Transformation of supply channels are never pretty – emotions and corporate carnage everywhere, a few new winners, and when all settles out eventually arrive at a more productive & efficient marketplace.
Since I spent much of the second half of last year writing my first book, as you can well imagine I’ve been paying particular interest to the morphing of all things publishing, with a particular focus on these things we have traditionally called “books” – will such a thing remain, how will they be distributed, how to construct them, and so on, all culminating into the ultimate question – how best to deliver something plenty of folks will actually find valuable?
This book was been done in what may soon be the (mostly) last vestiges of the old-school model, at least circa late 2009 / early 2010 – a traditional publisher (Wiley -who have been great to work with, by the way), a traditional distribution and retailing model (with Amazon playing a prominent, though by no means exclusive part of each of these two steps), and an expected ebook edition (by Amazon for the Kindle) four to six weeks after the paper book appears.
What is interesting is that in this model (pre-iPad, more on that in a moment) Amazon has a significant amount of control over the ebook distribution channel, and of course they have been working very hard to gain more. They really stepped up their pace recently, with presumably pre-emptive moves to sweeten the pot for authors and open up the Kindle for apps in the week+ before the iPad announcement.
Apple Enters the Fray
In a peculiarly ironic turn of events I received my “page proofs” (the near-final edition of a book, with just about final formatting, content, and so forth all in place for one last review) on the very day that Apple placed a big foot right in the middle of this fight, or as the infamous Nuke LaLoosh said in Bull Durham (my second favorite baseball movie), Apple “… announced their presence with authority”.
Amazon, of course neither had nor continued to stand still. In fact, they responded very forcefully by pulling all titles from Macmillan (a big publisher who is one of Apple’s launch partners), and going so far as to remove all references to these now-banned Macmillan titles from all Kindle users’ wish lists, in addition to removing sample chapters from these titles from all Kindles. That’s right, Amazon reached out and de-licensed, removed, whacked, destroyed – you pick the term – content that it had either agreed to maintain on a customer’s behalf or had previously delivered to that same customer.
Charles Stross (a well known science fiction author with some titles published by Tor, a Macmillan subsidiary) clearly describes the battlefield, the combatants, and what’s at stake in an excellent post – well worth the read.
As Stross points out
This whole mess is basically about duelling supply chain models.
…It’s interesting to note that unlike the music industry who had to be pushed, the big publishers seem to be willing to grab a passing lifeline.
… But Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn’t need to do that.
To his last point, Amazon (in this battle with Apple) really angered many content creators (in this case authors) … a losing proposition when one is in the business of distributing content.
But I think there is an even more important point here, one which has already been and will no doubt continue to underly many disputes as cloud computing continues its inexorable path towards dominance.
The Underlying Question of Trust
This point is very simple, really.
In their fight with MacMillan and Apple, Amazon crossed two boundaries with their customers that should never have been crossed.
In particular, they 1) deleted content that had already been delivered to the customer and 2) deleted content that they were storing for their customers (the wishlists). Hard to say which was worse (both were not good), but the wishlist content is something which Amazon encouraged customers to create and is also part of the customer experience, part of why someone would presumably intend to stay with Amazon and the Kindle for content.
- Amazon has been here before – remember the incident last summer when they deleted Orwell books? – and really should have learned their lesson.
- Irony of ironies, this sort of death-grip control is precisely why Apple has received so much criticism of the iPhone app store. Yet even when Apple has removed applications from the app store, I’m pretty sure that they did not have the temerity to remove apps that were already purchased by end customers.
- Even though these examples may be minor and may even be reversible, any time a provider breaks an implicit or explicit contract – no matter how minor, and particularly when this is a remote, seemingly abstract cloud provider – it is a very pointed reminder that the end customer is at the eternal whim of the provider, and most definitely is not in control.
- Customers do not like being reminded that they are not in control, and will gravitate towards service providers who understand this fact and behave accordingly.
- Deliberate removal of content is different, and arguably more toxic than inadvertent removal of content (as from operational or technical failures).
One last thought – once a reputation for capricious removal of a customer’s content (whether already delivered or ostensibly maintained on their behalf) is earned, it will be very, very, very hard to lose.
I have no idea how this battle to establish the next dominant book distribution channel(s) will turn out, and truthfully have not even picked a favorite yet (others have opinions, of course).
What I do know, however, is that I – speaking as both a customer and a content creator – will drop any provider / channel-enabler who thinks that it is ok to break this boundary with customers, and am fairly certain that most customers will do the same.
