Saturday, September 14, 2013

Digital Song

It was another late day suburban circle jerk
Announced on Twitter or some digital song
To discuss the arcane science of wife swapping
Of every race and gender and if enough
Time to explore the fall of Paul
From his horse on the road to Damascus.
The agenda was loose like an open
Source drama, everything out, everything
In, relativity on purpose, until
An invisible third hand steadied
The narrative the way a clown builds
His face outward to touch
The hem of a circus tent.
The men in the group wanted to talk
About sex, the women more interested
In playing the hangman’s game first
On the back of an envelope, then
On a series of hands and finally
On the dining room wall. By now
The energy had shifted
To the feminine side of the house
That is interested in art but would
Settle for a pound of flesh.
Mixed nuts and mixed metaphors
Fill the place and this night’s den
Of contestants on American Idol seem
To be sticking their necks out more than usual.
After the twittering subsides the tech
Chicks with a little help from Photoshop
Project a meadow on a far surface showing
Rolling wheat fields, blue skies
And a very large crow.
The group sighs at all this tranquility
And barely murmurs when a braced upside
Down L with six or seven nooses
Drops into the heart of Kansas.
Men in the room clutch
Their throats as if on cue.
The artist does not notice as she is busy
Putting flesh and blood on those ropes
Choking, kicking up a story, reaching
For the stars though their hands are tied.
In the final tableau it isn’t clear
To the women in the audience
Whether the smoke coming from these actors
Is the soul leaving the body
Or just the fields giving off heat.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Qualcomm’s Sixth Sense & the Personal Internet of Everything

I wanted to launch my fall media diet with enough of a technical protein mix to get me through what is bound to be a very meaty season.  I was right to start with the tantalizing menu items offered at Uplinq, Qualcomm’s annual event in San Diego for developers.  Admittedly, I have a soft spot for QC because I consulted there for a spell and received a substantial and necessary tutorial on what the world will look like when all 8 billion of its mobile inhabitants are posting “selfies” with both hands to the nearest friendly wall within reach.

To play my part, I watched the keynote, given by Chairman Dr. Paul Jacobs, on my mobile, safely removed from the opening pyrotechnics, which I imagined as a 22nd century DJ making music out of the bits and bytes that grew organically from his digital reach, nimble enough to bring down the hemisphere.  This was a technical conference after all and Dr. Jacobs needed this kind of kick-off orchestration; surround sound, surrounded.

For a company that spends a whopping $4 billion a year on R&D, this was not a bad opening gambit that played nicely into one of Dr. Jacobs’ major themes:  a digital 6th sense in our “personal Internet of everything.” If, as Dr. Jacobs remarks, there will be 25 billion mobile devices by 2020, his emphasis on connectivity, context and control seemed spot on.   So does the QC effort to filter out all that digital noise and provide “what’s important to me.”  Proximity is the operative word with devices and apps within my space becoming my own personal map and my cloud.   Qualcomm’s Alljoyn provides the software and core framework that lets compatible smart things around us, whether television, home, or automobile, recognize each other and share resources, data and information.

Jacobs, with an assist from Rhapsody CEO Jon Irwin, announced a wireless audio streaming platform, AllPlay, based on the open-source AllJoyn that can wirelessly stream different music tracks to any room or speaker in the house.  You can also stream music from other sources, including apps.  Rhapsody has integrated AllPlay into its app, underscoring the commercial viability of this audio streaming platform.

Vuforia, an augmented reality platform, was one of the most interesting products mentioned in the keynote.  It literally enables apps to see, bringing them to life with 3D graphic, touch, video and audio.  This can give sexy movement to magazine brands like Maxim and help make the Guinness Book of World Records a living 3D experience.  But the greatest application is probably games.  Start with a table top populated with utilitarian items such as a vase and a tissue box, and through the magic of Vuforia, these objects will soon become stone pillars and castles with all the necessary mythological players battling it out.  Even in this wonderful world, there is some respect for natural law: characters walk around and not through objects.  The bad guys are getting the upper hand until the friendly dragon (as in the QC Snapdragon chipset) seizes the day, provides the extra juice and banishes the interlopers from the table-top kingdom.  Qualcomm calls this particular application Smart Terrain, and it just that because the world of objects becomes a potential video game or some other imaginative expression.  Everything in the living room is in play.

Jacobs discussed many other interesting projects including Gimbal, a robust geo-fencing platform and the new smartwatch Toq, but it was the discussion of “Smarter Objects,” led by Pattie Maes, Professor at the MIT Media Lab, that really gave life to what “Sixth Sense Interaction” meant in practice.  Professor Maes had given an earlier presentation on the subject at TED.   She then demonstrated how a person wearing a camera, projector, mirror and phone could use any surface to interact with data that is projected.  Through various forms of image and marker recognition, a person can get this relevant “sixth sense” information right in front of her.  A book can have an Amazon rating projected on the cover, reader annotations, or critical remarks.   A reader of The New York Times can “add” video to an article on a particular subject.  If you want the time, simply draw a watch on your wrist and the time will appear.

According to Professor Maes, researchers at MIT have developed ways to impose software functionality on everyday objects such as a lamp or radio.  The program called “Smarter Objects” uses augmented reality software to give the household product a virtual programming interface.   Overlaying Vuforia on everyday objects and linking through the AllJoyn platform, the professor’s assistant switched on lamps, turned on the radio and changed settings.  Through a simple tablet command you can drop a new song into the radio.

What surprised me about Jacobs’ presentation is that most of the products he mentioned appear to have an immediate commercial application.  That hasn’t always been the case.

