Media companies used to exist in their own separate waters. The newspaper industry was the newspaper industry. TV was TV and so on and so forth. Each of these unconnected territories had a few super-predators that were top of their respective food chains, untroubled by the small fry. This was also true of technology and telecoms. However, in recent years, the tectonic plates have shifted to reveal a single networked media ocean into which all media, technology and telecomms companies are gradually being drawn. The result is a gory realignment of the food chain as these corporate animals, so used to roaming their own backwaters as unchallenged predators, thrash around to establish who will survive. Some will maintain their status. Others will be usurped by sleek new species and left to wonder where it all went wrong. The tectonic shift was, of course, driven by rise of the Internet and the Web, and more recently the Moore’s Law-powered growth of online computing power aka the cloud. The reason the undertow is so powerful is because, increasingly, this new networked media ocean is the sea to which consumers themselves are heading. But why didn’t every big media and technology beast notice the plates were shifting to create this vast new habitat? Simply because they had...
...become so used to the world as it was; a natural world order they assumed would never change. When the currents around them began to swirl they didn’t pay attention. The significance of similar events occurring in different industries simultaneously was missed and the media players remained in their fishbowls, continuing to operate as if nothing had happened or was going to happen. They were at the top of their respective food chains and that was that.
For example, when Google came along and opened up its online global newsagent, the press barons didn’t really pay much attention. Their websites were tiny operations run by the geeks for the geeks. Little did they know these simple HTML pages were actually small leaks to the broader networked media ocean. Eventually, they would result in the power of the moguls ebbing away, as Google slowly sucked their precious content into unchartered waters.
By the time the press barons realised what was happening it was too late. Murdoch battled with Google for a while, branding Messrs Brin and Page ‘parasites’ and ‘tech tapeworms’, before throwing up his paywalls to try and re-establish the barriers to entry that a rising tide of networked media had gradually washed away.
Likewise, the music industry initially viewed peer-to-peer sites, such as Napster, as geeky irritants best dealt with by lawyers. In reality, P2P was another portal through which an industry’s content would flow into the world’s single networked media ocean. But Big Music’s super predators also didn’t notice until the damage was done. They were left feeling very alone in waters ruled by pirates who paid no attention to their legal eagles. Eventually they sought refuge in the arms of an apparent saviour, Steve Jobs, who promised a Brighter, Whiter, Lighter haven away from the bands of pirates. It all sounded great until the music moguls came to realise that the price Jobs was charging for his protection was control of their industry. Now the former killers of the music business are labouring away below deck powering the good ship iTunes across the networked media oceans.
In the telecoms backwater, it was the vast networks and carriers that sat on top of the food chain. Initially, Skype, using the P2P principal that had worked so well in music, tried to open up the industry to the wider waters, by letting people talk to each other using clever VOIP products. Once again, the telecoms whales basked in their alpha status and largely ignored the small fry. However, Skype entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis were just the vanguard. Spotting that rich pickings were being sucked into the world’s networked media seas, Apple realised that if it added some real computing power to weedy mobile phones, it could take on the telecoms’ carnivores. And indeed it did, launching the iPhone and eating the lunch of several former super-predators, before they realised that their habitat had changed for good.
For some telecoms alpha-beasts, including networks and carriers, the key to survival was to recognise the power of the new predators by giving up some territory and agreeing partnerships with Apple and Android. While others, such as Nokia, who refused to come out from under their rock, became greatly weakened and are looking like prey for technology-driven hunters.
In recent years, TV has also been drawn into the new networked seas. For a good while online TV was a rather sad, lonely experience. However, once the power of the broadband network grew and the cloud began to take shape, major players like the BBC were able to dip their toe into the waters and show what was possible through projects like iPlayer. Even this service initially seemed like a product only for geeky early adopters. However, with the benefit of hindsight such innovations, along with early IPTV projects like Joost and P2P services Bittorrent and Limewire, were similar forces to those taking grip in newspapers and music. They marked the beginning of TV’s content flowing into the networked media waters. And while last to be drawn in, the introduction of TV looks set to make the greatest waves and create the biggest battles for the most prized feeding grounds.
For a period, Hulu, the online TV service, looked destined to be one of the big new breed of predators, not least because it was owned by a syndicate of Hollywood studios. However, today Netflix is currently making all the waves sucking up content and the billing relationships that are the main source of status in this murky new world. In fact, such is the Darwinian nature of the realignment occuring that the studios appear prepared to dump Hulu, their own offspring, in favour of Netflix and its growing user base.
But these rich waters are attracting almost every predator with real teeth. Last Summer, Google launched its own TV service, a ship it invited others aboard. However, the waters have proved choppy as the Content Kings of Hollywood torpedoed the vessel on its maiden voyage, highlighting the uncertain nature of these new territories. As Sony’s Biggest of Big Fish, Sir Howard Stringer, indicated when joining the Google ship: 'Running a corporation in today's world of co-opitition is like jumping into a Viking boat where you might be handed an oar or you might be handed an axe.'
Finally, the other alien aspect of this unchartered networked media ocean is that much of it is already controlled by a new powerful type of predator. Giant schools of consumers and individuals roam the networked media ocean in the shape of blogs, social networks, video-sharing sites, forums and online communities. And the top-predators, so used to scooping up consumers like whales feeding on plankton, find they can’t get their jaws around these new entities quite as easily as they used to.
Maybe, just maybe, it will be these new consumer beasts that top the food chain in the new networked media oceans. After all, there’s little doubt that they are evolving faster than the other super-predators around them, finding ways to navigate and survive in this vast, unpredictable new world. And although not as vicious as some, without their support even apparent new monsters, such as MySpace, can quickly sink without a trace.