Sunday, January 31, 2010

Noodling With the Nook: First Impressions of the Barnes & Noble Ebook Reader

My wife was bugging me before Christmas for a nice toy that I would like as a gift, so I thought that it couldn't hurt to get Barnes & Noble's new Nook ebook reader, which, at the time, was due for delivery before the holidays. With a hybrid eInk display for text and Android-driven touch interface for navigation combined with ePub-formatted documents, at least it would be a "walking the talk" gizmo that reflected how I saw what publishers should be doing with ebook distribution.

Unfortunately on Christmas day I got a nice new traveling case and screen protector, but only a placekeeper for the unit itself, which finally arrived the day that the Apple iPad was launched. Hmm, interesting timing. There's really no comparison, though, between the "whats" and the "whys" of an ebook reader like the Nook and a device like the iPad. The nook is all about simplifying and in some ways enhancing the process of relating to printed material, where the iPad is about the multi-sense world of Web media, with books a nice part of its capabilities but one not necessarily likely to appeal to many of its core Web-raised customers.

The Nook definitely has a leg-up overall on its Amazon Kindle rival, in the sense that it combines both the sophistication of a touch interface with a very simple and enjoyable page-turning experience via its eInk interface. I had my doubts about this combination, but, while not perfect, it works out pretty nicely overall. You can swipe your finger across a row of book, newspaper and magazine titles like you would on a touch-screen phone interface, tap once and start digging in. A second or two after your text is displayed, the color touch interface powers down and you're enjoying crisp eInk text, which only improves its readability in bright daylight. That's a boon when on a beach or in a sunny train or plane seat where moving to a better spot is not an option.

The physical controls of the Nook are bone simple. An "on" button on the top of the unit, a bar between the eInk display and the color touch display that activates the touch screen, and page-turning buttons on either side of the screen. The page-turning buttons are just about perfect and a joy to use. Each page-turning button has a pinhole-sized protrusion in its middle, which makes it a no-eyes procedure to get your fingers in the right place, and no edges. It's a seamless case, so there's no place for dirt, dust or sand to get into the controls or to spoil the smooth look of the unit. Best of all, the buttons are repeated on either side - a huge plus for righty-lefty usability and for when you get in those wierd positions that feel great put that put your hands at odd angles.

Downloads of new and updated materials are smooth and effortless, with simple and well-designed procedures. It's a no-brainer to use for all of its basic functions. Searching the Barnes and Noble store is simple and easy via a touch keyboard, which overall is no worse than Kindle's weird Chiclet-style physical keyboard but has rather slow typing response and an early-release Android look and feel that leaves something to be desired compared to the Android-based Nexus One phone that hangs next to me most of the time. Barnes and Noble also provides its own content via "The Daily," a daily newsletter that includes a listing of your latest content downloads. You can accelerate download performance by powering up your Nook on your local wireless network, but it will drain your batteries fairly rapidly. Without a wireless LAN connection or a lot of use of the color display, your batteries can last for days, typically, since the eInk display is not powered once a page is displayed.

While I am certainly open to reading book content on powered displays, I really like this "off" nature of eInk. After a day of staring into backlit computer and phone displays, there's an "unplugged" aspect to the Nook that fits the nature of book reading nicely. Reading books is about sharing some "quality time" with the thoughts of another person. The simplicity of the Nook encourages me to tune out many of my typical daily electronic distractions and to focus on one relationship. Want Web browsing? Go to your PC or phone, please. The only other significant function of the Nook is its ability to play downloaded music, which is a nice complement to reading, if I am willing to tax the batteries a bit. Downloading tunes from a PC is easy via the Nook's standard USB cable, which doubles as the charging cord when plugged into a special AC converter. Economy of design and purpose is the theme with Nook, and overall it delivers on that theme well.

However, the Nook is far from perfect. The delay in getting this unit to market was doubtless getting some of the product development kinks out, some of which still shine through. The most glaring problem with the Nook is its overall performance. Loading large books for reading can take several seconds in many instances, and some large ebooks did not load at all (possibly due to being formatted an older proprietary format not compatible with Nook). Page-turning is quick and smooth enough and bookmarking functions simple enough, but the bookmarks themselves cannot be given easy-to-use human names; you're stuck with a geekish, URL-like name based on chapter numbers that is hard to understand. At times it seems that bookmarks were not being saved. The note-taking capability on the Nook is decent but nominal at best, not something that's likely to satisfy a real student or scribbler often. You can bump up font sizes in the eInk display, but there's only three settings overall for font sizes. An extra-large font setting would be nice for those days when your eyes have had far too much work. Combine these rough spots with the touch keyboard issues, and it's a fair bet that the Nook needs a newer version of Android ASAP to improve performance and a few interface tweaks to boot.

