Weekly reading – 6th February 2021

What I wrote last week

My summary of Microsoft’s latest earnings, a giant with growth momentum

My estimate on Azure revenue

Bezos is stepping down (not really a shock), but Amazon is in a great shape

Business

I don’t always agree with all Ben’s takes, but his presentation here is pretty well-done

The NYTimes looked at the current infrastructure for electric vehicles which are becoming a force in the near future

It seems that Amazon’s struggles with its Game Studio come from the top

Apple in 2020: The Six Colors report card

A profile on Kaishou

The Facebook Oversight Board’s First Decisions: Ambitious, and Perhaps Impractical. A pretty good writeup on the first 5 decisions by the FOB. I think it’s great that the FOB came out swinging to prove at least up to now it’s not for show and it’s for business. It’s also great that it doesn’t put too much weight on the operationability of its decisions. That way, the decisions seem more dialogic and as a guide instead of being contaminated by expenses and profits.

Forbes’ writeup on Chegg, a subscription company that lets you solve your homework with the help of an army of experts from India. Every business needs to make money. That I can understand. But if somebody comes out and says that it encourages cheating, they also have a point.

A story on the implosion of Ample Hills, which was once Brooklyn’s hottest ice cream brand

The latest investment letter from RGA

What I found interesting

A professional photographer took incredible photos of the glaciers in Alaska, using iPhone 12 Pro Max

Have a look at an interesting mushroom farm in Vietnam

The ridiculous lack of understanding on Section 320 from lawmakers doesn’t seem limited to Republicans because Democrats have it too

An interesting piece on Arthur Hayes, the founder of BitMEX

Interesting stats

Another horrifying story about the US healthcare. I can’t believe what I read. A new parent had to deal with their newly born child being sick and the insurance company relied on red tape and the flaws of the system to exploit their customers. Imagine the horror of receiving a $270,000 bill.

US Distilleries made $31 billion in revenue in 2020, due to Covid-19. Premium liquor rose in popularity among consumers

In 2020, nearly 1 million Gen-Zers opened a trading account at Apex Clearing, most likely through a broker, with the average age of 19.

App downloads in January 2021 from Bank of America

Someone compiled data on customers for Fintech firms

Zelle processed more than $300 billion in 2020

My estimate of Azure revenue. Its run-rate is not $28 or 29 billion yet!

Among the three biggest public cloud vendors, only Amazon provides revenue and operating income for AWS while Microsoft and Google (Alphabet) have refrained from doing the same. Alphabet (Google) will pull the curtain a little bit on the state of GCP in their imminent earnings call, but Microsoft hasn’t, even in the latest call last week. While it’s highly challenging to put a precise figure on the revenue from Azure without official disclosures, I think that by digging into their financial documents, we can have a pretty good idea of what it may be and as importantly, what it canNOT be.

If you read Microsoft’s financial filings, it can give you a headache trying to work out what all the buckets and segments mean and what goes into where. First, you can look at the business from a 4000-foot perspective into Products and Services. On a deeper level, there are three big segments: 1/ Productivity and Business Processes, 2/ Intelligent Cloud and 3/ More Personal Computing. Under each segment, there are different metrics which combine different products and services whose financial figures aren’t reported. According to Microsoft’s disclosures, Azure revenue falls into the bucket called “Server Products and Cloud Services”, as you can see in the screenshot below. Since Microsoft refuses to offer specific numbers on Azure, what we can do is to estimate it through Server Products and Cloud Services, whose numbers Microsoft does reveal.

Definition of Microsoft's metrics, including Azure
Figure 1 – The definition of Microsoft’s metrics. Source: Microsoft

Here is what Microsoft did say on Server Products and Cloud Services (SPCS) on their latest 10Q:

Server products and cloud services revenue increased $2.6 billion or 26%, driven by Azure. Azure revenue grew 50%, due to growth in our consumption-based services. Server products revenue increased 4%, driven by hybrid and premium solutions, offset in part by continued transactional weakness, on a strong prior year comparable that benefited from demand related to Windows Server 2008 end of support.

Source: Microsoft

Based on the disclosure and the composition of SPCS, we can be sure that Azure’s YoY revenue growth in the last quarter cannot be bigger than $2.6 billion. This insight can help us put a maximum limit on what Azure cannot exceed. Let’s assume that all the growth in SPCS is down to Azure and all the other products and services didn’t grow at all, meaning that Azure grew by $2.6 billion in Q2 FY2021. Because Microsoft said that Azure grew by 50%, that means its revenue in Q2 FY 2020 would have been $5.2 billion. As a result, Q2 FY2021 revenue would be $7.8 billion. Using the same logic, let’s go back to a few quarters and see what it would look like.

