Game Consoles On the Brink: PS4 Aims Hard, Xbox Aims High

View this post as it originally appeared on Advertising Age.

With the release of the Xbox One around the world today, Microsoft is now in position to see if it will catch up with Sony's successful PS4 introduction, which reportedly sold more than a million units on day one. Many are asking which console will win. That's actually the easy part. The harder question is whether game consoles will still matter in two years at all.

It feels a little like we've been here before. Back in 2007, both Sony and Microsoft were working hard to push the next generation of a technology they were convinced everyone would want. I'm not talking about the PS3 versus Xbox battle, though, but the war over high-definition video.

Most will barely remember that while Sony backed Blu-ray, which eventually won, Microsoft was betting hard on HD-DVD. I was courted at the time by both companies, eagerly trying to persuade me that their version of HD would win. We called the war for Sony at the time but made it clear that it would be a Pyrrhic victory: There would be precious few spoils to earn from that success.

We were right, much to Sony's distress. That's because the battle was fought over a physical storage format that was rapidly losing relevance. Digital downloads had already begun, although they would never really catch on. More importantly, that was the year that Netflix added online movie viewing, foreshadowing and encouraging a future that would be streamable.

That's why the right comparison today is not between this and the last-generation game console launches. It's instead between game consoles as a whole and all the dozens of other ways people can play games, watch video, interact with friends, and otherwise pass their free time.

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Digital Disruption Requires An Organizational Fix

Apple just announced that it has cumulatively sold more than 170 million iPads since the product first debuted in 2010. For context, if iPad Nation were a country, it would be roughly tied at No. 7 with Nigeria, set to eclipse Pakistan next quarter and Brazil the quarter after that.

This boldfaced proof of digital disruption’s power to upset markets has left companies in every industry struggling to keep up with a consumer population that is happily disrupting itself. For someone who spends his days researching digital disruption and modeling its effects, on the one hand, this is good news: Everybody believes in digital disruption. On the other hand, it raises a very real problem: Nobody knows what to do about it.

Today when I meet with companies bent on becoming digital disruptors, one of their first questions is no longer, "How much time do we have until we have to respond?" but rather, "How do we get started right now?"

There is no single answer to this. Some companies are best served by locating their disruption initiative outside the company in an innovation lab where it can quickly generate disruptive momentum. Others can get a boost of internal support by building an internal innovation team and drawing resources from a supportive corporate structure. And some companies can launch multiple focused disruptive initiatives across many different groups in the organization, each one tasked with a specific disruptive goal, as long as the culture of the company is ready to incubate the efforts.

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Kindle Fire HDX Builds An Unprecedented Digital Customer Relationship For Amazon

Watching Amazon.com cut the prices of last year’s Kindle Fire devices shortly after they debuted, you may have concluded that Amazon’s tablets weren’t performing well. You may have further speculated, as I did earlier this year, that maybe Amazon didn’t need to commit to the tablet strategy. After all, Amazon has a great relationship with its customers whether they’re on PCs, mobile devices, or iPads. You (and I) would be wrong. Today Amazon doubled down on a tablet strategy, announcing three new devices for sale later this year. A new 7-inch Kindle Fire HD (starting at $139), a 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX (from $229), and an ultra-skinny 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX (from $379). In one fell swoop, Amazon:

  1. Commits to tablets as a way of committing to customers. Yes, tens of millions of people already have iPads, but another 40 million people in the US will get their first tablet between now and the end of 2016. And chances are very, very good that Amazon has a credit card on file with most all of them.
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Getting Down to Digital Disruption Details

Summer's winding down and it's time for people to get serious about closing out the year and looking forward to a digitally disruptive 2014. I can tell because the phone is ringing off the hook these days and nearly every call has the same focus: What steps can we take now to get the jump on digital disruption?
 
First, I'm thrilled to get these calls because implicit in the question is the belief that digital disruption is real. I've found that to be the case in the many months I've been on the road speaking about my book Digital Disruption and calling people to adopt the digital disruptor's mindset. Very few people doubt the unique power of digital disruption, in fact, they often have better examples of disruption to offer me than the ones I came prepared to talk about.
 
But after the mutual thrill of excitedly comparing case studies, these conversations have rapidly settled down to the same question: What can we do about it? It's precisely in that spirit that Tom Pohlmann, Forrester's Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer, sat down with me to get the straight scoop on what companies can do right away to understand and act on digital disruption. The result is an 18-minute interview that we're serving up as a podcast under the Forrester Talks Podcast. You can either listen to the whole thing in one shot (episode 1) or consume it in bite-size, topic-focused chunks under episodes 2, 3, and 4.
 
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The Welcome Shift From Many To One

For the history of humanity, for one person to make a difference, the individual had to convince many others to join the pursuit. And the convincing part was tough — whether you were Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., the amount of effort was high, and the probability of success was low. (Certainly the list of people who tried to change the world and failed is long; it’s just that we won’t know their names, which itself is part of my point.) From Christopher Columbus to Steve Jobs, individual power has really only amounted to much infrequently, and only when backed by very large and wealthy entities. Kings and queens financed the discovery of the Americas; Wall Street and venture capital bankrolled Silicon Valley.

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How To Be More Like Uber And Airbnb

I recently heard my all-time favorite excuse for why you can't disrupt yourself. It was in a session with 40 senior IT leaders of a Fortune 500 company including the CIO. Somebody brought up Uber and Airbnb, and most in the room nodded in agreement that a big company could learn a thing or two from these disruptors. That's when someone dropped my new favorite excuse: "But we can't imitate Uber and Airbnb because what they're doing is illegal."

Sure, it would be nice to just avoid taking the fast and bumpy road of disruption in favor of staying in the smooth parking lot of denial. But that's not really an option because the lessons of Uber, Airbnb, and other disruptors apply to everyone in every industry.

I don't mean to sidestep the legal question, but I do mean to point out that it's hardly the issue here. Uber and Airbnb are coming under fire because they're using cheap technology and existing resources to make their customer's lives dramatically better, one positive experience at a time. That's the real issue here, and it's the one companies of any size should focus on.

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The Commencement Address Nobody Asked Me To Give

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.

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Xbox One Wins The Launch Wars Hands Down

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.
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Google Music Service Doesn't Go Big Enough

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.

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YouTube Wants You To Pay So It Can Have More Of Everything

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:

  1. 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.  
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