Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Content or the Box?

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Wolff writes an interesting profile of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. One of his passages is deeply insightful. Here’s what he says:

“When Jobs is thinking about media he is, unlike all of the M.B.A.’s in New York and second-act-reversal scriptwriters in L.A., thinking from a purer state—he’s thinking about Marshall McLuhan, patron saint of the Bay Area’s digital culture, and his holistic, even biological media world. It’s the technology, stupid. It’s the experience, stupid. It’s the box that gets us off and makes us what we are….To Jobs, with his 99-cent-song and $1.99-video downloads, content is the commodity. The machine is the precious, unique, coveted, valuable, holy vessel. The machine is the idea.”

For Jobs, like McLuhan, the medium is the message. Why is this fascinating? Because for years we’ve been hearing the media, telco, and cable conglomerates say the very opposite, that the medium is the commodity and the message, the content, the programming, is the value-add.

My conclusion is that either point of view can be right, or wrong. Does that sound Zen-like? Well, try this for size: In today’s marketplace, everything becomes a commodity, but nothing needs to be a commodity.

Here’s what I mean. Whether it’s the content or “the box”, it all becomes commoditized and imitated by competitors eventually—usually sooner rather than later. At the same time, any company can create genuine value and competitive advantage by innovating in a way that matters to customers, whether it’s in the content, or whether it’s in the box. Nickelodeon has applied delightful imagination to content, and pumps that content through the most mundane cable. Apple has applied delightful imagination to boxes like iMacs and iPods, and pumps low-cost, low-priced content from a myriad of sources through them.

The lesson? Whatever your product or service, whatever the space you choose to compete in—it’s all ultimately a low-margin commodity unless you’re able to surround it with sustained, disciplined, high-magnitude innovation. The content or the box? It’s either, or neither, or both.


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