Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Earth to Mainstream Media: Please Stop Blaming Google for Your Own Problems

I have been blogging about the content and technology industries for more than ten years, and there seems to be one constant theme that crops up again and again: publishers see the Web as the enemy. It's too open, it devalues their content, they have to settle for "digital dimes" - or pennies - on their former dollars of income, it has made a travesty of copyright, etc., etc.  Frankly, I have gotten tired of hoping that publishers would ever come around and understand in a big way how to survive and thrive in a digital world. If I can write a 370-page book on how to adapt and mainstream media companies still try the same old tricks to "outwit" the Web, then I really don't hold out much hope for them.

The latest rinse-and-repeat tragedy can be seen in the European Union, where the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association (AEDE) has pushed through a law in Spain forcing companies like Google (mostly Google in the E.U.) to pay a "link tax" for news items listed in search results, because piracy, because copyright, because whatever. Google's response: fine, we'll just shut down our Spanish search business. The AEDE's response: we'll get legislation passed forcing you to stay open. Say again? Apparently the publishers behind this heavy-handed legal tactic thought that blackmail would be sufficient to have Google submit to a false notion of piracy. As Google has done many, many times in the E.U. and elsewhere, they called the AEDE's bluff. The response this time, though, is rather shocking - it's an attempt to force the Web to subsidize publishers above and beyond the free link referral traffic that search engines already provide them. In essence, it's trying to nationalize Google's operations whilst allowing publishers to pull the strings on them via the Spanish government.

Getting a government to do the bidding of big media companies is nothing new, of course. Lately, though, it's taking on historic levels of brazenness as media companies try to map out a survival strategy for controlling the message of what's news and what's worthy entertainment in a Web-driven world that seems to make those choices fairly well on its own. Disclosures from the leaked cache of emails from Sony reveal that a consortium of companies have been working together to lobby U.S. states' attorney generals to prosecute what they see as Google's proliferation of copyright violations through its search engines. Having had their punitive Stop Online Piracy Act thwarted at the national level, the media industry is apparently following the example of many corporations and pushing through its will at the state level in what they feel is a more business-friendly government environment.

Everyone has a right to protect their business practices in a fair court of law, of course. but this constant trickery to turn the tables against the Web's ability to promote consumer choice (the real issue), whilst at the same time crowing about the rights of a free press, is downright sickening. It's bad enough that media companies want to lock up the public's access to knowledge and artistic material in life-plus-seventy copyright laws that give them the capital to keep them in the game without creating worthy new content in a more competitive marketplace. If you want a free market, then have it - live or die by the market, which means that you need to come up with a superior method of offering consumers choice than companies like Google offer. The answer so far from mainstream media giants: no thanks, we'd rather limit choice, because, well, easy profits and power.

Google may have its pluses and minuses, but it's the only major company out there which has focused consistently on offering consumers the best possible global choices for media and services, regardless of their branded sources. In the meantime, media companies continue to focus on limiting consumer choices. Which model represents free markets? We may have opinions about how that notion plays out, but the trickery of media companies to manipulate governments in order to tilt the playing field against consumer choice argues strongly against them from any number of standpoints. If I think of London's Fleet Street today, for example, the former bustling centre of news publishing in the U.K., you could shoot a cannon on that street today and hardly brush up against a single publisher. That diversity now thrives on the Web. There's no need to subsidize or over-protect large media companies - either they can make it in a free market or they can't. The smart ones know that, and act accordingly. I love helping companies that want to innovate their way to success, but please - no more crybabies and poor sports.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

NumberGo: A Publishing Platform for The Signal Economy

As I speak and write about The Signal Economy - the transition of general economic growth to those who know how see and act on patterns in big data rapidly - one thing is crystal clear to me: most publishers and consulting services providers are behind the curve when it comes to taking advantage of signals from data of all kinds. Yes, there are niches such as financial services where companies have set the trends in signal detection and rapid actions, but even in finance the average newsletter producer or sales specialist has pretty scant tools for sharing good data analysis with their clients. And in turn, those clients generally have to sweat through some ugly time of massaging data from a provider to see their own patterns in the tea leaves of complex data sets. We talk a big game on the importance of data, but do we really know how to tell stories with interactive data sets profitably and effectively? Not so much.

Enter NumberGo, a young company started by data publishing veterans who have come up with a simple-to-use publishing platform that enables interactive graphing and charting views into data sets of all kinds. I was a bit skeptical of NumberGo's capabilities when I first heard about them, but as I have seen their platform develop over the past several months, I have been increasingly impressed by its ease of use and the power of getting from raw data to cloud and offline published data views that can be easily tailored by a client into their own analysis. Doable in spreadsheets? Sure - but messy, and often a barrier to both usability and revenue management. A publisher wants to share its best data on a subscription basis, often, and spreadsheets are just not publisher-friendly from that perspective. The typical alternative of the graphics department coming up with jazzy interactive stuff is just not cost-effective and often limits the data's story-telling capabilities for sophisticated B2B audiences. Internal business intelligence tools might do more, but at a huge cost - and typically with very limited options for interactive sharing of personalized views in a Web publishing environment.

Long story short, NumberGo makes this all easy to do for publishers and data consultants. Upload data easily from one or more sources - including multiple spreadsheets, complex databases and big data tools - and you get to pick fields for analysis in NumberGo's interactive graphing charting tools. Save a view, and publish it via NumberGo's cloud platform with your own micro-portal branding and subscription controls - or enable offline viewing via NumberGo's PC client software. Either way, your clients using this data can use the same charting tools to develop and save their own custom views of your data, without having to muck with exports into spreadsheets and, if you allow it, to share those custom data views with others. You can also embed NumberGo data views in your own publishing platform, providing additional value to your editorial content where your quest for audience engagement may appreciate it most.

