Nobody expected Zynga’s results for this quarter to be great, so nobody was exactly surprised when the company announced a decline in almost every number that matters. It turned a small profit, but that’s a bright spot in an otherwise deeply unimpressive set of results. The really important figures – the number of people playing and, crucially, the number of people paying – are all down. Zynga’s business may not be hemorrhaging money, but it’s losing audience, and in a business so heavily focused on scale, that’s a really bad thing.
The company likes to present itself as being on the cusp of a turnaround, or perhaps already embarked upon a slow but steady turn. If so, it’s the oddest turnaround imaginable. The firm’s MAUs – Monthly Active Users – dropped from 292 million to 253 million year on year, so nearly 40 million people have simply stopped logging in to a Zynga game even once a month. Worse still, though, is the disproportionate fall in the number of Monthly Unique Payers – those who make at least one transaction during a month-long period. This number fell from 3.5 million to 2.5 million, a precipitous year-on-year drop of almost 30%.
It bears emphasising just how bad that actually is. For a social gaming business, MUPs are the real customers. There is huge value to having a large audience (MAUs), of course, and companies need to be very careful about not trying to force players into becoming paying customers before they’re good and ready – but ultimately, non-paying users are like footfall in a store. They’re not customers, in a strict business sense. Zynga’s not-quite-so-bad loss of 13% of its players (MAUs) is a side-show compared to the fact that it’s lost 30% of its paying customers (MUPs). Imagine, by comparison, a shop loudly announcing that the number of people walking past its window had fallen 13%, distracting from the fact that the number who came in and bought something had fallen 30%.
Of course, the two figures are related, and the disproportionately large drop in MUPs figures into that relationship to some degree. The process of encouraging players of a social game to spend money is focused around a number of principles, but the key temptation lies in buying items or currency that will give you the ability to match or overtake your friends’ progress, or to create a fantastic character, farm, castle or whatever which will “impress” the many friends who are also playing the same game.
For that psychology to work, of course, you actually need to have lots of friends playing the game. Most social games, as the name suggests, don’t work terribly well if you don’t have friends active in the game. “Active” is a key aspect here too – if you see that your friends are losing interest, logging in less often or spending less time tending to their farm, castle, town or whatever, then you also tend to lose interest rapidly. Hence, a game that gives the impression of being “in decline” – with players losing interest in some visible manner – will likely experience a precipitous decline in revenue, because even though lots of people are still playing, the sense of decline removes the key psychological drive to spend money on the game. (It doesn’t help, of course, that social game operators have established a pattern of shutting down unsuccessful games rapidly, which creates a feedback loop in which players are unwilling to spend money on a game they think might be in commercial trouble.)
The psychology of what Zynga is experiencing is clear enough, then, but the figures on the bottom line are still pretty dreadful. Whatever the reasons or the mechanism, the company is losing paying customers, and that kind of damage is extremely hard to recover from.
A stark contrast to Zynga’s woes can be found on the other side of the Pacific, where mobile developer GungHo this week topped a $9 billion valuation on the Osaka Stock Exchange, making it into a larger mobile gaming company than even fellow Japanese giants GREE and DeNA. GungHo’s valuation is ridiculous, a bubble that will inevitably pop in relatively short order, but there’s a genuine success driving the excitement – a single game, Puzzle and Dragons, which is the most successful mobile game in Japan (and is launching in other territories as well). Puzzle and Dragons reportedly makes about $2 million a day; it certainly makes enough to justify prime-time adverts in evening slots on Japanese TV.
GungHo is an extreme example of a phenomenon which is completely unavoidable in the social and casual game sphere. Mobile utterly dominates this sphere. Facebook, it turns out, was a flash in the pan in gaming terms. Smartphones, and to some extent tablets (though they’re arguably more “midcore”), are the social gaming platforms of today. Zynga, for all its cash (the company still has plenty of liquid assets), its clout and its former dominance, still hasn’t made a successful transition to being a mobile-first company. Clinging to the wreckage of the Facebook social gaming model which it so successful exploited (in doing so, perhaps hastening the downfall), Zynga is being overtaken time and again by smaller companies who have mobile gaming in their DNA from the outset. With this week’s results came a fresh claim that the company will be focusing more heavily on mobile, but a good, nimble firm would have accomplished that focus shift 12 months ago, at least. Zynga right now feels like it’s plodding along in everyone else’s wake.
