Category Archives: Economics

Coke’s API and the Outsourcing of Innovation

While he may not have realized it at the time, Asa Griggs Candler helped pioneer the “platform” business model used by thousands of web companies today.  But Chandler wasn’t a tech startup guy, he was the founder of The Coca-Cola Company.

Coke became a platform company almost by accident.  Beginning in 1886, Coke was principally sold to soda fountains and Candler saw little demand for bottled Coke.  Couldn’t you just get a Coke at your local drugstore?  Besides, creating a bottling and distribution operation was expensive, and lower-margin.  The Coca-Cola Company had great margins.  They didn’t even make the Coke that people drank.  They manufactured concentrated Coke syrup and marketed the final product.  It was the pharmacy soda fountains that added carbonated water to Coke’s concentrate to make the drink.

In the late 1890’s, Candler was approached by two Chattanooga businessmen who proposed creating a Coke bottling operation.  Candler signed a contract with the two men, giving them control of Coke bottling for one dollar (Candler never actually collected the dollar).  Whether Candler didn’t see the potential for bottled Coke or was nervous about the risks and costs associated with building a bottling operation in-house, the decision was incredibly beneficial to Coke over the long-term.  Coke was able to focus on its two core competencies while the technology and manufacturing processes required to bottle mass quantities of soda developed in parallel.  Coke benefited massively from the greater volume and distribution that bottlers enabled.

APIs provide a similar function in the programming world.  Platform companies such as Twitter have stuck to developing their core capabilities (their syrup and marketing) while enabling others to innovate around the Twitter APIs.  Basically, it’s a licensing strategy.  As of the Spring, Twitter was generating about 75% of its traffic through third-party clients (its bottlers) utilizing the Twitter APIs.

Apple’s app strategy for iOS is another example.  Apple developed a few core applications (iCal, Safari, Mail, etc.) for the iPhone platform and then enabled the creation of hundreds of thousands of applications via the iOS SDK.  This has enabled Apple to create enormous value for its platform without shouldering the costs of building thousands of applications in-house (which it couldn’t do with the same efficiency and creativity of its developer community anyway).

There are of course benefits and dangers to innovating on top of another company’s platform.  Primarily, there is a hold-up problem with this type of innovation.  For example, Coke could hold its bottlers hostage and force the bottlers to pay higher fees for concentrate.  On the other hand, bottlers could threaten to choke off Coke’s distribution.  The way to solve these hold-up problems and to improve manufacturer-supplier coordination is through vertical integration, and that’s exactly what we have seen from both Coke and Twitter.

Vertical integration allows a company to remove coordination problems and reduce costs by bringing the relevant supplier(s) or partner(s) in-house.  Coke did this by acquiring its North American bottling partner in February 2010.  Twitter did this by acquiring complementary functions such as search (Summize) and mobile (Tweetie).  These acquisitions reduced coordination problems for Twitter, enabling them to accelerate development of their roadmap.   Most importantly, both companies were able to maintain focus while enabling the ancillary innovation that would become critical to their long-term growth.

On a much broader level, the trend of outsourcing corporate R&D to venture-funded companies seems to be accelerating.  Steven Kaplan and Josh Lerner wrote a great paper explaining this trend, noting that venture-backed firms are three times as efficient in generating innovations as corporate research.  Incumbent (and upstart) technology companies can take advantage of this trend by providing entrepreneurs with the tools that accelerate innovation: API’s, open source software, and greater access to data/information.

The Data Storage Conundrum & Oscar Wilde

The Economist is a great “newspaper”, my favorite.  A couple weeks ago they did a special report on “The Data Deluge” which explored the recent and rapid expansion of data, and how to handle it.  There were two parts of the report that caught my eye because they seemed contradictory.  The first was an 1894 quote from Oscar Wilde:

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.

To which The Economist added, “He did not know the half of it”.

The other part was this chart:

The question I have is, if there’s “so little useless information”, why doesn’t data storage more closely track data creation?  Wouldn’t one want to store and analyze all of this data if it were truly useful? It’s a pretty obvious but important question because the answers could tell us a lot about what we as a society think is valuable.  So what are some potential answers?

We Don’t Value the Data We Create Enough, So We Don’t Store It
Maybe we already store all the data we deem important enough to save.   Everything else is expendable. It’s not free to store data, so one has to weigh costs and benefits about what is kept and what is not.   It’s possible that this excess data doesn’t have any value, but I doubt it.

We Know the Data We Create is Somehow Valuable, But We Don’t Know How to Make it Valuable
This scenario argues for more statisticians or better tools to extract insights from large data sets.   Most data is unstructured and it takes specific expertise to organize and analyze it.  Generally speaking, it’s big companies that have the in-house skills needed to glean real value from these data.  Smaller- and medium-sized businesses generate plenty of data, too, but they may lack the resources and personnel required to make their data useful and actionable.  When a business decides what data gets stored and what sublimates, it will only spend money storing what is required to run the business and nothing more.

We Throw Out Old Data, So Available Storage Capacity Lags New Data Creation
Perhaps older data is perceived as less valuable (rightly or wrongly) and is discarded as it expires.  This “hole” in the bottom of the proverbial cup would account for the flatter growth in available storage vs. information created.

We Can’t Make Data Storage Capabilities Fast Enough to Store the Data
This would be a great problem for companies such as EMC to have, but it’s just not the case.  It’s becoming less expensive to store more data. Kenneth Cukier points out that companies such as Wal-Mart store more than 2.5 petabytes (the equivalent of 167 times the books in the Library of Congress) of data, fed by more than 1 million customer transactions per hour.  Facebook stores over 40 billion photos.  Guaranteed that Facebook’s “available storage” curve closely hugs its “information created” curve because obviously Facebook sees economic value in storing its users’ data.  It’s a safe bet that Facebook’s “available storage” curve is actually above its “information created” curve since FB probably has at least two mirrors for each piece of data.

There’s no doubt that data is becoming a more valuable commodity, even to businesses that have traditionally been less data-intensive than the Facebooks of the world.   The bottom line is that it’s relatively expensive to store data (vs. discard it), so we need to have a good reason to store it.  Perhaps the solution is to create better tools that can make data more useful for people who lack interest or training in statistics and data mining.  This may be another aspect of The Facebook Imperative that Marc Benioff recently wrote about.  Companies such as Oracle, SAS, SAP, Salesforce, and Tibco already offer software tools to help make data more useful, so there’s got to be something else pulling down the growth in data storage.  Maybe there’s just a lack of will to implement and use these tools?  What do you think?

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Boxee Payments: Good for Content Owners, Competition for MSO’s and iTunes

Content owners aren’t the ones who need to be worried about Boxee Payments, it’s the MSO (cable), satellite, and fiber networks and online distribution platforms such as iTunes, XBox Live, and Netflix (to the extent that Netflix sees itself as a platform).

The reason for this is scarcity – plain old supply and demand (most business issues can be boiled down to this).  Content (film, TV, games, music, etc.) owners are well-positioned as they have the scarce good in this equation.  Since The Office doesn’t have any close substitutes, it is in higher demand, and people will want to consume that content where and how it is convenient for them.  This creates competition among distribution networks, driving the price of the content up.  Incumbents such as the MSO’s have less and less leverage because the barriers to entry for content distribution are eroding and distribution options are proliferating.  This is why Comcast has been trying to get into the content business (with its failed bid for Disney in 2004), having finally succeeded by acquiring NBC Universal last year.  MSO, fiber, and satellite companies’ massive networks also require lots of capex to install ($2-3k per household to run fiber to the home), maintain, and upgrade.  As a result, these companies are more vulnerable to lower-cost distribution channels such as WiMax ($20-25 per household to install; see Comcast’s investment in high-speed wireless networks in Oregon and elsewhere via Sprint/Clearwire), and online distribution platforms such as Boxee, iTunes and Netflix that disintermediate them (see Comcast’s opposition to net neutrality).

The success of iTunes has proven that people are willing to pay for content if they can legally and conveniently consume it as they wish.  Boxee’s move to provide a payment platform will appeal to those preferences.  It will also pressure iTunes given that Boxee has stated that it will charge less than the 30% that iTunes charges content owners.  Content owners will love this as they are increasingly concerned about Apple‘s growing control of online distribution.  Content owners will be glad to try working with an alternative to iTunes that is eager to share a greater cut of revenues.  The worry for the Boxee’s of the world is that competition for content could drive their margins to commodity levels unless they are able to differentiate and deliver real value to their users and partners.  It’s the same reason why Comcast is now in the content business.  Boxee understands this and that is why they have a focus on design, hiring someone like Zach Klein (the guy behind Vimeo’s beautiful video player), to head product.

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