REQUIRED READING: The Freight Train That Is Android – by Bill Gurley

Screen shot 2012-01-09 at 8.36.56 AMIf you care about #mobile and smartphones at all, it is crucial that you fully appreciate the depth of what is going on with Google’s Android strategy (which is why I’ve clipped a lot of key excerpts from this great post; by all means keep an eye on Bill Gurley, his stuff is usually excellent and in depth).

The only thing that they are lacking is Apple’s branding finesse, but it is pretty hard to compete with “LESS-THAN-FREE” in the long run…

Why would Google “bare [almost] any burden” (including the $12B purchase of Motorola Mobility, in large part to defend Android in the #PatentWars) to buy their way into this? Because… “The Future Of Mobile Is The Future Of Everything”.

From Abovethecrowd.com – The Freight Train That Is Android:

…the more I wonder if I too may have underestimated the unprecedented market disruption that is Android.

One of Warren Buffet’s most famous quotes is that “In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats’.” An “economic castle” is a great business, and the “unbreachable moat” is the strategy or market dynamic that heightens the barriers-to-entry and makes it difficult or ideally impossible to compete with, or gain access to, the economic castle. …

For Google, the economic castle is clearly the search business, augmented by its amazing AdWords monetization framework…and Google would clearly want to put a “unbreachable moat” around it. …

So here is the kicker. Android, as well as Chrome and Chrome OS for that matter, are not “products” in the classic business sense. They have no plan to become their own “economic castles.” Rather they are very expensive and very aggressive “moats,” funded by the height and magnitude of Google’s castle. Google’s aim is defensive not offensive. They are not trying to make a profit on Android or Chrome.

They want to take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free). Because these layers are basically software products with no variable costs, this is a very viable defensive strategy. In essence, they are not just building a moat; Google is also scorching the earth for 250 miles around the outside of the castle to ensure no one can approach it…

Because they are “giving away” money to use their product, this creates a rather substantial conundrum for someone trying to extract economic rent for a competitive product in the same market.

This is the part that amazes me the most. I don’t know if a large organized industry has ever faced this fierce a form of competition – someone who is not trying to “win” in the classic sense. They want market share, but they don’t need economics. Imagine if Ford were faced with GM paying people to take Chevrolets? How many would they be able to sell?…

[First curated on Amplify.com]

Related -> This SiliconAlleyInsider Sub Headline Reveals Why You Must Move The Freeline

Steve Ballmer’s Nightmare Scenario

ScreenHunter_10 Feb. 24 10.41BusinessInsider recently published “STEVE BALLMER’S NIGHTMARE: How Microsoft’s Business Actually Could Collapse”. And while you may think that this is an extreme scenario used as linkbait (and by all means read their entire post as well), here are some data points that show that some of the pieces of the puzzle have already been falling into place:

1) Windows Phone 7 isn’t really going anywhere, and Nokia’s new Lumia 800, etc. offerings don’t feel (price) competitive enough to make much of a dent in either that trend, or Nokia’s own downfall.

2) While Android tablets have failed to make any meaningful inroads against the iPad thus far, at least they have sold somewhere between 1-2 Million (U.S.), and shipped many more (sitting in inventories, waiting for drastic price cuts…).

But Microsoft won’t even be in the game until some time later this year (what will the actual date be? Q3? Q4?!), when tablets with Windows 8 are expected to ship in quantity. So Microsoft is starting from way behind in third place.

3) More importantly, there are no guarantees that the tablet/touch-centric bet of Windows 8 is going to pay off. In fact, it could well be that because the touch UI (User Interface) is bolted onto a relatively heavy-weight, resource-intensive Windows NT OS base, Win 8 will require too-expensive, high-end spec’d tablets, while as a standard desktop/laptop OS, few consumers and companies will see a true need to upgrade to Win 8 from 7.

It’s just a few years after 7 was introduced, and for all apparent purposes, it is running everything anyone would need on a Windows laptop/desktop just fine. So why spend money on 8 in a difficult/uncertain macro-economic environment?

4) Windows developers have been relatively unhappy about having to massively retool for writing apps for Windows 8, so there could be trouble brewing here as well.

5) While all of this still doesn’t spell immediate collapse for Microsoft’s business, legacy sales of Windows 7 upgrades, MS Office upgrades, and various enterprise software is not going to suffice in the long run.

6) It is also telling that Windows 8 was being completely overshadowed by… just about everything else thus far at CES, including Google’s Android 4.0 version “Ice Cream Sandwich”. Keep in mind that CES had until now been Microsoft’s showcase, even though it is now withdrawing from the event for the future.

(This apparently due to the timing creating a mismatch with Microsoft’s own internal launch calendar, which may explain the long history of relative vaporware coming out of Redmond at CES.)

But this has got to smart: Windows 8 is Microsoft’s major bet on a unified OS to run “on all three screens”, desktop/laptop, tablet, and smartphone. It is a bet so large, one might say Ballmer is betting the farm on Windows 8 being a hit, and that if it isn’t, Microsoft is in real trouble.

7) As Robert Scoble recently stated in the discussion on his Google+ thread here, Windows Phone might already be done:

…What matters is the PRODUCT THAT SHIPS TODAY. Microsoft is missing 450,000 apps TODAY and NOTHING you say can make that go away. Microsoft knows it’s in a deep hole. So do most consumers. …the problem is that THE MICROSOFT PRESS thinks it’s doomed. It’s not just one guy, either. It’s people who cover Microsoft for a living and live in Seattle and they think Microsoft Mobile sucks. So you’re on the wrong side of the line. It’s not getting better, it’s only getting worse. Android and iOS aren’t standing still, you know.”

So if Windows Phone (WP) isn’t catching, and Microsoft is actually indirectly telling developers with the Windows 8 unified strategy that WP (7 or higher) is going away sooner rather than later anyway, where are the Windows 8 prototype/show/reference phones at CES?

Even the CES-announced (promised for March) LG phone featuring the new Intel (!) “Medfield” CPU for smartphones will be running, wait for it… Android!?

8) The Q4 sales figures tell the tale that Microsoft is running behind on a PostPC Era that appears to be upon us (and them) a lot faster than just about anybody predicted:

From GigaOm’s Macs sales growing, but U.S. PC market stagnates:

Things were so bad, IDC has dubbed 2011 the “the second-worst year in history” for the U.S. PC market. The overall 5 percent contraction of the market since 2010 is second only to the 12 percent decline after the Y2K buildup and the dot-com bust of 2001.

Ouch!

This while Apple managed to sell about 300,000 more Macs and grow 18% to a U.S. market share of nearly 11%. But I consider that more of a Halo-Effect from the mindshare captured by the iPhone and iPad. Yes, the 2011 Macbook Airs were really sexy which is why everybody copied them since late last year and at this CES as (Wintel) “Ultrabooks”.

But that doesn’t explain how U.S. PC shipments dropped by nearly 1.4 Million in the quarter Y/Y, or even more with the Mac growth factored back out. Despite some macro-economic headwinds, the only thing that explains this is the “iPad effect”:

Apple has likely sold around 40 Million iPads in 2011 globally (just under 15M in 2010). Let’s say half of those are U.S. sales, so 5M per quarter on average. And the actual numbers for the Q4 Holiday Shopping quarter should be a good bit higher than say Q1/2011 where additionally the iPad 2 wasn’t even shipping yet, so 5M for Q4 is actually pretty conservative. [UPDATE: Apple announced 15.4M iPads sold globally in Q4 at their earnings call. So my 5M number for the U.S. sales estimate still feels conservative.]

That would mean that Apple has taken 5M of 23.5M (18.5M PCs + 5M iPads) = 21.2% share with the iPad alone! Add to that the 11% (of the 18.5M) Mac share and Apple is at about 29%. It’s not that COMPUTER sales are really dropping, it’s that a lot of iPads and other tablets are replacing a lot of new PC purchases for the mainstream user.

And this phenomenon is only expected to grow, analysts think Apple might sell 55M total iPads in 2012. One must wonder if there so much pressure on Windows 8 on tablets to be a success that it is setting it up for failure?!

Gartner Research study predicts all-out Tablet Wars, but…

…could things go a lot more quietly, the way of the MP3 player market and total Apple / iPod dominance instead?

GigaOM was quick to point out 5 Problems With Gartner’s Tablet Forecast, among them:

Apple’s iPad is poised to continue its overwhelming lead in tablet sales until 2015, holding 47.1 percent of the market according to research firm Gartner. Google’s Android tablets will slowly catch up to nab 38.6 percent of sales by then, while media slates built upon platforms such as MeeGo, QNX and webOS will barely be a blip on the radar, accounting for just a combined 14 percent of tablet sales four years from now. On the surface, these predictions may sound logical, but upon closer inspection, there’s more wrong than right here.

1) 2015 is at least two (or more) product cycles away. […] While the iPad may not see monumental design changes each year, Apple is sure to evolve the device several times in the next four years. The same holds true for other tablet makers using different platforms. Simply put: It’s too early to predict what the tablet market will look like several device iterations from now due to powerful new processors on the way, faster mobile broadband in wider coverage areas and improvements in mobile software and apps.

While I agree that the Gartner study is making way too many assumptions overall, some of the rosier projections for Android (including Gartner’s own forecast of near 40% share by 2015) are probably having the same issue:

1) The only thing that we know with relative certainty is that Apple has put up a huge lead, and has become the uncontested category leader. If past experience is any guide (study your Ries & Trout on Positioning), that should put it on track to retain 50% share at a minimum, but quite possibly more (60-70%).

2) Especially since Apple went all out on pricing the entry-level $499 iPad so competitively, that the first few would-be competitors couldn’t even begin to catch up with Apple in that regard. Only now are e.g. Samsung rolling out an Android 2.2 tablet in a Wi-Fi model for $349 (April 10), which is priced below the $499 “price anchor” Wifi iPad/iPad 2.

But this is hardly a direct price beat, given that we are talking about a 7″ screen size tablet, not running the latest Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” OS optimized for tablet use (and it may not ever get the upgrade to it), and not fully up to snuff to the iPad’s build quality. So that consumers may well view this price in line with expectations for the different form factors.

3) That’s how strong Apple’s lessons learned from their iPod mass-market device manufacturing have been. Which brings up the legitimate question of whether the tablet market will turn out more like the MP3 player market than the smartphone one:

It all hinges on the question of how much Apple bungled things by staying with AT&T exclusivity for too long. What if there had been a Verizon iPhone (and Sprint and T-mobile as well) by the X-mas shopping season 2008? Would Android have even stood a chance? Would it have surpassed iPhone share as it did by now?

Since the carrier lock-in factor is almost a non-issue for tablets (the trend has been toward the Wifi-only versions anyway), Android has no such help in tablets.

4) Another thing missing: The ingenious “Droid” counter-branding to the iPhone’s own deep Archetype Branding that lifted the sale of all Android smartphones, whether intended or not, doesn’t appear to be crossing over into the Android tablet market.

Motorola created a brand with the Droid that was smartly capturing the few remaining archetypes that Apple had not employed:  Mainly “The Outlaw” (unrepentant, dangerous, bad) and “The Titan” (greatest strength, number, expanse) archetypes inherent in the allusion to the Terminator robotic eye, and to robots in general.

Symbols of “bad boy, take-no-prisoners machine”, combining within itself “the greatest strength”. To quote the original ads: “In a world that doesn’t, Droid does…”.

It appears that Motorola, Samsung, Acer, et al. are starting nearly from scratch in this regard in terms of the tablet market (which may be their biggest mistake yet, because they could have easily pushed the Droid branding into the tablet realm as well, it’s not too far of a brand extension), and so far I have not seen a break-out branding concept from any of them.

5) Much has already been written about the retail display advantage that the iPad currently has vs. the Xoom and other would-be competitors, another area that is quite different from the mobile carrier retail situation with smartphones:

Of course they are the only tablets on display at the Apple Stores, but they also visually dominate at non-exclusive retail outlets such as Best Buy, where the iPads sit on display with the rest of Apple’s shiny “tech-marvel” products, while the Xoom sits somewhere off to the side crammed in with a variety of netbooks and other cheaper fare…

All in all, those are a lot of advantages for the iPad. And any would-be competitors clearly have their work cut out for them if they are hoping to get even close to the 40% share predicted by Gartner for Android. Not to speak of the smaller challengers like HP’s TouchPad with its own WebOS (from the acquisition of Palm), or Blackberry/RIM’s Playbook, who’s only hope appears to be to make a play through entrenched enterprise computing relationships.

For more on my early predictions on iPad’s category leadership due to competitors missing the boat on getting their offerings out quickly enough, see: Is the iPad a fine young cannibal?