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2018-04-25T20:20:08.270Z
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Last Friday something truly remarkable happened: a public company that had grown its valuation from $539 million to nearly $7 billion in seven years announced it was changing its business model. The company was Zillow, and the stock market quickly put a price on how big of a risk the company was taking; from CNBC:

Zillow shares plunged 9 percent on Friday after the online real estate database company announced it will begin buying and selling homes, a capital-intensive endeavor. With Zillow’s new program, announced on Thursday, home sellers in the test markets of Phoenix and Las Vegas will be able to use Zillow’s platform to compare offers from potential buyers — and Zillow. When Zillow purchases a home, it will aim to quickly flip the home, making updates and repairs and listing it as soon as possible. An agent will represent Zillow in each transaction.

“We’re entering that market and think we have huge advantages because we have access to the huge audience of sellers and buyers,” Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff said on CNBC’s “Squawk Alley.” “After testing for a year in a marketplace model, we’re ready to be an investor in our own marketplace.”

But investors are less enthusiastic. Flipping homes, a model that’s being utilized by start-up Opendoor, is very different than operating an internet marketplace. It carries additional risk associated with buying and selling homes and requires a hefty investment in operations. And it also potentially puts Zillow in direct competition...

“I thought something was going to get done,” lamented a friend, in reference to yesterday’s Senate hearing that featured a single witness: Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “This was the moment of reckoning, but it just turned out to be a whimper — it’s just for show.”

The sentiment seemed widespread on tech and media Twitter: there was a lack of specificity in terms of questions about privacy (this allowed Zuckerberg to turn nearly every question about the ownership of data to a discussion about user interface controls that limit where data is shown to other Facebook users), plenty of dodged questions (every time there was a question about the data Facebook generates about users beyond what they themselves enter into the system Zuckerberg needed to “check with his team”), and bad questions that presumed Facebook sells data, letting Zuckerberg run out the clock at least three times by explaining the basics of Facebook’s business model (this is precisely why I have been so outspoken about the problem of perpetrating this falsehood: it lets Facebook off the hook).

In fact, though, I thought the hearing was quite revelatory — a “show”, if you will. First, the fact that Zuckerberg appeared at all is the most meaningful news; the nature of the American political system is that changes happen extremely gradually, and only then in response to fundamental shifts in underlying political opinion. This can certainly be frustrating if one wants faster change — or a relief if one fears...

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss The End of Windows.

Listen to it here.

The story of Windows’ decline is relatively straightforward and a classic case of disruption:

  • The Internet dramatically reduced application lock-in
  • PCs became “good enough”, elongating the upgrade cycle
  • Smartphones first addressed needs the PC couldn’t, then over time started taking over PC functionality directly

What is more interesting, though, is the story of Windows’ decline in Redmond, culminating with last week’s reorganization that, for the first time since 1980, left the company without a division devoted to personal computer operating systems (Windows was split, with the core engineering group placed under Azure, and the rest of the organization effectively under Office 365; there will still be Windows releases, but it is no longer a standalone business). Such a move didn’t seem possible a mere five years ago, when, in the context of another reorganization, former-CEO Steve Ballmer wrote a memo insisting that Windows was the future (emphasis mine):

In the critical choice today of digital ecosystems, Microsoft has an unmatched advantage in work and productivity experiences, and has a unique ability to drive unified services for everything from tasks and documents to entertainment, games and communications. I am convinced that by deploying our smart-cloud assets across a range of devices, we can make Windows devices once again the devices to own. Other companies provide strong experiences, but in their own way they are each fragmented and limited. Microsoft is best positioned to take advantage of the power of one, and bring it to our over 1 billion users.

That memo prompted...

Five Years ago last Sunday, I launched Stratechery 1.0 with a picture of sailboats:1

A simple image. Two boats, and a big ocean. Perhaps it’s a race, and one boat is winning — until it isn’t, of course. Rest assured there is breathless coverage of every twist and turn, and skippers are alternately held as heroes and villains, and nothing in between.

Yet there is so much more happening. What are the winds like? What have they been like historically, and can we use that to better understand what will happen next? Is there a major wave just off the horizon that will reshape the race? Are there fundamental qualities in the ships themselves that matter far more than whatever skipper is at hand? Perhaps this image is from the America’s Cup, and the trailing boat is quite content to mirror the leading boat all the way to victory; after all, this is but one leg in a far larger race.

It’s these sort of questions that I’m particularly keen to answer about technology. There are lots of (great!) sites that cover the day-to-day. And there are some fantastic writers who divine what it all means. But I think there might...

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss The Facebook Brand.

Listen to it here.

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss Qualcomm, National Security, and Patents.

Listen to it here.

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss Lessons From Spotify.

Listen to it here.

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss The Dropbox Comp.

Listen to it here.

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss The Aggregator Paradox.

Listen to it here.

