The Futures That Fizzled
THE FAILURES. Just because technology is new and interesting doesn’t imply success. Media developments of recent decades include at least as many failures as successes. Naturally, we haven’t heard as much about Microsoft’s Kin as we have about Apple’s Iphone. In less than two months, the Kin proved to be a spectacular failure whereas in less than two years the Iphone had become a technical historical phenomenon.
There are a numbers of ways to fail. Expressed differently: it takes a lot to succeed with a new service or device. The technology has to be right. Product launch must happen at the right time. It has to be protected from both cloning, and from others creating something better that can do the same thing. Moreover, it must be user friendly.
Video, telefax, minitel, Microsoft Kin, Philips VCR, JVC, VHS, Betamix, timeshift, Play, DVD, Blue Ray, Nintendo, France Télècom, aol.com, aftonbladet.se, Metro, Ipad, Rupert Murdoch
Faith in the successful destiny of new technology is punctured by a number of experiences. With the introduction of video, it seemed that scheduled television’s days were numbered. The advent of telefax seemed really to be a technique that was here to stay: such a radically improved alternative for communicating text messages.
In France, Minitel—telecommunication terminals with a smaller screen for text messages—was introduced on a broad scale. It’s theoretically still possible to use Minitel but in practice the technique has been discontinued.
The latest enormous failure, Microsoft’s cell phone Kin, introduced in the USA on April 12, 2010, survived only 48 days on the market. It may well be the shortest lifespan ever for a billion dollar investment.
“Time shift” that fizzled
The history of video technology is probably one of the most interesting. The first home video players were introduced in 1973. Initially, there was fierce and prolonged competition between the different video formats, possibly causing a delay in video’s breakthrough. Philips’ VCR technology dominated initially but, after a few years, Japan’s JVC launched VHS technology, competing against and then dominating over Sony’s Betamax technology, also fairly new on the market.
The battle of video format was decided, but the technology—making it possible for a consumer to record a television program and then watch it sometime later—never really took off. Video technology was used instead mainly for viewing rented or purchased pre-recorded videocassettes at home.
The battle of video format perhaps delayed video’s breakthrough, but there were apparently other factors contributing to the flop of home-recorded video. A partial explanation lies in its complexity or, rather, it’s lack of simplicity. Despite the television industry’s worthy attempts to simplify the process of presetting the machine to record, it remained too complicated to achieve a massive breakthrough.
Another reason for video’s nonsuccess—a bit more hypothetical but nonetheless interesting—could be called the paradox of programming. Features listed in the current television or radio guide are eagerly awaited; once they disappear from the listings, they somehow lose their attraction. The viewer or listener is keen to watch or listen to the program at the time it’s scheduled to air. But when the “scarcity factor”, forced by the rigidity of scheduled programming, disappears, this eagerness of the viewer or listener seems to diminish as well.
It begs the question: will this same behavior surface after the initial interest in “time shift” listening or watching on the Internet begins to wane?
We don’t think so.
A third reason that “time shift”, with the help of home video recorders, didn’t enjoy any real success probably hinged on the availability of movies—for rent or purchase—that weren’t yet available for viewing on the free television channels. The business model for the release of new films became a launch chain: first at the cinema, second as a rented or purchased film, third on the pay channels and, finally, on the free channels. This meant that the films listed in the current television guide were likely to be less up to date than rental films.
There was, then, a content premium in renting or buying a movie rather than recording it oneself on videocassette.
Add to these factors a rapid technological evolution. By the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s, VHS emerged as the format of choice in video. Less than ten years later, the number of available television channels exploded. Five years later, the Internet began its triumphal success. In 2010, the “play” function on the Internet arrived.
While it’s important to understand the lack of success of home recording, it’s also important not to underestimate the attraction of video. During a period of 10 to 20 years, the “video store” became a media and cultural institution in the economically developed parts of the world. It was, and still is, a part of everyday life for many people to rent a movie, even if DVD and Blu-ray have replaced VHS technology.
Video games are television- and video applications that certainly didn’t fail, and for more than ten years they’ve been an integral part of the Internet.
The enormous magnitude of the video games market is illustrated by Japan. Nintendo belongs to the biggest company in Japan and has, at times, been among the top three most valuable companies on the Japanese stock market.
