Monday, June 29, 2009

SLA Conference 2009: Tuning In to Enterprise Content Productivity

The Special Libraries Association convened its annual conference in Washington, DC recently, an event which had reassuring energy and solid attendance. SLA President Janice LaChance observed that attendance was up at this year's event compared to last year's conference in Seattle, Washington, an indication that lean times may not get people to remote locations but convenient locations are worth at least a day or two of investment for this key enterprise content community. I put together a summary video for your enjoyment below and more comments below the video that expand on some of the items featured in the video.



While many of the changes in the enterprise content industry on display at the SLA conference were evolutionary in nature, the thing that struck me most about this year's event is how much enterprise content brands are being absorbed by the focus on workflow-oriented products and services. Yes, subscription database services such as Dialog, now a ProQuest property, are still popular in their own right with enterprise information professionals, but as a brand the Dialog name no longer represents the goals of many of its subscribers. Instead, enterprise content services providers are focused intently on discerning which market segments they can serve most effectively and profitably with highly tailored services.

In the instance of Wolters Kluwer, for example, this means providing a natural language interface for clinical practicioners in medicine such as nurses that will enable them to find answers to practical questions from Wolters Kluwer medical information resources.For Thomson Reuters, products such as Business Citator blend financial, legal and public information sources into a tool that can accelerate the productivity of professionals conducting due diligence efforts on business acquisitions and partnerships. For Dow Jones' Factiva unit, it's focusing on highly tailored software solutions for sales, market analytics and competitive intelligence.

These companies have been focusing on these more tailored market opportunities for quite some time, but it's clear from this year's SLA event that the lion's share of their revenues from traditional database services are diminishing in importance rapidly as these more tailored approaches to content solutions gain more favor on the end-user desktops of enterprises. As always, this leaves the role of enterprise information professionals in some flux, as reflected in a conference program that highlighted the application of infopro skills to competitive intelligence as well as more traditional information management topics.

The influx of more tailored solutions from enterprise content vendors also means that more general content access tools are gaining a broader foothold in the development of enterprise portals. Access Innovations, for example, was showing off their new alliance with Perfect Search, which enables them to combine their indexing and categorization technologies with a platform that can create tailored search solutions for both enterprises and content vendors that provide enhanced content navigation features as well as high-performance searching. So even as many enterprise content vendors are trying to integrate enterprise content into their own products, many enterprises are looking at the problem from the other side and looking at new ways to integrate external content into their own workflow services. Sometimes these types of vendors come out on top, sometimes the information vendors, and sometimes OEM partnerships allow both to win, but whoever wins in the end the competition for solving enterprise workflow issues continues to intensify.

The SLA is to be commended for shepherding an organization of highly talented professionals facing challenging times into supporting what continues to be a first-class event. While the ranks of traditional corporate infopros have thinned in recent years, the need for people with their skills is still strong, even as those skills get repurposed often for more specific functions in the enterprise. As infopros become more adept at interpreting the needs for specific applications that address people's information demands and technologies become more easily configured to respond to those insights I expect that we're at the beginning of a new era for information professionals that will see them becoming new types of "gurus" for on-demand information services. When the world is your library, it will certainly take someone special to do that.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reinventing the Newsstand: Google Flipper Project Highlights News Content Graphically

There has been a virtual tsunami of new product announcements coming out of Google lately, a wave of innovation that makes you wonder at times why private investors were so intent on putting money into in media companies with inflated multiples recently while content companies like Google were sinking significant funds into core product improvements. With consultants left and right making money telling companies how to be more innovative, the simple answer seems to be to invest in it. One key investment from Google is a new project revealed by TechCrunch named "Flipper" that offers a very different look to its online news search services through thumbnail images of news articles.

Google has been making extensive use of its thumbnail graphic generation technologies in many of its services, including up-to-the-moment screen grabs of pages recently visited in its Chrome Web browser. In the Flipper project, however, Google is showcasing not random pages selected by a browser user but articles selected by its news search engine. The thumbnails in the Flipper demo show a good chunk of the layout of selected news pages, grouped in various categories such as recent articles, hot topics, specific publications, most viewed and so on. The effect of this technique leave a strong impression that one is looking at a customized newsstand - except that instead of looking at the covers of magazines and newspapers one is looking at the images of specific articles tailored to a person's interests.

In an era in which search engines have made any page a potential first-visited front page for Web sites, this concept is particularly important to publishers. The graphics, multimedia and value-add content are supposed to be key differentiators for mainstream publishers' content, but in today's search engines these valuable assets are not well exposed in comparison to other sources when typical search results expose little other than a headline and a snippet of text. Thumbnail images can give a news browser a quick sense of which articles have deep and engaging content and which ones are a little bit thinner on content. That could turn out to be a key plus for publishers trying to differentiate their wares amidst a sea of potentially acceptable substitute content sources.

Of course, this will also put more pressure on publishers to focus more on ensuring that the layout of their content will turn out to be appealing in a newsstand such as the Flipper project is showcasing. But its likely to be beneficial pressure that may enable publishers to rise above competitors based on virtues other than search engine optimization. It also may enable advertisers to get a better sense that premium publishers offer qualities that run deeper than mere page view statistics - and to realize that providing content on publishers' sites that adds to the visual and editorial value of a publisher's content is an increasingly important virtue for promoting their advertising goals. While it's still unclear as to whether Flipper will see the light of day in its current form, it's a technology that is well adapted to mobile markets as well as PC browsers - and as such is likely to work its way into many Google offerings in the foreseeable future.

The New Stickiness: Studies Highlight Competing Sources of Online Ad Impression Performance

In the beginning, there was the CPM - that enduring measurement of how many thousands of people were exposed to an advertisement as a benchmark for gauging its value. But with the rise of online advertising, CPM impression measurements began to compete with metrics such as Cost Per Click, the number of people who actually used a link on an ad to visit an advertiser's Web site. Here at last was a metric that proved that online advertising really worked - even though relatively few people actually clicked on these ads.

CPMs were great for advertisers, in that they could be assured that their money spent on ads had a measurable result that they could use to negotiate ad rates that corresponded with revenues in some meaningful way. CPMs still figured in to ad budgets, but it was hard to gauge the real effect of online ad impressions compared to leadgen-like CPC results (cut to frowns on faces of ad agency teams everywhere).

Enter the Online Publishers Association, which has released a new research study conducted by comScore of how consumers respond to online display advertising from 80 major brand campaigns running on 200 major media sites. The study measured the behavior of consumers after having been exposed to online display ads when searching for a brand trademark, traffic improvements on their Web sites and the amount of ecommerce. An OPA slide deck available at Silicon Valley Insider depcits some of the key stats from this study.

The results of the study are quite rosy: about 18 percent of the surveyed consumers searched on the advertised brand within a month period, 29 percent visited the Web sites for those brands, they spent 55 percent more time on pages at that site, clicked on 51 percent more pages and spent more on ecommerce options when available. The overall ecommerce increase was about 7 percent, spanning sectors such as autos and finance as well as others, but when looking at consumer packaged goods the uptick in ecommerce attributed to display ads was 14 percent, with consumer electronics increasing 22 percent (Cue broad smiles at ad agencies everywhere).

Clearly this is good news for media companies looking to transition from print revenues gained from impression-based brand advertising to online markets, as well as for advertisers (and, of course, for comScore, which can sell more research of this kind). Advertising benefits from "hang time" with eyeballs, not always correlating to those nifty eye-movement-scanning human factors tests which imply that nobody's paying attention to ads. The peripheral vision of humans picks up and processes far more than we may imagine, it would seem. The problem, though, is that it's not only ads in major media outlets that are claiming a benefit from this effect - and the comScore research is not the only game in town.

It turns out that Google has also been looking at the value of ad impressions relating to its own content and advertising. As related in B-to-B Online by Sam Sebastian, director of local and B2B markets at Google, a study for General Electric conducted by Enquiro, a B2B search engine marketing firm, revealed that contextual text-based ads appearing in search results also had a positive effect on brand recall. In other words, there is more than one way to skin the brand cat - and many outlets for advertisers to consider.

Moreover, as Google's own research indicated, 64 percent of C-level executives from Forbes 500 companies surveyed in their own research were using search at least six times a day themselves to locate business information. So not only is the potential for commerce to be gained from ad impressions not the exclusive domain of traditional media outlets, but it appears that many of the prime decision-makers with budgets are turning to search engines first oftentimes to get the impressions of products and services that they need. The presumption that print is a medium for the elites that many brands seek out as opinion-makers is still valid, but breaking down rapidly.

