Thursday, October 22, 2009

Going Pro(sumer): Wall Street Journal Pro Edition Targets Web-Aware Enterprises

I've been suggesting to my friends at Dow Jones for more than five years that they needed to consider how to use their Factiva content more aggressively on the Web as a source for virtual aggregation of news and business information. Well, five years isn't that long in enterprise content product cycles, I suppose, so when I tweeted the announcement by Dow Jones of its new Wall Street Journal Profession Edition yesterday morning, I was pleased to see that the WSJ had finally started to package licensed content from Dow Jones Factiva's news and business information database into an editorially-managed online edition. The WSJ Pro package will be strictly a premium offering, offered at first only to Dow Jones' enterprise customers starting in November, with wider availability expected next year.

In a loose sense you can think of WSJ Pro as a Huffington Post for business professionals, a mix of content developed by WSJ staff writers and six sections of sector-oriented business news and information culled by WSJ editors from Factiva's extensive database and Web search infrastructure. However, using the extensive search-based analysis tools that Factiva has amassed, WSJ Pro will also provide its subscribers with the ability to unearth trends from its content. With a year of archived Factiva licensed content available along with two years of WSJ archives, WSJ Pro subscribers will be getting access to both content and trend analysis from in-depth premium business information sources unavailable in on the Web in many instances. Other must-have features such as custom alerts for email and mobile devices are also included in the subscription package, which will cost USD 49 a month.

Some are labeling the WSJ Pro package as a shot across the bow at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters, which is a shot not too far off the mark, given that for decades many financial services companies have been able to negotiate similar price points from major financial information services for people off their trading floors, who used them mostly for news retrieval and casual price quotes on securities. WSJ Pro is aimed largely at such people, who are very Web-centric already in their information retrieval habits and looking for something a little more professional-grade. The trading arena itself uses more machine-executed trades and the remaining people on trading desks using very sophisticated analysis packages, so there are fewer people who can use the high-grade financial information products developed by companies like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters. It makes sense, then, to focus on average professionals accessing better-than-the-Web information about business and finance who are willing to use a ad/subscription-supported prosumer product like WSJ Pro.

This move is also, of course, a way to counter some of the stagnation that Factiva faces in large-scale enterprise subscriptions. With central information budgets facing cutbacks in many of the enterprises targeted by Factiva and other major business information providers, using a more media-oriented model for delivering business information to specific individuals who are willing to pay for it offers Factiva a way to slide its content over into a new sales profile that can weather central budget cutbacks by appealing more to individuals who may be willing to carry a personal subscription to their products from other budget sources - perhaps even from their own pockets. Pioneering Web business information providers such as Hoover's have established the viability of this type of media/subscription model for years, so there's no reason to think that it won't succeed for Dow Jones as well.

So as much as professionals who already use Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters services may be targets for WSJ Pro, clearly a broader range of enterprise business information users may find the package to be appealing. The "prosumer" segment of business information is likely to be one of the fastest growing segments for business information use in the years ahead, as central information budgets recover slowly from the effects of the economic downturn while more aggressive executives in need of support for decision-making decide to up their personal investments in business information to close their knowledge gaps.

You can quibble a bit about the pricing, perhaps, which is not high compared to WSJ print packages but at a non-bulk price still a little high compared to some premium business information services, but no doubt WSJ has done their homework on this and is likely to meet their revenue goals with their "prosumer" WSJ Pro package. I have little doubt that this package will be a strong success - if but because both Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are now scrambling to come up with business news assets that can help them to broaden their own offerings. When you get the incumbents moving quickly, you must be doing something right.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Getting eBooks Right - Finally. Meet Barnes & Noble's Nook

As exciting as Amazon's Kindle has been for many early adopters of content technologies, its screaming limitations and awkward business model have been threats all along to its long-term success. But as long as really viable alternatives were not available, few people seemed to focus on the potential for Amazon to be painted into an uncomfortable box. With the nearing launch of the Nook device from book retailer Barnes & Noble, that time of unchallenged supremacy for the Kindle seems to be drawing to a close.

As much as Kindle has been hailed as a breakthrough for eBooks, I do think that Nook will be a far greater breakthrough for the average book reader and for book publishers and retailers. The Kindle was a nifty piece of breakthrough technology, but it did little to improve the lot of publishers looking at dwindling margins and nothing to help book retailers who are able to shoot cannons through their stores oftentimes without hitting a customer. Nook is well thought-out through and through from a technology standpoint, a customer standpoint and a retailing standpoint.

