Revolutionary Measures

Is there space for Google Spaces?

Google

Today our internet use is dominated by just a few tech giants – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA) in the UK and US, with the likes of Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba leading the way in China.

What is particularly interesting is that generally each of these is good at one thing, or group of things. We turn to Google for search and email, Amazon for ecommerce, Facebook for social and Apple for mobile apps. There is obviously some competition – Google’s Android versus Apple iOS for example, but in general each giant has stuck to its knitting.

That’s not for want of trying – Google has tried to get into social media several times with projects such as Wave, Buzz and Google+, while Apple tried to launch Ping, a music-focused network. All failed, although Google+ limps on as everyone with a Google account automatically has a logon.

It isn’t all Google’s fault – the most successful social media networks tend to start small and grow from there, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. Users are attracted by the features, rather than the brand name, and then it grows exponentially through the network effect – essentially the more people who join, the more value everyone involved gains from being part of it. Social media starts at the grassroots, and that’s one of the reasons that people join particular networks. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook understands this, hence splashing out on Instagram and WhatsApp rather than trying to develop clones of them from scratch. This neatly neutralises the competition while keeping users within your orbit when it comes to the time they spend online.

So that’s why Google’s latest attempt at a social media network, Spaces, looks like it is unlikely to take off in a big way. Described as a cross between WhatsApp and Slack, it allows users to have conversations and share information around specific topics with groups of people, avoiding, Google says, the need to hop between apps or cut and paste links. The trouble is it means installing/learning another app, and as far as I can see there’s no compelling reason for this to make it to the mainstream in its current form. Sure, people will use it to share information, such as when planning a holiday or big event, but it is hardly a threat to WhatsApp or Slack at present.

What would be more interesting is if Google used it as a basis for more complex, artificial intelligence driven services, such as bots that could be sent off to gain information. So, keeping with the holiday idea, you agree where you’d like to go and use Google to collect and sift relevant information, such as accommodation, weather and flight times, and present it in a single place. Given how long it can take to find all of this normally, that would attract users – and of course provide Google with much deeper data on what users are looking for, enabling them to sell more targeted advertising and hence boost overall revenues.

It is early days for Spaces, but it looks like it needs a bit more of a wow factor if people are going to use it seriously. Google has been burned before on social projects that have been well designed, but fallen short when it comes to getting consumers excited – so time will tell if Spaces joins the likes of Buzz and Wave in the failure column or carves out a loyal user base. However at the moment Spaces risks being seen as neat, but non-essential – hardly the best way to attract us from existing applications.

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May 18, 2016 Posted by | Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The battle for banking – Amazon enters the fray

In a previous post I talked about how the big four internet companies Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) had quickly developed their businesses. They’ve all moved beyond the sector they started in, extending what they offer to compete with each other in areas such as ecommerce, social networks, mobile devices and mapping.amazon_logo_wb_2328

How have they done this? They’ve used the four strengths that they each possess:

1. Agility
With the exception of Apple, GAFA was born on the internet meaning they aren’t burdened with long-established corporate structures compared to their traditional rivals. So they can make decisions quickly, unhindered by the warring departments and turf wars that characterise first and second generation technology companies.

2. Data
Rather than purely physical assets, GAFA’s USP is data and what it does with it. From selling our search histories to monetising our personal pages, the four companies have built up extremely detailed pictures of their users and their lives. This allows them to accurately predict future behaviour – how many times have you bought something suggested by Amazon even though you had no idea it existed until the recommendation popped into your inbox? The advent of even cheaper machine learning and potentially limitless cloud-based resources to crunch data means that this is understanding is only going to get more precise.

3. Focus on the customer experience
Even though the majority of interactions don’t offer the personal touch of a bricks and mortar shop, these companies have gone out of their way to create a simple to use customer experience. Compare the Apple iPhone to previous ‘smartphones’ – the only difficulty for users was unlearning the convoluted way you had to access information on Microsoft or Nokia devices. I know, I had one of the first Windows phones – the user experience was terrible. Innovations such as one click ordering, reviews and simple sharing all mark out internet companies from their rival.

