Rex Live: Exploring the impact and opportunities of mobile media

During the next week, I’ll be with a group of journalists and a group of publishers who, in different ways, are exploring a similar topic: What are media creators and users learning about what works (and doesn’t) when content is delivered via small-screen mobile devices during this era when such devices have gone from being perpetually-predicted publishing platforms to real-world opportunities?

This Friday, April 1 (no fooling), I’ll be leading a session at a conference at the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University. Called, “The Mobile Migration,” the one-day conference is co-sponsored by the Online News Association and the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute with underwriting from the Scripps Howard Foundation. You can learn more about the conference, and how to register, on the blog of its ever-vigilant organizer, Jack Lail, multi-media editor of the Knoxville News Sentinnel.

My session is called: “The Reader Decides: How Magazines are Learning What Screen Publishing is All About” and is described like this: “From multi-million dollar mega-apps to dorm-room developed content reading apps, the iPad is proving to be both a launch pad of opportunity and a landing pad for humbling crashes. What has year one of the iPad taught magazine publishers that helps predict the future of screen-based media?”

This is my second time to speak at this conference that is attended by the journalists at legacy media companies — newspapers and broadcasters — who are embracing the tools and approaches of new media (even when some of their bosses don’t quite get it). It’s a great group. It’s the kind of group I thought about when I read the recent tweet by John Paton [@jxpaxton], the CEO of a regional newspaper business, whose advice is to “stop listening to print people and put the digital people in charge – of everything.”

Next Monday, April 4, I’ll be in New York where I’ll be moderating the Annual Digital Magazine Symposium that’s held in conjunction with the Publishing Business Conference & Expo. I’m looking forward to this as I’ve been able to work with the conference organizers at Publishing Executive and Book Business magazines, Noelle Skodzinski and James Sturdivant to develop a 2 1/2 hour program that includes discussions with the developers of some most ambitious magazine-related apps and other publishers who have found success in keeping their strategy focused on content rather than developing their own technology. Likewise — and this will be no surprise to readers of this blog — I’ve also invited former NYTimes.com creative director and usability rock star Khoi Vihn to review some lessons in usability from early iPad apps, and what they might suggest for the future.

Rebooting the News – Who is Rex, Edition

This morning, I spent an hour chatting with Dave Winer on Rebooting the News the weekly podcast he typically records with NYU Professor Jay Rosen. To me, getting invited to spend an hour with Dave Winer on a podcast is like getting to spend an hour with Guglielmo Marconi on a radio show. (If I have to explain it, this 2009 RexBlog post may help connect the dots. Short version for my non-tech friends reading this: Dave is one of the founding pioneers of much of the technology and approaches we today call blogging, podcasting and social media.) (I would have mentioned RSS, but that was for my non-tech friends.)

You can listen to the Podcast here:

http://mp3.morningcoffeenotes.com/reboot11Feb21.mp3

On the podcast, we discussed these topics:

Why Twitter, the service, is too vital for Twitter, a company, to control exclusively. [Background]

The New York Times rehash of the “death of blogging” story, a meme dating back to a week after people stopped writing the stories about “blogs are never going to be born.” Like Dave, I believe Facebook and Twitter are blogging platforms, so, well, I don’t get it. [A long post about my thoughts regarding online identity. NYTimes story: “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter”]

Apple’s subscription plan and my outrage at their ban on in-app links to purchasing alternatives available via the browser. [Background on my opinion.]

Why I think magazine publishers are missing the mark on early generation magazine apps — and the real opportunity of the iPad. How the iPad (and Kindle) change notions of what is readable on a screen. [My reviews of The Daily app and Virgin’s Project app.]

My opinion on Wikileaks, which I have no link to point to, so, in short it’s this: I’m an advocate of transparency and openness and probably would, if push came to shove, be supportive of Wikileaks. That said, I prefer diplomacy over war and don’t want Wikileaks to be in charge of judging what the consequences of their actions are going to lead to.

Rating: Fairly geekish if you’re not a follower of developments in new media, magazines or are related to me.

Free stuff I’d pay for: Readability and NYTimes.com/recommendations

One might ask, “Why pay for something that’s free?” If you’ve ever paid 99¢ for an iTunes download, you might know at least one possible answer to that question. There are many others that have to do with convenience, timing, aesthetics, authenticity, experience or habit.

Here are two examples of things I’d potentially pay for that are free in other forms.

I’ve written on this blog before about my love of Instapaper — of how it allows me to save content from most any website to read later on my iPad or iPhone or computer in an ad-free, book-like format. It has really changed my reading habits during the past 18 months. (“I once said it was an app so awesome I can’t believe the anti-awesome police haven’t gone after it.”)

It’s so amazing, that every time I read an article using Instapaper, I think to myself:This can’t last forever. As much as I’m of the “information wants to be free” school, I expect to pay something in “soft” compensation – looking at ads, for example. Instapaper enables free content with no quid-pro-quo, like, say, putting up with the advertising that surrounds copy provided by, say, the New York Times, whose website is one of my favorite sources for Instapaper’d content. I can argue why this is okay once in a while as it introduces me to media sources and brands — but someones gotta pay when I’m partaking of a firehose of premium, unique and valuable content with no ads or other forms of value exchange.

I know when something’s too good to be true, so I’ve been preparing for the day when that Golden Age of Great Reading is going away — when I can no longer merely click on that “Read Later” button and get great writing into a form that actually enables good reading.

Several months ago, via an introduction from Dave Winer, I spoke with Richard Ziade, the developer of another one of my favorite “helps-me-read” services Readability, the open source software that lets you click a browser extension button and turn any web page into an ad-free, easy-to-read document. A real-time, read-it-now rather than later version of what Instapaper does for the time-shifting readers. (If you use Safari, Readability is at the core of Safari Reader, the feature that Apple says will, “allow you to remove annoying ads and visual distrations.”)

Richard told me he was working on a concept that would allow people to continue to enjoy the content displayed with services like Readbility and Instapaper, but that would also compensate the publisher of the content.

I told him I thought that was a great idea that I would sign up for it in a heartbeat on both the reader and the publisher side — but then I sorta drifted into the part of the conversation that said I’d likely be one of the very few people who would — and that it would likely never work because it’s, in effect, the creation of entire industry standard that’s equivalent to the performance rights infrastructure that governs the music industry — something that’s required by federal law and is byzantine in both concept and practice.

But I think he only heard me say the “great idea” and “I’d sign up for it” parts — and I think I was one of the very few people who said that; most probably just said, “Why?” I mean, who in their right mind would say you should pay $5 a month for something you can buy for free.

Fast forward to today: Readability: now has introduced the subscription model. It may not work. But, one day, I predict we’ll pay for unique versions of content we can obtain for free. And I predict it will be more like this model that magazine-by-magazine subscription model. Who knows, maybe there will be ASCAPs and BMIs for content (ugh) one day.

Oh, wait. I was going to mention another kind of content I’d pay for; and it’s even from the New York Times and I now get it free. It’s one of those fulfillments of an internet promise that’s never quite made it to prime time. NYTimes.com now offers a recommendation service that is one of the first uses of collaborative filtering for content recommendations (it’s used in commerce all the time) since we used it a decade ago on SmallBusiness.com (slightly ahead of its time). I would pay for this service — and probably will have to one day. If you’re logged into the NYTimes.com website, you can see your version at http://www.nytimes.com/recommendations. (A screengrab of mine is below.)

So there you have two things I’d pay for that I can get free:

1. An ad free, readable format for long-form articles by great writers.

2. A service that tracks every article I read and from that information filters articles that it knows should interest me, just me, not my friends or the people I follow — just me. (Oh, and another thing: it would need to find articles everywhere, not just the New York Times.)

Addendum: One more thing. Readability, while a click-now-and-read tool, has developed a “powered by Instapaper” app that allows you to “read-later” also. I can speculate (deduce?) that such a relationship between Instapaper and Readability creates an ipso-facto subscription model for Instapaper, as well. Or, I guess I should say, an subscription model as it relates to content that is sourced by one of the cooperating publishers.

Bonus link: Megan Garber has an excellent story based on interviews with the developers of the NYTimes.com’s recommendations project. While they don’t come right and use the term “collaborative filtering,” the way in which they describe the process of developing recommendations comes close. As Amazon, Netflix, Pandora and scores others have demonstrated, the collection and comparison of usage patterns weighs heavily in the effectiveness of personalized recommendations. It makes sense that recommending what story to read next is very similar to recommending what book to read, movie to watch or song to hear.

