This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Call it a TV guide on steroids.
The NextGuide is an iPad application that helps users find out exactly what shows are on at any given time, in any given place. The app, developed by San Francisco-based start-up Dijit Media and released this fall, acts as a personalized program guide, following its users’ watching habits and suggesting new content based on those habits. If the app notices you’re a fan of movies starring Bill Murray, it may give you a heads up the next time Ghostbusters is playing, or when Mr. Murray is due to appear on Letterman.
“People always say ‘I have 500 channels and there’s nothing to watch,’” said Jeremy Toeman, chief executive officer of Dijit Media. “We say there is something to watch, you’re just not finding it.”
At the core of the NextGuide is a simple but powerful concept. The app pulls in content listings from a wide variety of services – from Netflix to Hulu, from iTunes to Amazon. Normally, all those services tend to compete with one another. But within the NextGuide, the walls between them are torn down, and the user is free to pick and choose.
“What we’re doing adds value to everybody in the food chain,” Mr. Toeman said. “Curation is the heart of what we’re doing.”
Of all the technology trends set to play out in 2013, perhaps none will be as significant as the emergence and impact of the silo – a collection of hardware and software products, all made by the same company, designed to play well with one another, but not with any competitors’ products. Consider Apple’s suite of iPads, iPhones and App store software, or Google’s Android operating system for tablets and smartphones, or Microsoft’s constellation of Windows-based phones, tablets and the Xbox gaming system.
But quietly, a host of start-ups are creating a niche industry by developing what can best be described as bridge-builders: apps that let users escape the confines of the walled garden. From tools such as Mr. Toeman’s NextGuide, which curate information from various competing sources, to instant messaging apps that let users connect with friends who use different messaging software, more and more software developers are fighting back against the big tech companies’ all-in propositions.
Those competing philosophies set the stage for a showdown in 2013 – between companies such as Microsoft and Apple that are trying to convince consumers to buy in exclusively to their products, and start-ups trying to connect the industry’s disparate silos.
“When you own the walled garden, letting other people take pieces and resell them is something people who own walled gardens try to stop,” said Deloitte Canada analyst Duncan Stewart.
One of the reasons the biggest tech companies in the world are trying hard to keep users within their walled gardens is because content exclusivity – in other words, having a stable of movies, songs or apps available only on your platform – is very difficult and expensive to secure. Almost all the most popular apps in the world run on more than one mobile operating system.
Some new media companies, such as Netflix, have started to commission original, exclusive TV programming, but the majority of the content available on such services is still available elsewhere. Sony, which runs a major movie studio, has used content from that studio in a semi-exclusive fashion to push its hardware products (most recently, leveraging the new James Bond movie to sell Sony smartphones). But the company still eventually sells rights to much of its content to other services.
“These companies want us to consume … all our online media through their devices,” Mr. Stewart said. “So for any specific tech company that owns hardware or software platforms, it’s in their best interest to have as much access as possible to content – that way you never need to leave their ecosystem. But it’s still prohibitive to buy that content exclusively.”
As such, the technology giants must find other ways to keep consumers within their silos. Primarily, the strategy so far has been to rely on ease of use. Microsoft, Apple and Google have all invested millions of dollars in software that synchronizes a user’s experience across devices. Download a song onto your tablet, and it shows up on your smartphone too; pause a movie on your bedroom TV, and you can watch it from the same point on your living room computer – assuming all your devices are from the same company.
But every innovation that makes it easier to use multiple products from the same manufacturer inevitably makes it more difficult to use products from different companies in tandem. Research In Motion, for example, has struggled mightily with this phenomenon in the past year. The company’s PlayBook tablet, while garnering mostly positive reviews for its hardware, nonetheless proved a commercial flop, in large part because there were very few apps running on the device. In response, RIM scrambled to make it as easy as possible for developers of apps for other tablets to re-purpose their software for the PlayBook.