Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Is a Smartphone Bubble Building Up?

The signs are getting clear by the day. What started off as a category created by a blockbuster product, is today being heralded as the savior of the mobile handset industry. Correction, the mobile industry in itself. Smartphones, and I am referring to the genre that has unleashed itself post the advent of the iPhone, have seen a smart uptick in sales in recent years. Driven by significant carrier subsidies in the US and elsewhere, and a renewed focus on mobile applications, this category has rapidly gained, both in user acceptance, and in industry attention.

Indeed, for the first time in years, smartphones, coupled with an open mobile ecosystem where customers are not bound by walled gardens, are helping in creating an industry of their own with stakeholders as varied as advertisers, ad networks, mobile developers, and others. Of course, the carriers and the handset vendors still figure in the equation, however, they appear to be increasingly dis-intermediated by either large Internet players such as Google or by innovative device entrants such as Apple, who have successfully recreated walled gardens of a different type. While all of this portends great for the consumer, however, the manner in which the hype is building up in the smartphone space, dominated by discussions over mobile applications, makes one wonder if there is indeed a bubble that's building up, across two of the important elements of this value chain, applications and devices.

The mobile applications space refuses to show signs of any letdown in activity. First it was the spate of announcements over mobile application store launches, and now the focus appears to be on other enablers of the value chain such as ad networks. Apple's App Store sure has seen a couple of billion downloads and a catalog of over 100,000 applications, however, the marginal utility of an ever-increasing number of apps is highly debatable. And not to be outdone, Google's Android marketplace has over 10,000 applications already. Which begs the question, how much is enough? For the consumers, discoverability becomes a huge hurdle, while for the developers, the ecosystem is beginning to act as a strong black hole. Sure there are AAA app developers who've struck it rich, but then, like in the case of any other content businesses, it is only a few apps that hit the jackpot. However, the mobile apps business sure is showing no signs of acknowledging this fact. To add to the overall confusion, multiple versions (Android 1, 1.5 and now 2.0!) of OS platforms are currently out in the market simultaneously, which has significant potential to alientate customers that can't figure out why a specific app is working on their friend's Android phone and not theirs. Yet, device vendors continue to create platforms to attract developers, Samsung's Bada being the latest to join the bandwagon. And with increasing apps, comes the realization of the need for monetization. And this is where ad networks like Admob hit paydirt. Their acquisition for $750 Mn is indeed seen as a validation of the potential of the mobile advertising space, and of course, without underplaying any of the value that in-app usage data that Google gets along.

On the device side, Apple continues to see rising sales. Forecasts are now coming in on how smartphones will likely make up for the bulk of handset sales 18 months from now! Players like Sony Ericsson and Motorola have kind of decided to go away from their low-cost handset focus and invest more on high-end smartphones. And we have even more new entrants in to the smartphone space. Dell, which has been on the fence for quite a while, has finally decided to take the plunge and is launching its smartphone in two of the world's largest emerging markets of Brazil and China. Android is now in to V2, with the Motorola Droid appearing to get early traction.

Rapid growth in any industry segment is always welcome. It indicates that there is significant previously unmet customer demand that newer products are meeting. However, the risk of such rapid growth lies in the possibility of over-the-top exuberance when it comes to estimating future growth. As a wise man once said, most forecasts are over-estimated in the short-term and under-estimated in the long term. Smartphones and mobile applications appear to fit this bill. One can only hope that the current hyper-growth phase is also likely to act as a natural shakeup with the result being fewer smartphone platforms, more open standards for mobile application development, an ecosystem that offers genuine revenue prospects for developers, ad networks, and advertisers, and most importantly, a top-notch customer experience, rather than morph itself in to an uncontrollable bubble.

Update 1: It didn't take long for the next major announcement in smartphones. Techcrunch's quoting unnamed sources that claim Google is close to launching its own smartphone ! Highly doubtful why they want to do that, given manufacturers are already making a beeline to adopt Android. Would Google want to compete with its partners? And more importantly, can Google ensure rapid adoption of its services through its own phone, as opposed to collaborating through the Android ecosystem. Nevertheless, up goes the hype curve !

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

VoIP Redux

VoIP is back in to the big league, and who else to be in the spotlight, other than Skype! Skype has been the poster child for the VoIP brigade for quite a few years now. However, most, including me, were disappointed to see Skype find its way into eBay, for there were evidently very little synergies. Indeed, one could vividly recall some of the rather wierd monetization options that eBay could conjure up for Skype, including one in which they considered selling ringtones for Skype calls ! Finally, it appears to have dawned on eBay after over four years that they are better off focussing on their core auctions and e-commerce enablement area (the irony wasn't lost on anyone on how eBay had paid significantly less for PayPal). Nevertheless, to eBay's credit, it has let the company quietly grow in to a potent service that is now looking at hitting a $1 Bn revenue run rate and clocks over 2 Bn paid minutes. What is interesting is that eBay has retained a stake in the company, and the surprise entrants back in to the company are the original (ruthless?) entrepreneur duo who founded Skype.

