It must be mid-holiday season again. While our minds are elsewhere, journalists are licensed to inflate and selectively invoke evidence of boom and bubble, to the point where we have all lost sight of reality in our wonderment that investor X has valued the start-up Y at $15 billion, before it has earnt a cent or its founders used a razor. Charles Arthur, a very knowledgeable technology journalist, set off down this track on Sunday in The Observer (17 August 2014).”New tech bubble – or new business model?” argues that bubbles may be harmful, but Arthur is too clever to do exactly what the silly season demands and write an article that gets liberal-minded readers pursing their lips and wondering if we really want all this new media technology, and whether bubbles threaten the economy just when the Brits have restored growth through a consumer housing purchase bubble. He knows as well as the rest of us that neither boom nor bubble nor bust accurately describe what has happened since the mid 1990s.
When we look back on the post-internet investment scene we will see that future technology became the bargaining card of present technology. In each five year period those who had succeeded in the previous period were forced to buy into the next generation in order to persuade investors post-IPO that they were not going to be overtaken by events. This inevitably involves paying silly prices for as yet undeveloped assets. Some of those bets will work, others will only work after constant re-iteration and when the market is ready for them. Some will fail and be quietly buried in the place where Mr Murdoch put My Space. But this is not bubble culture – it is building value in the only way that this market understands. This is never going to become “more realistic”, since by its nature it has to be unrealistic to persuade us that it is serious.
But blow away the bubble talk and serious things really are happening. For a start, the UK football (soccer) authorities have suddenly discovered that users are recording highlights (you know, those rare moments when someone actually scores a goal in the beautiful game with the ugly manners) and putting them on social media, where they are passed from hand to hand to no pecuniary advantage to the authorities. These administrators must be related to Rip van Winkle – where have they been dozing all these years? And waking up and saying this must stop is not an answer. On the other hand, making it easier to do legally within a package offered by football to enhance user enjoyment could be a great move. Yet, this is happening in the context of a shrinkage in the revenues generally earned from video, as the same network-invoked sharing capacity does to video what it has done to every media form. I was very excited by an article by Liam Boluk in Media Redefined (http://www.mediaredefined.com/a-redef-original-if-video-is-b-668292818.html?curator=MediaREDEF) kindly drawn to my attention by Neil Blackley. This demonstrates in great detail the revenue decline in video, and shows us the inflationary and deflationary trends we really should be watching. Not who is paying over the odds for what, but what are users doing with this media avalanche that their networks now provide, and how do they value it.
So it is simply not enough to look at the video market and say it is all down to Netflix spoiling the party. Netflix was one of the over-valued start-ups a few years ago that journalists in mid-summer page fillers called empty bubbles. Liam Boluk points out how cheap US TV, wherever you tap into it, now is – and how very unproductive the licensing deals done by Disney et al have proved to be. He might have said how commoditized it now seems – unless you actually want a seamless palimpsest of low value advertising and entertainment, without the effort of selection, most channel based offerings in many parts of the world feel the same. Mr Boluk points out that the average US home spends less on video entertainment today than it did in 1998, although volume consumed has risen. He says that the value of consumer rentals and purchases,”which are critical to profitability for almost all content owners”, have fallen by a third in this period. Are we sure that the bubble is in the pricing of Snapchat, or in the Murdoch bid for Time Warner?
Is there a solution to all of this? Having stood, like old Tiresias, amongst the burning towers of Fleet Street and the regional press, having observed the desperate attempts of the book world to innovate without changing the business model, having watched the humbling and consolidation of the music industry, having witnessed the decay of business and professional media in print and the decline and fall of value in advertising markets universally, it is tempting to say No. But clearly that would be very wrong. Mr Boluk says the way forward for video is to find new ways of telling stories. And to find it in new forms in fields like mobile, and not just by reheating the archive product.
And how right he is. He cites the Virtual Reality player Oculus Rift (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oculus_Rift) as an example. While no one yet knows whether the Rift headset will succeed, the Facebook purchase, worth up to $2 billion if it earns out, will underline Facebook’s determination to stay a front line player as it too becomes commoditized – and to re-assure its investors of that intent. And VR is one of those many areas where huge promise is recognized, but constant iteration is needed to get closer and closer to the awakening pulse of the user. What we are watching here is a ceaseless beating of waves on a shoreline as a tide comes in, and a hugely exciting “after media” marketplace is revealed. No bubbles here at all.keep looking »