If this reads like a plug, it is - I am helping out NumberGo with sales referrals, and would be glad to discuss their product with you and to arrange for a private demo. I am doing sales referrals for NumberGo in part because I believe that they have invented the right product at the right time for the right people. The publishing industry is stymied in many ways by how to make money from text-based analysis and limited in its options for making money from clear analysis of complex data sets that can be published rapidly for today's decision-makers. NumberGo may not be the right tool for these needs in many instances, but I do think that it's the sort of mid-range publishing solution that's likely to be both affordable for the vast majority of publishers and easily implemented with very little disturbance to existing publishing technology operations. In other words, you can make money with NumberGo now - not later.

If content in The Signal Economy is moving more towards the stories that your data can tell, then I encourage Shore's clients and followers to consider a tool like NumberGo as one key way to get a leg up on the opportunities in data publishing and data consulting as soon as possible. There is value - and money - being left on the table, and I'd hope that NumberGo can help you to pick it up as soon as possible as you create a more satisfied client base.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Big Publishing Adjusts to Self-Publishing's Rise on Amazon - But Not Really.

While cries of "books are dead" are probably at least as old as shouts of "print is dead," the truth is that books are doing pretty well in the Internet era. It just happens, though, that the winners are not necessarily established publishers. It turns out that what YouTube did to video production and consumption Amazon is now doing for book publishing - enabling anyone to put a book out that can find an audience effectively and inexpensively. And as TV and movie producers sidestepped the impact of YouTube's emergence, the strength of self-publishing was politely ignored or finessed by many publishers for many years.

Now, however, data is beginning to show that a tipping point is indeed upon us for self-publishing ebook sales via Amazon, the best proxy for the ebook industry in general, to be sure. Author Earnings has published some new stats on the types publishers selling ebooks through Amazon, which show that leading self-published titles now outnumber titles from the big publishers comfortably (25% vs. 16% of available ebook titles on Amazon) and total unit sales for self-publishers are doing pretty well also - 31 percent of unit sales for self-publishers and 38 percent for the big publishers. Revenue-wise, the bigs still rake in the lion's share of income with 57 percent of Amazon ebook sales revenue, while self-publishers are trailing at 17 percent.

Given the significantly higher and well-protected price for the average big-house book, though, that's actually not such a huge gap in revenues. If you consider the net revenues actually paid out to authors via ebooks for self-publishing versus the relatively scrawny income that most receive from royalty income via big publishers, your average successful self-publishers is well ahead of what they'd likely receive from any large publishing house for their ebook sales. In other words, self-publishing is growing not just because it's easy, but because it's how to make money most effectively as an author now.

Major publishers are certainly aware of these trends, and they all have their own tools and programs for self-publishing to one degree or another. But publishing programs is not the same thing as a publishing platform that consumers are aware of or desire. Today's reader appreciates the universal search and recommendation capabilities of a service like Amazon or Google for finding today's ebooks, making the rationale for self-publishing through a major publisher harder to justify. Hence the debut of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription all-you-can-eat ebook service, which provides access to 600,000 ebook titles for a $9.99 monthly fee. Notably absent from the new Kindle programme so far: the big five publishers. So what Netflix has done for videos, Kindle Unlimited now promises to do for books - make the discovery of popular and niche "long tail" content far easier, and build up the brands of both mid-tier publishers and self-publishers. It's paid advertising for books, you might say, as well as incremental revenues.

OK, so the big publishers don't want to bite on Kindle Unlimited, What's their solution for better ebook marketing? Well, HarperCollins, for one, wants to push sales from its own Web portal more strongly for both ebooks and print books - something that's not likely to make retail bookstores very happy, nor portals like Amazon, but it's certainly fair game - and only about ten years overdue as a marketing strategy. Had book publishers agreed then on a good way to market books through their portals via search engines in a universal ebook format, then they would not be in anywhere near the pickle that they find themselves in now. They could have subsidized print-on-demand hardware and online cooperative marketing and reviews infrastructure for local bookstores and created a magnificent win-win scenario for book retailers. Didn't happen. Ah, well. Now the majors are just another name in the background at Amazon and other online retailers, with little to distinguish their offerings other than a handful of high-profile authors who are increasingly aware of self-marketing.

Book publishers are just one of many types of media companies trying everything they can think of to defend old distribution models and distribution channels - instead of doing everything that they can to adapt to and define the new ones to fit consumers' tastes. When they see new technology, they march out the old-skool dealmakers to try to tame it and pump out press releases that sound mighty impressive on the train home, perhaps, but mean almost nothing in terms of stemming the tide of publishing history. Empowering Amazon to protect book publishers from Google was Plan A: now Plan A turns out to be the primary source of competition for the old guard. Maybe in the decade ahead they'll give Plan B a real try - book marketing that really works in an open, mobile and signal-driven Web. We can only hope.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Seamless: At I/O 2014, Google Delivers Context-Driven Design for a Signal-Driven World

I opted for watching the Google I/O developers' conference online this year, not because I didn't think that it wouldn't be interesting but it seemed that the focus was going to be more on immediate deliverables - most of which were pretty evident. Smart watches, autos, TVs, Chrome/Android integration - you could see all of these coming. No big hardware expected, but lots of tech talks.

