mobile internet

The iPad Is a Tease

 

As Apple is about to release its latest quarterly numbers, new questions arise about the iPad’s “anemic” growth. The answer is simple – but the remedies are not.

The iPad isn’t growing anymore. What happened? 

In anticipation of Apple’s latest quarterly numbers – they’ll be announced on April 23rd – the usual prerelease estimates swirl around the Web. You can find Yahoo’s summary of analysts’ estimates here; Paul Leitao’s Posts At Eventide provides a detailed and tightly reasoned history and forecast for the March 2014 quarter.

The consensus is that for the company as a whole, there won’t be any surprises: Apple will meet the guidance stated in its January 27th earnings call. Revenue will be down, as befits the quarter following the Christmas shopping frenzy, but profit per share (EPS) will be up a bit.

Boring. With one glaring exception:

Braeburn Group iPad Edited
(Source: The Braeburn Group)

In the same quarter for 2013, the iPad’s year-on-year growth was about 55%. Some of this phenomenal growth was due to a rebound from earlier iPad mini supply constraints, but that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop from 2013 to this year.

Are the iPad’s go-go years over?

As Philip Elmer-DeWitt reports on his Apple 2.0 site, this gloomy prediction appears to be the majority opinion among analysts. Elmer-DeWitt acknowledges that there are outliers — Horace Dediu comes in at the high end with an estimate of 21.8M units (and positive growth) — but “the consensus estimate of 19.3 million, would represent a 0.7% decline”.

It’s one thing for a product to increase in unit volume sales but still grow less than the overall market — that’s simply a loss of market share. And we know how fallacious share numbers can be in the absence of an honest disclosure of sales volumes. No, assuming the estimates are right, what we have here isn’t market share dilution, it isn’t a post-Christmas lull, it’s a year-to-year decline in absolute unit numbers.

Why?

I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

To explain, let’s go back four years.

Steve Jobs’ last creation took us by surprise, price included, and was initially panned by many in the kommentariat, from Eric Schmidt to Dan Lyons (who subsequently recanted). But normal humans joyously took to the iPad. In 1984, one of Apple’s tag line for the Mac was “Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.” Decades later, the iPad was quickly perceived as a sort of second coming. As MacWorld put it in June 2011: Now Apple’s really “for the rest of us”.

Indeed, the iPad wasn’t targeted at a particular type — or generation — of user. David Hockney has produced exquisite iPad “paintings”. Daniel Borel, Logitech’s co-founder, told me that his two-year old grandson immediately “got” the iPad (even if it was just to play games, but…he’s two). Coming out of our breakfast meeting, I crossed paths with a couple of seniors — octogenarians, probably — who proudly told me that they were going to an iPad training session at the Palo Alto Apple Store.

The iPad rose and rose. It won legions of admirers because of its simplicity: No windows (no pun), no file system, no cursor keys (memories of the first Mac). Liberated from these old-style personal computer ways, the iPad cannibalized PC sales and came to be perceived as the exemplar Post-PC device.

But that truly blissful simplicity exacts a high price. I recall my first-day disappointment when I went home and tried to write a Monday Note on my new iPad. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to create a real-life composite document, one that combines graphics, spreadsheet data, rich text from several sources and hyperlinks. For such tasks, the Rest of Us have to go back to our PCs and Macs.

I realize there are iPad users who happily perform “productivity tasks” on their iPads. Most of them use a stand and keyboard sold in a number of guises. The number of different offerings is a testament to a real need. (We’ll note that Apple doesn’t seem eager to address this issue directly. They don’t offer an “iPad-sized” keyboard — the Bluetooth keyboard I use is fine for my iMac, but feels gargantuan when I pair it with my iPad. And Apple’s iPad Dock hasn’t been updated to work with the “Lightning” connector on the newer iPads.)

The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages?

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

In his introduction of the iPad in January, 2010, Jobs himself seemed a bit tentative when positioning his latest creation. Sitting in the Le Corbusier chair, Jobs stated that his new tablet would have to “find its place between the iPhone and the Mac”.

This “in-between place” is still elusive.

Microsoft tried to find that “in-between place”, and we know how well that worked. For the Redmond company, the iPad’s limitations were an opportunity: Simply emulate the charm and intuitiveness of the market-leading tablet and cater to the needs of the “professional” user. With its touch interface and keyboard, the Surface device sounded like the solution that had eluded Microsoft’s earlier PC Tablets. In the field, customers didn’t like the dueling interfaces, nor the introduction of layers of complexity where simplicity had been promised. Surface tablets didn’t move the revenue needle and cost Microsoft a $900M write-down.

The iPad represents about 20% of Apple’s revenue; allowing iPad numbers to plummet isn’t acceptable. So far, Apple’s bet has been to keep the iPad simple, rigidly so perhaps, rather than creating a neither-nor product: No longer charmingly simple, but not powerful enough for real productivity tasks. But if the iPad wants to cannibalize more of the PC market, it will have to remove a few walls.

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

None of this is news to Apple execs, but they also know that success doesn’t depend on What, on a simple feature list. The next step in iPad growth will depend on How new features are integrated into the user experience. It’s a tricky game of the Best of Both Worlds…and it tripped up Microsoft.

When will we know? I have no idea. Perhaps at the WWDC this coming June.

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Browser Is The OS: 19 Years Later

 

So it was declared in the early days: Web apps will win over native apps. Why let the facts cloud an appealing theory?

Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, is credited with many bold, visionary claims such as “Everyone Will Have the Web” (ca. 1992), “Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud” (1999), “Everything Will Be Social” (2004, four years before joining Facebook’s Board), and “Software Will Eat the World” (2009).

But not all of Andreessen’s predictions are as ringing and relevant. His 1995 proclamation that “The Browser Will Be the Operating System” still reverberates around the Web, despite the elusiveness of the concept.

The idea is that we can rid our computing devices of their bulky, buggy operating systems by running apps in the Cloud and presenting the results in a Web browser. The heavy lifting is performed by muscular servers while our lightweight devices do nothing more than host simple input/output operations. As a result, our devices will become more agile and reliable, they’ll be less expensive to buy and maintain, we’ll never again have to update their software.

The fly in the ointment is the word connected. As Marc Andreessen himself noted in a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:

[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.

So what do we do until we have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity?

We must build off-line capabilities into our devices, local programs that provide the ability to format and edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the absence of a connection to the big App Engines in the Cloud. Easy enough, all you have to do is provide a storage mechanism (a.k.a. a file system), local copies of your Cloud apps, a runtime environment that can host the apps, a local Web server that your Browser can talk to… The inventory of software modules that are needed to run the “Browser OS” in the absence of a connection looks a lot like a conventional operating system… but without a real OS’s expressive power and efficiency.

For expressive power, think of media intensive applications. Photoshop is a good example: It could never work with a browser as the front end, it requires too much bandwidth, the fidelity of the image is too closely tied to the specifics of the display.

With regard to efficiency, consider the constant low-level optimizations required to conserve battery power and provide agile user interaction, none of which can be achieved in a browser plug-in.

