Mobile Struggles With Digital Ownership. Ann Taylor’s CIO: Tough To Move From Computer To People

Written by Evan Schuman
February 28th, 2011

For retailers who sell digital content, be it e-books, movies, music, ringtones or videos, the ease and ubiquity of mobile—coupled with the soaring number of personal devices some consumers are now using—is creating a problem that has its roots in copyright law. Today, though, the issue of digital ownership is leading to an imminent trainwreck, when firms that are used to repeatedly getting money for the same digital content run into consumers who no longer want to pay repeatedly.

In short, what happens when consumers want to be able to read an e-book on their desktop computers at home, on their laptops during the train ride to work, on their tablets while sitting in a client’s waiting room and on their smartphones while having a picnic in the park? Do retailers think these consumers will pay for the same e-book four times? Or that song?

Mike Sajor, the CIO at apparel chain Ann Taylor (he was recently promoted to that position after serving as the chain’s CTO), weighed in on this challenge during a StorefrontBacktalk panel on retail strategic decisions about the future of mobile. That panel discussion was turned into a series of podcasts, including one on the digital ownership thought-quest.

“There’s a really interesting conundrum here. It’s the switch in affinity of ownership. Today, you are your device. Amazon has taken some steps in the sense that once you have purchased that content, they have made it available on any device anywhere. If you want to have that content replicated on 16 devices, you’re welcome to do so, as long as you own and control those devices,” Sajor said. “While there are interesting questions around how you control, limit and manage, it’s the nascent dawning of the switch of affinity from the device to the person. That’s really the shift that kind of has to happen in this space. Mobility is going to drive that by it’s very nature.”

The implications of this change, though, are huge, Sajor argued.

“I may represent myself to the retailer on X number of devices at any given moment. The consumer is going to be presenting themselves on a multiplicity of devices, and we have to move that affinity of relationship from the device to the person,” he said. “That’s going to be a very tough change to make, because it’s credentialing flesh and blood instead of a bunch of electronics. There are some pedantic ways to do that. You can force it by multi-factor authentication entered by the human being. But that becomes onerous, and it detracts from the retail experience. The interesting question to be asked is how do we make that sea change happen, to start authenticating me for who I am instead of what device I’m carrying, and let that permeate across the family of devices I might represent myself on.”

Another IT leader on that panel, HSN Operating VP Sean Bunner, said that retailers are going to need quite some time to figure it out, if you look at how long it has taken entertainment companies to merely acknowledge the issue.

“If you follow the entertainment media side and think about that, you can purchase a copy of a DVD, you can then rent it from your cable provider [and] you can get it on Netflix— and [you] have paid for it three times. They still haven’t figured that out. I don’t think the retail side is going to figure it out any quicker,” Bunner said. “Recently, there’s an industry consortium that Comcast lead up. You will be able to pay once. You might rent your movie for the first time on video-on-demand, and they’ll say ‘For an extra buck, I’ll send you the DVD.’ Or maybe you rent the DVD and there’s a little code and you can go access that through Comcast. But it’s taken them five, six years to get there.”


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