Thursday, February 25, 2010

Online Video...A Quick Update

Online video continues to make waves. Be it Veoh shutting shop or that giant of a company, Walmart purchasing Vudu. User interest in consuming online video also shows no signs of abating. Indeed, stats released from the BBC iPlayer confirm the same, with video streams more than doubling year-on-year. The reports reveal some interesting new trends, while validating a few existing ones. Consumption is increasing, albeit slowly, on platforms beyond the desktop, and streaming is increasingly the choice mode of viewing. That viewing patterns replicate broadcast TV in terms of time-of-day should drive broadcasters to understand that linear TV in its present form is rapidly getting out of fashion. Consumers are open to the idea of viewing TV content on other platforms, while it might be low in absolute terms, however, the larger trends are clearly making themselves obvious.

The BBC sure appears to have hit the right chords when it comes to new media delivery. They have also recently unveiled a plan to launch a series of mobile applications for smartphones that will enable them to offer content from their stable. However, as is typical of a public sector undertaking, even this initiative has met with  resistance from newspaper organizations who take issue with BBC's pricing of the apps. They are priced zero pounds. The BBC is not new to this kind of protests. The iPlayer has been a constant target of ISPs who contend that the service chokes bandwidth without monetizing them.

Anyway, take a look at the iPlayer report embedded below. Some neat tidbits.

BBC iPlayer Statistics - January 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Content Vs Platform : Walled Gardens 2.0?

The buzz around the e-book pricing wars refuses to subside. After the very public Amazon-Macmillan disagreement, and a renewed hope on Apple's iPad as a savior for the publishing industry, the news isn’t getting better for publishers. The New York Times is reporting that Apple is likely to have included with publishers aboard the iPad platform, a clause that lowers the prices for bestsellers, to a level matching Amazon's $9.99. These machinations, coupled with internal turf wars over pricing, throw the spotlight on what is likely to become a recurring theme over the coming months - one that of constant strife between platform promoters (in this case, device vendors such as Amazon and Apple) and content providers (Publishers, music labels). And this is not something that is likely to be witnessed only in the e-reader market. Apple's issues with developers over its app approval process, and with music labels over pricing of tracks are more examples of this strife.

While it might seem atavistic to say so, however, the current scenario indeed appears a throwback to the era of walled gardens , where mobile carriers decided what content you could browse on your mobile phones and which content provider gets the best positioning in their on-portal content decks. Those days are, arguably, gone. But guess what, players in the device and content industries have now begun to see the merit that telcos had seen all these years in being gatekeepers to the consumer's user experience. Content and device players are now in a face-off over who can lay claim to the 'last mile'.

What is it that is driving both these categories of players at one another's throat. In the case of the e-reader, the reasons appear to come out of a recent survey done by consulting firm L.E.K. In the study on changing media consumption habits, the survey found that over 44% of e-readers increased their consumption of other media content. This is a very telling statistic indeed. While it has been a generally acknowledged fact that the early wave of e-book adopters have been the most compulsive of book readers, however, such results point to a future where the e-reader has the potential to be a gateway for a new era of content consumption. And this is where Apple's trying to get its foot in the door with its iPad.

However, more than specific devices and the corresponding business models, one key underlying driver for all these changes is the massive impact that the Internet is having on traditional content consumption. And that is what is encouraging multiple players to try and set up vertically integrated ecosystems where they drive the user experience, and more importantly, own the billing relation with the customer. And this movement towards closed systems is happening everywhere. Take for instance, the case of Microsoft's Windows Mobile. One of the key issues for Microsoft over the years has been the inability to create a uniform user experience across devices that ran Microsoft's earlier versions. Platform splintering between multiple device vendors became rampant, and the end result, Microsoft started loosing market and mind share after the advent of the iPhone. And Microsoft's response, the stunningly beautiful, Windows Phone 7 Series , with its long list of hardware and software restrictions. Yes, Microsoft has realized the value of Apple's approach in offering as minimal a portfolio of devices as possible. However, since Microsoft already has a history of working with several mobile carriers and hardware vendors, it did not directly replicate Apple. Rather Microsoft put in place several restrictions that are going to determine how the Windows Phone 7 Series platform evolves.

