Category Archives: Media

Proprietary e-readers are doomed

time_tablet

Image: Engadget.com

Few tech gadgets these days inspire more wonder and press buzz than e-readers.  While Amazon didn’t pioneer the e-reader space, they did popularize it with their bookworm-friendly Kindle.  The Kindle, while rather feature-poor as a device, is great for pure book reading, and the passion shown by its users has apparently inspired many other companies to follow suit by developing their own e-readers.

Building an e-reader makes sense for a lot of companies, e.g. Amazon, HP, Dell or Amazon, companies that focus on hardware and developing platforms for which others can develop software or content.

However, we’re now seeing other companies jump into the game who have no business making their own e-readers, specifically content publishers.  Time recently gave a preview of their e-reader, showing off its capabilities with content from Sports Illustrated.  It looks pretty cool honestly, but what if I want to to read Road and Track on it?  No such luck.  It’s built for Time Inc. magazines – People, SI, Fortune, TIME, etc.

So no Road and Track, but what if I want to read PC World or Popular Science?  There’s an e-reader for that.  Bonnier, IDG, and MIT have teamed up with Plastic Logic to create an e-reader for their lineup of technology-oriented magazines.

So now, when I’m sitting on my throne and want something to read, I don’t flip through my magazine rack, I flip through my e-reader rack until I find the e-reader with the magazine I want to read.  Awesome.

This must stop. Now.  We, the users, are trying to simplify our lives with e-readers, not complicate them.  I should be able to have a single reader with all my magazines on it, not a half-dozen different e-readers with different interfaces and control schemes.  Any publisher making their own e-reader for their own content is doomed, and needs to be stopped before they hurt themselves.

What would happen if NBC, CBS, and ABC broadcast their shows so they could only be seen on proprietary devices?  ”Let me turn on my other TV so I can watch NBC.”  Yeah, that’d fly.  These guys rely on the TV and HDTV standards that make their entire business models possible.

We have seen format battles in the past like VHS vs. Betamax or Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, but ultimately those are open formats – available for all content producers to use.  This is analogous to the battle between the Kindle, the Sony e-reader, and the rumored Apple iTablet or whatever it ends up being called.  But for a content producer to make hardware that solely services their content is just insane.  Stop now, guys, and leave hardware to the professionals (as Condé Nast is doing) before you bankrupt yourselves trying to swim in the deep end of the pool.

Watch out, Kindle

asus_eee_readerWatch out, Kindle, you have more and more competition every day.  They’re cheaper, they solve 80% of the “I don’t want to buy bulky books” problem, and they cater to a mass market, not just “reading enthusiasts.”  As I predicted earlier, your days are numbered if you don’t bulk up on features or come way down in price.

Twitter, MS, Yahoo, Hunch, and other boring news

yawnSorry I haven’t posted in a while, guys – honestly, there just haven’t been a lot of interesting developments in the digital media area lately.  So, I’ll just tackle a few smaller topics today.

Pointless Twittering: According to a study by Pear Analytics, 40% of Tweets are “Pointless Babble” with another 38% being “Conversational” (which I suppose is a step above Pointless Babble.  A small step.)  Only 3.6% of posts were classified as news, confirming my assertion that Twitter is more of a communication tool than a source of information.  If you’re in the market for pointless babble or conversation, now you know where to go.  On a side note, I love the use of the term “pointless babble” in serious research.

Celeb name power: The social media press should stop talking about Hunch.com just because it was started by a Flickr founder.  It’s not interesting and it’s not (as the press keeps calling it) social Q&A; it’s social polling, more akin to  Sodahead or even the old-school Coolquiz than Yahoo! Answers or my baby.  With social Q&A you get to ask a question any way you want and let other people answer your question.  On Hunch, you can’t ask a question at all – you have to search for decision-making wizards that other users have already created.  And even then, it’s only good for making decisions like whether you should mow your lawn or whether you should renew your World of Warcraft subscription.  If you want to know why the sky is blue or what sights to see in Istanbul, you’re out of luck.  Yawn.  The initial burst of traffic they got from the press is fading, although not as precipitously as Wolfram Alpha’s.

