Twitter: How do You Monetize Infrastructure?

In case you missed it, there’s a fascinating battle going on over in Twitter-land.  For much of the weekend, some of the Twitter clients from Ubermedia, the leading provider of Twitter clients, were shut down for unspecified violations of Twitter terms of service.  First of all, who is Ubermedia?  Ubermedia delivers Twitter client tools including Echofon and Twidroyd, and just this month they announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck.  The net result is that approximately 20% of Twitter traffic flows through Ubermedia clients.  That’s why this skirmish is so interesting.  Ultimately it’s about who gets to monetize the Twitter platform…and Twitter’s not in the pole position.

Much of my recent conversation here on this blog has related to Apple and the control it exerts over its ecosystem and its ability to extract revenue and profit from the “partners” in the ecosystem.  Give Apple credit.  They figured out how to build an infrastructure and an ecosystem whereby they profit handsomely and where they further profit from the infrastructure investments of others.  Look at what Apple has done to the rest of the wireless industry.  With just 3% of the handsets by volume, Apple is generating 2x the profits of the rest of the handset industry combined.  How do you think AT&T feels about that?  And how excited is Verizon to turn over some of their profitability to Apple?  The carriers are in a desperate struggle to be more than just “dumb pipes,” having ceded value to the platform and client providers like Apple, Google and RIM.

So what does this have to do with Twitter?  For Twitter, the situation is more dire than for the cell phone carriers.  At least the carriers have a direct revenue source for their infrastructure, paid for by the consumer (even while they’re fighting over what portion of the revenues generated should be theirs).  And for many years, their capital expenditures were covered by the fees they were extracting because it’s only recently that the platform providers have exploded onto the scene to compete for ecosystem dollars.  Twitter, by contrast, has no financial relationship with anyone in its ecosystem and has largely funded its infrastructure on its own.  (Well, on the dollars of its venture investors.)

Meanwhile, on the backs of this capital investment and Twitter’s open approach, a whole host of services have emerged on top of and around the core Twitter feed.  This is what makes Twitter interesting.  The raw feed itself is rather overwhelming.  It’s only through all of these third-party tools that Twitter starts to become the invaluable resource that it is to so many of us.  And these are where the monetization opportunities come in.  Google built its multi-billion dollar empire on search, selling keywords next to organic search and delivering contextual advertising via its “clients,” like Gmail and Google Docs.  Similarly, Ubermedia can build quite a nice advertising business via contextual advertising alongside the Tweetstream it delivers via its Twitter clients.  And what does Twitter get?  A hearty pat on the back.  Sure, Twitter can sell advertising too but without the contextual knowledge that comes from the client tools, Twitter’s advertising is as likely to be intrusive as it is to be contextual.

Thus, Twitter fires a shot across the bow of Ubermedia, the company best positioned to compete for the dollars Twitter believes to be rightfully theirs.  Yes, there were trademark infringement issues, which were quickly resolved.  This brouhaha was not about that.  This was about the race to monetize Twitter, a race the core platform provider is falling behind in.

Where will this end up?  I’m sure there are some pretty heated conversations going on between Twitter and Ubermedia.  It’s a delicate dance between the two.  Twitter can’t afford to scare away its ecosystem that makes the infrastructure valuable.  At the same time, punishing their end users is never a good idea, especially such a fickle crowd as tech early adopters.  Twitter’s in a strong position, but it’s not unassailable.  However, Ubermedia also now has a pretty good idea of what it means to be on Twitter’s bad side.  Twitter could put them out of business tomorrow.  Thus, the two parties have the strongest of all possible reasons to figure out how to economically co-exist.  I think in the coming weeks and months we’ll see some joint announcements from the two about their plans to monetize the Twitter platform.  Consider this, then, the first negotiating ploy.  “I own your traffic.”  “Well, I can shut that traffic off.”  There’s a lot at stake here but there’s enough to go around to make both parties happy.

(As an aside, this was another interesting moment for Quora and its position among the tech leadership.  A question about why Twitter shut off Ubermedia garnered responses from Bill Gross, Ubermedia’s CEO, and Matt Graves, Twitter’s communications director, although there’s some doubt as to whether the post really came from Graves.)

UPDATE 2/21:  By the way, fear not for either party.  For those of you who think “I knew Twitter ultimately had no business model,” they still have considerable value for other infrastructure players or those who would like to get into/expand their infrastructure play.  In other words, even without a business model, someone will and should pay billions for them.  The case is a little murkier for Ubermedia.  As my friend and colleague Sean Bohan noted, “you play by the open API, you die by the open API.”  Twitter can continue to encroach on Ubermedia’s space.  Much as I hated it, for a brief period of time over the weekend, I had to move to an alternative Twitter client, and the pain of doing so (i.e., the switching cost) was very low.  But Twitter’s not about to shut off its third party ecosystem.  The damage would be too severe.  And thus, Ubermedia, who has critical mass, is both a target but an important ally.  “Frienemy” at its finest.

