TECHNOLOGY TODAY? IT’S ALL ABOUT TWO THINGS…

TECHNOLOGY TODAY? IT’S ALL ABOUT TWO THINGS…

CONTENT AND CONTROL – Can I find what I want? Can I operate it reliably?

DISCOVERY

When you want to listen to Beyoncé, do you navigate to Parkwood (her own label, since she set it up in 2010) or Columbia (who manage Parkwood releases) or Tidal (which she part-owns, and was the first to stream her hit album Lemonade) or NONE OF THE ABOVE … because you just type ‘Beyoncé’ into your device. The latter, of course.

The idea of searching for an artist or author by publisher or distributor is plainly absurd, yet when you want to watch ‘Sex Education’ or ‘The OA’ or ‘Our Planet’ (the new David Attenborough show) you have to go to Netflix first, where you can find those programmes. In fact, you have to know that first, because you can’t reliably browse to them directly on your device – on an Apple TV or iPad say. You wouldn’t put up with that for music, would you?

CONTENT

Things are even more complicated for magazines and newspapers. Apple just launched a new news service – for both magazines and newspapers. It’s called News+ and promises to be less sucky than the News app on your iPhone or iPad. It’s live in the US now, but not here until later this year. There are tons of magazine publishers on board but not all the big papers (for example, The New York Times, which already has millions of paying-monthly digital-only subscribers, is not on the service). Why’s that? Because they’re all terrified that Apple are going to rip their marketplace apart like they did to the music industry. Of course, Apple’s dealmakers are courting the publishers by saying ‘Look – even though you won’t be charging $40 a month (that’s roughly what a New York Times subscription costs online, if you can believe it) that model just can’t last and in any case you’ll be getting many more millions of new subscribers at a few dollars a month). Even though users only pay $10 a month (across all content) the volumes are massive, and Apple can point to the fact that they now have more paying customers for Apple Music than Spotify do. Some big brands are playing with it to see if it works – you can get some Wall Street Journal content, but not everything. Confusing? You bet.

So … back to Netflix. Netflix (like Amazon and Apple) is spending billions on unique content – much of which is amazing. There are millions of titles to choose from, and for lots of youngsters Netflix (or YouTube) is what they mean when they say ‘TV’. What they want, when they want it. If you’re slightly older you might remember that Netflix (like LoveFilm, which has morphed into Amazon Prime) used to rent DVDs by post. Guess what? They still do that in the USA – not just to rural subscribers with crappy broadband (Netflix needs decent internet speeds and Netflix viewing alone accounts for about 15% of all US internet use) but also to around 2 million customers in cities too. Why’s that? Because they offer around 100,000 titles on DVD but only around 6,000 online. Content is king. People will suffer delays, poor quality, poor resolution and even (gulp) advertising to watch what they want.

When challenged on an earnings call to make their biggest competition recently Netflix didn’t cite Amazon, Apple or the BBC. They said ‘Fortnite’. A smart answer – gaming is the real competitor for monetised eyeballs these days.

CONTROL

Apple have one big advantage over all of their competitors but they are only just starting to play that card. Privacy. They don’t sell your data to advertisers or others, and they’ve a long history of taking government bodies to court to avoid providing the private data of phone users, even if requested by law enforcement. Anything you do on your iPhone or Apple TV or Mac is validated and encrypted on a separate part of the device these days. You can share information if you like – using a third party app or cookies or whatever but it’s up to you.

That has advantages and disadvantages of course. Service providers and advertisers find it more difficult to sell you stuff, which means they don’t subsidise the core activity, but they tend to get a more affluent and engaged user when they can communicate with you. This normally means that you pay – either explicitly (there’s a higher subscription charge for what you’re watching or listening to) or implicitly (Apple stuff is more expensive because it comes with better services and content).

So does everyone like this? Well, if like Netflix, you’ve invested billions in content you might not want to make it easy for people to step away from your ecosystem, especially if they could be trying to rip you off. This week Netflix turned off their support for AirPlay (that’s when you use your iPhone or iPad to ‘cast’ content at a TV, say). They cited ‘technical issues’ but industry insiders say they’re just lowering the portcullis as the battle hots up a bit. That makes it more difficult for users.

In a world where ‘easier’ normally wins (because it’s better) we’ve seen lots more manufacturers adopt AirPlay – all new Sonos products, for example (including the cute new speakers they’ve just launched in conjunction with Ikea), use AirPlay 2 which means you don’t even have to launch the Sonos app if you don’t want to.

Let’s see which approach wins this time.