Facebook, Zynga, and buyer-supplier hold up

The brewing fight between Facebook and Zynga is what is known in economic strategy circles as “buyer-supplier hold up.” The classic framework for analyzing a firm’s strategic position is Michael Porter’s Five Forces. In Porter’s framework, Zynga’s strategic weakness is extreme supplier concentration – they get almost all their traffic from Facebook.

It is in Facebook’s economic interest to extract most of Zynga’s profits, leaving them just enough to keep investing in games and advertising. Last year’s reduced notification change seemed like one move in this direction as it forced game makers to buy more ads instead of getting traffic organically. This probably hurt Zynga’s profitability but also helped them fend off less well-capitalized rivals. Facebook could also hold up Zynga by entering the games business itself, but this seemed unlikely since thus far Facebook has kept its features limited to things that are “utility like.”

The way Facebook now seems to be holding up Zynga – requiring Zynga to use their payments system –  is particularly clever.  First, payments are still very much a “utility like” feature, and arguably one that benefits the platform, so it doesn’t come across as flagrant hold up. It is also clever because – assuming Facebook has insight into Zynga’s profitability – Facebook can charge whatever percentage gets them an optimal share of Zynga’s profits.

The risk for Zynga is obvious — if they don’t diversify their traffic sources very soon, they are left with a choice between losing profits and losing their entire business.  But there is a risk for Facebook as well. If buyers of traffic (e.g. app makers) fear future hold up, they are less likely to make investments in the platform. The biggest mistake platforms make isn’t charging fees (Facebook) or competing with complements (Twitter), it’s being inconsistent.  Apple also charges 30% fees but they’ve been mostly consistent about it. App makers feel comfortable investing in the Apple platform and even having most of their business depend on them in a way they don’t on Facebook or Twitter.

The next big thing will start out looking like a toy

One of the amazing things about the internet economy is how different the list of top internet properties today looks from the list ten years ago.  It wasn’t as if those former top companies were complacent – most of them acquired and built products like crazy to avoid being displaced.

The reason big new things sneak by incumbents is that the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.”  This is one of the main insights of Clay Christensen’s “disruptive technology” theory. This theory starts with the observation that technologies tend to get better at a faster rate than users’ needs increase. From this simple insight follows all kinds of interesting conclusions about how markets and products change over time.

Disruptive technologies are dismissed as toys because when they are first launched they “undershoot” user needs. The first telephone could only carry voices a mile or two. The leading telco of the time, Western Union, passed on acquiring the phone because they didn’t see how it could possibly be useful to businesses and railroads – their primary customers. What they failed to anticipate was how rapidly telephone technology and infrastructure would improve (technology adoption is usually non-linear due to so-called complementary network effects). The same was true of how mainframe companies viewed the PC (microcomputer), and how modern telecom companies viewed Skype. (Christensen has many more examples in his books).

This does not mean every product that looks like a toy will turn out to be the next big thing. To distinguish toys that are disruptive from toys that will remain just toys, you need to look at products as processes. Obviously, products get better inasmuch as the designer adds features, but this is a relatively weak force. Much more powerful are external forces: microchips getting cheaper, bandwidth becoming ubiquitous, mobile devices getting smarter, etc. For a product to be disruptive it needs to be designed to ride these changes up the utility curve.

Social software is an interesting special case where the strongest forces of improvement are users’ actions. As Clay Shirky explains in his latest book, Wikipedia is literally a process – every day it is edited by spammers, vandals, wackos etc., yet every day the good guys make it better at a faster rate. If you had gone back to 2001 and analyzed Wikipedia as a static product it would have looked very much like a toy. The reason Wikipedia works so brilliantly are subtle design features that sculpt the torrent of user edits such that they yield a net improvement over time. Since users’ needs for encyclopedic information remains relatively steady, as long as Wikipedia got steadily better, it would eventually meet and surpass user needs.

A product doesn’t have to be disruptive to be valuable. There are plenty of products that are useful from day one and continue being useful long term. These are what Christensen calls sustaining technologies. When startups build useful sustaining technologies, they are often quickly acquired or copied by incumbents. If your timing and execution is right, you can create a very successful business on the back of a sustaining technology.

But startups with sustaining technologies are very unlikely to be the new ones we see on top lists in 2020. Those will be disruptive technologies – the ones that sneak by because people dismiss them as toys.

What’s strategic for Google?

Google seems to be releasing or acquiring new products almost daily. It’s one thing for a couple of programmers to hack together a side project. It’s another thing for Google to put gobs of time and money behind it. The best way to predict how committed Google will be to a given project is to figure out whether it is “strategic” or not.

