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October 2010

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The Post Convergence Consumer

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The emergence of the iPhone/iPad as a fundamentally new computer platform is another one of those major turning points in the history of the advertising and marketing industries. The iPhone/iPad devices have allowed a number of technologies to converge, giving consumers the ability to access nearly any content, anywhere, anytime. It's not just about entertainment any more. For an increasing number of consumers, these devices mean any purchase may involve what can only be called computer assisted decision making.

These days in Silicon Valley it's not uncommon to see a shopper scan an item with their iPhone and then read its display like it were some kind of Star Trek tricorder. The analogy isn't that far off. Applications for the iPhone can allow it to scan the bar code of an item and then automatically look up information about it using a variety of different online sources. This technology allows consumers to instantly compare prices, quality, reviews, and much more, of anything for sale with a bar code.

If this is any indication of typical consumer behavior of the future, there could be trouble ahead. In a worst case scenario, the post-convergent consumer owns and carries with him all the movies, TV, and music he has time for, and gets most of his information from online news sources using Safari while running an ad blocker. In addition to being unreachable by most radio, TV and print advertising, the post-convergence consumer wants the lowest priced and highest quality merchandise for sale anywhere on the planet. The iPhone driven consumer could turn the whole world into one giant Walmart. He's certainly likely to try.

It wasn't supposed to go like this. When the first portable content player, the transistor radio, hit the market big time in the early sixties, advertisers were glad to see it. The transistor radio allowed advertisers to reach boomer teenagers as they walked to and from school, and about everywhere else as well. Boomer teenagers had respectable disposable incomes and advertisers went after their fair share of it. A highly symbiotic relationship evolved. Top 40 radio carried the hits to teenager's radios, as well as advertiser's commercials every few minutes, and teenagers spent money with the advertisers who made it possible for them to listen to the type of music they liked. The relationship worked. For years, it was close to an ideal situation.

There were two minor problems for advertisers, however, uncontrolled innovation and the isolation it allowed consumers. In the beginning, neither was much of an issue, but that changed over time.

The money that advertisers poured into radio helped fuel consumer demand for portable radios. This in turn set off a chain reaction investment in the development of portable content players, leading to the iPhone/iPad equipped supershopper.

At the same time, portable content player technology increasingly isolated consumers from advertisers, and from society in general for that matter. Why listen to commercial radio and have to put up with ads if you can listen to any song you ever bought, no matter where you are. It was really a turning point in human history. The transistor radio was the first portable device that allowed a person to tune in to something other than what was going on in their immediate environment. Sociologically speaking, boomers with transistor radios were the first to truly turn on, tune in and drop out.

Then Sony got the revolutionary idea of the Walkman, a portable cassette player that allowed people to carry their favorite music with them and listen to it anytime, anywhere, they wanted. People made their own top 40 lists, and the radio market was never quite the same. Now consumers weren't just dropping out from society, they were dropping out of commercial media. And it got worse.

The portable cassette player was replaced by the portable CD player, which added random access capability to the music. Then the iPod came along, for the first time allowing people to carry their entire music collection with them, not just their favorite songs.

The iPhone and iPad combined video and Internet connectivity with the iPod, and the result is a shopper closer in behavior to the Terminator than anything a home economics class ever produced. Quite probably people will eventually wear glasses that interface with their iPhone that allow them to see their surroundings and a layer of data projected over it. Merely looking at an item for sale might result in the item being automatically scanned, researched and a results summary displayed for the consumer. Bargains might have a bright red glow.

Even now iPhone technology can easily be used to find bargains. One text book rental company is giving away an iPhone app that can scan a text books bar code and instantly tell the student how much it would cost to rent the book from them instead. Students can go to their school's bookstore to see what books are required for what courses, scan the books' bar codes, and place the rental order then and there.

In the future there will be many applications for the iPhone and its competitors that will allow consumers to scan bar codes and find out all kinds of information about all kinds of products and their providers. It would not be surprising for instance to see a used book trade organization like ABE (the Associated Book Exchange), which has an online database that aggregates the available inventory of all its member bookstores into one online searchable database, to offer an iPhone ap. It wouldn't take a lot of programming to come up with an iPhone app that could scan the bar code or ISBN of a book in a bookstore and immediately find used copies of the book for sale online, listed by order of lowest price first.

Clearly, retail trade is going to feel the effect of these applications, and consumers are going to know it. Even in a best case scenario, the iPhone equipped shopper of the future will have the ability to drive down prices of manufactured goods locally and globally. IPhone shoppers will be tough to reach by advertising, and they'll drive a hard bargain if you can manage to get their attention, but you'll have to try to deal with them. Eventually, difficult as they may be, there will simply be too many of them to ignore.



Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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