The experience economy

Before World War 2, the middle-class in the developed world struggled to afford basic needs. In the post-war boom, standards of living rose dramatically, and people consumed far beyond what they needed. It was the age of conspicuous consumption: a race to own bigger cars and houses, and accumulate more stuff. The mean income in the developed world became sufficient to provide for a comfortable life.

Today, people increasingly realize they own more than enough stuff, and don’t want to pay for feature-rich versions of that stuff. Four blades in your razors are enough. In the language of Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework, the product economy overshot the mass market’s needs.

An economy of experiences is emerging in its place. Experiences make people happier than products (a fact that scientific studies support). The popularity of experiences like music concerts has skyrocketed compared to corresponding products like music recordings. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, maniacally focuses on product experiences, down to minute details like the experience of unboxing an iPhone. Customers want to know where their food and clothes come from, so they can understand the experiences surrounding them. The emphasis on experiences also helps explain other large trends like the migration to cities. Cities have always offered the trade-off of fewer goods and less space in exchange for better experiences.

The trend toward experiences is important for technology startups. The era of competing over technical specifications is over. Users want better experiences from devices, applications, websites, and the offline services they enable. It is no coincidence that interaction design is replacing technical prowess as the primary competency at startups. People who create great experiences will be the most valuable to startups, and startups that create great experiences will be the most valuable to users.

 

The lodsys case

Lodsys filed a complaint last week against a number of online retailers.  Lodsys is a so-called “non-practicing entity” – a patent holding company that doesn’t build products.  They previously filed lawsuits against Apple developers among others.  I am not a lawyer but I wanted to try to understand the case so read some of the documents.  This is my best understanding of the situation.

Here is an example of Lodsys’ accusations, in this case against bestbuy.com:

The reference to ’908 is referring to patent 5,999,908, which was filed in 1997.  It is an invention that appears to allow users to give feedback to websites:

Here is one example diagram from the patent about how the invention could be embodied:

Here is the specific claim (claim 37) that bestbuy.com and other retailers are allegedly infringing:

As far as I can tell, the first clause says that it the claim is referring to a computer product, which in the case of bestbuy.com seems to be their website, where the user and server can send information back and forth.  The second clause seems to say that this system includes computer code. The third clause seems to say this system includes a database.  The fourth clause seems to say there is a information transmitted between the user, web server and database.

Apple and the TV industry

The TV industry is a major segment of the consumer electronics industry and Apple is the leading consumer electronics company in the world. Thus far Apple has entered the TV market with a stand-alone device, Apple TV. There has been speculation about whether Apple might enter the TV market by creating an actual TV. The most convincing objections to that idea cite the unfavorable industry structure: the power of the cable operators, the low margins on TVs, the infrequency of people buying new TVs, etc.

I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at the reasoning analysts used to predict the failure of the iPhone before its launch in 2007. Some predicted it would fail because the other handset makers would successfully compete with Apple:

The iPod also conquered the problem of small screens and cheesy navigation. With its newfound popularity, the company was also able to get music publishers to agree to its terms. Unfortunately for Apple, problems like that don’t exist in the handset business. Cell phones aren’t clunky, inadequate devices. Instead, they are pretty good. Really good. Why do you think they call it a Crackberry? Because the lumpy design and confusing interface of the device is causing people to break into cars? No, it’s because people are addicted to it. Samsung has scoured the world’s design schools and hired artists on three continents to keep its phones looking good. Motorola has revived its fortunes with design. KDDI, a Japanese carrier, has a design showcase in the teen shopping area of Tokyo just to be close to trends. And Sharp doesn’t skimp when it comes to putting LCD TVs on its phones. Apple, in other words, won’t be competing against rather doltish, unstylish companies like the old Compaq. The handset companies move pretty quick and put out new models every few weeks. [emphasis added]

Other analysts predicted Apple’s phone was doomed because of the mobile phone industry structure – mobile operators commanded so much power via subsidies, retail distribution etc:

Apple will launch a mobile phone in January, and it will become available during 2007. It will be a lovely bit of kit, a pleasure to behold, and its limited functionality will be easy to access and use. The Apple phone will be exclusive to one of the major networks in each territory and some customers will switch networks just to get it, but not as many as had been hoped. As customers start to realise that the competition offers better functionality at a lower price, by negotiating a better subsidy, sales will stagnate. After a year a new version will be launched, but it will lack the innovation of the first and quickly vanish. The only question remaining is if, when the iPod phone fails, it will take the iPod with it.  [emphasis added]

I am not citing these analysts to mock them. Hindsight is 20/20 and it was quite reasonable at the time to assume that a new phone from Apple would confront the same issues that new phones from other companies confronted. What Apple ended up doing, however, was creating a phone that was so incredibly desirable to consumers that it completely restructured the industry, causing a massive shift of power away from the carriers.

