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This is a personal blog. Although the authors are affiliated with Coda Payments, the views expressed here are their own.


Did Google win the platform war yesterday?

Yesterday Apple announced its new flagship phone, the iPhone 5s, and a new model, the iPhone 5c. The 5c was meant to be Apple’s foray into the lower-end of the market, helping it to earn market share among developing-market consumers for whom Apple’s existing range is too expensive.

Surprisingly, however, Apple declined to compromise on price. Unsubsidized, the device will sell for $549 in the United States and a whopping $733 in China. This is several times more expensive than an entry-level Android device.

You have to credit Apple for sticking to its guns. This announcement was in spite a rising chorus of opinion from Wall Street and the pundits that Apple needed a low-end product in order to compete with Samsung (and Chinese manufacturers that create even cheaper handsets). But Apple has never had much interest in the low-margin segment, and made it clear yesterday that it is quite happy to maintain a staggeringly profitable franchise at the expense of market share.

There’s nothing the matter with this strategy in general; it has certainly worked for Apple for a long time. But as everyone now understands, the competition between Apple and Google/Samsung is now in large part defined by the extent and quality of the ecosystem that exists around each player’s platform. How many users and applications a platform has matters very much to buyers who are deciding which platform to affiliate with. In this way, the dynamics are very similar to those in payments, where customers ask before joining a network with whom they will be able to transact.

Apple today seems to have reaffirmed that it is in the business of selling devices to the rich world (i.e., developed markets) and rich people everywhere else. What I wonder about is whether this strategy is really sustainable long term in the way that it is for, say, high-end fashion brands, where exclusivity is as much of a selling point as a liability. Users want as many apps as possible, and app developers want as many users as possible. iPhone users will get little consolation from the caché of the brand of their phone if they find that their friends with Android devices are getting new apps, and updates to old apps, faster than they are.

Sometimes when people ask me what I like about living in Asia, I say it is like “living in the future.” In this case, I think that’s true. Most app developers in Asia have already moved to an Android-first model. Indeed, the exceptions prove the rule: the luxury-travel-booking apps debut on iOS, not those with mass-market appeal. 

Operating systems succeed when they achieve ubiquity; Apple’s business model succeeds when it sells its high-margin hardware to a finite set of users with high willingness-to-pay. This is Apple’s most fundamental dilemma, and there is no easy way to square this circle given its operating system is indivisible from its hardware. Yesterday’s announcement is a bet that Apple can sustain its business model even while excluding a large fraction of the world’s smartphone users from its ecosystem. It’s not one I would make. In the TNW article by Jon Russell I linked to above, Darius Cheung, CEO of BillPin, says that their market research indicates that many iPhone users in Singapore—the high-end segement that has propelled Apple to such extraordinary profitability to date—"are looking to switch to Android devices the next time they buy one.” They are expressing a preference not so much for Samsung's hardware (although big screens are awfully popular in this part of the world), but for the Android ecosystem. It is a trend that spells trouble for Apple, but one that is perhaps not yet perceptible in Cupertino. 


Bank branches are not going to be transformed. They are going to cease to exist

There is lots of talk in the banking world about how banks should adapt their branches in order to stay relevant in the world of today (and tomorrow). This is the wrong question, akin to Kodak asking how they should improve or adapt film in order to stay competitive in the world of digital photography. The better question is how can banks adjust the totality of their offering in order to stay competitive, and it seems obvious to me that part of the answer is not transforming bank branches, but rather setting out a roadmap for shutting them down entirely.

Everyone agrees that basic transactional services are moving and will continue to move out of branches to other channels. In the developed world, most purely electronic transactions (bill payment, money transfer, etc.) can these days more easily be made using online or mobile banking than at the branch. Increasingly, banks let customers deposit checks remotely too, by snapping and uploading a photo of it. Getting cash out of a bank requires a trip to the ATM, not the branch. Making a cash deposit still does, but who, aside from small businesses that accept cash payments, makes cash deposits at branches anymore? All these innovations have contributed to the 45% drop in transaction volumes in US bank and credit union branches over the past decade, with mobile check deposit reported to be the biggest driver.

