Posts about networks

Parallel lives: media and telecom

I was lucky to get the chance to spend a morning last week at Bell Labs with a few editors and reporters from the Star-Ledger, and I was struck by the many parallels between the telecom and newspaper businesses.

The first and most obvious is the business turmoil each faces as an open, competitive, and distributed world overcomes their legacies as closed, monopolistic, and centralized businesses. In that sense, the telcos are farther along this trail of tears — not yet on the other side of the gorge, but perhaps able to see the bottom — and newspapers know this disruption and uncertainty lie ahead.

But more interesting are the parallels in the future. Telcos saw themselves as technology and distribution companies and newspapers as content and distribution companies. But it turns out they are meant to be networks, connection companies that put people together with the right people and relevant information.

Gee Rittenhouse, Bell Labs’ vp for technology integration, told us that newspapers have an advantage: locality. I agree. In fact, I say it is more than that: Locality is the essence of a newspaper. Sid Ahuja, a vp in charge of software and convergence, had a wonderful perspective about media and place. He talked about his childhood in a village in India that was not connected to the outside by technology. When broadcast radio came along, he said, it made people think outside their villages, as a nation. But now, technology brings us back together in villages, albeit often virtual ones. Newspapers, too, can bring us back to the villages once they don’t have to broadcast to everyone at once in print and can become more local online.

Rittenhouse talked about how telcos now must concentrate not on the plumbing but on the “higher application level.” Translated to newspapers, they need to concentrate not on printing but on enabling people to act. Ahuja, too, talked about the need to look at application networking atop the infrastructure of the internet. Google is such an application, he said. So should newspapers be, as they use technology to help people make connections.

They each talked about relevance and trust as ways to accomplish this for their networks. Ahuja spoke of the need for metrics and systems of trust to raise the value of the network (in, for example, an email network where 60 percent of the messages are spam, are untrusted). Well, won’t it be the job of newspapers to share trust, to find not only the facts and also the correspondents — professional or amateur — to rely on? And that doesn’t just mean editors deciding who and what are trustworthy; in lab speak, that won’t scale. They need to build rules engines and content handlers to make this happen, Ahuja said. And to do that, they must learn from the people, from the network. It means helping people to share trust among themselves. This is why both industries are trying to figure out how to work with social networks.

Bell Labs, of course, has learned how to innovate in an open-source world. They invented Unix there and saw its value increase with the contributions of people. Similarly, newspapers must find open ways to work with citizen journalists. [See also yesterday’s discussion at the hyperlinked society conference on the competitive, complementary, or destructive — take your pick — relationship of amateurs to professionals.]

Finally, from a business perspective, Bell Labs in particular has had to find new efficiencies as they downsized while, of course, continuing to innovate and invest. That is precisely what newspapers must do. When I last visited there many years ago, the pride in pure research was like that which I saw at the MIT Media Lab: almost a determination not to be practical. That has changed at both institutions, I hear. At Bell Labs, the scientists talked about how happy they are to both work in the long-term — in pure research without immediate business application or impact — and to work on current projects that bring their work to the market and give them feedback as a result. There is a new practicality and from what I could see, it’s energizing. In my last parallel, I’ll say that’s what news organizations must do as well: For too long, editorial staffs stood apart from the market and I say the market will give them the feedback they need. Bell Labs is doing this by reviewing the business potential of ideas and setting up incubators where mistakes and learning can happen apart from the risk-killers of big business. News organizations need to incubate new ideas, fail at it sometimes, and then bring the best to market.

The rest of the day was spent on higher science and even this had analogues in the media world. One scientist has studied how spiders make webs to learn how to improve networks. To way oversimplify the work, one lesson learned is that spiders make local measurements to get global information. Isn’t that what happens when Google, Flickr, or gets each of us to make local measurements, and that creates global information? Other scientists talked about quantum computing; see how I inserted this into Saul Hansel’s description of media as quantum mechanics yesterday.

There is good news in all this. We all sensed an impressive new energy and enthusiasm at Bell Labs. We walked through the halls where so many brilliant people invented so much incredible technology and some of the laboratories were empty except for stacks of old cabinets and desks. It’s smaller now. So will news organizations be. But Bell Labs has found ways to innovate, invent, and adapt to a new world. So must newspapers.

Bassackwards TV

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Universal, Paramount, and Disney are suing Cablevision in an effort to stop them from offering a DVR in the cloud — that is, from recording and serving shows on-demand not on a TiVoesque device in the home but on a server that lets us — the viewers, customers, former prisoners of network schedules — watch what we paid for from anywhere in the house.

Twits and fools. It has to be a pretty dumb and dorky bunch that can get me to side with my cable company!