Regarding the TV industry, here is what Steve Jobs said last year at AllThingsD:

Q: Is it time to throw out the interface for TV? Does television need a new human interface.

A: The problem with innovation in the TV industry is the go-to-market strategy. The TV industry has a subsidized model that gives everyone a set top box for free. So no one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us… ask Google in a few months. The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box, and that pretty much undermines innovation in the sector. The only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it. But right now, there’s no way to do that….The TV is going to lose until there’s a viable go-to-market strategy. That’s the fundamental problem with the industry. It’s not a problem with the technology, it’s a problem with the go-to-market strategy….I’m sure smarter people than us will figure this out, but that’s why we say Apple TV is a hobby.

So Jobs doesn’t believe an “additional box” is a viable strategy for seriously entering the TV industry. This leaves three places to enter: 1) integrating into set top boxes, 2) integrating into other TVs, or 3) Apple creating its own TV. Regarding #1, the last thing the cable operators want is for internet-delivered programming that bypasses their cable channels to become widespread – they see that as the fast track to become a dumb pipe. Re #2: This just seems very unlike Apple – the most vertically integrated company in tech, and famous for wanting to control every aspect of the product and user experience.

Re #3, let’s imagine Apple develops a TV that is as groundbreaking as the iPhone was. The biggest problem “smart TVs” have today is that they need clunky IR transmitters to control set top boxes because the cable operators won’t willingly interoperate. So a new Apple TV would have to drum up such incredible consumer demand that the operators would feel compelled to support it. This does indeed seem harder in the TV than in the mobile industry. At least in the US you had 4 nationwide mobile operators at the time of the iPhone launch. In TV, consumers normally have at most two real choices for traditional cable programming – cable and satellite – and two real choices for two-way internet – cable and DSL/FIOS.

Perhaps Apple won’t enter the market due to its structure. But that didn’t stop them in mobile phones where the structure was similarly difficult. The mistake analysts made about the iPhone was to assume the current industry structure would be sustained after Apple’s entry. I’d be wary of making the same assumption about the TV industry.

App store shenanigans

I’ve downloaded and tested a few hundred iPhone and iPad apps.  One thing that I’ve noticed is that many of the top rated and ranked apps are pretty scammy.  Take for example “Night Vision.”

It’s a top app in under Utilities for both paid and free iPhone apps.

If you actually download and test the app, you’ll find it doesn’t work at all. In fact, I found it made objects darker, not brighter.  See these photos with and without the app of the exact same room in the exact same lighting.

The app tries to get you to download other apparently scammy apps.  I’m guessing this kind of “cross selling” is how Night Vision got  most of its downloads.

Another clever trick they play is when you look at the app customer ratings on the iPhone App Store you see that it has 4.5 stars:

But when you look on the desktop web you see the overall ratings are vastly lower and that they seem to game the system by releasing “new versions” to reset their ratings and then probably paying people to write positive reviews:

Companies like TapJoy let you pay to get in the Top 25, and then once you are there you can get “organic” downloads by being on the toplists.

Another platform, another way to game it.

Steve Jobs single-handedly restructured the mobile industry

With the introduction of the iPhone, Steve Jobs achieved something that might be unique in the history of business: he single-handedly upended the power structure of a major industry.  In the US, before the iPhone, the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) had an ironclad grip on the rest of the value chain – particularly, handset makers and app makers.

Ask anyone who ran or invested in a mobile app startup pre-iPhone (I invested in one myself). Since the carriers had all the power, getting any distribution (which usually meant getting on the handset “deck”) meant doing a business development deal with the carriers. Business development in this case meant finding the right people at those companies, sending them iPods, taking them to baseball games, and basically figuring out ways to convince them to work with you instead of the 5,000 other people sending them iPods and baseball tickets.  The basis of competition was salesmanship and capital, not innovation or quality.

The carriers had so much power because consumers made their purchasing decisions by choosing a carrier first and a handset second. Post-iPhone, tens of millions of people started choosing handsets over carriers. People like me suffer through AT&T’s poor service and aggressive pricing because I love the iPhone so much.

I’ve talked to a number of mobile app startups lately who say their former contacts at the carriers are shell shocked: no one is knocking on their doors anymore. I guess they have to buy their own iPods and baseball tickets now.

Yes, Apple has rejected some apps for seemingly arbtrary or selfish reasons and imposed aggressive controls on developers. But the iPhone also paved the way for Android and a new wave of handset development. The people griping about Apple’s “closed system” are generally people who are new to the industry and didn’t realize how bad it was before.