The big battle of the coming years will be a battle for time. For media related software or for web design, the fight will be for customers’ or readers’ attention, the challenge will be to prevent them from fleeing elsewhere and to give them more in less time.

More than ever, we are in the business where speed is key.

Look at how critical the speed factor has been in recent tech successes. To be sure, Google has been able to dominate search thanks to the quality of its algorithm. But Google’s win also came from its ability to deliver results faster than anyone else. This speed comes from the combined performance of three pieces of software:  Map Reduce slices the request in multiple chunks and assigns the work to multiple CPUs, the Google File System at the core of Google’s distributed architecture and the main database, BigTable, all supported by an unprecedented hardware deployment of several million servers. (A Cornell University paper by a Google Fellow gives a comprehensive description of the company’s architecture, PDF here). All three components are dedicated to speed of service, one of Google’s edges and a must to conquer cloud computing, where waiting for a file update or data transfer is not an option.

Speed is also a key success factor for Amazon and iTunes — the two kings of the friction-free transactions — but also for the video streaming service Hulu, or for business applications such as Salesforce. As for hardware, Apple taught us that speed and fluidity weigh more than a long feature list. Look at the four iterations of the iPhone (leaving aside the antennae issue for once), most of the hardware improvements have been aimed at increasing speed and fluidity of use (OK, battery life as well).

Two of the reasons why the iPad is about to take over the netbook market are its near to zero boot time and its instant application launch. Both are a blow to the PC which remains stuck in its passé architecture despite huge increases in processing power (or perhaps because abundant power facilitates wasteful programming practices). This contributed to the pace of the iPad adoption by the customers: it took 28 days for the iPad to reach a million users, vs. 180 days for the netbook. Consumers love speedy devices.

And, as a final example of speed related services, we can mention classifieds websites derived from the highly successful Blocket in Sweden (Blocket is owned by my former employer Schibsted). The site is so huge that an equivalent about 5.5% of the entire Swedish GNP goes through it!  As for the French version called Le Bon Coin (see Monday Note’s story), it delivers 2000 pages per second while relying on fairly small hardware. But the site is entirely coded in C language that provides lightning-fast data delivery (users see 40 pages per visits on average, eight to ten times more than any news site).

Let’s face it, consumers tolerance to latency is closing down to zero. They want ultra-fast boot time, quick network access, fast pages display or download.

Sadly, this issue that has yet to percolate to the surface of news media industry consciousness. Too many web publishers remain convinced that the quality of their editorial is far more important that the underlying technology that supports it. This is made even more obvious with the inception of the iPad and of its applications. The vast majority of news media publishers have not focused enough on speed and seamlessness. Let me repeat a point I’ve already made here several times: the digital news sector needs more investment in technology and techies.

This is a critical issue. As of 2009, in the US market, print represented 12% of time spent but still 26% of advertising spending, and those numbers are falling pretty fast. The internet shows a symmetrical pattern: 28% of time spent but only 13% in ads spending (both growing fast). For news medias, seizing up this opportunity means transferring know-how and content to the internet in the most effective way. This means developing services and applications offering top level speed and design. Otherwise, tech-driven pure players will inevitably fill the gap (and content quality might not be the main criteria of success…) at the expense of sluggish classical medias. No one wants content farms to crush quality news outlets.

Time is becoming the scarcest resource. Consider this: according to the US Census Bureau, time spent on various medias has remained stable since 2004, at around 3500 hours per year per person; the largest part is still taken by all forms of television, which absorb about 1600 hours per person per year. But things are not equal: over the last 6 years, newspapers consumption has dropped by at least 20% as video games shot up by 36%; so-called pure-player internet services rose by 31% and pure-player mobile services by 123%. (Those stats are imprecise: the exploding year 2010 is a projection).

Whatever the metric considered, access to mobile services is likely to grow. And it is directly related to the lifestyle of the population. In Korea and Japan, where people spend more time in public transportation than in any OECD country, the industry responded by developing large sets of mobile services delivered over fast networks. In the United States, time spent in cars (72 minutes per day on average, twice the European level) is more likely to stimulate Natural User Interfaces developments. For media applications, voice recognition systems are still in infancy: just think about a voice-activated digital radio that would allow the user to search and select any show, present or past, while driving.

For classical medias, we are just seeing the beginning of a vast catching-up phase. In doing so, the incumbents face digital native challengers that are way more skilled than they are in dealing with interfaces and with zero latency delivery.

— frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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