Thursday, December 30, 2010

Color-Blind Technology

This is the season of Angry Birds and other apps that keep children amused and caged. I'm predisposed to the Renegade Cheetah or the Branded Monkey but will take my diversions where I can find them.

Among the half-million apps in the marketplace, there are a lot that provide utility. One caught my eye: an app for color blindness. Or more precisely, augmented reality for color blindness. This has been Dan Kaminsky's secret side project (  The DamKam app costs $3 and is available for the iPhone and Android.

I'm not an expert on color blindness but have read that about 30-40% of men have some degree of color blindness, mainly in the red-green spectrum. I'm included in that percentage. I didn't know this until I enlisted in the military and was shown the Ishihara test plates that Kaminsky describes. The test plates features the familiar colored dots with numbers circumscribed within the plate. If you are color blind you either can't read or have difficulty reading the numbers. The app makes reading the circumscribed numbers possible.

I've spent much of my life compensating for this, at red lights and elsewhere, Somehow I was able to serve as an assistant navigator on a Navy ship without running it aground.  But I couldn't qualify for nuclear submarine duty because of my color blindness. 

Here is an excerpt of a blog post on the Kaminsky site: "I used it today in the real world. It was amazing! I was at Target with my girlfriend and saw a blue plaid shirt that I liked. She asked me what color it was so I pulled up DanKam and said 'purple'. I actually could see the real color, through my iPhone. Thanks so much."

So now we know; there is a good reason men wear all those ugly shirts and sweaters and have no opinion when their partner comes out of the changing room with a dress that might as well be an Ishihara plate test. I wear a lot of black and it's not because I live in New York. (Read the blog post chain to get a sense of how infuriating this deficiency can be to woman who are not familiar with the condition).

This app resonates with utility for designers, artists, photographers, scientists, app game developers and those who design fashion for men.  One blogger suggested that the code for this app be sold to Apple who could implement it into the iOS software. Another suggested the inventor received the Noble Prize.

More than one blogger mentioned this was like an early Christmas present; technology used to advance the human condition.

I'll join that chorus.  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Culture for Health

This is the time for lists; for the last year, decade and even quarter-century. We live our lives this way of course, measuring out our spans with T.S. Eliot's "coffee spoons." Don't get me wrong; I'm still a fan of the very demanding Gregorian calednar. And I like the number 25 because it actually represents less time than I have spent in the magazine business.

All the notables have their "notable" magazines of the last 25 years.  Elle, Oprah, Cooking Light, Wired and, of course, Men's Health, are on most lists.  In this post I'll focus on Men's Health or, more precisely, what led up to the launch. Or what made it possible.

I spent a chunk of my magazine years at Rodale and that informs my opinions and biases. I got there by accident. As a newly minted PhD I was ready to go to Detroit, Michigan or Walla Walla, Washington, or St. Louis, Missouri to earn my stripes as a non-tenured professor before Yale or Notre Dame called.  Since that involved too much packing I accepted a chance meeting with Bob Rodale, late chairman of Rodale, who gave me copies of very early vintage Organic Gardening and Prevention and told me to consume both issues and come back in the morning.

I did and told him that the magazines seemed a little "down-market." Actually that was a phrase I learned later. I think the phrase I actually used was "scruffy," in my best English accent. He laughed and we got around to talking about the "Great Chain of Being," an Elizabethan notion that had been drummed into my head in graduate school stating, more or less, that "God is in his heaven and all is right with the world."  Then Bob Rodale spoke about his world view, a manifesto that linked the health of the soil with the health of the land. He was a rough philosopher to be sure but a philosopher nonetheless. So it wasn't the publishing side of the business that took me to Rodale but rather the chairman's caste of mind, his sense of humor, his utopian dreams, and I must say humility.

Did I mention quirky? What I loved most about going to work was that Bob Rodale always had another project, if not a scheme. Soon after I joined he told me he wanted to build a veldorome (a bike racing track)in Trexlertown, PA--he had seen one in his travels and thought Eastern Pennsylvania would be a better place with one. He asked me to coordinate the project, bringing together architects, engineers, and those with knowledge of track design. I visited all available tracks in the country. The Trexlertown velodrome still stands (I've provided more details about this project in an earlier post). Perhaps the most important by-product of the track is that it encouraged Rodale to acquire Bicycling magazine, an on-ramp to the men's market.

Mr. Rodale was a bit of an iconoclast in his own company. One day he came to my office and said he thought the Book Division was moving too slowly with launches. His solution: to create another department called Fast Access Books. This department would have one employee--me; and fast meant I'd be working seven days a week. In truth this was just a way for Bob Rodale to publish The Solar Green House Book, a subject he was very interested in. The book seemed to hit a nerve; selling a couple hundred thousand copies.

Not everything worked. New Shelter magazine which became Practical Homeowner was not a success, as we didn't understand that crowded market well enough and probably didn't have the skills. But that said, the company remained dizzy with experimentation. Bob Rodale provided the cover and the culture; President Bob Teufel provided the discipline and business expertise.  As noted, the acquistion of Bicycling was fortuitous. This made it possible to acquire Backpacker (subsequently sold). Then Runner's World, which was the jewel in the crown. Add Men's Health and you have the Rodale Active Advertising Network.

I made some missteps, such as when I launched Superfit which was meant to be a cross-training, fitness magazine for those that had outgrown special-interest activities. It was a nice idea but could not find a market or a voice. But it provided another angle on the men's market and a small stable of writers.

In the meantime Prevention Editor Mark Brickin and his team were enjoying success with fitness and health newsletters for men. This was an invaluable conversion platform when the company was ready to test Men's Health. 

I had little involvement with the launch of Men's Health in the states. I did lead the team that launched the first international edition in the UK. We sold 100,000 copies of the first issue. The rest is history.

Men's Health is a very big success story, perhaps the most important launch of the last twenty-five years. It was a very big editorial idea as well as a huge business success. There were other successes but few had such a large footprint.

But that is a story for another time. I just wanted to celebrate the 25th birthday of Men's Health by saying a few things about the Rodale culture that made it possible or at least did not drag it back into committee.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Google & the Lit Crits

I recall attending a Southern Literature seminar at Lehigh University that focused on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  The professor had a keen interest in exploring the difference between the original text that was serialized in The New Yorker and the final novel. In fact, one of our assignments was to track, weigh and evaluate these changes. What seemed like detective work then now, after I have written and edited a dozen books, now seems kind of silly. Well, if not silly, a little laborious.

Much literary criticism entails this kind of work. At Lehigh my disseration was entitled: "Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Francois Mauriac, Graham Green and Flannery O'Connor." A friend wrote a dissertation on the medical imagery in John Donne, probably over a weekend. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of such dissertations, both pompous and narrow, that have searched endlessly for themes, language patterns and clusters, keys words and Freud's slips of the tongue.

This was always lonely work with monk-like devotion to the text and rapt attention to the journals that were the academic version of the playbook for Monday night football. The key was finding an angle, a metaphor, a new insight that had not appeared in that scruffy journal called Notes & Queries. I can't make too much of this. I know dozens of associates who have gained tenure for noticing--when no one else had, that a particular heroine had crossed her legs enough times to be divisible by three. 

In July of this year Google awarded grants for a new digital humanities research program. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that this was Google's first formal foray into supporting humanities text-mining research on its corpus of more than 12 million digitized books.

Welcome to the world of literary metadata!

I think this is a wonderful development.  After all, literary criticism as an academic discipline has long tried to position itself as a by-product of scientific inquiry. New Criticism, developed in the South by John Crowe Ranson, Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren after World War I, strove for a kind of linguistic exactness and stripped-down language. This school of criticism would be at home in the world of meta-data.

Literary critics have long poked through texts during their long, idle afternoons looking for word patterns and phrases that indicate narrative intent and the psychological inclination of characters. Now they have a reason for coming to work. 

The New York times reported today that scholars at George Mason University, with a Google grant, are scouring every 19th century British book for keywords and phrases that might offer fresh insights into the minds of the Victorians.  So far they have charted more than two dozen words, including: God, love, work, science and industrial. I assume they'll get around to sex.

No offense meant but it wouldn't be a bad idea if this new generation of digital tools would put some literary critics out of work or at least send them back to the classroom to teach Johnny how to write a Hemingway-worthy sentence, at least before Google does that too.

I'm applying for a Google Humanities grant to help codify this work. I hope once and for all, as Google is my witness, to finally vanguish the phrase "hidden meaning."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Magazines as Culture

I've written extensively about how magazines are a very good lens through which to view developments in various countries, particularly in China (see  In the U.S. it took the better part of fifty years for magazines to shift from being broadly general-interest to having more of a special-interest focus, matching the changes in demographics, income, leisure time and wealth. After all, consumers probably wouldn't have much interest in health, fitness or sports magazines if they remain, in Maslow's words, pinned down at the safely level.

I've published magazines and digital businesses in twenty countries and found the above trajectory generally true everywhere.  In every country or region I have observed the transition from general to special-interest titles has taken less time than in the states. As late as 1995 in China the bulk of the many thousands of magazines were gray, faceless products that served as an arm of the government's formidable propaganda machine.  Go to Beijing or Shanghai today and the fashion, service, auto, health, and even psychology magazines will seem indistinguishable from their Western counterparts. To be sure the long arm of censorship--or more correctly, self-censorship--is still more or less enshrined in law there. However, unlike news or business magazines that write about sensitive subjects, special-interest magazines stay with the safer subjects.  Make no mistake about it these magazines nonetheless serve as a projection of Chinese self-confidence and self-worth.  After all, magazines reflect the national psyche and even censorship can't completely hinder that celebration.

A couple of weeks ago NYT columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece on the role of general-interest print magazines in U.S culture, using as his starting point the merger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, a marriage that seemed to be greeted by the sound of one hand clapping.  Brooks reminds us that general-interest magazines were a by-product of the Emersonian push for self-improvement. He writes: "This ethos shaped the American news media for more than a century. Poor families scratched together their dollars to buy an encyclopedia, to join the Book of the Month Club, to buy Will and Ariel Durant's 'Civilization' series or the Robert Maynard Hutchin's Great Book."

In Brooks' view a generation ago everything seemed to change and general-interest magazines began to pay more attention to the readers themselves than to cultural issues. Then came the inevitable segmentation by interest and desire hastened by technology. Just as Twitter and Facebook to this list, and you have a perfect recipe for a National Solipsism.

I started my day reading about Flipboard's plans to get beyond offering an enhanced RSS feed to something that will look and feel more like a "social" magazine. This seems like an elegant idea even though I might end up with my highly personalized, individualized magazine of one, a future many of us in the media have hoped and planned for.

I was thinking about Brooks' proposition while I was reading the current issue of TIME in which Managing Editor Rich Stengel interviews Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. It is a remarkable interview, not necessarily because it sheds additional light on the recent leak of diplomatic cables.  This is service journalism at its best and the service provided is a wonderful look at how a free press and engaged citizens should operate when governments continue to grow in power and secrecy.

If high schools in America are still teaching courses in Problems of Democracy, this should be required reading. Toss the textbook and listen to Stengel and Assange, two really good teachers, address some of the most serious issue of the day with a sobriety and seriousness that Brooks would surely applaud.  


Monday, November 15, 2010

The Attributor

I met the founders of the Attributor, a West Coast web tracking service, about four years ago.  I featured them at an MPA Innovator's session and introduced them to publishers.  Over the years I have watched the company undergo various iterations as they explored ways to get web sites and especially portals to pay for using content without permission.

From the beginning the central question was whether content producers would make use of this service? And did the Attributor have the guns and the staying power to get offending parties to remove content or pay a CPM-based revenue share? I was a big fan of this company from the beginning because I believe that technology can solve problems induced by the Internet; not legislation. But a getting a slice of a portal's advertising revenue seemed like a long shot, especially when you are using a hammer.

The Attributor through its Fair Use Consortium might finally have an answer to some of these vexing questions.  The company conducted a five-month study that looked at new models and rules for online content syndication.  Research shows that 75% of sites that copy content without prior authorization are willing to alter their behavior when approached in a reasonable manner.

In 2009 the Fair Syndication Consortium (FSC) developed a monetization model called FairShare. In short, syndicators share advertising revenue with content portals. But what to do about the bad actors who are unwilling to share revenue?  Next the FSC developed an approach called the Graduated Response, a development framework on top of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The assumption was that citizens of the Internet would do the right thing if given the opportunity to do so.

A Graduated Response starts with a friendly email reminding the site owner of multiple infractions--my term. If no response is received or the offending copy is not removed, a second email is sent informing the site owner that if no action is taken search engines will be contacted and told to remove the offending content from their indexes. If after 14 days there is still no response the host site is contacted and asked to remove the copy in question under DMCA.

The compelling question that remained; "Can site owner behavior be adjusted through thoughtful and strategic escalation, rather than starting with content removal notices?" The research seemed to say yes.

A representative sample of 70,00 original news articles, representing regional, national and international newspapers was processed.  More than 400,000 full, unauthorized copies were identified across nearly 45,000 web sites. Each of these copies contained one or more advertisements. That was the focus. The trial randomly selected 107 sites.  Within a month 75% of these sites had removed content or started a conversation with the content owner about becoming a licensee. Search engines and advertising networks complied with each of the more than 15,000 removal requests, typically within a 24-hour period.

FSC understands that some in the community don't like any system that uses the DMCA and others much prefer the hammer. But this seems an intelligent ways to use technology to police in a reasonable manner the use of unauthorized content.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plastic Logic

When Plastic Logic came on the media scene in the spring of 2009, it garnered a lot of attention. Plastic electronics were an advance as was the device form factor, the size of a standard magazine. The device seemed a step-up from the Kindle and other e-readers coming to market and seemed ideal for the publishing community. Except it didn't have a color display. The consensus was that this device would go through a number of iterations and come 2012, more or less, color displays would be available.  The dozens of e-readers shown at the January 2010 CES provided evidence that other device manufacturers saw color display technology coming soon, just not tomorrow. So with iRex and other e-readers, the focus was not so much on technology because under the hood most of these devices looked similar. The focus was on the business model and ways to be unlike the Kindle in terms of revenue share, ability to share content, and rights issues. This made an awful lot of sense in an orderly market. Plastic Logic was at CES with its smart Que designed for the business user.  Plastic Logic had a smashing booth, a convincing narrative and a $200 million investment in technology.  That they missed the delivery date did not deliver a major body blow. It was the introduction of the iPad that was mercilessly teased at CES and however absent, still stole the show.  Soon Plastic Logic went quiet. The chatter in New York was that the company, burdened by an expensive fabrication factory in Dresden, was not long for the market.

The chatterers were wrong. Today Plastic Logic announced an agreement with the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies to establish new plastic electronics production in Russia for the creation of its next-generation plastic electronic display.  And to establish a plastic electronics industry in Russia.

This "significant investment" will certainly help Plastic Logic bring to market their next generation  electronic reader for business. The company seems to be betting on the prospect that plastic electronics technology, for economic, environmental, manufacturing and form-factor reasons, will ultimately replace traditional silicon display products.  And they know as much about this sector as any company.

But the market is very different than eighteen months ago. It is no longer as easy to carve out a distinct business user, many of whom have iPads under their arms.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bike Tech

Rodale recently announced that the company was folding Mountain Bike into Bicycling. It was probably time. Mountain Bike had served the market well for over twenty years. I was there when Mountain Bike, the West Coast/Mountain upstart covered with tattoos and parading bling swaggered into a sedate Emmaus, PA. promising to re-order the cycling world.

Bob Rodale, the late chairman of Rodale, loved all things cycling. An Olympic skeet shooter, Mr. Rodale saw a velodrome--a bicycle racing track--on one of his international trips and thought that was precisely what the farmland in Trexlertown, PA. needed.  He sent me to racing tracks in New York, Georgia, and Illinois for my velodrome tutorial but soon realized these were medieval designs.  He opted for track designs from recent Olympics, including Mexico City and found a local engineering firm to oversea the project. My job was to convince the granges and Future Farmers of America that this was a good idea. I was neither a farmer nor a serious cyclist and my audiences knew this. And I had not yet perfected my Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

If there was going to be a velodrome, then there needed to be some history of the arcane sport of bike racing. Mr. Rodale asked me to prepare a book on the history of bike racing. I spent a good part of a year visiting bike shops and sorting through tons of papers about cycling's glory days; that is, in the latter part of the 19th century. The book, American Bicycle Racing, came of this effort.

When the velodrome was completed Mr. Rodale noted how much energy track cyclists, especially sprinters expended, when they were moving at 40 mph. Always a practical man, he wondered whether this energy could be translated into uses such as splitting logs, generating electricity, pulling a plow and the like. He set up an incubator at Rodale to explore these possibilities.  And Mr. Rodale decided that the company needed a book to record these and other efforts.

I was surprised that engineering professors at Oxford and MIT were also looking into the mechanics of pedal power and with their help I edited a book: Pedal Power in Work, Leisure and Transportation. I was told it was translated into a dozen languages.

Mr. Rodale thought it would be a good idea to share this information and utility with the developing world that is often the recipient of "inappropriate" technology. I took this idea to the World Bank, asking for financial help to develop pedal power prototypes, with particular focus on pumps for well water--still a major issue. I was told our request--for less than $1 million--was not enough.  I remember all the flags in that Washington DC board room more than the people.

It was only a matter of time before Rodale acquired a cycling magazine. We looked at the various racing titles but focused on Bicycling Magazine, a Marin-based general interest title.  I was part of the acquisition team led by President Bob Teufel. We brought the operation back to Emmaus as Rodale would later do with Runner's World.

Geography wasn't an issue but our first business model was. Initially we relied on Rodale's considerable expertise in direct marketing that had been so successful with Prevention and Organic Gardening. We quickly realized that Bicycling represented a specialty audience and we would have to edit and market to this end. Even with this initial storm and stress the magazine was cash positive in about five quarters. 

Bicycling had a good and profitable run for about a decade. We heard the rumblings of the mountain bike in Marin County and knew pioneer Gary Fisher who was one of the original tech contributors to Bicycling. I was editor and publisher at the time and recall surveying our readers about the best name for this new and unruly bike. The answer: All-Terrain Bike. Wrong answer. Wrong question.

Manufacturers saw this budding interest in the mountain bike and pulled back on road and fitness bikes to concentrate on this new category. Advertising followed with some of it leaving Bicycling, Mountain Bike magazines started to pop up, getting the love that we thought Bicycling earned. Bicycling added mountain bike coverage but in that first wave of mountain bike purity, our editorial was probably somewhat unbalanced. After all, we were largely a staff of road bike riders and ex-racers. and it probably showed.

At a strategic planning meeting we decided to join the competition and in a sense compete against ourselves. This was not roundly applauded by all the editorial staff. In short order we purchased the fledgling, Colorado-based Mountain Bike magazine and hired as editor "Zap."  He was the guy referred to in the first paragraph wearing tattoos and parading bling and was perfect for the job. Bicycling and Mountain bike got better from the competition.

In the early stages mountain bikes were very much an American phenomenon. These bikes were the perfect answer to Americans who weren't interested in drop handlebars and hard, thin saddles. In time this sector probably suffered from over-design and adding enhancements for the sake of the upsell.  The addition of front and rear suspension, as well as other features, were probably a little over-the-top, especially since most cyclists don't use their mountain bikes off-road.  The hybrid bike category seems the perfect answer to what many middle-of-the road, so to speak, cyclists need. And road bikes are about all I see in my neck-of-the-woods around Nyack, NY,

I understand that Bicycling magazine has never been stronger. Folding Mountain Bike into the "parent" should be uneventful.

Mountain Bike has served a worthy purpose.         

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Magic of Magazines

I stole this title from the September Editorial Design issue at  Have a look.

For the last couple of years I've spent a lot of time looking at screens, display technologies, platforms, templates and the workflow challenges associated with moving advertising and editorial content to all these zip codes.

Undoubtedly, amidst all this disruption, while some editors and designers have felt threatened, many more at Time Inc, Conde Nast, Bonnier and elsewhere have publicly acknowledged a sense of liberation. After all, they get to "re-imagine" their magazine for the tablet.

Nicolas Bourquin, one of the designers featured at the above link frames the issue nicely: "It's a hard time for magazines, but a fabulous period for editorial design."  The site showcases some truly glorious print magazines that continue to break the design molds. But what about the rest of the population that has to figure out how generate print and digital designs or templates that are economical, serve multiple platforms, are intuitive, and feature world-class designs. And they can't put the consumer to sleep or send an advertiser packing.   

This is not a new conversation but has intensified given the interest in the iPad and the realization that few publishers, from a workflow, design, and organizational perspective were ready for the tablet.  Looked at another way one might ask: Is is time to adopt the web technique of standard templates and layout rules for print and all platforms.

Before designers in the crowd cringe I should add that this suggestion is coming from noted designer Roger Black, President of Ready-Media and his team who say, in chorus: "Never before has world-class design been so available, so accessible, so affordable. A cabal of highly skilled designers have pooled their talents to give you outstanding media templates for both print and web-based formats. featuring a huge variety of pages."

Have a look at I think there is a design solution here for all magazine publishers. Perhaps the independents will find immediate usefulness.  They usually move first.


Re-Org & More Re-Org

I served as VP,  Business Development & Acquisitions at Hachette during the dot com period. Among other duties I stood guard at the executive gate fighting off the scores of pure play companies that promised to buy expensive furniture for their offices and spend no less than 90% of their funding on marketing--if we would only fund their dreams. These desperate pleas fade with time but not the memory of a publishing executive at the place asking me how to spell dot com. I saw this request as an opportunity to excel but that largesse has not kept me from using this incident in speeches in India, China, and Brazil, underscoring how unready we publishers were for this slight "disruption." I promise to tell the same story when I next speak in Russia so I will be able to brag about serenading the entire BRIC panoply with war stories less interesting than a groin injury.

Another recollection--though far less vital--I have of this period was how difficult it was for publishers to organize for digital. Most publishers had early-stage web sites. Some were selling content to AOL. Some saw the virgin Internet, prematurely, as a new, large source of print subscriptions, perhaps even replacing PCH. And in 1995 the first banner ad was born.

Not surprisingly, the first inclination for most publishers--and this is mirrored in other industries--was to set up digital shop as an incubator/skunk works, perhaps off campus from the main business or on a separate floor but definitely, more or less, off-limits.

This is perfectly understandable and predictable. You want the tech savvy to lead the charge. What few of us anticipated was how much disruption even a slightly-funded incubator might cause. By most accounts it has taken the publishing industry almost a decade to move beyond the digital incubator, to stand-alone print/digital entities, to various hybrid organizational models--Rodale has done this very well, to a more integrated, brand-centric approach.  That technology has continued to change and disrupt has not made anyone's job easier.  Whatever the fantasy, Web 2.0 seems a long time ago.

In this spirit the recent re-organization at Conde Nast, with digital responsibilities going to the publishers, among other things, makes considerable sense and acknowledges that "digital technology is front and center in our business, part of everything we do--not off to the side."

These changes are also a sign of a growing digital sophistication in the magazine space and a signal that doing away with silos, though much talked about, is coming to pass.

In hindsight, given the profound legacy and organizational issues to overcome, it was probably inevitable that this maturation would take the better part of a decade.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Look, No Hands

CNN has been running an interesting series on the social and psychological impact of smartphones. This is worth checking out.

The first installment showed an illustration of a man at a French restaurant, face buried in his smartphone while a waiter on a unicycle spins plates on sticks and balances a ball on his nose. This is indeed a case of a picture being worth a thousand words. The artist got it completely right; the waiter is acting out (and parodying) the antics of a smartphone user presumably skilled in multi-tasking. The irony is that the multi-tasker, according to recent research, can't juggle, balance and chew gum as well as he thinks he can.

Stanford University researchers arranged a series of experiments that would test the processing of multiple incoming streams of information on human cognition by individuals pre-determined to be Light Media Multitaskers (LMM) and Heavy Media Multitaskers (HMM).  Earlier research had looked at the effect of multitasking on memory, learning and cognitive functions.  This current effort was to examine whether and how chronic heavy multitaskers process information differently than those who view multitasking as a trait and not a state. If heavy multitasking is associated with deficits in cognitive control, then a change in multitasking behavior might be warranted (or I could ask outside this research, a change in smartphone design?).

The research produced some interesting and perhaps disturbing findings.  HMM performed worse on a test of task-switching ability. These users are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. In short human cognition is ill-suited for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaeously performing multiple tasks.

Some concluding remarks from the researchers: "With the diffusion of larger computer screens supporting multiple windows and browsers, chat, and SMS, and portable media coupled with social and expectations of immediate responsiveness, media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous. These changes are placing new demands on cognitive processing, and especially on attention allocation."

"Many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rights Clearinghouse from AP

This is a wickedly interesting time for content in the media space. Everyone agrees that publishers must get more revenue from content. Within this call is the decade-old lament that depositing free content on the web resulted in exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes, a finacial metaphor made-to-order for the attentive CFO. And the recognition that, despite the fat-and-happy, ad-rich September fashion magazines, print advertising is unlikely to return to earlier highs.  But you never know.  I recall the palpable angst felt by magazine executives during the dot com period, then the collective sigh of relief when that fantasy imploded. Some execs even danced.

But I don't see much dancing these days. I've probably talked to a hundred publishers during the last year and sense they understand that we are in a period of disruption, not transformation, and they need to stay on their toes. If anything I get the sense that newspaper and magazine publishers are overwhelmed with the opportunities and offers.  At an OMMA conference a few weeks ago a panelist said that technology companies in the recent past had descended on content producers and taken advantage of their ignorance.  I'm not sure about that. But having met with a hundred or more tech companies in the last two years, from start-up to big footprint, I'll admit there's a lot of stuff publishers have been forced to embrace quickly.  And this is not always easy for a profession that seems to be dominated by Liberal Arts majors--me too. 

A friend of mine refers to digital magazines--PDF-style--as representing a bridge technology.  I like the expression because it embodies a number of essential truths; including the recognition that a bridge usually takes you somewhere, except in Alaska I guess. Now there seems a tech company for every "new" iteration of the PDF from basic PDF, to PDF with enhancement tools, to PDF on steroids, to the new world of APPS and rich media. What's a publisher to do?  Add to this brave new world the proliferation of APP stores--keep an eye on Best Buy, the various content consortiums publishers are forming, and the promise of HTML5 that will make the web and us whole again. Did I mention the tablet?

Within all this noise and tech bluster, there are a lot of interesting things going on. From a magazine perspective Next Issue Media seems in good hands and is presumably months away from developing a robust digital storefront for that sector. This morning I read remarks by Tom Curley, President & CEO, Associated Press, delivered to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. He announced the creation of an independent rights clearinghouse for news publishers "to manage the distribution and use of their content beyond their own Web properties."

AP launched a digital cooperative in 2007. Curley reports they now have 1,500 local newspapers and broadcasters sending content to be tagged and returned for use on their web sites. In April 2009 AP created a News Registry to track how content is being used in real time on the Web and get data on consumption patterns. The clearinghouse will be a separate entity that serves both AP and other content creators.

Curley cites three areas of opportunity: 1) the open Web environment that will soon extend to the mobile space via the Android platform. 2) the environment forming around the iPhone and tablet products. These devices connect to a closed marketplace of applications, supported by advertising and paid models. 3) the open and closed "hybrid" enviorment, especially the social networks where information flows between friends and advertising is focused on people rather than content. This space is more difficult to navigate but AP is engaged.

Citing the rapid adoption of Apple and Android Operating Systems Curley suggests that by 2012 "the consumption of news will almost certainly have shifted to screen-based viewing. In other words there will be more touch screens than front pages."

I don't know about the date but he is certainly right that we  are moving beyond websites, search results and RSS feeds.

I think this is a gutsy speech because Curley seems to leave the usual balanced legacy chatter (on the one hand and on the other) at the door and imagines a world where content will have to conform to consumer wants and a multi-platform universe.  He obviously sees the need to disaggregate, mashup and bundle content. That is a brave position for a Brand Manager to take.

"Given the way the mobile world is developing, news will need to flow to the screens in any number of ways. Of course, we'll continue to package our news into websites and apps, but news will also continue to be scraped, copied, pasted, aggregated and searched by others."

"Within the new rights clearinghouse initiative, we are hoping to give news publishers more tools to pursue audience and capture value beyond the boundaries of their digital publications."

We can all learn from the AP view of the role of content in the emerging device eco-system.  Curley views the world as it is and not as he wants it to be. That is a very gusty position for any business or association to take. /pressreleases/

Down on the Farm

I'm very disappointed that Facebook is transmitting user IDs within certain apps, according to the WSJ.  This includes FarmVille, a virtual game with almost 60 million users.  In the past I only played at farming on my 10-acre spread in Hellertown, PA.  FarmVille provided a dose of the real thing; now I have to worry about the names of my dairy herd passed around the web like loose virtual change. I suppose I should be content to use IHeart, a tool for sending hearts to my friends. There is no danger here; they already know my Social Security number and know I spend an inordinate amount of time with Texas HoldEm, an online poker game.

Up to very recently New York teachers who were accused of something or other were put in a so-called "rubber room," for at least three years or any number divisible by three. In the same spirit I'm wondering if there should be a place for us brethren who spend too much time poking around the app stores? I have heard there are about 500,000 paid and free apps at our favorite stores. We know Apple and Google offer too many apps; and Palm and RIM too few. Thank goodness there is a growing number of companies that help us find great apps; such as CHOMP, an app discovery engine.

Almost overnight I decided to end the love affair with my fantasy dairy herd and spend less time at the online poker table. I decided I wanted meat and instruction in my apps. I wanted to become a better person and an improved cyclist. Years ago I had been editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine but it's only natural that sooner or later one forgets where exactly is that pesky bottom bracket.

I asked CHOMP a ton of very practical questions, in my search for killer applications, including: how do I determine the correct saddle height or the angle of the drops on my racing handlebars in relation to Mother Earth.  The tape on my handlebars always peels off into the wind and I wanted an app to attack that. With my eyesight getting poor I hit a lot of potholes and small animals and was looking for an app on wheel alignment or how to mend a broken spoke. I see countless parents trying in-vain to adjust their kid's bicycle helmet. Surely there is a line of code for that. 

I am a huge fan of discoverability and am ready to admit I need to sharpen my questions and protocol.

In the meantime I am confident that Zynga, the maker of social games, will figure out a way to marry their very popular Mafia Wars with something more useful and pedestrian, like Lancing Saddle Sores at
40 MPH.

No names, please.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Letters from China

 I've been visiting China for more than forty years, first in the Navy with obligatory stops in Hong Kong (and an occasional excursion into the mainland, usually on a dare.) More recently I have visited China as a businessman and an amateur observer of the scene, always remembering what an English friend told me when Britain returned HK to China: Hang around here a thousand years and you might learn something.

On each stop in Hong Kong our ship was asked to give blood to the local Red Cross. In exchange we would get more orange juice than our bladders could handle--and the day off.  As far as I could tell, it was mainly the enlisted men giving blood, which has a certain bloody irony to it. Every port we visited, we were asked to give blood. I could understand donating blood in Iwakuni, close to Hiroshima. And even Sasebo, Japan, not far from Nagasaki. We were young but knew from our training about Blast, Heat, and Radiation. And we saw the faces.

It probably struck no one aboard my ship as a little odd that we stopped on this symbolic mercy mission in Japan on our way to Vietnam where we would deliver 2,000-pound bombs to aircraft carriers to drop on North Vietnam. I have a feeling the U.S. Navy is donating blood there now.

I bought my first suit in Hong Kong and the tailor threw in all the ties I could carry.  That I lost these treasures in a typhoon in the South China Sea only makes them more precious. Who could have guessed this precious stuff would become commodities at Wal-Mart in a little more than a generation. This is delicately referred to as the balance of trade.

I'm not in the Navy now but in the media business. The pursuits are not all that different as on each watch we spend a fair bit of time at sea. I have worked in about twenty countries and none is as interesting as China.  Every Western publisher goes into China understanding the Hobson's choice; that is, don't worry about the censorship, press restrictions, inability to own editorial production.  Just having Western magazines and books in China--forget about newspapers for a moment, would help transform the country from within.

Last time I checked, of the top 10 lifestyle magazines in China, 9 are imports.  I've watched the quality, range, design, and editorial presentation of Chinese domestic magazines improve in the last decade.  However, the basic publishing formula has not changed. Censorship, which largely means self-censorship, is alive and well. That pesky Internet firewall, perhaps the most robust in the world (or at  least on par with Saudia Arabia and Iran), is as muscular as ever. Symbolically and actually, the Chinese government is the Editor and Publisher of last resort.

Today The Wall Street Jornal reported that two dozen Communist Party elders called for abolishing the system of censorship in favor of a system of social responsibility. They were equally emphatic about the Internet: "The Internet is an important platform of exchanging information and opinions. Internet regulators shouldn't arbitrarily delete online posts and comments, except when it really involves national secrets or infringes on personal privacy."

The letter writers complain that they enjoy less freedom of speech than Hong Kong had before its return to Chinese sovereignty. The authors demanded the abolition of the "invisible black hand" of censorship which controls China's media.

On the one hand, China is blasting Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Noble Peace Prize as a traitor. On the other hand, senior Communist Party officials have openly challenged some basic assumptions of a state-controlled media.

By all means keep a close eye on the Liu drama. But pay even closer attention to this Chinese manifesto.

So far, so good: no blood.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Technology of Psychological Disruption

In his October 4, 2010 NYT column "Change or Perish" Roger Cohen wrote a brilliant acccount, tinged with both a humanist's glee and regret, about the technologies of the last decade that have transformed our lives, from search, to apps, to Google maps, and the second coming of the Tablet.

"Before homogenization, when there was mystery, before aggregation when the original had value, before digital, when there was vinyl, before Made In China, when there was Mao, before stress management, when there was romance, we had the impression we were doing all right."

Cohen cites Marx when the philosopher was right: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production ...and with them the whole relations of society."

Cohen asks, rhetorically: "How strange to think we had to change everything or we would not be managing at at."

That is probably as far as he can go as a journalist, listing the before and after and in-between worlds that technology has defined and disrupted. As a student of Jungian psychology I wonder what impact these technologies will have on our Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes that have contributed to our humanness (or lack of it) over the millennia. As my friends lament: what's going to happen to Psyche?  More simply put: what effect does a 24/7 world have on our interior life, our dreams and quiet spaces that Cohen is talking about.

During the lasr two years I have met with and listened to at least 100 tech startups of one kind or another. Most were interesting and had something to contribute to the media space. At the recent OMMA Gobal conference in New York one of the speakers spoke about all the tech companies surrounding the media space, feeding off the ignorance of publishers. He had a point, of course. I also wonder how much of this is really about revolutionizing the instruments of production? I vaguely remember some of that going on during the Dot Com period. During that time I met with dozens of companies who were going to transform the media space. Right now I have trouble remembering one of them, though I do have fond menories of the Sock Puppet.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Man & His Bicycles

Nicholas D. Kristof had a very interesting column in the September 15, 2010 New York Times. It was about a Chicago business executive from the SRAM Corporation who formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005. This was also a human-interest piece about students in Zimbabwe who received 200 bicycles from WBR for their commute to school. These are not high-end racing bikes; rather 55-pound one-speed bikes "that need little pampering." The organization has given out 70,000 bicycles to date.

The article reminded me of Bob Rodale, deceased chairman of Rodale, who would have loved the piece. Mr. Rodale had a great interest in cycling of all kinds but especially cycling as utility. He was a champion skeet shooter and at one of his competitions he saw a bicycle racing track, a velodrome. He decided to build an Olympic class facility in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. When watching the heavily-muscled track racers, Mr. Rodale thought this considerable leg power could be used for such activities as cutting wood, generating electricity, and even pumping water. To that end he established a small engineering team at his company, with imput from bicycle racers, to find practical uses of pedal power. At his request I edited a book titled Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation largely written by engineering professors from MIT and Oxford University.  I believe it was translated into a dozen languages.

Mr. Rodale later purchased Bicycling Magazine and relaunched it with an emphasis on using the bike for health, fitness and well-being. He was an avid cyclist and a bicycle commuter.  He loved all the shiny new toys that the bike racers brought to the Trexlertown velodrome, but he never lost the sense that the bicycle was first and foremost for transportation and utility.

