Technological Layers and Layer Ownership

This ars technica article outlines in extraordinary detail what is at risk in the smart phone wars. It discusses the various different layers involved with the smart phone industry. These layers are extremely important. Control of a layer allows you to move into another layer and can help you extract monopoly rents* from those layers as well. My friend Sean was complaining about bloatware** earlier today that comes a computer supplier. They are actually attempting to get into a different layer. If a PC company is able to provide support which can allow them to get money from a customer on a returning basis, monthly or yearly, they can help ensure return purchases on more expensive purchases as well as getting a lot more money out of first sale. Additionally, the manufacturer may also be using the bloat ware they install to subsidize the cost of the product you bought. If a third party asks to have software pre-installed the manufacturer could ask for money to put it on, which may be passed to you as a consumer, so you could get a computer at a slightly lower price.

Ars Technica, isn’t the only group of people that views this phenomenon as a stack with different layers in it. This is actually an economic model as well. Which was used in the original Microsoft EU case explaining how these different layers can be leveraged to foreclose on a new market.

Another way of looking at this is in a traditional manufacturing sense. When you are making a car you have many different suppliers. You have paint, tires, batteries, steel, etc… There are several different ways to make it cheaper for you to produce a car. You can become vertically integrated, with a very high production level, where you make the steel, tires, paint and the full car. If you were extremely good at producing steel you would be able to get the steel at cost whereas traditionally you would have to pay a higher cost so the producer could earn a profit.

We can see this same sort of thing happen within IT. There is serious concern with corruption of content and content providers, like Comcast, purchasing a wide range of companies. If they control the material and access to the material they could control what people can access and impact society in a serious manner.

I don’t think that Comcast is going to be able to significantly impact the smart phone layers as they have with TV. However, a company like Google or Apple definitely could. Google is actually attempting to get into every single layer in this market. They tried to purchase wireless spectrum (they are also installing a super fast network in Kansas City), they are going to purchase Motorola, they have an OS and they are an app provider.

I think that other technology companies are aware of this. This is part of the reason why Google is being attacked on all sides. While until Google gets a hold of Motorola, they will be mostly in the top most two layers, OS and Applications. Google is clearly trying to move into every layer possible. This will allow them to have the greatest likelihood of a customer going onto a website and click an ad to give them money.

To prevent this, almost everyone is suing Google or some aspect of their technologies. Google is trying to get around this. They want the control.

I’m going to be gone for a little while. My brother is coming into town and I’ll be in Amsterdam for the next few days and then Munich this weekend. Hopefully I’ll have a post up Thursday or early next week.

Further Reading: The New ICT Ecosystem by Martin Fransman

*monopoly rents means higher prices from controlling the market. It allows a manufacturer to sell a product for a higher price than they would be able to do under a competitive market. Microsoft is able to do this with Windows. However to protect themselves from other OS providers undercutting their prices, MS sells the same OS at lower price points. They give discounts to students and charge a lower price in poor countries. This allows them to increase their monopoly to new markets.

**excess software which slows down a computer or smart phone.

Antitrust and Cell Phones

In my last three posts (onetwo and threeI have been discussing the risks of antitrust for Google. With Android Google controls what applications are installed as the base as well as the search function. In South Korea apparently this is a big deal. Which took me the points of IE and WMP in my last post. Most people use the default programs on their computer or phones unless they have some external reasoning to use a different product. In the case of iTunes and WMP it was the iPod which drove the usage away from the default. However for many people that don’t have an iPod there isn’t much point is using anything else. Especially if you only play CDs on your computer or you have a very small MP3 collection.

There are, of course, other factors which may drive users to other products, such as seeking the ability to play lossless files instead of MP3s. On computers, in my opinion, it is much easier to take control over the device and install other applications or systems to replace the default. You just need to know how to find the program you want and install it. With phones this is much more difficult. I think that the Google Search functionality is going to be the first of many of these investigations.

