London Show Daily feature: Publishing on the New Internet
The web is dead, long live the New Internet. Michael Bhaskar reports on the pros and cons.Ten years ago the Internet was dusting itself down following the dotcom crash. Having surged through the late nineties in a rush of outlandish share valuations, frothy IPOs and sense of its own destiny, it was bruised but resilient. It had found its key form - the world wide web, viewed on a browser (probably Microsoft's Internet Explorer) on a PC. This, for most people, was the Internet.
Now, ten years later, the Internet has once again evolved. Not only the open web but the PC and the browser are all if not dead, far from rude health. What happened, and why should publishers care?
From the beginning the Internet was far more than just the web, which was simply one data layer, a set of protocols, resting on the underlying infrastructure of the Internet. The Internet was much more than the web, but the user-friendly, publicity-hungry web made us forget that, its share of total data traffic increasing all the time.
Several conjoined factors have reversed the situation. The web's role has started to shrink as new forms of data transfer have increased in importance: VOIP calls, BitTorrent peer to peer filesharing, internet video have all upped their importance. At the same time rather than access the web through browsers more people are using applications, either on PC desktops using software like Adobe Air, or, more commonly, on mobile operating systems through apps, which remain fully connected but do not allow access in the same way as a browser. This situation has lead Wired editor Chris Anderson to claim: "The web is dead."
Just as the open web is being superseded by other forms of information exchange on the Internet, the PC is being rendered obsolete by the relentless rise of smartphones and tablets spearheaded above all by, of course, Apple, corporate success story and "game changer" par excellence. Killing the PC has become something of a mission for the Cupertino-based firm, but it is in good company - every major tech firm is playing a high stakes game of post-PC poker comprising acquisitions, patent-based litigation, software development, platform plays and hardware launches. Even Microsoft, a firm anchored in the PC if ever there was one, is throwing everything at its mobile operating ecosystem, and this week announced a partnership with Barnes & Noble.
We have moved from a world of PCs, browsers and the open web to one of tablets, apps and closed Internet services.
For publishers this has some important upsides. In the new landscape methods and models of content monetisation are built in, allowing more efficient purchasing of content, encouraging the perception that not everything digital should be free. It promotes a "unit"-based model, not so much endlessly linked, porous, DIY websites but discreet, "filleted" and professional portions of high quality content in curated environments. For publishers, the New Internet looks more like the old world than the old Internet, as it were.
The wave of apps, e-reading systems and services we have seen over the past couple of years fit into trend.
However, there are some problems on the horizon. Piracy through filesharing networks was one of the canaries in the coal mine for the web, an early instance of data moving off the web and back onto the Internet. Publishers are slowly but surely seeing a rise in piracy; increasingly pirated editions appear prominently in search results, muscling out legitimate editions and further fuelling fears that the worst is yet to come in an area proven to have enormous impact on creative industry bottom lines. Working around copyright infringement is a delicate, painful issue, and publishers will have to work hard to avoid appearing as just another greedy corporate interest.
If the web was a competitive space where publishers struggled to grab attention, smothered by a potent combination of existing and innovative new players, the New Internet is no different: everyone is attempting to win in this new area, and it is unlikely everyone will. Publishers need to get used to convergence environments where they are directly competing not just with each other, but with every major media producer in the world, from games companies to soap operas to reference works. When I have made this point in the past it has been strongly resisted - many publishers want to believe reading has a special place, and we are doomed to irrelevance if we believe ourselves to be competing with other media, doomed to forget everything worthwhile about books in the first place. For me reading does have a special place, and we shouldn't forget everything, but neither can we pretend the closed, mobile mega-systems of the New Internet mean business as usual.
Unfortunately we can't - we shouldn't - be so complacent.
The last feature of the New Internet is that it provides platforms for distribution. The web has been the greatest distribution platform of them all, but without organising nodes or degrees of centralisation and containment it becomes unmanageable. This is now offered by appstores and sealed environments such as the Kindle store. They couple openness with control, discoverability and audience with fixity of ownership. Being a publisher is, in this environment, easier than at any other time in history.
Something to chew on.
Michael Bhaskar is Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books. He can be found on Twitter as @ajaxlogos