I am currently reading “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone, an account of Amazon.com from its beginnings and its enigmatic founder Jeff Bezos – highly recommended by the way. Early on, the author quotes from a plaque that is on the walls of Amazon’s headquarters, written by Mr Bezos:
“There is so much stuff that has yet to be invented.
There’s so much new that’s going to happen.
People don’t have any idea yet how impactful the Internet is going to be and that this is still Day 1 in such a big way.”
Mr Bezos is better qualified than most to make such statements, and in some ways it is almost a truism. But a number of experiences recently have brought home to me personally how right he is. Firstly, two months ago I finally upgraded my smartphone. I got my first smartphone three years ago and frankly it was a bit of a disappointment. Clearly, it could do lots of things but it was unreliable, kept crashing, and there were only so many times I found it fun that it had windscreen wipers when forecasting rain. With hindsight, the iPhone was probably the only one really worth having at that time.
Now, it’s a very different story. Having gone for a bottom-of-the-range Windows phone I am slightly stunned by its capabilities. The term “smartphone” is an anachronism – the devices evolved out of phones but now that is the least of their capabilities and we need a better term. It is not just my phone, it is, at least at a basic level, my camera, email device, browser, music centre (more on that below), diary, satnav, weather forecaster, connection to social networks, navigation tool when walking, pedometer, podcast player, note-taker, shopping tool and more. The only reason it is not my e-reader and video device of choice is because of the screen size. Perhaps it takes a digital immigrant to realise how revolutionary all that is, and it has happened in the last few years. Such a change in the tools we use will have ripple effects through society for decades.
Linked to this, I also became a Spotify convert (this is not a plug – I’m sure other music streaming services are excellent!) Because I am studying part-time, I qualify for the student discount and can get the premium service for £5 per month. To be honest, even the full price of £10 per month strikes me as a bargain, but don’t tell Spotify that. For that, you can listen to pretty much any music that takes your fancy, whenever you want. Paired with a good wireless speaker, it replaces any other music centre you might consider. I have been happily reliving some of the favourites of my earlier life, as well as sampling lots of newly released stuff. I didn’t bother with the free version – I hate adverts and it is key for me to be able to download tracks to my phone. I am quite sure that, as these services advance (and some big new entrants are on the horizon), subscription services will become the default setting for anyone who listens to a reasonable amount of music.
But think of the implications of that! I was in HMV recently and saw rows upon rows of CDs for sale. HMV may be out of administration, but unless they completely reinvent themselves they are still facing the agonies of specialising in a contracting market. The link between recorded music and a specific purchase has existed for decades and was not broken by the development of downloads, but now it has been. The entire economics of the music business are being turned upside down, as was analysed in a recent fascinating podcast from the BBC. This has the potential to be a Good Thing, as it may at least be the sustainable financial model the industry has been looking for.
But HMV sell lots of DVDs too… Well, with film subscription services like Netflix and Lovefilm Instant now offering unlimited access for £6 per month, all I can say is good luck with that.
And if it works for music, what about other forms of media? Books are much closer to my heart than music, but even I have just succumbed to a Kindle Fire (that’s another story). I can envisage a model where you pay a monthly subscription and in return you can access a huge library of books, just downloading what you want at any time. It would be a great way to broaden reading cheaply, with authors perhaps paid according to the number and duration of downloads. People like me will still buy the odd physical book if it is particularly special or attractive, but they will be treated more like decoration or artwork than objects to be used, so my hunch is that publishers like the Folio Society will survive. Actually, such a service does exist in embryo. Amazon Kindle owners who also have Amazon Prime can access their lending library as a perk. Expect this model to develop further over the coming years.
So how will all this affect my field of education? I previously mooted a sort of iTunes model for education, which sparked some debate but perhaps events have moved on and we should be thinking about what “Spotify for education” might look like. Maybe the subscription approach will finally give MOOCs their business model (a better one, I think, than the current approach which sees MOOCs as marketing exercises). Maybe a subscription to educational resources will be charged separately to access to tuition and assessment. Maybe thousands of people will contribute resources, via a mechanism for vetting quality. Whatever it involves, I am sure it will mean more resources available, more flexibility and lower cost. Change in our educational model has been limited so far – this is a very conservative field – but remember, this is still Day 1.
UPDATE 2/2/14 – I am happy to acknowledge that the “Spotify for education” model is further advanced than I envisaged when I first wrote this. I am now aware of two services doing precisely this – Scribd, which is US-based but available in the UK, and Oyster, which is only available in the US at present. Both have a limited range of titles at present but this is a market that will surely mature quickly.