Saturday, July 4, 2009

Functional Ecosystems: The Need of the Hour?

In recent times there has been a lot of noise around ecosystems, and how open ecosystems, given Google's flashy entry, are now here to stay. In the mobile space, the transition to open mobile ecosystems appears to be happening rapidly, with traditionally open Symbian, having had to re-position itself, and older consortiums such as LiMo trying hard to tell people that they've been around for a while. Android in particular is increasingly being touted as the platform of the future. With reports coming in of Android deployment not just on smartphones, but on netbooks/set-top-boxes and what not, the clamour around the potential of these open ecosystems appears all set to rise further.

However, amidst this cacophony, it will be pertinent to take a step back and see what lessons existing systems have for us. Arguably, one of the most successful ecosystems in recent years has been the iPod-iPhone-iTunes combo. Apple has successfully created a completely vertically integrated system that made the user-experience a stroll in the park. Consumers were offered a simple way of downloading content/apps with billing tightly integrated. On the supply side, Apple maintained a stranglehold on pricing, availability and distribution. It stood up to content majors in deciding the pricing of single tracks, and it made the app store proposition attractive to mobile developers by keeping only a flat 30% retainer. The results are out for everyone to see. The iPod has become one of the best selling portable devices of all time, while the iPhone has set the cat amongst the device manufacturers aflutter.

The other successful ecosystem example in recent times has been the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle, in both its iterations, has consistently been sold-out, with varying sales estimates. Again, the Kindle too offers a vertically integrated ecosystem with mobile connectivity built into the cost of the device, and content availability driven by Amazon. Despite the high price tag, the simplicity of the offering, is attracting customers in droves. And like the Apple ecosystem, Amazon too exercises tight control over what can and cannot be viewed. And it is to Amazon's credit that by limiting, rather inconveniencing, usage of the Kindle, they can even charge for pulling RSS feeds !

In both these cases, consumers have shown a clear preference towards a simplified usage-experience, and one that is devoid of roundabouts. Consumers do not want to be bothered about confusing options around content discovery or billing. And this is something that device vendors, telcos and content players alike need to imbibe in future offerings. While early adopters will always be willing to go through a couple of hoops, however, hitting the mainstream will require players to bring elegant integrated and transparent solutions. Players along the value chain will increasingly need to collaborate in driving uptake. Traditional models that have worked in the past will not work in the future. For instance, while telcos have been able to get away with high revenue share for any third-party service in the past, increasingly, they will have to come to terms with the changed reality and accordingly price their role in a ecosystem. A delay in doing so will hurt everyone involved in the process. Amazon's attempts at launching Kindle in Europe have apparently been stalled due to breakdown of talks with telcos on revenue-share and pricing of connectivity. Likewise, Nokia's attempts at easing consumer hassles by having integrated carrier billing are slowing up their rollout of Ovi Store, giving its competitors strong headway.

It is indeed true that advent of digital media has had a strong impact on existing business models, however, the true benefits of digital media can only be achieved if and when competency-based collaboration kicks in the industry. End of day, as the Kindle and iPod/iPhone examples have shown, consumers are least bothered with the question of an open or closed ecosystem, all they crave for is a functional ecosystem which meets their needs!
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