Many branch boosters would accede to the notion that such transactional activities can be banished from branches for good, but they argue that sales and service will always have a place at retail. This seems like wishful thinking that ignores the way that every other consumer-facing industry is changing. You might have plausibly thought fifteen years ago that, despite the emergence of the internet, customers would never choose to buy something as expensive as a major holiday in any way other than in the office of a trusted travel agent. It was a plausible hypothesis, but it was wrong. Today, you might think that, despite the emergence of the internet and our increasing reliance on it, customers will never choose to buy products like mortgages, investments, and loans online. But neither history nor early indications are on the side of that hypothesis. Even if customers would prefer, were cost no object, to make such purchases in a retail environment, they will no doubt respond to the savings they can enjoy by making them online instead. 

Of course, travel agents still exist to serve a niche of technologically unsophisticated consumers who still want to sit behind a desk while someone else books their flights. And other travel agents exist to serve a niche of wealthy, busy consumers who are happy to pay a premium for service and expertise. But these are niches, and I can’t see any mass-market bank maintaining an extensive branch network to serve such small markets.

I take the point that as an intermediary step, branches need to evolve. Maybe the airlines needed to set up thousands of check-in kiosks in airports in order to get customers comfortable checking themselves in, even though the endgame is getting customers to check themselves in on their own computer or phone (allowing the airlines to rip the kiosks out again). But if banks delude themselves about the endgame, then their roadmap will be flawed. The key objective of a branch transformation program should be to hasten their end. 


Buy vs. build, part II

Last year I wrote about the fact that very few mobile operators have built their own payment platforms, choosing instead to buy (or, more strictly speaking, license) them from specialized vendors. It turns out that this is how operators get most of the content and services that they offer to customers: rather than building, they buy.

This is largely true for banks, too. There is a healthy industry of software companies that sell everything from core-banking systems to white-label personal-financial-management tools to banks. Of course, banks do develop some systems in-house—at minimum, big banks have to employ large numbers of developers to make sure that all the other software that they have bought can talk with each other—but generally speaking there is a preference to buy rather than build.

On the other hand, all of the fast-growing startups of the past decade (I am thinking of Facebook, Google, and the like) have built their core products from scratch. As I pointed out in my previous post, such companies had to build because they couldn’t buy: if Sergey Brin and Larry Page could buy a good search engine, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to start Google.

That MNOs and banks buy rather than build is entirely defensible. For the most part, their competitive differentiation vis-à-vis their rivals does not dwell in software. Airtel in India is famous for outsourcing just about everything that did not give them a competitive advantage, and of course IT was one of the first functional areas to be spun off. Likewise, banks have historically competed on the basis of their branch networks, their interest rates, or their customer service—not their software.

But the competitive landscape is evolving, and in both financial services and telecommunications we are more and more frequently seeing the buyers start to compete with the builders. PayPal was the original example of this in financial services, and today there are scores more technology companies, led by Square, with the disruption of traditional financial institutions on their agenda. And of course the increasing rivalry between MNOs and OTT players is by now old news.

It seems to me that these new challengers have, by virtue of their ability and preference to build software, a huge competitive advantage over the buyers. I see several interrelated reasons for this.

  • One of the reasons that buying software makes sense for the incumbents—if your requirements are standard, it’s more cost effective to buy software from vendors that can sell it over and over again to similar players—means than it is almost impossible to buy your way to a position of competitive differentiation. When Square came out with a dongle that transformed any iPhone into POS device, banks didn’t have the luxury of buying something similar from a vendor. Nothing similar existed.
  • Firms that develop their own software are far more agile than those that can’t, for obvious reasons. If Mark Zuckerburg thinks of a new feature for Facebook, he can get a prototype thrown together in a hackathon in a matter of, literally, hours. Compare this to the grinding procurement process that banks and MNOs are obliged to follow when buying new software. 
  • When engineering and product development are in-house, a fairly intimate relationship between those who are creating software and those who are using it can arise, allowing companies to build and iterate their products based on feedback that they gather from their customers. When software is bought or its development is outsourced, this feedback loop is at best extended and at worst broken: vendors have no direct channels through which to gather end user feedback, and so naturally find it more difficult to build products that meet their needs.

As a case study, we can look at text messaging, where mobile operators are seeing their cash-cow SMS franchise being eaten alive by the likes of WhatsApp, WeChat, and so on. Such services caught on initially not only because they tend to be more cost effective for users, but also because they offered (and continue to add) new bells and whistles (emoticons, photo-sharing, stickers) that customers like.

Now of course, MNOs are trying to build competitive messaging platforms. The most prominent is an initiative from the GSMA called Joyn, which is a rich-messaging service that is supposed to compete with OTT offerings. But the process of getting Joyn to market has been painfully slow: the GSMA started working on Joyn in 2007, and it is only now starting to become available to customers in a handful of markets. Part (not all) of the delay stems from the fact that the GSMA, like its members, has no in-house product development and software engineering capability. Other operators are going it alone: Indosat in Indonesia just announced that it will offer an exclusing messaging platform, but again, because they are not a software company they are in the process of evaluating vendors that might build it for them. This of course suggests that any such platform is at least a year away from being ready for launch.

MNOs are in the process of losing the messaging wars, and I believe a major reason for it is that they, by and large, lack the capacity to build competitive products themselves. If this skirmish between the old guard of buyers and the new guard of builders is any indication, then, the moral is clear: be a builder.


Is the future of payments not having to think about them?

In the developed world the emergence and growing penetration of smartphones augers a major change in the way people make payments at retail. I think one very likely shift is from a world in which payments require the active initiation by and authorization of customers to one in which customers' role is more often passive, with explicit review of payments occurring asynchronously (either in advance or retrospectively). Such genuinely frictionless payments promise greater convenience for customers and more revenues for merchants; they also open up new opportunities in the value chain for firms willing to assume the risks that such payments entail.

To understand what I mean, it is helpful first to think about what is happening with online services and the way people pay for them. Subscription-based cloud services have become the darling of venture capitalists in part because customers are far more likely to continue paying for so-called opt-out services to ones that require periodic opt-in. I pay for services this way personally (Spotify, Dropbox), and we use many more in our company (Google Apps, Amazon Web Services, Xero, Jira). I appreciate the convenience—in the most general sense, subscription billing reduces the number of conscious decisions that I have to make, which frees up brain bandwidth for more important things—and these providers and their investors like the recurring revenues. Research presented in a recent TechCrunch article suggests that, at least among a certain user segment, there is still lots of headroom in customers' willingness to pay for services that are billed on a subscription basis.

Something similar is afoot in bill payments. In the old days, paying bills meant reviewing (paper) bills and deliberately initiating payments (by check). Today, however, customers are increasingly likely to issue instructions, either to their bank or their biller, to automatically debit their bank account on a recurring basis. Sometimes these payments are for the same amount every month, as with, for example, student loans or gym memberships, and sometimes the amount varies, as with utility or credit card bills.

This move from active to passive payments online appears to be  a boon for both sellers and consumers. What does this suggest about payments in the real world? Consider the following examples as intimations of where we may be headed. Today, Square Wallet customers can walk into a Square merchant's shop, order and collect a coffee, identify themselves by name, and walk out—no card, cash, or recordable authorization of the purchase required. Cover extends this concept to dining and will allow customers who make a reservation using their app (presumably offering up their payment credentials in the process) to simply get up and leave the restaurant when they are finished with their meals. And it is easy to think of other possibilities. Today, checking out of a hotel is a time-consuming and largely pointless exercise. Why not e-mail guests an itemized list of charges after they have left, which they can review at their convenience (or, if they are especially harried and trust the hotel, not at all)? This would save time for both the guest and the hotel's staff.