4. Scale
The final differentiator is scale – and the speed at which it is possible to grow on the internet. Rather than taking 20 years to become dominant in an existing market, companies can create a sector of their own and expand globally within months. Part of this is down to the network effect, but scale has also been achieved by moving into adjacent markets and just adding them onto the offering for existing users. This lowers the cost of entry for the company with the user base and creates a barrier to entry to rivals.

Taking these four factors into account, banks should be worried about Amazon’s latest move as it builds on all four of these strengths. Amazon Lending will make loans to small businesses in the UK that sell through the company’s Marketplace platform, after the service was successfully launched in the US. The beauty of the scheme is that Amazon knows exactly how the small business is performing as it can track their sales, and then use this data to offer selected companies short term working capital to improve their business. As it handles all the billing and cash collection for Marketplace sellers it can even take repayments directly from their profits, before they it pays them, minimising risk.

Adding to this data advantage, it is also offering the same simple to use customer experience that sellers are already familiar with. Compared to faceless or unhelpful banks, this is just the sort of thing that expanding small businesses are looking for.

The ironic thing is that, on the face of it, there is nothing to stop banks offering something similar. Their merchant services arms handle online and offline debit and credit card transactions, so they have access to data that could be used to work out creditworthiness. They have a network of branches to provide loans through, as well as a significant online presence. But all of these are separate departments and banks don’t have the agility to bridge the silos and provide the one stop shop that businesses are looking for.

In the same way that Apple Pay is disrupting payment services, Amazon Lending will take another bite out of the traditional business of big banks. And, as more and more of such services launch that nibble away at banking profits, then they face being outmanoeuvred by nimbler, more customer-focused and cleverer competitors. It is therefore time for retail and business banks to get joined-up or face becoming low margin commodity businesses in the future.

July 1, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Apple: Do no evil?

English: Apple. Polski: Jabłko.

The technology world, outside China, is increasingly dominated by four companies – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. They’ve even spawned their own, rather ugly collective acronym – GAFA. What’s interesting is that while all four have started from different places in the technology ecosystem they are now competing with each other in areas as diverse as smartphones and mobile devices (Android vs iPhone/iPad vs Kindle/Fire), mapping, and retail (especially music).

But the biggest – and most lucrative – battleground is digital advertising. Both Google and Facebook are using the huge amount of information they know about their users, whether through searches or their social media profiles, to target adverts so that they are more personalised and therefore more effective. In a less creepy way, Amazon analyses what you’ve already bought and suggests potential new purchases.

This reliance on consumer data, has led to issues, with users complaining about their privacy being invaded for example. Others have pointed out that with ‘free’ services like Facebook, the consumer becomes the product, with their data effectively paying for the access they receive.

Up until now GAFA have been pretty united in their use of consumer data and attitudes to privacy. This has now changed spectacularly with Apple CEO, Tim Cook, launching a blistering attack on his rivals, stating that “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.”

If that wasn’t direct enough an attack on Google and Facebook, he added, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose.”

Before we hail Cook as a white knight of the IT industry, it is worth bearing in mind four facts:

  1. Apple has complex privacy policies just like the rest of GAFA
  2. Advertising is key to a large number of the apps within the AppStore
  3. Currently the default search engine in Apple devices is Google, so the company indirectly benefits from “selling off your search history”
  4. He was speaking to EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event, where he was honoured for corporate leadership – so he was hardly likely to speak positively about data-driven rivals.

Putting cynicism aside, there are two other reasons for Apple to embrace privacy and break from other members of the GAFA pack. Firstly, it made a profit of $13.6 billion in its most recent quarter, so it doesn’t really need to upset its more upmarket customers by selling their data for a (relative) pittance.

Secondly, and more importantly, Apple is now moving into new areas where security and privacy are everything – payments (with Apple Pay) and health (with a new ecosystem focused on wearables and sensors). Both of these are based on the most personal of personal data, where a single misstep would destroy consumer trust and essentially stop expansion in its tracks. It might even harm the overall Apple brand.

So Cook (and the rest of Apple’s strategists) have made a choice. They believe that people are happy to pay more for premium iOS products, on the understanding that their personal data will not be abused. It is in stark contrast to Google’s focus on mass market, cheap or free products where consumers pay by giving up control of their information. As the battle within GAFA rages, it will be interesting to see which side comes out on top in both the PR and sales wars.

June 17, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments