Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Business Models in Wireless Industry

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Continuing with my previous article on the “Marginalization of Carriers”, in this post, I would discuss the current and emerging business models in the wireless industry.

The key activities in the value chain of the business model are Service Creation, Identity Management, Service Provisioning and Billing. The key players in the ecosystem are the carriers, handset vendors, platform owners (e.g. Symbian, Android), application providers and the content partners. In different business models, different ecosystem players try to control most of the activities. There are broadly 4 business models that exist today in some form or the other.
Carrier Dominance Model: In this model, the users visit the portal screen of the carrier and download/use services from the portal (also called the walled garden). The walled garden directs the user’s navigation within particular areas, to allow access to a selection of material, or prevent access to other material. Traditionally, the carriers have followed the walled garden business model and controlled all the entities of the value chain of the business model. This model got prominence when the wireless industry was in infancy. The carriers took upon themselves to offer end to end solutions to the users. In this model, the content providers need to tie-up with the carriers for their presence on the carrier portal. The carrier is responsible for marketing of the service to the users and also for billing and collection. In return, the carriers charge a huge revenue share (as high as over 50-60%) plus the user access charge. Common examples of this model have been Vodafone Live, NTT Docomo’s i-mode, Airtel Live. AOL followed the most successful walled garden on the web and at one point of time, as per Economist magazine, 40% of the time Americans spent on web was within the confines of the AOL walled garden
Device Dominance Model: In this model, the device vendor is controls the device, platform and the content & application partners. Service provider tie-up with the device vendor who puts the service either on its application store or on its own portal. In this case, the device vendor controls the key activities of service creation, identity management, service provisioning and billing. Carriers get the access revenues and have a shared responsibility for identity management. This results in the highest differentiation for device vendors but the least for the carriers. In this situation, the data adoption and usage is normally high and the revenue share is better for the content partners. However, the content partners are expected to take some load of marketing, billing and care in return for higher revenue share. Also, the development cost of services is likely to be high as separate development is required for each device vendor. Common examples of this approach are Apple and RIM. Both Apple and RIM have complete control over the value chain and they decide on which services to offer
Platform Dominance Model: In this model, the mobile OS platform takes the dominant position. The platform is available across many device vendors and hence the development effort on part of the content and application partners is lower. There are limited service differentiation opportunities for the carriers or the device vendors. The content players need to partner with the platform owner. The carrier gets the user access revenue and the service revenue is shared between the platform owner and content partner. In this model, the platform replaces the device vendor in the device dominance model. The content partners get better revenue share (up to 70%) in return for billing, care and marketing. Symbian and Android are examples of this kind of approach
Application Dominance Model: This model is very much similar to the web model. The application is accessed using the carrier as pipe. The carrier gets the user access charges but entire service revenue goes to the content and application owner. The activities of service creation, identity management, service provisioning and billing are all done by the application owner. The marketing and care responsibilities also lie with the application owner. The role of the device and platform owner does not change in this case. Due to multiplicity of the devices and platforms, the service/application development cost is very high. Facebook, Linkedin, Google gmail client could be examples of this approach. However there are not many examples of paid applications in this model

There are many changes taking place simultaneously in the wireless space. The platforms are changing from proprietary in-house operating system (OS) to proprietary industry OS to collaborative open industry OS. Carriers are lowering the walls of the walled garden due to demands of the users as well as pressures from the content and application vendors. New opportunities are evolving which enable the content providers to completely by-pass of the carrier. All these changes require a change in the business model in the wireless industry

The emergence of the optimal business model needs to ensure that the consumer interests are taken care of and the consumer interests are the weakest if the entire or most of the value chain is controlled by one single large player. In that respect, the platform dominance model probably is best suited to the consumer needs. Due to higher base, the development costs are likely to be lower and all the ecosystem players are likely to have an equal say in the platform dominance model. However, the outcome of the success of any business model would depend on the outcome of the power play between the different entities of the ecosystem

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