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Category: Technology (page 1 of 3) & the evolution of Link Aggregation

I probably started reading 5 or 6 years ago, but realise that in its near 17-year history, it has survived through some pretty radical changes on the Internet. Jason Kottke writes about this in a, perhaps inadvertently, revealing blog post on the topic of links—the essence of what makes the Internet the Internet.

I could write a lot about what I think defines Jason Kottke’s website as a go-to site for me. Yes, it’s not focussed on a particular topic-area (what are the liberal arts really, except everything), but generally the content is interesting, intelligent and, as a result, rewarding to read. I also appreciate the commercial direction that has taken. On a podcast-interview some years ago, Kottke said that he can’t have a similar sponsorship model to sites like Daring Fireball, because that site is focussed on a particular popular and profitable area (again, that indefinability of ‘culture’). Recently, took on a new sponsorship model revolving around Kickstarter projects, which seems like an excellent fit for the site and are ‘advertorials’ that I actually enjoy to read.

In the blog post that he entitled “The return of the remaindered links (sort of),” Kottke writes about the importance of links to’s initial growth and the subsequent commoditisation of links as the web evolved:

The links gave the site a velocity it didn’t previously have. I hadn’t really thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but that increase in velocity made it possible, more than two years later, for me to quit my job and do full-time. But the web has changed. Sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News and services like Facebook and Twitter are so much faster than this one man band…trying to keep pace is like racing an F1 car on roller skates. So, I’ve traded that velocity for quality (or, if you’d prefer, fussiness). I no longer post 10-12 things per day. Instead I post 4-6 of the most interesting things I can share with you on that given day.

With Twitter, things are changing for him again, but I understand the following sentiment quite well:

As my remaindered links experience shows, going fast without a plan can be beneficial in unexpected ways. With different tools and media delivery channels available to me now, I wonder: how fast can a one-person site go while still maintaining that choosiness?

To translate this into something more innovation focussed, we see phases of Kottke’s development:

  1. One of several blogs on the Internet.
  2. An increase in content and audience through the aggregation of links.
  3. Rise of link aggregators (along with, I believe, changes in the way Google weighs them) leads to a devaluation of the link concept.
  4. Refocus of site on quality over quantity again.
  5. Rise of Twitter as a personal link aggregation site (previous aggregators had much less identity associated with them).
  6. Attempt to reintegrate that into the brand.
  7. Next…?

There is no telling if his experiment will work, but my bet is that as long as he associates it with his unique vision about what goes onto the site, it will be somewhat successful. It’s important to note that his current advertising model (just referring to the sponsorships) is long form and therefore perhaps less suitable for a site that posts short links exclusively, if that is a possible direction he is considering.

In the end there is no such thing as sustainability, at least not in the “stay the same and make money” sense. Everything has diminishing returns as the rest of the “competition” eventually catches on. The key is to balance experiments with opportunity cost analysis (risks of jumping on wrong (technology) bandwagon, of alienating audiences or paying customers).

The strange transparency of Apple’s App Developers

Now, when I say transparency, I do mean that in a very limited way. Datapoints are being revealed left and right by developers, but even so the majority of app developers are keeping their sales numbers quite hidden.

A little background: Overcast, Unread, Monument Valley and several other more prominent developers have been quite open about the financial results of their respective apps (MacStories has more). In the greater context of things, this is perhaps not unusual. As I pointed out in previous blogposts, we live in an age where information is speeding up and increasingly becoming commoditized. Still, you don’t really see many commercial businesses revealing their numbers, unless they are public and obliged to do so to their shareholders.

So I have a few theories about this, the primary one being that the App Store is a learning platform for many developers. It has built-in tools, an audience, and a revenue structure that is by and large complete, just missing that special recipe that makes the app (what many have pointed out is lacking however is the App Store as a marketing and sales tracking platform). Apple is also quite transparent to not want anything more from its developers except for their 30% cut and certain, sometimes oblique, values to be respected (no adult content, spam, advanced functionalities in notification center?). Apple is also the market leader as far as these app platforms go (alternatives are Google Play, Amazon, Facebook, you name it), providing a certain stability and confidence in developers that it, at least, is here to stay. Finally, there is the combing trend of communities enabled by the Internet and even before that around Apple, that makes it easier for people to open to up to what they feel are sympathetic audiences.

The bigger question is will this lead to something? For many developers, I can imagine it will. You can do a computer science degree to learn how to code, you can learn how to code from the Internet. To run a business, the best learning is made from the marketplace and these kinds of ‘revelations’ are invaluable lessons to budding entrepreneurs. That said, there are no guarantees that the App Store is a viable platform forever. Marco Arment and others publish statistics about what it’s like to have a relatively successful app in that marketplace, with its inbuilt mechanism to make the purchase possible. Arguably building for mobile will always require some kind of App Store, but there is no certainty about it making you rich.

The complexity in innovation

As someone with an unbridled curiosity about how (any kind of) organisations innovate, combined with a passion and ongoing interest for all new technological developments on the market, I have had the luck to have some incredibly in-depth and specific conversations with innovators about what they are trying to accomplish.

Every organisation is trying to accomplish something, because every one of them feels the pressure of being left behind. Some governments offer some limited protection in the forms of subsidies, tax-breaks, and protective measures against foreign competition, but every company has to stand on its own two feet by the age of maybe 3-5 years old. When you are alone like this, it matters to both earn a living now and to provide the promise of earning a living in the future. That is where innovation comes in.

We all derive our inspiration from the intelligent developments around us. For many, it’s the market, new technologies being released that make us wonder whether this or that organisation could do the same. For some, it’s also public, but less accessible releases in the forms of scientific breakthroughs that may inspire the expert to build on top of that. For a few, it’s the scientific team in a closed off lab that comes up with an idea that can transform itself into an innovation downstream.

It’s always worthwhile to come back to the essence of what an innovation is supposed to be: an invention that has commercial application. An idea that transforms itself into a product or service that people are willing to pay for. There are very prominent elements within this definition of novelty and applicability, which is a tough balance to manage between getting inspired by existing market innovations and not yet commercial raw scientific ideas.

The truth of the matter is that these are all races of solutions for specific problems. In the end, the problem (market) can only sustain a few of these solutions, which means that speed and completeness of a solution are keys to success. It means that any organisation that seeks to innovate, must do so in the way of a well-oiled machine, while realising that that investment may not pay off now, but will pay off if you see it as a continuous muscle that gets stronger with every problem you are trying to solve.

To make things not at all easier, the rate of innovation is increasing with technological advances. Physical goods are catching up to digital goods, in the sense that anything can now be modelled and prototypes can be produced and tested at a faster speed. This could and will very likely end up in a downward spiral for business returns, because, much like in for instance the software market, the range of utilities makes the market more price-sensitive and less loyal, thus creating less sustainable rewards from single innovations.

The conclusion is therefore two-fold. One, no organisation can afford to not dedicate time and resources to consider their long-term positioning in the market. Two, organisations seeking to be though-leaders in the market, must make the difficult choice of continually innovating with the promise of smaller returns, or of finding alternative models that position them within an innovative ecosystem, without getting sucked down the spiral. A good example of this are the many platforms that continue to arise, though even those risk becoming commodities over time. That … is the complexity in innovation.

The new face of Publishing… through Facebook

(…and other visual social media platforms like LinkedIn)

I have long held a philosophical stance about Facebook, as the “social enabler,” or disabler in some cases. Many of its core audiences, me included, struggle with finding a good use case for the platform.

  • Regular users like me wonder what to share (especially in an environment where privacy is more and more valued) and whether your online friends aren’t over-/undersharing themselves.
  • Corporations struggle with integrating it into their marketing mix, especially if they are already engrained into other marketing channels.
  • News seems like the most logical use case for this platform, but comes with some problems as well.

There is a major risk with publishing on a social media platform: it positions regular users on the same level as corporations, publications, and advertising. Everyone becomes the competition.

My social media education happened on Twitter. It taught me to not confuse the newsfeed with an RSS feed, because you would soon lose oversight of the “real” people you were following. As a result, I was a slow adopter of Facebook as a newsreader and continue to be careful. Recently, as a fan of Harvard Business Review on a professional level, and inspired by a “social suggestion” from my friends, I decided to give it a shot after all, and subscribed to the HBR feed. The results were surprising.

It turns out the publication has figured out how to integrate Facebook as a publishing medium. HBR is a monthly periodical, as a print publication, and has both its website and mobile (iPad) apps as online alternatives. I was surprised at the content being shared via Facebook, which both felt relevant and premium (you can buy many of the articles as a PDF), and was infrequent enough not to bother. It takes a discerning editorial team to ensure that both the quality of the writing, the thematical content, and the mix are of a good quality to its audience. Somehow, likely to having a dedicated social media editorial team, HBR figured Facebook out.

It’s an encouraging development, but one positioned on brittle ground for the same risk factor I mentioned above. Facebook, its users and content providers are continually evolving and thus requires continuous attention to the engagement metrics and other qualitative aspects of each shared item. It is clear that social media is an investment, which is why so many companies fail at it. And, more importantly, the return on that investment must somehow be quantifiable also. It’s for every company or individual to figure out whether it is worth it.

What Facebook and other social media platforms must absolutely do is to make using their services more transparent. They cannot handhold publishers and marketeers as they publish on the platform, but they can provide accurate information about how they are positioned for each news item within the overal newsfeed. That, in combination with link tracking, and a both coherent marketing strategy and dedicated social media team, should make a big difference to social media success.

On that even-keeled conclusion, I am still happy to read HBR on Facebook, as well as a limited amount of other news publications (The Big Picture is a good one). I am very interested to see where social media and news reading continues to evolve to, as we are clearly not done.

On E-Retail in NL: So many wrong assumptions

I’m sorry, I will have to link to some Dutch articles in this text, as there seems to be something brewing in this country that I couldn’t help but comment on. As always, Google Translate is your friend.

So, here is the timeline. About 3 years ago, the local retail association HBD came up with this brilliant advice that retailers had to make it easier to do comparison shopping. According to them, the Millennial was already doing this big-time and this was sure to increase across all generations by 2016.

Here’s the method described:

It starts with a search via, Layar Vision, and Google Goggles (I am stunned by some of these options), which allow for visual searching and identifying a retailer nearby or online carrying said item.

HBD advises that these searches may be overwhelming and a more effective strategy to reduce noise is for individual retailers to develop apps that allow for easy navigation in store.

According to HBD, word-by-mouth marketing is important (via apps like Yelp & Foursquare), and online reviews are important (e.g. Amazon or Google searches). I agree with both somewhat.

So HBD suggests:

  • marketing consumers’ pockets (for instance: targeting via QR codes)
  • understanding that customers want cheaper AND better products (…)
  • Combining efforts to go online together: working as a supplier for the bigger e-commerce outlets, pooling investment to build a joint e-commerce outlet, etc.

There’s so much more gold in this article of 74 pages (incl. 1 page of references), I can’t possibly summarise it all.

So the HBD decided to run some experiments in various cities starting in 2011. Silence followed for some years.

This week, an article and interview revealed that it was a mess. From the article: many retailers expected this to bring big profits, instead the costs were out of control. Another retailer (a butcher) states: I never believed in The New Shopping. Old shopping methods: good service, good products, a smile, work just as well.

From the interview with an HBD representative:

  • Clearly retailers prioritised technology over customers
  • They focussed on tools, rather than the end-goal (it can be argued that the latter was badly formulated)
  • Consumers are changing: multiple devices, more info about products online
  • Risk is a physical shopping area to not be interesting enough and lose its value
  • Retailers misunderstood the message and HBD communicated it badly as well
  • HBD also had to learn how to formulate such an approach better (…)

So… how to respond to this.

Technology moves fast and is in its nature disruptive. It starts with studying computing science and finding out 5 years later that most things you learned in terms of programming language is already obsolete. It’s powered by the competitive landscape of technology (Apple, Samsung, Google) and of software development.

A physical retailer is not usually in that mindset. They buy or rent a space to keep it. They don’t want to move and not necessarily change or take risks. That is not a bad thing either, because customer value consistence if it’s good.

But with technology, you need to make gambles and you need to stick to it, as well as having a strong vision about where you want to be.

The bigger risk is listening to hacks like the HBD (Bing & Layar, really?) and giving away your online channel to giants that will eat you up (Amazon, Bol in the Netherlands, others…). Pure online retail is driven by efficiency. It’s more efficient to keep profits centralised and to push costs from e.g. a supplier down as much as possible. Ease of comparison also pushes prices down.

It’s an equally big risk to not do your homework and not invest in those talents that drive your online strategy forward. A changing landscape needs a champion that rides that wave and makes it their own. It’s a lost cause to invest in gimmicks like QR codes, if you don’t understand what value they really hold and how to replace them if they lose significance.

I was sad to read this 3 years after they published this study, because I don’t think my opinion would’ve been different then. Online is just as important as physical, but you can’t master it without understanding and owning it. It’s 100% not surprising that this initiative failed.

Sorry once again for linking to only Dutch articles in this text.

On Tech: the iEnabler

Note: This came to me in the middle of the night, so I apologize in advance if it doesn’t make perfect sense.

The iPad mini is pretty much the perfect iPad. I’m sure you’re heard that before, but it’s just a nicely shaped (size & weight) reading, gaming, and viewing experience (I have not really typed on it, I am writing this post on an iPhone 5s).

We are about to visit my girlfriend’s father, who is the proud owner of an iPhone 3G, which he was conned into by Orange, his phone provider, in 2012. I’m sure he would love the mini over the 3G, but his first question will be: can I do with it what I do with my phone? And my answer will sadly be: no.

Then I thought about the positioning of a future iWearable device. It’s small and will have little value as an iPod or iPad. But how about a hotspot of sorts? How would it be if it simply transmitted a signal to other devices, along with basic watch functionalities? It would, of course, be able to open doors and unlock your Mac, but what about bringing in a mobile wireless signal to my girlfriend’s dad’s iPad mini?

His generation is of course the perfect audience for a watch, as is anyone that ever wore one in their lives. That generation with their fat fingers and bad eyes (sorry oldies), would both love a watch and a big screen. They would love to call heir relatives on the bigs screen and… perhaps… on their watch?

What if the iWearable had basic functionalities like weather and notifications (non-vibrating please!) and could be held to your ear for an incoming call? What if it no longer requires a mobile chip to be inserted into the iPad or iPhone for that matter (the iPod touch, basically), and its price is covered by the premium iPod & iPad owners have to pay for that functionality to be built in?

I can see a couple of positioning problems, but also plenty of wins for Apple. The separating of cost to consumer is one. An iPhone or iPad with a mobile chip is pretty expensive. An iPad or iPod touch without it isn’t. That expense was often covered by mobile contracts, which have generously subsidized the device cost, but competitive pressures of cheap devices are pushing down margins for everyone. What if this subsidy would only need to cover the iWearable (100-300 euro/dollars) and the other 200-400 was the bigger device, covered by consumers themselves? What if this device also allowed for thinner iPads and iPhones with longer battery lives?

An iWearable will always have limitations, but any Apple device should do one thing very well. To me it seems that being a hotspot could be that One More Thing(tm). Well, let’s see if Gruber has anything to say about it.

On Technology: Cry Developer, Cry

There’s a new discussion out around revenues for independent app developers. I jumped into it via and have a few minor points to make  below these quotes. The two apps that stood out to me in the discussion (though there are many viewpoints (not many perspectives) listed in Marco’s post) are Unread, an RSS reader, and Overcast, which I recently reviewed and am still using as my primary Podcatcher.

For Unread, its developer Jared Sinclair writes:

Unread for iPhone has earned a total of $32K in App Store sales. Unread for iPad has earned $10K. After subtracting 40 percent in self-employment taxes and $350/month for health care premiums (times 12 months), the actual take-home pay from the combined sales of both apps is:

$21,000, or $1,750/month

Considering the enormous amount of effort I have put into these apps over the past year, that’s a depressing figure. I try not to think about the salary I could earn if I worked for another company, with my skills and qualifications. It’s also a solid piece of evidence that shows that paid-up-front app sales are not a sustainable way to make money on the App Store.

