Wednesday, February 26, 2014

If Facebook kills entrepreneurship, what’s next?

Cross-posted from Engineering Entrepreneurship.

The $19b that Facebook paid to buy WhatsApp is shaking up Silicon Valley, as other Internet startups try to figure out how they can get their own inflated multiple.

But for the rest of the world of tech entrepreneurship — such as life sciences — it could further starve the flow of investment capital they need to get off the ground.

Entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank tweeted Monday

steve blank ‏@sgblank Feb 24
Why Facebook is killing Silicon Valley … more relevant today
The earlier article talked about his work teaching entrepreneurship for science-based startups:
The irony is that as good as some of these nascent startups are in material science, sensors, robotics, medical devices, life sciences, etc., more and more frequently VCs whose firms would have looked at these deals or invested in these sectors, are now only interested in whether it runs on a smart phone or tablet. And who can blame them.

Facebook and Social Media
Facebook has adroitly capitalized on market forces on a scale never seen in the history of commerce. For the first time, startups can today think about a Total Available Market in the billions of users (smart phones, tablets, PC’s, etc.) and aim for hundreds of millions of customers. Second, social needs previously done face-to-face, (friends, entertainment, communication, dating, gambling, etc.) are now moving to a computing device. And those customers may be using their devices/apps continuously. This intersection of a customer base of billions of people with applications that are used/needed 24/7 never existed before.

The potential revenue and profits from these users (or advertisers who want to reach them) and the speed of scale of the winning companies can be breathtaking. The Facebook IPO has reinforced the new calculus for investors. In the past, if you were a great VC, you could make $100 million on an investment in 5-7 years. Today, social media startups can return 100’s of millions or even billions in less than 3 years. …

If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division. As investors funding clean tech watch the Chinese dump cheap solar cells in the U.S. and put U.S. startups out of business, do you think they’re going to continue to fund solar? And as Clean Tech VC’s have painfully learned, trying to scale Clean Tech past demonstration plants to industrial scale takes capital and time past the resources of venture capital. A new car company? It takes at least a decade and needs at least a billion dollars. Compared to IOS/Android apps, all that other stuff is hard and the returns take forever.
Two years ago — ironically a few weeks before Blank’s blog posting — I started writing my own posting along these same lines. What I wrote (but never posted):
Did software ruin entrepreneurship?
On Friday, I sat between two entrepreneurs at an office party for my old job. One of the entrepreneurs is in clean tech (hardware) while the other is in IT (software). One is in his 30s and one is in his 50s.

The hardware guy was talking about his challenges raising funds. One VC told him (I'm paraphrasing): “I gave Instagram $5 million and got back $200 million. Why should I give you money?” [after their $1 billion acquisition by Facebook].
The remainder of my (incipient) argument was that software promises abnormally low cap short returns, and the amount of money needed to fund a software company is getting smaller by the week, as VC Mark Suster wrote back in 2011.

How will this play out? I see at least four possibilities:
  1. During the dot-bomb (dot-con) era we had too much money chasing too few good ideas, and what resulted was what economists call excess entry. Eventually the bubble burst — and it could again.
  2. Another possibility is that these other ideas don’t get funded. There are business models that made sense in the 1890s or 1950s that no longer make sense — such as ones that are labor intensive or based on craft work — and new businesses here don’t get launched.
  3. Blank points to the genius philosopher-king model — where a really rich guy (it’s almost always a guy) puts his money where is mouth is (again, almost always a big mouth). In a previous century it was Howard Hughes or Richard Branson, while today Blank points to Elon Musk.
  4. The final possibility is that politicians play kingmaker, not with their own money but with Other People’s Money, i.e. yours and mine. (They will be egged on by a incantations of “market failure” of a few economists.) While this may make sense for public goods such as public health, we saw how such large scale private intervention worked with firms like Solyndra.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive. Musk depends on public subsidies to support the business models of Tesla and SolarCity, although — unlike Fisker and Solyndra — he’s at least offering something people want to buy. SpaceX depends on public procurement, but I believe his announced plans that this is just a bootstrap to get the business off the group (so to speak).

Is there a happy ending? Like Blank, I think the Facebook effect is going to get worse before it gets better.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Nokia's non-Android Android phone

At Mobile World Congress Monday in Barcelona, Nokia introduced its Nokia X series — three hybrid quasi-Android phones. The phones combine the Android kernel with Windows-style tiles.

The Nokia phones are as much (or little) Android as is Amazon’s Kindle. Like Amazon, Nokia eschewed Google’s proprietary layers and added its own proprietary layers on top of the Android Open Source Project. The new phones have Nokia’s Store, with Nokia’s maps, radio and in-app payments.

According to Nokia

Nokia Store testing has shown that approximately 75% of Android apps will run properly without any modifications; they’re ready to be published in Nokia Store.
For the remainder:
If your app uses Google services for push notifications, maps or in-app payments, you’ll need to make a few changes, but it won’t take long (usually less than 8 hours). Nokia services have been designed to minimize porting effort from apps using corresponding Google services and allow developers develop and distribute a single APK targeting multiple stores.
Nokia even offers a service for testing apps to see if they are compatible. If not, Nokia is doing a road tour (the “Nokia X Porting Bus”) across Europe to help developers to port their apps to provide dual-platform support.

Either way, developers will need to submit their apps to the Nokia Store to have them made available to customers.

The news sites are speculating about how Microsoft feels about this signal undercutting Nokia’s devotion to the Windows platform, in anticipation of the handset business being swallowed by Microsoft.

Microsoft can keep or cancel the platform once it takes control. In the meantime, Nokia and Android developers can attempt a low-cost experiment to see whether app makers will pay the porting costs, and whether Nokia’s hardware competencies are valuable for Android customers in third world countries. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario under which this platform is still available for sale in three years.

For me, what is most interesting is what this experiment means for the future of non-Android Android devices. The Nook was first, then the Kindle. Will this encourage other experiments? Will these experiments create a demand for non-Google Android devices? Will developers make dual-platform applications? Will it undercut the market power of the Android compatibility program?

So will this reduce Google’s control of the platform by moving demand to lower layers? Will it promote further dominance by Android? Or will it be the tree that falls in the forest, that no one ever hears?

Monday, February 17, 2014

In the real world, Android is a proprietary platform

Since Android was first released, many of us have wondered how open it really is. Last week, we learned more about Google’s tight control over Android through documents released as part of an European antitrust investigation.

The story was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, based on an analysis by Harvard professor Ben Edelman. (The WSJ said that Google declined to comment). The meat of the revelation were copies of the 2011-2012 “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” (MADA) that was signed by Android licensees Samsung and HTC. The agreements were exhibits in the Google-Oracle (née Sun Microsystems) Java copyright lawsuit in the Federal District of Northern California.

Ties That Bind

Rolfe Winkler of the WSJ summarized the (MADA) agreements as follows:

The Samsung and HTC agreements specify a dozen Google applications that must be "preinstalled" on the devices, that Google Search be set as the default search provider, and that Search and the Play Store appear "immediately adjacent" to the home screen, while other Google apps appear no more than one screen swipe away.

The terms put rival mobile apps, like AOL Inc.'s MapQuest and Microsoft Corp.'s Bing search, at a disadvantage on most Android devices. Mr. Edelman, who is a paid consultant for Microsoft, said the terms "help Google expand into areas where competition could otherwise occur."

Google has successfully promoted its own apps on Android. Four of the top 10 most-used apps on Android smartphones in the U.S. during December were Google's, according to comScore. On Apple's iPhone, only one Google app—YouTube—was among the top 10.
Calling Edelman a Microsoft consultant seems like a red herring. More relevant is that he embarrassed Google by noting that it tracked user browsing even when users disabled it. Edelman seems an equal opportunity Internet activist, having spent his entire adult life at Harvard (earning an AB, AM, JD, and PhD in econ before becoming an assistant and associate professor at Harvard Business School).

In his own analysis, Edelman shows how Google’s activities constitute tying:
If a phone manufacturer wants to offer desired Google functions without close substitutes, the MADA provides that the manufacturer must install all other Google apps that Google specifies, including the defaults and placements that Google specifies. These requirements are properly understood as a tie: A manufacturer may want YouTube only, but Google makes the manufacturer accept Google Search, Google Maps, Google Network Location Provider, and more. Then a vendor with offerings only in some sectors—perhaps only a maps tool, but no video service—cannot replace Google's full suite of services.

I have repeatedly flagged Google using its various popular and dominant services to compel use of other services. For example, in 2009-2010, to obtain image advertisements in AdWords campaigns, an advertiser had to join Google Affiliate Network. Since the rollout of Google+, a publisher seeking top algorithmic search traffic de facto must participate in Google's social network. In this light, numerous Google practices entail important elements of tying:

If a wantsThen it must accept
If a consumer wants to use Google Search Google Finance, Images, Maps, News, Products, Shopping, YouTube, and more
If a mobile carrier wants to preinstall YouTube for Android Google Search, Google Maps (even if a competitor is willing to pay to be default)
If an advertiser wants to advertise on any AdWords Search Network Partner All AdWords Search Network sites (in whatever proportion Google specifies)
If an advertiser wants to advertise on Google Search as viewed on computers  Tablet placements and, with limited restrictions, smartphone placements
If an advertiser wants image ads Google Affiliate Network
If an advertiser wants a logo in search ads Google Checkout
If a video producer wants preferred video indexing YouTube hosting
If a web site publisher wants preferred search indexingGoogle Plus participation
Not all tying is illegal. But tying by a dominant firm is legally suspect — even more so in Europe, where the competition policies are more aggressive (especially for US firms like Google).

Technically Open, Commercially Not

From a practical standpoint, phone makers have no choice but to comply with Google’s terms (with the exception of China’s domestic market, where Google’s services are blocked). As OSS IP maven Florian Mueller wrote:
Technically you can take the free and open parts of Android (in terms of the amount of code, that's probably the vast majority, though the share of closed, tightly-controlled components appears to be on the rise) and build a device without signing any individual license agreement with Google, and some have indeed done so. If that is so, why did Samsung and HTC sign those agreements that have now come to light? For commercial reasons.

If you want your Android device to sell, you normally want to be able to call it an Android device. To do that, you need a trademark license from Google. Open source licenses cover software copyright, they may come with patent provisions, but licenses like the GPL or ASL (Apache) don't involve trademarks.

The trademark -- the little green robot, for example -- is commercially key. In order to get it, you must meet the compatibility criteria Google defines and enforces, which are mostly about protecting Google's business interests: the apps linked to its services must be included. And those apps are subject to closed-source, commercial licensing terms. That's what the MADA, the document Samsung and HTC and many others signed, is about.

Even if you decided that the trademark isn't important to you, you would want at least some of the apps subject to the MADA. What's a mobile operating system nowadays without an app store? Or without a maps/navigation component? Google gives OEMs an all-or-nothing choice: you accept their terms all the way, or you don't get any of those commercially important components. And if you take them, then you must ensure that the users of your devices will find Google services as default choices for everything: search, mail, maps/navigation, etc.
This “free” software comes at a price. Even if Google doesn’t charge royalties to use its applications, the London Guardian estimated last month that it costs $40k-$75k to test a new handset for compliance with Google’s standards and thus be allowed to ship Google’s applications.

Google Isn't Open About Not Being Open

Most troubling for me has been — since the beginning of Android — the gap between Google’s rhetoric of openness and the reality; for example, see “Open source without open governance” (June 2008), “Perhaps someday Android will be open” (July 2008), “Sharing in faux openness” (October 2009), “Google’s half-full glass of openness (January 2010), “Andy wants you to buy his openness (June 2010) “Semi-open Android getting more closed” (October 2013).

While these agreements have been in place for at least three years, Edelman notes that Motorola redacted the most important provisions of the MADA when it disclosed excerpts in a 2011 SEC filing. Google’s lack of transparency about its non-openness helps it be more successfully non-open:
MADA secrecy advances Google's strategic objectives. By keeping MADA restrictions confidential and little-known, Google can suppress the competitive response. If users, app developers, and the concerned public knew about MADA restrictions, they would criticize the tension between the restrictions and Google's promise that Android is “open” and “open source.” Moreover, if MADA restrictions were widely known, regulators would be more likely to reject Google's arguments that Android's "openness" should reduce or eliminate regulatory scrutiny of Google's mobile practices. In contrast, by keeping the restrictions secret, Google avoids such scrutiny and is better able to continue to advance its strategic interests through tying, compulsory installation, and defaults.

Relatedly, MADA secrecy helps prevent standard market forces from disciplining Google's restriction. Suppose consumers understood that Google uses tying and full-line-forcing to prevent manufacturers from offering phones with alternative apps, which could drive down phone prices. Then consumers would be angry and would likely make their complaints known both to regulators and to phone manufacturers. Instead, Google makes the ubiquitous presence of Google apps and the virtual absence of competitors look like a market outcome, falsely suggesting that no one actually wants to have or distribute competing apps.
With some irony, the WSJ article quoted Google’s former CEO:
"One of the greatest benefits of Android is that it fosters competition at every level of the mobile market—including among application developers," Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote to then-U.S. Senator Herb Kohl in 2011.
Peeling Back the Layers of Openwashing

While the most specific and conclusive, this latest revelation is not the only evidence that Android is more openwashing than open source.

For example, in October Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica listed all the cases where “open source” Android once came with a key application available in open source, but then Google orphaned the open source app when it brought out a fully-featured closed-source replacement. This includes the Search, Music, Calendar, Keyboard, Camera and Messaging apps.

At the same time, Google (with great success) sought to convince app developers to use the Google Play APIs rather than the official Android APIs — thus making these apps incompatible with devices that use only the open source part of Android (e.g. Amazon’s Kindle). If you want to use apps from the Google app store, you have to use the Google APIs.

Finally, there’s the matter of the Open Handset Alliance, the organization nominally leading Android development. Amadeo makes clear that OHA is more like the Microsoft Developer Network than the Eclipse Foundation (emphasis in original):
While it might not be an official requirement, being granted a Google apps license will go a whole lot easier if you join the Open Handset Alliance. The OHA is a group of companies committed to Android—Google's Android—and members are contractually prohibited from building non-Google approved devices. That's right, joining the OHA requires a company to sign its life away and promise to not build a device that runs a competing Android fork.
Google: Partly Open and Opening Parts

In the early 2000s, open source was a paradox. When I began researching my second open source article (which I used as a job talk in December 2001 and was published in 2003), it was not clear how firms could make money from something nominally open. Based on a study of Apple, IBM and Sun, I concluded that firms made money off of openness with strategies that were open in one of two ways: they opened parts (leaving other parts close) or they were partly open (granting some rights, but not enough to enable competitors).

Google is clearly doing both. Amadeo emphasizes that with Android, Google is only opening parts — leaving key components under tight control. Meanwhile, the latest news points to Google being only partly open: rights to use the “open source” (actually, a mixed-source) system depend on complying with a series of Google restrictions.

In 2011, mobile analyst Liz Laffan studied the openness of eight mobile-related open source communities. Building on a 2008 study I did with Siobhan O'Mahony, she developed a 13-factor openness score for firm controlled open source communities. In her report (summarized in a 2012 journal article) Laffan assigned scores from 0-100% open. Android was lowest at 23%, and in fact the only project less than 50%. At the other extreme, Linux was 71% and Eclipse (designed to be open from the start) was 84%.

Conclusion: Real World Android is a Proprietary Platform

In the 1980s and 1990s, Microsoft won commercial success by widely licensing its PC operating system to all comers. However, after the initial licenses (with its launch customer IBM), Microsoft largely dictated the terms of these licenses.

When people buy an Android phone, they are not buying the Android Open Source Project but (as Amadeo makes clear) the Google Play Platform. This platform — call it Real World Android — has the following characteristics
  • Like Apple’s OS X (or IBM’s WebKit), it combines open source and proprietary elements.
  • Like Windows, it is licensed to a wide range of hardware manufacturers.
  • Like both OS X and Windows, much of the value comes from bundling a wide range of proprietary, closed-source applications
In short, Real World Android is a proprietary platform: proprietary in that it is a mixture of open source and proprietary elements, but the complete platform (including application functionality and access to the Android app ecosystem) requires licensing proprietary technologies under a restrictive proprietary contract. (For a true open source system, the open source license would be enough).

A few market experiments (notably Kindle and the Chinese market) have been made using the Android open source project (which Amadeo dubs AOSP). For the remainder, as Florian notes, commercial success requires agreeing to Google’s terms to use its proprietary platform. If it was ever accurate to refer to Android as an open source platform, it’s clearly no longer true today.

Yes, by using an ad-supported (two-sided market) approach Google doesn’t have to charge royalties, but that doesn’t make it free (as in speech or as in beer). With 42% of the US mobile ad market — and Android accounting for the majority of US smartphones — Google makes billions off of Android users. Google’s preloaded apps command choice real estate, and if Google didn’t control this real estate, handset makers could sell this real estate to the highest bidder.

So despite all the rhetoric, Google is just another tech company that wants to rule the world and make zillions for its founders and executives. It controls its technology to gain maximum advantage, and (like many firms nowadays) uses openwashing to render spotless its proprietary motivations. This shouldn’t be surprising. It won’t be a surprise for anyone who reviews the how Android evolved (and the strategy emerged) over the first five years.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is there a good way to fire your customers?