Twenty-five years later Mr. Rodale would applaud Kristof for the article, and executives at SRAM for organizing such a useful effort, and  the Trek Bicycle Corp for their support. Kristof is no romantic; he knows all about donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. But he also knows this is very practical and useful form of aid.

Mr. Rodale, a fan of Small Is Beautiful, was a firm believer in appropriate technology or technology appropriate to the task. That orphans in Zimbabwe are some of the recipients of these bicycles would only warm his heart more.

Chuck McCullagh


Monday, July 19, 2010

Native & Web Apps

Currently there is a lot of discussion about how to best deliver content and services over the mobile phone: native or web applications? In short a native application is specifically designed to run on a device's OS; a web application is one in which all or some parts of the software are downloaded from the web each time it is run.

Global Intelligence, a Finnish firm, offers some interesting findings based on a survey of developers, publisher service providers, publishers and technology consortiums. The full white paper can be found at

This research suggests that by 2013 the majority of native device attributes are set to reach mobile/HTML5 web applications, including geo-location, camera, messaging and the like, offering user experiences that rival those of native applications. Research author Lie Luo cites some advantages associated with web applications:

--They offer an an "architectural advantage when targeting a cross-device launch, where significantly less platform migration is required compared to native applications," allowing for substantial savings in porting and other costs.
--The "web platform is particularly useful for subscription-based services such as communication, news and weather, financial services, retail shopping, where iterative design and user analytics are more relevant."
--The native apps approach, common among smaller and pay-per-download application providers, "will see a decrease in mind share from 44% to 24% as mobile web usage dramatically increases in popularity."

The author suggests this development may lead to a "proliferation of mobile application distribution beyond the current controlled App Store environments toward an open model, as see over the evolution of the PC Internet. Web applications might become more attractive as the degree of hardware fragmentation increases. Lie Luo acknowledges that in the short run native applications will likely remain the preferred interface for heavier applications like 3D games and the like, in part due to available integrated billing options.

In a followup Q&A, available at the same URL, the researcher is asked what do the findings imply for print publishers?  His response: "The findings have important implications for print publishers because the most common approach currently used is to launch platform-specific native applications. However, this is only feasible for large print publishers and typically too costly for smaller companies who wish to reach the maximum number of audience on mobile devices.

"While the iPhone or iPad provides access to 86 million users, you still need to consider the hundreds of millions of Android, Symbian, or Windows phone users holding devices by Samsung, HTC, Blackberry and Nokia."

This issue is of more consequence outside of the US, especially in Europe and Asia, but Luo does have a point.  In his view each platform a publisher adopts can increase development costs by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the cost of coding, production, maintenance and marketing.  This means for "smaller, independent newspapers and magazine publishers, this is simply out of the question given the lack of immediate financial gains. As a result, they would only be able to target one popular platform or device."

Of course, it remains to be seen whether web applications in time will be the better solution. There remains the questions of discoverability and even desirability. Luo notes that his study shows that web apps already appear to generate greater user stickiness and show greater usage over time, compared to native apps where usage tends to decline more quickly.

In the July/August issue of the Atlantic magazine  Michael Hirschorn writes about "The Closing of the Digital Frontier," with the App Stores taming the Digital Wild West.  His argument is persuasive but perhaps we'll see the Internet bounce back again, flush with new technologies and riding into town on a souped-up HTML5, promising an open platform.

This sounds a little like the dot comm period; only much more muscular. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Psychology of the iPad

Did you hear the one about the iPad?

Yes, but it all Depends.

This is not just another bad joke about a feminine product. It's a doubly bad joke because it adds a layer of excremental whimsy. Mix it all together and you get pop--I'm not even going to say it--psychology.

So why all the jokes about the iPad? And why the association with a feminine product? The best answer is in the question: why are some of the most popular iPhone apps about farting and other body noises? Freud wrote that even the slip of the scribe is significant, except if you're a scribe and a marketer like Steve Jobs. It might be true, as some bloggers have suggested, that there were no women on the iPad launch team, thus the linguistic stumble.

I doubt it. My guess is that the team figured there would be a few days of jokes and lamentations before consumers got sick of the silliness and started to look closely at the iPad, as a lean-back friendly, super-thin screen in which they could see themselves as clearly as that ancient lad who worshipped his spectacular image in the pond. It was love at first sight.

That's right. It's not about her; it's about us and our vanity.

During the recent Consumer Electronics Show there seemed to be more talk of the new Apple fantasy product than the tens of thousands of flesh-and-blood products on display. It was as if somone painted a giant Ink Blot on the Las Vegas sky and the 120,000 attendees at the show discovered the features of Product X writ large. If they saw images of their moon-lit mothers; they were sent home.

So I have this screen and I fill it up with my hopes, dreams, applications and, if there is any space left, my neuroses. In a way this iPad offers a clean slate for content producers to begin again, as if turning back the clock on Google and others companies that savage our collective psyches.  We can only be thankful that the product was not called iTablet because we have enough Commandments already.

The dust has settled and we are all taking a second-look at the iPad. Some of us are seeing a hole for a camera that might or might not be there.  Others are even dreaming of Flash so we can stream video, primarily of ourselves, at will.

This has always been about the "i," the small ego nestled in its own solipsistic, super-cool pad that I can finally call home. The ceiling is coated with mirrors; the walls are covered with screens. Everywhere I look, I see myself in what Henry James called my "brown study," a kind of 19th century, first-generation iPad that is black-and-white and feels a little like the Hotel California.