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.