And while the online store interface is smooth and features millions of books from Google Books, Barnes and Noble's own ebook title offerings are still a little bit thin; you'll get most major titles, but don't expect too much peripheral content beyond Google's offerings. Some of the ecommerce for newspapers and magazines is still a little rough also. The online store, for example, lists The New York Times as a $13.99 subscription. For, what, a month? A year? It doesn't say. The subscription provides only a subset of NYT information, which is a bit annoying, but you get at least the highlighted stories that you're likely to want to spend time with in an "unplugged" mode on the Nook.

Finally there's the color touch display, which feels comfortable to use if you're used to touch-screen phones and is generally a pleasure to use, with easy-to-use menus and features that are well-designed overall. The main annoyance here, though, is that after a day of touching the screen of my Nexus One, it feels kind of awkward to look at content in the eInk display that's controlled in the touch display below it. A full-touch display such as in Plastic Logic's new Que document reader would be ideal, but I am not interested in hauling that much hardware around. A Nook slips comfortably into my parka pocket and is not hogging up any significant space on the coffee table next to my favorite reading chair. And again, since book-reading is about getting into the words more than fiddling with features, I am willing to live with the compromise.

I am not really sure that you can call the Nook clearly superior to the Amazon Kindle as a machine, but it's definitely a sleeker and more flexible unit overall with better design and more potential for improvement via its Android underpinnings, as well as more potential to get your content to play nicely in other ebook readers via its use of the ePub formatting standard. I was unable to test out the book-sharing feature yet with another Nook user, but this is certainly an important first that deserves at least a nod of appreciation for the many efforts that Barnes and Noble has put in to replicating some of the most important parts of the book-reading experience. Nook's titles are a little pricier than those found in the Kindle store, but that's a small price to pay for the ability to use content on other ePub-compatible readers. Lock-in to the Kindle system is the price to pay for it's cheaper titles, a price that I am not willing to pay.

And I suppose that's the point of the Nook at the end of the day. It's a great little reader that will allow one to prepare for any number of great new ebook-displaying products that will be coming out in the years ahead. With the Kindle, or, for that matter, materials on the iPad purchased via Apple's online store, you're likely to have a more restricted range of technology options moving forward. It's not clear that standalone ebook readers will be with us much longer, but for those wanting simple functionality in a rugged unit with great battery life that will be highly usable in any number of conditions that would be daunting to many advanced display units, the Nook offers a good reading experience and the ability to escape without hauling around a pound of books - or Jeff Bezos' business model hangups, either. That's good enough for me today, at least.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad Launches. Winner: ePub and Web Standards

With the media industry salivating over Apple CEO Steve Jobs' announcement of the new iPad as if it were awaiting an injection of Viagra, you'd think that the machine would do everything except change a flat tire. Well, the hoopla is over, and the iPad is...a large iPhone, essentially. Nice, sexy, though functionally not really a breakthrough device compared to the impact that the original iPhone had on mobile markets. However, then the other shoes started to drop after the klieg lights on the announcement stage began to cool off a bit. The two key factors: price and e-book packaging.

First, the price. At $499, the iPad is coming out at a blow-away price point that will make its purchase an attractive and simple alternative for many people who would otherwise be considering a PC or Mac as their next step-up from a mobile phone - or a slightly more pricey unlocked Google Nexus One superphone. This matters in a big way to global markets, where billions of people who are experiencing Web content for the first time on mobile phones will be looking for their next step-up device for content consumption.

Keep your eyes open also for possible subsidies on this price point as mobile network-enabled versions of the iPad hit the market. Just as King Gillette figured out how to give away razor handles to sell disposable razor blades, Apple will find many ways to lower the cost of hardware acquisition to lock people into their software and ecommerce services. Since the iPad technology and apps are largely warmed-over iPhone components, one assumes that not much R&D was required to launch this model, so there must be a good amount of "wiggle room" in the iPad's pricing for such deals.

Its aggressive price point also pegs the iPad as a highly attractive alternative for educational markets, the original market that launched Apple's growth years ago as a scrappy alternative to then-crude PCs. Given the average college student's expenditures on textbooks, an iPad equipped with ebook versions of those texts that they can use for most other schoolwork along with their favorite entertainment will be a very appealing option. It's also a price point that pretty much resigns most existing ebook readers to also-ran status as cost-effective platforms for people on the go. What do you want at your train or airline seat as a light PC alternative, an ebook reader or something that can also play movies and help you get some emails done? Problem solved.

The other factor that is very appealing on the face of it is Apple's decision to deploy an iTunes-like eBook store with content formatted in the ePub open-standards ebook and emagazine format championed by the International Digital Publishing Forum for several years. Having an ebook reading software package that will, in theory, be compatible with content purchased from any ecommerce service using ePub-formatted content will be a great boost to ebook, enewspaper and emagazine sales. However, the caveat with Apple's use of ePub standards is that ePub leaves the door open for the optional use of proprietary DRM tools, such as those used in Apple's iTunes store and Barnes and Noble's online ebook outlet.

If you're happy using iTunes on whatever platform you're using, then chances are Jeff Bezos over at Amazon just bought himself a huge headache after having alienated publishers with onerous revenue share agreements to get content in Amazon's proprietary Kindle format. I've said it often that the proprietary Kindle format was a dead end, but no more so than today. In a sense I wonder if the publishing industry went along with the proprietary Kindle early on as a ruff of sorts to keep the combination of Amazon, Google and open standards from running away with the entire premium content ballgame while they developed a more palatable alternative. That may be giving the people involved too much credit, but it's curious. Perhaps it's not too late to dust off some of those "GoogleZon" memes, after all.

Now that the book industry and other media producers have an alternative to Amazon's stranglehold on them, it will be interesting to see whether they will find themselves in a new Catch-22 situation. Have they run from Amazon's dominance only to discover that the grip of Apple's DRM on ePub-enabled content winds up being an even worse stranglehold in the long run? Time will tell, as will the details that unfold over the next few weeks regarding the iPad's compatibility with premium content purchased from non-Apple outlets. If it's easy-peasy to pull up content purchased elsewhere in ePub format on the iPad, then publishers will have done themselves a great favor. If they drank too much of Steve Jobs' Kool-Aid and allowed it to be hard to use other DRMed or non-DRMed content via Apple's ePub reader, then it will be a more-of-the same dilemma for publishers overall.

While the media industry seems ready to declare Steve Jobs the next David Sarnoff, their "homeboy" genius of content, technology and human insight, the overall reaction to the iPad by consumers so far seems to be warm but not necessarily hot. If you love Apple products already, then you're probably going to plunk down your five Franklins as soon as you can. If you're a person who's already equipped with a decent PC, an iPhone or Android-enabled mobile device, then you're probably saying, "Oh, a big iPhone, neat" - and then going back to surfing the Web. iPad as a gizmo is nifty, but it's not grown new capabilities that people haven't seen before in one form or another. If you're an enterprise I.T. manager, you're probably saying, "Oh, brother, another device to deal with, thank goodness it's basically just an iPhone" - which may simplify adoption at schools and universities especially.

And if you're a book or magazine publisher, then you're probably feeling pretty good at the moment - but then, perhaps, realizing that Jobs spent most of his demo showing how great it was that the iPad rendered Web pages and YouTube movies so well. Sorry, dear publishers, the Web is not going to disappear just because there's a handy new netbook that does DRM the way that you want it to. The iPad will definitely be a boost for print-formatted electronic content, but this is highly unlikely to address key revenue and cost issues that are ultimately the enemies of many publishers. By the time that iPads start coming out in March (and in April in mobile network-enabled configurations) , competitors will be that much further down the road towards their own cost-effective tablet and touchpad interfaces that are likely to be committed to open standards more aggressively.

Yes, this means that Google is still very much in the mix for premium content. Google's Chrome OS will be available in the next year, and rest assured that this next-generation computer operating system will have some deployments that will be remarkably iPad-like. Already its Android operating system is the basis for Barnes and Noble's Nook ebook reader being shipped in a few days, equipped with ePub-formatted content. Could this alliance form the basis for another end-run around Amazon for book and magazine publishers? It seems that not too long from now we will start thinking of Google and Apple the way that we used to think of television and radio networks, with Microsoft striving to get its own new-generation devices into the mix as well.

In the meantime, there are TiVos, Playstations, mobile phones, ereaders and a galaxy of other gizmos that will keep both the iPad and any other particular device from being a "magic bullet" that will solve the distribution problems of media companies definitively. All hail Jobs, today's knight in shining armor for a content industry still struggling with the realities of the Web some fifteen-plus years after the launch of HTML-based graphic browsing on the Internet. Then let's look at how many gray hairs some of us have gained since that time - and accept that the iPad is just another beautiful, functional tool from Apple that cannot stave off the effects of the Web indefinitely. Even with Viagra, you have to come down to life size eventually, after all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SIIA Information Industry Summit 2010: The Future of the Content Industry

Yes, there is a future for the content industry in media and enterprise markets, and the Software and Information Industry Association Content Division has been charting it for several years now at its Information Industry Summit events in New York City. This year's IIS is drawing more than 300 executives from leading content and technology companies, a good crowd in the middle of a dismal economy. No surprise, given the star-studded line-up of speakers that was assembled by the Content Division this year. You might say that these people are documenting a future that people have been talking about for many years and that finally arrived - a future in which the Web dominates the dialog on profits and products on a daily basis, even as high-value premium products punch through to define new opportunities for value in enterprise and media publishing. Key to that trend is the rise of technology companies that are driving change in major publishing organizations, which enable publishers to define new relationships with their clients. Are all of these publishers ready for this ever-present "future?" Let's see what these experts have to say. I will be posting on our events blog throughout the day and linking the posts to this entry. You may also find my conference Twitter messages (and retweets) here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

AppFail: Amazon Opens Up Kindle, Only to Expose Its Flaws

Amazon Kindle has always been an odd duck of a platform, a proprietary e-book reader that bundled wireless access with a device that offered a very limited range of functionality. But as the first major e-book platform with an integrated ecommerce function, it gained early followers and a lot of media hoopla. Enter Apple, which is trying to become the default delivery mechanism for a galaxy of mainstream media content sources via its soon-to-be-released whiz-bang iSlate platform, including book content from Harper Collins. All of a sudden last year's bright, shiny thing from Amazon seems not so bright and shiny after all, prompting a late move by Amazon to open up its Kindle platform more aggressively to software developers.

As noted by CNET, though, this is way too little at a time in which software developers are inundated with platforms begging for appplications to make them stand out from the crowd. To boot, premium applications will have to pay a healthy chunk of their revenues to Amazon, presumably to cover the cost of downloads, which is bundled into the Amazon service from a consumer perspective. Kindle readers on iPhones and other platforms may help to buoy Amazon's overall e-book strategy, but it is highly doubtful that the Kindle itself has much of a lifespan as a multi-functional content delivery platform. In turn, this puts pressure on Amazon's overall sales picture, as a generation attuned to iTunes downloads may be more willing to add books to that list of items to cram into their portable devices than to shift to downloads on the Kindle platform that's centered around yesterday's content formats.

The vision of the Kindle was myopic from day one, too bent on luring timid publishers into the e-book era before others became premium e-book download kings. While this did leverage Amazon into an early advantageous position for e-books, its focus on a pioneering device locked it in to formats and concepts that reflected the fears and limitations of the book publishing industry more than it did the realities of a Web-enabled world of a multitude of content formats, publishers and delivery channels. Its onerous cut of Kindle e-book revenues also gave publishers a good reason to work with other platform providers to get a better piece of the action. The net result is that Amazon is in strong danger of becoming a book distribution channel that fails to lock in a new generation of book readers on emerging mobile platforms.

With Apple setting itself up as a primary download competitor, the question becomes whether Amazon wants to continue to try to be the Microsoft of e-books via its proprietary approach or to become the Google of e-books in response to this challenge. In other words, is Amazon willing to admit that it made a huge mistake in not aligning itself more with a cross-platform, open standards approach in preparation for the inevitable platform battles that required stronger technology partners? There may not be a black-and-white answer to this question, but clearly Amazon needs to focus more on channel strategies and content publisher relations than on multi-function platform development. This is especially important in light of media companies that manage multi-channel products - "Avatar" lives as a movie, as a game, and, inevitably, as videos, books and so on. Amazon should be focusing more on the question of how to be a download king for content of all kinds rather than a gizmo king.

The logical leading partner in this would seem to be Google, with its emerging Android and Chrome OS platforms, options that weren't on the table in any serious way a couple of years ago but which are now coming to market aggressively. Microsoft will certainly be in the mix also, but it's playing catch-up in mobile platforms at a time in which Google is preparing to soar past many established vendors with its cross-platform Android operating system. In February the Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader will be the first model delivered to consumers based on Google's Android operating system, opening the door to thousands of applications that could be integrated with e-books easily on that device, as well as on other Android-based devices. While there are notable flaws in the Barnes & Noble strategy - too few books, no reader yet for other mobile devices - its use of the ePub standard for its downloads and an incorporated lending model is closer to what will help book publishers to integrate with many other kinds of content and platforms quickly and profitably.

Book publishers have, predictably, dug themselves into an early hole in the race for digital markets by rejecting standards that would make cross-platform use of e-books a simple thing for consumers. One of the great things about books traditionally is that they didn't require a special technology to use them. Why would publishers go out of their way to balkanize their market into dozens of different proprietary formats that can only discourage people from picking up books in general? While it will take some time to undo this damage, there is still time for book publishers to avoid the mistakes of the music and video industries and decide on formats that will encourage cross-platform use of e-books as simply and inexpensively as possible and which encourage developers to create functionality around e-books that enhances their value and their integration into Web-based content, collaboration and community services.

While there may be some sucking up of pride in Amazon's C-suite to make these things happen, they are absolutely necessary if Amazon is to extend its early ecommerce successes based on Web standards into mobile markets. Perhaps Amazon forgets that if it weren't for Web standards, the world would not have discovered its leading ecommerce services in the first place. Amazon needs to re-discover its appreciation of the power of Web-oriented industry standards for e-books and re-establish itself as a company that can carve out the broadest opportunities for content ecommerce via the widest array of content platforms. While this may not always sound like music to the ears of its publishing partners, it's the only way in which it will be able to offer a sound alternative to media companies that are locking themselves into proprietary platforms that will inevitably place Amazon in an awkward relationship with them. I don't put much hope on this happening in the short term - some changes at the top in Amazon may have to occur for this to happen - but it's likely their best road to success in the years ahead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

DeepDyve Content Rental Points the Way to Broader and More Flexible Scholarly Revenue Models

With more publishers of scholarly and learned professional journal articles trying to build revenues through improved marketing, the search, display and sales tools being developed by DeepDyve are finding stronger interest than ever 2010 among publishers. DeepDyve exposes free and premium scholarly content through its own search engine and through the search tools of partners and makes it available through its read-only viewing tool embedded in Web pages. This allows people finding articles to "rent" them on a once-off basis in read-only mode for as little as 99 cents. This can be particularly handy for people who would otherwise have little occasion to purchase a full subscription to a premium scholarly journal, thus opening up this premium content to markets that would otherwise not provide opportunities for new publishing revenues.

How much more revenue? In a recent discussion with DeepDyve CEO Bill Park, he indicated an estimate in the low billions USD for the total market available for "rental" pay-per-view style access to scholarly content. While this is certainly not enough to float the boats of scholarly publishers in general, it's largely found money that will increase their total revenues at a time when revenue growth is a challenge. That's a concept that attracts partners large, small old and new to DeepDyve's services, including newly announced alliances with De Gruyter, one of the oldest and most respected scholarly publishers, and CiteULike, a Springer-sponsored social boomarking service for scientific researchers.

For De Gruyter, an established brand still requires new marketing techniques to reach researchers who do not have access to paid collections in institutional libraries, while CiteULike, a venue that attracts researchers both in institutional and independent settings, provides a way for people in cross-disciplinary research to sample collections that may eventually be a part of their more permanent interests. In both instances the services of DeepDyve are well aligned with the needs of people involved in innovation management as they probe their own adjacent markets and test out new ideas that may be worth research and product investments.

Scholarly publishers are having to adapt to research markets that are increasingly moving beyond traditional academic boundaries, prompting both alliances with organizations such as DeepDyve and their own repackaging efforts to make topic-based slices of content available from a broad selection of their journals. While the topic-based repackaging has its merits, the DeepDyve approach to ad-hoc access on a read-only basis is an essential component of this repositioning of premium scholarly content, allowing publishers to test out what kinds of content are attracting premium access far more quickly than traditional marketing cycles are likely to capture.

So not only is "rental" content valuable in terms of its direct and ad-supported revenues, but also valuable because it is, in effect, "live" market research into "willingness to pay" habits in specific market sectors. It is then up to publishers, of course, to respond to the insight that they can gain from this sales data to consider new slices and titles that can respond to premium opportunities more rapidly. The more partners that a company such as DeepDyve gets, the more insight they are likely to have available to their partners via use and sales metadata to determine such trends. Should Google Scholar join the many established publishers already using DeepDyve, their metadata on content usage could become more interesting yet.

