With a $1 billion price tag for Instagram, a $1.1 billion valuation for Tumblr, and a rumored $3 billion bid for Snapchat, many observers are probably scratching their heads, wondering: why are companies like Facebook and Yahoo willing to shell out this kind of cash for barely-in-revenue-if-at-all consumer startups?While I can’t pretend that all these valuations are “rational” in a traditional sense, I can say that it becomes more understandable if you think about Facebook’s business model. Plain and simple, Facebook’s business model revolves around taking the total amount of time users spend on Facebook and making money against it, whether its through ads or charging a “tax” on virtual goods (think Farmville items) or gifts bought on the platform.
As a result, for Facebook to grow its core business, it really has two options:
Increase the total amount of time users are spending on Facebook
Increase how effectively you are monetizing existing time spent on Facebook
The challenge with #2 is that there really is an upper limit to how much money you can make on a minute of user eyeball-time before you start annoying the user base (either because there are too many ads or because the ads get kind of creepy). So, what most internet media companies strive for is #1 – increase the total amount of time users spend on their websites/apps.
The challenge with #1, though, is that every additional user-minute a company gets is an incremental minute of some other activity that the user needs to give up. And, since we all only have 24 hours a day (and need to sleep), that’s a limited number of minutes to go around, especially for a company like Facebook, where its users are already pretty addicted.
This means that Facebook (and other digital media companies like Yahoo and Twitter) is in a horrifying never-ending race not only to get more precious user-minutes but just to hold on to what they already have. Any time a shiny new startup takes off which seems to suck up user-time — especially if its amongst teens/adolescents who, because they don’t have tons of friends on Facebook already, don’t have any strong reason to be on Facebook — Facebook needs to find a way to grab that time back just to stay even. It’s a hamster wheel that Facebook can never get off of short of changing its underlying business model.
It’s this attention economy that drives digital media companies to pay up for startups like Instagram or Tumblr or Snapchat — they’re new threats to Facebook’s growth and business model, as well as new opportunities to get new user-minutes. That’s why these companies are so prized – for digital media companies in the attention economy, it’s the user-minutes, stupid.
Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.
I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”
I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).
First thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).
So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:
Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
(More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’tperfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.
These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.
In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.
A few weeks back, I wrote a quick overview of Clayton Christensen’s explanation for how new technologies/products can “disrupt” existing products and technologies. In a nutshell, Christensen explains that new “disruptive innovations” succeed not because they win in a head-to-head comparison with existing products (i.e. laptops versus desktops), but because they have three things:
Good enough performance in one area for a certain segment of users (i.e. laptops were generally good enough to run simple productivity applications)
Very strong performance on an unrelated feature which eventually will become very important for more than one small niche (i.e. laptops were portable, desktops were not, and that became very important as consumers everywhere started demanding laptops)
Have the potential to improve by leveraging their industry learning curve to the point where they can compete head-to-head with an existing product (i.e. laptops now can be as fast if not faster than most desktops)
But, while most people think of Christensen’s findings as applied to product and technology shifts, this model of how innovations overtake one another can be just as easily applied to business models.
A great example of this lies in the semiconductor industry. For years, the dominant business model for semiconductor companies was the Integrated Device Manufacturer (IDM) model – a business model whereby semiconductor companies both designed and manufactured their own product. The primary benefit of this was tighter integration of design and manufacturing. Semiconductor manufacturing is highly sophisticated, requiring all sorts of specialized processes and chemicals and equipment, and there are a great deal of intricacies between one’s designs and one’s manufacturing process. Having both design and manufacturing under one roof allowed IDMs to create better products more quickly as they were able to exploit the interplays between design and manufacturing and more readily correct problems as they arose. IDMs were also able to tweak their manufacturing processes to push specific features, letting IDMs differentiate their products from their peers.
