Year after year, the economic and financial power of the GAFA quartet of Internet platforms continues to increase. Which brings two questions back to the fore, again and again: what trends might emerge to counter this seemingly inexorable rise? And do we need regulations that apply specifically to platforms?
A quick reminder of what economists mean by platform economics (digital or not): multi-sided markets (i.e. involving interactions between two or more parties) with reciprocal “network effects”. So the more iPhones that Apple sells, for instance, the more attractive its app store becomes to developers (and so to users), and vice-versa. In digital sectors, this characteristic is typically combined with a reduction in fixed costs (software), generating increasing returns as the platform becomes more successful.
Network effects usually go hand in hand with another property: asymmetrical prices. If Apple is starting to earn substantial income from the App Store, its business model and profits are rooted chiefly in the high price of its iPhones. With ad-funded models, one side of the market operates as a free service. As we have seen with Apple, digital platforms are a very efficient means of fostering open innovation, and capitalising on innovations from third parties. All of these aspects, which go some way to explaining why “winner takes all” when it comes to platforms, naturally need to rely on the ability to maintain the role of intermediary, and continue to become more proficient at it. Otherwise, the platform’s customers and suppliers will begin to adopt multiple homes, before eventually moving on to another, better platform. The efficiency of the leading platforms is the very reason for the current ambivalence over how much they are serving the greater good. On the one hand are concerns that a dominant OS will abuse its position while, on the other, this popularity can also mean an opportunity for developers, and can have positive repercussions for consumers.
The dichotomy needs to be resolved by taking account of the Internet’s dynamics as a whole. Windows has been through a number of anti-trust investigations but, today, this is the mobile Internet which has moved down the priority.
Worth reading on this topic is the recent IDATE report on "The future of the Internet: 2025". It takes a detailed look at the key technologies for the coming years, and especially at how development scenarios will be shaped by key variables, such as the openness of the Internet ecosystems, or the impact of restrictive privacy or security-related public policies. Here, we will add two other events that take us beyond a GAFA-centric environment. First, 2014 saw a number of Internet powerhouses emerge from the shadows of the GAFA quartet: in China (Alibaba, Weibo…) and in Asia’s leading markets in general (Rakuten, Line…).
We cannot entirely discount the possibility of these players gradually coming to compete head on with their Western peers. Second, we need to consider the position held by new players moving into vertical markets, many of which have carved out a place of sector-specific intermediary – Uber and Airbnb being two prime examples – and which have no intention of being taken over by Google or Apple or the like.
Nevertheless, faced with the realisation that GAFA continue to become increasingly powerful, the inefficiency of antitrust laws and the regulatory asymmetries compared to those imposed on other players along the chain, the idea of regulation that applies specifically to platforms is gradually coming to the fore. It may not be a good idea. Competition law, even ex post, is not necessarily ineffectual.
Plus it will be no simple matter to define the contours of the platform sector. And extending existing sector-specific laws, such as those that apply to electronic communications, to make OTT companies and telcos subject to the same principles, would take us down a path where, as businesses become more and more digitised, every economic sector would be more or less governed by electronic communications laws. Keeping in mind that the upcoming review of the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications is expected to focus on network access conditions and interconnection – and probably put more emphasis on symmetrical regulation. Should voice and SMS products not be removed from the scope of the telecom sector’s ex ante regulation, rather than adding in competing OTT products such as Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, etc.?
It nonetheless remains that in sensitive areas for digital industry players, such as those governing contract law, taxation, public safety and privacy, we can very easily identify laws that should apply across the board, such as what we find in consumer products and the retail industry. Without having to produce laws that are specific to platforms, the current juncture could provide an opportunity to merge national legal provisions with regional (EU) and global ones, and to ensure that they apply equally to all players along the value chain
For the publication of the last study about "the future Internet in 2025" and the 15th edition of the DigiWorld Yearbook, IDATE is organizing a conference on the perspectives and key trends that will structure the digital economy for the next decade, DigiWorld Future
More informations about IDATE's expertise and events :
Head of Internet Business Unit at IDATE
The Internet services industry is often perceived as a world of completely free services (and thus implicitly low quality), where everything is supported by advertising. In reality, the situation is obviously more complex. The majority of Internet services revenue comes from paid or transactional services, and the proportion of advertising revenue is trending downward (see Chapter 2, Internet markets) with the development of new services around mobile, cloud computing and even social networks, which rely more and more (at least partly) on paid solutions.
A low-cost approach to services?
Many services are actually offered in freemium versions, with a basic free version (often ad-supported) and a more premium paid version. Spotify and Deezer use this model for online music distribution, and Dropbox and similar services use the same for cloud computing. The goal is to establish a large user base by offering free services, and to then use this base as a lever to attract users to the paid services. The associated marketing costs are therefore next to nothing. The bestperforming players are managing to convert almost 15% of their user base to the paid versions.
Even paid services providers (including freemium models) are adopting low-cost pricing strategies, which breaks with traditional pricing models (like Skype for VoIP, Netflix for SVOD, Amazon for e-commerce and PayPal for payments) and thus undermines traditional service providers. However, this does not mean that Internet players never offer premium services.
Premium services still exist on the Web
Where monetisation and value creation of Internet services has seen the most success is when providers have used an approach that combines lower-cost pricing and premium services aimed at the end user and/or third parties (such as merchants, advertisers and developers). It is often the functionality offered to the user rather than the price that is premium, especially in terms of customer service (Amazon), scope of the service, account management and device support (Netflix), decision support, ease-of-use (PayPal). Most players also rely on a two-sided approach.
The service offered to third parties who connect with or capture data from users is premium. The price per unit for this is often moderate, too. But the service is very attractive for advertisers and merchants in such terms as quantity and quality of available data, ease of implementation, value-added services, targeting capacity. Advertisers are always willing to pay more for advertisements to reach the most attractive targets. The CPMs are therefore much higher on financial information sites. It is, then, ultimately data, and personal data in particular, that constitutes the premium resource of the Internet.
Premium services need advanced tools
To effectively implement premium services on the Internet (and consequently data management and processing), most players are investing heavily in infrastructure for both hardware and software. Major Internet players are positioning themselves around essential technological cornerstones, such as data centres, the Cloud, browsers, operating systems and even devices themselves, or specialized solutions such as DRM. They are implementing their own solutions and developing proprietary approaches if necessary, even offering their resources to third parties (such as Amazon Web Services, Google Analytics, Facebook Connect). Google invests almost one billion USD per quarter in infrastructure.
Advanced software solutions are also central to many Internet players’ activities, particularly around data processing and analysis, which is the focus of the recent growth of big data (see the Big data section in this chapter). Google is therefore indirectly behind the current reference service Hadoop, which derives from Google’s MapReduce.
Premium Internet services involve platform development
Premium services also require vast amounts of data to be collected. This data capture can be direct (via user tracking),declarative or from various sensors. It can also come from third parties through agreements (possibly via their API).
This has pushed most of the major players to develop platforms capable of collecting data from third-party services. This platform links users of the Internet player’s service with developers, merchants and advertisers who want to connect with a wide audience, with varying levels of targeting. It is therefore an essential intermediary tool. To increase interest in their platform, the major Internet players are also keen to offer a part of their infrastructure and devices (Nexus, Kindle Fire) at low costs, despite their relatively premium specifications.
About the Digiworld Yearbook
While digitisation will bring more growth to certain developed markets, the next decade will show a marked decline in linear television revenue in the video sector, and a corresponding increase in new on-demand services. For the incumbent audiovisual operators, their capacity to generate revenue from these new services will dictate whether they can sustain their levels of turnover. They will, for all that, only find growth opportunities in emerging markets.
197 pages that deliver the finest market insights from IDATE experts who track the changes at work in the globe’s telecom, Internet and media industries throughout the year.
the DigiWorld Yearbook is published in English and French and available in print and PDF format. An iPad edition, developed by Forecomm, is also available.
The 2012 edition can be downloaded for free
The 2013 edition is available for purchase. Print: €99.99, incl. VAT; PDF and iPad: €54.99, incl. VAT
- You can have a look at the digiworld yearbook 2013, purchase it or even download the 2012 version for free at : www.digiworld.org/yearbook/