Friday, July 30, 2010

Short Takes: Bloomberg says RIM to launch the Blackpad in November; location aware display ads from Google

Short items of interest at the end of the week:

So much for "slates" or "tablets", it looks like Research In Motion is committed to the term "pad".

Bloomberg is reporting that the maker of the Blackberry is planning to launch a competitor to Apple's iPad in November and plans on calling it Blackpad. Of course, RIM has declined to comment on the report.

For publishers this shouldn't upset mobile plans too much. RIM's Blackberry has always been the third platform to consider behind Apple's iOS and Google's Android, though if an Android tablet does not appear this Fall it could help push up the importance of RIM's platform.

One part of Bloomberg's report that seems a little off, however. According to the story, RIM will price their own tablet at the same level as the iPad, starting at $499. Unless they plan to offer 3G at that price (they might) I would think this is a tad high. But then again, early rumors of Apple's tablet said prices would start around $1000.

Damn, paidContent never used to beat me to an app story. But hats off to 'em for catching this one.

David Kaplan over at reports on the enhanced e-book from Scribner and Simon & Schuster Digital. The book, Nixonland, features 27 videos from CBS inserted into the ext, as well as an interview with the former president by from Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer.

If you recall, Penguin Group's CEO John Makinson said that the publisher would avoid the limitations of the e-Pub format by building their own iPad apps for their titles. Where are they on this?

In any case, if you want to be promoted in Apple's iBookstore having an enhanced book is a good idea. In fact, when you first open up iBooks today on your iPad what do you see? Nixonland, of course.

TechCrunch has two interesting stories centered around location information. The first involves Google's introduction of location-aware mobile advertising.

Advertisers will be able to check a “location extension for display” box and their ads will become geo-enabled when viewed in mobile browsers or apps. A little double-arrow will open up the ad and show the business pinned on map with two big blue buttons to get directions or call the business. Google will only charge for calls or clicks.

The second story looks back at Apple's move to free itself from both Google and Skyhook for location database services. In turns out that Apple has already accomplished that goal as of the release of iPhone OS 3.2, using their own databases for location-based information.

Their quote from Skyhook, though, was the winner: “everyone who has a platform wants to own as much of the location stack as possible. Location data is going the be huge and owning it is going to be the next big war in mobile.“

I'm still not sure many mobile firms know how to use location aware elements in their mobile app -- probably because so few are developing their own apps. Some developers, like DoApp, have built in traffic maps for local media news app, but this is just one way to implement this (and that solution simply incorporates Google Maps).

One thing newspapers in particular should be worried about is location-based advertising inside mobile apps. The potential for advertisers is huge, and unless news apps begin to explore location-based advertising, the field will be completely left to the new companies coming into the market.

I posted the thought months ago that the summer would be a pretty dead time for new iPad news apps. The reason was that some companies pushed hard to become first movers back at the launch in April, while those waiting would probably need the summer to play catch up.
But this hasn't true for European and Asian media companies. The developer Solutionit has launched iPad apps for Le Soir and La Libre just this past week. Abhav LLC has developed iPad and iPhone apps for New Indian Express, Malaysian News and others, as well.

In fact, while very few U.S. media companies have launched new apps, the U.S. iTunes store has become an international news center as media firms from abroad rush to launch their apps, often in response to the introduction of the iPad in their country.

Inside McClatchy's earnings reports: still losing print revenue, while treading water online

Many outlets that cover the media have had a similar take on recent earnings reports from the major newspaper chains: revenue still down but the losses are slowing!

But anybody who can work their way around a financial statement knows that gains and losses only mean something if you look at the actual numbers and compare them to those from over a year ago. For instance, a company that reports a 10 percent loss might be attacked by the investment world, but if that loss was against a blow-out quarter the year before then the losses suddenly don't look so bad. Likewise, a small gain over a whole loss the year before means that things are only slightly improving.

But what to make of "smaller declines"? In the case of McClatchy, Q2 ad revenue fell 8.2 percent versus 2009, and online revenue actually gains, if only by 2.2 percent. Looking closer, however, one sees that Q2 of 2009 was a disaster for McClatchy, with ad revenue falling 30.2 percent, and online down a minimal 2.9 percent. One has to remember that in Q2 of 2009 the economy was tanking and the new administration was fighting to pass a modest stimulus package.

(To show just how bad the economy has been -- and is -- the Commerce Department has just released figures that show that the economy contracted 2.6 percent last year, the worst performance since 1946. Their latest report shows that the economy grew 2.4 percent in the second quarter of this year, not good, but at least it is growth.)

This compounding of losses in the media business is the real story here. It isn't that many newspapers (and magazines) are struggling to recover, they are struggling in their attempts to stop the bleeding. The way I visualize the process is like this: you are falling down a hole, at first you start to fall very fast, totally out of control, but soon you are grabbing at rocks and roots sticking out of the wall of the hole, your efforts slow you down a bit, now the question is have you slowed down enough so that when you reach the bottom you don't go splat?

That is what many media companies are looking at: a scenario where the losses have compounded and have reached a point where there can be no return to a healthy state. Others have slowed their losses to where they feel they can manage them for now and adjust to the new realities. For McClatchy, the lack of robust growth in online has to be worrying, though at least they are experiencing growth in that area.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Amazon lowers price on two new Kindle models; low prices shrink hardware profits but increase e-book sales

When the first e-readers appeared on the market most commentators immediately could see that one day the e-reader, in whatever form it would eventually take, would become as ubiquitous as the cell phone. With Amazon's aggressive pricing moves today, that day may come faster than even the most optimistic advocate could have imagined.
Amazon's Kindle 2 is a bit smaller than the original model, as well as lighter at 8.7 ounces. (In comparison, the iPad weighs 1.5 pounds.) But the tech specs are not the story here, it is the reduced prices Amazon are charging: $139 for the W-Fi-only model, and $189 for the 3G model.

Amazon was faced with a tough choice to make when Apple launched its iPad: abandon the e-ink model and build a more multimedia friendly e-reader, or stay with e-ink. The Kindle 2 is the answer.

Interestingly, the move seems to reflect not only a decision to avoid competing with Apple in the color tablet market, but also to go in the opposite direction from Apple in their business model as well. This is what I mean: Apple makes the lion's share of its profits in hardware. Steve Jobs may have said that the iPad is aggressively priced, but it remains the most expensive tablet in the market -- by far. The same holds true for the iPhone, iPod and Macs, as well. Despite millions of downloads, iTunes store revenues barely register compared to those of hardware. (See this great chart at Business Insider.)

Since Amazon does not break out its numbers in fine detail, it is pretty hard to know where Kindle sales figure in their overall profit scheme. But the company's decision to launch a Kindle reader app for the iPad shows that Amazon still wants to dominate book sales -- read that book on a Kindle or iPad, Amazon doesn't care.

I think that Amazon is not making a mistake here -- there is indeed room for two business models in this industry. Further, Apple is struggling with its ability to learn how to be a media distributor. It is, in fact, a huge weakness.

Going forward, Amazon will continue to push their Kindle hardware for the same reason newspapers used to support reading programs. After all, you certainly stand a better chance of being a newspaper subscriber if you can read. So it stands to reason that the more e-readers are sold to consumers the better chance those consumers will want to order electronic books and periodicals to read on their devices.

So at $139, the Kindle is marching us towards a day when consumers own at least one e-reader and view the device as the preferred way to read text-based media. The other e-ink manufacturers will most likely follow Amazon's pricing moves.

The action will next turn to Android OS competition to the iPad (and eventually from HP's WebOS tablet, assuming it doesn't end up as vapor ware). As a result, smart publishers will want to produce text based versions of their publications for the e-ink reader market, and multimedia versions for the iOS and Android tablet market.

Update: Canadian iPad owners seem to agree, The Globe and Mail for iPad app really needs work

A quick update on the post that appeared here yesterday on the new iPad app for the Globe and Mail. The post speculated that the app may have been rushed out the door as it was the first iPad app released by the developer Spreed Inc.
I checked inside iTunes to see what users were writing and, of course, found very few ratings and no reviews because I was signed into the U.S. store. Changing the settings to access the Canadian store, one can see that downloaders are not thrilled with the app either with two-thirds of those who have rated the app giving it a one or two star rating.

The reviews are similarly negative. "Si la langue du iPad est fran├žais, l'application ne fonctionne pas," wrote one iPad owner complaining that the app crashes when switching to the French language version ("If the language is French iPad, the application does not work.") Another wrote echoed my complaint about the article layouts: "Horrible ad placement which really makes you wonder what they were thinking."

The Globe and Mail is a world-class newspaper (imo) so it deserves better than this. The fact that an app bearing their name appeared from NewspaperDirect, and now this app, may mean that there is not someone specifically assigned the task of managing mobile media. This is essential for a metro daily newspaper committed to mobile and tablet publishing.

Android app records user data including SIM card number and voicemail password, and sends data to China

As much as I lament Apple's lack of intelligence and maturity in its handling of media apps, there is always Windows and Android around to make Apple products look good.

VentureBeat reported today that an Android app named "Jackeey Wallpaper", which offers branded wallpapers from My Little Pony and Star Wars is causing a bit of a security problem for its users.

The app, according to the mobile security firm Lookout, steals data from the user including the phone's SIM card number, subscriber information and voicemail password. As many as four million smartphone users have downloaded the app. Lookout had previously reported on its blog of the security flaw in the Citigroup iPhone mobile banking app.

Reports that the wallpaper app steals browser data appears to be incorrect, but the problems of data theft could grow as almost half of all Android apps access third-party code, while only about a quarter of iPhones do, according to VentureBeat.

But the Wild West nature of the Android market probably makes it harder to monitor these types of situations. In Apple's iTunes store it is at least theoretically possible to have tighter controls. Though, as I have written before, media apps appear to be rejected for puritanical, often anti-free speech reasons, while apps that may be fraudulent, or obviously stretch the fair use limits, or are simply me-too reader apps, seem to get through without a problem.

Aljazeera launches mobile apps from mystery developer

One has to wonder what goes on behind the scene at Apple during their application approval process. Do they simply play that game of throwing playing cards into trash cans, one marked 'yes', one marked 'no?'

That was my thoughts when I saw today that  a couple of apps, supposedly from Aljazeera, the international news organization out of Qatar, had launched in the iTunes app store.

The iPad app promises that it delivers live broadcasts, with video quality determined by your Internet connection speed. It also allows for offline reading.
The mystery, however, is how did these apps make it through the approval process?

The mystery begins and ends not with the news service -- I'll leave that controversy to the Glenn Beck crowd -- the mystery is who is this developer?

The app lists AppInvention LLC as the developer, yet clicking the developer website in iTunes simply brings up a page that says "Coming Soon" that then bounces immediately to a Facebook page that offers up nothing except notices that the apps have launched.

A Google search turns up a Twitter page that lists zero followers and zero follows, plus the same launch announcements. All the launch announcements are linked to iTunes, not a website or contact information.

Finally, who owns this website that is supposedly "coming soon"? Who knows? A Who Is search turns up nothing.

On Tuesday I wrote yet another post where I begged Apple to hire grown ups to manage their media relations -- not concerning PR, which Apple is making a mess of, as well -- but relations with their media partners that are producing applications for the iPhone and iPad. Things are completely out of hand, and this is just one more example. Apple should not have allowed this app to go live until the developer had launched a functioning website. (This problem is compounded by the fact that the supposed link to an iJazeera support page -- which is supposed to go to the media company -- also goes to the developers Facebook page, meaning that one can not be sure that Aljazeera is even behind this app. It's possible that Aljazeera's brand has simply been hijacked.)

This app may be legit, the developer may be legit, but who can tell? To me this looks bad, and once again Apple's app approval process looks completely out of control.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In B2B publishing the strongest advocates of sales will thrive, the rest will simply just try and survive

The news from the consumer magazine front was positive -- at least for some of the larger publishers -- ad pages are up!  So you would think that things were improving overall in the magazine business. But trade publishers continue to face three big obstacles to success: one, trying to recover from one of the worst economic environments since the Great Depression; two, trying to adapt to the new electronic publishing realities, while at the same time trying to save their print products; and three, trying to recover from their own slash-and-burn strategies that have reduced (or sometimes eliminated) their sales teams. Overcoming obstacle number three may prove the hardest.
Leafing through the pages of some magazines that hit my mailbox, then swiping through some flipbooks online, it is clear that while declines may not be as bad as 2008 and 2009, the worst days are not over for some publishers.

One publisher who has been sold by Yudu posted a July issue of a magazine very familiar to me (wink, wink, nod, nod). The July issue didn't look half bad (but let's not talk about that 1950's styled cover and layouts, OK?). At around 27 pages or so of advertising the owner was probably pretty pleased with the results, especially assuming the page rates have held up. The bad news is that this issue from one of the best months of the year for the industry barely matched the same issue from the December issue of ten years ago (or so), meaning that a good month today equals a poor month a decade ago. But the reality is that today is today, so comparing a print issue in 2010 from the late nineties or early naughts is probably a waste of time. The bottom line is that the issue looked healthy enough to not worry about the magazine's fate.

But sadly this was one of the healthiest looking magazine I read. Yesterday I received a landscape magazine from a publisher who generally gets positive press from Folio: -- a sure sign that the publisher will soon declare bankruptcy. The book used to be fighting it out for the number one spot in a crowded field. In the industry the magazine serves July is considered a poor month, so it is normal for fat magazines to thin up a bit in summer. But the 48 page folio was a shock.

Another group of magazines I looked through were so weak that one can only imagine that pride is the only thing keeping them alive. When a book is published where you can count the ad pages on one hand . . . well, something is seriously amiss.

The variation in the magazines, though, can not be explained away by the economy, or by the rise of electronic medium. None of these books I looked at face any competition online, or certainly not on tablets or smartphones, as the entire industry fights tooth and nail to remain in the last century. The explanation, therefore, has to be that each company's approach to sales.

This was reinforced by the news that Moose River Media has acquired American Nurseryman. The Stagnito's have always been aggressive in sales -- even being accused of being boiler room advocates. But it is hard to argue with their track record. I would not generally like to be a reader of a Moose River or Stagnito Media, but their rather luke warm support for the editorial side of the business has not prevented them from continuing to keep their magazines afloat.

A lot of publishers are looking forward to the Fall planning season, just as they did last year. Things, after all, have to improve, right? But most publishers don't like to go through the little mind game I used to like to play. Imagine for a moment that all your competitors went away -- imagine that the economy was healthy -- now imagine all the ad pages your magazine might be able to sell.

What would this scenario look like from a sales team prospective? Most publishers like to think that when the floodgates open up they will be able to ad to their sales staffs, but in the meantime they'll make do. There is, in other words, a complete disconnect between sales results and sales staffing. Results in their minds occur first, staffs are built later. I've never understood the mindset, but there you have it. In the meantime, many B2B magazine staffs are thin, just like the print magazine they are publishing.

Globe and Mail launch their own branded iPad app; Canadian paper also has an app from NewspaperDirect

Several weeks ago NewspaperDirect launched a couple branded apps for individual newspapers, a strange decision since it had its own PressReader app which offered PDF versions of newspapers from around the world. Because of this move one could now read the Globe and Mail using either of two different apps -- each of which would charge you to read an electronic exact copy of that morning's newspaper.
This week, however, the Globe and Mail has launched its own branded iPad app thanks to its mobile applications partner Spreed Inc., a Toronto based developer which up until this time had only launched smartphone apps, having released eight iPhone apps so far in iTunes. The Globe and Mail for iPad is free to download.

All these apps for the Globe and Mail seem like an experiment to me. The new iPad app offers free access to the news from the newsroom, with a layout that feels native to the iPad, but still feels slapped together. Layouts for articles, for instance, simply don't work in either portrait or landscape mode.
In portrait mode, the "More Stories" gets placed on the bottom of the page while a medium rectangle is housed in the upper left hand corner of the screen. In landscape mode the 'More Stories" navigation button opens up to a full column but the ad gets place awkwardly in the middle of the page, forcing the article copy to the side. The reader can swipe across the page to go to the next story, something very native to the iPad multitouch interface, but the same ugly layout remains, of course.

What one sacrifices in this rigid layout scheme is the pinch and pull feature that would allow you to zoom into a story for clearer reading.

But the app does allow the user to adjust the font size, but this doesn't prove very useful.
A very useful tool, however, is an option under settings that allows for offline reading, as well as a story sharing button.

Because these apps are driven by RSS feeds that populate the layouts, occasionally a story will not feature a photo. As a result a maple leaf (very patriotic, don't you think?) is placed in the spot where a photo would go. Wouldn't you know it, as soon as I opened the app the lead story did not have an accompanying picture.

Opening the app I saw a brief message stating that the app was "Proudly bought to you by CapitalOne" Later CapitalOne was replaced by Infiniti, and later by Chevrolet. It is assumed, therefore, that the Globe and Mail will keep this app free and pursue an advertising model. We'll see, of course. I've always been a fan of the newspaper and it deserves a world-class tablet app so I hope Spreed updates both the look and feel of this app soon and often as its capabilities increase.

Below are a couple of screenshots from the Globe and Mail's other app from NewspaperDirect. This exact copy version has no native features, of course, being essentially a PDF version of the newspaper. The Globe2Go app gives readers a 14 day trial of the paper for free, then charges a monthly subscription of $19.95, a 40 percent discount off "the standard print home delivery price". Current print subscribers are offered a rate of $9.95 per month. Or you can download the free branded app and get free content. Strange, no?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Where I engage in 'beating a dead horse'

I know I've mentioned this dozens of times, but here goes again: Apple needs talented category managers to handle their app categories within iTunes -- this is especially needed with media apps.
Take a look at the screenshot of the new Newsstand feature within the iTunes app store. It is attractive . . . and totally useless unless you are one of the very few apps being featured.

TNM has looked at dozens of iPhone and iPad apps, far more than are featured in Apple's new slim Newsstand.

Now don't get me wrong: I love the fact that Apple is at least minimally promoting media apps. But since only four newspaper apps and 14 magazine apps are featured in the iPad Newsstand it is obvious that there are a lot of media companies getting lost in the shuffle. It's far worse over on the other side of the app store, where there are a grand total of six news apps featured for the iPhone. I probably reviewed that many in the first week of TNM's life.

The solution is simple: a drill down method that allows users to find what they are looking for. Apple has a keyword search feature, of course, but if you are interested in financial newspapers good luck finding that French financial newspaper that gives you classical music to listen to while you read. What was the name of that paper? (It's called Les Echos.)

One of the reasons it was smart of some of the major media firms to gain first mover status by launching iPhone and iPad apps early was that getting the attention of users was easier in a less crowded field. But every day that goes by it is harder and harder to be found within iTunes. It's time to clean up the mess.

By the way, things over on the Android side are hardly better since we are talking about multiple carriers and in-phone searching, as opposed to Apple's iTunes desktop system (combined with in-phone searching).  Maybe Apple and Google should hire a librarian to create a new Dewey Decimal System for apps? (just kidding, of course)

Is Apple getting completely out of the computer hardware business? (Laptops being the exception, of course)

The latest hardware updates can not be good news for graphic artists. Apple updated its Mac Pro and Cinema Display offerings and the reaction from Mac users has been . . . well, painful.

Apple's Mac Pro line has always been pricey, but newest version of the line is simply out of reach of most of those in the publishing community. The high powered workhorses are really built for the video and audio production crowd anyway, but it is sad to see Apple basically throw in the towel when it comes to the media business.
As for their new display, who this will be targeted at is anyone's guess. Priced at $999, the 27 inch display comes in glossy only (again, Apple is basically telling art directors to beat it).

(My work space features two Apple 20 inch Cinema Displays. These displays are matte, of couse -- I don't think they were ever offered in a glossy version. These will be collector's items soon, if they aren't already.)

This was a strange hardware update from a company that said last week that Mac sales were still growing in the face of the iPad introduction. But I think Apple is recognizing that the days of the desktop computer as a consumer product are over. It will be laptops and tablets from now on.  For art directors it means settling for an iMac or moving to a PC.

Apple also introduced it's Magic Trackpad (see above), a multitouch trackpad for desktop Macs. It's something that looks useful, though at $69 it joins the other Apple accessories as vastly overpriced.

Being a Mac user may mean not having to deal with Windows, but it has always been painful to the pocketbook. But now things are getting positively ridiculous.

Monday, July 26, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Washington Post series and the inability of both readers and the media to react

I strongly recommend this column by Jap Rosen at PressThink. Rosen discusses the WikiLeaks data dump and the provides background and perspective (with great links to background stories).

Just as importantly, Rosen expresses the view that the stories today in The Guardian, the Times and Der Speigel are just too big and too complicated to illicit an appropriate response. Rosen quotes his own Twitter post from Sunday: "We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs."

Rosen compares the Afghanistan document leaks to the Washington Post series, Top Secret America, that exposes the enormous growth of the security "shadowland", writing that "It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes."

It's a great post from Rosen and it will be interesting to read the reactions to it is the comments section there.

In the meantime, if you were busy enjoying life on Sunday and were not aware of the this massive story you can catch up here:

The source: WikiLeaks - Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010

The three new organizations that were given access to the documents:
The Guardian - The Afghanistan War Logs
New York Times - The War Logs
Der Spiegel - Explosive Leaks Provide Image of War from Those Fighting It