Take a break from the “Apple is a closed system” meme

For just a second, anyhow.

This post was sparked by a discussion on an online group I belong to. Said discussion was itself sparked by this piece in Gawker, which trots out the predictable anti-Apple arguments (Apple is creating a closed ecosystem for its products, etc.) The discussion turned to journalism and the fear that Steve Jobs somehow has media “under his thumb.”

Warning: post has rant-like qualities.

Ahem.

1. Apple is a device company, not a media company. There’s a large misperception that iTunes and the App Store are the major way Apple makes money. And while the company does make money off the iTunes store ($1.1 billion in the last quarter), they made more than $5.3 billion in revenue in the same quarter from selling iPhones (which are hardware devices).

2. iPhones and iPads are a tiny fraction of their respective markets (if you count the iPad as a computer, that is, not as a new class of tablet device). The iPhone has captured about 25% of the U.S. smartphone market, which is about 20% of the overall cell phone market in the U.S. So about 5% of cell phones in the U.S. are iPhones. It’s very hard to argue monopolistic power when a company is leveraging such a tiny portion of the market.

3. Is Apple actually trying to create its own proprietary network where it’s a curator of content? Sure, to an extent. But this is highly overstated — if you’re smart enough to open a Web browser on your iThing (either Safari or Opera), you get the entire Internet.

The iBooks store will feature books from the Apple store … but you can already get Kindle, Nook, Stanza and Olive e-reader apps for the iPad and iPhone (plus a few others that I’m forgetting now). The iPod app on the iPhone and iPad features music from your iTunes library … which you can either buy through iTunes or by importing .mp3 downloads or even music from CDs. (I hear a few people still have those.) And, on the books front, Apple supports the ePub format … which the Kindle does not.

(If you’re looking for a completely closed format, the Kindle is an excellent villain … but no one seems to be going after Amazon.)

4. Even if Apple were to preapprove every bit of content that appeared on an iThing — down to individual news stories — it would probably still have a market for its devices. Which is the entire point. Demand for the iPod/iPad/iPhone operates in an open market. If people don’t want their stuff, they won’t buy it.

Linux is a completely open and free system for desktops. It has about a 2% adoption rate in the U.S.

In my job, I use or have recently used computers running Mac OS 10.5, Mac OS 10.6, iPhone OS 3.1.1, Windows 7, Windows XP, Debian Lenny, Debian Etch, and Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope. None of them seem to have a monopoly on the market.

Look, there are plenty of threats to journalism out there. You can read about some here.

But I have a hard time thinking Apple is one of them.

OK, end rant. For a cool look at the future of tablet computing, check out this piece from Wired magazine. I especially like this quote (emphasis mine)

Compared to other kinds of information that computers process today, text has an exceptionally small footprint. With the arrival of the tablet, we have crossed a critical threshold: Where text is concerned, we effectively have infinite computational resources, connectivity, and portability. For decades, futurists have dreamed of the “universal book”: a handheld reading device that would give you instant access to every book in the Library of Congress. In the tablet era, it’s no longer technology holding us back from realizing that vision; it’s the copyright holders.

(This was originally posted over at my personal blog. I’m thinking about doing a primer for journalists covering open/closed source topics. Interested? Let me know.)

Apple tablet could be a game-changer for e-readers

An interesting post over at Gizmodo have me thinking about e-readers again. I went to an e-reader summit a couple of weeks ago hosted by the Digital Publishing Alliance here at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

It was pretty clear that the folks in the room all thought that e-readers would be a part of their business model. What wasn’t clear is how large a part of the business model they would be, or how exactly newspapers would monetize content that’s being delivered on an e-reader. There were reps at this meeting from Sony and Plastic Logic (no one from Amazon, unfortunately) and there was a lot of talk about the next generation of e-readers, which would feature quicker page-turning and refresh rates, be thinner and lighter, etc. Color might be coming in 2011, and so on.

Well, if Apple really does intend to put out a tablet — and the signs point to it being a when, not an if — it would pretty much blow any current e-reader out of the water, simply because at a similar price point, the tablet would have massively more functionality than an e-ink device.

Beside the functionality, though, a tablet (being also a full-on computer) could also pave the way for multimedia presentations and new ways of creating and linking digital content. For current books, that’s a “meh” — are you going to provide photos of Victorian England to go along with Bleak House? (Well, actually, that sounds kind of interesting …) But it would be really interesting to see what newspapers and magazines can do to provide multimedia and interactive graphics on a device that’s close to an e-reader in size — something that’s got the read-in-bed capability that laptops and larger devices are lacking. It might eventually come close to the vision Roger Fidler and I had for our eMprint project at the Missourian.

(Cross-posted from my other blog)

How not to build an iPhone app

I don’t know if it’s the AP’s status as a co-op, or its decentralized nature, or its ties to traditional (old) media, or what the problem is. But once again, they’ve proven that they just don’t get it when it comes to new media.

The AP launched a stylebook app for the iPhone/iPod Touch today. Which is pretty cool on the face of it. But there are two things that make it a major bucket of fail:

1. It costs $28.99 (for comparison’s sake, the print edition of the same book is $12.89 on Amazon.com).
2. It doesn’t dynamically update. Check the snippet from the news release below:

The 2009 AP Stylebook app is available for $28.99 from the App Store on iPhone and iPod touch or at http://www.itunes.com/appstore. Annual releases for the app are set to coincide with the release dates for the Stylebook print edition. As a bonus, 2009 AP Stylebook app users will automatically receive an upgrade to the 2010 AP Stylebook app as soon as it becomes available.

I did a quick search for “dictionary” on the App Store and turned up more than 50 results, many of which were free or cost $0.99. Even complicated dictionary programs, such as Latin-English or English-Chinese, didn’t go above $3.99. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was on the high end, at $24.99, but comes in seven languages. (I’m aware that the stylebook is more than a dictionary, but please … it’s got something like 3,000 entries, total.)

I’m just really not sure of who the market is for this. Most journalists I know who use the stylebook daily have several sitting around a copy desk, paid for by the newspaper. I had a previous experience with the AP when I attempted to buy their online stylebook for our newsroom; they had no clue what a “concurrent license” was and insisted that $25 was a fair rate, even with our university bookstore charging $10 for the print edition.

But, most of all, what irks me is the utter lack of dynamic content. It’s an app on a phone that connects to the Internet — AP, seriously, you really can’t provide updates automatically?

Big chunk of fail.

Memo to journalists: Don’t steal stuff off the Internet

Just because something’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free. I tell students this all the time, but the story of a man who posted a photo to Twitter, only to have it used by Sky News, is a good cautionary tale for journalists.

You can read the whole sad tale here courtesy of OJB, but the summary is as follows: Joe Neale had taken a picture of a shooting at Waterloo Station, and posted it on his Twitter account using Twitpic. SkyNews grabbed the pic to use on their Web site, which violates the Twitpic terms of service, which of course means that Mr. Neale is entitled to payment for the use of his picture (and possibly legal recourse if he isn’t paid — or, for that matter, even if he is, because they took it without permission).

The ironic part, of course, is that Rupert Murdoch owns Sky News. Remember how he recently announced he wants all his media properties to start charging for content? Here’s Mr. Neale’s take on this, via the aforementioned OJB:

“I think this story is interesting because it points to the dangers of social media for the citizen journalist. I’m pleased that my picture has achieved good reach but I worry that the cooption of apparently free content from twitter by big media is something that may become endemic and devalue the rights in photography. Rupert Murdoch has announced people will have to pay to access his sites from 2010, meantime he doesn’t seem to mind not paying for material and happily infringes on other people’s work.”

Mr. Neale got paid partly because he started a successful hashtag (hashmob?) to take up his case, using #skypic as a rallying point. Which wraps the whole thing up rather neatly.

But the take-away point for journalists is twofold: don’t assume content posted online is free for you to take; and get permission from users before you steal their stuff. Seems like common sense, but we know common sense ain’t that common.

(Cross-posted from my blog)

Why Google Wave is the next big thing for journalists

Apologies for the lack of posts. With the semester starting (and a flood in our server room yesterday) I’ve been a bit distracted from what’s been going on in the rest of the world. But here are a few things that have caught my eye:

First off, the new iPhone. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. Yes, it rocks; it’s got a better camera that includes video; it’s got touch-to-edit video editing; it can post videos straight to the Web. That’s all really cool. But the applications are pretty clear.

My complaint about some of the coverage of the new iPhone is that there are other phones out there that also do these things. If you haven’t already noticed, Mindy McAdams’ 10 Facts about Journalism Now states what should be obvious: the cell phone is only going to increase in importance as a reporting tool.

The most interesting feature of the new iPhone, in my mind, is its ability to combine geolocation with its other functions. (The iPhone 3G did this as well, but didn’t have video.) As media organizations focus more on very local news, there’s a lot to be said for a device that knows where you are and can feed that info into a CMS. Going the other way, of course, it’s very interesting to think about the ways in which we could provide targeted news, information and advertising content to readers based on where they are. Considering that geolocation is provided for in the mobile Safari browser, it’s only a matter of time before this comes to laptops as well.

But enough about the iPhone. In my opinion, the real game-changer for journalists is likely to be Google Wave. If you haven’t seen the 90-minute developer preview, there are a host of excerpts and shorter chunks of it hanging around the Web.

So what is it? From Google’s Web site, here’s a description:

What is a wave?

A wave is equal parts conversation and document. People can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.

A wave is shared. Any participant can reply anywhere in the message, edit the content and add participants at any point in the process. Then playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when.