Certainly, there are laudable arguments in support of The Browser Is The OS theory. For example: Unified cross-platform development. True, developing an app that will run on a standardized platform decreases development costs, but, let’s think again, do we really want to go for the lowest common denominator? A single standard sounds comfy and economical but it throttles creativity, it discourages the development of apps that take advantage of a device’s specialized hardware.

Similarly, a world without having to update your device because the Cloud always has the latest software is a comforting thought.. but, again, what about when you’re off-line? Also, a growing number of today’s computing devices automatically update themselves.

In any case, the discussion may be moot: The people who pay our salaries — customers — blithely ignore our debates. A recent Flurry Analytics report shows that “Six years into the Mobile Revolution” apps continue to dominate the mobile Web. We spend 86% of our time using apps on our mobile devices and only 14% in our browsers:

Apps 86 Browser 14

…and app use is on the rise, according to the Flurry Analytics forecast for 2014:

Apps Web Flurry 2013 2014

So how did Andreessen get it so wrong, why was his prediction so wide of the mark? It ends up he wasn’t wrong… because he never said “The Browser Will Be the Operating System”. Although it has been chiseled into the tech history tablets, the quote is apocryphal. 

While doing a little bit of research for this Monday Note, I found a 1995 HotWired article, by Chip Bayers, strangely titled “Why Bill Gates Wants to Be the Next Marc Andreessen”. (Given Microsoft’s subsequent misses and Marc Andreessen’s ascendency, perhaps we ought to look for other Chip Bayer prophecies…) The HotWired piece gives us a clear “asked and answered” Andreessen quote [emphasis mine]:

“Does the Web browser become something like an operating system?

No, it becomes a new type of platform. It doesn’t try to do the things an operating system does. Instead of trying to deal with keyboards, mouses, memory, CPUs, and disk drives, it deals with databases and files that people want to secure – transactions and things like that. We’re going to make it possible for people to plug in anything they want.”

Nearly two decades later, we still see stories that sonorously expound “The Browser Is The OS” theory. Just google the phrase and you’ll be rewarded with 275M results such as “10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS” or “The Browser Is The New Operating System”. We also see stories that present Google’s Chrome and Chromebooks as the ultimate verification that the prediction has come true.

The Browser Is The OS is a tech meme, an idea that scratches an itch. The nonquote was repeated, gained momentum, and, ultimately, became “Truth”. We’ll be polite and say that the theory is “asymptotically correct”… while we spend more energy figuring out new ways to curate today’s app stores.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Nokia Goes Android – Part II

 

Next week, we might see Nokia’s entry-level feature phones replaced by a low-end device running Android Open Source Project software. The phone may just be a fantasy, but the dilemma facing Nokia’s feature phone business is quite real: Embrace Android or be killed by it. 

Nokia will announce an Android phone! So says the persistent rumor, started about three months ago by an @evleaks tweet, and followed by more details as weeks went by. Initially code-named Normandy, the hypothetical feature phone is now called Nokia X, and it already has its own Wikipedia page and pictures:

Nokia X

Nokia is on the path to being acquired by Microsoft. Why introduce an Android-based phone now? The accepted reasoning is simple…

  • Even though it doesn’t generate much revenue per handset (only $42), Nokia’s feature phone business is huge and must be protected. Nokia’s Form 20-F for 2012 (the 2013 report hasn’t been published, yet) shows its phone numbers compared to the previous year:
    • 35M smartphones (-55%) at an average price (ASP) of $210 (+ 11%)
    • 300M feature phones (-12%) with an ASP of $42 (- 11%)
  • These 300 million feature phones — or “dumbphones” — keep the Nokia flag waving, particularly in developing economies, and they act as an up-ramp towards more profitable smartphones.
  • Lately, dumbphones have become smarter. With the help of Moore’s Law, vigorous competition, and Android Open Source Project (AOSP) software, yesterday’s underfed, spartan feature phones are being displaced by entry-level smartphones. Asha, Nokia’s offering in this category, has been mowed down by low-end Android devices from China.
  • Nokia can’t help but notice that these AOSP-based feature phones act as a gateway drug to the full-blown Android smartphone experience (and much larger profits) offered by competitors such as Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola’s new owner Lenovo.
  • So Nokia drops its over-the-hill Symbian software core, adopts Android, adds its own (and Microsoft’s) services, design expertise, and carrier relationships, and the result is Nokia X, a cleaner, smarter feature phone.

That’s it. Very tactical. Business as usual, only better. Move along, nothing to see.

It’s not that simple.

There’s an important difference between the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and the full Android environment that’s offered by Samsung, LG, HTC and the like.

The Android Open Source Project is really Open Source, you can download the source code here, modify it as you see fit for your application, add layers of services, substitute parts…anything you like.

Well, almost anything. The one thing you can’t do is slap a figurative “Android Inside” sticker on your device. To do that, you must comply with Google’s strict compatibility requirements that force licensees to bundle Google Mobile (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) and Google Play (the store for apps and other content). The result isn’t open or free, but smartphone makers who want the Android imprimatur must accept the entire stack.

As an added incentive to stay clean, a “Full Android” licensee cannot also market devices that use a different, incompatible version (or “fork”) of the Android code published by Google. A well-know example of forking is Amazon’s use of Android source code to create the software engine that runs its high-end Kindle Fire tablets. You won’t find a single instance of the word “Android” on these devices: Google won’t license the name for such uses.

(For more on the murky world of Android licensing, bundling, and marketing agreements, see Ben Edelman’s research paper: Secret Ties in Google’s “Open” Android.)

The hypothetical, entry-level Nokia X can’t offer an entire Android stack — it can’t be allowed to compete with the higher-end Lumias powered by Microsoft’s Windows Phone — so it would have to run an “unmentionable” Android fork.

Even without the “Android Inside” label, everyone would soon know the truth about the Android code inside the new device. This could give pause to software developers, carriers, and, the more curious users. “Where is Microsoft going with this? Won’t the Android beast inside soon work its way up the product line and displace the Windows Phone OS?”

Microsoft will make soothing sounds: “Trust us, nothing of the sort will ever happen.  Nokia X is a purely tactical ploy, a placeholder that will give Windows Phone enough time to reveal its full potential.” We know how well attempts to create a Reality Distortion Field have worked for Microsoft’s Post-PC denials.

The Redmond not-so-mobile giant faces a dilemma: Lose the Asha feature phone business to aggressive forked-Android makers, or risk poisoning its Windows Phone business by introducing potentially expansionist Android seeds at the bottom of its handset line.

Several observers (see Charles Arthur’s penetrating Guardian column as an example) have concluded that Microsoft should follow Amazon’s lead and accept the “Come To Android” moment. It should drop Windows Phone and run a familiar Embrace and Extend play: Embrace Android and Extend it with Bing, Nokia’s Here Maps, Office, and other Microsoft properties.