Media companies and advertising agencies should take notice.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What Do the Nook, Road & Track, and Martha Stewart Living Have in Common?

While visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea with my family recently, I didn’t see one camera, digital or SLR.  My son and I walked past a group of 70-something men talking about the pros and cons of taking photographs with their iPads and lesser tablets, commenting on the virtues of storage, thumb drives and ease of posting to FB and Twitter.  No, we did not mutter, “What is this world coming to;” rather, we vowed on the spot to move aggressively up to the next preppy plateau on the technical food chain.  Before leaving, we did our part by taking hundreds of photos with our smartphones. 

Labor Day is not usually the time for predictions about what brands will likely disappear in 2014, but here we go with Douglas McIntyre at 24/7 Wall St. getting early into the game with the ten mostly likely failures.  He uses standard metrics such as declining sales, rising costs, bankruptcy or sales of entity, significant loss of market share, etc.

I didn’t have to visit my local and deserted J.C. Penney, which I have admired of late from a distance, to learn that the company tops the list of brands most likely to disappear next year.  The executive idea to abandon sales and related promotions to keep the riff-raff out has worked stunningly well.

As my experience in Carmel confirmed, I should not be surprised that the Olympus digital camera is also high on the list.  The company simply can’t compete with smartphones that “now offer lenses and chips that capture high quality images.”  Whether the company’s shift to high-end SLR cameras will make a difference, remains to be seen.  But you never know.  I fondly remember the editor of American Photography, now owned by Bonnier and still beautiful, telling me that digital cameras were decidedly not the future. 

I have been a fan of Barnes & Nobles’ the Nook since its launch in 2009, primarily because I thought that publishers would benefit from another robust platform for content as well as a channel for magazine subscriptions.  The Nook’s battle has been uphill from the start and made worse as device prices dropped and they essentially became generic.  Content would become the differentiator and where the money is.   Even the $300 million Microsoft invested in the Nook in 2012 didn’t seem to make a difference.  At the end of the day, it’s always about scale.  Amazon has 130 million visitors per month; B&N has 6 million.  I have published four print books with Amazon and one Kindle Select. I have also published books with Dell, Warner and Rodale and, in terms of file conversion and ease of use, Amazon goes to the head of the class. (Please see

None of the above predictions will serve as much of a brain teaser.  Nor should the presence of Volvo, Living Social or the WNBA on the list.  I see the occasional 1960 Volvo parked at an abandoned ski lodge in Maine, but not much more.  The $175 million that Amazon invested in Living Social in 2010 hasn’t seemed to help and might have been better used in buying a newspaper or magazine.  Ask any Millennial; the daily deal sector lost most of its shine years ago.   So did the WNBA which, despite being a showcase for women’s talent and an important statement about equality in sports, never caught on with the arena or television crowds.

I was surprised to see Road & Track and Martha Stewart Living on this list of predictions, perhaps because I have been involved peripherally with both titles and knew some of the players.  When I worked at Hachette, then owner of Road & Track, I would marvel at all the buzz around Elle magazine when the financials said that Car and Driver and Road & Track were the big money contributors to the bottom line.  But that was then and fashion still rules.  Advertising pages in Road & Track are about half what they were in 2008, down from 1,092 to 699 in 2012.  The decline continues.  

At that time, Road & Track was generating about 80% of its revenue from advertising; circulation revenue was not much of a factor.  I’m not sure how much this ratio has changed since the purchase of Road & Track by Hearst.  Certainly, the automotive sector is crowded with Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Automobile magazines fighting for precious ad dollars.  While I would be very surprised if Road & Track did actually make the dead brand list, this is no longer a simple case of special-interest magazines duking it out for print dollars.  Hearst owns the Jumpstart Automotive Group that serves the full purchasing cycle of the consumer.  The company has significant digital and strategic options.

I’m less sanguine about Martha Stewart Living, though having worked with her years ago on repositioning Rodale’s Organic Gardening, moving it from digest size to full-size, I would never bet against her.  But the advertising numbers paint a bleak picture; in 2012, the publishing division lost $62 million and trend continues in 2013.   McIntyre concludes that Martha Stewart Omnimedia Inc. (M.S.L.O.) might be better off restructuring around its merchandizing and broadcast businesses because the magazine lost is ability to standalone years ago.

It might be considered faintly ironic that the media company and J.C. Penney are tied at the hip, with a ten-year $200 million licensing deal for merchandize design.  At the time of this deal, signed in 2011, J.C. Penney had already purchased 17% of M.S.L.O. for $38.5 million dollars.  As The New Yorker magazine notes in an August 12, 2013, piece, “J.C. Penney’s Martha Stewart Mistake,” that the Penney deal “infuriated Macy’s which thought its own deal with M.S.L.O. gave the company exclusive rights in the bed, bath, and kitchen categories.” Macy sued both companies for breach of contract.   A ruling is pending.

Whatever the legal outcome, the Penney/Stewart doesn’t seem to be working for either party.   As The New Yorker article notes, “Since the deal with Penney was announced, M.S.L.O. shares have dropped nearly forty percent.”  J.C. Penney’s woes have been widely documented, including the fact that it has burned through a billion dollars in cash in the last two years.

Mr. McIntyre, with his list of brand casualties, might be right after all about the Martha Stewart enterprise but for the wrong reasons.  It is difficult to believe that the next Penney management team, especially with the public concern of Pershing Capital Management, its largest investor, will see the M.S.L.O. marriage as in their best corporate interest.

The real money is in the merchandising and not in the magazine.