Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

Reports of Google China’s death are greatly exaggerated

Google engineers have found that the search giant has continued with its work on the controversial search engine customised for China.

It looks that our conclusion that Google has “terminated” its China project may have been premature. After the management bowed to pressure from both inside and outside of the company to stop the customised search engine for China, codenamed “Dragonfly”, some engineers have told The Intercept that they have seen new codes being added to the products meant for this project.

Despite that the engineers on Dragonfly have been promised to be reassigned to other tasks, and many of them are, Google engineers said they noticed around 100 engineers are still under the cost centre created for the Dragonfly project. Moreover, about 500 changes were made to the code repositories in December, and over 400 changes between January and February of this year. The codes have been developed for the mobile search apps that would be launched for Android and iOS users in China.

There is the possibility that these may be residuals from the suspended project. One source told The Intercept that the code changes could possibly be attributed to employees who have continued this year to wrap up aspects of the work they were doing to develop the Chinese search platform. But it is also worth noting that the Google leadership never formally rang the dead knell of Dragonfly.

The project, first surfaced last November, has angered quite a few Google employees that they voiced their concern to the management. This was also a focal point of Sundar Pichai’s Congressional testimony in December. At that time, multiple Congress members questioned Pichai on this point, including Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Tom Marino (R-PA), David Cicilline (D-RI), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Keith Rothfus (R-PA), according to the transcript. Pichai’s answers were carefully worded, when he repeated stated “right now there are no plans for us to launch a search product in China”. When challenged by Tom Marino, the Congressman from Pennsylvania, on the company’s future plan for China, Pichai dodged the question by saying “I’m happy to consult back and be transparent should we plan something there.”

On learning that Google has not entirely killed off Dragonfly, Anna Bacciarelli of Amnesty International told The Intercept, “it’s not only failing on its human rights responsibilities but ignoring the hundreds of Google employees, more than 70 human rights organizations, and hundreds of thousands of campaign supporters around the world who have all called on the company to respect human rights and drop Dragonfly.”

While Sergei Brin, who was behind Google’s decision to pull out of China in 2010, was ready to stand up to censorship and dictatorship, which he had known too well from his childhood in the former Soviet Union, Pichai has adopted a more mercantile approach towards questionable markets since he took over the helm at Google in 2015. In a more recent case, Google (and Apple) has refused to take down the app Absher from their app stores in Saudi Arabia, with Goolge claiming that the app does not violate its policies. The app allows men to control where women travel and offers alerts if and when they leave the country.

This has clearly irritated the lawmakers. 14 House members wrote to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, “Twenty first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth century tyranny. Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers.”

UK and US smartphone markets in steep decline

The latest numbers from industry trackers Strategy Analytics reveal UK smartphone shipments fell 14% in Q4 2018.

The main culprit seems to be UK smartphone market leader Apple, which seems to be having a bit of a nightmare all over the world right now. Apple shipped 700,000 fewer iPhones in Q4 2018 than it did in the year ago quarter, which is a drop of 19%. Second placed Samsung suffered a similar decline, dropping 400k shipments. This placed Huawei actually managed to increase its shipments by 200k, which meant it stole a big chunk of market share from the big two.

“Despite fear of trade wars and Brexit, Huawei has cracked the UK smartphone market,” SA’s Neil Mawston told Telecoms.com. “If current growth trends continue, Huawei will overtake Samsung as the number two UK smartphone player later this year. Samsung’s UK smartphone marketshare has halved in the past five years, and it must take urgent steps to arrest the decline, before it is too late, but he ‘big 3′ brands still made up three in four of all smartphones sold in the UK last year.”

“UK smartphone shipments declined 14 percent annually from 8.5 million units in Q4 2017 to 7.3 million in Q4 2018,” said Rajeev Nair of SA. “United Kingdom is the largest smartphone market in Western Europe and it is suffering from weak sales, due to longer replacement rates, a lack of wow designs, and Brexit uncertainty causing consumers to hold off on some new purchases.”

“Samsung clung on to second place with 19 percent smartphone marketshare in the UK during Q4 2018, down from 21 percent a year ago,” said Woody Oh of SA. “Samsung is facing intense competitive pressure from Huawei, who is targeting Samsung’s core segments in the midrange and premium-tier with popular models such as the P20. Huawei’s UK smartphone marketshare has leapt from 8 percent in Q4 2017 to 12 percent in Q4 2018. Huawei is growing fast in the UK, due to heavy co-marketing of its models with major carriers like EE.”

 

UK Smartphone Shipments (Millions of Units) Q4 ’17 Q4 ’18 Growth YoY (%)
Apple 3.7 3.0 -19%
Samsung 1.8 1.4 -22%
Huawei 0.7 0.9 36%
Others 2.3 2.0 -15%
Total 8.5 7.3 -14%
UK Smartphone Vendor Marketshare (%) Q4 ’17 Q4 ’18
Apple 43.5% 41.1%
Samsung 21.2% 19.2%
Huawei 7.8% 12.3%
Others 27.5% 27.4%
Total 100.0% 100.0%
Source: Strategy Analytics

SA has also been looking at the US market recently and while the shipment decline is even worse on the other side of the pond, seems that Google’s Pixel brand is starting to get some serious traction over there.

“Google’s Pixel 3 range benefited from weakness at Apple, Samsung, ZTE and others,” blogged Mawston. “Apple saw longer replacement rates, due to its battery-replacement program encouraging owners to hold on to existing iPhones for longer. Samsung struggled, due to soft sales of the flagship Galaxy S9 model. ZTE was shunned by authorities and carriers and demand for its smartphones collapsed. Google Pixel 3 is starting to resonate with US consumers who are searching for something new, such as eSIM connectivity or AI.

SA Q4 2018 US smartphone chart

Is telecom losing Europe’s next generation employees?

Telecoms companies did not feature in the top employers’ lists chosen by the current and potential young employees in a recent multi-country survey.

The Swedish consulting firm Academic Work recently published the results of a survey on current and future young employees in six European countries, which asked the respondents to choose their most “aspired” employer, hence the title of the survey “Young Professional Aspiration Index (YPAI) 2018”. Among the three Nordic countries where it broke down the details of the employers the young people most like to work for, Google came on top in all of them (it tied with Reaktor in Finland, the consulting firm behind the country’s big AI drive). None of the telecom companies, be it telcos or telecom equipment makers, made to the top-10’s.

 YPAI 2018

The survey was done in the four Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark) plus Germany and Switzerland. Nearly 19,000 young people, a mixture of students (22%), current employed (59%), as well as job seekers (15%) answered the survey. The majority of the respondents came out of Sweden, while just under 1,000 respondents were registered from Finland and Norway. Presumably the sample sizes were not big enough in the other three countries to break down the top-10 company lists.

YPAI 2018 respondents

In addition to asking the respondents to name their preferred employers, the survey also asked them about their most important criteria when choosing a place to work. “Good working environment and nice colleagues” came on top in four out of the six countries (chosen by 60% of the respondents in Sweden, 78% in Denmark, 73% in Germany, and 66% in Switzerland). It tied with “Leadership” in Sweden. In Finland coming on top was “varied and challenging tasks”, chosen by 60% of those who answered the survey, while in Norway 64% of the young people surveyed chose “training / development opportunities” as the most important criterion.

Once upon a time (i.e. around the turn of the century), telecom was THE industry to work in. It has been losing some of its old lustre to the internet giants. If they “aspire” to re-take the top spot of the young people’s mind share, the Ericssons and Nokias and Telenors of the world may want to refer to these criteria when promoting their corporate image, as a starting point.

Europe pats US internet giants on the head for being good censors

In just the third year of the EU’s Orwellian online speech purge it looks like the major platforms are largely submitting to its will.

The EU Code of Conduct on countering illegal hatespeech online has been going since 2016 as “an effort to respond to the proliferation of racist and xenophobic hate speech online.” The EU seemed to have decided that if you stop people saying horrid things online then you’ll also stop them having horrid thoughts and doing horrid things.

