Why control points matter
This executive briefing explores the evolution of control points – products, services or roles that give a company disproportionate power within a particular digital value chain. Historically, such control points have included Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Intel’s processor architecture for personal computers (PCs), Google’s search engine and Apple’s iPhone. In each case, these control points have been a reliable source of revenues and a springboard into other lucrative new markets, such as productivity software (Microsoft) server chips (Intel), display advertising (Google) and app retailing (Apple).
Although technical and regulatory constraints mean that most telcos are unlikely to be able to build out their own control points, there are exceptions, such as the central role of Safaricom’s M-Pesa service in Kenya’s digital economy. In any case, a thorough understanding of where new control points are emerging will help telcos identify what their customers most value in the digital ecosystem. Moreover, if they move early enough to encourage competition and/or appropriate regulatory intervention, telcos could prevent themselves, their partners and their customers from becoming too dependent on particular companies.
The emergence of Microsoft’s operating system as the dominant platform in the PC market left many of its “partners” struggling to eke out a profit from the sale of computer hardware. Looking forward, there is a similar risk that a company that creates a dominant artificial intelligence platform could leave other players in various digital value chains, including telcos, at their beck and call.
This report explores how control points are evolving beyond simple components, such as a piece of software or a microprocessor, to become elaborate vertically-integrated stacks of hardware, software and services that work towards a specific goal, such as developing the best self-driving car on the planet or the most accurate image recognition system in the cloud. It then outlines what telcos and their partners can do to help maintain a balance of power in the Coordination Age, where, crucially, no one really wants to be at the mercy of a “master coordinator”.
The report focuses primarily on the consumer market, but the arguments it makes are also applicable in the enterprise space, where machine learning is being applied to optimise specialist solutions, such as production lines, industrial processes and drug development. In each case, there is a danger that a single company will build an unassailable position in a specific niche, ultimately eliminating the competition on which effective capitalism depends.
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Control points evolve and shift
A control point can be defined as a product, service or solution on which every other player in a value chain is heavily dependent. Their reliance on this component means the other players in the value chain generally have to accept the terms and conditions imposed by the entity that owns the control point. A good contemporary example is Apple’s App Store – owners of Apple’s devices depend on the App Store to get access to software they need/want, while app developers depend on the App Store to distribute their software to the 1.4 billion Apple devices in active use. This pivotal position allows Apple to levy a controversial commission of 30% on software and digital content sold through the App Store.
But few control points last forever: the App Store will only continue to be a control point if consumers continue to download a wide range of apps, rather than interacting with online services through a web browser or another software platform, such as a messaging app. Recent history shows that as technology evolves, control points can be sidestepped or marginalised. For example, Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser were once regarded as key control points in the personal computing ecosystem, but neither piece of software is still at the heart of most consumers’ online experience.
Similarly, the gateway role of Apple’s App Store looks set to be eroded over time. Towards the end of 2018, Netflix — the App Store’s top grossing app — no longer allowed new customers to sign up and subscribe to the streaming service within the Netflix app for iOS across all global markets, according to a report by TechCrunch. That move is designed to cut out the expensive intermediary — Apple. Citing data compiled by Sensor Tower, the report said Netflix would have paid Apple US$256 million of the US$853 million grossed by its 2018 the Netflix iOS app, assuming a 30% commission for Apple (however, after the first year, Apple’s cut on subscription renewals is lowered to 15%).
TechCrunch noted that Netflix is following in the footsteps of Amazon, which has historically restricted movie and TV rentals and purchases to its own website or other “compatible” apps, instead of allowing them to take place through its Prime Video app for iOS or Android. In so doing, Amazon is preventing Apple or Google from taking a slice of its content revenues. Amazon takes the same approach with Kindle e-books, which also aren’t offered in the Kindle mobile app. Spotify has also discontinued the option to pay for its Premium service using Apple’s in-app payment system.
Skating ahead of the puck
As control points evolve and shift, some of today’s Internet giants, notably Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook, are skating where the puck is heading, acquiring the new players that might disrupt their existing control points. In fact, the willingness of today’s Internet platforms to spend big money on small companies suggests they are much more alert to this dynamic than their predecessors were. Facebook’s US$19 billion acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp, which has generated very little in the way of revenues, is perhaps the best example of the perceived value of strategic control points – consumers’ time and attention appears to be gradually shifting from traditional social into messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, or hybrid-services, such as Instagram, which Facebook also acquired.
In fact, the financial and regulatory leeway Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Apple enjoy (granted by long-sighted investors) almost constitutes another control point. Whereas deals by telcos and media companies tend to come under much tougher scrutiny and be restricted by rigorous financial modelling, the Internet giants are generally trusted to buy whoever they like.
The decision by Alphabet, the owner of Google, to establish its “Other Bets” division is another example of how today’s tech giants have learnt from the complacency of their predecessors. Whereas Microsoft failed to anticipate the rise of tablets and smart TVs, weakening its grip on the consumer computing market, Google has zealously explored the potential of new computing platforms, such as connected glasses, self-driving cars and smart speakers.
In essence, the current generation of tech leaders have taken Intel founder Andy Grove’s famous “only the paranoid survive” mantra to heart. Having swept away the old order, they realise their companies could also easily be side-lined by new players with new ways of doing things. Underlining this point, Larry Page, founder of Google, wrote in 2014: “Many companies get comfortable doing what they have always done, making only incremental changes. This incrementalism leads to irrelevance over time, especially in technology, where change tends to be revolutionary, not evolutionary. People thought we were crazy when we acquired YouTube and Android and when we launched Chrome, but those efforts have matured into major platforms for digital video and mobile devices and a safer, popular browser.”
Table of contents
- Executive Summary
- What constitutes a control point?
- Control points evolve and shift
- New kinds of control points
- The big data dividend
- Can incumbents’ big data advantage be overcome?
- Data has drawbacks – dangers of distraction
- How does machine learning change the data game?
- The power of network effects
- The importance of the ecosystem
- Cloud computing capacity and capabilities
- Digital identity and digital payments
- The value of vertical integration
- The machine learning super cycle
- The machine learning cycle in action – image recognition
- Tesla’s journey towards self-driving vehicles
- Custom-made computing architecture
- Training the self-driving software
- But does Tesla have a sustainable advantage?
- Regulatory checks and balances
- Conclusions and recommendations