Last week, the Wall Street Journalreported that things aren't looking so great for Google+. According to data from comScore, Google+'s users spend just about 3 minutes per month on the site. On Facebook, that number is closer to six or seven hours per month. Google itself, however, has never provided anybody with any useful data about the service and – at worst – is just using deliberately misleading information to provide the press with big numbers that look good but are absolutely meaningless.
100 Million "Active" Users?
In January, for example the company's CEO Larry Page said that the site had 90 million users at that time and that "+users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly." That, however, was a pretty misleading statement. While it may sound that Page was saying that 60% of Google+ users come back to Google+ every day, his argument was simply that 60% of those users who signed up for Google+ also use any other Google+ service on a daily basis. Those numbers said absolutely nothing about the engagement Google+ is seeing from its users.
Today, Google's VP for engineering Vic Gundotra – in what is clearly a reaction to the WSJ piece – talked to the New York Times' Nick Bilton and once again used the same kind of tactic. "On a daily basis, 50 million people who have created a Google Plus account actively use the company’s Google Plus-enhanced products, Mr. Gundotra said. Over a 30-day period, he said, that number is 100 million active users." Google+, of course, is now part of virtually every other Google product, including search, which most of the company's users probably use on a daily basis without ever trying to actively engage with the company's social network.
Nice, Meaningless Numbers
Google is obviously trying to paint a nice picture here by using large numbers that, at the end of the day, say nothing about Google+ and how engaged its users are. Maybe things are great at Google+ and it has a huge, highly active community (though most of us aren't seeing it in our own accounts). The problem with this is that unless Google provides us with any concrete data, it just looks as if the company has something to hide.
For every hyped app or web service (think Foursquare, Quora etc.), there are at least a dozen of competitors out there that are often better, but never quite get the attention they deserve. At the end of every year, I round up some of my favorite apps and services that mostly flew under the radar of the tech press during the last twelve months, but that deserved a lot more attention. Last year, I featured my6sense (still alive and kicking), Pearltrees (growing steadily, just launched an iPad app), Producteev (also doing well this year) and EchoEcho (which got a nice investment led by Google Ventures earlier this year).
This list is obviously quite subjective, so feel free to chime in with your personal favorites in the comments.
I’ve never been a fan of check-in services like Foursquare, but I’m a big believer in location-based apps nevertheless. The reason I like Trover (available for Android and iOS) is that it strips out all the unnecessary gamification crud and just plain focuses on letting you share and discover cool stuff around you. Instead of virtual badges, you simply send a friendly “thank you” to the person who first shared that cool place you found thanks to the app. While it focuses on sharing photos, there are no filters and nothing to distract you from what you really wanted to use the app for in the first place.
In my review earlier this year, I called it “the best location-based app you’re not using (yet).” Thankfully, more people have discovered the app since, but overall, it mostly flew under the radar this year.
With Apple adding reading lists to iOS and a lot of attention on Instapaper and Read It Later (though that service also doesn’t get the attention it deserves), time-shifted reading hit it big this year. Spool is the latest entry into this market and it’s quietly building a very competitive product which doesn’t just offer support for text, but also videos.
Another feature I really like about the app is automatic detection of multi-page articles. It doesn’t always work 100%, but often saves you a few clicks on sites like the New York Times, for example. There are also Chrome and Firefox extensions for Spool, which provide augmented links on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Techmeme. Given that the service is still new, though, it isn't integrated into any third-party apps yet, which is a bit of a problem if you want to switch from a well-supported service like Instapaper.
Everybody who owns a smartphone has probably downloaded a few task management apps at one point or another. My personal favorite is Wunderlist from Berlin-based development shop 6Wunderkinder. The company got an investment from Skype-founder Niklas Zennstrom in November, so it definitely popped up on some peoples’ radar this year, but while it got lots of traction, it never quite got the hype it deserved. The services’ apps and web services are beautifully designed and focus on simplicity over features.
This isn’t a tool for the hardcore Getting Things Done crowd (this isn’t OmniFocus, after all), but it’s among the best task management tools out there for those of us who just want to keep lists of things. The fact that it’s available virtually anywhere (Windows, Mac, Linux, Blackberry, iOS, Android and on the web), also gives it an edge over some of its competitors.
With Wunderkit, the company also plans to expand beyond its basic service next year, so keep an eye on the company’s blog.
(If you are looking for a more fully-featured service that includes support for small teams, by the way, take a look at Producteev, which was on this list last year and which added some nice new features over the last few months.)
With all the talk about Spotify, MOG and Rdio, it’s easy to forget the granddaddy of all online music services: Rhapsody. When the service launched a full 10 years ago, it was among the first online music services to offer on-demand music streaming for a flat fee. Today, it can boast of being the largest on-demand music subscription service on the Internet, but it gets very little attention from the tech press (maybe because its legacy as a part of Real Networks is still a major turnoff for those of us who have been around the net for long enough). With 11 million songs and apps for every major mobile operating system (including support for offline caching), it’s worth taking note of and worth a try if you are looking for a subscription alternative to iTunes.
Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Windows Live Web Services
It’s obviously not cool to like a Microsoft product (except for the Xbox and Kinect, I guess), but even though the tech press loves Google Apps, Gmail and (almost) anything else Google does, Microsoft’s web apps don’t get the attention they deserve outside of the Microsoft blogs.
All of Microsoft’s online products took a major step forward in 2011, though. The latest SkyDrive update, for example, makes Microsoft’s online storage service for more competitive with startups like DropBox. The Office Web Apps suite (and, by extension, the paid Office 365 solution for small businesses) offers a far better online editing experience and document fidelity than Google Docs (and include support for OneNote, the underrated star of the MS Office suite). Hotmail has massively improved thanks to adding features like Active Views.
All of these services are worth another look, especially now that Microsoft is rumored to launch an iOS version of its productivity apps, too.
The way we publish and read text in our browsers today is not that different from the way Egyptians used scrolls over 3,000 years ago. In the real world, though, the scroll gave way to the codex a long time ago, but on the web, we’re still mostly wedded to the idea of scrolling through text. Opera, the developers of the popular desktop and mobile browser of the same name, just released Opera Reader, a prototype of a concept they call “native pages,” which is meant to bring the ideas of a more book-like publishing layout back to the web. The result, which developers can achieve with just a few lines of codes, looks more like the New York Times Skimmer interface than a regular website.
The basic concept behind native pages/Opera Reader is to make it easy to split pages into paged media by using what Opera calls “an innovative new set of CSS constructs.” Opera things that this idea “has the power to dramatically improve the way in which web content is consumers, by presenting it in a much more compelling fashion.”
Instead of scrolling through pages, using a few basic CSS constructs will turn your scrolling articles into more codex-like sites with columns and multiple pages. The idea here is to make these texts easier to read and to make better use of the widescreen monitors that now adorn most of our desks. Browsers that don’t support this technology will just continue to display the same pages as before. Those that do support it, however, will be able to flexibly adjust the layout of the pages multi-column layout on the fly and have users use touch gestures and/or keyboard commands to flip pages.
Whether you are using a tablet, phone, desktop or a laptop to read this right now, chances are you are using a widescreen display. On a desktop and laptop, these are great for watching video, but leave a lot of unused space if you are just reading text online. At least on a tablet or phone, you can just tilt the device and use your screen more efficiently. If successful, the ideas behind Opera Reader could make it easier for publishers to make their texts available for mice-less devices like tablets and on the desktop, where readers would benefit from a better layout of the texts they read.
An Idea Worth Pursuing?
It’s worth noting, though, that online publishing as we know it today is driven by pageviews and the ad sales that come with them. It’s unlikely that existing publishers would quickly flock to this idea, but as a proof of concept, Opera Reader does hold some interesting promises.
As a reader, though, I have to say that I really like sites like the NYTimes Skimmer that let me focus on the text and use a multi-column layout to let me read more text before I have to scroll again.
I can see a few reasons why this idea wouldn’t work, though, as well. On tablets, for example, the scroll metaphor actually works quite well and actually feels more efficient than paging through articles. I also haven’t heard too many people complain about having to scroll through articles and for many, I would guess scrolling now feels more natural than leaving through a virtual book-like environment.