To some degree these concepts are "Publishing 101" ideas, but the speed with which research markets are shifting are changing the ways in which they need to be applied. With permanent collections of well-established journals constantly under the pressure of institutional budget cuts, the pressure is on scholarly publishers to define "must-have" collections that are really responsive to the needs of their customers. DeepDyve's content discovery and "rental" tools can help publishers to respond to both opportunities and threats to premium revenues more rapidly, even as they build premium revenues on an on-demand basis. Yes, this may seem like ancillary revenues to some publishers, but it is revenue that is both sorely needed and which can be a guide to where best to grow broader revenues that are more easily defended in challenging times.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here Come the Tablets: More Reason to Love the Web?

This year's International Consumer Electronics Show was awash in more tablets than a local pharmacy, with both actual models being shown and overarching buzz from Apple's anticipated iSlate tablet offering expected later this year. While many of the new tablet models were largely warmed-over versions of netbooks or smartbooks, some were oriented towards executives and (presumably) wealthy students who would be willing to pay close to a thousand dollars for a tablet that "acted" like a paper document. Two key models making their debut at CES in this column were the Hearst-sponsored Skiff newspaper and magazine reader and the Que document and e-book reader from Plastic Logic.

The Skiff initiative from Hearst is far more than a tablet gizmo, encompassing distribution on a number of platforms including smart/super phones, PCs and other devices on which their clients would presumably want to view content laid out in traditional print format - and pay presumably premium print prices for it. The reader itself has a display almost as large as a typical notebook PC, with wafer-thin construction, eInk-like resolution and touch-screen activation. The Que reader is a similarly "thin is in" device, but the content that it can manage is oriented towards both traditional media and enterprise document management. The idea behind both devices is that you can have the convenience of digital storage and display without the hassle of dealing with Web-oriented content formats.

The real rationale behind these initiatives, of course, is more of a regressive approach to content than a progressive approach. The Skiff screams at its audience, "Print formats are still relevant, darn it!" while the Que burbles out, "Web sites for collaboration? Nevah hoid of it." And in common to these devices both traditional publisher and enterprise document management business models hope to thrive by locking in support for bright and shiny new high-tech toys that amuse people enough to let them forget that they are paying not just for a pricey device but for outmoded ways of looking at content aggregation, integration and contextualization. The Web site for Skiff tells people first that it's a "publisher-friendly" device, meaning that publishers can obtain revenues from lock-in via proprietary formats while changing as little of its outlook on its revenue streams as possible.

I am hard-pressed to think of an army of executives who have to already juggle laptop PCs, smartphones and other gizmos who will find their world to be truly simplified by this emerging world of proprietary devices. There's little doubt that the tablet format for devices will begin to pick up steam this year, especially those that are touch-enabled devices that help to eliminate the need for physical keyboards. But much of the tablet buzz is smoke and mirrors for journalists, hiding the broader reality that most major publishers are faced with a world in which their revenue streams are drying up and unlikely to be propped up for very long by proprietary tablet plays. None of these devices seem to address the primary issue facing their operations: namely that the Web as a whole is far more interesting and engaging to its readers than any given publication.

Publishers do need to focus on quality editorial operations, to be sure, to ensure that they have a product that's worth the premium prices that they hope to extract on their tablet devices. But their real competition is not bloggers or online aggregators, but other Web formats. The ease with which video can be displayed both on PC and mobile devices and the rapidly accelerating integration of voice services into Web services is creating an environment in which an enormous amount of information is being created and shared with people around the world well before it ever gets into words. The prevalence of status posting services such as Facebook and Twitter make people aware of the first and best news coverage of an event to the point that follow-up reports are as redundant to the general public as they are to stock traders equipped with real-time news feeds.

Yes, the experience of print is engaging, and, often, seductive. But in an online world built around relationships, context and collaboration, investing heavily on keeping up the appearance of the seductiveness and power of print seems to make about as much sense as an 80 year-old investing in a fifteenth round of cosmetic surgery. Premium publishing models are important, but investing in outdated business models to drive premium revenues again and again is a non-starter. It will help to stem the tide of the Web no more than 3-D television or other diverting forms of repackaging. The movie "Avatar" succeeded not because of 3-D images but because it appealed to generations young and old who are moving into new forms of relationships with information and experiences via the Web, enveloped in them constantly to the point that publishing is becoming part of who they are, as I infer in Chapter 10 of Content Nation.

