Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

6 11 2007

Steve Jobs’ recent announcement that he will support third party apps on the iPhone was welcome indeed.  At the time, I thought that it was odd that he had waited so long to announce it (or, on the flip side, why he didn’t wait until Macworld in January) and wondered why THIS timing.  Google’s announcement yesterday about their approach to  the burgeoning telephony market makes many things clear.  It’s going to be a fight between forward-thinking giants.

The “telephone as computer” market is already pretty hot in the Far East and parts of Europe with more and more functions being put on smaller and smaller pieces of hardware.  The US has, as usual, lagged far behind.  But within the last several months it has become clear in what ways this showdown is going to happen.  Apple is going to try and put as many applications as it can bless onto its phone.  Google is going to let anyone put anything on their own phones, so long as Google gets a piece of ad revenue and gets to mine data as much as it wants.  Apple, in short, will go it the Apple way — as complete control of hardware and OS as they can.  Google will go it the Google way — control of data, while letting everyone else fight over the scraps that don’t really matter.

And, into this mix, (and taking the one step back in our title) is the AMPTP, the association of Motion Picture companies (they have the word Producer in their title, but they aren’t really) who have been tangling with the writers in their just initiated strike.

It’s hard to feel sorry for either side — both groups are fairly well-off compared to the general population of people or companies, and much of their discussion seems to be whining.  But they are locked in a struggle for the late 20th century here.  Making money off of the Internet is so… well… nineties.  And while we’re all still building new business models, the traditional entertainment industries seem bound to a self-made promise to keep the old business models as long as they can.  The AMPTP wants to keep as much of the old revenue as possible because they don’t have any faith that new ones can work.  But, just in case, they’d like everyone to back off from them for awhile so they can make some money there (if they don’t completely fuck it up).

As someone who had trouble finding a movie this summer that he could see all the way into the second reel, I don’t find it surprising that the motion picture studios want to cut down on the revenue that its writers are making. Why not, when budgets have become so bloated by bad decision-making that the only way they feel to make money is to chop workers’ expenses (look for more union busting ahead) and eke a paltry living out of copy-protected digital downloads.  No one is up for making partnerships on these new sources of revenue, unless you’re a small company that doesn’t make in ten years what the majors sneeze out in bar bills in a month.  Everyone is waiting until someone else makes a ton of money in Web-based media, and then they’ll try and buy them.  It is by far the dumbest, least intuitive, way to turn a profit that I can think of, and everyone is doing it in this business.

And they’ll keep protecting it until the world blows up.  In the meantime, companies like Apple and Google have to deal with yesterday’s thinking — publishing agreements that are so different across European countries that it could be years before all of their citizens are able to purchase music or films on the iTunes store, music contracts that are so convoluted that the safest way to avoid a lawsuit is to not do anything, keeping innovation beyond the back burner and into the Stone Age.  And, finally — but not really, there are the telcos — the phone companies who are so jealous of innovation that they lock down partnerships and cel phone manufacturers, and mobile content etc. etc. etc.

Whew, I need to go for a walk before I explode.

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