The Intel Enigma

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Intel once turned down the opportunity to become the sole supplier of iPhone processors. Why haven’t they let go of their defocused search for the Next Big Thing and, instead, used All Means Necessary to regain the account?

Intel is a prosperous company. For the quarter ended last September, Intel scored $14.6B in Sales, 65% Gross Margin and $4.5B in Operating Income, a nice progression from the same period a year ago:

348_PL

A 65% Gross Margin is enviable for any company, and exceptional for a hardware maker: Intel’s GM is up in software territory. By comparison, Apple’s Gross Margin – considered too comfortable by followers of the Church of Market Share – stands at 38.6% for the 2014 Fiscal Year ended last September.

But when we take a closer look at the numbers, the picture isn’t as rosy.  Nearly 90% of Intel’s revenue — $12.9B of the total $14.6B  — comes from two groups: PC and Data Center (servers, networking, storage). Intel’s presence in the mobile world? Nonexistent:

348_non_existent

Essentially no revenue for Mobile and Communications, and a $1B loss. Looking at the past four quarters, Intel has lost about $4B in the pursuit of the mobile market (Daniel Eran Dilger says $7B in the past two years).

How did Intel handle the problem? By sweeping it under the rug. In November, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that the company was merging Mobile into the PC group and would discontinue its $51 per Android tablet subsidy in 2015. This came just weeks after Krzanich had proclaimed Mission Accomplished in the tablet field:

“‘We’ve made good progress getting into tablets’ Krzanich told reporters ahead of the annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. ‘We’ve gone from nothing to something where I consider us a real tablet manufacturer.’”

348The company’s inability to break into the mobile field — into any field other than PCs and servers — isn’t new, and it has worried Intel for decades. Company execs and strategists aren’t happy being the hardware half of Wintel, with being yoked to Microsoft’s fortunes. They like the money, but they want a “second source” for their profits, something other than the x-86 market, so they’ve embarked on a never-ending quest for the next stage in the Intel rocket.

(Of course, the company isn’t blind to the benefits of the Wintel alliance: Given two processors of equal merit, the one running Windows fetches the higher price, hence the ferocious tactics that have landed the company in court on several occasions.)

In its search for the Next Big Thing, Intel has tried alternatives to the x-86 architecture and come up with failures such as the iAPX 32 and the Itanium high-end server processor. The latter, a puzzling adoption of HP’s PA-RISC architecture, was quickly dubbed Itanic by tech wags as results failed to match lofty launch projections.

Intel has tried server farms, modems, networking equipment and, I kid you not, toy microscopes, but they somehow never got around to mobile. In the pre-iPhone days of the mobile world, the dominant players — Nokia, Motorola, Palm, Blackberry — all used processors based on the ARM architecture, processors that were too small and inexpensive to interest Intel. No money there, they cost 1/10th or less of a PC processor.

Steve Jobs offered Intel a chance to get into the mobile game: He asked the company to bid on an ARM-derivative for the iPhone. As Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO at the time, wistfully and gallantly recounted, he gave the opportunity a pass, thinking the numbers (price and quantity) were too low. (An ex-Intel acquaintance told me that the business people felt they should go after Nokia, instead, because of its huge volume at the time.)

In 2006, after missing the iPhone, Intel sold its ARM processor business to Marvell.

When iPhones and Android-based smartphones took off, Intel insisted they weren’t concerned, that they would triumph in the end: We will win because our unapproachable manufacturing technology will produce x-86 processors that are superior in every way to ARM-based competitors.

We’ve heard this line every year since. The latest version is summarized in this slide from a November Investor Meeting:

348_intel_transistor

What Intel contends here is that they always have a three-year lead over their competition. — it’s just a given. What company execs fail to explain is why smartphone manufacturers have failed to see the light, and why Android tablet makers had to be bribed.

Now it seems that Intel has discovered the Internet of Things… and Wearables, of course. If you have the patience, flip through this 66-slide presentation that tells us that IoT will be huge because the objects around us will all become intelligent (a story we’ve already heard from companies such as Cisco — which is also looking for its Next Big Thing).

348_intel_IoT_evryw

Naturally, wearables are in there:

348_intel_IoT_evryw

This is painful. The whole presentation is an Everything And The Kitchen Sink assemblage of unoriginal ideas. There’s no focus in Intel’s Theory of Everything, no way to see when, where, and how the company will actually rise above the IoT noise.

As for wearables — now fashionable in more ways than one — Intel touts its new MICA bracelet:

348_fashion

You can “pre-order” yours at Opening Ceremony and have it delivered in time for Christmas.

Let’s not forget Intel’s partnership with Google for the next-gen Google Glass, nor the company’s acquisition of Basis, a maker of fitness wearables.

Certainly, the more “initiatives” Intel throws at the wall the higher the chances that one of them will stick. But from the outside, it feels like Intel is being driven by courtiers and PowerPoint makers, that senior management really doesn’t know what to do – and what not to do. (Krzanich says he green-lighted the MICA project because his wife approved of it “after using it for several days”.)

Of all the things Intel should and shouldn’t have done, the Apple element figures mightily. Since Intel offered a whopping $51 Android tablet subsidy, a charity that landed its mobile activities $7B in the red over two years, why didn’t the company offer Apple a $10 or $20 subsidy per processor as a way get the manufacturing relationship restarted? ‘We’ll beat Samsung’s prices, we’ll be your second source.’ If Intel’s 14nm process is so superior, how come Intel execs didn’t convince Apple to dump frenemy Samsung?

I see three possible answers.

One is that the 14 nanometer process is woefully late. Deliveries of some Broadwell chips (the nickname of the next round of x-86 processors) are now slated for early- to mid-2105. Apple might feel that Intel’s process needs to mature before it can deliver 300M units.

The second is that Intel’s claim of a three-year technology lead might be less than reliable. Samsung could be closer to delivering 14nm chips than Intel would like us (and itself) to believe.

Or perhaps Intel sees Apple as a real adversary that’s intent on designing all of its own processors, even for laptops and desktops that are currently powered by x-86 chips. But even so, why not become the preferred fabricator?

The Intel enigma remains: There’s no clear, resounding answer to the What’s Next?question, only some lingering puzzlement over What Happened?

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Rise of AdBlock Reveals A Serious Problem in the Advertising Ecosystem

 

By Frédéric Filloux

Seeing a threat to their ecosystem, French publishers follow their German colleagues and prepare to sue startup Eyeo GmbH, the creator of anti-advertising software AdBlock Plus. But they cannot ignore that, by using ABP, millions of users actively protest against the worst forms of advertising. 

On grounds that it represents a major economic threat to their business, two groups of French publishers are considering a lawsuit against AdBlockPlus creator Eyeo GmbH. (Les Echos, broke the news in this story, in French).
Plaintiffs are said to be the GESTE and the French Internet Advertising Bureau. The first is known for its aggressive stance against Google via its contribution to the Open Internet Project. (To be clear, GESTE said they were at a “legal consulting stage”, no formal complaint has been filed yet.) By his actions, the second plaintiff, the French branch of the Internet Advertising Bureau is in fact acknowledging its failure to tame the excesses of the digital advertising market.

Regardless of its validity, the legal action misses a critical point. By downloading the plug-in AdBlock Plus (ABP) on a massive scale, users do vote with their mice against the growing invasiveness of digital advertising. Therefore, suing Eyeo, the company that maintains ABP, is like using Aspirin to fight cancer. A different approach is required but very few seem ready to face that fact.

I use AdBlock Plus on a daily basis. I’m not especially proud of this, nor do I support anti-advertising activism, I use the ad-blocker for practical, not ideological, reasons. On too many sites, the invasion of pop-up windows and heavily animated ad “creations” has became an annoyance. A visual and a technical one. When a page loads, the HTML code “calls” all sorts of modules, sometimes 10 or 15. Each sends a request to an ad server and sometimes, for the richest content, the ad elements trigger the activation of a third-party plug-in like Adobe’s Shockwave which will work hard to render the animated ads. Most of the time, these ads are poorly optimized because creative agencies don’t waste their precious time on such trivial task as providing clean, efficient code to their clients. As a consequence, the computer’s CPU is heavily taxed, it overheats, making fans buzz loudly. Suddenly, you feel like your MacBook Pro is about to take off. That’s why, with a couple of clicks, I installed AdBlock Plus. My ABP has spared me several thousands of ad exposures. My surfing is now faster, crash-free, and web pages looks better.

I asked around and I couldn’t find a friend or a colleague not using the magic plug-in. Everyone seems to enjoy ad-free surfing. If this spreads, it could threaten the very existence of a vast majority of websites that rely on advertising.

First, a reality check. How big and dangerous is the phenomenon? PageFair, a startup-based in Dublin, Ireland, comes up with some facts. Here are key elements drawn from a 17-pages PDF document available here.

347_adblock_1c

 

347_adblock_2c

 

Put another way, if your site, or your apps, are saturated with pop-up windows, screaming videos impossible to mute or skip, you are encouraging the adoption of AdBlock Plus — and once it’s installed on a browser, do not expect any turning  back. As an example of an unwitting APB advocate:

347_adblock_3c

Eyeo’s AdBlock Plus takes the advertising rejection in its own hands — but these are greedy and dirty ones. Far from being the work of a selfless white knight, Eyeo’s business model borders on racketeering. In its Acceptable Ads Manifesto, Eyeo states the virtues of what the company feels are tolerable formats:

1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Who could disagree? But such blandishments go with a ruthless business model that attests to the merits of straight talk:

We are being paid by some larger properties that serve non-intrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.
Whitelisting is free for all small and medium-sized websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists.
Note that we will never whitelist any ads that don’t meet these criteria. There is no way to buy a spot in the whitelist. Also note that whitelisting is free for small- and medium-sized websites.
In addition, we received startup capital from our investors, like Tim Schumacher, who believe in Acceptable Ads and want to see the concept succeed.

Of course, there is no public rate card. Eyeo doesn’t provide any measure of what defines  “small and medium size websites” either. A 5 million monthly uniques site can be small in the English speaking market but huge in Finland. And the number of “larger properties” and the amount they had to pay to be whitelisted remains a closely guarded secret. According to some German websites, Eyeo is said to have snatched $30m from big internet players; not bad for a less than 30 people operation (depending of the recurrence of this “compliance fee” — for lack of a better term.)

There are several issues here.

One, a single private entity cannot decide what is acceptable or not for an entire sector. Especially in such an opaque fashion.

Two, we must admit that Eyeo GmbH is filling a vacuum created by the incompetence and sloppiness of the advertising community’s, namely creative agencies, media buyers and organizations that are supposed to coordinate the whole ecosystem (such as the Internet Advertising Bureau.)

Three, the rise of ad blockers is the offspring of two major trends: a continual deflation of digital ads economics, and the growing reliance on ad exchanges and Real Time Bidding, both pushing prices further down.

Even Google begins to realize that the explosion of questionable advertising formats has become a problem. Proof is its recent Contributor program that proposes ad-free navigation in exchange for a fee ranging from $1 to $3 per month (read this story on NiemanLab, and more in a future Monday Note).

The growing rejection of advertising AdBlock Plus is built upon is indeed a threat to the ecosystem and it needs to be addressed decisively. For example, by bringing at the same table publishers and advertisers to meet and design ways to clean up the ad mess. But the entity and leaders who can do the job have yet to be found.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Apple Watch: Hard Questions, Facile Predictions

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Few Apple products have agitated forecasters and competitors as much as the company’s upcoming watch. The result is an escalation of silly numbers – and one profound observation from a timepiece industry insider.

Apple Watch 2015 sales predictions are upon us: 10 million, 20 million, 24 million, 30 million, even 40 million! Try googling “xx million apple watch”, you won’t be disappointed. Microsoft’s Bing doesn’t put a damper on the enthusiasm either: It finds a prediction for first year sales of 60 million Apple Watches!

These are scientific, irony-free numbers, based on “carefully weighed percentages of iPhone users” complemented by investigations into “supplier orders” and backed up by interviews with “potential buyers”. Such predictions reaffirm our notion that the gyrations and divinations of certain anal-ists and researchers are best appreciated as black comedy— cue PiperJaffray’s Gene Munster with his long-running Apple TV Set gag.

Fortunately, others are more thoughtful. They consider how the product will actually be experienced by real people and how the new Apple product will impact the watch industry.

As you’ll recall from the September 14th “Apple Watch Is And Isn’t”, Jean-Claude Biver, the LVMH executive in charge of luxury watch brands such as Hublot and TAG Heuer, offered his frank opinion of the “too feminine” AppleWatch:

“To be totally honest, it looks like it was designed by a student in their first trimester.” 

At the time, it sounded like You Don’t Need This sour grapes from disconcerted competitor. But recently, Biver has also given us deeper, more meaningful thoughts:

“A smartwatch is very difficult for us because it is contradictory,” said Mr. Biver. “Luxury is supposed to be eternal … How do you justify a $2,000 smart watch whose technology will become obsolete in two years?” he added, waving his iPhone 6. 

Beautiful. All the words count. Luxury and Eternity vs. Moore’s Law.

To help us think about the dilemma that preoccupies the LVMH exec, let’s take a detour through another class of treasured objects: Single Lens Reflex cameras.

347_Nikon_F_Photomic_FTn-2714

 

Unless you were a photojournalist or fashion photographer taking hundreds of pictures a day, these cameras lasted forever. A decade of use would come and go without impact on the quality of your pictures or the solid feel of the product. People treasured their Hasselblads, Leicas (not an SLR), Canons, and more obscure marques such as the Swiss Alpa. (I’m a bit partial, here, I bought a Nikon exactly like the one pictured above back in 1970.)

These were purely mechanical marvels. No battery, the light sensor was powered by…light.

Then, in the mid-nineties, digital electronics begin to sneak in. Sensor chips replaced silver-halide film; microcomputers automated more and more of the picture taking process.

The most obvious victim was Eastman Kodak, a company that had dominated the photographic film industry for more than a century – and filed for bankruptcy in 2012. (A brief moment of contemplation: Kodak owned many digital photography patents and even developed the first digital camera in 1975, but “…the product was dropped for fear it would threaten Kodak’s photographic film business.” [Wikipedia].)

The first digital cameras weren’t so great. Conventional film users rightly criticized the lack of resolution, the chromatic aberrations, and other defects of early implementations. But better sensors, more powerful microprocessors, and clever software won the day. A particular bit of cleverness that has saved a number of dinner party snapshots was introduced in the late-nineties: A digital SLR sends a short burst of flash to evaluate the scene, and then uses the measurements to automatically balance shutter speed and aperture, thus correcting the classical mistake of flooding the subject in the foreground while leaving the background in shadows.

Digital cameras have become so good we now have nostalgia “film packs” that recreate the defects — sorry, the ambiance — of analog film stock such as Ektachrome or Fuji Provia.

But Moore’s Law exacts a heavy price. At the high end, the marvelous digital cameras from Nikon, Canon, and Sony are quickly displaced year after year by new models that have better sensors, faster microprocessors, and improved software. Pros and prosumers can move their lenses — the most expensive pieces of their equipment — from last year’s model to this one’s, but the camera body is obsolete. In this regard, the most prolific iterator seems to be Sony, today’s king of sensor chips; the company introduces new SLR models once or twice a year.

At the medium to low end, the impact of Moore’s law was nearly lethal. Smartphone cameras have become both so good and so convenient (see Chase Jarvis’ The Best Camera is the One That’s With You) that they have displaced almost all other consumer picture taking devices.

What does the history of cameras say for watches?

At the high-end, a watch is a piece of jewelry. Like a vintage Leica or Canon mechanical camera, a Patek watch works for decades, it doesn’t use batteries, and it doesn’t run on software. Mechanical watches have even gained a retro chic among under-forty urbanites who have never had to wind a stem. (A favorite of techies seems to be the Officine Panerai.)

So far, electronic watches haven’t upended the watch industry. They’ve mostly replaced a spring with a battery and have added a few functions and indicator displays – with terrible user interfaces. This is about to change. Better/faster/cheaper organs are poised to invade watches: sensors, microprocessors + software, wireless links…

Jean-Claude Biver is right to wonder how the onslaught of ever-improving technology will affect the “eternity” of the high-end, fashion-conscious watch industry…and he’ll soon find out:  He’s planning a (yet-to-be announced) TAG Heuer smartwatch.

With this in mind, Apple’s approach is intriguing: The company plays the technology angle, of course, and has loaded their watch with an amazing — some might say disquieting — amount of hardware and software, but they also play the fashion and luxury game. The company invited fashion writers to the launch; it hosted a celebrity event at Colette in Paris with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour in attendance. The design of the watch, the choice of materials for the case and bands/bracelets… Apple obviously intends to offer customers a differentiated combination of traditional fashion statement and high-tech functions.

But we’re left with a few questions…

Battery life is one question — we don’t know what it will be. The AppleWatch user interface is another.

The product seems to be loaded with features and apps… will users “get” the UI, or will they abandon hard-to-use functions, as we’ve seen in many of today’s complicated watches?

But the biggest question is, of course, Moore’s Law. Smartphone users have no problem upgrading every two years to new models that offer enticing improvements, but part of that ease is afforded by carrier subsidies (and the carriers play the subsidy game well, despite their disingenuous whining).

There’s no carrier subsidy for the AppleWatch. That could be a problem when Moore’s Law makes the $5K high-end model obsolete. (Expert Apple observer John Gruber has wondered if Apple could just update the watch processor or offer a trade-in — that would be novel.)

We’ll see how all of this plays out with regard to sales. I’ll venture that the first million or so AppleWatches will sell easily. I’ll certainly buy one, the entry-level Sports model with the anodized aluminum case and elastomer band. If I like it, I’ll even consider the more expensive version with a steel case and ingenious Marc Newson link bracelet — reselling my original purchase should be easy enough.

Regardless of the actual sales, first-week numbers won’t matter. It’s what happens after that that matters.

Post-purchase Word of Mouth is still the most potent marketing device. Advertising might create awareness, but user buzz is what makes or breaks products such as a watch or phone (as opposed to cigarettes and soft drinks). It will take a couple months after the AppleWatches arrive on the shelves before we can judge whether or not the product will thrive.

Only then can we have a sensible discussion about how the luxury segment of the line might plan to deal with the eternity vs. Moore’s Law question.

JLG@mondaynote.com

News Heads Back to Intermediation

 

by Frédéric Filloux

Thanks to digital, news publishers thought they could build a direct relationship with their customers. Recent deals signal the opposite. 

Two recent deals between media and technology companies struck me as a new trend in the distribution of news. One involves the personal note management service Evernote and Dow Jones (publisher of the Wall Street Journal and owner of the giant database Factiva); the other involves Spotify and Uber.

The first arrangement looks symmetrical. Based on the Evernote Premium user’s profile and current activity, an automated text-mining system — “Augmented Intelligence” in Evernote’s parlance — digs up relevant articles from both the WSJ and Factiva. A helpful explanation can be found on the excellent SemanticWeb.com quoting Frank Filippo, VP for corporate products at Dow Jones:

Factiva disambiguates and extracts facts about people, companies and other entities from the content that comes into its platform. With the help of Factiva’s intelligent indexing, “as users capture their notes, we detect if a company name is mentioned and dynamically present back a Factiva company profile with related news about that company” from any of its premium news and business sources.

The deal is reciprocal: WSJ Subscribers who pay $347.88 a year (weird pricing) get one year of Evernote Premium (a $45value); and Factiva subscribers are eligible for a one-year five-login Evernote Business membership (a $600 value). This sounds like a classic value vs. volume deal: per subscriber value is high for Dow Jones while it should allow Evernote to harvest more Premium and Business accounts at smaller ARPUs. At this stage — the service starts this month and for the US only — it’s unclear which company will benefit the most.

At first, the Spotify-Uber deal doesn’t look at all related to the news business. But it breeds a broader trend in the distribution of news products. The agreement provides that Spotify Premium users will be allowed to stream their music in participating Uber vehicles. In this case, respective ARPUs differ even more than in the DowJones/Evernote arrangement. A Spotify Premium is charged $10 while, according to Business Insider, the average Uber rider spends about $50 to $60 a month. To sum up, it looks like this:

346_interm_final

In the these two deals, the advantage goes to the distributor. Without risking anything, Evernote get access to a valuable professional target group. As for The Wall Street Journal and Factiva, they push content that bears the risk of being more than rich enough for Evernote Premium users – without further need of a subscription to the Journal or Factiva. In this case, the key metric will be the conversion rate of users who are in contact with WSJ articles and opt for a trial subscription. (Based on past experience, publishers always overestimate the attractiveness of their paid-for contents.) This doesn’t mean Dow Jones should have passed on the deal; every new distribution channel needs to be explored. As for Spotify/Uber, it shouldn’t move the needle for either partner.

Except for the data issues.

This is the key point in which parties may not equally benefit. Having dinner with a business predator like Uber requires a long spoon — a strong legal one — to determine the accessibility of stats and customer data. To me, this is much more critical than the difficult to assess financial parameters of such deals.

What’s next? There is no shortage of possibilities. Among many:

346_next_distrib_model

Deciding wether it is an opportunity or a danger for the news media sector is, to say the least, chancy. One sure thing: Digital technologies have successfully reconnected news media publishers to their customers. Some media outlets such has The Financial Times have successfully removed the intermediaries in the path to their audiences– whether these are B2C or B2B.

Today, everyone is worried about the unfolding of Facebook’s ambition to become the essential news distributor (see a previous Monday Note: How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution.) In such context, letting other tech companies control too many distribution channels might create vulnerabilities. Possible ways to prevent such hazards are: (a) bullet-proof contracts and (b) approach new distribution schemes in a collective manner. (That’s the science-fiction part of this column.)

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Hard Comparison: Legacy Media vs. Digital Native

 

by Frédéric Filloux

From valuations to management cultures, the gap between legacy media companies and digital natives ones seems to widen. The chart below maps the issues and shows where efforts should focus. 

At conferences and workshops in Estonia, Spain or in the US, most discussions I recently had ended up zeroing on the cultural divide between legacy media and internet natives. About fifteen years into the digital wave, tectonic plates seems to drift more apart that ever. On one side, most media brands — the surviving ones — are still struggling with an endless transition. On the other, digital native companies, all with deeply embedded technology, expand at an incredible pace. Hence the central question: can legacy media catch up? What are the most critical levers to pull in order to accelerate change?

Once again, it’s not a matter of a caricatural opposition of fossilized media brands versus agile and creative media startups. The reality is far more complex. I come from a world in which information had price and cost; facts were verified; seasoned editors called the shots; readers were demanding and loyal — and journalists occasionally autistic. I’m coming from the culture of great stories, intense competition (now gone) and the certitude of the important role of great journalism in society.

That said, I simply had the luck to be in the right place at the right time to embrace the new culture: Small companies, starting on a blank slate with the unbreakable faith and systemic understanding that combine into a vision of growth and success, all wrapped-up in the virtues of risk-taking. I always wanted to believe that the two cultures could be compatible — in fact, I hoped the old world would be able to morph swiftly and efficiently enough to catch the wave, deal with new kinds of readers, with a wider set of technologies and a proteiform competition. I still want to believe this.

In the following chart, I list the most critical issues and pinpoint the areas of transformation that are both the most urgent and the easiest to address.

345_Divide_table

[Footnotes]

1. Funding: The main reason why newcomers are able to quickly leave the incumbent in the dust. When venture firms compete to provide $160m to Flipboard, $61m to Vox Media, or $96m to BuzzFeed, the consequences are not just staggering valuations. Abundant funds translate into the ability to hire more and better qualified people. Just one example: Netflix’s recommendation system — critical to ensure both viewer engagement and retention — can count on a $150m yearly budget, far more than the entire revenue of many mid-sized media companies. Fact is: old media companies in transition will never be able to attract such level of funding due to inherent scalability limitations (it is extremely rare to see a legacy media corporation suddenly jumping out of its ancestral business.)

2. Resource Allocation. Typically, the management team of a legacy media will assign just enough resources to launch a product or service and hope for the best. This deliberate scarcity has several consequences: From the start, the project team will be in the fight/survival mode, both internally (vs. other projects or “historical” operations); second consequence, in the (likely) case of a failure, it will be difficult to find the cause: Was the product or service inherently flawed? Or did it fail to achieve “ignition” because the approach was too cautious? The half-baked, half-supported legacy product might stagnate for ever, without making sufficient money to be seen as a success, nor significant losses to justify a termination. By contrast, a digital native corporation will go at full throttle from day one with scores of managers, engineers, marketers and sufficient development time for tests, market research, promotion, etc. The idea is to succeed — or to fail, but fast and clearly.

3. Approach to timing. The tragedy for the vast majority of legacy media is they no longer have the luxury of long term thinking. Shareholder pressure and weak P&L impose quick results. By contrast, most digital companies are built for the long term: Their management is asked to grow, conquer, secure market positions and then monetize. It can take years, as seen in many instances, form Flipboard to Amazon (which might have pushed the envelope a bit too far.)

4. Scalability vs. sustainability. Many reasons — readership structure, structurally constrained markets — explain the difficulty for legacy media to scale up. At the polar opposite, disrupters like Uber or AirBnB, or super-optimizers such as BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post are designed and built to scale — globally.

5. Customer relations. On this aspect, the digital world has reset the standard. All of a sudden, legacy media companies appeared outdated when it comes to customer satisfaction, from poor subscription handling to the virtuous circle of acquisition-engagement-retention of customers.

In the chart above, my allocation of purple dots (feasibility) illustrates the height of hurdles facing large, established media brands. Many components remain extremely hard to move – I personally experience that on a daily basis.  But there is no excuse not to take a better care of customers, not to reward the risk-taking of committed staffers, assign resources in a decisive manner or induce a better sense of competition.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Clayton Christensen Becomes His Own Devil’s Advocate

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Every generation has its high tech storytellers, pundits who ‘understand’ why products and companies succeed and why they fail. And each next generation tosses out the stories of their elders. Perhaps it’s time to dispense with “Disruption”.

“I’m never wrong.”

Thus spake an East Coast academic, who, in the mid- to late-eighties, parlayed his position into a consulting money pump. He advised — terrorized, actually — big company CEOs with vivid descriptions of their impending failure, and then offered them salvation if they followed his advice. His fee was about $200K per year, per company; he saw no ethical problem in consulting for competing organizations.

The guru and I got into a heated argument while walking around the pool at one of Apple’s regular off-sites. When I disagreed with one of his wild fantasies, his retort never varied: I’m never wrong.

Had I been back in France, I would have told him, in unambiguous and colorful words, what I really thought, but I had acclimated myself to the polite, passive-aggressive California culture and used therapy-speak to “share my feelings of discomfort and puzzlement” at his Never Wrong posture. “I’ve always been proved right… sometimes it simply takes longer than expected”, was his comeback. The integrity of his vision wasn’t to be questioned, even if reality occasionally missed its deadline.

When I had entered the tech business a decade and a half earlier, I marveled at the prophets who could part the sea of facts and reveal the True Way. Then came my brief adventures with the BCG-advised diversification of Exxon into the computer industry.

Preying on the fear of The End of Oil in the late-seventies, consultants from the prestigious Boston company hypnotized company executives with their chant: Information Is The Oil of The 21st Century. Four billion dollars later (a lot of money at the time), Exxon finally recognized the cultural mismatch of the venture and returned to the well-oiled habits of its hearts and minds.

It was simply a matter of time, but the BCG was ultimately proved right — we now have our new Robber Barons of zeroes and ones. But they were wrong about something even more fundamental but slippery, something they couldn’t divine from their acetate foils: culture.

A little later, we had In Search of Excellence, the 1982 best-seller that turned into a cult. Tom Peters, the more exuberant of the book’s two authors, was a constant on pledge-drive public TV. As I watched him one Sunday morning with the sound off, his sweaty fervor and cutting gestures reminded me of the Bible-thumping preacher, Jimmy “I Sinned Against You” Swaggart. (These were my early days in California; I flipped through a lot of TV channels before Sunday breakfast, dazzled by the excess.)

Within a couple of years, several of the book’s exemplary companies — NCR, Wang, Xerox — weren’t doing so well. Peters’ visibility led to noisy accusations and equally loud denials of faking the data, or at least of carefully picking particulars.

These false prophets commit abuses under the color of authority. They want us to respect their craft as a form of science, when what they’re really doing is what Neil Postman, one of my favorite curmudgeons, views as simple storytelling: They felicitously arrange the facts in order to soothe anxiety in the face of a confusing if not revolting reality. (Two enjoyable and enlightening Postman books: Conscientious Objections, a series of accessible essays, and Amusing Ourselves To Death, heavier, very serious fare.)

A more recent and widely celebrated case of storytelling in a scientist’s lab coat is Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. In order to succeed these days — and, especially, to pique an investor’s interest — a new venture must be disruptive, with extra credit if the disrupter has attended the Disrupt conference and bears a Renommierschmiss from the Startup Battlefield.

345_christensen__
(Credit: www.claytonchristensen.com )

Christensen’s body of work is (mostly) complex, sober, and nuanced storytelling that’s ill-served by the overly-simple and bellicose Disruption! battle cry. Nonetheless, I’ll do my share and provide my own tech world simplification: The incumbency of your established company is forever threatened by lower cost versions of the products and services you provide. To avoid impending doom, you must enrich your offering and engorge your price tag. As you abandon the low end, the interloper gains business, muscles up, and chases you farther up the price ladder. Some day — and it’s simply a matter of time — the disruptor will displace you.

According to Christensen, real examples abound. The archetypes, in the tech world, are the evolution of the disk drive, and the disruptive ascension from mainframe to minicomputer to PC – and today’s SDN (Software Defined Networking) entrants.

But recently, skeptical voices have disrupted the Disruption business.

Ben Thompson (@monkbent) wrote a learned paper that explains What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong. In essence, Ben says, disruption theory is an elegant explanation of situations where the customer is a business that’s focused on cost. If the customer is a consumer, price is often trumped by the ineffable values (ease-of-use, primarily) that can only be experienced, that can’t be described in a dry bullet list of features.

More broadly, Christensen came under attack by Jill Lepore, the New Yorker staff writer who, like Christensen, is a Harvard academic. In a piece titled The Disruption Machine, What the gospel of innovation gets wrong, Lepore asserts her credentials as a techie and then proceeds to point out numerous examples where Christensen’s vaunted storytelling is at odds with facts [emphasis and edits mine]:

“In fact, Seagate Technology was not felled by disruption. Between 1989 and 1990, its sales doubled, reaching $2.4 billion, “more than all of its U.S. competitors combined,” according to an industry report. In 1997, the year Christensen published ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,”’Seagate was the largest company in the disk-drive industry, reporting revenues of nine billion dollars. Last year, Seagate shipped its two-billionth disk drive. Most of the entrant firms celebrated by Christensen as triumphant disrupters, on the other hand, no longer exist

Between 1982 and 1984, Micropolis made the disruptive leap from eight-inch to 5.25-inch drives through what Christensen credits as the ‘Herculean managerial effort’ of its C.E.O., Stuart Mahon. But, shortly thereafter, Micropolis, unable to compete with companies like Seagate, failed. 

MiniScribe, founded in 1980, started out selling 5.25-inch drives and saw quick success. ‘That was MiniScribe’s hour of glory,’ the company’s founder later said. ‘We had our hour of infamy shortly after that.’ In 1989, MiniScribe was investigated for fraud and soon collapsed; a report charged that the company’s practices included fabricated financial reports and ‘shipping bricks and scrap parts disguised as disk drives.’”

Echoes of the companies that Tom Peters celebrated when he went searching for excellence.

Christensen is admired for his towering intellect and also for his courage facing health challenges — one of my children has witnessed both and can vouch for the scholar’s inspiring presence. Unfortunately, his reaction to Lepore’s criticism was less admirable. In a BusinessWeek interview Christensen sounds miffed and entitled:

“I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.”

At Harvard, of all places. Hmmm…

In another attempt to disprove Jill Lepore’s disproof, a San Francisco- based investment banker wrote a scholarly rearrangement of Disruption epicycles. In his TechCrunch post, the gentleman glows with confidence in his use of the theory to predict venture investment successes and failures:

“Adding all survival and failure predictions together, the total gross accuracy was 84 percent.”

and…

“In each case, the predictions have sustained 99 percent levels of statistical confidence without a flinch.”

Why the venture industry hasn’t embraced the model, and why the individual hasn’t become richer than Warren Buffet as a result of the unflinching accuracy remains a story to be told.

Back to the Disruption sage, he didn’t help his case when, as soon as the iPhone came out, he predicted Apple’s new device was vulnerable to disruption:

“The iPhone is a sustaining technology relative to Nokia. In other words, Apple is leaping ahead on the sustaining curve [by building a better phone]. But the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone. They’ve launched an innovation that the existing players in the industry are heavily motivated to beat: It’s not [truly] disruptive. History speaks pretty loudly on that, that the probability of success is going to be limited.”

Not truly disruptive? Five years later, in 2012, Christensen had an opportunity to let “disruptive facts” enter his thinking. But no, he stuck to his contention that Modularity always defeats integration:

“I worry that modularity will do its work on Apple.”

In 2013, Ben Thompson, in his already quoted piece, called Christensen out for sticking to his theory:

“[…] the theory of low-end disruption is fundamentally flawed. And Christensen is going to go 0 for 3.”

Perhaps, like our poolside guru, Christensen believes he’s always right…but, on rare occasions, he’s simply wrong on the timing.

Apple will, of course, eventually meet its maker, whether through some far off, prolonged mediocrity, or by a swift, regrettable decision. But such predictions are useless, they’re storytelling – and a bad, facile kind at that. What would be really interesting and courageous would be a detailed scenario of Apple’s failure, complete with a calendar of main steps towards the preordained ending. No more Wrong on the Timing excuses.

A more interesting turn for a man of Christensen’s intellect and reach inside academia would be to become his own Devil’s Advocate. Good lawyers pride themselves in researching their cases so well they could plead either side. Perhaps Clayton Christensen could explain, with his usual authority, how the iPhone defines a new theory of innovation. Or why the Macintosh has prospered and ended up disrupting the PC business by sucking up half of the segment profits. He could then draw comparisons to other premium goods that are happily chosen by consumers, from cars to clothes and…watches.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Payment Systems Adventures – Part II: Counting Friends And Foes

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

It’s still too early to tell if Apple Pay will square the circle and emerge as a payment system that’s more secure, more convenient, and is widely accepted. MCX, a competing solution that faces more challenges than Apple Pay, helps shed light on the problem.

Apple Pay was announced on September 9th with the new iPhone 6, and rolled out on October 20th.

Where it works, it works well. The roster of banks and merchants that accept Apple’s new payment system is impressive, with big names such as Visa, American Express, Bank of America, Macy’s, Walgreens, and Whole Foods.

But it doesn’t work everywhere.

At launch, Apple Pay covered just a corner of the territory blanketed by today’s debit and credit cards. Then we had a real surprise. Within 24 hours of the roll-out, a handful of merchants, notably CVS, Rite-Aid, Target, and Wal-Mart, pulled the plug on Apple Pay. Apparently, these retailers suddenly remembered they had signed an exclusive agreement with Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX), a consortium of merchants that’s developing a competing payment system and mobile app called CurrentC. How a company as well-managed as CVS could have “forgotten” about its contract with MCX, and what the threatened consequences were for this lapse of memory aren’t known…yet.

We could wade through the professions of good faith and sworn allegiance (“We are committed to offering convenient, reliable, and secure payment methods that meet the needs of our customers”, says Rite Aid PR flack Ashley Flower), but perhaps we’re better off just listing MCX’s Friends and Foes.

Let’s start with the Foes: MCX hates credit cards. As Ron Shevlin of Snarketing 2.0 reports, the hatred isn’t even veiled:

“At last year’s BAI Retail Delivery conference…I asked Mr. Scott [Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO] why, in the face of so many failed consortia before it, would MCX succeed? He said: ‘I don’t know that it will, and I don’t care. As long as Visa suffers.’”

This open animosity is understandable. When we look at Wal-Mart’s latest financials, we see that the company’s net income is 3.1% of sales. A typical Visa transaction costs them 1.51% of the amount that was charged. (See Credit Card Processing Fees & Rates for mind-numbing esoterica.)

For Wal-Mart and other big merchants, this 1.51% “donation” cuts too close to the bone, which is why they banded together to form the MCX consortium.

So we know who MCX’s Foes are…but does it have any Friends?

Not really. Counting the MCX merchants themselves as Friends is a bit of a circular argument — no sin there, it’s business — but it doesn’t build a compelling case for the platform.

What about consumers?

On paper, the MCX idea is simple: You download the CurrentC app onto your mobile phone and connect it to a bank account (ABA routing and account number). When it comes time to pay for a purchase, CurrentC displays a QR code that you present to the cashier. The code is scanned, there’s a bit of network chatter, and money is pumped directly out of your bank account.

Set-up details are still a bit sketchy. For example, the CurrentC trial run required the customer’s social security and driver’s license numbers in addition to the bank info. MCX says it doesn’t “expect” to have these additional requirements when CurrentC launches in early 2015, but I’m not sure that it matters. The requirement that the customer supply full banking details and then watch as money is siphoned off without delay is essentially no different from a debit card — but with a middle man inserted into the process. And while debit card use surpassed credit cards as far back as 2007, US shoppers are loathe to leave the warm embrace of their credits cards when it comes to big ticket purchases (average debit card charge in 2012: $37; credit card: $97; see here for yet more estorica).

What does MCX and CurrentC offer that would entice consumers to abandon their credit and debit cards and give merchants direct access to their bank accounts? The consortium can’t offer much in the way of financial incentives, not when the whole point is to remedy Visa’s 1.51% processing fee.

Now let’s look at Apple Pay; first, consumers.

Apple has recognized the strong bond between consumers and their credit cards: The average wallet contains 3.7 cards, with a balance of $7.3K outstanding. Apple Pay doesn’t replace credit cards so much as it makes the relationship more secure and convenient.

Set up is surprisingly error-free — and I’m always expecting bugs (more on that in a future note). The credit card that’s connected to your iTunes account is used by default, all you have to do is launch Passbook and re-enter the CVV number on the back. If you want to use a different credit card account, you take a picture of the card and Passbook verifies it with the issuer. Debit cards also work, although you have to call the bank…as in an actual telephone call. In my case, the bank had a dedicated 877 number. Less than 30 seconds later a confirmation appeared on my device.

Paying is simple: Gently tap the phone on a compatible, NFC-enabled point-of-sale terminal and place a registered finger on the TouchID button; the phone logs the transaction in Passbook and then vibrates pleasantly to confirm.

344-1

On the security side, Apple Pay doesn’t store your credit card number, neither on your  phone nor on Apple’s servers. Instead, the card is represented by an encrypted token; the most you can ever see are the last four digits of the card — even on an unlocked phone, even when you’re deleting a card from your Passbook.

Simplifying a bit (or a lot), during a transaction this encrypted token is sent through the NFC terminal back to your bank where it’s decrypted. Not even the merchant can see the card.

We can also count the banks and credit card companies as Friends of Apple Pay. For them, nothing much changes. A small fee goes to Apple (0.15%, $1 for every $700). Apple Pay isn’t meant to make money in itself, its goal is to make iDevices more pleasant, more secure.

Banks also like the potential for cutting down on fraud. In 2013, payment card fraud was pegged at $14B globally with half of that in the US. How deeply Apple Pay will cut into this number isn’t known, but the breadth and warmth of Apple Pay adoption by financial institutions speaks for their expectations. Wells Fargo, for example, put up a large billboard over the 101 freeway and promoted the service on social media:

What about merchants? This is a mixed bag; some seem to be fully on board, although, as ever, we mustn’t judge by what they say for the flackery on the left is just as disingenuous as the flackery on the right. Regard the declaration from pro-Apple Pay Walgreens: “Incorporating the latest mobile technology into our business is another way we are offering ultimate convenience for our customers.” Sound familiar?

Others, such as Wal-Mart are resolute Foes. Of the fence sitters, time will tell if they’ll jump into the Apple Pay camp or desert it. It’s still very early.

Questions remain regarding “loyalty” programs, a cynical word if there ever was one when considering the roach motels of frequent flyer miles. A quick look at in-app payments provides a possible answer.

One such example, no surprise, is Apple’s own App Store app where you can pay with Apple Pay after scanning an accessory’s barcode. The app triggers a confirmation email that shows that the merchant, Apple, is aware of the transaction. Other merchants can, and will, build their own apps, but there’s still the question of how a loyalty program will work for point-of-sale transactions where merchants can’t see your data.

In a clumsily worded comparison, MCX CEO Dekkers Davidson tries to imply that his company’s exclusivity requirement is much like AT&T’s arrangement with Apple in the early days of the iPhone, and arrangement that wasn’t permanent and that worked out well for both parties. In the meantime, one can visualize Apple engaging in an encircling action, patiently adding partners and features quarter after quarter.

We’ll know soon if this battle is won before it’s even fought.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Europe: The Digital Squeeze Is Coming

 

By Frédéric Filloux

A recent Bain & Co survey paints Europe’s digital future as squeezed between the explosive demand of emerging countries and the dominance of US-based internet giants.

The “Next Billion”, a phrase coined and propagated by the Quartz team, refers to the explosive internet growth in emerging countries — almost entirely fueled by mobile usage. The new phrase got its own  conference (last week in NYC, next May 19th in London) and a dedicated section on the Quartz site.