Critics, such as Peter Bright, an energetic Microsoft commenter, contend that forking Android isn’t feasible:

“Android isn’t designed to be forked. With GMS, Google has deliberately designed Android to resist forking. Suggestions that Microsoft scrap its own operating system in favor of such a fork simply betray a lack of understanding of the way Google has built the Android platform.”

Dianne Hackborn, a senior Android engineer (and a former comrade of mine during a previous OS war) contradicts Bright in great point-by-point detail and concludes:

“Actually, I don’t think you have an understanding of how Google has built Android. I have been actively involved in designing and implementing Android since early on, and it was very much designed to be an open-source platform… Android creates a much more equal playing field for others to compete with Google’s services than is provided by the proprietary platforms it is competing with. I also think a good argument can be made that Android’s strategy for addressing today’s need to integrate cloud services into the base platform is an entirely appropriate model for a ‘real’ open-source platform to take.”

In the end, Microsoft probably doesn’t trust Google to refrain from the same games that Microsoft itself knows (too well) how to play. Microsoft used its control of Windows to favor its Office applications. Now it’s Google’s turn. The Mountain View company appears set to kill Microsoft Office, slowly but surely, and using all means available: OS platforms and Cloud services.

None of this draws a pretty picture for Microsoft’s mobile future. Damned if it introduces Android bits at the low end, damned if it lets that same software kill its Asha feature phone business.

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee
———————-
PS: Almost four years ago, I wrote a light-hearted piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android. It was actually less fictional than I let on at the time. In June 2010, I was asked to give a talk at Nokia’s US HQ in White Plains, NY. I was supposed to discuss Apple but I declined to spend too much time on that topic arguing that the Cupertino company was too “foreign” to Nokia’s culture. Instead, I made two suggestions: Fire your CEO and drop your four or five software platforms — Symbian and Linux variants — and adopt Android. Nokia’s combination of industrial design expertise, manufacturing might, and long-standing, globe-spanning carrier relationships could make it a formidable Android smartphone maker.

The first recommendation was warmly received — there was no love for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the accountant cum attorney CEO.

The second was met with indignation: “We can’t lose control of our destiny”. I tried to explain that the loss had already taken place, that too many software platforms were a sure way to get killed at the hands of monomaniacal adversaries.

Three months later Kallasvuo was replaced…by a Microsoft alum who immediately osborned Nokia’s smartphone business by pre-announcing the move to Windows Phone almost a year before the new devices became available.

—–

Is Yahoo serious about media?

 

Under Marissa Mayer’s leadership, Yahoo keeps making substantial efforts to become a major news media player. Will a couple of well-know bylines and a shiny mobile app do the job? 

A big Silicon Valley player entering the news business has long been the worst nightmare of legacy publishers. Combining an array of high tech products with the ability to get all the talent money can buy, the Valley giant could be truly disruptive. Ten years ago, the ongoing fantasy was Google or a Yahoo gulping the New York Times or another such big media property. For many reasons — economical as well as cultural ones — it didn’t happen. Yahoo once approached NYT’s columnist Thomas Friedman, offering him a hefty pay raise to become its star writer. But the Times’ globo-pundit quickly backed off when he realized that most of his reputation –  as arguable as it can be (see the cruel Tom Friedman OpEd Generator) — was tied to his employer. Yahoo and others put the issue at rest for years, focusing on core challenges: survival for Yahoo and global domination for Google.

Until now.

Last year, we first witnessed a significant move from the tech galaxy: Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post by. As mentioned in the Monday Note (see the Memos To Jeff series), Amazon’s technical firepower will undoubtedly exert a transformative — rather than merely incremental — impact on the Post. Further, I guess this will end up being a welcome stimulus for the entire industry, it really needs a tech kick in its sagging backside.

Then came the Yahoo initiatives. Last fall, Marissa Mayer, snatched three visible talents from the New York Times: Megan Liberman, until then the Times’ deputy news editor, was appointed Yahoo News editor in chief; Mayer also tapped iconic tech columnist David Pogue; a month later, she picked the Times’ chief political correspondent Matt Bai. Finally, on November 25th, Marissa Mayer announced that she hired former TV host Katie Couric as the portal’s “global anchor”.

Here we are: Expect Yahoo to simultaneously enter three major information segments: General audience programming with Katie Couric’s show; political and national issues; and tech coverage (in addition to the classical Food site). Logically, Yahoo started with the tech side. Pogue himself introduced Yahoo Tech on stage at CES last week — and didn’t pass up the opportunity to blast its competitors, mocking their nerdy and obscure language. Interface wise, I found the site pretty clever with its one page, endless scrolling structure — a trend to be noticed –  and articles showcased in about 120 tiles (approx 7 tiles x 18 rows), each expanding as needed and keeping its own URL, which is essential for social sharing uses.

Regardless of David Pogue’s ability to put a the human face on technology, Yahoo Tech is entering an increasingly crowded segment. This month, the Wall Street Journal rolled out WSJD, set to take Walt Mossberg’s and Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD slot, itself reborn as Re/Code (can’t find a geekier name), operated by the same duo. The Re/Code money machine will be the already sold-out Code Conference and its offsprings. WSJD features potent editorial firepower with no less than 50 writers on deck.

Marissa Mayer made no mystery of the fact that her editorial initiatives will be directed at Yahoo’s #1 priority, “the company’s commitment to mobile”. When she landed at Yahoo, Mayer was dismayed to discover that everyone received a Blackberry. Now, the company wants to board every relevant ecosystem, starting with iOS and Android.

That’s what Yahoo does with its interesting NewsDigest App for iOS, launched at CES. As its tech web site does, the mobile app focuses on a series of hot trends. First of all, with its truncated structure, the app borrows a lot from Circa (see a previous Monday Note); it also inherits technology developed by Summly, the startup it acquired in March last year (merely five months after the app’s launch). Summly’s core idea is a news summarizing algorithm. The NewsDigest iteration does actually much more than condensing stories: In a neat interface, it creates context by slicing coverage as follows:
–Image gallery
–Infographics
–Maps
–Stock charts
–Main Twitter feeds
–Video
–Wikipedia
…plus a set of references if you want more.

For a story picked up yesterday, it looks like this:

304_yahoo_news

Evidently, there is room for improvement. Weirdly enough, the app is updated only twice a day and carries less than ten stories. Both elements go against the idea of a smartphone app supposed to update on a permanent and to provide content in an endless stream. Plus, automated as it is, the prose can’t quite compete for a Pulitzer Prize. But, if Yahoo decides to hand the key ingredients over to a competent editorial team, the NewsDigest could become a really good product.

