Friday, July 09, 2010

Gutenberg's miscalculation: A lesson for big media?

In Clay Shirky's new book "Cognitive Surplus", he discusses a lesser-known aspect of the achievements of Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, which changed the way that knowledge was distributed and forever changed education, religion, government and commerce. The Gutenberg Bible is by far his best-known work, but it wasn't his biggest, or even most important work.

Prior to printing Bibles, Gutenberg received permission from the Catholic Church to print and sell indulgences on its behalf. (Gutenberg borrowed the money he needed to build and operate his printing press based on the anticipated revenues from selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were a way for Catholics to "neutralize" their sins and thus move from Purgatory to Heaven much faster, or even skip Purgatory altogether.

Priests and pardoners (authorized agents of the Church) would sell the indulgences and write them down on pieces of paper. Gutenberg saw the opportunity to bring mass production to the process. By pre-printing batches of indulgences, he could sell them much faster and make more money for himself and the Church. The plan backfired, however, when other pardoners got their own printing presses and flooded the market with printed indulgences. The entire practice of selling indulgences (among other things) so angered Martin Luther that he wrote his "Ninety-Five Theses" in 1517 and nailed them to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Theses were, in turn, reproduced on printing presses and widely distributed, which helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation, which in turn broke the hold that the Catholic Church had over Europe, and eventually, caused the Church to end the practice of selling indulgences.

The introduction of Gutenberg's printing press was an early, excellent example of the fact that it's impossible to predict the true impact of a discontinuous innovation when it's first introduced. Gutenberg thought that his printing press would make money for himself and the Church, but it instead led to revolutionary changes throughout European society that still resonate today.

When the Internet became a commercial reality in the mid-1990s, established media saw it as a sideline at best, but certainly no threat to their primary businesses, be they newspapers, magazines, music, books, television or movies. What they didn't foresee was the radical impact that the Internet would have on all of their businesses. In the case of newspapers and magazines, the Internet cannibalized their audiences and sources of income, replacing paid content with free services. Record companies nearly collapsed before they came to an uneasy truce with online distributors. Broadcast and cable networks found their shows scattered all over the Internet and worked desperately to get distribution back under their control.

Now, established media companies are grasping at apps as perhaps the last chance to keep their historical business models alive. They can sell apps, as well as subscriptions to the content made available by apps. That strategy works so long as apps are the only way to get to the content that people want to access, but it's a strategy with a limited future.

Earlier this week, Google released a new version of its mobile website for YouTube, written in HTML5 and far superior to the YouTube app supplied by Apple. It takes two clicks to put the YouTube site on the iPhone home screen, and from that point on, it's indistinguishable from an app. Eventually, all the content that's available on the Web will be available via HTML5, at which point the walled garden of apps will no longer provide any protection for established media companies. Apps may postpone the day of reckoning for media companies, but they won't eliminate it.
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