However, more than the intricacies of how the deal is structured, the deal and its size throws the spotlight back on the VoIP industry. Despite its immense potential, VoIP hasn't really take off in a manner befitting. While Skype has seen success with consumers, however, the real challenge, and the big monies, lie in encouraging enterprises to sign up. The VoIP space is beginning to see renewed traction with competition in consumer VoIP picking up. Nimbuzz recently launched its paid calling service, 'creatively' called Nimbuzzout. Google's Voice service, while not being a full-fledged VoIP service, however, lays bare the Internet giant's intentions for this space. And with rumors flying around of Google's acquisition of Gizmo5, one can be rest assured of a shakeup in the VoIP industry. On the carrier side as well, there appears to be some movement. AT&T has decided to allow VoIP calls over 3G, a point of much contention when Skype for the iPhone was released.While carriers around the world have agreed on the One Voice standard making all future mobile calls VoIP, however, full-scale LTE deployment is a while away.

VoIP, and more so mobile VoIP, appears poised for an interesting future. Having come in to mainstream when mobile ecosystems were tightly closed and , mobile VoIP has historically been limited in its ability. However, recent developments which are progressively breaking down carrier walls, opening up of operator APIs and creation of innovative platforms, such as the one offered by BT's Ribbit, create the potential for an exciting and innovative future.

Update 1: The current spate of action in this space ain't done yet, apparently. Techcrunch is reporting on a possible acquisition of Jajah, and for a change, we finally have a telco in the fray.

Update 2: The news about Google acquiring Gizmo5 indeed turned out to be true. Should be quite interesting to see how Google Voice evolves, now that they have access to a strong SIP platform and a PSTN termination link. More importantly, the prospect of a communications platform that integrates IM, Mobile, Location and uses SIP as the backbone indeed opens up exciting possibilities for realizing the unfulfilled dreams of unified communication. Telcos, watch out!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This Apple Defies Newton's Laws

The title sure seems apposite when viewed in light of Apple's latest quarterly results. Despite the all-round depressed economic environment, and declining consumer spend on TME products and services, Apple has managed to drive both top-line and bottom-line growth significantly. That such stellar results have come in what is usually considered a soft quarter of the year is testament to the twin growth engines of Macs and iPhones. With the iPhone having established itself as the benchmark in the smartphone space, and Macs increasingly finding mainstream acceptance, Apple now appears to be setting sights on creating future revenue streams.

In this backdrop, it is interesting to see how Apple is increasingly using content to create and sustain its future growth. While the iPhone with its staggering 100 K+ apps (leaving aside the quality/quantity debate) forms a key part of Apple's long-term competitive edge in the smartphone space, its attempts to use the iTunes platform as the gateway for digital content into the home merits a deeper look.

Recent reports indicate that Apple is now negotiating with TV networks on introducing a monthly subscription product. The idea being that for an amount of ~$30, consumers could get access to TV content through iTunes. Internet TV is steadily raising its profile, with the rising success of Hulu. However, treating it at par with traditional TV platforms is some time away. Broadcasters and cablecos have begun to feel threatened over such over the top services. However, Apple's entry has the potential to raise the stakes and enhance the reach of Internet TV services. Unlike a Hulu, which is largely viewed on PC (forgetting the Rokus of the world), the prospect of using iTunes as the enabling platform, as opposed to a device, poses a tricky situation for the TV networks. In putting iTunes as its front. Apple's leaving the door open for a device-agnostic future, where content can be viewed/purchased on PC/mobile/E-book/Netbook/what-have-you. With a rising interest from both device vendors and software players in embedding applications directly into next-generation large-screen TVs, the prospect of Apple embedding iTunes in to a TV doesn't sound that much more preposterous. Now compare this offering from Apple with that of a traditional operator like Comcast. And suddenly, Comcast's digital TV offerings sound obscene with monthly rentals of over $60! And yes, out goes the "TV Everywhere" initiative as well, given the fact that it requires customers to have a regular cable subscription in order to view the content on PC.

iTunes has had a more than significant role in hastening the demise of the traditional music labels, with its a la carte pricing model. If Apple is able to bring a similar proposition to the TV space, that could significantly impact cablecos who thrive on creating bundles and where a host of also-rans piggyback on one or two premium channels. Of course, there is the key issue of one of the large networks actually signing up with Apple, but it is more likely a question of when and not if anymore. Internet TV of course has still to better its overall user experience, given the significant bandwidth requirements, and the renewed debate in US and other developed economies on metering usage. And there's also the issue of shifting consumers to a different screen other than the TV. However, Apple does have a dark horse in there in the form of its relatively-neglected Apple TV line of products. A la carte pricing of TV channels, and a more robust Apple TV can precisely replicate Apple's success in the music business in TV content. And Apple's success is defined not by the margins that it is making in its music sales, but by the strong vertical control that it has over the customer experience, including billing and provisioning. Music labels who initially treated iTunes as just another distribution platform are now realizing that the middleman (Apple) today exerts more influence over the consumer, than them. Video could be the next market.