Search is the interface, but who controls the relationship?
An article in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph says that a consortium of major mobile phone companies – Vodafone, France Telecom, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, Hutchison Whampoa, Telecom Italia, and Cingular – are planning to meet in secret to discuss creating a mobile phone search engine. The last five years have shown that one of the most powerful places in the online space is search – that is many people’s primary interface to the wonderful world of the web. And you can make very good money from it (Google’s most recent quarterly operating income was $1.06 billion on revenues of $3.21 billion). So as attention shifts to the mobile world, there should be no shortage of players keen to challenge Google’s intentions of transferring its dominance in the internet into the mobile space.
A framework that I described in my book Living Networks, and have applied in numerous strategy consulting engagements, is highly relevant here. In short, there are six key elements to the “flow economy” based on the flow of information and ideas. Any customer offering needs all elements. These elements are usually provided by different companies, though some companies may provide several of them, or work in alliances to provide them seamlessly to customers. The heart of strategy in the flow economy is leveraging your existing positioning to move into other elements of the flow economy. A great example is how Apple, through the success of the iPod, controlled people’s Interface to music. This enabled them to shift to delivering Content through iTunes, and thus to build Relationships with consumers (which is usually not possible through the sale of devices).
In this case, the mobile phone companies provide Connectivity, and have been striving to leverage that into Relationships, Content, and Services, with highly varied success. If they can use their existing positioning across the landscape to control the Interface, they can get far greater revenues. Standards are the foundation of the flow economy, and Relationships are where most of the value can be extracted. Yet Interfaces (and also Content) have proven to be the most powerful leverage points to create Relationships. So the mobile phone consortium, Google, and other players are all trying to get to the same place, but starting from different positions on the strategic landscape. It will be a very interesting battle. This paragraph is of course an extremely simplistic analysis, but the framework can be used to go into far more depth in developing effective strategies. I’ll post some more detailed examples of using the flow economy framework at a later date.
In other commentary, PaidContent calls the Telegraph’s story “very speculative,” bringing up the highly relevant issue of EU anti-competition laws, while SMS Text News doesn’t believe the mobile companies can create a search engine good enough to rival Google. This post’s title is “European Mobile Companies don’t understand they’re just data pipes.” That’s exactly my point above, however there exists a strategic possibility to shift beyond being just pipes to doing more, and they’d be very foolish if they didn’t make a good attempt to do so.