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Clash of the titans

(Image source: iqballatif.newsvine.com)

(Image source: iqballatif.newsvine.com)

The world of management consulting has its Big 4 – the accounting/professional services firms KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and PriceWaterhouse Coopers, the Goliaths that define the industry and make competitors in that space inconsequential and insignificant. Which is why it seems like quite a coincidence that the increasingly convergent world of technology and business too is dominated by four Goliaths: Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.

But is it really mere happenstance that the Big 4 of the business/technology world are just who they are? Probably not.

Over the years, the Big 4 have evolved from being simple product/service providers to comprehensive, repurposable platforms that shrewdly collate the required competencies of any online business:

  • Data: Intelligence on Consumer Demographics, Actions/Behavior, preferences
  • Devices: Desktop, Mobile, Tablet, and the Cloud
  • Distribution: Collate, distribute and publish unique content
  • Sociability:Sharability and conversation-worthiness
  • Findability:Of accurate as well as geographically relevant information

The inherent similarity between the Big 4 is that they each are more an assortment of inter-related services (= Benefits and Values) than a singular product (= Feature). There is, of course, scope for improvement for each on these turfs and it’s not quite a level playing field across all product categories yet – a fact which they each are well aware of. Even so, as the Big 4 work on gaining competencies in new turfs and dialing up the aspects that they are not-so-competent in yet, the lines between categories, industries and software/hardware have increasingly started to blur. Here’s a strategic overview of how the Big 4 have been slowly yet steadily making forays into each other’s turfs.

AMAZON:

Last Quarterly Revenue: $13.8 bn | Last Quarterly Profit/Loss: -$274 mn | Market cap: $117.1 bn | Gross margin: 25.3% *

(Image source: www.teleread.com)

(Image source: http://www.teleread.com)

Amazon’s core competencies lie in E-Commerce, Distribution and Publishing. They have made a successful foray into the Device side of the platform via Kindle, and are rumored to be working on an Amazon phone that will be based on an Amazon-exclusive version of Android (“Amdroid”).The phone, like other Amazon extensions / diversifications will be aimed at ensuring you buy more from Amazon; and also provide Amazon more intelligence on your buying behavior and preferences – thereby supporting their core business.

What next? Amazon needs to become more responsive to competition. Until recently, Amazon played the role of Challenger well in the tablet market. But after Apple’s punch-packed response in the form of iPad Mini, the once-clearly defined boundaries between the target audiences of Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle have now blurred. Amazon will need to define the Kindle’s differential value (if any) better, and given that Amazon has been selling Kindle at a loss, either the price-point or the offering itself needs revision. There can be no doubt that Amazon has a bright future ahead, and the sheer length and breadth of its portfolio is astounding. Amazon is a shining beacon of service-orientation; where service-orientation is actually the common denominator across the architecture, culture and operations of the company. Another unique aspect about Amazon is its symbiotic relationship with a co-member of the Big 4 – Google. However, the extent of their dependence on Android (and thereby, Google), is potentially also a huge risk in the cut-throat context of the Big 4.

APPLE:

Last Quarterly Revenue: $36 bn | Last Quarterly Profit/Loss: $8.2 bn | Market cap: $489.3 bn | Gross margin: 40.2% *

2013 could prove to be a landmark year for Apple. As the most valuable company in the world, it has successfully made its presence felt across a good part of the tech ecosytem, ranging from hardware to software to distribution; Apple has yet to make a satisfactory mark for itself in the Search, Social and Data domains. To say their move to keep Google out of the geographical search domain out of the iOS sandbox has failed would be an understatement to an extent. Not only was Apple forced to bring Google maps back on iOS, they were also forced to come to terms with the reality that when it comes to anything Search (and Data collation related), Google is still very much the leader and Apple cannot claim to be a worthy challenger yet. Nonetheless, the reason 2013 could just be the year that features yet another genius innovation from Apple, is because Apple is working on converging Social , Data and Distribution together in a feature-loaded ‘iTV’, a move that tantamounts to bringing Apple, Facebook and Amazon together in your living room.

What next? If there’s a company that actually has the financial bandwidth to build a platform of interlinked products in the immediate future, it’s Apple. Apple gets platforms and has a great grip on consumer insights (well, at least so far). Apple is great at rocking the boat, and challenging the status quo, and improvising on the existing. However, Apple does not get the concept of ‘Openness’, be it Open access or Open source. The time to re-evaluate the boundaries of the ‘sandbox’ may be closer than Apple would like to admit. Also, times have changed, and the need of the hour is for Apple to play defense (ideally, in the market and not the courtroom!) all the while not losing steam on innovation.

FACEBOOK:

Last Quarterly Revenue: $1.26 bn | Last Quarterly Profit/Loss: -$59 mn | Market cap: $58.3 bn | Gross margin: 74.5% *

While Facebook is the leader in the sociability aspect of the game, findability is definitely a work-in-progress area for them. They’ve tried to upgrade their Search functionality in the summer of 2012, a move which has brought them a few steps closer to becoming a Social Search engine. Mark Zuckerberg offered a very matter-of-fact summary of the move: “Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have’ – and plans to build more powerful search facilities as Facebook evolves.” Key phrase to note obviously being, uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. And in spite of the sheer goldmine of data that Facebook has at its disposal (Of course it does, who are we kidding!) – they have miles to go in actually leveraging that data effectively, beyond its already launched Facebook Ad Exchange and Facebook Ads targeted/retargeted advertising solutions.

What next? Facebook has access to the most-envied goldmine of consumer intelligence, and yet has always seemed to be indecisive and noncommittal about what it intends to do with it. Part of it is attributable to the fear of public backlash against using that data, but most of it has actually been because of the lack of clear vision on the the matter. They seem to be in constant experimental mode here, and that may prove to be detrimental to their cause.

GOOGLE:

Last Quarterly Revenue: $14.0 bn | Last Quarterly Profit/Loss: $2.2 bn | Market cap: $233.1 bn | Gross margin: 53.7% *

A key fact to keep in mind when we evaluate Google, is that as far as search goes – it is still a Google world. Per a December 2012 comScore report, Google owns about 67% market share, while the second-in-line Bing trails at a distant 16.2%. The

Android vs iOS

Android vs iOS

other trump card Google has in its repertoire is Android. The International Data Corporation (IDC) reported that 3 out of every 4 smartphones shipped out in the third quarter of 2012 were Android-based. Meanwhile, Google Plus, as we know is Google’s not-so-successful attempt at conquering the world of social networking. While the API-starved network may have well become Google’s very own ghost-town, there’s reason to believe that Google Plus could evolve into the product that is the face of the Google platform – given how Google has begun unleashing its Search horsepower and content ranking capabilities on Google Plus, along with the integration of other unique features like hangouts, circles and other weapons from Google’s holisitic arsenal.

What next? Google has its groundwork in place as far comprehensive platforms go. They have been shrewd enough to preempt the universal applicability of their main source of livelihood: Search (and Data-based intelligence). And they have been clever in initiating the open source/ Android movement years ago to restore balance in the i-Dominated smartphone world. They need to, however, ramp up their competencies in distribution/publishing and also social. Most importantly, they need to invest resources in developing well-rounded products that are actually good-to-go, as opposed to launching knee-jerk reactionary products (case in point: Google Plus) and then developing them on-the-go. Google needs to now prove that as far integration goes, they’ve still got it.

Now here’s a quick infographic to gauge how the respective platforms of the Big 4 stack up against each other.

The argument about who is destined to win this clash will probably continue for a while. But it is clear that the player that will emerge a true winner from this clash will not be the one that launches the most innovative product of the decade, but the one that manages to integrate all its products into a single, tightly knit ecosystem that creates perceptible value for the consumer. Each of the Big 4 likely stands an equal chance of being able to crack this code – or maybe not. In any case, there are exciting times ahead for sure – for technology, innovation and business in general. And whoever the winner proves to be, my hope is that in the end, it is we the consumers who gain the most from this epic clash of the titans.

* Key financials sourced from The Wall Street Journal

Facebook and its Chairy faux pas

October 4, 2012 marked a milestone of sorts for the world of Social Media in general, and Facebook in particular. Facebook reached the magic 1 billion number in terms of total active users. To put the enormity of that number in perspective: that's 1/7th of the world's population, and almost as many people as in the entire country of India! And to think they were at half a billion users only two years ago - which means they added the other half in a mere two years; Google+, privacy issues, and the lackluster IPO notwithstanding.

Isn't this a brag-worthy achievement in itself? The fact that there's this intangible product that has touched the lives of a BILLION people across the world in such a way that it has become a ubiquitous part of their online social expression and communication - surely deserves mention?

If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I'd make sure this fact was celebrated and given due emphasis. Apart from the pure PR-worthiness of it, this is a milestone I would have definitely wanted to highlight in the first major mass-media campaign that I commission to mark the occasion. As opposed to digressing and comparing my thriving Social Network to a chair. Whether or not I am a Clint Eastwood fan.

But then, I'm not Mark Zuckerberg. So I can't help but wonder: what was he thinking?! I understand the noble underlying intention was to draw a parallel between Facebook and Chairs - in terms of their being ubiquitous in people's daily lives. But the approach and even the "big idea" leaves a lot to be desired. See the ad for yourself here.

And here's the voiceover copy, in verbatim:

"Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break. Anyone can sit on a chair, and if the chair is large enough, they can sit on it together and tell jokes, or make up stories, or just listen. Chairs are for people. And that is why Chairs are like Facebook."

Before you get a chance to let that last profound statement "...Chairs are like Facebook" sink in; the Ad goes on to include Doorbells, Airplanes, Bridges, even the cosmic Universe in the list of things Facebook is supposedly like. Again, I do get the noble intention they had of driving the point of "connecting people" home - but seriously, was this the only way to do it? Seriously, 'Chairs are for people and so is Facebook' - that's the best they could come up with? Heck, by that logic, even coffee (or beer, for that matter) is for people. And people share things over a cup of coffee (or a mug of beer). So Facebook's like coffee or beer too, right? Oh, wait. I see where they're going with this now: Facebook's like a chair, a cup of coffee, an airplane flying in the sky, a bridge between two sides of the river, and like the limitless Universe out there. Ohhh - Facebook's like everything in life itself. Wow. I think I have goosebumps. 

Okay, I should probably be a little kinder. All they're trying to say is: Facebook connects people. But you know something? Even Nokia made that point better, years ago. Which is why, I don't really get the point Facebook's trying to make through this Ad. Also, who exactly is the audience for this Ad? This isn't Year-One of Social Media or Facebook: We know how social networks work, and what they do. So here's a thought meant for the marketing guys at Facebook to hear: Why don't you simply focus on the fact that you're not just some social network anymore - you're an essential part of people's lives. Period.

And that's exactly why, Wieden + Kennedy Portland, I have to disagree with you. Facebook is NOT like a chair. A chair is something that's sitting somewhere in my room. Sure I use it, but I don't care about it so much. It's a chair, for God's sake! I could replace it, or sit on another chair. Are you then trying to tell me that Facebook is just like some piece of furniture, and as replaceable as a chair? Why would you want to proactively downgrade your status in the lives of your 1 billion active users? Speaking of whom; how come there's no mention of that milestone either - even as a tiny little baseline on the last screen of the Ad?

Must say, Google+ did a much better job with their Ads by talking about what they shrewdly knew were the best features of their network: An Ad focusing on their 'Circles' feature, and an Ad showcasing their 'Hangouts' feature. The fact that not as many people actually use Google+ actively, as do Facebook - is the topic of another blog post! But the point is, at least Google did a good job communicating their features to people who weren't aware, and they managed to present the technology aspect in a human way.

I'm not sure Facebook has managed to convey any of its features well at all. Sure, we don't really need to be educated about what Facebook does at this point in their lifecycle, but the 1-billion milestone deserved a muscle-flexing Ad reasserting their position not just in the world of social media, but in the daily lives of regular people. Unfortunately, the 'Chairs' campaign is far from asserting anything positive and is unlikely to do Brand Facebook any favor. And quite frankly, it seems like an internet meme just waiting to happen.