When it comes to digital content, we always seem to be looking for the next big thing-from websites to social networking to apps. In that quest to be the next big thing, many technology startups come and go, while others strike with that magical combination of the right technology for the right device at the right time.
Still others quickly grab our attention, only to reveal a lack of staying power over time. For example, "We saw a big pop a year or so ago around funding mobile companies based on location-based [technology], such as Foursquare, and those companies are not too hot right now," says Richard Hull, a former film and TV producer who advises many of the nation's largest media and entertainment companies on content strategy, finance, and distribution.
As for the types of digital content companies that are hot, Hull mentions companies that are focused on the cloud, companies that offer coupon/group purchasing services ("I think [they have] played out in terms of investment, but not in terms of consumers," he says), and those companies that are evolving the way in which we watch television content, among others.
"As much as tablet computing wrote the story for 2011's shifting media mix, the technologies driving changes in 2012 are far more likely to be coming from beyond the world of ‘walled garden' media solutions," says John Blossom, president and senior analyst at Shore Communications, Inc. "We'll continue to see mobile apps help us to communicate with the rich world of mobile sensors at our fingertips, but for publishers of all kinds, the time has come in 2012 to start making content once for as many platforms as possible-with or without proprietary app marketplaces to promote them."
Among other key trends shaping the current digital content marketplace, Blossom mentions appliances that connect to the web via mobile phones, tablets, and wireless networks, as well as voice interfaces, such as Siri in Apple's iPhone 4S. "The fundamental value of being able to speak and to get responses to any word in any language that result in information and meaningful interchanges with people will be the ‘tablet of 2012' information story," he says.
Out of some of these and other current market trends, several new companies have emerged as successfully facilitating the hot trends and driving forward digital content into new realms of possibility. Here's a look at 10 companies launched in 2008 or later that are leading the pack in delivering digital content in new, innovative ways that grab users' attentions and maximize the latest technologies.
Since the iPad's launch in 2010, application developers have been trying to optimize its larger-than-an-iPhone, multitouch screen to enhance users' reading experiences. In July 2010, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Flipboard launched with the introduction of a social magazine application for iPad to do just that. Through the app, users can collect content from their social networking feeds, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as feeds from websites that have partnered with Flipboard; the app then displays the content in a magazine format.
Flipboard's stable of content partners is packed with big names, including Oprah Winfrey (providing select content from The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah.com, O magazine, and OWN), ABC News, Condé Nast, and Lonely Planet.
In addition to its launch, 2010 was a big year for Flipboard: Apple named Flipboard its iPad App of the Year and TIME magazine named it one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.
"For me, Flipboard is the ultimate iPad app," says Ron S. Miller, a freelance technology writer. "It takes what was once geeky, RSS feeds and turns them into stunning magazine-like layouts. What's more, you can link to the full post in a browser, making the link between app and browser, and share the content in a number of ways, providing a way to move the content to other applications. The only drawback I see to this program is that it only works on the iPad."
"Flipboard is paving the way for new models of content aggregation that enable born-on-the-web media from both publishers and everyday people to rub shoulders in a fun and easy-to-read format for lean-back content consumers. Its web-savvy technologies combine with a smart approach to working with publishers to get their content adapted to Flipboard formats in a way that can enable smart business models moving ahead," says Blossom. "The lesson that Flipboard teaches is a familiar one, but one that now gets repeated in a mobile medium: Web technologies enable agnostic aggregation of content in ways that challenge traditional publishers to show us why their content is really great."
When Hulu launched in March 2008, it built on the concept that services such as TiVo and on-demand programming had capitalized on-we want TV and movie programming when, how, and where we want it-by bringing it to the web. At the company's core are multiple entertainment powerhouses: It launched as a joint venture between NBCUniversal, Inc. and News Corp., and in 2009, Disney became a shareholder and content partner.
Hulu offers a large selection of videos, both TV programming and movies, from its more than 300 content partners, which range from FOX, ABC, and A&E Television Networks, LLC to Lions Gate Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Users can view these videos for free on the web through an ad-supported model. According to comScore, Hulu has approximately 30 million monthly online users.
