Recent reading (7 links for March 21)


matze_chinatown and manhattan bridge-025

Irregularly, I post noteworthy articles I recently read. Enjoy!


Nike, TechStars Unveil Startup Accelerator Winners
A quick overview over the first round of winners of the TechStars accelerator program focused on Nike+. – by Austin Carr (link)  


Why Wait For Google Fiber? UK Farmers Want Faster Internet, Build Their Own
A group of farmers self-organizing a 1GB fiber connection? Hell yeah. – by David J. Hill (link)  


Why I left Google
The quiet, calm tone of voice of this “why I left Google” story makes it almost touching. The core point, though, is an important one: “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.” – by James Whittaker (link)  


Everything you need to know about Moleskine ahead of its IPO
Moleskine has a profit margin of some 41%. That’s somewhere in the region of what Apple makes on hardware. Insane. – by Zachary M. Seward (link)  


Things publishers can’t do (yet)
Charlie Stross shares his – well informed – thoughts on how ebooks could and should be treated very differently from hard and soft cover paper editions. – by Charlie Stross (link)  


3 Ways To Make Wearable Tech Actually Wearable
Some solid ground rules on how to make better wearable tech. – by Jennifer Darmour (link)  


The Future of Product Design is Localized and Democratized
Hardware innovation & startups as the byproduct of an itch that needs scratching in your immediate area/peer group. – by Theodore Ullrich (link)  

Google, the FTC and Germany: Public vs Private Media


There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty. The old conflict between publicly funded and private media, and the fight about who regulates the whole sphere. Of course all of it was triggered by the internet. How could the net just allow information to be spread so easily and at such a low cost!

But jokes aside, there’s some seriously disturbing stuff going on right now. Namely, two focal points in this conflict about who should make media and under what conditions, and how should media be consumed.

Focal point #1: Google vs FTC

The FTC published a paper as basis for further discussion (“Staff Discussion Draft”, PDF) to evaluate the situation of news media today and to draft policy proposals. One of them: additional intellectual property rights to support news media against “free riding by news aggregators”. This by itself is one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a while. News aggregators (read: Google News), of course, channel traffic to the media sites. There’s no cannibalization going on, it’s the other way round. It’s good to see – and just fair to point out – that the draft also states that “expanded IP rights could restrict citizens’ access to this news, inhibit public discourse, and impinge upon free speech rights.” Yes, that it might well do.

Google reply on their Public Policy blog and the response is well worth reading:

Comments to FTC 20 July 2010

If you prefer the summary, jump straight to Jeff Jarvis, who sides clearly with Google as well as I do: This is not really a legal battle, but one over business models. And protecting an old, broken system should not be in the FTC’s (or anyone’s) interest.

Focal point #2: German public broadcasters are “depublishing”

A similar problem is discussed in Germany these days, if maybe in slightly different environment. In Germany we’ve had strong (and well-funded, particularly compared to the US) public broadcasters. (Note: not newspapers.) These broadcasters have done a tremendous job in the past, and even though there has been a lot of criticism over budgets and spending and about certain areas of engagement, they have a fairly strong support on a societal level. They have a clear mandate to provide basic information in all areas (including entertainment), and at least kind-of-clear limits of their engagement (no dating sites etc). These limits are based mainly on protecting private companies from publicly funded competition.

And it’s this eternal conflict of interests (here: “the public” vs “private publishing corporations”) that’s at the core of the dilemma. Public broadcasters in Germany were always very limited on what they could do online. But now, content has to be “depublished”* after some time. (Depending on the kind of content, which is evaluated by a three step system of the more absurd kind of type, after a week, a year or some other time span.) The content won’t be deleted, but hidden.

(Links with some background in German: Tagesschau summary of the regulating Rundfunkstaatsvertrag, Tagesschau’s Jörg Sadrozinski’s take on Depublizieren.)

How much protection do private publishers need from the government?

Now this raises all kinds of interesting questions. (The biggest of which is of course: WTF? But let’s save that for another time.) Questions I cannot necessarily answer off the top of my head. Like: Should private broadcasters really be protected from public broadcasters? How much so? Are there certain fields where this protection should be stronger than others? (Sports? Mobile services?) But also: How can content that we paid for by our (publicly collected and handled) fees be locked away after we paid for it, and how can even more of our money be spent on locking it away? What happens to all the references in Wikipedia that linked to said public content? How can a generation of tax and fee payers be expected to pay for fees if the content won’t be available through the channels they use?

