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The Elephant in the Room Is a Phone

Banksy art piece, painted elephant.

“The Elephant in the Room”, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Bit Boy

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
Device PC Smart phone
Target customer Libraries Individuals
Nature of content Fixed Dynamic
Market characteristics Mature Growing
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.

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.


23 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room Is a Phone

  1. “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?”

    Amen, brother! Amen indeed. Nicely done!!

    Posted by Ann Michael | Feb 12, 2015, 8:30 am
  2. I came across a bit of a surprise concerning the blurring of the mobile ecosystem after I bought my younger daughter a Chromebook for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with these they’re ostensibly a laptop that doesn’t have a desktop, but instead stores and computes primarily in the cloud. At around $250 for a higher-end model, and built of tough plastic, they’re a great choice for kids who can’t be trusted with an expensive laptop, and who don’t use applications so much as apps and the web. My daughter uses it primarily to practice programming on and for that, it’s perfect. But occasionally she wants to stream a cartoon or TV show and it was in attempting to do that that we got a very strange error message. Time Warner is rolling out their own streaming service for their cable content, and when my daughter tried to stream one of her favorite cartoons through her Chrome browser she got an error message stating that the service wasn’t available for phones yet. This confused her, and me at first, and then I remembered that the Chromebook’s operating system was a variant of the Android operating system, so to Time Warner’s servers, my daughter’s laptop was an Android device, which is typically a phone.

    With the ubiquity of wireless, I can imagine that the blurring of phones, tablets, and laptops will continue, especially considering the attractive price point and durability of machines like the various Chromebook models. And unless a college student is in a field that requires a lot of processing, Chromebooks can be really useful on campus for most classes, so I imagine their adoption is going to increase in the academy. Something to keep in mind when thinking about whether anyone is going to really read your content on their phone. Sometimes a phone isn’t exactly what you, or your content servers, think it is.

    Posted by Tony Sanfilippo (@toekneesan) | Feb 12, 2015, 8:35 am
  3. Do we see here a new instantiation of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”? Just wondering, though, if there is any evidence of widespread reading of monographs on mobile phones. I can understand there might be on tablets, but on the small screens of phones?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 12, 2015, 8:36 am
  4. What seems to be changing behavior is a multi-screen wireless infrastructure, which mobile is a part of, but not dominating. Desktop and laptop still dominate, but the wireless mobile zone allows for time-shifting behaviors. These behaviors are what we need to understand. Joe, you make many good points about the business differences and opportunities, but how users are responding to these really matters. I see people using mobile in different settings in different ways. In a car? Call or long-form audio. On a train and standing? Texting and social. On a train and sitting? Books or music. On a plane without wifi? Books or music. On a plane with wifi? Depends on whether you have a laptop and your company will reimburse you.

    Understanding users is to me key to understanding where the opportunities are. This is vital area to understand. Users are going to define the value and direction of mobile. If we try to figure this out with pure brainpower from the ivory tower, we will be wrong, late, or both.

    Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 12, 2015, 9:02 am
    • My wife is way ahead of me techno-wise and she uses her iPhones about two hours a day, mostly before she boots up her computer and after shutdown, morning coffee and evening tea, or when in the car. She delights (and despairs) in pointing out those websites that do not work, of which there seem to be many. I cling to my iPad.

      Posted by David Wojick | Feb 12, 2015, 11:53 am
    • Kent makes some great points (Joe too, no surprises in either case). One of the behaviors our user research identified underlines his points: we’ve been calling this behavior “re-searching.” In interviews conducted within a few minutes of users accessing JSTOR on a mobile device, they described how they’d run a specific search on a mobile device – sometimes, yes, while in “on the go” scenarios like Kent describes, but just as often, interestingly, at home within reach of a desktop or laptop – to identify an article or book that might be useful to them. They would then run the exact same search on another device – sometimes a tablet for reading, sometimes a desk- or laptop – to find the exact same article. It’s one reason that when the JSTOR Labs team built a phone app that lets you search using a phone’s camera — JSTOR Snap ( — we focused entirely on the discovery process and just offered a simple “email this list” feature to reduce the need for re-searching.

      Which leads me to my main point: I prefer your arguments when they’re combined. If we can understand from our users what they need from content and when and where, then we can design both new user experiences and new forms of content. The two really aren’t separate – the experience and the content should be as inseparable as form and function.

      Posted by Alex Humphreys | Feb 13, 2015, 11:46 am
  5. As usual, Joe Esposito is right on, or ahead of target. I still, however, have major problems with the notion of publishing as an “ecosystem,” a natural environment amenable to interventions. I know this was picked up by major funders as a workable description; but to my mind publishing is more like a commonwealth model, built on social contracts between autonomous agents and thus far more dependent upon the convergence of mutual interest: not interventions or observations. How to discover, identify and work with this interests seems to have escaped most players and their funders.

