An early look at news on the go

Mobile devices give news outfits another bite at the apple

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

Steve Yelvington remembers the Friday night five years ago when, at the end of a new media gathering in Washington, D.C., a colleague took 20 of the conference-goers out to dinner. “He had an Apple Newton, big as a college yearbook and absolutely unreadable. He had downloaded a dining database, and so we walked, I swear, five miles to find a great restaurant. When we finally got there, it was closed.”

Last summer, Yelvington and two colleagues were looking for a dinner spot in London’s Chelsea district, with one checking his Garmin portable phone, another his Dick Tracy-like Suunto watch/compass with Global Positioning System, and Yelvington his Palm Pilot. “We wandered around aimlessly and couldn’t find a place to eat there either, even though we had tons of electronic gear. We were trying to decide whether to ask directions or try to get lucky with a blonde in a red Ferrari when it turned out to be Fabio.”

The moral of the story, Fabio aside, is that you can have all the cool toys in the world and it won’t do you much good unless you’re hooked up to a reliable information network, and that’s still years away from coming together, says Yelvington, vice president of strategy and content for Morris Digital Works.

That’s not to say that mobile devices aren’t making headway among info geeks today — they are, especially in Europe and eastern Asia. But we’ve only seen the crest of the coming wireless tsunami.

Vin Crosbie — he of the Dick Tracy watch — goes so far as to predict that Web publishing will be subsumed and overwhelmed by a third wave of electronic publishing. (The first wave of proprietary online services, brought to you by Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online in the 1980s and early ’90s, was followed by the Web’s second wave.)

And what will make up this killer third wave? “Pervasive portable media,” says Crosbie, a media consultant in Greenwich, Conn. “The Web will become the lesser online medium for commercial publications beginning in the second half of this decade.”

Next-generation portable devices — which are just now hitting store shelves — will have several built-in advantages over the Web as a publishing medium, he says. Chief among them:

  • They’re push media. Third-wave online newspaper editions will be delivered to devices wirelessly and automatically each day (up to several times a day) instead of relying on the user to fetch the news one page at a time. Even the most successful online newspaper, The New York Times on the Web, sees the average user stop by only 3.6 days a month, according to the Times’ latest stats.
  • Prospects for advertising are more favorable. On the Web, publishers face a bottomless advertising hole with ads that are noisy, distracting and ignored. On a mobile device, newspaper editions can be formatted in a graphical layout that locks in a limited amount of display ad space, commanding premium rates.
  • For the most part, the Web requires us to be tethered to a PC or laptop. Not so online publishing for mobile devices. We’re a mobile society, and we’d like to take our digital news with us.

    The coming mobile revolution will require newsrooms to undergo a sea change in strategic thinking.

    “Eight years ago, when you talked about online publishing, the mission for online news publishers was to use any combination of software and online technologies to promulgate the newspaper’s mission,” Crosbie says in a phone interview. “Since then, those efforts have calcified so that online publishing now means Web publishing. Newspapers have got to stop the tunnel vision and go back to original concept: Online publishing is the Web plus many other things.”

    The revolution will arrive courtesy of outside forces. Technology companies like Samsung, Sony, Compaq, Palm and Nokia are taking the lead in developing the next generation of electronic media that will blast onto the scene in the coming years. Their research suggests that people would prefer to tote around just one or two devices rather than a single-function cell phone, palm device, laptop, Walkman, MP3 player, eBook or a combination of them. Not coincidentally, multifunction devices also offer the broadest opportunity for revenue.

    The rush to merge and converge

    So the rush is on to merge and converge.

    The first glimpses of these combo media devices — a sort of phone/organizer/widget/ginsu knife — are just starting to appear on the consumer radar screen. Handspring’s Treo combines a cell phone, organizer and e-mail. Palm’s new i705 marries an organizer with wireless e-mail and instant messaging. Nokia’s new 5510 combines a cell phone with an MP3 player, radio and text chat. Compaq’s iPaq Pocket PC offers a mobile phone with high-speed Internet connectivity.

