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It seems pretty clear now that the Android OEM world is starting to play out pretty much like the PC world. The industry has become unbundled vertically between components, devices, operating system and application software & services. The components are commoditised and OEMs cannot differentiate on software, so they are entering a race to the bottom of cheaper and cheaper and more and more commoditised products, much like the PC industry.

The funny thing about this is that part of the original promise of Android was that it would allow OEMs to avoid this. Part of the promise was that because Android was open, OEMs would be free to customize it to differentiate their products on top of a common platform. But of course, it hasn't really worked out like that. I think there are a couple of reasons why.

The first is that 'a common platform that OEMs can be different on' is very close to a contradiction in terms. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) never pretended to allow OEMs to change Windows in that sense, and it quickly emerged that if you did change Android in any really important way it was no longer part of the common platform, but a fork. This is what Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has done with the Kindle Fire, and Google's (GOOG, GOOGL) reaction (as the sole arbiter of what is nor is not a fork) is that if you do that, you lose access to all Google's own apps, tools and APIs for Android. It wasn't entirely clear 4 and 5 years ago how big a deal that would be - how much of the value of a smartphone operating system would be in those embedded meta-services and cloud services from the platform provider. But now it's apparent that if you don't have those then you're really only selling a featurephone, at least as far as a normal consumer is concerned, and the only companies that have the assets and resources to build those things themselves (outside China, which is another world for Android) are Amazon (perhaps) and Microsoft.

So, as an Android OEM, you can't practically make fundamental changes to Android anymore than a Windows OEM can make them to Windows. What you can do is to try to add value on top. That hasn't worked either, for several reasons:

  • Most of these companies are simply not good at software and services: the operating structures and skills required are totally different and hard to build
  • Anything that they add, even if it's actually really good, is competing with everything on the app store and everything on the internet. So even if they're good at software and do make (or buy or partner with) something good, it's just another app amongst many. The whole point of open platforms and indeed the internet is permissionless innovation - you don't need the OEM's permission to innovate. Again, how can an OEM differentiate by adding things when a user can add anything they want themselves?
  • If they do anything cool that requires any sort of third party support they probably won't get it, because the ecosystem effects are at the platform level, not the OEM level. Hardly anyone will support something cool that only works on Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) Android phones (or only some Samsung phones).

The general point here is that the differentiation moved from one part of the stack to another (or, perhaps, to a new layer). The OEMs' own software used to be a core part of the purchase decision - that was Nokia's advantage with Series 40. But now that way to differentiate has moved up the stack to a new layer that the OEMs struggle to access - it's controlled by Google.

There's another parallel here, I think, with what happened to the mobile operators. If you go back to 2000, they were all intensely aware of all the cool stuff that was going to happen with mobile and the internet. They predicted a great deal of it very accurately, but they thought that they would be doing all of it. And of course what happened was that again, that innovation and differentiation layer got unbundled - it moved up to a new layer at the top of the stack, and the handset OEMs and MNOs were equally unable to access those services. Just like the OEMs:

  • The MNOs were structurally bad at making services
  • Even if they were good those services were just one amongst many
  • The network effects for these services ran across the whole internet, not just their customers.

That is, MNOs tend to be bad at innovation in internet services, but even if they aren't, it isn't their place to provide it. It isn't their place in the stack to make a great video sharing site or a cool photo messaging app, even if they could. The analogy I often use in this case is that for an MNO to get into apps and content is like a municipal water company deciding to get into the soda business - because it knows water, and has trucks, and customers trust its brand. Even if it managed to come up with a great soda, it would still be just another can of soda amongst many. (Continuing the analogy, of course, it also makes little sense for soda companies to think they can get into the municipal water business - nor for tech companies to think they're going to disrupt mobile operators).

When you unbundle an industry, you get new and different types of innovation in different layers of the stack. The skills you had in the bundled world may well still apply in the layer you find yourself in. Hence Samsung carries on doing interesting and impressive things in components, and can innovate up to a point in handsets, with things like phablets, so long as they do not depend on concessions from other parts of the stack. Equally, for example, Dell created an entirely new type of PC company - the PC company as a highly specialized logistics business - without differentiating at the operating system layer at all.

But what's happened for PCs and smartphones and, to a large extent, mobile networks is that it's that top layer of the stack, that the PC and Android OEMs and operators struggle to play in, that's where most of the differentiation happens. That's the stuff that makes the difference between a commodity and something unique. This is obviously something of a wrench. After all, especially for the phone companies and mobile operators, this is what they always felt they should be doing, and now other people are doing it instead, free-riding on top of their work and their investment.

Samsung, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Microsoft are all strong in two layers: Samsung in components and devices, Apple in devices and operating systems and Microsoft in operating systems and application software. Each of these companies has cross-leveraged these adjacent strengths to create better products and a stronger market position. Samsung has used the scale of the component business and access to those components to drive the devices business and vice versa, despite failing, mostly, to create compelling software differentiation. This leveraging of scale, combined with some great execution, has taken it to at least half of the total Android market.

The problem is that Samsung is increasingly competing with another sort of scale effect - it is competing with the entire Shenzhen ecosystem. Before, it was competing with individual companies (many of which happened to use that ecosystem), and like Nokia before it was fortunate in the relative weakness of most of its competitors. As for Nokia, that luck was bound to run out. Now Samsung is starting to face competition with new companies who are finding ways to build new types of handset businesses on top of that ecosystem - taking that ecosystem and using it to unbundle Samsung.

The company that everyone talks about here is Xiaomi, which has created the skills to build both good services and software and good handsets. Xiaomi has faced the fork problem by working out how to dance right up to the edge without going over - Huge Barra described it as a 'compatible fork'. Rather than turning Android into a fork, it has, so to speak, polished it, adding features and services without breaking anything. And so it has created real differentiation at the operating system layer without losing access to Google services, which its devices outside China all use.

But there are lots and lots of other interesting Android companies unbundling, both within the price range, with some attacking the mid range and there the low end at under $100, and geographically, with companies like Micromax, Karbon or Blu or Wiko peeling off particular geographies. In effect, this is the Dell innovation - not trying to get into the other parts of the stack (though Dell has moved into other businesses), but at being really really good at your own part.

This also reminds me a little of Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). Facebook's integrated social platform model has been unbundled by mobile, with the social graph that it owns on the desktop being replaced by the smartphone itself as a social platform that all social apps can plug into. Hence, there have been dozens of new and interesting services peeling off parts of the use case or creating new ones. Making good services in this space does not require a totally different type of company, in the way that making good services and running a mobile network require different types of companies, and Facebook's 'constellation' approach to unbundling its apps has resulted in some perfectly good products, but so far none of them has risen above the status of 'just another social app' - they're all just another can of soda.

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Source: Unbundling Innovation: Samsung, PCs And China