Today some of the most successful companies out there are ones that have a key technology platform:
- Retail: Amazon, eBay, Alibaba
- Office productivity: Google, Microsoft, Zoho
- Telecommunications: Microsoft (Live Meeting and Skype), Cisco (WebEx)
- Consumer services: Baidu, Google, Netease
- Entertainment: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, PPLive
I think we’ll soon see Walmart added to this list. At the present time the average consumer view of Walmart is likely to be that of a large, malevolent, low-class retailer in the US; the weird Yanks that bought ASDA in the UK and a trusted supermarket in China.
What these perceptions don’t tell you is that Walmart has innovation in its corporate DNA. In 1987, they set up a satellite network connecting stores with headquarters over voice and data. When I was in college Walmart was associated with the ‘beer and diapers’ urban legend precisely because the company had a reputation for pioneering and pushing supply chain management and data-mining to the edge in order to maximise returns from its stores.
Walmart like Amazon already has a large logistics footprint; some of the moves it has been making over the past 18 months make me think that the company is going for a big platform play – building a big box retailer online. Bear with me, while I run you through a few selected highlights:
- Vudu – purchased in February 2010 by Walmart. The company provides stream on demand content that home audiences can pay for. The technology can be integrated into a variety of consumer electronics. It’s a digital content supermarket by another name
- Kosmix – move forward to April 2011 and Walmart buys a social media platform that organises content by topic. Lots of smarts for social commerce, product reviews, marketing insights, customer services
- Yihaodian – Walmart buys a minority stake in an e-commerce company with logistics in the high growth coastal areas of China. Due to the nature of the Chinese marketplace, that minority stake is the same level of commitment as acquiring a US business outright. The sale of physical goods in China maybe more attractive than the digital media market because the media industry is disrupted and alternative monetisation models are already well in place
- Walmart is also starting recruit rock-star web tech talent with a particular focus on improving the mobile experience of their online properties