    Siemens’ new SimPad, marketed to power users in the business community, is an electronic easel that connects through all the major wireless protocols. The ViewSonic ViewPad 100 SuperPDA is an oversized handheld device that plays video and audio, records voice notes, supports e-mail and provides access to corporate databases. Danger, Inc.’s hiptop, due later this spring, is a wireless convergence device that delivers voice, e-mail, Web browsing, instant messaging, personal information management and a digital camera.

    Crosbie says the manufacturers will continue to add new communication and entertainment features with an eye toward producing a grand single device for all media that will have a larger screen than today’s PDA (personal digital assistant) but remain small enough to slip into your pocket. The timeline for that? Christmas 2005.

    After that, get ready for another breakthrough: the electronic tablet.

    E-tablets come out of the laboratory

    You may recall the pioneering work done by Roger Fidler at the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in the early 1990s. Fidler and his team came up with an early prototype of a news tablet — a portable, electronic edition of a newspaper. Trouble was, the technology wasn’t ready for prime time. The tablets were heavy, bulky and hard to read, among other limitations.

    Fast forward to today. Fidler is now director of Kent State University’s Institute for CyberInformation, where they’re working on — electronic tablets (and digital publishing). They’ve learned a few things along the way.

    The new breed of tablets, sometimes called e-book readers, are fairly lightweight at about 2 pounds; resolution is better; an attached pen captures handwriting, allowing notes to be jotted down and zapped off by e-mail; and the devices can be used to read books and magazines as well as newspapers.

    “It’s more of a document-based device,” Fidler says.

    The tablets, a cousin of the Gemstar eBook already on the market, can summon up a screen that resembles a slimmed-down tabloid newspaper. A person can flip pages by touching screen prompts as well as links embedded in stories and ads. Content can be downloaded through an Ethernet connection, phone line or local area wireless. Voila — portable digital news.

    “It’s finally sunk in to publishers that they’re not in the single product business,” Fidler says. “They have to make their content available on a variety of devices.” To make that as painless as possible for online publishers, the institute is embracing open standards, XML and Adobe’s PDF format. (Adobe and a major newspaper publisher that wants to remain anonymous are funding the Kent State project.) Unlike the rigid efforts of the past, content will flow to meet the contours of the device.

    The size of the tablets will afford a much richer user experience than small handheld devices allow, and so Fidler is emphasizing the use of rich visual content — including video and audio — rather than just text. The institute has begun approaching a few news organizations to supply content when the tablets hit the market.

    The tablets are still in the prototype stage. A number of manufacturers, including Compaq, Toshiba, Sony and Fujitsu, is backing the project. Microsoft, which will build the initial prototypes, also has a parallel initiative, the tablet PC — a fully functional laptop with enhanced pen-based features — that it’s targeting for production by the same gang of consumer electronics companies beginning this fall.

    Does Fidler, like Crosbie, think mobile devices will supplant the Web in a few years’ time? “Mobile information appliances like tablet PCs, with rich multimedia, will be very popular by the end of the decade, and content formatted for such devices will be competitive with the Web,” he says.

    Fidler, a veteran of 34 years in the newspaper industry, says he attended a recent conference at which participants were asked whether newspapers would continue to reach a majority of their subscribers through newsprint 20 years from now. Fidler was the only one who thought digital content would displace newsprint in the majority of subscribers’ homes.

    “From talking with students, but also with readers in their 30s and 40s, it’s surprising how many are giving up their print subscriptions and relying on the Web and other digital formats to get their news and information,” he says. “Newspapers will need to invest in new ways of thinking if they’re to remain relevant in people’s lives.”