The New Math: When 5 + 4 = 1 (Nokia and Microsoft Get Together)

The rumored partnership of Nokia and Microsoft has come to pass, as Nokia announced today that it is going to embrace Windows Phone as their primary smartphone platform.   I’m not going to go into a deep analysis of the keys to success.  That will be well covered in the news today.  The big one obviously is how many platforms will developers support?  iPhone, of course.  Android is on the cusp of becoming 1a to Apple’s 1.  A must-do platform.  In certain markets (e.g., enterprise), Blackberry is 1b or at least a strong contender.  HP made its WebOS move earlier in the week, with some interesting value propositions, linking computers, tablets, phones and peripherals.  What would make Windows Phone compelling for developers?

Nokia has had its own set of challenges.  While they long said they were the world’s largest Smartphone company, they were kidding no one.  Once the iPhone came out, they were yesterday’s news.  Once Android gained momentum, they were in full denial mode.  They missed key trends (like Americans were buying clamshell phones) and took years to rectify the shortcoming, never to regain market position.

So now Nokia and Microsoft are partnering.  Not surprising, considering where Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop came from.  (Microsoft, if you don’t already know.)  It didn’t take him long on the job to conclude that Nokia’s own efforts were failing and ultimately failed.  Nor did it take him long to conclude that his best strategic bet was Microsoft.  Given his background and their mutual desperation, it didn’t take long to conclude this deal.  In some ways, it’s almost stunning in its rapidity.

I just want to ask one simple question:  when have  two waning market players ever combined together to create one market-winning entrant?  I was sitting in a session yesterday at New York’s Social Media Week next to IBM AR star Mauricio Godoy and I asked him to come up with any examples of where this had worked.  Interestingly, he came up with a couple of situations.  Involving musical artists/groups.  I’m not sure they were entirely compelling but at least they had merit worth discussing.  But neither he nor I, nor anyone else I’ve asked this question to, could come up with a compelling instance where two fading businesses combined to reassert market leadership or even competitiveness.

Combining my problems with your problems sometimes solves both our problems.  More often, however, it increases complexity and amplifies both of our problems.  Friend and fellow analyst Bob Egan Tweeted this morning “Execution has been Nokia’s shortfall yet now it seems they are taking on even more execution complexity. Was hoping for simpler more focused.”

Often in business conversations, you hear people say that they’re looking for situations where 1+1 is greater than 2.  Here we have a situation where 5+4 is supposed to produce 1 or 2.  Now I admit that I’m just old enough that I missed the “new math” in high school.  (My sister, two years younger, learned it.)  But I don’t see the math working.  And in a market so dynamic and fast-moving, combining these two entities, neither of them known for their speed, may just hasten their mutual demise.  (I would, however, love to hear of successful business combinations in this vein in the comments.  Anyone?)

Verizon to Randomly Punish Heavy Data Users

Apparently, Verizon is going to begin throttling the data speeds of the top 5% of heaviest data users.  While I am sympathetic to the need to manage capacity on their network, this approach is just wrong on so many levels.

  • Most importantly, you have no knowledge or ability to control your situation.  If they said “over 500 gigabytes will get you penalized” (and gave you tools to understand your consumption; for now, this requires third party tools), I would be somewhat sympathetic (though probably not happy).  Now, however, you only know you’re offending after the fact.
  • This also creates a situation whereby if we all start conserving data access, to avoid being in the top 5%, we’ll reduce data usage and yet the top 5% will still get penalized.
  • I think Verizon is going after the wrong party.  I’m guessing the biggest issues are with high-bandwidth consumption sources like streaming video.  Hmmm…like their Vcast video service.  So, basically they’re selling you access to video services (for which you pay a premium) and then when you actually use the service, they say you’re doing it too much and cutting your service.  I don’t pay for any Verizon premium (high bandwidth) services like their GPS solution or their video packages but if I did, I’d be screaming bloody murder.  (How much do you bet that under the covers they’re actually going to exempt their own services from counting towards bandwidth consumption?  Next to scream, then:  Netflix.)

If Verizon has a data capacity issue, here’s how I would solve it:

  • Set pre-defined limits so that we know the playing field.
  • Give us tools so that we know when we’re approaching those limits and, more importantly, what our offending apps are.  I don’t know which of my apps are bandwidth hogs under the covers.
  • Figure out how to throttle speeds selectively.  If you throttle my low-bandwidth applications, like Foursquare check-ins or text emails, I probably won’t even notice the difference.  For me, no notice.  For you in aggregate, maybe enough of a difference that you don’t have to pursue these other painful approaches.

