A few days ago I read an interview with Steve Jobs published in Fortune in March. One of the ideas which Steve Jobs put forth is that you really need to understand the technology issues, then follow how they will roll out in order to be successful. Apple has a certain advantage because it owns the operating system and the hardware. This means that the hardware and technology can be integrated much more tightly together.
This makes me think that one of the issues with the current media and advertising space in China is that there is not enough understanding of the integration of the hardware and software. Basically, DoubleClick came up with the idea of the banner ad, then Google came up with the idea which came from came up with the idea of PPC advertising on the search results page, and the algorithms which would optimize the system to become a money machine for Google. For too long, players in this space have come from the media space, offering a “me too” solution full of buzzwords but with little real content to differentiate.
What did Google do which was so different from Yahoo!, the leading Web 1.0 portal? They got very close to the technology, to the point where they built the servers and disks, and created MapReduce, Google’s search technology which could run on huge clusters.
Now, I hear a lot of talk about all the startups in China, but most of the time, I don’t see how any new technology is used to take a whole new look at how advertising should be delivered over a complex network. Most are consumer plays which do not deliver anything spectacular. That would not be an issue if they had a good feel for the marketing process, but more often than not, they do not. As a result, most advertising buys gravitate to the big online media companies, which include Sina, Sohu, Netease and QQ, as Kaiser Kuo frequently talks about in his blog at Ogilvy China Digital Watch.
In fact, we are just at the beginning of a whole new wave for technology and advertising: this is the mobile wave. Handset makers now only pay US$15 per handset for software, and with the upcoming development and launch of Google’s Android, per handset payouts are going to go down even more. This means only one thing: there will have to be a steady advertising revenue stream to finance all the content. The mobile network though is not one network, it will have to be two:
- The search and search results network including GPS location-based detection
- The network delivery system
In software development, there is the MVC or model/view/controller system for software design. The rules are defined at the model level, there is the presentation end for how the viewer sees the content (Apple is now taking a grab at this with the Apple iPhone) for view and the controller, which connects the rules at the model level with the view, and handles delivery.
Basically, Apple is trying to leverage its control of the iPhone audience at the view level to get leverage with the carriers, who act at the model level. In some markets it has been successful, but not with China Mobile so far. The handset makers such as Nokia, Samsung, and LG have solutions, but since their product lines are spread across so many products, they have little leverage unless they came up with their own operating system and hardware as Apple has. What are the chances of that happening? Microsoft has a solution with Microsoft Windows Mobile, but it is just one among many players and does not have a dominating position on any of the model, view and controller levels of the mobile network.
China Mobile has made no secret of its plans to control the platform as much as possible by virtue of its near-monopoly role in this space. Ultimately, it will have to make marketing choices about what audience it wants to serve: the casual youth market or the productivity worker, and how to maximize revenue from the market they choose. The only way for them to avoid having to make this choice is to offer contextual advertising on the mobile network. It would make a lot of sense for China Mobile to buy Baidu to protect its mobile advertising revenue stream from Google, and then make a serious technology effort to combine improved search algorithms with location services. Search technology involves a great deal of non-trivial technology which cannot be easily replicated, even by a company as huge as China Mobile.
As for smaller players, they will have to come up with ways to get revenue from a market which has been bombarded with a huge amount of free content.
Google has a tremendous advantage with the Google Android operating system, which will have hooks built into it for search and location services. If you think that they are giving a mobile phone OS away for free just because they are nice people, you are delusional. They are offering a new mobile ad platform with other services to attract developers.
I expect that the mobile network will very soon become the “smart network” compared to the PC-based network, which will become the “dumb network” because it does not have location sensitivity. (Of course, newer computers will have location sensitivity. This will then combine with Google’s current services to deliver ads which will make the current ad networks look like something from the Stone Age.) The PC network will continue to be good for banner and brand advertising, but if you really want smart contextual advertising which operates on a PPC basis, mobile will be the leader.
The smaller mobile players will have to pay “toll fees” to the model (China Mobile, China Unicom, etc,.) and view (Apple) players. It will be much harder to get onto the technology ramp for mobile than it is for the PC, at least in the beginning.