Revolution By A Thousand Digital Cuts

You can say that with every new wave of technology, the format, structure and even the content of media changes. Or you can simply say that the medium is the message. Either way, publishing just isn’t what it used to be. Here’s my wide angle view of some of the many changes bubbling through the publishing world. 

Self publishing in all it’s many forms continues to flourish and grow. Just when you thought that between WordPress and Blogspot, that was all there was to it, you now have a raft of new platforms, including Medium and Hi for example. I’m still working out the real value of these tools, apart from the fact that they are beautifully laid out and easy to set up for the infrequent writer. I don’t feel yet that the writing on these platforms are genetically better than those on any other blogging platform. But clearly there’s a big market for self expression and this is really a good thing. 

If Blogging is the selfie of publishing, the social media must be its new mirror. As much as social media is a means of connecting with others, in an increasingly perverse way, it seems to also represent how we see ourselves through their eyes. This kind of voyeuristic narcissism is reflected in many ways but none more so than this strange and increasing trend of self categorisation through arbitrary & meaningless ontologies, abbreviated for the purpose of this discussion as ‘scamo’. Facebook is full of scamos. What colour is your aura? Which Downton Abbey character are you? Which superhero are you? Which city are you? Where will it end? Which lego piece are you? (I got the flat green base), which paper size are you? (I got A3 – gutted!) Which bollywood item girl are you? (I got Yana Gupta but I can’t see the resemblance). And definitely, which type of common cold virus are you? (I got adenovirus, so distinguished!) See how easy it is? You can make your own lists up as you go. You can see where this will end, right? Which scamo are you? 

The disturbing trends don’t end there. I pray every morning that the phrase “what happens next will xxxx you” (insert appropriate transitive verb) could be banned from headlines. “This surgeon started to operate on his patient. What happened next will amaze you!” “This man tried to drink printing ink. What happened next will stun you”. “This man tried to click on this link in face book. What happened next will baffle you” But of course, in the click-economy, it’s all fair game. As long as it can make a few (million) people click on the link, it’s a successful headline. 

To be fair, the original story headlines were competing with other headlines in the same newspaper, because typically, you would already have bought or be reading that paper. Or at best your lead story would be competing with the main headlines of other papers. Today you’re competing with a stream of consciousness flow of headlines, curated, ad-inserted, thrust upon you by friends and family and wished upon yourself by those links you clicked unsuspectingly last week. Forget 15 seconds of fame, each headline gets about 1.5 seconds before it’s history in your eyes. 

Facebook and Twitter have definitely become strong sources of news curation for me, much more so than TV or any single media organisation. But in the lead are still aggregation apps such as Flipboard and Zite. I was quite gutted to learn that Zite had sold itself to Flipboard, as they represented 2 very distinct kinds of approaches, both valuable, and I’m fretting that the result will be a bit of both but neither to it’s optimum levels. Circa is quite interesting (thanks @maria_axente!) because it allows you to track one story as it evolves. 

But then you have tools like Paper.li and others which allow the aggregation itself to be automated in a democratised format. This is basically software eating media eating software. Pretty soon the only real value will lie in original content. This is why players like the Economist, New York Times or HBR are likely to have long lives because they are effectively becoming the HBO’s of the publishing space. Everybody else is aggregating, sorting, distributing, dicing and slicing. It’s worth pointing out that players like Business Insider, Outbrain and Bleacher Report,  are trying hard to build a business that truly exploits the new distribution in different ways. But while Business Insider, which was founded by Henry Blodget and counts Bezos as an investor, does focus on good and original content, the others seem to want to flood you with content with those titilating headlines, so they can financially surf the click economy. 
 
One of the outcomes of the smartphone enabled and Instagram and Facebook fuelled environment we live in, is that I’ve come to expect pictures where a picture is required. As a consequence, I struggle through long descriptive paragraphs in books. I appreciate that it would have been hard for Dickens to simply Instagram a picture of foggy London, and perhaps we’re the better off for it. But with the increasing democratisation of tools and knowledge of image and video creation I think a new wave of storytelling is just around the corner. A book created for electronic consumption should have pictures, videos, hyperlinks and more, all of which are creatively and effectively used to enhance the storytelling. This is not to denounce the metaphor as a bedrock of great content, but to provide an experience that truly exploits the medium. Just imagine Gibson’s Neuromancer told through this kind of multimedia! 

Certainly, there’s plenty of excitement and enough funding for new ventures in news and publishing, as this piece from the FT points out. There is ongoing innovation as start ups like Blendle demonstrate. I personally think that we are just at that point where we start to appreciate the value of news as distinct from entertainment, and stop clubbing the business models together. Certainly, when ‘rock star’ geeks such as Bezos and Nate Silver are getting into the game, there must be plenty left to play for! 

In the mean time, I’m off to post my selfie to Facebook and Twitter, so I can see what others say about it, so I can figure out which mythically egocentric character I resemble the most. 

10 Talking Points From the Mobile World Congress

1. Wearables are evolving fast. 

Almost as visible as the new smartphones, was the Samsung Gear 2 smart watches.  There has been much talk about wearables, but this is a big step forward for a number of reasons. The device features are themselves noteworthy, for example the curved AMOLED 1.84 inch screen. But also the focus on healthcare and wellbeing is clearly taking on the market so far dominated by Fitbit and JawBone. The changeable straps provide a nod to fashion, and under the hood, it has a Tizen Operating system, which itself comes from a family tree of operating system innovation from Nokia, Intel, Samsung and the Linux foundation.

The programmability of the device will no doubt provide a slew of clever applications, which will take away the oh so onerous effort of taking your phone out to answer calls, check emails, or even do video calls. The Gear Neo 2 has a 2 MP camera and even a remote for your TV. 