That seems to be how I/O 2014 rolled this year - a very seamless presentation of "you can do this now" capabilities, all tied to products and services that will be coming from Google in the next few months. That's not to say that there weren't some impressive and visionary deliverables mapped out in the keynote and workshop sessions, but gone were surprise keynote presentations from future-forward +Sergey Brin on technologies like +Google Glass that are work-in-progress tools not likely tied to new deliverables targeted for later this year, though a cute cardboard virtual reality goggle headset - a swipe at Facebook's billions spent on Oculus Rift? - seemed to be a statement that long-term development of new platforms will be kept press-quiet at events such as I/O until there are real opportunities for developers to rock product platforms. It also meant that media-oriented services like +Google+ that have no real hooks for developers didn't get a single keynote mention, even though Google+ services such as Hangouts are likely to factor heavily into fall product introductions.

What did get the spotlight were major upgrades to Google's Android operating system coming this fall in its unmascotted "L" release to succeed Key Lime Pie. "L" has a few key upgrades that are likely to help it to power Google's signal-driven services strategy in the years ahead. The key change to "L" is that Android's guts that drive software have been completely revamped, trading out its Dalvik just-in-time Java environment for a new software engine called ART, which will be able to drive 64-bit applications of many kinds on processors from ARM, Intel and MIPS that are expected this fall on a variety of platforms later this year. Android also got a nifty upgrade to its applications interface toolkit, dubbed "Material Design," which provides a slickness across all Android devices that's clearly on at least a par with anything Apple or Microsoft have assembled. So we can expect that the top-notch phones, tablets, and, now, Google Wear and Android TV devices coming out soon will be no-excuses top performers and crowd pleasers for visually appealing apps and games..

Web apps on these devices and on +Google Chrome browsers and Chrome OS devices get an updated looks also courtesy of Google's new Polymer development toolkit for Web apps, which will allow Chrome-launched apps to look very similar to Material Design-based Android apps. The seamlessness of the Web/mobile experience is enhanced by integrated notifications - get your SMS/battery updates on your Chromebook, for example - and by updates to the Googlecast engine that will now enable content to be shared from mobile apps to TV screens easily via Chromecast.

Web apps in general didn't get strong emphasis in the keynote, but workshop sessions highlighted more tools that make it easier to make Web-based apps on Android platforms, supplemented by the ability to launch native mobile apps from mobile Chrome browsers. We're not quite yet to the point of having a Chrome-first mobile device beyond Chromebooks, but you can see that this evolution is marching on. Also higlighted was a preview of Android apps running on Chrome OS - the popular Evernote and Flipboard apps were shown, indicating that Google wants to fill the gaps between Web apps and native Android apps with Android software on Chrome OS, but hopefully convince apps makers that the Polymer toolkit will eventually make Web-first apps the key to success on both Chrome and Android. It's also a way to close the gaps between Chrome OS and Windows 8 - now popular Android apps like Skype not available in a Web format could run on Chrome OS, eliminating potential Windows 8 advantages for enterprise and education customers. Add in a preview of editing native Microsoft Office documents in Google's Docs editor - and then saving them back to a native Office format - and Microsoft no doubt will continue to have Chrome OS market share nightmares for a long time.

In terms of new platforms and products, Google Wear and Google Auto took the spotlight this year, new capabilities which emphasize that context driven by signals from sensors and semantic analysis of people's on-the-go lifestyles is a key component in driving Google's plan for profitability in the years ahead. Android Wear smart watches from Samsung and LG are now available for shipping on July 7th and the choice of one or the other was the biggest freebie for I/O attendees - with a rain check also for the upcoming Moto 360 Android Wear watch expected later this year, probably to debut alongside the upcoming Moto X+1 smart phone.

Android Wear devices are compatible with any Android device rnnning 4.3 Android or higher, so most current Android phones are good-to-go with Wear. Wear apps are out-of-the-pocket oriented notifications and services with touch and voice commands, aware of what mobile devices are nearby that your actions on Wear devices can complement. For example, fire up a recipe app on Android Wear and your nearby Android device will display the recipe details in a larger format. Scroll through the details on Wear, and the phone follows along. +Chris Pirillo and I had an exchange on Google+ in which he complained that wearables are redundant, and he's right - but it turns out that Google understands that people want redundancy and coordination as a key platform feature. Android as a platform is now less about specific devices and more about multi-device, seamless, signal-driven contextual experiences. driven by common APIs, software and development standards designed to make it easy for developers to write apps that adjust to other Android-equipped platforms and contexts easily and, often, automatically. Android Fit is a new apps development programme that can also take advantage of this seamless, context-driven environment, enabling health gadget suppliers to be a part of the Android ecosystem more easily with signal-driven products and services.

This combination of cross-platform integration, seamlessness and context was underscored in the debut of Android Auto, a new capability being integrated by more than 40 auto and device manufacturers starting with this fall's new car model introductions. Plug in your mobile Android phone or tablet into an Android Auto car an you get a screencast of travel-oriented apps and searches on to your auto's data display. Voice commands are activated by a button on Android Auto steering wheels, hopefully helping to increase safety while using and enjoying Android-delivered content. This is a very clever approach to auto integration, allowing auto-makers to use Chromecast-like screencasting to integrate Google-supplied content and services in their autos while allowing them to develop their own electronics independent of Google. Android's standard USB interface to auto electronics also means that a wide variety of cars and trucks will finally be released from the Apple-or-nothing mindset for smart phone integration - a key factor in global markets, including many places where Apple is less dominant than the U.S.

Speaking of global markets, Google SVP +Sundar Pichai announced the debut of Android One, a "pure" AOSP version of Android targeted for sub-$100 phones that are popular in developing nations. Like Google's premium +Nexus Android devices, Android One devices will feature regular AOSP updates directly from Google, helping to reduce the cost of developing software for these devices. However, unlike Nexus devices, Android One phones can be tailored to specific markets more easily, enabling Nexus One to enter countries where issues such as Internet filtering and banking regulations may affect how particular services are delivered. It will be interested to see if an intersection between Google's Project Ara modular phones and Android One creates new opportunities for sensor-driven services in these market that can drive economic opportunities.

The most media-intensive portion of the keynote was the debut of Android TV, the long-expected successor to Google TV. Android TV devices being introduced this fall will be equipped with a standard look and feel for both the command interface and the apps driving that interface - a much tighter regimen for development than exercised by Google TV. So although there will probably not be single, iconic devices such as Microsoft's Xbox One or Sony's PlayStation 4, there will be a similarly tight management of user expectations from the Android TV experience across devices from a wide range of manufacturers - including Sony, Philips and Sharp. Chromecast functionality is built in to Android TV, of course, and there's slick voice commands, cross-source content searching, curated content recommendations and drill-down information on movie stars and such courtesy of Google's Knowledge Graph search engine. If you saw screen shots of an Android TV prototype leaked earlier this year, there were few surprises overall

For folks who like remotes, this Android TV is a good package, though if you have a Chromecast already, there's not much you won't be able to do on your TV screen anyway, given Chromecast's new Android app screencasting. The main new factor in Android TV that could upset the content world is the ability of Android TV to support native multiplayer, multiscreen games via smart phones and tablets. The titles demoed at I/O were not heavy on fancy graphics, but with the graphics-intensive capabilities of Android "L" waiting in the wings and another demo of cutting-edge game graphics on Android "L" earlier in the keynote address, it's only a matter of time - and probably not much time - before game producers get more tuned into the Android bandwagon - just about the time that Apple will try to do likewise with its upgraded Apple TV offerings, no doubt.

There were previews of some other key upgrades to Google's cloud-based apps and storage services designed to appeal to enterprises and turnkey startups, and many of the sessions and workshops featured more future-forward topics such as robotics, but the overall focus of Google I/O 2014 was on helping developers to see the entirety of what Google offers them from the perspective of a seamless, signal-driven moble world of contextual services.

A short video from Google's Android team underscores how the seamless home-to-car-to-walkabout mode of today's consumers demands content and services to be aware of just what we're doing in a given moment - and to deliver us just what we want when we want it. This is very important to companies trying to reach these mobile markets, which still use Web pages to reach their audiences but which also have to grab people when they're most likely to research products or make a purchase. The Web is no longer just a scrollable catalog - it's a cross-platform, signal-driven probing tool to understand people and their needs in real-time, people who want to reduce wasteful interactions and to maximize interactions that matter most in the moment and in the context of a moment.

While much media production is still focused on flagging down our attention with mass-audience appeal, The Signal Economy driven off of platforms like those debuted at Google I/O this year pushes media in the exact opposite direction - towards minimizing interactions with distractions so that we can focus with what services like Google know through signal-gathering are important to us in the moment in the exact place that we need them - maybe even two places at once. Marketing conversations in this environment are much less about creating mindless social media streams and much more about "what kind of topping on your pizza?" popping from your smart watch as you're checking the traffic for the ride home. The "get to your gut" advertising approach in this environment gives way to sensors actually monitoring what's happening in our gut. More adjustments are head for publishers as more marketing spending moves into this signal-rich environment. Good luck, folks, it's going to be an interesting year ahead in media and technology! If we can help you sort out your strategies in The Signal Economy, do let us know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This is Your Industry on Signal: Project Ara Debuts an Open Approach to "Moon Shot" Product Innovation

The Signal Economy enables  Moon Shot opportunities.
In the beginning, most major innovations that change the world are born ugly. The Wright brothers' first airplane had a tiny home-baked motor on a hand-built airframe that was little more than a kite and that barely lifted off the ground for just a few seconds. Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone was little more than a fussy laboratory curiosity when his first urgent words summoned his assistant Thomas Watson from a nearby room. Alan Turing's first modern computer was a rat's next of vacuum tubes and clacking switches. And in spite of the billions thrown at the goal of reaching the moon, the first vehicle to land on it had a skin hardly thicker than a roll of aluminum cooking foil and a computer that could barely keep from burping terminally on the data flowing in from the spacecraft's sensors. Yet the technologies and methods that flowed from these pioneering efforts were transformative in every way.

The Real Deal - a functioning Project Ara phone
So it seems that the +Google ATAP project team's debut today of the first semi-functional Project Ara prototype smartphone was less than auspicious and yet completely monumental. The well-worn pilot phone had a cracked screen and it wouldn't boot, though it was promised to be more in operable shape later during this first Project Ara developers' conference. So no, there was not a "Steve Jobs moment" of a new generation of hardware springing to life in front of an audience. But here's the key point: while the iPhone was the first mobile phone that integrated consumer-oriented content and touchscreen capabilities with truly Web-capable software, it was largely a repackaging of the same software and hardware capabilities that had existed for years. With the Project Ara phone, what you get is a device that completely reinvents both how electronic devices are designed and operated and how products in general are made at scale.

Project Ara phones unite modular components
You may have seen how Project Ara phones are composed of "blocks" of hardware that slot into a stainless steel backbone and snap into place magnetically, getting power and connectivity without wires. It's a form factor that +Dave Hakkens was first promoting as the founder of PhoneBloks and is being brought to market now by Google's ATAP team - a small team from Motorola Mobility that Google is hanging on to as it spins off its other Moto assets to Lenovo. We've seen mockups of this concept before, much as we saw sketches and models of moon rockets and spacecraft before one ever made its way to a launch pad. Well, the first test rocket for Project Ara has hit the launch pad. And like the "moon shot" projects of the 1960s, the timeline for Project Ara to become a reality is aggressive - as in next-year beta aggressive.

