Hey, Siri, just show me how I show them the money
Apple's new HomePod sounds perfect to explain how lost media industry can be for the next decades — plural
By now, you must have heard about the new HomePod. Apple is trying (really hard) to sell it as a super high-quality speaker while everybody knows the gadget aims to go against Amazon Echo and Google Home, both hands-free speakers with voice control and a virtual smart assistant. This false dichotomy was expected, but HomePod symbolizes another kind of plight. A true one. This is the type of device — I bet you $349 — that sends a chill down all the media industry’s spine.
At the beginning of 2010, Apple introduced the original iPad to the world, presented by that nostalgic turtleneck-reality-distortion combo we all got used to. Naturally, Apple’s toy wasn’t the first tablet around (even back in 2010), but the previous iGadgets success led the company to another place on the table, so there was some hysterical expectation around it. “(The) last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it”, wrote The Wall Street Journal a month earlier in order to describe the buzz about Apple’s possible tablet. Biblical proportions: that was the kind of hysteria we were dealing with, seven years ago.
Today, it’s easy to say the iPad will never fulfill its initial (and unrealistic) expectations. I know Apple’s tablet is far from being a failure, after all it sold more than 360 million units since 2010, but apparently it reached its peak at the end of 2013. In order to give you a better picture of what difference I’m trying to establish, sales dropped from 26 million (last quarter of 2013) to 8.9 million units (first quarter of 2017).
There is an explanation about why Apple’s tablet was so overrated even before it hit the shelves: the (re)birth of an ideal platform. Back then iPad was considered the Holy Grail of new media, a promised land bringing together the digital advantages of the internet and that 'blank page' look so often assimilated to print media. Basically (and finally), a place everybody in the industry could call home (of multimillion-dollar ads). Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. And now a massive spoiler alert: the despair towards the absence of a platform is likely to get a little more dramatic — for want of a better word. Here’s HomePod to strengthen the perspective.
In the last concert of his farewell tour, tech guru Walt Mossberg played a card he was holding for quite some time: “This is my last weekly column for The Verge and Recode — the last weekly column I plan to write anywhere”, Mossberg begins his last round, entitled The disappearing computer. Obviously, there is some poetic gesture in using such a theme along with the fact that Mossberg prepared his own disappearance, but the main point is correct: computers are vanishing in front of our eyes and spreading themselves everywhere.
“The biggest hardware and software arrival since the iPad has been Amazon’s Echo voice-controlled intelligent speaker, powered by its Alexa software assistant”, Mossberg writes at some point. Glad you stressed the iPad and the Echo, Walt (not sure what we will do without you). His thinking is based on this: tech companies are not investing in physical platforms as much as they used to do. They’re working on “the new major building blocks of the future: artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics, smart homes, self-driving cars, and digital health/wearables”. It’s true. And if you’ve heard the jargon and never knew how to properly use it, here it goes: this is ubiquitous computing in its purest form.
Don’t worry, it can’t do any harm to you or to your beloved ones, unless… Well, unless you happen to be (or work for) a media company. When it became clear the iPad (and tablets in general) would not seduce users in the same remarkable way smartphones did, part of the media industry quietly started to throw in the towel. Actually, that’s an understatement: they chopped the towel and set it on fire. But the “quietly” factor is authentic. It’s not a coincidence that Mossberg mentioned the iPad and Amazon’s Echo side by side: the most recent dream product in the tech universe was — try to say it without laughing — a speaker.
Media executives, especially those born before the internet age, desperately need a platform, so they can throw their long, long texts (longer than this one) into it, and above all, spread their hard-earned ads every five “pages” (or every five minutes). Don’t believe it when people say the problem is those Instagram and Snapchat kids, they don’t read anymore. The real problem is: where the hell will the New York Times place its content inside a speaker?
Well, forget about the Times, they’re rich as hell, they will come up with something. Instead, picture a Portuguese or a Czech news company, which hasn’t figured out how to make money on the internet yet, dealing with a world without “visible” platforms… “Alexa, read the news from this specific newspaper I used to love and, every once in a while, also read some ads so I can pay for those poor journalists living expenses”.
Two years after the first Echo got out of the production line, Amazon threw a bone: Echo Show, the same otherworldly AI packed in a “retro” 7-inch display, so you can watch YouTube videos and talk to your grandma (at least, that’s what the promotional video teaches you). It won’t change a thing — years after the iPad anticlimax, it seems unlikely any media player will instantly fall for let’s-make-an-app-for-that tail.
I’ll bring Walt from his retirement one more time: “Just because you’re not seeing amazing new consumer tech products, that doesn’t mean the tech revolution is stuck. In fact, it’s just pausing to conquer some major new territory.” He’s right (again). But make no mistake: this “new territory” won’t hand out any “blank pages” like iPad once promised.
As odd as it seems, this is not a rite of passage to nowhere. It’s more like a (whole) new perspective switch. And it comes with operating instructions: first, drop the how-to-make-money-on-the-internet speech. It has been more than 20 years, so get over it: if you haven’t found out how to do it until now… Second, listen to some shrewd advice (not mine, Mossberg’s): “Home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers(…). This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us (…). I expect to see much of this new world appear within 10 years, and all of it appear within 20.” If he is right, and he usually is, that means all of you media dudes have another 20 years to get things done this time.