February 28, 2010

Customised Magazines : New Business Opportunity around Print Media

I am a power-user of the Internet and have been evangelising its usage in almost every field of activity but the funny thing is that despite this deep attachment to the digital media, I never, ever give up a chance to grab a magazine and curl up with it on a sofa ! Why is this ? Because it is simply so much more comfortable to do so. Does that mean that I do not read stuff off the web ? Not at all – I read it all the time, and in fact most of the important things that I have read have been off the web, but that does not mean that I like to sit hunched up in front of screen. So why do I do so ? Because no print magazine can ever give me either the diversity of reach that I can get on the web nor will it ever be customised to exactly the kind of stuff that I care to read. Net-net, I am willing to tolerate the physical discomfort because I care for the reach and the degree of customisation. Is there a way out of this problem ?

What if someone were to come out with a system that allows me to bookmark specific pages on the web that are of interest to me – the way you do it in del.icio.us – but print and bind them into a personal magazine every week and have it delivered to my home on Saturday, or at my office on Monday ?  Would it not be wonderful to have the flexibility of crafting a magazine of my choice and then having it in physical form to read in the comfort of  your bed or  your car ? Moreover, when we browse the web, more often than not, we come across pages or articles that interest us but we do not have the time – at that moment – to read it in full. We of course salve our conscience by bookmarking it, knowing fully well that we will never come back to it in future. Getting it all back in a nice print form later on should be quite nice.

Does it make business sense to print single copies of magazines ? An immediate analogy is the boutique publishing houses like Lulu that offer print-on-demand services as explained in an earlier post. But because rapid yet inexpensive delivery is critical here, we need a different business model.

What we need is a hub-and-spoke model where the magazine is assembled as a soft copy in one central location and then downloaded to small, franchisee operated print shops located in all major metro towns and district headquarters. Copies that are due on a particular day will be printed in the night before and delivered through newspaper delivery boys – or other local couriers – next morning.

What about the economics ? Printing 64 pages in colour should not cost more than Rs. 50 and we can add a generous Rs. 10 for delivery. And even this Rs. 60 can be recovered by inserting 30 highly targeted advertisements for which we can charge only Rs. 2 each ! So the subscriber gets it free of cost – just as it is on the web.

All print magazines are expected to be supported by advertisement and one big problem is that these advertiser are drifting away to the digital media. In this hybrid model, advertisers will be greatly benefited because the advertisements can be printed alongside topically related articles – just as  Internet advertisement are topically related to the contents of the page on which they are showing – and the reader who would have chosen-and-printed an article on a particular topic would have a greater probability of reading an advertisement on a similar topic. Targeted ads have been shown to be very useful and popular on the web and this hybrid model will help the print media adopt the same and level the playing field that is otherwise getting tilted towards digital media.

This basic economic model can be tweaked in a number of ways.

Premium members can get magazines that have more pages or could have their copies printed in glossy paper. Members can also subscribe to “other” peoples magazines – so that they get to know what celebrities like film stars or politicians are reading – provided these people do not mind sharing their reading habits with the people at large. In fact, people who assemble interesting magazines – that are subscribed to by many others – can be paid a percentage of money collected from those who subscribe to their magazines. In fact this could lead to spin-offs of many branded little magazines who can in turn build their own business models.

What are the challenges in this business model ?

Copyright could be an issue it but can be addressed if we consider the business as a print-and-delivery service only. As an individual I believe I have the right to copy anything from the web and print it on my personal printer. In this case, I am printing it – not on my own printer, but – on a third party printer who is also taking the trouble to deliver it to me. I do not think that this is copyright violation.

Finally who would have an interest in getting into this business ?  Printer manufacturers or paper manufacturers should have an interest because it will result in the sale of heavy duty printers followed by ink, toners and paper on a regular basis. Media houses with their symbiotic relationship with the advertising industry could derive significant benefit from this new “hybrid” channel. But the dark horse could be the retail industry ! Why ? Because the delivery of magazines is just the tip of the arrow for a whole new business model. Once the distribution network has been set up, the reliability of the supply chain and the authenticity of the brand has been established, customers would be more comfortable in ordering physical goods of all kinds from on-line portals and e-commerce will be more acceptable to a wider spectrum of the population.

February 21, 2010

Man & Machine

A rare poster image of Ritwik Ghatak's 1958 movie Ajantrik.
I like this image because it shows the intimate and essential interaction between man and machine which I believe is inevitable in the future.

February 15, 2010

Paper Tigers and Sour Grapes

Why do universities exist ? At the most abstract level, academic institutions are supported because it is believed that new thoughts and ideas that emerge from them will lead to better standards of life and living in the the civil society that funds the creation and sustenance of these institutions. These thoughts and ideas are in the form of new knowledge that is both created and disseminated in an efficient manner and this dual role, namely creation and dissemination, is structured as research and teaching. Hence the faculty of an academic institution is expected to generate new thoughts and ideas through original research and ensure that not only these ideas, but other equally useful ideas generated elsewhere, at other institutions, is communicated to the students in a lucid and interesting manner. Hence a good academician is expected to contribute both to research as well as to teaching -- plus of course the inevitable overhead of adminstrating a complex institution so that it can do its primary roles in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

If we leave aside administrative duties, then what distinguishes a good academician from the not-so-good ? Obviously we are left with the two other functions : research and teaching, but more often than not, faculty is evaluated -- both during new recruitment and during 'promotion' -- on the quality of research, rarely on the ability to teach. This is a dubious yardstick but even it is not -- and I am not admitting that it is not dubious -- then the next shadow of doubt is cast by the metrics used to gauge the quality of research : the number of publications in peer reviewed journals. This leaves us with two questions namely (a) Is the number of publications a fair metric for the quality of research ? and (b) Should research be the only yardstick for faculty evaluation ?

A little thought will reveal that the two questions are  independent but let us address the second one first. The obvious answer is that research should not be the only yardstick -- Isaac Newton was a terrible communicator while George Gamow and Martin Gardener were wonderful teachers but were not known for any great discovery. [ OK, Gamow introduced the idea of a Big Bang ... ] The not so obvious answer is that we agree that teaching is important but we do not have a universally acceptable yardstick to measure teaching skills but since we do have one for research quality, let us use that one anyway. But what is this universally acceptable yardstick for research quality ? Oh, the number of publications of course ! ... and that is where the second question folds into the first.

So is the number of publications a reliable measure of the quality of research ? Before articulating my answer let me state up front that in a post-graduation career spanning more than a quarter of a century, I have  published three papers in peer-reviewed journals (of which one happens to be "national" one, much to the chagrin of our "international"ists ) Compared to the dozens, if not 70, 80, 150+ papers published by some of my colleagues, this is peanuts but instead of hanging my head in shame I have this intrepid desire to carry out a thought experiment.

Let me create a magic broom with which I can sweep away ( or expunge ) any peer-reviewed academic paper from all repositories on this planet and then see what happens when I use this broom. It is my conjecture ( if not my firm belief) that if I were to sweep away 75% of all papers published till date, the world will not know the difference ! Raise that figure to 90% and the world will be slightly worse off. Raise that to 99% and the world will be signficicantly poorer and of course if we go to 100% then civilisation as we know it will obviously collapse into depths of misery and despair. So it is not that publications are pointless -- but the vast majority is ! But then why this proliferation of trash ?

The answer is of course obvious to anyone in academia -- people publish because it is the only currency that we have to purchase recognition. It is the only currency that is freely convertible to permanent faculty positons and since all of us need a stable income ( and by extension, a stable lifestyle) that is the currency that we need to earn and and hoard.

Or do we ? For a beggar on the road, a rupee is very valuable but for a millionnaire an extra rupee or two is hardly of any significance. It has no impact on the quality of his life. So could be the case for someone who has reached the peak in academics -- which incidentally is not too high, since you cannot go beyond being a professor in any case. Once you have climbed onto the high tabletop of the academic plateau and you have no inclination to seek another job elsewhere, then earning anything more in the currency of peer-reviewed publications is of minimal or marginal economic value.

One could of course argue that economic value is not the only value that one should be concerned with. In Maslow's heirarchy, the need to be recognised by one's peers is the one that comes after one has been able to satisfy one's basic economic needs and publishing papers fulfills that need -- to be able to pin medals on one's chest. But are these medals like the Param Vir Chakra ? Or trinkets like the Padma Bhushan ?

Going back to my theory of 75% trash, the vast majority of papers fall into the trinket category .... created, not through the art of real "oil-on-canvas" research but, through the craft of "patched-collage" work. Publishing papers is now more of a craft where one has to meticulously read through legions of past papers, find one small niche that everyone has somehow overlooked and plug it with great  hype, hoopla and fanfare -- and if you can form a cartel of mutual "admirers" who will refer to each other's papers with circular citations, then your citation index can be driven up as well. Another analogy would be to compare publications to locating and repairing potholes on an existing road while leaving the great task of building that new road through the mountains to that 1% of the publishing population.

But if publications are really all that worthless then  (a) why do universitities continue to use them for evaluation and (b) why do people who do not need publications continue to seek them ? The answer to both questions is that they know of no other way !  Great research -- the result of that blinding flash of intuition or insight -- is rare after the age of 30 and this means that most of the papers that fall in the essential 1% category would have been among the authors first few papers.After that art gives way to craft and professors who really do not need to publish any more trash find themselves increasingly incapable of doing anything else -- they are trapped in a zone of comfort. And a lot of that comfort comes from the legions of apprentices -- research scholars and junior faculty -- who are now available to carry on with the craft of assembling papers and the luxury of being to able to append your name to the product of someone else's craftsmanship. This then is the nursery from where a doyen of academia generates his brood of 50,60, 100 papers.

Moreover it is this same doyen who, freed from the need to think about anything original, is now responsible for the administration in the university -- perhaps as the head of the department or involved with the recruitment or promotion of other faculty members. Can he think of any criterion other than the number of publications ? Unlikely ...  and that answers the first question and explains a university's addiction to the publications as a yardstick to measure the quality of research.

So is there an alternative ?

As a late entrant to academia, my external, industrial perspective tells me that there is a world of innovation that exists outside the closed of peer-reviewed journals. As a computer programmer, I have come across many new and exciting things, not in journals but on the web and and only a  handful of these things can track back to journal. In fact the Communications of the ACM, the premier society of Computer Scientists, tracks only a handful of papers in its vast digital archives and this is what most of us read anyway. On the flip side some of the most interesting and useful things that I have done would never ever be published in any journal but nevertheless they have been appreciated and praised by clients, friends, acquaintances and peers.  Traditional academics may be reluctant to classify what happens in this world as  research but  if we were to go back to the definition of the term in the first paragraph of this essay ---   as the fountainhead of  thoughts and ideas that lead to better standards of life and living  -- then the reluctance is neither defensible nor acceptable ! Honestly speaking,  the excitment of working with new and innovative ideas -- without the claustrophobic constraint of having to have your work formally approved by anonymous peers of dubious competence and capability -- is an exhilaration by itself.

But you can feel this rush of adrenaline if and only if you have transgressed the need to be appreciated by your peers and reached that next level of Maslow -- where you yourself is your own motivation to push into areas that you think are worthy of your interest. If your peers -- and the little journals that they fret and preen over  -- do not care about your thoughts and ideas, then sorry,  it is their problem, not yours !!

This then is the level at which a senior academician -- and hopefully juniors too, in the future -- should be in when he engages in research but to honestly be in this state he must guard against two major temptations : the temptation to be arrogant and dismissive of others and the temptation of sinking into intellectual lethargy and stupor. Then and only then can he ignore the species of panthera tigris papyrii -- paper tigers -- and tell them on their face that their grapes are indeed sour.

February 06, 2010

Converting Thought to Art

Wordle: The Road to pSingularity
Wordle: The Road to pSingularity
This image represents a cloud of ideas, or rather words, that appear in my book, The Road to pSingularity.
Click on the image to get a bigger view and understand how you can also build images of your own