innovation

Is all digital publishing doomed to bomb like The Daily?

Much has been written about the failure of The Daily. John Gruber’s piece is especially insightful. For those unfamiliar with The Daily, it was News Corps attempt to modernize newspaper publishing for the digital age. Thanks to that backing, it launched with much fanfare and participation from Apple. The Daily seemed to have all the pieces necessary to reinvent publishing from the outside. They had the backing of a major media company, but weren’t saddled by the legacy business model of a printed newspaper. They had writers, editors, designers and programmers on staff. Apple’s Newsstand solved the subscriber revenue problems that plague the web. The pricing was great too.

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I downloaded The Daily as soon as it was available. My first impression was not disappointing. The main interface element was something called “The Carousel.” It was hard to use, and unresponsive. The Daily stuttered and sputtered so bad it was hard to use despite the reasonable GPU in the iPad. Issues were quite large and took too long to download. When an issue finally downloaded, they took too much time to render inside the application. The core use of this app, reading the news, was compromised by subpar performance and an ill-conceived navigation system.

I’ve been involved in enough technology product launches to be pretty forgiving towards products on day one. There is almost never enough time or resources to be true to your vision at launch. Engineers always want more time, and business managers want to enter the market place before the market is crowded. At some point you just have to ship. Unfortunately, The Daily’s problems weren’t restricted to the app’s quality (which did get better over time). The writing didn’t resonate with me either. The tech section was fine enough, but The Daily couldn’t decide if it was Time or People. There was too much celebrity gossip for my taste.  That’s not to say you can’t have a great publication centered around pop culture–you can. Instead, the problem is The Daily tried to mix hard news with pseudo-tabloid pulp in a way that I couldn’t get behind.

The sad thing is The Daily gained 100,000 subscribers with the corresponding revenue, but the capital burn rate of the company behind it was just too high.  The Daily didn’t go far enough to cast off the roots of a newspaper, and as a result revenues aren’t high enough to pay for production costs.

I really wanted The Daily to work. I kept my subscription even as I used the app less and less. At least The Daily produced something other than the glorified PDFs most magazines on the iPad serve, and I wanted other publishers to see the value in a more native format.

If you don’t work in publishing or media, Adobe makes most of the tools that power print production work flows. To help ease the transition for traditional media companies, Adobe offers a product/service called the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. DPS makes it relatively easy to produce iPad (and other tablet) content with some interactivity. Unfortunately, it also produces excessively large assets and often renders type as an image. Workflows dependent on DPS are part of the reason so many magazines on touch devices are Frankenstein’s monsteresque hybrids of a printed piece and the web. Don’t get me wrong, I see the business need served by DPS. I just think the result of that product today puts the value of a workflow over the experience of the reader.

The Daily boldly tried to change this and failed. Other media companies have also built their own native apps, but are still encumbered with confusing navigation and large issue download sizes. Where does that leave us now?

The web is still a very challenging place to gain paying subscribers, for reasons that have been documented all over the web. Tablets still offer a great format for reading, but the attempts by media companies to take advantage of this still fall short. Consumers still crave more in-depth, insightful coverage on the news that what the web offers and have no convenient, digital means by which to get that content. There has to be a better way.

The Magazine is that better way. Marco Arment’s experiment in publishing is a fantastic demonstration of what the technology driving touch-based publications should look like. It’s light, responsive and nimble. The Magazine scales really well across screen sizes. New issues load rapidly. Marco himself argues that comparisons between The Daily and The Magazine aren’t fair, but I’m more inclined to agree with Craig Mod. The Magazine shows the way forward for publishing.  Smaller teams producing more focused content, without the constraints of a printing press to drive the release cycle. Marco cites The New Yorker and The Atlantic as editorial coverage done right. I subscribe to both magazines, and I really don’t like the digital experience offered by either. Marco says the web is the best source of news, but I like to catch up on the day sitting on my couch after work. Today, that means hopping from site to site in Safari, but I’d rather have something a little more curated and focused. I’d pay for better news coverage. Such a publication would never win the BREAKING NEWS battle, but Twitter is a better breaking news source than the web.

I value the information and insight I get from traditional news media outlets. The problem is they are completely optimized toward giving me that experience on dead trees delivered on trucks. Give me the insights of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Rolling Stone. Stun me with the photojournalism I see in Time. Let me see a little deeper in the news cycle like I do with The New York Times, but do it with an app as simple, easy and fast as The Magazine.

My iTunes account is at the disposal of any media company who can pull that off.

Microsoft is the new IBM

I read a really fascinating article on Vanity Fair about the state of Microsoft today. I've preferred Apple products as long as I've been a computer user.  I started with the Apple II and then fell head over heels for the Mac.  As a Mac fan, the domination of Microsoft's products frustrated me.  Windows lacked the ease-of-use and setup that so naturally came from the Mac.  The hardware required endless tinkering to keep running.

I was too young to understand the platform advantage Microsoft held.  I was convinced that if Apple could just show everyone that their products were better built, then Microsoft would be powerless to stop their ascent.  Over two decades followed and my hope was never fulfilled.

And then this:

One Apple product, something that didn’t exist five years ago, has higher sales than everything Microsoft has to offer. More than Windows, Office, Xbox, Bing, Windows Phone, and every other product that Microsoft has created since 1975. In the quarter ended March 31, 2012, iPhone had sales of $22.7 billion; Microsoft Corporation, $17.4 billion.
— Kurt Eichenwald, writing for Vanity Fair

Apple is no longer a scrappy little challenger.  Their movement in the market is so powerful that individual product lines capture more revenue than their competitors entire balance sheet.

Apple's rise has been well studied, but Microsoft's fall is just as interesting to me.  You can't say Microsoft isn't making effort: the Xbox represents real innovation in the gaming industry.  Windows Phone 7 is the best example I've seen at trying to re-imagine how mobile computing could work.  Bing is nice enough.  Surface is at least interesting, and the keyboard-as-a-tablet-cover concept is genuinely innovative.  So, if Microsoft is making many of the right moves, why aren't they gaining traction?

The article above is scathing when it talks about Microsoft's structure.  It seems Microsoft has allowed business people to take over a technology company.  It's ok to have a business wonk at the helm–hello Tim cook–but that person needs to see his job as enabling product people, designers and engineers to pursue amazing work.  Microsoft keeps creating great concepts and metaphors and them executing them in a mediocre way.

I don't want Microsoft to fade away.  I've lived through eras of monoculture in computing, and the market is better when really strong competitors wrestle for marketshare and profits.

Steve Ballmer needs to retire, and someone passionate about product needs to take the helm.  Otherwise, spin of the Xbox and transform the company into an enterprise services and software offering.

Just like IBM.