    Some experts think an alternative to electronic tablets will be electronic paper — a flexible, portable, very lightweight electronic broadsheet in which newspaper editions are updated through radio waves. E Ink and Gyricon are in a race to develop the first commercial electronic paper. And last month, Philips Electronics and E Ink announced an electronic ink display that it will start shipping next year.

    Such devices, made of a pliable plastic or rubbery material and embedded with microprocessors and batteries, would face other obstacles. “The risk is you’re dedicating to just one medium, newspapers,” Fidler says. “Dedicated proprietary devices are not very popular with consumers.”

    The here and now

    For next-gen mobile devices, e-tablets and today’s crop of handheld computers, the gizmo makes up only half the song; the other half is the network.

    Fidler points out, “With a tablet, you don’t need to be continuously connected, like you do on the Web. You download the edition at a convenient time and read it offline as a complete package, and then you can request additional information through a wireless or wired connection.” Alternatively, you’ll always be jacked-in if you have a wireless connection, like the Apple Airport, in your home, office or neighborhood cafe.

    Surveying the current wireless landscape, Fidler adds, “Everyone imagines a broadband wireless environment where you can step out of your house and roam around anywhere and remain connected. That’s not going to happen in the short term. Nobody’s figured out a way yet to bring it all together.”

    That’s for sure. We’re pretty much in the flint arrowheads stage of wireless. Take the SimPad business tool mentioned above. A rarity in the wireless world, it runs on all of the following standards: IEEE 802.11b (also known as Wi-Fi), GSM (widely used in Europe and Asia), GPRS, HSCSD, HomeRF and Bluetooth.

    Are we confused yet? To make matters worse, many of the standards don’t work with each other. It’s as if a Sprint customer couldn’t phone someone who had MCI, AT&T, Verizon or Cingular.

    In time, the wireless Tower of Babel will crumble and two or three winners will emerge. The real revolution will hit when broadband wireless arrives — fat-pipe technology that will improve transfer rates from the current hair-pulling 12 or 14 kilobits per second cellular connections to one that is tens or hundreds of times zippier. When that happens, expect the media floodgates to open.

    For now, early adopters have to make due largely with text-based news highlights. Mobile offerings run the gamut from Vindigo, an entertainment service for GPS-ready devices that covers restaurants, movies, nightlife, museums and more, to Wideray’s the Jack, now on display at the San Francisco Giants’ Pac Bell Park, where infrared beams serve up stats and digital score sheets to handhelds.

    Media partners reassess mobile news

    At the very front of the mobile services pack is AvantGo, the pioneering company in Hayward, Calif., that stayed in business by switching its revenue base to the wireless corporate market. But its free mobile consumer service still has some 5 million subscribers, who can choose from among 2,000 channels.

    Its lineup includes 136 news and media channels — including CNN, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Yahoo!, Wired News, CNET and Salon — as well as 175 finance channels, 80 sports channels and 265 entertainment and lifestyle channels, among others. Each media site hosts its own content.

    AvantGo’s mobile Internet service works across different platforms, including devices from Palm, Handspring, RIM’s Blackberry and those that use Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.

    Ken Drachnik, messaging and marketing business unit manager, says AvantGo is now looking at the best way to offer multimedia. “We’re considering several options,” he says. “We can let users bring down audio clips, music files, video clips, music videos, infotainment offerings. It’s a matter of the best fit for our business model.”

    Earthlink Wireless, which acquired the bankrupt mobile company Omnisky last year, offers a smaller buffet of mobile news, including content from CNN, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, CBS MarketWatch, TheStreet.com, Salon, CNET, Variety, Rolling Stone, Variety, the Sporting News and Citysearch.

    “Realistically, until pricing comes down to $20-$30 a month and broadband kicks in, most consumers will continue to look at this as a fancy toy and they won’t consider what a wireless connection can do for them,” says Arley Baker, spokesman for Earthlink.

    The New York Times, which has partnered with both AvantGo and Earthlink, is now backing away from further mobile alliances. Its current offerings include news updates for Palm handhelds and the Rocket eBook, Skytel pager alerts, and breaking news for Internet-enabled mobile phones.

    “We’re less focused on mobile and wireless than we were a year ago,” says Scott B. Meyer, general manager of The New York Times on the Web. “The business model is too nascent and we can only focus on so many things right now. Nobody’s figured out a way to monetize an investment in that space yet.”

    Taking the opposite tack is the Christian Science Monitor. Its world-class Web site draws 1.2 million unique visitors month. By comparison, its 3-year-old AvantGo mobile edition has only 3,000 takers (subscribers to the free service receive the top five news stories each day). The Monitor is also one of four news offerings available on Gemstar’s eBook (not a wireless service but a mobile tablet that downloads content through a phone jack).

    Tom Regan, associate editor at csmonitor.com, says the paper doesn’t receive a lot of income from either AvantGo (which splits advertising revenues with its content partners) or Gemstar (which charges a subscription fee), but the Monitor merely transmits an XML text feed, so there’s no additional work for the online staff or tech folks.

    “We’re going to be everywhere,” Regan says, “and we already see that people want to read the Monitor in a wide variety of formats.”

    In the next month, Regan will be exploring prospects for launching an in-house subscription-based mobile news service with a much larger slice of the newspaper’s content. “We get requests all the time from people who are interested in that,” he says, “but we may wait until 3G (third-generation wireless technology) is more widespread. We don’t want to expand into an area where we’re simply offering people more free content.”

    Daniel Groner, one of wireless’s early adopters, is a classic case in point. A sales rep for Applied Semantics in Los Angeles, he’s one of a legion of wired professionals who carry a data-enabled mobile phone. His AT&T Wireless account lets him check his e-mail, access local news from the Los Angeles Times, check national and local news from ABCNEWS.com, read business news from CBS MarketWatch, check sports news and scores through Yahoo! Sports, obtain movie times through Hollywood.com, and check out local events listings from Citysearch.

    “All of these are great,” he says, “but the reality is, I would not pay for any of this content. None of it is critical to my life or my job. I am willing to pay for things that are critical such as e-mail, Rolodex, calendar.”

    International outlook for mobile news

    It remains to be seen how news and other forms of newspaper content will play out on the new crop of mobile devices and tablets. Don’t expect mobile news to offer a magic bullet for the financial woes of online publishers.

    But do expect the ground to shift, at least a bit. It has already shifted in Europe and Japan, where news, sports and weather tend to be among the more popular offerings on DoCoMo and other mobile platforms.

    Madanmohan Rao, a media consultant in Delhi, India, says global consumers will increasingly be drawn to mobile content, including news, stock quotes, entertainment offerings, auction alerts, local event listings, jokes, traffic notifications, enhanced SMS (short messaging service), and so on. SMS service alerts will be big, including updates on breaking news, disasters, company news or sporting events.

    “Much of this is already happening in Asia and Europe,” says Rao, who wrote an article on the new mobile economy for India’s Economic Times.

    Sabina Shnapek, a consultant in San Bruno, Calif., who frequently travels abroad, also sees opportunities for media companies in the emerging wireless landscape. “Consumers want to be able to access on their wireless devises the same things they get anywhere else, only customized to their preferences and geared to their location. That means huge opportunities for media companies that know their target audience.

    “Some of the bigger applications will include interactive clips on headline news, updates on their plane flights, rental cars, weather and so on,” says Shnapek, who managed the global release of My Palm Portal. “A one-stop solution will be of tremendous value to users. Permission-based marketing will be big as well. Customers can be notified about store sales, specials and coupons when they’re passing by the store.”

    Shnapek also think media companies have an “enormous opportunity” to snap up the market for location-based services. “The market is changing right now from where it was six to nine months ago,” she says. “Until now a content provider had to pay to be on platforms. Now content companies are beginning to partner with carriers, with both sharing the revenues.”

    The United States lags far behind Europe and Japan in its adoption of wireless services for several reasons, such as the high cost of building a nationwide network and the competing technical standards for digital services. No such problem in Europe and Asia, which have embraced the global systems for mobile communication (GSM) family.

    Kyoko Takita, a staff writer for the Media Strategy Bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in Tokyo, says 70 million Japanese use mobile services for SMS, news, entertainment, sports, dating services and other features. The subscription revenue is substantial, and about three-quarters of it is passed through to the media company or content provider, with the rest going to the telecom. Still, out of more than 60,000 mobile content providers, only two dozen are news services.

    In Europe, online publishers are still looking for the marketplace’s sweet spot. Jochen Dieckow, program manager for the German bureau of Ifra, the publishing industry think tank, says, “Instant messaging is huge in my country — nobody expected this. Publishers are thinking, how can we get a piece of this cake? But SMS is a communication tool, not an information tool. The biggest use for information or news has been for traffic reports. So far, only a small percentage of people do mobile shopping, or m-commerce.”

    Publishers are looking ahead to 2004 and hoping that the buildup of the broadband Internet may open the floodgates to information services, Dieckow says. “Young people can’t get enough of SMS and wireless. Our task is to transform that into paid services.”

    News organizations are already testing the waters. For a small fee, subscribers could receive an SMS report from BBC News correspondents on the scene covering last year’s elections to Parliament.

    The road to the mobile economy

    Analysts think the mobile economy is ready to bust out.

    A recent report from Jupiter Media Metrix estimated that by 2006 mobile services will have twice the revenues of the Web. And last year Jupiter predicted that the number of U.S. wireless Web users will increase from 4.1 million in 2000 to 96 million in 2005.

    Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., forecasts that wireless services will reach 30 percent of U.S. households by next year. And after surveying more than 10,000 Internet users, the research firm released a report last week concluding that people with wireless or broadband are much more willing to pay subscription fees than Internet users with dial-up connections.

    Charles Golvin, a senior analyst who is Forrester’s guru for next-gen devices, says, “A lot of the innovations today center on adding voice alongside data. That holds more significance for media companies that control multiple channels, like CNN or ABC, which have radio, video and Web outlets. It gives people a choice of media types they can access on their small mobile devices.

    “I can see the day, not too far off, when I can access my favorite news shows, like NPR’s ‘Morning Edition’ or ‘All Things Considered,’ on my handheld on demand, on my schedule,” Golvin says from his mobile phone. “And I would be willing to pay a subscription for that.”

    Where does all this leave us? Facing the winds of change once more.

    I’m not convinced that wireless will overwhelm the Web beginning in the second half of this decade, as Crosbie predicts — after all, tens of millions of office workers who access news sites will still be chained to their PCs. But I do think the mobile tidal wave is fast approaching. For at least the next 15 years, digital news will be delivered on parallel platforms: the Web and mobile devices.

    The online news industry (not the Web news industry) needs to get ready. We need to take a look at news and information with a new set of eyes, with a mindset not tethered to print or traditional PCs. It’s time to reimagine media.

    Vin Crosbie, the news consultant, sees a large role for personalization. “Younger people aren’t reading newspapers at all,” he says. “One reason is that they’re flocking to Web sites like Yahoo, Amazon and Google that allow them to get their specific information needs met rather than generalized, generic stuff about the local teams. Media content that marries mobility to individualization will satisfy the new breed of information consumer.”

    Steve Yelvington, mentioned at the top, sees some dazzling opportunities in the mobile market for media companies. “Think about what you can do with a classified database for yard sales that was geocoded properly,” he says. “A little mapping and routing software and a handheld, and suddenly it can tell you where you are, where to go next, how to get there — the possibilities are really exciting.”

    To get there requires technology, and business models, and creativity on the part of news organizations. Let the reinventing begin.

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    JD Lasica
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