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Rebooting Web Publishing Design

mobile internet, online publishing By December 19, 2010 23 Comments

Let’s start by reviewing the basic ingredients of a successful online publishing operation:

1 / Quick load.
2 / Ease of operation and update
3 / Consistent visual identity
4 / Platform independence
5 / Open to the rest of the web
6 / Geared for transactions
7 / CRM and marketing-friendly

Why am I scrutinizing this? Because we are not there yet. But stay tuned: the future looks bright, it’s called HyperText Markup Language version 5, in short HTML5. (No worries, no program code in this column, just a few ruminations).

Back to our list:

1 / Quickly loading contents. So much work to do! I’m currently working on an evaluation of the loading speed of major news websites. Compared to e-commerce websites their performance is just appalling. Most of the news sites I measured are painfully slow to load, especially the ones with ads-saturated home pages. (We will publish the results sometimes next year, once we’ve validated our data).
Speed matters of applications as well. I have 100+ apps in my iPhone 4; about 40 are news-related, including many subscription-based ones. There, too, speed varies — with consequences. Over time, I saw my usage becoming directly related to the app’s swiftness: start-up time, fluid updates and content navigation. Intense competition for user time on the smartphone scene makes speed a key success factor.

2 / Smooth Operation. Only Rupert Murdoch can plan a digital newspaper updated once a day. I bet this feature won’t last. Way too un-internet. Except for the online magazine business, there is no way to think of digital news other than as being permanently updated. The medium demands it. If a production system is too complicated to be fed with fresh content (text, pictures, video), to link to other components (archives, related stories) that will generate page views, or to generate news alerts, that pig won’t fly.

3 / Visual ID. News brands are largely built on strong graphic designs. Right away, everyone is able to spot the cover of a magazine or a newspaper, even if its reduced to a thumbnail. Smartphones/tablets applications are good at displaying sophisticated graphics. On the traditional web, designers were — until now —  limited by HTML fonts and other display constraints.

4 / Platform independence. Ten days ago, I was in Boston at an INMA gathering where Filipe Fortes’ presentation gave me the idea for this column. Filipe is the CTO of Treesaver, a web design startup involving the renowned designer Roger Black. In his presentation, Filipe Fortes sums up the issue in two slides:

Combine all of the above, multiply the number of versions — either functional upgrades or bugs fixes — divide by market reach, apply monetization parameters and you get an idea of e-publishing’s hurdles.

5 / Openness. Social features, Facebook, Twitter, bookmarking etc., will keep growing as contributors to reading habits as well as to audience traffic. As far as we can see today, most of news related apps ignore this trend and are closed to the rest of the web (even sometimes to their own archives)

6/ The transaction issue. In this field, apps remain vastly superior by allowing many forms of friction-free payments. And even if Apple’s business model is open to questions (see previous Monday Note Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”), it allows publishers — for subscriptions — to bypass their closed system and call the shots on pricing and customer relationship. It’s unclear how long this bypass will last, but this toleration is good news: the publishers destined to succeed in the online news business will be the ones able to convert most of their customers into subscribers (unlike with the physical kiosk model which with fluctuating one-at-a-time purchases).

7/ CRM. (For a complete definition of Customer Relationship Management, see here.) In the e-news business, CRM is another key success factor. Using “all means necessary”, publishers must retain and nurture the relationship with their customer. Big internet players such as Google or Apple, armed with their ability to manage large datasets, are very well positioned to profit from CRM. Fortunately, CRM vendors are many and competitive, able to serve businesses of all sizes, ranging from Open Source solutions such as SugarCRM, to SaaS offerings such as Salesforce.com, and more traditional products such as Oracle’s.

For most of the requirements in our list, HTML5 looks promising. In short, HTML5, is the latest iteration of the web language invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1994. The new version of the language makes wider use of JavaScript, a well-regarded scripting system that enables a world of features that, until now, were exclusive to Flash. I can’t add much to the debate between the respective merits Flash and HTML5, I’ll just suggest a visit to  this site, and a run through the demos in order to get an idea of newly advanced HTML5 capabilities. (A great story on the MIT Technology Review sums it up: The Web Is Reborn. The article is subscription-based, but it’s worth it. Previous free articles on the same topic here and here.)