Google makes 99% of their revenue selling text ads for things like airplane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers. A project is strategic for Google if it affects what sits between the person clicking on an ad and the company paying for the ad. Here is my rough breakdown of the “layers in the stack” between humans and the money:

Human – device – OS – browser – bandwidth –  websites – ads – ad tech – relationship to advertiser – $$$

At each layer, Google either wants to dominate it or commoditize it. (For more on the strategic move known as commoditizing the complement, see here, here and here). Here’s my a brief analysis of the more interesting layers:

Device: Desktop hardware already commoditized. Mobile hardware is not, hence Google Phone (Nexus One).

OS: Not commoditized, and dominated by archenemy (Microsoft)!!   Hence Android/Google Chrome OS is very strategic. Google also needs to remove main reasons people choose Windows. Main reasons (rational ones – ignoring sociological reasons, organizational momentum etc) are Office (hence Google Apps), Outlook (hence Gmail etc), gaming (look for Google to support cross-OS gaming frameworks), and the long tail of Windows-only apps (these are moving to the web anyways but Google is trying to accelerate the trend with programming tools).

Browser: Not commoditized, and dominated by arch enemy! Hence Chrome is strategic, as is alliance with Mozilla, as are strong cross-browser standards that maintain low switching costs.

Bandwidth:  Dominated by wireless carriers, cable operators and telcos. Very hard for Google to dominate without massive infrastructure investment, hence Google is currently trying to commoditize/weaken via 1) more competition (WiMAX via Clearwire, free public Wi-Fi) 2) regulation (net neutrality).

Websites/search (“ad inventory”): Search is obviously dominated by Google. Google’s syndicated ads (AdSense) are dominant because Google has the highest payouts since they have the most advertisers bidding. This in turn is due largely to their hugely valuable anchor property, Google.com. Acquired Youtube to be their anchor property for video/display ads, and DoubleClick to increase their publisher display footprint. On the emerging but fast growing mobile side, presumably they bought AdMob for their publisher relationships (versus advertiser relationships where Google is already dominant). The key risks on this layer are 1) people skip the ads altogether and go straight to, say, Amazon to buy things, 2) someone like Facebook or MS uses anchor property to aggressively compete in syndicated display market.

Relationships to advertisers:  Google is dominant in non-local direct-response ads, both SMB self serve and big company serviced accounts.  They are much weaker in display. Local advertisers (which historically is half of the total ad market) is still a very underdeveloped channel – hence (I presume) the interest in acquiring Yelp.

This doesn’t mean Google will always act strategically. Obviously the company is run by humans who are fallible, emotional, subject to whims, etc. But smart business should be practiced like smart chess: you should make moves that assume your opponents will respond by optimizing their interests.

Why did Skype succeed and Joost fail?

Skype and Joost are interesting companies to compare – they are about as close as you can get to one of those sociological studies that track identical twins who are raised separately.  Skype was a spectacular success.   Joost never got traction and was shut down.  Both were started by Nicklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, two of the great technology visionaries of our time.  Both were big ideas, trying to disrupt giant, slow-moving incumbents.

There are likely multiple reasons for their different outcomes.  Joost had day-to-day management that didn’t have much startup experience.  The P2P technology that required a download made sense for chat but not for video.  The companies were started at different times:  Skype when there was far less investment in – and therefore competition among – consumer internet products.

But the really important difference was that Joost’s product had a critical input that depended on a stubborn, backward-thinking industry – video content owners.  Whereas Skype could brazenly threaten the industry it sought to disrupt, Joost had to get their blessing.  Eventually the content companies licensed some content to Joost, but not nearly enough to make it competitive with cable TV or other new platforms like Hulu and iTunes.

Real life, non-techie users care almost exclusively about “content.”  They want to watch American Idol and listen to Jay-Z. They don’t really care how that content is delivered or what platform it’s on. Which is why Joost failed, and why so many video and music-related startups have struggled. Skype, on the other hand, didn’t have significant dependencies on other companies – its content, like its technology, was truly peer to peer.

Hunch blogger widget

If you look at the right sidebar on this blog you’ll see a new Hunch widget.  It’s meant to be both fun and informative for the blogger and also the readers.

1. For the blogger, you can learn a lot of interesting things about your readership (for example, here are stats on cdixon.org readers). Soon, we’ll be adding more features for the blogger, such as inferred stats about your readers, derived by cross referencing their answers against our data set of 40M answers.

2. Blog readers get to learn about how they compare to other readers of the blog, and how readers of the blog compare to the larger population.  They can also play what we call the “prediction game” where Hunch tries to guess how you’d answer new questions you haven’t answered.  In our tests Hunch does a really good job.  It’s meant to be fun and also, frankly, a way for us to show off the power of Hunch’s predictive abilities.   If you want to try it, first answer 25 questions in the widget and then you’ll be be given the option to play the game or look at how you compare to other cdixon.org readers and Hunch users overall.

If you want to embed this widget on your own blog, go to http://www.hunch.com/blogger/ (you’ll need to have a Hunch account and be logged in).

Any and all feedback welcome!