Sunday, March 30, 2008

iTunes: the adverts

Surprising Apple rumours appeared last week from, of all places, the Financial Times. Apparently,

Apple is in discussions with the big music companies about a radical new business model that would give customers free access to its entire iTunes music library in exchange for paying a premium for its iPod and iPhone devices.

It's surprising because Apple has been so successful with their existing business model. Why would they go through the risk of changing it, especially if competitors like Nokia already have similar models in place?

I suspect that Apple sense a new market opportunity, and it comes from iTunes. If the iTunes store becomes free to consumers, then its usage will rocket by an astronomical amount - that's the basic law of pricing. Apple could monetize that usage by turning it into a website (rather than client application), and introducing adverts.

Apple's new browser, Safari 3.1, already contains the key components to get this done - the new HTML5 <audio> and <video> elements, plus offline file storage for your music collection. They've been circulating Safari as widely as possible - even on Windows - and now we know why. Apple could make iTunes far more 'sticky' for consumers (and hence get more ad money) by adding context to the music - user reviews, lyrics, recommendation lists, and artist news. For just $20 per iPod, Steve Jobs would be guaranteed one of the most lucrative websites on the internet.

So, is iTunes finally coming to the web? We'll find out by the end of this year.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The BBC's iPlayer

What a success the BBC's streaming iPlayer has been. It's even managed to single-handedly increase streaming internet usage in the UK by 200% in one month! Not bad for an application strung together in just a few months.

I'm still not sure the BBC quite realises what a revolution it has started. The iPlayer frees the BBC from the tyranny of the channel, which has foisted on us all prime-time game shows, padding TV to fills schedules, minority interests at midnight, and endless repeats of every programme except the one you really want to watch.

I've written some ideas for enhancing the iPlayer down, to show just what's possible with this new platform.

Increase the time limit from seven days to seventy years
The BBC has the most incredible back catalog of any broadcaster in the world. But much of it is under historic rights agreements that prevent it from being freely available to the public. So the BBC must initiate an enormous program of identifying and publishing content that's already free, re-negotiating contracts to free up historic material, and ensuring that new material is produced under agreements that allow for endless iPlayer availability.
Make search better
The search function is pretty poor at the moment. Ideally it would be possible to search across actors, episodes, producers, time periods, or even scenes within a show, with the same ease of use as Google.
High Definition
The ISPs might not like it, but why not publish new material in a range of formats depending on bandwidth, including high definition?
Add context
The video themselves are not enough. As a basic next step, the BBC should embed each video in a page that also explains the credits (as per IMDB). Next, they could add trivia, photos, transcripts, editor's comments, links to related material, and space for user-generated comments. This adds enormous value to the material, making the website far more 'sticky' as users navigate around, discovering related material and forming communities around niche content.
Open up worldwide with adverts
I see no reason why the BBC shouldn't make their content available globally, especially if it pays for itself via adverts for users outside the UK. In fact, this could be a massive new revenue source for the BBC, at no expense to UK citizens.

Satellite TV is a dying industry

In the UK, BSkyB (the provider of Satellite TV) has been dominant for so long that it's difficult to imagine anything else - rival cable companies Telewest and NTL have even neared bankruptcy and been forced to merge. And yet, I expect the roles to be reversed five years from now, because of the web.

Satellite TV is not compatible with the internet, because it's a broadcast technology - TV aerials can receive signals from satellites, but they can't transmit anything back. That makes it impossible to browse the web - how can the satellite know which webpage you want?

BSkyB has two assets - a TV content business, and a satellite distribution pipeline. Its business model has always been to ruthlessly leverage each asset against the other, purchasing football rights to encourage satellite uptake, and then promoting new content to this audience.

As content moves to the internet, BSkyB's business model will fail. It will be left with a legacy asset - the satellite distribution pipeline - that's no longer relevant. It will have to compete in the TV content business on an equal footing with its competitors. And it will have many new deep-pocketed competitors, including Apple and Google (via YouTube).

Rupert Murdoch is an incredible businessman but he will struggle against competition like this!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Apple's new SDK

Well, Apple's new SDK was quite a surprise. It's not just a better version of Safari, though there is one coming. It's a native SDK with full-blown access to iPhone features like the touch screen, video, networking, and accelerometer.

What does this mean? Firstly, it's now clear that "touch" is a new platform, not just a new phone. We'll definitely now see more Apple "touch" devices - not just phones, but perhaps tablets and surfaces. All that SDK work is creating an ecosystem that other devices will slot into nicely.

Who will develop native apps? Apple showed an array of different providers, from the enterprise (Salesforce) to messaging (AOL) and gaming (Sega and EA Games). Personally I think gamers will be the most keen - they will love the accelerometer, advanced graphics and OpenGL tooling.

The last platform

Over the years we've seen some great platforms - Windows, Mac, and Linux come to mind. Now we have the Apple Touch platform. But the Salesforce demo was very instructive; why write an iPhone app when you can just publish a website?

If the Apple Touch SDK becomes very popular, it will be because it exploits the web's weaknesses (e.g. control over sensors such as accelerometers, and video quality animations). That's the other reason why gaming is a natural fit.

This surely won't continue for much longer. The web is closing the gap (e.g. recent work on an HTML 3D canvas element, or my sensors proposal).

Could the Apple Touch be the last great platform before the web subsumes even more? We'll just have to find out!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Firefox on the iPhone?

Now we've seen the iPhone SDK, a quick thought - why not create Firefox for the iPhone?

Since we already have Firefox on Mac, it shouldn't be too difficult to port - and it would help Firefox developers strengthen their approach for multi-touch.

Personally I would love to use Firefox extensions on the iPhone...