John Wilbanks, Creative Commons
John Wilbanks, Creative Commons

Fifteen years ago would anyone have imagined that Apple, a dying computer company, would come back to life by gaining control of the music business?

Why did that happen?  They focused on the customer.

John Wilbanks, VP at Creative Commons, and leader of their Science Project, was the morning keynote at SSP IN.  His point with the Apple example?  Traditionally, publishing has focused on the container not the customer: the article, the book, the journal.  It’s time to shift the focus to the consumer.

Unfortunately, many in scholarly publishing, and publishing overall, are incrementally innovating around the container.  While commending Elsevier for their R & D efforts, Wilbanks observed that even the Article of the Future looks a lot like the container of the past.

The problem with focusing on the container is that the network is commoditizing the container, which will be digitized and copied.  In fact, digital technologies are constructed for distribution and copying. Concentrating on the container puts publishers in the business of spending time and money attempting to prevent copying.  Ironically, in a network economy, it’s the proliferation of copies that makes content more valuable. But this shifts the value from the content layer to surrounding layers:

When a layer gets commoditized, value is created through proprietary services in adjacent layers.  Clay Christensen

Focusing on the article misses the shift away from the article.  It’s coming, Wilbanks believes.  The article is a representation of the scientific process from which it resulted.  All of the content around that process, the data on which the process relied, and the interactions of those involved represent the true value.  In fact, the publisher that enables the integration, annotation, and federation of those sources may find themselves creating the most value and the most success.

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Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

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25 Thoughts on "John Wilbanks: It’s the Customer, Not the Container — SSP IN Keynote"

I’m not at the talk, but I find this confusing. Apple succeeds because they focus on the customer? Apple, the company famous for not listening to their customers, the company that adheres to Henry Ford’s philosophy of “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black”? Perhaps those at the talk can fill in the details of what is meant by “focusing on the customer” because in my eye, that’s the opposite of what Apple does.

Steve Jobs tells his customers what they want. He tells them they don’t want floppy drives, they don’t want removable batteries, despite their protests. He tells them they don’t want cheap netbooks or an OS licensed to other manufacturers.

Apple succeeds because they focus not on the customer, but instead on design and quality. But those are dictated by the company’s own internal vision, not by what customers are demanding. Seems to me that creating a high quality product with a great user interface is a good strategy for publishers, but I’d worry here that the speaker might consider this “the container”.

I would be very interested to see Mr. Willbanks make any investment in creative work with the principles he espouses.

To the first comment, I meant more that Apple realized that consumers would respond to having more power over their music libraries, not simply being forced to buy CDs to get one song they liked. It was the focus on the individual consumer of music that mattered, not the container in which the music was transported. I did not mean “focus on the user” in the sense of “listen to the user” in the Apple analogy – more the corporate focus on the individual as the center of the business, whereas in the music business the end user wasn’t really the focus. The format was the focus.

The changing world is a lot more complicated than e-books and print on demand, both of which represent simple digitizations of analog formats. It’s going to require a lot of painful adjustments to business models and a lot of brave technology work. Thinking about the scholar as both an author and a searcher of the literature + data, as a point of focus, strikes me as a better strategy than building a business model on being a copyright cop. That’s the service that will drive longterm revenue in a world in which open access is a mandated policy…which was the general point of my talk today. Ask a music company if they could go back and do it over, would they focus on the individual listener or on shipping plastic discs in the late 1990s? A similar shift is coming. We don’t know who wins, or how, but it is indeed coming.

As regards the second comment, I manage a budget that has put over $500,000 into creating open data products for integration into scientific literature, and standards for integrating data and literature together. That open data technology has been picked up by Microsoft’s Bioloit plugin for Word, among other places. We’re not the only ones doing this – see the Science Collaboration Framework, among others.

These are dollars our investors know they won’t get back – we’re a non profit – yet they see the value, again and again, in the creation of open systems that can scale. If I were a for profit, I’d be wondering why I wasn’t getting any of that revenue. But that’s just me.

Thanks for the comments, and feel free to contact me directly if you’ve got more questions.

Thanks for the clarification. My initial reading here was something very un-Apple like. Your point is a good one, we’re all going to have to adjust as technologies change and new opportunities change the way science is published.

That said, I’m not sure Apple is the best example here. They didn’t transform the nature of the product at all, really what they did was take the already existing product and repackage it. They’re selling the exact same product as is available on CDs, just a lower quality version available a la carte through a different delivery medium (a new container for the same old product). It’s not particularly transformative–in fact, in contrast to what you’re suggesting, they’re selling the customer less, not more. I would argue that the lesson we can learn from Apple is that a significant amount of the population is willing to pay for convenience and a good user experience (though not most people, given the vastly higher numbers of illegal downloads that take place). It should also be noted that CD sales still dominate the market (65% versus 35% for downloads, though that’s likely to change in the near future). Also, Apple’s motivation for the iTunes store was not to profit from it, but to use it as a vehicle for selling their more profitable hardware. I’m not sure that’s a business model most publishers can emulate.