How many occurrences will it take? Not sure, but we just don’t want to go there.
These are exciting times to be in both content creation and consumption. Many of these changes, while not seemingly directly “cloud computing”, both are enabled by and will drive much of the the near to mid term cloud computing adoption. As such, I will write on these topics from time to time.
A hopeless mess … has it really only been less than three years since mobile devices seemed like a hopeless, stale, torpid kill-zone?
Think back to the spring of 2007, when the best choices were either aging PalmOS, messaging-centric Blackberries, and the occasional Windows Mobile devices, with absolutely none able to render a decent web page.
On the off-chance that you could get a readable webpage, chances are the device itself would – particularly the PalmOS devices – would crash at really handy moments.
The whole situation was frustrating enough that there were many who wondered whether we’d ever get to a stage where any functions of these so-called “smart phones” were reliable enough to count upon … without even hoping for them to be capable enough to actually want to use.
Fortunately, those fears were soon to pass.
Mobile Web (most) Real Now
Where do we stand today?
A few months after the original iPhone announcement – say in the misty, far off ages of late ’07 – the leading edge of the change was already most readily apparent. With only a handful of devices on the market, it was already very clear that – in many ways – mobile web was just now becoming real.
A critical mass of factors – display, user interface, network speed, ubiquitous access, and extensibility, among others – made the iPhone fundamentally different than what had come before. Enough different that the web traffic was nearly always way disproportionate to device population.
In other words, the iPhone was the first mobile device on which “the web didn’t suck”.
Within two years the rapid emergence of the whole Android ecosystem (including the very interesting Nexus One) along with a number of other interesting competitors (if only Palm can get critical mass for WebOS), along with newly-resurgent RIM and the huge (but seemingly wandering – see update below) Nokia have utterly transformed the mobile device markets.
Mobile Without Web
But wait, there’s more … in perhaps a trend that not too many people outside of the true-believers anticipated, ebook readers have actually caught on. Between various Kindles, the Nook, and even a few new entries from Sony there is now real energy in this market.
Yes publishers have been scratching their heads and trying to figure out how best to participate, but not nearly so many people are laughing now. Ebooks are not only real, but the outlines of a path to mainstream acceptance are now beginning to be visible.
Mobile Web x 10?
Earlier today Apple released the iPad, and as is often their habit have probably pushed the mobile web into warp 9, maybe 10.
True enough that tablets of one kind or another have been out for some time – I owned an HP 1100 five or six years ago, for example, and this is not even Apple’s first attempt (think Newton) – but for one reason or another tablets have never really caught on. Whether the iPad offers enough to change that or not remains to be seen – my betting is yes – but I’ll mostly leave that debate to others for now.
Yet there are many betting that this device really portends a new class of devices. For example, MC Siegler posted today on TechCrunch:
[the iPad is] the best way to browse the web in a style that is likely your preferred method: by touching it
Siegler is making the case that for anyone who already owns an iPhone or iPod Touch (now more than 75 million and counting) this is rapidly becoming a very familiar, even the preferred means for using the web. Of course, the same can be said for the owners of all of the Android, WebOS, and other advanced handsets.
Siegler made these comments after some time using one, and in doing so reflected similar comments from others who also spent time driving one today.
His bottom line: this is the first of a class of devices that are entirely optimized for content consumption (which also implies a degree of interaction, of course).
The Impact on Cloud Computing
In many ways the rise of the iPhone / Android class of handheld computers has been a real driver for the growth of cloud computing. By enabling interaction with every manner of web-delivered services at nearly any time, these devices contribute mightily to the very meaning of “web-scale”.
And has been seen in case after case after case, the only real systems architectures that have much of a hope of dealing with web-scale are, in fact, cloud computing architectures.
So in that context the introduction of the iPad most likely portends another front in the inexorable growth of web-scale itself, and in doing so will only accelerate the need for adoption of true cloud-computing architectures throughout.
Update: A few hours after I wrote this post Nokia announced strong Q4 results, growing their marketshare to 40% worldwide for smartphones. This result “marked an end to a steady stream of market share losses for Nokia’s smartphones”. So perhaps Nokia will remain a strong factor going forward – if so, great! The real point is that – whoever the leaders are – the new standard for mobile devices is to fully utilize and participate in the web, period. That is what has profound implications for cloud computing.
It is too early to tell the precise nature of this increased demand due to these tablet-class devices, but that it will occur is nearly inevitable. Some time it would be interesting to examine demand metrics as a function of the power of the handheld devices – my guess is that would be very revealing indeed.