But rather than trying to fight our proven desire to watch what we want to watch when, how, and where we want, the networks should be embracing it. The smart network will see this as another way to get more shows recorded and thus watched. They will recognize that there is no real difference — only an attempt at a legal one — between us recording a show on your VCR (if you still have one) or DVR (the TiVoish thing) or on someone else’s server. In fact, by recording the shows up in the cable cloud, we’re less likely to be able to copy and distribute them. The networks might have argued that Cablevision was just recording everything and serving it up at will — which wouldn’t be a bad idea at all — but to get around that, the cable system is, quite inefficiently, recording the same show separately for every customer who wants to. The networks are arguing that this is competition with their on-demand strategy. They should see it as part of their strategy.

You’re just not going to be able to make a business anymore on the backs of stopping people from doing what they want to do. That was the old network model. In the new network model, you recognize that we’re in control and if you do that — if you embrace every way you can find to distribute and promote your shows — then you might survive. Yes, the world has turned upside down. Figure it out.

Dancing with the FSBO devil

Tribune Company just bought That’s a bigger deal than it may appear in the rearview mirror.

When I worked in newspaper companies, I quickly learned that FSBO was a dirty word that made publishers sweat. On the one hand, they wanted all those by-owner ads; they needed to be seen as the marketplace for homes. But on the other hand, the Realtors who paid the big bills hated by-owner ads; their lost customers were their competition. So publishers always danced a delicate two-step, trying hard not to promote the FSBO ads even as they counted the bucks from them. The terrible irony is that the real customers — home sellers — were treated like caged animals by both Realtors and newspapers.

But, of course, the cages are gone and the first to escape were the Realtors themselves. When the web came along, real estate agents realized they could deal directly with customers and no longer needed newspapers to create the marketplace. In fact, newspapers realized that they needed the Realtors’ listings for their own online sites — ads became content — and so the Realtors still ended up holding publishers by their delicates. FSBO was still a dirty word.

I saw this coming a decade ago and argued that newspaper companies should go into the real estate business themselves, becoming brokers to get listings into the closed multiple listing services and putting buyer and seller together directly because the Realtors would inevitably abandon papers. I thought I was going to be fired for speaking such heresy.

But now Tribune is going into the FSBO business.

Isn’t it fascinating how desperate companies are now willing to piss off the channels of sales, distribution, and revenue they so coddled and feared for so many year: ABC tells its affiliates to lump it as it distributes directly to consumers; Warner Brothers tells its network to lump it as it distributes around networks; and Tribune tells its Realtor-advertisers to lump it as it enables sellers to avoid Realtors. The question is whether they spent too long coddling the middlemen and forgetting who the real customer was all along.

Everybody’s a network, continued

Proving the point that the future of media is not distribution, it’s aggregation, TiVo announced today that it had recruited critics, magazine editors, and such to recommend TV shows — to create ad hoc networks, in other words. This cuts across and devalues the old networks; it unbundles and then rebundles them. The magazines are doing it for free because it promotes them and, they hope, their ability to find the good stuff for you: to aggregate. The next step for TiVo should be to have the people become guru guides for each other. Then I could subscribe not just to your blog and blogroll but also to your TV network.

BBC: the open-source network

This week’s Media Guardian column is an open letter to Mark Thompson, head of the BCC, arguing that the beeb shouldn’t think as a competitor to big media but as a laboratory for innovation. (Here it is without registration required.) Excerpt:

The BBC can become the grand laboratory of media. For because of those licence fees, you are in a better position than any organisation anywhere to think generously, to share knowledge and audience – and thus revenue and support – with your media confreres. More important, you can afford to make mistakes. You can try to figure out how to let the people pass around your shows, how to distribute information and entertainment to new devices, and how to gather and share content from the public in new ways, and you can stumble along the way without risking shareholder revolts. The problem is, of course, that you are now facing a revolt of media moguls, instead. So you need to demonstrate that Auntie comes in peace, that you will involve them in your Creative Future, understanding their needs and sharing your answers. For the truth is that the news and media industries desperately need reinvention, they need to benefit from your experimentation and innovation, so long as you are open with your lessons.

Right after that went up, a BBC friend pointed me to wonderful thinking from Azeem Azhar two years ago proposing details of how to manage an open-source BBC with a BBC Public License (see his own site as well). Excerpt:

The internet, then, is where re-invention of the public service principle can begin.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s internet content, for example, would be available for third parties to access and syndicate. A non-commercial user, such as a charity Web site, could put up a BBC news feed free.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s software code would be freely available. Development for certain types of projects would be done publicly, using an open source framework.