Newspapers hunger for a bite of the apple

Alan Rusbridger – my editor at The Guardian – reckons there’s an ‘iPod moment’on the way for newspapers: an easily-portable electronic device with a really legible screen is out there somewhere, waiting for that gestalt moment when people put the elements together to create something new, just as happened when Apple did the iPod.

The latter wasn’t the first small digital music player, nor the first with a hard drive able to hold all your MP3s; but it was first to do both and do it really elegantly. Similarly, products like iRex’s iLiad or Sony’s Reader sort of let you read stuff, but haven’t excited the mass market. Amazon has a project called the ‘Kindle”, which might be it; we’ll have to see.

One can guess that an iPaper would have some mechanism for indicating what stories you’ve read, to be uploaded to the originating website the next time you go online to download more news. That means what people read will get tracked. Be prepared for some nasty developments, though.

Can comment cut it?

Music labels are already struggling with the way that people are less interested in albums now, and instead focus on the ‘track”: Gnarls Barkley hit it big with the single ‘Crazy”, but I’d challenge you to name their album. Or, indeed, any other of their songs.

Similar things are going to happen to newspapers, I think: in an iPod environment, readers will become focused on the story. But they’ll also be a lot less focused on comment. Famous columnists Phil Space and Polly Filla are not going to blossom online; their usual navel-gazing just won’t cut it.

On the other hand, people like The Independent’s Robert Fisk who do compelling news and comment will do very well – as he already does. The difference is that editors will be able to see directly who’s reading what, and commission – or fire – accordingly.

Part of what is changing is that people don’t come to news sites directly so much. The New York Times pulled down its paywall earlier this month because so much of its incoming traffic was following links from search engines or recommendation sites – not because they’d come specifically for the paper, but because they wanted something particular that was there.

The columnists who will do well are those who are repeatedly controversial and say things that stir up the online readership. Every paper has experienced this: annoy people, and they’re far more likely to come round (online) and kick you than if you say something they agree with.

A classic example was Charlie Brooker ranting about how much he hated Apple Macs in The Guardian (4): conservatively, that gets about 250,000 links online. His later article about hating spiders, well, somehow, it hasn’t got the web worked up the same way.

If you’re wondering why Apple’s UK iPhone launch garnered such spectacular coverage everywhere, it’s those online readers again. Apple has a cult following of people, a flash mob that sweeps the web scrabbling up every crumb of coverage there is.

Meanwhile, the phone deal is rubbish: no picture messaging (huh?), expensive, no pay-as-you-go, no 3G, and a less good minutes-and-texts deal than on other networks. Plus you have to pay for the phone. It’ll be a hit, no doubt.

Congenitally ill NHS system

Too little attention is being paid to the NHS’s overarching attempts to computerise the health service. It’s a centralised mess; but part of the problem with reporting it is that it’s so hard to give a clear idea of what the position should be and what it really is. The very scale of the project (the biggest IT project in the world, it’s often said) makes it hard to put the errors into perspective.

I did once suggest, with our civil service expert, that we draw up a Gantt chart (which shows the interdependencies of a project and its timescale) for the scheme. Gave up: we have to get a paper out from time to time. Even so, I’m amazed there hasn’t been any coverage of the damning report published in mid-September by the Commons Health Select Committee on the Patient Record systems.

Basically, they say the system is too centralised and doesn’t listen to success in local areas, and that there are still too many areas where patient privacy isn’t taken seriously.

It’s a slow-motion car crash – happening in inches per year. But it’s happening in a forest of confusing names and systems too. How do we get to listen more carefully to it? Or will we just end up with something that doesn’t work as it should for all of us who couldn’t be bothered to report on 117-page select committee reports?

Wii waves light sabre at Sony

Nintendo’s Wii console has overtaken Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in worldwide sales – now more than 11 million sold, compared with slightly fewer for the Xbox 360, which had a year’s advantage in sales. Sony’s PlayStation 3, released two weeks before the Wii, has sold about 4.6 million – less than half its rivals.

Meanwhile, LucasArts – set up by Star Wars creator George Lucas – will next year release a game in which you get to wield a light sabre, just like those Jedi folk. And it’ll be on the Wii too.

Demand for the Wii is going to remain high. And Sony has a big, big problem. The only consoling thought for Howard Stringer at the top of Sony is that as it loses money with every console sold (unlike Nintendo, which profits), low PS3 sales actually help with its bottom line.

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