With Amazon's announcement of its Kindle Lending Library this week, it got me thinking about the broader perspective of how we now consume products and services. Are the days of owning anything gone? We are moving towards a model where we license products at the time of usage instead of buying them. I wrote about the end of the free business model a while ago; companies, particularly emerging ones, now charge us in new ways whereby we we will no longer own things that we used to. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, but is that what consumers want in the long-term? Or are we being forcefully led by businesses that favor recurring revenue streams over of one-time purchases?
Let's stop to think about some of the things we use on a daily basis. We all hated to pay 15 bucks for a CD. ITunes came around and offered us easier access to buying music. Pandora and Spotify give you even more breadth. Guess what, you stop subscribing, you lose access. The streaming media trend for movies, TV, and everything else is certainly the wave of the future will result in no ownership rights for consumers. There are certainly advantages to this distribution model, but it is also changing the game. Fee for Service, not fee for product. This might not be a big deal, but what if you want to dial up that old Milli Vanilli track that you thought you had ?
Even our own stuff is in jeopardy. For things like pictures and video, we used to just throw in new hardware to back up all of our files. With files sizes getting increasingly larger, we now offload these services to Amazon Cloud and Mozy. But what happens if they triple their rate and we stop subscribing ? Will Mozy burn 150 DVDs of our pictures and send them back to us? What about all of the content on our Facebook pages or our own blogs? Do we get to keep it? How? Aren't these our conversations and data? Kind of scary to think we might lose all of those insightful AtmaBus articles, huh? While these services are in their infancy, this is certainly where we are headed. None of these sites (including this one) make it easy to back up. Those photo albums don't seem so irrelevant anymore.
Lets also look at our consumption in the physical world. For the past decades, we've all lived under the guise of home "ownership." The reality is that most of us owe more to the bank than we have equity into it. Either way, the trends point to a large movement towards renting. Cars have generally been owned - but new services such as ZipCar may have some legs even outside of metro cities if they can get the logistics right. We all like to own gadgets, but most of these have useful lives of under 2 years, so its not much of an ownership story. Most everything else we consume are services that require replenishment after some time.
We're turning into an "asset-light" society in which we pay for things we want right now but end up not owning any of them in the end. You see similar trends in the corporate world as companies with hoards of cash refuse to invest in the business and embrace outsourced services like SaaS. Perhaps the era of tweets and a limited attention span has led us in this direction. But I wonder if consumers will only notice this when its too late or when the switching costs are too high? Philosophers often say that we are born with nothing and end with nothing, so perhaps we are moving towards a higher moral ground. Maybe it's just the fading memories and the pictures that we no longer have access to that are all that matter anyway.