But there's another big story behind this Flash fiasco that has successfully remained off the radar of most. It's the answer to this question: How do the media companies -- you know, those people who use Flash to put their premium content online everywhere from Wired.com to hulu.com -- feel about having their primary delivery tool cut off at the knees?
Answer: Media companies hope to complain all the way to the bank.
First, a bit of disclosure. I'm the one who went on record explaining that the lack of Flash is one of the reasons I am not buying an iPad. So I'm clearly not a fan of the anti-Flash rhetoric for selfish reasons: I want my Flash content wherever I am. But I've spent the last few weeks discussing the Apple-Adobe problem with major magazine publishers, newspaper publishers, and TV networks. Their responses are at first obvious, and then surprisingly shrewd.
The Hulu-will-charge-you-money rumor mill is churning once again and the blogosphere has lit up with preemptively angered Hulu viewers vowing that they will never darken Hulu’s digital door again. Some call it greed, others point to nefarious pressure from ailing broadcast and cable operations, while some decry the end of a freewheeling era. They are all wrong.
Hulu charging for content is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary next step to get us where we need to be. Let me explain.
This comes at an awkward time, to say the least. The site’s CEO, Jason Kilar, admitted just weeks ago that the free site is profitable, taking in more than $100 million last year and on a run-rate to more than double that this year. Blunting that momentum would be foolish. But letting it run absent the burden of helping to pay for the shows it profits from would also be irresponsible, and not in a Father-knows-best “charging for content builds character” kind of irresponsible, but in a more “not taking advantage of the opportunity to take Hulu to the next level in benefit of the consumer” kind of irresponsible.
Throughout, as various members of the press have mused about the death of Amazon's Kindle, I feel compelled to point out that, contrary to popular belief, Amazon is in a better position now than it was before the iPad. That's right, if Amazon comes out swinging, Round 2 will go to Amazon. Here’s why:
Just came off the stage at PaidContent 2010, a day-long summit here at The Times Center near Times Square, dedicated to the question of if/how/when people will pay for content. The timing is good -- as I wrote in January, The New York Times is planning to charge for content within a year or so, Hulu is considering a subscription model (not necessarily in place of but, I believe, in addition to its free service), and the eBook pricing dilemmas are causing sleepless nights.
I opened the conference with a brief assertion that fretting over whether people will pay for content is based on a mistaken assumption: that people have ever paid for content in the past. They actually haven't. Instead, people have paid for access to content. But in an analog world, access was gated by physical form factors like vinyl, newsprint, and movie theaters. As a result, the coincidence of form factor and content made us believe that people pay for content.
But people have never paid for content. Even when a daily newspaper was a necessity for the average home, the dime you paid a day (in the 70s) for a newspaper did not cover the print cost, much less the reporting. Instead, it was classified ads and auto dealers who footed most of the bill. And the hours we spent on TV and radio every day through the last half of the last century until the explosion of cable in the 90s, were all free. When cable finally asserted itself, people did not pay per show or even by channel (with the exception of premium movie channels). Instead, they paid for overall access.
It was a surprising weekend for those of us who had naively imagined that after crossing the River iPad, we might actually get some Elysian rest. But, alas, the fates conspired against us and handed us the curious case of Amazon vs. Macmillan. Or Macmillan vs. Amazon?
For those who actually took the weekend off, let me summarize what happened. John Sargeant, the CEO of Macmillan Books, gave Amazon a wee-bit of an ultimatum: switch from a wholesale sell-through model, where Amazon buys digital books at a fixed wholesale rate and then can choose to sell those books at whatever price it deems appropriate (even at a loss, as it does with $9.99 bestsellers), to an agency model, where Amazon agrees to sell at a price set by the publisher in exchange for a 30% agency fee. Sargeant explained to Amazon that if it did not agree to the switch, Macmillan Books would make its eBooks subject to significant "windowing" wherein new books are held back from the digital store for some period, say six months, while hardback books are sold in stores and possibly, digital copies are sold through the iPad at $14.99.
This is more detail than we usually know about a negotiation like this because of what happened next. Sargeant got off of a plane on Friday only to discover that Amazon had responded by pulling all Macmillan books from the Kindle store as well as from Amazon.com. He then decided to make it clear to the industry (and his authors) that this drastic action was Amazon's fault, in a paid advertisement in a special Sunday edition of Publishers Lunch.