He’s right, that is depressing, though I have some notes about it in a short while.

For Overcast, Marco writes:

It’s too early to know, but I doubt Overcast will have the financial success that Instapaper did. Instapaper rode the App Store boom because it was in the right place, at the right time, solving the right need — and Instapaper 1.0 only took three months to develop, even as my first Objective-C app and with the relatively primitive iPhone OS 2.0 SDK. Overcast has taken over a year of work to make a 1.0 that could be competitive in a much more crowded and narrower market, and there’s still a lot I need to do.


Efficiency is key. And efficiency means doing more (or all) of the work yourself, writing a lot less custom code and UI, dropping support for older OSes, and providing less customer support.

On Efficiency, Benjamin Mayo also has a few telling words:

You have to be efficient with your time to make good ROI’s on the App Store. … If you want to maximise your profitability, make small apps that do a few things well. The amount of effort you put into an app has very little to do with how much of the market will buy it.

After all of these smart viewpoints (not necessarily different perspectives), here’s my view about it. All of these are individual cases highlighted by some pretty prominent independent developers. They are not by themselves a commentary on app development, except that people can learn from that and perhaps do things different.

Yes, efficiency is important, but lean development and management only goes so far, at some point spending money creates money and saving money results in lost opportunities. In any kind of development, software or other, you really always have two choices: you focus on small and repetitive or you focus on large and bombastic.

The first, I would call the franchise model. You build a model that you can replicate, whether it’s Starbucks, website development, or app development. Starbucks is just a wire-frame, lacking in atmosphere (somewhat) and you repeat in on every corner in every city. That means many small revenue streams that together add up to a lot. This is the so-called ‘efficiency’ mentioned in Marco’s and other’s posts.

The second is what I would call radically innovative or hard to replicate innovative products. It requires unique resources and perhaps a unique market to exist and gives both a tremendous advantage and represents a tremendous risk, because it often requires a singular focus and not a risk-reducing portfolio approach. Examples of these are rare, because those that we know have essentially already been mass-produced and probably have many competitors (iPhone, Toyota Prius, etc.).

Taking Overcast, I last wrote that I was impressed with the production quality of the app and I consider Marco an innovative developer. He also dedicated over a year to the development of Overcast, which I understand is a very long time relatively speaking. Is his market unique, no, and that will without a doubt reduce the ROI of his investment.

The same for Unread, which is an RSS readers in a market busy with RSS readers since Google Reader shut down. Is it innovative? I understand it to have a clean, minimalist reading interface (which is part of a trend in all things readers). But that does differentiate it from other readers, though every app should technically have differences with competing apps. As sorry, as I am to say it, because every developer loves their app the most, I think this falls more into the franchise model of apps.

There is the matter of unique resources, which are important in differentiation. Every developer has their unique skill-set and perhaps not unique access to resources. Apple opens up its development platform to the public, so technically everyone works with the same tools. I don’t know what Jared Sinclair’s background is and I sort of know Marco Arment’s pedigree prior to this app. I believe that programming and design can be unique, as can functionality, so it should be possible to create differentiated apps on the app store. At the same time, the universal access also facilitates the franchise system, allowing for ease of replication and lot’s of smaller revenue streams.

The general point is that while people may cry about the app store being to populated, this is a universal truth for most markets. There was a time where America had a gold rush, where gold diggers came to a river and fished gold out with their hands. Then more came and gold became sparser. So innovators focused on new technologies or new markets and got rich there. There’s nothing different here, except that the iPad / iPhone technology and OS is not mature yet, and that should still represent new possible functionalities for new development.

Is there room for pull-based cinema? [Republished from Tech IT Easy – 2011]

Seven SamuraiI cannot speak for everyone, but I often find myself at the cinema unsatisfied with the choices that the movie industry pushes out to me (without my input, exactly). The way mass market product development works is that products come out of research that reveals what a large percentage of a market would like and be willing to pay for. Movie-making is expensive (not always, but relatively compared to its perceived output), and a scientific approach to minimising the risk of losing money makes a lot of sense. A large portion of the budget is typically spent on marketing, an important argument against what I will propose in this post.

“Pull-based” cinema, not the sexiest term for this, would basically be a system in which a large number of people could vote on what is showing at a cinema at a given time. I imagine a kickstarter-like internet based service, that only gives the go-ahead if a certain amount of revenue has been generated for that night. The movies could be new or classic, niche or mainstream, it doesn’t matter as long as there is enough demand for a viewing.

A couple of uncertainties about this:

  • ◦ How are movies distributed and stored inside cinemas? If it is the bulky rolls that I remember seeing as a kid, then this is not viable on a large scale. If it is digital, then why not.
  • ◦ Is there enough financial incentive for cinemas, movie studios, and other parties, to make this commercially attractive? Also, how does it compare to revenues generated by movies that are new and heavily marketed?
  • ◦ What do audiences want and would there be enough market interest for such a service?
  • ◦ How simple and unpolitical is the decision making process for making this happen? This will always be a factor and should not be an argument against necessarily.

Practical solutions:

  • ◦ Start small: one cinema screen in a larger complex, perhaps 1-2x per month.
  • ◦ Scale big: use social services like facebook, meetup, and perhaps kickstarter to reach the masses.
  • ◦ If a clear market exists, focus: specialised cinemas and building up communities around movie lovers.
  • ◦ perhaps use auctioning systems like Easyjet’s (which also tried cinemas at some point) based on visitors and the popularity of movies. I’d easily pay triple for watching classics like Bladerunner, The Goonies, or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on a giant screen.

Even though I would love such a system of watching movies in the cinema and think it’s completely part of the times, I have a feeling that it is by and large deemed economically unviable, because of the large capital investments involved in cinema real estate and technology, as well as new movie production and marketing. That said, in terms of pricing, cinemas are clearly stuck: they either have to charge the same for every movie, good or bad, or force ridiculous price increases down customer’s throats for 3D glasses or the concessions sold for less than half anywhere else. Connecting supply up to demand in real-time overcomes some of the pricing uncertainty around movies and actually allows for more premium pricing to occur for products & services that customers *actually* value. Similarly, the movie industry is stuck, creativity wise, preferring to invest in the less risky sequel, than new intellectual property. They clearly fear customers and their market research doesn’t work beyond counting how many tickets the previous movie sold. Pull-based cinemas wouldn’t exactly address this either, as the production cycle is too long and the funding needs are very large1.

Pull-based cinemas are a proposed solution for the choice that customers currently face: either between a selection of movies that are forced down their throats by the studios, or the unlimited selection they can get in their private homes. There’s a discrepancy there and as movie setups at home continue to become better and cheaper, it’s bound to get worse for cinemas.

I’m very interested in this subject and if anyone has a greater insight into this industry or knows of such cinemas existing or having existed, please send me a mail to editor at the domain-name

1. Though this could work for independent movies.


A not so short article explaining why the stock market loves Amazon and fears Apple

It all comes back to the simplistic but realistic view that investors have of any investment. Amazon spreads its revenue risks across many different income streams and Apple instead focusses on a few high value products. It’s not about Amazon re-investing its profits in growth, even though that is exactly its strategy enabler, but that Apple seemingly does not. The market prefers a risk averse strategy to a profitable one and along with that a transparent strategy–the antithesis of Apple’s approach.

Read the whole article here.

#Free publishing is probably the future

I believe in analogies, at least I like to use them frequently. We are all producers, consumers, and distributors, that rationale can be transported to any industry with the differences being barriers to entry (affecting competition and price sensitivity). Low barriers to entry means that production is easy, prices are pushed down, and profit increasingly depends on speed rather than quality. Innovation can still be high, but because there are many players, it’s not nearly as valuable as it would be in e.g. the space race. My vision of written word publishing is very similar to that of software publishing, that eventually the business model of money up front disappears. Whether my assessment is true or not, that is why I’m starting this discussion.

The first element to look at is access, which is a broad term describing both access to resources and access to the market. From the industrial revolution onwards, it is clear that access to both has increased exponentially. Tools were developed to more easily produce in greater quantities and globalisation continued its exponential growth trajectory. With this development came greater cost saving, allowing for increasingly more output per money spent. That same phenomenon can be seen as growing a thousandfold with the internet and the development of the IT platform as an alternative to paper. With such new technologies, we can see that it becomes much more efficient to produce and distribute published works.

The second element to look at is competition. If you push costs down, it makes it easier for others to enter. It’s as simple as that. The greatest effect is on choice for consumers, who then become more price sensitive. In a vicious cycle producers and distributors are forced to also reduce costs or find other ways, e.g. restricting supply, to keep costs at sustainable levels.

The third element to look at is intellectual property, which is both a philosophical question and one about actual costs and associated value. We are talking about the creative industry, which has elements that cannot be reduced in cost. The writer of a book written in 1613 is in many ways just as valuable as the one in 2013, assuming that both are good writers. But that cost can now be split across many, many different customers, which was previously not possible. So intellectual property remains just as valuable, relative to the quality of it, but that value is now recuperated more effectively, again relative to the quality of the customer base.

What is my end conclusion? We are on a downward trajectory as far as pricing is concerned. Eventually it may be close to free, but it should never be completely free. There is value to the creative work, but the cost of access should reduce greatly. Both of these costs will never be zero, but can be split across so many payers that it may appear to be so.

I’ve ignored the perception of customers in this. Personally, I don’t think people want to pay zero money for content, because they realise that content production costs money. Content consumption equals time, which is something everyone values and people continue to be willing to pay to not waste their time. At least that’s how I think. It’s a “the king is dead, long live the king” situation and after writing this post (thinking out loud), I’m much more positive about publishing than I was before. 

Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book in 1920

The video is one of a series of videos of what the printing process looked like in the early part of the 20th century. Fascinating stuff.

I came across this via Coudal Partners. There’s also a discussion on Metafilter about it. 

Looking at Disruption in Publishing

Clayton M. Christensen is not a magic 8-ball of all things innovation, but he certainly has a unique perspective that finds application in various industries. Most recently, I read an article in Harvard Business Review about disruption in Consulting. As it’s something that I dipped my toes into at points in my career, deciding for various reasons that it wasn’t for me at that time, I thought it was interesting. 
What is disruption? 
Christensen illustrates the main concepts on his site (emphasis mine):

“As companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve, most organizations eventually end up producing products or services that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market.

Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market, companies will achieve the greatest profitability. 

However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations” at the bottom of the market. An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill. 

Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics…”

Now the consulting industry and the publishing industry are somewhat different, I would say, except that I think it’s really the medium that is different, not the underlying values. Both are, and I’m speaking specifically of scientific & other expert publishing here, composed of experts that pass on their knowledge to specialised niches, as well as more general ones. Both aim at the higher hemispheres of knowledge and power, attempting to bring additional resources for bringing about change. Well, in an ideal world…

So why is consulting ripe for disruption? What can we learn from this for understanding publishing, which is already in disruption in case you hadn’t noticed? A major driver is certainly democratisation of knowledge, starting with a much more educated workforce, as well as greater mobility & flexibility of resources. Essentially, consumers are now much more empowered to replicate the services provided by external consultants, either from within, or by using alternative methods.

What is disrupting publishing? It’s too broad an industry to make a generalised statement about it, but it would certainly appear that with a more powerful consumer, the influential position of publishers as providers of expert content is threatened. Similarly, the Internet threatens to upheave the whole distribution model traditionally owned by publishers. It also brings producers and consumers closer, eliminating the need for complex and expensive publishing services. Etc.

What are consultants doing about the threat of disruption? They are changing the game from providing the mythical expert that (perhaps) has all the answers to providing analytical tools powered by data and expertise that can be split up into modules, catering to specific needs of a more diverse audience.

When I started studying the publishing industry, I noticed a similar trend. Publishers in the scientic / expert domains are essentially transforming themselves into technology providers offering not just the “written word,” but tools that enable its users to become smarter. They redefined themselves into the more broad and flexible concept of “knowledge provider,” which allows them to view their services as much more flexible.

Does such a transformation of expert publishing ensure that disruption does not continue to happen? Of course not, that it happens is a constant in any equation of the future of an industry. Publishers can choose to protect their resources to prevent them from being replicated by other players, let alone their consumers. But they should be careful to not ignore the divide that still exists between academia and business, one that risks parallel development of unrelated and irrelevant knowledge.

I don’t like making broad statements like this, because there are many causes of disruptions and many strategies employed by publishers to deal with it, based on their core products, their consumer groups, and changes in technologies. It’s interesting / fun to think about it though.

Paradigm Shifts in Journalism

We often talk about how the digital and technology age is changing production capabilities quite drastically and disruptively. We also often discuss how consumption is changing due to the web. But what we don’t speak enough about is how regulation is affecting journalism, at least in the Western world, though I prefer to think about it on a global level.

A perhaps unsuitable parallel to this is taxation vs. multinational corporations. If production is flexible in terms of location, if a corporation is no longer bound to any national law, because it can just move to places with more attractive conditions, how can government ensure that taxes are paid on a local level. The illogicality of that situation is that governments compete with each other for corporations by offering incentives, thus allowing for tax evasion.

Equally so, what if production of journalistic content happens without borders and without clear accountability or ownership? What happens if the Snowdens and the Mannings of the world uncover information that they feel morally obliged to “leak,” causing, in the eyes of a national perspective, irreparable damage? Who gets “taxed” for this? That’s how I see a parallel to tax and journalistic regulation, both of which are confronted with the problem of an increasingly border-less, for certain activities and properties, world.

This doesn’t answer the question of what paradigm we should take for unbiased and unregulated journalistic perspectives. It also doesn’t say whether there is space for such a thing. Are we better off with a free press? Are we better off publishing details of atrocities or corruption that governments would prefer to stay hidden? Of course not. What about secret plans that involve the lives of valuable operatives in the field or civilians for that matter? That would be more of a grey area. A journalist’s duty should just be as much to the truth as it should be to do-no-harm.

I have my own perspective which is clearly a border-less one. It’s my belief that if there were no national interests, there would be no international conflicts, and information and goods can move freely. But, as long as these national interests exist, and arguably they do so for several reasons, it is in the nature of people to want to protect their own. So international press, as a result, will suffer if conforming to the rules.

You could argue, the light of the ongoing atrocities in certain countries, under ongoing scrutiny from the world press, that press coverage does not matter all that much if there is no political / popular support for it. So you could say that if the press does not conform to certain rules, their chances are even more minimised to have any kind of impact. But it is the basic principle of press to be free, because that is what democracy is all about. But the line between freedom of information about “bad things” and the information that creates harm is so thin, that it’s hard to say what press should be free and what shouldn’t.

The paradigm change that we are undergoing is that while the Internet has been free for some time, regulations are finally catching on and penalties are harsh. Will there be such a press that can circumvent such restrictions effectively? Will it be anonymous or run from a government that supports such freedom (probably, as long as this freedom is targeted towards said government)?

I’m asking this question in light of Pierre Omidyar’s (eBay founder) and Glenn Greenwald’s (Guardian journalist that published the Snowden leaks) new news venture. Hopefully we will find out soon. 

What people read

The fun part of this question is that it’s incredibly difficult to measure what people read. The holy grail continues to be that perfect understanding of customers and market trends, attempting to be solved by guess work, data crunching, algorithms, shaping demand, and much much more.

It used to be that you could summarise reading sources easily: nothing, public media, books. Then came the substitutes: radio, cinema, television, online video, online audio, etc. As production managed to scale, i.e. became cheaper, came more competition. And now, with the internet, came both innovation and more and more competition. Statistics used to be and continue to be based on sampling, whether it’s calling people at home, collecting sales or visitor data, all statistics are by the nature of our economic climate incomplete and restricted to the firm-level (or if on an industry-level, to sampling that industry).

The other fun part is that it’s actually a matter of taste, both from consumers’ perspective and from those assessing what people would probably like to read. Reading can be informative, but can also be art-focussed, and the best reading is derived from content that enriches people’s lives and imagination together. Since our understanding of taste is imperfect, it would be natural to conclude that coming up with good answers is based on trial and error, over and over again. The unfortunate side-effect of this is also that of information-overload.