But, a new semiconductor model emerged in the early 1990s – the fabless model. Unlike the IDM model, fabless companies don’t own their own semiconductor factories (called fabs – hence the name “fabless”) and outsource their manufacturing to either IDMs with spare manufacturing capacity or dedicated contract manufacturers called foundries (the two largest of which are based in Taiwan).
At first, the industry scoffed at the fabless model. After all, these companies could not tightly link their designs to manufacturing, had to rely on the spare capacity of IDMs (who would readily take it away if they needed it) or on foundries in Taiwan, China, and Singapore which lagged the leading IDMs in manufacturing capability by several years.
But, the key to Christensen’s disruptive innovation model is not that the “new” is necessarily better than the “old,” but that it is good enough on one dimension and great on other, more important dimensions. So, while fabless companies were at first unable to keep up in terms of bleeding edge manufacturing technology with the dominant IDMs, the fabless model had a significant cost advantage (due to fabless companies not needing to build and operate expensive fabs) and strategic advantage, as their management could focus their resources and attention on building the best designs rather than also worrying about running a smooth manufacturing setup.
The result? Fabless companies like Xilinx, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Broadcom took the semiconductor industry by storm, growing rapidly and bringing their allies, the foundries, along with them to achieve technological parity with the leading IDMs. This model has been so successful that, today, much of the semiconductor space is either fabless or pursuing a fab-lite model (where they outsource significant volumes to foundries, while holding on to a few fabs only for certain products), and TSMC, the world’s largest foundry, is considered to be on par in manufacturing technology with the last few leading IDMs (i.e. Intel and Samsung). This gap has been closed so impressively, in fact, that former IDM-technology leaders like Texas Instruments and Fujitsu have now decided to rely on TSMC for their most advanced manufacturing technology.
To use Christensen’s logic: the fabless model was “good enough” on manufacturing technology for a niche of semiconductor companies, but great in terms of cost. This cost advantage helped the fabless companies and their allies, the foundries, to quickly move up the learning curve and advance in technological capability to the point where they disrupted the old IDM business model.
This type of disruptive business model innovation is not limited to the semiconductor industry. A couple of weeks ago The Economist ran a great series of articles on the mobile phone “ecosystem” in emerging markets. The entire time while I was reading it, I was struck by the numerous ways in which the rise of the mobile phone in emerging markets was creating disruptive business models. One in particular caught my eye as something which was very similar to the fabless semiconductor model story: the so-called “Indian model” of managing a mobile phone network.
Traditional Western/Japanese mobile phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon set up very expensive networks using equipment that they purchase from telecommunications equipment providers like Nokia-Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, and Ericsson. (In theory,) the carriers are able to invest heavily in their own networks to roll out new services and new coverage because they own their own networks and because they are able to charge customers, on average, ~$50/month. These investments (in theory) produce better networks and services which reinforce their ability to charge premium dollar on a per customer basis.
In emerging markets, this is much harder to pull off since customers don’t have enough money to pay $50/month. The “Indian model”, which began in emerging countries like India, is a way for carriers in low-cost countries to adapt to the cost constraints imposed by the inability of customers to pay high $50/month bills, and is generally thought to consist of two pieces. The first involves having multiple carriers share large swaths of network infrastructure, something which many Western carriers shied away from due to intellectual property fears and questions of who would pay for maintenance/traffic/etc. Another plank of the “Indian model” is to outsource network management to equipment providers (Ericsson helped to pioneer this model, in much the same way that the foundries helped the first fabless companies take off) — again, something traditional carrier shied away from given the lack of control a firm would have over its own infrastructure and services.
Just as in the fabless semiconductor company case, this low-cost network management business model has many risks, but it has enabled carriers in India, Africa, and Latin America to focus on getting and retaining customers, rather than building expensive networks. The result? We’re starting to see some Western carriers adopt “Indian model” style innovations. One of the most prominent examples of this is Sprint’s deal to outsource its day-to-day network operations to Ericsson! Is this a sign that the “Indian model” might disrupt the traditional carrier model? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised.