WhatsApp is now sending 50% more messages than SMS, but what happens next? How many messaging apps can co-exist? How far can the WeChat platform model spread? Can messaging become an aggregation layer?Read More
Everything is wide open in mobile. So, here, in no special order, are 20 questions for 2015, any one of which would change things a lot. I've written about most of these topics already in 2014 - in 2015 they're even more interesting.Read More
The UK media and telecoms regulator, Ofcom, produces an annual report surveying the global media and telecoms market. It's full of fascinating international comparisons - I've extracted some of the ones that caught my eye here.Read More
We tend to assume that Google's mobile apps and services are very broad and very sticky, and that gives Google tremendous leverage in extending its ecosystem and retaining control of Android. But that's just an assumption - can we be sure?Read More
The mobile platforms wars are over, for now - Apple and Google both won. But nothing is settled. The nature and scope of Android is unstable, interaction models themselves are in a flux between apps,web, messaging and notifications, wearables are emerging and Facebook and Amazon haven't given up on controlling the interface. Time for new questions.Read More
What doe Apple Pay show us about how Apple takes products to market? How does it put the building blocks in place? It presents itself as a challenging partner rather than an existential threat, but moving the end-point to the payment system into software looks inherently destabilising.Read More
There are now close to 2bn smartphones on earth. How to ecosystem dynamics work at this scale? What kind of market share matters? It looks like the winner-takes-all dynamics are different, and seems clear that both Apple and Google have sustainable positions.Read More
Presentation and video at GE's 'Minds + Machines' event in New York, talking about what GE calls 'the industrial internet'. Pretty much every single piece of machinery in the industrial capital base will have some sort of sensor or network connection. It seems clear that this will change things just as much as much as PCs and enterprise software did in the past.Read More
Messaging apps have changed almost everything on smartphones - it looks like voice will come next, reshaping how we speak to people in the same way as WhatsApp and Facebook changed how we write to them.Read More
The new iPhones were much the most predictable part of Apple's event - widely leaked and impelled by an irresistible logic - the customer is always right. For all that Apple thought and argued that you should optimize for the thumb size, it turns out optimizing for the pocket size is a better metric. *
(Of course, this isn't the first time - Steve Jobs famously said that no-one would watch video on an iPod, and that small tablets should come with sandpaper for your fingers).
Meanwhile, Apple did not, as I and others have argued it now could, make any real change to its pricing strategy. We still have a new model at $600 or so (plus another that's even more expensive) and older models at $100 and $200 cheaper, together with a (very) large secondary market act to address some of the top of the mid-range, but no more.
Instead, these phones are a direct move against premium Android.
Apple currently has about 10% of global handset unit sales, at an ASP of $550-600, and Android has another 50% at an ASP of $250-300 (almost all the rest are feature phones, now also converting fast to Android at well under $100). But within that Android there is a lucrative segment of high-end phones that sells at roughly the same price and in roughly the same numbers as the iPhone. To put this another way, Apple has 10% of the handset market but half of the high-end, and Android has the other half of the high end.
That Android high-end is dominated by Samsung, and by screens with larger screens than previous iPhones. Until now.
How much of an impact will these new iPhones have on that segment? There are a bunch of reasons why someone would buy a high-end Android rather than an iPhone:
- Their operator subsidies an Android but not an iPhone - this has now ended, with Apple adding distribution with all the last significant hold-outs (Sprint, DoCoMo, China Mobile)
- They don't particularly care what phone they get and the salesman was on more commission to sell Androids or, more probably, Samsungs that day (and iPhones the next, of course)
- They have a dislike of Apple per se - this is hard to quantify but probably pretty small, and balanced by people with a dislike of Google
- They are heavily bought into the Google ecosystem
- They like the customizations that are possible with Android and that have not been possible with iOS until (to a much increased extent) iOS8 (more broadly, once could characterize this as 'personal taste')
- They want a larger screen.
Splitting these out, the first has largely gone, the second is of little value to an ecosystem player and nets out at zero (i.e. Apple gains as many indifferent users as it loses) and the third is small. Apple has now addressed the fifth and sixth, and the massive increase in third-party attach points means that Google's ecosystem (and Facebook's incidentally) can now push deep into iOS - if Google chooses to do so.
That is, with the iPhone 6 and iOS8, Apple has done its best to close off all the reasons to buy high-end Android beyond simple personal preference. You can get a bigger screen, you can change the keyboard, you can put widgets on the notification panel (if you insist) and so on. Pretty much all the external reasons to choose Android are addressed - what remains is personal taste.
Amongst other things, this is a major cull of Steve Jobs' sacred cows - lots of these are decisions he was deeply involved in. No-one was quicker than Steve Jobs himself to change his mind, but it's refreshing to see so many outdated assumptions being thrown out.
Meanwhile, with the iPhone 6 Plus (a very Microsofty name, it must be said) Apple is also tackling the phablet market head on. The available data suggests this is mostly important in East Asia but not actually dominant even there - perhaps 10-20% of units except in South Korea, where it is much larger. Samsung has tried hard to make the pen (or rather stylus) a key selling point for these devices, but without widespread developer support (there is nothing as magical as Paper for the Note) it is not clear that these devices have actually sold on anything beyond screen size and inverse price sensitivity (that is, people buy it because it's the 'best' and most expensive one). That in turn means the 6 Plus could be a straight substitute.
Finally, not unlike Nokia for much of its history, Apple remains the only handset maker of scale making phones with a premium hardware design. Both Nokia and HTC also made equally desirable hardware but for different reasons have faded from the scene, while Samsung appears unable to make the shift in approach that this would necessitate. Several Chinese OEMs are making significant progress here (most obviously Xiaomi), but are not yet in a position to challenge Apple directly, and indeed are much more of a problem for Samsung, which finds itself squeezed in the middle.
Setting aside the OEM horse-race commentary, the important thing about this move is how much it tends to reinforce the dominant dynamic of the two ecosystems - that Apple has a quarter of the users but three quarters of the value.
We know from data given at WWDC and Google IO that Apple paid out ~$10bn to iOS developers in the previous 12 months and Google paid out ~$5bn. Yet, Google reported "1bn" Android users (outside China). Apple, depending on your assumptions about replacement rates, has between 550m and 650m active devices (though fewer total human users). That is, Apple brought in twice the app revenue on a little over half the users. (I wrote a detailed analysis of this here.)
We used to say that of course the average spend for Android users was lower, because the devices were available at any price for $80 to $800 where iPhones average $600, and sold well in poorer countries, but the premium Android users were bound to be worth much the same as iPhone users. This new data showed that this was not true.
If premium Android users were worth the same as iPhone users, but the mid-range and low-end Android users were (naturally) worth less, then the Android number should have been (say) $11bn versus Apple's $10bn. But it's $5bn. So, even the premium Android users, the very best ones - even the people buying phablets - are worth much less to the ecosystem than an iPhone user. And now Apple is now going after them too.
This takes us to a final question - is it the users or is it the ecosystem? If Apple converts a big chunk of premium Android users to the iPhone 6 when they come to refresh their phones (and note that since they won't all have bought their phones in September 2012, they won't all be up for upgrade as soon as the new iPhones come out), will their behavior change? Are we seeing less ecosystem value for these users because of differences in the platform they're on, or is there something different about those users' attitudes?
And, of course, if those users do leave, what will the Android metrics look like then?
* Just as for multitasking, and the new extensions in iOS8, Apple had to work hard to make this possible - in this case it had to move away from pixel-perfect layouts to something more responsive. This of course is where Android started - since it was predicated on a wide range of devices it had to allow for different layouts, where Apple started from one screen size. This, I think, reflects a broader trend - that Android and iPhone started in quite different places and have converged over the past 5 years.
Profitless Ponzi scheme, or the greatest company in the world led by an absolute genius? Amazon is a polarizing company. Quarter after quarter, as it grows ever larger gobbling up categories and adding businesses, Amazon manages to produce exactly no profit. It’s as if its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos engineered it that way. He has, and Bezos will continue on the same profitless path, says Benedict Evans in conversation with Ben Horowitz in this segment of the a16z podcast. Benedict and Ben (yeah, we know, two Bens) examine the company Bezos has constructed, and why, for Bezos at least as opposed to nervous investors, it works so well. How one of the world's great founders gets away with building a massive public company his way.
See also my blog post
(I also did a podcast with Ben Horowitz discussing these themes: see here)
Amazon has a tendency to polarize people. On one hand, there is the ruthless, relentless, ferociously efficient company that’s building the Sears Roebuck of the 21st Century. But on the other, there is the fact that almost 20 years after it was launched, it has yet to report a meaningful profit. This chart captures the contradiction pretty well - massive revenue growth, no profits, or so it would seem. But actually, neither of these lines gives you a good sense of what’s really going on.
Amazon discloses revenue in three segments - Media, Electronics & General Merchandise (‘EGM') and ‘Other’, which is mostly AWS. As this chart shows, these look very different (this and most of the following ones use ’TTM’ - trailing 12 months, which smooths out the seasonal fluctuations and makes it easier to see the underlying trends). The media business is still growing, but it’s the general merchandise that has powered the explosion in revenue in the past few years. Meanwhile, the ‘Other' line is growing but is still much smaller.
Splitting out the detail, we can see this trend both in North America (NA) and internationally...
Though the takeoff is particularly strong in the USA.
Media overall was only 25% of Amazon’s revenue last quarter, and 20% of North America.
And if we go back to ‘Other’ and zoom in, the growth is pretty dramatic there too.
It seems pretty likely that these businesses, selling very different products bought with different bargaining positions to different people with different shipping costs, have different margin potential.
This still doesn’t really give an accurate picture, though. Amazon is in fact organized not just in these segments, but in dozens and dozens of separate teams, each with their own internal P&L and a high degree of autonomy. So, say, shoes in Germany, electronics in France or makeup in the USA are all different teams. Each of these businesses, incidentally, sets its own prices. Meanwhile, all of these businesses are at different stages of maturity. Some are relatively old, and well established, and growing slower, and are profitable. Others are new startups building their business and losing money as they do so, like any other new business. Some are very profitable, and some sell at cost or at as loss-leaders to drive traffic and loyalty to the site. Books are a good example. There’s a widespread perception that Amazon sells books at a loss, but the average sales price actually seems to be very close to physical retailers - it discounts some books, but not all, and despite all the argument in the Agency lawsuits, quite how many and how much is (deliberately) as clear as mud.
Amazon is a bundle.
The clearest expression of this is Prime, in which (amongst other things) entertainment content is included at a high fixed cost to Amazon (buying the rights) but no marginal cost beyond bandwidth, as a way to enhance the appeal of being a Prime ‘member'. Prime membership in turn draws people to switch more and more of their online and offline spending to Amazon. Trying to look at the profitability of the video alone misses the point.
And then there are the third party sales. Just as AWS is a platform both for Amazon's own internal technologies and for thousands of startups, so too the logistics and commerce infrastructure themselves are a platform for lots and lots of different Amazon businesses, and also for lots of other companies selling physical products through Amazon’s site. Third party sales of products through Amazon’s own platform are now 40% of unit sales, and the fees charged to these vendors are now 20% of Amazon’s revenue.
This means, in passing, that for close to half of the units sold on Amazon.com, Amazon does not set the price, it just takes a margin. This alone should point to the weakness of the idea that Amazon’s growth is based on selling at cost or at a loss.
The tricky thing about these third party (‘3P’) sales is that Amazon only recognizes revenue from the services it provides to those companies, not the value of the goods sold. So if you buy a pair of shoes on Amazon from a third party, Amazon might collect payment through your Amazon account and ship them from its warehouse using its shipping partners - but only show the shipping and payment fees it charged to the shoe vendor as revenue. It does not disclose the gross revenue (‘GMV’). Given that (as it does disclose) third party sales tend to have a higher unit value, this means that the total value of goods that pass though Amazon with Amazon taking a percentage is perhaps double the revenue that Amazon actually reports. So, the revenue line is not really telling you what's going on, and this is also one reason why gross margin is pretty misleading too. Gross profit has risen from 22.4% in 2011 to 27.2% in 2013, but this does not really reflect a change in consumer pricing and margins thereof, but rather this change in mix.
So, we have dozens of separate businesses within Amazon, and over two million third party seller accounts, all sitting on top of the Amazon fulfillment and commerce platform. Some of them are mature and profitable, and some are not. And someone at Amazon has the job of making sure that each quarter, this nets out to as close to zero as possible, at least as far as net income goes. That is, the problem with net income is that all it tells us is that every quarter, Amazon spends whatever’s left over to get the number to zero or thereabouts. There’s really no other way to achieve that sort of consistency.
If you listen closely, Amazon itself tells us this. The image below comes straight from Amazon - originally it was a napkin sketch by Jeff Bezos. Note that there’s no arrow pointing outwards labeled 'take profits.’ This is a closed loop.
In any case, profits as reported in the net income line are a pretty bad way to try to understand a business like this - actual cash flow is better. As the saying goes, profit is opinion but cash is a fact, and Amazon itself talks about cash flow, not net income (Enron, for obvious and nefarious reasons, was the other way around). Amazon focuses very much on free cash flow (FCF), but it’s very useful to look also at operating cash flow (OCF), which is simply what you get adding back capital expenditure (‘capex'). In effect, OCF is the bulk of running the business before the costs of the infrastructure, M&A and financing costs. This shows you the effect of selling at low prices. As we can see here, Amazon’s OCF margin has been very roughly stable for a decade, but the FCF has fallen, due to radically increased capex.
In absolute terms, you can therefore see a business that is spinning out rapidly growing amounts of operating cash flow - over $5bn in the last 12 months - and ploughing it back into the business as capex.
Charting this as lines rather than areas shows just how consistent the growth in capex has been.
One might suggest that in a logistics business with rapid revenue growth, rapid capex growth is only natural, and one should look at the ratio of capex to sales by itself. But in fact, the increase here is even more dramatic. Starting in 2009, Amazon began spending far more on capex for every dollar that comes in the door, and there’s no sign of the rate of increase slowing down.
If Amazon had held capex/sales at the same ratio from 2009, before it exploded, then FCF would look like this. That difference adds up to just over $3bn of cash in the last 12 months. That is, if Amazon was spending the same on capex per dollar of revenue as it was in 2009, it would have kept $3bn more in cash in the last 12 months.
So where’s all the extra capex going? And, crucially, does it need to stay at these new, higher levels to support Amazon's business, or can it come back down in the future?
It’s pretty apparent that the money is going into more fulfillment capacity (warehouses, to put it crudely) and to AWS. Hence, this chart shows an enormous increase in Amazon’s physical infrastructure, as measured in square feet - this is almost all fulfillment rather than data centers, though Amazon no longer gives a split.
Pulling apart precisely where the money's going, though, is a little fiddlier. The increase is driven by some combination of four things:
- More capacity for more products, including 3P products
- Proximity - as Amazon builds warehouses closer to customers, the shipping time goes down and so too does the shipping cost, a further flywheel effect for Prime
- More expensive warehouses - that is, the existing business is becoming more expensive to run
The first two of these are straightforward investment in the future, often delivering higher future margins. AWS is a black box and a much debated puzzle, but it is also pretty much the definition of a new business that requires investment to grow. The real bear case here would be the last point - that the existing business is becoming more capex-intensive - that more dollars of capex are needed for every dollar of current revenue.
Just to make life harder for those looking to understand Amazon’s financials, the warehouse expansion, capex expansion and AWS build-out all started at roughly the same time, and at that same moment Amazon changed the way it reports to make it very hard to pick them apart. Until 2010 it split both property and asset value between fulfillment and data centers, but at that point it stopped, probably not by co-incidence (in 2010 Amazon had just 775k square feet for data centers and customer service combined). In the meantime, there are various metrics (capex per square foot, for example) that would show a shift of spending from cheap warehouse to expensive data centers - but they would also show a shift from maintaining existing warehouses to building new ones. So there is no direct, easy way we can see the split.
We can still, though, get a something of a sense of the key warehouse question - has the business got more expensive to run? It looks like the answer is no. First, the third party sales do not seem to be the issue: ratio of 3P units has not gone up at anything like the way the capex/sales has over the same period (here’s that chart again).
Neither is there any sign of a shift in the fulfillment costs over the period (Amazon seems to have forgotten to stop disclosing these). The physical product mix hasn’t got dramatically more expensive to ship, so would it get dramatically more capex-intensive to warehouse? This is obviously not an exact proxy, but it seems unlikely.
