Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Moving Day - Shifting to a New Subdomain for ContentBlogger


I've been using Google's Blogger.com service since I started ContentBlogger in 2003. At the time its hosted option did not support domain names other than its own, so I used its facility that published blog posts to our own Shore.com server, so as to get lots of search engine mojo from all of the blog updates. Well, the search strategy worked but the off-server publishing facility never worked all that great, and now the off-server publishing service for Blogger is being retired by Google. Fortunately it was a fairly painless transition, and it opens up the door to a host of new features for ContentBlogger - including, hopefully, improved commenting and community services.

ContentBlogger is now located at http://contentblogger.shore.com/ and our events weblog is at http://events.shore.com.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to
http://contentblogger.shore.com/feeds/posts/default
and :
http://events.shore.com/feeds/posts/default

I hope that this transition is a fairly painless one from your perspective, if you have any problems give a holler!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Need for Public: The Future of Today's Local Libraries

Westport, Connecticut offers its residents many benefits, one of which is an excellent public library that has become an ever more central component of our community. As prime local retail storefronts have been overtaken by national and regional chains and the Web absorbs much of our attention for personal contact, our library serves as not just a repository for knowledge but increasingly as the primary pubic facility used by many citizens. A storm knocks out your power for a few days? Camp out at the library and use the wireless and PCs to keep in touch with the world. Need a place to socialize or hold a business meeting in a place that's not too commercial? Grab a coffee at the library cafe or use one of its meeting rooms - that is, if you're lucky enough to be able to book one.

The problems and opportunities that our public library faces were the focus of a recent public forum that I attended, a meeting that drew some thoughtful citizens to respond to the library staff's planning efforts. What came through loud and clear from this session is that in spite of the "the Web is killing libraries" meme that is popular in some circles these days, our library suffers not from lack of use but rather from overuse. Its books, reference desk, reading rooms, book clubs, online databases and Web site, lectures, equipment rentals and childrens' programs are the focus of so many people in our community that competition for access to them is creating some hard choices for the library's planners. How does a public library adjust its resources and programs to serve a public that is hungry for far more than just access to books on shelves?

The answer to this question is complicated by the changing nature of content. Now that our local news is being delivered not just by local newspapers but as well by local Web sites and blogs and other online resources, archiving local news and knowledge is not as simple as tucking away the latest catalog of microfiche or stack of papers. Ebooks are increasingly popular as checkout items, but an expanding array of technologies makes electronic acquisitions for ebooks more complicated. Many towns and cities participate in collective bargaining for books and periodicals, but acquisitions still tend to be done on a town by town basis. And even as our library prepares to upgrade its cataloging system, the question of what should be in that catalog becomes ever more pressing.

In short, what is a public library is supposed to be in an era in which storing a print-based catalog of items is becoming one niche service amongst many is rather complicated. Most importantly, the older patrons of our local library were not necessarily the ones most focused on print services. Many of them were, in fact, more concerned about whether their grandchildren would have the right range of electronic services available for them. They understood clearly that the world is now focused on electronic content and that our library needs to focus on getting them literate in this emerging world. This includes, increasingly, ensuring that people in our community are literate not just about content that's been created by others but also literate about how to create content. Yes, our high school has some courses in this for the teens, but what about a local businessperson who needs to understand how to build a Web site or to optimize their ads for Web search engines?

One of the more neglected possibilities, though, seems to be the opportunity for local libraries to begin to cut the cord between catalog services and patron services more aggressively. If 90-plus of library patrons are discovering content via major search engines, it would seem to make sense to get library content that's available locally into those search engine results more aggressively. Yes, you have a link to World Catalog in Google Books, but what if local libraries were to expose key content via localized AdWords results in mainstream Google search results? There would be no real competition for these placements and people would be immediately aware that a local library would be a reasonable choice to check out even before they clicked through to a retailer's site.