Coming back to this column’s main topic, I believe Yahoo is really up to something in the news sector:
– Yahoo enjoys huge traction in the mobile world: According to Marissa Mayer, among the 800 million people who access Yahoo every month (excluding Tumbler), roughly 400 million reach the portal through their mobile phone. (Despite that number, one irritating thing: Yahoo made its app available to the US AppStore only, ignoring the hundreds millions of English-speaking users on other shores, East and West of Sunnyvale, California.)
– Unlike with Google’s mobile strategy, Yahoo is free from Android’s strategic goals and from a difficult relationship with Apple. It can therefore play the two ecosystems equally, opening the potential for one to gain leverage against the other.
– Even better, by last week acquiring Aviate, an Android customizing interface layer, Yahoo can now create its own branded experience on top of the standard Android interface.
– Assuming it enters the news business for good, Yahoo will act like a tech company, not a legacy media one. In other words, it will first build a sizable audience for its news ecosystem while deliberately ignoring the revenue side as long as needed. Then, it will optimize and datamine this user base to understand in the most granular way what works and what doesn’t. Having successfully gone through those steps, Yahoo will then transform the (hopefully vast) newly acquired audience into a money machine.
This is the way it works nowadays.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

@filloux

 

Surviving 2014

 

2014 won’t be an easy year for the digital news business. The good news is the list of mandatory actions is coming into sharper focus. Today, we look at key items.  

The hard part is finding positive signs. My own guess: for the news industry, the excruciating migration from print to digital will get worse before it gets better. If I had to draw a J curve, as economists put it, it would look like this:

303-J-curve

Note that the green list is longer than the red one. But we are still not through with the negative key factors.

For the news media industry, advertising will remain problematic this year. The graph below sums up the sector’s dire situation (a US view that mostly applies to other mature markets):

303 revenue

For 2014, planet remains badly aligned:

- There is nothing is sight to correct the huge imbalance between the supply of digital advertising space and advertisers’ demand. Digital media continue to produce millions of new URLs per day that banners simply can’t match. As long as no one is willing to reduce the supply-side, the imbalance is likely to last. This is even more regrettable when considering how the media industry will need to increase its own promotion activities in order to support the diversification that is key to its survival. Practically, if an online publication decided to close 30% of its inventory and assign it to promote its mobile apps, verticals, ancillary products, etc., it would win on both ends. First, it would recreate some scarcity, meaning higher revenue metrics and, second, it would beef up the promotion of its own products. Unfortunately, such an idea won’t last a minute in a short-term budgetary review.
- Thanks to Real-Time Bidding (RTB), publishers actually fuel the price deflation
by auctioning their leftover inventory on various marketplaces. In doing so, they generate some revenue – at the expense of the format’s per unit value (in such auctions, expect no more than 5-10% of nominal prices). In addition this process mechanically applies negative pressure to premium placements because the advertisers will opportunistically purchase a guaranteed and targeted audience wherever available. Even the New York Times will jump on the RTB bandwagon  — “in [its] special way”, it claims. We’ll see.
- Making serious money with mobile ads will remain elusive. For most digital news outlets, mobile users are likely to pass the 50% of the total audience later this year. Unfortunately, the magic advertising formula has yet to be cracked as a mobile user only brings a fraction of the equivalent web revenue. I don’t believe in a miracle ad format that will make the commercial experience “engaging” or “enjoyable”… You don’t “engage” people on the move. You grab, seduce, retain them with repetitive and attractive contents that properly fit their time-wise needs and cognitive availability. Then, if the content is good enough, unique, and able to create a reflexive daily habit — then you might be able to convince a fraction of the audience to pay for it. Note the italics, they point to significant obstacles on the road to the mobile pot of gold.
On mobile, I feel interface quality and selectiveness of functionalities are even less forgiving than on the web: you can’t allow useless stuff on a smartphone screen, there is simply no tolerance for it. All contents being equal, the success of a mobile news product will largely depend on the quality of its interface.

Now let’s turn to the green part, the hopeful one.

Agility. One of the benefits of the continuing newsrooms shrinkage (no, we’re not through, yet) will be news staffs making further gains in agility and polyvalence. As Scott Klein, senior editor for news applications at ProPublica, puts it in the NiemanLab Predictions for 2014 (worth a read):

You can be a good journalist without being able to do lots of things. But every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.

Scraping websites, cleaning data, and querying Excel-breaking data sets are enormously useful ways to get great stories. If you don’t know how to write software to help you acquire and analyze data, there will always be a limit to the size of stories you can get by yourself. And that’s a limit that somebody who competes with you won’t have.

To put it more bluntly, in 2014, thriving newsrooms will share the following characteristics: (a) they will be fastest to inject a critical proportion of new blood in their ranks and (b) they will invest in training to add the skills, mostly tech ones, required by modern journalism.

New Forms of Ads. Digital Advertising is half-way through a decisive transformation. As I wrote here many times, the market will stretch at its extremities; one will end up with more automation (the aforementioned RTB trap) while the other end might be more virtuous. It will be based on tailored promotional operations and Branded Content product lines (see coverage in the Monday Note), both form carrying higher CPMs and better reader acceptance. I’m a true believer in the continuity — not the blend nor the confusion — between journalistic contents and commercial editorial. Brand, companies, have a lot to tell beyond traditional advertising. Most publishers will be slow movers in that field. Even if such new forms of ads turn to be a fad (which I don’t believe), it won’t be a costly mistake to hire a commercial editor flanked by a couple of smart people, a combination of writers and strategic planners (not easy to find, I’ll admit, you might instead consider training existing staff), able to understand and convert client needs into good storytelling aimed at attracting (but not deceiving) readers.

2014 will be the year of media companies realizing they must morph into technology companies — or embrace, one way another, the technologies that guarantee their survival. Consider the following factors: advertising requiring better audience profiling; smart recommendation engines becoming mandatory to retain readers; semantic “footprint” becoming the de rigueur instrument to serve a solvent and loyal readership; journalism thriving through data… These all make the need for tech people able to understand editorial issues more pressing.

As long as those prerequisites are well understood, I’m bullish on the future of digital news.

–frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com
@filloux

Shameless Carriers

 

Wireless carriers used to rule smartphone suppliers. In 2007, Steve Jobs upended such rules. Why can’t the carriers accept the change and enjoy the revenues the iPhone generates for them… and why do tech journalists encourage their whining?

Until about two weeks ago, it seemed that our major wireless carriers had given up whining about the unjust subsidies imposed by a certain overly-confident (they said) handset maker. I hoped that their silence on the topic meant that they had finally realized that the extra revenue (ARPU) generated by these smartphones more than made up for the “subsidy burden”, for the exorbitant amounts of money that (they thought) ended up in the wrong coffers.

Then, I saw this this headline:

Everyone Pays No 5c

The article’s lede promises to reveal secret Apple deals that squeeze rivals and tax you. According to the piece’s “logic”, Apple’s one-sided agreements force carriers to swallow inordinate numbers of iPhones, an arrangement that produces all-around nefarious results. To meet their volume commitments, carriers allocate disproportionate amounts of shelf space to iPhones, thus crowding out competitors. And because the Apple contracts drain their finances, carriers are forced to price other handsets higher than they otherwise would. Hence an “iPhone Tax” that everyone must pay, even when using another brand.

