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Monday, March 29, 2010

Behold, the uses for the Internet

  When I could contain myself no longer, I went to Apple - QuickTime - Apple Special Event January 2010 and watched the iPad presentation. Then the sky opened up, angels wearing iPods sang (or at least lip-synced), and a Voice pointed out that it is possible to navigate information without having to use a mouse, that interface design is alive and well, and that personal computing devices can actually be a pleasure to use.

[Have you ever watched Star Trek? Have you ever seen people on ST clicking through folder after folder to get to some program they need to launch with some lame pointing device? No. Why? Because the people who design the tech for sci-fi shows are OPTIMISTS. They assume we'll move past the interfaces we have now, just like we switched over from all those cool, light-up analog-style buttons, knobs and sliders. Which I kind of miss, actually.]

One passionate detractor described the iPad to me as "just a big iPhone," which made me laugh: it's not like that's an insult, and it's not like she doesn't own a post-iPhone touchscreen phone that mimics the interface to a point, which seemingly never would have been introduced if not for the iPhone's existence.

But this detractor was missing the point: the iPad isn't as much of an innovation as the infrastructure behind it is. iTunes will now carry apps for the iPad also, plus books, plus everything it has already been carrying for iPhones and iPods and iPodTouches. The apps, the genius of having a clearing house for them, of doing quality control and then making them available cheaply, is incredible. INCREDIBLE! The iToys are shiny and beautiful and thoughtfully designed, yes, but it's iTunes that makes this all so clever.

Fake Steve Jobs ( has gone on some brilliant tirades about the nature of Apple's business. Apple's business isn't the sexy iToys so much as it is Digital Asset Management: the selling of songs, movies, apps, books, and any other media currently in the works. Selling them differently than others sell them.


Software: okay, look: say I'm a programmer, and I want to sell a program that does something on a personal computing device. In the past, this would mean I'd write my program, and then go to a publisher, design packaging, get a manufacturer to burn discs, have the packages shipped to a distributor, work out deals with big box stores to try to get them to carry my product, set up my websites, hire a marketing company... To make this work, considering all of that overhead, I'd have to sell approximately a gazillion copies. If this product wasn't going to be big in all possible markets, it wouldn't be worth making, because it would never pay for itself.

If my program was for an Apple device, I could skip most of the steps after writing it: I could test it, form a little company, hire a designer to design a cool icon and website for me, and Apple basically does the rest. My overhead drops down low enough that this could be a side project. A pet project. Frivolous, even, or serious. But it is both low overhead and low risk.

How many people do you know wrote a major piece of PC software based on their own ideas and got it published for retail sale? How about an iPhone app? I know people who are writing iPhone apps. I read articles about people writing iPhone apps. I hear stories of people taking time off their main jobs to write iPhone apps. Not to go the old route, but because the new route makes so many more things possible. Massive funding up front is no longer the filter for ideas.

Even big media is figuring this out: they only figured out that they could sell DVDs of popular television programs a few years ago. But even that entails risk, and the production costs are high. Now viewers can subscribe to those shows in iTunes - no packaging, no manufacturing forecasts, no shipping, much less risk.

(Yes, on iTunes. Not on their own sites. You did notice this, didn't you?)

iTunes is a digital media platform that major networks and lone programmers can both get their work out through. Its strength lies in its one-stop, comprehensive nature. And that's what other companies have been figuring out in recent years.

Music? This works a lot like software does.

Books? I'm a huge fan of independent bookstores, which is where I do most of my book shopping, but Amazon is now catering to tiny, independent booksellers. If you have ten rare and obscure titles that you collected for sale, it will take a long time for people to find you; but if you sell through Amazon (where huge volumes of people are already looking, and which rates well in search engines), you can be found and can sell under Amazon's umbrella.

Stock photography? You used to have to publish a print catalog of your own images for sale and distribute it to buyers around the world, and the collection would have to be comprehensive to get any attention. Now dozens of heavily consolidated stock agencies use thousands of independent photographers to flesh out their catalogs. There's no way a shipping company in Korea would have found the image they purchased for a calendar from me if I were acting alone, but with my images as part of Alamy's agency database (, I was exactly where they were looking.