The closest equivalent I guess would be forgoing subscriptions and issues and just selling individual papers as downloadable pdf files. Companies like PubGet and DeepDyve are already attempting to do this, though I worry that the economics of grant-based science make this a lot less convenient (how do you easily charge 99 cents to a grant over and over again?) and cost-effective (is it cheaper for a lab to contribute a small amount to a general institution-wide fund for journal subscriptions or pay-per-use?).

I think data integration and archiving is a fascinating problem, though somewhat intractable at the moment given the wild variations in the types of data collected from person to person within a lab, let alone between labs. I do think we’ll always rely on the scientific paper in some fashion though–we’re a storytelling animal, and that’s how we process information. It’s a lot more convenient for you to tell me the story of your work than it is for me to dig through 20 terabytes of time lapse movies of cells. Watson and Crick’s paper on the double helix is a lot more informative for most readers than the X-ray diffraction images that led them to their conclusion.

All good points. I don’t want to overstate the metaphor – it was three slides out of 140 – but my point is, I hope, a little more complex than you’re noting here.

People like mp3 players because it gives them portable control of their music. CDs don’t do that. Apple realized that if they gave them a beautifully designed product, they’d overlook the quality, control freak, and other aspects of the Apple model. And we do.

My point is that by thinking of the music itself as something that people wanted more control over (even if that control came with lots of hair on it, as it does) and then by focusing on good design, Apple gutted an industry that was deeply entrenched. The second point is that the music industry’s obsessive focus on the container technologies (think back to SCMS and DAT tapes) essentially created the world that apple could exploit.

The containers change, the bits stay the same. But apple’s containers gave a lot more power to the customer in the sense the customer cared about – mixing, ripping, burning, if you will.

The question is, what’s rip / mix / burn for scholarly publishing?

I don’t think it’s PDF.

I also pointed out in my talk that people love stories, and hate machine readable work. My argument was that publishers should be selling the service of translation to and from the data web – and making money off of search…you can see an overly long blog post on it at my blog.

Like t’other David, I wasn’t at the talk. Having read the comments I’ve still got some issues over the Apple metaphor that was used. I think Apple just happened to be the right company at the right time in the right place. There were many MP3 players – Apple made the process of ripping etc easy unlike the other competitors.

They still make very little money off the MP3s they sell so that isn’t the focus for them. As David C points out, it’s the hardware. Always has been, always will be. Even more now with the iPhone – Cue “Your company – there’s an App for that” (Oh look the Apple App store – container)

Apple has a container and trust me here, they work very hard indeed to keep it locked down and very much under their control – the containers name? iTunes. Forget the iPod, you can take an iPod, gut the software and turn it into a format agnostic player that’ll do far more than the Apple version ever did. iTunes however is a way of locking you in to the Apple way of doing things. It’s a container and its proprietary and as we can see right now with their battle with the Palm Pre, they are defending it with all their might. As someone who regularly has to download their 100Mb software package to quell the irritating update notices, I’ll take the statement that they focuss on the consumer under advisement. They do so when it suits them. They are very good at PR and they are very good at walking the tightrope of acceptable behaviour.

The second thought I have with respect to the customer vs container is neatly encapsulated in this article by Scott Karp:

Packaging and containers are aspects of the same thing. So as publishers we had better spend time on the package, and here you are right if you say that focussing on the consumer is important. Our little wrinkle is that the consumer and the purchaser are not the same people in many cases… That makes it hard to design/implement/measure and iterate because the connection between us and the people we serve is complex and often less than direct. Google, Amazon, Apple et al, do have a direct connection, so observation and testing is at least much easier for them. (BTW – Kindle – that’s a container… trying to lock both the publishers AND the consumers into Amazonworld).

And finally, I wasn’t there, so I may well be missing the nuances of the points over data, but in my experience scientists at least guard their data with a tenacity that verges on the maniacal. Postdocs guard their stuff from other postdocs – In The Same Lab… And competing teams? Data is released through gritted teeth, the juicy stuff is usually kept well hidden. I’m not quite sure how publishers are going to be able to get to those datasets (the really useful stuff) and even if we can, I expect the “data should be free” argument to start up about 30 seconds after a stock exchange listed publisher releases a product.

I think Amazon may represent a the most innovative service based on the individual user. While it doesn’t make any attempt to break down the container walls and sells whole books, even with the Kindle, it has offered up all manner of personalization services one after the other to see which would actually stick.

Amazon has been the master of creating and offering personalization even when the user hasn’t asked for it. And many consumers now completely rely on the customer reviews, comments, and rankings.

Thinking outside the container in scholarly publishing should indeed go beyond print-on-demand and similar services, but e-commerce does depend on their being a saleable unit of some sort and users would have to be ready to consume and pay for brand new saleable units other than article or chapter. Clearly experimentation is needed in this area.

The emergence of Apple as a music distributor has done NOTHING to change the “container” format of 3-5 minutes of music performed by an artist. The individual “song” is a superior analogy to the “article” since it reflects the intellectual and branding characteristics of the work. Just as “songs” have survived format changes, so will “articles”. That’s not to say that value won’t be added in other ways, as pointed out in the slide presentation.


