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.
Twitter #music is now out and people are abuzz about how elegant it is while also murmuring about what it means that Twitter – a company with no direct music expertise – is providing a music service. At the highest level, some are asking the question: is this the future of music?
The answer is simple. No, Twitter has not built the future of music. But that wasn’t the point. Instead, Twitter is building the future of Twitter’s customer relationship. It’s a significant difference in goals and it shows other wannabe digital disruptors some of the most important principles of digital disruption that you can follow, whether the adjacent possibility you will pursue next on behalf of your customers is in music or house cleaning or education. Here’s what to learn from Twitter’s music service:
Build a customer relationship to acquire data. In a digitally disrupted world, the most important asset you have is a digital customer relationship that connects to customers as frequently as possible and generates as much of a data trail as possible. Twitter has spent years doing this for millions of users, many of them who touch the service daily. It was only after this step was successfully completed that Twitter could look beyond it. That’s already a lesson for just about everyone else.
As I write this, I am sitting in Boston’s Logan airport surrounded by healthy- but somber-looking people clad in the yellow and blue of the official jersey of the Boston Marathon. Some are wearing their medals, some are walking with a bit of a limp. All of them are on the phone with their loved ones, telling their stories of survival. I was not one of them, I wasn’t even down in the city – my favorite place to watch the historic marathon is at the 25 kilometer mark, miles away from the explosions. But I feel for them, I feel with them, and for a brief moment, we are all brothers and sisters. With each phone call, text, email, or tweet from friends and associates from around the world – especially those from Madrid and London who feel this solidarity especially deeply – I am reminded that we are better than this, we will be better than this.
How will we be better than this? In the days and months to come we will do what the best of us always do, we will support each other and work to build a better society than the one that permitted this. But what about the long run? Given my role – I am not a first responder, I was not on the front lines, the best I could do was offer my house to marathon-running friends as a place to regroup, refuel, and just be surrounded by good feelings for a while before beginning a long drive home – I am best able to help in the long run rather than the short run.
Monday’s The New York Times offers a defense of authors’ rights from bestselling author and head of the Authors Guild, Scott Turow. In the piece, Turow interprets a Supreme Court decision that allows the importation of books purchased abroad for resell in the US, making it seem like all of Western culture would henceforth be at risk. Later the same day, I read a brief statement from News Corp in which the company threatened to make the FOX broadcast network a premium pay channel in order to get its just compensation for its creative works ahead of the likely decision that Aereo is not illegally capturing and restreaming broadcast content.
These individuals and organizations have the right to do what they feel they must as they pass through the phase known as denial. But may I offer this one small suggestion to help them through the stages of grief yet to come: Stop pretending that the foe you face won’t eventually win because it will. That goes for all of you. Digital disruption will eliminate your structural advantages someday, too.
We’ve been through this before, dating back to the first time the music industry sued someone to prevent the future. No, it wasn’t Napster or the users of BitTorrent in the 2000s. It was actually Diamond Multimedia, makers of the new PMP300 MP3 players, and the year was 1998. The argument then was the same as it is today: We, the people who currently benefit from an artificial monopoly in either the creation or distribution of value, don’t want that monopoly to end.
After traveling 5,000 miles in three days to speak about digital disruption (I know, it's odd that my physical body has to go somewhere to talk about being more digitally disruptive), I fell asleep on a train yesterday and missed one of the most noteworthy events of the week: Amazon acquired Goodreads.
Full disclosure on this one up front: Amazon published my recent book, Digital Disruption. At the same time, I am a Goodreads member for more than five years; in fact, if you have read any of the most-liked reviews of the Twilight books on Amazon, chances are good you've read mine. That is to say that I am not exactly neutral on this one. But I'll do my best to be objective in answering all the anger being expressed on Twitter and in the trades when I point out that Goodreads was not saving itself for Amazon like some virginal tribute. It has been sitting there, all along, waiting for the right offer to come along. That's how venture capital works, people.
