Wednesday, 11 July 2007

What we're learning from Web apps, part 3: Breeding new types of media

The argument over the viability of Web 2.0 applications misses the point -- most of the applications on any new computing platform die. What matters are the innovations and new business models that we learn from them (link).

Last time in this series I discussed what we're learning from Web 2 about managing a community online (link). This time I want to talk about the role the Internet is playing in the creation of new forms of media.

Is the internet a new medium?

I should start with a definition of what a medium is. Webster calls it, "a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment" (link). I want to build on that a little. To me, a medium is something that moves information and/or entertainment between people. Movies are a medium, newspapers are a medium, oil painting is a medium. So is the telephone call, when you think about it. Each medium has its own distinct usages, economic model, and audience.

A lot of people have written about the Internet and/or the Web as a new "medium." A quick online search will give you thousands of articles and weblog posts on the subject. But there's something funny about the articles -- although they all call the Internet a medium, they define that medium in many different ways. For example...

--The Internet is a medium for mixed-media communication.
--It's a medium for online music broadcasting.
--It's a medium for making politically-motivated attacks. (And an unregulated medium at that. Heaven forbid we should practice unregulated politics.)
--It's "a perfect medium for the sale of software and other digital products."
--It's a medium for interactive, moving content.
--It's a "new medium for business communication."
--It's "a medium of news dissemination."
--It's "a new medium for design."
--It's a new medium for video.
--It's a new medium for communication by individuals.
--It's a new medium for socializing.

I think that in reality the Internet is not a new medium for anything. It's a transport mechanism. It is to data what a road is to eighteen-wheel trucks. And the Web isn't a medium either; it's a set of protocols for accessing and delivering data. To abuse the road analogy, it's the warehouses and truck stops that load, unload, and service the trucks.

The Internet is a meta-medium

When we talk about the Internet as a medium, we're confusing the delivery mechanism with the goods being delivered. This is a crucial distinction, because if you think of the Internet as a medium you won't understand its real power. The Internet is a meta-medium. It's a medium for creating new types of media; a general-purpose mechanism that spews new media as quickly as people can think them up.

And spew it does. As I hope you know if you've been reading this weblog for a while, I am not a fan of hype and overblown predictions. But I think the evidence shows that the Internet is enabling an explosion of new forms of media at a faster rate than ever before in human history. I believe this is one of the most revolutionary effects of the Internet, but we're so close to it that we don't think about it much.

Freeing media from the distribution mechanism

In the past, each new form of media was generally tied to a unique distribution infrastructure, technology base, and economic model. For a new medium to arise, you generally had to create a whole new production and distribution mechanism for it. For example:

Novels required the development of the printing press, a distribution infrastructure consisting of publishers and bookstores, and an economic model in which the reader pays and revenue is shared with the publisher and distribution chain.

Radio serial drama required the invention and sale of millions of radios, the construction of studios and transmitters, the creation of production companies and networks, and an economic model in which advertisers paid for the programs.

Movies required not just the creation of motion picture cameras, but also studios to produce the films, modified theaters to show them, a distribution system to deliver the reels of film, and an economic model in which ticket revenue and in-theater food sales combined to pay for the whole thing.

The huge effort and investment involved in creating these distribution chains severely limited the growth of new forms of media. For example, it took about 20 years from the invention of television and movies until either of them reached broad commercial distribution.

In contrast, new media proliferate on the Internet as fast as people can visit new websites and install plug-ins. (Obviously, this applies only to media that can be distributed electronically. But that still covers a lot.)

This chart gives you an idea of how the pace of change has accelerated.

This chart was based in part on a fantastic media history here.

Some people would say that most of the Internet media types I listed on the right edge of the chart aren't actually new media; that they're just a tweak on existing media. For example, Henry Jenkins argued in a great article for MIT Technology Review that you have to differentiate between media, genres, and delivery technologies (link):

Recorded sound is a medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system.

I think he's right from the perspective of classifying things analytically, but if you follow that thinking religiously then it's almost impossible to create a new medium any more, unless smell-o-vision or machine telepathy comes along. I think in practical terms, you have a new medium as soon as you create a substantially different set of audience and business dynamics, because those are the changes that create meaningful new economic opportunities for creative people and businesses.

Here's the test: if you can't take material created for some other medium and replay it unchanged, then I think you've invented a new medium. CDs were not a new medium because they were created and sold in the same way, to the same people, as vinyl LPs. But radio drama was a new medium, because it had its own distinct audience and rules. You couldn't just take a stage play and turn it into a radio drama unmodified.

By this standard, the Internet is spawning new media forms faster than bunnies breed in Australia.

Of course, not all of these new types of media will be successful long-term. But it's exciting to see so much experimentation happening so quickly, and I believe it will have a profound effect on the ways we communicate and entertain ourselves in the years to come.

The revolution in front of you

Okay, so that's the theoretical foundation on what's happening. Let's discuss some examples -- three new forms of media we're creating, the rules and opportunities they create, and what comes next.

Online video

Oh, man. This one's so complex that you could write a book on it. The term "video" includes a huge variety of different things -- music videos, TV shows, animation, movies, video clips from amateurs, even commercials. Each one appears to have a different online audience and different financials.

Some of them have already run through a cycle of excitement and disappointment. For example, some people speak of an "internet animation era" that came and went at the start of the decade (you can read more about the expectations here). Usually the culprit for the disappointment is the failure to find a sustainable business model.

The hottest area in online video today is obviously short clips like the ones you see on YouTube. The ironic thing is that this form of video had virtually no traction prior to the Internet. Meanwhile, movies and TV shows -- which everyone predicted would move onto the Internet quickly -- don't have nearly as much momentum online.

Why YouTube is successful. Using YouTube is like eating potato chips ("crisps" if you live in the UK). When you're bored, it's great to browse short video clips looking for things that are funny or amazing or just plain weird. The brilliant aspects of YouTube (in my opinion) are that the video loads fast (can you imagine eating potato chips if you had to unwrap every chip individually?), and that the YouTube site links you to lots of other related videos, so it's easy to wander. If one video is boring, you're only moments away from something else.

This instant gratification factor turns the rules of traditional video on its head. In traditional video, quality and an immersive experience are king. To suck people into a television program or a movie, you use incredibly high quality images, editing, and sound. (If you want to know how important this is, look at all the enormous amounts of money the industry is spending to move to high-definition broadcasting and higher-capacity DVDs.)

That's why short online video is a different medium. Rather than immersion, the goal is instant gratification.

But how do you make money? The problem with short online video is that no one's sure how to make money from it. You pay to see a movie. You watch ads on television (well, you're supposed to, unless you use TiVo). Many companies are trying to attach commercials to online videos, but the result is often extraordinarily annoying to viewers.

That's not intuitive to the broadcast folks. Depending on what country you're in, to watch free TV you'll typically watch nine to 20 minutes of commercials in order to see an hour of programming (link). That's a ratio of between 15% and 30% commercials.

Apply that same ratio to a short online video, and you're watching a 30 second commercial to see a two minute video clip. Sounds reasonable, right? It's actually borderline intolerable to viewers because it breaks the instant gratification cycle. The whole idea is to beat boredom, not generate it.

Remember, this is a new medium. It has its own rules.

Maybe the answer will be very short ads, but no one knows what's short enough, and if those short ads will even work. Or maybe the answer is putting print ads on the website alongside the video. But unlike search, you don't know what topics a video viewer will be interested in, so it's much harder to target the ads. How will you individually track the demographics of people viewing more than six million separate YouTube clips? You'd basically have to build a database on the individual thoughts and behavior of every Internet user. That, I presume, is why YouTube was a good strategic investment for Google. It's also why I'm deeply skeptical about the high-profile efforts by entertainment companies to create sites competing with YouTube. Without Google's demographic and ad-targeting infrastructure, it will be hard for a competitor to monetize its videos.

And oh by the way, it's not clear that even Google can make this whole video thing work financially.

So let's classify short online video as an emerging medium: Proven audience, unproven economics.

Video in the mobile world. This is the current Flavor of the Month in the mobile data world. (Or maybe it was last month's flavor, and this month is GPS.) Anyway, there are a lot of people predicting that video is going to be very hot in the mobile space.

As was the case with PCs, you have to ask what sort of video you're talking about. The most intuitive use is short video. We know people use mobiles as boredom-busters, and short video is almost custom-made for that. But we run into the same economic problems as we have on PCs, only more so. It's not clear how many commercials people will tolerate in their mobile video.

Broadcast video, viewed on mobiles, is becoming popular in Asia. But by my standard that's not a new medium -- it's just building a television into your phone. And it bypasses the Internet, so it's not relevant to this discussion. (I recently wrote a long article on mobile video; if you missed it you can read it here.)

Virtual Reality as a Medium: Second Life

Most people think of Second Life as a game, or maybe a cult. But my Rubicon colleague Bruce La Fetra recently wrote an article (link) making the case that it's a new medium, and I believe he's right. Think about it. Here's the test of a new medium:

--Facilitates interaction between people. Second Life certainly does that.
--Has its own distinct audience. Double check. That's why some people look at Second Life as a cult.
--Has its own economic model. Triple check. This one even has its own currency.

A virtual meeting place. Second Life is so flexible that it's very hard to say what it'll turn into ultimately. It's already a meeting space for some people, and the upcoming addition of voice should improve that dramatically. Supposedly Cisco is providing pre-built avatars for employees, and a number of tech companies are using it for meetings (check out the slightly breathless but eye-opening article here).

Second Life is a tool for holding three-dimensional visual conversations...I know some people can't hold a serious business conversation without a pen and paper to draw with; Second Life is made for those people....One day, you'll be able to import sales data from an Oracle database, create a three-dimensional diagram of that data that changes in near-realtime, and hold a meeting of top corporate executives all over the world in Second Life to discuss the results. --Mitch Wagner

Prototyping the physical world. Another clear use for VR is allowing individuals and corporations to create interactive experiences for others. For example, as Bruce points out, hotels are starting to test lobby layouts using Second Life. Brands like GeekSquad are using Second Life to reach out to customers, giving them another way to engage (read more about it here).

Some of this commentary is so enthusiastic that it reminds me of the commentary we saw in the bubble period. Second Life is definitely a geek playground, but I'm not sure how many "normal" people will want to mess around in virtual reality. We won't know until we try.

Is it a business or a standard? The ultimate business model for Second Life is still up in the air. Land owners pay real dollars for virtual real estate and corporate avatars, giving Linden Lab a revenue stream. However, the company is in the process of open-sourcing its server code. This will make it possible for anyone to create their own "land" without paying Linden Lab, and dramatically increases the likelihood that Second Life's technology will become a generalized standard for virtual reality. That's very healthy for the medium, but leaves Linden Lab without an obvious business model. There's an interesting discussion here.

The process of moving from a captive platform to the base of an open ecosystem is incredibly tricky. I think Linden is right to do it, because otherwise an open standard for virtual reality would have eventually emerged, pushing Second Life completely out of the picture (think of what happened when AOL went up against the Internet). But now Linden will need to find some parts of that open ecosystem where it can provide valued services. I think managing the virtual currency is a good start, but I haven't been able to find any clear statement of what the company's long-term financial model will be; please post a comment if you find one.

So the status of Second Life is similar to that of online video: Definite audience, unclear financials.

Virtual reality and mobile. Virtual reality thrives on large screens and fast processors. I think it's probably safe to say that it'll be limited to PC-sized devices for a long time (at least until we get flexible screens and fuel cells powerful enough to drive high-end graphics processors in a mobile). Until that day, I wouldn't be investing heavily in creating a SecondLife client for Nokia S60.


Actually, these are several new media that I have grouped together for convenience: Text feeds, audio feeds, and video feeds. Plus more types of feeds to come.

Different feed types have different audiences. Steve Olechowski of Feedburner gives a great speech summarizing the feed world and what's happening in it. One of the interesting tidbits he gives out is that different types of feeds tend to be dominated by different subjects. Text feeds most commonly focus on technology, while audio feeds are most often about music, social issues, and religion ("Godcasts"). So different forms of communication -- text vs. recorded speech -- attract different types of creators and audiences. I suspect that video feeds are going to be different yet again, although it's probably too early to judge today. You can hear one of Steve's speeches here.

The thing I like about feeds is that they're efficient. Rather than going to a website to read or listen, you can bring the content to you and access it on your terms. A lot of people use online feed readers like Feed Burner, but my favorite is Feed Blitz, which consolidates all your feeds into a single daily e-mail. That lets me scan about a hundred articles a day in a matter of minutes.

Text feed vs. weblogs. One problem with text feeds is that they take readers away from your weblog, meaning they won't see the ads. That creates a lot of concern for weblog authors who rely on advertising. So they do things like putting only article summaries in their feeds, or embedding ads in the feeds, neither of which are popular with feed users.

Olechowski argues that authors shouldn't worry -- that the people who read feeds are different from the people who read websites, so there's little cannibalism. He says that providing a full-text feed from your weblog actually increases visitors to the site, rather than reducing them.

He has an incentive to say that, since his business is distributing feeds. But I think he may also have a point. Let's use Mobile Opportunity as an example: About 80% of the readers coming directly here are referrals from other websites and web searches, not returning readers. I think the general pattern for readers is that they come here from a web search or other link, and if they like the content then they subscribe to the feed. That's why I put extensive introductory information and links to previous articles in the sidebar on the right side of the page. If a web search visitor is interested in the sort of things I write about, I want to make sure they can determine that quickly so they'll either bookmark the page or subscribe to the feed.

The feed readers never see the sidebar, but they don't need it because they know what I've written about before. People who read via feeds have a different set of special needs. Chances are they use a feed reader that consolidates a lot of different feeds, which they then skim quickly. That makes it very important to use self-explanatory headlines for articles, and clear sub-heads within each article so people can skim easily. Web links are a special problem -- because they're colored and underlined, they stand out from the text. But they're not usually the things you want people to skim, because they don't summarize the content. That's why I've started putting links at the ends of sentences, rather than embedding them in the flow of the sentence.

I'm not trying to make money from this site, but if I were, I'd have to think very hard about what sort of ads go on the web page vs. in the feed, and where they get placed.