To get a glimpse of HTML5’s potential for digital publishing, point your browser to Nomad Editions. It’s a small, e-publishing company that is also a Treesaver launch partner (story in Wired and in the NY Times). You’ll see a set of magazines, that load fast and display in crisp graphics, pictures and typefaces. And they works quite well on an iPad. Big media companies are showing interest: the Associated Press is getting a stunning prototype which merges the advantages of the richest news content with a magazine look and feel.

In Friday’s conversation, Treesaver’s CTO Filipe Fortes explained the advantages of HMTL 5 and his startup’s goal: “The main idea is to lower the cost of producing content and to display it in a attractive fashion. If you take applications such as Time, Wired, or The New Yorker, they are all done by hand in Adobe InDesign:  they do one version for portrait orientation, one version for landscape (like here for Time)…”:

“… They might have the internal resources to make two versions of their magazine, but what if they want to go to the upcoming Blackberry tablet or the rumored 7” iPad? Therefore, the idea is to retain branded design elements but make sure they’ll run in a low cost fashion on any platform”. Filipe Fortes mentioned apps for magazines where, today, costs range between $100,000 and $600,000, like the one developed by WonderFactory.

The spread of HTML5 depends on the creation of powerful Software Development Kits (SDKs). Unlike Apple’s controlled environment, development tools for HTML5 are still immature and barely organized. This scattered sector provides an opportunity for young companies such as SproutCore, Sencha or jQuery Mobile to build frameworks that could lead to a real ecosystem. But they’re still quite behind the sophistication of Apple’s proprietary development tools. On another hand, the emerging HTML5 playing field will lead to the creation of a new layer: pre-built graphic design components. Today, layouts are hand-coded, tomorrow they’ll be assembled using existing blocks. It will change the way apps are produced. That’s TreeSaver’s pitch.

Creating web sites or apps, or websites encapsulated in an app will soon be done for a fraction of the cost of developing an app today; the result will work across platforms and be easier to handle. In enabling such new development methods, HTML5 could combine advantages from both worlds: the Web’s ubiquity and openness and the performance of applications.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”

newspapers, online publishing By November 29, 2010 17 Comments

Can it fly? Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was plotting a tablet-only newspaper. Or rather, an iPad-only paper — at first; other tablets would follow. The Daily, as it is to be called (how modest and innovative) is to be blessed by Steve Jobs Himself at a media event introducing the new venture. Initially, rumors pointed to a December 9th date; the latest gossip now says the unveiling could be delayed over “issues”. In any case, this is big news: a major media group, crossing the Rubicon to get rid of both paper and web, riding the Apple promotional machine (details and speculations in this story from The Guardian).

Well before the iPad was introduced last Spring, many of us had dreamed of a news product encapsulated inside a self-sustaining iPhone application. The advent of the iPad, with its gorgeous screen, only made the dream more vivid. Then, reality interfered. Even with the combined installed bases of the iPhone and the iPad’s, numbers didn’t add up, the dream news product wouldn’t make real money. Could it work this time under Rupert Murdoch’s rule?

Let’s return to Earth and tally the project’s pluses and minuses.

On the plus side

1 /  Let’s make quick work of the staffing issue. Media pundits contend you can’t run a serious daily with a staff of hundred as envisioned by Murdoch. Of course, you can have a roaring newsroom with 100 people! As long as such staff is focused on the paper’s core journalistic beats; in an ideal world, a newsroom should be staffed by a relatively small number of dedicated, well-paid, hard-working reporters and editors, managed by a flat hierarchy. This compact crew only needs to be supplemented by a carefully outsourced network of specialized people whose expertise, while highly valued, isn’t used often enough to justify full time employment. Exactly the opposite of our dying print dinosaurs.

2 / The tablet immersive experience. Like no other device before, the iPad has the ability to capture the reader’s attention: iPad “sessions” last much longer than browsing expeditions on the internet. According to TigerSpike, the very design company that built apps for News Corp, the average iPad session lasts 30 to 40 minutes (see story in PaidContent).