To implement this theory the EU needed the cooperation of the major platforms run by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google. It will have done the usual thing of threatening vindictive regulatory action if they didn’t comply so sensibly they have. They are now assessing 89% of content flagged as hatespeech within 24 hours and removing 72% of it.

Definitions of hatespeech seem to be pretty consistent across the EU, which is presumably no coincidence. Here’s the European Commission’s one:

Certain forms of conduct as outlined below, are punishable as criminal offences:

  • public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined on the basis of race, colour, descent, religion or belief, or national or ethnic origin;
  • the above-mentioned offence when carried out by the public dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other material;
  • publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court (Articles 6, 7 and 8) and crimes defined in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, when the conduct is carried out in a manner likely to incite violence or hatred against such a group or a member of such a group.

Instigating, aiding or abetting in the commission of the above offences is also punishable.

With regard to these offences listed, EU countries must ensure that they are punishable by:

  • effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties;
  • a term of imprisonment of a maximum of at least one year.

With regard to legal persons, the penalties must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive and must consist of criminal or non-criminal fines. In addition, legal persons may be punished by:

  • exclusion from entitlement to public benefits or aid;
  • temporary or permanent disqualification from the practice or commercial activities;
  • being placed under judicial supervision;
  • a judicial winding-up order.

The initiation of investigations or prosecutions of racist and xenophobic offences must not depend on a victim’s report or accusation.

Hate crime

In all cases, racist or xenophobic motivation shall be considered to be an aggravating circumstance or, alternatively, the courts must be empowered to take such motivation into consideration when determining the penalties to be applied.

If you couldn’t be bothered to read all that, the TL;DR is that you can’t say horrid things online if race, nationality, belief, etc comes into it, or even join in if someone else does. If you do all sorts of punishments will be inflicted on you, including a year in prison (as maximum of at least one year? That doesn’t make sense). The victim of such hatespeech doesn’t even need to have accused you of anything and the court reserves the right to determine your motivation for doing stuff.

“Today’s evaluation shows that cooperation with companies and civil society brings results,” said Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market. “Companies are now assessing 89% of flagged content within 24 hours, and promptly act to remove it when necessary. This is more than twice as much as compared to 2016. More importantly, the Code works because it respects freedom of expression. The internet is a place people go to share their views and find out information at the click of a button. Nobody should feel unsafe or threatened due to illegal hateful content remaining online.”

“Illegal hate speech online is not only a crime, it represents a threat to free speech and democratic engagement,” said Vĕra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “In May 2016, I initiated the Code of conduct on online hatespeech, because we urgently needed to do something about this phenomenon. Today, after two and a half years, we can say that we found the right approach and established a standard throughout Europe on how to tackle this serious issue, while fully protecting freedom of speech.”

Those statements are perfectly Orwellian, insisting as they do that censorship is free speech. The really chilling thing is that they clearly believe that imposing broad and vague restrictions on online speech is vital to protect the freedom of nice, compliant non-hateful people. The EC even had the gall to berate the platforms for not offering enough feedback to those it censors. This could easily be resolved with a blanket statement along the lines of “We’re just following orders.”

As you can see from the tweet below extracted from the full report, the types of things that qualify as hatespeech have increased since the above definition was written. This kind of mission creep is made all the more inevitable by the complicity of Silicon Valley and complete absence of dissenting media, so there’s every reason to assume the definition of hatespeech will continue to expand indefinitely.

 

Google investors slightly spooked by free-spending execs

Revenues might well be booming again at Google, but it seems shareholders are slightly concerned by increased costs, which is one of the fastest growing columns in the spreadsheet.

Looking at the final quarter, revenues stood at $39.3 billion, up 22% year-on-year, though traffic acquisition costs (TAC), what Google pays to make sure it is the dominant search engine across all platforms, operating systems and devices, were up by over $1 billion. Cost-per-click on Google properties were also down. A glimmering ray of sunshine was higher-than-expected seasonal growth for premium YouTube products and services.