Obscure camera equipment? My little neighborhood camera stores have to carry what people are most likely to buy regularly, so a specialist in obscure parts or rare collectibles isn't going to get a lot of mileage out of their storefront. But on eBay, they can reach freaks like me who are actually looking for 8x10 Fidelity film holders, or lenses from decommissioned equipment, or replacement parts for equipment that was last manufactured before I was born. The odds of someone in any particular city needing these things is low; the odds of someone with an Internet connection needing these things... it is completely different.

Handmade paper goods and crafts? I don't think I need to explain Etsy to you.

Many big retailers and media companies are still figuring out how to make money on the Internet, and perhaps they never will. Look how long it took record companies to figure it out - they had to have it explained to them, and they had ideal products to sell digitally - they just couldn't conceptualize it. But there are tools now so that little media - "little" programmers, independent artists and musicians, collectors, makers of obscure specialty equipment - can benefit from retail outlets that have never been available to them before.

The Internet: it's getting interesting.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Friday, March 19, 2010

Comparing apples and avocados

  Every so often, something comes out that reminds you that (a) people in the US, on the whole, have no idea where their food comes from, and (b) some of those same people are kind of interested in having some kind of relationship with something they understand, perhaps including their food.

There is quite a bit of reposting and linking to the store Biography of a Taco – Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events (, which is heartening. The article has some charming moments about a class project on figuring out where each of the ingredients from a local taco truck originate.
"It was very difficult to trace the origins of these foods," said John Bela, a director at Rebar and an instructor for the class. "There was an intentional obfuscation of food origins that we didn't anticipate. We were stonewalled by corporations. So we had to use subterfuge, like having our Puerto Rican aunt call to ask."
It was interesting to learn that the salt used in the tacos is local -- those salt ponds that turn wild colors in Google maps actually are in use!

If I have an objection to the article, it is to the attempt to be balanced by suggesting that choosing local can be stupid by setting up a bogus example:
To grow avocados local to New York City, for example, imagine the energy it would take to mimic the climate of Chile in the middle of winter, Yu and her classmate Annalise Aldrich pointed out.
Since the localvore movement has emphasized local specialties -- eating what can be grown near you, and what is actually grown in your region - this hypothetical totally misses the point. None of us are suggesting growing pineapples in the Sunset district. We are suggesting that we grow some mighty fine artichokes in Half Moon Bay, however, and that a healthy diet could always include more artichokes.

Mmmmm. Artichokes.

It was good that the students had a look at how far food travels before getting to your plate, and that they considered the energy required to grow food. It seems like they started to touch an idea, and then dropped it: they noted that food transport is a relatively small energy consumer relative to... Well, to what? The California Academy of Sciences has a great, straightforward exhibit on the environmental impact of food choices currently, and it isn't just about the energy used to transport it.

You know where I'm going, right? We've known it for years, and the UN FAO's magazine covered it back in Spotlight / 2006: Livestock impacts on the environment (
A new report from FAO says livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Using a methodology that considers the entire commodity chain, it estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.
So, if the students are considering the implications of the transport of the food, but not of production of the food itself, they're missing the bigger picture.

But it's a start! A good start.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:30 PM

Friday, January 01, 2010

Development: Hunting/Gathering -> Cottage Industries -> Mass Manufacturing -> Cottage Industries

  Bigger isn't always better.

I'm reading one of several entries in the Uppercase Magazine blog about mainstream magazines that have ceased publication (, and am doing a bit of comparing & contrasting. Uppercase is a small operation: the founder has a small team that works with her, has a great website, a small gallery and shop, an adorable line of products, and more than 900 subscribers, so she doesn't need to be solely beholden to advertisers. The mainstream big magazines that are being shut down are vast enterprises with huge offices, vast editorial departments, huge sales organizations, thick layers of well-paid business managers... The sort of model business we have always been told is best, the business we should all want to have, because bigger is better.

Yet bigger is better ceased publication months ago.

Those big publishing houses, for periodicals and for books, are supposed to be an be-all-end-all dream for all those of us who work in any medium that needs to be printed -- we know, because the stuff they print tells us so. But there is increasing evidence that this just isn't the case.


