Thursday, December 31, 2009

WiFi Plus Mobile = A Whole New Ballgame for Content and Communications

What can happen when you combine wireless broadband Web access with local wifi hotspots? A lot, when you come to think of it. Gizmos such as Novatel's "MiFi" unit that enable someone with mobile broadband access to set up their own local wireless "hot spot" have been out for several months, but the importance of these units is heating up with their connection to higher-powered broadband networks and the addition of features such as onboard data storage on SD cards. With more throughput and storage for data comes more ability to use these units to coordinate the bushel of devices that technophiles now travel with, helping them to synchronize communications with the world and with one another through one convenient hub. But it also presages a major shift in how homes, businesses and the world connect with one another for content.

Today most people have their mobile connectivity running in parallel with their home or office connectivity, including parallel networks for voice, video and data that cost a handsome sum for most people using them. Yet with one of these mobile network hub devices, it's easy to see how all but the most demanding uses for voice, data and video can funnel through a mobile broadband connection that can stay on our desktop or follow us on the go. Our smart phones, our eBook readers, our netbooks, our desktops, our in-home phones and our home entertainment devices can all be brought together on one seamless wifi-based communications medium.

This is likely to accelerate the move in voice communications away from traditional point-to-point circuit networks and towards an era in which voice communications are a feature of integrated voice, data and video services. It also means that we're more likely to overcome some of the global connectivity issues that exist for mobile devices: be it CDMA or GSM networks underlying mobile broadband connectivity, if you're near a hotspot of some origin, you should be able to get voice and data communications. Services such as Skype will certainly prosper in the process, but other services such as Google Voice, which help voice communications to get routed to any number of devices, are also likely to prosper as voice communications become more identity-centered rather than phone number-centered.

The bigger picture, though, is of a world in which inexpensive broadband hub devices can be placed easily in small communities and used to power local communications with both the outside world and with people within the community. Today we're seeing these devices powering personal communications, but I think that the larger potential is for devices that can connect communities with one another first and foremost with a minimum of technology. If you are living in a community in which each person cannot afford a mobile phone, that community may be able to afford collectively one connection to the outside world which is shared with a MiFi-like device that can make its connection available to the community in a reasonable scope, say a kilometer or so. People in that community could then use their mobile devices to communicate with one another and with the world, with very little ongoing cost to any one person beyond the initial cost of their own device. Most importantly, you could set up these local communications networks with or without direct connectivity to the outside world. You could have your own local Web of sorts, perhaps even with services such as Google Wave being used on a federated basis to facilitate content collection, communications and collaboration.

In turn, these individual communities could cooperate with other local communities to build "bottom-up" communications networks, developing regional communications systems that may be centered around local languages and dialects, connecting to more commonly used languages found in the "outside world" through a handful of communications access points. Every kilometer or so you could poke a solar-powered hub device into a convenient spot to keep the influence of a particular network growing. All of this would be developed on global communications standards, of course, enabling new ways to connect to the world over time, but regional communications would thrive, with or without help from the "outside world."

While the more than 1.4 billion people already using the Web are certainly a significant marketplace, I do believe that much of the future power of Web-based communications will be found in the expansion of more "bottom-up" networks amongst the five-plus billion other people in communities that find themselves on a different economic and cultural playing field than the rest of the world. We talk sometimes about the "dark Web" of content unavailable to search engines on the Internet, but there's a far greater "dark Web" of knowledge and culture that's beyond the Web altogether. The "top-down" Web will penetrate this arena only so far, as it tends to be in the hands of people who have, in their own way, a great deal of autonomy, in part because of their economic isolation. But as the "bottom-up" Webs begin to meet the world of the Web as a whole, it will be exciting to see how both economic and culture opportunities for people on both sides of this divide develop.

Fortunately there are devices coming along that should help to accelerate this convergence. The One Laptop Per Child organization is targeting the release of a $75 device called XO-3 that is a bone-simple tablet equipped with wireless communications. As technology tends to push towards such visionary price points sometimes more rapidly than the pioneers, I think that it's safe to say that within a few years the convergence of such devices with localized broadband networking will enable communities around the world to join the Web age in ways that may surprise the rest of the world. So if you're looking for great new opportunities in content markets, I think that "going local" may take on a whole new range of meaning shortly. We'll keep you posted on these trends throughout 2010. Have a happy new year celebration and best wishes for a prosperous 2010!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shore Communications Inc. Waves Goodbye to 2009

What a year it's been.
  • iPhones rocked, Google shocked and social media was no longer mocked as publishers and technology companies flocked to online content business models;
  • Bing had a fling and even Windows 7 would sing as Kindle took wing, but proprietary platforms are no longer king;
  • Those in the cloud were quite proud of profits that wowed enterprise and media markets and vowed that all content would thrive in its shroud;
  • Enterprise vendors clung to tight margins and hung on to hopes of new profits among rescaled businesses flung across a changing world;
  • Twitter got the Web a-flitter about real-time chitter-chat, making news publishers bitter about the new heavy hitter;
  • Murdoch howled about profits fouled by search engines that prowled for news, while AP scowled at content reuses that tempted its members to throw in the towel;
  • Smart phones got fast and netbooks now cast a shadow over the last bits of old-school computing;
  • Save the best for last! It's Wave, the rave of brave trend-setters, promising an enclave that will repave the road to the Web's future;
  • Feel like you need a suture or two? Don't worry. The couture of content will change soon enough. The future is bright - for those who are tough.
Everyone at Shore Communications wishes you a great holiday season and a fantastic 2010. Enjoy what is important, and let's build the future of content together next year! I hope that you enjoy the following year-end video.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Farewell, Editor & Publisher: How Many Canaries Can You Ignore?

In the process of selling off several of its core B2B entertainment industry titles, Nielsen Business Media also announced the eminent closing of Editor & Publisher, the century-plus old trade publication that had chronicled the ins and outs of the news industry. At a time at which magazine closings seem to be about as regular as train stops on a commuter line, E&P's demise is not exceptional in many ways. Any number of trade publications are struggling to survive in an era in which online media enables unlimited competition for the attention of its readership and for its advertisers' and subscribers' cash. But there is something particularly poignant about E&P's shuttering. After all, if an industry which insists that the quality of its content will be its distinguishing factor cannot support the high-quality journalism covering itself, then how can they expect others to do likewise for their own interests?

There are few people who can scream about canaries in coal mines and get away with it for long, and I am no exception to that rule. If you haven't figured out that most publishers are caught between highly skilled staffs oriented towards traditional publishing platforms and new platforms that can't deliver them decent salaries with room for both management's profits and platform reinvestment, then you must have been clipping your bond coupons on a tropical island. But that doesn't mean that publications like Editor & Publisher have to die. What it does mean, though, is that in some ways the publishing industry is returning to its roots of scrappy, independent publishing that may do better without the overhead of large, corporate parents.

This doesn't mean that news publications will always do best as independent outlets, but it does mean that publishers that are mean, lean and more focused on their markets than on hitting the train back to comfortable suburban homes are going to do just fine. The good news is that Web infrastructure is perfectly suited to such operations, most especially when publishers listen to their audiences and engage them effectively. An interesting an ironic example of this positioning is the recent rebirth of Conde Nast's former Portfolio.com Web site by American City Business Journals as a portal oriented towards the owners of small and medium businesses. With a platform that is well designed to slice and dice content and functionality for any number of focused local and topic-oriented markets, ACBL's no-nonsense approach to publishing is far more emblematic of what will succeed moving forward in profitable B2B and consumer media than the high-gloss world of major media companies.

The caveat to this approach, though, is that the scrappy publishers must push themselves to the extreme to take advantage of highly affordable publishing technologies to outpace major media companies in having audiences adopt their brands on the platforms that they prefer. This is to some degree why blog-oriented publishers such as TechCrunch and The Huffington Post have survived and thrived in online media. Having been handed the equivalent of a guerrilla fighter's AK-47 automatic rifle in today's affordable social media publishing technologies and deploying the tactics and strategies that they enable, lean and agile online-first publications and their technology partners have carved away a good portion of the meat of publishing's profits.