Total revenues for 12 months ending December 31 stood at $136.8 billion, up 23% over 2017, while net income was back up to the levels which one would expect at Google, raking in $30.7 billion. The company is not growing as quickly as it used to, while expenses are starting to stack up. Investors clearly aren’t the happiest of bunnies as share price declined 3.1% in overnight trading.

“Operating expenses were $13.2 billion, up 27% year-over-year,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The biggest increase was in R&D expenses, with the larger driver being headcount growth, followed by the accrual of compensation expenses to reflect increases in the valuation of equity in certain Other Bets.

“Growth in Sales and marketing expenses reflect increases in sales and marketing headcount primarily for Cloud and Ads followed by advertising investments mainly in Search and the Assistant.”

Headcount by the end of the last period was up by more than 18,000 employees to 98,771. While CEO Sundar Pichai was keen to point out the business is continuing to invest in improving its core search product, diversification efforts into areas such as the smart speaker market, cloud and artificial intelligence are hitting home. Perhaps investors have forgotten what it’s like to search for the next big idea.

For years, Google plundering the bank accounts with little profit to offer. These days are a long-distant memory, but it is the same for every business which is targeting astronomical growth. You have to perfect the product and then scale. A dip in share price perhaps indicates shareholders have forgotten this concept, but Google is doing the right thing for everyone involved.

Some businesses search for differentiation and diversification when they have to, some do it because they have ambition to remain on top. Those who are searching because they have to are most likely reporting static or declining numbers each month and did not have the vision to see the good days would not last forever. Google is pumping cash into the next idea so when growth in its core business starts to flatten, something else can pick up the slack and pull the business towards more astronomical growth.

This is what is so remarkable about the ‘other bets’ column on the spreadsheets. It might have costs growth every single year, as does the wider R&D column, but having graduated the cloud computing business and most recently Loon, there are businesses which will start to contribute more than they are detracting. This is a company which never sits still, and this is why it is one of the most admired organizations from an entrepreneurial perspective. Shareholders might do well remembering this every now and then.

Looking at joy around the world for the final quarter, US revenues were $18.7 billion, up 21% year-over-year, while EMEA brought in $12.4 billion, up 20% and APAC accounted for $6.1 billion, up 29%. Revenues in LATAM were $2.2 billion, up 16% year-over-year. APAC and LATAM were subject to negative FX fluctuations, particularly in Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

In the specific business units, Google Sites revenues were $27 billion in the quarter, up 22%, with mobile collecting the lion’s share, though YouTube and Desktop contributing growth also. Cloud, Hardware and Play drove the growth in the ‘other’ revenues for Google, collecting $6.5 billion, up 31% year-over-year for the final quarter.

Although these diversification efforts are growing positively, there are also some risks to bear in mind. Firstly, the cloud computing business is losing pace with Microsoft and AWS. Google is making investments to attempt to buy its way through the chasm, but it will be tough going as both these businesses make positive steps forward also.

Secondly, some properties and developers are choosing to circumnavigate the Google Play Store, instead taking their titles direct to the consumer. This is only a minor segment of the pie for the moment and there will be a very small proportion of the total who actually have the footprint to do this (Fortnite for example), though it is a trend the team will want to keep an eye on. Perhaps the 30% commission Google charges developers will be reconsidered to stem dissenting ideas.

Finally, the data sharing economy which will sit behind the smart speaker and smart home ecosystem is facing a possible threat. Google will not make the desired billions from hardware sales, but it will from the operating systems and virtual assistant powering the devices. Collecting referral fees and connecting buyers with sellers is what Google does very well, though this business model might be under threat from new data protection and privacy regulations.

The final one is not just a challenge to the potential billions hidden between the cushions in the smart home’s virtual sofa, but the entire internet economy. GDPR complaints are currently being considered and potential consequences to how personal data is collected, processed and stored are already being considered. The Google lawyers will have to be on tip-top form to minimise the disruption to the business, and wider data sharing economy.

