Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Vodaweb 2.0

If you have 180 minutes to kill and want to take part firsthand in the world of glamor which is financial analyst briefings, then step on over to the Vodafone 2006 financial results webcast (time-shifted). This was the much-heralded make-or-break performance which the UK weekend press expended so much newsprint on, and while I thought the financial results were decent, all things considered, the strategy event left me a bit non-plussed. Maybe my hopes were too high in expecting something sexy on the mobile payments or social web fronts, and the company's tone on M&A was decidedly less bellicose than I might have expected, given how badly it has been on the public defensive over the past six months.

Then again, maybe I wasn't the only one expecting some real fireworks - the decision to raise the dividend to a 60% payout ratio and hand back another GBP3bn later this summer (roll up, roll up, get your GBP9bn here) could be viewed, in an uncharitable interpretation, as an apology of sorts to those who wanted more fundamental reform. It worked for a time today, but the foul tone of the global markets eroded the gains of earlier in the day, taking the stock back to where it ended last Friday. It's really something to see a company producing what amounts to a combined yield of 17% (normal dividend and special distribution), and still not being able to make headway.

Maybe that's mainly down to market externalities, and maybe some of it relates to the strategic vision. I think a lot of what was said today made sense, particularly from Thomas Geitner and Fritz Joussen out of Germany. I was particularly intrigued by the newfound (if vaguely stated) enthusiasm for the possibilities around IM/presence (I have heard various rumblings of an internally-developed "secret weapon" in this area) and place-shifting (the conceptual description was very much along the lines of GoToMyPC or Slingbox). Most intriguing, and challenging, of all was Vodafone's stated ambition of developing an advertising revenue stream - intriguing because of the sheer number of eyeballs (people, actually) it brokers access to, challenging because of the obvious potential conflicts with those much more experienced and advanced than it in this area.

Still, it's desperately trying, and for a company the size of Vodafone to claim that it targets 10% of total group revenues from entirely new business initiatives within a handful of years is indeed an ambitious target. I would like to think that Vodafone (or any other legacy telco) is capable of realizing that ambition through a change in DNA, but I tend to think that it has waited too late and may not be going far enough fast enough, given how crowded some of its core markets are going to be in a year's time, when all the pieces are in place. I don't understand the initial focus on wholesale DSL as part of a bundle. I don't believe this will deliver the level of control or pricing flexibility needed to compete with some of the more innovative and disruptive offerings in the space (of which we should hear more officially tomorrow from France Telecom), and I still believe the company will have to make acquisitions to accelerate time to market and increase differentiation. Also, the WiFi aspect of the strategy was cursorily covered in today's presentation and seems to be consigned to some later stage of market development in Vodafone's mind, whereas many of us see it as being a highly relevant issue today.

Transformation is never easy in large companies, especially when there has been a sizeable time lag in recognizing and reacting to waves of change around the supertanker. Then again, I heard someone say recently that a supertanker can actually be turned around within only 30 minutes, which I think will make the market (both financial and industry) very wary of underestimating this one, despite a somewhat inauspicious start.

UPDATE: I see Disruptive Dean has been working through some of the granularity on Vodafone's mobile data numbers, and his conclusions seem feasible to me. Vodafone management were keen to point out that in the month of March 10% of group revenues were attributable to 3G devices, but if Dean is right then this is still disproportionately weighted towards laptop cards - not that there's anything wrong with laptop cards. They're totally respectable as a business model, but the flipside is that, despite significant uptake of 3G consumer services, the situation is far from being a consumer data revolution.

UPDATE 2: A Palladium Club mega-uber value reader writes in response to my mention of an IM "secret weapon," and points me to South African mobile games specialist Clockspeed, which has developed Mixt, a mobile IM platform which appears to have interoperability with MSN and ICQ, and has reportedly gained 800,000 users in 12 months of operation. Clockspeed's parent company Swist does back-end billing for Vodacom, so I guess we could argue that one possible solution is already within the Vodafone orbit.

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