Last week Reuters reported on the Harris Brand Survey:

Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google corporate brands dropped in an annual survey while Amazon.com Inc maintained the top spot for the third consecutive year, and electric carmaker Telsa Inc rocketed higher after sending a red Roadster into space.

The headline of the piece was *Apple, Google, see reputation of corporate brands tumble in survey”; one would note that the editors at Reuters apparently disagree with the poll survey respondents about what brands move the needle. But I digress.

So why are Apple and Google lower?

John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll, told Reuters in an interview that the likely reason Apple and Google fell was that they have not introduced as many attention-grabbing products as they did in past years, such as when Google rolled out free offerings like its Google Docs word processor or Google Maps and Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Ah, no Google Docs updates. Got it!

I’m obviously snarking a bit, and it is worth noting that notoriety clearly plays a roll in these survey results (look no further than spot 99, where the Harvey Weinstein company makes its debut in the list). What is indisputable, though, is that brand matters — and that includes the regulatory future for Google and Facebook.

YouTube and Wikipedia

Start with Google, specifically YouTube. From The Verge:

YouTube will add information from Wikipedia to videos about popular conspiracy theories to provide alternative viewpoints on...

From the New York Times:

President Trump on Monday blocked Broadcom’s $117 billion bid for the chip maker Qualcomm, citing national security concerns and sending a clear signal that he was willing to take extraordinary measures to promote his administration’s increasingly protectionist stance. In a presidential order, Mr. Trump said “credible evidence” had led him to believe that if Singapore-based Broadcom were to acquire control of Qualcomm, it “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.” The acquisition, if it had gone through, would have been the largest technology deal in history.

Mr. Trump’s decision to prohibit the blockbuster deal underscored the lengths that he is willing to go to shelter American companies from foreign competition. In recent weeks, the president has turned to an arsenal of tools — including tariffs and an obscure government review panel — to ward off foreign control in American industries and, in particular, thwart the rise of China. The president has focused many of these actions on the technology industry. While the United States has long claimed an advantage in tech, it is now facing emboldened rivals in China, where the government has heavily invested in everything from semiconductors to wireless networks to artificial intelligence. Through its recent actions, the White House has revealed its view that the country’s national security is tied to its advancement of those technologies.

I can see why the New York Times (and most other commentators) immediately attributed this decision...

The two dominant business models for venture-backed startups are advertising for consumer-focused companies, and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) for business-focused ones. On one level, these business models are quite different: the former gives away software for free with the hope of convincing a third party to pay for access to users; the latter charges some portion of users directly. The underlying economics of both, though, are more similar than you might think — indeed, both are very much in line with venture-backed startups of the past.

Venture Outcomes

Silicon Valley is, unsurprisingly given the name, built on silicon-based computer chips, and that goes for Silicon Valley venture capital, as well. Silicon-based chips have minimal marginal costs — sand is cheap! — but massive fixed costs: R&D on one hand, and the equipment to actually make the chips on the other. And while those two costs live on different parts of the income statement — the latter is a cost of revenue that impacts gross margins, while the former is “under the line” and an operational cost that only impacts overall profitability — the fundamental economic rationale for taking on venture capital is the same: spend a lot of money up-front to develop and build a product, and take advantage of minimal marginal costs to make it up in volume.

You can see how this model translated perfectly to software: marginal costs were even lower, and an even greater percentage of costs were R&D. Companies needed lots of money to get started, but those that...

I am usually quite conservative when it comes to how much time, data, and effort I am willing to put into a product from a new startup: too many go out of business or are acquired-and-sunset, and who wants to go to the effort twice?

Dropbox, though, was something else entirely: the initial release in 2008 was so good, and filled such a need, that I switched all of my most important data there immediately and I’ve never left, even though I have lots of free data storage included with other SaaS software plans. Indeed, I was so convinced that Dropbox wasn’t going anywhere that I felt no compunction about using Dropbox (plus a bit of Apple Script) as a de facto syncing system for a school I was working at; it has been ten years, the school has expanded to multiple locations, and every classroom still has the exact same set of files thanks to a product that does exactly what it promises. And now the company behind it is going public — I knew it!

Still, even if the utility and durability of Dropbox’s product was immediately apparent, the long-run trajectory of its business is, even with the release of the company’s S-1, less so.

Dropbox Versus Box and the Question of Lifetime Value

Dropbox and Box have always been compared, and for a rather obvious reason: the core offering of both companies is cloud storage. Said comparison, though, mostly serves to highlight that while the two companies might have similar...

Which one of these options sounds better?

  • Fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile, and ads that are respectful of the user experience
  • The elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds

Google is promising both; is the company’s offer too good to be true?