Congratulations!  You’ve bought a smartphone.  You paid big for the phone.  You pay big for the data package.  Now go in the corner.  You actually use all of the things we sold you.  Who told you to listen to us?!

 

Apple: When is Enough Enough?

I’m a big admirer of Apple.  They design incredible products.  They innovate and, beyond innovation, they create new categories and approaches.  They have been richly rewarded for that and are now the second highest valued company in the world, behind ExxonMobil.  You know there’s a “but” coming.  And it’s a big one.  Is it good for anyone (other than Apple) — even you — when they put their hand so deep in everyone’s pocket and when they tell you and me how to do business?  (Full disclaimer:  I don’t own any Apple products.  I have a Sansa MP3 player, because I like the Rhapsody subscription music model.  I actually like the Microsoft Zune subscription model even better, because then I get to rent and own music, but that’s maybe my next device consideration.  I have an Android-based Motorola Droid, largely because I’m on Verizon and won’t buy any electronic device without a replaceable battery, so no, I’m not getting on line for a Verizon iPhone.  I do, however, own some really old Macs and an original, and still working Newton.  And my introduction to the technology industry in 1979 was on an Apple II+.  But I digress…)

The latest flap is over Sony’s e-reader application where Sony wants to enable users to buy books without paying Apple its 30% “tax.”  Apple, however, is insisting that all purchases must be made “in-app”…and as such, Apple wants to take its share of the transaction.

So, let’s get this straight.  Apple owns complete control over whether your application makes it into the app store and if they say no, there’s basically no “legitimate” way for you to get an application on to your phone.  With Android, while the default is to only allow apps to come in through the Android market, a simple uncheck in settings allows you to install applications from any source.  Apple will tell you that’s to protect the user experience.  That’s the same argument the telcos used to exclude devices from their network until, paradoxically, the iPhone came along and led to a new OS-centric model of wireless carriers here in the States and opened up the market to innovation that had been stalled for a decade.  In other words, bullsh**, Apple.

But that’s not enough for Apple.  Once the app has been approved, they want their full share of any revenue generated and won’t allow solutions that circumvent their taxing mechanism, regardless of how consumer-friendly and/or app provider-friendly those solutions are.  If you want to make money on the iPhone, pay us our 30%.  (This one will get really interesting the first time Oracle and SAP get serious about mobile apps.  Clash of the Titans anyone?  But it probably won’t get to that.  Read on.)

If this were any vendor other than Apple, the hue and cry would be so incredibly loud that it would drown out conversation about American Idol.  But Apple, our little darling, gets away scot-free.  Imagine if Microsoft said “any transaction that occurs on a Windows machine will henceforth and forever more involve a payment to Microsoft.”  The antitrust lawyers would move so fast that time would actually go backwards.  But Apple?

Actually, I think this time Apple made a mistake.  A big mistake.  This one is so outrageously wrong that it’s sure to draw scrutiny from all corners.  This could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Apple probably thought “well, it’s only Sony.  Who cares about them any more.”  The real target, of course, is Amazon whose Kindle software is available on all platforms (imagine that, not just iPhone and iPad) and whose sales enrich Amazon’s coffers.  Amazon is a threat to Apple’s control of the ecosystem.  If Kindle is the standard for some forms of digital content, how can Apple own the whole process they way they do with music and, increasingly, video?  If someone is able to stand up to Apple and not pay their ransom, what does that mean for all the others who feel they are being held captive?

So Apple started with Sony.  A trial balloon if you will.  This, however, could instead become Apple’s trial by fire.  What Apple’s trying to do here makes Google’s and Facebook’s privacy intrusions seem like a walk in the park.  Quite simply, Apple is trying to put a meter on the flow of digital content over the Internet.  I’m loathe to draw comparisons to what’s going on in Egypt this week.  Clearly, that’s a real-life saga that dwarves anything we’re talking about here.  However, it’s hard to ignore the parallels.  Enough is enough.  Whether it’s a military dictatorship or a technological one, at some point the citizenry/customers say this has gone on too long and we need to push back.

While I’m not of course predicting such a dire outcome, this could some day be remembered as Apple’s Waterloo.  They’re inviting legislative scrutiny in the United States and around the world.  They’re forcing their “partners” to stand up and revolt.  And most dangerous of all, they’re risking the love and support of their fan base.  If there’s a coordinated effort on the part of content creators across all media types (books, music, video and, with today’s announcement of The Daily, news and information) — heck, even without a coordinated effort — the risk to Apple’s reputation, position (and market cap) is considerable.

Apple is restricting choice, controlling innovation and enriching its coffers.  And it’s not benefiting you.  Enough is finally enough.

I do believe that this week may well have been the Zenith of Apple’s power.  And that’s pretty remarkable to contemplate.  Pride goeth before the fall.

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