While it’s difficult nowadays to write about telecoms or the mobile sector without drifting off into other areas of the TMT industry, Zeitgeist spent an evening last month as a guest of Accenture in Cambridge, discussing the successes and failures of the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It came in the middle of a year so far that has already some significant shifts from mobile companies, in terms of branding, operations and revenue streams.
2013 has seen some interesting news in mobile. The week before last marked, incredibly, the 40th anniversary of the first phone call made from a mobile phone. This year also saw Research in Motion renaming itself to BlackBerry, with shares sliding 8% by the end of the product launch announcement for its eponymous 10 device. It saw Sky acquire Telefonica’s broadband operations, while responding to major complaints about the speed of its own broadband service. It has seen Huawei, which in Q4 of 2012 sold more smartphones than either Nokia, HTC or BlackBerry, come under scrutiny particularly in the US for its lack of transparency. Moreover, after much editorial ink spilled on Facebook’s lack of initiative and innovation in mobile, the release of the ‘super-app’ Chat Heads has piqued interest as it looks to compete with Whatsapp, Viber, iMessage et al., which Ovum reckons cost MNOs $23bn in lost revenue every year. This news mostly pertained to developed markets; JWT Intelligence’s interview with Jana CEO Nathan Eagle features some interesting insights on mobile trends in emerging markets.
Interestingly, 2013 thus far has also been witness to the beginning of more flexible contracts and payments. At the end of March, T-Mobile USA announced it would offer the iPhone to customers for cheaper than its rivals, and customers would not have to sign a contract. It effectively ends handset subsidies – something which Vodafone pledged to do last year and was punished by the stock market when it failed to do so – spreading the full cost of the phone over two years “as a separate line item on the monthly bill”, which may strike many as still quite a commitment. Customers must pay the bill for the phone in full in order to be able to end their tenure with the network. The New York Times elaborates, “Despite T-Mobile’s promise to be more straightforward than other carriers, some consumers might still find it confusing that they have to pay an extra device fee after paying $100 up front for an iPhone.” In the UK, O2 is going a similar route. At the end of last week the company announced similar plans to T-Mobile. While still keeping contracts as an option, the FT explained the company was looking to a plan, dubbed O2 Refresh, “that decoupled the cost of the phone from the cost of calls, texts and data. Customers will be able to buy a phone outright, or pay in instalments over time, and then sign up to a separate service contract that can be cancelled or changed at any time.” Although O2 said in the article that they expected customers to pay the same as they would on a standard contract, the new plans by both network providers will surely add to customer churn. Brands will have to work harder to develop true loyalty rather than relying on the lock-in feeling that adds to switching costs for many customers. Conversely, this added flexibility may make the providers feel less like utilities, creating more choice and differentiation.
At the aforementioned conference Zeitgeist attended last month, Accenture hosted an evening they dubbed “MWC: Fiesta or Siesta?”. It soon became apparent that many of the speakers invited were less than enthused with the conference this year. This was partly because there were no extraordinary leaps in technology or hardware on offer. It was also because of, as one speaker lamented, “the proliferation of suits”. Another speaker complained it was like listening to The Archers: long storylines “that ended up having no conclusion”. The very essence of the conference though is not about trendsetting, or cool new consumer devices. Mobile operators are utilities, the excitement around such an event is not going to be as visceral as that of SXSW or Embedded World. It led some to wonder whether the “real innovation was being developed in such ‘niche’ events, away from the “glitz”. Moreover, perhaps Samsung’s decision not to launch their new S4 handset at the Congress alluded to this lack of excitement, or at least a wish not to be drowned out by other announcements.
Among exciting trends on display at MWC, M2M – something Zeitgeist has written about before – was front and centre at the conference, particularly with regard to cars. Phablets continued to make their foray into the consumer’s view, with bigger screens meaning more data transfer. Zeitgeist wondered whether such a transition would put even more pressure on networks already struggling with large data handling. And although Firefox’s new OS gave some – including those at GigaOm – hope that it could provide more innovation through diversified competition in the marketplace, others, including Tony Milbourn, Executive Chairman of Intelligent Wireless, speaking at the event, thought it “underwhelming” after “lots of hype”. Bendable screens were also to be found at MWC, but those speaking at the Accenture conference like Richard Windsor of Radio Free Mobile said it was early days and much was still to be seen from this new type of phone. Its potential though, he readily conceded, was formidable. Wearable technology was a huge issue at the conference and one that Zeitgeist is particularly interested to see develop, especially as companies like Apple, Sony and Google enter the fray.
