When Steve Jobs took to the stage in 2008 to announce the second iPhone and, just as importantly, the then-brand new App Store, he was selling consumers one simple thing: choice. Whether you wanted to play games, read the news, watch videos, or do a thousand other things, there was something for whatever your heart desired.
Then a funny thing happened: We got overwhelmed. A decade later, it's hard to recall the last time a new app took the world by storm. There are just too many of them. And logging into the App Store today is a bit like going into a shopping mall armed only with a coupon for one thing: There's so much choice, it might just be easier to give up than choose.
It isn't just consumers who are burdened, though. The glut of content of all kinds is also starting to have economic effects. When there are millions of apps available, it becomes more and more difficult to justify $5 or $10, so over time, a dollar or two has become the norm. An excess of choice exerts pressure, pushing prices down and driving us all a bit loopy in the process.
So perhaps the future of tech, both as an economic and cultural force, is in curtailing choice rather than offering more of it.
Big Tech seems to be catching on. This week, it was revealed that Apple had secret meetings with app makers in order to start a push toward software as a service — that is, charging monthly or annual payments to use an app, rather than a one-time, up-front fee.
Apple's incentive is obvious, as the sheer popularity of the App Store has made it far more difficult to make a profit on the platform. Mobile app makers get stuck in a loop in which consumers pay 99 cents for an app, and then expect updates for years, the economics of which quickly cease to make sense. Given that apps are a fundamental part of the appeal of the iPhone and mobile devices in general, Apple sees this as a problem to solve.
But the shift to software-as-a-service is industry-wide. Perhaps most prominently, Microsoft is in the midst of a years-long shift to transition customers over from standalone Word or Excel to Office 365, a subscription package with a monthly fee. For bigger companies like Apple and Microsoft, subscriptions are an opportunity for high-margin, ongoing revenue that helps lock consumers in to platforms.
Yet the glut of content that arose from digital also has more human consequences. Among the more prominent is the tyranny of choice, a term that picks up on the concept put forth in The Paradox of Choice, a book by Barry Schwarz that suggested too much choice gives consumers anxiety, so reducing it is a counter-intuitive way to help. While that book came out in 2004, in 2018 consumers are absolutely bombarded with options. For just video alone, there is Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, Xbox, Mubi, and more. It's overwhelming.
Tech companies are already starting to recognize the effects of excess. Google and Apple have both instituted new features in their new operating systems that help people track their usage, letting them know for example, they were on Instagram for three hours that day — and maybe it's time to cut down.
But for an industry predicated on not just choice, but more broadly libertarian ideals of freedom, the idea of deliberately curtailing market choice can seem anathema. There is an inherent paradox at work: Too much choice and too much stuff is a real problem, but offering people the maximum choice is exactly how tech companies have peddled themselves for years.
So what is the way forward, then, both economically and culturally? It may well be to turn less choice itself into the marketing pitch. There are already signs this is happening. Firstly, content companies are looking to prevent their offerings from getting lost in the mire of stuff. Most obvious is Disney, which is slowly pulling its films and shows off Netflix to open its own streaming service next year. The point is to narrow the focus so that those seeking Marvel films or Disney cartoons will have one place to go, rather than being scattered around various services.
Yet if that represents a gingerly first step, there are more radical options, too. Consider the idea of a wine club: From the tens of thousands of bottles each year, subscribers pay someone to select the most interesting or rare offerings. Perhaps what comes next for digital content is something similar for film or music — hand-curated offerings from trusted sources that end up putting choice in the hands of someone else in order to slough off the anxiety of choosing.
Up until this point, the excess of choice in digital media has had only one solution: the algorithm. But we've seen the trouble with algorithms like those on YouTube or Netflix. They feed you only what you've already said you like, not things you may not yet know you're into. Worse, they have a tendency to serve up disturbing content. The way forward can't simply be more or better algorithms.
Instead, for reasons both financial and cultural, it's time for digital companies to start thinking about how to put limits on things: on how much we can use a device, or what we have available to choose from.
To be sure, it's a strange inversion of capitalism, which is supposed to work on offering ever more choice. But perhaps it isn't such an odd reaction. After all, free markets are supposed to respond to consumer demand.
And as we creep further into the digital revolution, what people are asking for is clear: Less.