When Your Users Aren’t Your Customers

A lot of the analysis I do revolves around business models and how companies I cover in the consumer technology market make money. The reality is there are three major business models in use in the consumer technology market for directly monetizing a product or service but there are also a variety of other business models in use for products and services provided for free to the end user. Which of these business models a company chooses to use greatly affects its ability to make money, its ability to grow and, perhaps most importantly, the alignment of its customers’ interests with those of its users. It also provides a useful framework for analyzing Microsoft and Google’s aggressive strategies for smartphones in emerging markets, which seem unlikely to bear much fruit.

Business models for monetizing products vary greatly

The first chart below shows these three business models in use at large consumer technology companies for products and services which directly generate revenue. I’ve used examples from five major companies to illustrate these:

Business models for monetized products

As you can see, each of the five companies I’ve listed makes money from at least two of the business models, and four from all three. But the alignment between the end users (you and I) and the paying customers varies greatly between the models. In the Direct model, the end user is the paying customer. In the Platform model, there are two parties making payments – the end user who purchases a product and the third party which supplies the product and pays the vendor a cut of revenues. In the Advertising model, there is zero alignment between the paying customer (the advertiser) and the end user. This user:customer alignment is important because it has the potential to create significant tension when it is less than 100%. The most obvious example is the constant tension over privacy at both Facebook and Google, which constantly attempt to push the boundaries between what users deem acceptable and what advertisers want. It’s an inherent feature of those companies’ business model impossible to overcome. Even the Platform model is subject to some of the same tensions: opening new APIs to benefit developers can create new privacy and security risks for end users. But the risks are far smaller than in the Advertising model.

The chart below shows the split in revenues between these three business models for the five companies listed (the split for Microsoft includes significant enterprise revenues too, so it’s not directly comparable to the others, who mostly sell to consumers):

Business model revenue split

As the chart shows, even though each company makes use of multiple business models, they do so in very different proportions. Apple and Microsoft make the vast majority of their revenue from the Direct model, Facebook and Google generate 90% of their revenue from Advertising, and Amazon makes most of its money through the Platform model (selling goods provided by third parties). As such, Apple and Microsoft have the highest alignment between their users and customers, Facebook and Google the lowest, and Amazon somewhere in the middle. This is why we’ve seen both Apple and Microsoft start to play up their business models in recent communications – Apple in its defense against allegations of data misuse in China:

“Unlike many companies, our business does not depend on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers,”

and Microsoft in Satya Nadella’s recent email to employees:

“Apps will be designed as dual use with the intelligence to partition data between work and life and with the respect for each person’s privacy choices.”

Both Microsoft and Apple make use of Advertising models too, with Microsoft to a greater extent than Apple, but their overall businesses don’t depend on these revenues and, as such, they are less compromised in this respect. Amazon on the other hand, is driving rapid growth in advertising revenues and will have to deal with these challenges sooner rather than later. In the meantime, expect both Apple and Microsoft to continue to play up their business models as a positive differentiator for customers, while Google struggles to get past its own business model, especially when it enters new domains such as health and fitness and home automation.

Business models for non-monetized products

The other side of the coin is those products and services each company provides which are not directly monetized at all, either by revenue from end users or by revenue from third parties such as app developers or advertisers. Again, there are three main business models which apply to these cases. They’re shown in the chart below with examples from the same five companies:

Business models for non-monetized productsThe first thing to note is several of the companies again make use of all three business models, but this time around certain companies – notably Apple – make much narrower use of the models. None of these three models seeks to directly monetize the products and services being offered, but the rationale for doing so is very different. Again, there’s a very close relationship between the business model used and the user:customer alignment:

  • Bundling simply adds more value to a broader product or service by providing certain components which are not directly monetized. This directly benefits the user, there’s no third party benefit and therefore 100% user:customer alignment.
  • With the Data business model, there are two possible uses of the data generated, which are hard to separate because they’re often both served by the same product. For example, Google generates data from its Maps product, which partly helps to improve the product itself, but also feeds the advertising machine. In both cases, data from individuals is used for more than just that user’s benefit, which creates tensions around privacy, especially if the data is used for advertising.
  • The Channel business model seeks to provide an environment in which the vendor’s other monetizable products and services can be promoted and is most common with operating systems or “meta operating systems“.

