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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Meet the New Boss, Google -- And the Coming War of Free

Henry Blodget's post on the impending crisscrossing of lines on Google's and Microsoft's core businesses is timely. In 2009 sometime, Google's search ads business will be larger and more profitable than Microsoft's core Windows operating system business. (If Microsoft is lucky, that won't be the day Google launches a hostile takeover bid for Microsoft, a development Sergey Brin slyly alluded to several years ago, when such talk could easily be dismissed as a joke, or painful delusions of grandeur.)

Cloud computing, and ad-supported online business models are assumed to be a new naturally dominant business model. Chris Anderson has begun talking about the "power of free," as he gets set to release a new book on the concept.

But I think many analysts fail to grasp the complexity of the scenario. (Well, maybe it isn't that complex, actually. My wife, who teaches labour market theory among other things, notes that China can win a lot of business by simply undercutting other companies in the garment sector. But then India, or somewhere else, undercuts them. The result isn't beneficial to the guys who did the first round of undercutting.)

Today, Google is very wealthy, from a core economic driver. It is so wealthy, it is able to give away many products and services for free - sometimes, after acquiring a leading paid or freemium player in a space. This activity has been rampant. Blogger was acquired and its premium version was given away for free. Google Analytics continues to grow in sophistication. It costs $10,000 - $200,000 less than competing products; i.e. it's free. Google Checkout simply undercuts the pricing of PayPal on merchant services. Google Docs and Spreadsheets takes aim at Microsoft Office, and again, it's free.

This is what Microsoft used to do. It used to take out whole lines of business by adding them as a "feature" to Windows or Office. Now, it seems, the tables may have turned. Microsoft could only do that when it had a natural monopoly. That's being whittled away by open source, cloud computing, and giveaways galore. Much of that competition is going to come directly from Google.

So why do some analysts feel that Google itself is immune from tit-for-tat, any more than China can lose garment trade to an even cheaper competitor?

As consumers find ways of getting what they need from companies who choose to make it accessible with no advertising, ad supported models themselves are shaky. Brin has often said it himself: a competitor is only a click away. I can't avoid all commercial messages: I can't drive on a different highway, use a different subway platform, or wriggle out of my airline seat. It's a bit difficult to miss the glossy ads on the magazine I choose to read. And some messages, I actively seek. Google's business isn't going away anytime soon. But the real heyday of Google from a consumer standpoint might have been in the years when expectations of future profit (and some funding still in the bank) were subsidizing a search site that showed *no* ads.

[And as an aside, it's essentially the same phenomenon and "ethos" (an "ethos" that is more of an economic model dependent on acquisition or massive funding) that drives many Web 2.0 companies. Many of them make the mistake of divorcing "the power of free" from the need to be acquired. Others are smart enough to know when to fold 'em, for healthy valuations.]

If "free" is so great, then isn't even freer even better?

There is a certain false cleverness, then, about business models that smugly give stuff away to put others out of business, based on the knowledge that some other parts of an enormous (and hopefully, diversified) conglomerate can subsidize the insanely great deal consumers are getting on the other stuff. It works as long as that profitable part is safe! For most companies, it isn't.

Make no mistake though, for a handful of gigantic companies, these models are *very* clever and they work very well. The overall profitability comes from bringing a very large number of consumers and businesses into the "fold," and figuring out how to maximize profits from the few areas that consumers will actually "pay" for. Yes, in an era when everything seems free, I even have to put "pay for" in scare quotes.

That's why today I dub the large Internet companies (we used to call them portals) Super Funnels. It's far more complex than just the rather simplistic idea that we can offer cloud-based services cheaper, or free, or support whole lines of businesses with ads. But it is all about the rampant amount of investment capital and cash flow that makes it possible to create amazing user experiences and products that cost very little... as long as some element of the whole process, and hopefully many elements, are wildly profitable. Achieving this is not like falling off a log. The funnel has to be very well engineered, and the pockets have to be very deep.

Connected to my analysis (which basically says, beware of "the power of free" if all that means is an ad-supported model that assumes x% of users will tolerate and act upon advertising) is the rampant assumption that display ads online are holding up well as an economic model. What are the CTR's and ROI on such ads? So poor, metrics gurus have to come up with new measures that disguise the lack of engagement. Where people are really going to share and interact - platforms like Facebook - will let you bother users for a $0.30 CPM... and this may be the high-water mark.

Search ads are largely safe, for now, because they are quasi-classifieds, and because Google engineers the ad program to make the ads and the sites they lead to actually as good as or better than the sites in the organic/blended index results. That leads to the question, won't somebody eventually come up with more pleasing organic index results? What if someone releases something very, very good, and makes it available without ads for three years? They'll need a few hundred million dollars to try that stunt on any serious scale.

Can someone out-Google Google? Eventually, someone will, but for now the discourse of "the power of free" will sync up well with the next 5-10 years of Google hyperprofits. It's just a mischaracterization that "free" has true power, divorced from its rare, Super Funnel context. Google is the most efficient Super Funnel today, which will continue to be very disruptive to former dominant ones like Microsoft (other targets will be phone monopolies and the list goes on). To get back to a scale that can challenge Google's dominance, Microsoft has been rightly looking to bulk up to achieve more scale in today's dominant ("power of so-called free") business model. Hence its interest in Yahoo, Facebook, and others. Can Microsoft "go it alone" in this quest, as the current discourse of Ballmer and Gates suggests? It's highly doubtful. If they do not return to several bargaining tables soon, the buildout will take too long.

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