Content Connectors: How the Coming Digital Content Revolution Will Change Everything

In my previous blog post I explained that 2014 was going to be the year of taking digital content into the home.  That affordable devices such as Google Chromecast, Apple Kindle Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku are set to drive a digital content revolution by connecting digital content with the familiar context it needs for the mass market.  These Content Connectors will transform consumers’ relationship with digital content but they will also turn the existing digital content marketplace on its head:

  • Breaking down the home entertainment silos: our digital content experiences have evolved entirely isolated from our other media experiences.  We multitask because one device is connected and one is not.  Our homes have become a collection of content experience silos.  Content Connectors break down those walls, brining our digital content experiences onto that most un-connected of devices, the TV.
  • On-boarding late adopters: In most developed markets, most consumers are digitally engaged, using Facebook, YouTube, email, tablets etc. on a daily basis. These are digitally savvy later adopters, where their behavior lags is in paying for content.  Sure, some will never pay, but others simply haven’t yet been given a solution that makes sense to them.  Content Connectors can change that by giving digital content experiences familiar context in the home.
  • Smart boxes will leave smart TV’s still born: TV manufacturers are still figuring out how to deal with the hangover of having accelerated the TV set replacement cycle too aggressively with HD.  Too many homes have perfectly good HD ready flat screen sets that they won’t need to replace anytime soon.  So manufacturers are desperately pushing 3D and Smart TVs as a reason to replace.  The problem, for TV makers not consumers, is that Content Connectors turn ‘dumb’ TVs into Smart TVs for a fraction of the cost. A TV isn’t a computing device but plug a Content Connector into it and it becomes one.
  • Breaking down media industry walls: Hardware used to create great big walls between different content genres. TVs were for broadcast video, DVDs for recorded video, CDs for audio, games consoles for games.  Multifunction devices such as smartphones and tablets started to erode those barriers by being content genre agnostic.  Apple’s iTunes Music Store became the generic ‘iTunes Store’ and now Content Connectors want to take this paradigm shift even further by freeing the biggest screen in the home form the constraints of broadcast video.
  • Leaving stand-alone stores and services stranded: The disruptive threat of the TV’s liberation is immense.  Broadcasters instantly lose their monopolistic hold on the TV and find themselves in the middle of a disruptive threat pincer movement: first non-traditional broadcasters like Netflix and YouTube can get themselves right into the traditional TV heartland; secondly non-video content suddenly finds a home on the TV, whether that be music, photos or games.  No matter, all of it competes for TV viewing time.  And no coincidence that Amazon’s Kindle Fire TV is equipped with a game controller.  What’s more, if you only offer video – which of course applies to most TV broadcasters – you look decidedly limited in the Content Connector era of multi-genre content offerings.
  • Using the TV to get consumers over the ‘ownership hump’: While industry leaders obsess over how to make subscription business models work, most mainstream consumers have not even started thinking about moving from the ownership paradigm to a consumption one.  That shift will need a generation to truly play out but Content Connectors will give the process an initial adrenaline shot.  How?  By putting digital content onto the device that consumers already associate with ephemerality.  The TV is not an ownership device nor has it ever been one.  At most it is a device on which temporary copies are viewed before being deleted.  But the majority of the time it is purely access based content consumption.  So getting mainstream consumers used to accessing but not owning digital content via the TV is the perfect environment for making an entirely alien concept feel strangely familiar.
  • Another changing of the guard: The reversing into the CE market by internet, software and PC companies was the biggest disruption the CE sector ever endured.  The likes of Sony and Yamaha used to compete in an almost chivalric manner, agreeing on standards and then competing on implementation.  Google, Apple and Amazon pursue no such niceties and compete with incompatible platforms and technology, and in doing so are wining the CE war.  The Content Connector revolution is helping the same thing happen to content distribution.  A new generation of content providers are emerging that collectively have their eyes set on world domination.

The coming shift in the digital content markets could occur at breakneck pace.  Within five years Hulu and Netflix could easily have a 100 million paying subscribers and YouTube’s ad revenue could easily be near $8 billion.  If the transition process goes the whole distance traditional content walls could disappear entirely.  Google Play could move from selling video, apps or music to simply asking consumers: “How would you like to enjoy this content? Watch? Listen? Or Play?”  Traditional broadcasters and media retailers should be scared, very scared.

Why Google Needs to ‘Do an Apple With Motorola’ to Make Play a Success

2012 has been a fantastic year for smartphones, with penetration pushing past the 50% mark in key markets such as the UK and US (some estimates even put US penetration as high as 70%).  Apple’s iPhone is the leading smartphone in most key markets but Google’s Android Operating System (OS) has much larger market share: c. 70% compared to c. 20% for iOS (Gartner estimated global market shares to be 64% and 19% respectively back in Q2 2012).  But these market share statistics can be misleading, particularly when it comes to understanding the digital content and services marketplaces.

Android Fragmentation Complicates Content Strategy

The fragmented nature of the Android landscape is well documented but close analysis of key metrics reveals some startling trends with significant implications for content providers (see figure):

Of course there are many mitigating factors, but that simply does not matter from a consumer perspective nor indeed from a content owner’s perspective.  Both iOS and Android have got vast App catalogues (750k and 650k respectively) and both have vast numbers of apps downloaded (35 billion and 25 billion respectively).  Both also have huge installed bases of devices: 450 million iOS devices and 600 million Android devices.  But there is only one clear leader in paid content: Apple.

Looking just at music sales, Apple’s music annual music sales (based on the last reported 12 months) equate to approximately $4.00 per iOS device, compared to just 50 cents per Android device.  Apple wins in part because of its longer presence in market, but more importantly because it exercises complete control of the user journey in a closed ecosystem.

The Importance of Closed Ecosystems

The success stories of paid content to date are closed ecosystems: iTunes / iOS, Playstation, xBox, Kindle.  Though the controlled nature of these ecosystems may limit user freedom, they guarantee a quality of user experience.  In these post-scarcity days of content, the quality of experience becomes a scarce experience which people are willing to pay for.  Google simply cannot exercise that degree of control because of its pursuit of a less-closed (but not wholly open) ecosystem strategy.  It depends upon device manufacturers to determine the user experience and also gives other value chain members much more control, such as allowing operators (Vodafone) and retailers (Amazon) to open their own Android stores, as well as, of course handset manufacturers (Sony).

Smartphones with Dumb Users

In a pure mobile handset analysis this doesn’t matter too much.  But from a content strategy perspective it matters massively so.    The problem is compounded by the fact that that as smartphones go mainstream the user base sophistication dilutes.   With so many consumers increasingly buying smartphones because they are cheap and on a good tariff, rather than for their smartphone functionality we are ending up with a scenario of smartphones with dumb users.  (I am indebted to my former Jupiter colleague Ian Fogg for this phrase). This factor arguably affects Android devices more than it does Apple devices because a) they are more mainstream b) they are often cheaper.  This matters for content owners because the more engaged, more tech savvy smartphone owners are also the ones most likely to pay for content.

Google Needs to ‘Do An Apple’ and Not ‘A Microsoft’

With growth slowing in the digital music space, it is clear that new momentum is needed.  Google is potentially the strongest opportunity to bring mass market traction to the digital music space, but currently its music strategy, and paid content strategy in general, is falling short due to all of the reasons outlined above.

Google does however have an incredibly strong set of assets at its disposal, in terms of installed based and growing adoption.  If Google is serious about making its Play strategy a success then it needs to start putting itself first.  Back in the early 2000’s Microsoft expected to be the dominant force in digital music because Windows Media Player was the #1 music player and Windows DRM was the industry standard rights protection.  But instead of pushing ahead with a bold Microsoft music offering it relied upon its hardware and services partners to do it for them.  Just as Google now is sensitive to the concerns of its commercial partners, so Microsoft was then.  Of course Microsoft lost the battle and their softly-softly approach was powerless to fight off the rapid onslaught of iTunes.   Microsoft eventually realized that it needed to go it alone, launching Zune, but it was too little, too late.  Interestingly there wasn’t much of a backlash from commercial partners when it did so. Launching a standalone music strategy was actually compatible with being a platform partner.

Now Google has an opportunity to learn from both Microsoft’s mistakes and Apple’s success by turning its recently acquired asset Motorola into a closed Play ecosystem to rival iTunes.  This doesn’t preclude Android partners from continuing to build their own devices and app stores, but it does create a paid content beachhead for Google, from which it can build a base of highly engaged digital consumers who will quickly learn to value the benefits of a high quality, unified content and device experience.  In a Motorola ecosystem Google can truly allow Google+ and Play to become the glue that binds together its diverse set of valuable assets.  Without it though, Play will continue to struggle for relevance in a fragmented and confusing Android user journey.

Deezer, Spotify and the Streaming Gold Rush

The music streaming world is one full of contrasts and inconsistencies.  At one end We7 and MOG sell for peanuts;  in the middle Rhapsody, Sony, Rdio, Wimp, Rara and others continue to steadily build a market; and at the other end Deezer and Spotify are sucking in investment with the force of a black hole. Spotify’s investment is well documented, but this week Deezer confirmed their seat on the fast train with a $100m investment from Access Industries, which also just happen to own Warner Music.

Leaving aside for a moment the intriguing fact that the two streaming global super powers are European, Deezer has managed to slip beneath the radar of the often US-skewed digital music world view by pointedly deciding to ignore the US market (for now).  Like a canny general who decides to march around a heavily fortified stronghold and thus effectively leave it stranded behind enemy lines, so Deezer expects the streaming war to waged on different shores.  They are both right and wrong.

The US is Saturated and Yet Potential Remains Untapped

There is no doubt that the US paid streaming market is overly catered for at present, and that Deezer would struggle to get any foothold.  Also there is clearly a much bigger scale opportunity in the remainder of the globe.  However, and somewhat paradoxically, the US market should also have much much more space, plenty enough for Deezer, Spotify and the rest to flourish in.  The problem is that the $9.99 streaming monthly subscription is not a mass market value proposition and it is not about to suddenly become one. We have had the product in market for over a decade, if it was going to hit hockey stick growth we’d have seen it by now.

To be clear, this is not to say streaming music is not a mainstream proposition, but that the $9.99 streaming subscription is not.  And that is a problem, because it is clear that for the economics of streaming to add up (for artists, services and labels alike) scale is key.  Pandora’s Tim Westergren has made the case for lower statutory streaming rates to drive scale, it is probably time to start a parallel dialogue for on-demand streaming.

But lower wholesale rates alone won’t fix the problem.  The market still desperately needs more mobile carriers, ISPs and device companies to start hiding in their core products some or all of the cost of subscriptions to consumers.  Cricket Wireless, Telia Sonera, France Telecom and of course TDC have all made solid starts but more, much more, is needed.

Price Is the Biggest Barrier to Streaming Going Mainstream

If streaming is to go mainstream the price point (for streaming with full mobile device support) has got to get towards $5, through a combination of bundling and rate discounting. Until then Spotify’s and Deezer’s gold rush millions will achieve little more than saturate the high end aficionados that the $9.99 price point appeals to.  Currently both companies look remarkably similar in terms of user metrics (see figure) but while they pursue somewhat distinct geographic priorities they will continue to find those few per cent of aficionados in each market.  Things will get really interesting when they reach $9.99’s adoption glass ceiling.

Apple: the Elephant in the Room

And of course there is an elephant in the room: Apple.  Apple have played their hand cautiously to date, conscious of their hugely influential role in the digital market and indeed in the music industry more broadly.  If they get their streaming play wrong (and there will be an Apple streaming play eventually) the results could be catastrophic for the music industry.  Apple’s 400 million credit card linked iTunes accounts dwarves Spotify and Deezer so it is understandable that the they each want to make hay while they can.  But the streaming pricing problem still needs fixing, and soon.

Apple’s $1bn Settlement: a New Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple’s $1 billion patent infringement victory against Samsung raises a number of increasingly pressing issues about innovation in the consumer technology space. There is no doubt that Apple has done more than any other single company to shape the smartphone marketplace. It is also clear that the average smartphone form-factor and feature set look dramatically different post-iPhone than they did pre-iPhone.  And there is an argument to be had that those same form factors and feature sets bear more than passing resemblance to the iPhone. But this raises the issue of where the ‘a high tide raises all boats’ market evolution argument stops and the patent infringement one starts.

Samsung is the Buffer State in Apple’s Proxy War with Google

Apple’s case against Samsung was in effect a proxy war against Android.  Samsung became the target because it was doing a better job of making Android compete against Apple than anyone else.   While competitors like Nokia and HTC have laundry lists of product names and numbers, Apple’s elegantly simple iPhone brand cuts through the smartphone name clutter like the proverbial knife through warm butter.  Among numerous other factors Samsung recognized the supreme value of establishing such clear brands (such as the Galaxy) and pivoting their portfolio around them.  Samsung became competitor #1, the Android success story, racking up a 50% share of the smartphone market in Q2012 according to IDC, which compares to just 17% for Apple.

The final impact of the ruling is yet to be seen, with countless potential challenges and subsequent actions likely to come.  There are also interesting geopolitical issues at stake, not least of which is the degree to which a Californian jury and judge will be perceived on the international stage as having the requisite impartiality to rule upon competition between a South Korean and a Californian based company.  But leaving aside the legal permutations for a moment, let’s instead take a look at the known unknowns and their likely impact on the marketplace:

  • Competitive patent strategy. Over the last couple of years we have seen an acceleration of the use of patents in the consumer technology and Internet arenas.  Patents have quickly become established as an extra part of competition strategy among big technology firms.  Now, instead of just relying on product development, marketing, pricing and positioning technology, companies can use patent claims to help strengthen their position at the direct expense of the competition.
  • Patent arms race. With the rise of patent trolls (companies’ whose sole objective is to acquire patents and then try to sue established companies for patent infringement) the big established companies themselves have started to acquire patent arsenals.  For example, earlier this year Microsoft paid AOL $1.1bn for 925 patents, 650 of which it promptly sold to Facebook for $550m.  Before that, in 2011, Microsoft teamed up with long-time rival Apple as well as with just about anyone whose anyone in the smartphone business who isn’t Android (RIM, Sony, Ericsson et) to spend $4.5 bn on 6,000+ patents from bankrupt Canadian teleco equipment maker Nortel.  Google had been on the other side of the bidding war and lost out with what was seen by some as a whimsical bidding strategy.  Google promptly went onto to buy fading handset manufacturer Motorola for $12.5bn, a company that just happened to have c.17,000 patents in its archives.  There are uncanny echoes of the Cold War with both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons.  The difference here is that the arsenals are being thrown straight into battle rather than being held back for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • Patents no longer fit for purpose? Patents raise as many questions as they provide answers for in the software and technology spaces.  Not only are they subject to legal challenge, the language used in them is often  inadequate.  What gives a piece of technology competitive edge is not having rounded corners, but the digital mechanics underneath the hood. It is the code inside a piece of software that gives it edge, not the broad user behaviour it supports.  That’s why we have market leaders in software and product categories that are crowded with lesser competitors that support the same basic user behaviour. And yet patents focus on the exact opposite of this equation.  Patents are typically vaguely worded affairs that talk about broad behaviours such as “a system for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network” (taken directly from a patent which forms the basis of Yahoo’s case against Facebook). Even the more detailed patents – such as Apple’s recent Haptics filing – have a procedural focus.  And of course they have to. Patent applications are exactly that: applications.  There is no guarantee they will be granted and so a filing company is going to be as secretive as they possibly can rather than give its competition edge.  But even if there was a guarantee there is no way in which a technology company is going to publish its source code on a publically accessible document.

And therein lies the problem, if a company is not ever going to include the secret sauce which gives its product the real edge, then what is a technology patent really going to be able to definitively cover?  If it inherently comes down to a discussion about supporting usage behaviours then we end up with an unusual and potentially restrictive lens placed upon innovation and invention.  The history of innovation and invention is that when something comes along that is good enough, it permeates through the entire market.   Sometimes this involves licensing of patents, more often than not it happens through creating similar but different inventions. Think about any consumer electronics purchase, whether that be a digital camera, a laptop or a TV: the products all have pretty much the same mix of features and form factor in their respective price tiers.  This is what has happened to date with smartphones.

However if the Apple ruling survives all challenges and is then extended it could have the effect of a forced and artificial split in innovation evolution. Instead of the touchscreen smartphone becoming another step on the innovation path it could become the sole domain of Apple and force the competition to pursue entirely different evolution paths.  Now there are obviously both positive and negative connotations of that.  But whatever your view point, it will be dramatically different from how other consumer electronics product categories have evolved.

With its origins in early 18th century England, there is an increasingly strong case for a major review of the global patent system and whether it is the right tool to strike an appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation in the 21st century consumer technology marketplace.

Who’s Competing with Who?

An interesting post-script to the Apple-Samsung case is looking at who else will potentially benefit other than Apple.  Right now there will be a host of handset manufacturers who will be hurriedly looking for a Mobile OS Plan B.  An uncertain Android future doesn’t leave them many places to turn to other than Microsoft’s Windows 8. Historically no friend of Apple but these days of course part of Apple’s Patent Pact. How long that alliance will remain intact remains to be seen, though a cynic might argue that Apple would leave it in place just long enough for Microsoft to get enough of a foothold to fragment the OS marketplace before it renews hostilities between Cupertino and Redmond. By which stage Apple could have billions worth of patent settlement dollars to wage war with…

Are EMI Censoring the Coldplay vs Joe Satriani Debate on YouTube?

You’ll almost certainly know by now that US ‘axe-hero’ Joe Satriani is suing Coldplay for plagiarism.  He claims that Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ (an EMI recording) stole from his 2004 track ‘If I Could Fly’ (a Sony recording).  This was becoming a PR disaster for Coldplay and a couple of videos on YouTube comparing the two songs were each getting a couple of million views.  In short the controversy was generating a lot of online buzz.  Some commentators were advising that Coldplay should kick their PR machinery into action.

 

Well it looks like that advice has been heeded.  As of today those videos on YouTube comparing the two songs (and other similar ones) have been removed, in their place is the following message

 

This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by EMI Music

 

Because YouTube has licensing relationships with the labels it has to be sensitive and responsive to their requests.  It looks like copyright infringement has been used here as a pretext for removing an awkward embarrassment.  Indeed a quick search finds other non-official copies of ‘Viva La Vida’ available for viewing, some (such as this one) with nearly 1 million views i.e. videos that are infringing copyright on the same song but not including reference to the Satriani controversy.  It’s somewhat ironic that copyright infringement has been used as the reason for pulling a video that discusses a copyright infringement controversy.

 

 

But this isn’t the first time the ‘copyright claim’ has been used to cover up YouTube embarrassments.  Back in July 2007  Beyonce Knowles took a dramatic tumble at a gig and mobile phone video footage spread like wild fire on YouTube.  In a desperate bid to airbrush out history SonyBMG got all the offending videos pulled, under the cover of the same ‘copyright violation’ tactic EMI have used here.  Similarly as now, plenty of other bootleg Beyonce live footage, some from the same gig, remained untouched.

 

What I said in my post at the time about Beyonce’s fall applies here also:

 

 

“What I find particularly interesting about this though is the fact that it is YouTube’s close ties with the record labels that has resulted in them filtering out the footage. To much of its audience this will feel like police-state style censorship and the curious will look elsewhere. Perhaps this an early sign that YouTube is becoming too closely aligned with ‘the establishment’ for ‘the kids’?”

 

 

 

And finally, if you want to judge on the Satriani / Coldplay controversy for yourself, here are YouTibe clips of both songs.  For ‘If I Could Fly’ move in 50 seconds and you’ll hear the part in question.

 

 

 

 

Joe Satriani ‘If I Could Fly’

 

Cold Play ‘Viva la Vida’

 

 

What do you think?