Monday, April 25, 2011

Conde Nast Needs to Redouble its Bets on the iPad

AdAge is carrying a story that suggests that Conde Nast is pulling back from its out and out commitment to iPad apps. With hints and whispers that its initial forays have not been working too well. An anonymous company source opines:

"It's a shift," one Conde publisher said. "The official stance was we're going to get all our magazines on the iPad because this is going to be such an important stream. The new change is maybe we can slow it down. In my opinion it makes Conde look smart because we have the ambition, but we're not rushing."

"They're not all doing all that well, so why rush to get them all on there?" the publisher added. AdAge: Conde Nast Taps Brakes....
The piece has a sufficient concrete detail on Conde Nast's plans and intentions to suggest that the story stands up. So what has gone wrong? Nearly everything.

Conde Nast's mistakes can be divided between mistakes about the direction of the technology, and mistakes about the kind of success that digital magazines should be aiming at on a new tablet platform. First, mis-taking the direction of the technology:
  1. For no good reason at all, Conde Nast assumed or hoped that Apple would back-track and embrace Flash before launching the iPad.
  2. Conde Nast has relied too much on an alliance with Adobe and a fallacious confidence that Adobe's knowledge of the design and content management process in print production would somehow enable Adobe to come up with a winning magazine app work-flow. But Adobe's Creative Suite software solutions for building apps seems to be unreasonably cumbersome. Too slow and too complicated and in most cases the finished article is disappointing as an app.
  3. Conde Nast (and most of the other big magazine publishers) have expressed the hope that Apple would gradually 'loosen up' and provide publishers with access to consumer usage data sufficient to support the existing advertising revenues that magazine publishers depend on. The idea that digital advertising revenues and metrics will be controlled by the magazine publishers is a major delusion (incidentally even less likely to be realized in the Android tablet market which many consumer publishers are gazing at fondly).
Although Conde Nast made some very rum bets on the technical direction that the iPad platform was headed; the worst mistakes they have made have been strictly publishing gaffes. Here are three:
  1. It is tempting to think that you can charge your existing subscribers MORE for delivering an iPad app. Tempting but fatal. First, because your existing subscribers will feel that they ought to have free access to stuff that they have already paid for in print (see the comments on the iTunes page for the New Yorker iPad app). Second, because publishers who price their digital offerings as though they were competitive with their print offerings will lose print subscribers: if a publisher treats his print and digital editions as though they were 'substitutable' purchases and prices them accordingly, he will find that the market treats them as substitutable. Above all, publishers have to look at this from the subscriber's point of view. The point of having digital and print editions is that you capture your subscribers from two different directions, not that you force them to choose between print and digital.
  2. Like most consumer publishers, Conde Nast have been looking at the apps market as though it was a completely new opportunity. When fundamentally a magazine app has to be the magazine, and this gives the publisher real strength if they can leverage the resources in their back issues and the archive. Far too many consumer magazines have ignored their archives when producing apps. Yet the archive is something that can most easily be given new impact and immediacy from a digital perspective. Since Conde Nast already has a fabulous archive for eg The New Yorker and Wired, they should have designed their apps to take advantage of this richness.
  3. Conde Nast is still not selling its iPad apps on subscription -- now presumably as a mark of its displeasure with Apple for not providing sufficient access to consumer data. However much Conde Nast may be irritated by Apple's firmness/intransigence, it should be selling subscriptions to iPad and iPhone users, not selling one issue at a time. The iPad is most certainly and obviously a market for selling subscriptions. Music companies know this, games companies know this, film and TV companies understand this. Magazine publishers are good at selling subscriptions and they also know that it takes time to build subscriber momentum behind a magazine. If the Conde Nast management wastes two years from the launch of the iPad in not-selling-subscriptions their successors and heirs will pay a bitter price for this intransigence and this slow start.
Final thought. The next iPad, call it iPad3, will come out next year. The chances are it will have much better graphics and a screen with higher resolution ('retina display'). There is a growing perception that Apple is getting to a kind of 'escape velocity' with its iPad offering, so that competitor tablet platforms, lacking manufacturing volume and the pressure hose of iTunes, will find it very difficult to compete with Apple. The effective competition, when it comes, may well be from the low end, or from quarters other than the mainstream media experience epitomised by consumer magazines and iTunes. But Conde Nast wants to play at the high end, which is where Apple will probably be the strongest player for the next few years. Conde Nast needs to have its magazines on the high end tablet platform when it moves to the next level in 2012. It needs to wake up fast.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Consumer Publishers - What Apps Can Do For Them by Emma Bradfield

This was the title of a seminar I attended at the London Book Fair yesterday, presented by Ros Wesson. Ros highlighted the interesting shift that consumer publishing has made from a B2B to B2C model through apps.

Whereas previously, publishers were protected from readers’ reviews by a buffer, consisting of book distributors and sellers, the advent of the App Store has moved them to the front line, in direct contact with users and their make-or-break verdicts.

Although this sounds terrifying, it is a small price to pay considering there are no printing or shipping costs involved with apps. In fact, being so close to your audience can be turned into a positive. App developers can receive feedback directly from their users, such as on iTunes or via email, and this can be used to inform future app updates.

Indeed, Exact Editions encourages feedback from its subscribers. We’ve had lots of enquiries asking for the ability to sync more than one issue for offline reading and about the possibility of an Android app. These are just two examples of subscriber feedback which we will be implementing shortly.

As Ross suggested, positive iTunes reviews can then be used within the app descriptions themselves to encourage further app installations. There’s nothing like ‘consumer-quoted confidence’ to generate a buzz around an app and five star reviews should be used as valuable marketing collateral both within iTunes and without!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Are Magazine Apps like Games on the iPad or more like Books?

Bloomberg Businessweek produced a pretty effective and straightforward app for the iPad earlier in the week. And it got predictably mixed reviews from the magazine app critics. Grudging and faint praise, at best. Here are some typical gripes from Techcrunch:

It is a perfectly serviceable magazine app. But it is underwhelming. There are no extra photos beyond what’s in the magazine, or even much in the area of additional multimedia other than a video intro every issue by one of the editors about how cover they chose the cover, and a couple audio interviews to accompany columns by Charlie Rose and Tom Keene. Erick Schonfeld Bloomberg Underwhelms with iPad App (Demo)

Erick Schonfeld's reaction here is very typical of the criticism that magazine apps tend to attract. The critics seem to assume that a magazine app should really be something else. Its got to be more than a magazine. Heck, otherwise what is the point? No extra photos, not enough additional multimedia, just the magazine..... It is as though the magazine app needs to be specially designed and uniquely conceived for the iPad platform. In much the same way that computer games need to be adapted and versioned for the hardware platform on which the game will be played.

We should look more closely at this question of what else a magazine app ought to be, other than the print magazine. But, first, consider how unusual this approach is. Content publishers do not, for the most part, look at the iPad and say, "How can we become something completely different on this device?" Hollywood does not think that films on the iPad need to be a qualitatively different entity from the film that one might see in a cinema or via a DVD. The point is rather that via the iPad the consumer gets an experience which is in someways pretty much as good as having the art-house experience (or not quite as good as, which is why we still like going out of an evening). Book publishers are not expecting books on the iPad to be qualitatively different from the books that get published on paper. Can you envisage the fury that would result if the Stieg Larsson books were not the same in their iPad editions as they are in print? Throw in an extra chapter? Have an extra deviation in the plot, an optional app-loop with more time in Australia or Poland, or additional detail on how to apply or remove tattoos, handcuffs, ride motorbikes etc? Publishers and readers are pretty sceptical about iPad app books that merely chuck in various bits of video/visual over-matter, or even passages with the author reading the book. These so-called 'enhanced editions' have something of the air of cosmetic surgery. Messing the book up is not going to do anybody any good, the sag lines show up pretty fast. Why should we not expect magazines on the iPad to be magazines? Just as we expect films to be films? The Exact Editions platform does support and facilitate bonus media for publishers who wish to make their magazines more interactive and use multi-media elements, but it is not clear that this is what readers expect from their apps. Most magazine publishers are sensibly enough avoiding the gimmicks, but many self-appointed app experts, consider that magazines should be something different. Qualitatively better on the iPad and radically different.

There are things magazine apps can do better than print magazines, for the most part these are qualities that come from having a digital magazine. They are not specifically iPad/appy tricks and affordances. And Bloomberg Businessweek certainly gets some of these things right:
  1. The app carries with it an archive of previously published issues
  2. The app supports search across the archive
  3. The app is free to existing print subscribers (for its loyal customers the iPad app is a jolly good bonus -- making that work for your readers is simply good publishing)
  4. The app has significant potential for sharing and commenting (email, Twitter and Facebook)
  5. Bloomberg provide real-time news and share price feeds linked to mentions in the articles, for all the major corporations with stock ticker labels.
  6. This is an app with the potential to grow and evolve in interesting ways
Bloomberg have done a pretty good job with their first iteration of the iPad app of the magazine. Bloomberg Businessweek should not be judged by the standards of Angrybirds or Mad Skills Motocross. There are some problems (yes, mistakes) with the Bloomberg Businessweek app, but a lot of magazines would do well to take a good look at the solution they have come up with.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Amazon, Apple and Google

John Naughton has a terrific column Amazon's new Cloud Drive Rains on everyone's parade in yesterday's Observer:

"Impetuosity and audacity," wrote Machiavelli, "often achieve what ordinary means fail to achieve." If you doubt that, may I propose a visit to the upper echelons of Apple, Google and Sony, where steam might be observed venting from every orifice of senior executives? If you do undertake such a visit, do not under any circumstances mention the word "Amazon".


Behind the scenes in the US, though, there has been frenetic activity, with Apple, Google and Amazon racing to get into the streaming business. Apple has cloud services, customers who are used to paying for music, a good range of mobile devices but no licensing deal for streaming. Google has terrific cloud services and millions of Android devices but no music store customers and no licensing deal. Amazon has cloud services, a music store, paying customers, a terrific e-commerce operation, and access to Android devices. But it also had no licensing deal with the record labels. John Naughton Observer, 3 April, 2011

This last sentence is not exactly right. Both Amazon and Apple already have digital distribution deals with the record labels; its just that Amazon's existing digital distribution deal is in crucial respects rather better and more permissive than the Apple deal. Ironically, and again crucially, Google does not have an agreed license, though it has been negotiating hard for months and the Amazon chutzpah may well make it harder for Google to get the deal it badly needs. Amazon has been selling digital music since 2007, so it does have a licensing deal with the labels and the Amazon deal is actually rather more favourable to streaming than the digital distribution deal that Apple was granted some years earlier. The crucial point about the music distribution deal that Amazon has, is that it allows Amazon to sell and deliver 'unencrypted' MP3 files to consumers -- and Amazon's new Cloud Drive is just allowing consumers to store their files in the cloud, rather than on a hard disk. Amazon already has a license to distribute (most) music to consumers through the web in a form in which music can easily and simply be stored in an individual consumers 'music locker'. Amazon's license with the record labels, is not ideal, but it is workable for streaming music and gives Amazon good leverage. It is not ideal because, Amazon's rights are currently restricted to the US (or in practice restricted to the US where individual content shifting is explicitly approved by the courts), and because without more leeway from the licensors Amazon may have to maintain individual Cloud Drives for each consumer (it would be more efficient to have individual libraries where common tracks were represented by 'tokens' rather than full copies). Apple, on the other hand, has distribution deals with the music labels which are explicitly tied to Apple's commitment to encrypting music in the way that is proprietary to Apple, and which limits music to devices recognised by the Apple DRM. Apple, we should assume is still significantly hobbled by these agreements. Having to encrypt all 'streaming' music in the DRM specific to iTunes is the major factor delaying Apple from introducing the 'cloud based' iTunes that it knows that it ought to be offering. A music streaming service needs the freedom for music to be delivered to a device as many times as it may need to be played, but Apple being lumbered with 'Fairplay', its download-tracking, DRM for iTunes clearly needs some permission, some wiggle room, from the music companies for this to happen. Amazon came along much later with its request for a music distribution deal, and the music companies were so desperate to have some competition for Apple that they agreed to Amazon's terms which give them more scope for internet-based distribution.

One irony of this situation is that the roles are reversed when it comes to books. For books, the Amazon distribution rights are more clearly dependent on their commitment to DRM and to a proprietary format. Amazon was the innovator in the ebooks space and Apple was playing catch up, so the publishers were less insistent in their negotiations with Apple on the requirements for DRM. The Apple iBooks standards are less proprietary, more open to industry standards than the Kindle. Apple seems to be cast (perhaps unwillingly) in the role of bad cop for music, whereas Amazon is looking like good cop in the music sphere and 'bad cop' for books. Google would love to be playing the role of good cop in both markets, but it is not clear that it has the necessary leverage. It needs to come up with a proposition for the record labels, that is good for consumers and wrong-foots both Apple and Amazon. That may not be easy.