Three lessons from comScore’s latest mobile apps report

comScore recently published a 15-page report on the state of mobile apps. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but if you don’t have the time, here are the three big takeaways for content publishers:

Mobile apps are the new digital engagement king. Prior to 2014 the combination of desktop plus mobile browser was where digital engagement was happening. Now mobile apps are the leader, but there are some caveats. 75% of a user’s time is limited to four apps. Given that trend, what’s the likelihood your new app will replace one of those popular four? The key here is to make sure your content plays well and is seamlessly integrated with the apps that are already attracting all the eyeballs.

Mobile is just one critical element of a device-agnostic strategy. Digital engagement on the desktop isn’t dead. In fact, according to the Comscore report it’s up 1%. OK, that’s not exciting growth but it’s important to note that desktop engagement is holding its own...for now. So while the combination of apps and mobile browsers represent 60% of total digital engagement, the 40% represented by desktop is still significant enough to warrant attention. Does the user experience change when a customer shifts from consuming your content on a phone to a tablet or desktop? Don’t treat any device/platform as a second-class citizen. Even though mobile apps have all the momentum it’s important to make sure you’re not forcing your customers to learn a new UI when they switch from one device to another. (Hint: Think HTML presentation/consumption.)

Downloaded and then forgotten. An earlier report from Nielsen indicates consumers typically use 23-27 apps per month. If you’re like me your phone already has a heck of a lot more than 27 apps on it. And I’ll bet you’re downloading several new apps every month, but for the most part you’re probably still using the same ones over and over. So we’re all a bunch of app hoarders. We download a new app, maybe open it once or twice and then abandon it. Remember that old saying about how it’s easier to sell something new to an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one? Someone who has already discovered and downloaded your app is closer to engaging with your content than someone who may not even know the app exists. So what are you doing to remind (or incent) inactive users to open and take advantage of that app they downloaded?

What if DRM Goes Away?

TOC Latin America was held last Friday in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. Kat Meyer, my O'Reilly colleague, and Holger Volland did a terrific job producing the event. As is so often the case with great conferences, part of the value is spending time with speakers and other attendees in between sessions and at dinner gatherings

Last Thursday night I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Kat, Holger and a number of other TOC Latin America speakers. We discussed a number of interesting topics but my favorite one was asking each person this question: What happens if DRM goes away tomorrow?

The DoJ suit against Apple and five of the big six has led to a lot of speculation. One of the most interesting scenarios raised is that if the government is intent on limiting the capabilities of the agency model, publishers need to figure out what other tools they can use to combat the growing dominance of Amazon.

Charlie Stross is right. DRM is a club publishers gave to Amazon and then insisted that Amazon beat them over their heads with it. So what if we woke up tomorrow and DRM for books disappeared, just like it has (for the most part) with music?

I was unable to reach a consensus at that dinner, but here's what I think would happen: Initially, not much. After all, Amazon has a lot of momentum. If current U.S. estimates are accurate, Amazon controls about 60-65% of the ebook market and B&N is second with about 25-28%. That only leaves 7-13% for everyone else. And if you've been buying ebooks from Amazon up to now, you're not likely to immediately switch to buying from B&N just because they both offer books without DRM. On the surface Amazon's and B&N's ebooks use incompatible formats, mobi for the former and EPUB for the latter. But that's where it gets interesting.

Converting from mobi to EPUB (or vice versa) is pretty simple with a free tool like Calibre. I've played around with it a bit, converting some of the DRM-free ebooks we sell on I didn't do those conversions to get our books in other formats. After all, when you buy a book from you're buying access to all the popular formats (mobi, EPUB and PDF, as well as others), not just the one format a device-maker wants to lock you into. I did the conversions because I wanted to see what's involved in the process.

If you've ever used Microsoft Word to save or convert a .doc file to PDF you'd find it's just as easy to go from mobi to EPUB in Calibre, for example. But just because the tool is available does that mean if DRM goes away we'd suddenly see a lot of Kindle owners buying EPUBs from B&N and converting them to mobi with Calibre? I doubt it. Those Kindle owners are used to a seamless buying experience from Amazon, so unless there's a compelling reason to do so, they're not likely to switch ebook retailers. And that leads me to the most important point...

