The media industry is at an inflection point, one in which we have no clear view as to where we’ll end up, or who the winners will be.

Inflection points have occurred throughout history – sometimes they’re huge, as in the case of airships verses airplanes, sometimes they’re almost a matter of nuance, such as Betamax versus VHS. It’s difficult to know when you’re in the midst of an inflection point, but it’s not impossible – you can find hints if you’re open to them.

John Maxwell Hobbs

John Maxwell Hobbs

We can explore the patterns of inflection points in two commercial revolutions of the mid to late 1990s. One in the digital media activity leading up to the dotcom boom and the dominance of internet business, and another in coffee – that’s right, coffee.

Wake up
We’ll look at coffee first, because it’s a fairly simple story. Up until the late 1980s the US was famous for having some of the worst coffee in the world (with the UK running a close second.) Perversely, the worst coffee was served in places called ‘coffee shops’.

Coffee was not something to enjoy, it was something to wake you up at night and to help students and truck drivers pull all-nighters.

Then, in the mid-80s delicatessens began to offer flavoured coffee. You could choose from hazelnut, vanilla, and chocolate, among others. It was terrible, but it started people thinking about coffee as something more than utilitarian, it might actually be something you could enjoy.

At the same time, supermarkets began to stock whole bean coffee, and coffee grinders became available in department stores. People began to replace their percolators with filter coffee machines and discovered that coffee brewed at home didn’t have to taste like burnt mud.

Simultaneous with all of this activity, a small coffee roaster on the West Coast of the US named after a character in Moby-Dick began to open new stores. It specialised in the exotic drinks known as espresso and cappuccino, ignoring the flavoured coffee trend.

There are now just over 28,000 branches of Starbucks around the world. To put it briefly, this inflection point was ‘all about coffee’.

Shake up
Overlapping with, and partially fuelled by the coffee revolution was the dotcom boom, perhaps this era’s greatest inflection point. The current understanding of that is as a linear trajectory: AOL > World Wide Web > dotcom boom > dotcom crash > Amazon > Facebook > iPhone > Netflix. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 1989, when the first commercial ISP launched, the dominance of the internet was anything but assured, and anyone who postulated that its primary use would be for multimedia would have been gently mocked.

As with the coffee story, there were a number of simultaneous, parallel, and orthogonal developments going on in digital (and analogue) media, creating a massive inflection point with a huge number of very different potential outcomes.

In the networked information system sector, there were Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy, Minitel, Apple’s eWorld, and Microsoft’s MSN; electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) like The Well proliferated, with an uncountable number of BBS running in people’s bedrooms and offices hooked up to FidoNet. Usenet, IRC, Gopher, Archie, Veronica, and Finger connected the world, long before the modern internet.

Lest we forget, there was lots of activity in the non-networked space as well.

Both Interactive TV and Interactive CD-ROMs were hyped as the future of media. The dream of Interactive TV can be boiled down to one key concept – you can click a button on your remote during an episode of Friends and buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater (an idea that refuses to die).

Interactive CD-ROMs were somewhat more ambitious. They provided a mixture of text and media files that allowed graphics-rich (for the time) games like Myst, or for the user to read the script of A Hard Day’s Night while simultaneously watching it in glorious 320x240 resolution at 12 frames per second.

And all of this was still before the launch of the Web.

At the time, many of these activities seemed to be remotely related – things that were made possible by the ascendancy of the personal computer. It’s only hindsight that gives us the perspective to see how they led to Netflix, Spotify and Twitter. To put it briefly, this inflection point was ‘all about networked media’.

Break out
The path from the multimedia inflection point in the 1990s has led us to another one, today.

Because we’ve got the mechanics of streaming media worked out, we like to think we’ve got this whole thing sorted, but take a look at the current landscape: we’ve got to download to own from Apple, subscribe to stream from Netflix, subscribe to stream, or to rent, or maybe to own from Amazon, subscribe to turn off adverts from Spotify and NowTV, subscribe to watch live TV, but also get on-demand from Sky, stream bootlegged movies (or maybe not) from YouTube, podcasts, and more.

This doesn’t feel sorted or unified at all; this feels like another inflection point.

To put it briefly, this inflection point is ‘all about distribution’. Once we stop getting caught up in the details, focus on the issue causing the inflection, we’ll have a better chance of surviving the wild ride to come.

As well as being a music producer and composer, John Maxwell Hobbs is CEO of music technology startup Delic, media consultant and the former Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.