The hardware biz ain't what it used to be.
Many gadget OEMs have been trying their darnedest to expand beyond mostly commoditized hardware and boosting margins with various types of services. Even PC maker Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) had futuristic dreams of spinning off its PC business and focusing on enterprise software to pump up margins, although that initiative failed spectacularly to even get off the ground.
Will the real cloud syncing service please stand up?
On the mobile front, Taiwanese device maker HTC's HTCSense.com service launched back in 2010. It was a set of services that let users sync contacts and call history, perform cloud backups of data, and locate their phones remotely, among other things. The service was notably provided free or charge.
More recently, Acer unveiled a new service in January called AcerCloud, which bears an eerie resemblance to Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iCloud. Even the slide-show presentation was a total knockoff.
Source: The Verge. AcerCloud (top) compared with iCloud (bottom).
The service does everything you would expect from an iCloud clone: syncing photos, documents, and music between devices. AcerCloud is also on the house, provided that you buy a shiny new Acer PC. It's expected to launch next month in China and North America.
Who's picking up the tab?
Hardware OEMs aren't able to sustain these types of services. HTC has just announced that it's shutting down HTCSense.com and that users have until the end of next month to gather their digital personal effects before they're vaporized into the ether of cyberspace.
The company says the site is "undergoing a renovation" to improve the services it delivers, except "your data will no longer be accessible and will be deleted." That means that as HTC is winding down its service, Acer has high hopes of starting a similar one of its own.
iOS users have inadvertently benefitted from HTCSense.com, since the free phone-location service played a competitive role in prompting Apple to open up its Find My iPhone app to everyone for free, which was previously reserved for paying MobileMe subscribers. Apple subsequently revamped MobileMe into iCloud and is now free for all iOS users.
Unfit to fly
Therein lays the Catch-22.
Commoditized hardware OEMs suffer from low margins, and while they are trying to boost hardware sales by branching out and offering free services, they're held back by ... low margins.
Last year, HTC saw gross, operating, and net margins of 28%, 15%, and 13%, respectively. Keep in mind that HTC doesn't trade domestically, so you can't invest in it even if you wanted to. For the first nine months of its fiscal 2011, Acer's respective digits came in at 8%, (2%), and (2%). HTC and Acer are Asian players, but it doesn't get much better stateside. Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) just finished reported full-year results, with respective margins of 25%, (1%), and (2%).
Compare those with Apple's trailing-12-month gross, operating, and net margins of 42%, 34%, and 26%. Apple's focus on hardware and software integration allows it to avoid hardware commoditization, enjoying juicier margins on the overall package.
It's not over, yet
Interestingly, HTC may not be done with service offerings altogether. The company is rumored to be looking into a streaming music service, and it acquired a significant stake in Beats Audio last year. There aren't a lot of solid details, but this service is suspected to carry a subscription fee so HTC can monetize it.
On top of that, HTC just bought a 20% stake in SyncTV, a TV content-streaming service that delivers programming to connected TVs and mobile devices, among other gadgets. It also invested $40 million into cloud gaming service OnLive a little more than a year ago.
The point is that hardware players are increasingly interested in diversifying away from low-margin hardware businesses and moving toward content and service. IBM (NYSE: IBM ) took note of this long ago, which is why it sold its PC business to China's Lenovo seven years ago, a move that helped boost gross margin by upwards of 6% since then. No wonder HP wanted to be like Big Blue so badly.
Integration and additional services alone aren't necessarily the panacea. After all, Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) integrates hardware and software along with services like BlackBerry Messenger in addition to enterprise-security add-ons. Look how it's doing.
Added services from hardware-only players don't have a good track record. I'll be counting down the days until AcerCloud meets a similar fate.
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