This week, I’ve tried to do something new at TechCrunch with this experimental column — getting obsessed about a topic broadly in tech and writing a continuous stream of thoughts and analysis about it.
With my research consultant and contributor Arman Tabatabai, we’ve covered two topics: Form Ds, the filing that startups usually submit to the SEC after a venture round closes (although increasingly do not), and SoftBank, which faces all kinds of strategic pressure due to its debt binging. If you missed the other episodes, here are links to the editions from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at firstname.lastname@example.org or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.
Today, one final round of thoughts on SoftBank and Rakuten (heavily written by Arman) and a lengthy list of articles for your weekend reading.
The Rakuten factor complicates SoftBank’s strategy
Understanding SoftBank’s competitive strategy requires a bit of a deep dive into Japanese e-commence giant Rakuten.
Rakuten has been struggling to compete with Amazon and others like SoftBank’s Yahoo! Japan. So at the end of 2017, Rakuten announced it would be entering the telco space, hoping that operating its own network could generate user growth through better incentives around mobile shopping, streaming and payments.
Today, Japan’s telco space is a relatively cozy oligopoly dominated by NTT DoCoMo, au-KDDI and SoftBank. A major reason why Rakuten feels it can succeed where others have failed to break in is because it has the government on its side.
Rakuten’s plan to offer prices at least 30 percent lower than incumbent rates has led to favorable treatment from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has been looking for ways to stimulate market competition to force lower the country’s high phone prices.
Though a new entrant hasn’t been approved to enter the telco market since eAccess in 2007, Rakuten has already gotten the thumbs-up to start operations in 2019. The government also instituted regulations that would make the new kid in town more competitive, such as banning telcos from limiting device portability.
Rakuten’s partnerships with key utilities and infrastructure players will also allow it to build out its network quickly, including one with Japan’s second largest mobile service provider, KDDI.
Just last week, Rakuten and KDDI announced an agreement where Rakuten will help KDDI utilize its payment and logistics infrastructure as KDDI turns its head toward e-commerce and payments, while KDDI will give Rakuten access to its network and nationwide roaming services, allowing Rakuten to provide nationwide service as its builds out its own infrastructure.
The agreement with KDDI is especially scary for SoftBank, the country’s third biggest telco and one of Rakuten’s e-commerce competitors, and whose customers seem most vulnerable to churn. The partnership also makes it seem even more likely that SoftBank’s competitors are looking to push it out of the market or turn into a dud its upcoming mobile segments IPO.
While Rakuten’s head-first dive into the market won’t ease investors into an IPO, it’s important we note that Rakuten is targeting a much smaller market share than the incumbents, targeting 10 million subscribers by 2028, a number lower than the company’s original 15 million subs goal and significantly lower than the 76 million, 52 million and 40 million subscribers NTT, KDDI and SoftBank (respectively) hold currently. And even with its agreements, Rakuten faces a serious and expensive uphill battle in building out its network infrastructure quickly enough to compete.
Ultimately, Rakuten’s telco initiative is a splash, but one that seems like it will merely make its competitors wet and not drown them. For SoftBank, it is an annoying distraction on its telco IPO roadshow, but a distraction that is easily explained to potential investors.
SoftBank growth over the past two decades
Changing gears from Rakuten, emails from readers this week asked us to look deeper into SoftBank’s performance over the last two decades. As we did so, it became clear that SoftBank has had a long history of price competitions and new entrants across its businesses, and it has proven its ability to operate and consistently grow earnings.
Since 2000, SoftBank has grown earnings at a ~30 percent CAGR and experienced revenue growth in all but one year. When eAccess did enter the telco market and picked up four million subscribers, SoftBank bought it and integrated it into its own system.
As we discussed earlier this week, despite having always held on to a clunky amount of debt, SoftBank has managed to deliver consistent growth by making sure its revenue and operating growth outpaced the upticks in its debt and interest expense.
A great example of this came after SoftBank’s acquisition of Vodafone in 2006, when it saw a huge spike in its interest expense, but also in its operating income.
