The secret

“The secret to getting ahead in the 21st century is capitalizing on people doing what they want to do, rather than trying to get them to do what you want to do.”

(Glenn Reynolds of, in a Wired article quoted at the Public Journalism network)

I think this applies very much to issues of control in products, systems and environments, in addition to the blogging context in which it was spoken, just so long as people are aware that there are alternatives available which do let them do what they want. eMusic exists, with a DRM-free format, but more people still use iTunes. Why?

As Cory Doctorow has so often put it, “No-one wakes up in the morning wanting to do less with his or her stuff.” It will be especially interesting to see how businesses built on the model Reynolds expresses fare in the years ahead. Is this really the secret to getting ahead? Will we really have companies and governments succeeeding by striving to help and empower people, or will the lure of increased control prove too attractive?


  1. Kris Browne

    The reasons why iTunes has smothered every other paid service, despite “doing less” than eMusic’s non-DRM mp3 downloads are easy.
    iTunes makes using the music you have pleasant. They put a lot of thought and study in making it friendly and obvious to most users. The ITMS is equally pleasant to use, and does what their market wants. Apple has limited the drm on the ITMS downloads to the point that 99% of non-sharing customers will never see those limits. For those 99% of non-sharing customers, they give the best music buying experience you will find anywhere. Their martet doesn’t care about sharing music, or remixing it, and for those people, it is easier, faster, and more frindly than using one of the P2P sharing systems, which are it’s only serious competitor.

    I haven’t used it in a while but eMusic’s ONLY real selling points when I first used them were the unlimited non-DRM mp3 downloads. I was an avid eMusic user when it offered unlimited those downloads… I didn’t always find things I wanted, but I paid the monthly anyways because when I did find things, it was unlimited, and I put up with the horrible interface for the same reason. Like many others, I dropped my subscription when they first put caps on their downloads. Now, let it be said that I always knew that when I quit eMusic, those downloads would still play just fine, otherwise I would never have put up with the interface, even with the unlimited downloads. I would never consider a service where the DRM on the files meant that if I didn’t pay their protection money I couldn’t play my music. (Timely to the discussion, eMusic just knocked down the download caps for it’s subcription brackets (Again)).

  2. Scott

    The lure will always be there, however, the potential to control people may not.

  3. Bruno

    Kris Browne says it perfectly: the reason for which people keep using iTunes is it does the job better than anyone else.

    The same goes with Google; there is a growing concern regarding Google’s massive data and services centralisation, especially since the start of the Gmail era. But matter-of-factly, whatever they do they do it better than anyone else, thanks to their best engineers, thanks to their attractive business models, thanks to their founders, thanks to… themselves.

    Can anyone suggest an alternative?

  4. Dan

    OK, perhaps eMusic was a bad example, particularly given the recent lower download caps. I only included it as an example of a business that (potentially) could make money by helping users do what they want (i.e. play music however and wherever they like) compared with trying to force them to play it on a certain platform, with certain control provisos. I would suggest that ITMS in its current format, with DRM, will only remain so popular while the iPod (and its successors) do. When something else comes along, which requires more cross-device format sharing, people may start to get frustrated.

    Their market doesn’t care about sharing music, or remixing it

    Oh, for the days of “Rip, Mix and Burn”!

    But – as Bruno says – Google is an interesting example. Google became massive by helping people achieve what they wanted to do (i.e. giving them more useful results than the alternatives) without trying to restrict or control them too much. Say Google had required that you download some kind of spyware (OK, maybe the expiry-in-2038 cookie counts! Maybe Gmail counts?) before using the service. Would it have become so popular so quickly?

  5. Kris Browne

    The ITMS only has the restrictions it has because it’s a price of entry for the selection it carries. eMusic, even now as it reduces the customer value on it’s downloads, offers only back-catalog items, mostly of interest to a select number of listeners. They do not have the hits and popular releases to gather many more users than they already have. And despite being technically enencumbered, the license under which you download those files does not grant you any more rights than the ITMS does.

    Apple is a company which prides itself on providing a choice platform for creating content, with iLife being the gem of their consumer crown, and it’s pro tools being de-facto standards in the studio. If they had the right to offer music under a license and format which allowed you to leverage it and add value to the rest of their platform, don’t you think they’d jump at the chance? As cool as the ITMS and iPod are, their computers are still the core of their business and the driving factor of their innovations.

    (Postscript: Put a new user in front of a mac and they will fare better than a PC user switching to a mac… Or even someone coming from classic Mas OS. I think that the “secret” of doing things the way the customer wants extends beyond the ITMS.)

  6. Pingback: WebWord » Blog Archive » Architectures of Control in Design

Comments are closed.