There are a few things that make Project Ara a monumental effort that cannot be ignored by anyone trying to keep abreast of how The Signal Economy is changing both how we publish and how products and services of all kinds are going to evolve through the availability of universal networking connecting everything:
  • It's the birth of devices as a network. 
    Project Ara modular chassis and components
    We know about how the Internet enables any machine to communicate with any other machine anywhere else in the world on a common network that's defined by open standards. That's an idea that Project Ara is bringing to mobile devices, using a networking concept called UniPro that enables modular components to network at high speeds using M-PHY device communications standards. In short, any module on a Project Ara device can communicate with any other module at a variety of data transmission speeds from 10 KB/s to 6GB/s, depending on data and power requirements. Computers have always had hard-wired "bus" circuits to enable peripheral components to communicate with a central processor, but UniPro enables any component to communicate with any other component on a peer basis. Project Ara phones are therefore the first computer devices that are designed to work collaboratively as a unit with a collection of independently produced components. The Project Ara chassis provides inductive power and capacitive data coupling and configuration management, and the little chips in the chassis do the rest. With so many "smart" special-purpose mircoprocessors available today, this can only help to accelerate innovation.
  • It's the birth of massively customized manufacturing.

    Project Ara targets mass customization for the billions.
    Project Ara is a nifty product concept, but it would have very little ultimate impact on the market if it wound up being manufactured like other mobile devices. Big manufacturers develop and assemble hard-wired components that can be pushed out by the billions, and then thrown out when some of a unit's key components cannot keep up with the pace of change. If Project Ara used the same techniques, it would take massive scale of sales for any individual component to have a chance of reaching a marketplace. Instead, Google intends to introduce the techniques of 3D printing for the first time to enable the manufacturing of Project Ara modules and components at any scale - a working prototype or niche market module can be produced by the billions in the same 3D printing facility.

    At first 3D printing was thought of as a customization tool for the looks
    Project Ara #d-printed electronic components
    of the Project Ara component casings, but at the developers' conference they showed electronic components for miniature antennas that had been 3D printed. So the very guts of what makes up a Project Ara phone can be developed and printed as highly scalable components also. Just as the benefits of Henry Ford's assembly line were not quite appreciated at first by Ford's competitors, this matching of highly scalable 3D printing of products for a highly modular and customizable mass market product is likely to set a standard for product design and creation that will echo through virtually every manufacturing industry in the world. The Project Ara phone is not just about revolutionizing mobile devices - it's about revolutionizing how things come to be made and sold in general. Just as the Web can make any content go viral, Project Ara can make any signal-processing component go viral, leaving traditional mass marketing behind as a dwindling art. Key hint: Google intends to sell Project Ara standard-issue phones everywhere, but will sell custom modules via the +Google Play store.
  • It's the birth of scalable "moonshotting" as a business standard.

    Google has taken on many advanced product development projects, from
    Project Ara aims for "demonstrations at convincing scale"
    its self-driving autos to +Project Loon global networking via high-altitude baloons to +Project Glass computer, so "moonshot" goals are hard-wired into its corporate culture. Project Ara is similar to many of these sorts of projects in that it has been developed using a small core project team of a just a few people working with a network of collaborators and suppliers, but notably they committed to the project on a short-term basis (two years). Their goal is not just to do research or feasibility studies but to deliver "demonstrations at convincing scale that have to retire all the key technical, business and market risks," according to +Paul Eremenko, Project Ara's team leader.  Eremenko notes that " innovation under time pressure is better innovation," and certainly Project Ara will be a great test of this concept.

    But these techniques are well proven in other arenas. Eremenko and other Project Ara
    Project Ara retools military tech savvy for global industry
    participants come from the U.S. government's DARPA research and development agency for advanced military technologies. DARPA research gave birth to the technologies that formed the first Internet, amongst other things, and was born in an era in which the U.S. was taking on its first huge "demonstration at convincing scale" - the manned moon mission program. But now, what was once a technique used to get billion-dollar government investments in massive, throw-away goals reached is now being applied to core business and manufacturing goals. Getting the making of things back in the control of independent innovators to drive The Signal Economy has become a strategic goal for the global economy - and Google, with the assistance of U.S. government know-how, wants to be at the center of that economic change. 
OSVehicle - Will Project Ara accelerate other industries?
So what Project Ara delivers is not just nifty mobile gizmos, but a whole new way of doing innovation. In The Signal Economy, being able to understand markets at scale rapidly and to respond to them rapidly and in a highly tailored fashion is a given and an absolute necessity. Like Project Ara, it takes the willingness and the ability to throw out everything that you knew about how to approach a market - right down to core issues of supply chain management and the very way that you assemble things - to create platforms that will deliver innovation more rapidly and effectively from wherever innovation may arise. While it takes some risk to attack markets this way, the techniques and tools of Project Ara demonstrate that reverse-engineering from an appropriate goal - ""demonstrations at convincing scale that have to retire all the key technical, business and market risks," - can create urgencies that develop superior solutions in much less time. At the same time, the concept of networked platforms as a core product development concept may gain a marketable proof of concept that actually makes money sooner rather than later - something that projects like OSVehicle are aiming for, but perhaps with more complexity and somewhat less urgency. 

