GIS Thoughts

The power of the customer…

Peter Cochrane ex-CTO of BT, has a very interesting post in his blog this week at He makes the point which I have made a couple of times, that the customer is increasing in command of distruptive technology which will upset the current markets and displace the incumbent major supplier – This really is important stuff, markets can change very quickly in the modern post-internet world.

I quote below a article I wrote in the now departed GI News on this topic two years ago.

The Napsterisation of geographic information

While we cannot condone the violation of intellectual property rights promoted by the Napster music site, Napster (and now Apple’s new, legal iTunes music service) provides important lessons for understanding how new technologies and the Internet are changing consumer attitudes towards acquiring digital content.
The experience of the music industry may also apply to geographic information, argues Ed Parsons, chief technology officer for Ordnance Survey.

Do you remember the first album you bought, or perhaps the first compact disc? Like many of my friends, my first CD was Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, which I think cost me £11.99 in 1985. I seem to remember it was one of the first really popular CD titles. The CD was seen as a great advance over the albums and cassettes of the time. With your CD player, you could listen to any song you liked, in any order. And of course there was the amazing sound quality of the guitar of Mark Knopfler, because we were dealing with digital data.
For the next 15 years or so we all accepted that digital music gave us better sound quality and greater flexibility of listening, and we all started buying CDs instead of albums and cassettes, in some cases replacing our entire collections with little shiny discs. But in many ways nothing had really changed. From the perspective of both the consumer and the industry it was business as usual. Consumers still bought albums, although now in CD format, and the record labels still signed up new acts, produced albums and then used their considerable sales and marketing departments to drive popular artists.

The day music changed forever

Then on 1 June 1999 the recording industry changed forever. American Shane Fanning, a student fresh out of Northeastern University, launched a new service on the web called Napster. It brought together two technologies: the ability of any computer user to digitise or ‘rip’ the contents of a CD into digital files using the mp3 format; and the development of ‘peer-to-peer’ computer networks that allowed users to share files on their computers with other users around the world via the Internet.
The impact of Napster, and its rapid downfall, are well known. Napster is recognised as having created an epidemic of music piracy and having depressed the profits of the major music companies so much that they took legal action to shut it down within a year. However, I believe Napster signalled a more fundamental change in the music industry, a change that I expect will affect many other industries including geographic information.

Being digital

Napster was of course about technology, but it was also an expression of the individual wishes of the customer. Napster users were just as interested in creating their own mix of songs on their own CDs as they were in getting free music. Napster users were really beginning to exploit the fact that music was now digital and could be easily transported between PCs and portable mp3 players, and could be managed, reorganised and catalogued with ease using cheap computers.
The music files themselves can now be ‘repurposed’ as alert sounds on computers or even as custom ring tones on mobile phones. Increasingly, users are manipulating the digital data to suit their own needs.
Napster brought about a massive shift in user expectations of how digital data can be used, a shift that will affect all types of digital information including GI. The piracy of music clearly could not continue, and a more sustainable business model for electronic distribution of music has emerged – but more of that later.
How have users’ expectations changed?

Buying a piece at a time
Users now, and increasingly in the future, will buy data by the piece, wanting to purchase only the information or product they need when they need it.
In the music industry there has been a long, ongoing debate over the sale of music by the track or by the album. The battle seems won now, with most online music stores offering track-by-track download. But not just music is being sold by the piece – Stephen King famously published his novel The Plant one chapter at a time, generating an estimated US$3 million.
Outside the media industry, other industries where intellectual property is sold or licensed can be seen following this route. In the near future one can predict economists selling one formula at time, meteorologists selling a weather forecast for a single location and so on.
From a GI perspective, we are already making progress towards this method of operation, selling discrete individual map objects or attributes rather than a whole map database. It will be a challenge for many data providers to develop practical pricing models, but they will not be able to ignore the trend. Customer demand will become unstoppable.

Trying before buying
In the same way that Napster introduced the concept of ‘trying’ music, by allowing users to download unknown music to sample, increasingly users of GI will want to test drive data before they buy it. Few of us would buy a car without a test drive, and the software industry is more commonly offering fully functional trial versions to potential buyers. To protect the vendor, a software trial may be limited – for example, an application may work for only 30 days.
However, for digital material such as films and maps, which might be used only once, limiting their use is more difficult. Here it will be necessary to provide samples rather than the whole product, but with enough information to enable users to decide whether they want to buy the product. It could be argued that some form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) should be used in these circumstances. So far, though, DRM has not been widely adopted because of a lack of practical standards and the considerable difficulties in implementing such systems within existing applications and processes.

Building DIY solutions
The CD you danced to on the eve of the millennium may well have been created or ‘burnt’ specifically for the event using a mix of mp3 files downloaded from Napster and other such services. Increasingly, with the widespread availability of portable mp3 players such as Apple’s iPod, music lovers are transferring music from CD directly into memory and never using the CD again. Instead, they are creating play lists that may combine music from different artists or genres to suit their mood. These play lists may then be burnt back onto CDs for use in the car, creating a completely new, individually designed product.
A more sophisticated use of digital content in the development of ‘new’ products comes from the open source movement. These are the developers and users of applications running the look and feel of their favourite programmes on the Linux operation system ‘re-skin’. They download new designs produced by other developers from dedicated websites.
The ultimate expression of this digital DIY phenomenon is in Japan, where users of NTT’s DoCoMo mobile Internet service can design a completely new user interface for their mobile phone by downloading small Java applications that control almost every aspect of the phone’s operation. This form of self-expression means that almost no two phones are alike.
The DIY approach is not unknown in the GI market. Many applications require the combining of tools and sometimes data from different vendors. Moving forward, this approach is likely to become the norm in line with emerging services such as the ‘Find’ function on mobile operator 3’s 3G service. This integrates topographic mapping from multiple suppliers with points of interest and other data.
Like the DoCoMo example, such services will become user driven. Brand and perceived value will drive the user’s choice of which components to connect together.
Clearly, for this approach to work in the GI market, we need much greater levels of interoperability between tools and between data or information products. Initiatives such as the Digital National Framework (DNF) and the work of organisations such as the Open GIS Consortium are vital.

Napster grows up

So where is the GI market heading if it follows the path of the music industry? The online music industry came of age almost four years to the month after Napster was launched. At the end of April this year, Apple Computer launched the iTunes Music Store – an online store carrying the catalogues of all the major record companies with music available to download, legally and for a fee, immediately. In the first two weeks of operation two million songs were downloaded. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs commented, ‘Response to the iTunes Music Store has been phenomenal – we’ve clearly hit a chord with users….’
For the GI industry, the main lesson of the Napster phenomenon is at the end of Jobs’ statement. The technology that Napster first exposed allowed users to get what they wanted. We must be sure that we also use technology to give our users what they want. The GI industry may, ultimately, have no choice.”

Written and submitted from the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai, using the hotels broadband network.

One reply on “The power of the customer…”

Add a comment?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.