— Glenn Manishin (@glennm) May 1, 2013
After all the controversy about Apple’s booting Google Maps off of iOS6 — reportedly because Google refused to incorporate turn-by-turn real-time directions — Google released a new iPhone app with those capabilities. According to the company:
At the heart of this app is our constantly improving map of the world that includes detailed information for more than 80 million businesses and points of interest. Preview where you want to go with Street View and see inside places with Business Photos to decide on a table or see if it’s better at the bar. To get you there, you’ve got voice-guided, turn-by-turn navigation, live traffic conditions to avoid the jams and if you want to use public transportation, find information for more than one million public transit stops.
I’ve not had any real issues with the Apple Maps app, including directions, but this one seems quite nice. Worth a try, for sure.
A study conducted by Flurry, a mobile-analytics provider, found that social games are among the most intensely used apps, but only for a finite period of time.
A few weeks ago, the head of competition for the European Union, Joaquin Almunia, reportedly instructed Google that the search giant must make “sweeping changes” to its business model by extending restrictions the Europeans are insisting upon for Web search into the mobile realm. (See EU Orders Google to Change Mobile Services | Reuters.)
Is he possibly for real? We all know mobile is growing by leaps and bounds, powering political revolutions, connecting the developing world to the new information economy, and disrupting legacy industries. That market dynamism should instead counsel for a restrained approach, delaying government intervention until at least some of the dust settles, because mobile is different. Here’s why — and how that matters.
1. Apps Rule Mobile, Not Web Search
With more than 300,000 mobile applications released in the last year alone, “apps are increasingly replacing browsers as the method of choice for connected consumers to find and use information.” This striking user preference is neither difficult to discern nor hard to understand. One can see it walking on nearly any downtown street as teenagers query Foursquare and Facebook apps for friend check-ins, businessmen find lunch spots with OpenTable or Yelp, and 20-somethings search for trending hashtag topics inside Twitter’s app. In other words, in the mobile realm apps rule.
Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson in 2010, along with Square’s COO Keith Rabois in 2011, both predicted flatly that the Web is dying and mobile devices with dedicated apps are to blame. Apple’s Steve Jobs (watch his keynote) said it a bit more provocatively:
On a mobile device, search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at. People aren’t searching on a mobile device like they do on the desktop. What is happening is they are spending all of their time in apps.
The numbers now prove that all three of these pundits were correct. As much as 50% of mobile search is happening in apps today. In March, a remarkably small 18.5% of all smartphone and tablet usage was in the browser; the rest was through apps. Nearly half of smartphone owners today shop using mobile apps. The international wireless association GSMA reported as far back as 2011 that second only to texting (and even more than actual calls), native apps comprise the highest level of smartphone activity. Yelp’s CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told Wall Street on August 2 that a majority of weekend searches now come in through its mobile app and that “by choosing the Yelp app people are bypassing search engines and consequently their engagement is higher.” Even venerable Craigslist is today battling mobile apps.
So mobile Web search is either dead or dying. That’s in part, as explained in the next bullet, because mobile users need, want and expect immediate answers, not a listing of URLs for browsing. Blue links just do not cut it anymore when users are mobile.
Google’s Kansas City fiber project has just launched. As CNet commented, it is
much more advanced than what the average American is able to access from any cable operator or telco broadband provider in the country. And Google is offering it at prices that beat the local and even national competition.
There’s a place in American business for firms willing to in invest in long-term network upgrades. Verzon’s FIOS ruled the U.S. for years in terms of speed, pricing and content. Not anymore!
One year ago, the Wall Street Journal and other business publications reported that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had launched an investigation into “Twitter and the way it deals with the companies building applications and services for its platform.” The gist of the apparent competitive concern was that Twitter — which has grown from nothing to a significant new medium of social communications in just five years — had decided to limit access to its application programming interfaces (APIs) for third-parties, such as HootSuite, Echofon and the like, selling Twitter “client” software.
There’s no doubt Twitter is a disruptive technology. Of course, in 2000 the FTC was so convinced that an AOL-Time Warner combination would monopolize Internet content that it saddled the then-biggest merger with an onerous consent decree that evaporated, as did AOL itself, in the relative blink of an eye. Now it appears the agency is making the same mistake again. Assuming that a new and evolving technology represents a stand-alone market for antitrust purpose is dangerous where disruptive entrants are concerned, because as AOL illustrates, despite a first-mover advantage, even in network effects markets that may “tip” to a single firm competitive reality changes more quickly and in ways even the brightest pundits and government policy makers could never predict.
