The Last 10 Inches

When it comes to the juicy entertainment and information we all plan to get in the new digital world (some call it ‘rich’ media, others ‘broadband’ and still others ‘convergence’—all refer to the nirvana future in which you get the entertainment you want, when you want it, where you want it), conversation hovers around the question of what services, and the entertainment itself will look like.

We also have plenty of debate and discussion about connectivity and how and when enough people are going to have high speed connections that will be able to bring that fat, juicy entertainment to your front step or back pocket. Critical? Yes. But what generally gets forgotten in all of this connectivity-is-the-future service is the theme-of-the-New-Economy is the hardware.

While there’s no doubt that the recurring revenue streams, and maintenance of customer and audience relationships are in service, people have to get to them through physical devices.

Yes, I know that the margins in these ‘boxes’ as they’re called in the biz, are shrinking down to zero. Yes, I’m sure you’ve all been in meetings in which someone is talking about plans to give away free devices in order to get people hooked on their services. Mmhmm. Yes, there is a ton of jockeying right now to develop music services that can gain listener loyalty. All well and good.

The fact remains that computers as we know them now are inferior mechanisms for delivering entertainment (with the possible exception of the 22 inch apple cinema display). And it is the physical thing in someone’s hands or in front of their eyes that’s going to be the persons primary point of contact with whatever broadband wireless/ converged/diverged world we come up with. All that connectivity and entertainment needs to run to something physical. Somehow, in our eagerness to move business and creativity even farther into the intangible world, we lose sight of what is likely the most important factor in bringing someone important along: the audience. So before you plunk down that $2785 for the next conference get-together for all the darling denim-shirted brethren pulling their hair out over the last mile problem, let’s be practical for a moment shall we? Let’s ponder the place that mile needs to go anywhere: the last ten inches.

Praxil for Digital Anxiety

Hardware and interfaces are the place to combat peoples’ anxiety about technology and an increasingly intangible world. Even industries motivated by survival instincts (the entertainment business knows a little something about this), are having to overcome terrible anxiety and discomfort to move themselves forward into the new economy.

When creating an entertainment service or system for the masses, do not forget how important the hardware/interface is. In all likelihood it’s going to be a huge part of someone’s decision to use the service or access digital entertainment at all. The hardware and the interface can ease people into the intangible realm. The broadband era is only going to happen for entertainment creators and distributors if enough regular people take an affirmative step to enter it.

As long as we’re in a digital entertainment game dominated by the personal computer, then this tension-easing role is played by the software’s interface. The ease of use of a program like napster is a major reason it has spread so easily. There’s much less to get in its way.

And while it has made life difficult for the napster legally, the fact that it is dedicated to one thing—music—has also made it much much easier for people to use. Napster boasts the fastest adoption curve ever for a piece of personal software.

A Time to Collect

The acquisition of hardware is a moment when people are willing to part with their money. This has everything to do with its tangibility. Of course the device is only worthwhile when it gives one access to services and entertainment, and that package will affect the purchasing decision. But do not underestimate the importance of getting something real in one’s sweaty little hand if one is going to first have to dig into one’s metaphorical pocket, so-to speak.

Although napster has got the entertainment businesses wringing its hands over the idea that young people are being trained to devalue music, that isn’t the most productive question on which to focus.

If you’re examining how to get people to actually part with money for something they find valuable), then ask: when does someone feel like they’ve received something of value, or something (a device/service) that promises them more value? The music is still felt as valuable, but it needs to be combined with something that makes that experience easier. Right now the best thing on the block is the napster interface. If a piece of hardware or new interface can be designed that makes access to that valuable entertainment, then there’s a convenient moment to collect a purchase or subscription fee from the customer.

Both the seller and the purchaser of broadband entertainment via a device may be well aware that the margins are made on the service rather than the physical product, but the value of both to the customer/audience is merged in the purchasing moment. Hardware has something that digital entertainment doesn’t on its own. It is finite. It cannot be replicated and given away as easily as a digital file. That atomic item, the tangible device can ease a different kind of anxiety: seller’s anxiety about digital entertainment.


The tangible moment of acquisition also provides an organizing and motivating point for connectivity. That’s certainly the case with all of the successful forms of one to many broadband we now have: Cable TV, DirectTV, and Satellite. To be sure the entertainment itself is a huge part of the driving force and many have observed that music is now the main instigator of broadband connectivity. But music has been available in organized form on the Net since the days of IUMA (Internet Underground Music Archive), which was pre-Web. It took a good interface and service like napster to open the floodgates. And physical devices that bring an even simpler interaction to those who don’t feel the computer is the optimal stereo will open the gates even wider.

The physical device becomes fused with the service and entertainment in the mind of the customer/audience. This is the most obvious in the communications (cell phone, pager, Blackberry) and gaming platforms (Dreamcast, Playstation, Gameboy).

The business world knows full well that it’s not the phone the provider makes its money on, it’s the service (just as it’s not really the film that directly makes the exhibitor its profits). But you’d be surprised at the number of people who choose to finally order the service because they liked that particular phone.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of broadband digital entertainment, is that there is an element of communication, or the possibility of communication hovering in it, over it or beside it. This can mean chatting with someone about the game while you watch it, or sharing music files. At times, communication can mean nothing more than choice of entertainment: selecting one of hundreds of films to watch. The more integrated communication is with entertainment, the more the connection with it because a “high-touch” activity. This means people interact with the screen and or device more often, so the device has to be something easy to understand and something people want to touch.

Control Shift

In the past, distribution networks have been controlled at the beginning of the road that leads from entertainment creator to audience. Networked broadband systems, peer-to-peer, and the lower cost of creation change that. The newer control of the average person’s entertainment experience is the one that comes closest to them: it’s the interface /screen and the device that holds it. The device of choice while there is competition (and the broadband entertainment race has only just begun) is the one combines ease of use and choice. This means that the power role in the entertainment game is moving from gatekeeper (ie. We only let out the entertainment we want) to enabler (i.e. We do the best job of getting you to entertainment and we make sure you can find and enjoy the entertainment we make). The entertainment family is moving from the Eisenhower era to the sensitive new age years.

In just 5 years of popular Internet use, we’ve seen a layering trend. Popular Internet services, like Prodigy and Genie, were overlaid by Web. Popular web sites and services delivered through them, have been surpassed by downloadable applications for matters of communication and entertainment (Winamp, ICQ), and then the growth of peer-to-peer connected applications (napster) has surpassed even these. Web success is not sustainable alone. Each new networked layer…getting closer to the broadband environment, shows that a new winner can come out on each level.

Gentlemen and women of the new entertainment world, I urge you to make great, easy to understand, nice-to-touch-and-hold things that will bring people along to the broadband entertainment era. Because otherwise, you are going to have to wait for everyone older than GenI to die off, and we’ll have missed some great new kinds of stories by then.

And, if you don’t do it you may lose your gatekeeper role. Because someone else is going to slap a device over your piece of spectrum or stream, or service, or movie, or serial narrative, or music, and charge you to flow through it.