3/ The market. Rupert Murdoch is convinced that, soon, an iPad, or a competing tablet, will find its way in almost every household. And he is said to have been impressed by projections of 40 million iPads in circulation by the end of 2011. Spreadsheet magic! Millions of customers… On the revenue side, numbers can work. A 100 persons newsroom should cost no more than $12-15m a year to operate. Assuming $99/year pricing, netting $66 per user after Apple’s fee, plus $10 per user per year of premium advertising (after all, it is a qualified audience), the ARPU can land at around $80, which translate into 150,000 subscribers required to break-even. Sounds appealing.

On the minus side

1 / Closed environment, no links. That is the side effect of the “cognitive container”: an application such as the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian or the Economist, is by definition autistic to the rest of the web. No links to the outside world (except if it has an embedded browser like Dow Jones’ All Things D), and no relation to the social/sharing whirlwind. Some will appreciate the coziness of a newspaper without parasitic external stimuli, other won’t accept to be cut-off from the social Babel. It could be a matter of generations.

2 / The Apple business model sucks (for media). At first, Apple’s 30% cut of the retail price sounds great compared to the physical world where production and distribution costs devour 40% to 50%. Not so simple. First, you need at least five times more readers in the to offset the advertising revenue depletion associated with the move to the digital world.
Second, the tax issue. In many countries, in spite of intense lobbying by media  companies, digital products carry standard VAT. In France, where the VAT is set at 19.6%, internal analysis made by publishers showed that a high volume daily will net less in the AppStore than in a physical kiosk.
Third, Apple’s terms of use. They deprive publishers of two things : first, the ability to set prices outside of Apple-dictated levels (usually too high or too low) and, second, access to customer data, which make any CRM monetization impossible. The latter is, in itself a major deterrent to dealing with Apple. Of course, if Steve endorses Rupert’s project, the conditions could be quite different.

Mandatory

1 /  Exclusive and proprietary content. If Murdoch’s paper — or any tablet-only publication for that matter — is unable to produce truly original content, it is doomed. The internet is flooded by reverberating newsflows of all kinds, and free. Value will inevitably follow uniqueness.

2 / Pricing: simple and adjustable. No one knows what readers will ultimately: the iTunes model (multiple 99 cents transactions) or the cable-TV or Netflix flat-but-fat fees? To find out, the only way is to offer multiple pricing options. Problem is: it goes against simplicity and readability.

3 / Beyond Apple and perhaps beyond the app. For all of its advantages, betting only on the AppStore could be risky. The market will be overflowed by other vendors and operating systems. Hedging one’s bets will be key.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to look beyond the application concept. Instead of an autistic app, why not build adaptative web sites that will adjust automagically to the device used (tanks to the user agent technique)? As screen sizes differ from an iPad, for a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or for the  upcoming Blackberry Playbook (see this video), the tablet-dedicated site could adjust and optimize its rendering. In doing so, the service would remain part of the web, connected to its social features; it could operate on a much better business model than Apple’s, and there would be no hassle with the app store application process, upgrades, inexplicable rejections, etc.

4 / Speedy and simple. On both my iPhone and my iPad, the applications I no longer use happen to be the most complicated and the slowest. One such example is the New York Times app: it needs more time to load than it takes to flip trough several pages of the paper’s web site. On the contrary, the just released Economist applications are great. Two buttons on the main page : Download (10 seconds for the entire magazine) and Read. That’s all. And if I want to change the font size, it is intuitive: I pinch in or out, and the whole layout resizes. Interestingly enough, The Economist gives its subscribers the choice between a great website experience and the magazine look and feed of its sleek application (I’m curious to see which one will prevail, audience-wise). The beauty of this app resides in what that has been removed from it.

Meditate on this: this is at the very core of Apple’ design genius.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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Ebooks Winners & Losers

online publishing By November 14, 2010 Tags: 16 Comments

Let’s come back to the ebook with more questions. There is no doubt: the digital book will find its place under the sun; its prospects look much better than those of the online press. In the first place, there isn’t an ingrained, now decade-old, habit of reading news for free on the internet. Second, the book (in its physical form) is the centuries-old incarnation of the “cognitive container”, with its unparalleled convenience and with a value attached to it. And third, it can’t be unbundled.

For the online press, on the contrary, more than 90% of online newspapers are available for free. The “cognitive container” is totally non-practical in terms of size, readability; the interface sucks: most broadsheets’ stories run on two pages but many readers don’t go beyond the jump. Lastly, the daily news is begging for unbundling (look at the Sunday edition of your favorite newspaper, with its ten plus sections).

What does the book gain by switching to the electronic format?
Three things:
– new formats with rich media appealing to reluctant books readers (the current Generations X and Y, mainly)
– enhanced capabilities such as search, ability to create a personal table of contents, or to extract and index snippets
– a complete overhaul in the production system, which will breed new market opportunities as editorial works, once finished, will enjoy instant worldwide availability.

Of course, obstacles remain. A recent survey conducted by Bain and Co listed eight obstacles in the way of widespread ebook adoption (PDF here).

Interestingly enough, said its authors Patrick Behar and Laurent Colombani, the nostalgia of the “paper experience” is disconnected from the generation factor: all age groups continue to enjoy the book as a physical object. This guarantees some level of coexistence between the two medias. But the authors also admit the two next barriers – the price of the device and reading comfort –  will fade quickly as Moore’s Law still rules, both for mass produced devices and for screen quality (see for instance Qualcomm’s Mirasol display combining the advantages of electronic ink and the color depth of LCD screen — see also this story in The New York Times). On the devices’ price, Bain & Co sees the following evolution and point to the thresholds required to convert purchase intents:

Using this backdrop, let’s now try to see how the different participants might fare. (For a close-ip on the digital rights issue, see last week’s Monday Note)

Manufacturers: uncertain. Users expect around a hundred dollars or euros for an e-reader and will soon expect three times this amount for a full color, full-feature tablet. To put things in perspective, a teardown analysis made by iSuppli shows the cost of components for an Amazon Kindle is $176 as the iPad reaches $264 and $214 for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This gives an idea how thin margins are likely to be in the future. In other words, manufacturers who won’t be able to sell the blades (i.e. contents) along with the razor will have a hard time making any money.

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ebooks: trading digital rights, not files

online publishing By November 8, 2010 Tags: 20 Comments

There are many reasons to be bullish for ebooks. On the device side, the iPad set the standard (rather high) and triggered an intense competition among manufacturers and operating systems providers. On the people side, just take New York’s subway, or a high-speed train in Europe. And we’ve seen nothing yet: tablets prices will go down as cell phone carriers – and eventually media companies – subsidize e-readers. Before year-end, European telcos will offer the Samsung Galaxy — an Android-powered tablet — for €300 or less, preloaded with access to online bookstores and electronic newsstands. For the industry, this Christmas season is critical: tablet makers must secure defensible market territory before Apple’s probable roll-out of its next generation iPad.

The content side remains more complicated to figure out. A first phase is likely to consist of an extension of what we have today, i.e. a transaction system based of book files: text-based books or richer media products. The main players will remain Amazon, or the Apple iBooks store. But, in five to ten years, this way of dealing with intellectual content  will be seen as primitive.

The true revolution will be a shift from a files transaction system to a rights transaction system. This transformation involves radical changes in the way we think of digital content, books, videos or even games.

For now, let’s focus on books. Here is how it could work.

We’re now in 2015. I read books-related contents on a number of different devices: my smartphone, my high definition tablet, and even my PC some times. (I personally do not believe in TV for such products). I want spend a long weekend in Rome. Instead of buying a couple of books – one to organize my trip and another to use on location – I will buy rights to both.

As I download the books I bought rights to on an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy, the content takes advantage of specific screen features and displays large pictures, some of in 360° panoramic format and zoomable. My Microsoft tablet uses the extraordinary DeepZoom technology connected to the Bing Maps Live View

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Expanding Into New Territories

advertising, newspapers, online publishing By October 24, 2010 Tags: 27 Comments

In defining business strategies for modern medias such as online newspapers, the most difficult part is finding the right combination of revenue streams. Advertising, pay-per-view, flat fee… All are part of the new spectrum media companies now have to deal with.

