Jim Kerr is the vice president of strategy for Triton Media, where he assists in the strategic growth and integration of all of Triton Digital’s portfolio companies and partners.
Ask any media company about their mobile strategy, and one of the first things they’ll discuss is their fantastic content strategy centered around their app. Dig a little deeper, however, and the frustration starts to show. Do they develop just for iOS? Do they add Androidand Blackberry? Is Symbian dead? What about feature phones — should they just ignore these?
The answers are problematic for media, because if you peel back the excitement and dazzle of mobile tablet and phone device innovation, you find the kind of chaos that makes strategic planning nigh impossible.
The recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was a microcosm of this broader issue. Like many, I was dazzled by all the new products. But when you looked beyond the hype over the Xoom tablet, the Atrix cell phone or the Entune dashboard, the panels and hallway discussions suggested an underlying hardware ecosystem in significant flux.
I mentioned the difficulty in developing across multiple OSes in the cell phone and tablet space, but this is complicated now by multiple form factors, as well. From a cell phone screen to a 7 or 10” tablet, can you really make one size fit all? This problem of system complexity was addressed again and again at CES and continues to be an industry sore point.
The irony is that as systems have gotten more complex, content strategies have gotten simpler. The recent industry-wide media strategy of focusing on adapting content or cutting it into chunks and providing various pieces for various destinations is now practically dead. “Give consumers the content, and let them choose where to consume it,” is the mantra of the day. Of course, a strategic caveat is that consumers want content where and when they want it. But the “what” is now everything they could expect from other distribution sources, from DVDs to TV shows to radio stations.
This is what makes the underlying device and OS chaos all the more maddening for traditional media. They’ve finally figured out a content strategy, and their distribution strategy is up in the air.
This is true of phones and tablets, but to get a really good taste of these issues, just take a look at automobile dashboards as an illustrative example. There has been a tremendous amount of positive press about the potential for content creators in this realm, but even a quick survey of the digital dashboard ecosystem reveals it to be a total mess.
The lack of standards is an even bigger problem in dashboards, not to mention the very real concern over distracted drivers. Unlike a stand-alone device like a phone or a tablet, in-dash devices need to interact with other car systems, many of which are manufactured by third parties. Car dashboard system standards development has been painfully slow and is still nowhere close to a solution.
The Wild West
It is tempting to just say, “but that’s the dashboard, it’s different.” But UI and OS issues exist across all devices. QNX is a company with a long history in auto electronics infrastructure. At CES, Andrew Poliak, QNX director of automotive business development, basically threw up his hands in frustration over various OS differences. QNX’s solution is to develop an open web-based platform using their own codebase. Interestingly, this is the same OS that will be used by the Blackberry Playbook, one of the hyped new tablets expected out this year. In both cases, QNX parent company Research In Motion is making a large bet that openness and web-based standards will win out — in both tablets and in the dash. Their goal mirrors media content strategy perfectly: A consistent user experience across all devices.
In short, media faces a device and OS environment that is like the Wild West. While the expectations of the users are known, the OSes will change; the standards will change, and device innovation will continue. At this point, no one knows really what is worth fighting for or which UI will be the one that dominates. Will the chaos lead to a consolidation to three or even two dominant mobile OSes in the tablet and phone space? Will it all implode in a return to web standards and applications, powered by HTML5, as quite a few speakers at CES predicted?
For content companies, this chaos requires a deft strategic hand. If you listened to the conversations in the halls and paid attention to the panels, the momentum appears to be in favor of HTML5 and web-based solutions. Content-specific device apps are, at best, going to be disrupted and, at worst, going to be phased out entirely. Accepting this as the reality changes a lot of things for media companies, from the wisdom of large OEM app deals to creating a development team around iOS or Android development.
But this is still far from assured. In the short term, apps are still the key player in the device and content space. Dealing with the mess of cross-platform and cross-OS development is just something media has to do, although hedging their bets away from large-scale investment in one OS or OEM may be wise at this point.
The interesting thing is that it took years for media to realize that their mobile content strategy was ultimately quite simple. At the end of the day, perhaps their distribution strategy is just as simple: Hire a bunch of mobile web developers.