Dumb, smart!: Radio Shack is smart to try rebranding as The Shack because they have nothing to lose.  Their old brand stands for irritable, aggressive salespeople, batteries, and out-of-date, no-name electronics devices, so they could stand to shed some of that.  Pizza Hut, on the other hand, is nuts to drop the ‘Pizza’ and call themselves The Hut.  They will forever be associated with Jabba, and there was nothing terribly wrong with their brand as it was.  The Hut says they changed the name to allow them to broaden their menu, but I say if Burger King can sell salads, you guys can sell just about anything short of sushi.  Don’t get me started on Syfy.

Microyawn: I suppose the whole Yahoo-Microsoft deal is big news, but for the average web user, it just won’t mean anything.  Yahoo search results will look different.  Big deal.

Wake me when Google Wave comes out.  It’s way too overblown to gain any mass-market acceptance, but at least it’ll be a fun toy for tech geeks like myself.

Random 15 year-old speaks, TechCrunch and Mashable listen

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Dude, teens don't like Twitter!

Morgan Stanley today, in a fit of “we can do no wrong”-ness, posted a “research” report discussing the behavior of today’s teens regarding media.  The only problem was that their research was based on talking to a single 15 year-old intern at Morgan Stanley.  That’s right, they talked to one random dude.  While normally this sort of interview would be fodder for a high school newspaper, Morgan Stanley continued their quest for irrelvance by publishing it themselves.

Because the report is generally so useless, I will not be posting a link to it.  However, nothing stopped Mashable and CrunchGear/TechCrunch from posting their own coverage, including a full list of the conclusions reached by said 15 year-old.  Mashable had the sense to at least question the research, but TC went ahead and used one of these useless conclusions as their headline (talk about link-baiting):

Morgan Stanley report shows that teens don’t use Twitter, don’t buy music (but still go to the movies)

in reality neither site should have said anything about this worthless report and they definitely should not have posted the conclusions.  Guys: if it isn’t news, don’t cover it.

Mr. Magazine: Cater to your customers

On the newstand

On the newstand

For subscribers

For subscribers

In a recent post on his blog Mr. Magazine, Samir Husni discusses the recent trend of magazines producing a single issue with two different covers, one cover for placement in newsstands, and a different cover for their subscribers.  It seems that for distribution on newsstands, the covers were more sensational and sexy, with  more lists (8 reasons your diet isn’t working) and more lascivious content (“The Sex of your Dreams (& Hers.)”)  Notable magazines using this technique are Men’s Health, US Weekly, and Bazaar.

What surprised me about the article was Husni’s dramatic objection to the practice:

I do not believe that the single copy cover should be any different than that of the subscriber, if we are in the business of customers who count and not just counting customers. Subscribers do visit the newsstands and what they see their should match what is on their coffee table.

Husni doesn’t seem to give any reasoning for his assertions; he just thinks this is the way it “should” be.  The way I see it, if you’re not just “counting customers” and you actually think your customers count, why not give them an experience they want?  If you know that most people in a certain segment have a certain preference and you have the ability to cater to that preference, why wouldn’t you?  Naturally, newsstand issues need to be more marketing oriented, so the headlines should be more attention-grabbing.  If someone wants to put a magazine on their coffee table, they many not want lewd headlines about sex tips all over it.  So why wouldn’t you give your readers what they want?

I applaud the magazine industry for this step in the right direction.  Websites have been delivering customized experiences for years, so it’s about time that magazines took a page from our…book?

How to fix online advertising

The internet publishing industry did itself a serious disservice when first designing ads for the web.  Rather than learning from the newspaper and magazine industries, they reinvented the wheel by designing ads that were as unobtrusive as possible, and they’ve been paying for it ever since.