Your industry - whatever it is - is going to be targeted by the technologies and the techniques of The Signal Economy sooner rather than later, and the net results will look like the output of Project Ara sooner rather than later. That means being able to move fast, lean and mean and at scale with new ideas gathered from bright people interpreting signal from people, places and things before someone else does, knowing that little pieces can add up to big markets if you know how to do it right. 

So, this is your industry on signal - are you ready to start demonstrating at scale?

Monday, March 31, 2014

ContentBlogger is moving!

After eleven years at shore.com, ContentBlogger is moving along with the operations of Shore Communications Inc. to a new domain - shorecominc.com. Yes, I got a decent price for shore.com. Yes, I'll miss it. But folks, you've known me for a looong time, now. You know where I live.

Please move your RSS feed to contentblogger.shorecominc.com, and you'll continue to get our great content, same as ever. See you there!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

OneSource Rebrands as Avention, Launches Advanced Business Insights for The Signal Economy

I had a Latin teacher in high school who had been teaching there since before the flood, adored by all and yet known for being particularly grumpy. Sometimes when we were particularly unresponsive to his lessons, he would burst out in frustration, "Ah, it's like trying to talk to a field of corn!"

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this is what it feels like sometimes to be a strategic marketing consultant trying to convince B2B publishers to innovate.

But in the instance of new services emerging from Avention - the newly launched rebranding of OneSource Information Services - the corn has learned a thing or two and produced a glorious crop of innovative services built for The Signal Economy that are tailored to deliver maximum value from business information to business researchers and sales and marketing professionals.

OneSource Information Services had two major problems: a name that resembled a lot of other corporate names and a product line that featured high-quality business information with useful interfaces for sales, marketing and management teams but not necessarily the highest value proposition. In other words, it was turning a buck, but getting lost in the crowd - not the best thing to happen to a premium business information service in the middle of a tight economy. Having the brand bounce around between various owners for the better part of a decade didn't help either, as underinvestment and premium services don't really go hand in hand.

But when a new group of owners took over OneSource late in 2012, two things came to OneSource that were badly needed: a new product vision and cash to invest in it. Normally in B2B information services, this is where the story turns sad - acquisitions fatten the repository of information, but the services remain largely the same old search-and-retrieve platforms that have been dominating the industry for more than twenty years. In the instance of OneSource, they already had a very comprehensive content collection, so better performance had to come from the services themselves.

The result is Avention, a company that sports not just a new name but a new set of services that promise to bring to business information the type of productivity and tailored effectiveness that has been sorely lacking from many B2B information suppliers. Avention is leveraging the OneSource database in a much more efficient way, adding not just enhanced and simplified search based on business concepts and improved news trigger management - necessary "catch-up" work to some degree, perhaps - but also a whole new way to organizing fundamental information companies in relation to business goals and getting it attuned to real-time changes in your target businesses' status and your own shifts in tactics and strategies.

What really got me jazzed by a recent demo of the new Avention platform that will replace previous OneSource products is how companies picked for tracking can be ranked and prioritized based on "business signals" - an analysis of a long list of potential business conditions that indicate the importance of their current status in relation to your own company's defined priorities. While there is detailed information available from these signals, the brilliance of the Avention interface is the ability to sum up these signals into one overarching raking number called a "Ideal Profile Score" that's tailored to your specific focus.

Think of, say, a credit score as a summed-up number that people reference sometimes in business decisions. Well, that's a one-size-fits-all metric and unless you've weighted it along with other key factors you don't necessarily have an easier time deciding how to approach a company. Same with typical searches or categorizations of businesses - you get a specific pot of "relevant" companies but you don't really have a way of raking them according to what will actually produce the best results for your efforts. with Aventis Business Signals, the Ideal Profile Score can be used to rank companies based on numerous complex factors using simple slider controls into a dashboard number that can be used to sort, filter and prioritize companies rapidly based on a number of complex factors. A sales or department manager can set up these signal factors so that a sales team or other teams don't have to think through the details of what's important in choosing prospects - they just have to follow the net result of the analysis. That's a bull's-eye example of how the concept of signal should work in information services - a simple signification of complex factors through predictive analysis that enables decisive action.

Business signals can be also be evaluated individually based on a long list of data elements available in
the large and highly curated Avention collection of business information, and adjusted to a specific goal or campaign's specific priorities. Again, you get analytics that can accelerate decision making - not just a quantification of triggering events. These are the sorts of decision making tools that we've seen pieces of in various business information services before, to be sure, but I have never seen a collection of business targeting decision tools as sophisticated and actionable as those collected into the new Avention platform. Although I haven't been hands-on with the product yet, in the live demos that I've seen it appears to be a very thoughtfully designed interface, with good use of screen space and much more actionable in its overall design than typical business information retrieval services.

This is not to disparage the very good work that's gone into other B2B information products, many produced by companies that I have advised - only to underscore that we're entering a new era for business information that requires not just information retrieval and organization but enabling people to take targeted, signals-based action more effectively. We've seen the same thing happen before in financial information services as large financial institutions needed to translate information "overload" into decisive actions in securities markets in increasingly short time frames - eventually to the point that automated trading was the only way to leverage the power of these real-time financial analytics. And on the consumer side, analysis of data flowing into customer response centers from phone calls, emails and social media are enabling organizations to create personally targeted marketing responses almost as quickly. Why should business information services used for sales, marketing and strategic decision making be stuck in the "list of companies and documents" era of decision making when The Signal Economy is already driving so many other aspects of business information use?

