Thursday, December 10, 2015

The evolution of reading in the digital age

In the past few years, a lot of people have remarked about how their reading habits have changed. Here’s an example I saw on Hacker News earlier this week:
I was a good reader throughout my childhood, youth and academic years. Lately, and after a couple of decades, it's becoming increasingly challenging to focus, consume and finish books. I'm becoming the modern age illiterate. I'm usually squeezed for time - but even if I find some, I don't pick up where I left.

Does anyone encountering the same challenge? Any ideas/tips that could help overcome the cycle? Do you think it's caused by modern information overload, distraction addiction, or perhaps dealing with short cryptographic lines of code?
I know exactly what he or she is talking about. I loved reading when I was younger, everything from newspapers to novels. I took a long break from reading for pleasure when I started my first graduate degree in the mid-2000s, and never really got back into it. Part of the reason is I don’t have enough time to read. I am very busy with work, even on the weekends and in the evening (after dinner is actually my most productive writing time). When I do have free time, I like to spend time with my family. I can watch TV with them or even play video games with my son. But it’s hard to share a book.

But there’s something else. My reading habits have really changed. What I find myself doing now with most long-form Web or mobile content, as well as printed magazines and newspapers, is skimming to get the basic facts or quotes and then moving on. I just don't have the time or attention to stay focused anymore.
e-readers and digital text - Kindle Fire, iPad and Kindle paperwhite 

As for books (fiction and nonfiction), I find myself skimming when I use the Kindle. The Kindle Fire is even worse because of the easy access to other distractions. For printed books I can focus but I have found my threshold for abandoning a book is much lower. I did this recently with a novel by an author I used to love (Martin Cruz Smith if anyone is curious). I just felt the characters in the new novel were wooden and I noticed some basic editing errors. I returned the book to the library after about 40 or 50 pages.

One of the commenters in the Hacker News thread speculated that the community focus on programming in bursts while looking at snippets of code all day may explain the change. But that hypothesis doesn’t hold for me … I don’t look at much code. Indeed, a large part of my day job involves looking at or writing long pieces of text for the In 30 Minutes series.

Rather, I believe the change in habits results from a combination of information overload, easy access to screens, and training our minds (through exposure to text messages, tweets, online updates, short video clips, etc.) to prefer condensed communication.

It’s an uncomfortable trend. On the other hand, I also see it as part of the evolution of media and society. If we look back through history, we can see how other new media had a similar impact. Newspapers, film, and television changed styles of writing and peoples' preferences for reading materials and storytelling. Then, as now, there was great discomfort in the way media and storytelling evolved. A 1961 speech by the then-chairman of the FCC called television a "vast wasteland." If you go further back, there was negative reaction to the introduction of radio, the use of photos in newspapers, certain types of stage plays, and even opera, which was seen by 17th-century British intellectuals as "chromatic torture."

There has been a lot of thoughtful expository writing about this; if you are interested (and can manage to read an entire book) I recommend checking out Mitchell Stephens "The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word" and Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy". They are somewhat dated now, but I think they really documented important transitions from antiquity to the end of the 20th century.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The numbers that help explain why Gigaom failed

(Updated) Gigaom abruptly failed yesterday. This was a respected organization with lots going for it, including a talented editorial staff, a slate of impressive events, and (by its own admission) a growing research business.

What happened?

A lot of the analysis I have seen centers on the growth of mobile, the decline of Web CPMs, the crazy competitive landscape, and the rise of clickbait. Tom Foremski concludes "Unless you are Buzzfeed, Gawker or Business Insider – you can't make a living as an independent publisher from ads because the traffic numbers required are out of reach."

So far, I haven't seen anyone talk about Gigaom's business and the costs associated with running a tech news site. Founder Om Malik and the company didn't reveal any details yesterday, but we can take a look at some earlier documents including Gigaom's media kit and 2014 funding announcement to flesh out the story of Gigaom the business.

First, a summary of costs for advertisers from the media kit:

Display advertising:
  1. Charging $35-$45 CPMs, depending on the channel. 
  2. Rates dependent on campaign duration, budget and targeting. 300x250, 300x600 and 970x250 ad units available.
  3. Flipboard campaign: $55 CPM, over 1.5 million readers/month
"1-week channel takeover"
  • Gigaom homepage channel (1M+ impressions per week) $22K per week - includes two sponsored postss
  • Mobile channel $15k
  • Cloud $8k.
Sponsored posts:
  • $3,000 250-word sponsored post
  • $5,000 800-word sponsored post
Event sponsorships:
  • $5K–$85K, depending on branding/activity
  • Annual cost for subscribers appears to be $10k (NOTE: Digiday reports a much lower cost)
Translation: Gigaom was targeting expensive corporate sponsors, mostly in the tech and business verticals -- the media kit claimed 37% of the audience had C-level job titles, 29% were in companies that had more than 1000 employees, and 53% were "IT decision makers." These numbers seem a little low to justify $45 CPMs, and it's not clear if anyone actually paid that rate (discounts could be offered, or they might have been selling unused inventory for a much lower price through ad networks). On the other hand, because the company was not in the consumer advertising space (where rates are much lower) and it's targeting a different set of sponsors, it can get more revenue for the same number of visits to the website.

In theory, Gigaom wouldn't have to hit the insanely high traffic numbers that sites such as Buzzfeed shoots for, but even $45 CPMs aren't enough. Assuming 6 million page views per month, with each page generating one impression at $45 CPMs, the monthly revenue would total just $270,000. This helps explain why Gigaom (and many other blog-based media companies) have branched into other sources of revenue such as research and events. (UPDATE: Digiday reports that only 15% of Gigaom's revenue came from advertising, compared to 25% for events and 60% for research) 

There's another set of numbers that can help explain the Gigaom story. Om posted last year when it received an $8 million funding round (bringing the total to $22 million) that the company had 70 staffers.

I've worked in tech media, and this is a huge number more often associated with mature media companies. Om didn't break out what all of these people were doing, but I know in addition to a healthy newsroom the company had an events staff and a growing research business. I would expect there would be at least 10-15 people associated with ad sales and ad operations.   

Assuming an $80k average annual salary + benefits package, the company would be paying $5.6 million/year just on staff costs. Factor in rent, expenses, operational costs, etc. and Gigaom has to be going full-bore on revenue and growth targets to generate enough cash flow to stay afloat ... or it would have to line up more funding. 

That's what Buzzfeed ($96M in funding to date, according to Crunchbase) and BI ($55M) are doing to fund their operations -- clicks and revenue simply aren't enough to scale the business, so they take VC cash. The VCs are going along with the plan, too.  
Gawker is a different animal: It claims growth and operations are funded by sales. I don't know if the company had early investors (Crunchbase doesn't list any) but it is taking a far different approach to making the business work.

I'm interested in learning more about Gigaom's finances and funding in the weeks ahead, but it's possible we may never know the details. The creditors now running the company are staying mum, as is Om.

If I made any mistakes or am missing part of the story, please let me know in the comments below.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, Digiday's Lucia Moses has been able to put some more numbers behind the story.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Buzzfeed and LinkedIn go wide, but what about local news and commentary?

The Monday Note is one of the best media commentaries online. The two authors, Frédéric Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassée, have very intelligent and informed perspectives on legacy media and new technology. This week, they delved into the valuations of struggling old media companies (The New York Times et al) vs. unprofitable new media companies such as Buzzfeed, and the increasing visibility of social media companies such as LinkedIn in the news/commentary space.

One line that really jumped out at me was this one from Frédéric Filloux:

"The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn -- The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde -- we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline."

One thing I would like to add: These companies -- and their digital competitors -- are playing in the national/international space. In local news/commentary, there are no players. AOL/Patch tried and failed. Can the big digital/social players find an effective way to go local?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

QBO user interface improvements: A step in the right direction

I am small business owner. Last year, on the advice of my accountant, I began a subscription to Quickbooks Online. At first I really hated it -- the QBO user interface was confusing and it took a long time to do basic things, such as approving expenses or generating invoices. One of the few positive aspects of QBO was the fact that it was online software, so I didn't have to update it on my desktop -- I just open the browser, log in, and QBO shows all updates automatically.

QBO had a major update earlier this year. I have to give Intuit credit for really improving the user interface at that time -- the navigation is much easier to get around, and the basic reporting options are solid. There some solid visualizations, too:

I still have trouble figuring out (or remembering) certain key functions, but I can always turn to my accountant if things get too bad. And that's the way the accountants (and Intuit) like it -- very few small business owners do their own bookkeeping and taxes, so it's common to work closely with an accountant through Quicken or Quickbooks.

For what it's worth, I looked into other small business accounting systems last year but there are very few on the market. The reason: Almost every accountant uses Quickbooks, and they won't recommend anything else because they would have to learn how to use a new software package.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Xiaomi's Redmi phone is not an Apple clone

I am using a Xiaomi "Redmi" phone (紅米) in Taiwan. Xiaomi is rapidly gaining a reputation in the mobile industry as a company that makes solid Android phones for a great price — but also a company that rips off others, especially Apple.

