“#NewRule,” the tweet loudly proclaimed, “It is no longer acceptable to say, ‘I’m not a technology person.’”
It was a tweet from a user I didn’t follow, retweeted by someone I did. The latter person had added, “it is the 21st century, after all.”
I couldn’t hit the retweet button fast enough. That short, simple message had somehow given voice to all my pent-up exasperation at the techno-fear that I’ve been seeing in some of my friends lately. Yes, I thought as the message propagated across my follow-sphere, we live in the future. Stop fighting it.
That’s too harsh, of course. I wasn’t really angry, just excited that someone else had so succinctly described the truth of the new era: those of us who live in the developed world are all, like it or not, “technology people.”
That transition has been helped along by a lot of change, much of it recent. There’s a trend toward simplification in today’s tech world, especially in mobile. The days of needing a computer-science degree just to sync your address book to your PDA, of “if you don’t know how to use it, you shouldn’t be using it,” are over. Mobile technology went mainstream a long time ago with feature phones, and now even smartphones are showing up in the purses and pockets of moms and dads. In another branch of the same family are tablets: once the purview of only the hardest-core console cowboys, the modern consumer tablet has accelerated this trend toward the democratization of technology.
My mother is a great example of this trend. Her story is like countless others I’ve heard, all of them recent. Her old Dell laptop was giving up the ghost, and she was on a somewhat strict budget when it came to buying a new computer. Unwilling to let her go the cheap-computer route again (because I’d be providing tech support for another four years), I decided to give her my old iPad. Because of the phone-ification of tablets, the first-gen tablet could no longer keep up with my usage, but for Mom, I figured it’d be perfect: browsing, Facebook, email, and music. And it was! She loved it and still does.
The experiment has panned out quite nicely; she’s had a better time with the iPad than she ever did with the Dell. But a recent bump in the road gave me some pause. We were setting up the iPad for her to do some reading for an upcoming trip, and we downloaded the Kindle app. Of course, the Kindle store on the iPad is no longer contained within the app itself: because of Apple’s
draconian policies, users have to jump through some hoops. Hoops like hopping into the browser to actually buy the books, then jumping back into the Kindle app to read them.
It’s not a huge inconvenience, but it wasn’t as simple an experience as it could have been. It was annoying. And that got me thinking about all the different ecosystems the iPad plugs into, even in a relatively light-use scenario like my mother’s. If she wants to download music, it’s done through iTunes; to watch movies or TV shows, it’s Netflix or some of the network apps; for books, it’s Amazon. Then there’s other categories like magazines- downloading those is possible through Newsstand or a few other portals. And there’s problems with limited selection in many of those subsets, or too many options serving the same categories: like the iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps. Further complicating stuff is the deceptive naming of iTunes, which still sounds like a music-only store to a lot of people. I know plenty of tech-timid folks who would never even consider that something called “iTunes” might offer movies or TV shows.
From one perspective, all of these choices are great; it means you’re more likely to be able to find the content you’re looking for. But look at it from the opposite angle: if you’re a novice user, it can certainly be confusing. Even if you’re an expert, it’s at least cumbersome. You’re constantly hopping around to different storefronts, through different UI designs, to buy different types of content, using different logins and passwords. Wouldn’t it be better to have everything you could ever want housed under one roof? One store, as the headline reads, to “rule them all?”
I’m not sure that’s something that Google can pull off, but I’m fairly certain they’d like to try.
Think about the simplicity of that approach to buying content on your tablet. Not your iPad, obviously; let’s assume we’re talking about a Nexus 7, since that’s the hot new thing everyone loves to jaw on these days. Let’s put this in tabular form, just for fun:
Doesn’t that look refreshing? A one-stop shop would be simple for newbies, elegant for power users, and convenient for everyone. A single source for content means one billing account, one credit card, one-time authorization for everything. Sign up once and forget about it. Thereafter, enjoy one-click purchases of almost any kind of electronic content. Stuff could even be cross-linked across media; links to “buy the soundtrack” could appear before or after a movie, or a link to the movie “based on the book” could appear on the cover of the new novel you just downloaded. The possibilities are extensive.
There are downsides to this, of course. It doesn’t take an enormous imagination to see the problems inherent in such a centralized system. You’d be providing Google with that much more information about your likes and dislikes; instead of just learning snippets of what you find interesting based on app downloads and Gmail keywords, Google would know at what point you fast-forwarded through certain TV episodes, at exactly what page a certain book became uninteresting to you, and what scenes in movies you watch over and over again.
Also, there’s less price protection in such a model; the content providers would of course each negotiate separately with Google, but the latter’s power would increase the more popular its unified store became. It’s unclear what that would do to content pricing, but if competing storefronts lost enough traffic to Google, they wouldn’t be able to exert as much pressure to keep pricing as competitive- a scary thought.
Further, there’s a greater risk of payment information theft in a more appealing target for hackers, which is what Google would become if such a centralized store ever gained traction. And there’s also less redundancy with the “superstore” approach. Remember when Netflix briefly went down a few weeks ago due to storm activity? Imagine that happening across an entire content catalog, from apps to movies to books.
You could argue that many of those objections are moot, though. Google already has so much of our personal information, with so much momentum behind it to gain even more, that it may only be a matter of time before all of our monetizable actions and decisions have been carefully scrutinized, picked apart by Mountain View’s algorithms. Loss of financial information is always a risk in today’s world, no matter how decentralized a vendor is, and providing redundancy for services isn’t too tough for someone in Google’s position.
The challenges are enormous, from negotiation to implementation, but a unified content store would be the differentiator that would cement Google’s power play, its quest to inject itself into every possible facet of our lives. The search company would become the Wal Mart of our digital existence. Whether that sounds promising or terrifying will depend on the view you take of Google, content providers, and technology in general … but I think it’s safe to say that it’s a dream Google would like very much to make into reality.
How much would you sacrifice for that kind of convenience? Would this drive you further into Google’s welcome embrace, or fleeing to Microsoft, Apple, or the internet-less quiet of your cabin in the woods? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, so Google can index them for later utilization.