 1Q20192Q20193Q20194Q20191Q20202Q20203Q20204Q20201Q20212Q2021
SPCS YoY Revenue Increase $           1,562  $           1,492  $           1,710  $           1,729  $           2,134  $           2,328  $           2,437  $           1,858  $           2,003  $           2,610 
Azure Revenue Growth (100% of SPCS growth) $           1,562  $           1,492  $           1,710  $           1,729  $           2,134  $           2,328  $           2,437  $           1,858  $           2,003  $           2,610 
Azure Revenue YoY  Growth76%76%73%64%59%62%59%47%48%50%
Revenue Base $           3,617  $           3,755  $           4,131  $           3,953  $           4,173  $           5,220     
Quarterly Revenue $           3,617  $           3,755  $           4,131  $           3,953  $           4,173  $           5,220  $           6,568  $           5,811  $           6,176  $           7,830 
4-quarter revenue (annual run rate)    $        15,455  $        16,011  $        17,477  $        19,914  $        21,772  $        23,775  $        26,385 
Figure 2 – The scenario in which Azure was responsible for all Server Products and Cloud Services’ revenue growth

The first row is the revenue growth in absolute numbers every quarter of SPCS that Microsoft revealed. In this line of logic, we assume that is also the growth of Azure. Microsoft also revealed the YoY growth rate of Azure on the 3rd row. Based on the absolute numbers that we assume and the YoY growth rate, we can calculate the revenue base. For instance, the revenue base in Q2 FY2020 of $5.2 billion would be equal to $2.6 billion divided by 50% and the revenue base in Q1 FY2020 would be equal to $2 billion divided by 48%. To arrive at the estimated quarterly revenue of the last four quarter, we add the revenue base and the increase that we assumed accordingly. For instance, the $6.6 billion in Q32020 would be the sum of $4.1 billion in Q3 FY2019 and the $2.4 billion increase. Based on that logic, the absolute maximum revenue Azure could achieve in Q2 FY2021 would be $7.8 billion. If we do a quick calculation of 4-quarter revenue or what they call run-rate, the absolute maximum Azure could generate in 4 quarters would be $26.4 billion.

But since this scenario is impossible as the other components under SPCS do generate revenue growth every quarter, Azure’s run rate as of Q2 FY2021 has to be less than $26.4 billion. What would it look like if Azure’s growth was responsible for 95% of SPCS’ growth every quarter?

 1Q20192Q20193Q20194Q20191Q20202Q20203Q20204Q20201Q20212Q2021
SPCS YoY Revenue Increase $           1,562  $           1,492  $           1,710  $           1,729  $           2,134  $           2,328  $           2,437  $           1,858  $           2,003  $           2,610 
Azure Revenue Growth (if 95% of SPCS growth) $           1,484  $           1,417  $           1,625  $           1,643  $           2,027  $           2,212  $           2,315  $           1,765  $           1,903  $           2,480 
Azure Revenue YoY  Growth76%76%73%64%59%62%59%47%48%50%
Revenue Base $           3,436  $           3,567  $           3,924  $           3,756  $           3,964  $           4,959     
Quarterly Revenue $           3,436  $           3,567  $           3,924  $           3,756  $           3,964  $           4,959  $           6,239  $           5,521  $           5,867  $           7,439 
4-quarter revenue (annual run rate)    $        14,683  $        15,211  $        16,603  $        18,918  $        20,683  $        22,586  $        25,065 
Figure 3 – The scenario in which Azure was responsible for 95% of Server Products and Cloud Services’ revenue growth

Based on this assumption, the annual run-rate of Azure as of Q2 FY2021 would be $25 billion and the growth of SQL Server, Windows Server, Visual Studio, System Center, and related CALs; and GitHub combined would be around $130 million. Lacking visibility into these products and services, I cannot say if that increase in revenue for a quarter is reasonable. What about if Azure was responsible for 90% of SPCS’ revenue growth every quarter?

 1Q20192Q20193Q20194Q20191Q20202Q20203Q20204Q20201Q20212Q2021
SPCS YoY Revenue Increase $           1,562  $           1,492  $           1,710  $           1,729  $           2,134  $           2,328  $           2,437  $           1,858  $           2,003  $           2,610 
Azure Revenue Growth (if 90% of SPCS growth) $           1,406  $           1,343  $           1,539  $           1,556  $           1,921  $           2,095  $           2,193  $           1,672  $           1,803  $           2,349 
Azure Revenue YoY  Growth76%76%73%64%59%62%59%47%48%50%
Revenue Base $           3,255  $           3,379  $           3,717  $           3,558  $           3,756  $           4,698     
Quarterly Revenue $           3,255  $           3,379  $           3,717  $           3,558  $           3,756  $           4,698  $           5,911  $           5,230  $           5,558  $           7,047 
4-quarter revenue (annual run rate)    $        13,910  $        14,410  $        15,729  $        17,922  $        19,594  $        21,397  $        23,746 
Figure 4 – The scenario in which Azure was responsible for 90% Server Products and Cloud Services’ revenue growth

Under this scenario, Azure’s run rate would be $23.7 billion and all the other products under SPCS would contribute around $260 million in revenue growth in the last quarter. For the same reason stated above, I am unable to say if the latter figure is correct, but you can use the same rationale and play around with assumptions to get an estimate of how big Azure can be.

