MSFT / GOOG / AMZN – Law of large numbers.

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The big guys get bigger. 

Microsoft

  • Microsoft reported slightly disappointing results where the ageing Surface Pro line slightly marred another superb performance in the cloud with Azure and Office 365.
  • FQ3 17 revenues / Adj-EPS were $23.56bn / $0.73 compared to consensus at $23.65bn / $0.70.
  • Office 365 passed 100m corporate users and grew 45% while Azure managed to grow revenues by 93%.
  • Windows revenues grew by 5% defying the steady but stagnant PC market but hardware was the real problem this quarter as the Surface Pro is badly in need of a refresh and phones have dwindled to almost nothing.
  • Microsoft is firing on all cylinders when it comes to the enterprise, but the consumer remains a big question and a fiscal drag.
  • Fortunately, there remains upside in Microsoft even if the consumer continues to drift, leaving still able to favour the shares.

Alphabet

  • Alphabet reported excellent results as revenues from mobile continued to outpace expectations and spending on moonshot projects was reigned in.
  • Q1 17 revenues / EPS was $20.1bn / $7.73 compared to forecasts at $19.8bn / $7.41.
  • Once again advertising from mobile devices has led the way as users spend more time on their devices and do more with them.
  • YouTube also fared well as the advertiser boycott did not have the impact that some feared it would.
  • On the whole, YouTube is growing extremely well but there are the first rumblings of dissent from some of the biggest content creators on the platform who have seem some demonetisation to keep advertisers happy.
  • Google remains focused on keeping its lead in AI, developing a cloud offering to compete with Microsoft and Amazon and on rolling out hardware.
  • While the shipments of its hardware products have not lived up to my expectations, the reception of them has been good and there is very little doubt that Google Home is a vastly superior product to Amazon’s Echo series of products.
  • Hence, I think the outlook remains good but the stock price has keeping step with these developments and remains fairly fully priced in my opinion.

Amazon

  • Amazon reported very strong revenues and even managed to make a profit, while clearly signalling that it intends not to lose the indian market as it lost China.
  • Q1 17 revenues / EBIT were $35.7bn / $1.0bn ahead of forecasts at $35.3bn / $855m.
  • AWS grew much more slowly than Azure at 43% YoY but I suspect that this is largely because AWS is much larger rather than Azure taking share aware from Amazon.
  • Profitability also improved at AWS with margins of 24.3% which combined with steady, but low profitability in the US offset increasing losses overseas particularly due to the India roll-out.
  • Amazon is clearly going all out on India which is a major threat to Flipkart which cannot afford to burn hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter.
  • This is why I see the need for very rapid consolidation of the rest of the Indian e-commerce industry into Flipkart as without scale, the others stand little chance of survival.
  • As a result, Q2 17 profitability will be weaker than expected with Q2 17E revenues / EBIT forecasted at $35.35bn – $35.75bn ($35.5bn) / $720m – $1,075m ($898m) compared to consensus at $1,529m.
  • While Amazon continues to refuse in making in sustainable profit, I find the valuation much too much to stomach and continue not to like a position in the company.

Yahoo – Fair fee.

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I don’t begrudge Marissa her 5% payoff.