Why Web Pages Suck Redux

2015 may have been the nadir in terms of the user experience of the web, and in Why Web Pages Suck, I pinned the issue on publishers’ broken business model:

If you begin with the premise that web pages need to be free, then the list of stakeholders for most websites is incomplete without the inclusion of advertisers…Advertisers’ strong preference for programmatic advertising is why it’s so problematic to only discuss publishers and users when it comes to the state of ad-supported web pages: if advertisers are only spending money — and a lot of it — on programmatic advertising, then it follows that the only way for publishers to make money is to use programmatic advertising…

The price of efficiency for advertisers is the user experience of the reader. The problem for publishers, though, is that dollars and cents — which come from advertisers — are a far more scarce resource than are page views, leaving publishers with a binary choice: provide a great user experience and go out of business, or muddle along with all of the baggage that relying on advertising networks entails.

My prediction at the time was that Facebook...

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss Apple’s Middle Age.

Listen to it here.

Forgive the personal aside, but our family bought some furniture yesterday, and it wasn’t half bad. We’re moving house, and I’m hopeful it will be the last time for a while; given my personal history that is saying something.

By my count this will be my 12th apartment since I graduated from college, and it never made much sense to invest in anything beyond Ikea. Sure, that number is a bit extreme, but from my perspective the optionality that comes from the willingness to move around was worth the packing pain; now that my kids are in school and my career die cast — at least for the time being — the prospect of staying put for more than a year or two comes as a relief.

In other words, I’m hitting middle age, with the change in circumstances and priorities that entails.

iPod on Windows

Apple, at least in human terms, is officially over the hill: the company’s 40th birthday was last April. In truth, though, the first Apple died and was reborn in 1997 with the return of Steve Jobs, at a time when the company was weeks away from bankruptcy.

What happened next is certainly familiar to everyone reading this: after slashing products and re-focusing the company around a dramatically simplified product line, Jobs shepherded the introduction of the iMac and,...

It’s pretty rare for the same company to feature in two consecutive Weekly Articles; yesterday’s announcement of a health care initiative involving Amazon, though, is not only incredibly intriguing, it also fits directly into some of the most important themes on Stratechery. I couldn’t resist.

The Announcement

From a joint press release:

Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced today that they are partnering on ways to address healthcare for their U.S. employees, with the aim of improving employee satisfaction and reducing costs. The three companies, which bring their scale and complementary expertise to this long-term effort, will pursue this objective through an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints. The initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.

Tackling the enormous challenges of healthcare and harnessing its full benefits are among the greatest issues facing society today. By bringing together three of the world’s leading organizations into this new and innovative construct, the group hopes to draw on its combined capabilities and resources to take a fresh approach to these critical matters…

The effort announced today is in its early planning stages, with the initial formation of the company jointly spearheaded by Todd Combs, an investment officer of Berkshire Hathaway; Marvelle Sullivan Berchtold, a Managing Director of JPMorgan Chase; and Beth Galetti, a Senior Vice President at Amazon. The longer-term...

Amazon Go is the story of technology, and so is this tweet:

I’m in Seattle and there is currently a line to shop at the grocery store whose entire premise is that you won’t have to wait in line. pic.twitter.com/fWr80A0ZPV — Ryan Petersen (@typesfast) January 22, 2018

Yesterday the Amazon Go concept store in Seattle opened to the public, filled with sandwiches, salads, snacks, various groceries, and even beer and wine (Recode has a great set of pictures here). The trick is that you don’t pay, at least in person: a collection of cameras and sensors pair your selection to your Amazon account — registered at the door via smartphone app — which rather redefines the concept of “grab-and-go.”

The economics of Amazon Go define the tech industry; the strategy, though, is uniquely Amazon’s. Most of all, the implications of Amazon Go explain both the challenges and opportunities faced by society broadly by the rise of tech.

The Economics of Tech

This point is foundational to nearly all of the analysis of Stratechery, which is why it’s worth repeating. To understand the economics of tech companies one must understand the difference between fixed and marginal costs, and for this Amazon Go provides a perfect example.

A cashier — and forgive the bloodless language for what is flesh and blood — is a marginal cost. That is, for a convenience store to sell one more item requires some amount of time on the part of...

The trepidation — and inevitable outrage — with which much of the media has greeted Facebook’s latest change to the News Feed algorithm seems rather anticlimactic. Nearly three years ago I wrote in The Facebook Reckoning that any publisher that was not a “destination site” — that is, a site that had a direct connection with readers — had no choice but to go along with Facebook’s Instant Article initiative, even though Facebook could change their mind at any time. A few months later, in Popping the Publishing Bubble, I explained why advertising would coalesce with Google and Facebook; that is indeed what has happened, which is the real problem for publishers. Facebook’s algorithm change simply hastens the inevitable.

The story for media is for all intents and purposes unchanged: success depends on building a direct relationship with readers; monetizing that relationship (likely through subscriptions, but not necessarily); and leveraging Facebook as an acquisition channel for those long-term relationships, not short-term page views. If anything this change will help reader-focused publications: users will be more likely to see links shared by their friends, enhancing the word-of-mouth marketing that is the foundation of reader-centric publications.

What I find far more compelling is the question of Facebook’s motivation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook:

One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent. We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us...