A Time for Transformation, not Mere Change

Published by: Srini Chari

Once upon a time – about a year ago - traditional publishers fell in love with the colorful screens of mobile devices as a solution to their battle with the popular assumption that information on the Internet wants to be free. Here at last was a way to once again produce a unique product, charge traditional single copy and subscription prices and restore profit margins.

Jason Pontin’s describes the rude awakening in “Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps,” Technology Review, 5.7.12. (http://bit.ly/JgoAAm)

Today, most tablet machines are Apple, and publishers have to pay Apple to sell their products – which means actually losing sales on individual issues. Most serious, when they sell through Apple, they lose direct connection with their readers – the lifeblood of magazines and newspapers.

Technical problems also made adapting print publications to apps challenging. Many publishers ended up with five digital versions of their products to accommodate diverse devices, viewing options and ordinary website HTML pages. And they found the unbudgeted cost of app development both expensive and time consuming. Without their own digital readers, they had no audiences to sell to advertisers and so insufficient incremental revenue to offset the app development cost.

Worst of all, publishers discovered their stories in apps in fact disappointed reader expectations because the stories do not link; they live in walled gardens, closed off from other digital media.

The outcome? Most mobile device owners read news and features on publisher websites, now coded to adapt to smaller screens or using glorified RSS readers. “The paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead,” pronounces Pontin.

What happened? Publishers tried to impose old print formats on digital channels – to make an adaptive change, not a transformation. “I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital,” writes Pontin.

One aspect of transformation is to go back to basics – to understand the essence of the product and release it from traditional trappings. Barnes & Noble made a major change with its superstore bookstores containing pianos, coffee shops and sofas. Amazon achieved transformation by eliminating the bookstore altogether. Pontin’s solution, like that of Financial Times is to launch an HTML5 version of its website, optimize it for devices, incorporate many applike features and functions and, ultimately, kill the app. What will the new revenue model be once digital content is free? That’s yet to come. Innovations evolve. You don't always get all the answers at once.

As author/futurist Daniel Burrus has said: “There are two primary uses for technology by business and government. The first is to accomplish more with less―to be more efficient and productive. That's how most people use technology, and it's a good use of it. But the second major use of technology―and it's not that common―is to use it to create new products, services, markets and careers.”

Learning to accomplish more with less is an important first step - and it's still happening. But more and more of us now understand enough about technology to create the new, to innovate – that’s transformation, not mere change!

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