Congress asks Amazon whether it is becoming a police snitch

The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy has written to Amazon asking the internet to explain partnerships between surveillance company Ring and local police departments.

Home security and surveillance products are becoming increasingly popular with the consumer, though it appears the subcommittee is asking Amazon to explain the fine print. As with most products and services launched by Silicon Valley residents, Ring seems to be accompanied with legal jargon few will understand and may well compromise privacy and data protection principles.

“The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is writing to request documents and information about Ring’s partnerships with city governments and local police departments, along with the company’s policies governing the data it collects,” the letter states.

“The Subcommittee is examining traditional constitutional protections against surveilling Americans and the balancing of civil liberties and security interests.”

The question which the politicians seem to be asking is how compliant Ring will in handing over information to law enforcement agencies or local government authorities, as well as the fundamentals of the partnerships themselves. Once again it appears the technology industry is revelling in the grey lands of nuance and half-statements.

Ring currently has partnerships with more than 900 law enforcement and local government agencies, it is critically important that everything is above board. This isn’t just a quirky product adopted by a few individuals anymore, this is potentially a scaled-surveillance programme. The opportunity for abuse is present once again, offering validity for Congress to wade into the situation and start splashing.

Optimists might suggest Ring is being a good corporate citizen, aiding police and security forces where possible. Cynics, on the other hand, would question whether Amazon is attempting to create a private, for-profit surveillance network.

One area which the Subcommittee would like some clarification on is to do with how compliant Ring would be when offering data to government agencies. Ring has said it would not turn over data unless it is “required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order”, though the wording of the terms of service seem to undermine this firm stance.

Ring may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials and/or third parties, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with applicable law, regulation, legal process or reasonable governmental request.

The final point of this clause, reasonable government request, is what should be considered worrying. This is unnecessarily vague and flexible language which can be used for a wide range of justifications or explanations for wrongdoing.

More often than not, politicians on such subcommittees are usually chasing a headline, but this seems to be a case where proper investigation is warranted. Law enforcement agencies and the internet giants have shown themselves on numerous occasions not to be trustworthy with minimal oversight. And when you are talking about a topic as sensitive as data privacy, no blind trust should be afforded at all.

BT finally unveils its reimagined TV proposition

The aggregator model has taken centre-stage at BT, leveraging its existing capabilities instead of trying to beat the content industry at its own game.

Under Gavin Patterson, BT tried to do something which almost looked impossible. It attempted to disrupt the content industry by not only owning the delivery model for content, but the content itself. It attempted to muscle into an established segment and compete with companies which were built for the content world. It was expensive, complicated and messy, and it failed spectacularly.

BT has not given up on content under new leadership, but it is taking a seemingly more pragmatic and strategic approach. Aside from its own content, Now TV will also be embedded in the BT interface, meaning that customers can now watch, pause, rewind and record premium Sky Entertainment and Sky Sports content. Customers will also be able to integrate Amazon Prime Video and Netflix onto their BT bill, while each element of the bundle can be scaled-up or -down month-by-month.

It is making best use of its assets, and it looks to be a comprehensive and sensible pillar of the convergence strategy.

“Life doesn’t stand still from month to month, so we don’t believe our customers’ TV should either. Our new range of TV packs bring together the best premium services, fully loaded with a wide range of award-winning shows, the best live sports in stunning 4K and the latest must-see films – all with the flexibility to change packs every month – with  quick and easy search to find what you want to watch,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division.

BT will ‘own’ some content, it still has the UEFA Champions League broadcast rights after all, but it is picking its battles. The BT TV proposition failed in years gone because it tried to go it alone, but without the broad range of content genres, it looked like a poor attempt to compete with the likes of Sky. In reality, it didn’t need to.

The telcos have a significant advantage over many content companies around the world; they have an existing and trusted billing relationship with the customer. According to the Ovum World Information Series, EE has 30.6 million mobile subscribers and BT has 9.1 million broadband customers. These relationships can be leveraged through the partnership model to realise new profits in a low-risk manner.

BT is in a position of strength. The streaming wars are raging, and the service providers will do almost anything to gain the attention of the consumer, as well as build credibility in the brand. By bundling services into the BT, the OTTs are leveraging the trust which the customer has in the telco billing relationship and gaining eyeballs on the service itself. All they have to do is offer BT a small slice of the profits.

This is the symbiotic relationship in practice. The OTTs gain traction with customers, while BT can complete the convergence objective in a low-risk manner through the aggregator model.

That said, it is somewhat of a retreat from its previous content ambitions.

