Subba’s Serendipitous moments

September 30, 2009

Vodafone takes the battle to the mobile phone vendors

A few months back one of analyst friends asked me whether it is possible for the mobile service provider to create their own App Stores and be successful. My opinion to him was they can do it or rather they should do it, else they have not even joined the battle for customer loyalty. The talk turned to Singtel which is one of the largest operator based out of Singapore and it has a global presence due to its joint ventures and acquisitions in many countries. I remember telling him that it should be one of the large operators who will have the reason to do it.

Now Vodafone has done it. Vodafone 360 is a mobile web service that provides music downloads, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and supports several handsets. In a way it is competing with Apple’s App Store, Nokia’s Ovi and other App Stores created by the mobile phone vendors.

Now Vodafone’s Telco 2.0 model (called efficient pipes) is nothing new. A lot of mobile service providers thought about that but shied away from taking the plunge. Now Vodaphone which has over 300 million consumers in over 30 countries has taken the challenge.

As Apple and Nokia increase their emphasis on the App Store and have made a success of it (Apple’s App Store’s success is chronicled here), the mobile service providers can’t afford to be silent spectators.

But whether the service providers with their current competencies would have the ability to build an App store and an application eco-system is a big question.

Nokia’s decline — indicative of a bigger upheaval?

Just as Apple announced stellar results, Nokia the leading player is showing signs of decline. It has the company of another marquee player in Sony Ericcson. I already described the impact that Apple and RIM are having on other players here. The latest market data just reinforces the view.

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The Western Europe market in Nokia’s backyard and hence the trends here are important. The reason for the significant drop is Nokia doesn’t have the zing of the iPhone or the Blackberry and doesn’t have a great smartphone yet.

Now while the overall market has declined by 6% the smartphone sales were up 25% and about 1.7 millions were shipped. Of the 1.7 million, Apple sold 1.4 million and RIM sold 1.3. phones.

Now to add to Nokia’s troubles, it doesn’t have a significant presence in the U.S. though it has a strong presence in Asia , especially in the large markets like China and India. But with iPhone’s imminent launch in China and RIM’s increased efforts, Nokia has some tough challenges ahead.

The mobile device market is clearly headed for a major upheaval. With Andriod based phones to hit the market (18 models) and several service providers launching their own App Store, we will see interesting things happen.

Disclosure: I am a Nokia user and have admired their management style. One of my early blog posts was about Nokia’s amazing success in India here.

September 1, 2009

Microsoft Windows under siege.

Operating systems wars have been skirmishes. They haven’t produced any major upsets. Microsoft dominates the OS completely and despite the Linux aficionados, Microsoft’s strong hold remained unchallenged especially at the low to medium end servers and in desktops. It is a different story in the mobile space though.

But things are slowly changing and my sense is that in the next couple of years, Microsoft will face more heat compared to anything that it has ever faced on the server front.

Microsoft will have to increasingly contend with VMWare which has bolstered its arsenal with its acquisition of Springsource – maker of open-source software development tools which can analyze and optimize the application performance. This could allow VMWare to undermine the Windows operating system.

Despite all the talk about the huge growth of virtualization, the untapped market is still large. Currently virtualization has been done mostly at the data centers (which is where the complexity is and where the cost savings are) and even there the current estimate is that less than 25% of the servers are virtualized. This creates a big opportunity. It is no surprise that Cisco wants a piece of this market and it is targeting them with its Unified Computing system.

Well, there’s a desktop market and a notebook market and it will require a different approach to tackle this market. Currently the focus seems to be on the servers.

Microsoft cannot afford to ignore this market. In fact it announced Hyper V Virtual machine as part of its Windows Server 2008 and it is likely that it will offer several enhancements in time to come. Moreover, Microsoft can afford to give its Hyper V free. With other contenders like Citrix Xen, Virtual Iron remaining in the fringes, it is going to be a battle between Microsoft and VMWare. And again, this battle is not just one of functionality or product features, but increasingly fought on a business model.

In some way, it could very well resemble the browser wars of the nineties.

But from Microsoft’s standpoint the battle for the OS has another contender. Google with its web based software for office and productivity applications is also undermining the Windows operating system.

The early impact on Microsoft is here to see. However it is too early to announce the demise of Windows.

So, the skirmishes are over and the battle is being fought on many fronts.

August 4, 2009

Google and Apple are now confirmed rivals

If there was any doubt about the relationship between Google and Apple, the abrupt resignation of Eric Schmidt — Google CEO from the Apple Board should lay it to rest.

I wonder whether the FCC’s investigation of Apple yanking out Google Voice has something to do it. I wrote about their possible rivalry here, but before I could even conceive of possible actions, the resignation was announced. Coming to think of it, Google and Apple are bracing to compete with each other. Google’s Android which will soon be adopted by many device vendors will be in direct competition with Apple’s iPhone. And the Chrome OS will be competing with the Mac OSX.

But is this new? These moves have been going on for the past few years and while the conflict of interest wasn’t that sharp the yanking of Google Voice seems to have brought all that into the open.

I admire both companies. Both Steve and Eric are respected Valley veterans. They have been role models for me. Nonetheless I have to say they always had antithetical approaches to shaping the future of the consumer experience. Some day there was bound to be a conflict.

Apple believes in creating cool products, but being a walled garden. It has fans, not customers. Even though the iPhone is supposed to be open, every application must be approved by Apple. I had talked about the walled garden approach here and it seems to have worked very well for Apple.

Google has adherents. It believed in openness and its whole purpose (even for its Chrome OS) was to reduce the significance of devices in favor of applications that will reside in the cloud. And once the cloud becomes the organizing system, the devices — be it the phones or the laptops do not matter.

Google crowdsourced its innovation. Apple built an innovation value chain in-house. Both models were successful. Yet I think at the core there is a deep philosophical conflict which manifests as a fight between the open and proprietary approaches.  I wrote about it in the mobile phone industry here and hence am not surprised that a rivalry has come about.

The Google Voice episode is just the beginning. The FCC enquiry may reveal more.

And if the Google-Microsoft war and the Apple-Microsoft war, wasn’t interesting enough, we will see a third war — the Google-Apple war.

August 2, 2009

Underdogs can win

Underdogs win more times than we think, but is there a set approach that characterizes their win? I have always been intrigued by their winning approaches and the tipping points that gives them the decisive competitive advantage.

Having delved into business strategy research and practice for a while, I still couldn’t come across any clear framework that advises underdogs of how to take the battle against the more powerful opponent.

Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and the more recent Outliers) writes a brilliant piece on how David can beat Goliath. The article is a bit long, but it makes compelling and instructive reading. It has several brilliant anecdotes written in the typical Malcolm style. What is amazing is how Vivek Ranadive uses the principles of real time information processing and the way he built TIBCO — a hugely successful software company, to coach his daughter’s school basketball team for the National Junior Basketball championship. Vivek never played basketball, nor was he a coach, yet his astute assessment of the game’s dynamics and mapping out to the real time information processing and how TIBCO became successful shows what a smart mind can do given a challenge. Vivek is also the author of the bestseller: “The Power of Now: How winning companies sense and respond to change using real-time technology”

Malcolm also draws from various other examples in sports, conventional wars to illustrate the following principles:

  1. First acknowledge your weakness and then choose an unconventional strategy.
  2. Choose not to play by Goliath’s rules.
  3. Be bold and do what could be even termed as “socially horrifying”— challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.
  4. Do not be scared of being disapproved by the insider.
  5. Believe in the fact that a defender’s dilemma is very often the attacker’s advantage.


Who is Google’s rival — Is it AT&T or Apple?

By now everyone is aware of how Apple managed to yank out Google Voice applications from the App Store. iPhone users will not have access to this application. This has caused an uproar in the blog world with some reputed bloggers mincing no words. The mainstream media has been quiet, proving once again that the blogging community is increasingly taking the lead in breaking news.

