(Veteran tech columnist Jon Markman publishes Strategic Advantage, a popular guide to investing in the great digital transformation of business and society. Click here for a free two-week trial.)
The long cold war between Apple ( (AAPL) - Get Report) and Facebook ( (FB) - Get Report) is finally heating up. Spoiler alert, despite outward appearances this is a battle the social media giant is bound to win.
Executives at Facebook revealed Wednesday a series of full pages ads in national newspapers calling out Apple for harming small businesses with proposed changes to the software that runs iPhones.
This is why investors should not assume Facebook will be vanquished.
At first glance it may appear as though the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company is in a weak position. Apple proposed changes to its iOS operating system last June that will limit the way users are tracked across smartphone applications and websites. The concept is simple: Apple managers don’t want tracking to occur unless users specifically opt-in to the process.
Apple planned to roll out these changes in September with iOS 14. The privacy changes were delayed until early 2021 to give developers and advertising businesses more time to adjust. Digital ad buyers and application developers rightfully understand this is an existential threat for their businesses. The odds of iPhone users opting into digital tracking is somewhere between zilch and no chance.
In theory that also seems like a big loss for Facebook. The company makes the lion’s share of its considerable revenues selling digital ads. Of the $69.5 billion in revenue earned during 2019, a staggering 98.5% came from digital ad sales.
While it is difficult to know because Facebook does not break out specific numbers, reading between the lines of a corporate blog post on the matter, the reliance on ads placed within mobile apps seems insignificant to the larger business.
Facebook managers are clearly up to something else with the ads in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Washington Post. They see an opportunity to cast the social media company as a champion of small businesses everywhere that have been decimated by the global pandemic. This dovetails with bigger company plans to offer easy to set-up ecommerce stores through Facebook Shops.
However, the real story is Facebook fighting against Apple.
Both companies have total control over large platforms. Facebook properties including Instagram and WhatsApp had 3.1 billion monthly active users according to the most recent financial report. Apple owns about 11% of the 3.5 billion unit global smartphone market, according to a Gartner report.
To put a finer point on the matter, the companies also compete directly in mobile messaging.
Managers at WhatsApp, an encrypted mobile messaging application with 1.6 billion monthly users, attacked iOS 14 changes last month on the premise that they do not equally apply to iMessage, Apple’s native messaging app.
It’s popular to cast Facebook as the villain. In the court of public opinion the social media giant has become a privacy pariah, leading to talk of regulation at home and abroad. Much of this originated with thinly veiled assaults from Tim Cook, Apple’s chief execute officer. Despite the public attacks, Facebook membership is growing.
Ultimately the power of platforms is scale. Facebook is simply bigger and more important than Apple.
During 2020 Facebook properties still represented three of the top 8 iOS downloads. Keep in
mind that these apps are not part of the zeitgeist like Zoom, TikTok or Disney+. They are established favorites that iPhone users depend on daily.
Apple as a business will have a tough time selling iPhones without the best version of Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. This will be even more important as Facebook Shops is integrated throughout the platform.
The national newspaper ads placed Wednesday are Facebook managers saying to Apple, “enough”. They intend to fight back, even if this involves a tortured defense of small business owners.
Facebook shares have been under pressure this month, rising only 1.6% as the tech heavy Nasdaq races to new highs.
However the strength of the business is not tracking users with mobile apps or across websites. The power of the business model is selling highly targeted ads inside company properties and the possibility of further monetizing strong membership scale with ecommerce.
The relative weakness of Facebook shares looks like a rare buying opportunity in one of the iconic business leaders of this era.