The Master Switch

Once in a while, a book comes along that contains ground-breaking insights.  Such is the case with a book I’ve listened to over the past couple of days, the Audible audio book version of ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by author Tim Wu.

“The Master Switch” is a compelling look into the history of major information industries such as the telegraph, the telephone, commercial broadcast radio, the commercial movie business, and commercial broadcast television. The book points out an identifiable, slowly-repeating cycle obviated by the fact that these industries were able to gain and hold monopoly status. Each in turn became quite adept at retarding disruptive technological innovations that threatened their respective business models.

Today we take an open Internet for granted, but these same and other forces are looking to take over control of the Internet and turn it into a closed, much more tightly-controlled system.

The book is extremely well written and well researched. The Audible audio book narrator Marc Vietor brings the book to life in a wonderful way.

Mr. Wu does a fantastic job of laying out the often-fascinating histories of companies such as Western Union, AT&T, NBC, etc. As consumers, we think we know these companies through their consumer advertising. The real history of these companies is often quite different and very eye opening.

If you enjoy stories about technology and business, you will almost certainly enjoy “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu.

iPad Not A Newspaper Substitute (Yet)

Britain’s The Telegraph was one of a few organisations to be given early access to the iPad before its launch and Tim Rowell, Director of Mobile Product Development at the Telegraph, reports on some of the thinking that went on as the team developed the first apps for it.

Initially, it appears that the plans were for a “all encompassing service” but as no-one knew what people wanted or how they would behave, in the end a simpler app was developed that tracked what the readers did. Over 60,000 people provided tracking data and the results were revealing.

“People are realizing that the iPad is not a direct substitute for the newspaper, they’re arguably complementary,” Mr Rowell says. The data showed that the average age of a reader was 47 and the app was only used seven times a month when the readers were unable to buy a paper.  Interestingly, the iPads tended to stay at home or at work and weren’t carried around. And to the Telegraph’s delight, the app was being used in over 186 countries.  “Here is a market, we can start selling the iPad edition to people abroad,” Mr Rowell says.

Mr Rowell went on to give some of the lessons learned from the experience (quoted from the original article)

- The iPad is not a direct substitute for print (yet)
- Users want editorial guidance – they want editors to provide the hierarchy of what is important.
- Production is a headache, building the app itself is easy.
- Advertising agencies and clients see the iPad app as a web product while newspapers see it as print. “We have to come up with a new metric,” Mr Rowell says.
- Apple’s insistence that anything offered outside the Apple store has to be offered inside is a problem, but Apple seems willing to listen to publishers’ concerns.

There’s some very interesting stuff there, especially when combined with the State of the News Media, reported on earlier in the week. Clearly some of the news media aren’t willing to have the web steal their lunch entirely and are fighting back, but what is revealing is the Telegraph app was mostly used when the reader couldn’t buy a paper.

For non-UK readers, The Daily Telegraph is one of the leading quality daily newspapers.

The Tech of Social Networking

The Tech of Social NetworkingModern Internet-based social networking seems like a relatively recent phenomena. Yet, its roots can be traced back to basic human behavior.

Early humans organized themselves into social tribes. As technical knowledge and know-how got better, and written communication emerged, human social interaction also became more sophisticated. The printing press and postal systems supplemented the local tavern and other forms of in-person socialization.  This was the beginning of a more sophisticated type of companionship. These early technologies marked the beginning stages of releasing the bonds of people only being able to interact, conduct business, and socialize with those they could be physically present with.

The telegraph machine could be looked upon as an early form of text messaging. People could conduct business at a distance, as well as send short personal notes to friends or family across great distances.

Then Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Early telephones were not that easy to use compared to what they evolved into, but they did mark a turning point that would profoundly change human interaction and ultimately cause the acquisition of knowledge to accelerate. The wired telephone enabled new, more efficient forms of social networking and interaction. It was a business device, yet it was also a pleasure device, that enabled people to socialize in much more sophisticated ways.

In the later decades of the 20th century, phone lines began to be used for more than simply voice communications. “POTS” or “plain old telephone lines” initially enabled the early stages of Internet growth. Looking back, those early websites had a social networking component built in all along. Business and pleasure were the driving forces.

The Internet quickly became much more sophisticated. High-speed Internet access and ever-cheaper data storage converged, leading to yet another turning point, enabling technologies such as podcasting, the reliable delivery of audio and video, etc. Social interaction among people was profoundly affected yet again.

The proliferation of the modern cell phone was another turning point that developed in parallel with the proliferation of the Internet. Being able to carry around a phone in one’s pocket was a terrific convenience, and has enabled profound efficiencies in the ways people interact. Since most of us alive today lived through that profound change, we cannot fully see what a significant turning point it is, or fully know how the efficiency will impact future generations.

Today we are living through yet another profound change – a type of convergence. The cell phone is morphing into the super smart phone that puts the Internet right in our pockets. Business and pleasure are still right there, driving the need for interaction.

In a way it’s fitting that these nifty, Internet-enabled, touch screen pocket computers many of us now carry around with us everywhere we go also happen to function as telephones.