According to my log, I came across 150 references to disruptive technology this week. Or was that 1,150? It’s easy to lose count if the log itself gets disrupted by the sheer volume of claims. It is an irritating thing to find half the world running around preaching disruption (but not of their business model) even of things that no one truly wants disrupted. (The water supply, anybody? Representative democracy? You see, I have this cool new app…). There is, of course, far less disruptive innovation than many say. (Repeat ten times slowly: Most innovations are sustaining, not disruptive, and most of them are developed by large established organizations.) But truly disruptive changes do exist; the problem is cutting through the hype to see them.
This is why I am surprised that few people working in scholarly communications are paying attention to the huge monster that is stomping around the room and trumpeting a war cry. I refer to the Pachydermic Majesty of mobile computing, the spawn of Steve Jobs, which has transformed the infrastructure of digital media. Just about everybody who reads this blog touches a smart phone dozens, hundreds of times a day. But the implications of the smart phone have not yet been built into the fabric of scholarly communications. This will come; the question is who will do it.
Let’s back up a bit and think of publishing as an ecosystem. In the print era we had a network of suppliers, distributors, libraries, individual customers, and so forth. Some of us still remember all those elements, many of which continue to operate today, albeit in diminished form. Over the years digital technology began to make inroads, initially in production and inventory management, later in marketing and distribution. I don’t think anyone can claim that there has been no disruption (bookstores went out of business, vendors closed shop, professional societies tied their fortunes to large publishers that marketed Big Deals), but what is even more striking is how brilliantly a small number of players navigated through this disruption and came out ahead of it. While doing so they managed to strengthen their business model by commanding a larger and larger portion of library purchasing, in this respect building on the marketing model that was already in place for print. There is a paradox here: the library has become more important as a purchasing agent even as it is feeling its grip weaken on its centrality to the academic enterprise.
All this transition–from print to digital–took place in the world that Bill Gates built. All these documents were written on PCs, edited on PCs, moved around with PCs. Even when the Internet became available to us, we still worked on PCs, and we are still publishing in the PC era. You can check out the market share of PCs and mobile devices on your smart phone.
Since 2007, however, the year both the iPhone and the Kindle launched, the balance of power has been shifting to the mobile world. I was reminded of this forcefully when I watched a YouTube video of Adam Hyde of PLOS last week. Hyde made a presentation to the Books in Browsers conference in the fall in which he talked about the development of new workflows, the limitations of PDFs, the accursed Microsoft Word, and the need to move to the more supple HTML 5, which, among its other attributes, can resize content for the small screen of mobile devices. PLOS, like other major STM publishers, is taking a step, or rather a half-step, toward the growing number of mobile devices in the hands of its users.
The mobile world, however, is going to be a different ecosystem from that for PCs. The first thing to do is to check out the numbers. I recommend a recent piece by Thad McIlroy, which provides some highly persuasive statistics. Thad’s post is taken from a white paper he wrote, which is chock full of data and its implications for some segments of publishing; this represents as good a summary as any of how the new ecosystem will not be the same as the old one.
Some academic publishers may protest: But we are already working with mobile devices! We use responsive design, we push RSS feeds out to any device, we have a tablet edition, our social media program is available for iOS and Android! These are all good things to do, but what they are not are fundamental changes. The emerging mobile ecosystem will be about more than a new format and new means to deliver brief news bulletins and marketing messages. Mobile destabilizes everything.
I first wrote about this in 2010 on the Kitchen in “The Face-down Publishing Paradigm,” but in retrospect I underestimated the implications of mobile technology. What is increasingly clear is that mobile differs from the PC world across many attributes:
|Attributes||Current ecosystem||Mobile ecosystem|
|Nature of content||Fixed||Dynamic|
|Market leaders||Elsevier, PLOS, et al||Wide open|
|End-user information||Little or none||Almost infinite|
Note that none of these attributes even includes the most obvious differentiator, screen size. So while publishers are trying to figure out how to put their content on a phone or tablet, the mobile paradigm is working along multiple variables.
In order to play in the evolving ecosystem, publishers naturally begin with what they have, and that means that the obvious first step is to take formal content and reformat it for small screens. But mobile platforms are really crying out for different kinds of content, not just articles, and that’s the real challenge: What kind of material will the new ecosystem call for and how do I make business sense out of it?
This brings us to the red herring of the mobile ecosystem, the tablet. The tablet is a great thing for many reasons, but one reason, unfortunately, is that it could lull a publisher to underestimate the implications of the evolving mobile platforms. The screen size of a table is seductive; it sits somewhere between the size of a beloved printed page and the display of a PC. This means that publishers have an opportunity to think of the tablet as just another format, just another place to present their content. But smart phones go beyond this–not only because their screens are smaller, but because we carry them everywhere; we are never without them. This ubiquity brings new properties to bear on publishing (e.g., constant updating, variations invoked by the user’s own location, etc.), even as it challenges the notion that the coin of the realm, the article, is pretty much the same whether it was written in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first.
We don’t yet know what a fully mobile ecosystem will look like, nor has anyone staked out precisely what role publishers will play in it, though whatever publishers do will have to participate in the attributes listed in the table above. What is intriguing to me is that the practices of open access publishing are as susceptible to disruption here as are those of traditional companies. Mobile, in other words, is a much, much bigger thing than the rivalry between traditional and OA models. Somewhere an entrepreneur is sharpening her sword.