Most of all, though, public libraries are becoming curators of the very sense of that it means to be in the public realm in our local towns. Our downtown resembles more a drive-through mall festooned with nationally known stores than the funky collection of local stores that used to thrive there years ago; our local movie theatres pulled up stakes years ago to make way for restaurants and retail space. A Starbucks or a McDonalds is a far cry from a place that people can really call their own as a public space dedicated to a community. Our town hall, once a school building, has an auditorium that's used for public hearings, but many people are looking for smaller meeting spaces for a broader number of meetings at the same time. What's needed is a curation of knowledge transfer that goes not only far beyond collections of books and journals from far and wide but also beyond what's captured online. It is the community itself that needs to be curated.

I left the library feedback session with a great deal of hope for the future of local libraries in our country. Libraries are becoming increasingly essential components for the economic and social strength of local communities, empowered by electronic content to deliver traditional information services more efficiently while freeing up both facilities and staffs for more complex missions that make use of the unique knowledge assets that can be found and created in our local communities. We are still in the very early stages of this transformation of local libraries into being community curators, but I think that it will prove to be the cornerstone of a renewal of local economic and social vitality. If you know what your town has that's unique and valuable and you make it accessible to the world, and combine it with the best of what's available in the world as a whole, then you empower citizens to invest in their communities far more effectively.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Magical Mystery Tour: Come Join Us for SIIA NetGain 2010 in San Francisco, 24-25 May


Every now and then you get an opportunity to go to an industry event that's doing something really unique and fun. This year's SIIA NetGain event in San Francisco is going to be just that. In addition to a great day of speakers and experts from B2B and consumer media laying out today's best practices in content services, the second day will take participants on a tour down Highway 101 to some of Silicon Valley's leading companies for "up close and personal" interaction with the leaders in content technologies. And when we say leaders, we do mean leaders - try Google, Apple and Adobe, for starters. If you want to rub shoulders with the greats of the content industry from both the East Coast and the West Coast and do some real business while having a great time, get hopping and register soon. Frankly, for the price they're charging it's an absolute steal. Early bird registration ends Monday!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Apps Lapse: What Publishers Lose in the Race for Contained Content

Apps fever is sweeping across the content industry, spurring hopes amid content providers that software applications development toolkits available for mobile devices like Apple's iPad and iPhone and Google's Android phones will allow them to define new channels for revenues. Certainly "apps" that can be downloaded from online storefronts provided by these and other platform providers are taking off in a big way.

There are more than 160,000 apps available for Apple devices that have been developed over the past two years, while in the six months since the introduction of the Android Marketplace there are already more than 42,000 Android apps available. The lure of having a little icon on the desktop of these devices for apps that can add engaging features to content - and, many hope, premium revenues - is hard for most publishers and services developers to resist.

And why not? After all, mobile phones come equipped with all sorts of new sensors and services that make the integration of content with mobile services very intriguing. People are "checking in" to hot spots via geolocation apps like Foursquare and Godwalla, pinching and zooming their way through layers of data in mobile Google Maps, as well as downloading movies from Netflix and steering airplane traffic via Flight Control HD, not to mention reading news from magazines and newspapers. It's all a bit reminiscent of the PC-based consumer software revolution of twenty years ago, when store shelves were lined with all sorts of packages to make use of that generation's emerging technologies.

Go to a tech-oriented store today, though, you'll find that packaged software is pretty scarce. Along came the Web, making both software downloads an easier way to get a hold of zippy applications as well as Web sites that made content like CD-ROM references seem like stale stuff. Apps are in part an attempt to reclaim the glory days of premium packaged software, as well as an attempt to shove content services into Web-proof cans that will "protect" them from all of that nasty Web content that would otherwise be rubbing up against it. If you doubt this, try using the default search tool on the new iPad; you'll be directed to apps-only selections for your content, forcing you to go to your browser to find content from the Web via the search engine of your choice (by contrast, Google's Android-equipped Nexus One's default search looks at content on that device plus Web content, with a separate search for apps via Android Marketplace).