A wave is live. With live transmission as you type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

Sounds a little fuzzy, which is possibly why some folks aren’t getting what a big deal this is. And it is a huge freaking deal. Think about it this way with analogies to what we do in the newspaper business:

  • “Equal parts conversation and document … work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and more:” This sounds an awful lot like the process of designing a print newspaper page, or for that matter a Web page. Think about being able to richly format text in real time with a host of collaborators, insert maps and photos into the text document, then generate a PDF of it. Or spit it out into PHP. That’s InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash and Bridge, without the $1,799 asking price. (Caveat: No, I haven’t seen an export-to-PDF function yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one.)
  • “A wave is shared.” This means that you can bring new participants into the discussion at any time. Imagine what happens if you can share a page with a colleague who’s 1,000 miles away, to check a fact or edit a story. Or give access to sources to check facts or to expand on what they said. Or play back things to find out when something went right, or wrong, or to show a student how to do something in a better/simpler way. (I’m doing this right now to figure out when we introduced bad information into a story.) Or you could add limited access for citizen journalists, or give the community a free space to create stuff with some of your assets and data as well as what they produce themselves.
  • “A wave is live.” This sounds pretty simple, but it’s the chunk that ties everything together. Witness:

Something else that’s very cool about the wave protocol is that it’s an open API, meaning anyone can build their own wave server:

Yes, that’s between wave providers: anyone can build a wave server and interoperate, much like anyone can run their own SMTP server. The wave protocol is open to contributions by the broader community with the goal to continue to improve how we share information, together.

That means two things for me: first off, that they want to distribute use of the wave protocol to take some of the strain off their own servers (which only makes sense). Second, if I have my own server, I can control access and security. Not that I suspect malfeasance, but using Google Docs for collaboration always makes me a little nervous.

That’s not a huge deal for us at the Missourian (other than the fact that we could have our own wave server) but it’s a very big deal at chains of newspapers. Let’s say that McClatchy builds a wave server at each of its newspapers (or at a central server farm, it really doesn’t matter). You could collaborate in real time on big national stories from any location across the country on your own hardware, without anyone else having the slightest bit of access to it. And then you can publish (hopefully) groundbreaking stuff with contributions from across your chain, all at once and at several different spots.

This is all very cool, and I’m sure I’ll think up more uses over time. Contextual spellecheck, though, is likely to be the blockbuster news for newspaper folks:

Quick and easy government page

The Oregonian has a very cool new government page using (as far as I can tell) the Congress API that the New York Times developed. Right now, you can use the page to find representatives, track a bill or search for a bill. That’s not a lot of different functionality than you might find on the regular Library of Congress site, but it’s cool that it’s right there at your local newspaper. I’d also like to see the Oregonian add some discussion or link to bills of interest in their readership area, but maybe that’s coming in a later release.

New Twitter tool for the iPhone

I bought Reportage on the recommendation of a Canadian Web site today. If you haven’t heard of it, Reportage is a Twitter client for the iPhone/iPod Touch. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too interesting, but Reportage does a couple of cool things that make it worth a look if you’re a journalist:

  • It takes your tweet stream and splits it up by individual followers, rather than lumping it all into the default chronological order. That’s so smart I really don’t know why no one’s thought of it yet — although part of the fun of Twitter is the realtime stream of information, I use it for chatting with people enough that I find myself searching for replies from individual users quite often. The analogy the Web site quoted above uses was to compare your Twitter peeps to radio stations, and it’s not a bad one. You get a “broadcast” from each individual.
  • Once you click on someone’s tweet, you can then use a horizontal scroll at the bottom of your screen to move back and forth in the wider timeline. (In other words, you get a chance to see the other folks you follow as well.)
  • It has a “local” section that lets you find people tweeting within 1, 5 or 15 miles of you. That seems to be a little quirky (it reports that I live in Moores Switch, U.S.) but I do recognize local Twitterers whom I follow when I hit that interface. (By the way, here’s the Google result for Moores Switch. Not how I would immediately describe the 65203, but who am I to argue with Google?) The obvious reporting advantage to this is being able to quickly search tweets when there’s news happening near where you are. Of course, that assumes a critical mass of people are both tweeting AND have a geolocatable device, but that number is only going to grow.
  • You can “star” people to add them as favorites. I can see a use for that for people whose tweets I care about more than others, but it would be even more useful to sort them into groups. (It would be even more useful if you could do that on the Twitter homepage and then have those follow you from client to client. But since when did Twitter itself innovate? /rant.)
  • It also has a function that lets you “mute” individuals for a period of time (for example, if people start real-time twittering from a conference.) That’s a whole lot easier than unfollowing, following, etc.

Overall, it’s a cool app. Well worth the $2.99.

(Note: Originally posted over at my blog. Totally just plagiarized myself.)