During the Super Bowl, Radio Shack ran a (highly praised) 30 second ad about how they're abandoning their 1980s image to unveil a “new” Radio Shack. The ad featured 80s celebrities like Mary Lou Retton, Hulk Hogan, CHiPster Erik Estrada, Alf, the California Raisins and "Cliff" from Cheers.

In other words, they spent about $4 million to proudly announce they are firing some of their old customers to better appeal to new ones. And as part of the firing, they’ll be closing one store out of every nine.

The company certainly faces major challenges. Their original business of selling parts to hobbyists and tinkerers has gone away. The competition in selling electronics (from Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and others) is fierce. And, perhaps worst of all, the convenience of a neighborhood storefront where you make a quick stop is being destroyed by the depth of inventory and price-cutting of the seemingly unstoppable destroyer of retail, the Bezos Empire.

The intended makeover reminds me of JC Penney, whose new CEO fired all their old customers in a (vain) hope to win over new, up-market ones. When it failed, JCP fired him, brought back their old CEO and desperately tried to woo back their (once-loyal) customers.

You’re Fired!

This sort of decision has two key points. First, the company feels it needs to attract a type of customer they are currently not reaching. In the JCP case, it seems to be because they are higher margin, whereas for Radio Shack, it's because there are more of them.

But is there every a good time to fire your customers? Usually the firms that do it are desperate and are stuck between two bad choices.

In these two examples, I was fired twice. In Radio Shack’s case, I get it — the niche of people who own soldering irons is too small to support 4500 (soon 4000) stores. Besides, the company has already eliminated much of the inventory that once attracted us to the store, with only a fraction of the parts that it once had.

For JCP, I thought they made a major mistake, and apparently the board agreed. The value clothing segment is a large one — growing due to declining incomes over the past five years — and JCP held a strong position here. There's a lot to work with and this market segment isn’t going away.

My previous favorite clothing retailer was Mervyn’s before they died five years ago. Now I use Costco when I can — because of convenience, price and quality — but their selection means I rarely can. The selection at Target is limited, the quality at Wal-Mart is suspect, and so for most of my clothing I value having a full-service clothing retailer like JCP (particularly given I’m a nonstandard size). The only reason I don’t use it more is that (unlike Mervyn’s) it’s in the larger mall rather than more convenient strip mall.

Death of Freemium?

Finally, this week I was fired a third time. Instead of an iconic 20th century Main Street retailer, this was a (me too) 21st century Silicon Valley internet services company. The cause was also different: instead of declining customers and margins, this was a company with a freemium business model that never worked to begin with.

The company is SugarSync, a DropBox imitator that notified customers December 10 it was terminating the free part of its freemium business model, effective February 8. Although the early software was buggy, I loved the service because it worked with my hard disk organization rather than (as with Dropbox and later Google Drive) forcing me to adapt to its model.

Sugar’s decision meant that I’ll have to use Dropbox or Drive and work around their limitations. Not the end of the world. I forgot about it entirely until I got this week’s email, urging (imploring) me to convert to paid membership.
I don’t envy them: people are addicted to these services but (like the rest of the Internet) not paying for them. In a recent class of about thirty 21-39 year-old graduate students (at an elite biotech institute), I asked how many of them use Dropbox. Every hand went up. When I asked how many paid, not a single one of them raised their hand.

It appears Sugar is hoping to segment their market and serve those who need more than they (or their competitors) provide free. After having raised $60+M in venture and (now) debt financing, my guess is that the need to get to positive cash flow has become urgent.

Given how crowded the segment is — and how little traction they got — I wouldn’t be optimistic. The only hope is that other companies give up on free and condition people to pay, but it’s hard to imagine either Google or Microsoft pulling back from freemium entirely. And with Box recently offering 50gb free (vs. 2gb for Dropbox) the trend seems to be in the other direction.

At the same time, it calls into question the viability of the freemium business model, which always depended on a non-zero upgrade rate. I certainly wouldn’t want to start a company nowadays with a business plan that assumed freemium would generate enough revenue to pay the bills (let alone the investors).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Facebook won't repeat its one-time gains

This week, Facebook reported record sales, record profit and a record stock price. For shareholders, this is the perfect time to sell.

The good news is that the company has successfully adapted its desktop ad strategy to mobile phones.

