Free Your Mind and Your Apps Will Follow

Do not try to predict the future of content. This is a fool's errand. Accepting that you have no idea what the next big thing will be is the first step. Admit your helplessness before the erratic shape shifter that is consumer preference for content consumption. Now that you have released any notion of anticipating which way the content market is heading, you are ready to begin anew.

You have a blank slate on which to build your content strategy, and frankly, I suggest you strive to keep it that way. Keep your mind clear and open about channels and devices and, instead, reinforce the foundation of your content business: creating quality content that is in demand and of value and-from inception-making it open and flexible so that it will be ready and able to meet customers wherever they are.

In response to my mentioning that BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) will release a tablet device, the PlayBook, to go up against the iPad, a co-worker-who had been a fiercely loyal BlackBerry user for years-gave me a 15-minute lecture on the virtues of his new iPhone and the decline of the BlackBerry. Among his points was the fact that RIM has failed to compete in the apps marketplace. Certainly, Apple has welcomed developers into its community and makes it easy for anyone to create an app and to offer it for free or fee. I'm no developer, but RIM does not share this reputation; the word is that it is difficult to develop for the BlackBerry and that, given this tablet rumor, its operating system may be changing anyway ... so now might not be the time to work up a BlackBerry app. True or not, these sorts of sentiments must be addressed to foster the community needed to compete with Apple's app dominance.

Many manufacturers simply copy iPhone features without thought to the real killer-the apps. In the case of the BlackBerry, this is a device that had a devoted fan base (remember the term crackberry?); mobile junkies used to be always-on businesspeople who couldn't stop tapping away at those BlackBerry keyboards. Yet RIM seems to have lost sight of its core consumers and stopped delivering what they-in particular-want and need. Yes, the company still has the corporate edge given its installed base of enterprise servers, through which companies can connect their users' BlackBerries to securely access enterprise email and networks. But it may not even be able to hold on to these if Apple can sufficiently address security issues.

While Apple's fans have always been dazzled by its products' chic and ease of use, the corporate market has its own specific set of expectations, needs, and demands-which RIM should be intimately familiar with and deliver on. The company doesn't need to compete in sheer number of apps, but it should foster a developer marketplace that connects customers' wishes with developers to build a business-specific app offering that a mainstream marketplace can't deliver.

When I look at apps in general, I find a similar lack of customer focus and a lemming-like me-too-ism, in which companies imitate (relatively) superficial customer experience features, such as touch navigation and presentation, while neglecting the actual functionality their specific users require from a given content set. Maybe cloned general news apps all dolled up with fancy flip features on an iPad will wow a mobilized userbase for a while. But when it comes to high-value information that users will pay for, well, that information better be highly valuable and flexible enough to deliver regardless of the users' device du jour.

RIM may not have seen the iPhone coming. It may not have seen the apps marketplace becoming a battlefield on which all device manufacturers must compete. (Most content creators and businesses seeking to best leverage their content probably didn't foresee this either.) Right now, it appears that in many segments, the fastest to market takes an early lead. This comes down to either a deep well of cash with which to douse each content fire as it breaks out or an underlying content flexibility that allows information to easily adapt to the shifting marketplace.

Sure, I'd like to think there's a way to anticipate the next big thing. And like you, I follow the information and trends that help us make decisions about where to take our content strategies. However, there can be no effective strategy without focusing on our core strengths-the things our customers value about us-and ceaselessly building upon these. These customers, however, will continue to surprise, confound, and delight us with the ways they put our tools to work, and we had best be prepared by keeping our mindset and our content open and flexible so that we can be right there with them.