Is Ownership Passé?

The upcoming release of a Kindle brings to mind an interesting new wrinkle in the way digital assets are traded: Traditionally, music, movies, and books were “owned goods” which were more expensive but fully owned. With the rise of the itunes music store, Netflix, the Kindle, and others, our ownership society seems to be started a slide towards a new mode of being: a rental society.

Traditionally, the model or rent vs. own has been one that most consumers and companies have mostly considered when it came to real estate (and traditionally, people have looked at renting real estate as more normal than owning, with the possible exception of the last couple of decades, during which real estate ownership appeared more attractive). But today, that concept seems to be increasingly extending to other arenas.

Netflix

For example, Netflix has build a very solid model around renting movies over the Internet. True enough, many people will mention that rental of media dates back to the early days of the video store and were a substantial component in the rise of companies like Blockbuster (born Blockbuster Video). True also that said companies have been falling on hard times lately. But the substantial difference between what Netflix offers and the traditional rental model is focused on convenience: one could argue that Netflix’s original business model was largely centered around the distribution of physical media (the DVDs themselves) but I would argue that the true success of Netflix will be due largely to its digital distribution model, allowing for instant distribution of movies and TV shows with the click of a few buttons. The instant (and the emphasis here needs to be put on instant) access to a large media collection can easily call into question the concept of owning similar content in a physical form: What is the advantage of having a physical copy of a movie sitting on your shelf, collecting dust most of the time, when the same movie is available at the touch of a remote control button from the Internet?

However, the challenge in such concept is that once someone stops paying Netflix, the access to said collection disappears. An owned movie is paid for upfront and can be watched time and time again by a consumer but a rented one can only be watched as long as one keeps paying the owner renting party.

Apple

With Apple’s recent move to sell music tracks without any digital rights management features on it, one could safely assume that Apple is not in the rental business. Apple’s move was largely a response to Amazon’s own marketing around selling DRM-Free music but it is interesting to note that, while the restrictions on music went away, the same was not true of similar restrictions around music videos, movies, and TV shows. The lock-in that appears here is similar to that which exist with Netflix in that if you decide to end your relationship with Apple, the media you bought will stop working. Under such restricted mode, can one really assume that he/she owns the media he/she purchased?

Similarly, Apple is renting out, in partnership with telecommunication vendors like AT&T, an ingenious device called the iPhone. The reason I would call it a rental model is that use of the device is limited by the partners to people who have paid the initial fee and continue to pay a fee to the telecommunication provider on a regular basis. It is a model that exists for most phone providers, as devices tend to be tied to a specific vendor. Once again, people will highlight that it is possible to get rid of that lock-in with software but I will counter that doing so is a violation of the contract terms of the device, voiding warranty and your agreement with Apple. To claim otherwise would be similar to saying that everyone has access to as much money as they want, as long as they are willing to rob banks. (In the interest of disclosure, I should highlight here that I own an iPhone which is not connected to the “authorized provider”.)

Going a little further, Apple gets to lock-in who can and cannot play on an iPhone, only allowing developers who submit themselves to Apple’s whim and offering what is sometimes only temporary access to the userbase as release of every update to a product still has to go through Apple’s review. In other words, Apple gives developers temporary access to the iPhone user base, an access it can choose to revoke at any time.

The Amazon Kindle

All this conversation bring us to Amazon and a couple of its products, starting with the Kindle, which serves as the incentive for writing this lenghthy post. The Kindle, much like the iPhone is a pretty impressive device, bringing several technologies (always on device, e-ink) out of the labs and into more mainstream consumption. And like the iPhone, it has both fans and detractors. And once again, the Kindle offers an interesting kind of lock-in, allowing you to read titles purchased on the kindle (or through the iPhone kindle software) but allowing you access for only as long as you keep a relationship with Amazon. Where the model moves to rental is around magazines and newspapers: you may purchase subscriptions but, should your Kindle be completely full as a result of your subscription, you may loose access to the back issues you “own”.

But Amazon’s move to a rental model is not just around the kindle device. On the consumer end, Amazon now play in the same spaces as Apple and Netflix, renting out or selling digital versions of movies, TV shows, and music.

Renting at the Enterprise Level

In other example of the evolving trend moving from the consumer to the enterprise space, Amazon is now renting itself, or rather portions of its own operating capacity, to anyone willing to pay a fee. Its infrastructure (storage, computing, and databases ) are all available to organizations who are willing to put their application on top of Amazon’s own servers. Amazon offers similar solutions for payment services, and goes as far as providing space in their warehouses along with complete pick, pack and ship capabilities.

The infrastructure component is part of a trend in which enterprise vendors are now providing data center capabilities on a per data transaction costing model. For many Chief Technical or Chief Information Officer, it changes the basic questions around data center from a “Build vs. Buy” to “Build vs. Buy vs. Rent”.

In the process, it also changes the dynamics of how a business can be built as a substantial portion of a company’s activities can now be outsourced to outside players (I’ll go into more details around the enterprise related issues in my next post)

Is it all bad?

If you read this far, you might assume that, by this point, I’m going to claim that this is all about the over-reach of DRM and that it is all a horrible thing.

I’m not.

What I am trying to highlight here is that the experience around internet driven goods is changing. As connectivity speeds increase, the ability to access any movie/TV show/video/ music clip/ books / magazines / etc is going to have a substantial impact on our relationship to said goods (in a fashion similar to the type of relationship kids now have to music, assuming that music on the Internet ought to be free of restrictions, while at the same time assuming that mobile phone ringtones are something one ought to pay for).

The change in our relationship to media forces us to reassess the value of the physical good. In the case of our household, we have made a leap of faith, assuming that the content of certain DVDs will always be available online from one rental provider or another. The reason for that approach is that the experience of watching such thing on our TV using an internet connected video player is not diminished by the lack of a physical medium. Living in a more constrained space (in Manhattan, space is always at a premium), the physicality of a DVD box is actually an impediment to the experience of the medium. As a result, the internet connectivity, and the rental model, appears to make much more sense than the physical ownership of DVD boxes.

In the same way, the value of a CD collection is in what’s on the CD rather than the plastic container it’s in. Much of the value of the physical container of music has decreased: in the past, LPs were designed and the wraping of the LP was almost has important to the experience as the music itself. However, as CDs reduced the size of the cases, and music production companies spend less time on designing custom boxes, physical CDs became more of a commodity, with the music on them being the only thing that truly distinguished one CD from another.

But what about books, magazines, and newspapers?

To a large extent, I would venture that the relationship we have with magazines or newspapers is different from that of a book. When I first saw the Kindle, I was not attracted to it because I could read books on it but rather because I might be able to subscribe to newspapers or magazines. The clear line falls in the arena of experience: with a few exceptions, magazines and newspapers are read and then discarded. The ephemeral nature of that experience archetype seems to make such relationship a prime candidate for digitization: Once again, the convenience of something like a Kindle seems to trump the experience of having to fold a newspaper in a crowded subway or the guilt associated with recycling large amount of newsprint or magazines on a regular basis: because the intrisic value of newspapers or magazines is as conveyors of temporal information that now appears to be archivable and retrieveable online, the need for ownership of that data appears to be lowered.

Books, on the other hand, are a different issue. Reference books may lend themselves to a good digitizable model (O’Reilly, for example, has had success with its Safari offering, as have encyclopedias like Brittanica and the OED) but fiction books may be in a different class. The book as object may be falling into the same class as those ancient LPs, being designed as a full object rather than just its content and rental of such good (though people will mention that books have been something you can borrow from a library for a long time) may take longer to break through as the advantage of reading such a book on a Kindle is not necessarily higher than that of a physical good. I may be romantic in my thinking, attaching to books not only the content and the packaging but its experience in a greater space, as each book I own has, in itself, a number of memories attached, in the form of sand from a beach where it was read, or wrinkles from being carried on a trip or fold marking and writings from a particular era. In those rare cases, the books serve as containers for more than the stories they held when first presented on a bookshelf or through the online presentation they had: they are containers of a full experience and that, at this point, is not yet something that any digital device (whether it is a kindle or other) has yet been able to reproduce.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://lexiekier.com Lexie Kier

    You’re on to something here! It may just be a matter of semantics but I think delineating the difference between “rental” and “leasing” is important. The immediacy desired trends towards the notion of rental but over time I think the leasing model that cars have traditionally taken will be more common for the money it saves and the ownership simulation it encourages. Subscription fees rather than purchases.

    Fashion accessories are even seeing this activity spike in current economic times: http://www.bagborroworsteal.com/ Bag Borrow or Steal offers the same model for luxury goods. As such I think we’re seeing not only “internet-driven goods” moving towards this model but rather, the management of goods via the internet becoming standard across a wide array of goods.

  • Tristan Louis

    Note: Doc Searls has an excellent related post: Beyond Ownership

  • Tristan Louis

    Lexie,

    Bag Borrow or Steal is one of those other example I’ve been thinking about. I also recently heard about a company that offered mobile phones on the same model so there are others out there…

  • http://www.getyourpurse.com Mary Humain

    Tristan,

    Lexie Kier makes some good points about the designer purses that Bag Borrow or Steal offers consumers for renting. I don’t feel that the distinction will be there for higher-end goods or services in several years as it would make much more sense to have them on a subscription-based service like a lease.

    For this, I mean for instance that cars would become not a lease-to-own service, but a subscription-based service where at the end of the designated 2-years they come to your house and swap your current product for a new one. Ford has already hinted at something similar to this in the future with their slogan “We want everyone in a Ford.” They aren’t saying that they want everyone to “own” it, but to have that “experience”. It also ensures that it gets the “used” cars off the market where it will “force” the industry to always have a market for cars.

    For smaller goods which have traditionally been owned, it makes more sense to have them rented out, such as the Bag Borrow or Steal model in which people can “experience” the product without having to make a commitment if they only want a certain style for a particular occasion.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    Mary,

    Indeed, the question is how many markets can be affected by such models.