First, the gizmo itself, which will be available for sale in a few weeks. It uses eInk display technology for the book content, as does Kindle, and it can download books via wireless connections like its Amazon brethren. It has access to millions of books, a convenient online store, and tons of storage and battery life. But this is where the stories of these two devices begin to diverge. Where the Kindle is a completely proprietary platform, the Nook is based on Google's up-and-coming Android operating system for mobile devices, which ties it in immediately with dozens of other Android-enabled devices hitting the marketplace this fall and next year. Barnes and Noble sees clearly that proprietary devices are not going to be a viable barrier to entry when devices based on open source software and Web standards are setting the pace for electronic content access. Using Android enables the Nook to have a slick touch-sensitive color display in addition to the eInk text display that allows for book covers and other attractive graphics to be displayed. Instead of waiting for eInk to solve the color display problem, this is a simple and useful solution that opens up the Nook to other Web functionality and slicker feature navigation more effectively.

Behind the hardware and software is wireless connectivity both for wifi hot spots and for broadband wireless Web networks, a two-fer combination that bests Amazon broadband-only access but also opens up interesting possibilities for retailers. Nook owners who are visiting Barnes & Noble stores will be able to read books via Nook in their stores for free. What a great way to attract people to their retail outlets - and, eventually, what a great way to transition to site-licensing free content access on a subscription basis via affiliates such as high-end coffee shops, university and community libraries and so on once print-on-demand services can be packaged by Barnes and Noble more effectively. Having the right physical context for content remains a winning strategy for content packaging, and Nook's marketing strategy promises to get the 'where" of content right.

Nook also gets many of the "hows" of book content right. Purchasers of eBooks can use Nook to share a book with other people for up to fourteen days and will be able to mark them up with personal notes. Lending can be enabled across both the Nook itself and other portable devices enabled for ePub-formatted eBooks. This also opens up Nooks for library books using the ePub format, in addition to PDF-formatted eBooks that are popular on the Web - and not supported at this time by Kindles. The combination of these features finally offers readers the kind of usability for eBooks that they have been used to having as print readers in an electronic format. Instead of making the hardware and software artificial barriers to a full experience, Barnes and Noble has embraced the experience - and, in the process, has enabled the Nook to be a much more "must-have" place to consume and share content.

Finally, the Nook comes in at a comfy $259 price, twenty dollars less than the current price for the original-size Kindle while offering a display as large as the Kindle2 model. For a fully wireless-enabled device, this will give the Nook a strong advantage going into the holiday season in a lean year - and strong traffic in both their online outlets and retail stores. And while I can't vouch for the hands-on experience, the look of the unit promises to be at least as rewarding as the Kindle. Lacking a physical keyboard, one assumes that the Nook will make use of the Android software-managed touch keyboard capabilities, which, while not an ideal interface, cannot be worse than the amazingly awkward keyboard on Kindles.

So let's see. Great interface, great physical package, great rights management, standardized electronic format, use and share content the way book readers like to, good reasons to visit their retail outlets, go-anywhere networking, Android compatibility - yep, I'd say that Barnes and Noble has just leaped into the center of the new-hotness race for electronic content consumption. I think that it's safe to say that Barnes and Noble is poised to become a major player in electronic book retailing with a device and a marketing strategy that is likely to heat up the book services race to a raging boil. But don't count out Amazon yet - especially with their recent efforts to re-invent the business of local retail delivery. Local contexts is where the money is in content delivery, and both Amazon and Barnes and Noble will have a shot at new approaches to local markets in the years ahead. As for me, well, if a Nook showed up in my holiday stocking, I won't be thinking that it resembles a lump of coal.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Analyze This: Bloomerberg and Thomson Reuters Up News Analysis Commitments

These are not the rosiest of times for financial information services, with fewer people using their services in the face of large-scale financial industry cutbacks, but out of adversity sometimes comes opportunity. While there are fewer professionals generating and consuming market analysis and opinion at investment banks and major buy-side firms, the thirst for market insights is as strong as ever, both among professionals and consumers of investments. That thirst may not be enough to float the salaries of as many investment bank analysts as in previous times, but there's plenty of money for financial information companies to fill in the gaps.

It's no surprise, then, that at virtually the same time there were deals announced by both Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg, L.P. to acquire two leading publishers of market insight and analysis. For Bloomberg the target is BusinessWeek, McGraw-Hill's prestigious but financially challenged business media outet, while Thomson Reuters is opting for BreakingViews.com, an online source of market insight and opinion that was growing very smartly until financial markets headed down last year. In both instances the timing of these deals certainly favors the buyers, who get to pick up assets at comfortable rates, but the ultimate outcomes of these deals may differ significantly.

For Bloomberg, the acquisition of BusinessWeek poses some major challenges but also unveils some major opportunities as well. BusinessWeek's print and online assets were redesigned recently to be targeted towards more online-oriented audiences, yet failed to attract major new audiences and advertisers. Taking the online know-how from the BusinessWeek team and its market analysts to combine it with a wealth of breaking news and opinion from Bloomberg may help Bloomberg to create a far more viable challenge to Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal, most especially in online markets. The rise of "prosumer" investors who expect greater depth from business information sources to help them manage private portfolios are obvious targets, people who will benefit not only from BusinessWeek editorial content but their sophisticated approach to online content design and management. This may help Bloomberg to extend towards the consumer spectrum of financial information services in print and online more effectively, with an overall global profile more similar to Dow Jones' consumer media news assets.

For Thomson Reuters, the acquisition of BreakingViews.com is a little more of a match for its core strengths, but also a bit less of a stretch towards direct competition with the consumer side of WSJ. BreakingViews focuses more than BusinessWeek on breaking in-depth company analysis, more akin to WSJ's Marketwatch portal but also more oriented than Marketwatch towards financial professionals. With a somewhat more "pro" than "prosumer" focus, BreakingViews may lack the broad consumer appeal of a BusinessWeek, but it's also more likely to command premium rates from advertisers seeking high-level executives and high net worth investors. While this may pose more of a challenge than Bloomberg may face in building a broader global consumer brand for financial information, it's also probably a focus that will provide returns more quickly and efficiently.

With strong arms already into broadcast television and radio, Bloomberg has an opportunity to create a deeper brand that can compete in broader markets, but it may be a long time for those markets to recover to the point that the investment may be worth it. This tends to argue towards BusinessWeek assets being refocused rapidly towards a prosumer profile more similar to what Thomson Reuters is seeking, but the shoe may not fit as gracefully. The media will buzz more for a while about the BusinessWeek acquisition, no doubt, given its penchant to feast on its own most prominent members whenever possible, but it seems as of Thomson Reuters may have opted for the better of these two deals from the perspective of building stronger information assets that can extend its strengths in both professional and consumer markets. Given the bargain basement price that Bloomberg has paid for BusinessWeek, at least they have very little to lose and plenty to gain.

For both Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters, they gain a wider array of assets to tailor to overlapping audiences for financial information markets that can smooth out revenue streams. It's been a grim period for financial markets, but market analysis is a key ingredient that can help financial information companies to ride out the gloomy periods until trade-related revenues pick up steam again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who's on Top of Enterprise Search? The Companies that Deliver Niche-Relevant Content

A recent press release from Autonomy hailed an IDC report that gave them the leading market share for the search and discovery technology market. While congratulations are no doubt in order for Autonomy, which has thrived as other major competitors have struggled to gain momentum in general enterprise search markets, there's a wrinkle to this boast that should give one pause to wonder. Sue Feldman's indicating in the report that Autonomy has a 14.4 percent share of the search and discovery market in 2008, which is certainly nothing to downplay but also not a crushing dominance of this market. In other words, even the world's dominant enterprise-oriented search technology provider is little more than a niche player.

This is in part because there really isn't "a" search technology marketplace in any strict sense of the term. That may sound strange at first, but it's certainly true that search as a content location tool can only measure its success against very specific needs. Each enterprise, each publisher and media outlet, each marketplace has specific needs for content that determine whether a particular technology has been well tuned to its needs. We can use tech terms such as precision and recall to define in general terms how effective a search technology may be in returning useful information, but if a technology can't deliver editorial value very specific to an enterprise, it's just a general tool that is rapidly and easily commoditized rather than a powerful content tool.

