Data Journalism is improving — fast

 

by Frederic Filloux 

The last Data Journalism Awards announced last week at the Global Editors Network News Summit in Paris established one important fact: The genre is getting better, wider in scope and gaining many creative players.

Data Journalism is thriving. This the most salient conclusion from the second edition of the DJ Awards organized by the Global Editors Network and sponsored by Google. I was part of a 20 persons jury, chaired by Paul Steiger, founder of Pro Publica. We had to choose among a short list of 72 projects divided into seven categories: data-driven storytelling, investigation, applications (all three for large and small media), and data-journalism section or website.

Here are some quick personal findings.

#1: Data-journalism is a powerful storytelling tool. The Guardian won the Storytelling Big Media category, with this compelling graphic showing the situation of gay rights for each state of the US. It did so by analyzing a range of stats and administrative rules or laws such as hospital visits, adoption, schools or housing. (In half of US states, gays have no clearly stated rights). On that matter, no story could have spoken more loudly.

gay_rights_guardian

In a different way, Thomson Reuters collected another prize for its amazing Connecting China project that looks like a visual LinkedIn for the PRC elite. It’s a huge, 18 months endeavor, built on more than 30,000 connections between Chinese power players.

china

#2: Data-journalism extends well beyond the usual economical/social topics. One DJA 2013 laureate displayed the explanatory power of good data-journalism. The French site Quoi? explored aspects of the art market. In its Art Market for Dummies (available both in French and in English), Quoi? explains who are the most bankable artists (since 2008, it’s Picasso, Warhol, Zhang Da Qian); it also shows why it is a terribly dead-male-dominated business; and it illustrates the rise of Chinese artists. It’s both entertaining and information-rich.

art_market2

Another French company, WeDoData collected an award for a great app showing the (terrible) state of female/male parity in France, in a smart, user-friendly package commissioned by France Television.

pariteur

Another great example of clever data journalism expanding to society issues is the Great British Class Calculator presented by the BBC (it won the Data-driven apps category). The project started with a survey of 161,000 persons, conducted with several universities. This helped define seven social classes ranging from the Elite, to Precarious Proleteriat, or more imaginative New Affluent workers or Technical Middle Class.

class_calculator

#3: Tools can be surprisingly simple. In many instances, data-collection and analysis are performed using relatively simple tools such as large Excel or Google Docs spreadsheets (the latter being excellent at scraping data repositories — just google the terms to find tons of resources on how to use those. The Argentina newspaper La Nación, winner of the Data-driven Investigations Big Media category, explained in its DJA filings how it retrieved 33,000 records showing the expenses of senate members by using sets of Excel macro commands.

la_nacion_ar

For its Art Market for Dummies project, the French multimedia journalist Jean Abbiateci explained how he scraped the ArtPrice database (links are mine):

For scraping data, I used Outwit, a amazing Firefox Add-on. This is very useful to convert a pdf file to an Excel file. I used Google to refine, to clean and merge my dataset. I used the Google API Currency Converter for my uniform monetary values. Finally, I used D3.js and Hichcharts.js. I also reused open source code shared by Minnpost and a software developer called Jim Vallandingham.

The projects mentioned above are just examples. A visit to the GEN Data Journalism section is well worth your time. For once, the digital news sector has fostered a healthy, creative segment, one that relies a lot on small agile companies. I find that quite encouraging.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Blackberry’s Future

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Once the king of smartphones for business uses, Blackberry got a new CEO, a new operating system and new devices, with and without the traditional keyboard. In spite of these changes, the company’s latest numbers don’t paint a picture of revival.

Thorsten Heins doesn’t suffer a lack of enthusiasm. During the run up to the March release of its BlackBerry 10 operating system, RIM’s CEO painted an optimistic picture of a company on the rebound, a company that would correct the mistakes of the industry leaders:

“It’s still the same,” Heins said of the iPhone. “It is a sequential way to work and that’s not what people want today anymore. They want multitasking.”