Now for customers to accept these arrangements, they must feel that they have the ability either to preview payments or (more commonly) to retroactively adjust those that have already been made. The simplicity of passive payments will have to be accompanied by mechanisms that give customers control of them for them to be truly attractive. If Cover automatically adds a 15% tip to restaurant bills, users will want the ability to increase or decrease that default depending on the quality of service. Similarly, if a hotel guest finds a minibar or telephone charge that they did not make on their statement, they will need a way of challenging those charges. And so on. This means there is a risk that there will be a discrepancy between what the customer thinks (or fraudulently claims) that he owes and what the merchant thinks (or fraudulently claims) it is owed.

No player in today's four- or three-party model is very well positioned to assess and therefore to assume such risk: the final word in any dispute with a credit card company about a charge is evidence (in the form of a signature or PIN entry) by the customer, which is a hallmark of an active payment. In some cases, merchants themselves will be willing to assume this risk: after dozens of stays in their properties around the world, Starwood can be reasonably certain that I'm not going to pull a fast one on them by disputing a room-service charge that I did in fact incur. In cases when a single player acts as both acquirer and issuer (Square), that entity will be situated nicely to bear and manage such risk. And in still other instances, firms like Affirm or Klarna, currently focused on m-commerce, that can assess creditworthiness and extend credit in realtime will underwrite it. But regardless of who assumes this risk, I suspect the business case for doing so will exist for the simple reason that customers tend to spend more when they don't have to think about paying—and merchants will pay for that.


Desperately seeking disruption

Like other, more famous graduates of Harvard Business School, I have been influenced by the writings of Professor Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation, which he laid out in 2003 in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma. (For those who haven't read it, TechCrunch recently published a summary of the book's key ideas.)

Christensen categorizes innovations as either sustaining or disruptive. Sustaining innovations target “demanding, high-end customers with better performance than what was previously available.” When a new generation of TVs comes out that are brighter, thinner, and larger than those that went before, they exemplify sustaining innovation. In contrast, disruptive innovations are “products and services that are not as good as currently available products, but… are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive,” making them available to new or less-demanding customers. Classic examples of disruptive innovations include low-cost airlines, online travel-booking sites, and mobile phones (which originally disrupted landline telephony and are now, in their smart incarnation, in the process of disrupting the traditional PC business). Needless to say, these are all innovations that benefitted consumers enormously, by making a certain kind of product accessible to a wider range of users than ever before.

It is important to stress that disruptive innovations, as Chistensen defines them, are actually worse than the products and services that are otherwise available to customers along at least one important dimension. Mobile money counts as disruptive because it compares unfavorably to traditional banking in a number of ways: the customer experience in a mom-and-pop shop serving as an agent will unquestionably be worse than what you get in a formal bank branch, accounts don't pay interest, and so on. But of course, these shortcomings are in part what makes the mobile money business model successful even when serving low-income consumers.

Now one of Christensen’s crucial insights is how difficult it is for established players to compete with disruptive innovations or to develop them themselves (i.e., to "disrupt themselves"). The reason is that the resources, processes, and values that firms develop over time, while optimized to support their existing businesses, often become hindrances when trying to bring disruptive innovations to market. For example, a manager in a company that specializes in high-gross-margin products will find it almost impossible to get approval to develop a low-margin offering, particularly if it threatens to siphon off customers from the higher-margin business, even if the volume potential and scale economies of that new business make it economically attractive.

Normally this is not a problem for consumers, because we don’t rely exclusively on incumbents for innovation. You can be sure that traditional travel agents would never have disrupted themselves with online booking engines; happily, however, firms like Expedia, Travelocity, and so on sprung up to seize the opportunity instead.

But high barriers to entry, including those erected by regulation, can stymie such competition. It seems obvious to me that what has short-circuited the emergence of disruptive products and services in financial services are the very high barriers to entry to firms that might have the capacity for such innovation. This includes not just startups but also established players from other industries. One of Christensen’s key insights is that an idea can be sustaining for firms in one industry and disruptive for firms in another, and you can made a good argument that while mobile money and prepaid cards are disruptive to banks, they are sustaining to the likes of Vodafone and Walmart.

This is why it is so vitally important that we open financial services to nonbanks: without them, there is no disruption. And where there is no disruption, consumers lose out.