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June 01 2012

Publishing News: HMTL5 may be winning the war against apps

Here are a few stories that caught my attention in the publishing space this week:

The shortest link between content and revenue may be HTML5

HTML5 LogoA couple weeks ago, MIT Technology Review's editor in chief and publisher Jason Pontin wrote a piece about killing their app and optimizing their website for all devices with HTML5. That same week, Lonely Planet's Jani Patokallio predicted that HTML5 would nudge out the various ebook formats. This week, Wired publisher Howard Mittman shot back in an interview with Jeff John Roberts at PaidContent, insisting that apps are the future, not HTML5.

Roberts reports that "[Mittman] believes that HTML5 will just be part of a 'larger app experience' in which an app is a storefront or gateway for readers to have deeper interactions with publishing brands." I'm not sure, however, that readers need yet another gateway (read: obstacle) to their content, and recent movements in the publishing industry suggest HTML5 may be the more likely way forward.

This week, Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis announced the launch of Inkling for Web, an HTML5-based web client that brings Inkling's iPad app features to any device with a browser. The app and HTML5 technology in this case are intertwined — all content previously owned in the app can now also be accessed via the web, and activity will sync between the app and the web, so notes made on the web will appear in the iPad app and vice versa. MacInnis says in the announcement that the launch is a big part of the company's overall vision to provide service to anyone on any device they choose, one of the major benefits of choosing HTML5 technology.

Also this week, OverDrive announced plans to launch OverDrive Read, an open standard HTML5/EPUB browser-based ebook platform that will allow users to read ebooks online or offline, without having to install software or download an app. Dianna Dilworth at GalleyCat reports on additional benefits for publishers: "Using the platform, publishers can create a URL for each title. This link can include book previews and review copies, as well as browsing capabilities and sample chapters."

In the end, it will all come down to what it always comes down to: money. Roger McNamee's latest piece, "HTML 5: The Next Big Thing for Content," takes a very thorough look at HTML5 in general and specifically in relation to content publishing (this week's must-read). As to money, this excerpt stood out:

"The beauty of these new [HTML5] 'app' models is that each can [be] monetized, in most cases at rates better than the current web standard. Imagine you are reading David Pogue's technology product review column in the New York Times. Today, the advertising on that page is pretty random. In HTML 5, it will be possible for ads to search the page they are on for relevant content. This would allow the Times to auction the ad space to companies that sell consumer electronics, whose ads could then look at the page, identify the products and then offer them in the ad."

As it becomes more and more likely that ads will be incorporated as a revenue stream in ebooks, publishers will embrace whatever technology draws the shortest line and the most avenues between content and revenue, which at this point is looking more and more like HTML5.

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MIT students present news reporting solutions

MIT Media Lab students were busy this week presenting final projects for their "News in the Age of Participatory Media" class. Andrew Phelps at Nieman Journalism Lab highlighted a few of the interesting projects, which were required to address a new tool, technique, or technology for reporting the news. One student proposed modernizing the hyperlink by attaching semantic meaning to it; another suggested a Wiki-like idea for correlations to put impossibly big numbers — the $15 trillion U.S. national debt, for instance — into context for readers.

The growing importance of data journalism makes another student's suite of tools called DBTruck particularly interesting. As Phelps explains, users can "[e]nter the URL of a CSV file, JSON data, or an HTML table and DBTruck will clean up the data and import it to a local database." The tools also let you compare arbitrary data to provoke deeper insights — in testing, the student discovered a correlation between low birth weights and New York state communities with high teen pregnancy rates, a connection that might not have been otherwise discovered.

Penguin and Macmillan deny participation in an illegal conspiracy

Publishers Penguin and Macmillan responded this week to the Department of Justice's (DOJ) antitrust lawsuit filed earlier this year against the two publishers and Apple (Apple responded to the lawsuit last week).

The New York Times reports that in Penguin's 74-page response (PDF), it "called Amazon 'predatory' and a 'monopolist' that treats books as 'widgets.' It asserted that Amazon, not Penguin, was the company engaging in anticompetitive behavior, to the detriment of the industry."

Laura Hazard Owen called Macmillan's 26-page response (PDF) "shorter and more fiery" than Penguin's. She reports:

"'Macmillan did not participate in any illegal conspiracy,' Macmillan's filing says, and 'the lack of direct evidence of conspiracy cited in the Government's Complaint is telling…[it is] necessarily based entirely on the little circumstantial evidence it was able to locate during its extensive investigation, on which it piles innuendo on top of innuendo, stretches facts and implies actions that did not occur and which Macmillan denies unequivocally.'"


January 16 2012

The art of marrying content with mobile apps

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Publishers are often approached by mobile app developers looking to help them distribute their content in new ways. Most of those developers aren't all that familiar with the publishing industry and treat the results as just another app. KiwiTech is different. As founder and CTO Gurvinder Batra explains in this interview, KiwiTech uses its management team's extensive publishing industry experience to craft a better solution.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • The KiwiTech founders are well versed in the publishing space — This is the same team that founded Aptara. That translates into them having a much better sense of the challenges of marrying content with mobile apps. [Discussed at the 00:33 mark.]
  • What's the future of iOS versus Android? — The phones are a good predictor of the tablet's future. So, while Android is overtaking iOS on phone market share, the large number of different handsets and configurations makes it particularly challenging for developers. Expect the same problem to arise with tablets. [Discussed at 6:22.]
  • Porting from iOS to Android is harder than it sounds — Many publishers think development costs for the second platform (e.g., Android) should cost about half of the development costs of the original one (e.g., iOS), but that logic is wrong. [Discussed at 7:45.]
  • Why choose native apps over EPUB? — While it's tempting to go with a platform-independent solution like EPUB, you lose the ability to tap into many of the device's core capabilities, such as sensors, for example. [Discussed at 15:43.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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October 04 2011

PhoneGap basics: What it is and what it can do for mobile developers

PhoneGapPorting mobile apps across systems is, to put it kindly, an inelegant process. There's considerable work involved — so much so that developers are sometimes forced to limit their efforts to one platform.

PhoneGap, an open-source mobile framework, offers an alternative: It helps developers build a common codebase for their apps so the apps work across devices and systems.

I recently spoke with Joe Bowser (@infil00p), creator of PhoneGap's Android implementation, to get his take on the strengths and limitations of PhoneGap and what developers need to know before putting it to use. Bowser will dive into a number of related topics during his session at next week's Android Open conference.

Our interview follows. (Note: this interview was conducted before Adobe announced its acquisition of PhoneGap's parent company, Nitobi.)

What is PhoneGap and why should mobile developers consider using it?

Joe Bowser: PhoneGap is an application framework that allows developers to use HTML, JavaScript and CSS to create apps that are present as first-class applications on the phone. That means the apps have their own icons and operate similarly to native applications without a browser frame around them. They are distributed via the application stores, such as the Android Market and the Apple App Store, and they have access to a set of native functions to further make them work like native apps.

Developers use PhoneGap because it allows them to have a common codebase for all their application code. It doesn't force developers to reinvent the wheel every time they move from platform to platform.

Are there downsides to using PhoneGap?

Joe Bowser: You are subject to the limitations of the browser and the JavaScript engine that comes with your device. On Android 2.3, this isn't too bad. Earlier versions of Android don't support certain features, and many of them use older JavaScript interpreters, which can impact an application. Also, there are certain things that are better implemented in native code, like cryptography or 3-D graphics. Most apps don't use features like this — they simply display information, which the web does well.

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What challenges did you face when creating the Android PhoneGap implementation?

Joe Bowser: The Android PhoneGap implementation was our first implementation after the iPhone, so there were questions about whether this was possible at all. At that time, the Android 1.0 SDK was just being released, and the only devices that ran Android were the HTC Dream and T-Mobile G1. This has obviously changed, but the most challenging thing is still testing on all the real devices that are out there. Every device has its own implementation of the Android OS and its own implementation of the WebKit rendering engine.

What's the best way for PhoneGap developers to handle device-specific needs?

Joe Bowser: It depends on the feature set. Most applications don't need many device-specific features beyond the user interface, but there are numerous plugins that can help with this approach. The best approach is to decide what features you need and to use only those features. There are many applications that have permissions turned on that they don't need. For example, a simple ebook doesn't need access to your phone state, GPS or contacts.

What is a hybrid app?

Joe Bowser: A hybrid application is one that has features of both a web application and a native application. Certain features, such as Image Capture, NFC or Android OpenAccessory, may be implemented natively since there is currently no way to do this in JavaScript. But the application logic and the UI are implemented using web technologies to allow for a consistent and unique user experience across devices.

This interview was edited and condensed.


June 08 2011

Four core takeaways from Apple's WWDC keynote

WWDC logosThe Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote by Apple CEO Steve Jobs was pure "shock and awe," a showcase of the overwhelming power that has been assembled and orchestrated by Apple, the industry's emerging Post-PC gorilla.

Most impressively, the event and the specifics presented (iOS 5, iCloud, OS X Lion) during it were clearly staged to deliver an inspiring but chilling message: Whether you're a prospective customer, developer, channel partner, or competitor, "resistance is futile."

What follows are my four core takeaways from the keynote.

No. 1: The halo effect

Three years ago, I wrote that Apple had made, and was brilliantly executing on, a handful of trend bets that left it uniquely positioned within the marketplace.

These bets included:

  1. Making the mobile Internet caveat-free.
  2. Harnessing rich media as the "my stuff" bucket that matters.
  3. Treating everything in their arsenal as an integrated platform (from PC to device to online service).
  4. Leveraging and deriving core technologies from one product family to cross-pollinate another.

At the WWDC keynote, Jobs and company repeatedly asserted that "it just works" (the ultimate caveat-free mantra) when presenting this feature or that. They noted that no one else can assemble all of these pieces to deliver this type of solution.

Similarly, a heavy emphasis was placed on extending the utility, reach, and integration of:

  • Personal media: Via camera enhancements, which use Apple's Core Image camera technology, and a new Photo Stream service, which will run on iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Mac and the Apple TV.
  • Personal documents: iWork now runs on everything from the iPhone and iPod Touch to the iPad and the Mac, and it'll soon be cloud-enabled via Documents in the Cloud.

  • Messaging/scheduling/contacts: Via the new iCloud service, which revamps and subsumes the company's disappointing MobileMe service. The new iMessage offering is poised to disrupt the SMS business.

  • Professional media: Via iTunes in the cloud and a new iTunes Match service; a new magazine and newspaper subscription service called Newsstand, which complements its iBookstore; and unique to Apple, liberal rights to use the same media now and into the future on multiple iOS devices.

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No. 2: A coherent Post-PC vision

John Gruber has a great analog for how Apple approaches markets, strategies and tactics that he calls, "Measure Twice, Cut Once." The basic premise is that while most companies have a tendency to fire, then aim, Apple is diligent in assessing all of the moving parts of a strategy, and ensuring they have extreme confidence in both the viability of the path and their ability to execute on that path.

Hence, while many mocked Apple's slow path to copy and paste in iOS, their handling of Antennagate, and their seeming lack of urgency in responding to Google's cloud ambitions, the truth is that Apple begins with a 3.0 vision that guides 1.0 execution.

This "begin with the end in mind" sensibility and patience has repeatedly rewarded the company and its constituency. This week's announcements were no different.

In announcing both iOS 5 and iCloud, Apple for the first time gave users clear workflows that don't force false dichotomies between the PC as proxy, and the cloud as the hard drive in the sky. You can cut the cord or not. Software updating and iTunes and App library syncing don't demand a host PC. Nor does photo or video editing. Nor does creation of calendars, mailboxes, documents or the like.

At the same time, they have delineated the cloud as The Truth, relegating rather forcefully the PC (and the Mac) as just another device from a backup, syncing and service perspective.

Categorically, this puts them in a real sweet spot between the lowest common denominator web tilt of Google, the PC legacy catholicism of Microsoft, the device-agnosticism of Facebook, and the digital disruptor that is Amazon.

No. 3: Amazon beware

Two storylines always seemed obvious when Apple began its assault on becoming the digital hub. One was that long-time friends, Apple and Google, were destined to become frienemies. The second was that the only company positioned to fight Apple in terms of both style and substance was (and is) Amazon.

Why? Amazon, like Apple, is singularly focused on how to sell stuff. Both companies are somewhat agnostic to rigid categorical definitions of the types of products that they can sell and the lines of business that they can play within.

Equally important, like Apple, Amazon has a relentless focus on customer satisfaction, not to mention, the all-important billing relationship.