Rechristened as BlackBerry, Heins told us that the company would energize the develop community and spawn devices that are too exciting to describe:

“There’s one new product I’m really excited about, but I can’t really share it,” Heins told CNET in an interview today.

Last week, the company released its latest quarterly numbers and they are exciting, although not in the sense that Heins would like. The forecast was $3.4B in revenue and $0.07 in earnings per share; the reality was $3.1B in sales and, more important, a loss of $0.13 per share.

The numbers “excited” traders so much that BBRY shares lost 28% of their value in a single trading session, putting them back to their one-year-ago level.

The earnings release was followed by the customary conference call where the CEO and CFO review the numbers and answer questions from Wall Street analysts. Courtesy of Seeking Alpha, the call transcript is here and contains the obligatory pablum, including an excessive abuse of the F-word (22 occurrences):

Embracing our heritage of mobility first is very important as we build our culture and go through this transition. We don’t have to be all things to all people and all markets, and embracing this focus allows us to drive efficiency, be flexible and agile, and to ultimately drive best-in-class innovations. [...] We’re continuing to focus on improving all areas of the business…

Curiously, there’s no breakdown of the sales of BlackBerry devices. How much of their revenue was “energized” by the BB10? Without actual numbers, we’re left in a cloud of doubt about how well the new platform is actually doing.

The disquietude continues: There are no subscriber numbers, and no guidance other than an expectation of more losses next quarter. The glowing comments about cash-flow from operations ($630M, a nice number) are undercut by the disclosure of a substantial tax refund, without which the company would have eaten through $400M to $500M of cash.

As for tablets, the Blackberry PlayBook is no more, says the CEO. He’s unhappy with the device’s performance and is determined to focus on the company’s “core hardware portfolio“. (The company’s website no longer describes the product and only offers a software update for existing customers.)

Inevitably, the How Many Moves Remain? question comes up. Blackberry professes to do more than just devices, it claims to offer strong enterprise services and says it will propagate its BBM (Blackberry Messenger) to other platforms including Android and iOS. It also promotes a form of (limited) compatibility for (some) Android apps on its newer smartphones. But is anyone buying and in numbers that can save the company?

More to the point: Who wants to buy Blackberry (the company), for what reasons, and at what price?

Let’s back up. Last week, we heard that Microsoft had once again given up on its perennial hunt to capture a handset maker. This time, the prey was Nokia, Microsoft’s “special” Windows Phone licensee.

The official explanation for the Nokia blowup was that the price tag was too high, but price clearly wasn’t an issue. Nokia’s $14B market capitalization weighs in at about 5% of Microsoft’s $288B. Even when you tack on a 25% acquisition premium, the purchase should have been a reasonably easy sell, especially given Microsoft’s desire to take the handset business into its own hands, if only to counter (or mimic) the strategy established by Google and Motorola.

There’s really only one explanation, as I speculated last week: The engagement was dissolved because of Microsoft’s bleak view of Nokia’s business, that the Finnish company no longer has the technological acumen and brand loyalty that Microsoft needs to make Windows Phone a legitimate competitor with Android and iOS.

BlackBerry’s market capitalization now stands at about $6B. That’s less than half of Nokia’s. If Nokia, supported by Microsoft, can’t gain ground on Google and Apple devices, what gives us confidence that BlackBerry isn’t sliding into insignificance?

The BlackBerry name, as a brand, is strong. But a brand only exists as the carrier of a promise. A brand writes checks that the product cashes. Without a successful product, the brand dies (go ask Kodak).

While Nokia could be acquired by someone interested in the Windows Phone business, one is hard pressed to form a similar thought for Blackberry. It may be struggling, but there is a Windows Phone ecosystem, including handset makers. There is no such thing around BlackBerry. Developers aren’t writing apps for BB10 in ecosystem-making numbers, carriers have taken a wait-and-see posture, even the core group of dedicated users (I used to be one of them) appears to be losing faith.

This isn’t a brightly optimistic picture. Today, Blackberry finds itself caught between Samsung and Apple at the high end, and a rabidly fermenting crowd of Android (official or not) clones at the lower price range.

So, why not consider heresy, or apostasy: Ditch the newer BlackBerry OS too few developers believe in, and bet on Android devices to support BlackBerry’s enterprise services.

The answer is probably the same as it is for Nokia: It’s too late.

JLG@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

Microsoft and Nokia won’t beget a Googorola clone

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Microsoft, after its highly visible 2011 bet on Nokia, could have decided to go one step further and buy Nokia to become a fully integrated smartphone. That it didn’t happen doesn’t portend a great future for Windows Phone.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal outed Microsoft’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Nokia:

Microsoft recently held advanced talks with Nokia about buying its handset business, people familiar with the matter said, as laggards in the fast-moving mobile market struggle to gain ground.

Many saw an acquisition as an inevitable next step, that by acquiring the Finnish handset maker Microsoft could “finish the job” that they started when they licensed a special Windows Phone to Nokia. It would be a blessed union of two vigilant, watchful companies: Microsoft had watched as Android and iOS made its own OS a distant also ran; Nokia, once the world’s largest cell phone maker, couldn’t help but notice that Google and Apple had killed its handset business from both the high and low ends.

But, according to the WSJ, the parlay came to a negative and apparently definitive end:

The discussions faltered over price and worries about Nokia’s slumping market position, among other issues, these people said. One of the people said talks took place as recently as this month but aren’t likely to be revived.

To call Nokia’s fall a “slump” is more than polite. The company saw its market share fall from 39% in 2009 — more than 100 million handsets per quarter — to an estimated (and angrily debated) 3% by the end of 2012.

Microsoft hasn’t done much better with its mobile software. In 2008, Windows Mobile OS held a 11% market share, even as the underlying Windows CE engine was getting long in the tooth, particularly when compared to the Unix-ish Android and iOS engines. With a modern NT kernel, Microsoft’s mobile OS was reborn as Windows Phone 8 and scored a modest 3.2% market share in Q1 2013.  This number comes from IDC, the “research” group that has assured us that come 2016, Microsoft will be the number 2 mobile OS provider with a 19.2% share:

09-table nokia

Behold the vision and precision of IDC’s psychics: Back in June 2012, they could see four years into the future and predict that Windows Phone would edge out iOS… by two tenths of a percent!

We’ve heard the Microsoft-is-buying-a-handset-maker rumors before. Starting in 2007 and recurring year after year, Microsoft was said to be eyeing RIM/Blackberry. For some, yours truly included in January 2012, the RIM story was compellingly straightforward: RIM’s clientèle of loyal, hardcore Blackberry users in businesses and governments made it an ideal fit for the Redmond giant.

Microsoft’s defenders will argue that RIM ’07 was too expensive. Priced at $200 a share (they’re running at about $14 today), RIM would have cost more than a $100B before any acquisition premium. At the time, Microsoft was valued at approximately $250B (similar to today’s $277B). Ideal or not, the match didn’t make sense for Microsoft shareholders. Then, when RIM’s price began to slide, the Blackberry was seen as having lost too much of its shine, too much of its market momentum. The company was damaged goods. (Or, as we might have forgotten, the two co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the ones who spoke in tongues, may have proved too difficult for even Steve Ballmer to deal with.)

Someday, Microsoft’s inability to grab RIM might be seen as a signal failure, a key episode in the company’s slide into irrelevance in the smartphone market. I doubt anyone will see Nokia in a similar light, as the “one who got away”.

The “MicroNokia” relationship has been challenging from the start. In February 2011, Nokia committed itself to a special partnership with Microsoft. It would ditch its operating systems (Symbian, Meego, QT) and become a beacon and standard bearer for Windows Phone 7. Money changed hands: $250M of “platform support” per quarter was sent from Redmond to Espoo in order to offset the unspecified Windows Phone licensing payments that flowed in the opposite direction.