For other applications that serve the same function as the search, it may be difficult to acquire a different app. At the app store for whatever phone you’re using, there’s a gate keeper (is there a confused keymaster too?). In the case of Apple they reject applications that duplicate a program which comes preinstalled on the phone. I’m fully expecting that these rejections will eventually become the target of some antitrust investigation. Google is better than Apple in this regard, however there is control over what goes into the app store. Interesting note there are at least 4 Bing search apps in the Android market place.

Google does allow third party app stores on Android. I think that this is a really smart move. This will actually prevent some future antitrust investigation that I think Apple will have to face. There will be a market of app market places that cater to different kinds of needs or may be phone company specific. For instance Samsung has their own app store on my Galaxy S. I would not be surprised if Steam, EA and other digital content providers are already planning on creating app stores for the phones. While some of the major game developers aren’t creating games for phones yet, I believe that will change in the future. With Windows 8 going to be used for PCs, Tablets, and phones why wouldn’t larger game developers created stripped down versions of their games to be played on phones?

However, I’ve wandered a bit from my initial point. While phones are different than computers in some pretty significant ways, they are small computers. They are more powerful than the computers I grew up with. Google will need to be aware of this and will need to evolve how it deals with the android system. The controls put on users in phones will eventually be forced out of existence by law suits and users demanding more freedom over their phones. Eventually, phones will require as much freedom as a PC, especially as we start to bridge between the two platforms.

Google’s Antitrust Problems II

I think that I started this discussion at just the right time. According to cnet, South Korean officials have raided a Google office over anti-competitive practices relating to Android. They claim that it’s anti-competitive to force companies to use the Google search engine with Android if they want Google applications and the Google logo on the device. Personally, I’m not really sure how this is anti-competitive, or at least why Google is being singled out for this. Apple does the same thing, as does Nokia and Microsoft. When I still lived in the US, I remember Verizon forcing Bing on me and changed my default internet settings on my Blackberry (granted Korea couldn’t go after that one) but the idea to me is bizarre.

However, this is a great way to discuss how Google, in a broader sense, is at risk for antitrust action from many national governments. In my last post I explained the idea of market foreclosure, which Microsoft used in an attempt to capture a monopoly in the server market as they had in the PC market. South Korea will most likely be arguing that Google is using a captive audience to force their search engine on their users. In the bigger picture, I think this sort of tactic will likely be used for other markets. For example, Google is using their large market share, and the social capital they’ve gain from being a trust worthy site, to build email products, then office suites, map and geolocation services (with recommendations), and of course blogging sites like the one you’re currently reading. Since I have a google account, from way back when Gmail first was created, I’ve gotten all these additional features for free. i haven’t had to do anything and they just appear as services that I can use.

Even if I’m not logged in to Google and I go to Google.com there’s a huge selection of services that I can use without logging in. However, they become more powerful as soon as I log in. Google is using their monopoly of search engines to leverage users to use other products they’ve created. Let’s say Yahoo! decided to try to create an office suit in the same manner as Google and basically try to emulate Google in every way with all of their products. I’m sure that some of the users there would take advantage of the free document services. However, I also believe that Yahoo! and Google cater to different portions of the market. Yahoo! has become the defacto home page to an older crowd than Google. Which could mean that the users of Yahoo! may not want the same products. I have a Yahoo! account, which I only use for Fantasy Hockey and Football. I never use it for email, I never search the web using Yahoo! I only use Google. Why? Because it gives me the results I want.

So, now that we understand that Google has been leveraging their search market share to move into other markets what kind of impact does that have? I think that it will actually prevent other people from using other services out there. However, I think that with internet systems there is no real reason to keep with one product family over another. It’s a matter of trust. I think that people trust Google more than other companies, which is why they are willing to use them for other products. I couldn’t imagine people using a Facebook Docs the same way that people use Google Docs.

In my next post I’ll discuss more of these implications of these topics. I will also compare some of the Google products to Windows Media player and how something that seems like a big deal today, may not be a big deal in a year or two. Technology moves so fast.