The other great white hope for the company, of course, is gambling. It has cautiously launched gambling services – what it calls “real money gaming” – in the UK, and wants to expand into other territories. Plenty of pundits like to tap their noses sagely and suggest that Zynga will become a gambling giant down the line – although in doing so, they’re just following in the well-worn footsteps of a large number of video games industry pundits, executives and even developers who have regarded the gambling industry with something like the avaricious wonder of wannabe prospectors hearing about a new gold rush.
I don’t see any gold rush for Zynga in “real money gaming”. Investors and executives consistently overstate the allure and possibilities of this kind of gaming, because by dint of being investors and executives, they tend to be exactly the sort of person who is very attracted to gambling risks (you wouldn’t have an investment, or a career, anywhere within spitting distance of tech stocks otherwise). Moreover, by moving into the online gambling arena, Zynga is entering a market that’s already incredibly crowded with companies who are deeply, deeply expert in this field – not just in the customer-facing psychology of the casino, but also in the legal and regulatory minefield of operating a gambling enterprise online. Many major markets simply aren’t open to this kind of business; most others require you to jump through all manner of hoops simply in order to set up shop. The notion of Zynga having an open goal in “real money gaming” is born either from complete naivety or utter desperation – it could make money in the gambling business, but it has its work cut out for it.
It’s worth highlighting, all the same, that Zynga did make a small profit this quarter – it may only be one bright spot, but it’s bright all the same. The company’s scale still also arguably works in its favour, allowing it to buy talent and IP that smaller firms could never afford. Yet after several grim quarters, it’s also worth highlighting that talk of a “turnaround” is optimistic at best. Something about Zynga – its culture, its leadership or a combination of both – is blocking this company from moving in the agile, intelligent way a firm in its position desperately needs. Inventing fairy stories about the magical potential of gambling games or constantly reassuring the world that a pivot to mobile is definitely happening any day now won’t cover up the cracks for much longer. If Zynga wants the world to buy the “turnaround” story, it needs to start showing evidence; if not, it needs to start making big changes, starting right at the top.
Microsoft is developing designs for a touch-enabled smart watch, joining a number of other large competitors like Samsung Electronics and Apple who are said to be working on similar devices, according to a recent report.
Executives at suppliers to Microsoft told The Wall Street Journal that the company was sourcing components for the prototype of what could potentially be a “watch-style device.”
Microsoft has, for example, requested 1.5-inch displays from component makers for the prototype, an executive at a component supplier told the newspaper. It is unclear whether the company will decide to go ahead with the watch, the newspaper added.
Microsoft could not be immediately reached for comment.
A large number of vendors are looking at new product categories beyond smartphones and tablets.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Microsoft may be looking at watches as a product. It launched a smart wrist watch around a concept called Smart Personal Object Technology it unveiled in 2002, but withdrew it after a lackluster performance.
The Redmond, Wash., company is seeing its key PC market under threat from smartphones and tablets, and the failure of its new Windows 8 operating system to boost sales significantly. IDC said last week that first quarter PC shipments totaled 76.3 million units, down 13.9% compared to the same quarter last year. (The decline was worse than the 7.7% previously forecast by the analyst firm, and the market could be headed into further contraction, the research firm added.
Verizon Wireless reportedly has offered $1 billion to $1.5 billion to acquire some of Clearwire’s spectrum leases, possibly complicating Sprint Nextel’s attempt to buy out the company in conjunction with its acquisition by Softbank.
