The $1 Billion Babies

It’s pretty interesting when you start hearing numbers like $1 billion thrown about by different people talking about a similar phenomenon. It’s one thing to be a fan; it’s another when industry heavy-hitters start talking about the big bucks.

I’m referring to the news last week that both the Amazon Kindle and Apple’s iPhone may be on their way to being billion-dollar products. The first big projection came from Steve Jobs. Based on the new iPhone App Store’s selling $1 million a day over 30 days, he told “The Wall Street Journal” that “maybe [the iPhone app store] will be a $1 billion marketplace at some point in time.”

The same day, Citi analyst Mark Mahaney reportedly upped projections for Kindle sales from $750 million by 2010 to $1.1 billion. His estimate is based on the sales of the Kindle device and the consistently great reviews. Overall, he sees the Kindle becoming Amazon’s iPod and a huge mainstream success.

Big deal, right? All that iPhone App Store hype and early-adopter gushing over that wacky Kindle e-book thing (that you can’t even dunk under water!) don’t really mean much to you as a marketer, right? That’s just all tech geek stuff.

Wrong! I’ll go out on a limb and say the model that both devices represent — a wireless, always-on device (that’s not a computer) connected to a nearly endless stream of information and services available on demand and purchasable with a click — a glimpse into the Internet’s future.

Yup. Forget Web 2.0 — or even Web 5.0 (PDF link) for that matter. It increasingly seems like the future of the Internet is that it will disappear. And while some of us more hardcore Web 1.0 types might shed a tear about it, the Kindle and Amazon’s “own your wallet” strategy and the iPhone App store and Apple’s open-platform policy seem harbingers of things to come.

In some ways the success of these two products and their digital offerings seem in line with the trends we’ve been seeing for widgets, advergaming, branded applications, and even social media.

At first glance these might seem like very different things, but they’re all really about using the Web as a platform rather than as a destination. While most widgets, games, and branded apps link back to their parent company Web sites, they’re also in many ways experiences that perform a branding function. Sure, at some point you might want to learn more and go off to the parent company’s site after experiencing one of these things, but the branding function gets fulfilled within the app itself.

What we’re seeing is a move from the old media conception of ads as come-ons that snag your attention (or insert themselves in your media stream). In the new world, the branding function is performed by a thing that we actually want to interact with. In effect, these things become branding smart bombs that find their way to their target audiences and deliver their messaging payloads no matter where that target may be (or what device they might be using).

That’s where the intersection between widgets, advergames, branded apps, and so forth and the iPhone and the Kindle happens. While there are some technological barriers in the way of making this happen as seamlessly as it could today (e.g., wireless carriers, idiotically closed networks and platforms), if you squint your mind’s eye a little bit it’s not hard to imagine a future where these kinds of branding smart bombs could land anywhere we come into contact with the network.

We might encounter them on the Web (or whatever it becomes in five or so years), but it’s just as likely that we could encounter them on our phones, networked e-book readers, PDAs, or even the GPS in our cars. Combine the ability to be on the grid all the time with the capability for consumers to buy content (or games, branded apps, viral videos, or samples of books and music) with a click whenever they want it (as with the Kindle or the iPhone and a few other devices), and you enter a world much different than the one we live in now of gobs of free media supported by advertising of questionable performance inserting itself irritatingly into the media stream.

How would this work? One of the simplest versions is what I as a Kindle user (yeah, I’m very, very happy to be one of them) encounter when looking for books. If I’m at work I can go onto Amazon and buy books and have them sent to my Kindle. If I’ve got my Kindle fired up, I can sit down and read a sample chapter for free and when I’m done I can hit one button to buy the rest of the book and have it delivered wirelessly in seconds. The book itself, in that case, becomes an ad for itself. The smart bomb lands in my lap and I’m happy to buy.

We’re a long way from figuring out what it will mean to market to people in an always-on world where the network becomes an open, universal platform that connects us all to each other and to the products, services, and information we want all the time. While we figure it out, it seems imperative to cast aside our old-media assumptions that advertising has mean interruption, that the Web is our primary means of reaching people electronically, and that reaching people with our messages means choosing between traditional or online media. With every day that goes by, the lines keep blurring more and more. The question now is what are we going to do when those lines finally disappear?

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