So, though we can’t be sure, it looks like the capex is not going up because Amazon’s existing business has become more expensive to run, but because Amazon is investing the growing pool of operation cash flow into the future. All of this brings us back to the beginning - Amazon’s business is delivering very rapid revenue growth but not accumulating any surplus cash or profits, because every penny of cash is being ploughed back into expanding the business further. But, this is not because any given business runs permanently at a loss - it is because the profits from what is already there are spent on making new businesses. In the past, that was mostly in operations, but in recent years the investment firehose has again been pointed at capex.
How long will this investment go on for? Well, do we believe that thee conversion of products and businesses to online commerce is finished? Let’s rebase that revenue chart, and look at it as share of US retail revenue. Excluding gasoline, food and things like timber and plants,all hard to ship, at least for now, Amazon has about 1%.
Overall, US commerce is growing very consistently:
And Amazon is taking an accelerating share of it.
Amazon has perhaps 1% of the US retail market by value. Should it stop entering new categories and markets and instead take profit, and by extension leave those segments and markets for other companies? Or should it keep investing to sweep them into the platform? Jeff Bezos’s view is pretty clear: keep investing, because to take profit out of the business would be to waste the opportunity. He seems very happy to keep seizing new opportunities, creating new businesses, and using every last penny to do it.
Still, investors put their money into companies, Amazon and any other, with the expectation that at some point they will get cash out. With Amazon, Bezos is deferring that profit-producing, investor-rewarding day almost indefinitely into the future. This prompts the suggestion that Amazon is the world's biggest 'lifestyle business' - Bezos is running it for fun, not to deliver economic returns to shareholders, at least not any time soon.
But while he certainly does seem to be having fun, he is also building a company, with all the cash he can get his hands on, to capture a larger and larger share of the future of commerce. When you buy Amazon stock (the main currency with which Amazon employees are paid, incidentally), you are buying a bet that he can convert a huge portion of all commerce to flow through the Amazon machine. The question to ask isn’t whether Amazon is some profitless ponzi scheme, but whether you believe Bezos can capture the future. That, and how long are you willing to wait?
The computing industry has always sold to segments. Mainframes to large companies, minicomputers to medium-sized companies, PCs first to companies and then middle-class households, and so on. Today, there are around 1.5-1.6bn PCs on earth, of which perhaps half are owned by consumers, yet there are 7.1bn people on earth and 5.25bn adults. PC buyers are still a segment, and a pretty small one, and so, by extension, was the internet.
Mobile is different. It started, like PCs, as a toy for rich people, but in the last 20 years it has spread such that 85% of the earth's population is under cellular coverage - more than mains electricity (80%) and close to the same as access to improved water (90%). 3G networks cover around 60% and will grow to 90% by 2019. Somewhere between 3.5bn and 4bn people now have a phone, depending on your assumptions (there are several billion more SIMs but much duplication). This continues to grow fast, pushing into some very low income groups: the average monthly spend in India is $3-4. In the last decade we've discovered that the value of a phone actually increases as income falls - in the developed markets they sit at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, but for a poor farmer in rural Africa or an Indian fisherman they solve problems much further down the scale.
Mobile was always somehow separate from the mainstream consumer technology industry - there was always a wall between the two. But since 2007 smartphones have broken that wall down, and the mobile industry is going through a massive category conversion. Of 1.7bn phones sold last year just under 1bn were smartphones, and there are now around 2bn on earth. This will grow much further. The real question will be more about affordable data, and battery life when there is no mains electricity nearby.
For the first time, then, the consumer technology industry is selling to everyone that it is possible to sell to. There are still people who are unable to participate in the economy, but everyone else - everyone able to buy things - will probably be a customer.
This changes lots of other things. Most obviously, as I've written before, it makes the internet opportunity not just two or three times bigger but closer to ten times bigger.
It also challenges conceptions of market size or ecosystem. Since Apple only sells phones at $400 and up (for now) most of this growth in users will go to Android, which now starts at $50 or less. So the Android ecosystem will encompass everything from Instacart customers in San Francisco to ROM hackers in Kiev to rice farmers in rural Myanmar. This makes the concept of a 'customer' on the internet look much more like, say Unilever's: there are people buying soap by the gallon and people buying it in sachets.