Coexisting on a Competitive Landscape: Lessons from the Monolithic Platforms

As publishing platforms and connected devices continue to multiply, remaining competitive comes into question for every video stakeholder. It’s puzzling that monolithic platform companies, such as Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, are competing for the same buyers, yet all of their platforms have apps for the competitor available in their app stores –e.g., Google Maps on Apple devices and the Amazon Kindle app on Google Play devices. What lessons can media companies take away from the fact that, so far, these companies seem to be coexisting? Are apps the means of democratizing distribution to break down the walls that are being put up? How do you stay competitive when a competing publisher’s app is sold right alongside yours? Media companies must take a lesson from platform companies and learn that ultimately, it’s about offering the best user experience for the audience.

A Mutually Understood Self-Destruction

Audiences have come to expect access to content wherever they go, and they have their go-to platforms and publishers for consuming their content. Audiences want to be able to read their favorite news publication on their smartphones, catch up on the latest celebrity gossip on their tablets, and have the capability to stream shows like Homeland on their connected TVs. Platform companies seem to have realized that a level of openness is necessary for their platform and/or devices’ adoption and survival – it’s something of a mutually understood self-destruction. If Google were to limit Apple device users from accessing Google apps, the company runs the risk of alienating Apple users and losing out on potential market share. The same is true for Apple. If Apple didn’t allow for a Gmail app on its devices, it’s likely a number of users would probably opt for a device that does. These relationships will become even more interesting when Netflix launches a device of their own and Amazon gets into email services.

Losing buyers is only one potential problem companies risk when they don’t work together. When platform companies don’t offer competitors’ apps, they increase their chances of upsetting customers, and the public backlash from this can be damaging. A great example of this is the Google Maps and iPhone Maps debacle, which earned the nickname “mapocalypse” on social media. Apple decided to ditch Google Maps for its own mapping system on the iPhone 5, but iPhone Maps just wasn’t up to par with Google Maps. Apple CEO Tim Cook ended up issuing a public apology and recommending iPhone owners consider using Google maps through a mobile Web browser or seek other alternatives until his company could fix the problems. The issue was serious enough for Apple to dismiss several executives who worked on the mapping system. From the outside, it appeared that Apple took its audience for granted, assuming that its users would adopt iPhone Maps, regardless of the UI. The public outcry and resulting Apple back peddling proves that the audience is very important to a product’s success. For now, Apple has decided that coexisting with Google and Google Maps is the best option, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still be competitive. Sharing the space with rivals can offer the motivation needed to focus on developing top-notch experiences to win users. 

Amazon’s Kindle is a perfect example of app democratization gone right (for now). Amazon makes its Kindle app available across the board (for free), and the number of people using Kindle devices has been growing steadily, with an increase over the recent holiday (in North America, Apple’s iPad market share dropped 7.14%, while Amazon’s Kindle Fire gained a total of 3.03% market share during that same time period). Although Amazon doesn’t typically provide hard numbers regarding the Kindle’s success, it’s assumed that the company’s internal goals are being met because it has been adding to the “Kindle Family” every year since the Kindle made its debut. Amazon’s success is unique in that its devices have been able to penetrate the market at the same time it offers a free Kindle app for competitors’ devices.

Time will only tell if Google and Apple will allow Amazon’s book and magazine library to compete with their own. Amazon might even be inviting such a backlash. It’s important to note that while Amazon is providing a free Kindle app for competing devices, it hasn’t exactly returned the favor. Even though Amazon’s apps are powered by Android, Amazon uses its own app store instead of Google Play and many of Google’s popular apps, such as Google Maps, Google Chrome, and Gmail, are unavailable for the Kindle Fire. So far, this strategy has not appeared to hurt the platform’s adoption significantly, but I personally returned my Kindle devices for the Nexus 7 when it came out and then only bought another Kindle because of the new FreeTime feature, only available on Kindle. 

All About the Audience

Ultimately, monolithic platform companies work together because their popularity with users depends on it. Media companies – publishers and producers alike – need to find a similar balance to combat fragmentation and reach audiences everywhere. It’s true that the producers end up with a bigger logistical burden of trying to be everywhere and everything – an app on a platform, content purchasable through a platform store, accessible via the browser directly by the consumer, syndicated through multiple publishers, and so on. And publishers must not only consider publishing their own content but must also add as much to their own library as possible. Either way, it’s all about what video content audiences want to watch, where and how they want to watch it.

The Wall Street Journal is a perfect example of a company that has taken on the challenge, innovated, and has thus far enjoyed great success with the launch of its interactive news video apps and web syndication WSJ Live. Audiences can conveniently consume their daily dose of WSJ videos from the company’s site and from any device they happen to be using. Similarly, NBC has episodes from some of its popular shows, such as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, available on Netflix, even though NBC has its own app available for audiences on Android and iOS. NBC understands that Netflix is an important means of connecting to audiences through OTT services. By making older episodes of its popular shows available on streaming publishers, while offering current episodes through its linear broadcast channels, sites, and apps, NBC is able to benefit from a wider reach, tap into new audiences, and, most importantly, offer audiences more choices for consuming their content. More producers need to follow suit, offering content at every possible audience touch point if they want to maintain a thriving base. And publishers should consider syndicating more content from these producers for their digital properties.

Yes, managing all the paths to the user can be a daunting task, but it’s feasible if companies are willing to put in the legwork. For instance, if you’re a magazine company frequented by men, offer them all the content they would ever need at your site and build a presence on every device. If you’re a producer that creates cooking videos and you think you’ll be able to monetize all by yourself, think again – you need to syndicate. Just like how Panasonic sells products directly at a higher price than its distributor Best Buy, content and publishing companies can work out relationships that don’t hinder each of their business models. At the end of the day, media companies that don’t embrace this philosophy will risk losing some of their audience.