Tech Consumers Move on to Other Ways to Get What They Want

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I happened to be wearing my Napster T-shirt the day the Supreme Court’s decision about file-sharing companies Grokster and StreamCast came down -- the ruling that basically gave media conglomerates permission to sue
Photo: Abbey Klaassen
Win this Napster shirt and a Pets.com sock puppet -- read to the bottom of this column to find out more.
them to death. The thing about my Napster shirt (which was a promotional freebie) is that wearing it always makes me feel like a total tool. It’s clothing of last resort: Something I’ll wear only if I’m so behind on doing the laundry that I’ve exhausted all other options.

Stickin’ it to The Man
I suppose that once upon a time Napster was, like Grokster and StreamCast’s Morpheus, sort of a cool, edgy brand that was not only about the file-trading future, but about stickin’ it to The Man -- greedy, clueless Big Media execs. But its iconic status was exceedingly ephemeral, and when a federal court shut it down in 2001 (also for aiding and abetting copyright rape), it faced its ultimate fate: becoming a mainstream brand that would be revived solely to add faux cachet to a pay music service in search of a name.

Maybe Grokster and Morpheus, post-death-by-lawsuit, will also be born again as legit offerings. But probably not. As Gawker/Defamer/Wonkette publisher Nick Denton has figured out, it’s really not that hard to conjure insta-cool: Just add a cute suffix to the end of something. (I’m still waiting for CNNette and Tommy Hilfigerster.) The reality is, millions of users have already moved on. There are already better, stealthier and effectively unstoppable peer-to-peer file-sharing products out there. Despite the media giants’ victory dance, nobody’s won nuthin.’

Tom Rodgers goes to TiVo
As it happens, the day the Grokster/StreamCast ruling came down, former Primedia chief Tom Rogers was named CEO of TiVo. I already beat up on Primedia in my last column, so I’ll just stoically remind readers of Rogers’ legacy at the company: To juice a stock that IPO’d at $10 a share, he made some vague pronouncements about Internet strategies (before the bubble burst in 2000), which briefly sent the stock soaring into the $30s, until Wall Street realized how hollow (and boneheaded) most of those pronouncements were. Rogers was then forced out by the Primedia board in 2003, and the stock’s currently at about $4.

Déjà vu: Before being named chief of the company, TiVo board member Rogers spearheaded a vague deal with cable giant Comcast that juiced TiVo’s downtrodden stock. What Wall Street heard: TiVo service will be available on Comcast! Yippee! Unfortunately, the fine print of the deal reveals that it’s a “nonexclusive partnership” that only provides “Comcast customers with the opportunity to choose the TiVo service ... as an additional option” to Comcast’s existing DVR service. Even worse, it’s only supposed to kick in “mid-to-late 2006” (Internet time, baby!).

Once again, consumers have moved on. Around the country, the ever-improving, often unbranded DVR services offered by various cable companies now, quite simply, trump TiVo’s formerly state-of-the-art interface.

So Comcast customers are supposed to bother signing up for the “additional option” of TiVo when the nameless DVR in their cable box already works great? Riiiiight.

Techies don't need brands
What the media companies battling Grokster and StreamCast don’t understand, and what TiVo’s management can’t grasp, is that tech consumers don’t need no stinking brands -- they just want, and will always find, whatever works best at helping them get a handle on what they really care about: the content.

It was nice for awhile to get to say “I TiVo’d Family Guy” -- TiVo is a lovely, fun word -- but we got through the VCR epoch just fine without fetishizing individual VCR brands. (I don’t remember anyone feeling the need to say “I Hitachied Seinfeld.”) When TiVo dies, I suspect we’ll just return to saying “I recorded Family Guy.

Meanwhile, the millions of file-sharing fans who briefly relied on Grokster or Morpheus continue to move on to other basically generic, interchangeable means of sharing files. The underlying technologies endure and evolve, while the fashion-y brand names tenuously attached to those technologies fade away.

Speaking of fashion, I’ve decided to re-gift my Napster T-shirt. Send me an e-mail with “Napster, please” in the subject line along with a sentence explaining why you want (or need) my shirt (it’s a men’s size M), and I’ll select one lucky winner. I’ll not only launder the shirt before sending it, I’ll throw in my Pets.com sock puppet.

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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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