Telefax and Minitel
The fax played a big role but for a fairly short period of time. Fax technology was already old, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that small, relatively simple and inexpensive fax machines became available. The impact could have been great but, after only a few years, email began to replace text message communication. The fax still plays a role.
Personally signed documents may still be sent by fax even though the electronic signature is well on its way towards being established. The history of the fax isn’t as interesting as that of video. The continued advance of technology is clearly what banished the fax to the margins of media structure but complexity played a key role regarding video.
was a large and prestigious venture. Millions of terminals were distributed free of charge. Through these terminals—and they were indeed terminals, not computers containing information—households and companies could connect with the phonebook, send text messages, buy tickets, and lots more.
France Télècom estimated there were nine million terminals by the end of 1990, used by about 25 million of France’s approximately 60 million inhabitants.
The same thing can be said about Minitel as about the fax. Technological development marginalized Minitel. Everything Minitel offered was available much more conveniently on the Internet. One big difference was, of course, the nature of the Minitel project.
The fax was basically a technology that rose and fell with the market. Minitel was a national development and—if you will—prestige project. National development politics went hand in hand with strong French corporate interests. Minitel has, thus, shown significant “resiliency”. Integration with the Internet has now been achieved which illustrates both its strengths and weaknesses. Minitel offers, hence, a payment model for accessing media content, for example. But media content that is free of charge on the Internet requires the cost of a call when accessed using Minitel.
The Internet Portals
Internet portals could possibly be placed on the list of new technology failures. The idea with Internet portals is that each user enters the Internet through the chosen portal. The portal’s opening page—and the site structure underlying it—provides the user with an easy way of finding information of interest.
Perhaps more importantly, it allows the company behind the portal to guide the user to pages, sites and services beneficial to the company. In the best of worlds, user and company interests go hand in hand. The “Internet portfolios” of various companies reach each and every one of their users. America On Line was, and remains, one of the largest, purely portal companies. The site www.aol.com is still one of the most visited sites in the world. The number of subscribers peaked in 2002 when it reached over 25 million whereas today subscribers number about five million.
Specialized portals include the homepages of large media companies. One of the most successful—relative to market size—is Aftonbladet.se, owned by Schibsted.
Dynamics of failure
To get a grasp on the continuing media development, it’s important to try to understand the dynamics behind the earlier failures.
A first important component of failure is launching the right technology, but one that is too sensitive. Its continued development creates altogether too quickly a technology that better satisfies the need.
The telefax is a very good example of this. Fax technology had just broken through in the professional world when electronic networks and, very soon thereafter, the World Wide Web, began to flourish. The fax as a part of home electronics never quite made it.
A second component of failure is overestimating the ability to build protective walls around the service. In the worst-case scenario, the lack of common standards or policies means the technology hasn’t enough time to break though before the next big evolutionary step occurs. The battle among video formats is an obvious example. The development of television as such, in general, is marked by many examples of long, drawn-out battles for technological dominance. Radio’s evolution includes a current case: technology for digital broadcasts, where there is neither any broad international consensus on the technology itself nor a common strategy for its execution. But even if radio’s digitalization is only delayed, the repercussions can be significant.
We see this now when it comes to payment for services on Internet, especially regarding film and music. The attempt to strictly uphold an old copyright policy has led to a much greater erosion of the copyright policy than would have occurred had the original copyright policy been adapted to fit the external conditions of the new distribution technology.
A third component of failure include sequating new technological possibilities with the use of new technological possibilities. Video technology is extremely interesting in this regard. At a glance, it seemed perfectly obvious that the possibility of “time shift”—that is, watching a television program at a time chosen by the viewer—would be extraordinarily attractive. But in the win-lose calculation made by, in principle, every television viewer, the costs outweighed the gains. Remembering to preset the video recorder and to stay on top of the planning involved was more trouble than it was worth.
This can also be expressed as the success of new technology or a new technical application demands simplicity. It simply was too difficult to record television programs.
Parallels can be drawn with other areas of technology. We know that most cell phone users exploit only a fraction of the features available on modern cell phones.
If we study driving—that is, the really big area of our daily lives where technology is sophisticated and complex—the simplicity is striking. Anyone who has mastered the basic skills of driving is able to, in practice, drive any car at all.