Some random thoughts wrapped up as predictions for 2011

jetsonsLast month, I wrote a post for the blog at Hammock.com about my content marketing predictions for 2011. I’ve picked up a couple of predictions from there, however, most of the following comes from my “one day, blog about this” folder on Evernote.

So, in the form of predictions, here are some thoughts:

Magazine apps will stop being called magazine apps: Okay, I know it. This won’t happen. Magazine is such a convenient and important-sounding metaphor and, for traditional magazine publishers, a brand extension. When a publisher or developer calls something a “magazine,” there’s no need to say, “this is an app that includes big photos and text and the content is updated on a recurring basis.” Unfortunately, big photos, text and content updated on a recurring basis can also describe pretty much any popular media site on the web. Throw in video, audio, slide-shows and what do you have? Pretty much any content-focused app. So what do you have left to hang the word magazine on. Answer: Page flipping. So that’s what it has come down to: Of all the amazing things that can be done with the technology and platform of an iPad, the magazine app is becoming known as the app that has “pages” that “flip.” Geez. I need another prediction, so…

The developers of any app that includes text will discover accelerometer-aided “text scrolling” is better than page-flipping: If you’re a user of Instapaper Pro on the iPhone and you use “tilt scrolling,” you’ve probably wondered, “Why isn’t this on every eBook reader, web browser, etc.?” I mean, you tilt your device a bit forward and the text scrolls down. You wonder, “Isn’t this the way you would do it if you weren’t tied to metaphors like ‘page’ and ‘flip.'”?

Expect an announcement about Flipboard, Twitter and something that sounds a lot like an RSS “newsreader”: Okay, while I just, in a nuanced way, slammed Flipboard, let me admit that nothing I say in these predictions will slow down that juggernaut. So, at least, let me hope them success on something they’ve discovered builds on a foundation already blessed by publishers (rather than trying to convince publishers they are something new — which publishers naturally think is threatening): Making the notion of subscribing to an RSS news feed less geeky. What do I mean? Well, first, a couple of weeks ago, Flipboard CEO Mike McCue told the New York Times that “Twitter is becoming a social RSS reader…You follow certain people who provide a kind of social curation above the level that is likely on a blog.” Right after that, it was announced Mike McCue had joined the board of Twitter. And a couple of days later, there was a release of a Flipboard feature that makes it easy to use Flipboard as an RSS newsreader. And since almost every publisher has dozens of RSS feeds they already know are traffic-builders and, well, Twitter is probably their second source (or first) of traffic, what if Flipboard & Twitter were trying to jointly pitch media companies instead of having two sets of evangelists, biz-dev and sales people doing such pitching? And what if those RSS feeds and Twitter tweets were being presented in “flipping pages” that include advertising, also?

Call those “data points” or “tea leaves” or, what it actually is, “conjecture,” but those are the kind of things that start to happen right before real news occurs.

Questions & Answers will still be questions & answers: There’s this dream use of the internet. It goes something like this. I want to know an answer to something. I go to the internet and ask it. Magically, the answer appears. Oh, and if I’m the owner of this service, all of those answers are provided by experts who do so for free. Now, if you’re a well-funded and connected startup with a new and shiny way of doing this for yet, the hundredth time, you may be able to gain publicity among the techno-taste-makers, but, as Michael Hyatt tweeted the other day, “I need another inbox like I need a hole in the head.”

Apple will mashup features of Keynote and iMovie and create a program called iAnimator: A long time ago, I suggested that all Apple had to do to increase sales of GarageBand was to “re-metaphor-ize” the same features, using podcasting terms rather than music-recording terms. I don’t know if it helped with their sales, but they did shortly thereafter add podcasting metaphors (not because of me, it was a rather obvious opportunity). Here’s another opportunity: Keynote and iMovie features can, together, provide a decent animation platform hack for many how-to and fun uses. (Here’s a Christmas greeting video animation I helped create using a Keynote-iMovie hack. Key tip: Automate all transitions and master the transition, “Magic Move.”)

Designers will discover the key to user-love is simple, minimalist, user interfaces: Technology is often accused of making our lives more complicated. When publishers think that, to be impressive, an iPad app or website needs more bells and whistles, they fall into the trap of doing just that — making things more complicated. However, many of us are attracted to technology that helps us gain efficiency and achieve order — that dampens noise and distraction. Such neo-minimalist new products as the multi-platform product, Instapaper, are gaining a big following among early-adopting tech influencers.