It's not as if the major media companies can out-tech these smaller rivals easily, either. The expense and useful life of proprietary content technology development is rarely beneficial to a publisher today. There are some exceptions to this rule on the very high end of content markets such as in financial securities trading and other specialized professional functions, but in general it's source-agnostic content technologies that have defined today's most successful publishing platforms. For general media markets, publishers have tried again and again to gain the upper hand through sponsoring source-specific content technologies that simply don't deliver all of the information and experiences that people expect now through source-agnostic technologies.

It's what you might call a prolonged mourning for the mass-production printing press era, the ability to define a marketplace through a technology that only traditional publishers could afford and master easily. Sorry, that train left the station a long time ago. By ceding their technological superiority to others, publishers sealed their fate years ago. If Compuserve had knocked the socks off of the Web in its ability to amaze and delight content audiences, it would still be around today. Consortium services like Hulu are trying to regain some of that high ground of technology, but as long as they fail to leverage all of the content that people find to be valuable based on the artificial divide of "it isn't real content," they will always fall short of audiences who know "real" when they see it.

In short, I do think that the closing of Editor & Publisher is a small but significant landmark in the history of publishing. It marks the point in the publishing industry's history when it admitted that it no longer really cared about its traditional strengths. Print publishing and the editorial disciplines that drove it are now officially legacies that will inform the future, but no longer define it. There will continue to be print products indefinitely, and highly customized print products are likely to be a growing marketplace for some time. But when an industry will no longer buy coverage of its own traditional operations, then it's time to admit that a chapter in that industry's history has been finished. I wish the very best of luck to the staff of Editor & Publisher, they have put out quality journalism in the face of enormous industry change. I hope that we will see E&P resurface in the near future as a web-first publication, perhaps with a focus on the future rather than on the past.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What's the New Normal? Mark Logic Digital Publishing Summit Examines Cross-Platform Publishing Opportunities

While Mark Logic is far from the only game in town for cross-platform publishing technologies, its recent Digital Publishing Summit at the Plaza Hotel in New York City was a huge down payment on establishing itself as a thought leader that could merge the best of East Coast and West Coast thinking in enterprise and media content markets. As one would expect with a vendor-sponsored conference, the day was filled with "friendlies" who use and support Mark Logic and its XML-based databases, APIs and content delivery services. But it if you had to pick friends, CEO Dave Kellogg and staff picked some friends who had excellent examples of how cross-platform and cross-source publishing is "the new normal" that is helping to drive value in the publishing industry. The trick is, though, is that this new normal is filled with some ironies that the content industry is still struggling to absorb.

With a packed ballroom listening on (nothing like "free" as the price of admission for networking in this economy), Dave Kellogg opened with a lively video, followed by Outsell's David Worlock pointing out that user-oriented networked services, not pre-conceived publications, are the key to this "revolution" in publishing services. Yet at the same time his slides showed a pyramid of value-add content services from simple published documents to "workbenches" that seemed to be quite standard in its pre-conceived product flow. Databases are indeed key components in today's publishing environment, but as exemplified by Mark Logic's technologies, the database is now - that is, whatever a user needs it to be in the moment. Both enterprise and media oriented publishers are discovering that publishing cultures centered around traditional databases, be they for traditional editorial content, business data or multimedia, are not agile enough to respond to the demands of their markets.

Richard Maggiotto, Founder, President & CEO of Zinio, highlighted similar ironies that print publishers face in confronting mobile markets. Zinio is moving beyond simple "page-flipping" technology for magazines on PCs and mobile devices to enable video-like animations of content, including ads, to draw magazine publishers into more appealing online presentations in their software. One demo that Richard flashed on the screen was for a $30,000 watch, paid for by a manufacturer that refused to produce Web ads. A beautiful ad, but the question becomes: how can you build a market based on a tiny sliver of people who are using iPhones but preferring magazine-like layouts of content? Building beautiful and engaging content is a plus for any audience, but no arbitrary container in today's online world is going to fence an audience in to your message for very long.