Platforms begin with restrictive definitions of who can offer services, what kind of services can be offered, what are the pricing points, what are the hardware features, what is the role of the gatekeeper. And every major content and device company out there is now trying to build its own platform where they can define each of these parameters. We can debate ad nauseam whether such closed platforms offer more value to the end consumer or they are just a walled garden with invisible-to-the-consumer walls. However, the fact of the matter is, they are here to stay. And it is in this context that the current e-book pricing wars and aggressive tactics appear as nothing beyond a red herring. The real battle is for the control of the platform.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Google Buzz’s privacy breach is sign of things to come

This post first appeared in VentureBeat

Google's Buzz is facing some pretty strong headwinds. After being hit by significant backlash over the cursory way it treated privacy settings for the new service, the company has tweaked the settings yet again. Per google's product manager Todd Jackson,

"Starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked "Follow selected people and start using Buzz."

The question on everybody's mind right now is, "How did Google botch it up so badly?" I'm inclined to believe that a lot of this backlash is probably what Google expected. Given the strong feedback Facebook got from its user community on Facebook Beacon, and more recently, when Facebook reset its privacy settings, Google should definitely have known what kind of collateral damage such a product can do to user privacy. Google's blatant disregard of privacy issues probably echoes what Mark Zuckerberg had to say a few weeks ago -- Privacy is dead.

Increasingly web players are going to test the limits of privacy, and how they can put more and more of our digital lives out for everyone to see. If the web is indeed making a transition to a social web, then Internet companies are going to spare no effort to ensure their strategies for monetizing the web are carried forward to the social web. And what better way to do that than to win yourself access to the fattest possible data pipe. Google can't build a social network of 400 million people to compete with Facebook today, but it can start creating one with what it already has. Build a social layer, thrust it on the inboxes of millions of people, push the limits, and then take baby steps backward.

Such scenarios are likely to recur increasingly as social networks, email providers, handset vendors, and mobile carriers vie for a piece of the pie in the next phase of the evolution of the web. Each of these categories of players has access to a certain amount of personal data, and they will increasingly look to build what they will want us to believe are, 'social' networks. With mobile-based check-ins expected to be a commodity soon, the intersection of location with behavioral data from social media offers significant potential for the next generation of online/mobile ads. Metrics from current social media are extremely encouraging to say the least. Comscore, in a recent report, says that time spent on Facebook at end of Dec 2009 increased almost 200% year-on-year. And this is on top of a 100% growth in unique users.

To Google's credit, it has been prompt in reacting to feedback. But the very fact that it has attempted to marry personal services such as email with public networks shows the large leap that it has taken with user data. The tweaks that it is currently doing now are pretty minor -- just the bells and whistles of how the service is defined. It's that large leap that's going to encourage other players in this space to keep experimenting around the borders of traditional privacy norms. These norms are going to be tested so many times, that they might indeed be reset at some point soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bharti Finally (?) Goes Global

Update: Looks like I hit publish a tad quickly. News media is now reporting that Bharti and Zain have entered a period of exclusive talks. I believe unlike the MTN saga, this is likely to work out in favor of Bharti. Will update once details are reported.

Bharti has finally managed to break its international growth jinx. While the company already has a cursory presence in some markets, however, all the while, it has been lacking a truly global name tag due to its absence in the emerging markets of Africa. No more. In news coming out, Bharti has managed to snap up the African operations of Zain, giving it immediate access to over 40 Mn subscribers and the potential market of many more millions. Penetration levels in several of the markets that Zain operates are below the 20-25% mark, indicating their strong growth potential.

Bharti has been trying to break into the African markets ever since its twice-botched attempts at acquiring MTN. However, it has been out of luck thus far. It also helped significantly that Zain is currently undergoing a management change at the top.

International growth is increasingly an imperative for Indian telecom operators. Operators such as Bharti ,who have pioneered a low-cost high-volume model, now want to take their model global. Their Indian ops are more or less going on auto-cruise mode, and African markets in particular can offer Indian telcos significant experience in mobile financial transactions. With the Indian Government likely to firm up regulations around mobile transaction soon, Bharti can do with all the help in order to build a strong mobile banking model. Moreover, scale helps in driving down capex given the increased bargaining power that the company now has with equipment vendors.

It will be quite interesting to see how Reliance Communications, the other large home-grown telco now reacts. RCom has made multiple acquisitions in the enterprise communications space, but this move will likely force it to identify newer markets much faster. The company has been speculated to have been in the market for these very assets of Zain. As for Bharti, the deal offers it the first big opportunity of becoming a large global telco. It will be very interesting to see how fast Bharti can transfer the learnings from the Indian market and pick up skills from the African operations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Google’s fiber network is attempt to force telcos to change

A version of this post appeared first in VentureBeat

Google's come up with yet another ambitious plan- that of deploying fiber-to-the-home as a trial in select communities across the US. The company claims it will will adopt an open access approach making its network open to other service providers as well. What’s most interesting about this announcement isn’t the possibilities of high-speed, instead, it’s the thought of how this test rollout could effect the telco industry.

Google has slowly been crossing paths with the telcos, a fact that’s been more than obvious from its series of forays over the course of recent years. However, while telcos have always looked at Google with a sense of alarm, this latest announcement is likely to set the cat among the pigeons. Telcos have traditionally considered selling voice minutes and, of late, data bundles, their raison d’ĂȘtre. While so-called “over-the-top” services from Internet players such as Google have threatened telco revenues from additional services, their core networks were never under threat. At worst, most telcos believed they might be relegated to the role of a dumb-pipe. That is now set to change.

Google’s apparent entry into the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) space comes as a rude awakening for US telcos. Consider for instance, Google’s proposition that it will allow third-party service providers to use the network. While that might sound great in isolation, Google appears to be making a clear move aimed to force the FCC to allow last-mile fiber unbundling. “Unbundling” would allows service providers to use the existing last-mile network of an incumbent operator. The FCC currently exempts incumbent telco operators from having to lease their lines to other providers. But the FCC continues to get requests from providers to fully enforce unbundling with regards to fiber rollouts, as it does for fixed lines.

Similarly, consider Google’s emphasis on communities. In its announcement today, it reached out to local community managers interested in bringing the test network to their neighborhoods through its public Request for Information. A key factor that determines speed of FTTH rollouts, and implicitly cost, is getting the necessary regulatory permissions and the right to use existing infrastructure. By encouraging local residents/community managers to reach out to Google with a list of what their community can offer, Google is striking at one of the biggest challenges telcos routinely face across the world in terms of fiber rollouts: that of encouraging higher uptake in areas where they’ve already rolled out services. Experience from smaller European fiber operators such as Lyse clearly demonstrates that higher user involvement in the overall fiber rollout process helps drive down churn (churn refers to the number of subscribers that move away from a service — a key metric for any telecom service provider). Lyse rolls out the fiber network right up to the edge of a subscriber’s home and then encourages the subscriber to dig and lay out the fiber themselves through their gardens and into their homes. This has helped it create create an emotional attachment to the service, which has a clear impact on churn.

I’m not saying Google is already looking to build services aimed at rapid uptake with minimal churn. But these are two sure indicators that Google is now ready and willing to shake up the teleco ecosystem by striking at the heart of what they do and how they do it. They are pointers that Google clearly understands some of the biggest telco challenges and is ready to come up with innovative ways to address them should it decide to go all-out as a fiber service provider.

Globally, telcos have always tried to make the case that fiber rollouts are highly capital intensive — even more so when they are FTTH as opposed to Fiber-to-the-Node/Cerb. They’ve used this point to make their case against last-mile unbundling or, in some instances, as a case against net neutrality. High investments have acted as a natural entry barrier, and with low competition, pricing of the access services has remained high. Moreover, lower competition has meant there’s less incentive for telcos to rapidly rollout networks. Google’s entry (or the threat of it) could change that.

It is quite possible that Google will back down from its stated “experiment” after the initial rollout. But it’s more likely that Google will continue with a phased rollout program until it can generate enough panic amongst the telcos to create what it set out to create. But until then, the noise around Google’s FTTH plans are only going get more shrill and gain more momentum across the developer and user communities.

