As the world of computing moves to the face-down paradigm, publishing will evolve to accommodate the limitations and capabilities of the new platform. Herein lies a great new growth opportunity. Publishers, take heed, as growth does not come to this industry every day.
Some definitions are in order. For many years now, people working with computers have distinguished between “lean forward” and “lean back” paradigms. As I write this post, I am leaning forward on my laptop in an airport. I lean forward to use the machine and interact with it aggressively. I am creating content. I type, I edit, I save what I have written to Google Docs, I look things up in online dictionaries and Wikipedia.
But when I get home late tonight, I look forward to leaning back in front of a large TV screen, where I will watch a streaming video. My interaction will be limited — a touch on the “pause” button of the Roku remote control, perhaps hitting “mute” if a call comes in. Leaning forward is the paradigm for personal computing and content creation, leaning back is for leisure and content consumption. The former typically takes place in offices and other workplaces (and what is not a workplace nowadays?), the latter takes place in a den, typically in front of a home entertainment system. The iPad represents an entirely new category of computing device, designed for modest interactions for its lean-back users.
Mobile computing, on the other hand, is performed when we look down — face-down — at our smartphones. This is different from using a phone as, well, a phone: handset pressed to the ear, we look forward, away from the device. Face-down computing can be a curiously unsocial activity — attending a meeting, you may find that most people have Blackberries and iPhones in their hands; they face not at the other meeting participants but downward at the screen to check their mail or a news update. Face-down computing represents a new and rapidly growing use-case. After all, it is only in the last few years that smartphones have become ubiquitous. A publishing plan put together five years ago would not even have addressed today’s fasting-growing category. Think about this the next time your Board asks for a five-year plan.
The face-down paradigm is more than the display of fixed text on a tiny mobile screen – -though it is that, too: Jane Austen on an Android phone, Middlemarch on an iPhone. Trade publishers have leaped to this particular opportunity: there are now hundreds of thousands of titles that can be read on a mobile device, with several competing formats and venues to choose from. On my Android phone, I have installed the apps for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, among others. It’s quite a kick to open up Moby Dick while waiting to board a plane; not a minute of time to be wasted in the clutter of my own mind with Melville at my disposal. Thar she blows!
Face-down publishing is more than the display of fixed text because mobile phones all participate in Cloud computing — that is, they are end-user (edge-of-network) devices that connect to a large network of computers located somewhere on the Internet. While some processing takes place on the device in the user’s hand, the heavy lifting takes place elsewhere, at a huge, impersonal data center. Publishing for a face-down audience means thinking about how best to use that data center and all the processing power that comes with it. Jane Austen on a tiny screen is but the tip of the iceberg (or the one visible point in the Cloud). Behind that mobile device lies a battery of computers, software, and content, all waiting for the creative act that gives us a new product or service. Think about all the critical commentary on Austen that has accumulated over the years; think of all the works that allude to Austen or are derived from her work; imagine the movie Clueless embedded in the margin of Emma, its progenitor. And while you’re at it, imagine a service that helps out with all these literary allusions for someone who had the misfortune of not majoring in English.
Let’s fast forward a bit and imagine a publisher that, like Google, has amassed a tremendous amount of data in the Cloud. Let’s also assume that some of today’s technical glitches have been solved (no dropped calls on AT&T, for example, and greater bandwidth for mobile devices). Whether the publisher is Elsevier or Scholastic, the question is, How can I augment the text now appearing on the screen by taking advantage of the huge investment I have made in the data center? Now that I have stored all that content, what can I actually do with it?
The first thing a publisher will do is provide more frequent updates. This has a number of benefits. To name two: first, by providing updates, the text can be sold on a subscription basis rather than as a one-time sale; second, frequent updating undermines attempts to copy the text without authorization. Or a third benefit: with copyright pirates stymied by frequent updates, publishers will have a smaller need, or none, to use DRM software (copy protection), which is a hassle for users. (I developed some of these ideas previously in “The Processed Book.”)
It will be objected, however, that providing updates costs something: people to write, people to edit. For this reason publishers will seek to come up with completely automated means of updating texts by data-mining the reservoir of content that sits in the Cloud. Once the content has been amassed and the algorithms written, the patterns derived from the data can be brought to bear on the text at the cost of electricity and bandwidth–that is, for virtually nothing. Economically this would be very attractive, as once a customer subscribes to the service, the margin for the ongoing subscription approximates 100%. And this in turn will lead publishers to explore razor-and-blade marketing plans: subsidize the original content or even give it away in the hope of getting subscribers to high-margin updates.
The face-down paradigm has our user walking about with a mobile smartphone. As she moves, the change in her location is communicated to the monitoring service; if the content of the service is geographically dependent, the display of text and images changes. But it also changes with the time of day, with the ambient temperature, with the fluctuations of her body heat. As she faces down at the screen, new developments are automatically brought to bear on the text: changes in exchange rates; the publication of new, conflicting research; comments from members of her social network; elements of her personal history and reading that are semantically linked to the text — all the world’s information, mediated by computer algorithms. Publishing is thus dynamic, performed in real-time, and is largely or at least increasingly an aspect of machine processing rather than authorial imagination.
It’s also two-way — not just the Cloud to the mobile phone, but also the phone’s sensors to the Cloud. But that is the subject of another post.