At the (excellent) Media Futures conference yesterday, I heard John Giles comment that until now media firms have been stuck with a view of their products (content) as "packaged consumer goods". As an example, he mentioned the case of games publishers moving to an online, hosted model so that games are now becoming "places that people go to", like websites, rather than things they can download and own (or steal).
This resonates with an earlier post of mine on newspapers and rings true on so many levels. In the internet era, consumer-facing media firms should not see themselves as purveyors of content but as service providers. Content is only a prop, a tool that plays a crucial but incomplete role in delivering the services that people need. Companies that succeed will be those that can deliver better services. The key is to understand what services people need.
The service the iPod offers is not to store your entire music collection in a portable way. What it offers is to let you play any song from your collection with minimal fuss, wherever you have your iPod with you. And with iTunes, it also lets you play any song you want at all (after paying £0.79).
Today I found myself reading Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Solution. Christensen sees products as things that consumers 'hire' to do specific 'jobs' (i.e. services), and he argues that successful disruptive products are those offer to do 'jobs' that are not being done well enough by existing competitors. To understand what these jobs are, says Christensen, you need to look at the broader practical context in which the job is relevant.
Consider again the iPod. It excels at the job of letting you play whatever song you want. But that's not the only music-related job you may want. Sometimes, what you really want is to entertain your guests with music of a certain style, or to have background music while you work that is to your liking but not always the same.
The iPod is rubbish at these services. Having to think about what song to play next is the last thing you want when you are in the middle of a conversation or writing something. To get a background music experience, you need to compile a playlist on your computer, sync your iPod, plug it to your stereo, and only then you are good to go. And even then, once you've listened to the same playlist a few times it becomes boring. It's no wonder that old-fashioned radio has proven so resilient. Last.fm does a better job in a sense, but because (for most people) it is PC-bound, most social contexts are ruled out.
This suggests that in the future piracy may be less of a problem than the media industry fears today. People consume content-related services, not content. They are interested in content only when nobody offers to do the job at hand for them and they are forced to do provide their own services (e.g. building a playlist). As innovative companies begin to address these needs, content will be less of a consumer product. It will be the concern only of the companies that provide the final services, and these companies have to play by the rules and pay content owners.