It doesn’t stop there. We also saw t-shirts that can monitor heartbeats while you run, and smart gloves from Fujitsu with which you can point to things and using AR glasses, get more information about them. The Sony smartbands are certainly eye-catchinly stylish. 

But for me, the next wave of innovations will be the one to watch – when the open systems in wearable devices allow swarms of innovative developers to create entirely new ways to use wearables, in ways not even thought of yet. 

 

2. Ecosystem Conference 

Ginny Rometty, the IBM CEO, accurately called this an ‘ecosystem conference, more than a mobile conference’. Increasingly, it’s hard to separate the components. Cloud, Mobile, hardware and software, middle layer and front end tools, wearables, watchables, eatables, sensors, all the boundaries are getting blurry. Moreover, the value delivery is via the ecosystem, rather than any individual layer. 

This means that solutions thinking needs to span the ecosystem and not focus on any one layer alone. This in turn requires a number of related competencies to be brought together in one place. 

Seems like an obvious point but you’d be surprised how uncommon this common-sense is. 

 

3. Telcos in the services game

Telcos have been the perennial bridesmaids in the IP enabled world. All the value created by World Wide Web, VOIP, messaging, OTT TV and other innovations have stood on the shoulders of telecom networks, yet Telcos have seen little of the value. A part of the reason could well be that Telcos have wanted to get rewarded for being structural enablers, rather than end-service providers. 

The penny seems to have dropped, though as evidenced by the number of Telecom providers, especially in the APAC market, who have end user services built around innovative and mature smart systems. These are, importantly, not sold as technology but as services. NTT has a “Cow Birthing Service” built around monitoring body temperatures of pregnant animals, and alerting the right time for delivery. 

 

4. Old Media left behind?

Tucked between the presentation from Cisco and Shazaam, was a presentation from Bob Bakish, from Viacom. It was a very good presentation underpinned by a well thought-through content strategy, yet it felt like we were being dragged back into the past after being shown a vision of the future. 

I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while, and then it dawned on me. This was a good old-media presentation but it missed the transformation to services, analytics and interactive thinking which now characterises most successful and evolving digital media businesses of today, such as Netflix. 

 

5. Dealing with intelligent worlds 

It is no longer a big shout to suggest that the world is becoming more smart, programmable and intelligent. But perhaps our ability to deal with smarter environments is not yet developed to the extent required. This could impact privacy, security and many other areas. 

It could also make a difference to how well we’re able to extract the maximum value of our smart surroundings. Mark Zuckerberg spoke about the need to connect the whole planet, and called out the fact that many people don’t see the value of the Internet, so they don’t know why they should invest. Similarly, how many of us are really equipped to deal with a smart city or a smart environment in the optimal way? 

 

6. Yet another phone? 

Samsung switched strategies to launch the S5 at the MWC. There was also the wearables, and a few other interesting phones – the Yotaphone and the BlackPhone for starters. But there seems to be a level of fatigue with more marginal improvements. We’re going to need some truly disruptive innovation to get excited about smartphones again. 

The S5 has biometrics, the latest connectivity tools, and more megapixels than you can count on your fingers (16 to be precise). The most interesting feature of the S5 may be it’s power saving feature – when the phone is down to the last 10% energy, it has the option of switching to black and white and shutting down a lot of power consuming services, to extend the battery life by a few hours. 

 

7. Shazaam’s next trick. 

It could well be Shazaam that changes the TV advertising landscape going forward. Having solved the “what’s that song?” problem, and having turned it’s attentions to identifying television program, Shazaam is now offering a way of engaging with ads. When the app recognises the advertising, it offers ways in which you can engage with the ad – through a number of ways, over the phone. 

By ensuring that it is connected to the advertising on TV, there is a clear element of triggering the engagement. A number of questions will still need to be addressed, but by making it easier for consumers to engage, which is the problem Shazaam solves, this could be the way forward for interactive advertising. 

 

8. Innovation & Value 

There is much talk about innovation in the mobile environment in general, and especially at events like the MWC. But it’s harder to identify where the real value lies, versus where there is just an interesting app. Messaging may not be new and exciting, but continues to attract gravity defying valuations. What is innovative about mobile messaging in 2014? Yet, some 200 million (400 m if you go by Whatsapps December announcements) are using the service every month. 

The trick may be in simplicity. Whatsapp does not try to do anything apart from helping you message and talk to your friends and it doesn’t get in the way of the communication. Much like the early Twitter. The question of course is what happens now and how do you monitise this? 

Jan Koum, the founder suggested that Whatsapp will go after voice, with the same simplicity and customer focus. Who knows, may be video is next? Skype beware! 

Meanwhile other clever apps like CamMe (use a hand gesture to take better selfies) and Brewster (combine all your contacts), and Blippar (augmented reality using Google Glass and phone) made headlines. Their commercial value remains to be seen. 

 

9. Marginal innovation in payments 

I did go to the MWC hoping to get a glimpse of the future of payments. But I came back having witnessed only marginal innovations and the industry essentially shuffling it’s feet, waiting for a big move from somebody. 

That somebody might be Apple, who have over half a billion iTunes users with credit card information, an app to enable purchases through this environment (Apple Store App), about $150 bn in cash reserves, and some pending hardware patents for payment related areas. But of course this is not an MWC story, as Apple were only there in spirit. 

 

10. Architectures not clear yet 

John Chambers spoke about the critical need to get the architecture right, in the new world of digital services. The challenges is that as new technologies give rise to newer innovations and as sensors, wearables, mobile and web technologies collide to create new ideas, it’s quite hard to figure out what this architecture should be. Clearly something scalable, modular, service oriented, and capable of serving and receiving information from this array of end points is a must. And to bind all of this to some enterprise grade system of record. Easier said than done, methinks.