42 million ipods sold so far. Over 100 a minute in the three months to Christmas. 1 million nanos in the first 17 days. 75% of all MP3 players are ipods. 850 million tracks sold on itunes. Those are pretty incredible numbers. Except they’re not, not really. Compared with the number of mobile phones sold or even the number of Nintendo GameBoys sold (over 360 million is the figure I’ve seen), it’s not a huge number. For sure, that many ipods coupled with a small bounce in Apple’s PC market share driven by ipod carryover has goosed Apple’s stock (up 5 fold in no time flat), and certainly Apple own the largest share of the portable digital music player market (although I’m pretty sure that their share is declining now even as their sales go up). And I say this as a huge fan of Apple and ipods – I’m writing this on a Mac and I have at least 3 ipods, maybe 4.
What I was intrigued by though is the “crossing the chasm” nature of what the ipod and, more specifically, itunes has allowed. MP3 players were geeks only until the ipod. With successive generations, they’ve become standard issue for anyone from teenage kids to chalk-stripe suited accountants.
I bought my first portable digital player somewhere around late 1999. A Rio 600 I think it was, from Creative. I needed to have my own PC at home to really use it and up until then I’d always had just an office PC. About the same time I was one of the few people who had access to the mobile Internet via WAP on my Nokia 7210 phone. The 600 had either 32 or maybe 64MB of RAM – I’d look but I know I threw it out just recently when I moved house – enough to store one or maybe two albums of music. It was quite a hassle – load the music up on your 1x or 2x speed CD; update the track names of the songs, perhaps using an online database but mostly not (broadband wasn’t around and te Gracenotes CDDB service wasn’t as slick as it is now); wrestle with the MusicMatch software whilst it constantly told you that if you upgraded to the paid for version you could get access to somethingorother better; squirt the album of your choice down the maddeningly slow USB 1.0 connection; listen to the music;rinse and repeat every time you were bored with the tracks you had on the gadget. Unsurprisingly, I was quickly bored with the whole thing and the gadget was consigned to the bottom of the drawer where I keep all my other “I really gotta have one of these” things.
Then, in 2002, along cames Apple with the ipod. Sleek, white, simple to operate with the potential to store 1,000 songs or more. I didn’t even own 100 CDs so this sounded attractive. It even came with a firewire connection – nice and fast, as long as you had the port on your PC (and, thanks to Sony, I did – but of course, PC support came later than the Mac version so I had to wait). But what really sold it for me was itunes. Without itunes, it was just another gadget that required you to be more patient than you needed to be – something that I find particularly difficult. With itunes, you loaded up your CD, it sorted out which track was which, it squirted the music to your ipod in no time flat (compared, at least, with the old way of doing it) and, when you were bored with that album, you had 99 others to choose from. If you didn’t like those, then why not skip the whole CD loading thing and download it straight from the store (via your shiny new broadband connection). It’s no wonder itunes has been a success: it’s grown the market, brought competitors in, upgraded the overall offer from every market player and worked wonders with the music industry who until then were busy assuming everyone who downloaded music was depriving them of food from their executive tables.
The online music market succeeded because:
-Some early entrants had a go, tested it out and didn’t get too far. Their products were too technical, not mainstream enough or not simple enough
-Apple entered the market with a sleek, well designed player that anyone with an opposable thumb could use; storage limits were removed in one go – you want 100s of albums? No problem. Successive generations, unleashed twice a year, have just got better, faster and smaller. Design rules. Consistent design rules longer.
-itunes software was simple to install, worked every time, didn’t ask you to pay more for services you didn’t think you wanted and didn’t have popups. Best of all, every so often a new version would arrive that worked even better – giving you access to audiobooks, podcasts and video over time.
-Looking for music was made simple – a search box in the top right (where all good search boxes should be unless you’re google) let you find whatever you wanted and sometimes more than you wanted. Then you could try out the music, buy it if you wanted or skip it if you didn’t (I’m still waiting for every music store to offer bar code scanning of every CD coupled with instant play)
-Broadband became mainstream and the idea of downloading tracks became simple for everyone – point, click, debit your credit card account already set up in the system
-USB 2.0 was available on every new PC and Mac, speeding up squirting the tracks onto the ipod. Firewire is now pretty much obsolete, unless you’re doing digital video work
In short, a few things came together that made playing music on a portable device something that you didn’t have to be a geek to do. Sure, there’s still more for itunes to do. It could get better at sorting and managing classical music (navigating between different conductors and orchestras performing the same tracks is easy, sometimes it doesn’t quite handle audiobooks right and it could always be faster).
Is it time that we brought together an itunes strategy for online government? We’re still in the geek stage (as so many people, most recently Mary Everest have pointed out to me). Can we put together the right enablers from what we have now?
Is direct.gov potentially the equivalent of itunes.gov? They have many characteristics aligned:
-They bring together content from a variety of sources so that, in the case of itunes, you don’t have to worry about different record labels, different types of content or different pricing structures; for direct.gov, you’re no longer concerned about multiple website names, apparently random department names, differing navigation styles or mixed up definitions.
-If you’re looking for something, you can search in the site right there on every page. If the site doesn’t have it, then it doesn’t exist – but very, very few searches return nothing (in fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to get nothing back at all). I say “it doesn’t exist” provocatively – itunes will never stock all music and direct.gov will never cover all of government, but for 90% of people 90% of the time it will be all that’s needed
-They both work on PCs and Macs (in fact, I’m quite sure that direct.gov works on more platforms than itunes, thanks to the wonders of HTML and CSS standards. For direct.gov you don’t need to download anything, buy a separate gadget or connect any cables to your PC.
Direct.gov isn’t yet itunes.gov though – the biggest flaw is that you can’t “complete the transaction” on direct.gov. When you need to make your claim for benefits, file your tax return or seek advice on rural payments, you’re going to have to go somewhere else. I suspect, if government is going to cross the chasm from geek use to broader adoption it needs to do at least four things:
1.Wrap transactions in the direct.gov environment so that you don’t need to prove who you are to several sites, don’t have to move out of the interface that you’ve grown used to and don’t have to provide information more than one (this is one of those in/out bits of the plan and I no longer know whether it’s in or out – maybe egu_insider will say?). That is, join up what no-one else will join up and rebrand what everyone else is doing without rebuilding it.
2.Market the hell out of the site (this was always part of the plan but with a couple of exceptions, it doesn’t seem to be happening today). Drive down overall government spending on online and offline advertising with direct.gov/campaign on every ad.
3.Add things in releases and be clear about what the releases are. Adding new things stealthily doesn’t make people come and see what’s new. The idea of going to government to see “what’s new” might sound bizarre, but if you got a mail that says “did you know you can now do a,b,c” maybe, just maybe, you’d be tempted to take a look. Only the other day I found out from a comment here that you can get your tax disc online, I hadn’t looked for ages and had no idea. How am I supposed to find out if no-one tells me?
4.Expose the inner workings of direct.gov to the outside world so that bright young things can build things on to it. Want to see a sexier retirement calculator? It won’t come from government. Want to see a widget that figures out which benefits you’re entitled to without you disclosing too much information? It won’t come from government.
These four things won’t make egovernment take off, but I suspect that, done together, they have a good chance of shifting the market share from the current low levels (10, maybe 20%) to perhaps 30-40%.
We still have to tackle those who don’t use the Internet, don’t have PCs, don’t want to transact with government and so on. But: one thing at a time, if we can capture the people who are both willing and able to do it that would be a big step and would free up money and resource to tackle the access of the set of people who don’t want to or can’t make the move. I realise that might be a controversial statement – it’s intended to be – but you can’t solve all of the problems for all of the people in one go. The fact that egovernment penetration is still so low, despite use of broadband, despite the number of people that bank online or buy books online, has to be dealt with – and separate solutions will needed for those outside the ABC1 category. If we can’t crack it for those who want to play, we shouldn’t dream of cracking it for everyone.
If it isn’t like this, how is it?