Sixty-five million years ago – or is it twenty – meganiches dominated the earth, lumbering across the landscape aiming themselves at men or women or teens. They were crude, ineffective monsters, clusterbombing their way to dominance. We’re now entering a new, hyperlocal era of a million overlapping niches defined by our myriad social circles. Precision bombing, laser-guided proto-rats target ever-tinier groups.
The late adopters to this new world are the large media conglomerates like News Corporation.
Only a dinosaur like Rupert Murdoch would think that he could charge a pound a day for a generalist, biased, self-publicising news service online – the same price, you’ll note, as the dead tree version of The Times. I’m convinced this will fail and fail spectacularly.
There’s a well-established buying hierarchy: functionality, reliability, convenience and price, in that order. Given two products, buyers prefer the one with more functional benefits to them; if there are no differences, they prefer the more reliable; then the more convenient; and finally the cheaper of the two. Functionality, reliability, convenience, price. The first three are subjective: a book shop infected with Starbucks is objectively “more functional” than one without, but if I don’t want coffee™ the difference doesn’t matter and they’re functionally equivalent to me.
In the software world, this hierarchy means people put up with shoddy user interfaces (inconvenience) and crashing (unreliability) if the software itself does more of the things they want it to do. And they’ll pay for it. People buy iPhones not because they’re functionally and reliably better than other, cheaper phones but because they’re subjectively good enough in those areas, and much easier to use.
Non-free products beat free products only if they are more functional; or equivalent but more reliable; or equivalent but more convenient. That’s why people still buy Flickr Pro accounts even though they could use Flickr for free. It’s why people still buy Microsoft Office even though OpenOffice is free.
So how would the super soaraway pound-a-day Times stack up?
Let’s say I’m looking for entertainment news online. A site like Digital Spy, flawed though it may be, has more functional benefits to me than The Times will: it targets a smaller niche. The Times might be more reliable and more convenient (all news in one place) but it fails on functionality. Digital Spy could in theory charge for access: but that would fail since other sites are equally functional, equally reliable and equally convenient – and cost nothing.
How about political news? There are hundreds of sites for that, ranging from generalist (eg BBC News) to specialist (eg TheyWorkForYou) to official sources (Parliament). The Times fails on functionality for all but the generalist case; and in that case, the BBC’s site, for example, is either more reliable (unbiased, no Murdoch influence) or more convenient (easier to find things, no adverts) or cheaper (the licence fee per day costs less than The Times’ cover price and gives you much more than just online news). The Times has political columnists that add value; but I can read blogs for free.
People will pay for specialist news, for timeliness, for exclusivity and a few others: these are all functional benefits. They’ll pay for general news on a mobile: that additional functionality (and also convenience) trumps free. They won’t pay for general news online.
It’s fascinating that the lumbering, meganiche conglomerates can’t or won’t see it. But this is entirely common and predictable. The telegraph companies didn’t see the telephone as a competitor. TVs would never be able to compete with cinema, nor would digital cameras ever displace film. Even today the vendors of CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs still graze diplodocally on ancient grassland even as the world moves shrewdly online.
And the Berners-Lee Asteroid has barely impacted the surface.