Unlike Opera then, I don’t think this idea of a codex-like page works for every site and every article, but I can imagine sites that focus on long-form content move towards this or a similar technology. I’m not sure it has to be build into the browser, but I think Opera is right to reopen the discussion about how we display our written content on the web.
How to Use it Today
The only way to see Opera Reader in action right now is by installing a special alpha version of Opera 12 (available for Mac, Windows and Linux). Once installed, you can find a number of demos of the native page technology here.
Tomorrow, the State of Alaska will release 24,000 emails that Sarah Palin sent during her tenure as governor of Alaska. A number of media organizations and individuals made record requests for these documents in September 2008. Even though these are emails, though, the State of Alaska will only make them available on paper. In total, there will be six heavy boxes of paper that will contain emails Palin wrote from the beginning of her tenure in 2007 through September 2008. A massive amount of information like this is something even the largest news organizations can only handle when they get the documents ahead of time and under embargo (as was the case with Wikileaks). Because of this, a number of organizations, including the New York Times and the Washington Post are crowdsourcing their efforts to cover these documents. (more…)
News.me, an iPad-only news aggregator that was developed by Bit.ly developers Betaworks (in collaboration with the New York Times) made its debut in Apple’s app store today (iTunes link). The app presents you with a list of stories your friends on Twitter and select influencers chosen by the News.me editorial staff are reading. With the help of the data collected by Bit.ly, the feed is filtered according to how many times an article has been shared and clicked on. To use the app beyond the one-week trial period, users will have to pay $0.99 per week or $34.99 for a one-year subscription.
Among media pundits, News.me’s business model of redistributing the money it makes from subscriptions to the news outlets it has partnered with has been the main focus of attention. The majority of users couldn’t care less about this, though, and the app will have to justify its existence by offering an experience that users will actually want to pay for. As it stands right now, I don’t think I’ll pay for the service – especially given that Zite and Flipboard currently offer a superior experience for free.
Less About News.me – More About News.what-others-are-reading
In theory, the idea behind News.me is quite interesting. It allows you to see what others on Twitter are reading and highlights the best of these stories by using a PageRank-like algorithm based on Bit.ly’s massive trove of data. Because of this, though, News.me feels like it’s less about giving you a great personalized reading experience as it is about giving you a semi-voyeuristic view into the stories that stream through other users’ Twitter streams.
Sadly, you can only follow those Twitter users who are also subscribed to the service – making it substantially less useful than an app like Zite and Flipboard where no such restrictions exist. You also can’t vote content up or down – meaning that the personalization doesn’t extent much beyond looking at the “best” stuff that’s streaming through a given users’ Twitter channels. While apps like Zite or the Google Reader-based My6Sense iPhone app, News.me doesn’t learn anything from my reading behavior.
The reason News.me just isn’t that useful to me, even though the design is nice and I like the business model, is that when I’m browsing news, I want to browse by categories and topics. I don’t want to have to wade through a semi-random list of stories – many of which show up in multiple streams and hence make this service even less interesting.
As it stands now, I don’t see a good reason for paying for News.me. The experience isn’t up to par with what other services offer for free and I’m not sold on the concept behind it. Want a personalized news experience on the iPad? Download Zite and Flipboard instead. Or, on the web, try Trove, which looks at stories shared by your Facebook friends.
Google and the New York Times just launched a new trivia game, A Google a Day, that will make its print debut tomorrow morning. The new puzzle will appear right above the New York Times’ legendary crossword puzzle, but with the added twist that unlike in regular trivia games, A Google a Day encourages people to go out and search for the answer online. To ensure that Google’s real-time search feature doesn’t spoil the fun, agoogleaday.com will feature a stripped down version of Google’s regular search engine without any of these additional features.
The answers to each question will be revealed on the site and in the paper the day after they first run online. The questions will get harder as the week progresses – just like the regular New York Times Crossword puzzle.
It’s Not Just About Fun and Games
Clearly, though, Google has a secondary reason for running this game, as it will also highlight the search queries that lead to the answers. It will obviously profit from the daily marketing in the New York Times – and the fact that you could perform all of these searches with the help of Microsoft’s Bing will likely not be highlighted anywhere in the Times.
In addition to this, though, the game will also highlight Google’s functionality and usefulness for finding the answers to hard questions and train searchers (and especially those who still read the New York Times on paper) in using Google for complex queries and in utilizing all the additional features that Google offers in its sidebar.
The New York Times will activate its paywall at 2pm ET (11am PT) today. While the word “paywall” evokes the idea of an impermeable barrier that you will only be able to breach by getting out your credit card, the reality is far more complicated. Indeed, according to the New York Times’ own estimates, only about 20% of its readers will ever encounter the paywall at all.
Prices for access to the New York Times’ articles start at $15 for access to the website and the smartphone app and top out at $35 for access to the website, smartphone (Android, iPhone, BlackBerry) and tablet app. As a special introductory offer, though, you will be able to buy 4 weeks of access with any device for $0.99. Once the introductory offer expires (assuming the pricing hasn’t changed by then anyway), the cheapest way to get full access to the New York Times will be to get a Sunday-only print subscription. These qualify for full digital access. Prices vary depending on where you live, but are always cheaper than the digital subscriptions.
Rules of the Paywall:
print subscribers get full access to the New York Times on all devices.
if you don’t pay, you get to read 20 articles for free per calendar month.
access to the home page, section front pages and the classifieds don’t count towards this limit.
if you click on a video or slideshow that is related to the article you are reading, this click will not count towards the monthly article limit [/list]
Breaching the Wall with Social Media Links and Search Engines [list]
links from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media services will count towards your limit of 20 free articles – but you can still continue to read articles this way after you hit the paywall limit.
Confused? Here is how this works in practice: Say most of you interaction with the NYTimes comes from heading to the site because of links you’ve seen on Facebook. You read 15 articles on NYTimes.com by coming from Facebook. You also read 5 more articles by browsing the homepage. You have now hit the 20 article limit and can’t read any more stories by coming from NYTimes.com, but you will still be able to read articles your friends share with you on Facebook or Twitter.
you only get 5 free articles from Google searches per day (they also count towards the 20 article limit, but just like social media links, will allow you to continue reading after hitting the limit). The same goes for other “major” search engines like Bing.[/list]
It’s actually pretty easy (assuming you don’t want to use the smartphone and tablet apps). The easiest way right now is to install this bookmarklet. The paywall was implement in such an amateurish way that, once installed, clicking this button will simply let you through whenever the dialog asking you to pay for access comes up.
It took the New York Times almost two years and close to $40 million dollars to come up with its paywall scheme and the results neither reflect this huge investment in manpower nor money. It’s a mess that was designed by committee. I actually believe that most people would be more than willing to pay a reasonable amount for access to the NYTimes’ generally excellent reporting. The problem is, it almost feels as if the paywall was designed to scare away just those readers who would be willing to pay.
These are at least two major issues with the current system: [list type=”arrow”]
The current pricing scheme is utter nonsense. $15 per four weeks (not per month, mind you) for access to the website and smartphone app; $20 for the website and tablet app (but not smartphone); a whopping $35 for unlimited access on any device. Chances are, the majority of today’s readers aren’t willing to pay $15, let alone $35. Also, as long as it’s cheaper to get a Sunday-only print subscription (which includes unlimited access on all devices) than a digital-only subscription, you know that the NYTimes is still beholden to its legacy print ways and looking backwards instead of forwards to the inevitable day when the last print edition rolls off the presses.
Image via Wikipedia
If the NYTimes charged $5 or $10 per month without the device restrictions currently in place (they could learn from Hulu and Netflix here), the number of additional subscribers would easily make up for the smaller revenue generated per reader (just look at the iOS App Store for how this works in practice).
The system for giving limited free access to all readers is highly confusing. Most NYT readers will never quite understand when and why they are running out of their monthly 20 article allotment. Links for Twitter, blogs and search engines are free – but for some reason still count towards the monthly allotment anyway. So you could run out of your 20 free articles long before you even navigated to the NYTimes homepage. Of course, you can still read more articles through blog and social media links, but you won’t be able to really use the NYTimes homepage anymore.What about those times when you click on a Bit.ly link and don’t even know where it’s taking you? Bad luck. You just used another of your 20 monthly articles.
It’s also worth noting that in this system, the long, expensive and exclusive Sunday magazine article is worth just as much as the news piece that you could find in virtually the same form on a dozen other sites.
The idea behind this porous paywall is to ensure that “drive-by” visitors, which supposedly make up 80% of the site’s traffic, won’t have to pay and will continue to drive ad impressions on the site. As word spreads that the NYTimes is now a site you have to pay for, though, fewer and fewer people will click on nytimes.com links as they won’t understand how the paywall works in the first place. [/list]
Overall then, this is, as Danny Sullivan so eloquently points out, not a pawyall but “an idiotwall. Designed by idiots to get money from idiots, the idioci.”
That’s quite a shame, because there is no reason to believe that a simplified pricing scheme with cheaper prices and without device restrictions couldn’t work.
The New York Times just announced its new paywall earlier today, but to my great surprise, I just received free access to NYTimes.com for the rest of 2011. Sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln brand, the New York Times is offering free accounts to “an exclusive group of frequent visitors to NYTimes.com.”
I don’t know why I was selected for this, but I’m still using the same account to access the NYTimes I opened in 1998 and I was a Times Select subscriber until the end of that failed paywall experiment. There are only a few mentions of this program on Twitter so far, so it looks like this is indeed a highly targeted campaign.
According to the ad, this program only gives the selected users free access to the website but not the tablet and smartphone apps. Given that the cheapest paid tier offers access to the smartphone app, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if smartphone access was part of this deal.
For a luxury brand like Lincoln, this is obviously a smart move, especially if this really turns out to be a relatively exclusive offer. While I doubt that many will thank Lincoln for this by buying one of their cars, it will undoubtedly keep the brand at the top of the mind of the New York Times’ most influential readers.
The fact that the New York Times is willing to make this offer, though, is curious. After all, the point of the new paywall is to “draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up the vast majority of the site’s traffic.” This deal seems to be geared towards exactly this group of loyal readers. Maybe the New York Times is simply hedging its bets here to ensure that its most loyal readers will still be around in case it has to tear the paywall down within the next year…
The New York Times today erected an online paywall for its readers in Canada and plans to roll this system out worldwide on March 28. As had been rumored in the past, NYTimes.com readers will be able to access 20 articles per month for free. The New York Times will also charge users of its smartphone and tablet apps, though the Top News section in these apps will remain free. Monthly subscriptions will start at $15 per month for access to the website and smartphone app. For access to the website and tablet app – but not the smartphone apps – user have to pay $20. Full access to NYTimes.com content on all platforms will cost $35. There is no website-only subscription.
Subscribers also get access to 100 articles from the New York Times archive every four weeks. Readers who already have a print subscription to either the New York Times or International Herald Tribune, will get free access to all of these services.
Free Access to Linked Articles
It’s important to note, that readers who come to NYTimes.com “from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter” will be able to read all of those linked articles for free without affecting their monthly limit. Interestingly, though, the New York Times also notes that “for some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.” Users coming from Google will only get 5 free articles that don’t count towards the 20 free articles per month.
Will You Subscribe or Just Find Other News Sources?
The New York Times is part of my daily news routine – both online and on the iPad. I probably read far more than 20 articles on the site per morning. I would be more than willing to pay $15 per month for blanket access to all of the New York Times’ content on all devices, but paying $35 just so I can read it on the iPad, too, is a bit steep.
The online pricing is clearly driven by the baseline price for its print subscriptions. You can currently get a Sunday-only print subscription, which qualifies for free access to all digital editions, for $30 per month (though there is currently an offer to get this for 50% off for the first 3 months). Basically, you have to pay $5 more if you subscribe to the online editions so you won’t have to deal with the print edition arriving on your doorstep every weekend.
News Corp. today launchedThe Daily, the first new national newspaper in the U.S. that is specifically designed for the iPad. At the launch even in New York today, News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch argued that The Daily will give his company the ability to innovate in the tablet age and introduce readers to a “fresh and robust new voice.” For the first two weeks, the Daily will be available for free, courtesy of Verizon. After that, a subscription will cost $0.99 per week or $40 per year (there is no monthly subscription option). You can now download the app from Apple’s App Store.
Given that, according to Apple, there are already over 9,000 news apps out there and news apps have been downloaded over 2 million times, can the Daily really make a splash in this market? To find out, we took a closer look at the app.
Interesting But Flawed
After spending some time with the app, it seems as if the designers tried to pack the best parts of the traditional newspaper and online world into this product. Sadly, the mix between the two is anything but satisfying and errs on the side of old-school newspaper thinking.
The app features the serendipity of reading a newspaper (mostly because it doesn’t have a decent table of contents that would make browsing to a specific article easy), glossy design, high-quality editing and great photography. The app can pull in tweets for articles when warrant it, there are outside links to blogs and other traditional papers online, you can leave audio and text comments on articles and you can share links to stories on Twitter and Facebook.
As for the journalism and writing, it’s probably not fair to judge the app by its first edition, but there seems to be a lack of hard news and a strong focus on lifestyle stories (“The Man Snoot”? Really?). The fact that The Daily features a horoscope section is a clear example of its legacy sensibility.
Also, the news part of The Daily isn’t keeping up with recent developments. The story about Egypt, for example, is based on old information and the paper currently makes no mention of the violent clashes that happened in Cairo today.
Somehow, though, none of this feels very satisfying. The app is riddled with little usability issues (see below for details) and even though it is far prettier than most news apps and looks more like a magazine, the app is held back by Murdoch’s insistence to bring the old newspaper paradigm to the iPad.
Hands-On With the App
The first thing that stands out while looking at the app is the production value the team has put into the design and images. The overall design, with a focus on photos and clean typography, makes for a pleasant reading experience that is actually more intuitive than that of the early iPad magazines from Wired and Popular Mechanics.
The central view of the paper – the one you see when you first start the app – is a carousel that shows thumbnails of all the papers’ stories. From every story, you can also navigate to the paper’s different sections (News, Gossip, Opinion, Arts & Life, Apps & Games, Sports). Oddly, the tech section – which includes a profile of Quora in today’s edition – is called “Apps & Games.” You can’t directly browse to a tech news section in the app.
You can share stories on all the major social networks. After you share a link, your friends will be able to see a copy of the article on the Web, but won’t be able to see any other content from The Daily.
Odd Design Problems
Even though the overall design of the app looks nice, this first version features so many annoying little design issues that using the app isn’t quite as much fun as I expected.
One thing that immediately caught my attention was that there doesn’t seem to be a way to just get an overview of all the articles in the app. Even though the carousel is very pretty and you can bring up a list of thumbnails by clicking at the top of the screen, you can’t just press a button somewhere and see a full table of contents.
Another thing that annoys me about the app is that its functionality relies too much on switching between portrait and landscape modes on the iPad. Generally, you will see photos related to a story when you are in landscape mode and the text while you are in portrait mode. I tend to lock the iPad’s rotation, however, as it’s too easy to inadvertently switch back and forth between the two while I’m reading on the couch or in bed. So switching between the two just gets annoying after a while but is essential if you want to get the most out of your The Daily subscription.
Also, the preview images on the carousel are over-compressed and hence very grainy. Also, the 360 degree pictures that the editors highlighted during today’s launch are of surprisingly low quality.
One feature I dearly miss while using the app is a browser-like “back” button. In the first edition, for example, there is a link to a graph with stats about Egypt at the end of the lead article. This link takes you to the middle of the paper – but then you can’t easily get back to the position you jumped off from.
Another annoyance (though I guess I’m nitpicking now): when you share a story on Twitter, the keyboard blocks the “post” button and you can’t actually send your tweet until you dismiss the keyboard.
The web versions of the articles are also rather unsatisfying. Given that News Corp. wants you to subscribe to the tablet app, that makes sense, but a bit more attention to the design there would probably entice more readers to actually download the app.
Worth Subscribing To?
Overall, then, this is an interesting experiment. Will I keep my subscription after the first two weeks? Currently, I don’t think so. The New York Times app (which will soon move to a paid model as well) isn’t as pretty as The Daily, but it is far more usable and gets me to the news I want to read faster while still keeping that sense of news discovery and serendipity that makes browsing a physical newspaper so satisfying.