There are pluses and minuses for Web-based content versus apps-based content - thanks to Jill O'Neill of NFAIS for a link to this nice tech summary by Richard Padley - but the largest minus of all for content producers seduced by apps mania is findability. Although many apps consume Web-based content - or are, in many instances, just lightly reskinned versions of Web content - apps exist largely in a netherworld of darkness when it comes to search engines. That's just fine by many publishers that are more eager to reproduce the print experience on devices like iPad via premium apps than they are eager to get their apps content discoverable via the Web. In hopes of offering their advertisers and shareholders new value via apps through old software and publishing models, the presence of findable options for their content via the Web is a given, or, for some, perhaps, something that they wish would go away.

Yet, curiously, neither the Web nor the power of search engines to get good content in context at the point of demand show any serious signs of going away. In fact, with the continuing expansion of HTML 5 Web standards, Web-enabled applications are starting to interface with many of the mobile sensors that today's apps toolkits enable software developers to exploit. Publishers may be looking to apps as an alternative to the Web for advanced functionality, but the Web itself is becoming increasingly functional and extensible into sensors on mobile devices. Even in today's apps on Apple and Google Android devices, most links in both editorial and ads in these apps lead typically to Web content. The notion that apps are going to make the Web disappear by the desire of publishers willing it to be so is a myth. There is no substantial "there" in apps without the Web.

Nevertheless, apps are going to be with us increasingly as combinations of information and experiences that provide value to audiences in new contexts. As such, apps fit Shore's definition of content, content that still needs to be discovered as Web pages do, even if, perhaps, in different ways. In a sense search engines traverse some apps already by querying databases that drive some Web sites. But the broader question is what happens when unique content gets delivered via apps and not via their Web page equivalents, be it via HTML 5-enabled apps or via apps using proprietary toolkits such as Apple's. There's the strong chance that some sources of content will sink permanently into the "dark Web" again, not to mention new sources of content that will never be discoverable via the Web.

Great minds are thinking about this, of course, but not necessarily equally. One of the great neglected opportunities of the apps era is creating search utilities that can place emerging apps into the right context via search alongside more traditional page-based Web content. Already we get video clips, images and widgets delivered up via search engines that match particular queries or metadata clusterings; why not apps also? Some apps providers may balk at this notion, preferring to keep content consumers corralled into can-like containers that limit their options for cross-pollinating with rival apps platforms. The gaming console industry has certainly managed to keep stores that used to stock software well-lined with CDs that are in essence apps for those devices, so perhaps publishers have reason to hope. But my sense is that it's largely a false hope.

I believe that it's a false hope because browsers aren't going away any time soon. In fact, Web browsers are becoming only more powerful, with ever more technology packed into them to launch advanced applications as well as run-of-the-mill Web pages. Thinking of the rapidly developing Chrome OS operating system, browsers are, in their own way, even becoming devices themselves. If you thought that the iPad was slick, imagine what happens when you get an instant-on device that you can log into once and be enabled for both everything that the Web offers and everything that premium apps offer from one Web-driven touchscreen device? Now imagine one step further - imagine that it's all discoverable via one search utility. Game over, content industry friends.

The same discoverability issues will exist within enterprise firewalls, of course, if not moreso. Most organizations cannot afford to have their content locked into proprietary apps if they are to build business intelligence dashboards from multiple sources rapidly and effectively. Few will have patience for publishers wanting to sell them independent apps "cans" - you may as well tell them to go back to the era of CD-ROM products. No chance. As more enterprise-ready apps make their way to the marketplace, their day-to-day utility to individuals in businesses on mobile platforms will clash more and more with the need for those businesses to break open those cans to increase productivity amongst collaborators. Images of jolly executives toting touchpads to board meetings with print-friendly digital documents are largely mythical representations of how businesses really need to work today. It's not about individual convenience as much as getting teams productive as rapidly as possible. In a corporate world that's trying to break out of its own silos constantly, tight-as-a-can apps for content consumption are silos that few will be able to afford.

With all this said, the new generation of software and content services developed via emerging apps offer tremendous promise as platforms that can deliver real functional value to audiences. However, that functionality in and of itself cannot replace the need to find all of the relevant content that's needed to accomplish personal or organizational goals, be it through an app or any other number of useful content consumption tools. It's the ability to integrate content from multiple sources with multiple sensors that makes apps most valuable; using apps as a short-cut DRM tools based on proprietary standards shuts down most of the value that they have to offer in the first place. So, as you approach your apps strategy, remember at least these three simple rules:
  1. Don't use apps as an excuse to ignore the power of the Web
  2. Use apps to extend functionality that integrates content, not as a tool to segregate it
  3. Design your apps with content discoverability via search in mind - even if your current app store search tools may not warrant it
This is all a way of saying that although the current interest in apps has grabbed a lot of headlines, there will be plenty of other trends grabbing headlines in the months ahead. Brace yourself for an emerging, complex landscape that will be integrating the world of apps and Web pages into a cohesive whole of services, with search engines playing a key role in gluing these together rapidly into on-demand services that individuals and enterprises will be craving. If you thought that apps were going to line up your content problems into neat little packages, it's time to break out the can opener.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Regulating the Ether: The FCC Confronts the Limits of Net Neutrality

The Internet is an odd thing. In some ways it is a medium that acts in essence like radio, but with a nearly infinite number of broadcast channels. Sometimes this "ether," as radio was termed in its early days, is used for one-to-many communications, as in Web sites and feeds, sometimes it's used for one-to-one communications, as in email, instant messaging and IP telephony. In all instances the general concept of the Internet is that any individual use of it is just a series of small data packets flowing through any number of different kinds of network connections. In other words, the Internet succeeds largely as a technology by being completely blind to the content of what is being transmitted through it, either in its human value or its internal form.

It is this fundamental form of being an infinitely scalable broadcast spectrum that seems to be at the heart of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's troubles in trying to enforce its doctrine of "net neutrality." These efforts experienced a setback recently when a U.S. Court of Appeals decision (PDF) struck down the FCC's attempts to claim regulatory authority over cable Internet provider Comcast's efforts to throttle the Internet bandwidth available to file sharing services. The FCC had argued that it had the ability to stretch its existing regulatory mandates via "ancillary authority" to cover this specific issue. However, the appeals court found that the FCC's efforts were a stretch too far.

As The New York Times observed, the decision was written in a way that would make it difficult to reverse via further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, so this is more than just a one-shot setback for net neutrality. In reading the decision, it seems clear to me that the court is saying that the fundamental issue that the FCC has in pursuing net neutrality as a policy goal is that the legislation that empowers the FCC for regulation does not really support the concept of what net neutrality is trying to accomplish. In essence, net neutrality advocates seem to want the Internet to be a medium that is regulated in such a way that the private policies of Internet service providers would not interfere with a public policy of non-discriminatory access.

In pushing for net neutrality, in essence the FCC is asking all of the companies supplying Internet services to treat Internet traffic within its "pipes" as a protected public resource, such as water from a lake or river. A model of sorts for this type of access already exists within the structure of FCC regulations: the common carrier, such as a telephone service provider. Yet as Fred Campbell of the Wireless Communications Association International (WCAI) pointed out earlier this year, "Assuming the FCC does have jurisdiction to regulate the Internet pursuant to ancillary authority, it lacks jurisdiction to enact its proposed net neutrality rules as written, because the proposed non-discrimination rules are stricter than those applicable to monopoly common carriers..."

