Reading the business section of yesterday's New York Times, you couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition of two seemingly different companies, which, at second glance, have more in common that you might think. One is Bloomberg, the financial data juggernaut that has enough cash to aspire to become “the world’s most influential news organization.” The company has placed its bets on the acquisition of the venerable BusinessWeek, trusting that it will broaden its reach into a mainstream business audience. A few pages later, Digital Domain columnist Randall Stross reveals Apple’s pending patent application for a new advertising pop-up technology that forces users of devices and web sites to acknowledge the reception of the commercial message.
What Apple calls “enforcement routine” is basically a radical ad-based model that offers consumers to use Apple’s products and services for free or at a discount if they “watch ads they may not want to watch.” Stross writes: “Its distinctive feature is a design that doesn’t simply invite a user to pay attention to an ad--it also compels attention. The technology can freeze the device until the user clicks a button or answers a test question to demonstrate that he or she has dutifully noticed the commercial message. Because this technology would be embedded in the innermost core of the device, the ads could appear on the screen at any time, no matter what one is doing.” As Stross points out, other brands went down this path before and utterly failed, and he is stunned that Apple, if it is serious about this technology, seems to be willing to risk its reputation of consumer-friendly “cool.”
One story can be read in the context of the other: Bloomberg and Apple not only share a zealously rigid culture and a “walled garden” business model based on selling high-grade packages at a premium price; they are also both media companies. Both have strong communities driven by the Three C’s of Communities--connectivity, content, and context--and both are wondering which of these parameters they can exploit more aggressively without jeopardizing the integrity of the community that is the foundation of their business. Both Apple and Blooomberg create value by heavily relying on network effects within an ecosystem that they tightly control. Both are distributing content to raise demand for their products. And both have a strong brand to extend – and to lose.
With the acquisition of BusinessWeek, Bloomberg’s strategic trajectory is clear: Owning a proprietary technology platform (it sold 300,000 terminals to date), the company is looking for ways to reach more potential buyers (and sell premium services). Apple’s “terminals,” on the other hand, are its iTunes store and its user interfaces, and the recent patent application indicates that the company might explore the exploitation of attention generated through these properties. Bloomberg is buying attention to open up new sources of revenue, Apple might be selling it.
The two brands have one last trait in common: They are not really embracing social media, to put it mildly. Apple, as a company, does not engage, and Bloomberg even discourages its employees to engage. Apple and Bloomberg, in some ways, are the antidotes to a marketplace that – propelled by the forces of the Social Web – is becoming increasingly atomized, hyper-distributed, open, and transparent. Secrecy, compliance, top-down hierarchies, rigid communication policies, and walled gardens are characteristics that may be somewhat outdated in this era, and yet they seem to be the very cornerstones of Apple’s and Bloomberg’s success as the two firms thrive as the surprise champions of their respective categories. Both came to save ailing industries, ripe for innovation: Apple reinvented the music industry and the Smart Phone market. Bloomberg is determined to reinvent the news business. But in the long term, can Apple sustain its community of loyal users without becoming a more transparent organization? And can Bloomberg really emerge as “the world’s most influential news organization” without going social?