“This well long overdue move feels like a last-ditch effort to be successful in TV,” said Paolo Pescatore, founder of PP Foresight.

“Aggregation is the holy grail. BT has done a superb job of introducing some novel features and bringing together key services all in one place. This will strongly resonate with users. However, it is unlikely to pose a considerable threat to Sky who in turn will be able to bundle BT Sport into its own packages. In the future expect this new TV platform to be bundled with BT Halo which will further strengthen its premium convergent offering.”

Convergence is a strategy which should be fully embraced by the BT business. Not only has it been proven in other European markets, see Orange in France and Spain, but the depth and breadth of BT’s assets should position it as a clear market leader. With mobile, broadband, public wifi hotspots and content tied into a single bill, as well as partnerships to bolster the experience, BT is heading down the right path. If it can start to build service products on top, such as security, this could start to look like a very competent digital business.

The issue which remains is one of price. The Halo bundle is one few can compete with, but if it is not priced correctly it will not be a success. This does seem to be the issue with the BT consumer business right now, it is pricing itself out of the competition. Convergence is attractive to customers when it is convenient and makes financial sense, but right now it doesn’t seem to.

BT is slowly heading in the right direction. It might have taken years, but it is slowly creating a proposition for the consumer which few should theoretically be able to compete with. If it can merge the business into a single brand and sort out the pricing of its products, it should recapture the market leader position.

Netflix is winning the streaming war – Nielsen

There might be a lot of pretenders to the video streaming crown but data from the US demonstrates one thing; no-one comes near Netflix.

Hulu, HBO and Amazon Prime might boast and posture about success, but the true measure of victory for a content giant is eyeballs on the screen. According to data from entertainment data firm Nielsen, streaming services now account for 19% of the total TV usage across the final quarter of 2019, with Netflix taking a considerable chunk of the audience.

Perhaps one of the most interesting statistics to emerge from this data is the consumers increased appetite for data.

As it stands, 60% of US consumers subscribe to more than one paid video streaming service. As more options have emerged, 93% of the survey respondents suggest they will either increase or keep their existing streaming services.

One of the big questions which has been circulating the industry for the last few months is how tolerant will consumers wallets be to the increased number of service providers? The market is already fragmented, with more launches on the horizon, though a household will subscribe to more than one service which will offer encouragement to those dreading the prospect of a head-to-head battle with Netflix.

Looking at the reasons behind the purchase, it is not particularly surprising. Cost, ease of use, availability of content and streaming quality are the top reasons anyone would purchase a service.

While it might seem obvious to state, some have clearly not got the memo; user experience is just as important as the content and pricing strategies which have been employed. Sky has ruled the linear TV market in large blocks of Europe for decades because the user experience has been the highest quality, and few can compete with the simplistic and functional set-up which Netflix has created.

Interestingly enough, with the aggressive volume of content which will be available to consumers, the discovery function is going to be important. This will drastically impact the user’s ability to locate relevant content and perhaps the appetite to trial new services. If user experience is completely satisfactory, then why would they look elsewhere, the opposite can also be said to be true.

There might well be a tsunami of new services hitting the streaming market over 2020, including the wave making Disney+, but realistically for the moment, no-one is challenging Netflix for the content crown.

Disney looks like a genuine Netflix contender

Disney’s streaming service is off to a flier as the team boasts of 28.6 million paid subscribers during the latest earnings call. Could this be the genuine Netflix challenger the industry has been promising?

Amazon Prime, HBO, YouTube and countless others have promised to lodge a challenge to the market dominance of Netflix, but few can say they come close. Netflix is still by far and away the leader in the market, but the early signs from the first three months of Disney+ suggest it could be the most likely contender to challenge for the title.

“While this seems to be a good start, it is still early days,” said Paolo Pescatore, founder of PP Foresight and Telecoms.com Podcast number one fanboy.

“The service is starting from scratch. Flagship programming has helped drive awareness and subscriber uptake. Disney will certainly be able to maintain this is the short to medium term, but it still has a long way to go before it is a true challenger to Netflix which is the global paid streaming service leader.”

One takeaway from this early success is that Disney seems to have priced the subscription correctly. The numbers speak for themselves, though the team believes the service will break even between 60-90 million subscribers. This might not account for additional marketing activities or increased spend on original, localised content, but it is a useful milestone to bear in mind.

Interestingly enough, the team expects the immediate gains to be in the international markets.

