Back in October, Techcrunch announced that Dropbox had raised $250mm at a seemingly absurd valuation. Many firms, including my firm Benchmark Capital, participated. When this happened, many people asked us why this was a special company that would cause us to break our standard investment paradigm. They didn’t quite understand why this was a company that deserved once-in-a-generation special attention.
The first answer to this question is rather straightforward, but not earth shattering. Drew Houston and his team had taken a hard problem — file synchronization — and made it brain dead simple. Anyone that had used previous file synchronization programs, including Apple’s own iDisk, constantly encountered state problems. Modifications in one location would get out of synch with those in another, ruining the entire premise of seamless synchronization. It wasn’t that these other companies did not understand the problem, it was just that they could not execute on the solution. The Dropbox team solved this, which was a critical innovation.
Although this was critical, nailing technical synchronization would not necessarily warrant outsized valuations. In order to be worth $40B one day (which is 10X the $4B reported round, the objective return of a VC investment), the company would need to hold a place in the ecosystem that is far more strategic than that of a simple high-tech problem solver. So what is it Dropbox does that is so special?
This evening, TechCrunch reported that Dropbox would automatically synch your Android photos. Once again, someone could suggest “so what, how hard is it to do that?, and why is that worth billions?”
Here is why. Once you begin using Dropbox, you become more and more indifferent to the hardware you are using, as well as the operating system on that device. Dropbox commoditizes your devices and their OS, by being your “state” system in the sky. Storing credentials and configurations of devices, and even applications are natural next steps for this company. And the further they take it, the less dependent any user becomes of the physical machine (HW and SW) that is accessing that data (and state). Imagine the number of companies, as well as the previous paradigms, this threatens.
That is a major, major deal. And it comes at a time where there are many competing platforms on both desktop and mobile. This “unsure” market backdrop ensures the need for a cross-platform solution and plays right into Dropbox’s hand. You can lose your desktop computer, you can lose your smartphone. It doesn’t matter, because all you really care about is in the Dropbox cloud.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 153 so far )
“People get ready, there’s a train a comin’”
– The Impressions
From Zacks via Yahoo: Mark Vickery, On Thursday March 24, 2011, 4:58 pm EDT “BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (NasdaqGS: RIMM – News) beat its fiscal 4Q EPS estimates by 2 cents per share, but missed slightly on quarterly revenues and offered guidance well below the current consensus. This has sent RIMM shares down nearly 10% in after-market trading…”
Yesterday, after the market closed, Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry device, announced that they would be lowering their current quarter earnings due to lower average sales prices. In a separate announcement, the company proffered that their new tablet will support Android apps, yet the CEO also made it clear that he believes the world is overly focused on the criticality of having a large numbers of applications on your platform. They also suggested that the guidance issue is temporary, and relates mainly to a product cycle not a systematic change in the industry.
Despite all that has been written about Android, as well as its unquestionable early success, the world at large still doesn’t fully appreciate the raw power of this juggernaut. I have written about this in the past in Android or iPhone? Wrong Question, and Google Redefines Disruption: The “Less Than Free” Business Model. But even so, the more I see, the more I wonder if I too may have underestimated the unprecedented market disruption that is Android.
One of Warren Buffet’s most famous quotes is that “In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats’.” An “economic castle” is a great business, and the “unbreachable moat” is the strategy or market dynamic that heightens the barriers-to-entry and makes it difficult or ideally impossible to compete with, or gain access to, the economic castle. Here is a great post from the 37signals blog a few years back that walks through several different examples of potential moats.
For Google, the economic castle is clearly the search business, augmented by its amazing AdWords monetization framework. Because of its clear network effect, and amazing price optimization (though the customer bidding process), this machine is a monster. Also, because of its far-reaching usage both on and off of Google,AdWords has a volume advantage as well. Perhaps the most telling map with regards to the location of the castle can be found in Jonathan Rosenberg’s “Meaning of Open” blog post. In this open manifesto, Jonathan opines over and over again that open systems unquestionably result in the very best solutions for end customers. That is with one exception. “In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users.” As Rodney Dangerfield said in Caddyshack, “It looks good on you, though.”
AdWords is an highly respectable castle, and Google would clearly want to put a “unbreachable moat” around it. Warren himself is on record suggesting that Google’s moat is pretty good already. But where could you extend the moat? What are the potential threats to Google’s castle? Basically, any product that stands between the user and Google and has the potential to distract the choice of search destination is a threat. A great example is Firefox. Like many browsers, Firefox has a search bar built into the upper right corner. This leads to a substantial number of Google searches for which Google pays Firefox a handsome fee. From time to time, this fee must be negotiated, and as a result there are constant rumors that Firefox might chose another search engine, like Bing. Other examples include smart-phones and choices made by carriers and/or handset makers. As an example, a few years back, Verizon set the default search box on Blackberry’s to Bing instead of Google. Despite Warren’s faith in Google’s moat, there are ways to move the needle on search share, or at least hurt the economics by demanding more profit share for distribution.
So here is the kicker. Android, as well as Chrome and Chrome OS for that matter, are not “products” in the classic business sense. They have no plan to become their own “economic castles.” Rather they are very expensive and very aggressive “moats,” funded by the height and magnitude of Google’s castle. Google’s aim is defensive not offensive. They are not trying to make a profit on Android or Chrome. They want to take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free). Because these layers are basically software products with no variable costs, this is a very viable defensive strategy. In essence, they are not just building a moat; Google is also scorching the earth for 250 miles around the outside of the castle to ensure no one can approach it. And best I can tell, they are doing a damn good job of it.
Google has organized this defensive play with precision. Carriers and handset makers that use Android are given economics to do so. The Android version of the “AppStore” shares the majority of its economics with the carrier and handset makers. Once again, they are not building a business, they are building a moat (sorry for the repetitiveness, it’s intentional). Because they are “giving away” money to use their product, this creates a rather substantial conundrum for someone trying to extract economic rent for a competitive product in the same market.
This is the part that amazes me the most. I don’t know if a large organized industry has ever faced this fierce a form of competition – someone who is not trying to “win” in the classic sense. They want market share, but they don’t need economics. Imagine if Ford were faced with GM paying people to take Chevrolets? How many would they be able to sell? What if you received $0.10 for every free Pepsi you consumed? Would you still pay $1.50 for a Coke?
The combined market capitalizations of companies that build desktop operating systems, handset operating systems, mapping software (they give this away with Android also!), as well as internal software that helps to differentiate mobile devices is well over $100B, and may be several times that. Yet, there is no economic law that necessitates that these industries remain in their current form. When software was first imagined as a business, it seemed like a miraculous dream. Because the variable costs were zero, you would make near 100% profit on each incremental unit that you sold. Perhaps the resulting counter-force to this is that if someone can afford to build a near equivalent code base, than they can at their option price to marginal cost ($0.00), the very definition of perfect competition.
One might yearn to suggest that there is a market unjust here that should be investigated by some government entity, but let us not forget that the consumer is not harmed here – in fact far from it. The consumer is getting great software at the cheapest price possible. Free. The consumer might be harmed if this activity were prevented. And as we just suggested above, the market is finally driving towards software pricing that represents “perfect competition.”
In Silicon Valley we like to make light of industries that are facing digital disruption such as newspapers, the record industry, and the movie industry, suggesting that their executives “just don’t get it.” Perhaps now we are witnessing the disruption of not just analog businesses, but also formerly interesting digital businesses as well.
John Doerr, once said “The Internet is the greatest legal creation of wealth in history.” Android may be the opposite of that, the greatest legal destruction of wealth in history.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 285 so far )
In a recent New York Times article, Kathryn Huberty, a Morgan Stanley analyst was quoted suggesting that Apple’s iPhone is the key catalyst for an important new technology trend. “Applications make the smartphone trend a revolutionary trend – one we haven’t seen in consumer technology for many years.” This argument rings true in that the “after iPhone” smartphone market is dramatically more interesting than the “pre-iPhone” smartphone market. Later, Ms. Huberty made an even bolder statement, “The iPhone is something different. It’s changing our behavior…The game that Apple is playing is to become the Microsoft of the smartphone market.” Or perhaps not.
Many analysts and bloggers have worked hard to position “iPhone vs. Android” as the title fight of the decade in the technology industry. It is an easy comparison to want to make. Both phones use rich microprocessors, are graphical, both have GPS and Wifi. They both run a sophisticated operating system, and they both give you access to thousands and thousands of third party applications. In most practical ways, they seem similar. However, there is one fundamental difference – business model choice.
When Apple launched the iPhone, it was able to secure an unprecedentedly strong business relationship with AT&T. Not only did Apple want control over the user interface, something carriers had been extremely reluctant to cede, it also wanted previously unrealized economics for a handset or OS designer. Apple insisted on upfront revenue dollars as well as a cut of the cellular service stream. AT&T, desperate for a win vs. Verizon, acquiesced. The product was launched to rave reviews from analysts and consumers alike. It really was a brand new market and a brand new product. As noted earlier, we only “thought” we had seen smartphones before the iPhone. This market, as Ms. Huberty notes, looks like one that is Apple’s to lose.
With the iPhone’s massive success, it would be hard in retrospect to challenge the thinking behind Apple’s business model choice. After all, it will always be true that Apple was the company that “cracked open” the famed Walled Garden of carrier-land. They also did it with style, demanding golden economics as it disrupted a previously obstinate industry. And although AT&T may have become “comfortable” with its choices as a result of the iPhone’s success, other carriers suddenly had an “iPhone problem.” Enter Google.