In the Q1 FY2021 earnings call, an analyst commented that Azure revenue made up 17% of Microsoft’s total revenue; which the Executives didn’t comment on:

Figure 5 – A comment from an analyst on Azure from the Q1 FY2021 Earnings Call. Source: Fool.com

If that estimate is true, this will be Azure’s quarterly revenue

 1Q20192Q20193Q20194Q20191Q20202Q20203Q20204Q20201Q20212Q2021
Total Revenue $        29,084  $        32,471  $        30,571  $        33,717  $        33,055  $        36,906  $        35,021  $        38,033  $        37,153  $        43,076 
Azure Revenue (17% of total revenue) $           4,653  $           5,195  $           4,891  $           5,395  $           5,289  $           5,905  $           5,603  $           6,085  $           5,944  $           6,892 
Figure 6 – What 17% of Microsoft’s total revenue looks like

The number in Q1 FY2021 ($5.9 billion) isn’t so far off what we had in the 95% scenario above. While nobody, except the people at Microsoft, can say for sure what Azure revenue is, I think it’s fairly likely that its run rate is about $25 billion as of Q2 FY2021.

Disclaimer: I own Microsoft stocks in my portfolio.

Amazon’s bully tactics and my thoughts on antitrust issues

WSJ ran a piece analyzing Amazon’s tactics in defeating businesses that were first partners, but became rivals standing in the way of Amazon’s private labels. It got me to think about when behavior from big and established companies became unlawful and unacceptable and when the behavior just stemmed from the drive to be more competitive. To me, there are three different aspects to this issue: the launch of competitive products or services against smaller businesses, the price undercut and the downright bullying. Let’s look at them one by one

Big techs’ launch of services and products against smaller businesses

Critics of big techs often accuse them of antitrust behavior when the companies launch a feature similar to what other smaller businesses offer. As these big tech firms usually own the customer relationship and hence important distribution, they have a clear advantage in promoting and selling the feature than smaller competitors do with their main products. To be clear, I am NOT against giants taking advantage of the data generated from their popular platforms for several reasons:

  • If a company wants to launch something new that is a response to a market threat and can potentially benefit the end users, why should it not be allowed to?
  • Yes, platforms like Amazon or Apple have a huge advantage at their disposal: data on consumer behavior. But how is that different from getting marketing intelligence from somewhere else? The difference here is that these platforms own the data, but first they have to WORK to build these platforms and maintain them
  • Retailers have their own private labels all the time. It’s hardly a surprise that they observe brands that rent spaces on their premises and subsequently launch their own labels
  • Copying others is what almost every business does to some degree

For these reasons, I don’t think the launch of services like Apple Music itself is an antitrust behavior by Apple. Clearly, the advantages over Spotify are 1/ the app is pre-loaded and 2/ Apple owns the operating systems and customer relationship. Plus, it’s not like consumers can’t download Spotify on Apple’s devices. There is a bit more friction involved compared to the effortless experience with Apple Music, but that’s the price you have to pay for when relying on others. I wrote about Slack’s lawsuit against Microsoft before. In that piece, I argued that Microsoft, in all their Microsoft365 offerings, has at least one option that doesn’t bundle Teams. Moreover, as in the case of Apple against Spotify, companies are free to add Slack to their stack besides Office365. Surely, Slack has a lot more convincing to do as it has to persuade companies that the additional expense each month is worth the extra utility from Slack compared to Teams. Nonetheless, that’s the nature of the competition and I do think Microsoft is within its rights to bundle Teams the way it does.

In this sense, if Amazon wants to introduce a private label in a certain category, based on their data, they are within their rights. Plus, consumers have one more option at their disposal. I personally don’t see a problem with that. If I were Jeff Bezos, I would do the same and you would be hard-pressed to say you’d do it differently.

Zappos, the online shoe marketplace, and its late CEO Tony Hsieh, successfully outmaneuvered Amazon and beat them into submission in the form of an acquisition that allowed Tony and his company a degree of autonomy from the parent company. In the book “The Innovation Stack“, the founder of Square talked about the pressure from Amazon in Square’s early days. Although much smaller than the Seattle-based company, Square managed to beat Amazon with their superior products and services. Why am I mentioning these examples? They serve as a reminder that small businesses can defeat much bigger resource-rich competitors.

