The Kindle, A Parrot, and Platform Cyclicality
This Christmas I was able to play with the Amazon Kindle.
Chromewalker’s little sister (CLS), in an attempt to out-do her brother, asked Santa for one of the more recent ‘lust worthy’ gadgets on the market. She must have behaved well, for she got the new ‘international version’ Kindle. However, as usual, CLS is more protective of her gadgets than Fort Knox, and would only let me play with her Kindle under strict supervision.
In my limited capacity, I was able to test the bare minimum, but I wasn’t able to get a good feel for battery life, ruggedness, and other similar ‘long term’ attributes. Additionally, I haven’t interfaced the device with a PC; I’ve only played with it on a standalone basis. However, CLS tells me it was pretty straight forward, and that she was able to buy books online, download them, and then drag them onto the Kindle. I trust it is simple if she says so. My little sister isn’t generally very patient with technology.
But let me take a step back…to begin with, the thing looks cool. I’m amazed at how much the device has evolved from the original. The ‘next page’ keys are nice and big and although the keyboard keys are small, they’re not used often and therefore the designers were wise to minimize the space they take. The screen looks good. As a matter of fact, when I first saw the screen saver that the Kindle has in place when it is hibernating, I thought it was one of those ‘peel off’ stickers. When I tried peeling it off, CLS wasn’t happy.
The actual process of reading books on the device is rather straight forward. If you have various books loaded on the devices, you go to the home screen and then you select the book you are reading or want to read, it loads, and then you mostly just hit the next page and occasionally the back page if there is something you want to refer to. In between page movements, the screen flickers black and then back to white as the characters get refreshed. This is due to the lower power screen technology. Nothing to worry about. I also did have a chance to try out the ‘audiobook’ feature where it reads the book to you, and being an avid audiobook ‘reader’ I was disappointed to ‘hear’ the Kindle’s reading, which is frankly not good enough for more than just a few minutes before you lose your patience with it. What makes the Kindle compelling, though, beyond being able to carry a library of books on a single device, is that the Amazon book shop, as well many important periodicals, are available at the touch of a few buttons. It is about media consumption organized. In this case… print media. All commercial and non-commercial print media (or at least that’s the promise).
So, this brings me to my next point. And that is about the cycles in platform creation and evolution. The Kindle is a new platform. In particular it is a platform wholly owned and controlled by Amazon. Whilst it is designed for the user to consume print media that is commercial, it can, to a limited extent, browse the web and perhaps even listen to audio . If Amazon wanted to extend the functionality of the Kindle to play simple games like Tetris (albeit to the detriment of the battery and screen) and also opened up the platform for 3rd parties to develop games for the Kindle.. you’d now find yourself in the same position Apple found itself when it first launched the iPhone and then subsequently the App Store.
The cycle of new platforms creating value via new ecosystems has repeated itself time and time again throughout history. Each time a new platform is created that captures the imagination of the consumer because of how awesome it was in its initial or secondary revision, and games publishers, software developers, peripheral & accessory manufacturers, software distribution platforms, development kits and engines, advertising networks, and social communication networks inevitably follow. This happened (with varying degrees of success and openness) with the PC, the Mac, the various Nintendos, Segas, NECs, Playstations, and Xboxs, the various Gameboys, PSPs, DIs, and most recently Facebook and the iPhone.
Yes. Facebook is as much of a gaming platform as the Xbox, the iPhone, or a PC. There is a game or software, and then there is ‘where’ you play it. Therefore, all of these have had to have their own network of software developers that specialize in that platform create new content that leverages the benefits of the new platform. With Facebook, it is the social aspect, with the Nintendo Wii, it was the controller, with the iPhone, it was various things, but let’s just say it was the touch interface for now. All of these platform differentiating features merited a new set of specialized publishers, developers, distributors, etc that understand the specifics of the platform and of its owner and their rules. Yes, there are some players that are increasingly overlapping platforms, like Electronic Arts (EA), but generally, some companies and technologies are pretty much quarantined to the platform they were born on, because the functionality doesn’t translate well onto another platform.
It is at this point, then that I’m going to state my obvious conclusion:
New Platforms are typically the catalyst for value creation. New platforms reopen the possibility for new entrants to recycle some of the same functionality covered by another platform. Think of it as starting a business in Honduras that doesn’t currently exist but that is a copy of something that exists in the UK. Pretty obvious.
To give you an example of what I mean, let’s look at two new upcoming platforms.. one obvious, and the other, not so obvious:
First the non-obvious one – The Parrot AR Helicopter.
The Parrot helicopter + the iPhone = Xbox360 meaning… games and apps will be developed for the Parrot platform. There is a development kit out there for it already. If this ecosystem grows and everyone is using one of these toys perhaps there will be a need for location based advertising to be injected into the games or apps that are on the helicopters as they navigate past a particular spot. Additional plugs and other hardware for the helicopter itself may have to be developed.
Now to the obvious one (speculation) – Apple’s iSlate.
The iSlate is rumored to come out later this month, to be a tablet sized computer, to cost around $1000, and to have some sort of feedback mechanism for when you interface with it. Of course, since I don’t have any idea of what’s up Apple’s sleeve and these rumors could be 100% wrong, let’s just go with this idea of the iSlate for the moment. Like the Kindle, the larger screen size would allow for more visual content to be consumed… be it games, or more importantly, books, videos and the web. The iPhone, although great as a music and gaming platform, isn’t a great a ‘reader’ as the lesser-hardware-powered Kindle, mostly because of the size and battery drain. So, just like different hardware has different usage habits (iphone back pocket, carry everywhere) a tablet would fall short of a phone’s portability but not have quite the bulkiness of a laptop or even a netbook. What could you use this for? Perhaps not for lots of content authoring, at least not text authoring, but perhaps media authoring or best of all, text consumption and video consumption on the go. I still don’t use the iPhone to watch movies on the go.. it’s just too small. I would on something tablet sized though. If it were rugged enough, companies could perhaps use it (over an iPhone) to do transactions (think UPS delivery or eCommerce transactions).
I believe, therefore, that like the iPhone did, both the Parrot and the iSlate (if either of them are successful), will spawn a slew of new business and investment opportunities that leverage the specific advantages of the new platform that can’t be covered by existing players who have too much of a vested interest or limitation set on them by the platforms they are currently playing in. Whilst the iSlate may have some overlap in the platform ecosystem with the iPhone, take the Apple TV as something that could have doneso as well but didn’t. The Apple TV had the possibility to be a new platform and to plug into the AppStore ecosystem, for example, but Apple never opened it up, it’s functionality wasn’t compelling enough from the beginning, and it didn’t sell well because of it. So initial user traction needs to be there for a new platform ecosystem to develop, but, and perhaps more importantly, platform openness as well.
In general, but not always, the following areas are the ones that I almost always see re-innovated every time a new successful unique open platform is rolled out:
Development Tools (authoring tools) – To either improve on the original SDKs of the platform owner, or to enhance its functionality.
Tech Providers – Things like physics or economics engines which simplify the development of a game or software by modularizing it and letting someone else focus on some part you have interest in re-inventing. Data aggregation and analytics (of usage, users, etc) are also part of this group; sometimes as separate companies or products, or just as a plugin for current technologies in use.
Developers (content creators) – The bread and butter.. more developers. New developers that focus on the coding language du jour as well as the hardware calls for the new platform.
Publishers – The aggregators of developers. Those with the cash to either pay up front to help develop and market, or merely to mass market games or software that a developer wouldn’t be able to afford single-handedly.
Advertising – Toolkits to integrate in-app or in-game advertising for the new platform and to bring forth brands to target the key demographic of the new platform users.
Hardware manufacturers – to come up with all the peripherals that supplement the original platform hardware.
Distribution platforms – Either the platform owner owns the distribution channel (iPhone, Kindle) or there is a retail chain that takes care of it (GetJar, Mobango, Operators, Best Buy, Game Stores, etc).
Networks – As more and more games are about multiplayer experiences, sometimes the platform owners don’t have the time or incliation to code for interfacing with all social networks or even between players themselves.
Sometimes, there are ambiguities about where things lie.. take the case of OnLive. I don’t think OnLive is a new platform. It is a new distribution mechanism in my opinion, and a really cool one at that. It allows for people to play PC games on their TV without having to have the software being rendered on expensive hardware at home since it is being rendered server-side. However, these games are still part of the PC ecosystem which is now mature. I am perhaps being overly dramatic about OnLive, for they have control of some aspects like the social experience on top of the PC games, but you get my general idea… and then there are other non-gaming platforms like Google (eg. Docs, Android) and even Twitter that spawn entire new communities and ecosystems. Effectively a platform and its ecosystem can be considered successful if someone other than the platform creator can make money from it.
So, in summary. I look forward to what devices like the Kindle, the Parrot helicopter, and the Apple iSlate will bring in terms of new content to consume and new investment and business opportunities to consider in 2010. I also look forward to the maturation of platforms like Google’s Android. I don’t think I can conceive how and where I will be using those devices a year from now, but I do know that because of the hardware differences between them, new and creative ways of using them will drive the creation of new ecosystems.