An interesting discussion broke out on an old-fashioned mailing list for specialist photographers recently on a related topic. A fellow photographer was shocked to learn that his publisher had decided not to continue publishing his textbook: he was more or less told that reliable sales of small editions/print runs were no longer worth the publisher's while, and they were going to focus on books with wider appeal for bigger print runs. The author was devastated - his students will no longer be able to buy the book he wrote - and he had no input on the decision not to continue printing it.

He proposed a letter-writing campaign to the publisher to demand that they continue to print it. This is a position that assumes that a big publisher is the best option, or perhaps the only option. He received several supportive replies for this plan.

The majority of replies were NOT supportive of this plan. Most writers asked why he should be satisfied with a publisher whose decision-makers he would never meet controlling his book, and with it his ability to teach. Two major solutions were put forward by a range of authors: small press publishing and print-on-demand. Small press publishing had advocacy from several authors who had chosen that route and had with pleasing results: in support, an actual press representative wrote to discuss their abilities, and how their small size allows them to generate competitive small runs. Since the printing requires an outlay of cash that the author hadn't planned for, print-on-demand was also proposed: POD technology allows for beautifully printed books to stay "in print" indefinitely, for little or no up-front out-of-pocket cost, though at a higher per-unit cost (since they are printed in editions of 1 using more expensive equipment).

No one really stepped up on behalf of the publisher who was discontinuing his book, so the services a big publisher may offer (editing, design assistance, distribution, advertising) weren't talked up, to the extent that is even an option. The abandoned author didn't gush about those services, assuming he had once received them.


I am telling these stories about magazine and book publishers, but there are similar stories with record companies, film companies, greeting card companies, photographic supply companies... You name it. I'm reading more and more in support of the comments I made in the Perils and Profits of Scale which is basically this: companies whose entire business model is pinned to the fundamental economics of quantity really aren't supporting most creatives and others whose primary product is quality. (Or specificity, for that matter.)

The technologies that can allow people to build a successful small business based on quality and/or specificity are maturing now. I now have a choice of POD services to print books for me in a range of formats and paper qualities; I receive catalogs from companies that will burn my music onto CDs and print up packaging for me in large or small runs, or who will sell me the equipment to do so myself; I know people who are running, or have run, small businesses using sites such as eBay or Amazon Marketplace which allow them to specialize in their area of expertise without needing to be the next have-one-of-everything, breadth-without-depth chainstore...

In an economy where more and more of us are learning that big employers aren't the safest places to plan our futures, especially if employment doesn't quite meet all of our expressive needs, having these sorts of tools is a GREAT thing.


People who like the top-down options that the big companies give them - the blond pop vixen of the week, celebrity hairstyles, top ten paperback bestsellers, Tom Cruise movies - might only be aware of these things when some celebrity turns up wearing an outfit from obscure fashion designer running a label out of her garage, or carrying a bag she found on Etsy. Inexplicably, some people I know are using new technologies to follow old-technology companies - as if CNN/EPSN/UNFUN hasn't already told you six different ways the same stuff they're going to tweet to you! But it really doesn't matter so long as the people who DO want to use these tools to sell or buy things that meet their needs can use these tools to their advantage.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:55 PM

Monday, September 07, 2009

Economics with a side of fries

  You know how I am about food, so it's no surprise that I like analogies about food. In How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? by Paul Krugman (, there is a great parable that uses an analogy about ketchup. Admittedly, ketchup isn't central to the point of the example, but I like it anyway.
Finance economists rarely asked the seemingly obvious (though not easily answered) question of whether asset prices made sense given real-world fundamentals like earnings. Instead, they asked only whether asset prices made sense given other asset prices. Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama administration, once mocked finance professors with a parable about “ketchup economists” who “have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup,” and conclude from this that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient.
The article is good overall beyond the reference to tomato sauces: it's a discussion of two major rival economic theories, one of which insists that the market always balances itself out (which, under current circumstances, involves some wild rationalizations for our current lousy situation), and another that says that the market sometimes needs help.

It's amusing to read about economists who think that unemployment is 100% voluntary, and was even during the Great Depression, until you realize that some people listen to their advice.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The perils and profits of scale

  San Francisco bike route detour signFor novelty, I will write about something other than food. Don't worry: it won't last.