The importance of catering to very tailored content delivery needs was underscored in my mind by a recent chat with Craig Carpenter, Vice President of Marketing for Recommind, a company providing content categorization and discovery tools that are finding particular success in legal and corporate compliance markets. Recommind has focused its capabilities on supporting functions such as e-discovery processes that enable an organization to understand what documents relate to a particular legal matter in the early phases of assessing a case. Going through emails, word processing and other unstructured enterprise documents rapidly to determine which ones relate to key figures in a legal matter or or compliance issue is a good stress test for any search technology. With recent U.S. government rules encouraging the use of electronic tools to accelerate content discovery, Recommind is one of a few companies that are well positioned to both accelerate compliance with those expectations and to eliminate legal expenses associated with the discovery process.

Certainly companies like Autonomy may be competitive in such situations, but when companies such as Recommind are focused more deeply on the needs of specific market sectors, they become, in effect, like subscription enterprise information services, delivering highly relevant content rapidly and reliably. There are, in truth, fairly few ways to attack search from a technology standpoint, so the most profitable victories in enterprise search and discovery technologies tend to go to the companies that have technology that is highly tuned to the very specific needs of a given market or client. That doesn't necessarily make one technology better than another in attacking those problems, but oftentimes only better tuned and one step ahead of other technology providers. So the fact that a company like Recommind is down in the depths of tuning their technologies to legal discovery and corporate compliance can offer them better margins for solving more focused, high-value enterprise problems - often the same kinds of problems that many enterprise publishers are trying to solve.

I do think that companies like Recommind that have done the heavy lifting on difficult enterprise search problems in specific sectors or problem sets can turn out to be double threats in enterprise content markets. Not only do they get to solve higher-value problems that are easier to measure for ROI, they also get to redefine market opportunities into other adjacent markets that may be difficult for others to attack. For example, when you look at the technology issues behind legal discovery, corporate compliance and more general high-value enterprise problems such as records management and knowledge management, there's a lot of overlap with a whole different range of technology services providers. On the other side of the spectrum, being able to categorize and organize content for the legal sector very effectively also begins to nibble at the opportunities for subscription enterprise services such as Thomson West and LexisNexis, which are also focusing more on semantic content organization but not necessarily with the deep technology focus of niche players such as Recommind.

Of course, the opposite forces of two-sided competition from large rivals can push back at niche-oriented technology players, but in general today's markets seem to be favoring specific solutions that make specific pains go away quickly in enterprises, with more general solutions with bigger tickets and fuzzier ROI being strung out on longer sales cycles. I don't think that we'll be seeing many new players like Recommind entering enterprise markets any time soon, but I do think that those that were able to get launched and cash-positive in the past few years are going to be tough competitors in the two-prong fight for content and technology dominance in the enterprise. Individually they may not take up anything like a 14 percent share of search and discovery markets, but when you look at their ability to respond to the best revenue opportunities within those markets, you can pretty much forget about the pie as a whole and start looking for the plums inside the pie that matter most.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Day One of Google Wave: Ground-Breaking Bones In Search of Flesh



Traditionally when a ship is launched, it splashes into the water with a nicely painted hull but with still quite a bit of work to be done on its innards. Thus it seems to be with Google Wave, the cutting-edge messaging and collaboration technology unveiled today in preview form to about 100,000 people who signed up to participate in its testing. I had signed up for the early access program the day that Wave was announced, so I was pleased to see this morning an invite to try it out. One quick click of an email link, and I was in to my Wave space. Great! It appeared to be pretty much what I had seen in the developer's preview several weeks ago, and the features overall seemed to work as advertised, albeit without some of the flashy edges like real-time text translation. Drag and drop contacts into waves, easy embedding of widgets, videos and images, easy editing and organizing - good stuff for something that was just a cutting-edge demo a few weeks ago.

But...now what? Who do I Wave with - or to? Fortunately Google had pre-populated my contacts list with a couple of social media mavens, so I had some hope for interactions right away. One of the pre-populated waves (message/collaboration threads) enabled me to invite up to eight other people to join Wave. That was the good news, but the bad news was that these people would be nominees for joining Wave - in other words, Google will add them as the technology allows them to handle more users gracefully. This is, after all a preview version of Wave technology, meaning that it's more about testing its ability to handle users at scale and basic features before they begin to invite people with less tolerance for the cutting edge of new technologies. I decided to put a message out on Twitter to see who might want an invite to Wave. Ooops. Everyone came out of the woodwork looking for an invite to the new hotness. Seven invites later (some of them grumbling that they couldn't play right away), I have one spare and a long waiting list of possible invites who I would love to Wave with, but still not too many people on the live system.

