Sonos @ 15

Sonos_2015-LogoSonos, granddaddy of the connected home audio marketplace, is now 15 years old. Sonos was a pioneer that was so far ahead of its time, it inadvertently found itself as one of the key early drivers of streaming subscriptions. Visionary founders John MacFarlane and Tom Cullen had some long-term inkling that streaming would eventually be a major force for them, but their near-term vision was built on getting music downloads piped around the home. Now, 15 years on, Sonos has effectively achieved two missions: deploying iTunes around the home, as well as Spotify and co around the home. But now, the outlook is less clear. Sonos’s marketplace is complex and competitive more than ever. Furthermore, the departure of MacFarlane, a round of lay-offs and having ‘missed voice’, may have left Sonos looking less vibrant than it once did. So, where next for Sonos?

These are some of the key challenges Sonos faces:

  • Battle of the apps: Sonos hardware reflects the company’s obsession with elegance and attention to detail. But, as with so many hardware companies (in fact the majority of them), Sonos’s weak point is software. Apple makes seamless software-hardware integration look deceptively easy – it is, in fact, nigh on impossible to do well. The Sonos app works well enough, certainly much better than it used to, and the networking of devices is usually relatively pain free. But in the app economy, consumers expect apps to work perfectly, not ‘well enough’. They expect high-quality user experiences, not functional experiences with lots of clicks and swipes, which is what Sonos can feel like when doing activities like building playlists. In spite of this, the biggest software threat for Sonos is the very fact that it is a standalone app. A Spotify user does not want to have one app to use on the train, or in the car, and a different one to use in the home. This is what Sonos effectively does right now. Sonos’s new CEO, Patrick Spence, knows this needs fixing but the question is whether Sonos can make the fix before Spotify and co come up with their own fix.
  • Just play: Traditional home audio just works. You press play and there’s music. Sonos stood out way ahead of the pack – an admittedly poor quality pack – for out-of-the-box simplicity, though even now it remains a marker of good practice. However, the convenience benchmark for connected home audio still falls far short of traditional home audio. Sonos works most of the time, emphasis on most of the time. Every so often there’s a network problem; sometimes this is due to a firmware issue, other times it is the network itself. The network glitches of course aren’t Sonos’s fault but that doesn’t matter to the user experience. A CD player works every time, Wi-Fi or not. That is the convenience benchmark Sonos and all other connected audio players must meet. But even without Wi-Fi issues, pressing play is not always so straight forward because Sonos’s app experience is not on a par with its hardware experience.
  • Sonos…sonos….sonos…: Ok, that was meant to be an Echo. Yes, Amazon’s Alexa vehicle has totally shaken up the connected home audio space. And with Amazon Music integration, it sets a standard for what an integrated hardware-software service experience should be. One voice command pulls up a song in an instant, no having to select which music source to choose. Yet Echo is far from the end game. In fact, voice is not an ideal interface for music. It’s fine for when you know exactly what you want to play, it’s also pretty good for when you want to select a lean back experience e.g. ‘play me music to work out’ – but it struggles with the more nuanced use cases that lie in between. Voice is another thing that Spence knows needs fixing.
  • Good enough: And of course, the Echo is not a super high-quality audio experience. It’s a decent audio experience. Sonos might grumble at otherwise sophisticated users tolerating modest audio playback, but ever since the advent of MP3s and iPod earbuds, convenience trumps quality for most when it comes to music. Even Sonos is guilty of playing the convenience game. Though its speaker quality has improved, Sonos speakers are still a long way off the audio specs audiophiles seek. And yet, even this isn’t the biggest challenge for Sonos. The core problem Sonos faces is that the likes of Amazon, Google and even Apple are not focused on winning the home audio race, instead they view smart speakers as a beachhead for controlling the smart home. That is the war, home audio is the first battle. Just as Apple used the iPod as the first step towards winning the personal digital life war, smart speakers are being used in the same way in the home.

Under attack from all sides

There are countless other challenges too. Sonos’s mission of filling rooms with audio might not actually be what most people want. A smart speaker in the kitchen and a sound bar under the TV might be enough for most, and those may be best served via a native hardware / software / content ecosystem like Amazon’s Prime. At the bottom end of the market, cheap Bluetooth speakers are flooding the market, while for those consumers who do value audio quality over convenience, incumbent audio companies like Bose, Panasonic and Sony are all upping their games. (In virtually all markets MIDiA tracks, Bose wireless speakers are more widely adopted than Sonos.)

Foundations for success

Sonos is also upping its game and tweaking its strategy. The recently launched PlayBase shows both high-quality product design and a recognition that TV is the next big battle Sonos needs to fight, having already made good ground with its PlayBar. Sonos needs all the strategic nous and product excellence it can get. It has the low-end and high-end squeezing it in a pincer movement, while the big tech companies carpet bomb its heartland simply to gain a foothold in the smart home. Five years ago, Sonos was the golden child of its market. Now it is a company with a very strong brand in need of some laser focussed positioning in a remarkably competitive field. Sonos has enviable foundations, it now needs to build a new house.

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New MIDiA Research Blog Post on Content Connectors

We’ve just published a new report and blog over at MIDiA Research.  You can read the blog post here: New Report – Content Connectors: How the Coming Content Revolution Will Change Everything

The report topic is an issue I started developing on this blog here and here.  The report includes extensive consumer data as well as analysis of revenue, shipments and content strategy.

Normal service on Music Industry Blog will resume next week following our summer break.

Media, Technology and The Innovator Hegemony

We are at critical juncture in the evolution of digital content. Digital consumption of content, spurred by accelerating adoption of smartphones and tablets, is crashing towards the mainstream, while traditional revenues and business models continue to buckle under the strain. Legal and business disputes between Amazon and book publishers, and Google and independent record labels are small but crucial parts of this process. This period of disruptive flux is giving way to a new era of content distribution in which a few large technology companies are assuming the role of distributor, retailer, channel and playback device as one single package. The emerging new world order is defined by concentration of power, reduction of competition and the subservience of traditional media companies. The 2000’s witnessed the ascendancy of digital innovators, now we are arriving at a new chapter: the Innovator Hegemony, the era of the all powerful, unregulated technology superpower.

Free Is Now the Business Model of Choice

We are mid way through the shift from the distribution era of selling units of stuff, be they newspapers, CDs, packaged games, books or DVDs, to the consumption era where consumers increasingly value access over ownership. This shift manifest itself as a meltdown of the traditional media industries and associated retailing channels. Out of the ruins of these crumbling nation states Amazon, Apple and Google have started to construct sprawling digital content empires. Until relatively recently it looked like Apple was the only company that had learned how to make digital content works as a business, albeit as a loss leading one. But during the last year the market has inevitably buckled under the pressure of Amazon’s willingness to give away access to content as bait for free shipping and Google’s endless appetite for giving content away for consumer data.

Amazon and Google realized they were never going to win if they played the game by the Apple’s rules, which had been transplanted from the analogue age, namely charging for ownership of content. Instead they have opted for the digital zeitgeist: free, or at least feels like free. It is beginning to look like iTunes was a historical anomaly, an isolated outpost for distribution era practices in the digital realm. What Amazon and Google have done is pick up the baton Napster dropped in the early 2000’s and they have run with it.

The Innovator Hegemony

There is little reason media companies would want to cede so much power and pay the inexorable price of devaluing digital content to the price point of zero. They do so because they allowed their partners to get too powerful. This is the Innovator Hegemony. Apple, Google and Amazon all used content as a stepping stone towards achieving global scale, scale that once gained they used to swap the balance of power. Labels, publishers, authors and artists suddenly found themselves beholden to companies they had helped succeed and that success now used against them.

When Competition Legislation Protects Monopolistic Behaviour

But there is an issue of even greater significance at play: the inability of market regulation to appropriately counter the increasingly monopolistic behaviours of the big technology companies’ content moves. Anti-trust and competition legislation neuters media companies but leaves technology companies to operate with near impunity. Dating back to the analogue era when media companies were all powerful, anti-trust legislation was designed to prevent media companies colluding and entering into monopolistic behaviour. But now that technology companies own the platform control points that media companies depend upon in the digital realm, anti-trust and competition legislation has the unintended consequence of consolidating the power of the technology monopolies by stymying media companies.

The three big technology companies have a greater concentration of influence and market share in digital content than any single media company did in the analogue era. Amazon, Apple and Google have become a single, effective monopoly in each of their respective marketplaces. Thus anti-trust legislation currently has the unintended consequence of reinforcing market concentration.

