Internet Industry, Mobile

Think Through Your Competitor’s Response Before Acting

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Google Maps Image

Whenever one is evaluating an action to improve or maintain their business’ competitive situation, thinking through the competitor’s likely response is a critical element.  I frequently see companies taking actions and not thinking about competitors response.  A classic move to increase competitiveness is to cut prices.  It’s a huge mistake however to evaluate your offering with lowered prices against your competitors offering with their existing prices.  There will be a new equilibrium once competitors respond to your action.  There maybe several rounds as some initially follow suit, and some wait and see and take action later.  But assuming there will be no response and predicting the outcome using that assumption is foolhardy.

A recent example is Google Maps on iOS.  According to many published reports, Google refused to offer Apple turn-by-turn directions in the Google powered iOS mapping application that was bundled with iOS 5 and before.  Google’s refusal was so they could keep turn-by-turn directions as an Android only feature.  In hindsight, this plan was a strategic blunder as Google  lost a 23 million iOS users as a result. Even in foresight, this was predictably a blunder since it failed to consider Apple’s likely response.  Was it really even possible that Apple would just accept this deficiency in their most profitable product line, the iPhone?  It wasn’t necessarily predictable that Apple would create their own mapping app as there were many companies they could have chosen another partner instead.  But what was predictable was that Apple was going to quit using Google as their mapping provider costing Google many million map users.  Even though Apple’s switch to providing mapping was rocky to a say the least, Google still suffered. And, Google’s response to Apple moving to their own mapping system? To introduce that same turn-by-turn direction feature they originally refused to provide on iOS.  Google had no choice but do so once Apple introduced their feature as losing the entire iOS user base greatly decreases the value of their local content.

It’s entirely possible there were other factors that lead to Apple’s decisions to no longer rely on Google maps which make it difficult to judge how big a blunder this was on Google’s part.  Apple may just not have been comfortable relying on a competitor.  But what is clear is that Google was never going to succeed in gaining any competitive advantage over Apple in the smartphone war by withholding any mapping features as Apple had alternatives for getting these features. The moral of the story is think through the likely response from your competitors when taking any action to boost your competitiveness.  If someone else is proposing a plan, ask them what the competitor’s likely response will be.  If you get a blank look, you know that they haven’t thought it through and their touted benefits are likely fantasy.


There’s only going to be two winners in mobile OS

Jack Welch had a famous rule that GE would only be in businesses where they can be number one or number two.  In the industrial businesses GE was in, the scale that biggest players could achieve gave cost advantages that allowed for much higher profitability than the smaller players could achieve.  Software is a world away from GE’s businesses but for platforms and operating systems, the number one or number two rule applies but for very different reasons.  Operating systems with small share can not attract the third party developers needed to make the platform successful.

The personal computer era showed how minor platforms do not make it.  Windows dominated the landscape for two decades with the Macintosh being the only viable competitor.  Many others came and went like OS/2 and BeOS.  NeXT which would later show itself to have the right attributes to be successful didn’t perform well in the market till Apple bought it and transformed it into OS X.

Android and iOS already have huge leads as application platforms.  One of them could stumble but with the momentum both have, this looks unlikely.   Even though the spoils are likely to be meager, there are several competitors for third place:  Blackberry OS, WebOS (Palm/HP), and Windows Phone 7.  Nokia had the good sense to take Symbian out of the race but made the peculiar choice of of Windows Phone 7.  Both RIM (Blackberry) and Nokia would be be better off switching to Android as it would would put them on a platform where there’s already a wealth of third party apps.  Neither RIM nor Nokia has ever proven themselves to be world class at mobile software.   RIM’s entire success was based on email and they could salvage their market position by bringing their email system to Android.

These kind of strategic mistakes always puzzle me.  I wonder if RIM, HP, Nokia and Microsoft have all convinced themselves they can become number two or if they believe there’s a profitable path as number 3 or 4.


Why Do Unlocked Phones Cost So Much?

My two and a half year old Blackberry Curve that I’d subjected to a hard life finally died a few weeks back when it’s USB connector came loose and won’t charge. While I waited for my new phone that I bought off of EBay to arrive, I’ve discovered that hoarding old electronics some times pays offs since I can use my old 8700c as a battery charger. The process of buying a new phone got me wondering why unsubsidized phones cost so much.

I can buy a 8GB iPod Touch retail for $199 which has every component that’s need to build a smart phone minus the cellular radio and mic. iPod TouchSeeing as how a basic cell can bought in the third world for less than $40, these components can not be that expensive.  Apple has some of the highest margins in the electronics industry. The latest teardown I can find for the iTouch is for the 8GB touch introduced in in 2007. iSuppli put the cost at $155.04 and at introduction that 8GB iPod touch retailed for $299 which puts the gross margin at 48.1%. In an accounting sense, the gross margin is probably slightly lower to transport and distribution costs which will appear under Cost of Goods Sold on the income statement. But as benchmark for makes a for a very profitable electronics business, materials cost at 48% of retail is a good one.

The 48% hardware margin is steady for Apple as the 16GB wifi iPad has a teardown cost $259.60 according to iSuppi which at $499 retail puts the gross hardware margin at 48.1% By comparison, Nokia which sells many more feature phones rather smart phones had a gross margin of 34.3% in 2008. This is company wide and is probably boosted by non-phones but as a rough benchmark it’s not a bad place to start. Apple is also making money from iTunes store sales so and iPad and iTouch are even more profitable but nonetheless, but 48.1% hardware margins is still indicative of a very profitable business.

The question that puzzles me is why new entrants to the smart phone market do not sell unlocked phones cheaper. The Palm Pre costs $138 to build which at Apple margins would put the retail price at $265.9 but off contract the Palm Pre was $549 at introduction. A similar story for Google Nexus One which has a tear down cost of $174.15 which at Apple margins would have a retail price of $335.55 but instead is sold by Google for $529 unlocked.

I have no doubt the off contract pricing is set by the agreements the device manufactures have with handset manufactures. However, I have to wonder to the wisdom about late entrants (or in the case of Palm, re-entrants) following the established practice of very high unlocked contract pricing. Palm only sold 400,000
for it’s Dec-Feb quarter
and Nexus One sales are even worse.

I find Google’s decision to stick to the standard distribution model even more puzzling as Google has a history of upending the pricing and margins of the business it enters. Gmail’s 1GB of storage ended Yahoo Mail’s practice of charging for storage space over 4GB and forced the the whole free email industry to go to essentially unlimited free email storage. Google Map’s free API undermined the pay for access model that incumbent providers like MapQuest had built sizable revenue streams off of. Perhaps since Google’s number one goal to sell as many Android units through multiple handset manufactures as possible to establish Android as major mobile platform, it makes sense not to poke the cell phone carriers in the eye. Palm had no such motivation. Granted Palm probably got great terms on it’s exclusive Spint deal but those terms didn’t stop the meltdown Palm experienced which only ended with their sale to HP.

If I had been able to buy an unlocked Nexus One cheaper, perhaps I would have done that rather than a Blackberry from EBay. I was not in the mood to take a new cell contract so I was in the minority of shoppers who didn’t want to trade low upfront pricing for a 2 year commitment. But perhaps there are more people in this situation than meets the eye. Anyone who loses or breaks their phone early in their contract is in the same situation.  There’s really no good alternatives today for those who don’t want or are already in a contract since all smart phones follow the huge premium for an unlocked phone other than buying a used phone from EBay.