Unfortunately everyone who is involved — Google, Apple and AT&T have maintained a conspicuous silence.

Google Voice is clearly a major disruption. Through Google Voice, people can have one number for all of their phones, free long distance calling, and free text messaging. Two of these would obviously cut into AT&T’s bottom line, since users would no longer have to pay AT&T’s exorbitant service charges for messaging and cellular long distance.

It also is apparently easier to use than the dialer application from Apple itself.

So, in this case has AT&T been firing from Apple’s shoulder? I would believe so but for the fact that the Google Voice software works on Blackberry and so are other VoIP applications. I am not sure though whether the VoIP applications are allowed to run on AT&T’s networks though I am sure many other devices will be able to run Google Voice applications once Android phones are released in the market, which should be soon.

So, I am not entirely sure that it is AT&T which is exerting the influence to reject the Google Voice application from Apple’s Appstore.

Can it be Apple then? The only plausible claim that Apple can make is that it is a duplication of functionality as far as the dialer is concerned and that it could leave the customers “confused”. Clearly the AppStore is owned by Apple, and what it allows on the Appstore is their prerogative, but yet such a poor defence dents into Apple’s credibility. It cannot use a near monopoly position to thwart fair competition.

So, who is it that wants to block Google Voice? For those who do not know Google’s CEO — Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board.

I think the players owe an explanation. Does it not become a fit case for the regulator (in this case the FCC) to investigate?

July 25, 2009

The iPhone’s game changer — Analysis and questions!

Enough has been written about the success of the iPhone. It’s been truly a game changer. Some recent statistics will help us keep the success in perspective.

In the first weekend after launching the 3G iPhone Apple sold 1 million phones. Compare this when Apple sold 6.4 million units of its first generation phones in one full year after launch. Based on some preliminary analysis, the gross margins for the 3G phones are above 60%. Currently the iPhone 3GS (16GB) is priced at $199 and the 32GB model at $299. Well, one can expect some price discounting, but even then the margins are pretty healthy.

If the device has been a runaway success, the App Store with over 65,000 applications and about 1.5 billion downloads has been another game changer, much in the same way the ITunes store bolstered the sale of iPod devices.

Apple has only a 3% market share of the global cellphone sales, yet it actually actually accounts for 35% of the entire industry’s operating profits. A Deutsche Bank’s report actually states that before the end of the year Apple and RIM may have a combined market share of 5%, yet account for 65% of the industry’s profit.

In contrast, Nokia the market share leader has been struggling. In the most recent quarter it reported a 25% drop in sales and a 66% drop in earnings. The company has lost over half its value in the last 12 months. Clearly the company has failed to respond adequately to the threats of Apple, RIM and Google’s Android.

There’s nothing noteworthy about Sony-Ericsson, Samsung or LG. Motorola has clearly lost the game. HTC and Palm are new players in the game and their future will be determined in 2 years time.

What’s equally amazing to me is how numerous Japanese companies like NEC, Sharp, Panasonic who make excellent cellphones have largely confined themselves to Japan and never seized the opportunity to go global. An excellent analysis of this phenomenon is covered here. The analysis is interesting (recommended reading) and highlights the fact that as the underlying ground shifts from hardware to software, the Japanese companies may be found increasingly wanting compared to the iPhone and Android.

In hindsight, everyone knows that Apple created a game changer. But hindsight is 20/20. And everyone who’s studied Apple over the years would say that this was a replication of the iPod/iTunes phenomenon.

The key thing is not just a great technology wrapped in a cool design as most people believe it to be. I believe that they took a great technology and wrapped it in a great business model. It was truly a business model innovation redistributing the billions of dollars of value.

But here are some of the questions for which I am keen to hear views:

  • Did Apple see the weaknesses of the incumbents and then develop the complete business model? Were they prescient about the future course of events?

  • Were the incumbents (Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony) too lazy or unimaginative with their competitive responses even when news got around that Apple could announce a iPhone?

  • Did Apple’s innovation with the business model, technology, and its eventual success laid bare the inefficiencies of other players?

  • Is a consolidation in the mobile phone industry imminent in the next couple of years? What are the likely scenarios?

April 26, 2009

Will Apple overtake Microsoft?

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Though some may argue that market capitalization is not a strong indicator, but it still remains a proxy for market success. Apple had been having a lot of product successes, while Microsoft continues to flounder.

For one, Apple’s iPod and iPhone have been stellar success creating the halo effect for other Mac products. Microsoft Vista has clearly failed, and XP users will switch to Microsoft’s new OS — System 7 due for release this year.

A comparative assessment of Microsoft and Apple can be found here.

April 15, 2009

Satyam clearly overvalued

Subsequent to my earlier post where I mentioned that Tech Mahindra seems to have over paid for Satyam, got an email from an ex-Satyam employee(who prefers to remain anonymous) He mentions that Satyam’s annual revenues are more likely to be between $1.3 – $1.5 billion.

If that be the case, then Tech Mahindra has valued Satyam at a revenue multiple of 1X revenues which is quite high by industry standards in the current environment. Even Accenture a blue chip with impeccable credentials is only quoted at 0.7X revenues.

So, it indeed looks that Tech Mahindra has over valued Satyam.

It is also intriguing that since the beginning there were no serious contenders for this business — be it from US or Europe multinationals or even from Indian IT service providers. L&T which was considered the favorite to win was only trying to reduce their average buying price since they had acquired 12% of Satyam for a high price in the past.

April 14, 2009

Tech Mahindra gets Satyam — Pays more, interesting challenges ahead

Satyam Computer Services ranked as India’s 4th largest outsourcer by revenues (after Infosys, TCS ,Wipro) and which went through some very anxious times following the scandal brought about by its founder has found a new owner.

After a bidding war where only 3 parties participated (Larsen & Toubro, Tech Mahindra and US investor Wilbur Ross), the prize has gone to Tech Mahindra.

Tech Mahindra offer of Rs. 58 per share (U.S $1.16) was 21% higher than the next bidder (Larsen And Toubro who already own a 12% stake) The offer price is also 23% higher than its highest traded price since the news of the scam broke out in early January.

Since the auditors Deloitte and KPMG are in the process of rewriting the accounts it is difficult to value the company. But based on a number of sources, Satyam’s annual revenues are in the range of $1.5 billion -$1.7 billion (down from projected revenues of $2.1 billion for 2008) with an operating margin of 3% while Tech Mahindra’s margins are in the range of 22% with revenues of $900 million. No one knows the extent of liabilities and also the exposure of the firm to some of the class action suits that’s likely to follow in the US.

Hence at the acquisition price, Tech Mahindra has paid a big premium and also brought some big challenges just to add $ 1.2 billion and a 3% margin business. Did Tech Mahindra over value Satyam? I certainly think so.

But as they say Value lies in the eyes of the beholder!

Tech Mahindra will have some big challenges not only in funding the acquisition but also running the Satyam operation. It is one thing to run a business where one client (British Telecom holding a 31% share) accounts for close to 70% of the business and another to deal with a diversified client base with poor operational efficiencies. Tech Mahindra will also have to learn to manage a work force almost twice its own size and dispersed globally.

Tech Mahindra will also have to figure out whether they want to keep this as an independent entity with a different name or do a possible merger. I think the advantages to be gained by an immediate merger may be limited in the short term since there are no synergies to be realized.

None of these challenges are easy. It would be interesting to watch the turnaround.

Satyam caretakers — the interim Board members like Karnik, Deepak Parekh and others did a great job transitioning it from a broken and rudderless ship to finding a good caretaker and owner. The entire Indian IT industry also played a mature role in not poaching Satyam’s clients or its employees.

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