  • While it appears that Marissa Mayer is being paid $200m for years of failure, I think that she has recently enriched shareholders of Yahoo by over $4bn making a 5% pay off not as unreasonable as it looks.
  • Marissa Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo has been a huge disappointment.
  • While I have long believed that she got the strategy right in terms of increasing coverage of Digital Life (see here) but completely failed to execute when it came to moving its engagement from fixed to mobile (see here).
  • This led to Yahoo fulfilling only a tiny fraction of its potential in mobile and massively underperforming its competitors Google, Facebook and even Twitter.
  • This resulted in the company going nowhere, executive turnover and poor financial performance.
  • It was against this backdrop that Verizon entered the scene and it is here where Marissa has finally shone.
  • I think that it is quite easy to argue that the core business is worth nothing as:
    • First: A total of 1.5bn login credentials have been stolen in two of the largest hacks in history.
    • This is more users than Yahoo has in total meaning that some of its users have suffered the indignity twice.
    • I think that this gives its users the perfect excuse to shut down their Yahoo accounts and move elsewhere.
    • This is already showing up in the company’s financial statements where real revenues (after the traffic acquisition costs) continued to decline 3% YoY in Q1 2017 and the business remains loss making on a GAAP basis.
    • Yahoo’s core business is a declining fixed Internet asset that becomes less relevant with every passing quarter.
    • Second: The two huge hacks set up the possibility of a huge legal liability should the users of Yahoo choose to sue for compensation from any losses that they have incurred.
    • Third: The outlook for Verizon to make something valuable out of Yahoo is extremely poor indeed.
    • I very much doubt that Verizon has the management bench strength to succeed where Yahoo has failed, and as a result, I think that this asset will experience a gentle decline into oblivion inside Verizon.
  • Against this backdrop, Marissa has managed:
    • First to get Verizon to pay $4.48bn for this asset
    • Second to prevent a huge haircut to the price being made when details of the hacks came to light
    • Third: to get Verizon to shoulder half of the potential legal liability when I would argue that Yahoo should shoulder all of it.
  • Consequently, I think that after years of failure and disappointment, Marissa has come good at last.
  • Her dealings in Verizon have arguably enriched shareholders by over $4bn and reduced potential liabilities by an incalculable amount.
  • All in, it looks like she has made around $200m from her time at Yahoo which amounts to around 5% of what she has finally delivered.
  • It is arguable that the opportunity forgone as a result of her bad execution is many orders magnitude greater than $4bn but I see this as a sunk cost given the poor performance of the share price.
  • Hence, I see the value she has delivered as a parting gift for her long-suffering shareholders and do not really begrudge her the 5% she is being paid.
  • With the share price now not far from my valuation of $50.4, there is no reason to involved any longer.

Digital Assistants – Bursting bandwagon.

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Digital assistant bandwagon bursting at the seams.  

  • Building a digital assistant is all the rage these days but just like app stores, I suspect that the weaker players will soon drop out once they begin to realise how difficult and how expensive it is to make a good one that users actually want to interface with.
  • The latest companies to jump on the already-full-to-bursting digital assistant bandwagon are Orange and Deutsche Telecom who together are creating a digital assistant called Djingo which can exist in a speaker, remote control or smartphone app.
  • Its functionality looks to be very similar to Amazon Alexa with both companies pouring their combined knowledge and experience in artificial intelligence (AI) into the product.
  • Other recent additions to the bandwagon include, LINE with Clova, Huawei and Samsung with Bixby.
  • However, I suspect that all of these players are going to quickly discover that digital assistants are really difficult to get right.
  • For example, Alexa, which is considered to be a leader, can only accurately interpret the words the user speaks but really struggles to make any real sense from them.
  • The net result is that the user has to give commands to Alexa in a specific way if the desired result is to be achieved.
  • RFM research (see here) has found that digital assistants also suffer from a chicken and egg problem where they need usage to improve because it is with usage data that they can evolve.
  • The problem is that no one will use them if they are not already very good meaning they will be unable to gather the data they need to get to level of quality where users will engage with them.
  • Alexa and Siri, with 10m and 1bn+ deployed devices relatively, have scope to generate data but I think that both of them are struggling as usage remains low.
  • For example, by far the most used feature of the Amazon Echo device (Alexa’s flagship home) is the Bluetooth speaker which completely obviates any usage of the Alexa digital assistant.
  • This leaves Google and Baidu leading the field both of whom are global leaders in both AI and data generation which are the two most important raw materials for the creation of a good digital assistant.
  • Despite my negative view on the new comers, it is worth noting that mobile operators are providers of the data packets which deliver digital life services and consequently have huge repositories of data.
  • Operators are restricted in terms of what they can do with this data, but I see no reason why this data should not be used to train algorithms.
  • These algorithms could then be used to ensure that the services that they offer are better than those of their competitors or they could be licensed to third parties.
  • What operators lack is the artificial intelligence expertise to make anything of this data and as a result, I suspect that the vast majority of this data will end up gathering dust.
  • Whether Orange and Deutsche Telekom have realised this potential remains to be seen but given their history, I suspect they are just jumping on the bandwagon in a last attempt to avoid being left behind.

Mobile Payments – Trouble in paradise

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Mobile Payments are going the wrong way.

  • It appears that the usage of Apple Pay on the iPhone is now declining compared to where it was in June 2016, sending a worrying signal for the outlook for mobile payments in general.
  • The most recent data from PYMNTS.com (see here) shows that both adoption of Apple Pay and its usage are showing the first signs of decline.
  • Android Pay and Samsung Pay have yet to show this decline but I suspect that this is due to the fact that they have not been around long enough to show this trend.
  • Neither of these two offer anything that Apple does not and in almost every case, I think Apple does it better.
  • The percentage of iOS users surveyed that had tried Apple Pay fell from 23.8% in June 2016 to 21.9% in March 2017.
  • Furthermore, in March 2017, 48.6% of those users that had not tried Apple Pay said that they were happy with their current payment method (plastic card) compared to 37.0% in March 2015.
  • Of those that have used it, those that “use it at every opportunity that I get” fell from 48% in March 2015 to just 18.7% in March 2017.
  • It also appears that security, ease of use or the store’s ability to make the payment work are not the reasons for Apple Pay’s lacklustre performance but more the fact that paying with plastic is just fine.
  • I think that this is a great example of how important it is to offer a better experience when one is looking to drive adoption.
  • Paying with a mobile phone is no easier or convenient than paying with a card and in many circumstances, it is much more difficult.
  • This also explains why mobile based payments have been so successful in China despite being based on the much maligned (in developed markets at least) QR code.
  • The offline experience to do almost anything in China is dire when compared to USA or Europe which has meant that even QR codes offer a huge improvement in the user experience.
  • For example, when using WeChat Pay, the time required to buy a train ticket can be reduced to 5 minutes from 45 and wait time at a hospital can be reduced to 20 minutes from 2 or more hours.
  • This is the issue that I see with mobile based payments in developed markets.
  • Plastic cards have very high penetration and almost everyone accepts them.
  • At the same time payments using a mobile phone don’t particularly improve the user experience for the consumer which is what I think has led to the ambivalence that this survey is pointing to.
  • The net result is that to win the kind of adoption that China has, mobile based payments need to offer the user a compelling reason to use them.
  • Failure to do this could see adoption and usage decline to a niche of power users with the vast majority of users sticking with plastic cards which, by all accounts, are plenty good enough.
  • It looks like wallet manufacturers are going to be in business for much longer than anyone thought.

Facebook F8 – Business as usual

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Progression, but little excitement.

  • While Facebook’s announcements at its developer conference were not exactly ground-breaking, it is clear that Facebook remains extremely commercial and is very focused on fixing its weaknesses.
  • Highlights from F8 include:
    • First augmented reality: Facebook has decided to re-focus on AR in what looks like a pre-emptive strike against Snapchat.
    • This includes the launch of a new camera platform that follows up on the roll-out of camera capability to all of its apps.
    • With the camera capability now everywhere, developers will now be able to create content that can overlay the real world as seen through a smartphone camera.
    • This includes Snapchat-like photo and video annotations as well as combining the ability to map a 3D environment and place virtual objects within it.
    • The aim here is to get users to spend more time within the Facebook ecosystem thereby increasing potential for monetisation.
    • Second: Artificial Intelligence. This remains a major weakness for Facebook but it does appear to have made some progress in image recognition.
    • This makes some sense as the core competencies of its biggest AI hires are in this area.
    • Facebook showed AI that was capable of advanced object recognition as well as the tracking of moving objects through video.
    • This was complimented by progress on making Facebook M (digital assistant) smarter as well as improving the quality of the bots that it offers to companies to communicate with their clients.
    • AI remains essential to Facebook’s long-term growth as it is sitting upon a mountain of data but still is not in a position to really make the most of the insights and automation that it can provide.
    • Third: Gaming. A lot of progress has been made in developing game play within Messenger.
    • Rich game play is now enabled with real time and turn by turn games making up the majority of the line-up.
    • There are now 45 games available for play within Messenger and with the gaming tab be enabled within the app imminently.
    • I think that this is a crucial step forward as gaming remains the largest segment of Digital Life and in developed markets, there is still no dominant player.
    • Fourth Chat extensions: This enables developers to bring their services directly into chat sessions.
    • Spotify is the best example where users can search Spotify for a track and then post that track as well as play a sample all within the chat.
    • Apple Music will also be coming to the platform later in 2017.
    • Fifth Monetisation: Behind all of the new announcements is a single-minded determination to drive more traffic onto the platform.
    • This can be seen everywhere from the desire to enrich mundane events to encourage sharing to enticing users to spend more time on the platform.
    • Data richness and time spent are two key elements when it comes to understanding user activity and being able to earn revenues from it.
    • This is not a subject that was directly addressed anywhere but one can see the hand of the cash register in everything that Facebook does.
  • Facebook revealed nothing that was really ground breaking but instead spent time addressing its weaknesses as well as ensuring that rivals are not able to steal its user engagement.
  • I am still quite cautious with regards to Facebook’s outlook for this year as I don’t think that either its video offering or its gaming offering are mature enough to bring the company back to high growth in 2017.
  • This combined with requirement to really improve its AI to compete on a level playing field with Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon leads me to still prefer Baidu, Tencnet and Microsoft.

 

Google – From Russia with love pt. III

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Google escapes to fight another day.

  • Google has settled its dispute with the Russian regulator but I suspect that Google has managed to avoid having to give away its crown jewel: Google Play.
  • According to the FAS Russia (see here), Google has agreed to:
    • First: Google will no longer prevent the pre-installation of competing search engines or apps on Russian GMS-compliant Android devices or their presence on the home screen.
    • There is no mention of which services will be set as default when the user turns on the phone for the first time.
    • Second: Google will no longer enforce the parts of the previously signed agreements that contradict the terms of the settlement.
    • As the terms of the settlement have not been made public, it is not clear exactly what this entails but I suspect that it refers primarily to point 1 above.
    • Third: Google will ensure that users of Android devices already present in the market will be given the option to change their default search provider via a software update and pop up.
    • Fourth: Google will pay a fine of $7.8m which I calculate is equivalent to around 100 minutes of Alphabet’s cash flow and consequently, is completely irrelevant.
  • This settlement ensures that competing apps can be on the home screen but it appears to do nothing about the requirement to bundle the Google Apps with Google Play nor the fact that they are set by default, albeit, now changeable.
  • The settlement was proposed by Google and accepted by the FAS which admitted that it was under some pressure to have this two-year dispute resolved.
  • This is why I believe that this crucial element was left out if the agreement as I think that it is the unbundling of Google Play from Google’s Digital Life services that could do the real damage.
  • This is because it is widely accepted that in most markets outside of China, it is almost impossible to sell an Android Device that does not have Google Play installed because this is what users demand.
  • This gives Google the power to force handset makers and operators to install the services from which it makes almost all of its Android mobile revenues front and centre on the device and to set them as default.
  • Research has shown many times that installation at the factory and being set as default are big drivers of usage, even if the service in question is considered to be inferior (Apple Maps).
  • This is why I have long believed that Google Play is so important to Google’s Android revenues and that unbundling Google Play could be highly detrimental to its long-term outlook.
  • The good news for Google is that it has now set a precedent with which it may be able to more easily settle its outstanding dispute with the EU.
  • The net result is that I think that while Google has given up a little ground, the fortress of Google Play remains intact and with it its ability to continue dominating the Android landscape.
  • However, this dominance is not enough to make me think that the shares are attractive and I continue to prefer the shares of Baidu, Tencent and Microsoft.

India e-commerce – The big if.

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Flipkart for Snapdeal looks increasingly likely.

  • The probability of consolidation in Indian e-commerce is creeping ever closer as Softbank, is pushing for the sale of Snapdeal to Flipkart at a valuation considerably less than the $6.5bn at which the company last raised money.
  • I think this move makes complete sense as on their own, both Flipkart and Snapdeal are likely to be crushed by Amazon should it decide to pull out all the stops in order to dominate the Indian market.
  • This is because, on their own, neither of them is large enough to keep Amazon at bay, but together, they might just have a chance.
  • Snapdeal and Flipkart like Alibaba and to a lesser degree Amazon are market places which bring together merchants and buyers in one easy to use location and from which they can take a small cut.
  • In effect, they are network businesses just like Uber, Alibaba, AirBnB, Craigslist and so on and consequently, they are bound by the same rules.
  • 18 months ago I proposed a rule of thumb that states: A company that relies on the network must have at least 60% market share or be at least double the size of its nearest rival to begin really making profit (see here).
  • This, in a nutshell, is the problem faced by both Flipkart and Snapdeal in India.
  • Flipkart is bigger than Snapdeal and so it is in a slightly better position but it is not double the size of its nearest rival.
  • Data from 7ParkData shows that Flipkart has about 35% of e-commerce monthly active users followed by Amazon at 23% and Snapdeal at 13%.
  • As it stands today, not one of the Indian e-commerce players has established itself as the go to place to buy and sell goods, meaning that all parties are likely to be losing large amounts of money through aggressive competition.
  • If Flipkart is able to successfully execute the acquisition of Snapdeal and hold onto all of its users, then its share of MaU will reach 49% more than double that of Amazon.
  • This could give it just enough scale and momentum to become the go to marketplace in India making extremely difficult for Amazon to compete.
  • This is a big if and will require flawless integration, streamlining as well as customer service.
  • This is why I suspect Softbank is willing to take a substantial haircut on its investment as I think it has concluded that should Snapdeal remain independent, its investment could easily be worth nothing.
  • Amazon does not have a good track record in emerging markets as its performance in China vs. Alibaba was dismal and it does not seem to do much with its acquisitions other then leave them to their own devices.
  • Hence, I think the combination of Flipkart and Snapdeal has a chance but Amazon does seem to be determined not to repeat in India the mess it made in China.
  • Valuations are falling, highlighting the prospect of bargain hunting, but the high-level of uncertainty keeps me from wanting to be involved.

Spotify – Crown jewels

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Spotify keeps the crown jewels to itself.

  • In striking a deal with Universal, Spotify has traded much better than I thought it would giving the label two concessions that I think will end up being pretty worthless.
  • Spotify has signed a licence with Universal that has three main aspects:
    • First: Universal artists will have the option to release their music to premium users only for two weeks before it is available to all users.
    • Second: It looks like Spotify will cut the share that pays to Universal from 55% to 52%.
    • Third: Spotify will provide Universal with the data that its music generates thereby enabling the label and its artists to gain better insights into how its music is being consumed.
  • On the surface, it looks like two of these points benefit the labels but when I take into consideration how the music industry is evolving, I think the winner from this deal is Spotify.
  • This is because Spotify has managed to increase its gross margins on Universal music by 300bp and has cleared one major hurdle towards its road to an IPO.
  • Sony and Warner are the two remaining hurdles which, now that a precedent has been set, may be easier to overcome.
  • That is what Spotify has gained from this deal but what has it given up in return?
  • Not much in my opinion.
    • First: I do not think that delaying releases to the free tier for two weeks will have much, if any, impact on the appeal of the free tier.
    • I have long believed that the free tier is far more valuable to Spotify than anyone thinks that it is (see here) and I think that its desire to protect the user experience of this segment has been a major sticking point in striking a new deal with the labels.
    • Time shifting media releases is how music and films have been released for years but I think that this is changing.
    • Spotify knows what it users listen to and what they like and I think that in the future, users will be increasingly made aware of new music when the streaming services recommend them rather than when the artist or label releases them.
    • Hence, many users might not even notice a two-week delay meaning that Spotify has received something for nothing.
    • Second: Spotify is giving Universal access to its fire hose of data but I have doubts whether it will be able to make much sense of it.
    • This is because it will only have access to the data which is just a raw material.
    • To make something useful out of it, trained algorithms are required to parse that data and draw meaningful conclusions from it.
    • These algorithms are Spotify’s crown jewels and I am pretty sure that they will be staying safely under lock and key.
    • After all, they are the reason why Spotify’s service is better than Apple’s and are the key to its ability to eventually replace the labels entirely (see here).
    • Furthermore, Universal will only have access to its own data which compared to the entire catalog that Spotify has, is a small subset.
    • Hence, even if it could make sense of the data, it wont be able to draw many meaningful conclusions from it as it will be looking at an incomplete picture of user activity.
  • The net result is that I think Spotify has dealt much better than I thought it would as I was concerned that the pressure to make it to IPO in 2017 would force it to give too much away to the labels (see here).
  • In fact, I think that the reverse has happened putting Spotify in a good position to IPO without having to give much, if anything, away.

 

Twitter – End of days

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The loss of the NFL is a disaster.

  • Twitter has lost its deal to stream certain NFL games which I think punches a potentially fatal hole in its strategy to break out of its niche of microblogging.
  • Amazon has reportedly paid $50m for the rights to stream 10 Thursday night NFL games for the coming season.
  • This is 5x what Twitter paid in 2016 but I do not think that this is a case of the little guy being priced out of the market.
  • Instead, I think that Twitter got a very good price from the NFL because of its promises to be able to leverage its social interest graph to generate meaningful advertising revenues as well as insights that could be shared back to the NFL.
  • Clearly, Twitter has not been able to live up those promises which is why the rights have been sold to a more conventional bidder who I think is simply paying a more regular price for the rights.
  • In my opinion this is nothing short of a complete disaster because expanding into media consumption was Twitter’s one hope to break out of its niche and resume subscriber and revenue growth.
  • The loss of the NFL is an indication that this strategy is failing and that despite its efforts, it is nothing more than a broadcaster of short text messages and a second-rate instant messaging platform.
  • Blogging and Instant Messaging make up a total of 16% of the Digital Life pie which I have long believed that Twitter has already fully monetised.
  • I remain convinced that this is the reason for its growth grinding to a halt (see here).
  • If Twitter can entice its 300m users to do more with Twitter beyond these activities, then there is scope for revenues to begin growing again as it will have more traffic to monetise.
  • This is why the video strategy was so important.
  • Media Consumption makes up another 10% of the Digital Life pie and had Twitter been able generate significant traction from it, there would have been significant upside from current revenue levels.
  • Without this growth, I still fear that Twitter’s shares will fall below $10 because even at $14.5, with no growth, the shares are still expensive.
  • This loss makes it even more likely that 2017 is going to be a stagnant year where the realities of the company’s predicament really begin to become apparent.
  • I think that this could drive the shares to $10 or below.
  • I continue to see Twitter as a potential acquisition target but would expect to see the shares touch $10 before real interest is triggered.
  • I see no reason whatsoever to go bargain hunting as there is no bargain to be had.

Google – Meaningless milestone

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Android’s success shows up Google’s deficiencies.

  • Android has surpassed Windows as the No.1 platform for accessing the Internet globally, highlighting just how bad Google is at monetising Android as it remains only a small percentage of total revenues.
  • I think that this could be a growth opportunity if Google can fix the many problems that exist within the system that it created and in many cases controls.
  • According to StatCounter, Android devices now make up 37.93% of all Internet access devices very slightly ahead of Microsoft Windows at 37.91% with iOS a distant third at around 13%.
  • Furthermore, with most users spending more time on smartphones and tablets than PCs, it is clear that the PC is rapidly becoming a device used in the enterprise and by content creators.
  • This is a major reason why RFM does not consider PC usage as a contributor to Digital Life when assessing the addressable market for a digital consumer ecosystem.
  • Consequently, it would be natural to assume that Android is a big part of Google’s revenues but in reality, it is not.
  • RFM estimates that in 2016 just 19% of advertising revenues came from Android devices compared to PCs and Macs which generated 60% of advertising revenues.
  • A further 19% of revenues came from iOS devices despite the fact that there are 2.9 Android devices for every 1 iOS device.
  • This tells me that the PC is a much better platform for advertising monetisation but it is also a clear indication that Google is doing something very wrong when it comes to making money from Android.
  • I have long argued that while demographics plays a role, the endemic fragmentation of Android and Google’s inability to update software on its own devices severely hinders the usage of and loyalty to, the Android platform (see here).
  • I believe that this is a major reason why an Android device generates less than half the revenues that an iOS device does which is also meaningfully less than a PC or Mac.
  • While this is a real black eye for Google, I also see it as an opportunity.
  • RFM estimates that in Q4 16A each iOS user delivered $3.37 in revenues for Google compared to $1.47 on Android.
  • If Google could fix the problems with Android, then I think that there could be meaningful upside to this number.
  • For example, if Google was able to increase monetisation of its own Android devices to $2.00 per user per month, this would increase revenues by $6.4bn on an annualised basis.
  • As smartphone user growth and usage both slows, Google will need to look for growth elsewhere and I see this as an obvious place to start.
  • I am hoping to see signs of this at Google i/o (in May) but in the preview of Android O (see here), I was disappointed.
  • Without these kinds of actions I think that Alphabet remains fully valued and would prefer the shares of Microsoft, Tencent and Baidu.