Friday, December 16, 2011

Aggregators Gone Wild

I wasn't completely surprised to learn the content discovery engine Thoora had closed down after two years in beta. Frankly, with so many aggregators coming to town and Flipboard, Zite and Float rising to the top, I hadn't spent too much time thinking about Thoora. The offering, such as it was, was not entirely remarkable, provided selected topic aggregated from across the web. Techcrunch notes that 'The design was dry and unintuitive, and the content surfaced was often too old or not relevant enough."
Thoora is on record saying the delay to launch was due to the explosion of social media and the need to integrate that function. Compare this to Flipboard's CEO Mike McCue who said in a recent LA Times interview their new mission was "to crawl the social networks." This task has been made easier by Flipboard's acquisition of Ellerdale, a company that has already indexed 6 billion messages from the Twitter firehose.

Joseph Constantine of Techcrunch points to Thoora's "failure to get a working smartphone app out the door" as allowing Flipboard and others to solve the information overload problem. He added: "The shuttering should serve as a lession to entreprenuers; you can't spend forever perfecting your product."

In a way this might be the most useful takeaway from the shuttering. It was not so long ago--say 2009--that publishers were faced with a dearth of digital platforms. The web was not delivering in the business sense. The Kindle was interesting as were others entrants such as Plastic Logic. Behind this fine frenzy of product introductions was a calculus that companies had ample time to perfect their products. I brought at least a dozen companies into the magazine association during the period and the mantra was pretty much the same: we have time to improve the UI and bring an acceptable color screen to market. I recall a spokeman for Skiff, a product of Hearst Interactive, saying that the market would be comfortable in a black-and-white world for the near term. A few months later Skiff was killed and the rest is history.

If two-plus years ago publisher faced a dearth of digital platforms, today they face an embarrassment of riches--and the launch rate shows no signs of slowing down. At the 2011 CES show I examined dozens of devices--smartphones, e-readers and tablets--and most were dependent on robust content for a successful launch. No wonder so many of these devices never made it. That Samsung just appointed David Eun, late of Google and AOL, as EVP of Digital Content, suggests they understand the importance of acquiring content at birth.

Content aggregators have entered this space with a vengeance. I keep an eye on about a dozen and suggest PaidContent as an up-to-date source. Flipboard seem to top most lists due to its $60 million in funding, strong management, aggressive social strategy and top-shelf content partners. It won Apple's iPad app of the year in 2010. Their new iPhone app is getting a lot of attention and raising interesting questions about "flip engagement" on mobile devices.

I have looked at Zite, Pulse, Float, Yahoo's Livestand and AOL Editions. It will be interesting to see what CNN does with Zite. Editions has received praise because it offers a highly personalized content experience, not dependent on AOL per se. The Livestand app utilizes HTML5 with some UI benefits. Float reports 250 content partners and has close to $30 million in funding. From parent company Scribd, this is a serious effort.

The most recent entrant is Google Currents for both iOS and Anroid. Google has said that its initial focus will be on the UI and will pay more attention to advertising and formats later. The company is in a good position to aggregate its trending data and use Google+ as well as Twitter and Facebook. Consumers can link to their Google Analytics account.

The blogs have had a go at Google Currents calling it not ready for prime time and a Flipboard knockoff. I haven't found that to be the case. Google certainly doesn't lack content partners, claiming more than 150 partners from Dwell to TMZ to Al Jazeera English.

The mantra we have been hearing from publishers for the last 4-5 years is that they want to be platform and channel agnostic. The task has been made easier with the introduction of the Nook and Kindle Fire. While business models for aggregators are no so clear, publishers have responded to the challenge with alacrity.

And we are seeing some interesting developments with apps for mobile phones. My6Sense, a mobile app startup, employs what it calls "digital intuition" that requires little of the consumer other than using the app itself. In short the technology lets the user find content in a way that suits the device employing a proprietary form of artificial intelligence.

I haven't played with this app yet but it sounds promising. Given the understandable focus on tablets, the mobile space, for content and enterprise, has not seen requisite attention. Now that we are seeing that consumer flip engagement with apps on mobile phones can be quite impressive, this is sure to change.

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