How Apple Sends Back Technology from the Future

Over on Quora, an anonymous author has a fascinating post about another dimension of Apple’s and Steve Jobs’ brilliance–managing its supply chain:

  1. Apple has access to new component technology months or years before its rivals. This allows it to release groundbreaking products that are actuallyimpossible to duplicate. Remember how for up to a year or so after the introduction of the iPhone, none of the would-be iPhone clones could even get a capacitive touchscreen to work as well as the iPhone’s? It wasn’t just the software – Apple simply has access to new components earlier, before anyone else in the world can gain access to it in mass quantities to make a consumer device. One extraordinary example of this is the aluminum machining technology used to make Apple’s laptops – this remains a trade secret that Apple continues to have exclusive access to and allows them to make laptops with (for now) unsurpassed strength and lightness.
  2. Eventually its competitors catch up in component production technology, but by then Apple has their arrangement in place whereby it can source those parts at a lower cost due to the discounted rate they have negotiated with the (now) most-experienced and skilled provider of those parts – who has probably also brought his production costs down too. This discount is also potentially subsidized by its competitors buying those same parts from that provider – the part is now commoditized so the factory is allowed to produce them for all buyers, but Apple gets special pricing.

Apple is not just crushing its rivals through superiority in design, Steve Jobs’s deep experience in hardware mass production (early Apple, NeXT) has been brought to bear in creating an unrivaled exclusive supply chain of advanced technology literally years ahead of anyone else on the planet. If it feels like new Apple products appear futuristic, it is because Apple really is sending back technology from the future.

How Fast Does the Stock Market Forget False News? About Seven Days

The New York Federal Reserve just posted an entertaining analysis of an “Internet blooper” that struck UAL, the parent company of United Airlines a few years ago. As authors Carlos Carvalho, Nicholas Klagge, and Emanuel Moench note in a blog post:

On September 8, 2008, a six-year-old article about the 2002 bankruptcy of United Airlines’ parent company resurfaced on the Internet and was mistakenly believed to be reporting a new bankruptcy filing by the company. This episode caused the company’s stock price to drop by as much as 76 percent in just a few minutes, before NASDAQ halted trading. After the “news” had been identified as false, the stock price rebounded, but still ended the day 11.2 percent below the previous close. Trading volumes skyrocketed during these extreme price movements. In subsequent days, the stock traded as much as 17 percent below its September 8 closing price, and on September 15 it finally traded above the price level seen just before the false news impacted the market.

In short, it took a week for the stock market to flush the “blooper” out of its system.

They then confirm that result using much more sophisticated techniques that allow them to estimate what UAL’s stock price would have been absent the false news:


For bonus points, they also find that similar, but smaller effects on the stock prices of other major airlines.

ht: Paul Kedrosky.

Groupon’s Revenue Measure Shrinks More Than 50%

About a month ago, I remarked on Groupon’s explosive revenue growth (and its equally impressive cost growth).

The company revised its financial results yesterday, and the revenue picture looks less explosive. In the latest update of its S-1 registration statement, Groupon reported $393 million in Q2 revenues. That’s a remarkable figure for such a young company but a far cry from the $878 million it previously reported.

And what happened to the almost $400 million in missing revenue? That money–payments to the merchants who provide goods and services for Groupons–is now subtracted before reporting revenue rather than deducted after as an expense. In short, Groupon went from a gross measure of revenue to a net one.

The bad news for Groupon is that the new presentation makes the company appear less than half as big as it did previously. The good news, I suppose, is that its expenses went down by the same amount.

Groupon’s effort to go public has been one of the bumpier ones in recent memory. Its first filing emphasized a profit measure, essentially profits before less marketing expenses, that was widely ridiculed. That got dropped in the second draft. And now a gigantic restatement of revenue in the third draft. Not to mention, the company’s recent difficulties with the SEC’s quiet period requirements.

Groupon’s Explosive Growth Continues … As Do Its Losses

Daily deal leader Groupon continues to grow its revenues at a jaw-dropping pace. According to its updated S-1 filing, the company sold $878 million in Groupons in the second quarter, ten times more than a year earlier:

However, costs have been exploding too. Groupon spent almost $1 billion in Q2:

Put it all together, and Groupon has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars:

Small compared to the billions and trillions of red ink the federal government confronts, but still a formidable problem. Particularly given all the other players in this space, including a certain search company whose $6 billion acquisition offer Groupon spurned last year. I would have taken the money and run. But perhaps I am not seeing the secret ingredient that will give Groupon a persistent competitive advantage in the face of vigorous competition.

Groupon’s Explosive Growth

We’ve all heard the rumors that Groupon is the fastest growing company ever. Today it finally opened its books in its preliminary filing to go public.

Wow.

In the first quarter of 2009, the online deal company mustered only a quarter of million in revenue. In the first quarter of 2011, it brought in almost $650 million.

Wow.

Only slightly less wow, by the way, is the fact that Groupon lost $103 million in the first quarter. Marketing and SG&A are expensive.

Thanksgiving Reading

So many fascinating economic issues, so little time to blog.

Here are some of the fun items that I would have discussed in recent days if I had infinite time:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Netflix Avoids the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The highlight of this month’s Wired magazine is a profile of Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings. The theme is Netflix’s strategy to thrive even as their business model changes (e.g., as on-line streaming replaces DVDs by mail).

The opening paragraphs document an impressive willingness to change course:

It had taken the better part of a decade, but Reed Hastings was finally ready to unveil the device he thought would upend the entertainment industry. The gadget looked as unassuming as the original iPod—a sleek black box, about the size of a paperback novel, with a few jacks in back—and Hastings, CEO of Netflix, believed its impact would be just as massive. Called the Netflix Player, it would allow most of his company’s regular DVD-by-mail subscribers to stream unlimited movies and TV shows from Netflix’s library directly to their television—at no extra charge.

The potential was enormous: Although Netflix initially could offer only about 10,000 titles, Hastings planned to one day deliver the entire recorded output of Hollywood, instantly and in high definition, to any screen, anywhere. Like many tech romantics, he had harbored visions of using the Internet to route around cable companies and network programmers for years. Even back when he formed Netflix in 1997, Hastings predicted a day when he would deliver video over the Net rather than through the mail. (There was a reason he called the company Netflix and not, say, DVDs by Mail.) Now, in mid-December 2007, the launch of the player was just weeks away. Promotional ads were being shot, and internal beta testers were thrilled.

But Hastings wasn’t celebrating. Instead, he felt queasy. For weeks, he had tried to ignore the nagging doubts he had about the Netflix Player. Consumers’ living rooms were already full of gadgets—from DVD players to set-top boxes. Was a dedicated Netflix device really the best way to bring about his video-on-demand revolution? So on a Friday morning, he asked the six members of his senior management team to meet him in the amphitheater in Netflix’s Los Gatos offices, near San Jose. He leaned up against the stage and asked the unthinkable: Should he kill the player?

Three days later, at an all-company meeting in the same amphitheater, Hastings announced that there would be no Netflix Player.

In short, Reed Hastings is not a man who gets locked in by sunk costs: he’s willing to kill projects (or, in this case, spin them off) even if he’s got years invested in them. A good example for my students when we discusses costs in a few weeks. And just another example of the strengths of Netflix’s culture.

Netflix Boosts Prize Economics

By at least one metric – the number of people who have mentioned it to me – my brief post about Netflix appears to be my most popular one so far.

The post linked to a remarkable slide deck about the corporate culture that Netflix has embraced in its quest for excellence. Most memorable line: “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to click on over. It’s worth your time.

Yesterday’s award of the first Netflix prize highlights another strength of Netflix’s culture: it clearly does not suffer from “not-invented-here” syndrome. Indeed, quite the reverse. A few years ago, Netflix realized that it had reached its limit in trying to improve the accuracy of its movie recommendation system. Even though users may rate dozens (or more) movies, it turns out to be difficult to predict what other movies they will like.

So Netflix decided to outsource this problem in an ingenious way: it offered a $1 million prize to any person or team that could improve the recommendation algorithm by at least 10%. Stated that way, the problem seems deceptively easy. But it took nearly three years before the winner – a team led by AT&T Research engineers – took home the prize.

As recounted in Netflix’s press release, this marathon ended in a race to the wire:

“We had a bona fide race right to the very end,” said [CEO Reed] Hastings. “Teams that had previously battled it out independently joined forces to surpass the 10 percent barrier. New submissions arrived fast and furious in the closing hours and the competition had more twists and turns than ‘The Crying Game,’ ‘The Usual Suspects’ and all the ‘Bourne’ movies wrapped into one.”

Netflix said “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” edged out a team called “The Ensemble,” another collaboration of former competitors, with the winning submission coming just 24 minutes before the conclusion of the nearly three-year-long contest. The competition was so close and the submissions so sophisticated that it took a team of external and internal judges several weeks to validate the winner after the contest closed on July 26.

Happily, the resulting algorithm won’t be exclusive to Netflix:

The contest’s rules require the winning team to publish its methods so that businesses in many fields can benefit from the work done. The winning submission and the previously hidden ratings used to score the contest will be published at the University of California Irvine Machine Learning Repository. The team licensed its work to Netflix and is free to license it to other companies.

On the first day of my microeconomics class, I told my students that economics is all about incentives. As an example, I used the famous prize for a way to measure longitude, which inspired the invention of the chronometer (i.e., a clock of sufficient precision to measure longitude). Next time around, I will mention the Netflix prize as well.

P.S. Not one to rest on its successes, Netflix has already announced plans for a second Netflix prize. This one aims to find a better way to recommend movies to people based on demographic data (e.g., where they live) rather than movie ratings.

The Rubber Room

Over in the New Yorker, Steven Brill discusses “the battle over New York City’s worst teachers“:

These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years.

Brill paints a picture of a stunningly costly and, frankly, stupid system for handling teachers who are accused of misconduct or incompetence.

Continue reading “The Rubber Room”

Craigslist’s Business Model

The magazine Wired regularly publishes some of the most interesting articles about economics and the modern world. Last month, for example, they had a great article about the antitrust threats looming over Google. The month before, it covered the economics of Somali pirates, which I never found time to write about. And the month before that, it discussed how Google, not eBay, is really the master of auctions.

This month, Wired provides an in-depth look at craigslist.

For those who don’t already know, craigslist is the place to post classified ads on the web. According to Wired, it is the world’s “most popular dating site,” “the most popular job-search site,” and “the nation’s largest apartment-hunting site.” Not to mention the myriad other things you can buy, sell, trade, give, receive, etc. on the site.

How did craigslist achieve this dominance? The article doesn’t provide a crisp answer, but it does offer some gems about how the company operates.  You should read the article for the full effect, but here is a sample:

On innovation:

Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.

Continue reading “Craigslist’s Business Model”