Even with these limitations, Wave is quite impressive right out of the box. There's a bit of day-one instability in the system, of course - sometimes waves notify you that they need to be reloaded and a mysterious resync icon pops up now and again - but for a cutting-edge technology that just got rolled out to 100,000 people worldwide a few hours ago, that's to be expected. What was remarkable is how intuitive it is to use Wave, though for those wanting step-by-step instructions on "how to" usage, there's a wave in your initial inbox with lots of videos and links to good support materials. You just click, start typing, drag this, tag that, and you're off and running. Most email and Facebook users should find Wave's features pretty easy to use. You can import contacts from your Gmail contacts list easily (assuming that they're on Wave, which is pretty hit or miss), which is nice, and some of your Google Profile information is imported automatically into Wave, though updates in Wave will not flow back into your main Profile page. In other words, at least on Day One, there's really not that much integration with production systems yet (sorry, C.C. Chapman, let's be honest about this).

What's particularly interesting is how Wave has layered the types of communications that you can receive and share. Your inbox works pretty much like an email inbox, overall, and there are expected email-like filters like spam, trash bin, and such, which are all wave collections. But then you notice that the Settings link pops up a list of waves. In other words, much of the functionality of wave will appear as collections of applications built into waves as opposed to separate features. That's a real, real important thing to watch, one-upping the embeddable apps and widgets that have been in use for a while on other platforms. It means that the architectural "bones" of Wave can remain very lean, while much of its functionality gets loaded as content "meat." This parallels some of the thinking that has gone into Google's Chrome browser and nascent Chrome OS operating system, as well: lean core technology, fleshy content.

The most interesting layer of communications, though, has yet to be populated. As you float your cursor over a navigation element called "Requests," the tooltip text that pops up says, "Waves from untrusted parties or sources." In other words, there will be a Wave channel in which you can receive less personal communications, presumably a combination of marketing messages and more public sharing of messages akin to that found in Twitter. While the phrasing of this description needs some serious work, the concept seems to be quite elegant. One set of waves from trusted contacts, others from more "out of the blue" sources, both of which are important, of course, but by default you get to manage your circles of trust on two levels. That's a one-up on both Twitter and Facebook, if Google can pull it off. Of course, using folders and tagging you can create filters that combine both trusted and more public waves, so you can mix up communities at will, presumably. That's an interesting and very flexible way to manage networks, enabling people to be marketing-oriented or downright spammy in their communications but not cluttering up one's primary inbox of trusted contacts.

It will be interesting to see how some of these features roll out into the enterprise-oriented version of Wave, particularly the Requests feature. Obviously there will have to be some additional plumbing installed on Wave to enable enterprises to enforce policies on who from outside an organization can join particular inner circles of waves. But assuming that this is in the works, Wave should make it extraordinarily easy to move resources outside of an organization into a circle of trust on very specific waves that can help them to collaborate very efficiently - without exposing other information assets that are meant to be kept more private. Clearly Google is thinking way down the road on how to integrate Wave with its other efforts to enhance workplace productivity.

So although there's really not much happening on Day One in Google Wave, it's exciting to be hands-on with these features and to get a sense of how Wave is going to fit in to Google's strategy in a more intuitive way. For all of its promise, though, Wave has a tough battle ahead. Increasingly mature competitors like Facebook and Twitter, already endowed with millions of users, can always decide to swing in their extensive feature and applications sets to add more Wave-like features to keep their communities happy. But Wave has the distinct advantage of being a platform that is part of Google's wide technology vision that encompasses messaging, email, collaboration, enterprise productivity, mobile applications, operating systems and more.

Microsoft and others will attempt to compete with this new technology, to be sure, but the contenders all have deep legacies of software and relationships that will be far more difficult to migrate to a fresh new environment than Google need worry about. Put simply, there just isn't any one else out there coming close to daring thoughts as big as those surrounding Wave. I certainly welcome more effective competition in any market, and Wave itself has much to prove in the weeks and months ahead, but when it comes to collaborative messaging that can span both media and enterprise markets, it looks like Google is out there on a huge wave all by itself. Again.