I have already written about how I am a fan of The Impossible Project (, the main plan of a business (adorably named Impossible BV) to re-engineer Polaroid instant film and bring it back to market. Der Spiegel has a lovely update about the business model: Die Mission Impossible der Polaroid-Jünger (, 7/1/2009). (This is in German, which I struggled through before utilizing a quirky Google translation. Ah, the glories of German word order make this entertaining. Ever read a German novel? All the verbs are in the last chapter! Ha ha ha!)

Summary of the points I like: there is a worldwide niche market for Polaroid films, which the massive Polaroid corporation wasn't able to support. The reason instant film is off the market now isn't that it isn't a viable commercial product: it just isn't viable on a mega-scale. (And also, according to this article, Polaroid had been back-stocking supplies with the intention of keeping it available longer, but ran out faster than expected without finding replacement suppliers - unanticipated demand wiped out their stock, killing the product with its own sales success.) But as a specialty item, it is a GREAT product, and with existing demand from millions of existing Polaroid camera owners, the business has great potential when scaled appropriately.

The very idea of a small, specialty market product is beyond the concept of those of us who are taught that bigger is always better. If your cupcake stand can't support a CEO's salary and a bevy of vice presidents with country club memberships, we are told there is no point in bothering to bake at all. (Who do you think tells us this?)

As someone in an obscure photographic specialty area, I am thrilled at the very idea of small, custom production of much loved photographic materials. With specialty sales channels, this could be completely workable.

It is fascinating that so many doubts come from those who believe that there is no point in selling a product that is unique (or perceived as unique) and that people are willing to pay extra to use. These doubters do not own Apple stock.

"Ubiquity or death" is not a sensible business model, no matter what the business papers say.


The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes, by Elisabeth Sifton (, 6/8/09 print edition) also touches on the idea of a different niche business being profitable enough: the book publishing industry. In addition to teaching me that Caslon is the font Ben Franklin used to set the Declaration of Independence, it talks about the commodification of books, and the way that the consolidated publishing industry wants to make its money on a few big stars rather than on a broad, diversified sales base.

It is a long article with a long list of publishing industry woes, but also covers niche-market concerns dear to my heart. Ubiquity - having your book published cheaply and priced cheaply in a chain store with tons of other cheap, undifferentiated books that the chain store staff are not paid enough to learn about - to the shock of the 'bigger is better' crowd, is not necessarily a recipe for success. Who knew? Books are more than just "content" on pulp that should be bought and sold by the word or the pound. Industry consolidation is weakening the system that has promoted books to buyers historically: book publishers who stake their reputations on the books they choose to publish, and the craft by which they have them manufactured; passionate reviewers in other forms of print media who review and endorse books; book shops that promote books that their own specific customers will enjoy; book clubs and social networks that endorse and share books...

There is a reason that I often walk out of Borders empty handed, but nearly wear my debit card out at Green Apple ( - the people behind Green Apple are fussy about what they stock, and their selections match my (local) interests.

Sifton's description:
That [media conglomerate-types] had no confidence in books per se and knew nothing about writers or readers seemed a neutral factor, not the harshly negative one it actually is. As any sensible businessperson knows, you can't make money in a low-profit operation unless you stay close to your sources of supply and demand--writers and readers in this case. And it helps your profit margin to love or at least respect them.
It must be nice to be a media mogul and think that celebrity books are going to be a universal hit. They haven't spoken to my friend at work, who knows the names of all the celebrities, thinks it is odd that I (who know only names of some musicians) read books, and recently accused me of being the sort of person who reads magazines without pictures in them. The mogul just missed the mark for both of us; but since I buy books regularly, especially missed me.

The music 'industry' is in a similar boat: the industry fantasy is a small set of universal stars who appeal to all 'markets' who can support their massive infrastructure without putting that infrastructure through the tedium of actually providing services to promote music, or to determine what customers actually want to hear. This may have some connection to all of the weeping I've heard from the industry about how they aren't as successful as they'd hoped or planned.

Business, it appears, is more than just selling widgets by volume.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:02 PM

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