April 19, 2010

Content is King

My brother links an article by John Yemma, editor of The Christian Science Monitor, in which they (my brother and John Yemma) agree that Rupert Murdoch is right when he says, ""Content isn't just King, it's the Emperor of all things electronic." Yemma goes on to argue that

Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there's no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There's no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site's brand because of cool multimedia.

Too few people remember the failure of the "media rich" reference CD-ROMs back in the 1990s--maybe because the format crashed and burned so quickly. What did survive and made the transition to the Internet were plain vanilla CD-ROM indexes with plain vanilla interfaces. Google, in other words.

I laugh when pundits tell us the iPad has created the platform for the "enhanced" novels that everybody's been waiting for. You mean, like movies? What people want from a novel are words worth reading. (And a good TTS engine--another example of the self-destructive publishing industry in action.)

Back in the day, I worked for a company that made "media rich" educational CD-ROMs. We went out of business at the end of the 1990s (at least with a whimper, not a bang). Thinking back about it now, what the product needed was a simpler interface, less "interactivity," and better content.

(The biggest problem with such products is that the idea of educational software is more compelling in the abstract than in reality. Want to learn Japanese? Forget about fancy software programs. Start by watching a lot of Japanese TV and read a lot of Japanese language manga. Seriously.)

Unfortunately, the producers of even marginally popular content were, as they are now, convinced that every frame touched by their sacred breath was worth a jillion dollars, and have made it utterly impossible for anybody without deep pockets and an army of IP lawyers to license their precious content.

The digital "dog in the manger" syndrome writ large.

Information does "want to be free" (it can't be copyrighted), but content does not. But it has to be able to be bought. However screamingly obvious this may seem, it's amazing how many (if not most) content producers make it unbelievable difficult for law-abiding folks to give them money for their stuff.

Sony, for one, seems perversely--insanely--committed to making sure that nobody outside of Japan can buy Japanese pop music, except at exorbitant prices through small exporters. I can buy books from Japan with a U.S. credit card, but not songs from iTunes-Japan. Amazon-Japan sells zero MP3s.

That's a big reason why Sony, after inventing the Walkman and the whole concept of "portable music," stupidly handed over its entire market share to Apple. The same attitude doomed WordPerfect (along with their disastrous first attempt at a Windows version) once Microsoft started bundling.

And so it ends up as a battle between the conquistadors and the pirates.

The major book publishers are now trying their best to repeat the mistakes of the past. They're doing a bang-up job of it too--except for one publisher in particular: Harlequin. Harlequin has been ahead of the publishing curve for decades, though nothing it does can't be done by anybody else.

This article shows how Harlequin has adapted its publishing model to the Japanese market with a heavy emphasis on manga and digital delivery. Harlequin continues to be the most innovative publisher in the business.

Harlequin understands that the only real "enhancement" that matters is getting the content (no matter how same-old, same-old it may be) to the reader in whatever medium she find the most convenient and accessible.

Labels: , , ,

# posted by Blogger Joe
4/20/2010 11:41 AM   
I'm not sure your argument is completely valid. The 90s interactive CDROM market did have excellent titles with simple interfaces and extremely rich and deep content. Some sold very well, but it didn't last due, I think, to the internet being overhyped and educational dollars being redirected to it.

The key, I think, is that structured computer interactive learning has been a monumental failure and people in charge of education lack the vision to see how computer interactive learning could be used effectively in a supplementary way. This is why ALL language products have failed except Rosetta Stone (which is essentially still peddling content produced 15 years ago) and it only succeeds because of snake-oil salesman techniques. (Point being, I suppose, that our sales people simply weren't slimy enough.)

I still believe that our language titles are excellent supplementary materials for the classroom. They fill a gap between watching movies with subtitles (which may or may not be accurate) and structured learning. The problem is that they are very expensive to produce and, as you said, licensing existing material is even more prohibitive (plus, it's not really what you want anyway; your typical movie is too long and doesn't have enough dialog. The vocabulary of your typical half hour comedy depends way too much on double meanings and other things, though wouldn't be bad for advanced language learning.)

All that said, I think you have to be very careful with "content is king." The real phrase is "the right content is king" with the caveat that nobody knows what the right content is until after the fact.
# posted by Blogger Joe
4/20/2010 11:55 AM   

An interesting paper on Voyager, who made some interactive titles. Unfortunately, it doesn't really get into why the market collapsed so suddenly and thoroughly, though it does mention that by 1996, the company was losing money.

I'm still stunned at how fast the market collapsed and really am convinced it all has to do with government and investment dollars being very suddenly sent to internet investments. I don't think it had to do with content per se since at the time interactive multimedia wasn't viable on the internet and no replacement for these titles has really evolved since then.

One theory I have is that people just don't like interactive multimedia. They like to read, watch video or listen to music, not all at the same time. (Failed experiments with interactive TV bears this out.)