At the Software and Information Industry Association's Content VIA Platforms conference in San Francisco on May 10, the "Gang of Four" - Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook -were omnipresent, even if no one from those organizations was scheduled to speak. Publishers and technology providers used "VIA" to discuss the risks and opportunities in working with these companies, a sign of the importance the four platforms now play in meeting the evolving preferences of eContent consumers.
Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of AllThingsD.com, kicked off her keynote on Thursday by comparing the four major players to dinosaurs intertwined in an epic battle to the death, complete with evolutionary corporate advantages. She ran through a list of five key trends in content provision and assessed the relative competitive strengths of each player for that facet. SoMoLo (social, mobile, local content) for instance, favors Apple, Google, and Amazon, each of whom has a device strategy in place. It's far less auspicious for Facebook, in Swisher's opinion, due to the company's lack of a proprietary mobile device strategy at a time when the smartphone is becoming ubiquitous.
That's also the word Swisher uses to describe another key trend, the ability to have a platform everywhere. Google may have the glasses, but Swisher sees this as a challenge to which Apple is rising particularly well, and Facebook's role as a de facto communication channel makes it a formidable foe. Other trends Swisher identified included geolocation, something that she believes will get more important as devices get more sophisticated; the Data Flood, the corpus of information that consumers enthusiastically and voluntarily give up to the Gang of Four; and Always On, the notion that the news cycle never terminates. "Publishers have to change their offerings to go beyond what they used to do," Swisher declared. "You can be analytical, funny, obnoxious, but there has to be a value-add."
Swisher pointed out that these huge platform providers need content and "have wads of cash," a perfect match for the content vendor who figures out how to work with them. In a session titled "Facebook and Google: Is the Reach Worth the Risk?" Jim Brady, editor in chief of Digital First Media, acknowledged that those vast audiences of the Big 4 platforms are indeed alluring, but that publishers don't like to give up control of their content, sometimes for good reason. He cited recent changes in Facebook's social news reader module that has driven down article views yet lies beyond the publisher's purview to address.
Even so, Brady's advice was to "jump in headfirst and figure out the legalities later." The sense was that if publishers wait until every t is crossed and i dotted on policies, procedures, and contracts related to their social content sharing strategy, then opportunities are hurtling by.
Two brief technology-centered presentations by Storify co-founder Burt Herman and Brian Alvey, the chief executive officer of CrowdFusion, underpinned Swisher's theories on the importance of Always On, SoMoLo content. Storify enables users to curate and embed content around specific stories as information becomes available. Alvey spoke of CrowdFusion's intent to have a seat at the table of the future of publishing and concluded by saying, "We believe that table is made out of an iPad."
A few sessions dealt with the choice publishers face between building native applications for their data assets, or programming via HTML5 for the mobile web. Larry Schwartz, president of Newstex and member of the SIIA Content Division board of directors, gave a useful rundown of mobile revenue models and the steps involved in submitting apps to the various app stores. An afternoon presentation by Dan Bennett, Thomson Reuters vice president of technology, looked at the pros and cons of native and HTML alternatives from the publisher's standpoint.
As VIA showed, the tension between the digital publisher's loss of control of data and customer relationships and the revenue opportunity inherent in working with the Gang of Four represents an epic battle of its own.
("Set of tablet computers" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)