2014 is shaping up to be the year that the chasm that separates consumers digital content experiences and their home entertainment is bridged. Amazon, Apple and Google have all embarked on a quest for the lower end of the market with Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Chromecast respectively. Meanwhile a host of interesting new specialized music entrants are making waves, including Pure’s Jongo and forthcoming devices such as Fon’s Gramafon and Voxtok. And then of course there’s the granddaddy of them all Sonos, that continues to go from strength to strength with an ever more diverse product range and list of integrated music services.
Regular readers will know that I have long held that the living room (along with the car) is one of the two final frontiers for digital music. The great irony of digital music’s brief history to date is that it has transformed music from a highly social one-to-many experience across speakers into a highly insular and personal one delivered through ear buds on phones, MP3 players, tablets and PCs. It is no coincidence that streaming music services desperately attempt to artificially recreate the missing social element with the blunt tool of pushing play data into people’s social streams. To be clear this is not to take away from the personal consumption renaissance, but instead to illustrate that music is disappearing out of the living room and other home listening environments. When the CD player disappears out of the home – and it is doing so at an accelerating rate – for many households music amplified music playback disappears too. This is why digital music needs bringing into the living room, the den, the kitchen, right across the home. It is a concept I first introduced in 2009 at Forrester, and revisited for Billboard early last year and again here later in 2013.
We Are Entering the Fourth Stage of Digital Content
Getting digital content into and throughout the home is the next stage of the evolution of web-based content. The first stage was getting it there (Napster), the second was getting it onto consumers’ portable devices (iTunes), the third was providing frictionless access (YouTube, Spotify, Netflix) and now the fourth is getting it into the home. This fourth stage is in many ways the most challenging. All of the technology that underpinned the first three stages was computing related technology (PCs, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets). All of those device types are a) highly personal and b) have evolved as computing enclaves within our homes. Besides the niche of households that have smart TVs or web connected radios, the majority of the devices that the majority of households spend the majority of their prime media consumption time with (i.e. radios and TVs) remain separate and disconnected from the computing centric devices. The fact that the computing devices are heralding a new paradigm of consumer behavior – media multitasking – only highlights the separation of the two device sets. Indeed the vast majority of multitasking time is asynchronous (e.g. checking Facebook or email while watching TV) rather than being an extension of the primary media consumption behavior.
Efforts are Focused on the TV
Chromecast et al are all designed to bridge that divide, to turn our key non-computing home device – the TV – into a quasi computing device, so that we can bring our digital content experiences into the home entertainment fold. This, as Amazon, Apple and Google all know, is where the battle for the digital entertainment wallet will be waged. The downside for the music industry is that the TV device focus will naturally skew the dialogue to video content, which is why Sonos and the growing body of specialized music home devices are so important. If the industry relies too heavily upon TV centric devices to lead the home charge, it will be left fighting for scraps rather than being centre stage.
Context is Everything
However labels, music services and hardware companies (including Amazon, Apple and Google) already need to start thinking beyond just getting digital music into the home. They need to think about what extra relevance and context home music experiences should deliver. The likelihood is that the rich UIs of PC, tablet and smartphone apps will have to recede, in the near term at least, to allow simple, elegant device experiences. In effect they will need to almost get out of the way of the consumer and the music. In some respects this echoes the ‘zero UI’ approach of app-of-the-moment Secret. Which in turn means that curation and programming will become the key differentiation points. Not in the sense of ‘here are three artists we think you’ll like based on your prior listening’ but real programming of the type that has helped radio remain the single most widespread music consumption platform throughout the digital onslaught.
2014 will be the year that the divide between the computing devices and the traditional entertainment devices in the home will start to be bridged. But that is simply the enabler not the end game. It is once the divide has been bridged that the real fun begins.