Apps Are Media

Apps have taken over the world. If you doubt that just take a look at this app map by Horace Dediu at Asymco which shows the 123 countries in the world where iPhones are available. Of course, anywhere you can get an iPhone, you can get an iPhone app. Like the Web, apps are distributed globally.

But when it comes to “media” like books, music, and movies, the distribution is much more limited on digital devices. Again, only looking at Apple, Dediu counts only 51 countries where music is available through the iTunes store, and only 6 countries where TV shows are available (see map below). My first reaction is that Apple really needs to broaden its licensing efforts internationally. But remember, iTunes started going international in 2004, and there are still more countries where you can get only apps (72) than both music and apps.

Traditional media industries are more restrictive in their licensing, and this is particularly true for TV shows and movies, which follow all sorts of arcane rules of availability across different distribution channels (theaters, Pay-Per-View, DVDs, cable, internet streaming). When you look at the glacial geographic advance of video and music on iTunes (and the internet, in general), it seems like we still have a long way to go before a global, legal market for digital media establishes itself in a meaningful way.

Except there already is a global market for digital media. They are called apps, and they represent the future of media in many ways. Apps are media. Not only are they a form of media in the way that consumer software and games have always been considered media (they compete with TV, books, and music for consumers’ time and attention). But increasingly, they are also subsuming other forms of media.

We are seeing the first signs of this “Software Eats Media” (to butcher a phrase from Marc Andreessen) phenomenon with books. Some of the most interesting books on the iPad aren’t merely iBook or Kindle editions, they are full-fledged apps. The best children’s books on the iPad are full-blown apps, as are other books and magazines which incorporate images and videos into the experience. The TinTin iPad art book, based on the new animated movie, is a perfect example. It incorporates 3-D models that readers can manipulate, immersive 360-degree rooms, and other software-enhanced media.

Music and movies are arguably more passive experiences, but they are also increasingly becoming features of other apps. The lines between software and media will become harder to tell apart as apps begin to include more and more traditional media. We are seeing this first on the creation side, with songs, videos, movies being recorded on iPhones (part of the next Avengers movie was shot on an iPhone). And more apps are including video and music snippets as well. Imagine a game with immersive 3-D rooms you can “walk” through where you can watch different narratives unfold. Would that be a movie or an app? The way we consume media will be very different from the sit-back mode which rules today.

Before we get there though, there will be many incremental steps along the way. Just think about how longer-form media already is delivered through apps—whether that’s listening to entire albums streamed on Spotify or watching Netflix movies on your iPad. In these cases, it is not so much the original media which gets transformed (the song or the movie), but the experience surrounding it. Media discovery becomes more social and algorithmic.

A song or a TV show will become a hit because it is shared by millions of people on Facebook and Twitter, not because it is getting millions of dollars of promotion on radio or TV. These apps will determine what we watch next through social and algorithmic recommendations—because how else do you find something to watch when traditional programming is dead?

The apps that deliver this media will exert a powerful influence over our consumption habits—what we watch, listen to, and read, as well as how we do it. Apps will help us find media through social and other filters, and throw it onto our TVs, iPads, stereos or whatever device is handy. They will bypass the set-top box, the radio, and the book store. Apps are where media consumption will happen. Media companies can continue to ignore or fight that trend at their own peril.