The WSJ summarized it thusly:

The social network accounted for 18.44% of the world-wide mobile ad market in 2013, up from 5.35% in 2012, eMarketer estimates. That compares with a climb to 53.17% from 52.35% for Google.

Mobile-ad revenue as a percentage of overall ad revenue climbed to 53%, from 49% the prior quarter and 23% a year earlier. This was due to the ongoing shift of ad dollars to mobile away from more traditional media and Facebook's ability to capture a bigger slice of the fast-growing pie.
The problem is, Facebook will not see that level of growth again. It got 3.4x share growth in one year, and if it were to do it again — today or in 10 years — that would mean a 63.6% share of the mobile market. That isn’t going to happen.

Facebook is perhaps the world’s most popular Internet application, but it’s just one product. Even including Instagram, those products are not going to capture a majority of a market that includes search, news and the rest of the WWW.

What of its other products? Instagram is doing a good job of segmenting the market — providing difference social media for different demographics — but not helping it gain new categories. Paper is innovative enough to lock-in millions of millennial eyeballs, but again, it’s not going to take over the world.

The reality is that most of the large tech companies are one-trick ponies, with their subsequent efforts never matching up to the original. Yes, Microsoft added Office to Windows, but beyond that? IBM took decades before profits from its services business matched that from mainframes. Only 21st century Apple had the ability to create multiple multibillion business, and with Steve Jobs gone, that won’t happen again soon (if ever).

Instead, I expect Facebook will be like Google and Intel, where the core business is what makes money and the other activities are (at best) in support of the core business and (at worst) a good way to waste money.

Facebook has a P/E of 104 (49.3 times 2014 projected earnings) vs. 32 (21) for Google. That’s a huge growth premium, which is only justified if these current levels of growth can be sustained for many years.

When the growth slows, they’ll get a Netflix-style correction. So this would be a good time for investors to lock in their wins, or at least take some money off the table.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bob Galvin turning in his grave

Wednesday Google announced it is dumping Motorola by selling it to Lenovo, the same company that bought IBM’s PC business when it decided to exit.

CEO-founder Larry Page wrote:

We acquired Motorola in 2012 to help supercharge the Android ecosystem by creating a stronger patent portfolio for Google and great smartphones for users. … But the smartphone market is super competitive, and to thrive it helps to be all-in when it comes to making mobile devices. It’s why we believe that Motorola will be better served by Lenovo—which has a rapidly growing smartphone business and is the largest (and fastest-growing) PC manufacturer in the world. This move will enable Google to devote our energy to driving innovation across the Android ecosystem, for the benefit of smartphone users everywhere.
Just to be clear, Google is abandoning commodity markets, not hardware:
As a side note, this does not signal a larger shift for our other hardware efforts. The dynamics and maturity of the wearable and home markets, for example, are very different from that of the mobile industry. We’re excited by the opportunities to build amazing new products for users within these emerging ecosystems.
This is obviously a big deal for Google, for the smartphone industry — and readers of this blog. There are so many angles that went through my head — but then I went off to spend 36 hours seriously focused on teaching (plus meetings). Fortunately, I can summarize most of the angles from the reporting that’s happened since then.

Google's Losses

Google spent over $12 billion to buy Motorola in mid-2012, and is selling it for $2.9b. Only $0.66b is cash and the rest is stock and IOUs. In an article entitled “Buy High, Sell Low,” John Paczkowski (formerly of the Merc and AllthingsD) wrote “the whole affair is arguably one of the worst investments in Google’s history.”

However, the net is a little better than a $9b loss. Minutes after the announcement, Tom Gara of the WSJ calculated
Google paid about $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility when it acquired the company in 2012, and that came with about $3 billion of cash. It later sold off the company’s unit that makes cable TV set-top boxes for $2.35 billion. Now it’s selling off much of what’s left for $2.9 billion, but keeping all those patents.
The WSJ reminded us Thursday that “Google had absorbed roughly $2 billion of operating losses through the third quarter of last year,” bringing the net cost to $6b.

Friday, the WSJ had a second-day story “How Google's Costly Motorola Maneuver May Pay Off”. This is a fairly transparent effort by the company (or key executives or allies) to try to put a positive face on their huge loss. While the Google goals (promoting Android, fighting Apple) made sense, the purchase had only a small impact on the industry and was a terribly inefficient way to accomplish these minimal results.

