Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Silicon Alley Journal: Driving Up the "Stack" of Content Value

In my recent trip to San Francisco to speak about Content Nation I headed down U.S. Highway 101 from San Francisco with Shore's John Buckman to a string of appointments that moved towards the bottom of San Francisco Bay in Santa Clara and worked up 101 towards San Francisco again. As you may know this stretch of Highway 101 is the main artery of the bay area's tech industry, dotted with office parks that house many familiar tech brand names. I think of it also sometimes as a horizontal shopping mall for the content industry, with many of the companies that are driving the new value propositions for publishing flanking this highway as much as the hardware and software vendors that drove "big iron" used to dominate its multi-lane landscape.

At the end of our day's appointments, Rand Schulman, Chief Marketing Officer for InsideView, offered us an excellent dinner in the hills of San Francisco's residential neighborhoods during which he noted that there was another angle to Highway 101's linear relationship to content and technology. Rand observed that the bottom end of the bay was historically home to many of the companies that specialized in the lower-level aspects of the information industry such as hardware and operating systems, and that as one drove up the bay on 101 towards San Francisco you passed by the headquarters of companies that moved further up the technology "stack" towards the media-centric companies in and close to San Francisco itself. While it's easy enough to find exceptions to this rule, in broad concept it makes strong sense. If you're working for company "A" and decide to strike out on your own or to join another company, chances are you're going to choose a spot that has people who have sets and professional interests similar to your own. You see this also in the general design of places such as New York City, which traditionally had warehouses for raw materials lining the streets next to the cargo docks along the Hudson River, with the next tier of blocks dedicated to functions such as garment fabrication and the next tier of blocks inward from the river dedicated to the stores selling those garments.

Rand's model is particularly telling in relation to the content industry when you look at what happens in the middle stretch of Silicon Valley along 101. You have companies such as Google in or near Mountain View, rather on the southern-middle end of 101, that perhaps seemed to some like low-level technology plays when they were first launched that today have an enormous influence over the content industry as a whole. When Google's executives say again and again "We're not a content company" it is perhaps as much an affirmation of their south-Bay roots and culture deep in the technology stack as much as anything else. To some degree "content" to these folks means "those people at the top of the Bay." Looking at Oracle's recent acquisition of Sun Microsystems, it makes perfect sense that a company in Redwood Shores, much further up the bay from Sunnyvale, would be far more in tune with the need to move more towards serving up content solutions rather than just hardware and systems software?

In the dead center of this stretch in San Mateo you find the headquarters of Mark Logic, a company specializing in XML server technologies that enable publishers and enterprises to create content services from multiple content sources. At our meeting with the team of Mark Logic CEO Dave Kellogg we heard how Mark Logic is enjoying prosperous times, in part because they've honed much of their infrastructure for delivering their services to a highly operable and scalable level and in part because they're looking up the highway, you might say, towards opportunities that service the content end of Silicon Valley more effectively. In a sense much of the center of gravity in the content industry is heading towards such technology companies that used to be thought of as "middleware," rather industrious but supposedly dull bits of this and that that helped to glue diverse information systems together. With source-agnostic content aggregation the focus of much of the value in the content industry these days, you can hardly call companies like Mark Logic dull, much less similarly focused companies such as Google, MuseGlobal and Really Strategies.

Then at the top end of the valley you have companies like Rand Schulman's InsideView, which specializes in providing value-add context to content from multiple sources for sales force automation platforms. InsideView's "secret sauce" is its ability to parse content from both traditional and social media sources through semantic filters which identify events that are likely to be triggers for specific kinds of sales and marketing activity. That description may not sound like a traditional "top of the stack" publishing company, but in fact that's where the top end of value is in the content industry these days - not in delivering content from a single source but in adding value to content regardless of its source. So what better place to find InsideView than in the hills of San Fran itself?

Based on this new "stack" for the content industry I have to say that I was a bit confused when John Battelle noted in a recent blog that Google was going to "act like a publisher" because it may be in the process of matching display ads with news content from premium sources in its news offering. Truth be told, in the new content stack Google's been thinking - and acting - like a publisher all along. If the middle of the technology industry's stack is driving much of the value in today's publishing, then Google's contextual ad-matching capabilities are a perfect match for placing ads against the highest point in the content value chain. This is why we're seeing many major media companies such as Time, Inc. becoming more aggressive in marketing their own contextual ad matching networks - and why Battelle himself continues to operate his own Federated Media contextual ad network.

Battelle notes in his blog post "Supply means branding, and branding happens in the magical world of publishing." Well, John, the magic means something different these days - a fact that many marketers are still having a hard time grasping. The magic happens wherever people find good content, a concept that's no longer restricted to a narrow group of denizens on the top of the old content "stack." Any good content produced or contexualized by anyone can have value - either for advertisements, subscriptions or high-value enterprise services. Traders at investment banks figured this out years ago when they started parking themselves in front of computer screens connected to hundreds of information sources from around the world. That same style of content value now reaches well over a billion people in the world today. The supply that people need is the most valuable contexts for good content, not just the content itself.

There are any number of reasons why the traditional publishing industry is struggling these days, but certainly one has to look at the "stack" concept carefully to realize that the enormous technology changes over the past decade-plus of Web development rewrote what publishers assumed was their value points in the traditional publishing stack. Some still struggle valiantly to redefine technologies that will set everthing "aright" again, but who's to say that it was really right in the first place? Technology changes, and with those changes value propositions change inevitably. Here's three cheers for any and all companies who can figure out how to deliver value in the content industry - on whatever street or highway may lead to them.
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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Silicon Valley Journal: Sonoa Builds the Enterprise-Class Content Policy Cloud

Cloud computing is an increasingly popular concept for enterprises trying to control their content and technology acquisition and distribution costs, enabling them to get more "bang for the buck" by turning many I.T. and publishing functions that used to be managed in-house over to third party infrastructure providers. Estimates of cost-efficiency benefits from using cloud computing services range in the 10x to 20x range over traditional in-house software solutions, so the motivation to use cloud computing services is clear. But as much as cloud computing is gaining in popularity, the ability to have business controls over who gets what content in cloud computing in a way that can scale with a company's operations has been a challenge for many companies on both sides of the content equation.

My recent trip to speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Content Nation brought me down the bay to a company in Santa Clara that is working actively to build content policy controls right into cloud networking infrastructure. Sonoa is a company that brings the problems of managing content distribution and management via cloud computing down to a level that fits many publishers and their consumer and enterprise customers like a glove. From the perspective of Sonoa, the problems of content distribution in cloud computing revolve around now to meet client expectations for content and applications services in a Web/intranet environment and how to enable service providers to understand who is using their content in a transparent and efficient manner and to establish quality of service controls. The solution to these problems from Sonoa's view is to give both sides in this struggle more intelligent network management tools to help both sides monitor, control and understand who's getting what content more effectively.

The core of Sonoa technology is in essence very efficient software that can operate in top of most popular Internet and intranet network router devices and identify which content and services are getting to which clients and end-users and to control both access and service quality. Because Sonoa technology works at a very low level in network infrastructure, it's easy to implement Sonoa capabilities without interfering with the overall design and management of both networks and applications platforms. This is a key factor for content that's delivered via feeds, digital objects such as video streams, widgets and embeddable software and services defined via programming standards such as SOAP and REST. Unlike DRM systems, which try to do the near-impossible (and largely undesirable) task of "locking up" digital objects once they've arrived on a digital platform, Sonoa is focusing on whether and how digital services get delivered to specific clients and the measurement of how they are used and maintained. This makes a lot of sense especially for digital services that rely on a network connection to remote resources to deliver their value: why lock up the payload that you're delivering when you know that they need that network tether anyway?

Sonoa Systems capabilities can be delivered via its own networking cloud as well as via a client's own networking. In other words, the policies for accessing content can be built right into a highly efficient cloud networking infrastructure, making administration highly cost-efficient and execution of service-level agreements with content licensees very efficient. I think of these capabilities as a "content policy cloud" - in other words, Sonoa technologies help to build into network infrastructure the implementation of agreeements between a publisher and an enterprise partner or client and makes it easy to enforce and monitor those access and service agreements. Unlike typical networking infrastructure, Sonoa's technology does this for individual content services and objects. This aligns perfectly with where many enterprise and media publishers are taking their business models - towards agreements in which their content gets integrated any number of ways into their clients' platforms. Instead of turning that embeddable content loose in the client's cloud and losing track of it, Sonoa enables complex deployments in client platforms to be monitored clearly at most any scale.

Sonoa technology enables publishers and enterprises to work cooperatively with their business partners to work towards both specific access limits and specific service level agreements that meet both parties' needs. Unlike earlier attempts at baking content distribution controls into network infrastructure such as Bang Networks, Sonoa Systems has the benefit of more mature and widely implemented object programming standards, more acceptance of external services coming in through the Web to enterprises and a more highly scalable design for supporting clients. Instead of beginning to wheeze after a few hundred clients are supported, Sonoa has the ability to scale up to mega-clouds of high performance content streams.

Sonoa Systems has a growing client list, including media companies such as MTV and Warner Music Group and enterprises such as J.P. Morgan, Pfizer, Wells Fargo and IBM. I find it very interesting that major enterprises interested in both productivity and security are opting for this technology. To me, that means that some enterprise-oriented publishers are behind the curve in terms of what their major clients are putting in place to implement and monitor content services. In earlier days we always worried about feeds and APIs creating "escaped" content services; with a service such as Sonoa Systems, it becomes far easier with this era's networked services to monitor usage more easily and to implement levels of service, access and performance that are easy to administer and that allow clients to use embeddable content in their own applications far more easily. Our visit to Sonoa Systems was well worth a trip down to the shallow end of the bay; I hope that major publishers have a chance to check out this emerging technology that can help them to forge more effective business models in today's content distribution environment.
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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sorting Out the AP Moves: What Will Really Work for Its Members?

The Associated Press Building in New York City...

There's been a whirlwind of announcements, commentary and downright bad blood beginning to steam up around the Associated Press' moves to position news content from its own reporters and its member organizations more effectively in the online environment. The latest developments in the war for news organization survival were kicked off by the AP board's announcement that it would be moving aggressively to identify and to challenge Web site publishers that were using unlicensed AP content illegally. The "why" of this move, largely ignored by media reports, is contained in the rest of the announcement: AP is introducing a new schedule of lower fees for its member news organizations that will make it easier for them to participate in AP distribution and news use. Faced with having to respond to the revenue crunches experienced by most news organizations this year, AP has no choice but to ensure that their online revenue streams from organizations consuming AP content can be captured as effectively as possible.

From the perspective of public relations, any constructive aspects of the latest AP moves appear to have been lost in a sea of furor rising up from bloggers, Twitters and other online voices. TechCrunch viewed AP's moves as being akin to the RIAA's moves to prosecute consumers for downloading relatively meager quantitites of music on to their PCs - legal moves that have backfired in many ways both from a legal and public relations perspective for the music pubishing industry. TechCrunch also highlighted a cease-and-desist order sent by AP to a Web site using AP-posted video from YouTube in an embedded video player. Of course YouTube videos are made for embedding in other Web sites, and the site that happened to be using it was that of WTNQ-FM, already an AP affiliate member. Google CEO Eric Schmidt commented in the wake of these PR fiascos by AP that it's a good idea not to "piss off your customers"- especially those who are doing their very best to abide by fair use policies for the reuse of copyrighted content. AP could certainly take some lessons from Google's efforts to get publishers to swallow some of their own bitter pills with much kinder and gentler approaches to public and professional-level communications.

The question is, though, what is really the most effective path towards revenue growth for AP at this time - and are they handling the rollout of new strategies in a way that will help those new revenue streams to materialize? From the looks of things, AP is still struggling to find answers to that question. Certainly pursuing legal enforcement against blatant content pirates is one possible route, and it's not without its merits. Data published by Attributor indicates that nearly half of the Web sites taking content from major publishers are copying more than 90 pecent of the original text of articles. Knocking out parasite Web sites that copy unattributed content strictly for the purpose of sucking up ad revenues that would go otherwise to the original publishers would do the bottom lines of all online publishers a great favor. It's a shame that AP's initial efforts along this vein have resulted in embarassing misfires - it's an important goal that should not be sidelined by a mishandling of the policies built on top of the underlying copy detection technologies.

But the larger concern is whether AP is really "getting" how to make money in the online publishing environment. The AP board announcement included a statement indicating AP's intent to build a search portal that would feature only content from "authoritative" news sources. While this is a constructive goal of sorts, we've had such search engines for years already. The Topix search engine focuses primarily on traditional media sources, and, for that matter, Yahoo! News and other major portal news services have focused on aggregating and searching mainstream news even longer. Both are good efforts in their own ways, but they're not floating the boat for most online news publishing revenues and they're not growing in any significant way. Why would yet another search portal wind up being the solution to news publishers' concerns?

The future that AP needs to embrace can be summed up in a fairly simple phrase: get news content that people really want to read to where it can make money. In broad concept that's pretty much what AP's mission has been all along, but in insisting that that mission cannot be expanded or altered significantly in light of how news is created today is holding back both AP and its member organizations from surviving and thriving in online news markets. Media organizations need to become better at aggregating sources of news more agnostically: if someone is streaming live video via Qik from their mobile phone at the site of a plane crash, then AP should be the natural source to which news organizations would turn to find such content as breaking news, not "i-reports." The idea of "authoritative" news need not always be synonymous with editorial and news-gathering methods that grew up in the era of printing presses. With today's publishing technologies editorial values can be implemented in many ways that can expedite the most compelling information getting to the right audiences at the right time.

This recognition that its own members need better agnostic aggregation of news sources is key to AP supporting the economic performance of those news organizations. Thomson Reuters CEO noted recently at a conference, "Why does The New York Times need to have 600-700 journalists? Why not 30 journalists with 30 apprentices?" In other words, if the economics of news have shifted permanently, why try to justify subsidizing jobs that need to move elsewhere in the news economy simply because you want only specific people in specific organizations producing news a specific way? With billions of people around the world equipped with real-time news publishing tools, including increasingly successful independent journalists, the world's attention span has permanently embraced this "Content Nation" as a source of information that they trust. That's a fact that will simply never go away. Trying to make it go away is about at pointless as anyone who tried to sift the tea thrown overboard in Boston Harbor back in 1775. Even if you could do it, who would want to drink it?

Instead of arguing with people who are both consumers and sources of news, AP needs to take a deep breath and think about how they can power the profits of today's news organizations using whatever content - news, metadata, links, video, anything - will help them to make money. In some instances this may mean new members and approaches to membership, in other instances it may mean playing a very different role with existing members and in how they participate in its editorial efforts. This can be a hard thing for any organization with a venerated history as rich as AP's to do, and I know that they are trying their best to move in that direction. But if they were able to leave the confines of Rockefeller Center behind to set up shop in dot-com West Side digs, one would hope that AP could help to carry both its traditions of excellence and of innovation to new levels of performance in the news industry that take it in directions that others have yet to dare to imagine. The time to dream a new dream at AP has come. I do hope that they start to envision and to realize that dream aggressively some time soon, both for its own sake and for the sake of its members.
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