You will publish an e-book: Or, you will if you want to. Two words for 2011: Kindle Singles. Here’s some math that jumped out at me while reading this post: If an author has a traditional contract with a major book publisher, an ebook sold for $9.99 via the Kindle Bookstore earns the author $1.75 per sale. However, if the author sells the book directly to the reader, via the Kindle Bookstore, the author will net slightly below $7. I know writers aren’t always good at math, but stick with me, please. Let’s say, when Kindle Singles launches, the average price of these new, shorter-form, eBooks is $2.99. If an author sells direct, they will generate more net revenue per sale ($2.09) from a short eBook than they could by selling a standard-length book sold by a traditional publisher ($1.75, if priced at $9.99). Draw your own conclusions. (But expect for me to be publishing lots of Singles in 2011.)

You will publish your book in print: Book publishing using print on demand (POD) technology and innovative distribution methods is a concept that has been around since slightly after the Guttenberg press. However, some inside-baseball channel wars and pricing elasticity challenges have prevented its long-hyped potential from matching its reality. I predict 2011 is the year that happens. (Note: I predict this every year.)

You will start thinking the word “social” is so last decade: Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I’ve been saying the following for about three years: When you start calling everything “social,” then you don’t need the word social. So, if every page on the Internet has “like” buttons and comment boxes and at least two ways to join or see what friends have visited that page, is there really a need to use the word “social” anymore?

Android devices will continue to improve. Apple iOS devices will continue to improve and also get cheaper and more ubiquitous: First off, there is no reason for anyone to make predictions about market share of iPhones until iPhones are sold by Verizon. I know, personally, three people who have been putting off purchasing an Android phone to see if, indeed, that will happen and when. The market of those willing to change to ATT for the iPhone is pretty-much tapped. However, in the meantime, Android phones have improved — perhaps not to parity status, but they’re getting close. And they’re cheaper. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, I predict Jobs will compete on price when it comes to the iPhone. I also predict there will be no -killers; this is a case where competition is great for everyone, including those of us who are inclined to use Apple products.

In 2011, I predict I’ll purchase an Android device: Not a phone, but something.

How a chart can suggest the opposite of what is says

chartdirection-20101223-213736I’ve read conflicting claims about which day of the year is the busiest travel day. (The day before Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas are favorites of bored TV news crews.) No matter what precise day you choose, if you combine one of the “busiest travel days of the year” with an eastern seaboard blizzard, I’m guessing this could be one of the worst air travel days ever. So, I’m glad my family has no one “enplaning” today.

And since they’re already so overwhelmed, I guess I should feel a little bad that I’m posting this item I wrote a few days ago (while delayed in an airport for six hours) but didn’t realize until a few moments ago that I had mis-dated it, and it had not shown up on my blog.

This post has nothing to do with travel or weather. It’s about how to inadvertently communicate the opposite of what you intend to — with a simple bar chart.

Let’s go back and pick up the post where I had originally started it:

For some reason, the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority sent me a printed copy of its annual report (Here’s a PDF version. As I was flipping through the report hoping I’d find an item that says they’ll be offering free wifi soon (to no avail), I noticed two charts on page 18 that I’ve included with this post (if you are reading it on my blog). The charts compare the number of passengers and the weight of planes originating that the airport for the past three years.

Like most Americans and Nashvillians, I read bar charts in the traditional western way, based on the left-to-right display of ascending numbers. That should come as no surprise, as most of us were taught to expect the left-to-right ascending number concept by everyone from Bert & Ernie to college math professors. I, therefore, assume that bar charts that compare year-to-year data have the oldest data represented in the left-most bar, and then, as Bert & Ernie taught us, the next-oldest data to its right, and so-on. So, when I saw the bar charts moving higher, from left-to-right, I assumed this bar chart was a visualization of a metric that had gained in volume each of the past three years.

Yet upon second glance, I noticed something I thought to be rather odd — or, perhaps mis-leading. The years were descending, left-to-right.

Was this an intentional switcharoo? Or was it just a mistake? Apparently, neither. A quick googling of past annual reports by the commission convinced me they’ve always used this convention: descending years in bar charts that compare year-over-year. What’s with that? I can only guess that some accounting requirement is at work, rather than the desire to use a common-sense, “user-centric” visualization.

[I still think Nashville should join the dozens of airports providing free wifi so that travelers can better endure travel every day, and especially days like today.]