This messy, technologically and culturally unsound arrangement only got worse when Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft exec now running Nokia, announced the switch to Windows Phone ten months before the company would end up shipping devices that ran the new (and problematic) OS. Unsurprisingly, Nokia’s revenue evaporated, leaving it with losses and a minuscule 5% market share (including Symbian-based smartphones).

Why Elop would make an announcement that effectively Osborned the business still mystifies and enrages Nokia supporters such as Tomi Ahonen who keeps calling for Elop’s head in long, irate blog posts. (In industry lore, to “Osborne” is to prematurely announce a product that so clearly obsoletes your current offering that it kills revenue. The suicidal maneuver is named in loving memory of portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne who destroyed his business by bragging that his next product would be so much better than the current one.)

I’m also mystified, but for another reason. I can’t fathom why Nokia picked Windows Phone instead of Android, whose explosive success was obvious even as early as 2010 when the company ditched its CEO. (I’m a little biased here as, in June 2010, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android.)

Nokia’s excuses for not adopting Android were vague, ranging from “we don’t want to lose control of our destiny”, to Microsoft being a “stronger partner” (read: They paid us). The potential-loss-of-destiny rhetoric falls flat, especially when you look at Android’s licensing terms and see the freedom Samsung and others enjoy with their interpretations of the platform. (We’ve heard that Nokia and Google once talked, but we don’t yet know the reason for their not becoming highly visible partners.)

Today, investors say Nokia is worth about $15B, a tenth of its 2007 peak (I’m excluding the 2000 Internet Bubble number from the comparison). Even with a “25% acquisition premium”, a Nokia acquisition would cost Microsoft less than 10% of its capitalization. So, contrary to the charitable explanation offered to the WSJ by “persons familiar with the matter”, price couldn’t have been an obstacle. That leaves us with Nokia’s “slump”: Microsoft thinks Nokia would be unable to carry Windows Phone to an influential, sustainable market position.

Now, what?

Nokia’s revenue keeps sliding down and, after a brief incursion into the black, it keeps losing money. Is there anything in sight that will reverse the trend? It’s doubtful that the company can try for the high end by offering better hardware than Samsung, nor can they squeeze into a low end that’s inhabited by official and unofficial Android clones that are swiftly killing off feature phones. This leaves Nokia’s future as an independent company in doubt and logically gives rise to more acquisition speculation.

And what will happen to Windows Phone? We now hear that Microsoft is paying developers as much as $100,000 to write or port an application to the platform. This is a rational move on Microsoft’s part, an attempt to create the critical mass that doesn’t seem to be able to happen naturally. But it can also be seen as desperation, an admission that Windows Phone is having trouble gaining momentum as developers and customers are embraced in a downward spiral.

One can’t imagine that Ballmer will call it a day and cede the field to Google and Apple. Personally, I admire his never-give-up attitude, always talking up the future, unfazed by past bold pronouncements gone wrong, but enthusiasm isn’t a strategy. And in the smartphone market, Microsoft doesn’t have many moves left. Regardless of the technical merits of its new mobile OS, momentum seems elusive; market forces that once worked against Windows competitors in the PC field now seem to confine Windows Phone to an insignificant market share against the two dominant and their complementary business models.

We don’t know yet how Google’s acquisition of Motorola will fare, but the Android platform is healthy enough without it. The same can’t be said of Windows Phone without Nokia, which leads one to believe there will be a forced marriage between the once proud Finnish handset maker and an ambitious player, probably Chinese — with Microsoft providing a substantial dowry once again.

In the meantime, we can count on IDC to provide fresh numbers… for 2017.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Your smartphone, your moods, their market

 

Coupled to facial imaging, the smartphone could become the ultimate media analytics tool, for evaluating editorial content or measuring the effectiveness of ads. Obviously, there are darker sides. 

When it comes to testing new products, most of us have been through the focus group experience. You sit behind a one-way mirror and watch a handpicked group of people dissect your new concept: a magazine redesign, a new website or a communication campaign. It usually lasts a couple of hours during which the session moderator does his best to extract intelligent remarks from the human sample. Inevitably, the client — you, me, behind the glass — ends up questioning the group’s relevance, the way the discussion was conducted, and so on. In the end, everyone makes up their own interpretation of the analyst’s conclusions. As usual, I’m caricaturing a bit; plus I’m rather in favor of products pre-tests as they always yield something useful. But we all agree the methods could be improved — or supplemented.

Now consider Focus Group 2.0: To a much larger sample (say few hundreds), you send a mockup of your next redesign, a new mobile app, or an upcoming ad campaign you better not flunk. The big 2.0 difference resides in a software module installed on the tester’s smartphone or computer that will use the device’s camera to decipher the user’s facial expressions.

Welcome to the brave new world of facial imaging. It could change the way visual designs are conceived and tested, making them more likely to succeed as a result . These techniques are based on the work of American psychologist Paul Ekman, who studied emotions and their relation to facial expression. Ekman was the first to work on “micro-expressions” yielding impossible to suppress, authentic reactions.

The human face has about 43 facials muscles that produce about 8,000 different combinations. None of theses epxressions are voluntary, nor are they dependent on social origin or ethnicity. The muscles react automatically and swiftly — in no more than 10 or 20 milliseconds — to cerebral cortex instructions sent to the facial nerve.

Last month, in Palo Alto, I met Rick Lazansky, a board director at the venture capital firm Sand Hill Angels. In the course of a discussion about advertising inefficiencies (I had just delivered a talk at Stanford underlining the shortcomings of digital ads), Rick told me he had invested in a Swiss-based company called Nviso. Last week, we set up a Skype conference with Tim Lellewellyn, founder and CEO of the company (Nviso is incubated on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne where Dr. Matteo Sorci, Nviso’s chief scientist and co-founder used to work.)

Facial Imaging’s primary market is advertising, explains the Nviso team. Its technology consists in mapping 143 points on the face, activated by the 43 facial muscles. Altogether, their tiny movements are algorithmically translated into the seven most basic expressions : happiness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness and neutral, each of them lasting a fraction of a second. In practice, such techniques require careful adjustment as many factors tweak the raw data. But the ability to apply such measurements to hundreds of subjects, in a very short time, insures the procedure’s statistical accuracy and guarantees consistent results.

Webcams and, more importantly, smartphone cameras will undoubtedly boost uses of this technology. Tests that once involved a dozen of people in a focus group can now be performed using a sample size measured in hundreds, in a matter of minutes. (When scaling up, one issue becomes the volume of data: one minute of video for 200 respondents will generate over 100,000 images to process.)

Scores of applications are coming. The most solvent field is obviously the vast palette of market research activities. Designers can quickly test logos, layouts, mockups, story boards. Nviso works with Nielsen in Australia and New Zealand and with various advertisers in Korea. But company execs know many others fields could emerge. The most obvious one is security. Imagine sets of high-speed cameras performing real-time assessment at immigration or at customs in an airport; or a police officer using the same technology to evaluate someone’s truthfulness under interrogation. (The Miranda Warning would need its own serious facelift…) Nviso states that it stays out of this field, essentially because of the high barrier to entry.

Other uses of facial imaging technique will be less contentious. For instance, it could be of a great help to the booming sector of online education. Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) operators are struggling with two issues: authentication and student evaluation. The former is more or less solved thanks to techniques such as encoding typing patterns, a feature reliably unique to each individual. Addressing evaluation is more complicated. As one Stanford professor told me when we were discussing the fate of Moocs, “Inevitably, after a short while, you’ll have 20% to 30% of the students that will be left behind, while roughly the same proportion will get bored…” Keeping everyone on board is therefore one of the most serious challenges of Moocs. And since Moocs are about scale, such task has to be handled by machines able to deal with thousands of students at a time. Being able to detect student moods in real-time and to guide them to relevant branches of the syllabus’ tree-structure will be essential.

These mood-analysis techniques are just nascent. Besides Nviso, several well-funded companies such as Affectiva compete for the market-research sector. The field will be reinforced by other technologies such as vocal intonations analysis deployed by startups like Beyond Verbal. And there is more in store. This story of Smithonian.com titled “One day, your smartphone will know if you are happy or sad“, sums up the state of the art with mobile apps designed to decipher your mood based on the way you type, or research conducted by Samsung to develop emotion-sensing smartphones. As far as privacy is concerned, this is just the beginning of the end. Just in case you had a doubt…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Goodbye Google Reader

 

Three months ago, Google announced the “retirement” of Google Reader as part of the company’s second spring cleaning. On July 1st — two weeks from today — the RSS application will be given a gold watch and a farewell lunch, then it will pack up its bits and leave the building for the last time.

The other items on Google’s spring cleaning list, most of which are tools for developers, are being replaced by superior (or simpler, friendlier) services: Are you using CalDAV in your app? Use the Google Calendar API, instead; Google Map Maker will stand in for Google Building Maker; Google Cloud Connect is gone, long live Google Drive.

For Google Reader’s loyal following, however, the company had no explanation beyond a bland “usage has declined”, and it offered no replacement nor even a recommendation other than a harsh “get your data and move on”:

Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months.

The move didn’t sit well with users whose vocal cords were as strong as their bond to their favorite blog reader. James Fallows, the polymathic writer for The Atlantic, expressed a growing distrust of the company’s “experiments” in A Problem Google Has Created for Itself:

I have already downloaded the Android version of Google’s new app for collecting notes, photos, and info, called Google Keep… Here’s the problem: Google now has a clear enough track record of trying out, and then canceling, “interesting” new software that I have no idea how long Keep will be around… Until I know a reason that it’s in Google’s long-term interest to keep Keep going, I’m not going to invest time in it or lodge info there.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein echoed the sentiment (full article here):

But I’m not sure I want to be a Google early adopter anymore. I love Google Reader. And I used to use Picnik all the time. I’m tired of losing my services.

What exactly did Google Reader provide that got its users, myself included, so excited, and why do we take its extermination so personally?

Reading is, for some of us, an addiction. Sometimes the habit turns profitable: The hours I spent poring over computer manuals on Saturday mornings in my youth may have seemed cupidic at the time, but the “research” paid off.

Back before the Web flung open the 10,000 Libraries of Alexandria that I dreamed of in the last chapter of The Third Apple my reading habit included a daily injection of newsprint.  But as online access to real world dailies became progressively more ubiquitous and easier to manage, I let my doorstep subscriptions lapse (although I’ll always miss the wee hour thud of the NYT landing on our porch…an innocent pleasure unavailable in my country of birth).

Nothing greased the move to all-digital news as much as the RSS protocol (Real Simple Syndication, to which my friend Dave Winer made crucial contributions). RSS lets you syndicate your website by adding a few lines of HTML code. To subscribe, a user simply pushes a button. When you update your blog, it’s automatically posted to the user’s chosen “feed aggregator”.

RSS aggregation applications and add-ons quickly became a very active field as this link attests. Unfortunately, the user interfaces for these implementations – how you add, delete, and navigate subscriptions — often left much to be desired.

Enter Google Reader, introduced in 2005. Google’s RSS aggregator mowed down everything in its path as it combined the company’s Cloud resources with a clean, sober user interface that was supported by all popular browsers…and the price was right: free.

I was hooked. I just checked, I have 60 Google Reader subscriptions. But the number is less important than the way the feeds are presented: I can quickly search for subscriptions, group them in folders, search through past feeds, email posts to friends, fly over article summaries, and all of this is made even easier through simple keyboard shortcuts (O for Open, V for a full View on the original Web page, Shift-A to declare an entire folder as Read).

Where I once read four newspapers with my morning coffee I now open my laptop or tablet and skim my customized, ever-evolving Google Reader list. I still wonder at the breadth and depth of available feeds, from dissolute gadgetry to politics, technology, science, languages, cars, sports…

I join the many who mourn Google Reader’s impending demise. Fortunately, there are alternatives that now deserve more attention.

I’ll start with my Palo Alto neighbor, Flipboard. More than just a Google Reader replacement, Flipboard lets you compose and share personalized magazines. It’s very well done although, for my own daily use, its very pretty UI gets in the way of quickly surveying the field of news I’m interested in. Still, if you haven’t loaded it onto your iOS or Android device, you should give it a try.

Next we have Reeder, a still-evolving app that’s available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It takes your Google Reader subscriptions and presents them in a “clean and well-lighted” way:

For me, Feedly looks like the best way to support one’s reading habit (at least for today). Feedly is offered as an app on iOS and Android, and as extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari on your laptop or desktop (PC or Mac). Feedly is highly customizable: Personally, I like the ability to emulate Reader’s minimalist presentation, others will enjoy a richer, more graphical preview of articles. For new or “transferring” users, it offers an excellent Feedback and Knowledge Base page:

Feedly makes an important and reassuring point: There might be a paid-for version in the future, a way to measure the app’s real value, and to create a more lasting bond between users and the company.

There are many other alternatives, a Google search for “Google Reader replacement” (the entire phrase) yields nearly a million hits (interestingly, Bing comes up with only 35k).

This brings us back to the unanswered question: Why did Google decide to kill a product that is well-liked and well-used by well-informed (and I’ll almost dare to add: well-heeled) users?

I recently went to a Bring Your Parents to Work day at Google. (Besides comrades of old OS Wars, we now have a child working there.) The conclusion of the event was the weekly TGIF-style bash (which is held on Thursdays in Mountain View, apparently to allow Googlers in other time zones to participate). Both founders routinely come on stage to make announcements and answer questions.

Unsurprisingly, someone asked Larry Page a question about Google Reader and got the scripted “too few users, only about a million” non-answer, to which Sergey Brin couldn’t help quip that a million is about the number of remote viewers of the Google I/O developer conference Page had just bragged about. Perhaps the decision to axe Reader wasn’t entirely unanimous. And never mind the fact Feedly seems to already have 3 million subscribers

The best explanation I’ve read (on my Reader feeds) is that Google wants to draw the curtain, perform some surgery, and reintroduce its RSS reader as part of Google+, perhaps with some Google Now thrown in:

While I can’t say I’m a fan of squirrelly attempts to draw me into Google+, I must admit that RSS feeds could be a good fit… Stories could appear as bigger, better versions of the single-line entry in Reader, more like the big-photo entries that Facebook’s new News Feed uses. Even better, Google+ entries have built in re-sharing tools as well as commenting threads, encouraging interaction.

We know Google takes the long view, often with great results. We’ll see if killing Reader was a misstep or another smart way to draw Facebook users into Google’s orbit.

It may come down to a matter of timing. For now, Google Reader is headed for the morgue. Can we really expect that Google’s competitors — Yahoo!, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft — will resist the temptation to chase the ambulance?

–JLG@mondaynote.com

 

In Bangkok, with the Fast Movers

 

The WAN-IFRA congress in Bangkok showed good examples of the newspaper industry’s transformation. Here are some highlights. 

Last week, I travelled to Bangkok for the 65th congress of the World Association of Newspapers (The WAN-IFRA also includes the World Editors Forum and the World Advertising Forum.) For a supposedly dying industry, the event gathered a record crowd: 1400 delegates from all over the world (except for France, represented by at most a dozen people…) Most presentations and discussions revealed an acceleration in the transformation of the sector.