Most importantly from Avention's perspective, perhaps, all of this innovative work on its products jacks up its potential ROI proposition dramatically. Yes, you can get a lot of the information sources in Aventis from any number of places, perhaps. Yes, you can go through the usual drill of checking off those sources in a spreadsheet and doing the math of how much content you're getting for your subscription investment. But when the platform actually helps you do things with that information in a significantly more productive way and it uses high-quality curated sources, then you can pretty much toss those spreadsheets out the window - at least until competitive features come along from other suppliers. Just how much more productivity comes from this signals-based platform will be measured in the months ahead, but based on my understanding of the product so far and my years of experience in advising business information companies, I expect the payoff for both Avention and its clients to be significant. The Signal Economy era is finally here for sales and marketing professionals in a big way. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Comcast/TimeWarner Cable Merger: It's All About Slowing Down Content Moving to Cord Cutters

As much as I advise companies about the future of the content industry, inevitably the discussions move towards what can be done in the next six months. That's understandable, because it's not too often in a fast-moving business that an organization can shoot for much of a longer horizon without risking the wrath of management, shareholders and stock analysts conditioned to full acceptance of the concept of "shareholder value." Well, to put it succinctly, Microsoft has been a diligent devotee to shareholder value and left untold billions off the table for those shareholders by failing to bring many of its amazing research-driven innovations to market. There comes a time when an organization and an industry has to double down not on the present but the future - for everyone's sake.

Such a moment seems to have arrived in the cable communications industry in the U.S., with the anticipated merger of the two leading cable companies - Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The business media has been pushing this story all day as a done deal, and so it might be if their lobbyists and PR folks get to spin the story the way that they want to. The Comcast/TWC argument is that their areas of service are almost completely non-overlapping, so how could this be considered a reduction of competition? It's a simple argument that rolls of the tongue so sweetly, but ultimately it's simplistic to the point of covering up the obvious. Fewer cable companies means that there are fewer options for consumers to turn to one way or another. If, for the sake of argument, a regulator said, okay, we're going to open up market "X" in the U.S. to all cable companies, if you've got one ginormous company owning 40 percent of the U.S. market and wee little competitors left over, guess how effective that's going to be for consumer choice. At least if there's a broader array of reasonably sized companies, we'll have a better chance at meaningful competition for reaching consumers.

But the real issue in this merger is not the consumer cable side but the greater threat to cable revenues - the rapidly emerging world of "cord-cutting" TV viewers who prefer to toss up streaming video on their TV screens from PCs and mobile devices. On the Internet side of their business, as long as the Net Neutrality concept of Internet regulation reigns, then all Internet traffic provided by cable companies flows through from all places at a specific rate at one bulk price. No more bundles for content under Net Neutrality, so cablecos like Comcast develop revenues from the Internet by placing mobile carrier-like caps on Internet traffic. With a Comcast/TWC merger, little would change in terms of technology in the short term but you can expect that both cable TV content bundles and Internet bandwidth pricing will be jacked up significantly.

With far fewer points of negotiation for content licensing and higher costs, TV content producers will have less pressure to develop Internet-first unbundled streaming TV services and a lower demand for those through higher cable Internet prices to get adequate service without bandwidth caps. And no doubt the short-term strategy mavens at those companies are plenty happy with that state of affairs. It leaves consumers little choice but to prop up the cable bundling model on the non-Internet side of their services as long as possible to get the entertainment that they want. The TV producers benefit significantly from the local and infomercial ad dollars that cablecos push into their programming, so to them it means not having to work as hard to monetize their content as they would have to in a Web-driven market for streaming video. So there are layers upon layers of parties benefiting from this merger - with the consumer last on the list.

So mischief managed from the short-termer's perspective, but there's a huge problem with this strategy. The assumption that is being made is that all of the "good" TV content is in the walled gardens controlled by the media companies. But that's just not true any more. One needs say no more than "Netflix" to poke one huge hole in the slow-down-cord-cutting argument, and "Roku" or "Google Chromecast" to poke yet another chasm. The truth of the matter is that we're rapidly approaching the point at which Web-first television viewing is the preferred mode for a majority of Americans. We're not there yet, but if my 85+ year-old father is streaming Netflix to his TV via a Chromecast and loving it, then we're about to get there real soon.

So, how does it benefit TV producers to delay coming up with a viable strategy for online distribution? It seems to be very similar to the wishful thinking that grew up around early Internet-based services like Compuserve and America Online, which provided a cableco-like walled garden experience for media companies via an Internet connection. In the time that they tried to prop up those walled gardens with inferior content services the open Web was allowed to appeal to people with far more sophisticated services, services which left most media companies far behind in the race to appeal to these audiences weaned from their brands. Net result: mainstream media companies have all but fallen off the online map, with social media and upstart news and entertainment outlets all but crushing their share of content viewing. The delay by short-termers hurt the media business badly - and continues to hurt it to this very day. The only real difference that I see in the current situation with the cable/Internet divide is that customers are forced to get what's coming out of a wire through two ends of a cable splitter. And consumers understand that a lot more these days.

This landscape of interlocking anti-competitive factors is complex enough that there's a reasonably good chance of this merger going through, since the simple explanation of little overlap in service areas is a fig leaf that regulators can take on fairly easily. But should they go ahead with this, I fear that the TV producers will start to feel like Compuserve wallflowers sooner than they think. They are choking off the natural development and growth of their own Internet markets and opening the door to a galaxy of entertainment alternatives - alternatives that are likely to eat their lunch sooner rather than later. If they want to have long-term hope for their brands, now is the time to solve the revenue issues for cord-cutting, even if it may make relationships a bit difficult with the cablecos. Without that, they're likely to be tying their fate to companies that are likely to fall prey to new gigabit-oriented Internet service providers like Google Fiber that have their own strong lobbyists. If I were a TV producer, I'd be working with the Internet providers who would move fastest to support cord cutting profitably at realistic consumer prices - prices that will align with the more competitive landscape for communications services looming under pending regulatory changes.