I have a weakness. I like to think big. And when we heard so many juicy rumors about the Apple tablet device, now named the iPad, I knew that with Steve Jobs at the helm, I could afford to think big. So big did I think, that I suggested the iPad should take media consumption to the next level and create an entirely new category of device.
At first, Jobs appeared ready to confirm my suspicions. He said seductive things like, "Everybody uses a laptop and or a smartphone. The question has arisen lately. Is there room for a third category in the middle?" I was sitting on the edge of my seat, ready to hear Jobs demonstrate that new category of device. But he didn't.
Instead, what Apple debuted today was a very nice upgrade to the iPod Touch.
Don't get me wrong. I love the iPod Touch and I was this close to getting one for myself. Now that the iPad has arrived, I can finally get one, the new, big one. But it's not a new category of device. It doesn't really revolutionize the 5-6 hours of media we consume the way it could have. It doesn't even send Amazon's Kindle running to the hills for cover. In fact, the competitor likely to take the biggest hit from the arrival of the iPad is Apple, in the form of fewer iPod Touches sold and fewer MacBook Airs sold.
A storm has been brewing at The New York Times for a while now. Ever since TimesSelect -- the paid digital version of the Times -- was cancelled back in 2007, the "content wants to be free" crowd has danced around its proverbial grave, singing the equivalent of "ding, dong, paid media is dead."
It's hard to argue against that viewpoint given the reality we're seeing: long-time newspapers closing their print editions entirely (see Seattle Post-Intelligencer), august magazines such as Gourmet shutting their doors, newspaper subscriptions at unprecedented lows, not to mention the power that Google has over the traffic that newspapers and magazines generate. Worse, our consumer surveys show us that 80% of US adults will choose not to pay for online newspaper or magazine content if they can't get it for free (see my colleague Sarah Rotman Epps' post on this for more).
It is amidst this maelstrom that nytimes.com is reportedly considering erecting a new pay wall -- one presumes a shiner, prettier one than the last wall, but a pay wall nonetheless. Read New York mag's take on the situation here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bad idea whose time has unfortunately come.
It's high time somebody said it. Sit through one too many CES keynotes, press conferences, or pitches, and you just might leave Las Vegas with the mistaken idea that 3DTV is going to be in all of our living rooms next year. ESPN and Discovery are committing to 3D cable and satellite channels, Sony is upgrading its PS3s to do 3D, and Taylor Swift's live performance opening night at CES was shown live in 3D (Right behind her, mind you. You had to put the glasses on in order to see Taylor Swift in 3D when she was, actually, in 3D already, right in front of the audience.)
"Dear book industry, I'm so sorry to tell you this, but your books really aren't worth $25. Just like newspapers weren't really worth what people were paying for them and magazines, either. And CDs, and DVDs."
I caused a bit of a fuss last week when I blogged these words here, or in a mirror post on Paidcontent.org. This has been one of the most commented and tweeted posts I've ever offered and much of the feedback centered on this question: was it fair of me to drag the price of books down?
Frankly I am surprised that it took this long. But today, we read in the Wall Street Journal that two major publishers have decided to pull a music industry mistake. Simon and Schuster and Hachette Book Group have announced that they will not release most eBook editions until the hardbacks have been on shelves for four months.
And I quote David Young, CEO of Hachette Book Group, whom the article cites as saying: "We're doing this to preserve our industry, I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It's about the future of the business."
Correction: This move is about the past of your business.
I'm just being a historian here when I point out that language like "We're doing this to preserve our industry" is a classic symptom of what we at Forrester loving call The Media Meltdown. I wrote a whole report on this ailment and its many symptoms, chief among them is that media businesses attempt to preserve analog business models in the digital economy, even when analog economics no longer apply. This is exactly that scenario.
I have two very important messages to offer the book industry (most all of them clients, so I'm trying to be delicate here, the way a group of friends running an intervention for an alcoholic have to act even if it involves summoning tough love). The first message is the hardest to hear and it will make me some enemies. But the second message offers some hope and I encourage you book types to give it a fair hearing, because I have history and economics on my side.