In the same piece, we find dark suggestions that Verizon is threatened by a $12B to $14B shortfall in meeting it’s $23B commitment to purchase Apple handsets. A bit of googling led me to a pair of July 2013 articles (here and here) that back up the prediction by pointing to an anal-ist’s write-up of Verizon’s SEC filings (a medium that, as Regular Monday Note readers know too well, I happily wallow in, especially the always-rich MD&A [Management Discussion and Analysis] section where execs are supposed to help us navigate the filing’s sea of numbers).

I went to Verizon’s SEC Filings page and looked up quarterly and annual reports. The first mention of an Apple agreement appears in the 10-K (annual) filing of February 28th, 2011. Since then, no word whatsoever of any purchase commitment, whether for the iPhone or any other device. If you search for “purchase” and “commitment” in the latest October 2013 SEC document, you’ll only find talk of pension funding and share-repurchase obligations:

Verizon 10-Q Oct 2013 Commitments

One would think that a looming $12B to $14B shortfall — more than a third of Verizon’s $30B quarterly revenue — would be mentioned to shareholders. The worried articles fail to explain Verizon’s silence.

This is both novel and familiar.

The novelty is finding Apple guilty of forcing carriers to raise prices on competitors‘ handsets. I hadn’t seen this angle before.

The familiar is the carriers’ use of journalists who present themselves as independent observers/reporters when, in fact, these practitioners of access journalism carry water for their corporate connections. During a lunch conversation some years ago with a Wall Street Journal repentito, I pointed to a fellatious Microsoft article in his old paper and questioned the excessive reverence: ‘Access, Jean-Louis, access. It’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview… ‘

We saw the process at work in a December 2011 WSJ article titled How the iPhone Zapped Carriers, a devotional piece that makes the key points in the carriers’ incessant complaint:

Carriers do all the grunt work while handset makers and software developers take all the money.
The $400 subsidy per iPhone (and now a similar amount for its best competitors as well) is clearly excessive and must stop.
We need a new business model to account (to monetize) the shift from voice to voracious use of data.

Let’s rewind the tape. Once upon a time, there was The Way of The Carrier. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T treated handsets makers the way a supermarket chain treats yogurt suppliers: We’ll tell you the flavors and quantities we want to carry, we’ll set the delivery schedule, dictate the marketing/branding arrangements, define the return privileges and, of course, we’ll let you know what we want to pay for your product — and when we want to pay it.

Then Steve Jobs hypnotized AT&T’s management. He convinced them to let Apple set the terms for iPhone distribution in exchange for AT&T’s “running the table”. This meant no AT&T fingerprints on Apple’s pristine iPhone, no branding, no independent pricing, no pre-installed crapware — content and software would be downloaded via iTunes, only.

In this arrangement, the iPhone helped AT&T steal customers from its main competitor, Verizon. When Verizon finally signed up with Apple in 2010, they were in a much weaker position than if they had obliged at the very beginning of the Smartphone 2.0 era.

Apple is master of the slow-but-steady, surround-from-below approach. First, sign up a weaker player who will accept Apple’s stringent control in exchange for the opportunity to take business away from the dominant player who balks at Cupertino’s terms. After enough customers have switched to the smaller competitor, the market leader changes its mind and signs up with Apple — on Apple’s terms.

The drill has worked in Japan. The smaller SoftBank signed up with Apple while DoCoMo, Japan’s largest wireless carrier, refused. DoCoMo wanted to install its own software on the iPhone; Apple wouldn’t budge. Subscribers migrated to Softbank in numbers significant enough to change DoCoMo’s mind. The happy ending is DoCoMo and its competitors now appear to sell large numbers of iPhones.

Turning to China, the same maneuver is at work. China Unicom and China Telecom have been selling iPhones with the expected result: They’re taking customers from the giant China Mobile. (There are rumors of an Apple-China Mobile agreement, but it’s unclear when this will happen. We should know soon.)

This only works if – and only if – the iPhone is a great salesman for the carrier. Apple extracts a higher price for its iPhone for two reasons: strong volumes and higher revenue per subscriber compared to other sets. In Horace Dediu’s felicitous words [emphasis mine]:

‘I repeat what I’ve mentioned before: The iPhone is primarily hired as a premium network service salesman. It receives a “commission” for selling a premium service in the form of a premium price. Because it’s so good at it, the premium is quite high.’

Carriers should stop whining; these are robust companies run by intelligent businesspeople with immense resources at their disposal. As explained in previous Monday Notes (here and here), there’s no rational basis for their kvetching. Assuming they bleed an extra $200 when subsidizing an iPhone (or a top Samsung handset, now that the Korean giant followed suit), they only need $8/month in extra subscriber revenue from the “offending” smartphone. And yet here we are: Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, predicts the end of subsidies because  “wireless operators can no longer afford to suck up the costs of customers’ devices”.

I don’t know if Stephenson is speaking out of cultural deafness or cynicism, but he’s obscuring the point: There is no subsidy. Carriers extend a loan that users pay back as part of the monthly service payment. Like any loan shark, the carrier likes its subscriber to stay indefinitely in debt, to always come back for more, for a new phone and its ever-revolving payments stream.

I was told as much by Verizon. In preparation for this Monday Note, I went to the Palo Alto Verizon store and asked if I could negotiate a lower monthly payment since Verizon doesn’t subsidize my iPhone (for which I had paid full price). Brian, the pit boss, gave me a definite, if not terribly friendly, answer: “No, you should have bought it from us, you would have paid much less (about $400 less) with a 2-year agreement.” My mistake. Verizon wants to be my loan shark.

In the meantime, AT&T has finally followed T-Mobile’s initiative and has unbundled the service cost from the handset. If you pay full price for your smartphone, an AT&T contract will cost you $15 less than with a subsidized phone on a 2-year agreement. This leads one to wonder how long Verizon can keep its current indifferent price structure.

All this leaves carriers with conflicted feelings: They like their iPhone salesman but, like short-sighted bosses who think their top earner makes too much money, they angle for ways to cut commissions down.

On the other side, Apple’s teams must be spending much energy finding ways to keep generating high monthly revenues for their “victims”.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Other carrier news: Sprint, now owned by SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, is said to be preparing a $20B bid for T-Mobile. We barely avoided excessive concentration when the Department of Justice nixed AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile; now we again risk a three-way market and its unavoidable collusions. As much as I admire SoftBank’s founder and am happy he took control of Sprint, I hope our regulators won’t facilitate more concentration.

This might be the last Monday Note for 2013. I’ll soon be in Paris where jet-lag and various (legal) substances will conspire to make writing more difficult. If so, Happy Holidays to Monday Note readers and their loved ones. –

The not-so-quaint charm of the email newsletter

 

In spite of today’s obsession with social networks, the email newsletter remains a potent vector for the dissemination of news and for driving traffic back to websites. It comes with one condition, though: reintroducing a human touch. 

Today, producing a newsletter looks so easy: Select RSS feeds from your site, fire a plug-in to extract selected headlines and areas, insert the feeds in a template and send the whole thing via a router interface. Done.

