iPad: Publishers look for the winning formula

Among Australian media executives, like everywhere else, the talk of the town is the iPad. I was in Sydney this week, giving a talk at the Media 2010 conference. This gave rise to vibrant discussions of the ways in which the Apple device could transform our industry.
Among the group of speakers, the most enthusiastic one about the opportunity was Marc Frons, the chief technology officer of New York Times Digital. (Marc oversees a huge team of 150 tech people in New York). Three weeks before Steve Jobs’ January 27th iPad keynote, Marc dispatched a team of developers to Cupertino to crash code an iPad application. According to Marc, the quality of the interface, the speed of the iPad, its software will make it a game changer for the media industry. From a commercial perspective, The New York Times still hasn’t decided how to deal with its upcoming iPad bizmodel: charging or not, and how much. The context is the Times’ recent announcement of a paywall based on a metered system: a few pages a month for free; then you pay. See our recent story The Numbers behind the Paywall).

For all publishers, many obstacles remain. The first one is dealing with Apple. Media executives I talked to in Sydney are unanimous: Steve Jobs’ company is difficult to work with. It is utterly secretive, willing to give only minimal information to content providers. “When we met with the Apple people here, said an executive of Fairfax Digital, they didn’t bring an iPad with them, they were telling things like “it has a ten hours battery life“… C’mon guys…” Fairfax Digital operates 284 websites in Australia, including the two big dailies’s sites – The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – viewed by 24m uniques visitors each month, which is not bad in a 21m people country.

Apple needs the publishing industry, it should treat it better. When it launched the iPhone in January 2007, the device was a revolutionary product just in itself, one that could wait for more than a year to open its platform to third party applicatios. This isn’t true of the iPad. Unlike the iPhone, the iPad will leave or die by the content it will deliver. Especially for a device priced between $500 and $800.  As for today, everyone is excited by the platform’s technological promise. But being able to offer a reader experience such as the Bonnier Mag+ concept or the recently released Wired demo is one thing. Finding the right economic model is another. More

Crowdsourcing Propaganda

Once again, Apple, or, getting to the point, Steve Jobs defies common wisdom. This time it’s about communication, positioning, propaganda. Never let others take control of the story, don’t let anything go unanswered, ever. (Well, almost anything, there is the ‘When did you stop beating your wife’ exception.) The recent and still on-going –raging might be a better word – public discussion of the iPad makes the received wisdom point: Apple lost control of its story, the Great Helmsman is leaving others steer the discourse.

I was tempted to agree. But a friend stopped me in my tracks as I was starting to point communication rules violations such as bragging statements better left to third parties. As the French like to say: Don’t make claims about your performance, leave it to grateful third parties. (You guessed it, the French are a tad more specific, but this is a family oriented newsletter.) ‘Look, said the friend, you’re in Steve’s office. Among the papers on his desk, you see his bank statement. Being an experienced businessman, you know how to look without looking and how to read numbers upside down. On that bank statement, do you see a line saying: Steve, you’re screwing up? No? See: there is no reality feedback telling him how wrong he is and how right you are.’
Skipping over rare exceptions, yes, my friend is right. This got me to take another look to the on-going “iPad conversation”. Using a different perspective, I come to a different conclusion. Conscious design, luck, instinct or, more likely, thanks to a retroactive, reverse order combination of all three, it looks like Apple is crowdsourcing its propaganda, its promotion of key iPad issues, its product positioning.

But, first, what is crowdsourcing?
For us, non-native English speakers, it is yet another manifestation of the great creativity, plasticity of American English, of its ability to constantly invent very practical, very compact words and phrases. Behold astroturf: it designates not artificial turf, the original definition, but fake grassroots political movements. We have outsourcing for the practice of moving the making of goods or services outside, to have someone else make those for you. We’ve all encountered the outsourcing hell of customer support. We also read the label on an iPod: Made in China, Designed in California.
Moving one more step in the continuous deformation of language: using the Web, we’ve come to see the crowd as a source of ideas and, in some cases, services such as answers to questions, guidance, directions. Wikipedia is one good example. Actually, it offers a good definition for crowdsourcing. A direct quote from the crowdsourced encyclopedia: “a neologistic compound of Crowd and Outsourcing for the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group of people or community.”

Back to the iPad stories, what do we see? Or what do I choose to see? More