That last business model is worth exploring in a bit more detail, because it can look a lot like Bundling but is actually the reverse. With Bundling, for example in the case of iOS and OS X from Apple, the customer has already paid for the product (an iPhone, iPad or Mac), and the additional features are provided as value adds. With the Channel business model, the platform (e.g. Android or Windows Phone) is provided for free to OEMs, in the hopes the user will engage with the company’s other products and services, so the company can then monetize through one of the three major business models. So the benefit, if it works, accrues entirely to the vendor or to third parties, and not to the end user, in marked contrast to the Bundling business model.

Microsoft and Google’s strange pursuit of emerging markets

Since both Android and Windows Phone are now licensed free to OEMs, it’s interesting to see their owners battling over emerging markets so aggressively, in marked contrast to Apple’s focus on mature markets.  Both Google and Microsoft spent time at their recent developer events talking about their efforts to get their operating systems into these markets. Google announced Android One, and Microsoft talked about all its new OEM partners and the reference design work it’s doing with Qualcomm. The question arises, what do these companies hope to achieve with these efforts in emerging markets? Since neither is directly monetizing its operating system, which of the indirect business models are they hoping to serve? It’s not Bundling, since they’re not charging for the OS itself, so it must be either the Data or Channel business model they’re pursuing.

But there’s a major flaw with either of those:

  • Channel – neither Google nor Microsoft is likely to generate much revenue from these users from monetizable products, since ad spend is much lower in emerging markets than in mature markets, and emerging markets users are, for the most part, extremely unlikely to spend money on any of Microsoft’s paid services.
  • Data – “It’s all about the data” is the response I hear every time I make this point about the Channel opportunity in emerging markets. But let’s drill into that. What is the data useful for? Data by itself isn’t valuable – it has to feed something, in this case either paying products or advertising. If so, we’re back to square one, since the data only really adds value to products and advertising in the same markets where it’s gathered, where it’s unlikely to generate much revenue.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is these companies are pursuing the emerging market opportunity simply because that’s where the growth is. This is, therefore, the only way to capture market share in the overall smartphone market. That strategy relies on the assumption there is some direct benefit from high market share on a global level, but it’s not clear what that is, when many of those users can’t be monetized. Winning market share in these markets appears to be largely an expensive exercise in gaining users that won’t generate much revenue, let alone profits, given the significant investments to be made to play there at all. Any victories achieved through these strategies, especially as these two companies compete aggressively for them, will likely be pyrrhic.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

39 thoughts on “When Your Users Aren’t Your Customers”

  1. “‘It’s all about the data’ is the response I hear every time I make this point about the Channel opportunity in emerging markets”

    Really interesting point to the reason Android’s market share is so high yet generates so little engagement and revenue compared to iOS. Assuming Google is still collecting data through those versions of Android being utilized, if I take Google’s mission as effectively to catalogue and mapping the world, this still falls within that even if not generating revenue. At some point that data will likely be useful to someone. And since it doesn’t cost Google anything to harvest it, why not? Google has already demonstrated a propensity to develop projects that don’t generate revenue. While maybe not necessarily fiscally sound, it is still understandable within Google’s corporate patterns.

    MS on the other hand seems to still be caught up in the game of “Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” I would like to believe they are laying ground work for some potential future. I can’t for the life of me figure that one out other than just not wanting to cede any ground to anyone, relevant or not. I would love to find out engagement figures for mobile Windows relative to their market share.

    All while Apple can easily wait for those emerging markets to mature.

    Great article.

    1. Thanks Joe.

      The data does of course cost a lot to garner – Android costs money to develop (which of course is borne by more profitable users), but all the users using Google’s free services in markets where it’s not profitable is a real cost, which has to be offset somehow. How? You could argue that an American tourist vacationing in Guatemala benefits from good maps of the country too, but that’s a peripheral case. Guatemalan maps are mostly useful to Guatemalans, etc.

      I think there’s a stronger argument to be made that a broader user base is itself useful to Microsoft in a way it isn’t to Google, because its share is just so low today. The vicious cycle between user adoption and developer adoption is still very real for Windows Phone, so you could argue that by gaining more users it will help assuage that problem. But the reality is those users mostly won’t spend money.

  2. First, emerging markets don’t stay poor forever. Economic growth will eventually turn a fraction of those non-wealthy, non-spending users into middle class users with disposable income. By trying to get those people to become users of their products now, google and MS and Facebook are placing a bet on the future.

    Second, Google and MS are in a bind in the developed world — Apple has sewn up nearly all of the profitable customers. And that means Apple has sewn up most of the mindshare and perception, as well. Every percentage point of market share that Google and especially MS can get, anywhere in the world, is vital ammunition for them in their battle for mindshare and relevance among developers and potential customers in the developed world.

    Third, for Google especially, they’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in terms of profitable eyeballs for their advertising clients. If Google’s next billion users only bring in one dollar per year in ad revenue, that may be only a tenth of what their current users bring in, but it’s still a billion dollars a year (all made up numbers).

    1. “By trying to get those people to become users of their products now, google and MS and Facebook are placing a bet on the future.”

      There’s also the very real possibility that as those markets mature, the best customers simply gravitate towards Apple.

      1. Well, under this theory, G and MS are *hoping* to have achieved a degree of brand loyalty by getting in on the ground floor. Whether or not that actually happens is another matter.

        1. I’m not sure there’s much brand loyalty. The loyalty is to an actual, quality, delivered user experience. If Google or Microsoft can do that, maybe they’ve got a shot. But then there’s the problem that Apple delivers a fundamentally different user experience that seems to attract the best customers. At a cultural level Google and Microsoft believe Apple is ‘doing it wrong’, so there’s little chance either company will try and replicate what Apple is doing.

          1. I’m not sure there’s much brand loyalty. (Space Gorilla )

            Tell that to the legion of Xiaomi fan in China

          2. I suspect you just reinforced his point – Xiaomi is doing more than just delivering a generic Android experience, and that’s why it sees loyalty. Apple sees very high loyalty too. Both are because of the differentiated experience they provide. So the question is, can Google and Microsoft create similar loyalty to their operating systems (rather than to OEMs innovating on top of them)?

          3. Yep. And to your last question, I doubt it because both Google and Microsoft are culturally opposed to Apple’s approach. Heck, pretty much the entire tech industry thinks Apple’s approach is wrong, in the face of clear evidence that it works extremely well.

          4. Google doesn’t need all Android users to be loyal to them or use their
            services as long as they can influence the direction of Android and future
            technology with the help of Xiaomi or any other variant of Android where they
            want in the cloud where they are the best it will always be an opportunity for
            them and a big challenge to Apple and Microsoft.

          5. my point was the value of Android to Google is not just to make money with advertising, it is also a way to push the direction of android and future innovation where they want it to be.

            Android, Google suite of App and Chrome OS proliferation in the world are also a mean to encourage App developer everywhere to innovate in the cloud where they are at their best to better compete with Microsoft and Apple.

          6. OK – thanks for clarifying. I guess I still come back to the question: to what end? I.e., why, and how will they make money from this? Sorry to harp on about it, but even if it’s not about money today, it has to be about money eventually.

          7. To make it harder for Apple and other to compete, While making it easier
            for them to provide new app and services to consumers and businesses alike,
            Think Chrome OS

            proliferation is the best way to convince businesses, IT department and others to adopt your technology

          8. “ … why, and how will they make money from this?”

            They don’t have to make money. If they get big enough, they can just sell themselves to Goo – no, wait, that won’t work! 🙂

          9. I suspect you just reinforced his point – Xiaomi is doing more than just delivering a generic Android experience, and that’s why it sees loyalty (Jan Dawson)

            you also reinforced my point
            Xiaomi is very successful with strong loyalty by choosing the direction that Google want, using Cloud base innovative App and services on top of Android as a mean to provide a premium Product at lower price to their customer which is completely difference from Apple approach.

          10. On the other hand, it sees itself as the “Google of China”, suggesting that it doesn’t see Google as the Google of China. There’s some tension between Xiaomi and Google, even if their business models are similar, especially in China.

          11. I agree,
            that is why I’ve been saying that Google doesn’t need to be on all android phone or compete on on every market to be very successful so long as they can drive the Android Platform in the direction that they want (the Cloud) is a win win situation to anyone involved.

            also the Mobile Market it’s huge
            not All OEM need Google services to provide a good android experience to their customers which by the way is the beauty of Android Open Platform itself.

          12. From what I’ve heard Xiaomi delivers a pretty good product/experience. As Jan already pointed out, you’re only reinforcing what I said.

          13. The big question is whether the experience that’s compelling at $100-200 because of the lack of alternatives is still as compelling at $300-600 when there are real alternatives. Windows Phone competes very effectively at the low end because it’s better than cheap Android devices, but falls down at the high end.

          14. I think we’ll see Microsoft competing with Google for the ‘rest of the market’. Apple will never dominate the total market, they dominate the ‘best customer segment’. I think Microsoft would be smart to take aim directly at Android. Microsoft could be ‘the Apple for the rest of us’.

    2. Here’s where Apple’s strategy works really well in emerging markets: it grabs those users that rise out of poverty and become more like mature market users, because the brand is aspirational. Nokia captured the vast majority of emerging markets users with feature phones, but how many switched to Apple or Android when they were ready for a smartphone?

      Also, a billion dollars for Google is a drop in the bucket – they’ll report over $15 billion in revenue for the past quarter later today. Has to be more than that to make sense.

      1. While I may agree with some of your points, but I still think that your argument is Flawed by doing the same mistakes as many other analyst
        thinking that all strategies is about money or short term profit instead of a
        much bigger picture that we rarely take into consideration.

        because Apple manages to make the most profit from a very small share of the
        market does not necessarily mean it will be enough for them to drive adoption
        of their own vision of future technology to the world where they are the
        strongest in the smart glass dumb Cloud that has been floating around recently,
        which can ​​make a difference in the future when it come to their competitive

        I think the
        reason why Google is so aggressive in emerging market such as India, etc. and
        the development of Internet access services that will beneficial to those country
        is not really to make money right now as you sagest, but rather to drive innovation on top of
        Android, Chrome and the Web as a means to leverage the own strength to force adoption of their own platform and impose
        their own vision of the future of computer technology to the world in the cloud
        where it will be much harder for Apple and Microsoft to compete with them, hence
        their new Android Everywhere strategy.

        1. It still has to come down to making money at some point, whether in the short term or long term. My point is that, whether it’s by selling these customers things directly or monetizing them through advertising, the revenue opportunity in these markets is extremely limited. The highest end users will go with Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi etc. anyway).

          1. Only a small percentage of users will go to Apple, the majority will choose Android where Google could dictate their own experience and expectation of future technology. And use the android proliferation and their suite of app and service as a way to push App developer including Local one to the cloud where it will be
            difficult for Apple to catch up,

            Think Multi screen world, Material design, Google Play service, Chromes OS, android everywhere. Google Cloud engine, and Local developer created application for local user etc.

          2. Regarding your first paragraph: Yes, that does appear to be Google’s hope and strategy …as it has been since 2007. So, what’s new?

            The point that others have been trying to make to you is that the precise opposite appears to be the case:

            Due to its good, sustainable customer base and profitability, and due to the integration of its 64-bit software with its custom hardware innovations, Apple has been able to “dictate their own experience and expectation of future technology” and to attract developers to their devices and ecosystem where it will be difficult for Google to catch up.

            It does little good to try and grab market share or “mindshare” with the default product that everyone is stuck with regardless. Google is so intent on commoditizing all software, experiences, data and everything, that it has become a victim of itself; it has sucked all value, differentiation and aspiration out of everything it touches.

          3. while i may agree Apple has been able to “dictate their own experience and expectation of future technology for their own small customer base, however Google is better positioned to impose their own Smart Cloud Dumb Screen Philosophy to the rest of the world because they control the two most important platform in the world ( Android and Chrome )

            Is not about Feature or ecosystem or Android vs IOS
            it’s about technological Philosophy, smart Hardware + Native App VS Smart Cloud + web app and cloud service.

            I suggest that you spent some time using a Chromebook to fully understand the value of Smart Cloud computing.

            Here a good Link for you From Ben on Apple WEAKNESSES

      2. “a billion dollars for Google is a drop in the bucket”

        You did see where I said “numbers are made up”? And the part about “low hanging apples”?

        There’s a limit to how much advertising revenue Google can acquire from serving ads to richest billion users. There’s only so much attention that can be paid by them. If they want to grow past that saturation point, they’re going to have to go downmarket. Sure, the second billion users are going to be a lot less profitable than the first billion, but profit is profit. As long as the cost to acquire that second billion set of eyballs is less than the revenue they bring in (which obviously Google is betting on that being so, realistically or not), then it’s worth doing.

        1. I did see that, yes. But it doesn’t seem like a poor estimate for what those users might bring in, and that’s the point. Those users aren’t just marginally less profitable: it’s quite possible that they’ll be entirely unprofitable, given the costs of the services Google will provide for free to them and the revenue they’re likely to generate.

          1. ” it’s quite possible that they’ll be entirely unprofitable,”

            Well, right or wrong, Google is betting that they will be profitable.

          2. I don’t get this debate. Google does not control the use of Android in developing nations. Android is used anywhere that smartphone makers and users want to use it.

            Then, Google either sell ads to place before the eyes of users, or it doesn’t. If it does sell ads, those ads are (incrementally) profitable. If it doesn’t sell ads, its overhead costs are probably very zero … so it suffers a small loss. If the ad business grows over time (due to economic growth), profits will be earned in the future.

  3. Some brief thoughts/questions:
    — I think Advertising (when done well) would have some alignment with user customers. An unbiased search capability could be aligned with users (even if ads are provided on the side). So maybe it would be around 10%, instead of 0%.
    — Google/Advertising would include Gmail and YouTube, right? Both are aligned with user interests, even though they are monetized by ads. I haven’t heard of Google messing with YouTube searches yet.
    — Where does something like Apple’s free iTunes Festival go? Does it fall under marketing/branding, (which could and could not be aligned with user interests)?
    — Couldn’t Android in emerging markets be a Google branding effort, with the goal to become an aspirational brand?
    — I believe MS still intends to sell mobile devices, including to emerging markets.

    1. This is probably my fault for not spelling out what User:Customer Alignment means well enough. It’s about to what extent the users and the paying customers are the same people, not to what extent their interests are aligned. As such, a 100% ad-funded product has 0% User:Customer Alignment, because the users are paying nothing, and advertisers are paying everything. They’re totally distinct groups. That doesn’t mean their interests can’t be aligned – I’m a big fan of Google search and I don’t mind the ads at all. But it does mean that Google is trying to serve two masters, with somewhat opposing interests with regard to privacy, data sharing etc.

      I’d argue that the iTunes Festival is marketing, yes. Not a technology product or service in its own right. Although the fact that it’s available to watch on Apple devices for free is a form of Bundling.

      The branding point with regard to Android is an interesting one, and I’ve been having similar discussions on Twitter all day (@JanDawson) and to some extent in this comment thread below too. There’s little evidence that there’s much loyalty to a brand once a user transitions from the low end (where there are few alternatives and they’re all focused on price) to the high end (where there are more alternatives, and several new competitive vectors). So I’m skeptical of that argument.

      And yes, MS is absolutely still pursuing emerging markets, as per today’s announcements. But my position on this remains the same.

  4. Android and MS can only grow in the undeveloped regions and they only serve the God of Market Share. One for eyeballs and one for relevancy. The weak regions are their farm system to grow the share.

  5. Great analysis, but a fourth business model is needed. As you noted, Microsoft’s enterprise sales are not really “Direct”. The fourth model, “Indirect”, would have a 50-50 user/customer alignment and would cover sales to customers who make purchasing decisions for users they oversee.

    The misalignment between IT shops and users is the tension between maintaining efficient centralized oversight of many users vs. the actual needs of each individual.

    1. It would seem that mobile computing (touch and voice) is destroying this fourth business model right now, as computing turns to truly face the consumer.

    2. I would agree that the needs of IT departments are frequently at odds with those of the users that they manage. Much of what is on my work PC is of truly abysmal quality (e.g. ancient software (compatible), clutter, endless/pointless passwords, etc.). Much of it is justified on the basis of some corporate imperative.
      In short, there are a lot of IT products that are utterly despised by their end users. Something like an Apple/IBM cooperation to bring modern tablet software to the put-upon end users has the potential to make a big difference very quickly.

  6. Helping people do what they want vs. providing a market for others to do the same vs. forcing people to do what you (and your customers) want them to. Selling shoes from a company store vs. leasing space to stores at a shopping mall vs. selling ad space on a television network.

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