Technology in the 1990s and early 2000s marched to the beat of an Intel-and-Microsoft-led drum.
Intel would release new chips at a regular cadence: each cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient than the last. This would let Microsoft push out new, more performance-hungry software, which would, in turn, get customers to want Intel’s next, more awesome chip. Couple that virtuous cycle with the fact that millions of households were buying their first PCs and getting onto the Internet for the first time – and great opportunities were created to build businesses and products across software and hardware.
But, over time, that cycle broke down. By the mid-2000s, Intel’s technological progress bumped into the limits of what physics would allow with regards to chip performance and cost. Complacency from its enviable market share coupled with software bloat from its Windows and Office franchises had a similar effect on Microsoft. The result was that the Intel and Microsoft drum stopped beating as they became unable to give the mass market a compelling reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation of devices.
The result was a hollowing out of the hardware and semiconductor industries tied to the PC market that was only masked by the innovation stemming from the rise of the Internet and the dawn of a new technology cycle in the late 2000s in the form of Apple’s iPhone and its Android competitors: the smartphone.
A new, but eerily familiar cycle began: like clockwork, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Apple (playing the part of Intel) would devise new, more awesome chips which would feed the creation of new performance-hungry software from Google and Apple (playing the part of Microsoft) which led to demand for the next generation of hardware. Just as with the PC cycle, new and lucrative software, hardware, and service businesses flourished.
But, just as with the PC cycle, the smartphone cycle is starting to show signs of maturity. Apple’s recent slower than expected growth has already been blamed on smartphone market saturation. Users are beginning to see each new generation of smartphone as marginal improvements. There are also eery parallels between the growing complaints over Apple software quality from even Apple fans and the position Microsoft was in near the end of the PC cycle.
While its too early to call the end for Apple and Google, history suggests that we will eventually enter a similar phase with smartphones that the PC industry experienced. This begs the question: what’s next? Many of the traditional answers to this question – connected cars, the “Internet of Things”, Wearables, Digital TVs – have not yet proven themselves to be truly mass market, nor have they shown the virtuous technology upgrade cycle that characterized the PC and smartphone industries.
This brings us to Virtual Reality. With VR, we have a new technology paradigm that can (potentially) appeal to the mass market (new types of games, new ways of doing work, new ways of experiencing the world, etc.). It also has a high bar for hardware performance that will benefit dramatically from advances in technology, not dissimilar from what we saw with the PC and smartphone.
The ultimate proof will be whether or not a compelling ecosystem of VR software and services emerges to make this technology more of a mainstream “must-have” (something that, admittedly, the high price of the first generation Facebook/Oculus, HTC/Valve, and Microsoft products may hinder).
As a tech enthusiast, its easy to get excited. Not only is VR just frickin’ cool (it is!), its probably the first thing since the smartphone with the mass appeal and virtuous upgrade cycle that can bring about the huge flourishing of products and companies that makes tech so dynamic to be involved with.
This past weekend, a TechCrunch article caught the tech blogosophere off guard with an interesting claim:
Facebook is building a mobile phone, says a source who has knowledge of the project. Or rather, they’re building the software for the phone and working with a third party to actually build the hardware. Which is exactly what Apple and everyone else does, too.
The question is, does a Facebook phone platform (or, fbPhone to borrow the i/g prefix style corresponding to Apple and Google) make sense for Facebook to pursue?
On the one hand, Facebook is rapidly becoming an “operating system” of sorts for the web. According to Facebook’s statistics page, Facebook has over 550K active applications developed on it and over 1 million additional third party websites which have integrated in some fashion with this monumental platform. But, beyond sheer numbers, Facebook’s platform passes what I consider to be the true “is it a real platform” test that Windows, Linux, and Mac OS have passed: it has the ability to sustain a large $100M+ software company like Zynga (which has been estimated to generate over $800 million in annual revenues), capable of now spending enormous amounts on R&D and sales & marketing (and even of experimenting with its own rival gaming platform). This is something which, to my knowledge, the iPhone and Android ecosystems have yet to achieve.
Given its status as an “operating system” for web developers, there is certainly some value Facebook could gain from expanding into the mobile operating system sphere. It would make the Facebook experience more sticky for users who, once they step away from their computers, can only interact with the most basic Facebook features (pictures, notifications, news feeds) by making it easier for developers to truly view Facebook (mobile and desktop) as one application platform.
On a strategic level, Facebook probably also sees potential dangers from Google and Apple’s control of the underlying smartphone software platforms. This control could transform Apple’s very shoddily constructed music “social networking service” Ping and Google’s thus-far unsuccessful attempts, as per its usual business strategy, to weaken Facebook’s dominant position in the social web into a serious threat to Facebook’s long-term position.
So, there are obvious benefits to Facebook in pursuing the platform route. However, I think there is an even more obvious downside: its HARD to build a mobile phone operating system. The TechCrunch article points out that Facebook has hired a number of the top mobile/tablet OS developers in the industry – while this means that its not impossible for Facebook to build a phone platform, its a long shot from building a full-fledged operating system. Assuming Facebook wants to build a phone, its unlikely to take the Apple route and build one monolithic phone. Like Google, Facebook’s business model is built around more user engagement, so a Facebook phone strategy would more likely be centered around getting as many users and phones possible to plug into Facebook.
The path towards such a phone platform (rather than single phone) requires many complicated relationships with carriers, with middleware providers, with hardware manufacturers, and with regulatory bodies (who are not too keen on Facebook’s privacy policies right now), not to mention deep expertise around hardware/software integration. Compare the dates for when Google and its wide swath of partners first announced the Open Handset Alliance (November 2007) to when the first Android phone was available (October 2008). A full year of committed development from industry giants HTC (hardware), Qualcomm (silicon), T-Mobile (carrier), and Google – and that’s assuming the alliance got started on the day that the project was announced and that partners like Verizon/Motorola/Samsung/ARM/etc did absolutely nothing.
From my perspective, Facebook has three much more likely (albeit still difficult) paths forward given the benefits I mentioned above for having its own mobile phone platform:
Build another “Open Handset Alliance” with the ecosystem: This is the only route that I see for Facebook to take if it wants its own, strong foothold in the mobile platform space. The challenge here is that the industry is not only tired of new platforms, but is also not likely to want to cede as much control to Facebook as they did to Google and Apple (and potentially Microsoft when it rolls out its Windows Phone 7 OS). This makes the path forward for Facebook complicated at best and, even when successful, requires it to compete against very well-established operating systems from Google & its partners and Apple.
Pull a HTC/Motorola and build a layer on top of or modify an open OS like Android or MeeGo: This, to me, makes the most sense. It eliminates the need for Facebook to invest heavily in hardware/network/silicon capabilities for deep phone platform development, and it also allows Facebook to leverage the application and ecosystem support that Android and MeeGo command (provided they don’t make too many modifications). Instead, Facebook can focus on building the tools and features that are most relevant to its own business goals. The downside to this, though, is that Facebook loses a fair amount of control over the final user experience and still has to play nice with the phone manufacturers, but these are things it would have to do no matter what strategy it picked
Just build a more complex mobile app which can support Facebook apps: This is the path of least resistance but leaves Facebook at the greatest mercy of Apple and Google, as well as forces Facebook to keep up with phone proliferation (iPhone 3G vs iPhone 3GS vs iPhone 4 vs DROID vs DROID 2 vs DROID X vs…)
Bottom-line: I don’t know if Facebook is even thinking about a bold mobile platform strategy, but if it is, I doubt it comes in the form of a full-fledged fbPhone. To me, it makes a lot more sense to stay the course and build more a sophisticated app in the short-term and, if needed, figure out ways to integrate rich user interface/development tool layers on an open operating system like Android or MeeGo.
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.
“They are serious about making a change,” one person familiar with the matter said. Nokia board members are “supposed to make a decision by the end of the month,” that person said.
They should be very serious about making a change – its been disappointment after disappointment at the former Finnish phone giant (and its stock price, see above). But, this gives me a great chance to play $100-armchair CEO. So, what would I do if I was in the big chair at Nokia? I’d be focusing on three things:
Change the OS approach: With Nokia’s next OS Symbian^3 delayed and widely perceived to be inadequate, you really need to question the ability of Nokia to keep up in the industry-shaking smartphone platform war. In particular, Nokia’s challenge is that its attempting to take a software platform built to enable carrier services and high reliability on lower-end phones that weren’t meant to run software and somehow force it into achieving the same high-end software functionality that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android provide. While there’s nothing that says this is impossible, this is an order of magnitude more difficult than Apple/Google’s initial problem of just creating a software platform without the burden of any legacy constraints/approaches, and, in an industry as fast-moving and disruptive as the smartphone space, that’s two orders of magnitude too many, invites all sorts of risk with no clear reward, and discards Nokia’s traditional strengths in wireless communications R&D and solid hardware design. What does that mean? Three things:
Re-tool Symbian for the low-end to be more like Qualcomm’s BREW (or heck, maybe even adopt BREW?): an operating system focused on enabling carrier/simple software services on the many featurephones out there. That category is Nokia’s (and Symbian’s) traditional strength, and that’s where Symbian can still add a lot of value and find a lot of support.
In the mid-market (high-end featurephone/low-end smartphones), I’d tell Nokia to bite the bullet and adopt Android. Not only is it free, but it immediately levels the software playing field between Nokia and the numerous OEMs who are itching to adopt Android allowing Nokia’s traditional strength in hardware design to win over.
In the high-end, Nokia should go all-in with Intel on their joint MeeGo platform. In that space, Nokia needs a killer platform to disrupt Google/Apple’s hold on the market, and MeeGo is probably the only operating system left which might contest Android and iOS and drive the convergence of mobile devices with traditional computers that this category is pushing towards.
Double-down on Qt to make it easier for developers to “develop for Nokia”. A few years ago, Nokia bought Trolltech which had created a programming framework called Qt (pronounced “cute”). Qt had gained significant traction with developres as it made it easier to make a graphical user interface which ran across multiple devices and operating systems. This is a key asset which Nokia has tried to use to make MeeGo and Symbian more attractive (and which is probably one of the main reasons both OS’s still have reasonable levels of developer interest; although, interestingly, there has been an effort to bring Qt over to Android), but it needs to be emphasized even more if Nokia wants to stay in the game.
Pick your battles wisely: It is entirely possible that Nokia has lost the high-end smartphone battle in the US and Europe (even despite the operating system approach laid out above). But, even if Nokia was forced to completely cede that market, its not the end of the war – its simply the loss of a few (albeit important) battlegrounds. Nokia is still well-positioned to win out in a number of other markets:
The featurephone world: Many of us tech aficionados often forget that, despite all the buzz that the iPhone and the Droid devices generate, smartphones actually make up a very small unit base. Featurephones are still the vast majority of the volume (for cost reasons) and, as devices like the iPhone continue to capture mindshare, there will be significant value in helping featurephones imitate some of the functionality that smartphones have. While it is true that Moore’s Law makes it easier for high-end operating systems like iOS and Android to be run on tomorrow’s featurephones, the incentives of Apple and Google are to probably better aligned with taking their mobile operating systems up-market (towards higher-end devices and computers) rather than down-market (towards feature phones) to chase higher margins and to continue to build highly optimized performance machines. So, given Nokia/Symbian’s traditional strength in building good devices with good support for carrier services, its natural for Nokia to solidify its ownership of the feature phone market and to emulate some of the functionality of higher-end devices.
