David Halberstam tells the story of the board meeting when William Paley tells the rest of the board that it is time for CBS to begin phasing out its focus on radio and put all of its effort into the new medium television. It’s been a few years since I read the story in the book The Powers that Be, but as I remember, Mr. Paley pulled this power play when there were only a few thousand television sets in the entire country. And, in case you missed it, Mr. Paley was correct – radio did fade, and television won the day. Mr. Paley knew that the battle was already over, and he chose to be on the right side of that battle at exactly the right moment. (By the way, CBS was dominant in the ratings in radio first, then television, because of the incredible vision and timing and leadership of Mr. Paley).
Which brings us to the current battle. My colleague Karl Krayer is convinced that the Kindle is just a flash in the pan, a fad, something that has no chance of winning the battle over the traditional/physical book. (read his post here).
He may still be right – but I don’t think so.
Barnes & Noble sold out of The Nook this holiday season. Rumors are swirling that Apple will soon have its fabled tablet, which will at some point have a competitive e-reader built in. And now, Seth Godin proclaims the battle is already over – and the Kindle has won. (I assume that he means the e-reader has won. We will wait to see if the Kindle itself is the long-term winner). Here are Godin’s words from a recent post:
If you want to know if a ship is going to sink, watch what the richest passengers do.
iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.
Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
“It’s over,” says Godin. Nothing is worse that winning yesterday’s competitive battles when the battle field has shifted.
And, on a personal note, this is a classic case of “it doesn’t matter what I want — the future is upon us!” I prefer real books, with pages, and weight… But what I want and like may not matter much at all.
(For a far more serious version of this contest, we really don’t know where Al Qaeda is mustering its forces and planning its next actions. Afghanistan; Pakistan; Yemen, somewhere else? We really do have to get this one right!)