Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

February 03 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of apps and HTML5

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Apps are all the rage, with The Daily’s taking center-stage this week. With tabletmania sweeping the country, you can almost hear the howls of publishers across the country, as they implore their IT chiefs: “Get me an app, pronto!” Consequently, there are many busy hands at companies like Mercury Intermedia, Verve, Mediaspectrum, Bottlerocket, Mercury Intermedia, DoApp, WonderFactory and the New York Times’ Press Engine operation, all of which are meeting the demand.

Apps are a wonder, a come-out-of-nowhere phenomenon that Apple invented for the iPhone and has been perfecting ever since. Apple just passed the threshold of 10 billion app downloads, and has spawned an entire new industry of entrepreneurs and rival (Android, Blackberry and Amazon) stores.

And yet, if you talk to tech people at the tops of news companies, they don’t focus mainly on apps. They talk about HTML5. If apps are the popular phenomenon of 2011, publishers’ on-ramp to digital reader payment, HTML5 is the future, they’ll say. And they are rapidly building the foundation for that future now.

I’m far from a tech expert, but I have talked with enough people to know that the unfolding behind-the-scenes drama of app and HTML5 development is an important one, vital to the future prospects of the news industry as it forages for new sustainable business models and forges new digital products for the mobile age. So let’s take a peek at the interplay between native apps (those we know from iPhone and iPad  innovation) and HTML5 apps (those quietly being developed in great number). Most importantly, let’s begin to explore the newsonomics of these technological changes.

Beyond Apple vs. Adobe

Most of us non-tech people first heard of HTML5 when Steve Jobs told the world last April why he wouldn’t allow Adobe’s Flash in his apps. The announcement was played by much of the press as an Apple vs. Adobe power struggle, but technologists tell me that Flash had had its issues for awhile. It made Google search engine optimization, key to everyone, difficult — and then Apple’s very public non-support gave a strong push to the alternative of HTML5. Yet the handwriting was on the wall. “We are abandoning Flash as a way to solve problems — with its coding and weight issues — for HTML, Javascript and CSS [cascading style sheets],” says Rob Covey, senior vice president of content and design of National Geographic Digital Media.

Now companies, from The New York Times to NPR to National Geographic, are rapidly building out both staffs and products based on HTML5, “rethinking interactivity,” Covey puts it. They’re also determining how that new, expected, pervasive interactivity — witness The Daily’s debut — will be accomplished most efficiently. The technology, they say, is the essential foundation for next-generation products, web and mobile, more elegant and faster than previous HTML in its presentation and more flexible in its implementation.

One big benefit: the browser-delivered HTML5 app experience is remarkably like our gee-whiz experience of Apple’s native apps. “The big deal here is is that there is no latency,” says Guy Tasaka, a New York Times Company and NewsStand alum, who now heads Tasaka Digital, a tech consultancy to news companies. That means that the fluidity we’ve all come to love about apps is built into emerging browser-based applications. It also means, as Tasaka emphasizes, “the sense of a beginning and an end…. HTML5 apps give the user a sense of a package.”

For a good tour of these apps, check out Paul Miller’s recent Engadget piece, which both describes the phenomenon and provides screenshots of HTML 5-based sites from Flixster and Amazon to the Huffington Post, USA Today (even with one for Google iTV) and the New York Times’ Times Skimmer, updated from an earlier version produced two years ago. Use these pages and you get a similar sensation to that of Flipboard’s on the iPad. (Flipboard CEO Mike McCue talks with Om Malik about HTML5+ here.)

So, in effect, the coolness of apps can be replicated, more or less, through the browser-based apps.

The app conundrum

The impact of an app-like browser experience is a big, and multi-edged, one.

On the tech level, it means a major re-training of staff in HTML5, a process that began more than a year ago at The New York Times, says Times CTO for digital operations, Marc Frons. (The Lab talked with Frons earlier this week about the paper’s new article recommendation engine.) “I knew HTML5 would have a major impact, but it has happened faster than I thought,” he tells me. Frons says much of that training, a reskilling really, is done — and that the company is well on the way to using HTML5 as the basis for most of its digital development. Rob Covey says that the retraining issue is a nuanced one, a smaller challenge with savvy developers ramping up their skills, and larger one for website producers used to using more basic coding to create pages.

On a business level, it creates a conundrum.

Steve Jobs not only created an unexpected revolution with apps. He also proved that people would pay for them. Indeed. Analysts say this new (native) app industry generated $5.2 billion in 2010 and could hit $15 billion this year. The great majority of that revenue is non-News, of course, but news publishers have begun to build their “paid content” hopes on apps nonetheless. The Guardian, The Washington Post  and CNN are among those charging small subscription prices for smartphone apps, but the big expected payoff is coming this year, as many news publishers see tablet apps as the route to cementing paying digital relationships.

Why? There seems to be some mental toggle that consumers do, swapping their demand for “free online” for a willingness to pay for mobile apps. Maybe it’s the perceived freedom of mobile. Maybe it’s the sense that we are buying something tangible — an app, a product — and making it our own on the smartphone or the tablet. Maybe it will last; maybe it won’t.

A balancing act

Yet if news technologists are right that browser-based HTML5-powered apps can deliver great experiences, then why do we need native apps? Some will tell you that apps are just a front, a way of productizing something that their new browsing experiences can deliver just as well. The power is in the code, not the app. But will readers pay for something they don’t own? Maybe apps will just become shells for delivering HTML5.

Which brings us back to the tablet. On the iPad, we can both consume news through an app and through a browser. Publishers report, among early adopters, a range of experience as to how much access comes via one or the other. As various paid tablet models go forth, this question may become a big one.

Publishers have to wonder: Is it the romance with discrete, ownable apps that consumers are willing to pay for, or is it the wider experience? We can see, in the makings of Apple’s evolving publisher subscription policies, an understanding of this dilemma. That may be why Apple is forcing news publishers to restrict browser access to news if they want to retain their direct customer relationships with readers — and continue to offer enabling apps through iTunes. There’s a balancing act here, in the uncertain interplay between native apps and HTML5 apps, as both publishers and Apple try to hedge their bets.

“Give it a year”

For now, it’s a twin development path. Apps are still a big news rage in 2011 — most would pay the price of admission to both the tablet and the paid reader content games — so the app creation companies are doing land-office business, and big news companies are creating apps even as they focus increasing peoplepower on HTML5.

Yet the promise of next-generation (later 2011-2013+) user experience seems solidly rooted in HTML5. That twin development is costly, a headache for smaller publishers, and still another factor separating out the big news boys — the Digital Dozen I identified in the Newsonomics book — from the rest of more local, smaller, more struggling news companies. Further, it’s just one more example of how the future of the business of news is rooted in technologies, from HTML5 to vastly improved analytics, which, among industry leaders, are now starting to drive strategy and execution.

In the end, we’ll see technological possibility and business heft mix and match in unpredictable ways. One technologist suggests that “application of the web using HTML5 is just a phase. Websites will eventually surpass apps in readability and usability as designers and technologists combine the best features of an app with the immediacy and depth of the Web.”

It’s hard to know at this point what that quite looks like, but, as he says, “Give it a year.” Then, though, business realities will determine how stuff gets built and sold. Remember those 10 billion downloads? The new app store ecosystem — not just Apple’s, but Google’s, Amazon’s, Palm’s and Blackberry’s — will drive some of that decision-making, as well.

[Image by Justinsomnia used under a Creative Commons license.]

July 08 2010

14:00

The newsonomics of replacing Larry King

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

I know. You say, who could ever replace Larry King? But I remind you that Larry’s six ex-wives have already confronted that question.

Most of the speculation about a replacement has focused on a range of usual suspects, personalities from Katie Couric to Ryan Seacrest to Joy Behar to Piers Morgan — all around the question of who will be able to command a better audience than King, whose ratings have seen a steady decline. Indeed, his successor, who will take over the show in November, will probably come from that list, a month after the network plucked Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker to fill Campbell Brown’s spot.

