I’m in a bolder mood this year and I was going to come at you with another tech prediction this week, (albeit a strange one – wait until next week), but instead I’m going to have to backpeddle and address the state of a tech prediction I already made. Big news this week was that several large licenses expired for Netflix, resulting in a loss of many titles. At first glance, reading that Warner Brothers, MGM and Universal are pulling out of Netflix sounds like a death blow, and indeed the service losing the right to about 1800 movies is nothing to sneeze at, but from the sound of it, we are mostly talking about movies, (not television), and older ones at that. The announcement nearly coincides with Warner Brothers announcing its own streaming service, sort of begging the question: Will content publishers look to provide distribution for their own material? And will that work? Perhaps a better question is, why is a discussion of popular entertainment distribution relevant in this space?
The last two weeks I highlighted Windows 8 and some of the changes it heralds, (or at least tries to herald). For better or worse, (really, I should say better and worse), the tablet boom has made consumers come to enjoy the closed-but-massively-convenient model of an “app” store. Criticisms of such a model border on political, philosophical and slightly esoteric, so I’m going to ignore them for the sake of brevity, (Besides, I already hinted at most of them last week). There are a lot of good things to come out of the app-store and app-platform model, and understanding how they might influence the future of computing is relevant.
So. Understand that Netflix Streaming is an app-store, and the victories and failures of a service like Netflix is a window into the victories and failures you might experience if your computing life is tied to an app platform, which it almost certainly will be if it isn’t already.To understand what I’m getting at, consider a satisfied Netflix customer who streams about 5 movies or television shows per week. Now change the service; gut Netflix and make all of its content available elsewhere, scattered across multiple streaming services. Is this same person still going to be streaming 5 movies a week? Probably not, which is too bad is you’re a filmmaker because what you really want to see are people who regularly watch lots of movies. In fact, if you are a subscriber to such a service, compare your streaming behavior to your movie renting behavior a couple of decade ago. Did you ever rent five movies in one week? You certainly didn’t average it. Even if a five-move-a-week diet is a bit much for you now, you likely stream more than you used to rent. If you are a long time Netflix customer, you probably stream more than you rent-by-mail too.
Now, if you are a tablet user, compare your software consumption habits with those of 15-20 years ago. How much new software do you install today? How much do you purchase? Is it significantly more than it used to be? How keen would you be on installing apps for your tablet if you had to install them from a USB memory stick, (or similar), and couldn’t just download them? If you had to go to a brick-and-mortar store to purchase new software?
What a service like Netflix has in common with the app-platform itself isn’t just the convenience, but the centrality and the searchability. A catalog of convenience works better as the catalog becomes more comprehensive. If all of Netflix was scattered across several providers, minus the pain of paying for multiple subscriptions, your access to any one video would not be any less convenient. However, the connectedness of all the videos you might watch has gone down. You are less likely to “jump” from your current video to another because you have fewer options for such jumps. The “network” of movies becomes significantly less resistant to your capricious boredom.
This is slightly different from our current reality of competing app platforms, (that is, android versus iOS versus Windows Mobile, etc.), because software can overlap in function, allowing each platform to improve the completeness of its catalog independently, where the licensing of films seems less flexible. Still, catalog completeness is at the heart of the tablet boom, and as we might see with video streaming, anything that damages that completeness might endanger the platform entirely. My belief is that Warner Borthers, for example, will convince more people to watch their films if those films are sharing the pool with Universal, Disney, and whoever else is willing. And whether you are Warner Brothers or Netflix or Apple’s app store, what you want is for users to consume as much of your market as possible; this is how you increase the value of your service. People are reluctant to let go of anything they use often.
App-store models are great precisely because they maximize utility for consumer, but that utility can be fragile if the internal catalog becomes lacking. For example, many features of Windows 8 would make it a fine choice for your office, but I sincerely doubt that you’ll ever find viable Practice Management Software in the app-store, which doesn’t mean the system is unusable but rather that it asks you to use two incomplete catalogs rather than one comprehensive one, (the app-store platform, and the “regular old Windows” platform). This will impact you in the future.
However, if the app-store model continues to become the norm, you might see better solutions emerge: your appointment book, patient charts, billings, and employee schedule might each be distilled down into clean individual apps, possibly even made by different companies, (that is, the app-store might destroy the paradigm of the big expensive application suite).