A fourth component of failure—at least a possible one, and one that is partly related to the previous—is the lack of understanding of the cultural, if not to say the ritualistic, character of media consumption. More than four million Swedes listen to the radio every morning. It’s a part of an inherited and learned morning ritual. Reading the printed morning newspaper at the breakfast table is also part of the morning ritual for many people. There’s nothing that says the morning’s ritual of reading the newspaper will remain the same if newspapers are distributed electronically, to be read on a computer, cell phone or e-reader.
In many countries, part of afternoon or evening rituals has included viewing television news at a certain time. It may seem like an obvious advantage if the viewer is able to choose the time of day to view the news but, again, the everyday ritual then loses its ritualistic character.
It’s not altogether far fetched that Marshall McLuhan comes to mind. If his thesis is correct—that media is so much more than the content it conveys—then it isn’t at all unthinkable that a newspaper, radio or television habit can change profoundly as a consequence of substantial technological advances.
In the relatively near future, we’ll likely discover whether a habitual behavior means that listening to the car radio will persist or if the new technological options (for example, listening to one’s own Spotify lists on an Iphone connected to the car’s sound system via Bluetooth) will significantly influence the listening audiences of Swedish Radio as well as commercial radio.
A fifth component of failure, one that bridges the last two, is that the categories we concern ourselves with in the discussion of media consumption are too one-dimensional. Is the Internet replacing radio and newspaper? Naturally, that depends, among other things, on why one listens to or reads something, and what it actually is that one listens to or reads. There is, undeniably, a pretty big difference between a stockholder farmer who listens regularly to weather reports and financial news and a single, retiree who listens regularly to any program airing a genuine human voice.
Radio can be radio, but it can also be radio or radio. Put differently: what radio is today satisfies a wide range of functions. The same goes for newspapers and television.
A sixth component of failure is a lack of insight into the situational importance of media consumption. Today, one can listen to all the world’s radio channels via Internet. But listening demands computer access—when one wants to listen and where one wants to listen.
The big newspaper companies in Sweden refused to consider the idea of the free newspaper, , when presented by its founder. The idea of Metro was to essentially build on the material of the newspaper-owned news agency, TT, material already available to all Swedish newspapers. Sure, Metro would be free of charge, but what kind of business idea was it to offer a newspaper containing the same material already seen in the morning paper, and in a country where most households did indeed receive the morning paper?
The people behind the Metro idea courted the management of the two big Swedish morning papers. They didn’t grasp that it was the form of the paper’s distribution in combination with the situation in which Metro would be distributed that was the main idea behind the paper.
Metro would be distributed in the mornings in the subways of Stockholm—the city with the most developed public transportation system in the world—when people were on their way to work. The average subway journey in Stockholm takes about 12 minutes, just the right amount of time to read a paper like Metro. Metro targeted an unallocated window of time in the everyday life of the people of Stockholm. It was access and opportunity, not the content or form of the newspaper, that made Metro a success in Stockholm.
A seventh component of failure, in its way the most trivial of all, is doing the right thing at the wrong time, usually too early. It might be that the technology isn’t fully developed but, often, it’s simply that the media company doesn’t envision its product in its proper context. It must be the right product, but the market must also be ripe for the product or at least be able to be ripened.
The daily news sites illustrate this. On the inside of the newspaper business, technicians and interested journalists pushed for progress. There was no clearly developed business idea. Further, the products weren’t adapted to suit anything customers were already demanding but rather to satisfy the coworkers’ unfettered desire to produce.
The result became a financial black hole. From a wider marketing perspective it was also a wreck. Significant amounts of competence and work time were invested in posting material on the Internet but no one even knew if the posted material was wanted.
Fall 2010, two decades after the introduction of the web, there remain three questions of relevance regarding media and the continuing technology evolution.
- Will the smart phone make a massive breakthrough, not just as a cell phone with lots of extra services, but also as the microcomputer that will essentially replace the personal computer and laptop?
- Is the e-reader about to make its big breakthrough, not the least as a consequence of the introduction of the Ipad, or is it just another technical Internet device in an increasingly fragmentized landscape of machinery?
- Will Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to exact payment for previously freely available material be successful and, as such, attract followers on a large front?
These three key questions can be tested against the described components of failure. In practice, the answers may lead to totally different media situations. If e-readers and smart phones take very strong market positions, will it mean that users turn more and more to special “apps” for navigating the Internet? If so, this in turn will open the field for the development of payment technology.
Next chapter: Is cyberspace infinite?