“We leverage the billions of dollars spent on the consumer mobile phone business”

NYTimes has an excellent profile of Planet Labs, a startup that makes low-cost satellites:

These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone. “Nothing here was prequalified to be in space,” Mr. Marshall said. “We bought most of our parts online.”

Planet Labs will not disclose its manufacturing costs, but potential customers who have seen the products think the satellites are approximately 95 percent cheaper than most satellites, a figure Mr. Marshall would neither confirm nor dispute. “We leverage the billions of dollars spent on the consumer mobile phone business” for most of the company’s parts, he said.

Chris Anderson calls this “the peace dividend of the smartphone war.” Across a wide range of sectors, startups are now tackling problems that previously required billions of dollars from governments or multinational corporations.

Some thoughts on mobile

– People tend to lump smartphones and tablets together as “mobile”. This can be misleading. Ask people who run internet companies and they’ll tell you that user behavior on tablets is far more similar to user behavior on desktops/laptops than it is to user behavior on smartphones. That said, the software on smartphones and tablets is similar, as are the discovery mechanisms (mostly app stores) and monetization techniques.

– Microsoft is running ads making fun of the iPad for being a “consumption” device. Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say back in 2010 about creation (“productivity”) on the iPad:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

If you go back and look at the history of productivity apps you’ll see that each major user interface shift led to new classes of productivity apps. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processor applications like Wordperfect and spreadsheet applications like Lotus 1-2-3 were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when graphical interfaces became popular, presentation apps like Powerpoint and photo editing apps like Photoshop were invented. If the historical pattern repeats, productivity apps that are “native” to the tablet will be invented.

– App stores have had a few important effects: 1) They take 30% of revenue, which scares away most big companies (e.g. Microsoft) and also startups/venture capitalists. Not many businesses can survive an immediate 30% haircut. 2) They’ve led consumers to expect very low prices for software. It’s hard to imagine charging $30 let alone hundreds of dollars for software through app stores (although some mega-hit games do get near these levels with in-app purchases). This is why many big software vendors are scared. 3) The discovery mechanisms (e.g. top download charts) tend to have a rich-get-richer effect, making it very hard for software to grow from niches, as they often did in the past. Just as in the movie industry, the trend is toward creating blockbusters that appeal to everyone. The emergence of new app discovery mechanisms (e.g. FB & Twitter) might alleviate this problem.

– The best entrepreneurs understand these dynamics and have been exploring “attach” business models, which basically means charging for something outside of the app store, like offline products/services (e.g. Square, Uber), online services (e.g. Spotify, Dropbox), and sometimes even hardware. Most of the companies that have succeeded (= generate real revenues/profits) on mobile were either desktop incumbents (e.g. eBay, Amazon, Facebook) or have attach business models.

– Fans of Apple and Google have been arguing lately about which company is winning mobile. Apple has more profits, but Android has more users. But what really matters is when and if developers switch over to developing for Android first, or even Android only. For now, iOS users tend to monetize much better than Android users, more than making up for the smaller user base. The switch to Android first hasn’t happened yet, but at least based on conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, it seems likely to happen in the next year or two.

– Mobile has had a big effect on b2b software. People want to use their personal iOS/Android devices at work, and many people now have computers with them all the time who didn’t before. This has created opportunities for 1) traditional b2b software that is mobile friendly, 2) companies that support mobile devices for businesses (e.g. mobile security, compliance etc), 3) brand new categories of software for users who previously used pencil and paper for various business tasks.

Why the integrated approach to mobile devices is winning

Until last week’s announcement of the new Surface tablet, Microsoft had taken the same approach to mobile devices that they had with PCs: build the software themselves and let partners build the hardware. Google took a similar strategy with Android but then reversed course when they acquired Motorola. Apple’s integrated strategy was once widely ridiculed as a repeat of their losing 1990′s desktop computer strategy, but is now being copied throughout the industry.

There is a trade off between integrated and non-integrated approaches to building devices. The non-integrated approach lowers costs, but adds friction between components that compromises performance. Consider this anecdote from Microsoft’s previous attempts to build tablets with hardware partners:

The H.P. tablet was thick, the Intel processor it used made the device hot, and the software and screen hardware did not work well together, causing delays whenever a user tried to perform a touch action on its screen. “It would be like driving a car, and the car not turning when you turn the wheel,” the former H.P. executive said.

– ”With Tablet, Microsoft Takes Aim at Hardware Missteps,” New York Times

What is the difference between mobile devices today where the integrated approach is winning and desktops PCs in, say, 1995, when the non-integrated approach dominated? The best way to understand the difference is through the lens of Clay Christensen’s disruptive technology theory*. When a new category of device first launches, it is usually not “good enough” for most customers. Chistensen illustrates this with a famous graph:

According to Christensen, technology gets better at a faster rate than customers’ demands on technology do (in the graph, the black line goes up faster than the other lines). Eventually, new device categories become “good enough” (the black line crosses the purple/blue lines), and customers become unwilling to pay significantly higher prices for improved versions of the device. At this point it doesn’t make sense for manufacturers to invest in greater performance if customers won’t reward that investment. Instead, manufacturers should spend the “performance surplus” on making devices less expensive. The best way to do this is to let different companies produce the core software and hardware components, i.e. to switch from an integrated to non-integrated approach.

If you believe Christensen’s theory (and most senior people at large technology companies do), the interesting question now is: when will smartphones and tablets be “good enough” (respectively) for non-integrated to beat integrated approaches? My guess is it will be at least 5-10 years before customers are no longer willing to pay significantly more for faster bandwidth, more features, longer battery life, increased storage, faster processors, etc. But no one really knows.

It isn’t hard to see how Google, Microsoft and pretty much everyone but Apple missed the key difference between PCs and the new generation of mobile devices. Christensen himself missed it:

Christensen’s most embarassing prediction was that the iPhone would not succeed. Being a low-end guy, Christensen saw it as a fancy cellphone; it was only later that he saw it also being disruptive to laptops.

– When Giants Fail: What Business has learned from Clayton Christensen, The New Yorker. [paywall]

Seen as high-end smartphones, iPhones were “sustaining” innovations (above the blue line) that would only appeal to the highest end of the market. Seen as low-end laptops, iPhones were disruptive innovations that would eventually subsume the PC business. With support from the iPad, they seem to be doing exactly that.

* If you aren’t familiar with Clay Christensen, this talk is a great way to learn about his theories.

Instrumenting the offline world

In the last decade there have been major advances in storing, analyzing, and acting upon extremely large data sets.  Data sets that were previously left dormant are now being put to (mostly) constructive use. But the vast majority of information in the world isn’t available for analysis because it isn’t being electronically collected.

This is changing rapidly as new data collection mechanisms are implemented – what engineers refer to as instrumentation. Common examples of instrumentation include thermometers, public safety cameras, and heart rate monitors.

Smart phones are one obvious new source of potential instrumentation.  A person’s location, activities, audio and visual environment – and probably many more things that haven’t been thought of yet – can now be monitored.  This of course raises privacy issues.  Hopefully these privacy issues will be solved by requiring explicit user opt-in.  If so, this will require creating incentives for people to do so.

Foursquare instruments location in an opt-in way through the check in. The incentives are social and game-like, but the data produced could be useful for many more “serious” purposes.  Fitbit instruments a person’s health-related activity. The immediate incentive is to measure and improve your own health, but the aggregate data could be analyzed by medical researchers to benefit others.

In manufacturing, there has been a lot of interesting innovation around monitoring machinery, for example by using loosely joined, inexpensive mesh networks.  In homes, protocols like ZigBee allow devices to communicate which allows, for example, automation of tedious tasks and improved energy efficiency.

In the next decade, there will be a massive amount of innovation and opportunity around the big data stack. Instrumentation will be the foundational layer of that stack.

If Verizon’s Droid is good, that’s bad for the wireless ecosystem

I carry around an iPhone and a Blackberry Tour.  I know that’s ridiculous. The iPhone is a great device on an awful network; the Tour is an awful device on a great network.  If the rumors are true and the Verizon “Droid” is a great device on a great network, I’ll be the first in line to get one.  But for the wireless ecosystem as a whole, it would be a bad thing.

Some people are saying a great Droid would mean more competition amongst handsets.  But you can’t really choose a handset – you choose a handset-carrier pair.  The real innovation inhibitor in the cellular world has been the power of the carriers to dictate what devices you can use and what apps go on those devices.  Just ask an entrepreneur who tried to create handsets or cellular apps.  They are completely beholden to the whims of the carriers.

Apple has gotten very close to breaking the carrier stranglehold – just look at how many people put up with AT&T’s atrocious network to have one.  Had Verizon capitulated and accepted Apple’s presumably stringent terms in order to carry the iPhone, we might have finally started to see a true decoupling of handsets from carriers.

Finally, don’t think just because the Droid runs Android it’s going to be truly open.  Verizon knows a truly open OS – one that allows you to run Google Voice, Skype, 3rd party SMS apps – would make their network a dumb pipe.  They’ve shown in the past they won’t let that happen.