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Monday, 1 March 2010

Oh no, not more on the future of publishing

In 2009, 5 million e-readers had been sold worldwide.
In 2008, Amazon sold 1 m Kindles.
In the US, 50 million adults pay an average of $16 a month to get a daily newspaper delivered.
According to the Magazine Publishers Association 174.5m subscribed to magazines in 1970; by       2008 that number had risen to 324.8m.
US magazine advertising revenues fell 26% in 2009 alone.
When Kindle buys a newspaper or magazine e-book the publisher gets just 30% of the revenue.
According to the latest issue of Wired magazine, this year 60 tablet and e-reading devices will be launched.
“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information” TS Eliot.

At the end of 2009, there were 1.7bn internet connections in the world. An increasing proportion of internet access will come from mobile phones and other handheld devices. In a matter of two or three years, more than 3bn people come on line; within five, perhaps within three years, half the planet will be on line. By the end of the present decade, the majority of the planet will be connected to the internet. The number of people who feel swamped by digital data will increase. More of us are going to feel distracted, restless and unable to cope. Evolution has not equipped us to live in this way.

The human mind is the real bandwidth bottleneck that is choking internet access. As we saw last week, human conscious band width averages around 40 bits a second, which equates to one millionth of the data flowing into our conscious minds. The limitation of human bandwidth has profound consequences, both for our mental health, and also for the development of society.Any reader who wants to examine this further should start with the classic study, The User Illusion , which was published in 1999.

Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, are examples of companies that have cracked the human bandwidth problem. In other words, they have pulled off the most difficult engineering trick of all; they have buried complexity behind a facade of simplicity. This is the task now facing Asia’s hardware giants, such as Samsung. It is also the problem facing the global media industry.  People will not pay for content that they do not have the time to find or read.

An Age of Distraction
The signs are that with the help of Apple, media companies might be on the point of mastering the human bandwidth problem as well. Several weeks ago, we gave a link for a concept electronic magazine made by Bonnier, the Swedish media giant. Sports Illustrated, has also developed a exciting concept for an electronic magazine, which can be seen on Youtube. Finally, it seems the penny might have dropped: print media has to find a way to use new devices, like the iTab to compete with video, TV, computer games and social networking.

 This is what Bonnier’s Sara Ohrvall said of the concept magazine in an interview with Wired :  “People become more ‘rootless’ in their media behaviour. They consume media in places where they just happen to end up. This leaves consumers uncertain about whether they have read/listened to/viewed what’s relevant for them, or not.”

Ohrvall went on to explain that the fundamental problem is the absence of ‘closure’ in most experiences that people have with digital media.  On the web you always “link somewhere else; the story never ends. No sense of completion. For us, it was clear that there was something missing. We realised there must be other ways to tell a story in digital media, apart from millions of lookalike sites on the web.”

The touch screen interface of a device like the iPad is fundamental to what Ms Ohrvall is describing. Instead of viewing a crowded web page that is full of distractions in the form of ads and other links, the iPad allows the publisher to present a high quality graphic image, which the subscriber can then manipulate and navigate in an intuitive way. In other words, designers are grasping that they need to give their electronic readers a more complete, more immersive experience. As Ms Ohrvall explains, readers need a sense of closure and completion.

I would refer the reader to a fascinating book that scientifically examines the process of reading. Called Proust and the Squid, by Professor Maryanne Wolf, the book examines how reading leads to a rewiring of the human brain. Wolf’s central contention is that reading is not a natural act, it requires thousands of hours of training, which results in physically changing patterns of brain behaviour, which can be measured by scientific instruments. There is plentiful research that demonstrates that when we give our full attention to reading - remember how small human bandwidth is - we become less stressful because, quite literally, we are giving our brains a work out. In other words, instead of being focused purely on the conscious brain, literature works because it engages with memories and feelings that are not housed in the conscious mind. This is why a good book, a poem, or an interesting essay, really gets more neurones firing. Readers have richer mental lives than people who do most of their reading on a computer screen, hopping from blog, to web site to chat site; reading is brain food.

Since the foundation of Cyke our main area of focus has been the development of the mobile internet. We were among the first to highlight that the smartphone was the main product event in tech, while most were focusing on the PC upgrade cycle. As the world becomes populated by smart-phones and other handheld devices, such as `Apple’s forthcoming iPad, the very nature of the internet itself will change. It will be carved into empires, such as the Google, or the Apple empire.To sustain these empires content and applications are the key. Hardware innovation is becoming less important  in an age when people want to interact with other groups of people and experience applications and content, both socially and privately. We call this change the Fourth Wave, or the Smart Paradigm. In Asia the Smart Paradigm benefits Baidu, Shanda, NC Soft and Tencent more than it does Samsung, LG Electronics or Lenovo, in Asia.

As we suggested above, the trial facing hardware companies is to hide complexity behind simplicity. This is the most difficult task an engineering based company can face. The mastering of this skill was why Apple could, as an outsider,  invade the mobile phone industry and change it root and branch. RIM did it and now Google is trying. Notice that not one  and intuition that comes from being completely immersed in internet culture. No mobile handset maker or operator has yet managed to replicate this skill.

We cannot be certain, but it is probable that we are emerging from a period of transition. To sell devices and control their empires, Google, Facebook and Apple need content and applications because that is how you lock individuals to your service and product. We have arrived at a point where the technology exists that can make reading on an electronic device an immersive, rewarding experience. We also now have payment mechanisms, such as iTunes, which easily enable consumers to buy on-line. What is not yet known is whether media companies have the skills to capitalise on these developments? What we can be more certain of is that we as humans need to be able to read, there has to be more to life than endless digital distraction.