    Posted by Ronald G. Musto | Feb 12, 2015, 9:36 am
  6. Smart phones tend to get lumped together with tablets, as you point out. This blinds us to a critical dynamic in the growth of e-publishing in new and growing markets, where smart phones are often the only web-connected device that folks own. If one is interested in the growth of the English-language market for published content and commerce, then one has to look at smart phones as a distinct disruptive device.

    Posted by Peter Turner | Feb 12, 2015, 2:43 pm
    • I think one reason phones get lumped together with tablets is the fact that they are converging, both in size and in targeted content. Phones are getting bigger, tablets are getting smaller, and they’re increasingly doing the same things. I half-expect both of them to disappear as distinct entities within five years or so, with all of us eventually carrying around seven- or eight-inch phoblets with full-size detachable keyboards.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 12, 2015, 6:21 pm
      • What’s missing here is the increasing development of voice interaction (Siri, Cortana etc). How will this play out in a mobile scholarly world. Will you even need detachable keyboards? Will you even need to get them out of your pocket if you can speak directly into them (or even just ‘to’ them – freaky) through voice recognition?

        Imagine a surgeon in theatre connected to a robotic nurse asking for the scissors. Then calling up a quick review of the procedure from the video journal of complex surgery on a mobile screen, because the patient presents an unexpected challenge.

        What about watches (aka wearables) – what effect will they have? The screens might be enough to read content lists, choose articles to save to your linked mobile device to read later.

        Posted by Martin | Feb 13, 2015, 4:44 am
        • I suspect the detachable keyboard has a long life ahead of it — if for no other reason, because it’s awkward to dictate email during a meeting.🙂

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 13, 2015, 10:51 am
  7. Thanks Joe. I couldn’t agree more!

    Posted by Byron Laws | Feb 12, 2015, 3:45 pm
  8. Have your siri call my echo, I don’t actually talk directly to anyone.

    Posted by William Kissler | Feb 13, 2015, 3:11 pm
  9. The design issue is simple but deep. Web pages look like multi-column magazines with up to a hundred links per page. This content mass simply does not translate to a 2 to 3 inch screen, so some sort of structure is called for, but what? Alix Vance and I talk about this here:

    Posted by David Wojick | Feb 13, 2015, 5:18 pm
  10. I use Atavist/ Creativist platform for a mobile nursing journal, N21. Enhanced with multimedia, optimized for mobile. Take a peek here. Issue 4 about end-of-life care is the most recent. We grow our readership organically, though, because content is dynamic and not eligible to participate in national indexing services like MedLine.

    Posted by Sue | Feb 17, 2015, 8:35 am
  11. Maybe you are focussing on a subset of what I would think of as scholarly communication, though you don’t say so. I can see that some reference material, and factual stuff may well want to migrate to the smart phone and be formatted in new ways, but surely there are large segments of the academy where what’s wanted is not a quick fact check or a calculation but an extended discussion of a topic. Hard to see how philosophy for example would be naturally suited to the sort of cell phone environment you describe. Of course I know that you can — I do — read academic books on a cell phone, but that’s not what you are talking about is it. For that sort of reading the question “What kind of material will the new ecosystem call for and how do I make business sense out of it?” doesn’t come up.
    Sure there will be new uses and new approaches, but much of what scholarly publishers do remains doggedly the same as it always has. After all a majority of book content is still being bought in print form, and I don’t believe that that’s because the audience is Luddite. Maybe the biggest challenge publishers are facing these days is the need to prepare work for the print and the online environments simultaneously.

    Posted by rhollick | Feb 22, 2015, 5:00 pm
  12. Your post inspired me to write one of my own, which offers some ideas for how scholarly publishers might exploit mobile platforms.

    Posted by Charles Day | Feb 23, 2015, 9:52 am
  13. Your post inspired me to write one of my own, which offers some ideas for how publishers can exploit mobile phones. Here’s one idea:

    “My final app idea is more general. Publishers have access to vast amounts of bibliographical data, such as download rates, citation rates, keyword frequency, and so on. As a science journalist, the app I’d really like to see is one that draws on all those data to monitor trends in research. For example, users could receive an alert when the number of papers about a new material, say germanane, surpasses a threshold, when a physics paper hits 100 citations, or when the user’s own h-index increases.”

    And here’s a link to the full post:

    Posted by Charles Day | Feb 23, 2015, 9:56 am
    • You’re aware, i assume, that industry has a strong interest in NOT having such data revealed about what THEIR researchers are doing, which is why the kind of aggregate data the CCC collects from its corporate users is NOT shared with anyone else.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 23, 2015, 11:54 am
      • Good point. But it still might be possible for publishers to disclose stats based on bibliographical data without threatening their business. For example, the answer to the question, Which superconducting materials are the most popular in basic research? doesn’t depend on any one publisher’s output – just the total number of papers about, say, niobium nitride from all journals.

        Posted by Charles Day | Feb 23, 2015, 12:19 pm


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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