Year in Review: 5 breakthrough innovations
One in a series of posts examining the best (and worst) of 2010.
Digital media edged closer to a tipping point this year. eMarketer estimates that U.S. online advertising spending will surpass newspaper ad spend for the first time this year. The launch of Apple’s iPad tablet kicked off a new distribution channel with significant potential for magazine and newspaper publishers. New paid content models – and the technology supporting them – began to emerge, giving publishers new options for gating premium content. And social media forced us to begin thinking differently about how we optimize our content for discovery.
Here are five innovations from 2010 that changed the game for digital content publishers.
Painfully obvious, but impossible to ignore, Apple’s iPad became the cornerstone for a new generation of high-resolution, highly interactive mobile devices. The iPad was another in a long list of Apple product launches that seems to have lived up to the pre-release hype (a month before its April release, pre-orders were coming in at the rate of 25,000 per hour).
Early iPad apps from Wired and Popular Science provided the wow factor for magazine publishers, which saw a chance to recreate the “lean back” experience of print in a portable digital format. Others see an opportunity to develop new types of content-driven apps that extend the brand. There's plenty of momentum behind the hardware. One analyst predicts that Apple will ship close to 14 million iPads for the year – serving as a mere precursor to the iPad 2 and a new generation of Android and other tablets expected in 2011, and a market that Gartner predicts will surpass 200 million units by 2014.
As magazine and newspaper publishers looked for ways to re-create the print experience on tablets, startups were pushing the envelope on new content models. The most noteworthy was Flipboard, which launched its iPad app in July as the "world's first social magazine" with a modest goal: “to transform how people discover and share content by combining the beauty and ease of print with the power of social media.”
Flipboard’s aggregation approach – pulling Twitter and Facebook feeds into a magazine-like layout – was genius in its ability to let users personalize their content in a presentation-friendly format. Its methods did, however, raise early concerns about copyright; Flipboard has since spent time sidling up to publishers to help them customize their own content for the Flipboard app, with new features such as Flip Pages. Expect the momentum to continue: Apple named Flipboard as its App of the Year.
This major upgrade to the standard Web design language had a significant impact on Web and mobile app development this year, as the spec evolved, HTML5 design tools matured and browser makers increased their support for a variety of HTML5 functionality, ranging from semantic tags to geolocation.
HTML5 inspired much experimentation during the year, as designers found increasingly innovative ways to create complex images without the need for plug-ins. Apple further primed the HTML5 pump with its public dissing of Adobe’s Flash animation software, forcing publishers with an eye on iPad apps to explore new options for supporting video, graphics, and other animations.
Advertising Option icon
Self-regulation was in the spotlight as government regulators put more heat on online advertisers and publishers regarding their privacy and behavioral targeting practices. The industry’s best attempt to stave off restrictive regulation came from the Digital Advertising Alliance, in the form of a tiny icon that began appearing in select online display ads in November. The icon is symbolic – literally and figuratively – of a broad effort by a coalition of industry trade groups to self-regulate by giving consumers more transparency into the information being collected about them.
The icon is a critical step in the evolution of behavioral targeting and has laid the groundwork for initiatives such as the forthcoming Open Data Partnership, which will allow consumers to edit (or opt out of completely) the information being collected about them. Whether these moves are enough to stave off the FTC’s recommended “Do Not Track” regulation – well, that’s a topic we’re sure to pick up again in 2011.
The seeds of a new era in paid content were planted over the course of the year as new technology platforms emerged to help publishers erect full or partial paywalls. Although one paid content platform (Press+) actually launched in 2009, and another (The Content Project) won’t be available until next year, there was plenty of innovation around payment technologies this year to qualify for our list.
Journalism Online, the much-hyped venture from Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery, announced its first publishing partners in February. The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania was the first to go live with a Press+ deployment (charging for its obits), and a slow trickle of other publishers, including the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and ProPublica, have since gone public with their implementations.
For publishers, the key to these platforms is flexibility. The Content Project’s technology, for example, offers options for deploying 24-hour day passes, monthly or annual subscriptions, metered access and other hybrid offerings. Journalism Online, at last count, offered 16 “Reader Revenue” options.
For consumers, the key to payment platforms will be convenience – publishers will need to figure out the least invasive way to gate their content, or else they risk losing users, traffic and revenue. Which may explain why we’ve seen more experimentation than full-blown deployments to this point. Nevertheless, these platforms open new possibilities for publishers looking to diversify from low-margin, advertising-driven business models.