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Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit Media, holds an iPad displaying his company’s app NextGuide at his office in San Francisco. NextGuide is an app which acts like a super powered TV Guide pulling in TV show listings to generate a universal viewing guide. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)
Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit Media, holds an iPad displaying his company’s app NextGuide at his office in San Francisco. NextGuide is an app which acts like a super powered TV Guide pulling in TV show listings to generate a universal viewing guide. (Kim White for The Globe and Mail)

The new tech battleground: Tearing down walls, building bridges Add to ...

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.

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“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.

Indeed, RIM, which doesn’t have the sprawling multimedia offerings of an Apple or a Microsoft, has become one of the unlikeliest supporters of the effort to bridge the gap between silos. In addition to helping bring Android apps to the PlayBook, the company has developed tools that allow enterprise customers to manage multiple types of smartphones – a move that recognizes the growing trend of corporations allowing their employees to use whatever flavour of smartphone they like at work.

In the coming years, the list of companies on either side of the silo divide will only grow. Carriers and Internet service providers have begun buying app-creators and leveraging movie and TV content in an effort to differentiate themselves from one another. Social networks such as Facebook have also stepped into the battle, expanding their offerings and giving users more reasons to stay within the confines of the site by purchasing content-sharing companies such as Instagram. The efforts are in large part directed toward making it so easy for consumers to stay within one product ecosystem, so that they become permanent customers.

“It’s not just tech companies – wireless carriers are trying to keep you on their ecosystems, it could also be device manufacturers or operating system providers,” Mr. Stewart said. “It’s a classic gold rush.”

There is no shortage of start-ups focused on combining content, features and platforms from disparate sources. But just how easy that task is depends in large part on which sector those start-ups are operating in.

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BRIDGE-BUILDING

There is no shortage of start-ups focused on combining content, features and platforms from disparate sources. But just how easy that task is depends in large part on which sector those start-ups are operating in.

MESSAGING

Level of difficulty: Easy

At one point, developing free end-runs around traditional text-messaging risked upsetting telecom carriers. Today, everybody does it. Several apps, such as Heywire and Fring, allow users to send messages across various platforms, such as Facebook Chat or ICQ. The biggest hurdle to messaging upstarts these days is that the big players, such as Apple and Research In Motion, have messaging apps of their own (although they still don’t play well with others).

MUSIC

Level of difficulty: Medium

There’s no shortage of music services on the Web, from Pandora to Spotify to Rdio. Peripherals makers have also been good at building iPod docks and Web-connected stereos that include access to many of these services. The biggest problem with music curation lies in getting the content in the first place. Music, like movies and TV shows, is subject to all kinds of complex licensing and royalty systems. Add to that the hassles of geographic restrictions, and you start to see why we still can’t get Pandora in Canada.

MOVIES

Level of difficulty: Difficult

Web-based movie services such as Netflix barely make money as it is, and competing products such as iTunes and Hulu each require separate accounts (and, more often than not, will cost you money). The closest you’ll come to finding some of these services in the same place is on an average smart TV. Content exclusivity tends to be a bigger issue in videos than in areas such as music, so if you want to ditch cable, you’ll probably have to pay for more than one service. Add to that the hassles of geographic restrictions, and you start to see why we still can’t get Hulu in Canada.

APPS

Level of difficulty: Difficult, but getting easier

App developers build the same software for multiple platforms all the time, but they would rather not. It costs time and money to build the same app for Apple, Google, RIM, Microsoft and other smartphones and tablets. It also forces developers to bet on which platforms are worth targeting. The holy grail of app development is the universal app – the software that runs on any mobile device.

So far, the best bet for that future is HTML5, a programming language that lets developers build apps that run straight from a Web browser. But that technology hasn’t gained in popularity as quickly as expected, and it does little about the millions of existing apps that only run on one platform. Recently, users of a popular BlackBerry forum were excited by rumours that a developer had managed to build software that allows Apple-specific apps to run on RIM’s PlayBook tablet. But until that technology is proven, consumers will have to wait.

Omar El Akkad

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