So, you can hunker down with a bigger Compuserve - ah, Comcast/TWC, that is - or do your shareholders a real favor and get aggressive with independent online streaming services ASAP. Myself, I'd go for door number two. If you'd like to explore what's behind that door more, let me know.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Do Phones Still Matter?: The Signal Economy Moves From Informing to Action

The mobile smart phone market is booming. About a billion new smart phones were sold in 2013, and total mobile phone sales are likely to approach the 2 billion mark by next year. New models such as +Motorola Mobility's Moto G global phone are bringing performance and features that would have been considered top-of-the-line only a couple of years ago for comfortably under $200 off-contract. There are over a million apps in both Apple's App Store for its iOS phones and tablets and mobile browsers such as +Google Chrome now bring a mobile native Web experience about on par with desktop and laptop PC browsers. And should you be willing to pay for them, a new generation of smart phones is about to introduce 4K video capabilities to phone screens and to their outputs to TVs and high-resolution monitors.

Things could hardly be better for the smart phone industry. But allow me to be one of the first to say that as a leading-edge indicator of performance value, the smart phone is now entering a long era of twilight.

This isn't because smart phones will disappear any time soon, but more because they all do pretty much the same thing about as much as we can expect them to do it in all the places we'd expect to find them doing it. They all have pretty much the same sensors, pretty much the same cameras, pretty much the same apps. have pretty much adequate battery performance for most circumstances (at least on the high end of the market), deliver pretty much the same signal for analysis and can deliver signal-driven services in pretty much the same way. There is lots of economic value in this equation that has yet to be tapped, mind you, so the maturity of smart phones paves the way for an abundance of "catch up" from signal-based services trying to find a broader mobile market.

This can be seen in the down-spiraling of unit prices as well as in component prices. Besides value leaders like the Moto X, component suppliers like Broadcom are beginning to scale up for producing communications chips capable of high-bandwidth LTE mobile signals at prices which should ensure that budget-conscious device buyers should be able to afford a high-bandwidth mobile Web connection pretty much anywhere. Factor in the U.S. Federal Communications' testing the elimination of separate mobile voice networks in favor of voice-over-IP support for Internet voice services, and what you wind up with is a mobile world in which the very idea of a "phone" is disappearing rapidly.

It is a world in which we have our mobile phones surrounded by tablets, +Google Glass, smart watches, smart TVs, in-car displays and whatever, perhaps the notion of a phone is becoming more the notion of a mobile sensor-driven identity with different contact points. What we seem to be winding up with instead of specific general-purpose appliances as the focus of The Signal Economy is an all-purpose capability that can connect signal to services that deliver satisfaction to markets on the best platforms suited for that purpose. Sometimes those devices will continue to be flat-screen experiences, but increasingly they're end points like machines that actually do things - be they controllers like the +Nest in-home climate control and smoke/gas detectors or sophisticated one-or-many manufacturing machines like professional-grade +MakerBot Replicators.

This shift to being able to translate signal into real-world actions with monetary value rather than into just stimulus to take actions is no doubt a major factor in some of Google's most recent shifts in company strategy. Google's planned sale of +Motorola Mobility to China's +Lenovo is a sign that Google is far more interested in accelerating the commoditization of mobile phones to the point that signal acquisition and generation is as universal as possible. This is underscored by Google's acquisition of a string of companies focused on robotics such as Boston Dynamics and advanced artificial intelligence computer capabilities. If you're a master of signal, why stop at just giving people information - why not be a master at helping people to take action with that signal?

There is plenty of money to be made in applying signal to flat-screen appliances, and companies like Google will rely on those appliances for many years to come as a revenue backbone as The Signal Economy begins to unfold. However, I believe that we are already beginning to enter in which cataloging and describing the objects being described by signal are going to be less important than the verbs which apply to those objects that can be inferred from a signal-driven analysis of those objects. Sometimes those verbs will lead us to creating marketing offers for mobile sales prospects just as they're entering or nearing a store. But increasingly it means translating those verbs into the production of actual products and services, sometimes, as seen with the emerging Amazon Yesterday predictive delivery service, even before we've actually asked for them. What happens when that box contains not an item produced for mass markets but an item produced just for us?

What will happen is a shift as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, but not necessarily in ways that we might expect. We'll have global mass production of certain items indefinitely, but increasingly economic growth and employment will depend on independent thinkers responding to the needs of specific people through understanding their needs via the signals that they produce. Sometimes those needs will be met by major companies, to be sure, but as evidenced by the rise of crowdfunded products like the Pebble watch, it's no longer necessary to have a huge base of capital to get innovative new ideas to market at any scale. So it's at least as likely that The Signal Economy will resemble the artisan-craftsman era of the 18th century in which the peculiar abilities of any number of creative people found profitable niche markets - except now they will be able to harvest those niches on a global basis.

So yes, we'll have mobile phones indefinitely, just as we still have TV sets in our homes more than sixty years after they started to become commonplace around the world. But the economics of what drives content to those screens seems to be shifting towards making them far less of a central point in the Internet-driven information economy. Publishers need to recognize this shift and to see that intellectual property that is not aligned with the Signal Economy may wind up being just secondary cogs in an economy that values real things and actions produced by intellect more than the value of temporary vessels for transforming that information into real-world benefits. Forget about content being "water in a pipe" or even in a bottle. Look at the wheels of economic activity that can be driven by your content by signal, and adjust for those verbs. Soon. Always glad to help, of course.