Automobiles: The Ultimate App Machine?

BMW_Harman_App_PlatformThe most interesting theme to emerge from all the announcements at CES last month was that of the automobile becoming an app platform. The Big Three all released information about their respective efforts towards this, ranging from Chrysler enabling internet radio apps to stream on its Uconnect system to Ford and GM both announcing app development programs for their respective in-car software platforms. Not to be outdone some of the leading consumer mobile tech companies also provided updates on their continued integration efforts with the automobile manufacturers including: Pandora naming Chrysler as its 20th auto brand partner and Hyundia and Kia joining 3 other car companies in working with Google to integrate Maps capabilities into their respective car connectivity systems. Add to this the recent announcements regarding the incorporation of Siri Eyes Free into specific Acura, Honda and Chevrolet models following Apple’s announcement of this initiative last year, the availability of Amazon’s Cloud Player in select Ford vehicles and Facebook’s hiring of a Head of Automotive, you can see why the next great battleground for audience attention is taking place right behind the steering wheel.

And why not? The automobile is the last physical space where Americans spend an inordinate amount of time (18 ½ hours on average per week according to a 2009 Arbitron national in-car study) that hasn’t been infiltrated by the internet. With time spent in cars continuing to rise (an average increase of 31% for weekday driving since 2003 according to the same study) the opportunity to replace the current analog automobile experience with apps is only getting bigger.

The in-car digital experience will differ from how we currently interact with apps and the greater web on desktop and mobile computing devices in one dramatic way- the user interface. Since driving requires focus on the road, hands-free controls to both navigate and consume content will be the default setting in automobiles. With Apple’s Siri-based iPhones and Microsoft’s Xbox having become mainstream consumer devices at this point, the learning curve for performing voice-activated commands won’t be an issue. Instead, the limitation will be on the content side where audiobooks, internet radio, music, podcasts and voice navigation systems are the only categories already in a format that can leverage this opportunity, leaving text-based media to be adapted in order to participate. This creates a new market for speech and text conversion technologies like Nuance to be the provider of voice navigation controls at the automotive platform level or apps like iSpeech that convert articles and books from text to speech.

Not surprisingly, local radio station owners and navigation system manufacturers are the most likely to be disrupted in this evolution. Without the technical limitations of terrestrial radio signals, consumers will be able to access local programming from anywhere in the country through apps like iHeartRadio or national programming without any additional in-car hardware from SiriusXM Radio. Subscribers will also have the ability to create their own music stations via Pandora or listen to the exactly what they want using apps such as Spotify. As audio consumption continued to increase online, so to will the allocation of local ad dollars as marketers will have access to audience-related metrics that aren’t available through traditional radio including actual listener numbers, not estimates, and the ability to target ads to the zip code, not just the station.

From the perspective of navigation systems, apps like Google Maps and Waze will continue to take the place of built-in and after-market navigation devices with their ability to provide current mapping data and crowd-sourced traffic updates via their respective networks. This is a much more compelling solution than paying the auto manufacturer to send you a CD every year just to update the in-car mapping data (which is my car’s case).

Pandora Media has the potential to be a big winner in the digitalization of the automobile experience but not for the expected reasons.  Pandora’s viability as an internet radio service has been questioned because of the cost structure challenges presented by the music industry. But with more than 1,000 partner integrations, including 85 vehicle models and 175 aftermarket automotive devices, Pandora could evolve into a platform service, much like Amazon did with Web Services, that would allow other developers to leverage these automobile-related hardware integrations to allow their apps to connect with vehicles and related devices as well.

Google_Maps_MenuNo matter how the battle for the next digital screen plays out, Google is one of the best positioned companies because of its existing portfolio of technologies. With Google Maps slowly getting integrated into various vehicles experiences, Google will have its Trojan Horse for offering up services beyond just mapping and traffic data. By looking at the additional data layers offered in Google Maps you get a picture of this: Navigation provides turn-by-turn directions, Local identifies nearby retail establishments, Latitude find people you know that are physically near you and History stores information on the places you’ve been. This provides Google with contextual data around where you go and with whom which can feed newer services like Google Now, which uses machine learning to predict the information you might be interested in (like when to leave for a meeting, activities you could do nearby or sports schedules for your favorite teams), to enhance the user experience across all screens. Add to this Google’s quickly improving natural language capabilities for voice commands and Android-based in-car app platforms being developed by the likes of Harman, one of the largest suppliers of in-car technology, and you can see why Google is so well-positioned to dominate the in-car content experience going forward. Either by consumers using its apps, or better yet by automotive-related manufacturers using its mobile operating system to enable apps, Google will continue to capture an increasing amount of data on consumers, which in turn makes its services smarter and more useful to people, which brings more users to Google’s platform in a self-fulfilling cycle. If all else fails, Google could simply provide the driverless car technology it has been testing and own the entire digital automotive experience itself.

With over 105 million solo drivers on the road in the U.S. the digital dashboard opportunity goes beyond just enabling subscribers to consume more information and have access to better in-car utilities. It also creates an opportunity to give advertisers access to a very targeted, but maybe more importantly, captive audience. By marrying registration and demographic data of the driver with their current location, via GPS, along with intended destination, via maps and navigation, content providers and advertisers will be able to incorporate much better audio ads, using real-time ad-insertion technology, and digital offers than ever before. And because of the linear nature of consuming audio content, advertisers should expect a better return on their marketing expenses because drivers won’t be distracted by anything else.

It’s reasonable to believe that we will see the fruition of these early in-car efforts over the next 2 to 4 years. Now imagine 2020, when the first driver-less cars are expected to hit showrooms (although if Google had its way, it would happen sooner). The experience of driving a car will become obsolete and everyone will become a passenger so the content consumption and advertising-related opportunities will expand as former-drivers can focus on other activities in earnest turning the car into a portable living room.

Maybe then Bill Gates’ famous quote comparing the computer and auto industries, and subsequent rebuttal from GM, might actually have some truth to it.

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The Valuation Disconnect in Mobile

Well before the media anointed mobile the Next Big Thing, venture capitalists saw its potential. Consumers have rewarded VCs for their foresight by how quickly they’ve adopted non-voice mobile services over these past couple of years. The result has been a number of high-profile liquidity events this year starting with mobile ad network Millennial Media’s IPO followed by Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for an eventual price of $736 million and record levels of gaming sector acquisitions led by mobile. With all this positive momentum it’s not surprising that VCs continue to allocate an increasing share of deals and dollars to mobile startups as the overall number of investments has reached its highest levels since the dot-com days.

In contrast to this optimism in the venture community, Wall Street is down right negative towards mobile. Google’s third quarter earnings announcement was met with a 8% drop in share price in part due to the increasing number of search queries being performed on mobile devices which is causing a deceleration in the company’s revenue growth. And while Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings report resulted in the stock rising 20%, the company’s market capitalization is still only at 60% of its peak value from its first day of trading. This is in largely due to concerns over Facebook’s ability to monetize their growing mobile audience, which now consists of 600 million users, including 126 million of which use Facebook mobile exclusively.

The Typical Relationship

So why the disconnect in how these investors value mobile? It can be partially explained by how each type of investor evaluates investment opportunities to begin with. Venture capitalists, especially early stage ones, typically look to buy private, and thus illiquid, stock in pre-revenue companies with nascent, but potentially market-disruptive, ideas. As such, these investments may take up to 10 years to realize a return for their VCs, if at all. Contrast this with public market investors, such as hedge and mutual funds, which focus on the predictability of earnings and revenue growth relative to a company’s market value and reevaluate their investments in real-time based on news and quarterly earnings reports since liquidity is readily available in these stocks.

So when VCs invest in start-ups, especially consumer-oriented ones that are ad-supported, they are betting not only on a company’s potential to execute on their business plan but also on the formation of a rapidly growing market. Due to this, the focus is usually on customer acquisition and market share growth- not revenues. As a market begins to mature in size and opportunity, monetization solutions are developed, usually by other start-ups, allowing the entire market to benefit from the creation of new revenue streams. Companies that don’t get acquired and can show they have a path to profitability have the opportunity to go public and in the process become industry bellwethers, using their new capital infusion and stock shares as currency to further enhance their market position.

Why Mobile Had Been Different

In the case of mobile, a couple of things happened that has affected the usual relationship between the private and public markets. First, the consumer adoption of mobile has outpaced any other technology in the history of the U.S.- including radio, TV and the internet. As such the native monetization solutions that were developed alongside these other technologies have been slow to scale in mobile because (1) the ad formats currently being used are largely re-purposed ad technologies from the desktop internet, such as banner and rich media ads, which were easy to launch with in an effort to capture mobile revenue early on and (2) advertisers have been slower to allocate advertising budgets to mobile than previous technologies due to this speed of growth- funds that would be used to help spur innovation in ad experiences on mobile devices.

The economic realities of increasing supply of mobile ad inventory coupled with relatively low demand for quality ad experiences thus far has resulted in effective CPMs that are 1/5th the price of desktop internet advertising. This disparity in monetization capabilities between mobile and desktop is forcing public investors to reevaluate consumer tech investments where mobile is becoming impactful enough from a usage perspective to potentially affecting earnings. With Millennial Media, a pure-play mobile ad network, and Pandora Media, whose ad-supported internet radio audience is now 75% mobile, still not profitable as publicly-traded companies, investors will continue to discount the mobile businesses of public consumer technology companies for the foreseeable future.

Without having proven their business models to Wall Street yet, Millennial and Pandora can’t be considered mobile bellwethers, which is needed to preserve the private-to-public valuation relationship. Companies such as AdMob and Instagram might have achieved bellwether status if they hadn’t been acquired before realizing their potential as stand-alone public companies. As such it might be left to existing ad-supported consumer internet tech leaders who are able to make the audience and business transition into mobile to perpetuate the ecosystem. Facebook, which has faced scrutiny over its performance as a public company in part due to mobile, has the momentum in user growth and sheer audience size to accomplish this transformation if they can prove their various mobile ad products can profitably scale. Because of this you could argue that Facebook actually went public too early, instead of too late, if you look at it as a mobile-first company. Probably the best positioned public company though is Google which acquired what is now the most popular mobile operating system in Android, largest mobile ad network in AdMob and is seeing mobile growth in its core search business as well as across YouTube.

Mobile is Really Two Different Experiences

The second part of the answer to the valuation disconnect is in the definition of mobile. When research companies forecast trends and investors talk about opportunities they always speak about mobile as if it were one cohesive distribution channel when in fact it is composed of two distinct experiences- smartphones and tablets. Being able to differentiate between the two is critical because of the activities each device is best suited for based on the physical limitations of each display as well as their monetization opportunities.

Smartphones

While Apple might be credited with ushering in the consumer mobile era with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, it was the launch of the App Store the following year that enabled smartphones to properly leverage their mobility as the physical limitations of mobile phone screens (3 to 5 inches in length) required task-specific applications be built instead of all-encompassing web experiences. Because of this, the most successful app experiences, as Benchmark Capital’s Matt Cohler eloquently describes it, mimic a remote control in that they are easy to use and provide a specific utility to consumers. In turn, advertising on mobile phones need to abide by these same principles in order to be valuable.

Rare Crowd’s Eric Picard described the current mobile ad format problem in a recent article while also presenting a possible solution for smartphones that is interruptive without being intrusive- and can be delivered at scale. For app developers that have large enough user-bases though, creating native experiences, especially ones that can leverage location, will always result in better value for both the advertiser and consumer. Expanding on sponsored ad units that Facebook (via Sponsored Stories) and Twitter (via Promoted Tweets) have popularized in the social activity stream and more recently on mobile, location-based social exploration platform Foursquare launched Promoted Updates for local merchants this past summer and crowd-sourced traffic app Waze launched its own self-service advertising platform earlier this month that focuses on solving users’ location-based needs.

Tablets

Like smartphones, Apple can also be credited with jump-starting the tablet market a mere 3 years ago. The company was prescient in introducing the iPad as a tool for consuming media as users have made watching TV shows, playing games and reading the primary uses for the device. This makes sense when you consider the screen size of tablets (ranging from 7 to 10 inches) allows consumers to replicate the offline experience of reading a magazine or watching television in a more convenient and personal format than traditional computers allow for. Because of this, advertising on mobile tablets can be interruptive like traditional media and less concerned with other vectors such as location since most people are using their tablets at home and as a second screen complement to watching television. That means online video and rich media interstitials, which are higher-valued ad units than traditional banner ads, will work with minimal refactoring compared to smartphone ad experiences. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for companies to innovate around the ad experience as start-ups like Kiip are proving by rewarding user engagement and retention within mobile apps with real world rewards.

When It’s All Said and Done

With tablets expected to outsell PCs by next year, focusing efforts on this part of the mobile market might be the most prudent move for consumer tech companies with mobile audiences since the advertising experience most closely resembles the desktop internet from both a format and value perspective. The smartphone advertising market will take longer to scale simply because of the utility-oriented nature of the user experience.

As these advertising solutions sort themselves out though, so should the discrepancy between public and private market investor valuations around ad-supported business models. As start-ups fill these gaps in the consumer mobile space with monetization solutions that prove to be effective, so to will public investors get comfortable with the long-term value mobile users have to offer, which, at the end of the day, will benefit everyone involved in growing the value of the mobile industry.

Android: Winning the Smartphone Battle, But Losing the Mobile OS War

Earlier this week I received a long-awaited text message from Verizon Wireless notifying me of a credit I had available towards a new phone if I renewed my contract for another two years. After 9 ½ years of BlackBerry devices (my first BlackBerry actually ran on the Mobitex network, for the old-school mobile-types out there) I’m ready for a change. With a relatively paltry selection of native apps and a mobile web surfing experience reminiscent of dial-up internet access circa 2000 the question I’m left with is which smartphone do I go with- one from Android or Apple?

With the Android-based Motorola Bionic delayed until the second half of the year and rumors of the iPhone 5 shipping anywhere between September and the next year, the immediate decision seems to come down to whether I should get the 4G LTE network-enabled HTC Thunderbolt or iPhone 4. But is this the real question I should be asking myself?

The speed of Android’s rise to prominence in the U.S. smartphone market has been nothing short of amazing, growing from a 9% market share in February 2010 to 33% in February 2011, vaulting Android’s operating system from 4th to 1st place in the process according to comScore. Over that same period of time Apple’s U.S. smartphone market share has stayed flat at 25%. This had led to people like venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures to suggest that developers should build for the Android operating system first.

What Fred’s analysis, this market share data and my question fail to address though is the broader market dynamics of mobile. The battle everyone is focusing on is Android versus iOS smartphones- and why not? With 70% of the U.S. still using feature phones, according to the same comScore data, the market opportunity for smartphones remains massive. Even so, the war between Apple and Google is actually taking place at a much broader level, as decisions made by consumers like myself and developers alike will decide who the eventual market leader will be for the entire mobile operating system (OS) market- not just smartphones.

While Android might be winning the smartphone market share battle, it’s at the mobile OS level that iOS holds the advantage over Android. Google’s primary market for distributing its mobile OS is the smartphone via HTC, Motorola, Samsung and other handset manufacturers. Apple on the other hand distributes iOS across three markets through its own devices- handheld entertainment devices (via the iPod Touch), smartphones (iPhone) and tablets (iPad). Because of this Apple’s outlook is much broader in scope- to get its other iOS devices into the hands of the 80% of the market (70% of the feature phone users in the U.S. plus the 1/3rd of the smartphone market not on Android or Apple smartphone) not using an Android or iOS smartphone. By getting consumers to purchase an iPad or iPod Touch, Apple can create a barrier to entry for Google through high switching costs.