Matters are not helped by the fact that media companies have become something of a busted flush at the legislative level, having over reached with copyright and anti-piracy lobbying efforts. The dramatic collapse of SOPA and the failure of Hadopi illustrate how media companies have lost legislators’ hearts and minds. After years of media industry ascendency the lobbying balance has swung towards the technology companies who are winning over key influencers such as the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

Platforms As Integrated Monopolies

Right now Amazon and Google are testing the boundaries, seeing what they can get away with before they are reined in. Amazon is unashamedly abusing its platform to hurt sales of book publishers such as Hachette and Bonnier, while Google is equally brazenly threatening to turn off monetization of music videos of labels that will not sign its overweening YouTube contract.  Interestingly both Amazon and Google appear to be testing just how forceful they can be with the independent ends of the media business spectrum.  These actions show us how vertically integrated platforms have a tendency to become internal de facto monopolies with effectively limitless internal power. Power that corrupts, and that ultimately turns the ideologies of these once idealistic disruptive start ups into police states where dissension is no more tolerated than it is in North Korea.

It is time for media companies and policy makers to decide whether they are brave enough to stand up to the Innovator Hegemony. Every content company still has the nuclear option of pulling content from the services but few will ever dare to do so – the German YouTube stand off a rare exception. And therein lies the problem, media companies already feel they cannot exist without the big technology partners and the tech companies know it. Without appropriate macro checks and balances the outcome will always be the timeless, asymmetrical roles of bully and bullied.

Did Anyone Else Notice Amazon Just Launched A Hard Bundled Music Phone?

Amazon’s long anticipated Fire smartphone was launched to much fanfare last night and includes a host of features designed to make it stand out from the pack.  But one detail that seems to have slipped beneath the radar is that, for now at least, it includes a year long access to Amazon Prime, which following last week’s music announcement, includes free access to an ad-free on demand streaming music service.

What this means is that Amazon have launched a smartphone that gives you a year’s worth of unlimited free music.  Six years ago when Nokia tried to do the same with Comes With Music the concept was ground breaking and looked set to change the future of digital music.  But Nokia’s flawed implementation of the proposition scared most of the marketplace away from the device bundle model.  Beyond Oblivion nearly made it work before folding, and its subsequent offspring Boinc and Yonder are each still trying to prove the model.  Rok Mobile are another new entrant.

I still maintain that the device bundle is the best way Apple can extract full value from its recently acquired Beats Music asset but for now all eyes will be on Amazon to see if the model is finally ready for prime time (pun sort of intended) now that it has been sneaked in through the back door.

Why Amazon’s Streaming Music Service Is A Bigger Deal Than You Might Think

Amazon today entered the streaming music foray with the launch of its own bundled music service. Amazon Prime subscribers get free access to on demand streaming from a catalogue of 1 million tracks, the majority of which are older catalogue titles rather than frontline hits. Amazon’s move has received considerably less interest and hype than Apple’s acquisition of Beats but is in many respects every bit as important.

The future of digital content is going to be defined by the content and device strategies of three companies: Apple, Amazon and Google.  Each has a very different approach resulting in an equally diverse set of products and audiences (see figure).  Amazon and Apple have mirror opposite content strategies: Apple loss leads on content to sell devices whereas Amazon loss leads on devices to sell content.  (Google loss leads on both because its end goal is your data).  All three have a strong focus on music but all three understand clearly that the future of digital content lies in having multiple genre stores that traverse music, games, apps, video, books etc.  All three also recognize the importance of hardware for delivering the crucial context for the content experience.  Similarly, all three have a Content Connector strategy aimed at opening up the mass-market digital content opportunity in the home via the TV.

content strategies

Amazon’s inclusion of music streaming in its Prime offering speaks volumes about the perceived importance of music as a product to the retailer.  Music used to be the crucial first rung on the ladder for Amazon customers.  Buyers would start off with a low consideration purchase item like a CD or DVD and the next thing they knew they were buying microwaves and computers.  Music is still plays an important role in Amazon’s customer life cycle, but it is no longer a product needs paying for with a separate payment.  Music has become the ‘feels like free’ soundtrack to a video subscription with the added benefit of free shipping for online shopping.  Out of those three core value pillars of Amazon Prime, music streaming is probably the smaller. Music has become the National Geographic channel in the cable subscription: a nice part of the overall proposition but not something that carries inherent monetary value on its own.

The harsh reality is that this is probably a sound strategy for engaging the mainstream consumer with music streaming (the extensive selection of curated playlists on top of a modest 1 million track catalogue hints at the mass market positioning).  But whether this is the best strategy for the mainstream is another thing entirely.  Labels fear that free services like Spotify free and Pandora threaten to erode consumers’ perceptions of music as a paid for commodity.  But at least in those environments they are actively adopting a music service in its own right. With Amazon Prime there is a real risk that music is being relegated to the role of muzak in the elevator.

Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle.  Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base.  That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters.  This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers.  It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared.  This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:

  • Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience.  Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners.  But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device.  Suddenly the handcuffs slip off.  This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order.  It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
  • Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans.  The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
  • Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers.  On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates.  Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years.  Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
  • Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services.  Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books.  Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge.  Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.

None of this is necessarily bad for the market either.  In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs.  To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite.  Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music.  The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest.  Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device.  Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering.  Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.

Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy?  Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading.  Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.

Apple: The Bigger Beat

As a music industry analyst, my post last Friday on the rumoured Apple / Beats deal focused squarely on the Beats Music part of the equation – if you are a hammer everything looks like a nail right?  There are of course much bigger pieces in play than an unproven music service, so to illuminate some of the bigger picture, here are some of the broader product strategy implications of what the deal could mean if it does close:

  • Wearable tech: Apple is a consumer tech company whose reputation for innovation was dented in recent years while it grappled with the challenge of retaining relevance for the mass market with a limited device portfolio while at the same time trying to nudge the innovation needle forward.  Wearable technology is an area in which Apple can innovate bravely while leaving its more mainstream phone and tablet product lines to evolve at more conservative paces.  The nascent nature of the wearable tech space means that there is much that Apple can do to both push the boundaries and gain innovation kudos.  Beats is a wearable products company, Apple is a portable technology company.  It is a wearable tech partnership waiting to happen.  Beats could even conceivably be the Apple brand / division for wearable tech, keeping it cleanly differentiated from the core device business.Whether the outcomes would be smart headphones, fitness devices, smart watches etc. almost doesn’t matter.  The important implication would be that Apple would have a fantastic platform and brand for opening up new markets.    For more on the wearable tech angle, watch this fantastic video blog from my former Forrester colleague James McQuivey
  • Segmenting music consumers: When Apple’s portable device business portfolio consisted of iPods alone it was immediately obvious who the music fans were within its customer base.  Now it is far more difficult for Apple to identify the media preferences of potential customers until they have actually started using an Apple device.  That is one of the retailing implications of producing multi-purpose devices. But start selling device-headphone bundles, or even device-headphone-music service bundles and Apple will find itself with a highly effective tool for targeting the music aficionados.  These super fans can be sold premium music products without the risk of alienating other customers with premium price points in the main product portfolio.
  • Reinvigorating the brand: Apple is not a high-end brand and never has been.  Instead Apple plays in the same brand space Sony did in the 1980s and 1990s, namely that of the aspirational premium mainstream: the top end of the mass market and just scraping the lower reaches of the upper echelons.  But the price Apple has paid for large-scale success is that its user base and brand have crept downwards.  No product can take more blame than the iPhone: the smartphone market is the most commoditized of sectors, with fixed replacement cycles, carrier subsidies, fierce competition, aggressive marketing all reducing brand loyalty and value.  Beats, for all the criticism of the technical quality of its headphones, has created an aspirational, youth focused brand built on the foundations of the aesthetics of quality.  Like Apple, Beats is a brand focused on the upper end of the mainstream and would be a great strategic complement, presenting the opportunity for Apple to reinvigorate its core brand values and at the same time enhance youth resonance.
  • Putting cash to work: Apple is a very cash generative business with an investor community that has consistently higher expectations than Apple is able to deliver on.  Consequently Apple has had to face the paradoxical situation of delivering results of unprecedented quality only to see tepid investor response.  Couple that with ever growing demands to redistribute its vast cash reserves to investors in the form of dividends and it is little wonder that Apple has been on something of a spending spree of late.  Spending big on Beats kills two birds with one stone: it puts cash to work and sends a strong message to investors.

Whatever happens to the prospective deal, what it clear is that there are countless potential benefits to Apple.  And if the deal does not transpire then it is equally clear that Apple either needs another such partner quick, or instead needs to put its cash to work right away on addressing each and every of these strategic permutations.

What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.

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 2014 Will Be the Year of Taking Digital Content into the Home

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.