So what do people read? I can’t humanly answer that question. I do like the following though:

Amazon’s Recommendation Engine

The Underground Public New York Library project

Stanley Kubrick’s 1946 Subway photography, showing that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Minimum viable product in books

Yesterday, I finished my post with the below paragraph — I figure while I have this stream of consciousness, I might as well milk it…
Most writers see their market test as either a publisher or a publishing platform (self-publishing on Amazon or elsewhere). I am more and more of the opinion that this is wrong or at least an assumption (and you know what they say about those…), based on “what others are doing.” It says absolutely nothing about your invention if no one reads it on paper or as an ebook, if your product is placed amongst 100,000 other similar products or if your actual target audience is not targeted specifically. 

I have two experiences that I think relate directly to this. As well as a lot of experiences of failures that relate but perhaps don’t educate. 1. I’ve built a minimum viable product (MVP) in a different sector – hardware technology. 2. I used to blog, which I consider as an MVP product for writing. Both of these have exposed me to some of the complexities of MVPs, because it’s not so much about the minimum product, as it’s also about the minimum barrier to eyeballs.

Placing your “book” on a publisher’s desk (filled with piles of other manuscripts) or self-publishing to end up next to 1000s of other books, may represent your minimum viable product, but a product with a tough market is not necessary the most viable option.

As an aside, all of this made more complicated by the restriction placed upon all of us — the opportunity cost between producing actual content and disseminating that same content in an effective way. In other words, having successful marketing execution, alongside product development execution. If I study to be a writer/painter/engineer/creator, I do not necessarily have the time to study to be a marketeer. But my point is that product development does not exclude marketing, it should be part of that process. Much like a tree falling in an empty forest does not make a sound; it’s a non-event, just like a non-marketed book is a non-successful product.

But let’s go back to how your market, as a writer is developing: we are increasingly less inclined to invest time into consuming written content. We prefer shortform easy-to-digest content, which actually represents an opportunity for you. Instead of investing all of this effort into creating a super long book, why not put less effort into it and instead focus on making digestion easier? Much like the rise of the hamburger, make the bookburger a success. (P.S. replace book by any other media, because I think it applies broadly…)


The Wrongs and Rights of Circa (news app)

As a news junkie and avid iPhone user, I am constantly on the lookout for novel approaches to displaying news on my phone. Circa (iTunes Link, iPhone only, free) is a news app that introduces a new way of consuming news, promising to minimise signal-to-noise ratio by showing you just the relevant parts. The question is, does Circa deliver on its promise?

How the app works
Circa does the following. When starting the app, you are presented with two categories: Top Stories & the Presidential Election 2012. By default the app takes you straight to the top stories. In it you see a list of hot stories (Armstrong’s losing battle to the doping accusations, a new Earth-sized planet that’s been discovered, etc.), hand-picked by Circa’s editors. But the real difference happens when you click on the story.

The Circa website explains it better than I can:

  1. Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points — facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.
  2. Keep track of stories that matter to you. Whenever there are new developments in a story you’re following, Circa adds a new point to it rather than making you read a whole new article.
  3. Do it ‘cause you want to, not ‘cause you have to. Circa helps you share individual points or whole stories using Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve been using it for a few days now and am having some issues with it, some based on habit, some based on interface issues. Prolific readers like me tend to skim news-stories–we already do what the app does for us. So having it done for you makes it feel like you’ll never really get to see the whole story. But this may be something that I get used to over time.

The interface also takes some getting used too. Circa splits the main points of the story by iPhone screen (clearly meant for the iPhone 5 screen size  as I often find myself having to scroll down to see 3-5 more lines), and you have to scroll/pull to the next screen to see the next point. I find that it accomplishes accentuating important titbits, but also being pulled out of the flow of reading/skimming the story.

As the stories are fairly US-centric and I live in the Netherlands, I find myself not using the story-following feature much. But I imagine it will be very cool for more complex stories that develop over time.

I do wonder whether this model is sustainable. Yes, sharing individual points over social networks is a great feature, but does it innovate much over other news-outlets that also summarise the news? And does it then justify the manual/perhaps automised work done by editors to split stories apart?

I wholly recommend giving this app a try. Perhaps it is a solution to getting just the news. And I hope for them that their use case and business model works.

Restaurant dynamics

restaurant customer service.jpgThe world of business, I think, has a certain illogical—the “human element”—shell around it, but centres around the concept of supply and demand. How you create a business where demand is high, how to you make sure that you have sufficient supply and/or not too much supply. You can see this play out in a number of places, e.g. on the web you have scaling issues, when your service proves to popular (e.g. Twitter), or you have the case of the million+ blogs that are collecting dust, because no-one ever reads them, or because the blogger was unable to gather enough interesting supply.

In restaurants, or food-places, you also see this play out. A couple of months ago, I was going to write about take-out, how some businesses embrace and others avoid it, and why. I think the reason is, at least in part, to control supply. If you control supply, then you can focus on quality and charge a higher price. You also become an artist/creator, rather than a factory.

How do you limit supply? Two ways, I think. Mainly it’s the physical space; by limiting the number of seats in your venue, you ensure that a certain quota is set (of course, the question is also whether that quota is met, which comes from quality inspiring demand). By investing in quality-ingredients, you not only limit your budget, but also your production-capacity, and it forces you to limit supply. That’s a little vague, I know, I haven’t worked it out 100%.

