Late last night Sony revealed it would pull "The Interview" from its release schedule. This decision was made in response to the step taken by the major theater chains that all agreed they would not screen the movie on its release day. The unprecedented decision is causing consternation among entertainment media types who feel that Sony has put the right of free speech in jeopardy. That's a conversation worth having and I'm glad it's happening. But there is an entirely new question that this situation brings into dramatic relief, one that didn't exist before and one that our premeditations won't help us resolve. The question is this:
Can companies participate in cyberwar?
Up until now, companies have prepared to defend themselves against cyber attacks as one-off nuisances. Such attacks are now so common that they no longer make the news. Even massive breaches where millions of customer datapoints are compromised tend to give us pause for only a few moments, perhaps a few days, and then we move on. But what Sony experienced was not just a security breach. This hack was a declaration of cyberwar intended to bring Sony to its digital knees. A low-cost, digitally effective cyberwar that puts none of the hackers' assets in harm's way. And given yesterday's announcement it appears to have worked.
I'm packing to leave Paris and it's a hard town to leave. Not only because I managed to catch a glimpse of a Paris sunset last night from the top of Notre Dame, but because I'm leaving LeWeb Paris 2014 while it's still in full swing. There's no denying LeWeb is one of the most invigorating events I've attended. Highlights in the first two days included a candid discussion on Uber with celebrity venture capitalist Fred Wilson and amazing comments from Web founder Tim Berners-Lee on everything from robots to net neutrality to Europe's "right to be forgottten" laws. Most invigorating for me personally was the day one session on wearables. LeWeb invited me to curate this hour-long track as part of its new format, tackling multiple themes in short bursts over several days. Curation required pulling together experts on the topic which was both simple and difficult. Simple because there are some great ones to choose from, difficult because I would have had 10 people on stage if I could have managed it. But that's where the hard task of curation comes in.
Yesterday Microsoft announced it would acquire Mojang along with its massive Minecraft gaming franchise for $2.5 billion. By now we've all seen the coverage, including the gratuitous interviews with middle-schoolers about whether Microsoft is "cool" enough to own Minecraft. By and large, we think this is a good acquisition for Microsoft, and we said as much in our Quick Take, just published this afternoon, summarizing the acquisition, its benefits, and its challenges for Forrester clients. Go to the report to read the client-only details of our analysis: "Quick Take: Microsoft Mines Minecraft for the Future of Interactive Entertainment." As we explain in the report, there are specific challenges Microsoft will face that will determine whether this ends up being a sensible acquisition or a sensational one.
Beyond the detailed analysis of the report, it's worth exploring the long-term question of what that sensational outcome would look like. The difference turns on the question of whether Microsoft is ready to invest in the future of digital interactive entertainment. This is a subtle point that has been missed in most analysis of the acquisition. Most people insist on covering the purchase as a gaming industry event. Microsoft, the owner of the Xbox, buys Minecraft, a huge gaming franchise. But that low-level analysis misses a bigger picture that I sincerely hope Microsoft is actively aware of.
The rumors turn out to be true. Apple is buying Beats for $3 billion, just slightly less money than originally suggested. Now that it's official, I'm confidently reiterating my conviction that Apple cannot be spending this unprecedented sum on Beats for either its headphones or its subscription music business. Because while the company may be worth that much, it's not worth that much to Apple, the world's most innovative consumer electronics and consumer software maker. Because choosing to buy Beats purely for its existing businesses and revenues would represent Apple significantly lowering its sights, aiming to graduate right from innovative leader of life-changing technology to kinda-cool company that makes stuff teenagers like. Not that selling to teenagers isn't a good thing; it can certainly bring in money, but it doesn't typically generate long-lasting brand relationships.
To be clear, if Apple is buying Beats purely for its headphones or music subscription business, then Apple is making a mistake. However, there are those of us who still believe that Apple hasn't thrown in the towel. And why would it? There are still many consumer markets to dominate — entire markets like wearables and home automation tech and even in-car experiences, all of which are in their infancy — and Apple still has the smarts, the brand, and certainly the money to make a run for any of those things, if not all of them. So why would Apple instead sign up to become a holding company for fashionable but not life-changing brands?
A media frenzy arose last night when the Financial Times suggested it had word from the inside that Apple is closing in on buying Beats Electronics for $3.2 billion. The immediate response from all quarters has been puzzlement and on multiple levels. As the sun rose today, so did the doubts about the impending deal. Generally, large strategic acquisitions — like when Google bought Nest for a similar figure — can be justified on the basis of buying something you don’t already have: a promising new technology, a large customer base, or entrée into a desirable industry. None of these things apply to this acquisition by Apple. Acquisitions at a more mature business stage can typically be justified purely on a revenue or margin basis or the desire to snap up a brand with more energy. Those don’t apply here, either. Even those who have tried to stretch the argument a bit have suggested that Apple could be buying Beats purely for a quick road into the music streaming business as a hedge against Spotify — except that Apple owns the music industry and doesn’t need Beats to build the music streaming offering that the company has denied for years that it should even consider getting into.
Google acquired Nest for billions, and then Facebook spent several more billion on Oculus VR. We’re only a few months into 2014, and already billions have been spent by some of the world’s largest digital players, with each of these companies eager to own the next big thing. Mobile is right here, right now, but everyone knows that very soon, there will be something else. But what else?
In the battle to find and claim the next device that everyone will want, these companies will soon realize that next big thing is not a thing at all: It’s your voice.
Voice control suffers from the same things plaguing augmented reality or virtual reality: It has been around for so long that we think we know what it is. Any fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation knows that voice control involves invoking an invisible computer with a command, “Computer,” followed by a query, “How many Klingons does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Maybe that’s a question you don’t want the answer to, but the computer — as voiced by Majel Barrett in the TV series — would know it.
It’s possibly a long history of popular depictions of voice control that made us collectively show so much enthusiasm for Siri when Apple first debuted it in 2011. It’s also partly to blame for why we quickly turned on Siri, declaring her soothing semi-robotic tones to be merely amusing at best or irrelevant at worst.
When Microsoft recently announced its long-rumored Cortana voice service for Windows Phone 8.1 as a catch-up to both Siri and Google Now’s own voice interface, the interest was modest, perhaps because if Siri hasn’t changed the way millions of Apple users use millions of Apple devices, how can Microsoft initiate a wave of behavior change when it has so few Windows Phone users?
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News out today confirms that Sony has indeed sold off its Vaio PC arm, ending 17 years in the personal computer business. And that CEO Kazuo Hirai has also decided to separate the TV division into a standalone unit in order to better heal it. Although he insists for now that Sony has no plans to sell that division, it would be foolish of the company not to consider any good offers. If there are any.
Because really, who would want that business? It has lost nearly $8 billion in the last 10 years and has been rapidly losing share to Samsung and LG and is about to get attacked by Chinese TV makers eager to have more influence in the US and other Western markets. I saw a very impressive offering from Hisense, TCL, and Haier at this year’s CES and expect them to make inroads against the more expensive panels from Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp, all of which have struggled to keep up.
Marketers, you are officially on notice: The very idea of brand relationship is going to become irrelevant thanks to digital disruption. If you continue to focus on building a wonderful brand relationship with your customer, you will one day awake to find that someone else has taken your place in your customer’s life — not with a more compelling brand relationship, but with a more compelling digital customer relationship.
Someone out there is building the “ultimate customer relationship,” a type of digital bridge I write about in my most recent Forrester report, "Start to Build Your Ultimate Customer Relationship." That ultimate digital customer relationship is the type of relationship that digital tools and services enable and that digital consumers welcome. They’re happily signing up for anything that tethers them to a source that can give them more of what they want, more easily than before. Even with the supposed threat of privacy all around us, consumers are diving into deep digital relationships with companies or brands that deal with the most sensitive aspects of their lives. Weight-loss app Lose It helps users log personal information such as calories consumed and tell others of their goals, leading to the loss of more than 27 million pounds so far; Square gets consumers to email cash to friends — thus introducing them to Square and inducing them to sign up; and Airbnb has welcomed more than half a million listings of spare rooms and apartments that have been visited by more than 9 million guests. What’s more personal than your weight, your money, and your spare room?
The madness that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has finally subsided, people are safely home (some never arrived thanks to cancelled flights), and we’ve had sufficient time to read the CES stars and foretell what it means for 2014 and beyond. Condensing this show down to so few points requires omitting some things, even some fun things like Michael Bay’s meltdown and T-Mobile CEO John Legere’s attention-grabbing tactics, but it’s my job to say what it means. So here I go, predicting what will happen in 2014 with three (admittedly long) bullets:
This week, Apple confirmed the longstanding rumors that the company has agreed to acquire PrimeSense, the Israeli company that invented the technology behind the original Kinect for Xbox 360. All of Apple's moves are scrutinized closely, but this one is worth paying closer attention to than most.
The PrimeSense technology was astounding when it was first incorporated into the Kinect. This was not only because of what it could do — see you in 3D and model your skeletal structure as it observed you moving in physical space — but also because of how the company did it. Instead of imitating the $10,000 military-grade hardware of its predecessors, the company insisted on using off-the-shelf technology, whether hardware or software, so that the cost to deploy the solution would be laughably low, compared with prior imaging solutions. That's what made Microsoft so interested — Microsoft's own motion-sensing engineering group was years away from a homegrown Kinect experience and saw a chance to jump ahead of the market with PrimeSense. And jump it did, selling by our estimate more than 30 million cameras around the world, boosting sales of the Xbox 360 console even after it was already nearly five years old.
Now that Microsoft has moved beyond PrimeSense with the Xbox One and Apple has swooped in to buy the company, it will be tempting to think that Apple wants the technology so that it can finally make a successful play for the living room, something it has repeatedly failed to do with Apple TV. Certainly, the Primesense tech works great in the living room, and Apple would be foolish not to try it out there.