That's not to dismiss altogether the reactions I'm seeing, which range from Amazon wants to own the whole world (and to be fair, maybe it does) to How could Goodreads do this to us. But among all the hurt feelings and handwringing about the fall of publishing and the eventual reign of cohabitating cats and dogs (oh, I do hope you get that reference), I have an important question to ask, one that I am stealing from author Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) who wrote this on Twitter the morning after:
In years past, technology trade shows like CeBIT or its cousin in the US, CES, have been a place for the introduction of new devices. Whether it was Nokia introducing its comeback phone or Sony pushing 3D displays, computing technology and consumer electronics companies have used these shows to introduce the next big thing.
But what happens when the next big thing isn’t actually a thing but is, instead, the arrival of platforms that enable a more effective marketplace? That’s the shift that’s occurring in the world, thanks to digital disruption. Under digital disruption, companies innovate by using cheap (sometimes free) digital tools and exploiting digital platforms to change products as low-tech as the toothbrush or waterless hand soap. They also use those digital tools to alter the way they make and deliver their products and services, including things as analog as fingernail polish, something I heard about today and will blog more on in coming weeks. As a result, every company is now digital, no matter how physical their processes and outputs.
Digital disruption means that the technology companies that provide these digital tools and platforms have more opportunity than ever. Their devices and systems will be necessary in the lives of every consumer as well as every enterprise. Witness the amazing growth of Amazon Web Services as it enables businesses across the gamut with its cheap access to storage and delivery tools.
Once upon a time, you could trust that your business was insulated from disruptive innovation because only people already in your industry had the skills and the tools to try to change your industry. Thus, McDonald's competed with Burger King, Crest competed with Colgate, and Dell competed with HP. When innovation did arise, it came from companies that had similar economics and were evaluated by Wall Street using the same criteria. That meant that competition, although fierce, stayed within fairly defined boundaries and real surprises were few.
Digital disruption will change that -- or already has, depending on your industry. Under digital disruption, any company of any size can make a play for your business. That's how the Zeo sleep monitor, a $100 device that can monitor your sleep nearly as effectively as a $3,000 sleep lab visit can, potentially disrupts research hospitals, the makers of sleep meds like Ambien and Lunesta, and eventually the insurance companies that have an interested in promoting your health. That's how Amazon is now a major competitor for TV show pilots, using its vastly different economics to justify buying shows that would normally have a narrow set of bidders among broadcast and cable networks. That's how startup software companies are building apps to insert themselves into consumers' lives in ways that bigger companies should have done first by offering menstrual cycle tracking, DIY home improvement cost estimating, and weight loss monitoring.
Today, Barnes & Noble revealed the details behind the company's prior warnings that things in the holiday quarter didn't go well. Specific weak spots are appearing everywhere for the company, in its retail business, in its college store business, and in its Nook device business. Even the growth in sales of media for Nook devices, at nearly 7% over the same quarter in the prior year, was not growth enough to inspire confidence. Especially given that future sales of electronic content depends on robust sales of the hardware itself.
The company's dilemma will one day be a classic case study of the effect of unrelenting digital disruption, both how a traditional company can innovate under digital pressure as well as how hard it is to steer such a traditional ship in a digital direction. At this point, no single recommendation, no matter how digitally disruptive, will fix the company's problems. But once the company gets through the widely discussed option of splitting the company into two units -- the retail arm (with website) that company chairman Riggio wants to buy and the Nook unit (with college business) that Microsoft and academic publisher Pearson are already invested in -- there will be a chance on both sides to practice a fundamental tenet of digital disruption: openness.
Yesterday The New York Times picked up the hopeful news from the global music business that the revenue free-fall from $38 billion a year more than a decade ago appears to have stopped at $16.5 billion, leaving the industry at less than half its pre-digital size. This bottoming out of the revenues will come as some relief to industry executives who have wished and prayed for this day because, until it actually arrived, nobody knew for sure what type of revenues to expect in the future. That can make running a business pretty tough.
The music industry is everybody's favorite example of digital disruption done wrong -- including mine, since I covered music for Forrester several times. I have some classic stories I could tell to illustrate the point about executives who believed that suing customers was the path to profitability and so on, but I'll spare you those. However, as the author of a book called Digital Disruption, I actually owe it to the music industry for teaching me a few key principles of how to manage digital disruption: