Opinion - Why is Redbox Afraid of the iPhone?

Over the last few years, Redbox has been able to build an impressive DVD rental network by being innovative and flexible while their competitors were still laughing at the concept of kiosk rentals. Over time they've added features to the Redbox website that allow customers to browse and reserve titles online. They've linked their kiosks together so that unlike competitors (ahem: Blockbuster), you can actually rent a movie from one location and return it at another. Redbox's core business may ultimately be, plain old boring physical DVD rentals, but there's no denying that they've been an innovator in their industry. Which is why I am so perplexed by their most recent decision to go hostile against iPhone owners.

Given the company's reputation for thinking progressively, I was disappointed to learn that they've decided to take a technological step backwards by putting pressure on the Inside Redbox blog, to kill their Inside Redbox iPhone application.

I haven't jumped on the iPhone bandwagon myself yet, but I can understand why some people think of their phones as an extra appendage. The apps store was a brilliant move by Apple and has created all kinds of interesting software programs that wouldn't have existed if people had to rely on big companies to build them.

By taking advantage of the GPS features inside the phone, Inside Redbox was able to give iPhone customers the ability to look up which Redbox was closest to them at any given moment. It also allowed customers to find out whether a specific title was available before wasting time visiting the kiosk in person.

The best part about the application though, was it's ability to reserve movies directly from the iPhone. This means that if you're standing in line at a Redbox and the person ahead of you is taking too much time selecting a movie, you could theoretically use your iPhone to digitally cut in line and reserve the last copy of Harold and Kumar instead of having to wait impatiently.

When you consider that one of the biggest customer service complaints about Redbox are the long lines, it blows my mind that Redbox would discourage consumers from using their own mobile device by having them monopolize a kiosk instead.

Whether a customer prefers to order their movies from the internet, a kiosk or the middle of the store while shopping for groceries shouldn't make a difference to Redbox. No matter what, they are still making a sale, even if they don't have 100% control over the purchase.

Inside Redbox is mum on details and calls to Redbox's PR agency didn't shed any light on the situation, but the two most "controversial" features included in the app is a list of codes for free Redbox movies and the fact that the app relies on Redbox's website for most of the content.

One theory for why Redbox doesn't seem to care about iPhone customers is that while they've been able to get a lot of buzz using their free movie offers online, consumers haven't been all that aggressive about redeeming the promotions. Since iPhone customers have access to the most recent free offers while they are actually standing in front of the Redbox kiosk, it makes it easier for customers to take advantage of their specials.

If this is the reason why Redbox killed the application, my response would be that Redbox hasn't solved their problem, they've just made it more difficult to work out a reasonable compromise with their customers. It won't take consumers very long to figure out that they can bookmark Inside Redbox's list of free codes or RedboxCodes.com on their iPhones and still have access to the same information.

Rather then fighting progress, Redbox should be using the relationships formed through the application to streamline their movie promotions. They already restrict some of their offers to new customers only, so why can't they work out a deal for iPhone promotions? Wouldn't it be better for Inside Redbox iPhone users to have a 10% chance at "winning" a free movie instead of killing the app and forcing these customers underground? By trying to lower the wham hammer on this neat little application, they'll only end up upsetting customers instead of addressing a weakness in how they've choosen to promote their service. Just because the iPhone app doesn't fit into their mold of what marketing should be, doesn't mean that killing it is the best solution.

A second theory for why Redbox may have requested that the app be pulled is that Inside Redbox uses Redbox.com's website for a healthy chunk of their content. Some businesses may object to this and want to have 100% control over how their customers are "allowed" to use their product, but smart companies see the benefits of being open. In fact open API's are becoming increasingly common in the tech industry. By allowing third parties to mashup and repurpose your data, entirely new creations are possible. This is why some of the most successful companies have business models that encourage outsiders to partner with them. The Inside Redbox app may repackage content from Redbox's website, but when push comes to shove, it's really no different than an internet browser. Is it really better for Redbox to force their customers to have a subpar experience using the Redbox.com website on the iPhone instead of an app that is specifically designed to be viewed on the small screen? I don't think so.

Asking Inside Redbox to pull their program is a bit like asking Microsoft to not allow Redbox's website to be shown on Internet Explorer. If Redbox really objects to how their content is being used, they have the power to change it. Instead of trying to kill the third party programs that tap into what they've already created, they should be encouraging their fans to mix, mash and experiment to create new experiences for their customers.

To date, Redbox has managed to stay ahead of the competition by being nimble and by nurturing a passionate and dedicated fan base. Their decision to now turn on the very fans who cared about them long before their mainstream momentum, says a lot about how fickle their business decisions really are. Instead of acting like the innovator that I know they are, they are acting like a big media company. Hopefully, Redbox comes to their senses and "authorizes" the use of an app that only makes their service more valuable to their customers.

Davis Freeberg is a technology enthusiast living in the Bay Area. He enjoys writing about movies, music, and the impact that digital technology is having on traditional media. Read more at Davis Freeberg's Digital Connection.


http://www.zatznotfunny.com/2009-03/why-is-redbox-afraid-of-the-big-bad-iphone/


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