Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Google vs. Apple distribution price war

The first year of the tablet wars went entirely to Apple. Apple has the market share, installed base, the mindshare and the superior product. Most projections have Apple crushing the competition again this year, albeit by a lesser margin.

However, Apple needs to take seriously Google’s latest salvo in the tablet content distribution fight. If Apple hopes to keep the iPad the dominant tablet — in a way the iPhone and Macintosh never were and never could be — it needs to take this attack seriously.

Apple won many fans among software developers for its convenient app store in exchange for a 30% commission. But its proposal to extend commission to newspaper, magazine and all other subscriptions has been highly unpopular, and some have questioned whether this is really tenable in the long haul.

Then on Wednesday, Google said it would only take a 10% cut for its One Pass content store, a direct attack on Apple’s pricing model. (Isn’t competition great?) Although online distribution is a low value-added commodity — with oliogopolistic competition — I think Google can hold a 10% margin, because both Apple nor Amazon tend to prefer margins better than that.

If most of the online tablet media goes through such services, then Apple can make plenty of money on a 10% margin. The problem is protecting its margin for other App Store products. Already, publishers and developers have been trying to bypass paying Apple — using Apple to distribute free apps and trying to charge outside the app. Apple closing the loophole is fair — it deserves some compensation for its distribution — but its plan to keep 30% is not.

So will apps be 30% and content be 10%? Will everything be something in between? Will Apple be in denial about the price war until its share drops below 50%?

Apple already seems to have lost the book distribution fight. iBooks was stillborn, and I can’t see how it will ever catch Barnes & Noble, let alone Amazon or Google. Are magazines and newspapers the same distribution channel as books? I don’t think anyone can say for sure.

Apple was reasonably aggressive in responding to Amazon’s efforts to abolish DRM on music downloads, so I expect we’ll see their answer on or before the rollout of the iPhone 5 this summer. Will they protect their margins on the assumption they can hold the market another year, or will they respond aggressively to protect every bit of market share? That I can’t predict.

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