Tuesday, January 31, 2012

To RIM: Don't Change The Strategy, Change The Rules

A lot has been said and discussed about RIM's downfall: indecisive leadership, inability to innovate at fast pace, and no clear path to recovery. I don't disagree at all with the analysis and the interpretation of the situation, but I do disagree with the conclusion that many people are drawing and vehemently disagree with their advice to RIM to keep trying to regain the smartphone market share. That train has left the station and RIM doesn't have a chance to catch up, even if they do everything that they could.

But RIM may have stumbled upon something that they probably least expected. It's the BlackBerry Messaging, popularly known as BBM. We got to see the power of BBM during the London riots. During my recent trip to India, I firsthand witnessed how much of people's lives depend on BBM. These people were sad, upset, and depressed due to a RIM infrastructure outage. This is a phenomenal success. The recipe behind this success is quite simple: provide free messaging that looks likes SMS that supports groups in a network. RIM has significantly leveraged network effects; BBM got better as more and more people used it. The sale of BlackBerry in India has gone viral. The consumers buy Blackberries since their friends have it so that they can chat with them for free and perhaps do their emails. These consumers don't use any apps at all! Their needs are quite simple. These phones are also priced well - the median price is somewhat around $200 for an unlocked phone. The Indian middle class and upper middle class have no issues shelling out this money to buy a BlackBerry. I talked to quite a few people and they are moving away from Android and iPhone to BlackBerry. Yes, that's right. If RIM can manage to introduce lower end versions of BlackBerry this will further fuel the growth.

May be, just may be, there's a category between smart and non-smart phones. For a large number of people in emerging economies making a phone call and staying in touch with their friends and family via text messages and email, and not paying too much for doing that are the driving reasons to purchase a right kind of a phone.

Let's briefly look at the history of RIM. It was the device of choice for email and calendering and perhaps still is for a lot of people. RIM myopically focused on going after the enterprise customers while iPhone and Android pulled the rug underneath them. RIM initially ignored and later underestimated the disruptive nature of this innovation. What started out as a consumer market, iPhone and Android easily crossed the chasm and entered into an enterprise and started replacing BlackBerry. We all know this story. But, something happened during this era of RIM: they ended up building a massively scalable and reliable enterprise class messaging infrastructure. This is an amazing feat of technical excellence. Building BlackBerry Messaging was a logical extension of leveraging this infrastructure. What if RIM uses this as a strength and not worry about competing in the smart OS area.

It's time to pivot.

Build a robust phone that is primarily driven off by BlackBerry Messaging and double down in emerging economies. Change the rules of the game and beat Nokia at its own strategy. Even better, spin off BlackBerry into two separate businesses: one that exclusively focuses on this strength and the other that embraces innovation by OEMing either Android or Windows or both and defend the handset as well as the services market share. I don't believe BlackBerry is cut out to innovate on a new smart phone OS quick enough to beat iOS or Android or an emerging contender, Windows phone. That would mean playing by your competitors' rules. If you learn one thing from Apple, it would be not to do this.

I don't need to tell you how many cellphones the Indians own and how many of those can buy a BlackBerry. This may not be an intended move, but this social effects driven business in emerging economies such as India as well as in other developed countries could be the second act for BlackBerry. Can other vendors replicate this? May be. Not many companies in the world can do what BlackBerry does with emails and messaging in general. Group messaging on a mobile device is a killer app in itself to drive the sales of handsets. Also, this works across the carriers and the geographies, essentially allowing RIM not to be threatened by a provider. SMS GupShup in India has been an extremely popular group messaging service. It's a validation that there is significant untapped potential for RIM.

Photo courtesy: NoHoDamon

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Subscribe To Own As New Lease To Own

The Beatles are timeless and so is music and enterprise software.

There's been an ongoing innovation in the music services. iTunes with iPods disrupted the traditional CD business model and in the ever connected cloud world Pandora, Spotify and countless others are challenging the very concept of "owning" music. Spotify gives you access to a wide range of music on all their clients as long as you're a paid subscriber. This is like Netlfix model for music except that there's no ad-supported free Netflix (Spotify is rumored to cap the free version after six months of usage). Pandora also has a similar model but it's a "radio" service. You can't tell Pandora what exactly to play but give preferences and it will find, play, and tune music based on your preference.

Pandora is serendipitous and Spotify is spontaneous.

One of the challenges with these services is that you only have access to music as long as you pay for it. When you stop using it you don't own anything (from them). iTunes and Amazon, on the other hand, are a music "marketplace". You buy songs and keep them. But these services are not designed for you to explore and experiment endlessly.

I wonder whether there's a middle ground.

What if there's a subscribe to own business model? The services would stream all the music that you want for a fixed price (like Spotify) and users will get a choice of receiving certain number of DRM-free songs — like options being vested, at the end of the subscription plan — say annually. The studios may never agree to this, but it's a great value proposition. What if a service is designed to actually sell MP3s and the streaming is just a draw to get people discover new music? Also, imagine if Netflix were to give out credit to their streaming customers to own a set of movies on DVDs. "Lease to own" is a very popular way of buying a car (at least in the United States). Why not apply that to music?

It is very difficult to change human behavior. The studios are powerful, want full control, and see technology innovation as a threat as opposed to an opportunity. On the other side, consumers are willing to pay and experiment but they do want to own music so that they can play on any device any which way they want without getting locked into a specific service and its supported clients.

What about SaaS subscription models for enterprise software? Are there any issues when customers don't "own" the software that they are using?

I have blogged about SaaS escrow and inverted OEM channels before. We haven't yet seen any spectacular failures of large SaaS companies. Today, even if you're a large unprofitable SaaS vendor with a decent customer base, you will be acquired before you shut your doors for good. But once SaaS becomes the de facto mode of delivering software, the "hotness" will fade away and you are as likely to go out of business as any other ISV. What happens then? The customers have their business continuity plans and a SaaS vendor going out of business could become a serious concern.

As far as music goes, there's a clear separation between content and process. We listen to music which is content and everything else — streaming, matching, discovering, and recommending — is a process to get to the content. This clear separation is not that clear in enterprise software. SaaS escrow could guarantee the content (of course if vendor supports it) but not the process and without process there's not much of business continuity. You could take your music and go some place else but I doubt you can do much with your enterprise data without any process around it. Is there an analogous flavor of lease to own in enterprise SaaS business? I guess, it's too early to say.

Going back to music, I think, we're ready for a radical shift and disruption in existing business models. Lease to own your music may not be a bad idea after all.