Creating the best buying and reading experience is one way any ebook retailer can steal market share from the competition. Amazon has a pretty darned good one, that's for sure, but there's plenty of room for improvement, IMHO. I'm not convinced any ebook retailer has pushed the envelope on innovation and exciting new features in their devices or reader apps. In fact, these enhancements seem to move at a glacial pace. So what if B&N (or anyone else, for that matter) suddenly invested heavily in reader app functionality that puts them well ahead of the competition? And what if some of those features were so unique and innovative that they couldn't be copied by others? I'd much rather see a competitive marketplace based on this approach than the one we currently have where the retailer with the deepest pockets wins.

Innovation is better than predatory pricing. What a concept. The iPod revolutionized music, an industry that was highly fragmented and looking for a way forward in the pre-iPod days. The iPhone turned the cellular market on its head. Think about how significantly different the original iPod and iPhone were when compared to the clumsy MP3 players and flip phones that preceded them. I believe today's crop of ebook readers and apps are, in many ways, as clumsy and simplistic as those MP3 players and flip phones. IOW, we haven't experienced a radical tranformative moment in the ebook devices and app world yet.

Of course all of this innovation I'm dreaming of could happen today. We don't need to wait for a DRM-free world. Or do we? Amazon has no incentive to innovate like this. They already have a majority market share and it's only going to get larger when the DoJ dust settles.

This is more of a rallying cry for B&N, Kobo and every other device and ebook retailer. If DRM goes away tomorrow nothing much changes unless these other players force it to. But why wait till DRM disappears? It might not happen for a long time. Meanwhile, the opportunity to innovate and create a path to market share gain exists today. I hope one or more of the minority market share players wakes up and takes action.

Content Lessons Learned from NHL GameCenter LIVE

I'm a huge hockey fan and even though I pay Comcast extra for the NHL Network I only get to see a few games a week, most of which don't interest me. I want to see my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they're not on the cable channels frequently enough. I'd like to have access to every Penguins game and the only option for that is NHL's GameCenter LIVE subscription. It costs $169 though and, being a cheapskate, I resisted signing up...till now.

I coughed up $169 over the weekend and I'm glad I did. Now that I've used the service for a few days I've discovered there are a number of lessons GameCenter can teach those of us who manage other types of content:

The ongoing value of the direct sale -- When you sell direct you capture 100% of the transaction. There's no middleman. So now the NHL has a direct relationship with me and I'm no longer some unknown customer with Comcast in the middle. The NHL now has an excellent opportunity to upsell to me, especially since they'll quickly discover my preferences.

Trust your customers -- I was amazed to discover that I could use my GameCenter account on more than one device at the same time. That means I can watch one game on my iPad while another is playing on my computer. I'm assuming this means I'll be able to share my account with my son (who's also a big NHL fan). If so, we could both watch the same or different games simultaneously. That was a very pleasant surprise, btw, as I expected them to lock the second device out. Think of this as the equivalent to a DRM-free ebook. I'm sure the NHL doesn't want me posting my account credentials for anyone to use but their system is loose enough to surprise and delight. I can't wait to watch two games simultaneously (on different devices) when a couple of good ones are on at the same time! Btw, this is how all types of content access should work. But with all the restrictions and limitations we encounter every day in the digital world I was blown away to see how liberal GameCenter's access policies are. This makes me like them and their product even more. Trust is an amazing thing, isn't it? :-)

Make sure your content is available everywhere (including direct!) -- This sounds so obvious but it's so frequently overlooked. Sure, some of the NHL content was available to me via cable but I wanted more. Are you only making your e-content available on the "big" sites? Are those sites reaching all your potential global customers? Probably not. Once again, that's why you need a strong direct sales presence and the ability to serve that content globally.

