I’ve been reading Teju Cole’s Open City, in large part due to an enthusiastic review by Karan Mahajan in n+1. As Karan writes,
Open City reads like a digressive monograph of the sort favored by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, sweeping up changing seasons, news, gossip, and historical tidbits in service of big questions.
And that’s exactly the kind of novel I like. Early on, the protagonist, Julius, describes the death of Tower Records and Blockbuster:
It wasn’t that I felt sorry for these faceless national corporations; far from it. They had made their profits and their names by destroying smaller, earlier local businesses. But I was touched not only at the passage of these fixtures in my mental landscape, but also at the swiftness and dispassion with which the market swallowed even the most resilient enterprises. Business that had seemed unshakable a few years previously had disappeared in the span, seemingly, of a few weeks. Whatever role they played passed on to other hands, hand that would feel briefly invincible and would, in their turn, be defeated by unforeseen changes. These survivors would also be forgotten.
This passage came to mind as I read Rip Empson’s fascinating interview with Gary Morgenthaler, the first investor in Siri, at TechCrunch:
“A million blue links from Google is worth far less than one correct answer from Siri,” he adds. These are very early days for Siri, but already he hears that “Siri’s usage has been 10x more than what Apple anticipated.” The big potential, of course, is if Apple opens up Siri to outside developers, which could create a new wave of voice-enabled apps and give Apple an edge over Android and other mobile platforms. (Morgenthaler also gets into the challenges Apple must overcome before it can open up Siri).
If people start using Siri to bypass search, that is a huge threat to Google. But how would Siri make money? It wouldn’t be from advertising. In Morgenthaler’s mind, the biggest opportunity is getting in the middle of transaction. “Corporations will be happy to skip advertising altogether, if they can go straight to transactions,” he says.
Google is a large, deep-pocketed, and resilient business enterprise, and we have no reason to believe that Siri represents the beginning of its end. Yet as Julius reminds us, much the same could have been said of Tower Records and Blockbuster.