Content is software / by Dan Weingrod

Towards the end of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs, he quotes Bill Gates telling Jobs that, “I used to believe that the open, horizontal model would prevail, but you proved that the integrated vertical model could also be great”. The integrated model is, of course, the model of tight hardware and software integration that almost killed Apple, but ultimately has transformed it into not only the most influential, if not most popular, mobile hardware provider as well as suddenly becoming the top driver of business PC sales.

But there’s another player in the world of hardware software integration that has just as keen an understanding of how to make it work, and that’s Amazon.  Admittedly this hardware software integration is hard to see at first. Amazon’s hardware gets some pretty mehsome reviews, and on the software side as Walter Mossberg says: “like its predecessor, the new Fire buries Android, demoting it to mere plumbing”. (And yes, I know I’m ignoring the software achievement of AWS here, but I’ll get there in a moment).

To understand where Amazon is succeeding in integration you need to substitute the word “software” with the word “content”. Instead of classic hardware software integration Amazon’s real success has been with integrating content with a hardware and delivery ecosystem. Its something that they have positioned themselves to do much more effectively, and creatively, than any of the other walled garden ecosystems out there.

In a way, it’s a throwback to how the big consumer electronic companies like Sony moved to purchase movie studios in the 1980’s. For these consumer electronic players content WAS software. It’s what made their hardware work, gave it added value and provided an opportunity for vertical integration. That they never really succeeded at it is a testament to how hard it is to actually take the messy world of content and integrated it into specific hardware applications.

One would have thought that Apple would have been able to do a good job of this, especially considering Jobs’ successes at Pixar, but it seems that they also end up fumbling. While Apple initially made content integration work with the iTunes store, it’s hardly advanced the concept in any significant way since that time. ITunes remains a clunky piece of forced software and all attempts to “modernize” it, such as the late, unlamented Ping, just feel like someone trying to keep up with the latest trends. For me, the most egregious example of Apple’s lack of understanding of content was when Apple had to suddenly confront the issue of adult content with the launch of the iPad. Jobs’ rant about “freedom from porn” displayed a serious lack of understanding of how the messy parts of content, like freedom of speech, just don’t behave like software and will never conform to a strict code or elegant integration.

Amazon, on the other hand, has always had a better understanding of the role of content. Obviously, in part because it’s where they began and is ingrained in their DNA. And while they’ve had their own serious issues with adult content, overall they display a publisher’s understanding that when content becomes your software, it can’t be bound by rules that hardware might impose on it, especially when consumers are paying for it. So while it may get messy, this long experience why for Amazon, device and software integration may be a little less important than the content/software that they deliver.

What this has led to is some very creative approaches to looking at how content can better integrate with the new hardware/software ecosystems. For example, one of the most impressive announcements in the last week’s Kindle launch was the announcement of Kindle Serials, a whole new installment based publication platform, which extends the groundbreaking idea of Kindle Singles. In fact, Amazon has generally been in front in breaking new ground for long form writing and content. With this type of thinking, Amazon is really placing much of its creative and design strength around the area of content creation. By creating and integrating new content formats they are cementing the role and adoption of their so-so tablets and software.

Another part of this integration is what I’d call content logistics, and this is the part where AWS comes in. For Amazon, it’s always been clear that the device and its software are less important than the logistical backbone that gets the all-important content to the user. When I order an eBook on Amazon I can choose to send it to my Kindle, my iPad or read it on screen. The specific qualities of the device ecosystem we are using less important to Amazon than the infrastructure to get the content to the user. As Bezos said during the Kindle launch, “People don’t want gadgets any more; they want services, and the Kindle Fire is a service”. In other words, the service that integrates new forms of delivering content in new formats could be more valuable to users than the elegant integrated vertical model that they are receiving it on.