Make sure it's on every platform -- I can watch games on any of my devices. That includes Mac, Windows, iPad, Android phone, and yes, even my Blackberry Playbook. Are all of your ebooks available in EPUB, mobi and PDF? Those are the key three today and if your content isn't available in all of those formats you're definitely missing some platform opportunities. More importantly, when a customer buys your product do they receive it in all those formats? Unless you're selling it directly as a multi-format product (like we do on I'll bet the answer to that is no. Don't force your customers to buy mobi today and epub separately tomorrow, for example. That's irritating. Give them all formats in one transaction. This once again underscores the importance of having a strong direct channel. After all, you're probably safe assuming the big e-tailers are only going to offer the format that best suits their needs, not the customer's.

Pricing shouldn't be a race to the bottom -- At first that $169 price tag sounded awfully rich to me. But the more I looked into the service the more I realized it's actually quite reasonable. That's mostly because the NHL is delivering a very high quality product without the limitations found in other services (e.g., MLB's AtBat). All the games I care about are featured and the video is somewhere between standard and high def; pretty remarkable considering it's coming in via wifi. Every ebook doesn't have to be $9.99 or less. Consider your product's overall value proposition before you give in to the pressures of a low-priced solution.

Visit the "Digital Petting Zoo" at TOC NY in February!

I strongly recommend everyone in publishing acquaint themselves with the latest digital gadgets. After all, if you're not familiar with the devices your customers are using how can you possibly relate to their user experience? It's hard keeping up with all the devices and platforms out there though. And that's precisely what your friends at O'Reilly's Tools of Change (TOC) conference are here to help with. (Actually, this idea is way too good to be my own...we can all thank my conference co-chair, Kat Meyer, for coming up with it.)

I'm pleased to announce that during TOC NY in February we'll have a special area set aside where you'll get to experience all the latest gadgets firsthand. For example, if you're an iPad owner who's never had a chance to test drive an Android device, we've got you covered. But it's more than just the devices themselves that we'll be showcasing in our "digital petting zoo." We plan to feature some of the most innovative and game-changing apps, ebooks and other e-products in this space at the event.

So even as I type this post, Kat and I are reaching out to all the device/platform vendors to make sure they're well represented in the zoo. We're also on the lookout for cool apps and ebooks, especially ones that may have somehow slipped below our radar. If you know of one or you've helped develop one you'd like to nominate for inclusion in the zoo email me with the details.

I'll be serving as the zookeeper for the event, so if you're planning to attend TOC NY, please be sure to stop by and say hello. Speaking of which, sign up now to secure the best TOC registration rate possible!

TOC Podcasts: Now in iTunes

600x600_toc_podcast A month or so ago we decided it was time to extend TOC's reach with industry news, interviews, etc., in the form of video podcasts. I've already featured many of those segments here on the 2020 Publishing blog but now you'll be able to retrieve them in a more convenient manner.

Head over to iTunes and subscribe to the TOC podcast series using this link. Four of the first sessions are currently available via iTunes and more will follow shortly. Going forward we plan to create 1-2 new segments every week.

We're always on the lookout for new and interesting people, products and platforms to cover via this podcast series. If you know of any be sure to send them my way and I'll make sure the TOC team follows-up on them.

Amazon Rocks! Apple? Not So Much...

That's the opinion I came away with after last week's TOC debate. Then again, I'm somewhat biased since I argued for the Amazon position while my friend and industry colleague, Kassia Krozser, was Ms. Apple. Meanwhile, TOC co-chair, Kat Meyer, had her hands full as moderator and did her best to keep Kassia and I focused on the facts.

Who won? Decide for yourself by watching here or the embedded version below.

P.S. -- We're starting to schedule future TOC debates. What are two opposing viewpoints you'd like to see covered? One of the more interesting suggestions I've heard so far is a debate on native apps vs. HTML5 or EPUB3; it was pitched as "Why native apps suck!". Would you like to see that one? Do you have an idea for an even better one? If so, let me know and we'll see what we can line up!