With every app install, especially paid ones and those that can be used across device types, consumers increase their switching costs for leaving Apple’s ecosystem. So when the time comes for iPad and iPod owners to upgrade their mobile phones, the iPhone is the natural choice since these users are already familiar with Apple’s App Store and iOS user experience. With the iPod’s market share pegged at 70% of the digital music market last year according to NPD and iPad’s at 85% of the tablet market in 2010 according to ABI Research, Apple has a huge advantage over Google in getting consumers onto its mobile OS platform through these types of devices. As iPod sales begin to decline though, the growth in iPad sales will be the key complimentary product in Apple’s effort to gain market share in the smartphone market.

According to a different study released by comScore earlier this week, there is evidence to corroborate iOS’ network effect for Apple in the U.S. iOS’ reach is 59% greater than that of Android when you combine iPad, iPhone and iPod users. This translates into approximately 38 million iOS users overall in the U.S. versus nearly 24 million Android users. More importantly though, in looking at iPad sales specifically, BlackBerry users account for the second highest percentage of iPad owners, behind iPhone customers, followed closely by Samsung and LG. This represents a great opportunity for Apple to convert these users into iPhone customers once their contracts are up or they ready to switch to an advanced smartphone. Update: comScore just released a similar study for the European market showing Apple’s reach being 116% greater than Android in France, Germany, Italy Spain and the UK- albeit on a smaller user base (29 million consumers) than in the U.S. As it relates to iPad adoption, Nokia users closely follow iPhone users in iPad ownership, providing Apple with a huge opportunity to take market share from the largest mobile handset manufacturer in the world.

So how can Android better compete with iOS at the mobile OS level?

  • First, Google needs to nail down agreements with the music industry’s four main record labels in order to launch its cloud-based music competitor to iTunes. This will allow manufacturers to create devices that can finally compete with the iPod and eliminate the biggest feature advantage of the iOS platform.
  • Second, Android tablets need to be synched with the smartphone’s OS platform. The Motorola XOOM, which launched with much fanfare towards the end of February as the first real competitive threat to the iPad (after winning Best of Show at CES in January), seems to have come up short. Sales of the tablet have been estimated at 100,000 devices in its first 5 weeks on the market compared to the iPad which sold 300,000 devices its very first day and nearly 5 million devices in the just announced second quarter. By running a newer and completely different version of Android than its smartphone siblings (Honeycomb 3.0 versus Android 2.0 thru 2.3.3) the device hasn’t been able to leverage apps from the smartphone Android Marketplace. According to Apple’s COO Tim Cook a fragmented ecosystem where Android tablets have less than 100 apps to choose from while iPad customers have 65,000. Without a cohesive OS platform across device types, Android will lack the switching costs afforded to Apple’s OS ecosystem.

For developers, the 189 million cumulative iOS devices sold through the end of March 2011 represents a huge market opportunity. Add in ease of monetization and payment mechanisms in addition to a formal app discovery process that is still lacking in Android’s marketplace, you can see why companies like Color and Instagram chose to launch in the iOS App Store first and why there continues to be more apps available for iOS than Android even though Apple has a more stringent app vetting process.

As for myself, the decision was easy once I took a step back and looked at the broader mobile OS ecosystem options. Even though I already owned an iPod Touch, I’ve decided to go with iOS primarily because I was planning on picking up a new iPad in the first place. So by default, the iPhone it is for me. With three different types of devices being tied to iOS when it’s all said and done I will be Apple’s ideal customer. The only question I have left? Do I wait for the white iPhone.

Mobile Video: The Final Frontier for Ad Networks?

Earlier this month TechCrunch broke the news that mobile video ad platform Transpera had been acquired by online video ad network Tremor Media. The deal came almost exactly three months after Tremor’s last transaction, the purchase of video ad network ScanScout. The Tremor-ScanScout merger was part of a string of announcements in the online video ad space last fall which began with top 10 online display advertising network Specific Media acquiring video ad platform BBE and ending with another leading ad network, Undertone, buying Jambo Media, a video solutions company.

With advertising a major theme at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona could this latest Tremor news set off the next round of capabilities expansion and provider consolidation amongst ad networks?

With online video projected to grow 55% annually through 2014, making it the fastest growing online ad format worldwide, it’s easy to see why there’s interest from both traditional display and pure play video ad networks in acquiring online video market share. Looking at recent industry trends and projections, mobile video might be poised to follow this same type of growth trajectory, creating a similar opportunity for ad networks looking to provide cross-platform digital ad solutions to agencies and advertisers.

  • Devices: Worldwide smartphone shipments passed PCs in total volume for the first time in the 4th quarter of last year while tablet shipments, led by Apple’s iPad, are expected to reach nearly 56 million this year and 172 million by 2014.
  • Network Traffic: In Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Forecast, updated this month, the company predicted that, by 2015, two-thirds of all global mobile data traffic would be video.
  • Advertising: Mobile ad spending is projected to exceed $18 billion worldwide by 2015, representing over 15% of digital advertising’s spend. While in the U.S. video is expected to continue growing faster than any other mobile segment through 2014.

Together, these data points confirm that the PC-based era of the web has been officially replaced by the mobile web, which consumers are already taking advantage of through the proliferation of mobile device types. According to The Nielsen Company, Americans, led by teens and young adults, watch an average of 3 ½ hours of video a month on their mobile devices. To understand just how quickly video consumption habits are evolving look at YouTube’s announcement last month that it has reached 200 million video views per day on mobile devices- an increase of 300% over the beginning of 2010.

Media companies and marketers are looking at ways to quantify this audience in aggregate in an effort to bring advertising economics to parity across all “three screens” (television, web and mobile). This represents a big opportunity for ad networks willing to put forth the technical and execution effort to target mobile audiences fragmented by app-type (mobile web versus native apps), device (smartphones versus tablets), operating system (Android, BlackBerry, iOS, etc.) and ad unit interactivity (passive versus touch-screen).

Because ad guidelines and standards for the mobile web are still maturing in comparison to display and online video, ad networks interested in entering the mobile video space would benefit from acquiring video delivery expertise and an embedded distribution network. Any M&A activity would involve one of these three types of acquisition strategies:

  1. Buy capabilities and market share: This tact was used by Specific Media to enter the online video market by acquiring a top 10 video ad provider and instantly gaining reach. If leading online video advertising networks BrightRoll and YuMe, which launched their respective mobile advertising solutions last fall, don’t see adoption of their offerings, they might be forced to take this route in order to match Tremor Media’s cross-platform scale in video. From the display advertising perspective, only Microsoft and Yahoo as well as the largest ad networks will be able to afford this type of acquisition due to lofty valuations in mobile and video.
  2. Buy capabilities, leverage market share in current business: Undertone took this route by leveraging its own scale on the display advertising side with its video technology purchase to become a top 10 online video ad provider of its own within a couple of months of the acquisition. This is the most capital efficient way for any ad networks to enter the mobile video business, though acting quickly will be the key to successfully executing this strategy due to the limited number of acquisition options and venture capital being invested in the segment.
  3. Extend capabilities and market share: As for Tremor Media, already a leader in the online video advertising space, its deal allowed the company to add product expertise (video overlay ads) while growing its reach and video ad volume. Millennial Media, the largest independent mobile ad network which raised $27.5 million earlier this year, and has raised $65 million overall, is the best positioned mobile ad network to take advantage of this strategy due to its profitability, exit options and capital on hand.

While Google bought its way into a dominate position in the U.S. mobile advertising market (including interactive video ad capabilities) with its purchase of AdMob last year, the growth of YouTube’s mobile website has allowed Google to become a cross-platform provider of mobile video monetization solutions. Apple on the other hand used its acquisition of AdMob competitor Quattro Wireless to build the iAd Network solely for its own mobile operating system (iOS). With two of the largest ad networks having been acquired by the two leading mobile operating platforms what merger opportunities still exist in mobile video advertising?

  • JumpTap: The company added video to its suite of mobile ad formats last year in an effort to broaden its appeal to clients. JumpTap, which delivers ads across all major smartphone platforms (Android, BlackBerry and iOS) as well as the iPad, is considered the largest independent mobile ad network in the U.S. after Millennial Media. As such, the company will most likely have to wait and see what happens with Millennial (which will either go public or get acquired) before drawing interest from the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo and potentially Research in Motion (maker of BlackBerry) who have all been rumored acquirers of a mobile ad network and the only companies large enough to digest JumpTap’s $69 million in capital raised.
  • Mogreet: The company provides mobile video advertising solutions through SMS and MMS mobile messaging services, allowing Mogreet to address the feature phone audience as well. Considering the limitation of their offering, especially when you consider the growth of the smartphone and tablet markets, and the $7 million invested in the company thus far, an acquisition of this company would be a stretch for a U.S.-based ad network but maybe not for a network in a large developing market such as Brazil, India, Indonesia or Russia where feature phones dominate the market.
  • Rhythm NewMedia: From a pure play mobile video ad network perspective, Rhythm NewMedia has built the most envious, cross-platform network out there of the remaining independent players. The company, which recently raised $10 million, only works with premium brand advertisers and publishers across Android and iOS mobile platforms covering both smartphones and iPads. Having raised $37 million in total funding makes Rhythm a pricey acquisition for anyone not named Microsoft or Yahoo at this point though.
  • Vdopia: While the company is an online video ad network with extensive operations and market share in India, it also operates iVdopia, a mobile video ad network. Its mobile offering covers both Android and iOS platforms (including iPads) as well as mobile websites. Claiming it has reached profitability, and with only $4 million raised, Vdopia would be a prudent acquisition for an online global ad network.

Beyond these mobile video ad companies there are several other start-ups that focus on providing rich media advertising solutions for smartphones, tablets and the mobile web that could provide the framework for a video offering for ad networks interested in getting into mobile video. Greystripe which focuses on rich media banner ads primarily for the iPhone, while supporting Android  and Java feature phones as well, has raised the most venture capital of the group ($18 million), followed by Medialets ($10 million) and Crisp Media (at least $5 million). Greystripe’s strength is in its ability to transcode Flash ads into HTML5 in order to support Apple’s Flash-restriction on iOS devices. Both Crisp Media and Medialets, neither of which are an ad network but instead earn revenue from serving rich media ads to mobile devices, do provide video ad solutions for both smartphones and tablets. The biggest challenge facing these companies will be potentially pricing themselves out of the M&A market if they continue to raise capital. Based on this, Crisp Media might be an ideal technology pick-up for an ad network with a strong client-base and distribution network.

With the display inventory component of mobile advertising already being automated through demand side platforms like DataXu and real-time bidding exchanges like Mobclix, mobile video might be the last digital ad segment where ad networks can extract additional margin out of the industry through ad effectiveness and audience scale. Perfecting the online and app video experience will be important beyond just mobile as internet television, the next great digital ad opportunity, will leverage these advertising frameworks for its own platform monetization. As agencies begin to provide digital services at global scale to their advertising clients, ad networks that can deliver audiences across devices and digital formats, at scale, will garner the lion’s share of ad campaign dollars coming from these agencies going forward. To accomplish this ad network’s need to boldly go where most networks haven’t gone before.

Photo credit: fdecomite/Flickr

Where the New Commerce Opportunities are in the Current Wave of Innovation

At TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference a few weeks ago legendary venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers spoke about what he considers to be the next, and third, great wave of innovation- the intersection of social, mobile and new commerce. Like swells in an ocean, technology innovation is not comprised of a single wave or event, but instead a series of them. Smaller, initial waves enable those in the middle of a set to generate the largest swell and associated impact, while the smaller waves at the end benefit from all the efforts of the preceding waves in the group.

While I would agree with GigaOM’s Om Malik that we are already in the throes of John Doerr’s third wave, the areas of social, mobile and commerce each represent a unique wave in time within this current innovation set. Social is an important, but early wave that will help mobile, the middle wave, generate the largest impact in this third technology wave. One of the benefactors of both the social and mobile innovation waves will be commerce, which well-known early stage investors Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures have both identified in recent months as being areas of emerging opportunity.

In 2007, two events helped propel this commerce wave forward more than any others- the launch of Facebook’s platform and Apple’s release of the iPhone. Though Friendster and MySpace preceded Facebook in the area of social networking, the ability to create and extend the social graph of what is now 500 million users to third-party websites and services has enabled Facebook to become the social identity layer for the worldwide web today. Meanwhile Apple changed the mobile landscape forever by enabling applications to be developed for the iPhone that leveraged the smartphone’s capabilities as well as those of the wireless carriers’ networks. The traditional insular, walled-garden approach to third-party content and services on carrier data networks and mobile handsets has been replaced by innovation around the mobile internet and applications. This has resulted in enhanced functionality and value to consumers from not only the iPhone but other smartphones and mobile operating systems looking to benefit from this new ecosystem- all while driving additional data revenues for wireless carriers in the process.

The Social Wave

Internet commerce websites like Amazon were actually early adopters of social technologies- empowering their customers to post reviews and ratings on product pages to help other Amazon shoppers determine whether or not to buy a particular item. This crowd-sourcing feedback model hasn’t evolved much since first being launched though, keeping the relationship between reviewers and shoppers fairly anonymous and thus limiting consumers’ trust factor. Allowing users to layer their social graph on top of the commerce experience would enable potential buyers to see feedback from family and friends or their extended social network first, further enhancing the shopping experience for consumers and inevitably driving better revenues for commerce sites.

Recently launched Blippy and Swipely both aim to capitalize on this theme by enabling their users to share purchase transactions with their social graph. While these companies are focused on creating a discussion around purchases post-transaction, there is an opportunity in being able to curate this commentary and incorporate it into product feedback loops across commerce sites, making the shopping experience even more personal and dynamic.

Probably the hottest area in online commerce though has been the group buying segment with the likes of Groupon and LivingSocial raising $135 million and $39 million respectively this year alone. While the business model isn’t new (Mercata and MobShop, founded in the late 1990’s were the original group buying platforms that became casualties of the internet bubble), the ability to tap into consumers’ social graph to enable the group buying mechanics to work is.

The Mobile Wave

After years of promises, mobile finally seems ready to deliver on the cliché “get-a-Starbucks-coupon-on-your-phone-when-you-walk-nearby.” With the ramp in mobile internet subscribers already exceeding the speed of traditional desktop internet adoption and global smartphone sales expected to surpass personal computing in 2012 according to Morgan Stanley Internet analyst Mary Meeker, how mobile is being thought of and used in commerce is changing dramatically. With most commerce companies already having a mobile version of their website and native applications available across various mobile app platforms, the biggest opportunities in mobile going forward are in bringing real-world and digital experiences together via augmented reality and enabling a variety of payment capabilities through mobile phones.

Augmented reality brings information from the web into the real world in real-time. This can be accomplished by (1) adding visual data elements to the visible world (i.e. through Layar’s Reality Browser) while looking at something through a mobile phone camera, (2) leveraging QR (quick response) codes located on storefront decals (which Google makes available through Google Places) or outdoor ads to access additional information about a place or item via the mobile internet and (3) adding data to physical objects via bar codes (the idea behind recently launched StickyBits) or associating data with locations people have visited (a la Foursquare ‘tips’). In each of these instances the opportunity is to quickly and conveniently provide additional information to help consumers make more informed decisions.

Mobile payments represent the largest, albeit most fragmented, opportunity as Generator Research predicts the market will grow almost ten-fold from last year to $633 billion in worldwide revenues by 2014, driven by nearly 500 million users. The types of payments users are able to initiate vary from physical dongles like Square that allow phones to function as cash registers for merchants, to buying virtual goods for apps through Boku or Zong using a consumers’ mobile phone bill instead of a credit card, to paying friends through platforms such as PayPal or Venmo.

How can commerce make the best use of these innovations?

The underlying theme with many of these commerce examples, from aggregating audiences for sales to sending users mobile coupons, is their focus on addressing the supply-side of the commerce equation. Instead of trying to find new ways to incentivize demand for products and services through price elasticity or information overload, the more interesting and challenging opportunity in commerce is creating solutions to identify demand pre-transaction. If consumers had efficient ways to signal their intent on an individual or aggregate basis prior to making a purchase, a whole new commerce paradigm could be created around real-time demand fulfillment. Some possibilities include:

  • A group of co-workers decide to go out and have lunch together and broadcast their intent to restaurants at the local mall who in turn have the ability to offer coupons or discounts to these consumers before they make their decision;
  • A family on vacation in New York City is interested in sight-seeing as well as catching a show on Broadway. The father sends out a prioritized list of attractions and a budget to local travel agents, which respond with multiple itineraries based on the given parameters.
  • Several people in the same city are looking to buy the same toy. They query their phone to find the cheapest price. Participating stores are notified of inquiry and are given the ability to offer a discount if a minimum number of these consumers buy today, which can be completed on the phone and the toy held for pick-up.

The key distinction with these futuristic examples is that instead of making consumers proactively pull information from disparate sources to get answers, the information is pushed to consumers based on their stated intent. Pleet, which launched earlier this month out of the UK, looks to address this opportunity by “socializing vouchers” around consumers’ intended action in a specific location. Well-known tech blogger Robert Scoble also explores the possibilities of real-time, in-the-moment commerce that leverages context aware apps and services  in a guest post on TechCrunch this month. In either user case (pre-sale or during an event) the default requirement is that the consumer has control over which apps and services can share what type of data with one another and what information (updates, offers, etc.) is allowed to get pushed to users and their social graphs.

Mobile’s role in all this is to tie these web services to a user’s physical location to enable various types of commerce opportunities to occur as well as provide a way for consumers to add information in real-time to enhance the value of the data. For this reason augmented reality (AR) does have a viable future, despite some of the early hype around it. AR can pick up where intent-based, push-oriented commerce opportunities leave off by providing consumers with the ability to pull dynamic information from the internet into their real-world situations. That is why services like Foursquare and StickyBits that allow users to access data related to places and objects via barcodes respectively have a great chance to succeed- because they can generate a large network effect not only from social connections on the platform but also due to the information users are augmenting these respective services with. So for those instances where someone doesn’t have the ability to request offers and information from restaurants on lunch discounts they can instead leverage an augmented reality app that contains information on proximity to restaurants in the area as well as any reviews from friends, general feedback or coupons and make reservations in the process.

Some of the winners will be companies everyone knows…

Amazon- Even though Amazon has been accused of missing the boat on social commerce, they still have the very enviable position of being the largest pure-play ecommerce company, and fastest growing retailer, in the U.S. With all the product information and review data they have collected over the years and experience in managing online storefronts, Amazon could not only empower other sites and apps with this data but also manage the supply chain for consumers looking to transact via mobile yet pick up products at a physical location. The value of the company’s data set could be further enhanced for its own financial benefit by enabling Facebook users to access their social graph through the Amazon.com website.

Apple- The company’s inclusion is due to its recent acquisition of Siri, a voice-activated personal assistant application, rather than being the leading smartphone and app platform. Siri’s value to Apple is in its ability to integrate various APIs from a variety of restaurant, movie, weather, taxi and event services to enable voice-activated search which can lead to a variety of commerce opportunities. In the process of integrating Siri into the iPhone, Apple is also laying the groundwork for an entirely new user experience in mobile search.

Facebook- The company has already proven the power of combining the social graph with commerce by enabling a billion dollar economy in virtual goods to arise. With the launch of Credits, which could become one-third of the company’s revenues over the course of the next 12 months, Facebook has an opportunity to become a big player in mobile payments by enabling alternative payment options for its virtual currency. Combined with the fact that Facebook not only has the most popular mobile app out there but also provides authentication for a number of other mobile apps, there is tremendous upside in what the company can achieve in the commerce space.

Google- The launch of Android, Google Latitude, Google Maps and Google Places over the years are all efforts to bring location into the search equation. Being able to marry search intent with location data opens up a new revenue opportunity around local search advertising and commerce for Google, which despite their forays into display advertising, needs to continue to rely on search advertising to grow its business.

…While other are just getting started

Some of the aforementioned companies in the social transaction, group buying, augmented reality and mobile payments spaces all have opportunities to succeed in this new wave of commerce innovation. The broad category of augmented reality is the most interesting because it operates at the intersection of both worlds (real and digital) so is best suited to incorporate social and mobile features from these other businesses. While most success stories will be through acquisition, companies like Foursquare have the potential to succeed on their own by focusing on the demand and intent side of the commerce equation. Since the company has created a user experience around “checking-in” to locations and venues as well as leaving “tips”, it would require only a slight modification in behavior to have users instead display their intent by “pre-checkin” and aggregating the demand they already capture to drive additional utility around commerce. Even though the company has focused on the game mechanics of its service, the fact that it has nailed social and mobile interaction gives it a leg-up on other competitors.

While I can see why Josh Kopelman believes the past 10 months have shown greater innovation in online shopping than the past 10 years, I believe the wave has yet to come and that the next 18 months is where the greatest innovation will occur around real-time, intent-oriented commerce.

Photo credits: Madeleine1912/Photobucket, centralasian/Flickr and chizzachong/Flickr.

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Online Display Advertising’s Data Game- Who Will Be Left Out?

2010 is likely to go down as the Year of the Audience in online display advertising as marketers, looking for better returns from their investments in a challenging economy, are turning to search advertising’s strengths to help reach specific individuals across the internet. Search is the largest, and continues to be the fastest growing, segment of the $20 billion online advertising market in the U.S. because it brings advertisers results. The move toward delivering ad impressions on a unique visitor basis across disparate websites is an effort to improve the results of display advertising campaigns by leveraging what makes search advertising so effective- matching web users’ displayed interests and intentions with an advertiser’s defined audience.

This trend in data-driven ad targeting, which is expected to be the primary growth driver for display advertising going forward, has given birth to a number of new intermediaries in the online display advertising ecosystem:
As one can see, depending on an advertiser’s needs and requirements, there are many components to delivering ad impressions to targeted audiences. The new companies that have launched to fulfill the roles of these new intermediaries, especially around data, are capturing most of the additional value being created in the ecosystem. With so many new entrants competing for a piece of the display advertising pie who are the winners going to be?

Before answering this question, it’s worth defining what data is actually being captured and how it’s being leveraged by intermediaries on behalf of advertisers. When someone performs a search query through a search box on a browser or through a website the URL associated with the results page will contain the keywords used in the search request.

When the searcher clicks on any link on the results page, this URL string is passed to the destination website along with the user. While the keyword data is being captured by the web publisher, social tool services, such as commenting and sharing services, can also gain access to this data if their service requires JavaScript implemented on the web page. Marketers, through various demand side intermediaries can reach this searcher by having the intermediary place a cookie on that individual’s computer once they land on the publisher’s site to identify that person when they visit a different website where the advertiser has the ability to serve a banner ad based on the interest the user has shown through their search activity.

Here’s an example of how it would work. Johnny searches for “cell phone” on Google.com and clicks on a link on the result page that sends him to Engadget.com, where a cookie is placed on Johnny’s computer by Invite Media on behalf of AT&T’s agency. When Johnny visits Yahoo.com, a website through which the agency has the ability to buy inventory via Invite Media, he sees an ad from AT&T for a cell phone.

Because audience targeting revolves around intent-oriented data, the intermediaries that have arisen within the ecosystem to fill various data needs are going to experience the greatest consolidation as some of the services being provided morph into one another or become more standardized across other demand side intermediaries. Anticipating and addressing the needs of this evolving marketplace will be the only way for companies to survive and prosper.