Yet the changing economics of CNN’s basic business model prompt lots of questions about ways CNN could go — as well as offering print- and broadcast-based news companies some pointers on their own business model development.

Let’s recall that CNN is a tale of two modern stories. Its flagship cable news station has been flagging badly, having fallen to a #4 position in cable news behind Fox, MSNBC, and its own Headline News Network (HLN), tabloid TV without tabloid wit. CNN is cool and confused in an age of hot and pointed.

Online, though, CNN has built a formidable business. It ranks at or near the top of the top news sites, excels at user-gen news content and offers one of the few paid news apps.

It’s a tale of two business units going opposite directions.

Look at the revenue pie for CNN, and you discover more nuance. One-half of CNN’s roughly $500 million in revenue comes from what it calls business subscription fees — what cable companies pay it for carriage. Ten percent of its revenue is now coming from prime-time advertising; the same percentage from its digital businesses. Advertising outside prime time, international, and some syndication round out the revenue picture.

We can certainly see that CNN’s revenue model is much more diverse than newspaper or broadcast companies. That payment from cable systems for carriage — averaging about 50 cents per subscriber per month, according to recent accounts — makes a huge difference in a time of great advertising change.

We can also see that CNN is becoming more and more of a content company. It gets paid that half dollar a month from cable companies because its inclusion helps drive subscribers. Recently dropping the Associated Press, it’s moving increasingly into syndication, both video and text, and there the quality and breadth of content counts. As one of the first news companies to embrace multi-platform publishing (cable + desktop + mobile, long before others got that notion), it moved quickly to price its product for the iPhone, charging $1.99 and now ranking as the #2 news app in the iTunes store.

So content creation — and content creation that rebounds in digital waves, even if it starts from a cablecast — is more important to CNN every day. If it could come up with more programming that provided digital multipliers — smartphone and tablet users willing to pay for access, and advertisers joining them — then the Larry King replacement might be not just good TV, but good strategy.

What might that mean?

For instance, how could could CNN better leverage its substantial iReport operation, a user-generated innovation that is the gold standard for TV news. Viral user-gen video is a mainstay of the digital world. Or maybe it could create an America’s Best News Videos (is Bob Saget available?), riffing on the montages that Jon Stewart has made almost mainstream. Maybe it could go The View-like, aggregating characters whose comments and rants might generate great two-three minute digital products. Or, most likely, it could find a bolt-out-of-the-blue digital age personality, like Rachel Maddow, who may well front MSNBC’s first iPad app. As MSNBC’s Mark Marvel told AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka about its coming app, it will allow users to “engage with the host of that show.” Engagement with Rachel, yes; with Larry, no. With Katie, maybe.

Can CNN find a digital upgrade to the analog King?

The goals here would be to produce great digital content, not just ratings. Sure, TV has seen some pick-up of memorable interviews — think CBS’ Katie Couric and Sarah Palin, or more recently the half-million pageviews after-market that Maddow generated with her Rand Paul interview. That aftermarket, though, has been more of an afterthought. If revenue growth is in the digital content business, CNN, broadcasters, and all news producers must increasingly think at least digital rebound, if not digital first. As Stephen Covey legendarily said, “Begin with the end in mind.” A good habit for highly effective media companies to adopt.

What else might print news companies learn from the CNN model?

First, syndication. While the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen pioneer innovative content syndication models, both with the New York Times, and Financial Times’ direct licensing model breaks new ground, most newspaper companies have failed to find other new, lucrative markets for their content. Yes, they’ve made some money from enterprise and education licensing, but if their content is really that valuable, they should be able to find other companies (Comcast, NYT, regional businesses, and more) to pay them for it.

Second, the pay-per-subscriber model that has insulated CNN from the ravages of ad change is one news companies should ponder. CNN made itself an indispensable part of the cable mix. Is local/regional news content indispensable to any aggregators — AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Nokia, for instance — as they bundle technology and content? What would it take — in the kind and breadth of content (video?) produced — to get a monthly payment, especially in the mobile digital world to come?

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl