Dorky is OK: Google Glass does not have to be the next iPhone to win

TL;DR: Google is trying to position its Google Glass headset as a consumer device with the cool factor of an iPhone.  But its initial users are likely to be businesses, and they will need to be convinced about the value it will deliver, not its appearance.

Hardware revolution

Lenin Museum, Tampere, FinlandWe fling about the word “revolutionary” with wild abandon these days.  The primary hardware innovation of the Apple iPhone, for example, was really just an evolutionary step. Replacing a keypad with a touchscreen meant that, instead of holding your phone in one hand and watching its screen as you tap the keys with the other, you could now hold your phone in one hand and watch its screen as you tap the screen with the other.  As we know, this seemingly subtle change proved to radically enhance the usability of the phone and set the benchmark for today’s smartphones — but they’re still smartphones.

Google Glass, on the other hand, is genuinely revolutionary piece of kit.  As the first real consumer-grade attempt at an augmented reality computer, it completely dispenses with the screen, the keypad and even the entire “holdable” device itself.  This means throwing out every user interface paradigm developed since the 1970s, when computers started to look like today’s computers, and building something entirely new to replace them.  Gulp?

Yet Google appears to be petrified of something different: that the device will be perceived of as “dorky”.  As you can see from the picture to the right, I can personally attest that this fear is not entirely misguided: real-life wearable computers (and their wearers) do tend to fall more on the side of “geeky” than “cyberpunky”.  Google’s marketing to date has thus consisted nearly entirely of increasingly odd antics to make it “cool”: stunt cyclists performing antics on the roof of a convention centre, skydivers leaping out of airplanes and an entire fashion show with slinky models strutting their stuff.

But let’s step back in time.  Imagined being offered the chance to clip a unwieldy, heavy plastic box to the waistband of your bell-bottomed pants, bolt two bright-orange foam sponges over your ears with a shiny metal hairband, and string these bits together with wire.   Would you pay good money for this fashion disaster?

If it’s the 1970s, hell yeah: the Sony Walkman was a runaway hit.  Never mind the clunky appearance, the mere fact that it for the first time let you listen to music anywhere was worth the sartorial price of admission.  And without that ability, the minor miracles in miniaturising and ruggedizing of the unwieldy tape decks of yore necessary to produce the Walkman would have gone to waste.

Software evolution

But Google isn’t talking, at all, about what you can or, more importantly, could do with the Glass: their famous promotional video shows the capabilities of various existing Google apps doing precisely what they do now, only on a heads-up display.  Sure, the user interface has changed radically, but the capabilities have not.

So will those existing apps on Glass be slick enough to make it a must-buy?  Despite Google’s all-star developer team, their track record for customer-facing products is distinctly spotty and the sheer challenge of designing an entirely new way to interact would perplex even Apple.  The little we know of the hardware also indicates that some technologies considered key to heads-up interaction, notable eye tracking, are not going to be a part of the package.  It’s thus exceedingly unlikely that the first iteration of Glass’s UI will nail it, and Google’s reluctance to reveal anything about the interface’s actual appearance and behavior strongly hints that they have their doubts as well.

Odds are, then, that Google Glass will be a dorky-looking product that offers an inferior interface for the kind of things you can do easily with a modern mobile phone, which has, after all, evolved for 20-plus years in the marketplace.  This is not a recipe for success in the consumer marketplace.

The solution?  Sell the Glass on what it can do that nothing else can.

Five things you can do with Glass that you can’t with a mobile phone

Gift shop, Barentsburg, Svalbard

1) Simultaneous interpretation.  Hook up two Glasses so they can translate each user’s speech and beam it over to the other, where it is displayed as subtitles.  Presto: you can now hold a natural conversation and track all the nonverbal communication that would be lost if you had to glance at your smartphone all the time.

(Not coincidentally, I wrote my master’s thesis on this back in 2001.  My prototype was a miserable failure because computer miniaturization, speech recognition and my hardware hacking skills weren’t up to snuff, but I think Glass provides an excellent platform for producing something usable.)

2) Tactical awareness.  A mobile phone app that shows the location of alerts and/or other security guards would be rather useless: what are you going to do, pull out your phone and start browsing your app directory when the robbers strike?   The same application for an always-on Glass, on the other hand, is a natural fit.

(This, too, is by no means a new idea. MicroOptical’s heads-up display, the direct predecessor of the optics behind Google Glass, was the result of a DARPA grant for the US Army’s Land Warrior project.  The pathetic fate of that project, which ran from 1994 before being cancelled in 2007 and kicked off again in 2008 without ever accomplishing anything of note, also hints at why Google is, probably wisely, steering far clear of the bureaucratic morass of military procurement.)

3) Virtual signage.  Imagine an enormous warehouse filled with a variety of ever-changing goods, along the lines of an Amazon or UPS logistics center.  Right now, to find a given package in there, you’d have to “look it up” on a PC or smartphone, get a result like “Aisle C, Section 17, Shelf 5” and match that to signage scattered all over the place.  What if your Glass could just direct you there with visual and voice prompts, and show you the item number as well so you don’t have to print out and carry slips of paper?  The difference sounds almost trivial, but suddenly you’ve freed up a hand and reduced the risk of getting run over by a forklift as you squint at your printout.

(Back in 2004, commercial wearable computing pioneers Xybernaut sold pretty much exactly this idea to UK grocery chain Tesco, but their machines were clunky battery hogs so it didn’t pan out too well.  Xybernaut’s subsequent implosion after its founders were indicted for securities fraud and money laundering didn’t help.)

4) Surgery.  Surgical operating theatres are filled with machines that regulate and monitor and display a thousand things on a hundred little screens, with tens of bleeps and bloops for various alerts and events.  What if the surgeon could see all that information during a complex procedure, without ever having to take their eyes off their actual work?

(Once again, some products that do this already exist, but Glass has the potential to take this from an expensive, obscure niche to an everyday medical tool — once the FDA gets around to certifying it sometime around 2078, that is.)

5) Games set in reality.  Mashing up reality and gaming is hard: countless companies have taken a crack at it over the past decade, and all foundered on the basic problem of having to use a tiny little mobile display as the only window into the game world.  As Layar’s lack of success indicates, running around holding a phone in front of your face isn’t much fun, and relying on location alone to convey that there’s an invisible virtual treasure chest or tentacle monster in a physical alleyway stretches the imagination too much.  But with an augmented reality display, this will suddenly change, and Valve is already making a big punt on it, although Michael Abrash rightly cautions against setting your expectations too high.

What next?

Antenna station, Barentsburg, SvalbardNotice one thing about the first four ideas?  They’re all business applications, whose customers will willingly tolerate a clunky, somewhat beta interface as long as they can still get real dollars-and-cents value out of it.  This is how both PCs and mobile phones got started, and once the nuts and bolts are worked out, the more mature versions can be rolled out to general consumers.

And once Glass (or something like it) reaches critical mass, we’ll suddenly have streets full of people with network-enabled, always-on video cameras, and a rather scary world of possibilities opens up.  Add object recognition, and you can find litter, vandalism, free street parking spots.  Add data mining, and you can spot the suddenly crowded new cafe or restaurant, or catch the latest fashion trend as it happens.  Add face recognition, and you can find missing persons, criminals and crime suspects.

To Google’s credit, they are partnering with other developers almost from day one, and there will undoubtedly be even better ideas than these largely unoriginal off-the-cuff thoughts.  We can only hope that the idea is spotted and executed well enough to turn it into Glass’s killer app…  but if Google keeps on being awfully coy about Glass’s capabilities, limiting access to dinky two-day hackathons and envisioning Google+ as the main use case, that day may still be some way away.

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Free travel guide Wikivoyage comes out of beta and is already kicking ass

Tomorrow, January 15th, marks the official launch date of Wikivoyage, the new free travel guide from the Wikimedia Foundation.  Born from a split with Wikitravel, here are six reasons it’s already better than its ancestor.