The bottom line is that Google ended up spending more than $6b, and all they have to show for it is the 17,000 patents of MMI. Not only did they overpay, but with the losses this is even worse than what they booked on their balance sheet. As Bloomberg reported last April:
Google…estimated in regulatory filings that $5.5 billion of the purchase price for Motorola was for patents and developed technology. Chief Executive Officer Larry Page in August 2011 said Motorola’s patent portfolio would “help protect Android from anticompetitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies.”
Of course, Google has had difficulty monetizing these patents — either offensively or defensively — in support of Android. (The one exception was this week’s cross-license deal with its major Android customer, Samsung, on undisclosed financial terms).

Google’s Mobile Patent Strategy

So how’s that investment working out? As with any mobile patent issue, the definitive source is the FOSS Patents blog. Florian Mueller didn’t pull any punches Thursday:
Things haven't been going too well for Google in the patent litigation arena recently.

At the moment Google appears to be on a losing streak in U.S. patent courts, and as I said further above, more bad news is probably coming in the near term. Google's patent infringement issues are definitely a key reason for its push for patent reform legislation, and I doubt that Congress will solve Google's problems anytime soon. There will either be a quick agreement between both chambers of Congress on a targeted and limited reform bill or things will take much longer.
He lists Google patent lawsuit losses to SimpleAir and Vringo, and Samsung’s loss on Apple’s auto-correct patent (presumably signaling future losses by the remaining Android handset makers). In addition, major licensee Huawei settled with the Rockstar Consortium — which suggests to me that Android licensees except Samsung will probably do likewise. (Wikipedia helpfully explains that this patent troll paid $4.5b for the Nortel patents — the largest patent portfolio ever sold — and that Apple, Microsoft and Sony are part-owners.

If that’s not bad enough, Mueller predicts that Motorola is also likely to lose its case to Intellectual Ventures (the Nathan Myhrvold patent troll).

In defense of Google execs, this mobile phone patent litigation among handset makers is relatively new, and it was not obvious how it would turn out. Still, it’s clear Google knew little about this business model, didn’t have a lot of their own patents, and took the shareholder’s cash to buy the biggest stash of patents they could find (valuation be damned).

Greater Fool Theory

Of course, for every seller there is a buyer. Lenovo seems to think that what’s left of the Moto mobile franchise is worth $2.1b in cash and IOUs (plus 5% of their company).

A friend of mine noted that parallels the habit of Asian companies over the past two decades to buy money-losing US PC companies:
  • AST Research: bought by Samsung (1996)
  • Packard Bell: bought by NEC (1996)
  • Gateway: bought by Acer (2007)
  • IBN’s hard disk division: bought by Hitachi (2002)
  • IBM's PC division: bought by Lenovo (2005)
  • IBM’s PC server division: being bought by Lenovo (2014)
So far, it appears that the first two (market-leading IBM businesses) were worth buying. The others (top 10 but not top 3) only transferred value from Asian CEO egos to struggling American shareholders.

Death of an Icon

All this aside, what occurred to me when I heard the news was that the late great Bob Galvin (1922-2011) must be turning in his grave. Here is the an excerpt from the obit I wrote:
Robert Galvin died last week at aged 89. The second of three generations of Galvin CEOs at Motorola, he was clearly the best, guiding the company to its period of greatest success (1959-1997).

In addition to serving as Motorola president, CEO and chairman, Galvin was chairman of Sematech and helped create the Six Sigma movement in the United States. For more than 20 years, Galvin was a Notre Dame trustee and later fellow.
There is a great video on Galvin’s seminal contributions to the wireless industry, prepared by the Marconi Society when they gave him a lifetime achievement award. In that video, I argued that Galvin’s two great contribution was to create the system of competing US licensees in cellphones (something that no other market had yet considered) and to push portability, miniaturization and mobility in cellphones — i.e., to create our modern industry. Yes, without Motorola we would have eventually had such a mobile industry, but the company shape how we got here and got us here sooner.

Bob Galvin spent his last years at Motorola doing two things: fighting against trade barriers for Motorola products overseas (notably in Japan), and promoting a resurgence in manufacturing quality for American electronics to be able to compete with foreign (i.e. Asian) producers. In 1988, Motorola won the Malcom Baldrige National Quality Award for manufacturing in its inaugural year.

His company is no longer the market leader it once was, having come late to the digital era and wasted $7b on Iridium (back when that was real money). Before he died, the company’s decline was palpable and surely known to him. Still, I have to imagine he is turning in his grave.