Predatory Pricing

From the WSJ piece:

In a June 2010 email chain that included Mr. Bezos, a senior executive laid out tactics, saying “We have already initiated a more aggressive ‘plan to win’ against diapers.com in the diaper/baby space,” a plan that included doubling Amazon’s discounts on diapers and baby wipes to 30% off, and a free Prime program for new moms.

When Amazon cut diaper prices by 30%, Quidsi executives were shocked and ran an analysis that determined Amazon was losing $7 for every box of diapers, former Quidsi board members said. Senior Quidsi executives were even more surprised when, the day of the price cuts, Jeff Blackburn, a top lieutenant to Mr. Bezos, approached a Quidsi board member saying the company should sell itself to Amazon, said a person familiar with the matter. At that point, Quidsi wasn’t for sale and had big growth plans.

Quidsi started to unravel after Amazon’s price cuts, said Leonard Lodish, a Quidsi board member at the time, missing its internal monthly projections for the first time since 2005. The company felt it had no choice but to sell itself because it couldn’t compete with what Amazon was doing and survive. Amazon bought Quidsi in 2010 for about $500 million. It shut down Diapers.com in 2017, saying it was unprofitable.

“What Amazon did was against the law. They were selling diapers for below cost,” said Mr. Lodish. “But what were we going to do? Sue Amazon for antitrust? It would take years and tens of millions of dollars and we’d be bankrupt by then.”

Source: WSJ

When it comes to predatory pricing, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, to many consumers, a giant like Amazon bullying a smaller rival like Diapers.com looks very distasteful, but to the FTC, it may not necessarily be illegal. Here is what the FTC currently says about predatory pricing

Source: FTC

Pricing below your competitors isn’t unique. What could get Amazon into legal trouble is whether it is establishing a monopoly in, as in this case, the diapers market and harming the consumers by raising the prices after eliminating competitors. Apparently, that hasn’t been the case. Last time I checked, there are more than one diaper brand on Amazon’s website and on the market in general. Plus, pricing is just one part of the value propositions a company can offer to consumers. Most car companies in the world will have a lower price than Ferrari, but the Italian company is still one of the most luxurious brands in the world and its customers still crave for its cars every year. It’s true that in some categories, prices are the dominant feature, but it’s NOT the only reason why consumers make the purchase decision.

Furthermore, one can argue that Apple Music, because it is owned by Apple, isn’t subject to the 15%/30% commission that 3rd-party app like Spotify is. Said another way, Spotify has to raise its prices to maintain its margin and as a result, make itself less competitive than Apple Music. That may be true, but once again, because there are alternatives to Apple Music on Apple devices such as YouTube, Amazon, SoundCloud and Spotify itself and because Apple Music isn’t the cheapest of all, in the eyes of the FTC, it is not illegal.

Where it gets unacceptable

Again, from the WSJ article:

At its height about a decade ago, Pirate Trading LLC was selling more than $3.5 million a year of its Ravelli-brand camera tripods—one of its bestselling products—on Amazon, said owner Dalen Thomas.

In 2011, Amazon began launching its own versions of six of Pirate Trading’s top-selling tripods under its AmazonBasics label, he said. Mr. Thomas ordered one of the Amazon tripods and found it had the same components and shared Pirate Trading’s design. For its AmazonBasics products, Amazon used the same manufacturer that Pirate Trading had used.

Amazon priced one of its clone tripods below what Mr. Thomas paid his manufacturer to have Pirate Trading’s version made, he said. He determined it would be cheaper to buy Amazon’s versions, repackage and resell them than to buy and sell them on the terms he had been getting; he decided not to do that.

Amazon suspended Pirate Trading camera tripod models that competed with the AmazonBasics versions repeatedly, Mr. Thomas said, alleging his tripods had authenticity issues. Amazon rarely suspended the tripod models that didn’t compete with AmazonBasics versions, he said. In 2015, Amazon fully suspended all Ravelli products, he said, and his company’s tripod business is now a fraction of the size it was. Mr. Thomas said he found being a seller on Amazon too risky and has largely pivoted to real-estate investing.

Several Amazon sellers said they have received notifications from Amazon, which has been battling fraud and fake goods on its platform, that say their products are used or counterfeit. Amazon suspends their selling accounts until they can prove that the products are legitimate, which can cause big sellers to lose tens of thousands of dollars each day, they said.

To turn their accounts back on, Amazon often requests that the sellers provide details on who manufactures their product along with invoices from the manufacturer so that Amazon can verify authenticity. Several sellers told the Journal they provided those details to Amazon to get their accounts reinstated, only for Amazon to introduce its own version of their products using the same manufacturer.

Source: WSJ

This is an example of under-handed and antitrust behavior that I think should be outlawed and punished. Here, Amazon used its authority and position to extract crucial information from other sellers and in turn, took advantage of the information to launch competing products. It’s one thing for Amazon to find out where sellers source their products on their own. It’s another for Amazon to leverage its position to do so. Worse, it disrupted Pirate Trading’s business repeatedly for unclear reasons and allegedly benefited its competing private label. This type of bullying behavior should be condemned and regulated.

In that sense, I don’t think it will be right for the likes of Apple to do the following to 3rd-party apps:

  • Make it hard for them to publish updates and features
  • Prevent them from being on the App Store without just cause
  • Extract proprietary information and use it against the 3rd-party apps

In short, it’s complicated and nuanced to determine whether a behavior from an established form should be punished and outlawed or whether it’s just the nature of business. My observation is that people usually jump into accusations and judgements too quickly, as well as collapse multiple issues into one. Regulations regarding antitrust in the future need to balance between letting companies, regardless of size, compete out of merits and making sure that bullying behavior is punished accordingly. That’s no small feat. That’s hard as you can by now imagine. But our society only advances when we make difficult accomplishments, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I own Apple, Microsoft, Spotify and Amazon stocks in my portfolio

Weekly reading – 12th December 2020

What I wrote last week

How much money could you save from drinking coffee at home?

Business

The economics of the $2B+ Christmas tree industry

Bloomberg’s profile on OnlyFans, a potential major social media on the horizon

Uber sold its autonomous vehicle arm to Aurora. This move isn’t a surprise given that Uber has been trying to offload cash-intensive and loss-making businesses in order to focus on the ones that do make money. Though there is a big write-down from $7.5 billion to $4 billion, investors may find this deal good news

CNBC has a good article on AT&T, HBO and their effort to compete with Netflix and other streamers

Inside Google’s deal with French Media

Many Google employees came out with their version of the story involved Timnit Gebru, contradicting what the company publicly said

WSJ’s profile on a few men that helped build Microsoft’s gaming business today

Online grocery slowed down in the last few months compared to the height in the summer. The basket size continued to be relatively big, compared to the same period last year and pre-Covid months.

https://www.brickmeetsclick.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/1/495948404a0913f7ced51b6524a17539/files/bmc_scorecard_nov_2020_sm.png
Source: Brickmeetsclick

Clover, which belongs to Fiserv and sells hardware & software payment solutions to small businesses, a competitor of Square, seems to have a higher GPV as well as a higher percentage of sellers with $125k in annual GPV. As Clover has more than 90% of its sellers above the $125,000 GPV threshold, the figure is far smaller for Square.

Source: Fiserv

Technology

John Gruber’s review of Apple’s latest product: AirPods Max

What I found interesting

A story on a small coffee business in Vietnam that prioritizes sustainability

Benefits of walking

The US Department of Health and Human Services published a presentation on how unhealthy Americans’ diet is. The information is informative and use, but the presentation is hilariously terrible.

The old Americans get, the more they spend time alone

Weekly readings – 29th August 2020

What I wrote

A quick thought on Uber/Lyft potentially leaving California and Apple’s fight with Epic

I applauded the NBA for taking a stand

My breakdown of Snowflake’s S-1

I also wrote about Wix, a popular website creation tool, with more than 180 million users

Business

A 3-part series on Microsoft’s acquisition of Forethought, the company that invented PowerPoint

A short story on Goodreads

In its lawsuit against the Trump Administration, TikTok reported 50 million daily active users in the US, 20.3 billion views on posts related to #BlackLivesMatter

This should sound ominous for Amazon’s rivals and the likes of UPS

Faster Than Fast: SMB Retailers Move to Shopify

A study on Gen Z’s attitude towards brands in 2020

Apple Pay can be a multi-billion dollar business

A great Twitter thread on the bull case fo Fiserv

How Roku Built Itself Into a Major Gatekeeper in Premium Streaming

A piece on Adobe’s bull case

In Defense of the IPO, and How to Improve It

Technology

India, Israel and Kyrgyzstan have the cheapest plan for every GB of mobile data in the world

A primer on Apple’s new security and privacy features in the upcoming iOS

Amazon Halo

Stuff that I found interesting

The inside story fo the $8 million heist from the Carnegie Library

New Swing State Georgia Could Decide Control of the Senate

How cute is this?

Weekly readings – 25th July 2020

What I wrote

Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft over Teams to the EU. On the surface, I don’t think Slack is going to win the case, if the EU decides to formally launch an investigation. How Microsoft structures their Microsoft 365 offers does give customers a choice to include Teams or not, a counterpunch to the core of Slack’s complaint. I wrote my thoughts here

I also wrote about matcha, how it can beneficial to our health and why it and its accessories are expensive

Business

In investing, when truly exceptional opportunities present themselves, Charlie Munger said: use a shovel, not a teaspoon

Both strategies yield the same result: that foreign affiliate employment increased as a direct response to increasingly stringent restrictions on H-1B visas. This effect is driven on the extensive and intensive margins; firms were more likely to open foreign affiliates in new countries in response, and employment increased at existing foreign affiliates. The effect is strongest among R&D-intensive firms in industries where services could more easily be offshored. The effect was somewhat geographically concentrated: foreign affiliate employment increased both in countries like India and China with large quantities of high-skilled human capital and in countries like Canada with more relaxed high-skilled immigration policies and closer geographic proximity. These empirical results also are supported by interviews with US multinational firms and an immigration lawyer

Source: NPER

How Ben & Jerry’s Perfected the Delicate Recipe for Corporate Activism

A look at how influential Facebook is in Bangladesh

Apple’s report on their sustainability progress

Where banks really make money on IPOs

An investigative piece by WSJ that looks into accusations that Amazon used confidential information accessed through its investment arm to launch competing products.

Shopify Saved Main Street. Next Stop: Taking On Amazon

An interesting piece on what appears to be a change in strategy for Apple TV+. This streaming space is highly competitive. I look forward to how Apple will compete with other heavyweights. On a side note, I really enjoyed Greyhound. You should give it a try

Technology

Giving GPT-3 a Turing Test

A good blog post on the behind-the-scenes technology that changed air travel

A report commissioned by Apple on commission rates of other marketplaces, compared to Apple Store. It’s an interesting study and it’s definitely good to have all the facts in one document. On the surface, Apple Store’s commission rates don’t look outrageous, compared to those of other marketplace platforms. However, the debate doesn’t end only at take rates

What I think is interesting

The Last Hunter Gatherers

A great write-up on beaches in Quy Nhon and Phu Yen in Vietnam. If you visit my country, I highly recommend that you go there. Wonderful beaches, few tourists, and great sea food

For years, African countries have taken loan money for China to improve their infrastructure and economy, in exchange for the use of these countries’ vast reserve of rare metal and resources. Now, a report said that Africa is more aware of the strings attached to loans from China. For a good reason!

Slack’s complaint against Microsoft

Disclaimer: I own Microsoft stocks in my personal portfolio.

Today, Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the EU over Microsoft Teams. Here is what Slack says in their blog

The complaint details Microsoft’s illegal and anti-competitive practice of abusing its market dominance to extinguish competition in breach of European Union competition law. Microsoft has illegally tied its Teams product into its market-dominant Office productivity suite, force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers.

Slack’s objective is to force Microsoft to unbundle Teams from Microsoft Office 365 and sell it as a separate feature. The company reportedly had been discussing legal matters concerning Teams with the US authority for a while (per WSJ), but just decided to launch a formal complaint today. Given what has happened between the EU and big tech companies, it’s not difficult to see why Slack lodged the complaint there. Last year, the EU fined Google almost 1.5 billion euros for abusive practices in online advertising. It is also looking into Apple’s antitrust behavior with App Store rules. In 2004, Microsoft was fined half a billion euros for bundling Windows Media Player into its Windows. Perhaps, Slack is banking on the fact that the precedent and the current events as of late will be favorable to them in this case.

When I read the main part of the complain above, I was a bit surprised. My company is a bank in a highly regulated industry. We use licensed Microsoft Office 365, yet Cisco Jabber, not Teams, is our chat and video application. I don’t have a lot of confidence in our IT department to think that they can go around Microsoft and remove Teams if it’s not allowed by the Seattle-based company. In fact, if you look at how Teams is marketed, you will see that there are options to customers. There are three ways to get Teams: Office 365 Enterprise, Microsoft 365 Business and Microsoft 365 Enterprise. I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world to differentiate between the three, but here are the plans

Figure 1 – Office 365 Enterprise. Source: Microsoft

Figure 2 – Microsoft 365 Business. Source: Microsoft

Figure 3 – Microsoft 365 Enterprise. Source: Microsoft

As you can see from the three figures above, customers have at least one option in each category that allows them to use Microsoft Office 365 without Teams. To be clear, the screenshots above do not capture all features under each plan. It’s plausible that the other features which are not shown can force businesses to choose plans that only come with Teams. As a result, there are two points I want to make:

  • On the surface, the claim that Teams is forced on customers doesn’t seem true. Customers do have a choice to use Teams or not.
  • If Microsoft uses some indirect tactics to force Teams on customers, the onus is on Slack to prove it. However, the fact that companies whose products compete with Microsoft’s such as Slack, Cisco, Zoom, AirTable or Tableau, just to name a few, have a market does seem to me that it’s entirely possible to use non-Microsoft applications in addition to the popular Microsoft Office.