For Europe, the Next Billion will be hard: Last week, the global consulting firm Bain & Co published a survey that exposes what’s at stake. The report, titled Generation #hashtag (pdf here), was commissioned by The Forum d’Avignon, a yearly gathering of intellectuals and business people that explores cultural changes; the survey was conducted by Bain’s staff in Paris and Los Angeles over 7,000 respondents in 10 countries with the following internet status:

343_1

Source : Internet World Stats

Bain’s key findings follow:

The next period is going to be dominated by digital natives, i.e. audiences that won’t have even known other forms of media vectors (video, communication, news or entertainment). In emerging countries, powerful forces are now in motion (emphasis mine):

Across the BRICS countries, the percentage of consumers 25 and younger—who are, on average, 40% more prevalent than in developed economies, according to Euromonitor—suggests the rapid rise of Generation #hashtag in emerging markets. (…) Over the past year, smartphone ownership rose significantly in emerging markets: from 45% to 50% in China, 14% to 21% in India, 45% to 54% in Brazil and 45% to 63% in Russia.

The chart below shows two important elements. One is the importance of the Generation #hashtag: the digital population comprised with digital “migrants” and “natives”. The second and even more interesting is the demographic distribution which, for emerging countries, clearly states the potential:

343_2

These demographics show two major gaps: disposable income and networking infrastructure. Taking the long view, the first one could be overcome by strong growth in key areas. For the second, in many countries of Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, land lines equipment is staying flat — and sometimes decreasing — while cellular networks are growing like weeds. A couple of weeks ago, Benedict Evans, from the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm, released his Mobile is Eating the World slide deck – from which I extracted these two charts :

343-3

343_4

These figures might prove to be conservative as heated competition for the Next Billion has already started between tech giants. Google’s Project Loon, Facebook’s future drones network, both aimed at delivering broadband internet in developing countries, are soon to be joined by  Elon Musk’s plan to deploy 700 micro-satellites at a cost of $1bn to serve the same purpose. If we factor in Mark Zuckerberg’s idea to get a 100x improvement on internet delivery (10x reduction in cost of serving data multiplied by 10x improvement in compression and caching technologies), we can project the internet’s global availability challenge as solved within the next five years or so.

In this picture, Europe faces a huge industrial problem. The players who will benefit from the exploding demand in emerging markets are everywhere but in Europe, except maybe for Nokia Networks (not the handset division, now owned by Microsoft, but the remaining independent infrastructure business), and Sweden-based telecom maker Ericsson. Other are mostly Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean (Samsung and many others), they cover the entire field from networking infrastructure to mobile terminals. Symmetrically, most of the engineering brainpower and very large investment capabilities are concentrated in the United States with immensely rich companies such as Google or Facebook (or Musk’s Space X) thay are focused on capturing this Next Billion.

Europe’s options are limited. With no common language, no political leadership, encumbered by a gigantic bureaucracy, scattered and uneven access to capital (compared to the Keiretsu-like American venture capital system), Europe could choke, squeezed between Asian hardware markers and US-based software giants. Unfortunately, instead of organizing itself to favor the emergence of tech leaders — through decisive education programs and smarter immigration policies for instance — Europe’s main contribution to technologies has been the creation of tax havens. A textbook example of a missed opportunity.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Cultural Adventures In Payment Systems – Part I

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Payment systems and user behaviors have evolved over the past three decades. In this first of a two-part Monday Note, I offer a look at the obstacles and developments that preceded the Apple Pay launch.

When I landed in Cupertino in 1985, I was shocked, shocked to find that so much gambling was going on in here. But it wasn’t the Rick’s Café Américain kind of gambling, it was the just-as-chancy use of plastic: Colleagues would heedlessly offer their credit card numbers to merchants over the phone; serious, disciplined executives would hand their AmEx Platinums to their assistants without a second thought.

This insouciant way of doing business was unheard of in my Gallic homeland. The French (and most Europeans) think that trust is something that must be earned, that it has a value that is debased when it’s handed out too freely. They think an American’s trusting optimism is naïve, even infantile.

After I got over my shock, I came to see that my new countrymates weren’t such greenhorns. They understood that if you want to lubricate the wheels of commerce, you have to risk an occasional loss, that the rare, easily-remedied abuses are more than compensated for by a vibrant business. It wasn’t long before I, too, was asking my assistant to run to the store with my Visa to make last-minute purchases before a trip.

(On the importance of Trust and its contribution to The Wealth of Nations — or their poverty — see Alain Peyrefitte’s La Société de Confiance [The Society of Trust]. Unfortunately the work hasn’t been translated into English, unlike two of Peyrefitte’s other books, The Trouble with France and the prophetic 1972 best-seller The Immobile Empire. The title of the latter is a deplorable translation of Quand la Chine s’éveillera… Le monde tremblera, “When China Awakes, The World Will Shake”, a foreboding attributed to Napoleon.)

The respective attitudes towards trust point out a profound cultural difference between my two countries. But I also noticed other differences that made my new environment feel a little antiquated.

For example, direct deposit and direct deduction weren’t nearly as prevalent in America as in France. In Cupertino, I received a direct deposit paycheck, but checks to cover expenses were still “cut”, and I had to write checks for utilities and taxes and drop them in the mailbox.

Back in Paris, everything had been directly wired into and out of my bank account. Utilities were automatically deducted ten days after the bill was sent, as mandated by law (the delay allowed for protests and stop-payments if warranted). Paying taxes was ingeniously simple: Every month through October, a tenth of last year’s total tax was deducted from your bank account. In November and December, you got a reprieve for Holiday spending fun (or, if your income had gone up, additional tax payments to Uncle François — Mitterrand at the time, not Hollande).

Like a true Frenchman, I once mocked these “primitive” American ways in a conversation with a Bank of America exec in California. A true Californian, she smiled, treated me to a well-rehearsed Feel-Felt-Found comeback, and then, dropping the professional mask, she told me that the distrust of electronic commerce that so astonished me here in Silicon Valley (of all places), it was nothing compared to Florida where it’s common for retirees to cash their Social Security checks at the bank, count the physical banknotes and coins, and then deposit the money into their accounts.

Perhaps this was the heart of the “Trust Gap” between Europe and the US: Europeans have no problem trusting electronic commerce as long as it doesn’t involve people; Americans trust people, not machines.

My fascination with electronic payment modes preceded my new life in Silicon Valley. In 1981, shortly after starting Apple France, I met Roland Moreno, the colorful Apple ][ hardware and software developer who invented the carte à puce (literally “chip card”, but better known as a “smart card”) that’s found in a growing number of credit cards, and in mobile phones where it’s used as a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM).

343_jlg

The key to Moreno’s device was that it could securely store a small amount of information, hence its applicability to payment cards and mobile phones.

I carried memories of my conversations with Moreno with me to Cupertino. In 1986, we briefly considered adding a smart card reader to the new ADB Mac keyboard, but nothing came of it. A decade later, Apple made a feeble effort to promote the smart card for medical applications such as a patient ID, but nothing came of that, either.

The results of the credit cards industry’s foray into smart card technology were just as tepid. In 2002, American Express introduced its Blue smart card in the US with little success:

“But even if you have Blue (and Blue accounts for nearly 10% of AmEx’s 50 million cards), you may still have a question: What the hell does that chip (and smart cards in general) do?

The answer: Mostly, nothing. So few stores have smart-card readers that Blue relies on its magnetic strip for routine charges.”

In the meantime, the secure smart chip found its way into a number of payment cards in Europe, thus broadening the Trust Gap between the Old and New Worlds, and heightening Roland’s virtuous and vehement indignation.

(Moreno, who passed away in 2012, was a true polymath; he was an author, gourmand, inventor of curious musical instruments, and, I add without judgment, an ardent connoisseur of a wide range of earthly delights).

Next came the “Chip and PIN” model. Despite its better security — the customer had to enter a PIN after the smart card was recognized — Chip and PIN never made it to the US, not only because there were no terminals into which the customers could type their PINs (let alone that could read the smart cards in the first place), but, just as important, because there was a reluctance on the part of the credit card companies to disturb ingrained customer behavior.

It appeared that smart cards in the US were destined to butt up against these two insurmountable obstacles: The need for a new infrastructure of payment terminals and a skepticism that American customers would change their ingrained behavior to accept them.

In 2003, I made a bad investment in the payment system field on behalf of the venture company I had just joined. The entrepreneur that came to us had extensive “domain knowledge” and proposed an elegant way to jump over both the infrastructure and the customer behavior obstacles by foregoing the smart card altogether. Instead, he would secure the credit card’s magnetic stripe.

(more next page)

The New York Times and Springer Are Wrong About Blendle

 

by Frédéric Filloux

With its idea of creating “iTunes for the press”, Blendle rattles the news industry’s cage. In spite of blessings from The New York Times and Axel Springer, the shiny new thing might just be a mirage.  

Last week, two young Dutch people came up with a string of magic words: “iTunes for the press”, “New York Times”, and “Axel Springer”. The founders of Blendle, Alexander Klöpping and Marten Blankesteijn, were promising a miracle cure to a sick industry: a global system for the distribution of editorial products (the iTunes reference), backed by the gold standard of digital journalism (The New York Times), and also supported by the European leader of the rebellion against Google (Axel Springer). Great casting, great promises. Like handing out Zmapp doses in an Ebola ward.

Blendle’s principle is to unbundle publications and sell stories by the slice, for €0.10 to €0.30 ($0.13 to $0.38) each. (Actually, on Blendle.nl, some articles shoot up to €0.89 or $1.11, publisher’s choice). Basically, you register and get €2.50 credit, browse a well-designed kiosk (or an equally good app), and cherry-pick what you want. Blendle added unique features such as the possibility of a refund for a story you don’t like; its founders saying its a mandatory feature for any e-commerce business (“returns” account for around 4% of transactions). Launched in April on the Dutch market, the service is a success: 135,000 subscribers so far. According to the founders, 20,000 to 30,000 are added each month. Not bad for a 16-million-people country that enjoys an internet penetration of 94%.

342-BlendleHome2

This indisputable success spread beyond Netherlands when Blendle announced The New York Times Company and Axel Springer SE had invested a combined €3m ($3.8m) in the startup. (For more on the subject, see coverages by Les Echos (in French), The Guardian, Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

I see many reasons to cast strong doubt about Blendle’s sustainability as a global business, and I see no benefit for digital media. The idea of unbundling news content is an old one. I recall a 1995 conversation with Nicholas Negroponte, at the time head of MIT’s MediaLab. Back then, he envisioned exactly what Klöpping and Blankesteijn are trying to implement now (both were 8-year old at the time.)

Negroponte’s vision never materialized and there are many reasons for this.

The first one is the hyper-abundance of free content, especially in English, a notion completely overlooked by Blendle’s advocates. Years ago, I used to tell my colleagues at Schibsted ASA in Norway that their country was so small (4.5m inhabitants) and their market position so dominant, with the huge traffic machines of their large print and digital publications, that if they put out online text in Pashto, it would still drive serious audience numbers. (Schibsted became a $2.2bn global player thanks to a strong diversification strategy served by a remarkable execution.) In the case of Blendle, the Dutch language serves as a cordon sanitaire, a kind of firewall mostly shielding publishers from the interference of free contents. In other words, it makes a relative sense for De Volkskrant, NRC, or De Telegraaf  to join Blendle since they are already well-positioned on a small market.

This cannot work for the English language and its 1.2 billion speakers spread across the world, including 350 million native speakers. Pick any subject in the news cycle — say, Blendle precisely. In a few clicks, I will get a 800 words story from the Economist, a 900 words one for the Guardian, another 700 words article for BusinessWeek and a 1600 words piece from TechCrunch. And I’m not mentioning the… 24,400 other “Blendle” references that pop-up in Google News. In this list, only The Economist intends to join the Dutch service. Hence my question: Would you pay even 20 cents to get the Economist story while a profusion of good coverage is available just one click away for free? Me neither.

Second reason for discounting the Blendle model: News media have always built their business on a “cross-subsidy” system. Quite often, high audience stories — that don’t even cost much to produce (sports as an example), support low audience but costly reporting such as foreign coverage or “enterprise journalism” (that is when editor decide to assign large  resources to go after a worthwhile subject –needless to say, this concept has become an endangered species.) Granted, a media powerhouse such as The New York Times still produces unique contents that justify paying for it (about the recent NYT economics, read Ken Doctor’s piece on NiemanLab). But I doubt that a buy-by-the-slice Blendle revenue will contribute for more than a fraction of a percentage point to the $200m a year cost of operating the Grey Lady’s 1300-staff newsroom.

Third reason: Lack of serendipity. A well-edited media — print or digital — is a clever assemblage of diversified subjects aimed a triggering readers’ curiosity for topics outside their usual range of interests. That’s not likely to work in Blendle’s model, because it relies on three entry points — Trending, Realtime and StaffPicks — that actually transfer the classical user-induced serendipity to the editors of the service. I doubt lots of media are actually willing to give up the opportunity to capture reader’s attention on the widest possible spectrum by leaving the reins in Blendle’s hands.

Fourth reason: Advertising loss. While digital ads is mostly a failure for the news industry, separating ads from content sounds like a weird idea. Today, publishers are working hard to get a more granular profile of their audiences in order to serve them with more relevant contents, tailored ads, and ancillary products. Content dissemination won’t help this process.

Why then do the NYT and Springer, both strongly attached to the value of their editorial production, jump aboard this boat? For the Times, it might have to do with the idea of diversifying revenue streams in every possible ways by extracting more dollars for its vast supply of occasional readers. Axel Springer’s motive is different. The German giant is literally obsessed with undermining Google’s de facto position in the news sector. Hence the bets it takes here and there, buying the French search engine Qwant or taking over the babbling Open Internet Project. Both choices are far from promising high potential, scalable moves.

Publishers who are tempted by the Blendle model also choose to ignore the damage suffered by the music industry. Once the user was given the opportunity to buy each song separately (for a dollar, not 20 cents), the ARPU quickly collapsed, and there was no turning back. Also, at the time, the paid-for music was not competing against free content — except for piracy — in the way that today’s paid contents have to face a profusion of free editorial, sometimes excellent.

And finally, let’s not forget that the original “iTunes model” is not as shiny as it used to be. For Apple, its ARPU went from $4.3 per user for Q1 2012, to $1.9 per user for  Q1 2014, a 56% drop. The reason: Users are massively switching to the flat-fee/no ownership model of music streaming (hence Apple bet on Beats.)
Even before it reached news media, the iconic iTunes system was already seriously damaged.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com