  1. Wikivoyage has a great mobile version.  This uses the same systems as the massively popular mobile version of Wikipedia, and is thus fast, compatible with virtually every device, and close to bug-free.
  2. Wikivoyage supports scrollable, zoomable web maps, courtesy of OpenStreetMaps.  These are so new there aren’t many around yet, but here’s an example from the Italian page for Funchal; expect to see plenty more soon.
  3. Wikivoyage lets you collect articles into books, which can be turned into a PDF or EPUB for offline reading, or shipped to you as a printed book.  (And thus Wikivoyage Press came to life at the flick of a switch.  D’oh!)
  4. No more screen scraping: full data dumps of Wikivoyage are already available.  Thanks to the Creative Commons license, you can freely use this data for travel mashups and more.
  5. Thanks to its active community, Wikivoyage already gets more content updates, and has spam firmly under control thanks to the Foundation’s years of experience in combating it.
  6. Last but not least, Wikivoyage does not suck: there are no punch-the-monkey ads, in-your-face flight booking dialogs, database backends that flake out randomly when you’re trying to edit, or company-appointed admins who censor and ban at will.

So what does this mean in practice?

Short term impact

As part of the launch, every Wikipedia page that once pointed to Wikitravel will now start pointing to Wikivoyage instead.  In addition, every Wikipedia page will temporarily be festooned with a notice pointing to the site, which means a cool 6.5 billion ad impressions a day. The traffic boost from these will be massive, so you can expect to see a lot more Wikivoyage in your search results quite soon.

South Beach, Perhentian Besar, MalaysiaThis is not to say it’s all peaches and cream, as the site remains a work in progress.  For example, while merging Wikivoyage’s image backend with Wikimedia’s Commons allowed access to a wealth of new pictures and illustrations, it also means that several thousand pages now have broken image links.  These are being fixed one by one, and the backlog has already been cut in half since mid-December, but plenty of work remains.

Long-time readers may also recall that there was a complicated tangle of lawsuits between Wikitravel’s owner Internet Brands (IB), some of its erstwhile users, and the Wikimedia Foundation.  The first lawsuit, by Internet Brands against two Wikitravel users, was dismissed on November 28, 2012, and although they could technically try again in state court, IB appears to have given up (unsurprising, as they had no case).  The second and arguably more meaningful lawsuit between the Wikimedia Foundation and Internet Brands is still rumbling on though, with both sides stomping around the sumo stadium, slapping thighs and grunting menacingly, but no court date set.  Keep an eye on the Wikimedia blog for updates; nonetheless, the Foundation has stated that this will have no impact on Wikivoyage itself.

Long term impact

While I have no doubt that Wikivoyage will surpass and supplant Wikitravel, its impact on the wider travel industry remains an open question.  For Wikivoyage to become as globally ubiquitous as Wikipedia, at least some of these hard problems will have to be cracked:

  • Oysters in Adelaide, AustraliaClearer separation between objective and subjective travel information.  Wikis are great for “the train takes 15 minutes and costs $2.50”, but not so much for “the pizzas are great and the music rocks”.  Allowing multiple comments, reviews or ratings of some kind for listings is needed.
  • Building a database backend.  Wikivoyage articles are long, flat pages of text, with a little markup for points of interest and geographical hierarchy.  Turning them into anything other than pages of text, or even getting the various language versions to share information, would require reworking the site to use a database of some kind, not a trivial exercise, although it would definitely be an intriguing application for the budding Wikidata.
  • Lack of vision and desire.  To a first approximation, the Wikimedia Foundation allocates its meager resources based on site popularity, which is why Wikipedia gets almost all of the love and the Foundation will have precisely zero Wikivoyage people on staff.  This means that not only is the Foundation unlikely to be able to make the large investments needed to bring the site to the next level, but there won’t even be anybody who could direct those investments if the money and will suddenly came up.
  • Lack of funding.  That money is unlikely to come up, though, since Wikimedia is funded entirely by donations and the vast majority of them go to pay for Wikipedia.  While adding eg. hotel bookings to Wikivoyage would be a near-guaranteed money spinner and, if done right, a genuine enhancement to the site, it would be an uphill battle to get the occasionally rabidly anti-capitalist wider Wikimedia community to accept this taint of Mammon.

I should probably underline that I’m not trying to rag on the Foundation with those latter two points, they’re operating quite sensibly with the constraints they have as a non-profit organization.

This also explains why, as a travel industry insider myself, I don’t think Wikivoyage poses an existential threat to TripAdvisor, Google or, for that matter, Lonely Planet: it’s simply not playing the same game.  Quite the contrary, it promises to be a great resource of information for everybody.  In the same way that Google pulls in data for Wikipedia for its search results and Lonely Planet’s website uses images sourced from Wikimedia Commons, other travel guides will be able to complement their own content with additional data from Wikivoyage.

 

Wikitravel Press: Seven lessons from a startup that failed

Before I joined Lonely Planet, I ran a little startup called Wikitravel Press, which packaged up Wikitravel articles and sold them as print-on-demand books.  Despite revolutionary tech, a great team and hard work, it didn’t pan out the way we’d hoped, and this is the story of the lessons I learned the hard way.

TL;DR: Lesson 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Conception

Back in 2005, I was a vagabond telecoms consultant, flitting around the world setting up messaging systems for mobile network operators.  I loved the travel, to the extent of willingly giving up my apartment and living out of a rollaboard suitcase for a year and half, but endlessly hashing through the requirements-deploy-test-rinse-repeat cycle was starting to get old and I found myself spending more and more time on Wikitravel.

And at some point, I had an epiphany.  One of Wikitravel’s goals since its earliest days was to produce printable guides.  The volume and quality of content was starting to reach the point where the best destination guides were book-sized.  What if I could extract the content, automatically lay it out into PDF, and publish it as an actual book through a print-on-demand service like Lulu?  Compared to existing guidebooks, the advantages seemed vast:

  • The content would be as fresh as the website, unlike the 2-3 year research-to-print cycle of a typical guidebook.
  • The content would be continually updated for free by volunteers, instead of expensively and occasionally by paid authors.
  • Printing on demand would eliminate warehouses, inventory management, returns and many other banes of a publisher’s existence.
  • Printing on demand would allow creating customized, niche guides that would not be economical for a traditional publisher that needs print runs of at least several thousand copies.

But the seed of hubris had already been planted:

Lesson #1: Do not base your startup on more than two innovations. >>

Pulling off the company would have required 1) turning a free-for-all wiki into publishable content, 2) completely automating the transformation of that digital content into printed books, and 3) building a new way to distribute these fresh but very perishable books.  If any of these legs failed, the stool would topple over.

(The credit for that quote, by the way, belongs to someone else; I remember seeing it back in 2007, shortly after launch, and thinking, “Crap”.  But I’m unable to track it down, anybody know who said it first?)

Gestation

I hacked together enough of a prototype with LaTeX and a forked version of Deplate to convince myself that the primary technological challenge, turning Wiki pages into a book-like PDF, was solvable, and then got in touch with Wikitravel founders Evan and Michele to see if they were interested.  They were, very much so, but there was a major catch: they were right in the middle of selling the website to Internet Brands (IB), and I had to cool my heels until that was all sorted out.

Now Evan and Michele, being smart cookies, had already made a point of retaining print rights to the Wikitravel brand.  However, Internet Brands still had a say on who could use those rights and how, so we had to fly over from Singapore and Montreal to Los Angeles to meet IB, pitch the idea, draft agreements, get lawyers to look it all over etc, all an unnecessary cost and distraction compared to if had it been just the three of us.  The deal we came to was fair enough, and essentially boiled down to IB giving us free ad space on the site and reasonably free reign in print in exchange for a cut of any future profits.  But here, too, lay another seed of destruction.

Lesson #2: Do not rely on a third party that does not share your goals and interests. >>

For Wikitravel Press, the support of Internet Brands was critical: without it, there was no brand, and without the brand there was no company.  (The very name of the company relied on an Internet Brands trademark!)  But for Internet Brands, Wikitravel the site was just one brand in a stable of dozens, and a dinky little appendix to that site producing no revenue was at the absolute bottom of the priority list.  We were now stuck: they had negotiated the initial agreement because legally they had to, but once the ink on that was dry, we would have absolutely zero leverage with them until and unless we started raking in serious profits.

Birth

Nevertheless, we signed the agreement and the next year passed in a blur.  I quit my job and  started doing the million and one things needed to get this off the ground.  We set up Wikitravel Press, Inc in Montreal, Evan and Michele’s hometown.  (I would have preferred Singapore, a considerably more business-friendly locale, but for Internet Brands even Canada was rather exotic.)  Since the initial costs were low, we opted not to pursue venture capital, financing it ourselves.

On the technical side, I had to turn the engine from a crude prototype into something solid enough for production use, wrap it with a user interface that editors around the world could use, and integrate its output into Lulu.  Mark Jaroski whipped up an inspired piece of hackery that pulled street data from OpenStreetMap, mashed it together with Wikitravel listings and spat out printable guidebook maps.  We sourced a design for the books (hat tip to TheAgence), found one of the three people on the planet who understood the dark arts of LaTeX templating well enough to automate the layout (the brilliant Alistair Smith of Sunrise Setting), built pricing and royalty models, experimented with book formats, and more.

And, of course, we had to find some people to actually write the books.  Our ultimate goal was always to allow people to print anything they wanted whenever they wanted, but Wikitravel’s content quality was too uneven for that, and neither was our technology up to the challenge.  So we compromised: we selected popular, well-covered destinations, put editors in charge of maintaining them, published  manually-reviewed monthly updates to each title and paid the editors a royalty on sales for their troubles. Professional travel writers unsurprisingly steered well clear, but there were enough enthusiastic amateurs on Wikitravel that recruiting for the first few titles was not a problem.

On February 1, 2008, we launched Wikitravel Chicago (by Peter Fitzgerald and Marc “Gorilla Jones” Heiden) and Wikitravel Singapore (by myself) with a flurry of publicity, with coverage in Boing Boing, Gadling, and a good many more travel and tech sites.  Sales spiked nicely in the first few days, but very soon tapered off into pathetic volumes that were far less than even our most pessimistic estimates.  What had gone wrong?

Lesson #3: Validate your sales projections before you launch. >>

It seems inconceivable to me today, sufficiently so that I’m rather embarrassed to type this, but we hadn’t actually tested, at all, our conversion path with real, live customers.  We had simply blithely assumed that X% of visitors to Wikitravel pages with ads would click on to the Wikitravel Press site, and that Y% of those would go on to buy the book.  Guess what?  People browsing Wikitravel were, by and large, not interested in buying it as books; and of those that did make it to the Press and clicked on the “buy” links, another large percentage were turned off by having to create new accounts on Lulu, type in credit card details and addresses, and then pay hefty shipping fees, especially if outside the US. Doing a quiet public beta before launch would have alerted us to this at least half a year earlier.

Infancy

So there we were, with a gut-shot business plan bleeding all over the floor, and we had to do something fast to increase our distribution.  I dabbled a bit with Google AdWords and other forms of online advertising, but the brutal maths of the publishing industry made buying readers impossible: with sensible keywords costing at least $0.50 a click and an average profit margin of just $5-7 per book, we would have needed a conversion rate of nearly 10% just to break even, clearly an impossibility.

Distributing to conventional bookstores was also out of the question,  We did not have the money, warehouse space, sales network and more to start doing large print runs, hawking them to book stores, dealing with returns, etc, and even if we had, this would have obliterated our primary competitive advantage of speed.

The one avenue open to us was distributing to online bookstores, and the thousand-pound gorilla both then as now is Amazon.  Lulu had an embryonic Amazon distribution option, but not only would it have sliced our already meager profit margins in half, using it would have required new ISBNs for every edition.  And since every online book shop on the planet uses ISBNs to uniquely identify books, all reviews, sales ranking etc tied to Wikitravel Singapore, February 2008 would be lost the instant it was pulled off the virtual shelf and replaced by Wikitravel Singapore, March 2008, so this was simply not an option.  (Not to mention that, in low volumes, each ISBN costs $27.50 a pop.)  We looked briefly into selling Wikitravel as a magazine, with an ISSN instead, but the bureaucracy for getting those was even more fearsome and, again, for every bookseller on the planet, a magazine is a completely different beast to a book and would not show up in searches for the other. Was our revolution in the making about to be scuppered by a standard drafted in 1970?

Lesson #4: There are often practical workarounds for theoretical impossibilities. >>

But we found a way.  Amazon had recently launched its own consumer-facing print on demand site CreateSpace, which is tightly integrated to the Amazon bookstore, including key features like free shipping, same-day printing and, crucially for us, its own pool of pre-allocated ISBNs that could be retained through updates of the book.   In theory, you’re supposed to change the ISBN for every “substantial change of text“, but CreateSpace did not enforce this and we were more than happy to leap through the loophole.

So we shifted the entire operation to Amazon, which entitled, among other things, resizing the book’s layout, templates, covers etc to accommodate Amazon’s different page size.  And whereas Lulu had a fairly hands-off approach and a rudimentary API that could be automated to a fair extent, Amazon offered only two choices.  You could go with CreateSpace, designed for technically clueless wannabe writers and thus only drivable through an infuriatingly slow web interface, coupled with a manual validation process where every single page of every single edition was scrutinized by some half-starved third-world peon and, more often than not, summarily rejected for infractions like the cover saying “Singapore – Wikitravel” when the book title was “Wikitravel Singapore”.  Alas, the only other option was BookSurge, designed for “real” publishers bulk uploading PDFs of old books that already had previously assigned ISBNs, and hence entirely unamenable to our reuse-ISBN-for-next-edition dodge.

But we gritted our teeth and soldiered on with CreateSpace, and Wikitravel Press books went live on Amazon in November 2008.  Sales perked up immediately, and it was time to start expanding.

Stumbling forward

With the new foundation laid, there were two basic ways to expand: we could distribute to a larger audience, or we could produce more titles.

Once up on Amazon USA, the obvious next place to distribute was Amazon’s other markets: Canada, UK, Germany, Japan, etc.  However, publishing remains intricately tied up in geography, and endless rounds of discussion with Amazon Europe produced no results — at the time, the only print-on-demand service on offer in Europe was BookSurge, and that didn’t play nice with our titles.  (This has since changed.)  And while CreateSpace offers an “Expanded Distribution” program that, in theory, allows sales through Barnes & Noble and online retailers, library sales programs etc, there’s no real way to promote your books on those sites.  In practice, enabling it meant only that random online bookstores you’ve never heard of picked them up, algorithmically assigning insane prices in the vain hope that some lunatic would buy them.  (Case in point: this listing for our Paris guide,  which not only hawks a no-longer-existent product, but wants $216 for it.)

So we were stuck in our little Amazon bubble, and the only way forward was to produce more titles, which meant finding more editors to create and maintain them.  Alas, our process required a trifecta of uncommon traits: a mastery of Wiki markup, a willingness to work unpaid for a long period to initially prep the book for publication, and the tolerance to deal with unpredictable royalties once the book did hit the virtual shelves.  There were no realistic technical solutions to the first, with MediaWiki WYSIWYG remaining a pipe dream despite years of effort by the Foundation, and we were unable to pay advances because we could not accurately forecast book sales.  In the end, only nine titles made it all the way through, with quite a few left lying on the cutting table in varying states of completion.

Lesson #5:  Scaling technology is hard, but scaling people may be impossible. >>

Unable to scale people, we turned to scaling technology instead: instead of manual editing, why not automate the whole process instead?  The feeble jaws of our engine were not up to the task of digesting the whole of Wikitravel, but at Wikimania 2008 in Cairo I had been introduced to German brainiacs PediaPress, whose fearsome mwlib parser beat the pants off ours and could eat the entirety of Wikipedia for lunch.  They produced an awesome demo of a Wikitravel book, and next year I flew down to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where we shared a stand, drank beer and dreamed big.

But that dream stayed a dream, because there were two ways to make this happen, and both were blocked by limitations outside out control.

  1. We could have generated guides completely automatically and sold them via conventional channels like Amazon.  However, since CreateSpace could not be automated, there would have been an absolutely ludicrous amount of manual grunt work involved in creating and maintaining the guides; and since Wikitravel content was of uneven quality, selling books compiled with no human oversight at all would have risked a major backlash.
  2. Alternatively, we could have taken the approach that PediaPress does on Wikipedia and allowed users to build their own custom guides, but this would have required installing a custom extension onto Wikitravel.    Alas, the site was and remains fully under the control of Internet Brands, who were exceedingly reluctant to do even basic maintenance, much less install experimental extensions to help someone else’s bottom line.

Paralysis

So there we were, stuck in limbo: technically cashflow-positive thanks to our ultra-lean cost structure, but nowhere near profitable enough to pay me a living wage, much less pay dividends.

Lesson #6: A business that is not growing and not paying your rent is not a business. >>

It was surprisingly tempting to just leave it be and pretend that all was good, and in retrospect I wonder how many times I answered the usual “so how’s the business doing?” question with “Fine, it’ll make a profit this year!”.  But even through this haze of self-delusion it was starting to sink in that there was essentially no realistic prospect of growth in our current line of business, and that printed books were a dead end.

This left precisely one option: pivot away from printed books into a digital form.  Back when we started out, both e-books and apps were impractical boondoggles, with a limited range available on clunky devices if you were a member of the technological priest-elite capable of operating a Palm V or Sony Librie.  But in late 2007 both Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle came out, bringing e-books and apps to the masses and setting off a gold rush of selling digital content.   Why not join them?

Because we could not.  Wikitravel Press’s contract with Internet Brands was only for printed products, not digital products.  We’d asked for digital rights originally, but had to give way, and our new attempts to add them to the contract were tersely rebuffed.  Since Wikitravel content is open to all, we could have tried our luck without the brand or the links from the website, but then there would have been little to differentiate us from anybody else repackaging it, and we’d probably be getting our books pulled from the Kindle Store on as just another “private label rights” publisher right about now.

Death

By 2009, the writing was on the wall and we started looking for a way out.  Evan already had a hit on his hands with identi.ca/StatusNet, and towards the end of the year I received an offer from Lonely Planet — not to acquire the company, but to bring me on board a revolutionary publishing project of their own.   I jumped at the chance, resigned my managerial positions (but hedged my bets by keeping a minority stake) and passed the poisoned chalice over to superstar editor/author Peter Fitzgerald of Chicago and Washington DC fame.  He knew full well that the company’s prospects were dim, but hadn’t had all enthusiasm and hope ground out of him quite so thoroughly yet.

Lesson #7: When it’s time to let go, let go.

In hindsight, we should have told him “no” and killed the company then and there.  The ensuing two years of slow decline were a slow but constant drain on time and money for all us, with little upside; sure, a few more editors got to see their books in print, but only see them fizzle and get pulled off the shelves shortly thereafter.  The issue was finally forced by the Internet Brands contract coming up for renewal, which we obviously elected not to do, and the company shuttered its virtual doors on December 31, 2011.

Epitaph

In retrospect, Wikitravel Press was the Minidisc of its time.  In the same way that Sony’s Minidisc was revolutionary compared to cassettes, it was a revolutionary way to do printed books, but both forms of physical media were swiftly obsoleted by the far greater revolution of digital technology: MP3 players for music, phones and tablets for books.

And the one thing that annoys me to this day is that, from day one, we knew this; we just assumed that we’d be able to get the business up and running through print books, and then expand the empire into digital once that market came into being.

On the upside, while we did not come up with the Travel Guide of the Future, neither has anybody else yet, and the trusty old printed guidebook still remains the format to beat.  Got a good idea?  Drop me a line, and maybe we can give it another shot together.

No cheeseburger for you: A look at the Internet Brands v. Wikitravel volunteers lawsuit

This is a followup to Wikimedia confirms creation of travel wiki, sues Internet Brands to end legal threats against volunteers, so please read that first if you haven’t already.

There’s been plenty of analysis of the Wikimedia Foundation’s countersuit against Internet Brands, but little of the original lawsuit by Internet Brands against its volunteers, mostly because it took a few days until a copy was published.  Here’s a fast food themed attempt to fill that gap, with extra pickles and ketchup.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on the Internet, so take what you’re about to read with a fistful of french fries.  But if you can punch any holes in my amateur logic, I’m all ears.

So.  The four counts made by Internet Brands against Wikitravel users Ryan “Wrh2” Holliday and James “Jmh649” Heilman are:

  1. Common Law Trademark Infringement
  2. Federal Unfair Competition, False Designation of Origin and Trade Name Infringement (aka Lanham Act)
  3. Unfair competition
  4. Civil conspiracy

And the single most curious statement in a very curious lawsuit is:

49. Defendants are offering Administrators, contributors and other users a competitive website by trading on Internet Brands’ Wikitravel Trademark.

Well, no, they aren’t: there is no competing website yet.  In other words, Internet Brands is not suing because somebody is actually competing against them with some falsely labeled product, but merely because they think they will.  To put that in perspective, imagine McDonald’s having an effective monopoly on selling hamburgers in a town, and then Burger King announces that they’re considering opening an outlet that will also sell hamburgers.   How far would a lawsuit against them made on that basis alone fly?

It gets even sillier: the lawsuit is not even against the putative future competing entity (Wikimedia), but against two volunteers of the existing site, who are not employees of either.  To continue our burgerrific analogy, imagine two customers of McDonald’s publicly announcing that they’d eat hamburgers at Burger King if one opened up, and then getting sued for it.  Seriously?

What’s more, since Holliday and Heilman are both unpaid volunteers, the applicability of any of the charges is seriously questionable.  For example, Lanham Act Section 43(a) requires that the trademark be used “in commerce“, but what commerce has taken place?  For unfair competition, Internet Brands alleges that they “have engaged, and continue to engage, in wrongful business conduct“, but what business are they talking about?  And while every charge ends in the boilerplate claim that “Defendants have been unjustly enriched“, I entirely fail to see how Holliday and Heilman have been “enriched” in any way.  Quite the contrary, it’s the work of unpaid volunteers like them that has been enriching Internet Brands in the past five years.

But those three arguments actually unnecessarily dignify the charges, since you could come away with the misleading impression that they would have some merit once the competing website is up and running.  IB’s argument against Heilman seems to hinge on this claim:

22. Heilman announced that the “new” site, which would combine the Wikitravel Website through a straw-man transaction with Wikivoyage.org (the “Wikivoyage Website”) into a Wikimedia Foundation website that would be called “Wiki Travel Guide” (the “Infringing Website”).

Nope.  As clearly stated in the proposal, the final name of the site remains undecided, although it seems likely to launch as travel.wikimedia.org.  The working name “Wiki Travel Guide” (as in, a travel guide that’s a wiki) was used for a few days, but it was dropped on April 24 in favor of the generic “Travel Guide”, four months before the end of the discussion period on August 23.

Also, given that Wikivoyage e.V. has been an independent German registered association since 2006, characterizing it as a “straw-man” for Heilman and Holliday seems both ludicrous and potentially defamatory.

Holliday’s original sin, on the other hand, was allegedly this:

30. Specifically, Holliday’s email contained the Subject Line, “Important information about Wikitravel” and its body stated, “This email is being sent to you on behalf of the Wikitravel administrators since you have put some real time and effort into working on Wikitravel.  We wanted to make sure that you are up to date and in the loop regardling big changes in the community that will affect the future of your work!  As you may already have heard, Wikitravel’s community is looking to migrate to the Wikimedia Foundation.”

31. Holliday and Heilman clearly intended to confuse Wikitravel Website participants into thinking the Wikitravel Website is migrating to Wikimedia, in order to gain, through improper and illegal means, all the traffic and content creators currently contributing to Wikitravel.

Or in short, on Planet IB, the terms “Wikitravel”, “Wikitravel administrators” and “Wikitravel’s community” are all to be interpreted to be referring to web host Internet Brands alone, as opposed to the users and the content that make up the site.  This is nonsensical, especially given that the users “intended to [be] confused” were exclusively those long-term, prolific Wikitravel contributors most familiar with the site.  Internet Brands themselves is well aware of the distinction (see eg. this comment where they distinguish admins and community, and this for host vs community), but burgerizing it makes it even clearer:

This email is being sent to you on behalf of the McDonald’s fan club since you have put some real time and effort into eating at McDonald’s.  We wanted to make sure that you are up to date and in the loop regarding big changes in the fan community that will affect the future of your meals!  As you may already have heard, McDonald’s diners are looking to go eat at Burger King.

Would you read that as saying that the McDonald’s Corporation is is moving over to Burger King?  I don’t think so.

And there’s more:

  1. At the same time that they’re suing for trademark infringement, Internet Brands themselves continues to describe Wikitravel as “Wikipedia for travel.”  Needless to say, Wikipedia is a trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation.  Oops!
  2. The last action attributed to the defendants occurred on August 18, 2012, but Internet Brands only applied to register “Wikitravel” as a trademark on August 22, 2012.  (Deep links to the USPTO aren’t allowed, but try a trademark search on TESS.)  Now, unregistered trademarks can still be trademarks, but it’s still interesting that IB apparently didn’t care about it until this year!

Internet Brands’ final claim is that there is the “civil conspiracy” against them and that the defendants have engaged in all sorts of dastardly “unlawful acts”.  In particular:

32. Holliday not only violated trademark laws, he violated the administrative access given to him by Internet Brands by improperly using personal information stored on Internet Brands’ servers about users and writing to them by name, in an attempt to bolster the appearance of a direct communication from the owners of the Wikitravel Website.

Where to begin?  First, Internet Brands did not “give” Holliday administrator access; he has been an administrator since June 2005, before Internet Brands bought the site.  Second, administrative access is not necessary to mail users, as anybody who is logged in can do it: here’s a form for sending mail to everybody’s favorite Internet Brands apologist, Paul “IBobi” O’Brien.   (Be nice, mmkay?)   And third, “bolster the appearance” and “writing to them by name” are just nonsensical, since MediaWiki form e-mails clearly show the name of the sender and does not expose any of the receiver’s personal information.

Last and least, my favorite claim of all:

26. On July 12, 2012, Heilman met at the Wikimania convention with a number of Administrators and others to reach a further meeting of the minds as to the unlawful acts to be undertaken.

Guess who else was in on this conspiratorial “meeting of the minds”?  Chuck Hoover, CMO of Internet Brands, who was even courteous enough to announce his visit publicly!

And there is one interesting thing that Internet Brands is not doing: at no point do they dispute the validity of the Creative Commons license, which indicates that even their legal team thinks they have no chance of stopping the content itself from being forked.  They are clutching desperately at straws to try to get the community to stop leaving, but the lawsuit has more holes than a chip frying basket, and is likely to get crumpled up and thrown away like a used burger wrapper as soon as a judge sees it.

Final disclaimer: McDonald’s is a trademark of McDonalds Corp. Burger King is a trademark of Burger King Inc.  Any references to either in this post are illustrative works of fiction.

Wikimedia confirms creation of travel wiki, sues Internet Brands to end legal threats against volunteers

The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization behind Wikipedia, has today officially announced that they will proceed with the creation of a Wikimedia travel guide.  This follows the overwhelming support expressed during the public comment period, with 542 in favor versus 152 against, and the community behind the original travel wiki, Wikitravel, has already regrouped at Wikivoyage in preparation for joining the Wikimedia project.

In my previous post, I had discussed the limited options available to Wikitravel’s site owner Internet Brands, and optimistically predicted that they would not resort to legal action.  Unfortunately, I have been proved wrong, as Internet Brands did resort to the courts — but instead of picking on someone their own size, they sued two Wikitravel volunteers active in the fork effort, James “Jmh649” Heilman and Ryan “Wrh2” Holliday, alleging a “civil conspiracy” (I kid you not!) against them and threatening to expand the scope of the suit to cover “additional co-conspirators”.  Indeed, a number of Wikitravel users have received vague but threatening notices from Internet Brands’ legal department, alleging that their action may be “in violation of numerous federal and state laws”.

In the opinion of the Wikimedia Foundation, all this is an “obvious attempt to intimidate” people involved in the fork, and to their infinite credit they’re not taking it lying down: they have on this same day filed a suit against Internet Brands in San Francisco, “seeking a judicial declaration that Internet Brands has no lawful right to impede, disrupt or block the creation of a new travel oriented, Wikimedia Foundation-owned website in response to the request of Wikimedia community volunteers”.  As the 11-page suit clearly lays out, Internet Brands’ position is not merely baseless but preposterous, and I’m very much looking forward to them getting slapped down.

Meanwhile, over at Wikitravel, Internet Brands has been busily reverting out discussion about the fork, protecting pages so they cannot be edited, blocking users who dare mention the fork, and summarily removing administrator privileges from dissenting users, which unsurprisingly has done them no favors with the community.  They’ve already once temporarily shut down all editing on the site to all users who are not “bureaucrauts” (sic!), and it seems a matter of time until my prediction comes true and they lock it down permanently.

Update: By popular demand, here’s a diagram that attempts to explain how Wikitravel, Wikivoyage and the as-to-be-unnamed Wikimedia Travel project relate to each other:The end goal is thus that the content and communities from both Wikitravel and Wikivoyage will become Wikimedia Travel, strong and vibrant under a host that shares the ethos and has the technical capability and other resources to maintain it.   As an inevitable side effect, Wikitravel the site will die a slow and lingering death.

 

 

Why Google will most likely kill Frommer’s, and why that’s probably a mistake

By buying a travel guidebook publisher solely to bolster its local search content, Google risks both straddling itself with an unprofitable albatross and missing out on a way to differentiate itself from its rivals.

Google’s recent acquisition of Frommer’s has given rise to much comment about the “real” intentions of the Big G and what this means for other travel publishers.  While it’s less entertaining than some of the theories floating around, for time being I’m willing to accept their stated rationale at face value: just another stepping stone to “provide a review for every relevant place in the world“, and thus a tactical move to bolster local coverage for the ailing Google+.

There are, however, two fundamental problems with the purchase and this goal that do not seem to have garnered much attention.

The first is the problem of content creation.  Frommer’s claims “4,500 destinations, 50,000 images and 300,000 events“, but they leave unsaid the source of every one of those bits of data: their own printed guidebooks.  Google thus has an unpalatable array of choices:

  1. Keep producing printed guidebooks and digitizing the incoming content as usual.  This is clearly Google’s starting point, as they will be retaining Frommer’s print staff, but it’s also almost certainly a money-losing proposition: given the fire sale price of barely over 1x revenue, there’s no way the books are making money.  With the overall travel guidebook market declining by 10% year and the new owner focused on entirely different things, a turnaround seems fanciful.  Google will thus be looking to jettison them as soon as it can, which leads us to the next option:
  2. Stop print production, but keep the authors and editors around producing travel guides in digital form.  Alas, this would only exacerbate the losses, as e-book and app sales make up only a small fraction of printed book sales and the actual printing is only a fraction of the cost of book production. This option seems thus very unlikely, and my money is thus on:
  3. Stop producing guidebooks in any shape or form, dispense with narrative content entirely and focus purely on points of interest.  (This is what Zagat has always done.)  It also means throwing any direct revenue model out the window, although it does keep their B2B arm Frommer’s Unlimited afloat.  It will be interesting to see how much money Google is willing to sink into paying authors and editors to update those reviews, but it’s quite conceivable that the answer is “none”, in which case we end up at the final option:
  4. Fire all editorial staff and let the content decay.  If the purchase is indeed purely a tactical ploy to temporarily beef up their reviews while they wait for Google+ to reach critical mass and start to create fresh, user-generated content à la Zagat, this actually makes perfect sense.  Google doesn’t even need authors for the other half of their usual job, verifying practicalities details (addresses, telephones, etc), as Google has already mastered that process through other means.

If Google goes with the 3rd or 4th option, and I have hard time seeing them not do so, their second problem (or, rather, missed opportunity) will be the lack of content curation.  By treating guidebooks as no more than a database in print form, turning them into a homogenous soup of atomic points of interest, Google is effectively conceding to compete on a level playing field with local search rivals like Facebook and Foursquare.   All three now assume that users are searching for individual points, easily filtered on individual axes: “best five-star hotel in New York by user ratings”, “cheap Japanese restaurant in Melbourne CBD open for lunch” etc.

But a guidebook is not the same as a phone book: it’s supposed to contain a careful selection of the best places to go, arranged in a sensible way.  Neither Facebook nor Foursquare can offer a sensible answer to real travel questions like “Funkiest bars in Brussels”, “Romantic day in Paris”, “Three-day hike in New Zealand”, whereas any guidebook about those places that is worth its salt can.  As an engineering-driven company, Google has given things like this little thought simply because they are hard problems for artificial intelligence to solve — but using Frommer’s team of authors, it would be possible to augment the automated results produced by things like the Knowledge Graph to field hand-curated content as well.

If Google goes ahead and does this, then the Guidebook of the Future will be that much closer to reality and travel publishers will have a real problem on their hands.  But I doubt it, and that’s why those publishers are breathing a sigh of temporary relief: one competitor less means a bigger slice of the shrinking pie for the rest.

Wikitravel editors abandon Internet Brands, join up with Wikipedia

On July 11, 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation of Wikipedia fame made a decision that has been a long time coming: they decided to support hosting a new wiki devoted to travel, populated with Wikitravel content and, most importantly, the community that built Wikitravel.  It’s not a done deal yet, as the decision has to be confirmed by public discussion, but as it’s looking pretty good so far; and if it comes true, this second shot at success is almost certain to result in the new gold standard for user-written travel guides, in the same way that Wikipedia redefined encyclopedias.

Let me start by making it clear that this is a personal blog post that does not claim to represent the view of all 72,000+ Wikitravellers out there, much less the Wikimedia Foundation.  I’ve played little role in and claim no credit for making this fork (legal cloning) happen, and my present employer Lonely Planet has nothing to do with any of this.  However, as a Wikitravel user and administrator since 2004, who has done business with Wikitravel’s current owner Internet Brands and seen first hand how they operate, I’ll take a shot at answering three questions I expect to be asked: why the fork is necessary, whether the fork will succeed, and how Internet Brands will react.

First, a quick history recap.  Founded in 2003 by Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins as a project to create a free, complete, up-to-date and reliable world-wide travel guide, Wikitravel grew at an explosive pace in its initial years and seemed on track to do to printed travel guides what Wikipedia had done to encyclopedias.  But in 2006, with ever-increasing hosting and support demands and no money coming in, the Prodromous made the decision to sell the site to website conglomerate Internet Brands (IB), best known at the time for selling used cars at CarsDirect.com.

IB made many promises at the time to respect the community, keep developing the site and tread carefully while commercializing it.  The German and Italian wings of Wikitravel didn’t believe a word it, so they rose up in revolt and started up Wikivoyage, the first fork of Wikitravel, which did successfully supplant the original for those two languages.  But the rest of us, including myself, opted to give IB a chance and see how things turned out.

Now to give Internet Brands credit where credit is due, it could have been considerably worse.  They’ve kept the lights on for the past 5 years, although overloaded or outright crashed database servers often made editing near-impossible.  They have respected the letter of the Creative Commons license, if not the spirit, as from day one they have refused to supply data dumps.   And they grudgingly abandoned some of their daftest ideas, like splitting each page into tiny chunks for search-engine optimization, after community outcry.  On a personal level, I also dealt with IB while running Wikitravel Press, and while they could be a tough negotiating partner, whatever they agreed on, they also delivered.

What they did not do, though, was develop the site in any way that did not translate directly into additional ad revenue.  The original promise to restrain themselves to “unobtrusive, targeted, well-identified ads” soon mutated into people eating spiders and monkey-punching Flash monstrosities, with plans to cram in a mid-page booking engine despite vociferous community opposition.   Once Evan & Michele were kicked off the payroll, bug reports stayed unattended for years, and neither did a single new feature come through, with the solitary exception of a CAPTCHA filter in a feeble attempt to plug the ever-increasing amount of spam.  Even the MediaWiki software running the site was, until very recently, stuck on version 1.11, five years and a full eight point releases behind Wikipedia.  Unsurprisingly, the once active community started to fade away, with all of Wikitravel’s statistics (Alexa rank, page views, new articles, edits) slowly flatlining.

By 2012, with various feeble ultimatums ignored by IB and no other way out in sight, the 40-odd admins of the site got together and decided to fork. After a short debate and a few feelers sent out in various directions, unanimous agreement was reached that jumping ship to the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) was the way to go, with Wikivoyage also happy to join in.  Reaction on the Wikimedia side was almost as positive, and as I type this the birth of a new, truly free travel wiki appears to be only weeks away.  (Sign up here to be notified when it is!)

The natural question is thus, which of the two forks will win?  Internet Brands has triggered many a community revolt before, but the track record of those revolts is distinctly mixed.  QuattroWorld has found a stable user base but is still below AudiWorld in traffic rank; Cubits.org did not put a dent in Dave’s Garden; and the jury is still out on FlyerTalk vs MilePoint, but FlyerTalk retains a commanding lead.

Nevertheless, in Wikitravel’s case, I feel confident in predicting the answer: the new fork will win, by a mile.  Many of the reasons are clear — Wikitravel’s license allows copying all the content, nearly all editors and admins will jump ship, and the Foundation’s technical skills in running MediaWiki are second to none — but one takes some explaining.

The primary reason Wikitravel shows up so well in Google results is that it is linked from nearly every article about a place in Wikipedia.  Now, ordinary garden-variety links from Wikipedia to other sites are ignored completely by Google, because they have the magic anti-spam rel=nofollow attribute set.  However, Wikitravel is one of a very few sites that are linked through an obscure feature called “interwiki links“, which do not have that attribute set, and are thus counted in full by Google when it computes the importance of pages.  Thus, the moment those links are changed to point to the new fork — and all it will take is one edit of this page — the new site will be propelled to Google fame and Wikitravel.org will begin its inexorable descent to Internet obscurity.

The final question thus presents itself: How will Internet Brands react?  We have some clues already: as soon as they twigged on, they simultaneously pleaded that everybody return to their grandmotherly embrace, tried to spin the fork as a “self-destructive” rogue admin coup against a Nixonesque “silent supermajority”, and attempted to censor discussion on Wikitravel itself.  When these attempts unsurprisingly fell flat, the phone lines started ringing, with head honcho Bob “Passion to Mission” Brisco calling up the WMF with promises of “innovative collaboration” if only they can keep their sticky fingers in the pie.

From Wikitravel’s point of view, it would obviously be best if Internet Brands cheerfully admitted defeat and handed over the domain and trademark to the WMF, which would avoid the necessity for a messy renaming. However, having followed the (private) discussion from the sidelines for a few days now, Internet Brands insists on keeping full control of the site and minting advertising money, and all they want from the WMF is a seal of approval, paid for with a slice of the loot.  The non-profit Foundation, on the other hand, aims simply to freely share knowledge and has a long-standing aversion to advertising, so all they are able to offer is an easy way out from what will otherwise be a PR disaster.  I’d still like to hope a deal can be done, but quite frankly, the gap between these two positions does not look bridgeable at the moment.

The other extreme is that Internet Brands tries to prevent or sabotage the fork via legal action, as they did in the vBulletin vs XenForo case that’s apparently still rumbling through the courts.  I think this is even more unlikely though: all they own is the Wikitravel trademark and domain, so as long as the new (and presently undecided) name is sufficiently dissimilar, they will not have a legal leg to stand on.  Unlike the XenForo case, there are no employees jumping ship, the software is open source, and the content itself is Creative Commons licensed and can be copied at will.

The most likely option is thus status quo: IB will keep doing the only thing it can, squeezing every last drop of revenue from visitors venturing in, and probably turning up the infomercial volume to 11.  But with the community soon to turn into a ghost town, and increasing numbers of spammers and vandals dropping in to trash the place with nobody left to clean up after them, they will probably have to disable editing sooner or later, and Wikitravel.org the site will die a slow, ignominious death.

It remains to be seen if the new travel guide can succeed among a broader public: travel information online and collaborative writing have both moved on since 2003, and there are still unresolved problems with asking users to write and agree on fundamentally subjective content.  But the new Wikitravel will remain the world’s largest open travel information site for the foreseeable future, and will certainly give the closed competition a run for their money.  Wikitravel is dead, long live Wikitravel!

To register your support or opposition to the fork proposal, please head to the Request for Comment on the Wikimedia Meta site.  Translations of the RFC into other languages are particularly welcome.  

The RFC is expected to run until the end of August, with a formal decision and the launch of the new site to follow soon thereafter.  To be notified if and when the new site it goes live, please sign up at this form.  You will receive a single mail, and your e-mail address will then be thrown away.

Update: On September 5, the Wikimedia Foundation officially announced that they will proceed with the fork, and contrary to my optimistic prediction, Internet Brands is suing everyone left, right, and center.  See follow-up post.

Update 2: The new site, called Wikivoyage, was launched on January 15, 2013 and is already better than Wikitravel ever was.

Why the Web will gut paid e-books and apps, and why free can pay for authors and publishers

Selling digital content at any price above zero is not sustainable: the Web is cheaper for readers, cheaper for writers and publishers, and far more discoverable and shareable than the squabbling hermit kingdoms of e-books and apps.  For both authors and publishers, the best strategy is to distribute for free and find another way to pay the bills. (Part 2 of 2.)

Back in 2008, I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair, our little Wikitravel Press stand in Hall 4.2 just around the corner from the main area for technical talks.  And whenever there was something about e-books on, suddenly the hall would fill with sweaty publishing execs in cheap, crumpled suits, craning their heads and hoping against hope to hear and believe the message of joy: “Printed books may die, but paid digital content will save you!  Just keep calm, carry on, and sell your books as e-books and apps instead!”

For a publisher, this vision of beauty is an immensely seductive proposition: keep your business model, keep your pipeline, keep your editorial process.  Sell a slightly-tarted up version of your print-ready book, turned into an ePub or .mobi or iOS app or whatever flavor of the day your snake-oil CMS merchants tell you need, and as a bonus get rid of all that tedious faffing about with print runs, distribution and unsold stock.  And now, 5 years later, it all seems to be coming together!  What could possibly go wrong?

Only one thing: for the vast majority of publishers, paid content is as real as green-haired fairy princesses, because the Web will gut the business model for paid apps and e-books.  There are three reasons for this.

First and foremost, you can’t beat the Web on price.  The price of a printed book has been established through decades of trial and error: it accurately reflects the cost of creating and distributing the physical book, the price the market will pay, the level of competition with other printed book publishers and the margin the publisher needs to survive.  The current price of e-books and apps, on the other hand, is entirely disconnected from the actual cost of creating and distributing each additional copy, which is essentially zero. If the same content, or at least substitutable content, is available on a website for free — and the Internet being what it is, the answer is usually “yes” — there will be relentless price pressure to drive those prices down to match.  Forget $9.99 e-books or even $0.99 e-books: the price point to beat is $0.00.

Second, the Web allows drastically lower overheads for connecting authors to readers.  Building e-books and getting them distributed, much less building mobile applications and getting them into the famously developer-hostile iTunes store, are arcane arts limited to expensive professionals wearing propeller beanies.  Any monkey with a keyboard, on the other hand, can hammer out and publish a blog or forum post, and while the vast majority of them deservedly sink without a trace, a truly original or insightful idea will go viral on its own merits.

Third, apps (eg. iTunes) and e-books (eg. Kindle Store) are walled gardens, and history tells us that walled gardens always lose.  Minitel, Compuserve, America Online etc all restricted the users to officially approved islands of inaccessibility cut off from the rest of the Net, and despite an initial run of success due to clean, well-integrated interfaces and lots of industry players taking advantage of easy ways to bill users, none could compete in the long run with the sheer breadth of content and what Technology Review‘s Jason Pontin recently dubbed the “linky-ness” of the Web.  Probably the simplest way to visualize just how crippling these walls are is to simply search for (say) *Paris* with your favorite search engine, and see how many links to apps and e-books you get back: you’ll find the answer is zero.

The forces outlined here are clear and inescapable, and they mean that it will gradually become harder and harder to profit simply by selling copies.  And once there are no copies to sell, and no bookstores to sell them to, the last justifications of a traditional publisher’s existence — sales, distribution and chasing up invoices — disappear, with editing, design and marketing becoming optional add-ons instead of mandatory parts of the package.

The solution?  Join the light side of the force, throw away your precious business model, and become a website yourself.

Now, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because the vast majority of websites are free to access, they must also be free to produce, and hence it must be a losing proposition to pipe content that has been paid for into a free website.  This is, of course, a fallacy: the incremental cost of serving an additional reader via the Web may be virtually zero, but keeping any website of significance up and running is an expensive proposition. TripAdvisor, famed purveyors of travel information they notionally didn’t pay a cent for, had operating expenses of $338.5 million last year, a large chunk of which went into paying people to fish out the most egregious chunks of spam from their firehose of contributions.  In the dead trees publishing world, this is called “editing”, and while TripAdvisor’s focus is very much on quantity over quality, others may choose the opposite.

Authors in this new world will thus have a choice.  One option is to exchange risk for the certainty of a fixed but low paycheck and write work-for-hire for a website that monetises itself with any of the existing business models out there for the Web: advertising, transactions (brokerage), associated merchandising, etc.  In the world of reference publishing, including travel, work-for-hire is already the norm and these authors will see little difference — assuming, of course, that the companies they work for survive the transition, which is by no means a given.

The more exciting but financially dangerous choice is to strike out on their own.  If your main goal is to share your writing or ideas with the world, the digital world is your oyster: start blogging and promoting, and worry about money later.  If Karl Marx was publishing The Communist Manifesto today, would he make it a website or a $0.99 e-book?

If you already have a significant following and would like to turn it into a career, simply asking your fans for money may work, but the guaranteed advance revenue of Kickstarter-style crowd funding seems more appealing; Seth Godin recently just pulled in $130,000 in a few hours.  Cory Doctorow famously gives away copies of all his e-books and makes it back in increased print sales, a format which, much as we like it to diss it, will be around for a while, especially in the deluxe hardcover editions that fans love and authors earn well from.

Now here’s the catch: both these authors could easily charge for what they write, since some of their fans would pay to unlock the gate and pass through the digital wall to read their next book.  But they choose not to, since every book they lock away represents one less opportunity for a new fan to find them.

And if you are publishing your first novel, you would be a fool to barricade yourself in a digital fortress and hope that some greater fool is willing to take a punt on paying you even 99 cents, when there is an ever-increasing plethora of free alternatives.  Achieving fame as an aspiring novelist has always been a long shot, why sabotage your already meager odds for the 34 cents that are left over after Amazon takes its 65% cut?  As Cory says:

There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words. What a fine thing that is for writers.

Did you miss Part 1?  Check out Eat yourself or be eaten: a tale of two travel publishers.

Eat yourself or be eaten: a tale of two travel publishers

Success in print publishing does not translate to success in digital publishing, and many common measures for digital success mislead.  The primary medium of the future is the unchained Web, and restricting your free content offerings out of fear of cannibalization will only lead to somebody else eating your readers instead.  (Part 1 of 2.)

Today, we’re going to look at some charts, comparing Alice Publishing with Bob Publishing.  These are both thinly disguised real travel publishers, but as my intention is not to slag or praise any specific companies, I’m using the aliases so we can focus on them as examples.  Like the CIA, I will neither confirm nor deny any putative identifications in the comments, and sloppy speculation may lead to waterboardings from fellow commenters.  (Obligatory disclaimer: neither Alice nor Bob is my employer, Lonely Planet; and as always, this blog represents no one’s opinions but my own.)

Volume of printed books sold

Both Alice and Bob are big names in travel publishing.  According to Bookscan, Alice is a contender for the top spot in much of the world when it comes to volume of printed books sold, shifting around 1.7 million books last year.  Bob is a few spots down the pecking order, sellling around 800,000 copies, which is still more than respectable but means they’re only about half of Alice’s size.


Print vs digital revenue (parent companies)

Now shipping around pallets of dead trees is all well and good, but how are they faring at bits and bytes?  Neither Alice nor Bob are telling directly, but the publishing conglomerates that own them do, and Alice’s owner is only too happy to tell us they’re the industry leader for the hottest figure in today’s publishing industry, print vs digital revenue, pulling in 33% last year and promising to be the first to break the magical 50% barrier as early as this year.  On the other hand, Bob’s corporate masters only managed to reach 20%.  Strike two for Bob.

There’s a reason, or actually two, why publishers like the “print vs digital revenue” figure so much.  First, the worse your print sales collapse, the higher the share of digital revenue goes. Indeed, Alice’s print sales dropped 14% last year, while poor Bob was whacked by almost 20%, boosting their digital shares by a handy ~4%, a third of the putative growth.  And second, “digital” is a sufficiently fuzzy term that it’s pretty easy to redefine it to your advantage.  In Alice’s case, its owner’s “digital” revenue includes a giant educational services arm, and would thus better be described as “not print”.  Another publisher not considered today goes further and includes all the printed books they sell from their website in their “digital” sales.


E-books vs printed books (estimate)

A more reliable indicator of how well a publisher is actually transferring their readers over from print to paid digital is the split of e-books to printed books.   Alas, precisely because this number is nowhere near as flattering, publishers are very reluctant to disclose even volume shares, much less revenue shares or, heaven forbid, actual sales figures, and BookScan doesn’t have any data either.   Alice’s owners offer precisely one figure: of all books sold last year, 14% were e-books, and while I’d wager the split for travel guides was more in print’s favor, that’s the best I’ve got.  Bob and company are even more tight-lipped, offering up only the meaningless puff of “triple-digit growth in e-book sales”, so I’m going to assume that they managed to pull in the industry average of maybe 8% or so.

Strike three — but Bob’s not out, and in fact, I think Bob is much, much better placed than Alice to survive through the digital revolution.  Here’s why:


Millions of readers per year

Around 5 years ago, Alice launched a flashy website with lots of ads and minimal content.  It won a bunch of obscure design awards and has been gathering dust ever since: Alexa estimates they get around 1500 visitors a day, which works out to 360,000 a year.  With e-books and apps still on the level of a rounding error, Alice’s total number of readers for print and digital combined is thus around 2 million a year.