The transition is now mostly led by emerging countries seemingly eager to get rid themselves as quickly as possible of the weight of the past. At a much faster pace than in the West, Latin America and Asia publishers take advantage of their relatively healthy print business to accelerate the online transition. These many simultaneous changes involve spectacular newsroom transformations where the notion of publication gives way to massive information factories equally producing print, web and mobile content. In these new structures, journalists, multimedia producers, developers (a Costa-Rican daily has one computer wizard for five journalists…) are blended together. They all serve a vigorous form of journalism focused on the trade’s primary mission: exposing abuses of power and public or private failures (the polar opposite of the aggregation disease.) To secure and to boost the conversion, publishers rethink the newsroom architecture, eliminate walls (physical as well as mental ones), overhaul long established hierarchies and desk arrangements (often an inheritance of the paper’s sections structure.)

In the news business, modernity no longer resides in the Western hemisphere. In Europe and in the United States, a growing number of readers are indeed getting their news online, but in a terrifyingly scattered way. According to data compiled by media analyst Jim Chisholm, newspapers represent 50.4% of internet consumption when expressed in unique visitors, but only 6.8% in visits, 1.3% in time spent, and 0.9% in page views!… “The whole battle is therefore about engagement”, says WAN-IFRA general manager Vincent Peyregne, who underlines that the level of engagement for digital represents about 5% of what it is for print — which matches the revenue gap. This is consistent with Jim Chisholm’s views stated a year ago in this interview to Ria Novosti [emphasis mine]:

If you see, how often in a month do people visit media, they visit the print papers 16 times, while the for digital papers it’s just six. At that time they look at 36 pages in print and just 3.5 in digital. Over a month, print continues to deliver over 50 times the audience intensity of newspaper digital websites.

One of the best ways to solve the engagement equation is to gain a better knowledge of audiences. In this regard, two English papers lead the pack: The Daily Mail and the Financial Times. The first is a behemoth : 119 million uniques visitors per month (including 42 m in the UK) and the proof that a profusion of vulgarity remains a weapon of choice on the web. Aside from sleaziness, the Mail Online is a fantastic data collection machine. At the WAN conference, its CEO Kevin Beatty stated that DMG, the Mail’s parent company, reaches 36% of the UK population and, on a 10-day period, the company collects “50 billion things about 43 million people”. The accumulation of data is indeed critical, but all the people I spoke with — I was there to moderate a panel about aggregation and data collection — are quick to denounce an advertising market terribly slow to reflect the value of segmentation. While many media outlets spend a great deal of resources to build data analytics, media buying agencies remain obsessed with volume. For many professionals, the ad market better quickly understand what’s at stake here; the current status quo might actually backfire as it will favor more direct relationships between media outlets and advertisers. As an example, I asked to Casper de Bono, the B2B Manager for the FT.com, how its company managed to extract value from its trove of user data harvested through its paywall. De Bono used the example of an airline that asked FT.com to extract the people that logged on the site from at least four different places served by the airline in the last 90 days. The idea was to target these individuals with specific advertising — anyone can imagine the value of such customers… This is but an example of the FT.com’s ultra-precise audience segmentation.

Paywalls were also on everyone’s lips in Bangkok. “The issue is settled”, said Juan Señor, a partner at Innovation Media Consulting, “This is not the panacea but we now know that people are willing to pay for quality and depth”. Altogether, he believes that 3% to 5% of a media site’s unique visitors could become digital subscribers. And he underlined a terrible symmetry in the revenue structure of two UK papers: While the Guardian — which resists the idea of paid-for digital readers — is losing £1m per week, The Telegraph makes roughly the same amount (£50m a year, $76m or €59m) in extra revenues thanks to its digital subscriptions… No one believes paywalls will be the one and only savior of online newspapers but, at the very least, paywalls seem to prove quality journalism is back in terms of value for the reader.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com