The bottom line: you write a little differently for a feed than you do for a weblog, and the financial model is subtly different as well. So it's a slightly different medium.

Status of feeds: Text feeds are quite well established, and audio feeds took off rapidly once they were enabled on the iPod. The financial model (to the extent that there is one) appears to be advertising, but I haven't seen a good discussion of the economics of advertising within feeds (please post a comment if you know of one). Presumably Google's recent purchase of FeedBurner is intended to allow them to stream ads into feeds, so we'll probably see more activity there. The dynamics of other types of feeds (video, etc) are still to be determined.

Feeds and the mobile world. Feeds are a spectacular fit for the mobile world; actually a much better fit than browsing. In general browsing is something you do live, while feeds can be fetched in the background, cached on the device, and then read or listened to whenever the user wishes.

A text feed is also much easier to reformat for a small screen. In a lot of ways, it's designed to be reformatted.

If I were working on a mobile data device today, I'd push this feature very hard -- figure out who my target customers are and what feeds they'd be most likely to enjoy, cache the top ten our so automatically, and give a great discovery mechanism so people can easily find more. Feeds are a commodity in that you can get them for free, but easy navigation and discovery of feeds is potentially a very attractive area for innovation.

I know third party developers are already doing this; if I were at a mobile hardware company I'd be making it a standard feature in every device.

What comes next?

What other media are emerging? Many more new forms of media emerging than I've listed here. I'm very interested in your ideas -- what do you think are some others to watch, and what's special about them? One I'd love to investigate more is the rise of casual games -- quickie games, usually based on Flash. Games like this were very popular in the early days of personal computing, and they seem to be making a comeback on the web. You can find some nifty ones on sites like Kongregate (link; check out Fancy Pants).

The transcendent need for a billing mechanism. When I said that the Web is a tool for creating new media, I left out an important detail. It's three-quarters of the tool. We have a great delivery system, and Google is well on its way to dominating the advertising part of the financial model. What's missing is a standard mechanism for people to pay for content that's not supported by advertising. Some types of content work fine with ads, but I think some other types are better when paid for. Novels, short stories, music, and research reports all qualify. Creators and readers would both benefit from a system in which people could easily pay a few dimes or a few dollars directly to the author, but today we generally have to fumble with credit cards and awkward systems like PayPal. And credit card vendors strongly discourage small payments.

Minipayments vs. micropayments. The Web community chewed over this issue and spat it out several years ago. They believe that micropayments are dead, and the subject is closed. You can find examples here and here and here and here. Wikipedia has a nicely balanced discussion of the debate here.

This is one of those cases where the groupthink tendency of the tech industry is a liability. It reminds me of MP3 players before the iPod -- a lot of people have tried something, nobody's gotten it right yet, and therefore it must be impossible. It'll continue to be impossible up until someone does it right, at which time everyone will suddenly agree that it was inevitable.

(Quick aside: Whenever everyone in the tech industry agrees on something, bet against them. A perfect consensus is a sign that healthy questioning has ceased, and there's bound to be a blind spot.)

In this case, I think the blind spot was that people predicted the wrong role and features for micropayments. Some people made it a payment vs. advertising debate (link). It's not -- some types of media are good for advertising, some good for payment. We need both, with a creative tension between them.

Another problem is that some of the advocates of micropayments envisioned a very fine-grained payment system, in which people would pay hundredths of cents for all sorts of content, like the way natural gas or water is metered. That sounded logical, but it didn't work in practice because gas and water are predictable commodities; you don't mind metering because you know exactly what you'll get. You don't know how good a website will be until you've visited it, by which point you have already paid if you're metering. We need larger payments for content that people can preview and read reviews about before they pay. Apple has proved decisively that on the wired Internet a payment system that charges about a buck for discrete chunks of content can indeed succeed.

Call it minipayments.

We desperately need a generalized minipayment system for content on the web. Because people have to trust it, it needs to come from a major vendor, and it should be exposed to developers as a web service so it can grow rapidly. Ideally, it should be tied to a lot of existing content with an easy discovery mechanism (again, like iTunes). Yahoo would be the perfect company to provide this service. Microsoft could do it too. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are focusing a huge amount of their energy on the almost hopeless task of beating Google in search advertising, when the better opportunity is owning a different piece of the infrastructure, one that doesn't have a dominant vendor yet.

Other companies that could do it include Amazon, Apple, eBay, and even Linden Lab. Google could do it too, of course, but it appears to be more interested in stealing PayPal's customers than in building something new.

I'd put this service on the list of computing products I want desperately, right after the info pad. Somebody's going to do it eventually. When they do they'll get a great business franchise, and the explosion of new media on the Web will accelerate even further.

I can't wait.

Next time: The Web as a software development platform.

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