If I said this, you might tell me to shut up, or maybe thank me for sharing such a blinding glimpse of the obvious. But when Fred Wilson says it, I’m inclined to listen. This is a guy who arguably has done as much to shape and influence the social web as anyone with his investments. This discussion took place at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference a few weeks ago. They’re talking about a few areas, such as Education, Government, Finance, Hotel Reservations and Television.

I just want to deconstruct the quote a bit, since it seems so obvious, but I’m not really sure it is. Observing the disruption in content delivery for televised entertainment is a hobby of mine, so I’ll use it as an example.

You can’t stop …
I’m not sure if Fred is just being flip. Just because there appears to be momentum for the particular trend he’s referring to (in this case, he’s talking about the success of Airbnb attracting the attention and ire of Hotel chains and regulators in New York) doesn’t mean that entrenched interests can’t do a ton to make things very difficult for disruptors. The regulatory headaches that crowdsourced accommodation sites such as Airbnb have faced in New York, and the taxi-like (but not a taxi) Uber has faced in San Francisco seem to me to be a preview. Not of the inevitability of disruption, but of the difficulty these guys will face in every single local market they enter, with all the arcane laws, regulations, and county, city and state departments that need to be traversed. My hats off to them, but I hope these guys have big lobbying budgets, and a lot of patience.

With regard to disruption in television, we’re witnessing the uncertainty that regulators can introduce into the process with the CRTC actively musing about what they intend to “do” about Netflix disrupting our cozy oligopoly here in Canada. Disruption fans like me can pout all we want, but local regulators may have the power to change the economics of Netflix’s international expansion quite drastically. I imagine there’s a local regulator in many countries Netflix will expand to in the near future (UK, Australia?) that have similar abilities to gum up the works.

These potential regulatory hurdles give incumbents time to catch up and match features and products. It’s not a guarantee that it will happen, but it’s a distinct possibility.

What people Want
When it comes to television viewing, I’m just a curious guy. I have an antenna to watch over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. I have a PC in my living room, and I use it to PVR the stuff I can get with my antenna. And yes, like most curious people, I’ve dabbled in downloading movies and television programs (more to experiment with wonderful free media server software like XBMC, Plex and Boxee than to actually watch so much stuff). I don’t have Cable or Satellite, but the truth is, Cable or Satellite delivers a closer approximation of what most people want at this stage: They want to watch as much as possible for as little as possible.

I’m not convinced people have a good enough idea what they want in order to demand it.

I know what I want, but I know that incumbents like cable companies, producers, networks and distributors are all standing in my way. And I’m not sure I’ll ever get it. I want to pay a reasonable fee to replicate the experience I can have with piracy (minus the lawbreaking and the time spent tinkering, and with live event coverage like sports if possible).

I want to watch:

  • Whatever the hell I want
  • Whenever the hell I want
  • In High Definition
  • Through a kick-ass user interface
  • With as few (preferably no) add-on fees for bandwidth, premium shows, channels, etc…

I’m not convinced anything but piracy will deliver this in the near future. Netflix seems to be the best bet to deliver this right now, but they’re in for possible regulatory hassle in Canada, and an absolute dogfight with incumbents like cable companies, networks and producers.

So yes, maybe you can’t stop what people ultimately want to have happen, but you can sure make it take a long time and you can make people think that what they want is impossible or unreasonable.