With this in mind, I think that the most important "tablets" are already in many people's pockets - Web-enabled smart/super phones that provide touch-activated access to content and applications that free people from heavy and expensive PCs. Most of these devices cost a fraction of the price of the premium tablet units being promoted for sale. When touch-sensitive tablet devices based on Google's open-source Chrome OS debut later this year, the need for price-sensitive access to full-display content will be underscored yet again. The publishing industry will never grow, much less survive, if it insists on locking its hopes into the most expensive delivery mechanisms available when cost-effective alternatives abound.

What publishers should be focusing on is enabling their content for cross-platform distribution as effectively as possible, demanding premium price points where warranted based on the contextual value of their communities, features and services, not on the fleeting value of a handful of specific devices. If we are headed towards a world in which people will be able to wave an RFID-enabled phone at an item to purchase it, or similarly to execute a business agreement, then publishers need to jump off yesteryear's bandwagon and tool content to be valuable where organizations generating products and services will be thrusting their marketing investments. Gimmicky tablets will prevent this no more than Cinerama-produced films stemmed the rise of television in the 1950s and 1960s. So congratulations to the tablet producers for sucking money out of publishers who should be investing elsewhere. Hopefully next year's CES will see some more sensible solutions to content display and distribution that will be true boosts to publishers.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hart Beat: Dow Jones Combines Enterprise and Media Operations

When News Corporation took over Dow Jones two years ago, it was quick to move out key senior Dow Jones managers and move in its own team that had a vision for how to make the brand a profitable and thriving outlet for business news and information. At that time I said on ContentBlogger, "The opportunity is for News Corp to enable a more aggressive melding of enterprise and media services as the differences between today's business media outlets and today's enterprise portals begin to narrow." I also speculated at the time whether Dow Jones Enterprise Media head Clare Hart would stick around to become a player in this mix or move on, suggesting that at least for a time she was respected enough that it was worth her hanging in there.

Two years later, Clare Hart and her work for DJEM remains respected, but times have moved on, and, according to news reports, so has Clare as the enterprise media group at Dow Jones is being merged with their consumer media group. Dow Jones CFO Steven Daintith is taking over the Dow Jones COO role for now, an indication that a promotion into that role for Hart was not in the offing, so moving on seems like a good bet for her at this time. While some may read "glass ceiling" or "Murdoch loyalists" into this move, I think that it's more a matter of where companies like Newcorp need to bring business information services such as their Factiva property to gain more profitability. The direction for more profits from the licensed business media sources in Factiva's database is definitely towards the online media side of Dow Jones operations, a move that requires a different set of skills than those needed to make subscription business information database services successful in increasingly complex enterprise technology markets.

As I noted last October in ContentBlogger when the Wall Street Journal Pro Edition was launched, the rise of real-time Web news aggregation is accelerating the need for business media properties to become more effective news aggregators. At the time I noted that this would be a good move to make better use of Factiva assets in the Pro Edition framework, a move that seems far more likely to unfold now that the siloing of Factiva and other Dow Jones enterprise assets has been eliminated. Among those other assets that are more likely to emerge more aggressively in the new alignment is the Dow Jones Business & Relationship Intelligence group (formerly Generate), whose alerts-oriented mining of news sources will have a broader market to tap into via the Pro Edition platform. Thinking of Newscorp's push to gain more online revenues from paid content sources, these types of premium services are ripe for better integration into ad-supported Dow Jones content.

This is also, of course, a somewhat back-handed way to say that there really isn't much of a strategy available to Dow Jones to increase revenues simply by waving a wand over broader segments of its existing online content. That ship sailed many years ago, as the WSJ Online edition gradually moved towards a large portion of its content being available online without a subscription. Their hope lies in providing more value in their offerings to individuals who may not have access to large subscription databases and sophisticated alerts services in their companies or who have found access to such services harder to justify under central information budgets. Moving to make DJEM resources more available via their consumer and "prosumer" platforms is a natural bridging strategy into these needs that can set up broader enterprise sales strategies over time.

In the meantime, though, this move is somewhat of an admission that the subscription database business for business news is a dying business model. Factiva has been as aggressive as any other player in business information in adding features and integration capabilities to its offerings, but at the end of the day the value-add from such services is drifting away to enterprise technology players more quickly than Factiva or other enterprise news aggregators can counter with improved products and services. There are just too many enterprise platforms in which this type of content is needed, creating broad product and feature disintermediation. Harvesting structured information from unstructured news and information sources is one approach that many enterprise content vendors are taking to counter this trend, but this alone ultimately doesn't justify the typical subscription structure for news databases.

You can see where this consolidation of enterprise-oriented resources with consumer media resources at Dow Jones may spell problems in focusing on enterprise opportunities, but at the end of the day the software and the thousands of licensed content sources that Dow Jones pays for have to grow profits for them more quickly if they are to be worth the price. With enterprises increasingly reluctant to pay for licensed content that offers few or no advantages over Web-accessible content, the Web is the only probable point of strong growth for old-line news aggregators. This may not be a pretty transition for many Factiva staff, but it's one of those long-delayed and necessary moves that will at least set the stage for more robust growth in enterprise markets for Dow Jones in the long run - even if that growth comes from non-traditional channels.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Google Nexus One: Untethering from Traditional Models 1.0

I don't jump often at first-generation technology for most things, so it's no surprise that I waited a while to get a smart phone. But in a sense I have waited for the first generation of what was termed a "superphone" in today's announcement of the Google Nexus One, a Google Android-based mobile device built by HTC and sold directly by Google from its own online store. The Nexus One goes toe-to-toe with Apple's iPhone in many ways but it also begins to challenge the content industry to consider what today's proliferation of mobile devices means for their marketing strategies.

Unlike the Apple iPhone, you can choose to order a Nexus One "unlocked" from Google's online store, meaning that you can get it without having to be locked into any telephone company's contract or service plan. You can then, if you choose, get the voice and data plan of your choice with a technology-compatible vendor (T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon in the US, and most non-U.S. carriers) or, if you choose, just use WiFi and to get connectivity to data and Voice over IP services on the Web.

I ordered the "unlocked" version of the phone within a few minutes of the online store going live, a bone-simple process. I noted on the order page that Verizon will offer "locked" access for this phone soon, marketed under the "Droid" moniker it uses currently for Motorola's Android phone offering on Verizon. For the time being I have decided to use the Nexus One as a "data only" phone, using VoIP when I am in WiFi hotspots. This may allow me to use it as a replacement for my desk phone, since it's always in range of my local WiFi (let's see what happens when Google announces its integration of Gizmo5 VoIP services for Google Voice). I think of it like having Skype in "walkabout" mode with a trendy earpiece that has Web access. Once the service plans for data-only access to phone company networks have improved a bit and I can suss out what to do with my last remaining copper phone line, I'll think about which U.S. telco vendor will be best to choose to fill in the gaps for WiFi service.

If you look at most coverage maps for mobile data access and the ability of emerging networks to support both voice and high-speed data more reliably on a single network connection, why would I do otherwise for an advanced phone? If voice is moving towards being a service on consumer data networks, as it is already in most major enterprises, and voice services such as Skype and Gizmo5 are providing increasingly reliable VoIP phone-like connectivity almost anywhere, then I wonder whether it makes sense to lock into any traditional voice services for a superphone. I'd rather use a simple mobile phone as a voice backup service for those hard-to-reach spots that Google Voice can ring as needed and go superphone for voice on a good data-only network for the rest.

As voice becomes more integrated with Web applications and content services, the need for their integration is going to become more obvious fairly rapidly. One of the demos at the Nexus One press briefing was of dictating text messages and emails. It wasn't a particularly spectacular demo, and I am sure that less carefully tested examples may fare worse, but going to and from voice and text as a standard interface is more likely to make the combination of voice and data an essential factor in information services in the next few years. Since the Nexus One is pretty well positioned for the most advanced high-speed data networks rolling out over the next couple of years, I think that I am covered on that front for now.

As for the phone itself, I hate to say it, but technology changes so quickly these days that it's almost unimportant beyond a certain point whether it's a perfectly awesome phone or not. You can look at the Engadget review and judge for yourself, but overall it's as good as an iPhone but without two-finger touch software (which will come soon enough, since the hardware handles it, apparently) though trumping the current iPhone with a screaming 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Most importantly, though, it's built on an open platform developed by a company that believes in the Web as the real unifier of content services, not proprietary networks or platforms. With all of the tablets, readers and other gizmos coming out this year that will try to pretend that the Web isn't very important, it will be nice to have a mobile device that puts the Web experience for content first, with some neat-o applications in a spiffy, sleek package to boot. That'll do. For now.