The main rub here is that the FCC is not at this time trying to regulate the Internet as a common carrier telecommunications service but rather as an information service. Ultimately the FCC doesn't want to have the type of common carrier regulation of Internet service that it already applies to telephone networks, in which phone service rates are regulated tightly. In essence the FCC is trying to say something rather simple - that the Internet is a common carrier from a non-discriminatory access perspective but an information service from most other perspectives. The "most other perspectives" has to take into account, of course, the growing use of the Internet for telephony services, including services such as AT&T's new in-building mobile phone services that employ Internet-connected devices to deliver mobile phone connectivity where their mobile service signals don't reach. AT&T applies a surcharge for this service, even though people are already paying both for the Internet service and the mobile phone services that provide this connectivity. So, like it or not, the issues that brought common carrier regulation to the telephone industry are encompassing the Internet already as the common carriers have come to dominate the Internet access business.

In the short term, one strategy that the FCC could employ is simply to shift its pursuit of net neutrality to leverage its common carrier authority more strongly. Yet with the decades of court precedents based on its existing claims to authority over the Internet, that may prove to be a fairly messy route. I wouldn't want to second-guess the regulators in the short run, but the real solution for net neutrality is one which is probably the most dangerous one politically: new legislation that will enable the FCC to redefine fundamental aspects of its regulatory authority more in line with the Internet era. This is long overdue, but not tackled easily in an environment in which there are many people wanting to do things with the "pipes" and the "water" of the Internet but few people able to speak loudly in favor of the non-discriminatory aspects required for the vibrancy of the medium.

This brings us back to that old concept of the "ether," a natural medium that somehow gets messages from one point to another. The Internet has become so ingrained as a tool for our economy and for our personal communications that it is far more like a growing natural resource needing nurturing to encourage its growth for public use rather than a fixed public utility needing close scrutiny. It's difficult for anyone to say with certainty what shape the Internet will take in ten, fifteen or fifty years. Certainly if some of the future scenarios that I paint in my book Content Nation come true, the pace of the Internet's integration with human life will become increasingly like dealing with truly natural resources. From this perspective, I think that the FCC needs to look at how to think of the Internet as a radio spectrum defined for public access, much as it regulates specific radio frequencies today, with some elements of common carrier regulation added.

From this perspective, it could be that the emerging U.S. broadband policy could be back-leveraged off of existing policies being established for wireless broadband communications. In other words, instead of broadband wireless connectivity being viewed as an extension of the Internet, perhaps the "wired" Internet now needs to be viewed as a common carrier extension of a radio-based Internet medium that is likely to dominate in coming years as the prevailing access method, be it over short distances, such as with in-home wireless routers or with AT&T's mobile phone repeaters, or over long-distance radio connections. The FCC licenses radio spectrum already to common carriers for mobile services, so this would seem to be the right "hook" on which to hang future net neutrality regulations.

While the appeals court did the FCC no favor in its ruling, it was at least right in pointing out that the FCC needs to face some harsh realities if it is to implement net neutrality effectively. After years of failing to address the critical impact of the Internet on the U.S. role in the global economy, the FCC is rightly trying to set the stage for even greater economic growth for the U.S. in the years ahead via net neutrality. Most importantly if affects the ability of businesses both large and small to communicate directly with their markets cost-effectively. The FCC needs to ensure that this commercial benefit of the Internet is protected by minimizing the role of "middle men" in trying to impose private regulation on public communications. Hopefully this will become the cornerstone of improved approaches to net neutrality regulations by the FCC.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Come on Over to My Pad: Balancing iPad Frenzy with Long-Term Media Needs

Unless you were under a rock in a far-flung desert it was hard to miss the launch of Apple's iPad tablet computer over the weekend, an event which, while generating impressive coverage and good first-wave sales, seems to have raised as many concerns among publishers as it has raised lavish praise and attention. Clearly the era of touchpad tablets is now officially upon us, with Apple using its now-customary combination of brilliant engineering and proprietary gatekeeping to tip the playing field in its favor in another neglected market segment. The iPad is well-timed from Apple's perspective in that it managed to swoop on to the scene ahead of other rival touchpad devices from Hewlett Packard and other providers, albeit with a stripped-down feature set and relatively few options for software and premium content.

