapid in Silicon Valley, with the shops in Palo Alto or SoMa served by ecofriendly delivery trucks driving from large plants in Morgan Hill or Livermore.