Given that Twitter is in competition with Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instgram and many other social networking and messaging services, including the near-moribund Google+, you’ve got to wonder why the FTC could even plausibly hypothesize that Twitter has anything approaching monopoly power. One can perhaps understand policy neophytes like Mike Arrington naively saying that Twitter has a “microblogging monopoly,” but not seasoned antitrusters.
Twitter management explained at the time that “Twitter is a network, and its network effects are driven by users seeing and contributing to the network’s conversations. We need to ensure users can interact with Twitter the same way everywhere.” That’s a quintessential business judgment by corporate managers who presumably know their users (tweeters) and customers (advertisers) best. The company’s motivation is also clear and perfectly valid: it doesn’t want third parties making money — namely, coming into direct rivalry by selling ads — off its service, and thus depriving Twitter of potential revenue. It is incontestable that Twitter could vertically integrate into the client software business itself (a first step in which it did by acquiring TweetDeck), without any possible antitrust constraints. In this light, what could conceivably be wrong with Twitter setting ground rules that require third-party providers to utilize a common user interface (UI) scheme?
This episode again reflects the short-term, static snapshot thinking we all too often see at work in debates over media and technology policy. That is, many cyber-worrywarts are prone to taking snapshots of market activity and suggesting that temporary patterns are permanent disasters requiring immediate correction. Of course, a more dynamic view of progress and competition holds that “market failures” and “code failures” are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up responses than by coercive, top-down approaches
Ironically, the Twitter decision to control API usage and effectively boot off some third-party software had only one economic effect. It cannibalized Twitter’s own developer and partner ecosystem, on which the company had relied heavily through its first years of extraordinarily rapid growth, in favor of an internal solution. That decision alienated some Twitter users and almost certainly reduced the absolute number of tweets sent and received — and thus the page views on which Twitter’s advertising rates are necessarily based. It also risked alienating the venture capitalists who have invested an estimated $475 million over just one-half of a year in companies working to develop Twitter-compatible apps and utilities. So the only firm Twitter is really hurting by this practice is Twitter itself. Eating your own ecosystem is hardly the stuff of monopolization.
Sacrificing independent distribution in favor of vertical integration is also a business model companies adopt and reject like roller coasters. In the oil industry, for instance, the most famous government antitrust case of them all is 1911’s Standard Oil, which broke up the vertically integrated petroleum monopoly assembled by John D. Rockefeller. Today, Standard’s offspring are rapidly disintegrating, divesting both wholesale distribution of refined oil products and retail gasoline dealerships. Sometimes conventional business wisdom extols vertical integration, other times it emphasizes an Adam Smith-type comparative advantage. But isn’t that the essence of marketplace competition? And in turn isn’t that something our nation’s competition policy should leave in the hands of market participants rather than government agencies?
The answer from Forbes is a simple yes:
If the FTC is indeed investigating Twitter, they are likely to find this case pretty boring. In acquiring the third party apps widely adopted by its users, Twitter is simply making a gradual, not to mention inevitable, move closer to its customer base. The startup is often slammed for its struggle to adopt a serious business model. Now that Twitter has finally figured out it is awfully difficult to build a business as a plumbing conduit, suddenly it’s lambasted as the next Microsoft.
In fact, the issue here is far more significant for technologies down the road that no one has as yet even conceived. Twitter seems sufficiently well-established that it will likely survive an FTC investigation, at least in the short run, and however misguided the government’s underlying assumptions may be. But start-ups which have not yet escaped from private betas and coders’ college dorm rooms will give pause, as they grow, before deciding to sever relations with partners that helped them “get big fast.” The fear is that cutting off downstream firms, even if taken for objectively valid business reasons, will catalyze an FTC or European Union antitrust investigation of whether the firm has “abused” its “market dominance.”
A threat of government action can be just as debilitating to innovation as premature enforcement intervention into the marketplace. Let’s hope the FTC’s 2011 Twitter investigation is mothballed in 2012, and that in the future investigations of segment-leaders in nascent technology spaces are opened only where — unlike the case of Twitter — there’s clearly an economically valid market and practices involved which are unambiguously anticompetitive. The FTC has said nothing about the Twitter issue for a year, while the San Francisco Examiner revealingly comments that “[i]n the space of [that] year, the FTC has racked up more legal action involving the high tech world than the FCC and both houses of Congress combined.” Note to Chairman Leibowitz: it’s time to let this one go, now. If your agency wants to do that quietly in order to save face, no one in Silicon Valley will mind at all. We won’t tell.
Note: Originally prepared for and reposted with permission of the Disruptive Competition Project.
When Google’s proposed acquisition of Motorola Mobility was announced in 2011, the business press focused mainly on the extension of Google’s core business from Internet search into hardware. But from a legal perspective, the treatment given the deal by competition authorities in the United States, the EU and China raises intriguing questions about the scope and objectives of merger policy in emerging technology markets.
The acquisition represents a classic case of downstream vertical integration into complementary markets. Since Google’s aborted launch of its own “Nexus One” smartphone in 2010, Google’s presence in the wireless handset and other hardware markets has been minimal. Merger reviews typically focus on horizontal concentration in a relevant product market; namely, to evaluate the risk that an increase of concentration post-transaction may produce a rise in prices or other so-called “coordinated effects.” There has been virtual unanimity among antitrust scholars and enforcement authorities for several decades that vertical integration typically presents little or no antitrust risk.
That is a principal result of the Chicago School antitrust revolution, ushered into American antitrust law and policy by GTE Sylvania in 1977. Under this approach, vertical restrictions and other relationships between manufacturers, distributors and retailers are presumptively procompetitive by increasing incentives for interbrand competition. Although technically classified as a “rule of reason” analysis, in reality the leniency of American antitrust law to vertical restraints has been such that there are almost no significant examples (with a few exceptions, like the Microsoft monopolization case of 1998-2000) of vertical restraints or mergers being judged to violate the Clayton Act or the Sherman Act.
So it should come as little surprise, therefore, that from an antitrust perspective Google’s proposal to acquire Motorola Mobility raised very few eyebrows. Yet just weeks ago it was announced that Google had received final approval to close the deal from the new China Competition Authority (the Ministry of Commerce, Anti-Monopoly Bureau ), contingent on one important concession. The Chinese required that Google pledge to maintain its Android operating system (OS) on a free basis for all wireless device manufacturers for the next five years.
The evident competition concern here is behavioral, not structural. That is, there is no risk that post-merger, Google’s share of either its own markets or Motorola’s markets will exacerbate coordinated affects or give it enhanced unilateral market power. To the contrary, the competitive risk potentially feared by antitrust regulators or competitors is that once it has a presence in wireless device manufacturing, Google might favor its own financial and competitive interests downstream by beginning to charge device manufacturing rivals for the Android OS.
This presents two provocative issues. First, should merger enforcement policy be grounded in a prediction of the post-transaction business incentives of the merging parties? While merger analysis must necessarily be based on a prediction of future effects, projecting the future business behavior of any one firm is far more problematic and unreliable than the kind of structural market analysis informed by HHI and oligopoly economics. And in most if not all antitrust regimes, even if the merger itself is accorded clearance by competition authorities, governments and competitors still have the opportunity to challenge actual post-merger conduct as a violation of the antitrust laws. Especially in rapidly changing technology markets — of which wireless handsets are undoubtedly a leading example — the risk of error in basing merger policy on predictions of future business behavior seems rather high.
The second issue raised by Chinese approval of the Google-Motorola deal is whether antitrust enforcers can or should dictate price. Typically, it is assumed that antitrust policy relies upon marketplace competition to produce the most efficient allocation of resources and “correct” pricing. Even in per se illegal price-fixing cases, the government never independently decides what the “right” price should be, but rather steps in to redress cartels or other restraints that limit the ability of market forces to set price based upon supply and demand.
“Open source” software, however, seems to be an emerging exception to that settled rule. In Oracle’s 2009 acquisition of Sun Microsystems, competitive concerns were raised about whether Oracle might begin charging for Sun’s open source mySQL database software. In Google’s 2010 acquisition of ITA, a travel software developer, the U.S. Justice Department required as part of a consent decree settlement that Google agree to maintain ITA pricing to travel service rivals and to continue R&D for the software itself. While ITA represents proprietary, paid software, the same vertical pricing concerns animated the government’s response to that deal as well.
But who is to decide whether an OS, or any other software, must or should be offered for free? The business model case for open source — dating back to that pioneered by Netscape in the late 1990s, where the Web upstart offered its browsing software for free in order to capture share and profits from the sale of server software — has been that companies offer free products in order to monetize their investment at another level (typically upstream) of the distribution chain. Economics would therefore teach that, if as seems correct, Google could make more money from handset profits than licenses for its Android OS, its rational business incentives would be to maintain Android as a free, open source product.
There’s still a big difference between legacy command-and-control economies like China, despite its recent liberalizations, and the market-oriented economy of the United States. Yet with increasing globalization these sorts of conflicting world views are likely to become more prominent. Whether the OS wants to be free could become less important than whether some government or enforcement agency – probably not in the U.S., one hopes – makes it their job to supplant the marketplace and dictate the answer.
Note: Originally written for my law firm’s Information Intersection blog.
Great video parodying the modern combination of conspicuous consumption (food) and social media!
So, should I be upset that this is how I learn of my college-aged son’s exciting achievements, via Facebook?