Of bits and big bucks

First, it’s tempting to look at music and suggest that music downloads are suffering from streaming, just as it was tempting to suggest that CD buying was suffering from piracy (and later, downloads.) But this is falling into the trap of defining a product’s use by the metrics used to measure transactions. These metrics are but a proxy for what consumers are actually doing with their time.

Consumers have a fixed time budget, a more rigid constraint than their spending budget. Competition for a slice of a consumer’s time budget is far tougher than competition for a slice of a consumer’s wallet. So what’s amazing is that apps have successfully grabbed a share of this time budget. I believe that the reason they succeeded is that they initially fit into niche time slices that were previously unoccupied.[3]

Downtime or “boredom” was filled with app interaction. This includes some social media consumption. These are not immersive experiences. They are “casual”,  inconsequential and trivial. At first anyway. And that’s the rub. As apps enter a consumer’s world they initially take on non-consumption, which is easy to beat. But as the experiences become increasingly compelling they “move upmarket” and compete more aggressively with existing media consumption patterns.

For instance, one might allow casual gaming to take root in non-consuming contexts such as commuting, waiting, and escaping time niches. But if the experience becomes addictive, the gaming takes over time previously spent watching TV or using console games. The same can be observed for app-based experiences of social media, shopping and chatting.

This is the insidious march of a disruptor. It gains a foothold in a context where it has no competition and then relentlessly gets better, eventually displacing the far better suited alternatives. This is what I believe is happening with apps. They are asymmetric in their competition with established media and as a result they are easily ignored and brushed off as irrelevant competition. That is until the incumbent media sees a sudden drop in consumption. Even then, the culprit blamed is not the upstart but some structural issue.

Music would appear less vulnerable to this app-based substitution because it’s an eyes-free experience and can be easily consumed concurrent with another activity. There is however, a subtle de-emphasis and hence devaluation of the experience as it fades into the background. The “job it’s hired to do” changes.

Of bits and big bucks |.


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