Emerging markets: This is related to the previous bullet point, but much of the developing world is now seeing vast value in simply adopting basic services and software on their (by Western standards) very low-end phones. As banking systems and computer availability are extremely limited in Africa and parts of Asia, this represents an enormous opportunity for someone like Nokia who has spent years making their phones capable of mobile payment, geolocation, and carrier-enabled services. Couple this with the fact that there is enormous growth waiting to happen in markets like India, China, and Africa (where cell phone penetration is nowhere near as high as in the US), and you have the makings of a potential end-game strategy which could offset short-term setbacks in the US/European smartphone market.
Japan: While Europe and the US are eagerly adopting smartphones (as in phones with rich operating systems), Japan has been a laggard due to differences in the carrier/vendor/services environment. While its been difficult for foreign companies to break into Japan, the recent technology deal between Japanese semiconductor company Renesas and Nokia might provide an interesting “foot in the door” for Nokia to enter a large market where its weakness in software is not so much of a hindrance and its strengths in hardware/willingness to play nice with carriers are a big asset. This is in no way a slam-dunk, but its definitely worth considering.
Figure out the key ecosystem player(s) to partner with: The previous two bullet points were mainly tactical suggestions – what to do in the short-run and how to do it. This last bullet point is aimed at the strategic level – or, in other words, how does Nokia influence the creation of a market environment which leads to its long-term success. To do this, it needs to figure out who it wants to be and what it wants the mobile phone industry to look like when all is said and done. I don’t have a clear answer/vision here, but I’d say Nokia should think about partnering with:
Carriers: Although Apple/Android have had to play nice with the carriers to get their devices out, the carriers probably see the writing on the wall. If smartphone platforms continue to gain traction, there is significant risk that the carriers themselves will simply become the “dumb pipes” that the platforms run on (in the same way that internet service providers like AOL rapidly became unimportant to the user experience and purchasing decision). Nokia has an opportunity to play against that and to help bring the carriers back to the table as a driving force by helping the carriers expose new revenue streams/services (which Nokia could take a cut of) and by building more carrier-friendly software/devices which help with coming bandwidth issues.
Retailers/Mobile commerce intermediaries: One of the emerging application cases which is particularly interesting is the use of mobile phones for the buying and selling of goods. This is something which is extremely nascent but has a huge opportunity as mobile commerce can do something that traditional desktop-bound eCommerce can’t: it can bridge the gap between pixels on the screen and actual real-world shopping. It can be used as a mobile coupon/payment platform. It’s camera and GPS enables augmented reality functionality which can let shoppers look up information about a product without having to type in search-strings. It can be used to provide stores with more information about a shopper, letting them tailor new ad campaigns and marketing efforts. I haven’t run the math to build a forecast, but there’s good reason to believe that this could be the application for mobile phones. While Nokia may have to cede application/ad revenue to Google/Apple, it may be able to eke out a nice chunk of profit (maybe even bigger than the one Google/Apple can get) from focusing on this particular need case instead.
Obviously, none of these are guaranteed home-runs, but if I were a Nokia shareholder, I’d hope that the next Nokia CEO does something along the lines of this. And, yes, I’d be willing to accept $100 (and “some” stock) to be Nokia’s CEO and implement this :-).
One of the most interesting things about technology strategy is that the lines of competition between different businesses is always blurry. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this, would anyone 10 years ago have predicted that:
Google and Apple would be competitors (Android and iPhone)
Social networks (a category that didn’t even really exist 10 years ago) would become mini-operating systems that support applications (Facebook applications)
I’m betting not too many people saw these coming. Well, a short while ago, the New York Times Tech Blog decided to chart some of this out, highlighting how the boundaries between some of the big tech giants out there (Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo) are blurring:
Its an oversimplification of the complexity and the economics of each of these business moves, but its still a very useful depiction of how tech companies wage war: they keep their enemies so close that they eventually imitate their business models.
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.