Again, I’m afraid the focus on Apple is here in the comments, not in my talk. Apple’s an example. Amazon’s a good one too. Facebook. You’ll notice that none of these are open platforms. Craigslist is another good example. Also not an open platform (try to scrape it and see how fast your work is disabled).

Part of my argument was that there was a very good chance that a focus on the journal-as-container creates an opening. Someone who came up with a newer, more useful container for content could take over – and impose control. That publishers who now run their industry…might not. I was talking to publishers about this stuff, remember. That was the sum and total of the Apple analogy: you need to take a look at your container and realize you’re selling knowledge containers to libraries, and your future is selling knowledge containers to scholars.

I think publishers in scholarship are lasered in on preventing copies of PDFs from moving around. Thus, they tell libraries (who tell me and give me copies of the contracts) that their faculty can’t put a copy of their own PDF in the library repository. That’s insane. That’s a focus on the PDF as the container of the knowledge. Not on making the knowledge itself more valuable.

There will be new containers for knowledge. I tend to think they’ll be RDF-based. Others disagree. But they won’t be PDFs. The new container may be closed or open (my instinct is that it will be semi-open, like Facebook or Kindle or iPod, but deeply patented and controlled by one company). But if a publisher is focused on preventing copies of PDF it’s deeply unlikely that the publisher will be that one company.

The crux of my argument was that working towards the new container as an industry dramatically increases the ability of the industry itself to resist the emergence of one company applying this control. Because the companies that want to apply the control also talk to me, and none of them are really into the whole open thing. They all want to be Facebook for science, and implicit in that is that they want to dominate the network.

I would rather move to talking about those 47 minutes of the talk rather than the first 3 minutes, but that’s how a blog conversation can play out.

Sorry for starting the Apple firestorm. We Mac Fanboys have a hard time not staring into our own navels obsessively.

I agree that pdf is a deeply limited container. Many of the exciting new technologies available are incompatible with this static and disconnected file format. That said, over time, markets tend to gravitate toward cheap, low quality solutions rather than fancier, feature-laden products that are both more complicated and expensive. The dominance of the inferior sounding mp3 file format in the music industry is a good example. I worry that pdf is the academic publishing world’s version of mp3, and like mp3, it’s going to be very hard to dislodge as the standard currency of the field.

I’ve got a lengthy post about “good enough” products and where such trends may be leading us that should be up here at the Scholarly Kitchen next week.

I’d actually love to keep the dialogue going. This has forced me to think more about how to clearly lay out the message I’m trying to communicate, and that’s a Good Thing.

I’m working on a post about how a community effort to create a decent, open container might be the best immune system to ward off a crappy but flashy closed container. Most industries use open as a response to dominance (Android is the most obvious example here) but for once I’d like to see the established industry head off the enclosure at the pass…

What is mix / rip / burn for scholarly publishing? That’s not hard- read / discuss / write or maybe listen / discuss / talk. Apple decided there was a role for a company that would focus on helping people listen to music, and if you think about it, there wasn’t any good competition. Music publishers, MP3 player manufacturers, even record stores did not think of themselves as existing to help people listen to music.

For scholarly publishing, the challenge is to be focused on helping scholars do scholarship. It’s been several decades since the journal article was the main vehicle for scholars to do scholarship, and a lot of scholarly publishers haven’t caught on to that fact. The internet has done more for scholarship than enabling e-journals, it has also enabled direct communication between scholars via e-mail and chat. The result is an increasing need to go and meet people in person, in lab visits and at conferences.

I think that rather than thinking about producing journals and journal articles, scholarly publishers should be thinking about producing communication communities. These should include conferences, channels, and archival media. If they continue to be focused on tenure committee credentials, they risk being irrelevant as new generations get tenure.

I’ve written a related article at

You said it better and cleaner than I was saying it. That’s what I meant by containers shifting.

It’s still knowledge. It still needs to be assigned a trusted brand, it still needs date stamps and lots of other bells and whistles. All of those things can be services. But the focus on the journal container and the article container is a focus that actively blocks a company from making the shift.

Eric, I agree that publishers should be thinking about producing communication communities. In our line of business, we are seeing current and potential clients recognizing the growing importance of annual meeting and conference presentations, abstracts, posters, proceedings, etc. – what we collectively call ‘Event Knowledge’. This could also include event Tweets, virtual Q&A sessions, and Second Life.

Some STM societies have embraced the growing importance of event knowledge and are exploring ways to increase access, improve discoverability, and to wrap social networking around this content. Others remain cautious, citing journal prior publication policies as obstacles to expanding the reach of their meeting and conference knowledge.

That “journal container” remains a significant obstacle that slows many organizations from meeting the rapidly changing communication behaviors and information needs of the markets they serve.

Well, I was busy at the rest of SSP IN for most of this conversation, but it came around to a great point.

John, what I thought was the meat of your talk was that there is an opportunity for layers of services to exist around a commoditized (and semi-freely available) container. All your points about integration, annotation, and federation which I just barely mentioned at the end – was what I though might spark discussion.

One reason I love the web though, is that things rarely turn out the way you think they might AND they often involve clarification of points (mostly about things you didn’t even realize could be interpreted a different way!).

And kudos to Eric! That is a great succinct explanation.

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