Costs might be up and while there are dark clouds on the horizon, Pichai and his executives are moving in the right direction. The lawyers can lesson the potential impact of regulation, but the exploration encouraged by the management team in the ‘other bets’ segment is what will fuel Google in the future. Costs should be controlled, but spending should also be encouraged.

Apple slaps Google and Facebook on the wrist

One day after Facebook had its enterprise developer certificates revoked by Apple, Google ran into similar troubles with the iOS and App Store owner.

It turned out that Facebook was not the only naughty player attempting to circumvent Apple’s rules to forbid apps developed under enterprise certificates to be distributed outside of the company. Google was found to have distributed a data monitoring and survey app called Screenwise Meter. The app comes with Apple’s enterprise developer certificate granted to Google and has been distributed to a “panel” selected and maintained in partnership with the research firm GfK. The panel may include users as young as 13, or with the parents’ consent, those under 13 though the data monitoring method will be modified.

It is not clear if it was a reaction to the revocation of Facebook’s certificates, but Google stopped the distribution of Screenwise Meter before Apple acted. “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in the app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

However, Google’s developer certificates were still made invalid by Apple on Thursday, reported first by The Verge. This resulted in Google’s pre-release beta apps as well as employee-only apps, for example those for using Google’s shuttle bus or coffee shops, stopping working. (One cannot help but wondering how many employees in Google, which controls Android and releases its own Pixel smartphones, are using iPhone as their primary devices.) The tone from Apple, however, was much reconciliatory. “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly,” said the statement from Apple to BuzzFeed.

In comparison, Apple was much sterner when pulling the plug on Facebook. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

To look at the two cases together, there are two types of issues Apple needs to deal with. To borrow the economics jargons, one is normative, i.e. based on principles, another is positive, i.e. based on facts. On the normative side, Apple should clarify whether Facebook and Google were punished for launching apps gathering users’ private data or for distributing the apps under the wrong type of certificates and through unofficial channels, i.e. not using the App Store.

Although most media coverage was focused on the Facebook app gathering user data, it looks that Apple was more annoyed by the fact that Facebook (and Google) has abused its enterprise developer certificates. It said in the statement related to Facebook: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case (of Facebook) to protect our users and their data.”

However, what drove Facebook to distribute “Facebook Research”, the app in question through unorthodox channels, looks to be that Apple has banned apps to gather user data as detailed as app history, private messages, and location, from being listed in the App Store. In its “App Store Review Guidelines”, Apple stated “5.1.1 Data Collection and Storage: (iii) Data Minimization: Apps should only request access to data relevant to the core functionality of the app and should only collect and use data that is required to accomplish the relevant task. Where possible, use the out-of-process picker or a share sheet rather than requesting full access to protected resources like Photos or Contacts.”

The rule above would be caught in a paradox in cases where the “core functionality” of an app is to gather detailed user data and is explicit with it. That was the case with “Facebook Research”. Facebook said in its statement: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

As an aside, despite the repeated furore towards Facebook recently, neither users nor advertisers seem to be deterred. The Q4 results recently published showed that in Europe, where GDPR went into effect mid-2018, Facebook’s monthly active users went up from 375 million in Q3 to 381 million, and the average revenue per user in Europe jumped from $8.82 in Q3 up to $10.98.

If Apple was unhappy with companies distributing apps developed under enterprise certificates to users outside of the enterprises, there would come the positive side of the issues, i.e. related how Apple implements the rule. Whether Apple was punishing Facebook and Google as a deterrent to other companies that have or might have distributed apps externally using enterprise certificates, or it will go after all offenders, remains to be seen.

If it was the former tactic, an old Chinese saying that goes “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” would summarise it well, though the two chickens Apple has put the knife in are much fatter than most monkeys. On the other hand, if Apple were true to its word that it would act on “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers”, it may find a long line of chickens (or monkeys) standing in the line. Alex Fajkowski, a Twitter user and iOS app developer, suggested that both Amazon and DoorDash were distributing apps to recruit temporary deliverers. Then a longer list of companies suspected of doing the same thing was drawn up, including companies like Square and Sonos (though Sonos looks to have removed the page recently).