I cannot even remember the last time I watched TV at home, on a TV set, live, on the air. And I certainly won’t start now.

So we need to ask ourselves: How much protection do we want to give to publishers and broadcasters, and what price are we willing to pay?

There’s a war going on, and it’s not pretty.

  • The word makes me want to invoke Godwin’s Law. But I’ll hold back, I promise.

iPad, Wired App, ecosystem. Or not.


Igor and the iPad

I’m a big fan of Wired. I read it online all the time, I used to have a Wired US subscription (that didn’t work out that well both in terms of shipping times and price, at about 10 times US subscription prices with shipping). These days, I have a subscription to Wired UK that I’m very happy with. So I was really curious about the next steps for the digital version of Wired. The iPad app promised to be just that. So while my Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about the first batch of iPads arriving in Germany, I took the time to read up a bit.

And ended up writing a rant on the iPad’s product philosophy. Please note that I don’t own an iPad, I’ve only ever played around with one on a few occasions.

The Wired iPad ap is like a CD-ROM from the 1990’s

Interfacelab has a great rant analysis of the much-hyped Wired iPad app. The Wired app doesn’t get the best review here. I’d like to quote the whole thing, it’s that good. But I’ll try to stick to the most important parts:

I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin. However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990’s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem… ( …) There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990’s.

It’s not interactive, it’s a slide show

This is very true – I’m told the whole magazine doesn’t only not feel all that interactive: it just isn’t. It’s just a slide show. Which explains the huge size of the Wired app. Just to do some quick & dirty math: If you own the smallest iPad with its 16GB of memory and pack it with 20 movies (say 500MB each) and 10 magazines (Wired: 500MB), it’s full. You couldn’t even fit any music on then. Just saying.

A side note: The iPad’s main line of defense usually is it’s supposedly inspiring and groundbreaking design. But look at it – is it really that amazing? As Cory Doctorow points out (TWIT #249), it’s really only a “moderately well-assembled piece of south-Chinese electronics.” It’s a classic effect of glossy, fullscreen video that we go “aaaah, ooooh”, but does it really live up to the expectations?

What Apple is building is not an ecosystem, but a zoo

What’s more, of course, is that the iPad is built to be a part of the iTunes ecosystem – if you want to use that term in this context. An ecosystem is a living, breathing thing that can sustain itself; it’s has by definition an element of chaos, of not being controlled. The iTunes system is the opposite. The more appropriate metaphor might thus be: a zoo. You can look, but you can’t touch. (Ok, you can point.) You certainly can’t really interact with the animals except for shooing them back and forth within their cages.

If you buy an iPad, you don’t really buy a device. You most importantly buy into a system of software, services and contracts. The iPad is built around iTunes, which most certainly is an only moderately well-assembled piece of software. You must know, buying content through iTunes, that you will never be able to leave iTunes/Apple and take the stuff you bought with you. You will either always have to depend on Apple, or you will need to leave behind whatever you bought – every song, every book, the Wired app – if you move on to the next new system. Apple won’t be around forever. But maybe you appreciate a fresh, clean plate every now and then.

Maybe you also like burning down your house with all your belongings in them whenever you move.

The points above apply, by the way, equally to consumers and developers.

Jeff Jarvis, never short of a good quote, summarizes it graphically as always (sorry, no penis quote here):

I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

The question is: Can large corporations compete with amateurs?

So what’s at the core of all this this? Why do these “multimedia” (is that term still around?) apps feel so… stale? Maybe economics, pure and simple. As Danny O’Brien points out, technology often makes production of digital goods much cheaper – for amateurs. At the same time, production costs for professional products often skyrockets:

But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche? Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts. But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

The announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to be building a $75 Android-powered tablet for developing countries might just be a point in case. (Their first model wasn’t all that great and not very successful, but arguably has contributed strongly to the mainstream development of netbooks.)

So why does everybody (or rather: journalists) look so enviously at the iPad? Is it really the big hope, or are journalists (sorry for the generalization) really just too desperate to think clearly? In Cory Doctorow‘s words:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of “content” isn’t just that they can get it for free, though: it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

Or as the Information Architects put it, referring to the iPad edition of Wired:

The future of journalism is definitely not a stack of banners spiced with videos, exported from a paper layout program. You need to try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. By now I’m all infected with the excitement about the form factor of a tablet. I never thought I’d say it, but I do see a niche in my life where the tablet fits in. But it has to be more open. If I use a device to store all my content, if it is my direct way of accessing culture in all its forms, I have to really own it. And I’m not even talking about taking apart (I think it’s important that’s possible, but I hardly dare doing that) or installing Android on an iPhone. But I like a world where that is possible. I mean you should be able to install what you like, and take your music along to the next device you get.

I just can’t have a company being able to pull the plug on me with a software update anytime they choose to do so.

Image: Igor, who doesn’t like iPads the least bit, in the tempting glow of an iPad, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph’s photostream

Hamburg Declaration: Google Embarrasses Whiny Euro Publishers


Publishers are throwing a tantrum Publishers are throwing a tantrum

International publishers [list of names, PDF] recently signed the Hamburg Declaration (full text PDF, summary), a ridiculous, whiny document stating that content may not be freely available on the internet through the likes of Google News.

It’s rather sad, really, as it shows so clearly just how badly prepared these publishers are for the migration to the digital world. Frankly, reading it, I initially had the creeping suspicion that most supporters hadn’t really read the declaration before signing it. It’s a prime example of self-pity and group think.

An excerpt:

Universal access to websites does not necessarily mean access at no cost. We disagree with those who maintain that freedom of information is only established when everything is available at no cost. Universal access to our services should be available, but going forward we no longer wish to be forced to give away property without having granted permission. We therefore welcome the growing resolve of federal and state governments all over the world to continue to support the protection of the rights of authors, publishers and broadcasters on the Internet.

In other words: We want to sell our stuff, or rather ads, to eyeballs. But only on our turf, not out there on the mean wide web where we can’t monetize directly. And everybody else who might also profit, should be sued. Furthermore, the bullies over at Google can’t just take it, they’re mean, too.

Never mind that search engines are the one bringing them the very eyeballs they need to sell ads in the first place. I wonder how many people go directly to their newspaper’s website? Not all that many, I bet.

Now, slapping them in the face, comes Google with the very simple, yet powerful answer: The publishers are free not to share their stuff online. In fact, excluding their website from being spidered by search engines is a matter of a few lines of code, as Google explains in their European Public Policy blog.

It’s really as simple as that: Don’t want to share your stuff online? Stop search engines indexing your website, or put your content behind a paywall, or at least a registration. But don’t come crying when in six months you realize that nobody reads your paper anymore.

This shows so clearly how badly publishers here handle the ongoing transitions. It’s not easy, that’s clear for everybody. Clay Shirky speculates if newspapers are even important for the future of journalism:

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

And guess what: He’s right. No complaining and no law suit will save newspapers or publishers. Go out there, embrace the web and experiment. Say goodbye to old habits. Is it going to be painful? Sure. But not as embarrassing as having to have lectures on basic web technology read out to you by the companies who are your only hope, while you’re trying to chase them away.

Update 23 July 2009: This text (in German) by Stefan Niggemeier is a must-read follow up: Hamburger Bankrott-Erklärung.

Photo by roxycraft (Creative Commons)

Could Crowdsourcing Help Save the New York Times?


New York TimesThe New York Times is in trouble, big-time. That’s about all everybody can agree on. (The opinions on consequences and options differ widely. Check out The Atlantic’s judgement and Jeff Jarvis’ comments, for example.) To get an idea of how bad the newspaper is hit, here’s the figures quoted in The Atlantic:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

Now that’s the NYTimes. For other papers the future looks even more bleak. After all, the NYTimes has some advantages over their competitors: A long-standing tradition and strong brand, national (rather: world-wide) distribution, and extremely high journalistic standards. Also, being the respected news organization the NYTimes is, they have a strong supporter community. (I’ll come back to the community at the end of this post.) That said, continuing business as usual surely isn’t an option. So what is?

Cutting costs has been proposed a great many times (and sadly led to mass layoffs). Micropayments have been discussed. Ditching print for online has been proposed and done. (The Christian Science Monitor will switch from print to online-only this April.)

A completely different way, and probably a much better one, is the one proposed by Janet L. Robinson, the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Instead of cutting down, Robinson proposes to aim at keeping up the major asset the NYTimes has over it’s competitors – high-quality journalism:

“As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage, or cease operations, we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill that void,” she said, for both readers and advertisers.

This sounds like a plausible way to go. More importantly, though, it also just like a generally good idea, eh? The New York Times has proven over and over again, that they know how to work the web, and have experimented a good deal over the years. Just now, they launched a prototype of an experimental user interface, the Article Skimmer. (More prototypes.) Certainly not the next big thing, but a solid experiment in other ways of displaying news.

NYTimes Article Skimmer New York Times Article Skimmer Prototype (Screenshot)

But back to the community. The NYTimes clearly has a strong, and large, community of supporters. (And that’s both private readers and instituions of all sorts.) Couldn’t the paper go the way of many a web projects and give their community the chance to support them directly? We’re talking community support of all sorts: Fundraising, marketing, but also content. Why not adapt a citizen reporter segment of sorts, a strong online community site, all that kind of stuff? Surely there must be a way to crowdsource for effort and cash when one of the flagships of old-school quality journalism is at stake?

I would give a few bucks to rescue the NYTimes. And I’m not even based in the U.S.

There’s money in Web 2.0…


Corporate, CC-licensed, Image by Flickr User Halans…says Forrester‘s Josh Bernoff, author of Groundswell. It’s just that quite often, the most successful Web 2.0 companies aren’t widely recognized because they cater to a relatively unsexy target audience: Corporate. Here goes Bernoff in Harvard Business Publishing:

…there are a class of startup companies making good money right now from Web 2.0. They’re not flashy and they don’t grow like mushrooms. But they’ve got all the business they can handle and they are growing. I am talking about companies that serve corporate social application needs. This isn’t the typical Web 2.0 business paradigm, since serving corporate customers means lots of client service, which is people-intensive — it doesn’t lift off miraculously like a pure technology startup. In fact, in many of these companies, the technology itself is positively mundane. But the startups grow because they deliver value for which they can charge a premium and get customer loyalty. The customers of these companies don’t defect when something shiny and new comes along, because they like the service they’re getting.

It’s the part about the technology being mundane and still charging at a premium that I’d like to point out here: Do focus on getting your tech right, but more importantly, don’t forget that money could be in places you weren’t looking. Bernoff lists a whole lot of successful examples. Think corporate clients! Maybe, just maybe that way you can keep your service free for your clients and still earn your share, making it a win/win.

Sure, this doesn’t hold for all services. After all, Web 2.0 isn’t primarily corporate-driven. Quite the contrary, it’s the social factor that brought the Social Web to where it is today. But maybe there’s something in your service that corporations wouldn’t mind to pay for, and this would allow you to keep offering your services for free for consumers?

Think about your service or app for a second – is there anything you could offer corporations? Or is there a case where selling to corporate would ruin your Web 2.0 service? Please share!

Note: I’ll cross-post this to a new blog my friend and former colleague Burkhardt just launched: Hintergrundrauschen – Web 2.0 für die Verlagswelt. As you might have guessed, it’s in German. Also, I hadn’t planned on cross-posting, but since I had written the post in English already, I thought I might as well post it here, too.

Image: Corporate by Flickr user Halans, CC-licensed

Well Done: Lonely Planet To Sell Guidebooks By The Chapter


Lonely Planet has always been very good at thinking from their customers’ point of view. You can see that clearly by the structure of their guidebooks, which are always built around your needs as a traveler.

Still, the most recent announcement surprised me, in the most positive way: Lonely Planet now sells their guidebooks by the chapter. You just download and print whatever you need, chapter prices seem to be very fair. Example? The California Guidebook’s chapter about the San Francisco Bay Area costs a mere two Euros. (Deal!)

Now this is a great example of a simple, yet powerful way to sell more while producing less clutter: My bookshelf is full of guidebooks in various degrees of decay, some more out-dated than others. (While I like the idea of having them around, I don’t even want to know how much I spent on this line of books right there, not even to mention packing them all the next time I move.)

Usually I’d say that offering your print products as a PDF download is hardly a special feature or great service, but simple a must-have – and that the added value is somewhere different, some kind of extra service: powerful search, recommendations and the like. But in the case of guide books, this most simple of all solutions is actually very effective. Publishers, take notice and learn from Lonely Planet…