Many sites do it on auto-pilot. And the result of such automated treatment is crude newsletters throwing together a bunch of headlines and snippets. On the surface, the output does reflect the content of a site, but it actually fails to reveal any editorial choice other than the basic home page hierarchy. An opinion piece, an in-depth profile, or an investigative report will be processed in the same mechanical way: headline, nutgraf, a couple of links and nothing further.

Based on my personal use, such work ends up in a special designated folder I created on my main Gmail account for each publication I subscribe to. After a while, I stopped looking at those robotized emails. To make things worse (for the senders), Google does the filing for me — unbeknownst to me, actually. A couple of months ago, Gmail created several tabs, one of them titled “Promotions”, that collect all newsletters, including the ones I willingly subscribed to. Google chooses for me the emails should I read first. Great. I don’t understand why this arbitrary filtering didn’t trigger any outcry, both from subscribers and publishers of legit newsletters (I happen to be both). Needless to say, the opening rate of emails falling into the infamous Promotions folder is significantly altered. All at the pleasure of Google and its algorithms.

Coming back to the newsletter itself, we can detect the beginning of a shift away from robotized email towards the written-by-humans form.

Again, I’ll refer to Quartz, the business site launched a year ago by the Atlantic Media Group (see a previous Monday Note series here). Their email newsletter is called “The Daily Brief”; it is 800-words long, no images, cleverly written and edited, sent to about 45,000 subscribers worldwide, in three editions (US, Asia, Europe and Africa.)

Here is how it looks on mobile devices:

qz phones

The structure is simple: Five main headers containing five to seven items, each summing up what the story you might click on is about. The headers are: “What to watch today”, “While you were sleeping”, “Quartz obsession interlude” (it refers to Quartz’ proprietary revision of the old beat structure), “Matter of Debate”, and “Surprising discoveries”. A good mixture of news, fun, serendipity, thoughtful items. The links do not always send back to qz.com, they can lead anywhere. Sounds pretty simple at first. But, as Quartz editor Kevin Delaney recently told me, the Daily Brief is the result of a thorough editorial process. The email newsletter is touched by no less than four people, including two seasoned editors, Gideon Lichfield, Quartz global news editor who spent 16 years at the Economist, and Adam Pasick, the Asia editor and a 10-year Reuters veteran. Newsrooms who assign junior writers to expedite email newsletters should think again… Quartz is one of the few media I know to actually devote sizable resources for such a “simple” news product (also read this analysis on MailChimp, Quartz email router). But many are now considering the formula: The Wall Street Journal recently launched its “10-Points” email newsletter, built on the same principles as Quartz’s Daily Brief.

wsj-10points2

Sophisticated email newsletters are not new. For years, bloggers affiliated or not with large media organizations have been using them to promote their work and attract readers, gaining significant traction in the process. To name but a few, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish on Politics, or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook (part of NYTimes.com) have become full-fledged news brands. I asked Juan Señor, partner at Innovation-Consulting, who worked on many newspaper modernizations, for his opinion on the matter:

Conceptually, our take and that of other newspapers investing in newsletters or news briefings – as we call them – is that you have to move from commodity news to selling intelligence. In an age of abundance you have to sell scarcity. The laws of economics prescribe that the more abundant a product is, the less valuable it is in price. The more volume I have, the less value I can extract from it.’ 

Juan adds two critical factors needed to create a valued product: Timing — sending a news briefing at the right time to maximize its impact — and the multi-device format.

In spite of their age, email newsletters remain a relative primitive stage. Let’s talk first about the user interface. A newsletter begs to be read both on mobiles and on a desktop. You can no longer decide for the reader which screen size h/she will read your stuff on. Responsive design is mandatory. But applying responsive design techniques is way more complicated for newsletters than it is for websites. Even large medias such as the NYT are providing single formats newsletters. (I will humbly admit that, while the Monday Note blog switched to responsive design a while ago, I’m still struggling to do the same for our newsletter.) While I want to send a newsletter from a series of blog posts in a single stroke, I’m still waiting for the WordPress plug-in that will let me do that through a wide range of email routers. In the same fashion, I would welcome add-ons to the most popular word processors that would output good-looking, responsive html emails.

Another thing about email design: It must be conceived to be read offline. I live in a 4G city (Paris) but I still get poor 3G or even EDGE service in too many places (French carriers are said to slow down network speed in order to accelerate the switch to 4G). Therefore, the ability to read complete content offline beyond headlines is, in my view, a basic feature. Going a bit further, I would dream of newsletters pre-loading multiple layers of reading, allowing the reader to jump from the main page to one or two levels down — without requiring a connection.

Deeper improvements to newsletters will come from the usual combination of analytics and semantics. A well-crafted engine will detect what parts of an email newsletter I read the most, what subjects I’m more inclined to click on. Then, the system will adapt the content of my newsletters in order to increase my propensity to open and to engage (i.e. to click on links.) This will make the old-fashioned newsletter an even more powerful website traffic vector.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

News: Mobile Trends to Keep In Mind

 

For publishers, developing an all-out mobile strategy has become both more necessary and more challenging. Today, we look at key data points and trends for such a task. 

#1 The Global Picture
– 1.7bn mobile phones (feature phones and smartphones) were sold in 2012 alone
– 3.2bn people use a mobile phone worldwide
– Smartphones gain quickly as phones are replaced every 18 to 24 months
– PCs are completely left in the dust as shown in this slide from Benedict Evans’ excellent Mobile is Eating the World presentation:

ben-evans

The yellow line has two main components:
– 1 billion Android smartphones are said to be in operation worldwide (source: Google)
– 700 million iOS devices have been sold over time, with 500 million still in use, which corresponds to the number of iTunes accounts (source: Asymco, one of the best references for the mobile market.)
– 450 million Symbian-based feature phones are in operation (Asymco.)

#2 The Social Picture 

Mobile phone usage for news consumption gets increasingly tied to social networks. Here are some key numbers :
– Facebook: about 1.19bn users; we don’t exactly know how many are active
– Twitter: 232 million users
– LinkedIn: 259 million users

When it comes to news consumption in a social environment, these three channels have different contributions. This chart, drawn from a Pew Research report, shows the penetration of different social networks and the proportion of the US population who get their news from it.

300_pew

One of the most notable data points in the Pew Report is the concentration of sources for social news:
– 65% say to get their news from one social site
– 26% from two sites
– 9% from three sources or more (such as Google +, LinkedIn)

But, as the same time, these sources are completely intertwined. Again, based on the Pew survey, Twitter appears to be the best distributor of news.

Among those who get their news from Twitter:
– 71% also get their news on Facebook
– 27% on YouTube
– 14% on Google+
– 7% on LinkedIn

Put another way, Facebook collects more than half of the adult population’s news consumption on social networks.

But a closer looks at demographics slightly alters the picture because all social networks are not equal when it comes to education and income segmentation:

If you want to reach the Bachelor+ segment, you will get:
– 64% of them on LinkedIn
– 40% on Twitter
but…
– only 30% on Facebook
– 26% on G+
– 23% on YouTube

And if you target the highest income segment (more than $75K per year), you will again favor LinkedIn that collects 63% of news consumers in this slice, more than Facebook (41%)

Coming back to the mobile strategy issue, despite Facebook’s huge adoption, Twitter appears to be the best bet for news content. According to another Pew survey, the Twitter user is more mobile :

Mobile devices are a key point of access for these Twitter news consumers. The vast majority, 85%, get news (of any kind) at least sometimes on mobile devices. That outpaces Facebook news consumers by 20 percentage points; 64% of Facebook news consumers use mobile devices for news. The same is true of 40% of all U.S. adults overall. Twitter news consumers stand out for being younger and more educated than both the population overall and Facebook news consumers

 And, as we saw earlier, Twitter redistributes extremely well on other social platforms. It’s a no brainer: any mobile site or app should carry a set of hashtags, whether it’s a stream of information produced by the brand or prominent bylines known for their insights.

 #3 The Time Spent Picture

Here is why news is so complicated to handle in mobile environments. According to Flurry Analytics: On the 2 hours and 38 minutes spent each day on a smartphone and an a tablet by an American user, news accounts for 2% as measured in app consumption, which accounts for 80% of time spent. The remaining 20% is spent in a browser where we can assume the share of the news to be much higher. But even in the most optimistic hypothesis, news consumption on a mobile device amounts to around 5 to 6% of time spent (this is correlated by other sources such as Nielsen). Note that this proportion seems to decrease as, in May 2011, Flurry Analytics stated news in the apps ecosystems accounted for 9% of time spent.

This view is actually consistent with broader pictures of digital news consumption, such as these two provided by Nielsen, which show that while users spend 50 minutes per month on CNN (thanks to is broad appeal and to its video content), they only spend 18 minutes on the NYT and a mere 8 minutes on the Washington Post:

300 nielsen

All of the above compares to 6hrs 42min spent on Facebook, 2hrs on YouTube or Yahoo sites.

In actionable terms, this shows the importance of having smartphones apps (or mobile web sites) sharply aimed at providing news in the most compact and digestible way. The “need to know” focus is therefore essential in mobile because catching eyeballs and attention has become increasingly challenging. That’s why The New York Times is expected to launch a compact version of its mobile app (currently dubbed N2K, Need to Know, precisely), aimed at the market’s youngest segment and most likely priced just below $10 a month. (The Times also does it because the growth of digital subscriptions aimed at the upper market is slowing down.) At the other end of the spectrum, the NYT is also said to work on digital magazine for iPad, featuring rich multimedia-narrative on (very) long form such the Pulitzer winning Snow Fall (on that matter, the Nieman analysis is worth a read).

This also explains why the most astute digital publishers go for newsletters designed for mobile that are carefully – and wittily – edited by humans. (One example is the Quartz Daily Brief; it’s anecdotal but everyone I recommended this newsletter to now reads it on a daily basis.) I personally no longer believe in automated newsletters that repackage web site headlines, regardless of their quality. On smartphones, fairly sophisticated users (read: educated and affluent) sought by large media demand time-saving services, to the point content, neatly organized in an elegant visual, and — that’s a complicated subject — tailored to their needs way.

#4 The ARPU View

On mobile devices, the Average Revenue per User should be a critical component when shaping a mobile strategy. First, let’s settle the tablet market question. Even though the so-called “cheap Android” segment  ($100-150 for a plastic device running an older version of Android) thrive in emerging markets, when it comes to extracting significant money from users, the iPad runs the show. It accounts for 80% of the tablet web traffic in the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, and even China (source: Adobe.)

The smartphone is more complicated. A year ago, many studies made by AppAnnie or Flurry Analytics showed that the iPhone ecosystem brought four times more revenue than Android. More recently, Flurry Analytics ran a story stating that the average app price for Android was $0.06 vs. $0.19 for the iPhone and $0.50 for the iPad.

The gap is closing as Android terminals attracts a growing number of affluent users. Still, compared to iOS, it is notoriously difficult to carry paid-for apps and services in the Android ecosystem, and Android ads remains cheaper. It’s likely to remain the case for quite a while as iOS devices are likely to remain much more expensive than Android ones, and therefore more able to attract high-end demographics and the ads that go to them.

How this impacts a smartphone strategy: Publishers might consider different business models for the two main ecosystems. They could go for fairly sophisticated apps in the iOS world, served  by a well-oiled payment system allowing many flavors of In-App add-ons. By contrast, the Android environment favors a more “go-for-volume” approach; but things could evolve quickly as the Android share of high-end audience grows and as the PlayStore gains in sophistication and gets as friction-free as the AppStore.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Circa App: News Exclusively for Mobiles

 

by Frederic Filloux

Suddenly, everybody talks about Circa, a simple application that delivers news in an astutely condensed format. Is there a Circa secret sauce? And can it last? 

Circa’s concept is simple. It’s an iPhone-only app, meaning it doesn’t offer an iPad variant. Circa delivers content in the most digestible of ways, for people on the move, eager to quickly drill down to the essence of news. Period. No animation, no frills, but a clever sequential construction. Here is an example from this weekend’s stream: Google’s announcement that, in order to avoid fines in Germany, its News service will only index sources that have decided to explicitly opt-in to being shown in G-News Germany. Here is how it looks on Circa:

Scroll #1 : the nutshell

01-photo-8

Scroll #2 & 3 : a short development and main quotes

01b-photo-6.02-photo-7

Scroll 4 & 5, the end of the development and related stories

04-photo-5.05-photo-4

Now, tap the “i” icon to get source information (in green):

06-photo-1

Of course, sources — “Citations” in Circa’s parlance — are clickable and send the reader to the original article displayed by a browser embedded in the application (a web-view). In doing so, Circa’s editors are able to keep the story in the most compact format possible. Instead of the classical story construction taught at journalism schools that results in endless scrolling, Circa’s pieces require no more than 6 or 7 screens.

In last week’s presentation in Paris at the Global Editors Network Conference, David Cohn, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Circa, provided a comparison between an AP story, viewed traditionally (left) and through Circa’s lenses (right, click to enlarge) :

07-capt dual

“At Circa, we atomize, not summarize”, says Cohn. “Atomization is when a story gets broken into into its core elements: facts, stats, quotes, media [images, maps, etc.]“. Pretty efficient indeed. If the reader wants to check the origin of a piece of information, s/he’ll unfold the sources’ deep links. Because, of course, Circa’s is an aggregator in its purest form: No original reporting whatsoever, just clever repackaging.

When I challenged David Cohn about this very point, he countered that Circa’s stories always have multiple sources and that he and his staff added “a high touch of editorial at every step of the process”, including “serious [web based] fact-checking”. He continued: “In many ways we are at the same level as other news organizations”. He meant relying on third party sources or press releases from various entities… That’s not exactly a consolation to me… At some point, the aggregation ecosystem might simply run out of original news to feed — or prey — on.

With its staff of 14 — including five people on the West coast, four on the East coast, one in Beirut and another in Beijing — Circa produces 40 to 60 news stories every day and, more importantly, 70 to 90 updates. Because, aside of its truncating obsession, Circa’s most appreciated feature is the way it follows a story.  ‘Traditional media always feel the need  to recall all the background of a given story’, adds David Cohn. ‘At Circa, when a reader wants to follow a story he will be served with update notifications each time he reconnects to the app. See this abstract from David’s presentation:

08-followStory

OK, but what about the revenue side? Circa was launched last October and, as expected, has no plan to yield a single dime before next year. For now, the founders are building their audience base as fast as they can. After the iPhone app, an Android version is scheduled for the Fall, as well as a first redesign that will further simplify its user interface. After that, Circa’s team sees several possibilities. The most obvious is advertising, although David Cohn acknowledges that a poor implementation could swiftly kill the app. A flurry of banners, or intrusive formats such as interstitials would irremediably sully the neat user experience. (I’m still astonished to see how slow traditional media are to leave these old formats behind while native internet projects abandon exhausted advertising apparatus much more quickly…) Circa will rather rely on native ads (see a previous Monday Note on the subject) that blend in the flow of stories, like in Forbes or Atlantic Media’s business site Quartz.

Another natural way to monetize Circa would be a business-to-business iteration of the app. Many companies might be willing to support a lightweight application focusing on their sector, with features encouraging adoption and stickiness within large corporate staffs.

What about a paid-for apps? After all, Circa could be close to a million users by year-end. “We might go for an In-App purchase instead, maybe for niche segments”, says David Cohn. The financial sector looks like a natural candidate. Cohn also notes, in passing, that the rigorous formatting of stories could lead to a well-structured corpus of news, ideally suited for all sorts of data-mining in the future.

Circa is in many ways a contemporary product. First, it neatly addresses the attention span challenge. Remember: it’s 9 seconds for a goldfish, 8 seconds for a human in 2012 — vs. 12 seconds in 2000 –  and let’s not forget that, according to Statistic Brain, 17% of web pages are viewed for less than 4 seconds. Seriously, Circa found ways to save our precious time. Second, its content is more than neutral, it’s sanitized, deodorized. It’s a perfect fit for a generation of readers for whom facts are free and abundant, opinions are suspect and long form stories a relic of the past…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Tech as a boost for development

 

Moore’s Law also applies to global development. From futuristic wireless networks for rural Africa to tracking water well drillings, digital technology is a powerful boost for development as evidenced by a growing number of initiatives.  

Last week, The Wall Street Journal unveiled a Google project designed to provide wireless networks in developing countries, more specifically in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the Journal, the initiative involves using the airwaves spectrum allocated for television signals or teaming up with cellular carriers already working there. In its typical “outside-of-the-box” thinking, the project might also rely on high-altitude blimps to cover infrastructure-deprived areas. Coupled with low-cost handsets using the Android operating system, or the brand new Firefox OS for mobile, this would boost the spread of cellular phones in poor countries.

Previously unavailable, mobile access will be a game changer for billions of people. At the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I chatted with an Alcatel-Lucent executive who explained the experiments she witnessed in Kenya, such as providing the equivalent of index cards to nurses to upgrade their knowledge of specific treatments; the use of mobile phone translated into an unprecedented reach, even in remote areas where basic handsets are shared among many people. Similarly, tests for access to reading material were conducted by UNESCO, the United Nations branch for education and culture. Short stories, some loaded with interactive features, were sent to phones and, amazingly, kids flocked to read, share and participate. All of this was carried on “dumb” phones, sometimes with only mono-color displays. Imagine what could be done with smartphones.

Moore’s Law will keep helping. Currently, high end smartphones are out of reach for emerging markets where users rely on prepaid cards instead of subscriptions. But instead of a $400-$600 handsets (without a 2-year contract) currently sold in Western markets, Chinese manufacturers are aiming at a price of $50 for a durable handset, using a slower processor but sporting all expected features: large screen, good camera, GPS module, accelerometers, and tools for collective use. On such a foundation, dedicated applications can be developed — primarily for education and health.

As an example, the MIT Media Labs has created a system for prescribing eyeglasses that requires only a one-dollar eyepiece attached to a smartphone; compared to professional equipment costing thousands times more, it runs a very decent diagnostic. (This is part of the MIT Global Challenge Initiative).

This, coupled with liquid-filled adjustable glasses such as this one presented at TED a couple of years ago, will help solve vision problems in poor countries for a couple of dollars per person. Other systems aimed at detecting vision-related illnesses such as cataract or glaucoma are in development. So are blood-testing technologies based on bio-chips tied to a mobile app for data collection.

Last week, I attended the Google’s Zeitgeist conference in the UK — two days of enthralling TED-like talks (all videos here). Among many impressive speakers, two got my attention. The first is Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University. In his talk — filled with a mixture of Indian and British humor — he described self-organizing systems experiments in rural India built around basic internet-connected computers. The results are compelling for language learning and basic understanding of science or geography.

The other speaker was the complete opposite. Scott Harrison has an interesting trajectory: he is a former New York nightclub promoter who changed drastically his life seven years ago by launching the organization Charity:Water. Harrison’s completely fresh approach helped him redefine how a modern charitable organization should work. He built his organization around three main ideas. First, 100% of donations should reach a project. To achieve this, he created two separate funding circuits: a public one for projects and another for to support operational costs.

Principle number two, build a brand, with all the attributes that go with it: Strong visual identity and well-designed web site (most of those operated by NGO’s are terrible); the web site is rich and attractive and it looks more like than an Obama campaign fundraising machine than a NGO, (I actually tested Charity:Water’s very efficient donation system by giving $100, curious to see where the money will land.)

The third and probably the most innovative idea was to rely on simple, proven digital technologies to guarantee complete project traceability. Donors can find precisely where their money ends up — whether it is for a $60 sand-filter fountain or a $2000 well. Last, Charity:Water funded a drilling truck equipped with a GPS tracker that makes it visible on Google Maps; in addition, the truck tweets its location on a real-time basis. Thanks to a $5 million Google funding, the organization currently works with seven high-tech US companies to develop robust water sensors able to show in real-time how much water is running on a given project. About 1000 of these are to be installed before year-end. This will help detect possible malfunctions and it will also carries promotional (read: fundraising) capabilities: thanks to a mobile app, a kid who helped raise few hundreds bucks among his friends can see where his or her water is actually flowing.

As I write this, I see comments coming, denouncing the gadgetization of charity, the waste of money in technologies not directly benefiting the neediest, Google’s obscure and mercantile motives, or the future payback for cellular carriers from the mobile initiatives mentioned earlier. Sure thing, objections must be heard. But, at this time, everyone who has traveled in poor areas — like I did in India or in sub-Saharan countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Burkina-Faso — comes back with the strong conviction that all means must be used to provide these populations with basic things we take for granted in the Western world. As for Charity:Water, results speak for themselves: Over six years, the organization has raised almost $100m and it provided drinkable water to 3m people (out of 800m who don’t have access to it in the world — still lots of work left.) Like in many areas, the benefits of new, disruptive models based on modern technologies far outweigh the disadvantages.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com