While the Google and Enquiro research doesn't refute the comScore study, it's a reminder that there are many contexts that advertisers need to think about how to convey brand value - including social media outlets and other venues beyond search engines and publishers' portals. All of this research seems to point out that advertising for brand value still matters in online outlets, even though its payback is challenged by new methodologies. Social media in particular offers a very high ratio on payback in brand investment, even though it does not provide in many instances the mass-scale impact that traditional advertising campaigns deliver.

One interesting example of the power of social media for brand marketers told by David Binkowski, Director of Word of Mouth Marketing at MS&L Worldwide, at a recent meeting of the Social Media Club in New York City, underscored the point that return on investment can still be very different in online venues even when brand impressions count. Binkowski relayed how the manufacturers of the heartburn medication Prilosec had spent big on an advertising campaign to give away tickets for a Super Bowl game one year, but then tried using social media and other Web outlets the next year for their ticket giveaway, spending about one tenth as much in the process. Interestingly, the net results from these two campaigns were about the same. So while everyone can feel good about impression-based advertising working in both traditional and new online outlets, advertising alone is no longer the only game in town for contextualizing brands online.

The good news in all of this, though, is that brands can survive and thrive online when they are using the right tools and putting down their chips appropriately. Traditional media is certainly a big part of that mix, but it's not the only game in town any more. A good page of search results that solves a very focused problem for someone can be a valuable opportunity for a brand to claim some space as a part of that solution. This has to temper enthusiasm for the OPA study somewhat as a tool to increase CPMs based on the value of impressions, but the ability of services such as comScore to quantify ROI on impression-based online advertising may help to give ad agencies a boost in their efforts to benefit more broadly from the switch to digital outlets for marketing.

The ROI value of social media as a tool for brand building is powerful in theory, but the metrics on its performance are still a work in progress and not yet accepted widely in marketing circles. This can be expected to change fairly rapidly, as underscored by a presentation by Josh Chasin, Chief Research Officer for comScore, at that same Social Media Club meeting. With services such as comScore beginning to put the finger on the pulse of cross-platform consumer behavior, marketers are entering a period in which the mysteries of unlocking ROI from online promotions and advertising are unfolding rapidly. Any way you look at it, there's a lot more "stickiness" for brands online than we may have thought previously - and a lot more reasons for marketers to push the limits of what can be done with brand marketing in online environments that much harder.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Legal River: Moving Past Directories for Legal Services Marketing

It's a tough market out there for startup companies, much less enterprise-oriented content startups, but LaunchBox Digital is an efficiency-oriented funder of startups that is helping good ideas to get off the ground on a shoestring. One of LaunchBox's newer properties is Legal River, a startup spawned at the University of Maryland that focuses on enabling legal services providers to market their abilities more effectively to small and medium-sized businesses. That business model in and of itself is a tip-off that at least some of today's content-oriented startups are moving towards solutions that focus on solving very specific problems for very specific marketplaces - a refreshing change from "we have a feature, now what's the market for it?" approaches that haunted many of the early waves of content startups.

As announced recently by their CEO Reed Atkin, Legal River provides a marketplace in which people looking for legal services can provide information that describes their qualifications for obtaining services and that describes their needs for services anonymously to solicit offers from practicioners. While in some ways a page out of the Lending Tree playbook, Legal River is actually more of a cross between TechTarget's lead generation servicing model and a classifieds online response service. Legal River users don't reveal their personal data to potential services providers but can instead review the incoming offers anonymously and choose to deal with any of the providers who respond - or not. Legal River charges on a per-lead-provided basis, which encourages a broad range of respondents to requests, This is unlike LegalMatch, which requires an annual fee from legal professionals using the service.

Legal River is in its very early days, focusing largely on supporting tech companies in the Washington, DC area to prove out the mechanics of the model before expanding to broader markets. This is similar in approach in some ways to InsideView and Jigsaw, which honed their business information services amongst Silicon Valley companies before tackling broader markets. A good place to start as any, and one which promises to be able to scale easily into those broader markets, perhaps in partnership with some other business information services providers. I find it encouraging that companies such as Legal River are getting active backing at a time in which some business information suppliers have pulled back on some of their innovation initiatives in the face of challenging markets.

Even more encouraging, though, is that the Legal River business model focuses on key productivity challenges faced both by legal services providers who need to keep marketing time to a minimum and businesses that need to find legal services more efficiently to survive and thrive in challenging times. Instead of thinking like database curators, as some B2B directories publishers continue to do, Legal River is looking at the opportunities for transactions that generate win-win business scenarios from interactions. Expect the new wave of cost-conscious financiers such as LaunchBox Digital to eye additional business-oriented publishing models as key candidates for startups that can generate revenues quickly and scale rapidly using today's cloud computing resources.

Bright, Shiny Objects: Content in a Post-Apple, Post-Microsoft World

A few years ago I blogged about Microsoft's then-CEO Bill Gates' appearance at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, in which his brand was sharing a good deal of the CES limelight with Google and Yahoo. No longer did the Microsoft brand alone command the attention of tech mavens: it was content and content-oriented features that were carrying the day. While Microsoft still enjoys an enviable position in the marketplace, there is no doubt that its ability to project presumed dominance in consumer and enterprise markets faces many challenges.

Ticking the clock ahead to today's world, it would appear that Apple may have had a similar passing of the market mojo moment at this year's Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Steve Jobs failed to deliver the event's keynote address, presumably due to health issues, but it may also have been because Apple's usual razzamataz had few blockbuster announcements off of which to leverage. The news from WWDC was about incremental changes, all good, but mostly about trying to deal with the challenges of positioning Apple as a premium brand in a world that is pushing pricing down on many bright, shiny objects.

By contrast, bright, shiny objects were found everywhere at very reasonable prices at the recent Computex Taipei event across the Pacific from WWDC. Computex featured an abundance of netbooks and thin client desktops and tablet panels running many different kinds of operating systems software, including Google's new Android O/S that was seen running alongside smart phone and netbook versions of Microsoft Windows. Windows was the first cross-platform operating system to start driving down the cost of content delivery electronics, and Android is following in its footsteps with an open-source operating system that helps to drive down the price of a smaller, cheaper and more portable generation of electronics significantly.

Apple has always managed to create a unique niche for its products by focusing on highly appealing designs and features. For example, at WWDC announcements included a slot for SD memory cards in some of its lighter new Macbook laptops - perfect for the photo and graphics afficionados who form a strong core of Apple's support. Great stuff, but ultimately still the stuff of niche brands. Call it the BMW approach to content delivery: ultimately, a Macbook or even an iPhone doesn't do much that a Windows or Android-equipped device won't do similarly, but dang, it just makes some folks feel so, well, you know..."in." Some people will always pay a premium price to be a part of that club, whatever is on the inside of it, so Apple-branded devices are not going away any time soon.

From a content industry perspective, though, the Apple wave queued up by the soaring success of the iPhone is about to gain a new sense of perspective over the next several months as netbooks and tougher competition from newer smart phone models begin to elbow into the limelight. The real star of the show is the Web, with cloud computing resources the co-star. Yes, mobile applications are helping to fuel up excitement about smart phones and other devices, but when a device with 1GB of memory can handle virtually any multimedia content display requirements, it's not realistic to think that proprietary hardware or operating systems are going to enable publishers to have technology partners that can help to buffer them against the competitive forces of Web publishing. You can increase storage for downloads to enjoy when you're not Web-enabled, but for most people the content that they want resides in the cloud and appears on whatever standards-compliant device makes it useful. Toss in the increasing availability of wireless broadband Internet connectivity and the "why" of platform-captive content makes less and less sense.

More and more inexpensive appealing devices to deliver content are pouring out of Taipei, China, South Korea and other low-cost producing markets every day, many of them aimed at global markets that have participated only marginally in the Web experience so far. While many premium content producers continue to focus on the upscale content platforms as their salvation, already more than a billion YouTube videos are viewed daily around the world. A premium strategy will work if you can attract people's attention well, but at this point in time there are really not enough fundamental technology differentiators in Apple or any other existing technology platform producer's products to justify a strong reliance on premium platforms as a buffer for intellectual property licensing. In short, the battle between the Web and platforms is over, for now, and you can put the crown securely on the virtual noggin of the Web.

If content producers want premium platform barriers to entry for their products they will have to have technology partners that are investing much, much more heavily in breakthrough innovations that deliver real differentiating value. The iPhone was merely the first in a wave of devices that are providing incremental improvements in performance in what was already a marketplace headed towards commoditization of mobile technology platforms. In the meantime, a floundering world economy is pushing more people towards cost-effective content technology solutions. Dear publishers, say goodbye to your love affair with the iPhone - before it's too late. Learn to love netbooks, a galaxy of smart phones and any other device that can get you people who whant your content on the line, and then prove your value from there.

Monday, June 1, 2009

eBooks on the March: BookExpo America Overshadowed by Electronic Upstarts

BookExpo America is one of the premier U.S. trade events, encompassing more than a few Wal-Marts of display space wherever it sets down. This year's event in New York was no exception, but more than ever there was a pall in the air of its exhibit halls as much of the paper-based world of books began to come grinding to a halt in recessionary times. The other key factor, of course, was the meteoric rise of premium ebooks on Amazon's Kindle device, a blessing for publishers needing quick revenues without inventory commitments but a curse with its draconian revenue cuts and control over unit pricing. Who would have thought, then, that the name of Google would come along to offer the book industry...some hope?

As counterintuitive as it may seem to some, the light is finally going off in more than a few minds in the book publishing industry that Google's neutral stance on delivery platforms and its popularity as a destination for book readers courtesy of its library book scanning project may combine to offer publishers a more sane "plan B" for online publishing than they had originally thought. A recent New York Times article outlines some apparently positive responses from publishing executives to Google's strategic partnerships director Tom Turvey saying "We really mean it" to going live by the end of 2009 with Web-based premium ebook sales on all major PC and mobile devices. One key incentive to teaming up with Google: the promise to give publishers complete say over unit pricing.

The technology making this possible, though, is still a bit shaky. Turvey mentioned that books would be available offline only through Web browser caching capabilities; otherwise, your ebooks will be ready and waiting online for you. This is less optimal than the reader-centric features of Amazon's Kindle reader, but given the increasingly universal presence of Web connectivity, it's probably not a major hindrance for many readers more used to online access. It also underscores yet again the re-emphasis by Google of the importance of the Web browser as the most powerful platform for cross-platform electronic content delivery. "Lock-down" of content is easy enough for ebooks in whatever container a publisher would like in a browser, but more importantly it gets to live in a medium that doesn't require them to negotiate distribution deals with an expanding universe of platform providers with each new twist in their technologies. This is also bound to make more of their cash-strapped book consumers happy.

While Turvey made it sound after a fashion that Google had slipped on ebooks as a product priority, clearly there were a few other product priorities that needed to fall into place. With Google's Android operating system taking off now on both smart phones and netbooks, there is a growing Web counterforce to proprietary technologies that were hemming book publishers in to platforms that would ultimately hinder ebook growth. Google's new Wave messaging and collaboration technologies are likely in time to accelerate Google's ability to build real-time conversations around books, enabling publishers to create richer content to engage readers without having to invest in technologies that would take them away from their core editorial talents.

Although these seem to be positive trends for Google, no doubt publishers are still feeling their way through a relationship with Google that is only beginning to move past the tension and mistrust that lead up to the recent book scanning settlement covering orphaned works. It's also likely that Google will not find itself the only "plan B" that publishers investigate as they decide to expand their partnership options beyond Amazon. But when one thinks back a few short years ago when the book industry was trying to partner with Yahoo and Microsoft as alternatives to Google's book scanning efforts, it appears that book publishers, willingly or not, are ready to pursue more aggressive marketing strategies that embrace the Web on the Web's own terms.

What's Really New About Bing? Not Much. But It's Still a Good Direction for Search.

There was some scuttlebutt buzzing around last week's duel between the Google I/O developer's conference and the All Things D conference to the effect that perhaps Google had some intelligence about the Ballmer announcement of the Bing-flavored preview of Microsoft's new Live Search search engine that prompted their announcement of their Wave messaging and collaboration technology. Somehow that doesn't ring true, given the breadth of the Google Wave announcement, which is a pretty encompassing technology initiative. By contrast, Ballmer didn't have anything nearly as broad to offer the ATD crowd, but at least he had something to put up against I/O to keep people buzzing about Microsoft, most of which was catch-up to counter announcement's at Google's earlier Searchology event.

If you can find any significant differences between Bing and the earlier Kumo-labeled version of Microsoft's Live Search preview, you have sharper eyes than I do. That's not necessarily a bad thing; there's a lot to be said for Microsoft's leveraging of their new Powerset technology that helps to dress up search engine results with related content and faceted navigation features. But in several forays into Bing searches, I cannot say that I am finding all that many melds of information that are truly impressive. Yes, it's nice to be able to to have comparison shopping data, reviews and related links embedded in searches such as "Samsung LCD TVs," but that's not so different than, say, a search on Google for "JFK to SFO" with the "related searches" option turned on that has comparison flight shopping tools in the search results. Bing is good, perhaps even state-of-the-art, but hardly a game-changer for the state of search in general.

What the maturing Bing search results do seem to indicate is that the lines between destination sites and search engines will continue to blur as content providers and search engines both go in search of more valuable and engaging contexts for high-quality content. For search engine providers, being able to increase engagement time on a given page of search results is good for ad revenues and overall user satisfaction and brand value. For online publishers, the melded results offered in Bing, Google's Universal Search and other evolving search portals represent opportunities to engage audiences at the point of demand with solutions that enhance their own brand value while building revenues from advertising alliances with search engine portals. You might say, even, that the Bing/Google Universal Search approach is like dialing up a custom magazine/shopping guide/newspaper, with increasingly slick and well-organized content that begins to mimic the editorial capabilities of traditional specialty publications.

The parallel between traditional media and on-demand publications assembled by search engines is underscored in Bing by the rich and engaging photographs that appear on the home page of the Bing site. Squint a little bit and you can imagine the cover of a National Geographic magazine or other glossy high-quality publications. The visual promise of Bing's home page is that what you're about to experience is really, really good at a visceral level. The guts of this "magazine" don't yet match the cover, but you can tell that over time both Bing and other search engines are headed in the direction of getting search results to be as engaging and visually rewarding as traditional magazine publications, albeit with lots of the Web-savvy functionality that keeps people coming back.

With these evolutions in mind, publishers need to be prepared to make their content brands resonate in the online pages of whatever on-demand context appeals to their audiences - including increasingly sophisticated search engines that are aiming to keep people hanging around their pages as long as possible. Initiatives such as Journalism Online will help to make search engines more profitable aggregation venues for traditional publishers, but they need to be ready to accept more willingly the idea that search engines can be great publishing partners that help them to get their content to their audiences in the contexts that they value most. Certainly Bing will help to convince some publishers of this, but it's still early days for publishers recognizing that The New Aggregation is not a mere thought piece but instead a key component in the future of profitable publishing.

One Space to Rule The Cloud: Google Wave Creates a Backbone for the Real-Time Web

It's been a busy week for attention-getting events in content technologies, with the Google I/O developer's conference in San Francisco vying for mindshare with the All Things D conference in San Diego. Both were important events in their own right, with Steve Ballmer's announcement of a preview launch for Microsoft's new Bing search engine facing off against Google's announcement of Google Wave, a new technology that promises to deliver a new standard for common messaging and collaboration infrastructure for both the Web and enterprises. Hmm, yet another stab at launching a Live.com successor versus a reworking of email, wikis, real-time messaging and file sharing in one swoop. Which event should Walt and Kara have been covering in more detail? I think that I'll take door two, though Bing is worth taking a gander at in its own right. Mind you, Google giving away free Android phones with a month's free call and data time to developers at I/O certainly upped the attention-getting factor a little bit, as well.

Google Wave is important for any number of reasons, but it's important first and foremost because many major technology companies could have done this, and probably should have, but chose to stick with incremental improvements to older software technologies. Back in the 1970s, for example, when it was a big deal to get messages from one person to another person on a remote computer, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) was an important tool to facilitate widely different computing platforms to pass messages to one another. Good stuff in its time, to be sure, but today the fundamental concept of email is entirely out of step with today's communications methods, where message content tends to be shared and stored in Web cloud infrastructure rather than being scooted around to storage devices at the edge of the Web. Add in mashups, instant messaging and the real-time broadcast capabilities of services such as Twitter and it's clear that email is a completely inadequate messaging infrastructure for building content services that really satisfy today's sophsticated consumer and enterprise audiences. Yet for decades interoperable standards for a successor to email sponsored by major technology companies have been no-starters.

Enter Google Wave, a new communications technology that made its debut at Google's recent I/O conference for developers. Built to leverage the emerging HTML 5 standards for content and software services delivered via Web browsers, Wave is an open-source set of protocols, platforms and products that enable anyone to put together services that allow people to create and share content and display applications with one another using non-proprietary Web programming standards. Given that the Web has been overshadowed recently by proprietary products such as Apple's iPhone and Amazon's Kindle and applications environments such as Adobe Air, Google Wave is a very strong statement from Google that the common and open standards of the Web are the key to unlocking the full potential of the most valuable communications medium ever invented.

Wave is also an extremely strong challenge to Microsoft and just about every major software and services provider hoping to take some piece of the emerging world of real-time collaborative communications that spans consumers, enterprises and an expanding multitude of mobile and desktop computing platforms. While other companies are still trying to leverage their ownership of technology intellectual property, Google learned long ago that it's far more important to own the moments that people interact with technology. Some people try to call those moments "media," but Google was one of the first companies to realize that these transitory moments were far more valuable and complex than both traditional media companies and technology companies had imagined.

If you can find the time it's really worth it to go through the full video of the demo video that shows all of the potential of Wave as a messaging medium. For those that don't have the time, here's a brief tick list of things that will leave you oohing, aahing and - hopefully - thinking:
  • A "wave" can be any number of digital objects - messages, documents, images, embedded applications - that can be exposed to people just by dragging and dropping a profile icon into the Wave object.

  • Wave enables concurrent real-time information transfer to and from collaborators. So although you can view completed messages in Wave as you would an email, instant message or other completed communication, you can also experience it as a real-time conversation or collaboration. As you type, the characters of your message appear in the other person's browser as they are being typed. People can type together in multiple languages (with real-time translation as needed). The real-time semantic spell-checker is pretty amazing in the demo. The open-source Wave protocol makes this all happen.

  • Wave objects can start out as a simple message, have replies and participants added, enables people to share private messages from within the wave, can allow people to edit an object concurrently and to view those edits as they are happening concurrently, can use rich text with drag and drop hyperlinks, allows the dragging and dropping of videos, images, texts, hyperlinks, enables rich tagging - and can do this all in real-time on any platform that uses the Wave protocols, including enterprise platforms.

  • Anyone can develop Wave-compatible applications, including those who want them "inside the firewall" of an enterprise. Demos were given on Wave working in Google's own Chrome browser but also Firefox and on iPhones as well as Google's own Android mobile smart phones. Examples in the I/O demo of an "Acme" third party implementation of Wave and an embedded "Twave" application for including Twitter messages in Wave underscored that any developer can use Wave protocols and standards to develop compatible applications that leverage Wave capabilities.
In other words, this is a complete rethink of how we use Internet-based messaging to communicate and to collaborate, enabling content to be assembled in Web cloud infrastructure as real-time conversations. It's young technology also, to be sure, but it rides on the back of the enormous cloud infrastructure resources that Google and others have assembled over the past several years. Whatever scalability and reliability issues need to be worked out for Wave are small compared to the decades of effort it has taken to get infrastrcuture in place already to keep up with Wave's potential. If you think of how the relatively simple Twitter infrastructure has been tweaked and kept alive with fairly few "fail whale" outages during its exponential growth of the past year, then it's probably safe to say that the potential for Wave to grow rapidly as a market force in real-time and collaborative messaging is not likely to be gated by basic issues such as networking and servers.

Given the slow adoption rate amongst software developers for Google's Open Social programming interface, though, it was far from certain that developers were going to get jazzed up about Wave as something that deserved their attention - hence the high-energy introduction for Wave at the I/O event. The giveaway of Android phones to I/O attendees was no accident, of course, in this regard. What other real-time messaging medium has the potential to be changed by I/O's potential? Why telephony, of course. With millions of phone calls being made already on services such as Skype and even Second Life, the telephone networks' days as the universal real-time messaging medium are numbered. Google's open-source Android software is about to empower dozens of new and more affordable smart phone models around the world, making Wave a perfect tool to help accelerate the demise of telephony as we have known it. It's likely that Wave will be a key component in accelerating the acceptance of Android, and vice versa.

As traditional content and software publishers continue to try to wrestle the Web into one proprietary box after another to suit their established business models, it's important to remember that the world is aching to have cost-effective productivity improvements that will help to boost the global economy. Wave is a good example of a content technology that has the potential to sweep aside many drags on Web and enterprise productivity in ways that can help to create and to contextualize content in more valuable ways than ever before. In the long run, that can only be good for publishing. My suspicion is that you'll see Wave in a Gmail inbox near you pretty soon. For those who were hoping that there would be a breather from the pace of change being fomented by the Web with the introduction of platforms like iPhone and Amazon's Kindle, I am sorry to say that you had best get down to the gym and start getting used to more fast breathing ahead in the emerging Web cloud economy.