Digital Travel Guides and the Future of Publishing

As the Kent & Sussex chapter of a traveler’s eBook begins, the page shows the current temperature. Just a hint of what’s to come in digital travel guides…

Not enough room in the suitcase? Maybe it’s time to ditch the travel guidebook and try the eBook version instead. I did, and learned a lot about what a traveler’s eBook ought to be.

Travel guides are very different from other types of fiction and nonfiction books. They are only partially read. They are intensely used, but only for a few weeks. They are out of date shortly after they are published. And if you’re doing a lot of traveling, they can become quite heavy.

An eBook on an iPad? Less weight. Full color. An opportunity to integrate with digital maps and Trip Advisor, build an itinerary, make reservations, maybe connect with chapters in history or nature books.

Well, we’re not there yet, but we are seeing the beginning of a new era in travel guides.

Lonely Planet has yet to make its big move into iPad publishing, but they offer one excellent idea: the purchase of individual chapters as PDF files for just under $5 a piece. For example, Lonely Planet’s digital England book can be purchased for $17.49, or you can buy the Devon & Cornwall chapter for $4.95. Either way, it’s mostly well-written text with very helpful guidance, plenty of links, and, take note, designed for iPhone with only with 2x magnification feature on.

Fodor’s London Travel Guide is a full-featured app with plenty of maps, color images, lists with links, and easy access to places to visit, lodgings, restaurants, and nightlife. In fact, the app is organized so that it’s easy to read the text blurb about the London Zoo, then quickly refer to a restaurant map to find Lemonia, a highly-regarded Greek restaurant nearby. Read the description of Portobello Market, click, then there it is on a full-screen map. It’s easy to use and effective.

Working with an eBook design firm called Inkling, Frommer’s offers a more ambitious take on the digital travel guide. The eBook is organized in chapters, but each chapter begins with several points of entry: favorite moments in the region, a three-day trip, a five-day journey, favorite sites to visit, popular destinations in detail, and more. Choose the Cotswolds village of Moreton-on-the-Marsh and there’s a well-written description of the village, tips about what’s nearby, quick access to area maps, and an overall design that’s clearly designed for digital devices. This series is called “Day by Day”, so I expected an itinerary planner to coordinate with my iPad’s Calendar app. That’s not yet a feature, but I suspect it was discussed during this superior product’s design phases.

I used all three guides, often and successfully, and never once missed the books that I did not carry with me. My favorite: Frommer’s. But I suspect that next week’s BookExpo will find publishers to introducing the next generation of interactive travel guides.

What’s next? Certainly, full integration with Google Maps, Trip Advisor, Kayak and other reservations systems, Calendar, email. Those seem to be within reach, but they only scratch the surface of what could be done. There’s a gigantic social network opportunity here, whether it’s couch surfing or house swapping, or simply asking whether anybody in the Pembrokeshire area feels like taking a hike today. Right now, publishers are cautiously experimenting with books that become books on screens, but this caution may result in the demise of yet another industry. Travel publishers possess a unique opportunity to bring places to life, to involve community members (think Zagat’s but on a massive scale), to truly invent the future of publishing on a large, interactive scale. It’s interesting to contemplate whether this work can be done, or will be done, by travel publishers owned by much larger publishing conglomerates, or whether smaller, more flexible and potentially more innovative publishers will map this particular journey into the future.

On his way in, Mr. Elbaz meets Mr. Smelie, on his way out

Gil Elbaz’s new company plans to collect, organize and distribute every fact on the face of the earth (and, presumably, above and below it). His company was featured on the front page of today’s New York Times Sunday Business Section.

The sum of human knowledge from a hundred years ago.

Colin Macfarquhar’s old company dates back to about 1770, when Colin and partner Andrew Bell hired William Smelie to put together the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Smelie was 28 years old at the time, and he managed to produce, with collaborators, over 2,500 pages in three volumes. This month, after 15 editions, and all sorts of contortionist moves to contain and present an increasing vast store of information, the old EB gave up. No more editions. They’re done. After more than 200 years of successful publication of facts in books, the task became overwhelming as the publication business was overwhelmed by the crowd sourced newcomer, not yet a decade old, called Wikipedia. And the old Britannica ceased publication.

‘Tis a sad day, I suppose, but neither the Encyclopedia Britannica, nor the World Book Encyclopedia (which was always easier to read and more enjoyable to browse because of its reliance upon pictures), nor Colliers or the others, were superior reference tools.

From the NY Timesarticle about the EB’s demise:

William Smelie was responsible for the first Encyclopaedia Britannica, a stunning accomplishment that lasted centuries, but never overcame the digital revolution.

(In) one widely publicized study, published in 2005 by Nature, called into question Britannica’s presumed accuracy advantage over Wikipedia. The study said that out of 42 competing entries, Wikipedia made an average of four errors in each article, and Britannica three. Britannica responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the study was error-laden and “completely without merit.”

Early in my career, I wrote and researched questions for television game shows, where a contestant’s knowledge (and memory) of facts could be converted into thousands of dollars. We kept several encyclopedias in the office. Each one had a pad above it, where writers and researchers made note of errors. Each pad was dozens of pages long. There were lots and lots of mistakes, some stunning in their stupidity: Paris was the capital of Egypt, that sort of thing, resulting from too many pages being pushed through a manual system at speeds that made sense only to a publisher.

Gil Elbaz, founder of Factual.

Factual’s plan, outlined in a big orange room with a few tables and walled with whiteboards, is to build the world’s chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds.” Based upon the NY Times article, it would be fair to assume that Factual and EB are looking at information differently–both in terms of process and scale:

Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities.

There is reason to be confident in Mr. Elbaz’s vision and ability to execute: his prior company, “Applied Semantics software quickly scanned thousands of Web pages for their meaning. By parsing content, it could tell businesses what kind of ads would work well on a particular page. It had 45 employees and was profitable when Google acquired it in 2003 for $102 million in cash and pre-I.P.O. stock.”

So, say goodbye to yet another long-standing institution, acknowledge the intermediary step that caused the change, and welcome yet another new way of thinking enabled by the massive technology shifts that we’ve experienced in our recent lifetimes. Gee, this is moving along quickly!…

I Want to Watch TV on My iPad (The Plot Thickens)

Here’s the original story published on March 6, 2012:

You’re looking at an array of television antennas. These antennas are used to capture local broadcast signals that you can watch, if you pay a monthly subscription fee, on your computer, tablet, or phone. Aereo (formerly Bamboom) is the company behind the scheme, and, as you might expect, they’ll be spending a lot of time in the legal system as they argue with broadcasters regarding the rights and wrongs of live retransmission (that is, if Aereo is to survive, the broadcast networks want to see monthly cash–just like they receive from the cable operators).

Ah, the free airwaves, the ones that broadcasters use for the public good. Ah, the intellectual property that broadcasters carry over those airwaves, the IP that cable service providers pay to carry. Ah, the unresolved legal gotcha!! Any company that attempts to make those signals available via a secondary distribution scheme must pay for the right, or so say the broadcast networks.

The price for the service? $12 per month. The debut date? March 12. The place: for now, the New York metropolitan area.

For cord cutters, this may be a terrific deal. But it’s unclear whether the courts will block Aereo’s progress, as they have with ivi.tv and others who attempted to climb the walls of the castle without paying the required tribute (or, as I’m adding in my updated version of this article… others who attempted to challenge the current system of copyright and payments for distribution rights to intellectual property).

Slingbox? That’s okay. Over-the-air mobile TV? That’s not ready yet, except in a few markets on a test basis. Watch over-the-air TV? Sure. Watch via cable or satellite? As long as you’re paying for the privilege. Watch on another device? Nope, not yet. Or, maybe the answer is yes. We’ll find out in a few weeks.

_____

Here’s the update that I wrote on March 12, 2012:

From Bloomberg: Predicting a “great fight” with traditional media companies, billionaire Barry Diller said he plans to expand his new Aereo Web-based television service to 75 to 100 cities within a year, reports Bloomberg.

Diller, speaking at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, noted that efforts by Walt Disney Co. and other media companies to cite copyright violations were “absolutely predictable,” since entrenched companies always protect their turf, the story says.

Want to know more? Here’s a bunch of links:

The tech explanation:

http://www.techspot.com/news/47467-aereo-offers-tv-over-internet-with-antennas-engineered-to-comply-with-law.html

The consumer angle:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2012/02/29/how-much-are-you-willing-to-pay-to-cut-the-cord/

The business story:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204059804577229451364593094.html?mod=wsj_share_tweet#printMode

The investment story:

http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2012/02/14/iac-l20-million-aereo-barry-diller-vc.html?s=print

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Here’s the update as of July 17, 2012

Again from Bloomberg (July 13, 2012): “A U.S. district judge this week allowed Aereo to continue operating while television networks pursue a copyright lawsuit against the company. Aereo captures broadcast signals with small antennas and streams them to devices such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad, without paying for the programming.” As a result of the ruling, Diller is now planning a nationwide rollout.

As I pondered what all of this might mean, I read an essay on TV NewsCheck’s website, written by television executive Lee Spieckerman. I contacted him, and we spoke for a while about the ruling and its implications. In short, he believes that Judge Nathan bungled the decision:

“We see loopy rulings from Federal judges all the time, and I think this fits into that category… She misread the governing law!”

Spieckerman’s argument is based in part upon law and in part upon common industry practice. His legal argument tracks back to a 1993 law which requires operators of paid television systems to secure the necessary rights from local broadcasters. The concept is called “retransmission consent” and that ruling has proven to be something of a windfall for local broadcasters as a result of the fees paid by cable operators in exchange for this consent. According to  Spieckerman, these fees are now worth about $2 billion to the commercial broadcast network, plus an additional several billion dollars to local stations. This, plus the additional revenues from political advertising resulting from the Citizens United decision, provide the advertising base necessary for local television news to survive. (Seems to me, we should all understand the economics and consequences of this new approach to journalism funding–a worthwhile topic for a future article). Back to his other argument: “there is no tradition in this country for renting antennas–nobody rents antennas!”

Digging deeper with Mr. Spieckerman, and the real argument emerges. This is all about copyright infringement, and protection of distribution rights associated with intellectual property. Judge Nathan’s ruling begins to disrupt a system by which cable operators compensate owners of cable networks and local stations. ESPN receives $4.69 per cable subscriber–do the math and that’s about $50 per year per subscriber multiplied by 100 million subscribers, and that’s $5 billion per year in subscription fees. Spieckerman believes local broadcast station fees to be 20-50 cents, but acknowledges that these deals are confidential. (Consider that Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable operators charge consumers charge those 100 million subscribers over $1,000 per year–1o0 million x $100 = $100,0o0,000,000, or $100 billion, also good raw material for another Digital Insider article.)

Of course, the local station operators are anxious to negotiate with Diller’s Aereo. And Diller is anxious to go with the Judge’s ruling because it requires no fees. For now, according to Bloomberg,

We’re going to really start marketing… Within a year and a half, certainly by ’13, we’ll be in most major markets.”

To which Mr. Spieckerman counters:

Who is going to be next? This is a pandora’s box, and when you start circumventing and tearing down the few elements there are in the industry and inviting the destruction of an important industry. If I have any intellectual property that I want to distribute, I do not want anybody able to steal my material.”

Going Postal in the Year 2022

As the U.S. Postal Service struggles to find its 21st century business model, it competes with FREE–that is, the 4.6 zillion emails we write, send and read every day, and with a fairly spiffy FedEx, and a reliably massive United Parcel Service. If I want to send somebody a message, I use email (or texting). If I want to send somebody a package, I use FedEx or UPS.

Today, I visited my neighborhood mailbox and learned about the 13-ounce rule. (Yes, it was new to me, too.) The sticker on the mailbox says, if the package weighs 13 ounces or more, you cannot drop it into the mail box. Instead, you must take the package to the “retail service counter at a Post Office.”

Yes, the USPS is behind the times. According to Wikipedia, the USPS is also:

(a) the second largest civilian employer in the United States (574,000 workers)

(b) the largest vehicle fleet operator in the world

(c) legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality

(d) a protected monopoly in certain categories (non-package mail, use of mailboxes, etc.)

(e) operates 31,000 individual post offices

(f) delivers 600 million pieces of mail to more than 100 million delivery points — every day!

The knee-jerk reaction would be “well, let’s just modernize the whole darned system.” Or, let’s digitize it, or perform a magical internet transformation. The USPS and the K-12 school system have been mostly untouched by the digital revolution. The status quo is just too strong.

“To establish Post Offices” is among the powers assigned to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. One reason why we insisted upon Post Offices was to distribute newspapers in the 1700s. Within ten or twenty years, there may be no physical newspapers, and the future of print magazines, paper bills and invoices, legal notices, and other flat mail is equally dim. For the USPS, there are fewer letters to deliver, and fading enthusiasm for their once-vital services. To make things worse–as only a large government bureaucracy can do–the U.S. Postal Service is hobbled by a strange political situation that resulted in huge unfunded Federal mandate.

So as I find an alternate means to mail my 14-ounce package without using a 13-ounce-limit mailbox, here’s a thought experiment for a late winter’s day:

If you were in charge of a future version of a U.S. postal system–government operated or otherwise–how would you construct a 21st century system?

Corning’s Clear View of the Future

Interesting concept video by Corning Glass.

Boring? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. I was wrong.

Turns out, screens are / will be everywhere. And, Corning knows that those screens will be made of… you guessed it.

Apple TV in 2012?

Here's one of several pictures of the current Apple TV interface. For more, visit http://www.apple.com/appletv/

Apple has been experimenting with home television since 2006, when the company introduced Apple TV. Released last year, second generation Apple TV has sold over 2 million units. Apple TV is an accessory. The new product will be a complete solution: a TV set with an Apple logo, Apple software, and Apple’s reinvention of yet another product category.

For those unfamiliar with Apple TV, here’s the Apple blurb:

“With Apple TV, everything you want to watch — movies, TV shows, photo slideshows, and more — plays wirelessly on your widescreen TV. No managing storage. No syncing to your iTunes library. HD movies and TV shows from iTunes and Netflix play over the Internet on your HDTV, and music and photos stream from your computer. All you have to do is click and watch.”

According to Smarthouse, there will be three Apple models: 32″, a mid-size, and 55″. It will include “A totally new software interface has been written that allows users to call up programs using voice commands via the new Siri personal assistant app…” It may be operated by your existing iPad or iPhone (provided it’s Siri-ous).

Add Apple’s FaceTime and the TV becomes a big-screen video conferencing center, fully compatible with millions of iPhones and iPads.

How might the new TV look? The first place that answers come together tends to be MacRumors, my favorite Mac site for its up-to-the-minute coverage, its willingness to republish rumors from reliable sources (often with smart commentary), and the site’s Buyer’s Guide, which tells consumers when to buy each Mac and Apple portable device.

How much will it cost? I’m guessing $1,199 for the low-priced model, and $1,99 for the high, with a $1,499 price point for the in-between model. Just a guess based upon Apple’s past practices. If I was in charge of television at Sony, or any other high-priced television manufacturer, I would be very, very concerned. And I would not bother to convince myself that, somehow, DroidTV (or whatever) is likely to win the race.

Why?

1. With the iPad turning three years old, Apple’s huge base of early adopters will be ready for a new, high-priced toy.

2. For a decade, Apple has been studying this market, figuring out the best integrated hardware, network, usability, operating system and app plays.

3. Apple already sells an accessory product with the base functionality already in place and operating in two million homes (three or four million by launch time).

4. Apple has a well-developed retail network–people like to see a TV before buying. Best Buy, Radio Shack, and Target sell Apple products.

No competitor enjoys these advantages.

Google’s Eric Schmidt’s McTaggart Lecture

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/interactive/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-mactaggart-lecture?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

That’s the link to an extraordinary speech by Google executive Eric Schmidt. He paints a clear picture of Google’s convergence plans for/with television.

And/or read the speech’s text here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/interactive/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-mactaggart-lecture-full-text

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