Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google launches Fast Flip as first response to content pay plans

Google released Fast Flip to the world today to mixed reviews. Many reviewers saw it as a throwback to earlier ways of accessing information while others praised it for exactly the same reason. Silicon Republic said Google has initially partnered with three dozen major publishers, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Salon, Fast Company, ProPublica and Newsweek to provide content in fast-loading newspaper or magazine style. They saw it as a way of a good way of avoiding waiting for content rich sites to load when all users want to do is “skim through the paper”.

Meanwhile over at Online Journalism Blog, Paul Bradshaw calls it “an analogue-mindset concept” that will further weaken the news sites that serve it. Google will run ads alongside the Fast Flip articles and will give an undisclosed share of the profits to the news providers. But Bradshaw says that Fast Flip screen shots may be sufficient for a lot of users who will no longer click through to the sites. This may be particularly true when users are on the run - Joshua Gans says its sideways scrolling motion works better on the iPhone than on a computer.

Webware agreed with Bradshaw that it would take advertising away from publishers but called Fast Flip a “platypus of news readers”. The author said it was an intermediate online form which recreated the experience of reading microfiche. “Fast Flip is a good solution for putting a magazine or newspaper online, and it makes scanning even a more modern Web feed really fast,” he said. “But it still feels forced.”

Perhaps it has been forced upon Google in reaction to news paywall plans which are gathering pace. Google have been conspicuously silent on the plans of Murdoch and others but they are surely worth watching as a party with a strong vested interest in its outcome. Google does not rely directly on subscriber services – it makes its money on advertising. In 2008 Google had revenues of $21.8 billion of which $21.1 (97 percent) was advertising. That amounted to a profit of $4.2b which at 20 percent wasn’t bad for such recession year (it is improving again in 2009).

But Google’s founders know how quickly that could change if they don’t stay ahead of the game. In his book “Linked” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi talks about how he met Larry Page in March 2000 when few people had heard of the search engine. The pair were speakers at an Internet Archives workshop in San Francisco. The event attracted an eclectic mix to hear about digital trends. Page gave a short talk about the search engine and bought his audience with a box of T-Shirts that had Google’s tag written on them: “I’m Feeling Lucky”. Barabasi says he tried out his t-shirt when he got home and also tried the search engine. He, like many others after him, became quickly addicted to Google’s product.

According to Barabasi, whose specialty is networks, Google should not have had the success it had as it violated the prediction of scale-free networks. Older sites such as Yahoo and Alta Vista had the advantage of becoming hubs quicker. But Google’s fitness for purpose gave it a commercial advantage that exponentially outweighed the disadvantage of their relative youth. To users, he says Google is easily tens of thousands of times more useful than any one web page.

Google has been busy adding to its stable of products since its t-shirt days. It offers services across a key range of products include email, images, video, blogging, RSS, maps, documents, advertising and news aggregation. With Google News the search engine behemoth faced claims of parasitical activity by the news industry. Google’s response is that it does not sell adverts on Google News, it a the major source of traffic to news websites, and publishers don’t like it they can simply turn off the flow with simple HTML script.

Margaret Simons reiterated that last point in her welcome return to blogging at The Content Makers. She says Google hasn’t broken into news sites. “The newspaper companies have allowed it in – and indeed hung out a 'welcome' sign, and they have done so because it suits their purposes,” she said. “Google has built their site traffic.” They may now decide they want to be paid to access that content but it is also highly likely that companies such as Google will opt to pay for the right to index and link to the content. In other words, Google might choose to be part of the club, and thus bring us all in. One possible way of doing that might be by linking Google News to micropayment systems.

In his book “We the Media” journalist Dan Gillmor said he was a fan of Google News even though it generally doesn’t acknowledge news content from the sphere of grassroots journalism. Google News was the brainchild of Krishna Bharat who realised after 9/11 it would be useful to see news reporting from multiple sources on a given topic assembled in one place. Bharat told Gillmor Google News has one basic rule; news requires editors and Google News is displaying what editors think is important at any given moment. Bharat saw Google News as complementary to what newspapers do. While Gillmor acknowledges it wouldn’t exist without news reporting from elsewhere, he said in 2006 it could become the front page for the rest of us.

From a distance of three years hindsight, that hasn’t yet happened (though it is being increasingly wrapped into products such as iGoogle). But perhaps the announcement of the new product today may yet prove Gillmor right. Fast Flip is a more visual representation of Google News. It also seems to tap into the “tabbed browsing” zeitgeist and as Gans says, is likely to prove especially popular on cell phones. Fast Flip may indeed be a platypus, but it is likely that higher-order products won’t take long to evolve.

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