From Microsoft’s side, the company issued this following statement:

We created Teams to combine the ability to collaborate with the ability to connect via video, because that’s what people want. With COVID-19, the market has embraced Teams in record numbers while Slack suffered from its absence of video-conferencing. We’re committed to offering customers not only the best of new innovation, but a wide variety of choice in how they purchase and use the product.

source: Techcrunch

A big advantage that Microsoft has over Slack when selling a competing product is that the former, in most cases, already has an established relationship with customers through Microsoft Office and other products. To sign any customer, Slack has to cultivate the relationship from scratch. The task is even made more difficult when Slack has to convince potential customers to make additional investments, on top of what they already pay for Microsoft applications. Imagine if a company already pays from $5 to $35/month for every one of hundreds of employees to use Microsoft Office, in case Teams is included, there has to be a very good reason why it should incur more expenses to use Slack.

The last publicly revealed figures put Microsoft Teams and Slack at 75 million and 12 million daily active users, respectively. Microsoft revealed that in Q4 FY 2020, there were 69 organizations that had more than 100,000 users of Teams, up from 20 organizations in Q3 FY 2020. In the past, Slack insisted that Microsoft Teams isn’t a true competitor to their product; a claim that I found bewildering. It’s clear that Slack has a big problem at hand and the fact that they are formally complaining about Teams contradicts the previous claim.

I am all for competition as it benefits end users. If Microsoft deployed underhanded tactics during negotiations with companies and it’s not publicly known or if Slack can prove that the dizzying and head-scratching offerings by Microsoft indirectly force customers’ hands, by all means, I do think Microsoft should be held accountable. However, I am not convinced that it’s harmful to the end users that Microsoft can offer value through bundling and establish a direct relationship with customers more easily than Slack. Microsoft has to invest a lot of resources in building and maintaining a lot of other features, not just Teams.

The difference between the 2004 case and this, I suspect, is that Microsoft didn’t give users a choice whether they wanted to install Windows Media Player while they do with Teams, at least on the surface. My guess is that Slack’s complaint won’t go any far, but it’ll be interesting to see how this actually pans out.

What do you think about this complaint from Slack? Let me know in the comment. Have a good day and stay safe!

Weekly readings – 23rd May 2020

The ingredients of a long life. Drinking coffee/tea every day, eating in moderation are nurturing the spiritual life are common in areas where people tend to have a long life

How Facebook Could Use Giphy to Collect Your Data

How Etsy Became America’s Unlikeliest Breadbasket

Inside Trump’s coronavirus meltdown

Politico’s profile of Facebook’s new Head of Policy and Communications

How GrubHub ripped off restaurants even though customers intended not to use it

A Spectacularly Bad Washington Post Story on Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification Project

Doordash and Pizza Arbitrage

Why is New Zealand so progressive?

The hidden toll of lockdown on rainforests

Microsoft announced a new competitor to Airtable

Two monetary systems in Yemen

Source: Grab

DON’T CONSUME HYDROXYCHROLOQUINE! A new study published on the renowned The Lancet proved that the drug and some other similar had harmful effects on health

The healing power of proper breathing

The story of cheaper batteries, from smartphones to Teslas

‘How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?’. CDC and some states inflated the number of tests to drum up the testing abilities and make it impossible to know the exact infection rate.

Revenue and margin makers

What I noticed in many businesses is that there are revenue makers and margin generators. Revenue makers refer to activities that draw in the top line numbers in the income statement, but small margin. In other words, these activities can bring in $10 of revenue, but about $1 or less of gross profit (revenue minus cost of revenue). On the other hand, margin generators refer to activities that don’t bring in as much revenue as revenue makers, but act as the source of most margin. Usually. these two complement each other. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Apple sells their products and services that can only be enjoyed on Apple devices. Products bring in multiple times as much revenue as services, but products’ margin is much smaller than that of services. Take a look at their latest earnings as an example. Products’ margin is about 32% while services’ margin stands at 65%. Folks buy Apple devices mainly to use the services and apps that are on those devices. Apple continues to sell devices to maintain their own monopoly over their unique operating systems and ecosystem.

Source: Apple

Amazon’s eCommerce segment is a revenue maker. They warehouse the goods and ship them to customers. It generates a lot of revenue, but the cost is high as well. Built upon the infrastructure Amazon created for eCommerce, 3rd party fulfillment is a margin generator. In this segment, Amazon acts as a link between buyers and sellers to ensure transactions go smoothly without having to store and ship the goods itself. Margin is significantly higher than that of eCommerce. Amazon takes it to another level with Prime subscriptions and AWS. While trying to figure out how to keep their sites up and running 24/7 smoothly, Amazon came up with the idea of selling unused IT resources. Long behold, AWS is now a $40 billion runrate business and Amazon’s arguably biggest margin generator.