Flipboard's Evan Doll Explains How Simplicity is One of the Keys to Success

When the Flipboard iPad app first arrived it helped us to look at the tablet user interface in a whole new way. Suddenly those ugly RSS feeds became beautiful and they could be navigated alongside your Twitter and Facebook streams. Flipboard's co-founder, Evan Doll, recently sat down with O'Reilly's me to talk about how the app was designed and where it might be heading. Key points include: 

  • A key to design at Apple -- Every time you present the user with a non-essential decision to make, you have failed as a designer. [Discussed at the 0:40 mark]
  • Steve Jobs and user interface design -- All those rumors are true. Steve Jobs has indeed played a significant role in even the tiniest of user interface design decisions. [Discussed at 1:18]
  • Exceeding customer expectations -- Focus less on producing a "minimum viable product" and more on making it a "minimum awesome product." [Discussed at 2:28]
  • Anonymized data is a crucial tool -- You may not like it but your browsing habits are being studied. Don't worry though. It's not some big brother conspiracy but rather the Flipboard team looking for ways to improve the user experience. [Discussed at 4:05]
  • Focus on being "fundamentally social" -- The social component of your product needs to be organic, not something that's tacked on later. Flipboard is an "inherently social browser." [Discussed at 5:15]

P.S. -- My apologies for the crying baby in the background of this one. Evan mentioned his 2 month-old son got some shots earlier that day and he wasn't in a very happy mood.

Short Form Content: There's An App for That

New short form content initiatives seem to be sprouting up all around us.  You're probably familiar with Amazon's Kindle Singles program.  As I mentioned earlier this year, Singles is a smart move on Amazon's part but they're wrong to assume that "shorter" always equals "cheaper."

We're also doing a lot with short form content at O'Reilly.  Two examples are 21 Recipes for Mining Twitter and Writing Game Center Apps in iOS.   These products are available as both ebooks and print products.  The shorter length means they're easy to update quickly, an important attribute when you're publishing in the rapidly changing technology space.

One of my favorite magazines is also part of the short form content movement.  It's called The Week and if you're not familiar with it I encourage you to sign up now for a 4-issue trial subscription.  Most of the content in each issue is excerpts from some of the best news and editorials from other publications.  Rather than subscribe to all these other magazines and newspapers (and deal with the political bias each one of them offers!) I just get excerpts of the best of the best from The Week.

Perhaps you're not comfortable with someone else deciding which articles are the most important ones.  I too was skeptical at first but I've found The Week is a great, fast way for me to absorb a lot more news and opinion than I could before.

If you don't trust humans to serve as a content filter you'll probably never let your iPhone do it for you.  That's right.  There's now a "text summarizer and simplifier" app for your iPhone and it's called TrimIt.  I'm always interested in finding ways to consume more content so I couldn't resist trying TrimIt out.  I ran a few of my blog posts through it and while the results were shorter I'm not convinced all the critical points were still intact.  Bottom line: TrimIt is an interesting concept but it's not ready for prime time.

What's your short form content strategy?  You may not be working on one but I'll bet some of your competitors are.  And if you're not doing anything in the short form area, are you really willing to let apps like TrimIt fill that void for you?

Helping Bookstores Remain Relevant

I can't tell you the last print book I bought.  Ever since I got a Kindle more than 3 years ago I've gone almost exclusively with ebooks.  Despite that fact, I visit any one of several local bookstores at least once a week.  I go there because I'm able to browse and discover products in a way that I simply can't do online.

My iPhone is always with me when I'm in the bookstore.  Many times I've found a book that interests me, I pick it up and browse through it, then pull out my iPhone, open the Kindle app and grab the ebook sample (assuming one exists).  I've even bought Kindle ebooks on the spot in a bookstore with my iPhone.  I feel bad, sort of, but it makes me realize the enormous opportunity brick-and-mortar bookstores are missing out on.

I should also mention that I have several other bookstore apps on my iPhone including ones from Barnes & Noble and Borders.  I've never pulled either one of those out while I'm in those stores.  Never.  Why would I?  All my ebooks are in my Kindle library and none of these other e-tailers have given me a compelling reason to switch.

