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2011 Flash Points: Open vs. Closed, Google vs. Apple

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

We don't know exactly what media and technology stories will occur in 2011. Will Facebook finally go public? Will Gawker Media achieve mainstream respectability? Will Jon Stewart start his own cable network? But we can be sure that a lot of stories will occur around a few areas of tension.

Here, then, are flash points I predict will define media trends in the coming year and beyond.

The Battle of Open Vs. Closed

Media entities will grapple, argue, battle, and rage over whether to make what they produce freely available to all comers or take a more "walled garden" approach.

In fact, nearly every other trend of the year could be squeezed into the Open vs. Closed debate: Should material be freely available to anyone who pays on any platform? Should media that's available without charge always be free everywhere? Will companies finally be able to charge for digital content at a scale that really starts to pay the bills? Will non-Apple tablet computers with more open systems start to take hold? Will Republicans in Congress win a challenge to the FCC's regulations for Net neutrality? What Hulu-like solutions will arise in which one level of service is free and ad-supported, but others will pay for full access to richer levels of content? These all revolve around the issue of how openly and freely available our media can and should be.

The battles will play themselves out at individual entities, in which their media on some platforms -- the web, for example -- will be available to all, but other forms of distribution are limited to paying or otherwise vetted customers on, say, iPads or smartphones. In other cases, media companies will do battle with each other on the principles of Open vs. Closed media, with some holding fast to the principle that all comers can consume what they produce and never be forced to pay.

News organizations will likely be at the center of this trend, and we'll continue to see them experimenting with diverging paths. Some, such as NPR and our own PBS, will keep working to keep their media as ubiquitously available as possible for anyone who can access them on any device. Others, such as News Corp., will try to get consumers to pay each time they want a publication such as the Wall Street Journal on every new screen.


Higher-tech consumers always pay attention to what gives them more control, and they'll increasingly gravitate to devices that are more open, as well. We'll see more people move to web apps, for example, as they get more used to the idea that "there's an app for that" doesn't necessarily mean that the app has to be on a phone, let alone an iPhone. HTML5 will allow for new kinds of functionality in browsers that are less proprietary platforms than the ones people are used to on mobile devices.

We will also continue to see "Open vs. Closed" battles between officialdom trying to control access to "secret" information and sites like WikiLeaks and its offshoots working to make that information available.

The Battle Over Privacy

With Congress, the FCC, the Commerce Department, the FTC and industry groups jostling to regulate what data media and advertising entities can and can't collect and use, consumers will finally start to pay some real attention to what's being collected about them.

And that should give media and advertisers the incentive to more explicitly tell users what they're getting for sharing their information. Want to access a website and all its nifty functions? Well, you'll have to click "yes" to allow it to drop cookies on your PC and track your use. If you give a higher level of data -- maybe your name and ZIP code -- perhaps you'll get a little something more, such as access to a walled garden area.

We'll also see users start to become more sophisticated about protecting their info, using false names and log-ons, clearing browser cookies, and accessing the blocking functions of their browsers. While companies will do all they can to collect information within legal bounds, that data will become corrupted, at least at the edges, by people doing more to befuddle the collection and manipulation of that data. There are business opportunities for those who help users learn to protect their privacy, mask their usage, etc.

Behind the Battles Over Free vs. Fee

As media companies try to charge for the content they control, they'll also do battle over rights to their content. Consumers will be faced with multiple offerings from different providers, be they cable TV companies, Netflix, or news conglomerates. Producers will try to strike deals that limit distribution of their wares or give them a cut of each individual outlet.

Media companies will also start to see that the network effect noted in Metcalfe's Law -- in which the value of a device or application becomes more valuable the more people use it -- is impinged upon by those who charge for access. Yes, there may be short-term monetary gains, but there will also be a limit to how fast and far word spreads about the media for which there's a charge.

Google vs. Apple and Beyond

The battle between Apple and Google will continue to rage.

Samsung_Galaxy_Tablet.jpgIn the same way we saw smartphones based on the Android operating system start last year to take a significant share of the market Apple's iPhone helped create, we'll likely see Android-based tablet computers start to compete with the iPad in a real way. Global sales of the Samsung Galaxy tablet, the first Android tablet widely available outside the U.S., hit 1 million worldwide two months after its release. More will come.

Google will try to get publishers to go with them by offering a better financial and data deal than Apple, and Apple will be spurred to offer publishers a better deal, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Google Chrome will continue to take share from Apple's Safari and other browsers thanks in part to the trend toward more more sharing of documents and use of the cloud, and more use of web apps based on HTML5. Also, more people will discover that the "incognito" function in Google Chrome helps protect privacy and avoid certain kinds of tracking. More people will use Google Docs and find they can make do without Microsoft Office software.

And people will want the ability to use Google Books to more easily read e-books they got from somewhere other than the Amazon or the iBookstore.

Social Media Will Not See a Dip

Some have predicted that social media are riding a "hype cycle," a term coined by the Gartner Group consultancy to quantify how trends rise then flatten over time. I don't think social media will fall into the trough of the hype cycle this year. Yes, any individual social medium, be it Twitter, Digg or Delicious, may find itself on the outs.

But it's clear that communicating in real-time across screens with mixes of text, video, pictures, graphics and other overlays (be they hashtags, location, links or something that hasn't been invented) will continue. Email, after all, is a form of social media, as are chat, SMS texting and MMS. People are too used to communicating, sharing, spreading and integrating it all into their daily lives to let it all go away. Not to mention the efforts by large companies spending significant dollars to reach people through social media.

Anyone can say with confidence that Facebook will not go away. Too many power players, including Goldman Sachs, according to today's New York Times, are invested in its success to let it fade any time soon. Facebook will continue to experiment with new interfaces and where to draw the line to keep people in its realm versus letting them interact with functions outside its control. The increased attention to privacy may again cause the company some discomfort. A newcomer like the now-delayed Diaspora open-source social network may pick off a few users, but Facebook should remain strong.

So Where Does This Leave You?

If you're a media professional, you'll want to hedge your bets and not assume things will break one way or another. Don't be wedded to any one model, but do be wedded to trying things with your audience, and giving them more of what they want, within the bounds of your business and editorial principles. Know that a lot of what you do can be mimicked or copied outright, but count to three and consider the benefits before you lash out against someone who copies you. There may be a win-win solution, in which you both reap benefits. Make sure that every contract with every distributor has an "out" clause, and that you're not wedded to any one technology or platform for long.

If you're a consumer, don't buy any device you can't afford, because it may not be of as much use a year from now. Reward those media companies who behave in ways you appreciate by buying what they make or visiting their ad-supported operations. Contribute and share it with everyone. And hold on for a very fun, if sometimes infuriating, ride.

Me, I'm going to go play with my company's new iPad (I know what I said, but I have to learn it for professional reasons, and am having a little personal fun, too), buy a new Android device, hack a used netbook computer I bought for my daughter, and see if I can keep my eyes on where the waves are cresting as I try to help media entities like MediaShift negotiate these wonderfully roiling seas.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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