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.

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Media Companies: Your Nightmare Piracy Scenario has Arrived, And Its Called Popcorn Time

Two years ago I said that the nightmare piracy scenario for the media industries would be when the pirates gave up trying to fight enforcement and turned their attentions to build great user experiences.  Now with the arrival of Popcorn Time that scenario has come to pass.  However bad piracy might have been for media companies, it is just about to get a whole lot worse.  This is the new era of Experience-First Piracy.

Popcorn Time is an open source interface that sits on the top of pirated video content on torrents.  Instead of downloading the video Popcorn Time streams them to the end user, with titles selected from a neat Netflix-like interface.  In fact one might argue a ‘Netflix clone’ interface (see figure) but with new releases that Netflix does not even have.  On top of all this Popcorn Time is open source, with installer and project files all hosted on developer collaboration site GitHub, and with the app built on a series of APIs.  With multiple development forks already this is an entirely new beast in the piracy arena.  Forget whack-a-mole, this is potentially a drug-resistant, mutating contagion.

popcorn time

In fact Popcorn Time looks exactly like what I envisaged two years ago:

“What if a series of open source APIs were built on top of some of the more popular file sharing protocols so that developers can create highly interactive, massively social, rich media apps which transform the purely utilitarian practice of file sharing into something fun and engaging?  If you thought the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.”

Piracy for the Mainstream Consumer 

Until now, piracy was largely the domain of youngish tech savvy males (69% male, 50% under 35). Popcorn Time and the inevitable coming wave of new Experience-First piracy apps will give piracy truly mainstream appeal.  It looks and feels just like the real thing, only for free and with even better content.  What’s not to like?  Worse still – for media companies, not consumers – these sites might – even have a legal defense as they do not actually host any of the files.  The emphasis there is on the ‘might’ as it is an argument that ultimately the Pirate Bay was not able to defend in court.

Three Ways to Hit Back at Experience-First Piracy

So what can media companies do to respond to Experience-First Piracy? Legal action will be the first port of call but ultimately it is a pain killer, not a cure.  The problem itself needs addressing with three key strategic focuses:

  • Windowing: Netflix can only dream of having the content Popcorn Time has, just as early licensed music services could only dream of having the catalogue Napster had in 1999/2000.  The movie studios need to learn that lesson fast, and treat Netflix and Amazon Prime etc. as tier 1 release window partners.  As soon as a release is ready for its first post-theatre window it should go straight onto the paid video services.  BlueRay and DVD are fading yesteryear technology, the media industries’ most engaged and valuable audiences are online and using online services.  It is time to treat them as first class customers, not second class ones.
  • User Experience: Before Experience-First Piracy, the retort to media companies was that all they needed to do in order to stay ahead of piracy was to create more compelling alternatives.  Now the ante has been well and truly upped.  There will never ever be the user experience gulf again.  That time has gone.  This means licensed services have to be continually pushing the user experience envelope, using their capital to hire the very best designers and developers.  Which means that content companies need to saddle them with as little up front rights acquisition debt as possible, freeing them up to spend big on development and design.
  • Pricing: The harsh reality of the internet economy is that when something is widely available for free you have to make your paid-for product even cheaper than it was intended to be.  For Netflix and Spotify et al, that means getting below $5 a month.  Ironically this happens at just the time that Amazon increases its pricing for Prime and Netflix is considering increasing its pricing in order to cover higher rights costs.  Media companies have a crucial decision to make: do they want to get more revenue per user out of a user base that will quickly lose share to Experience-First Piracy, or instead do they want to take a near-term revenue hit in order to shore up their digital service partners’ longer term future?

The fact that piracy has spent so long locked in a user experience quagmire is testament to the media industries’ counter measures: pirate sites were just too busy figuring out how to evade enforcement to focus on user experience.  But now that era has come to a shuddering halt.  It is difficult to over state the dramatic effect Experience-First Piracy will have on the paid content landscape unless media companies do everything within their powers to help the nascent licensed services respond in kind.  The smart companies realized long ago that content is not the product, experience is.  Unfortunately the pirate’s just figured this out too.

Got Milk?

milkPoor Samsung launched their latest punt at digital music success just as Spotify was stealing all the media oxygen with its acquisition of the Echo Nest.  Samsung’s latest venture, curiously called ‘Milk Music’, is another attempt from the smartphone giant to carve out some mindshare and consumer traction in the digital music space.  Like all but one smartphone manufacturer – you know, that one from Cupertino – Samsung does not have the best of track records when it comes to digital music, having recently culled its previous Hub service.  Milk is a Pandora-like mobile radio app and while it certainly suffers from ‘me-too syndrome’ it is not actually a terrible strategic fit.

With 200 stations and a catalogue of 13 million tracks, Milk Music has some muscle but it is hard not to see it as a thinly veiled attempt to ‘do an iTunes Radio’.  However there is not necessarily that much wrong in doing exactly that.  iTunes Radio is a very neat service that is well geared towards the mainstream, less engaged music fan.  That is exactly Samsung’s addressable audience.  Samsung has been at the vanguard of the mainstreaming of smartphone adoption, so much so that many of its devices are smartphones with dumb users.  Milk Music is however limited to the Galaxy range of handsets, which will to some degree filter its audience towards Samsung’s more engaged users.

No smartphone manufacturer has been able to make music work like Apple has.  In fact no smartphone manufacturer has been able to make content and services as a whole work like Apple has.  Apple’s ecosystem is a fascist state compared to Android’s federated democracy, but at least the trains ran on time in Mussolini’s Italy.  That absolute control of the user experience enables Apple to deliver on the single most important part of digital music product strategy: the service-to-device journey.  It just happens, and seamlessly so.  So many other phone companies have failed to understand the importance of this ineffable magic.

Samsung might be able to get it right with Milk Music, but because they are part of the federated states of Android, they will also have to tolerate a bunch of pre-installed incursions from fellow Android states, not least Google’s Play Store.  Apple meanwhile ensures there is just one place for music on its devices.

Samsung desperately wants to make music work and to its credit continues to throw money at trying to fix the problem.  Free radio might just be the best first step.  Especially considering that just 1% of Android consumers state they intend to start paying for a music subscription service and that a quarter of them say they have no need to pay for music because they get so much for free.  Milk Music might be feeding that free music habit, but it could also be the foundation for something bigger and better.  In the meantime, if you can’t beat them…

Why Spotify’s Acquisition of the Echo Nest is a Test Case for the Age of the API

Spotify’s acquisition of music data and recommendation company the Echo Nest is a clear statement from a pre-IPO Spotify to the market that it takes the challenge of the Tyranny of Choice seriously.  In doing so it has established ideological fault lines between it and rival Beats Music. While Beats has put its faith in human curation Spotify has bet big on algorithms. It’s men against machines.  But the most important implication is neither this nor even the fact that Spotify now powers the discovery tools of many of its competitors, but instead the shockwaves that Spotify could send throughout the entire tech start up ecosystem if its screws up how it deals with the Echo Nest’s API.  This is the first major text case for the Age of the API.

Over the last half decade open APIs have become a central component of the technology space with countless start ups opening up their code and data for other start ups to riff off.  It has been a win-win for start ups on both sides of the equation: the givers more quickly permeate throughout their target marketplaces while the takers get to short cut to functionality that might be otherwise unobtainable.  Consequently we now have countless companies that are built upon a patchwork of interconnected APIs and a richer seam of products and services.

This is the exact strategy the Echo Nest pursued, aggressively pushing their API out into the digital music market place with very liberal usage terms and putting themselves at the heart of the Music Hackday movement.  (Few Hackday entrants worth their salt will be found without the Echo Nets API coursing through their virtual veins.)  Only Soundcloud can lay claim to having been more successful in the music API game.

But now that the Echo Nest is deeply embedded in the digital music marketplace what happens if it turns off or dials back its API? Currently it is making all the right noises, that its API will remain both “free and open”.  But there is a big difference between the aspirations of a newly acquired company and the actual behavior of the buyer 12 months or so down the line.  Indeed, a highly plausible scenario is that Spotify will eventually wind down the Echo Nest as a distinct entity, bringing all of its functionality behind the walls.  After all, if you break down what motivated Spotify’s acquisition, other than the prime motive of sending the right message to the street, the core assets are not the data itself – Spotify has plenty enough of that – but instead the expertise and the technology.  Data is worthless if you cannot interpret it properly.  Why let competitors benefit from that?

So right now the technology sector as a whole should be paying close attention to what Spotify does with the Echo Nest’s API.  If it does indeed eventually turn off the tap then it will rightly make investors and start ups alike question the strategic integrity of building businesses on the foundations of third party APIs.  Spotify needs to get this one right because the implications are far bigger than Spotify’s IPO, or indeed even the broader digital music market.  Instead this is the future of the entire technology start up marketplace.

 

What Is Really Cannibalising Download Sales

As 2013 music sales figures come in, the picture of streaming growing while download sales slow is coming sharply into focus. It is one of a clear phase  of transition/cannibalization (delete as appropriate depending on your point of view) taking place because the majority of paying music subscribers were already download buyers.  But that is not the whole picture.  There is an even fiercer form of competition for spend that, as far as the music industry is concerned, is inarguably driving cannibalization.

The iTunes Store accounts for the majority of the global music download market and has done so since its inception eleven years ago.  Back when it launched, the iTunes Music Store helped transform the iPod from a modestly performing device into a global hit.  Music was the killer app, music was what Apple used to sell the device and music is what iTunes customers spent all of their money on.  But all of that changed.  As Apple’s devices have done progressively more, Apple has introduced new content types into its store that better show off the capabilities of its devices.  When Apple launches a new iPad it doesn’t have a label exec holding up the new device playing a song with static artwork displayed…that simply would not showcase the device’s capabilities.  Instead an EA Games exec gets up on stage with a new game that fully leverages the capabilities of the iPad’s graphics accelerator, the accelerometer, the multi touch screen etc.

Music may still be the single most popular entertainment activity conducted on iDevices but it is no longer the app that fully harnesses the devices’ capabilities.  In fact because music products and services remain stuck in the rut of delivering static audio files – YouTube notably excepted – it is increasingly failing to compete at the top table in terms of connected device experiences.  Crucially, this is not just a behavioral trend, it is directly impacting spending too (see figure).

itunes spending shift

Back in 2003 music accounted for 100% of iTunes Store revenue because that was all that was available.  Over the years Apple introduced countless new content types, each of which progressively competed for the iTunes buyer’s wallet share.  The step change though occurred in 2008 with the launch of the App Store.  The impact was instant and by mid 2009 music already accounted for less than 50% of iTunes revenue.   By the end of 2003 the transformation was complete with Apps accounting for 62% of spending and music less than a quarter.  Quite a fall from grace for what was once the undisputed king of the iTunes castle.

Now it is clear that the app economy is a bubble that is likely to undergo some form of recalibration process soon (80%+ of revenues are in app, 90%+ of those are games, and the lion’s share of those revenues are concentrated in a handful of companies) but the damage has already been done to music spending.

If music industry concerns about download cannibalization should be addressed anywhere it is first and foremost at apps.  At least with streaming services consumer spending remains within music rather than seeping out to games.  Though the bulk of the app revenue is ‘found’ incremental revenue, apps are additionally competing for the share of the iTunes’ customers wallet i.e. growth is coming both from green field spend and at the expense of other content types.

So what can the music industry do?  It would be as foolish as it would be futile to try to hold back the tide. Instead, music product strategy needs to do more to embrace the app economy.  That means, among other things:

  • More fully leverage in-app payments (and that means labels will have to take some of the hit on the 30% app store tax)
  • Learn to harness the dynamics of games (that does not mean ‘gamify’ music products necessarily – though it can mean that too – but to understand what makes casual app games resonate)
  • Develop digital era, multimedia products (see this report for some pointers on where music product strategy should go)

Though we are nowhere close to talking about the death of music downloads, apps have turned the tide for music spending.  The music industry can either sit back and feel sorry for itself, or seize the app opportunity by the scruff of the neck.