The other way, is to have an increased level of supply. How do take-out and fast-food places do it? By standardising as much as possible. Whether it’s the ingredients, which are mainly starch-based (burgers, pizza, noodles, etc.) and cheap, the production-facility (often just an oven, a grill, or a big wok), or a standardised customer-space (from seats stapled to the floor, to waiting-lines, to a website/phone nr.). All of which enables you to deliver mass quickly.

I was thinking about this today after watching “Iron Man,” which is one big Burger King (and US-army) commercial, and getting a cheese burger afterwards. Burger King was packed and, ironically, slow. The “waiting in line” method doesn’t seem to work that well when you have 50+ people waiting, and a limited space behind the counter to deliver burgers and stuff. People on both sides were bumping into each other constantly, and I actually had to wait over 5 mins, even though I was second in line.

On some level, I like to think that technology can solve a little bit of this problem. If you look at Zara and H&M, which I wrote about last week, both are very advanced in this area, in order to optimise and speed up their production, logistics, and merchandising. Of course, that’s on a back-office level, and that’s not the same as the front-office, where customers interact with a business. No one wants to be confronted with a screen to do the ordering, but sometimes I wonder if people wouldn’t be happier just pressing some buttons in a fast food joint, rather than waiting in line. Of course that would mean more seats, as more people would sit down, and more staff, as someone will have to bring that food to the table.

In the end, it probably comes down to experimentation and constant improvement. That said, apart from the computers that cashiers operate, and quicker food-preparation, not much has changed in the last 50 years for the people doing the actual eating.

The picture is courtesy of

Some initial impressions about Zara & H&M

Zara versus H&M.jpgTime for a wee break. In the last week, I’ve been researching Zara and H&M a little, to better understand the retail-sector and the fashion-segment. I’ll probably have to do a follow-up to this post, as there is lots to say about both businesses, but here’s some initial impressions, nevertheless.

First off, H&M appears a lot more clean in its approach. Judging by the annual reports alone, H&M not only has a 2007-edition (Zara is only up to 2006), but it is also only 85 pages long (presented in an eco-friendly 2-pages-per-side way), while for Zara, or actually Inditex, it’s mother-company, the annual report is a stunning 450 page long!

Now, that’s really not all that surprising, as Inditex is composed of a number of companies, and it is extremely vertically integrated, while H&M employs the Nike or Apple model—it designs and it retails, but it doesn’t produce.

Why this is so, I can only guess, is due to their origins. Inditex comes from Spain, traditionally a low-waged country, while H&M is Swedish, not a low-waged country. Similar to IKEA, I imagine it was an economical decision to outsource most of its supplies.

It’s very hard to separate Inditex from Zara, as both are founded and owned by the same person, Amancio Ortega Gaona, Spain’s richest man. Zara has been in existence since 1975. H&M was founded by a Swede, Erling Person, in 1947, who ran the company to ca. the mid-90s, but which has continued to be a family firm.

Their business-philosophies are fairly similar, a low-cost, high-quality approach to fashion, as opposed to traditional brands, where quality most often equals price.

Zara made lots of headlines with its extremely high turnover of products—it produces around 11,000 items annually (as oppsed to 2,000-4,000 for other retailers); 15-20% produced before, 50-60% at the start of the season, and the rest during. If a product fails to do well, it is usually removed after a week in stores.

H&M made headlines with its celebrity-marketing, which is noteworthy, as Zara has virtually no marketing. Instead, because it has such a high turn-over of goods, customers tend to visit it more often, expecting new things—an average of 17 times per year vs. 3 times for other stores!

Both employ mostly a wholly-owned retail-strategy, except in countries where this is not possible. And both are very advanced in their use of IT to manage logistics and production, which is definitely seems to be a key-characteristic of delivering fashion quickly and find ways to decrease costs.

H&M’s largest markets are Germany, Sweden, the USA, Spain, and the Netherlands (in terms of sales). For Zara it is Spain, France, Germany, and Mexico (in number of stores).

That’s all I can think of in 30 mins or less…

Interlude: Copyright or the *Right to Eat*

copyright right to eat.jpgRead it on Tech IT Easy!

What a book on Ahold is teaching me

Albert Heijn AHOLD.jpgJust a short tweet.

I’m currently reading a Dutch book on the 2003 crisis at Ahold, but which is actually a historical account of how the corporation came to be. A couple of things I found interesting:

  • Ahold actually stands for AH (Albert Heijn) Holdings
  • We all know that things are cyclical, but it was interesting to read how a recession and high oil prices were a challenge that Ahold had to face in the 60s-70s, and how they managed to survive.
  • In order to inspire Dutch people to shop more, they introduced a financing scheme for fridges, which people couldn’t afford at that time. General Motors did a similar thing to help people afford their cars; seems like an interesting way to “upgrade” an economy.
  • The fear of a socialist government drove Albert Heijn to look outwards and form Ahold (similar to why IKEA decided to globalise also).
  • One of the consequences of politics at that time was the board of directors, meant to provide impartial guidance and represent the workers.
  • They made extensive use of consultancies (often McKinsey) whenever they decided on a strategic trajectory.
  • One of the directors was a big fan of Harvard Business Review 🙂
  • They use the US as a source of knowledge on how to design their supermarkets. Later on, moving to the US was also seen as a way to increase that learning, as well as a new revenue-source.
  • When AH moved to the US, they also brought their own ideas, like, eh, advertising (a terrible, terrible idea).

That’s it for now! I’ll go into greater detail at a later date.

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