No worries there from Apple's standpoint, for the moment of inflection that they are shooting for has a lot more to do with seizing momentum amongst confused and disorganized media companies that are beginning to realize that their underfunding of effective Web publishing strategies is beginning to come home to roost in a big way. The parallel that Apple is drawing on is not so much the iPhone as the iPod, the portable music player which came along at just the right time to herd panicked music industry executives into yet another attractive, convenient solution for digital music distribution that required relatively little thinking on their behalf and plenty of hopes for secure revenues. Several years later, the iTunes music store captures about 69 percent of online digital music sales, disintermediating not only music publishers but the Web in general from the lion's share of premium music revenues.

Flash forward to 2010, when this time it's print and television media producers that are struggling to come up with premium Web strategies. Remarkably, many of these publishers are willing to pretend to themselves that it's worth jumping through hoops for the iPad launch, because, as noted in a Wall Street Journal article, it really doesn't matter if you get only a trickle of data and relationship equity from the "handful" of early iPad adopters. Oh, really. It's another way of saying that publishers are afraid of Apple's power in the digital content industry and not willing to chance that they will be on the outs with trend-setting audiences. In the meantime they enable yet another disintermediating proprietary partner.

One key difference between the iPod launch and the iPad's is that the publishers in print and video have many more well-developed channel alternatives than were available to the music industry when the iPad launched. Book and magazine publishers have Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook and Sony's ereaders for monochrome content, while a broad galaxy of mobile phones offer color reading experiences for both ebooks and Web content. In the short run book publishers have even been able to leverage the iPad to get Amazon to push up ebook prices to levels more comparable to iPad pricing. But looking at this broken terrain of content ecommerce and packaging, it's a discontinuous mess for the most part, with platform fragmentation that plays into the hands of major Web outlets and device marketers that can muscle in on publishers' value propositions.

All of this argues ever stronger for cross-platform packaging and ecommerce for premium content, of course, a theme that should be familiar to readers of ContentBlogger. Since people are willing to pay for premium content experiences, it makes sense to have an appealing way for publishers to manage this concept via standardized premium Web ecommerce without having to lock into a labyrinth of platform providers that will increase their costs of delivery while slowing down their ability to respond faster than the Web does to deliver interesting content. Yes, it's appealing to limit your channel partners to create some type of limitation that creates the impression of artificial scarcity, but the Web is not radio or television, where the public have access to a tiny fringe of the delivery medium. By frittering away effort on proprietary ecommerce of all kinds, publishers continue to empower acceptable substitutes from all-Web sources that can tap their markets more rapidly and more effectively. The iPad is only one of many new devices that distracts publishers from this fundamental economic reality.

Large media companies will continue to love Apple, and vice versa, as they help to kid one another about the youthfulness of their vision. The people who I saw toying with the iPad in stores were mostly middle-aged or older, or small children with their parents. It makes for an appealing "Family Computing" story line for reporters looking for a new angle, conjuring up pictures of families guffawing together over an iPad game the way that they used to play Parchesi or some other board game. Well, it's a sentimental image, to be sure, but probably not a very realistic one. Most of the kids who I saw toying with the iPad in a local store went immediately to the Web; they know where their content lives, and they're not likely to want substitutes.

So as the Touchable Web begins to unfold, let's not confuse attractive features with the fundamental economic realities that the Web has introduced to publishing. The iPad will be with us for quite some time to come, but the Web is not likely to disappear as an economic issue for publishers just because a good weekend of PR helps launch yet another almost-Web-enabled device. Once the sweet taste of iPod eye-candy wears off, we will be facing the same sour realities that there are a lot of interesting sources of content that it and other devices deliver that have nothing to do with the hopes of major media companies.