I first learned about this book when I got the news that Tim Wu was going to be coming to the school to do a talk on it.** It’s a really engaging read. He sets the scenes well and pulls the reader in, while still advancing his larger point.
Which is basically that with the introduction of any new technology–and the disruption of the old models of monetizing whatever previous technology or methods are being displaced by the new innovations–there’s a period of openness. Experimentation prevails. There is a flourishing of creativity and of different models, different voices and so on. People can set up backyard equivalents of the new technology and put out their services or creations and reach some audience.
And then, things start to close down. The public, initially enamoured of the wide selection and the plurality of voices, starts to get drawn to something that is more mediated–and therefore of more consistent quality. And so, the entrepreneurs who manage create a model that mediates and distributes most effectively while using the new technology will prevail.
He gives example after example, from different periods, using different technologies. But ultimately, the larger pattern is the same. He argues persuasively, and points to this same pattern, as defining the shape of things to come as well.
I believe him. We’re already seeing this. A certain company whose symbol hearkens back to one of our main creation stories, and its beautiful, fun, gorgeously designed devices–alongside its draconian, litigious back end policies–blends up the precise combination of high quality of product and ruthlessness of business model that is needed to start carving up a monopoly on the market.
Most users are blinded by the colourfulness of the apps, enchanted with what they *can* do with the products, to notice or care about what they *can’t* do. And that’s the genius of the brand and the devices. I use them and I love them, even while I chafe and wince and the kinds of things the company that creates them does.
They have created beautiful, walled gardens with their portable devices (dare I say neo-Edenic? After all, many of us have taken a bite out of this particular fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We are fully aware of what we’re getting, what we’re submitting to).
There are small apertures in the wall that allow individuals dwelling within the gardens of their devices to access such a dizzying array of entertainments and utilities that they forget the walls are even there–they’re too busy reading downloaded books, or playing games; revising novels, or making short films; to notice. Or better still, even if they do, they still choose it because if they stay in the walled garden, they will have access to tools that they cannot get elsewhere, all on one device (that would be me).
This is the model that is working: devices that are so seamlessly designed, and so well-integrated that the user is guided easily and effortlessly into paying for the services and goods they seek to download. Devices on which it is easier to pay for apps and books and songs legitimately, than it is to do a hack (both on the device and the app, much of the time) and load them via indirect means. Few people will bother–it’s just too complicated, and is generally not worth the “free.”
So this is happening. The monopoly is forming–or has formed. It’s a strong one. As creators, most of us will probably have to buckle under, sooner or later. And in return, we get distribution and all that goodness. This is major–I’m not downplaying this in any way. I really do respect what The Co. Who Shall Not Be Named has done. And I actually love their devices and what they allow me to do–how much easier they make my life in so very many ways, and how they boost my productivity prodigiously.
It’s just that after a period of openness, where we’re dictating the terms, and doing things according to what we think is fair, it’s all the harder to let go of that, and allow some new giant to take control and set the terms.
So I have launched this experiment knowing all this. I’m still wanting to gain insight, if possible, into valuation. I still want to see if there’s some chance of pursuing this model (or some other like it, for that matter) and being an indie in a world where the shadows that the giant co’s are casting are growing ever longer, as the co’s get ever larger and more dominant.
*I don’t believe Tim Wu is actually a doctor (though he might have a PhD in AWESOMENESS–an entirely valid proposition). This is basically just a cheap reference to a Steely Dan song (my husband is a big fan) and I kind of thought this added a cool 1960s SF movie feel to the title of the post.
**The story behind this appearance is pretty cool, and speaks to my doctorate in AWESOMENESS theory (TW has an amazing CV of course, but this doesn’t necessarily make him awesome, in itself). Basically, TW was appearing in Toronto, at a few events, all of which charged a fair bit of cashy money. One of my classmates posted on twitter, asking whether anyone knew if TW was doing any no-cost talks in town [insert comment about high law school tuition and being broke here]. TW saw the @ mention and responded that if my classmate organized an appearance, he’d come and speak. And he did, so TW did. And it was good.