I had to take a phone call at this point, so I missed a good portion of a presentation by Chris Tse, Director of Information at BusinessWeek, who focused on their "BX" social media initiatives. Ironically, when I came back, Tse was explaining how social media content was harder to monetize than traditional editorial content, although he acknowledged that it would probably grow in its revenue impact over time. So even when you have good design, interactivity, repurposed content and social interaction, there's no guarantee that you'll have the systems in place to match revenue opportunities to your content - or have a sales force that knows how to sell it.

Kent Anderson, Executive Director for Product Development at The New England Journal of Medicine, a leading Sci-Tech journals publisher, showed off a popular "diagnose the disease" quiz
that they had ported over from their Web site to the iPhone, and, through Mark Logic's infrastructure, easily retooled for Google's Android and other mobile platforms. The growth of the app's use on iPhone was quite extraordinary, paralleling the growth of overall iPhone use. But when Kent was quizzed about the impact on overall subscription revenues in the Q&A, he expressed some optimism for future, non-free applications in mobile markets but didn't offer any indication of how the app helps to boost core journal subscription revenues. Certainly highly functional mobile apps can help to build a publisher's brand value through higher engagement, but there needs to be a clear conversion strategy devised to ensure that the engagement actually converts that brand value into revenues efficiently. Repurposing content in and of itself doesn't ensure those conversions, though it can help to define a much larger addressable marketplace.

Shannon Holman, Director of Content Management for McGraw-Hill Higher Education and Lee Fife, VP of Publishing Solutions for Flatirons Solutions, put on an excellent demo of McGraw-Hill's Create online custom textbook creation application. Their development of Create was based on the assumption that they needed to empower their customers to design and customize their custom textbooks online, instead of relying on institutional sales forces. The Create application does an excellent job of fulfilling this mission, enabling its users to choose specific sections of books, insert personal course materials and papers and produce both PDFs and bound, custom-printed textbooks on demand with remarkable ease. This interactivity that allows clients to package content the way that they really need it packaged was probably the closest example of "the new normal" during the day's presentations. But even here, the very success of the Create application leaves McGraw-Hill's institutional salespeople scratching their heads somewhat. Better that in the long run, though, then becoming a captive of sales methods that may be out of date.

The final featured speaker of the day was Gordon Crovitz, former Publisher of The Wall Street Journal and a founder of Journalism Online, which is preparing to launch in 2010 an online content ecommerce service that will enable people to have one single sign-on for accessing premium content sources across the Web and mobile platforms. Crovitz outlined at a high level the range of use and pricing models that the Journalism Online platform will support, such as single-article micropayments, multi-article/time-based payments, bulk multi-publication subscriptions and print/online bundled subscriptions.

Interestingly, both the questions that came up from the audience afterwards and some discussion in the panel discussion following Crovitz' panel indicated that there was still a fair amount of resistance from some people in publishing to this concept - and not necessarily for the reasons that you might think. Some people were concerned about Journalism Online being a publisher-centric model, solving their own particular pricing problems but not necessarily solving problems for audiences. This is a reasonable point, one that highlights how publishers are to some degree still on a fishing expedition for successful online revenue models for premium online content that no technology alone can answer. Yet Crovitz emphasizes that premium's opportunities lie where people already believe in your content brand. In other words, premium plays well when you have a relationship with an audience that's already valued above the norm. You may, as Crovitz suggests, convert only a fraction of them, but if the relationship will support it, then demand it where the value suggests that it's worth it to them.

So what is "the new normal" in the era of repurposeable content? To put it succinctly, it's having content that's always ready to attain its highest value in audience-defined moments. Be it through search engines, self-published and self-packaged content, real-time collaboration or easily repurposed and relicensed data and editorial content, the companies that can chase those moments most effectively wins. Sometimes this means being able to aggregate content from any number of sources more rapidly and effectively than anyone else, based on your insights into audience demands. But often it means letting your content flow to where your audiences want to consume it and to be ready to know how to make money with it once it gets there. A multi-platform strategy for repurposed content is not simply slamming the same product into different packages.