Bob, on the other hand, has been working on their website since 1996 with a simple two-point philosophy: post everything on your website for free, and don’t worry about cannibalizing your printed books.  This is why they now pull in around 3.6 million unique visitors a month, which translates to over 43 million a year, or a total readership of nearly 44 million a year.  That’s 22x more than Alice!  So when Alice’s brand loses its dominance on bookstore shelves, because there are no more mass-market bookstores and thus no more shelves, which of the two can still connect with readers?


Direct revenue (US$) per reader per format, Alice Publishing

“So what?”, I hear the hard-nosed publisher snort. “Website freeloaders add nothing to the bottom line!”   Indeed, when it comes to direct revenue per reader, everybody who buys a book from Alice chips in around $15, buyers of Alice’s e-books pay around $12, and people who download Alice’s apps pay around $6 a pop.  People who visit Alice’s website, on the other hand, pay approximately nothing.  Isn’t it thus completely contrary to your own interest, downright crazy, to offer free content that drives people away the paid products?

If we were dealing only with printed books, the answer would of course be “yes”.  If Bob started giving away their books for free, they would quickly conquer the market and demolish Alice’s sales.  But they cannot do this sustainably, because it costs real money to print and distribute books, and that’s why the price of a printed travel guide from any publisher has converged to around $15.

But in the digital world, once you have created a piece of content, there is virtually no cost to distributing an additional copy of it.  The equilibrium price is thus zero, and if you don’t distribute your content at that price, somebody else will, and they’ll eat you alive. That’s why Bob is already busily kneecapping Alice’s (already fairly pathetic) app sales by offering their own city apps for free; and that’s why the biggest threat to Alice is not Bob, but Charlie Digital, whose travel website gets more readers every day than Alice gets in a year.


Millions of readers per year, version 2

And the kicker?  Charlie, better known as TripAdvisor, made a profit of $177 million last year and is tracking to improve on that this year — and it pulled off this trick without charging for any of its content.

Keep reading for part 2, in which we’ll take a look at why getting readers to pay for their content directly will prove unworkable for the vast majority of publishers, and how the creation of quality content can be funded nonetheless.

Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)

E-books will be obsolete within five years.  Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.

Last year, I bought a laptop in Singapore, and brought it with me to Australia.  It worked fine for reading the Economist online and what passes for journalism in Singapore, but one day I searched for the Sydney Morning Herald, and there were no hits: it’s as if it didn’t exist.  A little poking around revealed that to be able to view Australian sites, I had to register my browser to be in Australia, which also requires a credit card with a billing address there.  What’s more, switching countries like this would delete all my bookmarks, terminate my paid subscription to the Economist and stop me from being able to read even single issue of the Singaporean Straits Jacket.  And needless to say, the laptop is locked to prevent me from installing another browser that would allow me to get around these limits.

Does this sound ridiculous, a perverse fantasy of some balkanized Web of the dystopian future?  Nope: it’s all true, except that my “laptop” is actually an iPad and my “browser” is iTunes/iBooks.  Since my iTunes account has a Singaporean billing address, the Kindle application does not show up in my search results.  If I switch countries, I will lose access to everything I’ve previously downloaded.  And if I do bite the bullet and switch to Australia, a good chunk of apps, music and more on offer will no longer be available on iTunes, iBooks or Amazon, and I’ll pay around 50% extra on what remains.  But I chose not to, and thus didn’t buy 3 or 4 books I wanted to, because their publishers would not sell them to me.

Why?  Because publishers insist on selling e-books the way they sell printed books, and customers simply don’t figure in the equation.

Now, breathtaking stupidity like this is commonly attributed to digital rights management (DRM), and Lord knows there’s plenty of idiocy involved in there as well.  Fortunately, Charlie Stross has already eviscerated that particular sacred cow of the publishing industry (see here and here), so I’ll focus on what’s actually causing my problem: publishing rights.

On the Web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd.  Cyberspace is flat, after all, just computers talking to computers.  You, the reader, do not need to concern yourself with where these electrons on your screen are coming from, and neither do I, their publisher, need to care where they are going.  And when somebody attempts to artificially block those electrons — say, China and its Great Firewall — it’s the kind of the thing that the US Congress and the World Trade Organization get worked up about.

But in the print publishing industry, publishing rights for different countries and languages are both standard practice and a big deal. Printed books have to be moved around on pallets in trucks, and since micromanaging physical distribution in the UK would be hard and expensive for a publisher in the US, it make a lot of sense for the US publisher to cut a deal with a UK counterpart: I give you the right to some content, you print the books and distribute them, and we share the profits.  (As always, it’s actually much more complicated that, and Stross has a readable short primer on that too.)

So when e-books rolled along with the promise to obliterate barriers to distribution, the publishing industry was faced with either changing everything they do, or sticking to what they’ve always done.  Naturally, they opted to circle wagons, stick their fingers in their ears and pretend digital is print.

  • Digital makes copying free.
    • Reaction: Try to block digital copying by imposing DRM.
  • Digital eliminates the constraints of geography from distribution.
    • Reaction: Try to preserve regional publishing monopolies by imposing artificial geographical limits on digital distribution.
  • General-purpose Web browsers change rapidly and allow the user full control.
    • Reaction: Build single-purpose “e-readers” that only allow reading e-books, preferably tightly locked into a monopoly vendor’s authorized distribution channel.
  • Digital formats on the Web are wild, woolly and evolve unpredictably.
    •  Reaction: Try to make e-books resemble physical books by kneecapping them with incompatible “standards” like ePub, created by the publishing industry to serve its own interests.

ePub is an instructive case.  The current de facto standard, version 2, is essentially XHTML 1.1, a W3C standard dating to 2001, with a sprinkle of limited  CSS2 (1998) and layers of proprietary cruft added on top.  This means most e-books are using technology that was cutting edge fourteen years ago, and thus lack even rudimentary features like absolute positioning, which allows making pages look the same on all devices.

Anointed successor ePub 3 was released in late 2011, now encapsulating HTML5 instead, if with a long list of incompatible “extensions, enhancements, deviations and constraints“.  However, nobody’s using it yet, because there are no devices on the market that support it and, e-book readers being single-purpose hardware, you can’t just update them to the latest Firefox to get support.  The only device out there with something like it is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, whose proprietary KF8 format is kinda-sorta-but-not-really in line with ePub 3, so publishers have to repackage everything twice.  Remember the Internet Explorer vs Netscape “browser wars” back in 1995 or so?  That’s where e-book formats are today.

Let’s recap.  Customers today are expected to buy into a format that locks down their content into a silo, limits their purchasing choices based on where their credit card happens to have been registered, is designed to work best on devices that are rapidly becoming obsolete, and support only a tiny subset of the functionality available on any modern website.  Nonetheless, publishers are seeing their e-book sales skyrocket and congratulate themselves on a job well done.  How come?

Because right now, they have no choice.  If I want to read a digital copy of Country Driving today, my options are to either bend over to HarperCollins or to go pound sand.  But once publishers start breaking ranks (as they are already doing) and major authors start to self-publish (as they are already doing), the illusion of e-books being a necessary simulacrum of printed books will start to dissipate.

What will replace them?  The same medium that already killed off the encyclopedia, the telephone directory and the atlas: the Web.  For your regular linear fiction novel, or even readable tomes of non-fiction, a no-frills PDF does the job just fine and Lonely Planet has been selling its travel guidebooks and phrasebooks a chapter at a time, no DRM or other silliness, as PDFs for years now.  For more complicated, interactive, Web-like stuff, throw away the artificial shackles of ePub and embrace the full scope of HTML5, already supported by all major browsers and usable right now by several billion people.   (Check out the Financial Times web app for a sneak preview of what’s already possible.)  Chuck in offline support, an embryonic but increasingly usable core part of HTML5, and you can even read the “book” (website) offline.

The shift will not be instant, and there’s still a good couple of years of life left in the e-book market before the alternatives work out the kinks of presentation, distribution and retailing.  But e-readers will be obsolete in a few years, and once they’re gone, the sole weak advantage an e-book has over its future replacements will be gone.  Any publisher banking on e-books being around 5 years from now is in for a rude surprise.