Google does not necessarily have to go ahead with a highly capital-intensive network rollout and subsequent maintenance, a completely alien line of business compared to its core search advertising business. All it needs to do to is ensure that the right environment is created to force change upon existing telcos. For proof of the same, think back in time to the whole debate around open mobile ecosystems and Google’s ‘bids‘ for wireless spectrum. I believe today’s announcement was a first — albeit giant — step in that direction.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nokia's Key to Long-Term Relevance : Emerging Markets

A version of this post appeared first in VentureBeat

Cellphone maker Nokia may not get as much love (or press) in the US as Apple does, but internationally, it's putting on quite a show. The company has 39% of the global smartphone market, according to a new report from market researcher Strategy Analytics.But put the smartphone market to the side for a moment, and take a look at some other markets Nokia's currently building out -- markets most other device makers have largely ignored. The company has been rolling specialized services out to emerging markets in Brazil, China, India, and parts of Africa where there's a high demand for affordable, practical mobile services.

Yesterday, the company announced its latest progress on this front. It has already offered English-language services on Nokia phones and via mobile portals in China since 2007 (a service called MobileEdu), but now it's partnered with international education firm Pearson to bring other types of educational content to phones in China in a joint venture called Beijing MobileEdu Technologies.

The MobileEdu service to date has over 20 million subscribers in China, according to Nokia, with over 1.5 million active users every month. The site offers downloadable courseware that appears to be typically priced at 2 Yuan (~$0.3). The new venture will obviously seek to expand that market.

Services such as these, coupled with a strong presence in low-cost handsets, have resulted in Nokia gaining a significant leg-up on competition in emerging markets across the world, including two of the biggest -- China and India. Be it in terms of coming up with highly cost-competitive, yet utilitarian, phones (think of the 1100 series), or in terms of carefully building up a brand that endears itself to the bottom of the pyramid, Nokia has demonstrated that its understanding of emerging markets is next to none. While other vendors such as LG/Samsung/Motorola have traditionally focussed on LC (Low-Cost) and ULC (Ultra Low-Cost) handsets to drive sales, Nokia is probably the only handset vendor taking an active interest in services that it can bundle along with its low-cost phones.

One of these services, similar in intent to the MobilEdu initiative, Nokia Life Tools (currently available in India and Indonesia), is offered through partnerships with content providers such as Reuters and forms a key part of this services thrust. The SMS-based service offers agriculture, education, and entertainment services through an on-demand or a subscription model. The service has been available in India at prices of Rs.30 - Rs.60 ($0.65 - $1.3) since mid last-year. It is targeted at rural consumers, for whom the mobile phone is the primary means of connectivity to the external world. The agriculture services enable farmers to get market rates directly on their mobile, without having to travel to distant towns. That means they can accurately identify the right price and right market for their produce. And it means those farmers no longer have to go through a middleman to conclude a sale. Nokia promotes this service with its strong existing distribution channels and with its innovative "Nokia Vans" with which it reaches into the hinterland. The service is currently available in over 10 languages. And with India's adult literacy rate of ~66%, the company indeed has a sizeable target market for the service. While Nokia hasn't disclosed any uptake numbers in India thus far, I assume they're good, since the company extended the service to Indonesia and has announced plans to introduce it in Africa too.

Life Tools is only one example of Nokia's push into emerging markets through unique phone/service bundles. Others services include money-transfer solutions such as Nokia Money, a basic service that provides banking services to the unbanked, and Nokia Tej, a mobile order and supply chain management solution.

A focus on these markets is also likely to help the company over the long-term. These are markets where subscribers wouldn't be able to afford $30+ monthly data plans and where literacy levels aren't high enough to justify deployment of complicated mobile applications. And that's precisely why Nokia is going behind these subscribers with a two-pronged strategy of low-cost phones + highly relevant services. While the margins may be slim on the actual phones, the volumes are significant. And so is the opportunity. For instance, India just added over 19 million mobile subscribers in December 2009, and this is a country in which Nokia holds a 50% market share.

It also greatly helps that the company has built a solid brand that is valued high for reliability. The company was voted the most trusted brand for the second year running in the annual brand survey conducted by India's Economic Times business newspaper.

Nokia certainly has to figure out how to deal with North American carriers and sort out how to create phones that appeal to a North American audience. However, in the meantime, it's putting up a strong show in the global smartphone market. And whether its hold on that market is sustainable or not, one thing that it can safely lay claim to is an understanding of consumer behavior and needs in emerging markets. And these markets are the reason Nokia is not going to vanish anytime soon.