Multi-platform publishing also requires the recognition that it's not about platforms at all - it's recognizing that your audience has to be the center of your publishing at all times - and to recognize that each platform and application may draw out a different audience persona from the same person. It's not enough to ask "What does your customer do ten minutes before and after they use your content." It's also necessary to ask your audiences, "who are you" in each platform environment. Your hardcore diagnostician may be all business on a PC, but be out for kicks or socialization on their iPhone - or vice versa. These types of variations only enhance the need for good content multipurposing infrastructure, even though that infrastructure will not guarantee that you'll be offering the content that they want most.

Mark Logic's Digital Publishing Summit probably raised more questions for publishers than it answered, but that's probably not a bad thing in a market in which publishers have very few clear-cut options for succeeding in content markets. It also left outside the doors of the ballroom the uncomfortable fact that many platforms are in use today that enable people to aggregate content on their own with minimal assistance from traditional publishers. You can have the best aggregation and monetization strategy in the world, but if your audiences are creating and aggregating more content than you can, then it's going to be an uphill battle for most any publisher. But within those constraints, Mark Logic is showing the way to a "new normal" for publishers in which matching any content to any audience demand is creating a much more flexible, responsive and audience-centric publishing industry.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Endgame/New Game: Google Search Moves Focus on The Moment of Highest Content Value

In a typical game of chess, there are three distinct phases of play: the opening, in which a handful of chess pieces stake out strategic territory on the chessboard, the middle game, in which the positions of many pieces are used to jockey for control of the chessboard, and the endgame, in which the pieces are traded and moved rapidly into a reduced and final push for ultimate control of the board and the strategic goal of the game - capturing the king. It takes both logic and passion to excel at chess, but at the end of the day it's a well-executed plan that wins the day.

You might say that Google has been in the process of introducing its own endgame for online publishing, quietly moving dozens of initiatives into strategic positions which in and of themselves may seem inconsequential to the game as a whole - until its ultimate position begins to evolve rapidly. As in a chess endgame, Google's recent moves are swift, monumental in their impact and, potentially, decisive in determining the outcome of how content becomes valuable on the Web. Media critics like Ken Auletta have quipped that Google needs more "Kirks" and fewer "Spocks" to succeed, mistaking the crowded middle game of media posturing against Google for an ongoing battle, when in fact Google has been keeping its well-reasoned eye on the pieces that will be most important for the outcome of the game.

What's the king that needs to be captured in this endgame? The Moment. Media companies continue to churn out outdated moves such as media players serving up magazine-like renditions of their own content, thinking that quality that reflects the last game that they won is what will win the day. In the meantime, Google's intense concentration on processing power in cloud computing, Web-standardized applications and search dominance have revealed a strategy that is quickly eliminating viable moves for many B2B and consumer content and technology companies. After the September introduction of The Second Web via its Google Wave preview platform for real-time collaboration, Google has in recent days extended its dominance of The Moment via three new initiatives: expanded personalization of search results, real-time search results and voice, location and sight-activated mobile searches, including Google Goggles, a point-and-click camera-activated search feature.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land has an excellent analysis of how Google's debut of personalized searching that doesn't require a Google login is introducing a "new normal" for its search environment, in which the content presented in search results will by default be different for different people based on their last 180 searches on Google. What is The Moment for these people? Where their interests have been most recently. Instead of waiting for editorial boards to decide what The Moment should be, Google is yet again trumping traditional editorial functions and allowing people's own behavior to have a seat at the editorial table automatically.