Over the following five years, SoftBank managed to reduce its interest expense at an annual rate of 12 percent while growing its operating income at 16 percent. And regardless of its debt balances, SoftBank has always seemingly been able to secure funding one way or another, as shown by its ability to raise $90+ billion for the Vision Fund in less than a year from when plans for the fund were first reported.
The Vision Fund itself started as a way for SoftBank to continue to invest while its balance sheet was tight due to nearly back-to-back massive acquisitions of Sprint and Arm. Just look at how Rajeev Misra, who oversees the Vision Fund, discussed its creation in an interview with The Economic Times:
We had just bought ARM in June for $32 billion and Masa felt we are on the cusp of a technology revolution over the next 5-10 years with machine learning, AI, robotics and the impact of that in disrupting every industry – from healthcare to financial services to manufacturing.
We felt the world was going through a new industrial revolution. We were constrained financially given that we just did a $32-billion acquisition.
SoftBank, historically over the last 20 years, has invested from its own balance sheet. So, we had two options.
Either monetise some of the gains we made in Alibaba which we decided has a lot more upside… Alibaba has more than doubled in the last 12 months. So we decided to keep it which turned out to be good decision. The second option was to go out and raise money and co-invest with others. We prepared a presentation, went out, and by god’s grace we raised the fund.
Even before the Vision Fund, SoftBank has always had a strategy to make big bets in industries of the future. And while many have failed, the several that have paid off, like its $20 million investment in Alibaba, had massive cash outs that have driven consistent earnings growth for decades. SoftBank seems to be banking its future on the same strategy and, frankly, it’s unclear how much they even care about how competitive their telco is, as shown by this exchange in the same interview with Misra:
Question: What about sectors like telecom?
Misra: Let the dust settle.
Our obsession with SoftBank this week is probably going to subside, and we are in the market for our next deep dive topic in tech and finance. Have ideas? Drop us a line at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Thoughts on articles (i.e. weekend reading)
The CIA’s communications suffered a catastrophic compromise. It started in Iran. This is a great follow-up from Yahoo News’ Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin on one of the most important espionage stories this past decade. The CIA, using an internet-based communications system to connect with spies and sources in the field, failed to keep the security of the system intact, leading to the dismantling of its Iranian, Chinese and potentially other espionage rings. This article advances the story as we know it from the New York Times’ original piece, and Foreign Policy’s excellent follow up also written by Zach Dorfman. Definitely worth a read from a security/technical audience. (3,200 words)
The $6 Trillion Barrier Holding Electric Cars Back. Don’t read — the answer is infrastructure. (1,000 words, but should be one)
The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success. A a good reminder that some technologies are much closer to reality than others, and that the key difference between them is our collective experience handling the technology. Rodney Brooks is the right person to cover this subject, although one can’t help but feel that every example is Musk-inspired. (2,800 words)
Uber’s economics team is its secret weapon by Alison Griswold & Soon there may be more economists at tech companies than in policy schools by Roberta Holland, both in Quartz . Griswold does a great job giving an overview of how Uber is using economists not just to improve its product for end users, but also to shape the discussion of public policy around the company. Clearly, Uber is not alone; as Holland notes in her piece, academic economists are very popular in Silicon Valley right now, with salaries that can match the top machine learning experts. (2,750 words and 1,200 words, respectively)
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders. A short piece by Nicholas Carr fighting back against the notion that computing is still “at the beginning.” Many of our devices and pieces of software are already decades old — if they haven’t had an effect on human behavior or productivity, when are they going to? A useful antidote to some ideas we hear from the Valley every single day. (900 words)
The future of photography is code. Yes, yes, I am very late to this — blame Pocket disease. TechCrunch’s own Devin Coldewey writes a candid essay on the transition from improving photography through hardware like lenses to improving photos through computation. The future is looking very bright for beautiful photos, indeed. (2,400 words)
Freedom on the Net 2018 | Freedom House. And if you are looking for some depressing news, Freedom House’s report (which I am also a bit late to) is dreary. China is now increasingly the source of authoritarian internet control technology, and countries across the world are backtracking on internet freedom (including the U.S.). Sobering, but with so much riding on the openness of the internet, we all need to pay attention and build the kind of future for this technology that we want. (32 page PDF with exec summary)
What we are reading (or at least, trying to read)
Years after its Audm acquisition, The New York Times launches its own audio app
Several years ago, The New York Times acquired audio journalism app Audm with the goal of using it as the basis of its own audio product. Today, the media company is unveiling the result of that work with the official debut of New York Times Audio — a new mobile app that combines the publication’s top podcasts, like “The Daily,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” “Hard Fork,” “Modern Love,” “The Run-Up,” and others, with those made exclusively for the new platform. These will range from short news briefs to lifestyle content to narrated longform journalism and more.
