Tag Archive for 'Media'

The business model of API’s

Application Programming Interfaces – better known in the technology industry as API’s – have come out as one of the most significant innovations in information technology. What at first appears a geeky technical technique for developers to play with, is now evolving into something that will underpin our very society (assuming you accept information has, is, and will be the the crux of our society). This post explores the API and what it means for business.

API are cool

What is it?
In very simple terms, an API is a set of instructions a service declares, that outsiders can use to interact with it. Google Maps has one of the most popular API’s on the Internet and provides a good example of their power. Google hosts terabytes of data relating to its mapping technology, and it allows developers not affiliated with Google to build applications on top of Google’s. For example, thousands of websites like the NYTimes.com have integrated Google’s technology to enhance their own.

An example more familiar with ordinary consumers would be Facebook applications. Facebook allows developers through an API to create ‘apps’ that have become one of the main sources of entertainment on Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site. Facebook’s API determines how developers can build apps that interact with Facebook and what commands they need to specify in order to pull out people’s data stored in Facebook. It’s a bit like a McDonald’s franchise – you are allowed to use McDonald’s branding, equipment and supplies, so long as you follow the rules in being a franchisee.

API’s have become the centre of the mashup culture permeating the web. Different websites can interact with each other – using each others technology and data – to create innovative products.

API photo visualisation

What incentive do companies have in releasing an API?
That’s the interesting question that I want to explore here. It’s still early days in the world of API’s, and a lot of companies seem to offer them for free – which seems counter-intuitive. But on closer inspection, it might not. Free or not, web businesses can create opportunity.

Free doesn’t mean losing
An API that’s free has the ability to generate real economic value for a new web service. For example, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has become a very real factor in business success now. Becoming the top result for the major search engines generates free marketing for new and established businesses.

In order for companies to boost their SEO rankings, one of the things they need to do is have a lot of other websites pointing links at them. And therein flags the value of an open API. By allowing other people to interact with your service and requiring some sort of attribution, it enables a business to boost their SEO dramatically.

Scarcity is how you generate value
One of the fundamental laws of economics, is that to create value, you need something to be scarce. (That’s why cash is tightly controlled by governments.) Twitter, the world’s most popular micro-blogging service, is famous for the applications that have been built on their API (with over 11,000 apps registered). And earlier this year, they really got some people’s knickers in a knot when they decided to limit usage of the API.

Which is my eyes was sheer brilliance by the team at Twitter.

Crumped up cash note

By making their API free, they’ve had hundreds of businesses build on top of it. Once popular, they could never just shut the API off and start charging access for it – but by introducing some scarcity, they’ve done two very important things: they are managing expectations for the future ability to charge additional access to the API and secondly, they are creating the ability to generate a market.

The first point is better known in the industry as the Freemium model. Its become one of the most popular and innovative revenue models in the last decade on the Internet. One where it’s free for people to use a service, but they need to pay for the premium features. Companies get you hooked on the free stuff, and then make you want the upgrade.

The second point I raised about Twitter creating a market, is because they created an opportunity similar to the mass media approach. If an application dependent on the API needs better access to the data, they will need to pay for that access. Or why not pay someone else for the results they want?

Imagine several Twitter applications that every day calculate a metric – that eats their daily quota like no tomorrow – but given it’s a repetitive standard task, doesn’t require everyone having to do it. If the one application of say a dozen could generate the results, they could then sell it to the other 11 companies that want the same output. Or perhaps, Twitter could monitor applications generating the same requests and sell the results in bulk.

That’s the mass media model: write once, distribute to many. And sure, developers can use up their credits within the limit…or they can instead pay $x per day to get the equivalent information pre-mapped out. By limiting the API, you create an economy based on requests (where value comes through scarcity) – either pay a premium API which gives high-end shops more flexibility or pay for shortcuts to pre-generated information.

API diagram

API’s are part of the information value chain
An economic concept I proposed a year ago (and am going to revise over the coming year with some fresh thought) is called the Information Value Chain. It takes an established economic theory that has dictated business in the industrial age, and applies it in the context of businesses that create products in information or computing utility.

With reference to my model, the API offers the ability for a company to specialise at one stage of the value chain. The processing of data can be a very intensive task, and require computational resources or raw human effort (like a librarian’s taxonomy skills). Once this data is processed, a company can sell that output to other companies, who will generate information and knowledge that they in turn can sell.

I think this is one of the most promising opportunities for the newspaper industry. The New York Times last year announced a set of API’s (their first one being campaign finance data), that allows people to access data about a variety of issues. Developers can then query this API, and generate unique information. It’s an interesting move, because it’s the computer scientists that might have found a future career path for journalists.

Journalists skills in accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively is being threatened with the democratisation of information that’s occurred due to the Internet. But what the NY Times API reflects, is a new way of creating value – and it’s taking more of a librarian approach. Rather than journalism become story-centric, their future may be one where it is data based, which is a lot more exciting than it sounds. Journalists yesterday were the custodians of information, and they can evolve that role to one of data instead. (Different data objects connected together, by definition, is what creates information.)

A private version of the semantic web and a solution for data portability
The semantic web is a vision by the inventor of the World Wide Web, which if fully implemented, will make the advances of the Internet today look like prehistory. (I’ve written about the semantic web before to give those new to the subject or skeptical.) But for those that do know of it, you probably are aware of one problem and less aware of another.

The obvious problem is that it’s taking a hell of a long time to see the semantic web happen. The not so obvious problem, is that it’s pushing for all data and information to be public. The advocacy of open data has merit, but by constantly pushing this line, it gives no incentive for companies to participate. Certainly, in the world of data portability, the issue of public availability of your identity information is scary stuff for consumers.

Enter the API.

API’s offer the ability for companies to release data they have generated in a controlled way. It can create interoperability between different services in the same way the semantic web vision ultimately wants things to be, but because it’s controlled, can overcome this barrier that all data needs to be open and freely accessible.

Concluding thoughts
This post only touches on the subject. But it hopefully makes you realise the opportunities created by this technology advance. It can help create value without needing to outlay cash; new monetisation opportunities for business; additional value in society due to specialisation; and the ability to bootstrap the more significant trends in the Web’s evolution.

Why we should support movie piracy

Across the entire developed world, you will see piracy warnings from the entertainment industry. They usually make some emotive video about piracy costing jobs (because of six billion dollars in lost revenue) and that you as a consumer should join the fight. But is this really the case? I think laziness is what is costing jobs. Executives are clinging onto an old way of doing things in a new world, and instead of exploring alternative mechanisms, they fight for the past. I think if the industry lets go a bit, they might actually improve the status quo.

Let’s have a look at the movie industry and see the difference.

Piracy: it's a crime
Currently
Hollywood studio invests in the production of “The man with a Blog”. They have an all star cast, filled with James Bond action scenes and circus freaks.

Movie theatres around the world premier the movie, after months of publicity. Box office sales smash the predictions in that weekend – millions of dollars are spent by people buying movie tickets. Several months later, a DVD version is distributed, giving a second hit at having consumers spend their cash on experiencing this masterpiece. Television networks several years after that will license the movie and play it on TV.

Money continues to stream in – it’s a model that’s worked for decades.

Pause: two important things to note
Unlike reading a blog, for example – where your attention can wander and not be fully engaged – a movie has the full engagement of the consumer. They’re absorbing every sound and image being presented to them. So engaged are the consumers that people will rewind the movie to rehear a line they missed. They will pause the movie if they need to go to the bathroom, for fear of missing out on a scene.

Another thing to note is that the consumer is having an experience. Even if they “own” a copy of the movie, all they are truly buying is a license to replay the movie in the convenience of their homes. When a consumer buys tickets or a DVD to a movie, what they are really buying is access to an experience that can provoke them intellectually and stimulate them emotionally. Beyond stimulating an individual, it also serves as a cultural tool in our society, allowing people to have shared experiences that can then allow them to relate to each other – like how two strangers laughing over a movie will create a bond.

Replay
So why can’t movies be free? And if they were, who are they hurting? Let’s now replay the blockbuster described above and see the difference.

Hollywood studio invests in the production of “The man with a Blog”. They have an all star cast, filled with James Bond action scenes and circus freaks.

Movie theatres around the world premier the movie, after months of publicity. Box office sales smash the predictions in that weekend – millions of dollars are spent by people buying movie tickets who are paying for the experience of being in a room of people laughing with premium surround sound, a premium screen, and an excuse to snuggle up with their first date. Several months later, a DVD version is distributed, giving a second hit at having consumers spend their cash on experiencing this masterpiece – consumers will pay for the DVD because they like to store their movies on a shelf for reuse. Downloading the movie over the computer eats their bandwidth and storage space, and while some will do it, the value proposition of a physical storage item still exists. Because although they can download a medium-quality movie over their connection – they might want to one night experience a high quality version on their big plasma TV. So they will willingly pay for that DVD, which in bandwidth terms, is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Movie theatre

Television networks several years after that will license the movie and play it on TV. Because at the end of the day, if other people are going to generate revenue on your assets, they should continue to seek licenses to do so. Sharing a movie to other consumers should not be a crime, but showing it to mass audiences where you take the full sales, is.

Money continues to stream in – it’s a tweaked model that honestly don’t affect the world that much. Or jobs in the industry, other than the lawyers.

Fast forward
The movie industry is under-exploiting two essential characteristics I mentioned above: the undivided attention of the consumer and the fact they generate an experience for consumers. In the old world, that’s what advertising agencies were paid for to achieve!

I’ve previously argued that online advertising is a bubble economy, but that’s not to say advertising is dead. If fact, brand advertising is something I expect to thrive, and something like a movie is the best opportunity to take advantage of it.

Movies are replaying our lives, in a real or fantasy way. They are a replication of life, with consumer products filling the screen just like they do in our lives. When I watch my favourite actor talking in a scene, I am taking in the visual experience – and allowing product exposure to my attention. If I see a funky piece of furniture in that room, I should be able to interact with that – like clicking on it for more information and perhaps even create a direct order to buy. Television networks have spent decades monetising movies by showing advertisements in between regularly scheduled breaks (which disrupt the experience). Why not make advertising an embedded experience during the movie? It’s non intrusive and it’s relevant – a much better way of doing it.

Every time someone clicks on a table in a movie, the movie studio gets a cut out of the sale. Indeed, the supply of the table in the movie could also come as a form of premium sponsorship, as the studio is promising the supplier guaranteed exposure to an audience. The exact reason why people advertise: exposure to an audience.

Taking it a step further, we haven’t even got to explaining brand advertising opportunities. Imagine if your favourite actor is wearing a new style of jeans – isn’t that going to influence your thinking? Even if we consciously don’t think much of the jeans, the experience of being in a happy state watching our favourite actor, generates an emotional bond with that consumer product. It’s doing what advertisers have spent decades trying to master: building an emotional connection and a need with a new product.

The scenes that have been cut out
What I’ve just done here, is made you realise that movies can still be sold despite being free – but people will happily pay for it as they are really buying a unique experience. The actual movie itself should be free for consumers and there is untapped opportunity to innovate in this sphere.

There is an Israeli startup that allows you to embed advertising in a movie. What’s the big deal about that? Well every time someone downloads the movie, they will get an updated ad. So the original publisher can actually control the content for an entire lifetime: once an ad has been inserted, it can simply be replaced with the newest advertiser to sign up.

Imagine if movie studios distributed free versions of their movies, with commercial breaks like TV – and an option to pay to remove those ads for those willing to do so. And imagine, if with a bit more research, technology could be evolved so that scenes within a movie showcasing consumer products, could be updated with a new product. The painting on a wall can now be replaced with another painting. It’s already being done for computer games – why not movies, that themselves now rely on computer generated graphics?

When thinking of the opportunity in that way, restricting access to that movie is no longer in the studio’s incentive. With an audience, you monetise more by having a bigger audience. And so making something free, actually could make more money because demand will not be affected by price elasticity.

Illegal movies

La Fine
Once you think about things in this light, you realise the enormous opportunity available. And hopefully, you too also realise that what’s holding us back from this innovative, less-obtrusive, higher-value-generating future – is outdated thinking. Because as long as we cling onto the past, we are preventing bold strides into new models that potentially will make more money, if done right.

It’s a bold statement to say that you should support movie piracy, but it’s actually forcing the industry to adapt to this new world. Piracy has made us reevaluate the value of movies when the distribution line can no longer be fully controlled, and continuing to do it forces our legislators to reconsider public policy on intellectual property that was made for another age.

Using pirated material isn’t costing jobs in the entertainment industry – it’s doing something much better. It’s getting some media company executives in trouble, as they haven’t got the guts to innovate.

The evolution of news and the bootstrapping of the Semantic Web

The other month (as in, the ones where I am working 16 hour days and don’t have time to blog), I read in amazement a stunning move made by the New York Times. It was the announcement of its first API, where you could query campaign finance data. It turns out this wasn’t an isolated incident, as evidenced by yet another API release, this time for movies, with plenty more to come.

Fake New York Times newspaper That is massive! Basically, using the same data people will be able to create completely different information products.

I doubt the journalists toiling away at the Times have any idea what this will do to their antiquated craft (validating that to get the future of media you need to track technology). As the switched on Marshall Kirkpatrick said in the above linked article for Read Write Web "We believe that steps like this are going to prove key if big media is to thrive in the future."

Hell yeah. The web has now evolved beyond ‘destination’ sites as a business model. News organisations need to harness the two emerging business models – platforms and networks. Whilst we’ve seen lots of people trying the platform model (as aggregators – after all, that is what a traditional newspaper has been in society), this is the first real example I have seen of the heritage media doing the network model. The network model means your business thrives by people using *other* peoples’ sites and services. It sounds counter intuitive but it’s the evolution of the information value chain.

This will certainly make Sir Tim Berners-Lee happy. The Semantic Web is a vision that information on the web is machine readable so that computers can truly unleash their power. However this vision is gaining traction very slowly. We will get there, but I am wondering whether the way we get there is not how we expect.

The New Improve Semantic Web: now with added meaning!

These API’s that allow web services to reuse their data in a structured way may just be what the Semantic Web needs to bootstrap it. There’s an assumption with the vision, which is that for it to work, all data needs to be open and publicly accessible. The economics are just not there yet for companies to unlock their data and my work this year with the DataPortability Project has made me realise to get value out of your data you simply need access to it (which doesn’t necessarily mean public data).

Either way, for me this was one of the biggest news events of the year, and one that very quietly has moved on. This will certainly be something worth tracking in 2009 as we see the evolution of not just the Semantic Web, but also Social Media.

Media post article: baby steps

I’ve contributed to the Metrics Insider column on Mediapost. Have a read, and post a comment 🙂