Stand-alone data selling is not a viable business. While selling intent-oriented data to online display advertising intermediaries can be a low-effort revenue stream, it’s an ancillary business even for the largest data providers. As more web publishers and social tool providers begin to offer advertisers access to user search data, that data starts to become commoditized as advertisers and their intermediaries have more partners to choose from to create their audiences. Automation around identifying data from appropriate partners and delivering audiences for campaigns will only hasten the commoditization of keyword data. Google on the other hand, by keeping its search-related data proprietary rather than selling it to third-parties, has been able to determine the value of its data through the development of AdWords. Companies that sell their data to third-parties are allowing these parties to determine the value of the data to their own detriment.

Data exchanges must evolve or die. Being a broker between data suppliers and intermediaries is a short-term business model. Because the whole notion of using intent data to target users is in its infancy, data exchanges have become an easy starting point for advertisers to find data to test display campaigns against. The problem is that as other intermediaries within the ecosystem get more experience and smarter about audience targeting, they will seek out direct relationships with the largest and most effective data providers, thus bypassing data exchanges all together. For data exchanges to survive they need to evolve to provide value-added services to their clients such as those being offered by Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) and Social Data Targeting companies.

Adding social data points will prove to be valuable. While keyword data has the potential to become commoditized as previously explained, data culled from users commenting on articles and sharing links into Facebook and Twitter provides unique additional value to display advertisers. Continuing with the “cell phone” search example, if Johnny ends up on a web page after searching for “cell phone” and then shares a link  to a positive article about the iPhone, the additional information associated with the link being shared (iPhone versus just cell phone) helps better define Johnny’s interest and provides a stronger signal of his purchase intent. Even though social data can provide a higher degree of confidence related to search intent, the data itself is not as structured as search data. As a result, being able to package the information effectively and make it actionable will be the key to success.

But can social data targeting companies find the holy grail? A number of companies are exploring how to leverage social data, in combination with search data in many cases, to provide better conversion and larger audiences for targeted campaigns. While the approaches to finding the best algorithm might differ (Media6 Degrees looks for network neighbors while 33Across creates influencer social graphs and Lotame categorizes user activity on social networks), any sign of superior, and repeatable, results will quickly drive acquisitions of these companies by one of the GYMs (Google, Yahoo or Microsoft) to be leveraged internally or by their respective ad exchanges. DSPs looking to expand and enhance their platform offering could also be an acquirer, but would need to do so before valuations get to high.

Demand-side platforms’ dilemma. The proliferation of DSPs is not without warrant as they hold the promise of tying together disparate ad exchanges and ad networks, as well as data providers, into a single interface to enable real-time bidding of online display inventory for targeting purposes by media buyers. The key to how this market evolves will depend on which companies will be the first to be acquired and which ones decide to make a go of it alone. The two most natural types of acquirers, GYMs and agency holding companies, each face their own potential challenges in purchasing one of the players in this space.

Agencies would benefit the most from owning one of these platforms, but are unlikely to pay the full or potential value that the venture-backers of these companies are looking for because any revenue being generated from competing agencies on these platforms would disappear upon acquisition by another agency. Even though Google is a likely acquirer at some point this year, they, along with Microsoft and Yahoo, risk alienating clients and partners of potential acquisition targets by bringing the neutrality provided by the DSP platform into question. Preferential treatment of intermediary services from the GYMs, such as ad exchanges that are integrated into the DSP, would destroy the platform’s business and partnerships. Companies such as AppNexus, Invite Media and MediaMath have the early client adoption and capitalization (i.e. they haven’t raised too much money) necessary to be likely acquisition candidates.

Because DSPs are already enabling data to be combined with inventory acquisition on their platforms, one or two of these companies have the potential to incorporate the capabilities of Data Exchanges as well as Social Data Targeting companies (the latter through acquisition) to create a more robust offering that simplifies the demand side of the display advertising equation. With its early success and strong management team, AppNexus could be the one to create a viable, stand-alone entity.

The supply side will strike back. The early days of data-driven targeting has enabled advertisers to find audiences across premium websites that charge higher CPMs for ad impressions and target those same individuals across ad networks and websites with cheaper advertising inventory. This has created an opportunity for inventory yield optimization companies to help publishers retain some of the revenue opportunity and CPM value being lost to the demand side platforms. This is likely to include enabling audiences to be created and targeted across disparate websites of premium publishers as well as the development of supply side exchanges, as suggested by Will price, CEO of Widgetbox. Companies such as AdMeld, Rubicon Project and Yieldex will be the biggest benefactors of this in addition to their publisher clients at the expense of ad networks and ad exchanges.

As competing offerings begin to look and sound the same within and across intermediaries, analytics and transparency will be the keys to building a successful business. Analytics will not only need to serve as a dashboard for campaign results, but also provide insight into which aspects did or did not perform well and potential reasons as to why. With so many parties involved in every transaction, transparency will grow in importance from a trust and verifiability perspective as well as enable insights to be drawn from each aspect of the value chain.

Beyond this, determining the winners in the online display advertising ecosystem will be somewhat dependant on Google’s actions as they have made it apparent that display advertising is the company’s next growth opportunity. Google has not been afraid to pay top-dollar to acquire the pieces they need or build these services themselves, thus driving potential acquisition targets into the arms of Microsoft or Yahoo and leaving the rest of the competition out of the game.

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How the Mobile OS Wars Will Be Won

The future of the mobile industry is pretty clear- it’s all about data. Data revenues have allowed U.S. carriers to keep subscriber ARPU’s relatively stable in the face of 30% declines in voice revenues over the past five years. Look no further than Verizon Wireless’ recent announcement to allow unlimited Skype-to-Skype voice calls over its 3G network to see the future revenue prospects of voice, now a commodity service.

Data revenues, in contrast, are expected to continue their explosive growth, more than doubling by 2013 according to a recent Telecommunications Industry Association report. It’s no coincidence that over the same period smartphone sales are projected to account for more than 40% of all wireless devices sold domestically as the underlying mobile operating systems on these devices are providing the necessary functionality and services that are enabling greater data consumption by mobile subscribers.

At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress, Microsoft made the mobile OS market a lot more interesting with its unveiling of Windows Phone 7 Series, a completely rethought and overhauled, mobile operating system. Having met with glowing first impressions, the largest software company in the world has positioned itself to compete across the entire smartphone OS spectrum- from Research in Motion’s productivity devices to mass market offerings leveraging Google’s Android platform to feature-rich iPhones from Apple. However, without the ability for manufacturers to upgrade their handsets from Microsoft’s current operating system, Windows Mobile 6.x, to Windows Phone 7, Microsoft will need to build adoption for its new platform from scratch. Microsoft, like the entire mobile OS market, has to successfully address three key relationships in the mobile ecosystem, and not just build a great technology platform, in order to win market share.

1. Device manufacturer access. To get an operating system into consumer hands, most mobile software providers need to partner with device manufacturers. Google has attempted to remove any potential barrier for these OEMs to adopt its Android platform by making it free to use, open source and fully customizable. Microsoft on the other hand is continuing with its licensing model for the Windows Phone 7 operating system as well as imposing stringent hardware requirements on its device partners going forward.

It is these requirements, in conjunction with recent events, that make it unlikely that HTC will continue as Microsoft’s primary device partner. First, HTC, which built the Nexus One for Google, just launched its own version of the Android device at the Mobile World Congress. Dubbed the Desire, this handset incorporates HTC’s Sense, a design experience the company is implementing across all of its future devices, regardless of the underlying operating system, which could run afoul of Microsoft’s new partner standards. Secondly, HTC’s soon to launch HD2, the most feature-rich smartphone running the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system, does not meet Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 requirements to qualify for an OS upgrade.  Considering the close relationship HTC fostered with Google in developing the Nexus One, Microsoft would be prudent to look elsewhere for access to consumers.

Fortunately for Microsoft, LG, the third largest mobile handset manufacturer in the world, and second in the U.S., has announced its intention to be the first OEM to launch a Windows Phone 7 handset this fall. This could result in faster adoption for Microsoft’s new mobile OS especially if other OEMs decide to diversify their operating system portfolio due to Google’s directly competitive Nexus One mobile offering.

Unlike Google and Microsoft, Apple and Research In Motion view their primary businesses as being mobile. Due to this  both have vertically integrated the development of handsets and the underlying operating system. This has enabled both companies to enjoy a more direct relationship with consumers and helps ensure a more consistent user experience across their respective handsets. It’s no surprise that combined, Apple and RIM control two-thirds of the U.S. smartphone market.

2. Retail outlet distribution. As Google learned in launching the Nexus One device, working with the network carrier on distribution and marketing is essential for driving sales and adoption. Google’s internet-only, direct-to-consumer approach to selling the Nexus One on T-Mobile’s network resulted in less than 100,000 of these devices being sold in the first month. Contrast that with the launch of Motorola’s Android-based Droid which resulted in over 500,000 units being sold in its initial month. The Droid’s relative success to the Nexus One can be attributed to the coordinated support from Verizon Wireless which (a) has the largest subscriber base and arguably the best wireless network in the U.S. (b) provided distribution for the device through its retail outlets and (c) was backed by a $100 million marketing campaign.

More than any other mobile OS provider, Research In Motion has benefitted from its wireless carrier relationships. With BlackBerry devices available on every major carrier’s network in the U.S., and thus distribution provided through every wireless retail outlet imaginable, RIM has reached over 40% share of the domestic smartphone market.

Apple on the other hand has succeeded in spite of its exclusive relationship with AT&T Mobility in the U.S., primarily because it revolutionized the smartphone experience with the iPhone, but also because it has been able to drive distribution for its device through its own Apple stores.

3. Developer retention. While device manufacturers and wireless carriers are the critical factors in driving smartphone OS adoption, the iPhone exemplifies why developers are the key to retention. In spite of all the grief and anger directed at AT&T by iPhone users, most customers are unwilling to switch wireless carriers due to the personalization functionality provided by the iPhone through its app store. Even with Apple’s frustrating application approval process, developers continue to focus on building for the iPhone platform because it offers the most lucrative revenue opportunity, according to interviews conducted by Gizmodo at the Mobile World Congress, with interest in Android a distant second but growing due to its potential reach now that 60,000 Android-enabled devices are shipping daily.

Microsoft will need to create the same enthusiasm with developers for its new operating system in order to get these individuals to allocate some of their development time and efforts to learn yet another platform. Unfortunately Microsoft lost a chance to jumpstart its efforts by not having a path for them to port their current Windows Mobile apps to Windows Phone 7.

…and the winner is? I agree with Accel Partner’s Richard Wong that fragmentation in the mobile space is here to stay due to technology but also because of varying business models.

Domestically, Apple will determine how the mobile OS market plays out. If it were to end its exclusive arrangement with AT&T and go with a multi-carrier approach, which has proven to be successful from a market share and financial perspective overseas, Apple would control the most lucrative smartphone market in the world due to its strong relationships within the mobile ecosystem versus its competitors.

Worldwide, Gartner Inc.’s prediction that Google’s Android platform will surpass BlackBerry, the iPhone and Windows Mobile in market share in 2012 is fairly safe due to Google’s approach and the economics of its operating system. Google’s interests in the mobile space are squarely focused on search and location-based advertising. As such, giving away its platform makes complete sense. The biggest risk Google faces is getting into its own way by pushing corporate agendas that come at the expense of partner relationships. Developing its own mobile handset, acting like a telecom company by acquiring wireless spectrum or building its own broadband network, and allowing the fragmentation of the Android operating system are all examples of how Google could quickly lose favor with each of the three key relationships in the mobile ecosystem.

Through sheer size alone Microsoft should be able to rebuild most of the market share it has captured with previous iterations of its mobile operating system with Windows Phone 7, but not to the point that will make it a market leader. Microsoft’s continued reliance on a licensing model for its mobile OS and restrictive design parameters will hurt adoption as it competes against a free and open Android platform. While integrating the Xbox experience directly into the Windows Phone 7′s capabilities might be enough to convert some iPhone gaming enthusiasts, Microsoft’s Zune is a distant second to iTunes’ content portfolio, making it difficult to compete with Apple’s overall smartphone offering.

With Microsoft committing $1 billion to develop its new mobile operating system, Research In Motion faces the greatest market share risk. Not only is an acquisition of RIM by Microsoft highly unlikely now, but Windows Phone 7 Series OS is best positioned to compete with BlackBerry’s biggest strength- mobile enterprise email. By bringing Outlook to its mobile operating system, Microsoft can woo traditional BlackBerry users with native email capabilities and additional functionality through its Office productivity suite. Research In Motion has not only taken a preemptive strike against Microsoft but Google as well, which has integrated Google Apps into Android devices, by releasing a free version of its enterprise server for small businesses. With a relatively small application store, RIM will have an even greater difficulty in retaining its mobile OS market share lead in the U.S. over the next few years.

Whatever the outcome the consumer wins, as the competition will continue to breed innovation and enable smartphones to further evolve from productivity devices into personalized mobile experiences- courtesy of the mobile operating system.

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Even with Android, and now Nexus One, Google Still has Apple Envy

While the media has enjoyed positioning the recent launch of Google’s Android-based Nexus One “superphone” manufactured by HTC as a direct competitive threat to Apple’s iPhone, I agree with Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital that this is the wrong question to try to answer as Apple and Google are taking very different approaches to the mobile market. Apple, as in the personal computer market, has focused on developing the most well designed, highest grossing margin, products they can imagine at the expense of market share. Google on the other hand, by open-sourcing the Android operating system to handset and device manufacturers for free, is aiming to become the most widely used mobile operating system at the expense of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and, to a lesser extent, Nokia’s Symbian (which is more widely used internationally) platforms. As Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures alludes to, by leveraging its ability to tightly integrate its applications (Calendar, Gmail, Maps, etc.) into Android, Google can extend the operating system to provide a solution for not only consumers, but the small/medium business market as well, right out of the box. Having also signaled their intent to develop an enterprise version of Nexus One, Google will be able to challenge Research In Motion’s Blackberry platform for larger, more lucrative business clients as well this year. Combined with a strong pipeline of Android-based handsets being released by device manufacturers over the course of the year, it’s more a question of when rather than if Android will become the largest mobile operating system in terms of market share in the United States.

With such a bright outlook in mobile, why would Google be envious of Apple? Because Google wants to be more than just a search company.

Google’s mission has always been associated with organizing the world’s information and making it accessible, which enables users to more easily find content to consume. Apple, whose mission statement has evolved to include spearheading the digital media revolution, focuses on delivering this content in the form of applications, music and videos to consumers through its own devices and services. It’s this difference in how content is discovered and where it is consumed that has enabled Apple to establish a more direct relationship with both consumers and content owners than Google has achieved and, in the process, extract more economic value from both by way of hardware sales to consumers (iPhone, iPods, etc.) and distribution fees (through iTunes sales) from content owners.

Google is attempting to eliminate this relationship discrepancy primarily through acquisition. DoubleClick and, most recently, AdMob were acquired to provide Google with online and mobile display ad monetization capabilities, respectively, wherever the content is, regardless of device. In an effort to keep a larger revenue share, and further bridge the relationship gap it has with consumers who use Google to search but consume content elsewhere, Google has also entered the content business by, most notably, acquiring YouTube to help keep consumers within its network. Combined with the company’s recently failed attempt to acquire Yelp, I agree with Simon Dumenco’s assertion in his Advertising Age article that Google is attempting to become a media company in the process. Because Google’s content efforts have focused on user generated content though, the company has entered into partnerships to match Apple’s content offering- cutting deals with television networks and movie studios for premium content for YouTube, supporting an open app ecosystem on the Android platform and exploring partnership opportunities in the music space (though an acquisition of an iTunes competitor such as MOG or Spotify would make sense for Google and Android at this point).