Costco is a household name in the US. Families go to their warehouse-styled stores to stock up essentials and groceries. Due to the volume they sell every year, Costco manages to keep the prices low, but thanks to the cut-throat nature of the industry they are in, the margin is low, about 2-3%. That’s their revenue maker. To compensate for the low margin, Costco relies on their membership fees. Whatever customers pay to be able to shop at Costco is almost pure profit to Costco. There is virtually no cost to process an application and issue a card.

McDonald’s essentially has two business segments: their own McDonald’s operated restaurants and franchising. The brand’s own operated restaurants serve as references to franchise owners for how good McDonald’s brand is as an investment. However, it offers the brand way lower margin than their franchised restaurants.

Airlines make money by flying customers, but there are a lot of costs involved such as planes, airport services, food and beverage, fuel, etc…Airlines can generate more margin with their branded credit cards. Many airline-branded credit cards come with an annual fee. Plus, card issuers may pay airlines a fixed fee for new issued cards and a smaller fee for renewals. Plus, there may be a small percentage for first non-airline purchases. Agreements vary between airlines and card issuers, but it brings a lot of margin to airlines.

Ride sharing apps are notoriously unprofitable. Uber and Lyft lost billions of dollars in their main operations. Recently, they tried to launch a subscription service and in Uber case, a credit card, hoping that these services could help generate the margin they need.

We all know the saying in business: cash is king. Cash can only increase, from an operating perspective, when margin increases. Revenue is crucial because, well, a business needs to convince folks to pay for products or services first. Nonetheless, a business is more robust and valued when margin increases.

Teams vs Zoom and the art of reporting confusing numbers

Since the stay-at-home order started around the globe, demand for videoconferencing has skyrocketed. Facebook even introduced a new video service for its users. What has caught my interest, though, is the battle between Zoom and Teams by Microsoft. Zoom stock has surged significantly for the past two months, especially after it reported that it had 300 million daily active users. Or so we thought

Zoom has confused the comparisons, though. Zoom originally stated it had “more than 300 million daily users” and that “more than 300 million people around the world are using Zoom during this challenging time.” Zoom later quietly deleted these references from its blog post, and it now only claims “300 million daily Zoom meeting participants.”

The differences are important, as is Zoom’s transparency around them. Daily meeting participants counts multiple meetings, so if you have five Zoom or Teams meetings in a day, then you’re counted five times. Zoom has not yet revealed exact daily active user counts, and it looks like Microsoft could be a lot closer to Zoom usage than many had assumed.

Source: The Verge

For comparison, Microsoft announced today that it reached 200 million daily meeting participants in April. Since the two use the same label, does that mean Zoom has taken Teams’ lunch? Not quite there yet.

The daily meeting participant count can be misleading. For example, Teams doesn’t have a limit on call duration, to the best of my knowledge, while Zoom puts a 40-minute limit on calls that involve more than three participants. So if the participants are willing to set up another call after the free 40 minutes expires, it will bloat up the daily meeting participant count, even though it’s still one meeting that has the same folks involved.

Daily usage can be misleading as well. For instance, I use Jabber at work and it is powered up automatically on my work station. If I don’t interact with anyone on the app, does it mean I am among the daily users still? To be fair, the two companies don’t elaborate on this, but there is one comment from a Microsoft executive

It’s been phenomenal, if I’m honest with you. Let me just start with the DAU thing because there’s a lot of needling on this and we define the DAU. Daily active user for us is the maximum number of users who take an intentional action over a 24-hour period. That’s really important for me to hit. What we call passive actions do not count. So auto boot does not count. Minimizing a window does not count. Closing the app does not count. We also got a lot of questions about that. Skype does not count. So when we release our numbers, we just don’t feel like we want to get in the weeds of kind of argue with people, but the DAU very real.

Source: Microsoft

Another reason is the mix of added users/usage. In its latest investor call in March, Zoom’s CFO commented the following

Image

Granted, there may have been more development since the comment. Frankly, it’s unclear how the surge in usage benefits Zoom financially without the company’s disclosure. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising that the majority of the increased usage comes from the free tier.

On Teams side, it’s not particularly providing a clearer picture either. Back in January, during the Q2 earnings call, Microsoft announced they had 20 million daily active users. 3 months later, the figure stands at 75 million. Quite an achievement. But like Zoom, Microsoft has a free tier that allows video or calls. As a result, barring a comment from the Seattle-based company, it’s not clear how many Microsoft added as paying customers.

Source: Microsoft

The point is that it’s really hard to determine which videoconferencing tool is the better performer between the two leaders Zoom and Teams. The way data is reported by the two companies makes it really challenging to have an apple-to-apple comparison.