There's something the physical bookstores could do to stop me from constantly defaulting to the Kindle app: Build functionality into their own mobile app that makes me want to go to their brick-and-mortar store.  Here's what I'm talking about:

  • Use location-based services built into pretty much every smartphone to know when I'm in one of your stores.
  • When I open your app and you've detected I'm in-store, offer me special deals which are only good for the next hour.  Make sure all the deals are fully redeemable using only my smartphone app.  Don't email me coupons.  Push them into the app so I can just flash my iPhone at the checkout counter and be on my way without fumbling through my email inbox.
  • If you sell your own reader device, don't make me bring it to your store for all this.  My iPhone is always by my side but I refuse to bring a larger device just to get a deal.  All the promotions and redemptions need to happen with nothing more than my smartphone.  Plus, I probably don't even own your device.  I'm happy reading my ebooks on an iPad today, I might switch to an Android tablet soon and I don't want to be locked into your hardware platform tomorrow.
  • Most importantly, since I'll soon be using your reader app, not Amazon's, you'll know my reading focus the deals on the things I tend to buy.
  • Offer specials on ebooks, print books as well as combinations.  And don't forget about all the other things you sell in your store (remember the cafe!).  If I'm standing in your store and I just bought the ebook version of the latest Mickey Mantle bestseller, make me an offer on the Major League Baseball preseason guide you sell in the magazine section.
  • Take a page out of Groupon's play book.  Use your nifty new app to track how many customers with common interests are currently standing in your stores.  Push a message like this to all of them: "You're a history buff but you've never bought this great ebook about FDR.  If at least 100 of you commit to buying it in the next 10 minutes we'll give you all a special discount of x%.  Stop by the Biography section to browse the book and see why we think it's perfect for you."
  • Surprise me!  Use this app's services to make me want to visit your brick-and-mortar store more frequently!

Everything described above should be free to anyone.  All they have to do is download your free smartphone app and create an account with you.  But don't stop there.  Offer a more exclusive membership program for an annual fee where I'll get even more deals than non-members receive.  How about giving paying members access to lengthier ebook samples?  I'd love that!

Finally, ask all customers to opt in to an anonymous data collection program so that you can analyze the results of all these terrific campaigns and use that data to create even better ones tomorrow.  And don't forget you could also sell that information to publishers.

If you do all this I promise I'll start using your apps and I guarantee you'll see more purchases from me.

Reader Apps vs. Dedicated Book Apps

Today there are typically two ways of publishing and reading ebooks on mobile devices.  You either use a reader app, often from a device maker (e.g., Kindle, iBooks) or you use a dedicated app written on that platform for that particular work (e.g., The Elements or Solar System for iPad).  Some of those dedicated book apps are terrific but I think they're a symptom of one of the more significant problems in the world of ebook evolution.

I love it that there's so much experimentation going on now with apps, but oftentimes they're one-off's that require a reinvention of the wheel for each new product.  I also hate the fact that we're creating a bunch of book apps that don't talk to each another.  One of the simple features I've been asking for in reader apps is the ability to search across a library.  It's far more likely we'll see that implemented in the Kindle reader, for example, before we'll ever see all these individual apps communicating with each other.

What really needs to happen, IMHO, is for the reader apps to evolve much faster than they are today.  Apple just added the ability to separate your ebooks into different shelves in the iBooks app.  What a concept.  The Kindle app has been around much longer than iBooks and it still doesn't support something as simple as this.

Awhile back I suggested that Amazon ought to get out of the hardware business and focus all their efforts on making their reader app the finest on the planet.  Even though they're not taking that advice, I've got a new idea for them to consider: Turn the Kindle apps into open source projects and enlist the help of the community to enhance and improve them.  Imagine how many great new features would be implemented in this model.  Rather than being limited by the fixed (and apparently small) number of developers assigned to the internal Kindle apps dev team they'd suddently have access to as many developers as they could recruit to the open source project.  They could create a world class set of apps and quickly distance themselves from the competition.