10 Years of iTunes: An Era of Disruptive Innovation

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Once upon a time, kids, you had to buy an entire album in order to get the hit songs you wanted.

What’s an album, you say? Or an 8-track, for that matter?

It’s been a decade since iTunes opened up shop, and deprived an entire generation of the joys of sitting by a radio, ready to push RECORD when your favorite new song came on, just so you could include it on a mix tape (what’s that?) for the girl in your playwriting class you were crushing on.

In those 10 short years, iTunes has turned the Walkman into a dinosaur, left the CD in the dust, and forced once-thriving record stores like Tower Records into extinction. It is a perfect example of what we in the industry call “disruptive innovation.” That is, a technology that helps create an entirely new market and associated value network.

Sure, there were MP3 players before the iPod, but even my sainted parents have turned that oddly capitalized term into a proprietary eponym along the lines of ping pong and Kleenex. And Apple realized the hardware/software connection pretty early on: sell the devices to create a demand for the songs. Sell the songs to drive up demand for the devices.

Pretty brilliant.

Now, of course, we can make a list of other disruptive innovations of the last decade, and we have to start again with Apple. Once upon a time, people were happy with the idea of using mobile phones to make, you know, phone calls. But now, in the Age of the iPhone, we expect our “smart” phones to be cameras, handheld video games, organizers, mailboxes, GPS devices, banks and, well, just about everything you can imagine. Once again, Apple created a symbiotic relationship between the brick in your pocket and the digital cash cow of iTunes. I need a new game to keep me busy on the train, so I shell out 99 cents for it. Then I need more lives to beat the stupid level I’m on so, well, here’s another buck from me. Apple wasn’t done, of course, so it jumpstarted the tablet market with the iPad and, perhaps soon it’ll kick the smartwatch trend into high gear, too.

But let’s not focus solely on Apple here. As a fiction writer in my spare time, I am extremely interested in the business of publishing – and e-publishing. This time it was Amazon that led the way in disruptive innovation, igniting the Kindle to spur sales of e-books. This, of course, helped lead to the downfall of Borders (who also got smacked in the face in the retail music battle) and forced Barnes & Noble to play catch up. Now e-readers are becoming more and more popular, e-books are selling like hotcakes, and independent booksellers and publishers are re-examining their business models. The same holds true for comic book companies, who are exploring the electronic realm as well. It’s uncertain times at best for publishers of all stripes.

Finally, let’s not forget the good old TV. Once upon a time, cable television was a disruptive innovation, allowing channels like HBO and ESPN to thrive in a realm far different from that of rabbit ears and tin foil antennas. But now, with streaming services like HULU, Netflix and, yes Amazon Prime, the cable companies are starting to sweat as well. Will Arrested Development on Netflix help FOX to fold like a House of Cards? It’s just a matter of time, I suppose.

iTunes is not, of course, the first disruptive innovator, nor will it be the last. But it celebrated its 10th birthday this weekend and, really, it has changed the world in ways that most 10-year olds this side of Mozart and Tatum O’Neal could not imagine. So, I raise my iPhone to you, iTunes. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to go play Words with Friends now…




Edited by Rich Steeves

TechZone360 Managing Editor

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