“In the near-term, we expect subscriber growth to come primarily from outside the US, with the next meaningful phase of domestic subscriber growth likely to coincide with the release later this calendar year of highly anticipated original content, including episodic series from Marvel and Season 2 of The Mandalorian,” said CFO Christine McCarthy during the Walt Disney Company first quarter earnings call.

While this is the opposite from the way in which Netflix produced success in the early years, it does make sense. Netflix is an incredibly popular brand in the US, entrenched in the lives of the consumers already. Netflix is currently focusing on demonstrating the value of the service to international audiences.

This is where Disney might be able to experience more success in the short-term. In terms of validating the value of the brand, Disney perhaps has an advantage over Netflix in some international markets. Disney is one of the most internationally recognised brands after all and it is a simpler task to acquire first-time customers as opposed to wrestling them away from the iron-like grip of Netflix.

After launching in the US last year, the team hoovered up more than 1 million paying subscribers in the first day. Since then the service has been launched in Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Puerto Rico. Disney+ will make its debut in various European markets over the next few months.

The international markets, aside from a couple, are not as enthusiastic for paid streaming services as the US, so there will be a lot of marketing to demonstrate the value of the proposition. As CEO Bob Igor has pointed out, Netflix has begun seeding these markets with the value of streaming, but it will not be as easy to pry open wallets as it will be in the US.

While the Disney brand certainly holds credibility in the eyes of the international consumer, partnerships will play a vital role in securing subscriptions. The tie-up with Verizon is working well in the US according to the management team (20% of subscriptions are linked to this partnership) and connecting with Canal Plus in France should also be viewed as a positive. In the UK, rumours have been circulating surrounding a partnership between Disney and Sky, which would be a significant win for both parties.

For Disney, bundling the service with the most successful paid TV brand in the country and a prominent ISP makes sense. It is a direct link to the consumer, through an established brand which already has a billing relationship. For Sky, if it is able to embed the service in its interface (as it has done with Netflix), the proposition looks attractive as an aggregator to the consumer, building on its reputation for providing a high-quality content experience.

India is a market which is also on the horizon, with the team launching the service through its Hotstar service on March 29. This is a massive market for any content business, thanks to a significant population and a huge appetite for video content. Disney already has existing operations and a link to the consumer in India, so this could turn out to be a very profitable market, one which few US companies have had genuine success in.

These partnerships will be key to success, key to prying open the wallet of cash-conscious consumers and key to eroding the influence of Netflix on the subscription streaming market. It is certainly early days for the Disney streaming brand, but all indicators are green right now.

Cloud becomes the golden child as Google reports yet more profit

When looking at the financial results of companies like Google, the question is not whether it has made money, but how much are the bank vaults overflowing.

Financial for the full year demonstrated slightly slowing growth, but few should worry about having to search the sofa for the pennies right now. Over the course of 2019, Google brought in $161.8 million, up 18.3% year-on-year, though it was YouTube and the Google Cloud business units as opposed to the core business which collected the plaudits from the management team.

“Revenues were 2.6 billion for the fourth quarter, up 53% year-over-year, driven by significant growth at GCP and ongoing strong growth and G Suite,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The growth rate of GCP was meaningfully higher than that of cloud overall. GCP growth was led by our infrastructure offerings and our data and analytics platform.”

Company Quarter Revenue (most recent) Year-on-year Growth
Google Cloud $2.6 billion 53%
Microsoft Intelligent Cloud $11.9 billion 27%
Amazon Web Services $9.9 billion 23%

Despite being a business unit which brings in an impressive $10 billion annually, it is impossible not to compare the performance of Google Cloud to AWS and Microsoft Azure. Google is realistically the only rival which can keep pace with the leading pair, though it does appear it is losing pace.

That said, the fortunes of the cloud are only beginning to be realised; this is a marathon not a sprint. Moving forward, the Google team believes strength in AI and software gives it an advantage to provide seamless experiences to users across multiple devices. There is also the blunt force approach to acquiring market share moving forward; Porat highlighted the objective is to triple the size of the cloud sales team.

Over at YouTube, the team is capitalising on the increasingly consumer appetite for video, though also what appears to be a more experimental attitude to subscription. YouTube TV is growing healthily at 2 million, while the core YouTube platform has more than 20 million music and premium paid subscribers.

This is positive momentum, though it will be interesting to see what impact partnerships have on these figures. Google is partnered with Verizon, forming a content option in its bundled products, though rivals are placing a much greater emphasis on these relationships, leaning on an already established link with the consumer, albeit sacrificing some profit in the process.

Perhaps these two business units demonstrate why Google is such an attractive company to investors and potential employees. The core business can do what it does, but Google is always searching for the next big idea. Google Cloud is arguably the most successful graduate of its ‘Moonshot Labs’ initiative, while YouTube is one of the biggest acquisition bargains at $1.65 billion in 2006. It now brings in more than $15 billion annually in ads sales.

During the earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai pointed to some of the other investments which are absorbing the $26 billion annual R&D budget. Verily and Calico are linking together AI and cloud technologies to improve clinical trials, research, and drug development. Waymo is attempting to scale driverless vehicles in the US. Loon is another Moonshot graduate, endeavouring to stand on its own currently.

Google is one of the most interesting companies around, not only because it is a money-making machine, but the R&D business could produce some gems over the next few years.

Netflix reports solid Q4 but braces for a challenging 2020

Video streaming giant Netflix reported revenue growth of 31% on the back of 21% subscriber growth, but it will face a lot more competition this year.

These numbers were a bit better than forecast and were rewarded with a small share price bump. Perhaps investor exuberance was tempered by the need for Netflix to invest ever greater amounts of cash on content in the face of relentless competition. With the ramping of a bunch of fresh rivals from the US in the form of Disney, HBO and Apple, this pressure to invest will only increase, but the cash has to come from somewhere.

“Worryingly, the company is burning through a lot of cash,” said Paolo Pescatore, Analyst at PP Foresight. “It needs to recoup this by adding customers more quickly, increasing prices or taking on more debt. Therefore, expect price rises in all key markets during 2020.”

“There’s a fine juggling act by raising revenue through price increases vs. retaining subscribers. This could backfire as many of the new and forthcoming video streaming services are cheaper than Netflix. This makes Netflix vulnerable in its home market where it stands to lose out, quite considerably as underlined by these latest results.”

“Let the streaming video wars commence. Netflix has a huge head start and remains in pole position given its broad content catalogue and extensive relationships with telcos and pay TV providers. It should be able to weather the streaming battles over the short to medium term. All the future subscriber growth will come from its overseas operations. EMEA is and will continue to be a key region of growth for coming quarters.”

Of all the new competitors Netflix seems to be most wary of Disney+, with its massive back catalogue of family blockbusters. You can hear in the earnings chat below that the Netflix leadership reckon most of the growth for Disney+ will be taken from linear TV rather than Netflix, but there is presumably an absolute ceiling on the amount a typical household is willing to pay for video content of all types. Faced with all these new offerings some people are bound to reconsider their Netflix membership in 2020.

 

Disney+ to launch March 24 in Europe

Disney will be entering the European streaming wars on March 24 will an offer which undercuts industry leader Netflix.

Launching a week earlier than initially forecast is an interesting bit of news, but ultimately it doesn’t necessarily mean anything material. Plans might be moving a bit quicker than expected or it could just be a ploy to attract more headlines. That said, the beginning of the streaming wars is now one week closer than we originally thought.

Interestingly enough, Disney+ will come into the market noticeably cheaper than its rivals. At 5.99/€6.99 a month, or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription, Disney will undercut Netflix currently charges UK subscribers £8.99 a month, while Amazon Prime is £7.99.

“Let the battle commence,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This service ticks all the boxes for households; a broad range of content will be available across numerous devices at an attractive price. However, distribution will be important, and Disney must secure deals with partners including telcos.”

While the variety, quantity and quality of the content will ultimately decide who gains an upper hand in the streaming wars, pricing will obviously play a key role. Disney has decided on an intriguing price-point, as undercutting Netflix by a couple of quid perhaps tempts users into a trial period for the service.

This is the challenge which Disney will face over the coming months; stealing subscriptions off Netflix. The video-on-demand (VoD) market is starting to become very congested and priced at such a point that consumers will have to make decisions. It is becoming too expensive to simply subscribe to everything, but Disney is the cheapest available. It is not inconceivable for consumers to trial Disney+ for a couple of months at £5.99, which allows it to prove value.

Disney+ is an unknown for many customers today. If the objective was to go head-to-head with Netflix from the outset, it would lose; Netflix is a trusted and popular service. Some might elect for Disney+ over Netflix, but not as many as Disney would hope for. Setting the price this low, allows for some to dip their toe into the Disney waters, and a couple of months might be enough to either hold onto them as subscribers, or turn them away from Netflix.

The question which remains is how many services can a household tolerate? There are now three main players (Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney) which would cost a subscriber £22.97 a month to gain access to all three. Then there is Sky, a dominant player in some markets, Viaplay, HBO, Movistar, TimVision and a host of others. The wallet can only be stretched so far.

As Pescatore notes above, partnerships will be key to gaining leverage in a very competitive market and also a more direct link to the consumers wallet. Telcos offer a trusted service to consumers, and therefore are a logical choice, but Disney is yet to announce deals in Europe. Both Amazon Prime and Netflix have partnerships in place, and this will be a very important aspect of the battleplan should Disney want to capitalise on the momentum it is building in the US.

Looking at Sensor Tower’s estimates for the period leading into Christmas, Disney can be very encouraged. It was the most popular app to be downloaded in the US with 30 million, taking in more than $50 million in revenue in the first 30 days. This would suggest Disney can be a very viable threat to Netflix’s dominance in the SVoD market.

With a recognised catalogue of content, heavy investments into new titles and a brand which is known, and trusted, throughout the world, Disney is starting to look like a genuine threat to Netflix.

2019 app economy: TikTok ran riot as Disney got off to a flier

The older characters in the room might not get the appeal of small(est) screen entertainment, but the app economy is real and generating some serious revenues today.

Although gaming is the most obvious segment of the app economy to act as the poster boy, apps are now spanning the breadth and depths of our daily lives. From healthcare to banking and messaging to shopping, if you can think of it, there is probably an app for it.

With 2019 now firmly in the rear-view mirror, Sensor Tower has completed its analysis of the final quarter and the biggest stories over the course of the 12 months. And starting with the top-line figures, the app economy is booming.

Across the 12 months, Sensor Tower estimates there were a total of 114.9 billion app downloads, a 9.1% year-on-year increase, with Apple’s App Store collecting 30.6 billion at 2.7% growth and the Google Play Store at 84.3 billion with growth rate of 11.7%.

Looking at the breakdown of where users are most interested, three areas dominate as most would have expected. Social media, in which we are going to include the messaging applications, video and gaming.

WhatsApp once again claims the title of most downloaded application throughout the year, though TikTok has completed a whirlwind year by claiming second place. While it is undoubtedly a popular application, there has been plenty of negative press to dissuade people from downloading.

In October, Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer requested a national security investigation into the app, while the US Army and Navy both banned the use of the device on government-owned devices. To make matters worse, TikTok then had to announce it had fixed a vulnerability which allowed hackers to manipulate user data and reveal personal information.

While all of these incidents tarnish the reputation of the app, it wasn’t enough to stop users downloading. Even for the final quarter, the period where TikTok’s credibility came under the spotlight, it was the second-most downloaded application on the App Store and the third most popular on the Google Play Store.

Another remarkable statistic is India accounted for 45% of the total downloads, while Brazil was the second largest market for TikTok. Revenues for the app are already on the increase, there was a 700% sequential increase for the final quarter, but the remarkable popularity in two of the worlds most attractive developing markets will make this app a very interesting proposition for marketers moving forward.

Looking at the gaming section, Call of Duty publisher Activision demonstrated it is possible to successful take a game from traditional gaming consoles onto mobile. The game led downloads during the final quarter worldwide with 30 million downloads in the US and almost 50 million in Europe.

Gaming will always be the poster boy of the app economy, perhaps because it is the most obvious way revenues are generated through apps. What will be interesting to see over the next couple of months is how many of the traditional gaming titles, those which were designed for gaming consoles, are buoyed by the success of Call of Duty and attempt to crossover.

The final area worth noting from the report is the continued success of video content on mobile, most notably, Disney+.

While there are still questions about the depth of the content library, it cannot compete with the Netflix breadth and depth, the Disney brand and the current assets have produced excellent results after the launch in the fourth quarter. The Disney brand is one of the strongest worldwide therefore there was always going to be good uptake, though it needs to capitalise on this momentum, investing heavily in diversified content, if it is to be a genuine threat to Netflix.

Looking at the downloads, it was the most popular app to be downloaded in the US with 30 million, taking in more than $50 million in revenue in the first 30 days. In Q4, Disney+ accounted for 34% of video content downloads, with Netflix and YouTube tied for second on 11%.

This success was also translated into the revenue share. Sensor Tower estimates Disney claimed 16% of the total revenues across the quarter, just leading Netflix which claimed a 15% share. What should be noted however, Netflix has shifted payment from the app stores and onto online channels.

However, one swallow does not a summer make. We suspect numerous subscribers were downloading the app out of curiosity, therefore a much more telling picture of Disney will be in 12 months’ time. Unless the current content assets are supported by new, and varied, titles, we suspect churn might be considerable. Netflix is still content king for the moment, but Disney could not have gotten off to a better start in its challenge.