Welcome, graduates of the class of 2013, and congratulations. You are some of the finest students our system of education — no, our society — has ever produced. Rather than stand here and occupy your time with random inspirational thoughts, I would prefer to stand back and let you rush out there to disrupt the world into which you were born.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t. And that’s too bad because those of us who have gone before you really need you to disrupt things — which is ironic to say because we are actually the reason you won’t live up to your potential.
Now that I have your attention (and perhaps have primed the urge for an antidepressant), let me tell you why your future is likely so bleak.
You are among the world’s first fully digital citizens. You were born after the Macintosh IIx, Windows 3.0, and the launch of AOL. We now have the iPad, Windows 8, and Google Fiber. When you entered kindergarten, already 20 million US households were connected to the Internet, and by the time you started high school, that number had quadrupled to approximately 80 million. Oh, and in that year of high school, YouTube posted its first video and Facebook opened its social network to anyone with an email address; today, YouTube shows 4 billion hours of videos each month, and Facebook has more than 1 billion friends.
Folks, this one is going to be short because it's the easiest case I've ever made. Microsoft wins the next-gen game console launch wars by launching something that the company doesn't even call a console. Where Nintendo offered us a tablet to accompany the millions we had already bought and Sony then offered us a box that we couldn't even see, Microsoft has trumped them both by delivering the Xbox One. Let's tally up the points:
The name. Wii U means something, I'm sure, to someone. PS4 means "we like the past and want to extend it." Xbox One takes a bolder and more important stand by saying, "It's time to reboot the whole category." This is beautifully illustrated in the way that the Xbox presenters never referred to Xbox One as a game console. It is an All In One Home Entertainment System.
The reveal. PS4 famously flopped its launch by hiding the console entirely. That would have been fine last generation, maybe. But this generation comes in the post-Steve Jobs era where the device and its price are shown. Microsoft debuted the box, the new Kinect, and the new controller in the first 60 seconds of the event.
The scope. Wii U and PS4 both promise to provide access to video and other interesting media experiences. Xbox One actually delivers those things in the most satisfying and complete way anyone other than TiVo has done so far, letting you switch from gaming to TV to movies to web browsing with simple voice commands and practically no waiting.
At Google I/O, the company managed to impress on a lot of fronts, enough that its stock began to climb as investors realized that Google is keeping up with — and in some cases, staying in front of — its digital platform competitors Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. The new developer tools and resources announced will certainly lead to better apps, be developed more quickly, and be capable of generating more revenue. And consumer experiences in mobile, Google Maps, and the browser are about to get significantly more useful and elegant.
But one announcement debuted at I/O that doesn’t move the needle for Google — at least not as much as it could have — is the Google Play Music All Access pass. Despite the convoluted moniker, the service is straightforward: Pay $9.99 a month (in the US for now, more countries to come), and you’ll have unlimited access to a cloud-based music library with intuitive features that allow elegant discovery, consumption, and sharing of music.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The service can’t differentiate on its music library because the best it can do is license the same library that Spotify and Rdio already offer. All Access also creates playlists for you based on your music tastes as expressed by you directly or learned from your listening patterns and friends. That should also sound familiar because the same value is contained to various degrees in Pandora, iTunes, and Amazon Cloud Player.
Bottom line: Despite working really hard, the best that Google can do in music is to catch up to everybody else in the field. And that’s precisely what the company has done.
YouTube finally announced this week that it would allow channels to charge monthly fees to access content on YouTube. Some have predicted that YouTube’s subscription model would undercut its ad model in an echo of the infamous pay-wall problem that has bedeviled online newspapers as they shifted from ad-supported to paid. Others have suggested that this shows that YouTube is up against an advertising wall of its own making — advertisers will only pay so much to advertise against this amateur and semi-pro content (and to be fair, I am in this camp even though I don’t think this fact is dire). And still others gleefully wait to watch as YouTube learns how hard it is to get people to pay for things online.
In fact, all three of these things are minor asides in YouTube’s decision-making, as I see it. Instead of reacting to these and other constraints, YouTube is proacting on imminent opportunity. YouTube is basically making a grab for more of everything that matters:
More business model options. TV is both ad-supported and subscription-supported, and that works just fine. It gives companies like HBO the creative flexibility to generate content that advertisers may not be ready for, and it gives companies like Scripps the freedom to promise more home-focused entertainment that home-focused advertisers care about. That flexibility is crucial to the ongoing success of those companies, and it will be crucial to YouTube as well. Although in YouTube’s case, I would be surprised if the revenue balance in the one- to two-year time frame exceeded 10% or 15% subscription to advertising.