On May 24 and 25 the Software & Information Industry Association held its annual NetGain conference in San Francisco. Starting with a high-energy "Speed Networking" session in which the 80 attendees held three-minute one-on-one conversations in a grown-up version of musical chairs, the conference maintained a focus on the practical over the theoretical.
In a panel discussion called "Mobile Applications: Dick Tracy's Watch It Is Not, But It's Getting Close!" moderated by Dow Jones' Daniela Barbosa, Jonathan Yarmis of Ovum/Datamonitor summed up the disruptive technologies on everyone's mind as "The Perfect Storm:" social networks, mobility, and the cloud. "They're mutually reinforcing," Yarmis said, noting that users are in the driver's seat for the first two. The challenge to the content industry is clear-cut, though solutions may not be. "The worst thing in the world would be to recreate on our phones what's on our laptop," Yarmis cautioned.
That notion of optimizing content for multiple devices was a strong undercurrent throughout the first day's session, particularly in a panel discussion on content experienced across different platforms and another on e-reader impact on publishing. In a world in which users regularly flip between laptops, smartphones, e-readers, and increasingly, tablet computers, publishers must confront the reality that consumers do not want to pay twice to access the same content on different devices. By a show of hands, there were among NetGain attendees a small number of iPads users, a large number of e-reader customers, and ubiquitous use of smartphones to underline the point.
Sibyl Goldman of Yahoo!Entertainment added another wrinkle: her content team must consider "co-viewing," or the practice of reading on multiple devices simultaneously. "We have to think about how to tell a story to compliment what else people are reading at the same time," she said.
Goldman also talked about creating content based on what users are searching for on sites like OMG and Shine - a surge in searches on Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance, triggered by a talk show appearance alerted the Yahoo! team to immediately pull together photos and content around the actress that would engage readers even longer. That notion of building content around user behavior and facilitating the use of consumer- generated content within traditional content products was another hot topic, with Tabrez Syed of Spiceworks sharing decision factors for building versus buying a community site.
Day Two was a clear departure from NetGain formats of years past - the attendees piled onto two buses and headed south to Silicon Valley for on-site visits with technology companies impacting the future of the eContent industry.
First stop was Adobe, where executives gave an explanation of their motivation in the current tensions around Flash vs. HTML 5 with Apple that certainly hit all the right notes for content executives. Ricky Liversidge, Adobe's vice president of product marketing, made the point that the Flash platform enables publishers to create engaging content consumption experiences for consumers, thereby increasing the likelihood that consumers will pay for the content. Using Flash also enables the publishers to maintain a direct business relationship with its consumers, who are extremely concerned about the disintermediation when a retailer (like Apple) controls the customer relationship.
A preview of a prototype Wired Magazine for the iPad, created using Adobe InDesign, certainly underpinned the message that Adobe wanted NetGain execs to hear: "We're for freedom of choice."
The next stop on the Road Trip for Innovation was the Googleplex, where Jim Gerber, Google's director of strategic partnerships, picked up the previous day's cloud theme. A review of Google's current content-in-the-clouds initiatives like News Archives, FastFlip, and Living Stories was followed by a view of what's to come. Laura Driussi, strategic partner manager for Google, delved into Google Editions and the benefits to publishers: no participation cost, access to a vast network of resellers, no file conversions required, and a simple entry point into the eBook market. NetGain attendees seemed a bit cautious about buying into the promise of Google Editions; the first question raised was whether the Google Book settlement is expected to affect the rollout of Google editions. (For the record, Druissi said it will not.)
While Apple forwent the chance to meet with a group of content professionals laser-focused on how the iPad will affect their product strategy, the buses did make a quick stop at the company store in Cupertino. The number of "I Visited the Mothership" t-shirts that made it back onto the tour bus was probably a good indication that all will be forgiven over time, as long as the iPad brings in readers and revenue.