First, my brief review of the Redmi phone. I was blown away by the "Miui" interface they cooked up — it’s the slickest Android UI I have seen so far (scroll down to see an image). It definitely takes cues from Apple, but I also feel that Xiaomi has done some solid design work of their own — for instance, the icons for basic functions and system apps are original and quite effective.

But in other areas the Redmi doesn’t come close to Apple. The hardware looks and feels more like some of the midrange LG phones I’ve used in the past, and compares poorly not only to the iPhone but also recent Samsung and HTC phones. I’ve also discovered a lot of buggy behavior that I’ve never seen in any Android device, including an inability to delete photos (the dialog reports I don’t have permission) or apply system updates. I have spent about an hour trying to fix both problems and searched online for solutions but so far there is no help to be found, meaning that I now have to carry around my U.S. iPhone to take photos. In addition, a buggy dictionary combined with a poor virtual keyboard means that many of my texts are filled with typos and unwanted periods.

If Xiaomi doesn’t improve the hardware and fixes bugs like this, I predict that the “Xiaomi is copying Apple” complaints will eventually die down. But in the meantime, it’s interesting to see a Chinese device manufacturer rise to such prominence, especially after Taiwanese companies (Acer, HTC) struggled. I really hope Xiaomi gives Samsung and Apple a run for their money, because competition boosts innovation while keeping prices down.

Xiaomi Redmi phone review

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Healthcare: A promising vertical for Google Glass?

Last month, I spotted a very interesting blog post about Google Glass by John Halamka, M.D., the CIO of one of Boston's largest research hospitals. Google Glass, a virtual reality system embedded in a pair of eyeglasses, has been given a bad rap in the media by a series of minor controversies involving whether people are recording or photographing things that they shouldn't. But the usage of Glass that Halamka describes is one of the few examples that I've seen of the technology providing a measurable improvement over older technologies -- in this case, emergency room systems used to present patient information to doctors and other staff.

Dr. Halamka is one of those rare CIOs who truly embraces the cutting edge of information technology -- ten years ago he had an RFID chip containing his medical information embedded in his arm. He is very interested in promoting discussions around new technologies and what they can do to improve healthcare. Working with Emergency Room staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, he developed a prototype system for doctors to retrieve certain types of information through Google Glass. In a blog post titled Wearable Computing at BIDMC (since removed from the Web), he described how it worked, as well as some of the issues around usage of the technology:
When a clinician walks into an emergency department room, he or she looks at bar code (a QR or Quick Response code) placed on the wall.  Google Glass immediately recognizes the room and then the ED Dashboard sends information about the patient in that room to the glasses, appearing in the clinician’s field of vision. The clinician can speak with the patient, examine the patient, and perform procedures while seeing problems, vital signs, lab results and other data.

Beyond the technical challenges of bringing wearable computers to BIDMC, we had other concerns—protecting security, evaluating patient reaction, and ensuring clinician usability.

Here’s what we’ve learned thus far:

Patients have been intrigued by Google Glass, but no one has expressed a concern about them. Boston is home to many techies and a few patients asked detailed questions about the technology. Our initial pilots were done with the bright orange frames—about as subtle as a neon hunter's vest, so it was hard to miss.

Staff has definitely noticed them and responded with a mixture of intrigue and skepticism. Those who tried them on briefly did seem impressed.

We have fully integrated with the ED Dashboard using a custom application to ensure secure communication and the same privacy safeguards as our existing web interface. We replaced all the Google components on the devices so that no data travels over Google servers. All data stays within the BIDMC firewall.

We have designed a custom user interface to take advantage of the Glass’ unique features such as gestures (single tap, double tap, 1 and 2 finger swipes, etc.), scrolling by looking up/down, camera to use QR codes, and voice commands. Information displays also needed to be simplified and re-organized.

We implemented real-time voice dictation of pages to staff members to facilitate communication among clinicians.

Google Glass does not appear to be a replacement for desktop or iPad—it is a new medium best suited for retrieval of limited or summarized information. Real-time updates and notifications is where Google Glass really differentiates itself. Paired with location services, the device can truly deliver actionable information to clinicians in real time.

Here’s a real BIDMC experience described by Dr. Steve Horng

"Over the past 3 months, I have been using Google Glass clinically while working in the Emergency Department. This user experience has been fundamentally different than our previous experiences with Tablets and Smartphones. As a wearable device that is always on and ready, it has remarkably streamlined clinical workflows that involve information gathering.

For example, I was paged emergently to one of our resuscitation bays to take care of a patient who was having a massive brain bleed. One of the management priorities for brain bleeds is to quickly control blood pressure to slow down progression of the bleed. All he could tell us was that he had severe allergic reactions to blood pressure medications, but couldn’t remember their names, but that it was all in the computer. Unfortunately, this scenario is not unusual. Patients in extremis are often overwhelmed and unable to provide information as they normally would. We must often assess and mitigate life threats before having fully reviewed a patient’s previous history. Google glass enabled me to view this patient’s allergy information and current medication regimen without having to excuse myself to login to a computer, or even loose eye contact. It turned out that he was also on blood thinners that needed to be emergently reversed. By having this information readily available at the bedside, we were able to quickly start both antihypertensive therapy and reversal medications for his blood thinners, treatments that if delayed could lead to permanent disability and even death. I believe the ability to access and confirm clinical information at the bedside is one of the strongest features of Google Glass. "

We have been live clinically with Google Glass for a limited set of four emergency physicians serving as beta users since 12/17/13. Since then, we have been working on improving stability and adding features to improve usability. Some of these modifications include the addition of an external battery pack, increasing the wireless transmission power, pairing the headset with our clinical iPhones, using head tilt to control vertical scrolling, revamping our QRcode reader to improve application stability, adding an android status bar to show wireless connection strength and battery power.

In addition to our four beta users, we've also had impromptu testing with at least 10 other staff members since 1/24/14 to get feedback to refine the user experience.

As a device being used in clinical care, we needed to rigorously test our setup to ensure that the application is not only reliable and intuitive, but improved the workflow of clinicians rather than impede it.

I believe wearable computing will replace tablet-based computing for many clinicians who need their hands free and instant access to information.
Google Glass healthcare experiment Halamka BIDMC
Dr. Halamka indicated that the pilot was a success, and said a full roll-out was anticipated in the coming weeks.

It should be interesting to see if this learning experiences of this experiment can be applied to other medical settings, not just at BIDMC but also other hospitals and clinics. Of course, besides improving the interface and other aspects of the data being delivered to caregivers, developers need to consider how the technology may impact other aspects of running a hospital and interacting with patients. VR may be a large chasm for patients and some staff to cross, and there is also the issue of whether the usage of such technologies requires FDA input.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What does # mean in twitter? (Or, all about hashtags)

(Excerpted from my Twitter guide, Twitter In 30 Minutes.) You may notice that some words in tweets have the hashtag or pound symbol (#) added to the front. Occasionally, there will be a hashtagged phrase or acronym with all of the spaces and periods removed, like #thingsthatbotherme. What does # mean in Twitter? The blog post below explains how to use them, as well as some hashtag no-nos.

Hashtags are a Twitter convention that lets people easily find tweets about the same topic. By adding a hashtag to the front of a word or phrase, it turns it into link that is hooked up to Twitter’s search engine. Click the link, and the most recent tweets that include the same hashtag are displayed. Here’s what shows up when I click on #Bulls:

Twitter hashtag example: #Bulls

Hashtags serve other useful functions as well. They alert other Twitter followers to the fact that the tweet is about a certain topic that may otherwise not be apparent. Let’s say you’re watching the Oscars on TV, and you see someone wearing a beautiful dress glide by the camera. You could ask your Twitter followers:

Twitter example clothing

Many people may not know what you are talking about. But they will if you add:

Twitter example Oscars #oscars

By adding #oscars, it’s clear you are talking about the awards ceremony, and not something else. Moreover, if any follower clicks the #oscars link, they’ll see all of the other tweets tagged “#oscars”.

Sometimes people create funny hashtags. The television host Jimmy Fallon and his writing team are especially skilled at this. They ask their viewing audience a funny question and then tell them to use a hashtag to let the writing team (and other viewers) see the answers. Here’s are some of the responses to his hashtag #WorstCarIEverHad:

Twitter Jimmy Fallon hashtag example

Hashtags are also used to tag sporting events (for instance, #olympics), political races (#election2016), conferences (#ces2014), and practically any other event you can think of.
Some new Twitter users make the mistake of turning every word in their tweets into hashtags. Here’s an example:

It’s irritating and unnecessary. They tweets are hard to read. In addition, hashtagging common nouns, verbs and other words doesn’t add any value if people click on the hashtags.

Another mistake involves using the wrong hashtag. For instance, followers of the Boston Red Sox generally use #redsox to talk about their team, not #bostonredsox or #sox.

Mistakes can also happen when a single hashtag is used by two different groups of people. Check out #gastro, which is used by people who like gourmet food as well as doctors and scientists who are interested in discussing gastrointestinal diseases:

Bottom line: Choose your hashtags carefully. If I am interested in using a particular hashtag in a tweet, I often search Twitter first to make sure it’s the appropriate one to use.