Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Revolution Devours Its Own

Netflix's decision to split its DVD-by-mail and streaming video services into two completely separate companies is... vexing, to say the least:

...What is Reed Hastings smoking? As far as anyone can tell, he seems to have rolled up pages from The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen's influential 1997 book about the ways that successful companies die at the hands of upstarts. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, coined the term "disruptive technology," which describes innovations that come out of nowhere to undercut a market leader's dominant position. Christensen cited the way that Digital Equipment, the leader in 1970s-era corporate minicomputers, completely missed the 1980s boom in personal computers. But a better example may be Netflix itself—its all-you-can-eat business model disrupted, and eventually killed, the previously dominant Blockbuster model for movie rentals. Hastings is likely paranoid, then, that Netflix is vulnerable to the same kind of disruption. And that's the logic behind the mail/streaming separation. Hastings would prefer to kill his own golden goose before anyone else beats him to it.

In its own technocratic fashion this brings to mind the image of the Titan Saturn (Cronos, to the Greeks) devouring his children. He did so in order to prevent the same kind of overthrow he led against his father, which famously led to his wife Ops/Rhea substituting a stone for the last of them, Jupiter/Zeus, who grows up to lead a rebellion against the Titans. (God of War 2 summarized it nicely.) Netflix, in announcing the Qwikster split, just swallowed a stone of its own.

CEO Reed Hastings is essentially betting that because streaming technology is "the future," he needs to cut off the DVD-mailing service before it becomes insolvent and obsolete. But their streaming library is underwhelming and best functioned as a compliment to its vast DVD library. It doesn't have enough to justify a subscription on its own. That Qwikster was seemingly named as a nod toward another doomed internet upstart, and with no consideration that the domain name and Twitter handle had already been snapped up, does not bode well.

The net effect of all this, of course, is to anger a customer base already irate with having its monthly rates jacked up. For myself, my movie-watching habits are bad enough that I've had discs sitting for months at a time without getting watched, and my internet connection isn't fast enough to let me watch movies uninterrupted. I'm probably going to cut "Netflix" loose because I can't justify paying for something I can't/won't use, especially when my Amazon Prime membership gives me free access to a sizeable library of streaming films already. I may hold on to Qwikster to get ahold of more obscure titles, but even that's not a certainty. Redbox aside, Netflix has until now dominated the movie rental market; dividing itself and its customer base makes it much more vulnerable now to competition than it was before.

Netflix may have done the Qwikster split in order to get rid of a declining business model, but in doing so they may have hastened their own decline. As with many a revolution before, the insurgent, now established as the leader, can only go down and will resort to dread measures to keep its grip on power. Netflix's anxiety is perfectly understandable, but they should have known what the Greeks and Romans figured out millenia ago, that those who try to escape their fate will only blunder into it the worse.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

That Day

It was a school day. I was a high school sophomore. After waking up and showering, I got ready for class. My high school operated on the block system, whereby instead of seven or eight classes of less than an hour each were crammed into one day, three or four classes roughly an hour and a half long were spread over A and B days. The B days had a kind of study hall period in the early morning, so that one needed not be there until 9:30 or thereabouts. That Tuesday was such a day, and so I was able to be more leisurely about getting ready.

My mother, having worked the night shift at the hospital the night before, called the house. No surprise there. From what I remember, it was a typical phone call: be there in 15 minutes (or whatever), don't forget to put the garbage out.

Then, before hanging up, almost as an afterthought, "Turn on the TV, the World Trade Center's been attacked."


Such was my understanding of the wider world around me that the phrase 'World Trade Center' sounded familiar, though I really had no idea what it was, not even that included two iconic twin skyscrapers. In any case, it was news. I went over to the living room TV and switched it to some station, any station, to the chagrin of my younger, hockey playing brother who had been watch ESPN.

And here memory, notoriously unreliable, fails completely. I don't remember what I said, much of what I immediately felt, or even what I saw. I might have seen the live 8:28 (my time) collapse of the second tower, but probably not the 7:59 collapse of the first. But everything is fragments.

At the school they had the TV, a box large-screen sitting on top of a rolling cart, airing coverage of the unfolding disaster. Classes proceeded as normal.

A friend of mine was somewhat bewildered, saying, "They cancelled classes at my dad's school when Kennedy was assassinated."

Being so removed from the disaster, the following days felt less alarming than slightly menacingly strange. The grounding of nearly all air traffic felt particularly off because the high school is located in front of our town's landing strip, and descending aircraft were an unremarked feature of everyday life.

My brother was angry with Muslims. My mother and I explained to him that collective punishment was wrong, and used as a personal hypothetical his Chinese friend whose life would be made more difficult by an attack by China. He came around.

We heard about people saying very unkind things to the Egyptian family with whom we were friends.

Strange times. Strange times, all and ever.