If Apple’s business model is aggressive relative to the carriers, in contrast Google’s seems unrealistically accommodating. You want to control the user interface? No problem. Want access to the code? We’ll make it open source. What kind of economics do we want? Nothing at all. What the hell, we will pay you! That’s right. Google will give the carrier ad splits that result from implementing the Google search box on any Android phone. FBR Capital Markets suggests that Google is taking this idea one step further in its November 24, 2009 report titled Implications of a Potential Share Shift to Android-Based Wireless Devices. “Recent support for Android-based devices appears to be correlated with significant up-front financial incventives paid by Google to both carriuer and handset vendors.” FBR goes on to suggest that these incentives may be as high as $25-50 per device. This is simply an offer that no carrier can refuse, particularly when U.S. carriers are currently in the habit of paying $50-150 per handset sold in subsidies.
While Apple may have opened the proverbial Walled Garden, it is Google, with its aggressive Android offering, that aims to obliterate it. Make no mistake about it; Apple was the pioneer with the amazing revolutionary product. Also, with no iPhone, there is no Android. This is not to say that Android copied iPhone, but rather the impetus to adopt and trust Google’s Android offering was driven by a market dynamic that resulted directly from the iPhone’s success. Without the iPhone, it is possible that most carriers might have opted not to use Google’s OS solely for the reason that letting a powerful company like Google in the front door can be a risky strategic bet.
All of this is now history. The iPhone does exist, and it is wildly popular. There are an estimated 55 million iPhones in use around the world. Despite this remarkable success, history will also show that Apple intentionally chose a business model with plenty of room for disruption underneath its pricing structure. It also chose a single carrier as a partner, which resultantly threatened others. Then Google built a product and a strategy that allayed the carrier’s relative fears. Google gave them what they wanted, and then even gave them money. It could afford to do this because Google aims solely to protect the great business they already have in advertising, not to make money directly from the product (HW or SW in this case). Microsoft Windows, Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s Firefox represent choke points on the personal computer whereby Google could lose search share, or at least be forced to pay a toll. In mobile, they see a chance to potentially eliminate the toll-takers.
With a business model that allows for much broader distribution and price points that are well beneath the iPhone, Google’s Android won’t compete directly with the iPhone. For the iPhone loyalist, like Stewart Alsop who railed against Android, Android is simply not an option. This price insensitive user demands the very best experience they can possibly have and this is still the iPhone. Users won’t switch in mass from the iPhone to the Android. It’s the other 3.95 billion cell phone users that are highly likely to consider Android a step up from their current feature phone. The Android strategy results in phones at much lower prices with much more diversity which will hit a braoder set of demographics. Apple can and will quintuple its current market share and still have a small portion of the overall cell phone market.
This is why the two products do not compete head to head. With its super aggressive model, Android will be the choice of the masses, and with its sleek design and non-compromising price point, Apple will rule the high end. Many have suggested that Apple is perfectly happy with its high-margin spot at the top of the food chain. They are doing exceptionally well with that position in the personal computer market – in fact, they are currently gaining share at an accelerating pace. So no need to worry about Apple, they are doing just fine (as their stock price suggests). They are just not currently executing a model to become the “Microsoft” of the smartphone market.
Some will argue that the best product will win the market and that Apple will still dominate the smartphone market. The history of the personal computer market is no omen for this thesis. If you think about it, the people that know this better than anyone are the exact Apple loyalists who have been frustrated for years at Apple’s lack of dominance in the PC market. Disruptive business strategies can and have trumped better products. And with no change to the current market, the Android leveraged position in the market could result in staggering unit share gains. This is not to say that the Google Android is better than or as good as the Apple iPhone. The key point is that it does not have to be. It only needs to be dramatically better than the current feature phone. Which it is.
While Apple will be fine as Android gains steam, the amount of shrapnel flying around this new marketplace is immense, so expect innocent bystanders to be compromised. Recognize that as Google’s play here is as much defense as offense, they have less of a need to “make a profit,” at least right out of the gate. This type of attitude always makes for a messy competitor. Also, because of the sheer breadth of the effort in terms of number of handset makers and number of carriers, Android will be marketed extremely aggressively. Lastly, the early application leaders are beginning to believe it’s a two horse race. Currently the iPhone is priority number one. That said, increasingly these application vendors are seeing Android as the primary second platform to support. Others are falling further and further behind.
Also, Android doesn’t appear to be an OS that stops at the smartphone market. Expect much experimentation with a variety of hardware manufactures and almost any and every embedded device market from navigation devices to e-readers to tablets and beyond. Android gives every Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese manufacture whoever wanted to approach these markets a huge head-start. Additionally, the more of these vendors that build on Android, the more Android will evolve for the better. The number of applications will increase, and the problems will get worked out. Just like Microsoft worked its way from Windows to Windows 3 and eventually to Windows 7, Android will improve with time as well.
With its disruptive and leveraged strategy, it is Google that is attempting to be the Microsoft of the smartphone market. Perhaps ironically, Apple is well positioned to be the “Apple” of the smartphone market.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 154 so far )