Remember the first standardized ad size?  It was 468×60, an amazingly small ad unit by today’s standards.  You just can’t fit a meaningful message on an ad this size (especially with today’s larger screen resolutions), and to compensate ad sizes have been creeping upwards over time…from the original 468×60 and 125×125 to
250×250 to

120×600 to

728×90 to

300×250 to

160×600 to

336×280 to

300×600 to

flyovers, pull-outs, interstitials, and a whole new set of big ad sizes.

I say it’s about time we started showing huge ads.  We online publishers have been limiting our success for years, ever since that first tiny ad size was standardized.

To see why this is the case, look at print magazines.  Those guys have huge ads.  One of the most common units they sell is a full page!  They sell full pages, half pages, quarter pages with the smaller eighth- and sixteenth-page ads getting either shoved to the back of the magazine or spanning several pages so they can tell a story.   Certainly it is true that the print mag industry is hurting these days, but that pain is because of rising printing and distribution costs and an oversaturated market, not because of their advertising model.

TechCrunch AdsOnly now are we online publishers finally seeing ad standards that are competitive with the print mag standards (One could argue that interstitials are full page ads, but most don’t take up anywhere near the whole page.)  TechCrunch whines childishly about these big ads having a poor user experience, but I posit that TechCrunch’s alternative of a superabundance of small ads create an even worse user experience than one or two large ads would.  TC shows ELEVEN ads before you even get below the fold, 10 of which are deprecated 125×125′s that allow for virtually no design, messaging or branding benefits, and they make the whole page look messy and cluttered.

Large ads are simply better because:

  1. There is more room for compelling design
  2. There is more room for compelling messaging
  3. Page layout is easier – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen page designs compromised by trying to fit a 300×250 ad.  Interstitials and full page-wide ads are actually easier to design around
When will ads on the web be this cool?  When they're large enough

When will web ads be this cool? When they're big enough

Print mags have much larger ads than websites, so do they have a poor user experience?  Of course not.  In many magazines the ads are so cool that they’re almost considered content.  Magazine readers realize that you need to see ads to get cheap/free content, and website readers only whine about big ads on websites because:

  1. We have conditioned them to see small ads
  2. Online ad creative is often poorly designed (not visually appealing, message isn’t compelling, etc.), and
  3. Online ads are often poorly targeted

We have been trying to fix the Problem 1 for 15 years, and once we do fix it, the advertising folks will fix Problem 2 for us because they’ll have much more space to work with, as they do in print mags.  As for targeting (Problem 3), AdSense was the biggest quantum leap in this space, with behavioral targeting being the next wave; there is plenty of work going on in this area.

As soon as online publishers and advertisers can fix these problems, user experience will improve, ad rates will improve, and we will finally see the maturing of the online advertising model.

Twitter is a communication tool, not an information source

michael-jackson-reportedly-set-to-marry-kids-nanny-tcpIf you’re on the digital airwaves at all these days, you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Twitter and particularly how people are starting to turn to it for bleeding edge news reporting.  (I covered the real-time news aspect of Twitter previously.)  What most pundits and even reporters are missing in this fray is that Twitter is more of a communication tool than a source of information, and they should treat it as such in their reporting.

The distinction is an important one, and it’s growing increasingly relevant.  In the aftermath of the coverage of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, the TechCrunch blowhards bellyached about how the mainstream media didn’t recognize Twitter’s role in the story coverage.  Author Robin Wauters cites the Chicago Tribune’s coverage:

Gossip site TMZ.com, owned by Time Warner, was out in front with Jackson news and digital-era pipelines spread the word, as has happened before with other major celebrity news stories. But it was old media stalwarts that did the heavy lifting, with giants such as The Associated Press and the Web site of the L.A. Times, sister paper of the Chicago Tribune, reporting the fastest, most credible information on the emergency call for paramedics and ultimately his death.

and she complains that

Chest-beating over old media doing the “heavy lifting” for blogs and Twitter, and being faster in reporting information than those new media when it was exactly the other way around is beyond ridiculous.

Wauters asserts that Twitter and TMZ did all the “heavy lifting”, but let’s be totally clear here: Twitter didn’t do anything at all. Twitter only facilitated communication between humans; in this case it enabled the distribution of links to the TMZ story.  Twitter doesn’t have a news room, and they don’t have writers.  Twitter is a pipe, a utility, a tool; it is not a source, so stop treating it as such.

Countless news stories are spread every day over email, blogs, message boards, cell phones, fax machine, or even good old word-of-mouth, but do we need to recognize the role of those tools in news coverage?  ”I just heard the news, thank you cell phones for giving me this news!”  Do we believe these tools should get recognition equal to the actual sources of news that created the stories being passed along them?  Now that’s ridiculous.  Just because the communication tool is new doesn’t mean it is anything more than a tool.  TechCrunch, please get over yourselves and stop promoting Web 2.0 for the sake of it.

capture

Twitter is pretty sure Jeff Goldblum is dead

Jeff Goldblum, for one, can probably vouch for how little heavy lifting Twitter actually does:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jeff Goldblum Will Be Missed
www.colbertnation.com

TMZ alone should get credit for having feet on the ground (of some sort) and for getting the story first.  Stop thanking the messenger, and thank the writer of the message.

Market Research Fail: Twitter has yet to catch on with Gen-Y

fail2According to the laboriously-named Participatory Media Network, 99% of 18- to 24-year-olds have profiles on “social networks,” but only 22% of people in that age group use Twitter.  In their press release about the survey, the PMN concludes that Twitter “has yet to catch on” with Gen Y’s, and Cnet’s Caroline McCarthy parrots the PMN’s press release in her post “Young adults haven’t warmed up to Twitter.”

In what alternate universe does a service that after just over two years in existence already has a 22 percent market share count as something that has yet to catch on?  This is exactly what happens when market researchers trained in the 60′s are allowed to research things they don’t understand.  Any new online service would be thrilled to have a 22% market share of Gen Y, particularly a service that requires them to actually post content publicly to participate, rather than consuming content or having private conversations as they do on most social networks.

PMN is showing that they are hopelessly out of touch by positioning Twitter against the entire social networking space at large – it’s like saying “90% of adults 18-24 have cars, but only 20% are Toyota – Toyota has yet to catch on!”  Yet again I am severely disappointed by market researchers, as well as the press who mindlessly regurgitate these releases.

Kindle will be history within a year

As sick as I am of hearing about the underwhelming Wolfram Alpha, I’m even more sick of hearing about the product-that-shouldn’t-be, Amazon’s Kindle.  This machine is destined to be obsolete within a year, so Amazon should quick-like get back to ecommerce and leave hardware to companies that know something about it.

Here’s my problem with the Kindle: when I look at it, I think “that’d be cool if I could also browse the web on it, watch movies on it, play music on it, or use it as a digital picture frame,” but despite it being essentially a small computer, it won’t do any of those things.  A netbook can do all of these things, and it costs less.  

For a few laughs, let’s look at Amazon’s pitch for their latest model, the Kindle DX:

  • Holds up to 3,500 books, periodicals, and documents - Amazon downplays the fact that this is only 4GB of storage, a pathetic number for any modern netbook.
  • Beautiful Large Display: 9.7″ diagonal e-ink screen reads like real paper; boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and sharp images – Are you kidding me?  16 shades of gray?  Sure, that’s better than the Newton, but this isn’t 1992, guys.  Any modern netbook offers 32 bit color, giving millions of colors.  If I want to read a text book or a blog post on my Kindle DX, you better believe I want color.
  • Auto-Rotating Screen: Display auto-rotates from portrait to landscape as you turn the device so you can view full-width maps, graphs, tables, and Web pages – We’re only down to the third bullet point, and this is the best you can do?  This is truly trivial, and easy to do on a netbook
  • Built-In PDF Reader: Native PDF support allows you to carry and read all of your personal and professional documents on the go – PDF readers are free to download on any PC.  Just because this is better than the original Kindle doesn’t make it cool.
  • Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle DX, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, no annual contracts, and no hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots – if you really need to download a book while you’re outside of wi-fi range, apparently this is the device for you.  If you don’t have a Kindle, just download the book to your smartphone, then transfer it to your PC.  
  • Books In Under 60 Seconds: You get free wireless delivery of books in less than 60 seconds; no PC required – You can also download an ebook to your netbook in less than 60 seconds, no Kindle required.  Fail.
  • Long Battery Life: Read for days without recharging – Who reads for more than a couple hours at a time, anyway?  Non-problem solved.
  • Read-to-Me: With the text-to-speech feature, Kindle DX can read newspapers, magazines, blogs, and books out loud to you, unless the book’s rights holder made the feature unavailable – Now you can have A Brief History of Time read to you in the author’s own voice.  Awesome! 
  • Big Selection, Low Prices: Over 275,000 books; New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases are only $9.99, unless marked otherwise – This has nothing to do with the device and will surely be available on any PC very soon.
  • More Than Books: U.S. and international newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, magazines including The New Yorker and Time, plus popular blogs, all auto-delivered wirelessly – Again, I have a PC and a cool new thing called a “web browser” for this. 
The only things that make the Kindle superior to a PC for the purpose of reading are:
  • It’s lightweight with a super-compact form factor
  • Um…that’s about it.  I guess this isn’t much of a bulleted list.

And Amazon wants $489 for this piece of…technology.  For that kind of money I can almost get two netbooks, each of which have 9″ full color screens, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, built-in webcams and mics, wifi, memory card slots, 3 USB ports,  and weigh in at 2.5 lbs (2 times the weight of the Kindle DX.)  With the Kindle, I can read an ebook.  With two netbooks, my wife and I could video conference with the in-laws, watch movies (chick flick for her, dude flick for me), organize our photos, play online games against each other, or…we could read ebooks.  Where to spend the money is pretty obvious to me.

 

Asus Eee Top PC with 15 touchscreen

Asus Eee Top PC with 15" touchscreen

So, I’m calling it: within one year, someone else will have an ebook platform that will be far more robust and versatile, and it will be cheaper, and Amazon will exit the game to focus on selling ebooks.  Perhaps the Kindle-killer will be Apple’s rumored iPad, perhaps Microsoft will get their Tablet PC act together, or perhaps Asus will mate their Eee PC with their Top PC to create a Kindle-beating love child.  I don’t know who’s going to do it, but the PC industry is going to put the Kindle out of our misery, and the sooner the better.  

Journalists: Evolve or Die

A recent incident at the Chicago Tribune has highlighted the mindset that is driving traditional journalism to the brink of extinction.  

Apparently the Tribune’s marketing department performed some customer surveys in which they showed articles to readers before the articles were done.  They don’t seem to have tried to influence the editorial, and presumably they informed the survey participants that the articles were unfinished and could contain factual errors so as not to jeopardize the reputation of the editorial staff, however, the editors are up in arms.

The editors banded together to write an email in protest, saying,

It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers

While I respect the editors’ desire to maintain their independence and integrity, it’s an outdated concept that they should ignore reader input altogether.  I don’t advocate forcing the editors to change their priorities based on reader feedback, but why wouldn’t they at least want to hear what their readers have to say?  The most successful websites are the ones that pay close attention to their users’ needs and usage patterns, and if traditional journalists want to stay relevant, they need to evolve and adopt some of the same techniques.

Do you think journalists should integrate reader feedback into their editorial calendars, or stick to their own intuition?