It seemed then that the Mobile World Congress failed to reflect what is turning out to be a tumultuous year in telecoms. Not only is there an increasing desire to address consumer needs – in the case of more flexible contracts and more consumer-facing company names – but as economies sputter their way toward ostensible recovery we are also starting to see M&A activity return to the sector. Time will tell whether new technologies, such as M2M or bendable screens can breathe new life into the sector.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Though the brouhaha over the series House of Cards has been building steadily since its announcement almost two years ago, through rumours of budget battles between director and studio, it was upon the release of the series this week that the media meta-echo chamber really went into overdrive. The first season, with a budget far north of $100m, debuted to ebullient praise from critics. But what does it signify for the trail-blazing company’s future?
Aside from the mostly positive reviews, the series piqued the media industry’s interest for other reasons too. It is the first to be created and screened exclusively by Netflix, a company previously known for striking deals with studios to distribute and stream their content. Not satisfied solely with such (sometimes pricey) deals, the company also saw an opportunity for greater brand visibility and a separate revenue stream – assuming it eventually licenses the show regular TV networks – in fully-fledged independent production. What is also interesting is that the entire first season was made available for instant viewing, all 12 hours. By doing this the company recognised and capitalised on a trend that has been accelerating for almost a decade; people like to watch multiple episodes at once. This has never not been the case, but the weekly episodic installments of shows on network television have allowed the audience little say in the matter, and thus no room for such a habit to develop. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the DVD, specifically with affordable boxsets, as those that had missed the zeitgeists of West Wing, The Sopranos and 24 were able to quickly catch up with their obsessed brethren. Critics have often noted how the viewing of multiple episodes at once – which is how such reviews are often conducted as they usually receive a disc with several shows to consider – particularly for shows like Lost, improves the structure and narrative flow. With the arrival of boxsets, such opportunities were available to all. Indeed, marketers leveraged this enthusiasm for consecutive viewing, creating events around it. Netflix saw this with absolute clarity and allowed viewers to watch as much or little as they desired. Many, it seemed, chose to devour the whole first season in one weekend, which entertainment trade Variety covered with humourous repercussions to the viewer’s psyche, across now fewer than six stages of grief. Zeitgeist has written before about the increasing popularity of streaming, and the complementary preference that audiences have for the type of films (action, romcom, broad comedy) they like to watch when choosing such a distribution method. It is interesting to consider then just how much the viewing experience differs between a 12-hour marathon over two days, and a one-hour slice over a period of three months. As the article in Variety half-jokingly posits, “Is tantric TV viewing a thing? If it’s not, should it be?”.
Of course, Netflix aren’t alone in seeing an opportunity to delve into developing complementary products and assets. Microsoft are using the functionality of Kinect to pair with their own content development, letting children “join in” with Sesame Street, for example, and are in the process of setting up a dedicated studio for production, in Los Angeles. Amazon, which owns the streaming service LoveFilm, is also getting into the game, recently setting up Amazon Studios for original content production. At the end of last year, The Hollywood Reporter announced Amazon would be greenlighting twenty pilots, all of which were “either submitted through the studio’s website or optioned for development”. YouTube recently launched twenty professional channels on its UK website, Hulu is following suit… It really is quite startling to see such fundamental disruption and turmoil in environments where incumbent stalwarts (such as 20th Century Fox in film and Walmart in retail,) have long been accustomed to calling the shots. Could the model become completely inverted, such that the Fox network and HBO become the “dumb pipes” of the TV world, showcasing the best in internet-produced television? Maybe so, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Economist this week argue that one of the most important factors in Liberty Global’s recent purchase of Virgin Media was the avoidance of paying corporate tax for “years” to come. If content is still king though, a problem remains for those incumbents. The New Yorker astutely points out,
“An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share… When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.”
Netflix must tread carefully. Crucially, what seems like competitive differentiation and all-quadrant coverage now can quickly shift. Amazon’s ventures into content production will be backed up with a sizeable and perpetual stream of revenue that it derives from its e-commerce platform, which isn’t going away anytime soon. The BBC are publicly welcoming new entrants, and is devising its own tactics, such as making episodes available on iPlayer before they screen, if at all, on television. Interesting but hardly earth-shattering, and likely to make little difference to viewer preference. Netflix will have to do better than that if it wants long-term dominance of this market. It will have to be increasingly careful with its partners, too. Recent, though long-running, rumblings of discord with partners like Time Warner Cable, though seemingly innocuous, tend to be indicative of a larger battle ensuing between corporate titans. Moreover, though the act of providing a deluge of content seems new and sexy now, what about when everyone starts doing it? Chief content officer for Netflix Ted Sarantos told The Economist last week, “Right now our major differentiation is that consumers can watch what they want, when they want it, but that will be the norm with television over time. We’re getting a head start”. Fine, but about when that is the norm, what is the strategy for differentiation then? Netflix have made some lofty, daring, innovative moves here, exploiting consumer trends and noticing a gap in the competitive environment. But they will need firm foundations to support this move into an adjacent business area, of which they know relatively little, in the years to come. As President Bartlet of West Wing was often heard to say, “What’s next?”.