Plus, like Apple, Jeff Bezos and company know how to execute on platform strategy, are adept at pioneering cloud services, have their own device and integrated app store strategy (via Kindle and their Android app store) and have secured the all-important media relationships across music, books and movies.

With Apple moving aggressively into PC software sales, ebooks (the WWDC keynote touted 130 million downloads from iBookstore) and magazine subscriptions, and an Android-derived Amazon Kindle tablet rumored, Amazon seems to represent a potential fly in the ointment of Apple's ambitions.

Whether Apple represents a serious threat to Amazon, however, remains to be seen. This will be my favorite industry storyline to watch unfold in the year ahead.

No. 4: The cannibal

Two tweets that I saw stood out in the waning moments of the keynote, both speaking to Apple's willingness to kill stuff. The first, by the New York Times' John Markoff, underscores the admirable quality of Jobs to see beyond long-held conventions and thus to kill sacred cows (even his own in the case of MobileMe).

Steve's great strength? He kills things ... Floppy , hard disk, etc. Next up? The file system..less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

More chilling, however, is Apple's ready willingness to cannibalize its partners. While inherent in any platform play is the risk that the platform provider will see your sandbox as strategic and co-opt it for themselves, the news wires were legion with stories about the "body count" from Apple's announcements.

Apple's announcement about their new feature that enables the iPhone's volume control to activate the camera shutter led to this sarcastic tweet by Chirag Mehta:

Step 1: Reject an innovative app. Step 2.:Copy that functionality in the core OS Step 3: Claim Innovation. #WWDC #Camera #TapTapTapless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

In case you don't know, this is a direct dig at the fact that iOS developer Tap Tap Tap, makers of the popular Camera+ app, innovated this very same feature several months back, but Apple blocked the app's release until the feature was removed. Now, however, Apple has added it to iOS as their own feature.

To be clear, as platform maker Apple is both within their rights and responsibility to decide which features are best left for third-parties to extend, and which are core and thus should be universal within the platform. But I suspect that it speaks to the growing unease that an all-powerful Apple may not be so great for third-party developers, especially given Apple's past track record of co-option during the PC wars.

Such is the paradox of astounding success. One moment, you are being celebrated as a revolutionary, and bringer of a golden age. The next, you're being taken to task. Apple's relationship with its developers and corresponding role in their success (or failure) is a topic certainly worth further exploration. But that is a post for another day.


  • Apple's Halo Effect

  • Apple's Segmentation Strategy (and the Folly of Conventional Wisdom)

  • Understanding Apple's iPad

  • Five reasons iPhone vs Android isn't Mac vs Windows

  • March 24 2011

    Ubiquity and revenue streams: How HTML5 can help publishers

    As technology makes the publishing space more and more geek-oriented, understanding how particular technologies can apply and how existing products or content can be adapted might seem to require a computer science degree.

    In a recent interview, Google senior user experience designer Marcin Wichary brought one of those technologies — HTML5 — into perspective, explaining how it applies to publishers.

    In design and layout, there's a lot of things that HTML5 now does natively, without you having to hold its hand. Things like multimedia are native to HTML5 — you don't need extensions or plug-ins; they're integrated really well.

    We have new devices like the iPad that require new input methods like multitouch or shaking the device. All of this is or will soon be supported by HTML5. So you can imagine delivering an experience through your application or your website or your publication that rivals that of a native application on any of the platforms you want to put it on.

    On top of that, it's the web. Al of the things that have been available on the web you also have as well. All the social networking, all the APIs, all the integration with other surfaces — you can just plug it in the way you want.

    Wichary also explained how publishers can monetize the opportunities HTML5 brings to the table, and how it might even save money in the long run.

    It's very important to recognize that HTML5 fits all the devices you can think of, from the iPhone in your pocket to Google TV to the tablets to small screens and big screens. It's very easy to take the content you already have and through the "magic" of HTML5, refine it so it works very well within a given context. You don't have to do your work over and over again. Of course, all of these different means come with different monetization opportunities, like ads on the web or on mobile devices.

    In the interview, Wichary also addressed how publishing workflows might be affected by HTML5 implementation and he outlined specific advantages HTML5 can bring to digital reading. The full interview is available in the following video:


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