Looking at it either way, it is clear that Apple is tightening the control over its already tightly controlled ecosystem. With Services becoming increasingly important, Apple would not want to see any loss of revenues from iOS apps distributed outside of App Store, nor would it want to be seen complacent or even complicit in any comprise of users’ privacy. Or, standing up to the internet giants which have been on the receiving end of much anger, could score a PR victory for Apple.

Both Facebook and Google had their enterprise certificates restored by Thursday evening.

Who’s got the stones to buy Netflix?

Apple, Disney, Microsoft or Apple; one of the biggest questions which has circled the technology industry over the last couple of years is who could possibly acquire Netflix?

The streaming giant, Wall Street’s darling, has almost constantly been talked up as an acquisition target. However, another year has passed and it’s another year where no-one managed to capture the content beast. You have to start to wonder whether it will ever happen, but here we’re going to have a look at who might be in the running.

Netflix numbersWith subscriptions totalling more than 148 million, 2018 revenues exceeding $15.7 billion and operating income up to $1.6 billion, Netflix would certainly be a useful addition to any company. However, with market capitalisation now roughly $143 billion and debt which would make your eyes water, an acquisition would be a scary prospect for almost everyone.

First and foremost, let’s have a look at some of the players who might have been in the equation, but alas, no more.

Disney has been a rumoured acquirer for almost as long as Netflix existed. This is an incredibly successful company, but no-one is immune to the shift tides of the global economy and consumer behaviour. Getting in on the internet craze is something which should be considered critical to Disney, and Netflix would have given them a direct-to-consumer channel. However, there was always a feeling Disney would develop its own proposition organically and this turned out to be the case.

AT&T is another company which might have been in the fray, but its Time Warner acquisition satisfied the content needs of the business. All telcos are searching to get in on the content cash, developing converged offerings, and AT&T is a company which certainly has a big bank account. As mentioned above, the acquisition of Time Warner completes rules this business out.

There are of course others who might have been interested in acquiring the streaming giant, but for various reasons they would not be considered today. Either it would be way too expensive, wouldn’t fit into the company’s objectives or there is already a streaming service present. But now onto the interesting stuff, who could be in the running.

Microsoft logo

Microsoft

From doom to gloom, CEO Satya Nadella has certainly turned fortunes around at Microsoft. Only a few years ago, Microsoft was a shadow of its former self as the declining PC industry hit home hard. A disastrous venture into the world of smartphones was a slight detour but under the cloud-orientated leadership of Nadella, Microsoft is back as a lean, mean tech heavyweight.

Alongside the cloud computing business, Microsoft has also successfully lead the Xbox brand into the digital era. Not only is the platform increasingly evolving into an online gaming landscape, but it also lends itself well to sit alongside the Netflix business. If Microsoft wants to compete with Amazon across the entire digital ecosystem, both consumer and enterprise, it will need to expand the business into more consumer channels.

For Netflix, this might be an interesting tie up as well. Netflix is a business which operates through a single revenue stream at the moment, entertainment, and might be keen to look at new avenues. Gaming and eSports are two segments which align well with Netflix, opening up some interesting synergies with Microsoft’s consumer business.

“Microsoft is at a crossroads,” said independent telco, media and tech analyst Paolo Pescatore. “Its rivals have made big moves in video and it needs to follow suit. The acquisition addresses this and complements its efforts with Xbox. The move also strengthens its growing aspirations in the cloud with Azure, firmly positioning itself against Amazon with AWS and Prime video.”

However, while this is a company which could potentially afford to buy Netflix, you have to wonder whether it actually will. The Netflix culture does not necessarily align with Microsoft, and while diversification into new channels is always attractive, it might be considered too much of a distraction from the cloud computing mission. Nadella has already stated he is targeting the edge computing and AI segments, and considering the bounties on offer there, why bother entertaining an expensive distraction.

Apple Store on 5th Avenue, New York City

Apple

Apple is another company which has billions floating in free cash and assets which could be used to leverage any transaction. It is also a company which has struggled to make any effective mark on the content world, excluding iTunes success. With Netflix, Apple could purchase a very successful brand, broadening the horizons of the business.

The last couple of months have shown Apple is not immune to the dampened smartphone trends. Sales are not roaring the same way they were during yesteryear, perhaps because there has been so little innovation in the segment for years. The last genuine disruption for devices probably came from Apple a decade ago when it ditched the keyboard. Arguably everything else has just been incremental change, while prices are sky-rocketing; the consumer feels abused.

To compensate for the slowdown, CEO Tim Cook has been talking up the software and services business unit. While this has been successful, it seems not enough for investors. Netflix would offer a perfect opportunity for Apple to diversify and tap into the recurring revenues pot which everyone wants to grab.

However, Netflix is a service for anyone and everyone. Apple has traditionally tied services into Apple devices. At CES, we saw the firm expand into openness with new partnerships, but this might be a step too far. Another condemning argument is Apple generally likes to build business organically, or at least acquire to bolster existing products. This would stomp all over this concept.

Alibaba Logo

Alibaba

A Chinese company which has been tearing up trees in the domestic market but struggled to impose itself on the international space, Alibaba has been hoping to replicate the Huawei playbook to dominate the world, but no-where near as successfully.

Perhaps an internationally renowned business is exactly what Alibaba needs to establish itself on the international space. But what is worth noting is this relationship could head the other direction as well; Netflix wouldn’t mind capitalising on the Chinese market.

As with any international business a local business partner is needed to trade in China. Alibaba, with its broad reach across the vast country, could prove to be a very interesting playmate. With Netflix’s Eastern ambitions and Alibaba’s Western dreams, there certainly is dovetail potential.

However, it is very difficult to believe the current US political administration would entertain this idea. Aside from aggression and antagonistic actions, the White House has form in blocking acquisitions which would benefit China, see Broadcom’s attempted acquisition of Qualcomm. This is a completely different argument and segment but considering the escalating trade war between the US and China, it is hard to see any tie up between these two internet giants.

Google Logo

Google

If you’re going to talk about a monstrous acquisition in Silicon Valley, it’s difficult not to mention Google. This is one of the most influential and successful businesses on the planet with cash to burn. And there might just be interest in acquiring Netflix.

Time and time again, Google has shown it is not scared of spending money, a prime example of this is the acquisition of YouTube for $1.65 billion. This might seem like pocket change today, but back in 2006 this was big cash. It seemed like a ridiculous bet for years, but who is laughing now?

The issue with YouTube is the business model. Its advertiser led, open to all and recently there have been some PR blunders with the advert/content alignment. Some content companies have actively avoided the platform, while attempts to create a subscription business have been unsuccessful. This is where Netflix could fit in.

“Google has made numerous failed attempts to crack the paid online video landscape,” said Pescatore. “Content and media owners no longer want to devalue their prized assets by giving it away on YouTube. Acquiring Netflix gives Google a sizeable subscriber base and greater credibility with content and media owners.”

Where there is an opportunity to make money, Google is not scared about big cash outlays. Yes, Netflix is a massive purchase, and there is a lot of debt to consider, but Google is an adventurous and bold enough company to make this work.

However, you have to question whether the US competition authorities would allow two of the largest content platforms to be owned by the same company. There might not necessarily be any direct overlap, but this is a lot of influence to have in one place. Authorities don’t generally like this idea.

Verizon Logo

Verizon

Could Verizon borrow a page from the AT&T playbook and go big on a content acquisition? Perhaps it will struggle to justify the expense to investors, but this one might make sense.

Verizon has been attempting to force its way into the diversification game and so far, it has been a disaster. While AT&T bought Game of Thrones, Verizon went after Yahoo to challenge the likes of Google and Facebook for advertising dollars. A couple of data breaches later, the content and media vision looks like a shambles. Hindsight is always 20/20 but this was a terrible decision.

However, with a 5G rollout to consider, fixed broadband ambitions and burnt fingers from the last content acquisition, you have to wonder whether the team has the stomach to take on such a massive task. Verizon as a business is nothing like Netflix and despite the attractive recurring revenues and value-add opportunities, the integration would be a nightmare. The headache might not be worth the reward.

You also have to wonder whether the telco would be scared off by some of the bold decisions made from a content perspective. Telcos on the whole are quite risk-adverse organizations, something which Netflix certainly isn’t. How many people would have taken a risk and funded content like Stranger Things? And with the release of Bandersnatch, Netflix is entering the new domain of interactive content. You have to be brave and accept considerable risk to make such bets work; we can’t see Verizon adopting this mentality.

Softbank Logo

Softbank Vision Fund

Another with telco heritage, but this is a completely different story.

A couple of years back, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son had a ridiculous idea which was mocked by many. The creation of a $100 billion investment fund which he would manage seemed unimaginable, but he found the backers, made it profitable and then started up a second-one.

Son is a man to knows how to make money and has the right connections to raise funds for future wonderful ideas. Buying Netflix might sound like an absurd idea, but this is one place we could really see it working.

However, the issue here is the business itself. While Son might be interested in digital ventures which are capable of making profits, the aim of the funds have mainly been directed towards artificial intelligence. Even if Son and his team have bought into other business segments, they are more enterprise orientated. There are smaller bets which have been directed towards the consumer market, but would require an investment on another level.

Tencent Logo

Tencent

Another Chinese company which has big ambitions on the global stage.

This is a business which has been incredibly successful in the Chinese market and used assets effectively in the international markets as well. The purchase of both Epic Games and Supercell have spread the influence of the business further across the world and numerous quarterly results have shown just how strong Tencent’s credentials are in the digital economy.

Tencent would most likely be able to raise the funds to purchase the monster Netflix, while the gaming and entertainment portfolio would work well alongside the streaming brand. Cross selling would be an option, as would embedding more varied content on different platforms. It could be a match made in heaven.

However, you have to bear in mind this is a Chinese company and the political climate is not necessarily in the frame to consider such as transaction. Like Alibaba, Tencent might be viewed as too close to the Chinese government.

No-one

This is an option which is looking increasingly likely. Not only will the business cost a huge amount of money, perhaps a 30-40% premium on market capitalisation, the acquirer will also have to swallow all the debt built-up over the years. There will also have to be enough cash to fuel the content ambitions of Netflix, it reportedly spend $7.5 billion on content last year.

Finally, the acquirer would also have to convince Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, as well as the shareholders, that selling up is the best option.

“If I was a shareholder or Reed Hastings, I’d be wondering whether it is better to be owned by someone else or just carry on what we’re doing now,” said Ed Barton, Practise Lead at Ovum.

“These guys are going down in business school history for what they have done with Netflix already, do they need to sell out to someone else?”

Netflix is growing very quickly and now bringing in some notable profits. The most interesting thing about this business is the potential as well. The US market might be highly saturated, but the international potential is massive. Many countries around the world, most notably in Asia, are just beginning to experience the Netflix euphoria meaning the growth ceiling is still years away.

What this international potential offers Netflix is time, time to explore new opportunities, convergence and diversification. Any business with a single revenue stream, Netflix is solely reliant on subscriptions, sits in a precarious position, but with international growth filling the coffers the team have time to organically create new business streams.

Ultimately, Hastings and his management team have to ask themselves a simple question; is it better to control our own fate or answer to someone else for a bumper payday? We suspect Hastings’ bank account is already bursting and this is a man who is driven by ambition, the need to be the biggest and best, breaking boundaries and creating the unthinkable.

Most of these suitors will probably be thinking they should have acquired Netflix years ago, when the price was a bit more palatable, but would they have been able to drive the same success as Hastings has done flying solo? We suspect not.