Misunderstanding the Mobile Ecosystem

Mobile communications and computing are among the most innovative and competitive markets in the world. They have created a new world of software and offer dramatic opportunities to improve productivity and creativity across the industrial spectrum.

Last week we published a tech note documenting the rapid growth of mobile and the importance of expanding wireless spectrum availability. More clean spectrum is necessary both to accommodate fast-rising demand and drive future innovations. Expanding spectrum availability might seem uncontroversial. In the report, however, we noted that one obstacle to expanding spectrum availability has been a cramped notion of what constitutes competition in the Internet era. As we wrote:

Opponents of open spectrum auctions and flexible secondary markets often ignore falling prices, expanding choices, and new features available to consumers. Instead they sometimes seek to limit new spectrum availability, or micromanage its allocation or deployment characteristics, charging that a few companies are set to dominate the market. Although the FCC found that 77% of the U.S. population has access to three or more 3G wireless providers, charges of a coming “duopoly” are now common.

This view, however, relies on the old analysis of static utility or commodity markets and ignores the new realities of broadband communications. The new landscape is one of overlapping competitors with overlapping products and services, multi-sided markets, network effects, rapid innovation, falling prices, and unpredictability.

Sure enough, yesterday Sprint CEO Dan Hesse made the duopoly charge and helped show why getting spectrum policy right has been so difficult.

Q: You were a vocal opponent of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Are you satisfied you can compete now that the merger did not go through?

A: We’re certainly working very hard. There’s no question that the industry does have an issue with the size of the duopoly of AT&T and Verizon. I believe that over time we’ll see more consolidation in the industry outside of the big two, because the gap in size between two and three is so enormous. Consolidation is healthy for the industry as long as it’s not AT&T and Verizon getting larger.

Hesse goes even further.

Hesse also seemed to be likening Sprint’s struggles in competing with AT&T-Rex and Big Red as a fight against good and evil. Sprint wants to wear the white hat, according to Hesse. “At Sprint, we describe it internally as being the good guys, of doing the right thing,” he said.

This type of thinking is always a danger if you’re trying to make sound policy. Picking winners and losers is inevitably — at best — an arbitrary exercise. Doing so based on some notion of corporate morality is plain silly, but even more reasonable sounding metrics and arguments — like those based on market share — are often just as misleading and harmful.

The mobile Internet ecosystem is growing so fast and changing with such rapidity and unpredictability that making policy based on static and narrow market definitions will likely yield poor policy. As we noted in our report:

It is, for example, worth emphasizing: Google and Apple were not in this business just a few short years ago.

Yet by the fourth quarter of 2011 Apple could boast an amazing 75% of the handset market’s profits. Apple’s iPhone business, it was widely noted after Apple’s historic 2011, is larger than all of Microsoft. In fact, Apple’s non-iPhone products are also larger than Microsoft.

Android, the mobile operating system of Google, has been growing even faster than Apple’s iOS. In December 2011, Google was activating 700,000 Android devices a day, and now, in the summer of 2012, it estimates 900,000 activations per day. From a nearly zero share at the beginning of 2009, Android today boasts roughly a 55% share of the global smartphone OS market.

. . .

Apple’s iPhone changed the structure of the industry in several ways, not least the relationships between mobile service providers and handset makers. Mobile operators used to tell handset makers what to make, how to make it, and what software and firmware could be loaded on it. They would then slap their own brand label on someone else’s phone.

Apple’s quick rise to mobile dominance has been matched by Blackberry maker Research In Motion’s fall. RIM dominated the 2000s with its email software, its qwerty keyboard, and its popularity with enterprise IT departments. But it  couldn’t match Apple’s or Android’s general purpose computing platforms, with user-friendly operating systems, large, bright touch-screens, and creative and diverse app communities.

Sprinkled among these developments were the rise, fall, and resurgence of Motorola, and then its sale to Google; the rise and fall of Palm; the rise of HTC; and the decline of once dominant Nokia.

Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others are building cloud ecosystems, sometimes complemented with consumer devices, often tied to Web apps and services, multimedia content, and retail stores. Many of these products and services compete with each other, but they also compete with broadband service providers. Some of these business models rely primarily on hardware, some software, some subscriptions, some advertising. Each of the companies listed above — a computer company, a search company, an ecommerce company, and a software company — are now major Internet infrastructure companies.

As Jeffrey Eisenach concluded in a pathbreaking analysis of the digital ecosystem (“Theories of Broadband Competition”), there may be market concentration in one (or more) layer(s) of the industry (broadly considered), yet prices are falling, access is expanding, products are proliferating, and innovation is as rapid as in any market we know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *