Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Microsoft's new reader

Time to declare an interest (several of them). I use a Mac and I am not a great fan of Windows or of its latest release Vista. So I have not yet tested the new Microsoft reader which is clearly in some ways pretty spiffy. Bobbie Johnson reviews the Daily Mail's implementation here. But the new Microsoft system is clearly in some sense a serious competitor to the Exact Editions approach (another interest declared). Nor am I too sure how this new environment is being marketed against the old Microsoft eReader which everyone except the Microsoft web pages seems to have forgotten. Should I get off my backside and buy or borrow a new PC with Vista on it? Should I take out my subscription to the new digital Daily Mail? Or should I stick with the old newspaperdirect one?

Not yet. There is something puzzling about the positioning of the new reader. Matthew Ingram has a recent post which surveys some of the problematic issues. If lots of newspapers are going to create their own proprietary implementation of the new eReader, that seems like an awful waste. Surely there should be someway the user can get a bundle of content in the same reader etc? There has also recently been a thread on the disadvantages of PDF-based digital editions of newspapers on the Greenslade blog. These guys are not going to be much happier with a Microsoft download than with the PDF issues. I wonder whether these PDF critics would find the same problem with the Exact Editions system, which does not use a issue-download, but provides access to a full text database of the publication? Maybe 'yes' maybe 'no', but the comment of Ingram's that really caught my attention was the suggestion that this style of controlled distribution appeals to traditional media executives because it precludes 'linking from the outside'. Does he mean this would be seen as a recommendation? I think so.

If traditional media barons still see this as a plus, they have a long way to go in their efforts to understand the twenty-first century. That is the trouble with these issue-based downloads, they are on the web but not of it. The awkwardness of linking-to or citing content is the nail in the plank of most of the issue-download eReaders out there. And if you can not easily link to ads which are themselves interactive links, what is the point of having advertising in digital newspapers? If someone will link me to the Daily Mail's classified ads pages in the new Microsoft format, I promise to go and take a look.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

All Out Cricket

Monty Panesar gets five mentions. 'Five' means five pages in our language -- ie there are five pages in the trial issue which have 'Panesar' on them. The name might appear more than once on some pages, but our search counts pages. Google works the same way counting pages rather than 'occurrences' in the strict sense. Techie point, to keep you awake in the slips.

Cricket attracts obsessional supporters. And I used to have a deceptive off-cutter in my medium pace repertoire, but I am in two minds as to whether Lance Cairns is really 'Better than Sex?'

Dickie Bird handles the Readers' queries.

Monday, February 19, 2007

ABC figures for 2nd Half of 2006

The ABC figures are out and they are a tale of woe for the men's magazines market. The women's magazines sector has done better and especially the relatively new trend for weeklies, eg Grazia. Stephen Brook has some comments in today's Media Guardian.

Stephen Brook suggests that one cause for the collapse in the men's titles could be the rise in digital subscriptions, he cites the new Dennis publication Monkey. But it could well be that the digital challenge is coming from the web as a whole not from quasi-magazines (ie from Google, YouTube and Facebook) and experiments such as Monkey are a rather small scale response. Hardly enough to cause a circulation collapse in their parent publisher's key titles. Dennis are also proposing to sell the men's magazine list, again Stephen Brook has the story, which may not be a vote of confidence in their digital future. We encourage magazine publishers to get their titles on to the web, just the way they are. There are signs that it is working for our publishers.

The Library Thing

A tool for cataloguing your own library and for sharing information with like-minded readers. Why would one need that? The Library Thing may seem pointless to people who don't use the web, but to those who do, it is compelling and subtle -- especially those of us who like to organise stuff. It is still quite young but has grown like topsy and has had a massive response. The Library Thing only encourages its users to organise books, not records or magazines. Scope for development there? How well would it work with eBooks? Rather well, if they worked ....... but that is another story.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Yellow Ink: the Missing Link

The BBC is carrying a fascinating story about how Fujitsu is developing a technique for printing concealed hot-links to web sites and phone numbers in print. The idea is that you will be able to point your mobile phone at an ad and it will call the appropriate number or link to the web site. If every page carried its own web address in invisible ink you could point your phone to book mark any page that interested you while you were reading it in print.

The Exact Editions system already automatically spots and marks up email addresses (seven on that page), urls (over 20 on that page) and phone numbers so that they become clickable links (only the numbers in international format are live on the cited page; and the saved search highlights 'Tel' so that the numbers are easier to spot) . This sounds pretty straightforward, but it is a bit smarter than you might think, because with the EE system these links are not occuring in ordinary HTML, they are 'hot spots' on the JPEG image of a page which is what we deliver to the client.

The neat thing about Fujitsu's yellow ink and the EE hot spots is that the print image becomes a real partner in the development of the web. It is the ability to link from print pages to web pages and from web pages to inky pages that promises so well for the future of print. The web becomes a natural extension and 'reservoir' of print as well as a replacement for it. Another reason for print publishers to cheer up.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Digital Editions and Environmental Impact

There are sound business reasons for using Digital Editions. The bottom line is what drives most publishing and distribution decisions, and an investment in digital technology can improve the performance of all magazines. Yet there are also sound ecological reasons for the appropriate use of a digital platform. Publishers who have a concern for the ecological impact of the magazine business should consider these five principles in forming their digital strategy:

  1. Provide the consumer with the choice of a digital edition. Your readers will increasingly expect the option to have web access or a digital subscription and all of us are spending more time on the web. But make this a choice -- not a forced move. Print still has its places and many readers prefer print, in which case they should have what they prefer.
  2. Promote with digital. Use digital editions to promote magazines and to recruit new subscribers and readers. For trial purposes a digital edition is almost always much cheaper than a physical copy. There is much waste in the traditional, newstand based distribution channel. A responsible circulation director will consider digital promotion and know how cost-effective it is in relation to 'sale or return' print copies, many of which will be sent to landfill.
  3. Price digital access fairly. Do not load the dice against the digital edition or the digital subscription by excessive pricing or other forms of discrimination. Users will expect a digital edition to be cheaper than a print copy. They will expect it to include all the content available to print subscribers.
  4. Deliver an enhanced service with appropriate web techniques. Empower your readers by providing them with additional value: eg fast access to a comprehensive archive, live links from the web edition, and the opportunity to bookmark or cite key pages.
  5. Ensure that advertisers also benefit from the appropriate digital strategy for your magazine. Support your advertisers by giving them the benefits which accrue from a digital audience and digital delivery, especially through improved response rates, interactivity and audience metrics.
We offer these principles, in draft form, and welcome any comments on them.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Google's Book Search or The Turing Library

Philipp Lennsen tells me that he thinks that Google's superfast "0.00" search results, previous post, were caused by a mistake that Google has now put right. So Google Book Search probably never was faster than the web search. Perhaps speed is not, after all, as important as extent or comprehensiveness.

In which context: Andrew Hodges' wonderful biography of Turing, reproduces a stunning passage, written by Turing in 1947, which prompts the suggestion that Google Book Search should be re-styled, or should aim to become, The Turing Library:

We could even imagine a computing machine that was made to work with a memory based on books. It would not be very easy but would be immensely preferable to the single long tape. Let us for the sake of argument suppose that the difficulties involved in using books as memory were overcome, that is to say mechanical devices for finding the right book and opening it at the right page, etc. etc. had been developed, imitating the use of human hands and eyes. ..[later].. In my opinion this problem of making a large memory available at reasonably short notice is much more important than that of doing operations such as multiplication at high speed.
LMS lecture quoted in Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence p 319.

This passage does to a remarkable degree anticipate the methodology of building the Google Book Search system. Google have virtualised Turing's thought experiment. It is also fascinating that in this passage Turing considers that a 'library' (books) would be 'immensely preferable' to the abstract 'Turing machine' concept of an endless tape with which he had developed his mathematical and computational results. This paper of Turing's is fascinatingly parallel to, but more deeply digital than, Vannevar Bush's 'As We May Think'.

If Andrew Hodge's book were in Google's Book Search, I would link you to it straight away. It surely will be and perhaps this is one of the reasons why a Turing library is, indeed, immensely preferable to the endless Turing tape. The Turing library is actually coming to pass.

Has Google Book Search slowed down?

A couple of months ago Philipp Lennsen, on his Google Blogoscoped, reported that Google Book Search returned results in almost no time at all: zero-point-zero-zero seconds, which is very fast even if it really is taking '0.002' seconds or something which gets rounded down to zero. This blog post got me wondering and it produced some interesting and amusing comments.

To my surprise, Google Book Search has now slowed down quite a bit. As Alex Ionut emphasised, back in December 2006, any Google Book Search was coming back in '0.00' seconds. Today searches on Google Book Search are only a little bit faster and sometimes slower than the same search on Google Web search.

Mind you Google Book Search is still amazingly fast. It takes 0.05 seconds to find the 13 occurrences of the phrase "bliss was it that dawn" in the million odd books that Google may now have scanned, and on the web Google this morning found me 34 occurrences in 0.04 seconds. Does it matter if Google Book Search has slowed down a bit? Would it be better if Google Book Search really was blindingly fast, faster than web search?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Guardian notes success of digital magazines

Stephen Brook in this week's Media Guardian has a piece about Exact Editions and the way our platform is being used by specialist publications. He notes our emphasis on Searching and on building Subscriptions, and it is interesting that he also quotes from the Royal Mail's head of publishing services. One would think that digital distribution and mail delivery are competing channels -- they are, but they are also working in the same direction to help publishers establish direct relationships with their readers. The Royal Mail is also benefitting from the increasing shift to subscription-based circulation (unlike the USA the British magazine market has traditionally seen distribution via retailers rather than direct to subscribers). Brook says that an astonishing 87% of consumer magazine circulation is still via the retail channel.

One thing Brook misses, is the huge benefits to the publisher from using the digital edition to promote a magazine. Elsewhere in the Media Guardian there is an interesting piece about the unstoppable flow of new product launches in the magazine market. About 500 a year says Jim Bilton. Since a new magazine launch can be incredibly expensive (apparently £9 million for Look -- launched last week), and since a digital promotion even of a big title should only cost a few thousand pounds, one has to wonder why most new magazine product launches do not include provision of a free trial promotional copy?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Velo Vision

A Careers Guide for the New Scientist

The current issue of the New Scientist is using a 72 page Careers Supplement on the Exact Editions platform. Follow the links on their home page to the Careers Guide.

I guess we can all benefit from Alison Motluk's advice on Six Steps to a Stress-Free Career.

DRM (Rights Management) and Access Management

Earlier this week Steve Jobs started to blog on the Apple web site. His is a fascinating argument and surprising in some ways, since Apple has the most successful DRM system on the planet.

But he is right. It must be in the interests of music publishers and creative artists to move to a marketplace which allows device-independent music acquisition. The trouble is that publishers and artists are understandably nervous of a technology (eg the MP3 file format) which facilitates unlicensed copying. Print publishers (whether of newspapers, magazines or books) are in a better position because an alternative model is feasible for print markets. Namely: to license access on a subscription basis. The trouble with the DRM solutions that have been developed for music and film is that they depend on managing (or on trying to manage and inhibit) the copying. There has been less emphasis on the possibility for offering access to a library service.

It is also in Apple's interests. Things are changing and they are changing at Apple. Unlike the iPod, the iPhone will have built in broad-band connectivity. Access management through subscriptions to a comprehensive service become a feasible distribution channel. Perhaps the music and film industries would do better to develop subscriptions which allowed users to acquire access rights to huge libraries through an iPhone or any other consumer device. If large libraries of film or music could be easily accessed through the web they would soon become incredibly popular. That is why YouTube is such a winner.

Because print needs to be searched it's best off as a network resource not a consumer durable. Access through the web is more important than the local copy. Think libraries not copies: texts not books: magazines not issues.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ecological impacts

We have blogged before about the ecological impact of the magazine industry. We would like to muster some arguments that could show the extent to which digital magazines really are a sound ecological development as they appear to be.

Before we get too committed to this approach, here is a thought from left-field: perhaps we should really be persuading magazine publishers to print magazines white on black, rather than mostly black on white? In this way the magazine industry would adjust readers to a mode of presentation and design which will have significant energy savings when the switch to primarily digital magazines is complete. Mark Onktush calculates that if Google were to switch from a black on white display, to a white on black display, there would be a saving of about 750 Megawatt hours a year.

Hmm... this is a topic to which one is tempted to return in early April. Right at the beginning of the month.

Rare Book Review

Monday, February 05, 2007

Incremental changes

We made three small changes to the service last week. Small enough that probably nobody noticed. I remember when software development was like loading an omnibus with passengers for a guided excursion. There alwasy a concern that some notable passenger would miss the bus. Finally the development build up would lead to a laborious and risky period of alpha- and beta-testing, revised documentation and eventually a new release would be shipped to customers (floppy disks and all). If it worked properly there were no complaints but there was a huge amount of upheaval and everyone noticed what was going on. What a pleasure that software development is no longer like that.

One of the minor enhancements is that our feedback form now gives our audience the opportunity to specify which magazine the feedback is about. That is certainly a minor change, but it helps a great deal with the customer support -- since, before the change, we often had to guess as to which magazine a specific feedback was about.

When you think about it 'web' was a darn good metaphor for the invention of Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink structure must have been the main driver for the choice of the web metaphor. but it is also web-like in its growth and stability. Exactly like a web, the way a small change can be made to one tiny node and it very gently shakes itself over the whole connected structure and imperceptibly beds itself in. When TBL was specc-aming his hypertext system I bet he never considered that his invention would lead to the death of the software *release* and the prevalence of incremental changes. Will Microsoft's Vista be the last of the major software releases?