The gamut looks like this:

As we can see, newspapers mostly consist of one product line, confined to the mainstream, value-added news category. By going digital, this segment is likely to lose most of its value (expect a 60% meltdown as expressed in revenue per reader). Therefore, for these companies, it becomes critical to expand into new territories already taken over by other players. For instance, big media outlets endowed with strong brands should go into commodity news and participatory/social contents. This doesn’t mean a frontal attack on Facebook or Twitter, obviously; instead, the new reality dictates using and monetizing through them (see last week’s Monday Note on Facebook monetization).

Ancillary publishing should also be considered a natural expansion: news outlets retain large editorial staffs that could be harnessed to produce high value digital books (see this earlier Monday Note on Profitable Long Form Journalism). The “Events” item, on the list/graph above, is more questionable, but it remains a significant source of potential income tied to the brand’s notoriety. I left aside the classifieds business: except for a few media groups (Schibsted all over Europe or Le Figaro Group in France) that boarded the train on time, positions are now too entrenched to justify an investment to gain a position in that segment.

Advertising is likely to remain the biggest money maker for the two dominant categories: Commodity/Participatory/Social Media and Mainstream Value-Added. Unfortunately, in its digital form, advertising has run in deflationary mode for the past decade due to flat (at best) CPMs, with huge inventories putting further pressure on prices.

Print doesn’t look great either as investments shift en masse to digital; this reflects the growing imbalance between time spent by users on print and advertising investments in the medium. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Internet now accounts for 38% of time spent but only for 8% of ad spending; newspapers are on a symmetrical trend as they captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of users’ time.

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Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters

journalism, online publishing By September 19, 2010 Tags: , 117 Comments

News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.

My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)

Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.

In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.

At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.

In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring.

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A Toolkit for the Cognitive Container

mobile internet, online publishing By August 29, 2010 Tags: 19 Comments

We now live in an apps world. “The web is dead” shouts Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief. To make his point, he teamed up with Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer. According his latest theory, the internet is taken over by mobile applications, and the web as we know it, will be soon dead. Wired produces a Cisco-originated graph (below) showing the decrease in “web” traffic, down to a quarter of the traffic of the internet. The other 75%, says Anderson, include video, peer-to-peer, gaming, voice-over-IP telephony, a large part of it encapsulated in apps, blah-bla-blah.

Well. Two things. To begin with, Chris Anderson isn’t the first to notice the rise in applications used to access the internet. Every news outlet’s digital division witnesses a sharp increase in its apps-related traffic. Here in France, Le Monde just said its iPhone apps now contribute about 20% of its entire traffic; its iPad application (a bit crude but efficient reader) has been downloaded 150,000 times. This is just the beginning as publishers are working on new apps, for the iPhone, the iPad, but also for Android, Windows 7 for Mobile and even Bada, Samsung’s proprietary OS. Many publishers forecast a share of 30% of their traffic originating from mobile devices. This is consistent with Morgan Stanley’s predictions of smartphones shipments overtaking the PC two years from now (see below).

Such trends, when repackaged in Chris Anderson’s craft, ascend close to papal encyclical status (that Anderson’s particular skill; in a recent lecture, the British journalism professor George Brock calls him “a professional exaggerator”). Never mind the data he presents are not of the utmost rigor. As we can see here, he magnifies the demise of the web.

But byte-flow analysis is misleading. A more accurate measure would be time spent on the traditional web versus apps. For instance, neither Anderson nor the graph say in which category Facebook traffic falls. Is it an app? A web-based service? All we know is American users spends a quarter of their time on it. I wouldn’t dare wrecking such an attractive intellectual scaffolding with mere facts, but we can’t compare video and text-based pages on the basis of their byte-stream. I did the test: a 3 minutes of You Tube video weighs 16 megabytes; the same time spent on text will only require a 20 kilobytes page, 800 times lighter. (The 8000 words Anderson/Wolff story — devoured in 15 minutes at a normal reading speed, weighs only 117 kilobytes). When measuring things, the metric does alter the perspective…

Nevertheless, Anderson’s fatwa is gaining traction, as did, in its time, his Long Tail theory. Later, Anderson amended the postulate, using the concept of “strong head” (mandatory if you expect to make money with the tail). His “Free!” edict was also updated with the Freemium notion – a paid-for model tied to an incentive. But no more sarcasm, such silicon snake oil is a charming ingredient of our e-times.

