Subba’s Serendipitous moments

July 6, 2010

Google goes vertical to thwart Bing

 

In a very typical low key move Google acquired ITA Software, a 14-year-old company that makes software that organizes flight and pricing information, for $700 million in cash.

The significance of this acquisition is far reaching. With this, Google now becomes the critical intermediary between the provider of flight and pricing information and all their users including all the travel websites, airline websites and travel search engines. With this acquisition, Google now does not want to just send the search to another website, but also want to process the information for you in a meaningful and relevant way by organizing results (by giving flight options, price options etc.) As it goes into the “deeper search” and organizing information, it inevitably marginalizes the value being created by other travel web sites and travel search engines.

From here, Google could pursue 2 clear directions:

  1. It could become a travel portal itself, which is unlikely since it could attract regulatory action because ITA Software is being used by airlines and travel portals. It may not want to be seen as a “Big Bully”.
  2. It could add a new revenue stream to its well known advertising business – moving from cost per click (CPC) to cost per action (CPA) which definitely will be premium priced.

One thing is certain though: Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) which was headed in the area of vertical search will face more competition.

I believe that this acquisition is merely the beginning. Google can easily replicate the vertical search model in many areas including real estate, automobiles and other areas where the current Google search doesn’t give relevant results and where the potential for CPA exists.

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October 2, 2009

Cisco’s brilliant acquisition of Tandberg

Recent acquisitions by Dell and Xerox have something in common. Both acquired companies which are far away from their core competencies in an effort to find stable growth. They acquired predominantly U.S. centric IT services firms. I explained my disappointment with Dell’s acquisition of Perot Systems here. Xerox recent acquisition of ACS also evoked a similar thinking in me. It is very difficult for a pure play product / technology organization to blend well with a pure play services organization. The organizational DNA are too different, growth trajectories are quite different, organizational processes lend itself to little synergy. In short, I am not very high on such acquisition moves.

Cisco is different.

Cisco announced an all- cash offer to acquire Tandberg for $ 3 billion. Tandberg — a Norwegian company sells smaller and less priced video conferencing systems. This is a perfect fit for Cisco’s more expensive TelePresence systems which has been a great success. I think this is a brilliant acquisition since Tandberg’s gross margins is 66% and has clients in US and Europe. This acquisition would enable Cisco to sell the Tandberg products to companies which cannot afford the TelePresence. With this acquisition, Cisco would dominate the video conferencing systems for some time. More importantly the acquisition came in quite cheap since Cisco just paid 11% premium over Tandberg’s closing price.

Cisco has always acquired companies that in some way or the other generated more Internet traffic creating in turn demand for its core business — the networking hardware business. The way it is going to unleash its Unified Computing strategy will of course be interesting and one has to wait and see how it provides the synergy to the networking hardware business. Cisco’s ability to shake off entrenched players in fairly established market segments will also be evident in a couple of years.

Over the last 5 years Cisco has acquired 40 companies — both big and small and they have helped Cisco plug the gaps in the technology and product roadmaps admirably well. They also have had little problems integrating them into the Cisco model.

Cisco has $35 billion in cash which means further acquisitions are on the way. I only hope they don’t go with the flavor of the month and acquire another U.S. based IT services firms !

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.

BlackBerry’s opportunity is now.

I was taken aback when I saw the RIM’s stock suddenly drop 17% last week. By all accounts, it had a strong Q2 results: Q2 revenue was up 37% y-o-y and 2% q-o-q to $3.53 billion on shipment of 8.3 million units. Net income was $475.6 million or $0.83 per share versus $495.5 million, or $0.86 per share last year and $643.0 million, or $1.12 per share in the prior quarter. Gross margin improved to 44.1% from 43.6% last quarter due to reductions in raw material costs and shifts in the product mix. The company ended the quarter with $2.5 billion in cash, up by $78.5 million over last quarter.

It gave a conservative forecast for the quarter ahead. I think the analysts were expecting bigger revenue growth. And this explains why the stock got beaten.

Looking beyond the immediate quarters, RIM faces several strategic challenges and threats — iPhone getting entrenched within the corporate enterprise which was RIM’s sweet spot, imminent price wars with Apple and Palm and the emerging Android phones likely to hit the market anytime.

Unlike Apple, RIM hasn’t made much strides with the App Store. Apple’s success is highlighted here. RIM’s App Store was launched only in April and has seen about 20 million downloads compared to Apple’s 2 billion downloads. It needs some serious work here and may be a cutting edge application. It also needs to pay serious attention to building an application eco system for business applications.

I think their deal with Verizon will be watched with interest as Verizon already has deals with Palm and Motorola’s Android. RIM is apparently coming up with several new models, but the competition is hotting up.

I think the next 2 quarters would be key for RIM to regain the momentum it seems to have lost. The opportunity is now.

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.

Apple’s App Store reinvents the mobile phone

Here are the impressive statistics on the Apple’s App Store based on Apple’s recent announcement:

Number of applications available: 85,000

Number of countries from where App Store is accessible : 77

Number of participants on the App Store : 125,000

Number of downloads : 2 billion.

“App Store has reinvented what you can do with a mobile handheld device, and our users are clearly loving it.” says Steve Jobs.

I talked about the game changing nature of the iPhone and the App Store here.

What is incredible is the rate of growth. From just 500 applications in July 2008, it surged to 15,000 apps downloaded half a million times in 6 months. 3 months later it had its billionth download and 35,000 apps. A further 5 months later both the downloads and the apps have doubled.

Well, I wonder what would be the growth trajectory of the App Store once iPhone is launched in China?

Now that every cell phone vendor has his own App Store the mobile operator is just left to be a dumb pipe.

September 20, 2009

U.S. Federal government to use the cloud and the App Store

Vivek Kundra — the Federal CIO and who is actively promoting the innovation agenda announced Apps.Gov. It includes a variety of business applications, hosting and social applications all housed in a cloud.

All the federal agencies will be able to buy the cloud computing applications and services and this will surely bring the cost of IT services in the federal budget. It is also a very innovative way of standardizing applications.

What Apps.Gov also ensures is that the government enjoys the same benefits that technology changes and pricing models have to offer to the consumer. The government also can reduce the cost of IT infrastructure like building data centers a, servers, storage. Some applications may even be free.

I do not know how he is going to handle the privacy and security issues, but I guess given the size of the federal IT budget, many vendors will come forward to build the standards needed for the Government to be their customer. Google has already responded by announcing that it would dedicate a part of its computing infrastructure to serve the federal government.

Sure, other vendors will follow.

All in all, this is a great initiative and something that other Governments should also consider.

August 20, 2009

How to build a successful innovation team?

Recently I delivered a talk on business innovation. My main thesis was why that offers a competitive advantage and offers the best barrier to entry. There were interesting questions, but the question that flummoxed me was asked by a young MBA student and it went as follows: How to build a successful innovation team?

Not having worked in R&D or an innovation team, I had to admit my ignorance. I promised that I will think about it and revert. I asked several HR managers, consultants and even some innovation experts. I was not satisfied with most of the responses because they talked about examining past track records, achievements and so on. That doesn’t say much and I don’t necessarily agree with experience being a true predictor.. So here’s what I have come up with:

  • Hire someone who doesn’t care much for stability, hierarchy, order and predictability. Every problem is unique and will need a different thinking approach.
  • Find someone who appreciates and thrives on ambiguity. Ambiguity often has negative connotations, but to me to be able to appreciate the grey area and to live in the mental conflict zone is key to finding the breakthrough.
  • A deep competency is good, but the person should be genuinely interested in other things. It is when you are looking at something else with genuine interest, a serendipity play converts the competency to a breakthrough.
  • Have the ability to “abstractize” a practical problem and see a practical problem and hence an opportunity in an abstract thought. This calls for people who can have their feet on the ground and the head in the cloud and span the space between them.
  • Finally and I think this is the most important: The last thing a team needs is finding another clone. Stop looking for something similar to what you already have. You need to fill gaps that are in your team and complement the competency and hence the more of the same doesn’t always make it successful.

(I am assuming that there exists some amount of passion, enthusiasm, respect for people and inter-personal communication strengths.)

It would be difficult to expect all this in an individual. However collectively the team should have these qualities. Whether they become successful or not is a different question. It depends on the mindset and a whole range of factors. But at least you know that we have a good capable team of cracking a problem.

Does anyone have a competency model to build innovation teams?

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.


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