The introduction of content from real-time Web sources such as Twitter, Facebook and other status-oriented messaging services in Google search results extends The Moment into content sources that have split-second relevancy to online content seekers. Klipp Bodnar points out that this stream of tweets and postings means that B2B companies can no longer ignore real-time in favor of traditional SEO strategies if they're going to get people's attention. It's a broader scope than that, of course: nobody can afford to ignore real-time social media content generation now any more than a securities trader can ignore real-time stock tickers. All brands must enter the real-time conversation of The Moment to keep in touch with their markets and to define their markets.

Google's mobile search initiatives, introduced last week at the Computer History Museum, are perhaps the most profound in their potential impact, even if their ultimate powers are years away from being felt. Voice-activated and GPS-activated Web search is being perfected rapidly at Google and through other outlets, but the Google Goggles initiative, previewed in its development phases on MSNBC recently, brings a point-and-click element to The Moment that promises to give Google a real leg-up in mobile search markets. Using the camera in mobile phones, Goggles enables searches for information on things such as landmarks, stores, products and text simply by filling the camera's viewfinder with the item and clicking. Remember all of those fussy infra-red applications that were supposed to get us "beaming" business cards to one another? Now, just take a photo of someone's card and it will be uploaded into a contacts record. In just those few capabilities already targeted, whole content markets are about to develop as people capture content in The Moment.

And who will have all of the search data and metadata regarding all of these Moments? Yep. Yet again, Google is positioning itself to be the cloud-empowered master of what people are interested in right now, giving them the ability to bring people closer to their interests and passions simply by asking for them. And, yet again, by including as much content as possible in serving their customers, Google doesn't second-guess what people consider to be valuable in The Moment. If the stock and news tickers of the 20th century distributing content from central markets and publishers were the gold mines of Moments in that era, Google's absorption and distribution of content from anywhere to anywhere in The Moment has enabled it to enlarge its unique databases far more broadly and rapidly than any other publisher on earth. And, like a chess endgame, the speed with which other players are losing effective counter-moves against Google's strategic position in The Moment is only quickening.

No small wonder, then, that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is scrutinizing Google's acquisition of AdMob, a leading mobile ad network. Markets thrive when there are still a good number of pieces on the board to keep competition high. But perhaps it's time for the FTC and companies in the content industry to look beyond this rapidly emptying game board and to consider what the next round of content industry chess is going to look like. If The Moment is the new center of the publishing industry, how does content become most valuable in this context? The answer to this question is, in part, to acknowledge that the companies who collect the most input about the world most rapidly become the most knowledgeable about what is happening in The Moment.

It's a phenomenon that I call "the Sensor Society," a world in which our corporate awareness and memory becomes a valuable through common access in a way that reverses the "information is power" equation. Certainly having private information will continue to empower people and organizations in select circumstances, but for the average person or business having access to all information in the right context is becoming a more powerful resource for decision-making. To borrow a concept from my book Content Nation, some portion of the DNA of society is migrating into the Google-dominated cloud, with each of us feeding that part of our collective consciousness through our voices, our camera "eyes" and our fingers touching screens and keyboards. That may be a good thing for society as a whole, but it will be an enormous challenge for institutions who are not ready to accept that migration as a beneficial development.

What does this mean for publishers? It means good things for those that can manage to get their content into these personally defined Moments more effectively. But it also takes an acceptance that "the first draft of history" that many in the media business cherish as their mission is taking on a radically new form. Like the "playback" feature in Google Wave, everyone will have access to who did what where and when soon enough. The question is, who edited it the best? Google has staked its claim as the world's dominant editorial resource for displaying billions of histories a day, sweeping away front pages across the Web into a stream that assembles Moments that matter most to audiences.

We will spend time with content in any number of spaces thanks to this editorial resource, as we have on the Web for many years. But Google has accelerated the endgame radically in the past few months for those not tuned into The Moment. 2010 is going to be a year of momentous change in the content industry. Publishers that are tuned into The Moment will be in good shape to take on all of the inputs of The Sensor Society and to trigger astounding growth in cloud-based content markets. For those that aren't tuned in, well, you better get used to the idea that you're playing a two-dimensional game of chess against a 3-D chess master. Set up the chess pieces again, Spock. It's a whole new game.