Regardless of the number of phones that are eventually sold with the Android operating system and applications that are added to the platform, the truth is Google will never be able to replicate what Apple does, as the two organizations have completely different cultures which is evidenced in their respective approaches to mobile. Google’s left-brain, quantitative, engineering-driven approach to business isn’t organized to compete with Apple’s right-brain, qualitative, design-driven model. It’s in the design process Apple is able to foster an emotional connection between its products and consumers, something Google is unable to achieve because it provides software-based services. And because Apple design approach integrates both the hardware and software components of its devices, content providers, including Google, must work directly with Apple in order to reach these consumers. Apple’s design prowess will be on display again next week when they finally unveil the long-rumored tablet device which is expected to bring additional types of premium content from print publishers directly to consumers through these devices- adding more fire to Google’s Apple envy.

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Developers Repeat After Me: App Platforms are Not Your Friend

Remake of Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercialThe numbers speak for themselves- apps are popular. Facebook now has over 350,000 active apps on its platform with 70% of Facebook’s users engaging with these apps on a monthly basis. Apple recently announced that the number of downloads from its App Store had surpassed 2 billion for the 85,000 applications on its platform. Add in 30,000 apps from Google-backed initiatives Android and OpenSocial, and over 11,000 apps being built off of Twitter’s API, you have nearly half-a-million apps out there across the most popular social platforms!

Consumers have benefited greatly from the entertainment and utility value provided by developers on these platforms, propelling applications to the forefront of the user experience for many of these services. The value to these mobile and web platform providers has been evident in the accelerated user growth these services have seen since opening up access to developers.

Developers for the most part haven’t shared a comparable level of success as these platforms though. With VentureBeat pegging the value of Facebook’s app ecosystem at approximately $500 million this year, similar in size to Facebook’s expected 2009 revenues, little opportunity is left for the remaining 350,000 applications once you get past the success of Zynga, Playfish and Playdom, the leading developers on Facebook and OpenSocial platforms. A similarly distorted distribution of applications and success exists on Apple’s platform where the size of the app economy has been projected as high as $2.4 billion per year by GigaOM. Based on this optimistic projection and assuming only 50% of downloaded apps are free, there still isn’t enough money for the average developer to prosper over the long-term. The opportunity for most developers in the long-tail of the App Store is further skewed when you consider some of the outsized success stories from the most popular apps on the platform. Because Android’s ecosystem is relatively young and Twitter lacks its own business model, it’s too early to see if developers can make a living off of these platforms.

Even the virtual goods sub-economy that has been allowed to emerge on centralized platform ecosystems like Facebook and MySpace, which Inside Network has valued at $1 billion in the U.S. this year- even before Apple’s announcement of in-app purchasing capabilities for all App Store applications, the opportunity is disproportionately concentrated with the most popular applications and largest multi-app, multi-platform developers.

Making matters even more difficult for developers is the not-so-friendly actions being taken by platform companies in wielding power over their ecosystems:

So why do developers keep building apps for these platforms? Because of the effort (low development threshold and time commitment  to launch) and opportunity (built-in, captive audiences) compared to building a stand-alone business. Fortunately for developers who want to build their own audiences, and not be reliant on a particular platform, there are two primary ways to leverage these mobile and web services for their own benefit:

  1. Port your success. If a developer has been fortunate enough to find success on any of these platforms, they should convert those users into visitors of their own domain or service like LivingSocial has done. LivingSocial was a big benefactor of Facebook’s redesign of their home page back in March, vaulting LivingSocial into the top 10 most popular developers on the platform in the month following the change. The company was able to turn some of those users into customers of LivingSocial.com, which saw its unique visitors to the site almost triple between March and April of this year.
  2. Port the platform. Foursquare have leveraged social graph data from Facebook and Twitter via Facebook Connect and Twitter OAuth respectively to enable users to build their own unique social graph on Foursquare.com. Additionally the mobile service encourages its users to send notifications of their whereabouts into their Facebook and Twitter streams, which results in free exposure and viral marketing for Foursquare’s service.

Though the threshold for success will vary for developers, based on whether or not they have taken institutional funding, the risks associated with developing on another entities’ platform or costs associated with developing for multiple platforms remain the same- the long-term value of a product or service cannot be maximized when its business success relies on a platform it can’t control or pay for service level assurances. Look no further than MySpace’s acquisition of iLike this past summer, for a small premium to its invested capital, for market validation of this. While these social platforms should absolutely be leveraged as part of any web or mobile strategy, remember that each platform’s goal is to maximize its own value and not that of the application developer. Luckily, as Andy Weissman, founder of Betaworks, points out, some of the most successful applications can and do become platforms themselves, so a bigger opportunity awaits those developers that understand the ecosystem relationship.

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April Showers for YouTube- What Will May Bring?

YouTube_ShowerMay did not come soon enough for YouTube. Starting the first week of April when Credit Suisse issued a research report estimating that the site would lose $470 million in 2009 and ending on the last day of the month with Hulu, its main competitor, announcing a much anticipated deal with Disney, YouTube spent April taking a beating in the media over its business model and outlook.

Looking past the media feeding frenzy though, there were several data points from March released by comScore during the month that keeps me believing in YouTube’s opportunity and enviable position.

  • Video. YouTube created the online video market and now delivers over 40% of the online video streams every month in the U.S., making it more than 10 times the size of the 2nd largest online video property Fox Interactive Media (which includes MySpace).

Now you can’t tell me that Twitter, MySpace or even Facebook wouldn’t love to have YouTube’s audience and market position. For Google though, the challenge remains- how to turn this opportunity into more meaningful revenues and a profit.

The company has started addressing the challenge through a series of recent initiatives. The most noteworthy (running Google TV Ads online and Video Ad Sense on unauthorized versions of copyrighted content) attempt to address the gap between the estimated 9% of videos that are currently being monetized by YouTube and the 80% of content that is professionally produced on the site (thanks to Dean Donaldson of Eyeblaster for this data point on slide 36). The other announcements (paid video downloads and ecommerce opportunities related to music, DVDs and games) are geared towards increasing the average revenue generated per user session.

From a deal perspective Google is attempting to improve the overall quality of YouTube’s content catalog, and associated CPM rates, by striking deals for TV shows and movies from Sony, MGM and Lionsgate, and getting clips from Disney’s ABC and ESPN properties. Combined, all of these initiatives can turn YouTube into a break even operation, but they do not unlock the real business potential which is promotion.

YouTube should embrace the promotional nature of its platform (just look at the list of most popular online videos of all time- mostly music videos and movie trailers) and consumption habits of its users (they watch over sixty 3 1/2 minute videos per month) to help content producers and advertisers reach this video “snacking” audience more effectively. Some companies already see the potential and are running their own campaigns for free across YouTube or leveraging companies like 750 Industries and Feed Company to help generate virality for their promotional videos.

Google has tried to address this opportunity by applying the automated AdWords auction model to videos through YouTube Sponsored Videos, which in theory makes sense but has its challenges from a delivery and brand experience perspective. Search works really well for text where there is context for the information you are looking for in determining the best results. This doesn’t hold true for video search which relies on inconsistent metadata tags to determine what the content is and doesn’t take into account whether the content is original, copyrighted or mashed-up. This can lead to inconsistent search results and magnify less relevant content which just won’t work for most advertisers. YouTube’s solution needs to be more dynamic to address advertisers’ concerns around presentation and adjacency.

With the soft-launch of YouTube RealTime, Google has another shot at getting the solution right. Adding social features to the YouTube experience will inevitably drive better user engagement and additional content consumption across users. Combined with Google’s recently announced behavioral targeting capabilities, YouTube could actually push targeted, relevant videos from advertisers as part of its video recommendation features and in the process enable video consumption to grow more virally across its users than is currently available.

For YouTube the key is being able, and open, to using the pieces it has at its disposal in unique combinations to turn this opportunity into revenue reality. This will require Google to think outside of its search black box, which can be difficult as seen with YouTube’s inability to capitalize on the Susan Boyle viral video phenomenon, and provide a more hands-on approach to delivering its solutions. If they can’t bring a media-type solution to media’s video promotion needs, then plan on continued rain in YouTube’s extended forecast.

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