One of its biggest milestones so far, according to the Los Angeles-based company, was its November 2010 launch of Hulu Plus, a $7.99 per month subscription service that has since exceeded 1 million paid subscribers. Subscribers have unlimited access to full current and past seasons of a variety of TV programs on an array of internet-connected devices, including TVs, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, and mobile devices. It is the only online video subscription service to offer current season programming from five of the six top broadcast networks.
According to Hulu, its aspirations are now set on the global market. In September 2011, it launched a Hulu subscription service in Japan, and it is looking to grow into other international markets.
Ever since the fall of Napster and the rise of illegal music downloads, tech companies have been trying to solve the music piracy problem. Describing itself as "a better, more convenient and legal alternative to music piracy," Spotify may be doing just that. Launched in Sweden in 2008, Spotify is a digital media service that provides users with on-demand access to more than 15 million songs through the company's partnerships with record labels, with more than 10,000 new songs being added each day, according to the company. It offers both a free, ad-supported service and two paid subscription service packages, Spotify Unlimited and Spotify Premium.
With its July 2011 launch in the U.S., Spotify is now available in nine countries. According to the company, which claims it is the largest and fastest growing service of its kind, it has more than 10 million registered users and more than 1.6 million paying subscribers, with a ratio of more than 15% of paying subscribers to active free users.
Riding the momentum of its U.S. launch, Spotify announced a partnership with Facebook in September 2011. With the partnership, users can listen to and share their Spotify music and playlists via the social networking site.
Pro Publica, Inc.
ProPublica is a New York City-based, independent newsroom that focuses on investigative reporting in the public interest. A nonprofit that is supported by philanthropic contributions, it describes itself as focusing "exclusively on truly important stories, stories with 'moral force.'" It began publishing online at ProPublica.org in June 2008.
Led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, in 2010 it became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize, for Investigative Reporting. It won a second Pulitzer Prize, the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for stories not published in print, the following year.
"ProPublica addresses the financial crisis faced by news media with quality, openness, and interactivity," says Michelle Manafy, director of content, FreePint Ltd. and author of Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done. "In its three or so years producing investigative journalism ‘in the public interest,' ProPublica has also trail-blazed nonprofit journalism in partnership with the public. ProPublica makes many of its stories available for free, under a Creative Commons license, to other news organizations. Beyond static news stories, ProPublica research is also leveraged in data rich 'news applications.'
"ProPublica's non-profit, open model results in a richer world of investigative journalism despite [having] less money available to produce it," she adds.
In late 2008, the U.S. was in the throes of a historic financial crisis, and many people were looking for ways to cut costs and save money. Enter Groupon, a daily deal website that launched in Chicago in November 2008; it soon expanded into New York City, Toronto, and Boston. A little more than 3 years later, it now operates in more than 500 markets across the globe.
When Groupon launched, it introduced a new business model that has since been replicated by many other companies: It offers a daily online deal on things to do, eat, see, and buy in a particular city or market. If a minimum number of people (set by Groupon) purchase it by midnight, the deal is on. If not, the deal is canceled.
In November 2011, Groupon opened for public trading on Nasdaq. The company raised $700 million after increasing the size of its initial public offering (IPO), becoming the largest IPO by a U.S. internet company since Google in 2004.
Champaign, Ill.-based Touch Press is a digital publishing company that produces enhanced ebook titles for the iPad in science, technology, popular culture, and the arts. The release of its first title, The Elements: A Visual Exploration, coincided with the release of the iPad in April 2010.
Blending interactive video and audio with text, Touch Press' titles stand out with features such as 3D images that rotate 360 degrees and dynamic components that allow users to access live data. Readers have been responding to the digital bells and whistles. The company had three iPad Apps of the Week in a 6-month time frame, including The Waste Land, a digital remastering of the T.S. Eliot poem.
"Ebook readers and tablets are plentiful and popular, but beyond increasing the portability of the written word, only a handful of innovators are investing in delivering the transformed e-reading experience these devices promise. Touch Press is one of these companies," says Manafy. "Touch Press has set out to transform the act of reading. Its books include a dynamic quality and are filled with access to live data and visualizations intended to take the book beyond its original text to make exploration of the subject matter an interactive experience."
Oceanhouse Media, Inc.
If you've browsed through the Apple App Store for children's books, you've likely come across Oceanhouse Media. Since its 2009 launch, the Encinitas, Calif.-based app publisher has produced more than 270 apps for iOS, Android, and NOOK Color devices. Many of those apps feature some of the most popular and recognizable children's characters, including the Dr. Seuss characters, the Berenstain Bears, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-a result of its licensing partnerships with companies such as Dr. Seuss Enterprises, LP; HarperCollins Publishers; Golden Films; and Chronicle Books.
So far, 14 of the company's apps have reached the No. 1 spot within their categories in Apple's App Store. Its success, however, has not been limited to iOS devices. In 2011, Google selected Oceanhouse Media as one of its 150 top developers that consistently deliver high-quality Android apps.
Geared toward teenagers, San Francisco-based DailyBooth, which launched in 2009, is a photoblogging website where users can chronicle their everyday lives through posting and sharing photos and captions. As with other social networking sites, DailyBooth users can follow other users and allow other users to follow them.
The DailyBooth concept is based on the growing use of front-facing cameras on iPhone, Android, and tablet devices. According to the company, "DailyBooth's applications for web and mobile encourage consumers to snap photos with front-facing cameras to capture their faces at various moments in time. It is this face-driven ideology that enables DailyBooth to engage a large youth audience who prefer to communicate with pictures of themselves, as opposed to text or video."
DailyBooth hosts approximately 14 million photos and more than 47 million comments.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based Peel, which launched in 2009, wants to turn your iOS or Android device into a universal remote control. Through a combination of a $99 plastic, pear-shaped device called the Peel "fruit," which is meant to sit within about 15' of your television, and a free app, users can control their home entertainment systems -- including TV, cable box, Blu-ray player, and AV receivers -- through their smartphones or tablets. Want to change the TV channel, turn up the volume, or press play on your Blu-ray player? You can do it all, and more, through the Peel app on your mobile or tablet device.
Additionally, the app provides you with programming recommendations based on your interactions with it-the more you interact with it, the more tailored the recommendations are to your interests. It is also integrated with Facebook and Twitter so you can share what you're watching with your friends and followers.
"Peel users are very enthusiastic about the Peel and the personalized TV experience. The Peel app is four-plus-star rated by very passionate users, and users have now viewed over 2 million shows recommended by the Peel app to date," says Scott Ellis, Peel's VP of marketing.
"Launching the Peel app for Android was ... [a] great milestone. Being able to offer the Peel experience to both iPhone and Android users has really propelled us into the mainstream market," Ellis continues. "Lastly, we recently announced and launched the integration of Peel on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus-a key point of differentiation for the device and a huge accomplishment for Peel."
Launched in 2010, San Diego-based FLUD says it's "bringing sexy back to the news" with its free app, a "mobile news ecosystem" that is available for both iOS and Android devices. Through the app, users can create customized pages of an unlimited number of RSS feeds and read, bookmark, and share content.
"FLUD began as a news-reading application, but with recent updates, it has evolved into a platform for news," says Danielle Fankhauser, director of engagement at FLUD. "Users can sync the sources they read to many devices and can see what friends are reading. It is social and interactive and allows for engagement with news content that has never been done before.
"FLUD has an addictive fan base," she continues. "These aren't just users; these are people who constantly give us ideas and respond to the changes we make in design. They're always pushing us to expand our product line so they can share the experience with friends and peers."
In 2011, FLUD announced a partnership with AOL to offer premium content-complete with full content and images-on the app from AOL-owned web properties HuffingtonPost.com, TechCrunch, Engadget, Joystiq, Spinner, and TUAW.
As for the future of FLUD, Fankhauser says, "Expect to see fundamental updates to FLUD that make it even more of a vibrant, interactive experience."