A few months ago, I put up a post about how software delivery is materially changing. In that post, I talked about how software delivery would transition from CD’s and DVD’s to over-the-wire instant software. It’s a worthwhile transition. Eliminating prerequisites to getting software up and running is a great thing.
Just ask Youtube. Youtube exploded precisely because we didn’t have to get the knife and scissors out to pry away that annoying, thick plastic casing to get at the product. Realplayer had a stubborn plastic wrapping around it. Youtube didn’t. Rewind ten years ago and stroll into Real Network’s offices and explain to them that their product was just fine but that their “packaging” would one day do them in and they would’ve laughed you out of the building. Installation downloads. Plugins. Configuration settings. It’s all a big honkin’ waste of time. The URL box killed Realplayer. Hell, even Amazon, the ultimate purveyor of actual physical stuff, is waking up to the uselessness of over-packaging in today’s world.
The un-packaging experience (or in software circles, what is commonly referred to as “download and installation”) is part of the entire experience around a piece of software. In fact, it’s a pretty important part of the relationship: it’s the introduction. The iPhone application and song acquisition experience is arguably one of the main reasons why the iPhone is so wildly popular and successful. The whole process flows beautifully. You don’t need to get the knife and scissors out.
A few weeks ago, I ran across an article or post that explained that MLB At Bat, the popular $4.99 iPhone application that gives you up-to-the-minute scores and video highlights would…*gasp*…expire. For a moment, I was offended and felt a bit duped. I paid my $4.99 and I assumed I’d purchased the damn thing. I owned it. I owned it in the traditional, free-market capitalist sense of the word. I give you $5, you give me a jar of pickles. The pickles are now mine.
Not so. Major League Baseball is going to require everyone to buy At Bat every year. It turns out I didn’t own a damn thing. In fact, I leased it…or subscribed to it. After getting over my initial grievance about the whole thing, I realized a few things. First, $4.99 a year is not even worth debating for an application of this quality. $4.99 gets you a large coffee at Starbucks. Second, all software is headed in this direction. It’s going the way of cable television or cell phones. We’re going to pay to use, not to own.
Today, the burden on software publishers is to sell you software that you will then own. A few years will go by and you’re asked again to “upgrade.” You can choose not to and just keep using whatever you’ve got. The burden is on software publishers to pile on features and updates compelling enough to make us want to pay the upgrade cost. If our copies of Photoshop CS3 stopped working tomorrow because it had “expired” you’d witness some sort of revolt of graphic designers, but that’s exactly where we’re headed.
This shift will bring a renewed emphasis on the software experience itself. The marketing of software; the barrier-to-entry to use; the virtual out-of-the-box experience along with the actual use of the product is all blending together into one continuous interaction. As we ready our idea management product, Kindling for general release, we’re realizing that the entire thing: from marketing pages, to the sign-up process to the actual application itself is really one cohesive experience.
So take heed product managers and designers, the shrink-wrapped box is gone. The barriers are gone. Hell, the actual shelf space is gone. Marketing is no longer over there and your product is over here. It’s all one big ball of experience. Make it as simple and memorable as you possibly can.