Clearwire is struggling financially but owns broad swaths of spectrum, the lifeblood of wireless networks. The April 8 bid from “Party J,” which Clearwire disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Friday, is the latest in a series of offers for its spectrum licenses. Unnamed people familiar with the matter identified “Party J” as Verizon Wireless, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
Clearwire is a key part of a complicated set of possible transactions that could make a much stronger competitor out of Sprint, the country’s third-largest mobile operator. Sprint already owns roughly half of Clearwire and is bidding about $2.2 billion to buy the rest of its stock. That deal depends on Softbank’s planned $20.1 billion offer for 70% of Sprint, which is still undergoing regulatory review.
Clearwire holds 150MHz of spectrum or more in most major markets of the U.S. Verizon would buy only a portion of that spectrum. “Party J offered to acquire Clearwire spectrum leases generally located in large markets,” Clearwire said in the Friday filing, a proxy statement to shareholders on the Sprint buyout bid. The proposed gross price of $1 billion to $1.5 billion would be reduced by what Clearwire pays for the leases, which could be substantial, according to Clearwire’s filing. The company said it would discuss the offer with “Party J” and Sprint.
The new transistors would be made from strongly correlated materials, such as metal oxides, which researchers say can be used to build more powerful — but less power-hungry — computation circuitry.
“The scaling of conventional-based transistors is nearing an end, after a fantastic run of 50 years,” said Stuart Parkin, an IBM fellow at IBM Research. “We need to consider alternative devices and materials that operate entirely differently.”
Researchers have been trying to find ways of changing conductivity states in strongly correlated materials for years. Parkin’s team is the first to convert metal oxides from an insulated to conductive state by applying oxygen ions to the material. The team recently published details of the work in the journal Science.
In theory, such transistors could mimic how the human brain operates in that “liquids and currents of ions [would be used] to change materials,” Parkin said, noting that “brains can carry out computing operations a million times more efficiently than silicon-based computers.”
Streaming television service Aereo does not infringe the copyrights of over-the-air TV stations, and a request from several stations to shutter the New York-based service isn’t warranted, an appeals court has ruled.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York was right to deny a request for a preliminary injunction from Fox, ABC, WNET and other TV stations, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Monday.
The TV stations had argued Aereo, a service that allows subscribers to record and play over-the-air TV programs on Internet-connected devices, violated their so-called public performance right, their exclusive right in U.S. copyright law to “to perform the copyrighted work publicly.”
But Judge Christopher Droney, writing for the appeals court majority, noted that Aereo makes use of technology already found by courts to be legal. The service combines Aereo-designed mini TV antennas, DVRs, and a Slingbox-like streaming service, he noted.
Aereo users, by making personal copies of TV programs for their own use, were not creating public performances, Droney added.
The TV stations “have not demonstrated that they are likely to prevail on the merits on this claim in their copyright infringement action,” Droney wrote in rejecting the request for an injunction against the service. “Nor have they demonstrated serious questions as to the merits and a balance of hardships that tips decidedly in their favor.”
Aereo praised the decision. The decision “again validates that Aereo’s technology falls squarely within the law, and that’s a great thing for consumers who want more choice and flexibility in how, when and where they can watch television,” Chet Kanojia, Aereo’s CEO and founder, said in a statement.
Lawyers for the TV stations weren’t immediately available for comment.
Digital rights group Public Knowledge cheered the ruling, saying it is a “victory for consumer choice and video innovation.”
Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet will be offered for sale Europe in the second quarter priced approximately at $1,170, while a local telco is now reselling the latest editions of its Office 365 hosted productivity suite, the company announced ahead of the Cebit trade show on Monday.
Microsoft Germany’s CEO Christian Illek didn’t give the Surface Pro’s exact price in euros, but the number will be around the same as the U.S. price in dollars, he said in a news conference at the company’s booth on the show floor in Hanover.
While an $1170 price tag appears significantly higher that the Surface Pro’s U.S. price of $899, a 30% mark-up is not unusual for electronics devices in Europe, where prices are typically displayed inclusive of value-added tax at around 20%. U.S. prices typically exclude local sales taxes. When setting international prices, vendors also tend to allow an additional margin in case exchange rates shift unfavorably.
In addition to Germany, Surface Pro will also go on sale in Australia, China, France, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the U.K. in the coming months, Microsoft said.
Illek also announced a new sales channel for two recent editions of Office 365: Deutsche Telekom.
Office 365 Small Business Premium and Office 365 Midsize Business are now on sale through Deutsche Telekom’s Business Marketplace online app store, said the German telecommunications operator’s head of marketing, Michael Hagspihl.
The Small Business Premium edition, with 25GB of storage, shared calendars, Office Web Apps, Office Professional Plus Desktop Version and support from Deutsche Telekom will sell for $14.90 per user per month for up to 25 users.
The Pavilion 14 Chromebook has a 14-inch screen and runs on a dual-core Intel processor. The laptop is roughly 21 millimeters thick, and weighs 1.8 kilograms. It offers just over four hours of battery life, said David Conrad, director for product management at HP’s consumer products group.
The laptop is expected to ship on Monday in the U.S. starting at $329.99. The company did not immediately provide worldwide availability information.
HP wanted to widen its product offerings and the new Chromebook is targeted at those who do most of their computing on the Web, Conrad said.
“It’s really about choice. We have a very wide offering,” Conrad said. “We think the time is right for an additional choice for people to have a gateway to their Google digital lifestyle.”
The laptop has only 16GB of solid-state drive storage, but will offer 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years.
The Chromebook has the same design as HP’s other PC offerings, which mostly run on Windows and have standard-capacity hard drives. But, with a lot of data moving to the cloud, the Chromebook provides a different usage model.
“We see this as another device to be used around the house. It’s easily managed,” Conrad said.
RIM is expected to unveil the phones at an event in New York City on Wednesday and will begin promoting BlackBerry 10 to consumers the following Sunday, Feb. 3, when it will air a TV commercial during the Super Bowl.
The sporting event attracts one of the largest TV audiences of the year in America, and companies pay millions of dollars for a 30-second advertising spot, underscoring how important it is for RIM that its new BlackBerry platform will be a hit. The same commercial will also air in Canada, RIM’s home country.
In announcing its publicity plans Friday, RIM also hinted at when the phones will be available to consumers. It said the TV spot “kicks off a week of worldwide launch activity for RIM’s BlackBerry 10 platform, along with the first two devices to run on the new platform.”
If the commercial marks the start of a weeklong buildup to the launch, that would put the North American release of the phones at roughly the start of the second week in February.
According to Apple’s Q4 corporate filings, the company channeled $11 billion into tax havens in a single quarter. The Sunday Times claims the company is sheltering a total of $94 billion in tax havens. However, Apple’s activities are completely legal and the IRS can’t do anything about it.
But Apple’s tax avoidance strategy is not limited to the US. The company is avoided an estimated £550 million in tax in Britain back in 2011. A different analysis suggests a £550 million tax bill. Let’s not forget Kate Middleton is about to have a baby, and babies tend to cost money, so shame on you Apple.
American politicians, from both sides of the political spectrum, like to have their photos taken next to anything Apple. The company is often viewed as an American success story, as it managed to reinvent itself and come back from the brink to become the world’s second most valuable company.
Broadcom’s BCM7445 silicon platform, announced just hours before the show opened on Tuesday morning, will be able to process incoming video from cable, carrier and satellite services that has four times the resolution of typical 1080p video offered today, according to the company.
Like the eye-catching but expensive TVs on the show floor in Las Vegas, the BCM7445 is just one of the first of many steps to consumers watching UltraHD shows at home. New content, displays and delivery technologies will all be required for the new resolution, which is also known as 4K.
Broadcom expects its chip to be in volume production by the middle of next year, in time for mainstream UltraHD TVs that will probably hit the market for the late 2014 holiday season, said Joe Del Rio, associate product line manager at Broadcom. However, service providers, which will probably be the distributors of most of the gateways built with the BCM7445, may take longer to start sending UltraHD video to their subscribers, Del Rio said.