Plus, thanks to its $25 million acquisition of the production studio behind “Serial,” the app includes content related to that deal, as well. This includes the namesake show itself, plus new shows from the studio like “The Trojan Horse Affair,” “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” and others, as well as “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, among others.
The Times has heavily invested in audio programming as another way to reach its audience, and particularly those who want to engage with its journalism while on the go — like when commuting, walking their dog, running, or traveling, for example. But, typically, NYT’s content is accessed through the third-party platforms where users already stream their podcasts, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Isolating that content in its own app gives NYT a more direct relationship with its audience, of course, which means it can also collect more data on user behavior, like what people stream and download. (Plus, it could sell its own ads). But its appeal could be limited given that the app will not have a podcast catalog to rival existing platforms, where people already stream their favorite NYT shows, like “The Daily.”
And, with the addition of exclusives to NYT Audio, listeners will have to constantly toggle between apps to hear all the shows they want to tune into — and that’s not necessarily something they’ll want to do.
Even Spotify belatedly realized that its exclusive strategy with podcasts was not paying off. The company once believed it could entice users with big names and could generate its own popular originals by purchasing studios, but it has since pivoted to focus more on being the hosting platform rather than the creator, laying off top podcast execs in the process. NPR also recently canceled four of its podcasts amid its own set of layoffs, which makes for an uncertain market ahead for NYT Audio.
Still, there could be some attraction for NYT loyalists or those who haven’t already made podcast listening a part of their routines, and will see this new app as a sort of value-add on top of their existing subscription. For the crowd willing to give the app a try, there will be a number of new shows to sample.
For starters, there’s a new morning show called “The Headlines,” hosted by Times reporter Annie Correal, that will catch you up on top stories in 10 minutes or less and let you hear from reporters across NYT’s newsroom. Meanwhile, a new short-form series, “Shorts,” will offer lifestyle content like recipe idea, TV and book recommendations, travel inspiration, and tips for living well.
A feature called “The Magazine Stand” will offer a curated selection of narrated longform journalism from other outlets, which is essentially what Audm had provided.
The company says that, as a result of this launch, the standalone Audm app will now be sunset. All existing Audm iOS subscribers will automatically transition to NYT Audio at the same monthly or annual rate, so they can continue accessing their existing narrated article content.
There is also a “Daily Playlist” that pieces together top stories, culture stories and other content into an hour or less and a “Reporter Reads” feature where journalists read their own work and share additional context around the story.
“This American Life,” “Serial” and other shows from Serial Productions are also included, along with sports talk shows from “The Athletic.”
The NYT’s audio app has been in beta testing for roughly a year and half before today’s arrival, and is available to all news subscribers.
The company notes it has no plans to pull any of its existing content from third-party platforms, like Apple or Spotify, as a result of this launch.
The app’s arrifval follows The New York Times’ expanded investment in its own lineup of dedicated mobile apps which now include the popular NYT Cooking app, and, more recently, an updated NYT Games (previously, Crossword), which recently benefitted from its Wordle acquistion.
“We’re thrilled to introduce more people to a new way of experiencing The New York Times,” said Stephanie Preiss, senior vice president and general manager, Audio, in a launch announcement. “Audio journalism has the power to bring stories to life, and our app now allows our audience to take The Times with them — on dog walks, while commuting — in moments when reading isn’t an option. Offering New York Times Audio to news subscribers is just one way we’re adding more value to a Times subscription, in more moments throughout their day,” she added.
The New York Times Audio app is iOS-only.
As of the time of writing, it’s moved up to the No. 5 slot in the U.S. App Store’s News section.
Roku launches new sports hub dedicated to women’s sporting events
Roku is giving sports fans what they want—better access to women’s live sports. The company announced Wednesday the launch of Women’s Sports Zone, a new centralized hub that makes it easier for users to search, discover and stream women’s sports programming, from live games, matches and events to on-demand and free content.
Women’s Sports Zone will provide games from the National Women’s Soccer League, US Women’s World Cup, US Women’s Open, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and more. In addition, fans can watch free female-focused sports content on The Roku Channel, such as the Women’s Sports Network, “The Longshots,” “Prodigy” and “Bring It!” among others.
Plus, the newly launched hub comes as the 2023 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) season tips off this Friday, May 19, giving Roku users the ability to stream all games across channels like ESPN, ABC, CBS and CBS Sports Network, along with streaming services like ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and WNBA League Pass.
The Women’s Sports Zone is located within Roku’s sports experience. Users can scroll down to the “Sports” tab on the home screen to find the new hub. They can also search for “women’s sports” or a favorite team or league in Roku Search or by using Roku Voice with the TV remote.
Demand around women’s sports increases year after year, with 30% of U.S. sports fans saying they’re watching more women’s sports than they were five years ago, per a 2022 study by the National Research Group. Additionally, 85% of sports fans — including 79% of men – agree that it’s essential for women’s sports to continue growing in popularity. Just by looking at the WNBA alone, viewership has grown dramatically for the league. Its 2022 season garnered an average of 416,000 viewers across all networks, making it the most-watched full season since 2006.
“The popularity and demand for women’s sports is greater than ever, and at Roku, we continue to commit to elevating this important programming for our customers,” said Kelli Raftery, Roku’s VP of Global Communications, in a statement. “At a time when it is harder than ever to find what you want to watch, our new Women’s Sports Zone makes it easier for fans to get to the content they love, and it arrives just in time for the tip-off of the WNBA season this Friday.”
Disney+ changes up its release model, plans to launch all ‘Echo’ episodes at once
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege took to the Disney Upfront stage Tuesday to announce that Marvel’s new Disney+ show, “Echo,” is getting a binge release– a first for an MCU series. Disney+ will drop all Season 1 episodes on November 29.
The “Hawkeye” spinoff stars Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American character who has photographic reflexes. She is the adoptive daughter of supervillain Kingpin (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), however, has been known to fight alongside Daredevil, who wants to take down the criminal underworld. It’s reported that Charlie Cox is returning as Daredevil in “Echo.”
This will be the fourth female-led MCU series on Disney+, joining “Wandavision,” “She-Hulk” and “Ms. Marvel.”
Disney’s new binge strategy is a surprising move for the company and follows in the footsteps of rival Netflix, which swears by its bingeable release model as it drives “substantial engagement, especially for newer titles,” Netflix previously said in its Q3 2022 shareholder letter.
Disney+ tested the waters with its Star Wars titles, starting off with “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” which was the first live-action Star Wars show to premiere with multiple episodes. Meanwhile, “Andor” had a three-episode premiere and was the longest live-action Disney+ season with 12 episodes.
It’s likely the company feels the pressure to change up its release approach after losing four million Disney+ subscribers in the recent quarter, bringing the total to 157.8 million. In the first quarter of 2023, the streaming service saw its first subscriber loss, dropping 2.4 million subs.
Disney plans to save $5.5 billion in overall costs, with $3 billion going toward content savings.
The move also comes as Marvel rethinks its game plan. Fiege previously said the studio wants to be more calculated about which MCU projects get released. It’s been argued that many fans are overwhelmed by the wave of superhero shows, and it’s time for Marvel to slow it down a bit.
“It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there — and so much ‘content,’ as they say, which is a word that I hate,” Fiege said in an Entertainment Weekly interview. “But we want Marvel Studios and the MCU projects to really stand out and stand above. So, people will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine.”
So, instead of airing episodes week to week, the decision to release “Echo” as a complete season looks to be the beginning of a deliberate effort to gradually reduce the MCU release schedule.
During the Upfronts presentation, Fiege also revealed the official premiere date for “Loki” Season 2, which is coming to Disney+ on October 6.
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