Airtel, Amazon, and Untangling Some Thoughts

Capital Mind, one of my favorite blogs to read, recently posted an excellent write-up on how Bharti Airtel is faring over the last three to four years. You might have to sign up in order to read it, but happily, Capital Mind allows you a free trial, so you should still be able to access it.

Why do I think you should read it, and why am I talking about this today? Because we need to think about telecommunications, technology, monopolies, scale, regulations, FDI in order to understand why Amazon may well be interested in buying Airtel, or at least in owning a stake.

Airtel has issued a boilerplate disclaimer since, but, well. Come on.

But hang on a second. We first need to get a basic framework in place, before we start thinking about everything else.

Our framework will consist of three things (or actions) that we tend to do on the internet, three international behemoths that are very, very interested in India, and three telecommunications firms that are very heavily invested in India.

First, the three things that all of us tend to do on the Internet. We create content, we consume content and we engage in commerce.

Let’s begin with the one in the middle. When you’re lying on your sofa at three in the morning, flicking through Netflix’s endless library of content, you are very much a consumer. When you roll your eyes at the latest dripping-with-insanity forward you receive on your family Whatsapp group, you are a consumer of content online. When you run a search for a PDF that will help you finish an assignment in college: consumer. For most of us, the internet enables us to consume stuff at levels that have never before been possible. Music, videos, podcasts, the written word: all consumption.

Now let’s move on to the one on the left: creation. You weren’t around when I wrote these words that you are reading, but I was creating stuff. Your latest Instagram story? Creation of content. The latest GIF that you created before sharing it? Creation of content. Do you upload videos on Insta/YouTube/Vimeo? Do you blog? Do you create podcasts? All content creation.

And finally, the reason Jeff and Mukesh are as rich as they are: commerce. Online shopping is literally blowing up in front of our eyes in terms of value. Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa, all of Jio’s online shopping, MakeMyTrip, Oyo, Airbnb, Uber, Zomato… the list is endless, and exhausting. That’s the third thing you do online. Commerce.

Ah, you might say. What about a Whatsapp call with friends, or a Skype call with family, or a Zoom online seminar (god help us all)? That’s arguably consumption and creation at the same time, no?

Well yes. Or call it communication.

Creation and consumption of content are really two sides of the same coin, and when they happen simultaneously, they are all of what we spoke about in the last paragraph.

There is a world of thinking to be done about the blue rectangle on the left. About how Google cornered the consumption of stuff online using Gmail, Google Maps etc, by piggybacking on it’s search monopoly, and about how Facebook took away the search monopoly by creating its own walled garden and making Google search irrelevant within it, and how Google tried to respond with Google Buzz-no-Wave-no-Plus-no-WhateverNext and failed… and this can go on. But here’s the quick takeaway:

When it comes to content creation, or content consumption, or communication, Google and Facebook have the market pretty much tied up between them. The battle for who wins between them will continue for a while, and it will be a fascinating story, but for our purposes, it is enough to realize for today that Google and Facebook are mostly on the left. That’s not entirely true (Google Play Store, Froogle, Facebook Marketplace being just some examples), but it’s good enough for now.

Google and Facebook are mostly communication based firms who dabble in commerce.

And Amazon, of course, is the easiest example to think of when it comes to online commerce. The Amazon app, sure, but also its delivery and logistics arm, and, of course, AWS. If I want to buy stuff online, Amazon is literally the first – and more often than not, the only – thing that comes to mind. Zomato and Swiggy for food, Uber and Ola for travel, OYO and Airbnb for hotels/lodging, MakeMyTrip/Cleartrip/Yatra for travel are also very valid examples. But we’re, as consumers, not passively consuming content over here in this space: it is a very specific transactional approach.

But then things began to get complicated.

Consider Amazon. Commerce company, very much so. But what about Amazon Prime Video? What about Amazon Prime Music? What about Amazon Photos? What about Alexa and the Echo family?

Or consider Google. What about, as we have already mentioned, the Google Play Store? What about Froogle? What about Play Movies, Play Books?

Our neat little framework now has overlaps, and there are insurgencies along this virtual boundary. But we can add to our framework to help us keep it relatively simple:

Google, which is a firm that started life as a software firm, then started to make hardware as well (Nexus, Pixel, Chromebooks, Pixel tablets, Google Glass etc). Of course people could create and consume content on these devices. Of course these devices would help Google learn more about the people who owned these devices. But wouldn’t it be great (Google thought) if we could make moaarrrrr money by using this gleaned information ourselves? Hey, let’s get into commerce.

Facebook tried to say the same thing, but with rather more limited success.

And Amazon, a firm that started life as an online seller, started to make hardware as well, precisely so as to learn more about people’s consumption habits online and offline. That’s the Echo devices, the Kindle, the Firestick and so on.

And don’t forget Apple! They no longer can rely on selling hardware alone for growth, mostly because they have already sold all the devices they possibly can to as many people as they possibly can (at least in the USA, but they’re coming for you too). And so, services! Apple Music, Apple TV, iCloud – all of these are not hardware related, they’re all about consumption of content.

So even our latest attempt at simplifying the framework fails, because none of these blue rectangles are neat and delineated: firms from every blue rectangle want to be present in the creation, consumption and commerce space.

They want to do this for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason is simply the following: they’d much rather get a “360 degree” view of their consumer, without having to rely on some other firm to share information.

If, for example, Jio manufactures the device I use to go online (JioPhone), and I log on to that device to watch JioTV, and visit Ajio to buy clothes using that device, and post about the sneakers I just bought on a social media platform owned by Jio (or well, something like that), then I’ve obviated the need for Google! Neither the device, nor the steaming platform, nor the shopping platform, nor the social media has anything to do with Google. How then, does Google know me enough to advertise effectively to me?

But, if I use a Pixel phone to stream content on my Chromecast device, and buy a pair of sneakers on Flipkart (well, in a parallel universe…) and post about it on whatever is Google’s next attempt to build a social media platform, I’m living entirely in the Google Universe.

It’s no longer about companies living in one blue rectangle, you see. It is about one company dominating all blue rectangles, and so knowing everything there is to know about the consumer. That’s the end game here.

And speaking of all blue rectangles…

And that, my friends, is why Amazon wants to be friends with Airtel, Google wants to be friends with Vodafone.

Because Mukesh has his finger in each of these pies, and Mark has acknowledged as much.

Homework: as a consumer, and as an investor, which of the three are you betting on? Amazon, Google or Jio? Why?