Caution with Anderson’s theory aside, there is no doubt the app phenomenon will significantly impact the way we consume news: apps might become their main cognitive container.

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The Facebook Gravitational Effect

online publishing, social networks By August 2, 2010 Tags: 30 Comments

Over the next twelve months, the media industry is likely to be split between those who master the Facebook system and those who don’t. A decade or so  ago, for a print publication, going on the internet was seen as the best way to rejuvenate its audience; today, as web news audiences reach a plateau, Facebook is viewed as the most potent traffic booster.

If you are looking for the ultimate cyber black hole, point your browser toward Facebook. Beyond the 500 million users milestone, even more significant gravitational pull await the media industry. Here are facts to keep in mind.

— While the average online newspaper is viewed about 30 minutes per month (see data from the NAA), users spend 12 times more on Facebook: a worldwide average of 5hrs 52 minutes, 6hrs 02 minutes in the United States and 4hrs 12  minutes in France. Globally, social networks represent about 10% of the total internet time; and 2/3 of the internet population visit one such network at least once a month. And the growth is about  30% per year; in three years, that’s 220%, a multiplication by 2.2!

— Facebook dwarfs other social networks: worldwide, measured in time per month, it weighs 6 times MySpace, and 12 times twitter and 30 times LinkedIn.

— Of the half billion users, 250 million are logging every day, for about 34 minutes.

— Just as important, or more, 150 million access Facebook through their mobile phone.

— In June alone, on the US market, users spend more time on Facebook than on sites owned by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo combined (source: Nielsen).

Update Aug.2:  Nielsen just released this study showing that American spend 23% of their internet time on social media, vs. 16% a year ago.

The time spent numbers are always spectacular… but some view those as misleading considering how users interact with Facebook: uploading videos or photographs takes inherently more time than glancing over Google News. Granted. Let’s then consider more media related metrics.

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Zero tolerance for latency

online publishing By July 18, 2010 13 Comments

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.

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A New Gallic Idea: Taxing Google

online publishing By January 10, 2010 Tags: 21 Comments

The French cultural elite has come up with a bunch of ideas to stimulate the legal consumption of digital goods. The basic principles are stunningly original: subsidize and tax. These creations are detailed in a report ordered by the Président de la République to the Ministry of Culture. This is the way it works here: when a problem plagues the private sector, the executive branch tasks clever, carefully picked-up fellows with writing a report. It involves hearings —about a hundred in that case — held behind closed-door, off-the-record; no one can figure out who is standing for what.

This time, the selected authors of the report titled “Création et Internet(available here) are: Patrick Zelnik, a music producer, Jacques Toubon, a 69 years-old former all-purpose minister (including Culture in1993-1995) and Guillaume Cerutti, the CEO of Sotheby’s France. Not exactly digital front-runners. As a music producer, Zelnik has brilliantly missed the digital train; Toubon has seen more mice in government offices than on his desk and Cerutti is running an auction house where sales are concluded with a hammer blow, not a touchpad click.

One of the most spectacular strokes of inspiration involves the creation of a taxpayer-subsidized “Online Music Card”. It could work like this: a young internet user, compulsive music downloader, buys a card for €20-€25. But the card carries a face value of €50. Then, after a while — expect a few years for roughly a million of young people above 24 — the magic happens: this crowd mutates into legal download addicts and forgets the appeal of illegal Net music (which, in France, is 20 times more important than the legal variety). That’s a hell of a good news for Apple, its iTunes cards could be bought by the bulk using French taxpayers’ money. Bear with me: that’s Christopher Columbus’ Egg. How come we didn’t think of it earlier? Flooding the young addicted-to-free generation with subsidies to reverse the anything goes, culture-copyright-looting tsunami! You know what? Sometimes, I’m proud of my country.

Second idea, my favorite: taxing Google. The concept, so to speak, is the following.

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