Monday, November 19, 2007

Gatekeepers VS. Bloggers: Checks and Balances for the Next Generation?

Welcome to today’s media, where old news is what happened this morning, bloggers are reporters, and commentators are anyone with an opinion and access to a computer. We are urged to embrace the new era of technology, but at what cost? BU addressed these concerns and more at their “New Media and the Marketplace of Ideas Conference” in late October.

The event featured many accomplished speakers across the communications field including keynoter Markos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos and Principle Speakers, Gigi Sohn, president, Public Knowledge; Sherrese Smith, deputy general counsel, The WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive; and Mark Jurkowitz, associate director, Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The conference was split into three breakout sessions – Intellectual Property, The Blogosphere, and Gatekeeping in the New Media Environment – which together spanned the most prevalent issues plaguing the media in the wake of new technology trends like blogging, social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace, and the online video site, YouTube.

Encompassing information provided in the first two sessions, the third session lent itself to a debate between media gatekeepers and the ever-rebellious bloggers. However, as Mark Jurkowitz was quick to point out, “The gate is recently more porous in light of the Internet.” It’s true, the gate has seen sturdier days, but security comes at a price, one which Markos Moulitsas was not willing to pay. He founded The Daily Kos in May 2002, when “a war-crazed administration suppressed all dissent as unpatriotic and treasonous.” It was important for him to regain the freedoms he felt once defined this country and to voice his cause, even if it seemed as though the majority of people had cut off their ears. In just five years, the Daily Kos has become one of the most highly trafficked sites, bringing in 600,000 daily visits.

The question then becomes, in the age of new technology who will the new gatekeepers become? According to Moulitsas, gatekeepers cannot exist amongst bloggers because there is always someone to push against the grain and question whoever deems himself or herself the authority. However, traditional gatekeepers still exist and, because they perform key functions – especially in monitoring and distributing mainstream media –probably always will.

It stands to reason that traditional gatekeepers and bloggers will come to serve as the media’s own form of checks and balances. This way, both parties are allowed to flourish by finding joint existence in the separation of their powers, as opposed to the tyranny of either.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gaming To Go

It would seem logical to expect an evening at MIT focused on mobile gaming to attract a very specific, stereotyped crowd. Instead, the room was filled with investors, attorneys, entrepreneurs and students. Ten years ago people involved in a conversation about video games would likely have been limited to young folks, programmers and a handful of pony-tailed Dungeons and Dragons aficionados who perhaps operated out of their mom’s basement.

2007 however, the tides have turned and video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and a key component in the business of modern technology. Thus, the people in attendance at Monday night’s MIT Enterprise Forum event on the mobile entertainment industry were not just there to play games.

The title of the night, “An Industry on the Move: When Games Are On the Go and Cross Platforms” did little to prepare me for the oft neglected topic of games designed specifically for mobile phones. As an avid gamer myself (and the owner of numerous cell phones over the years), I was aware of the niche industry that is mobile gaming, but was surprised by the amount of creativity and talent in the industry and on display.

The panel consisted of three industry experts from companies ranging from small start-up to multi-billion dollar giant. Matthew Bellows is GM of Floodgate Entertainment, a software development company focused on mobile gaming (whose award winning Mobile Age of Empires is pictured below), Beth Marcus is president/CEO of Zeetoo, a company founded to improve the quality and usability of handheld devices with mobile hardware, specifically cell phones (pictured right is Zeetoo's accessory the ZeeMote which allows you to wirelessly control games on your cell phone with a their joystick), and rounding out the discussion was Jeff Burdeen, VP of Digital Media and Games at Hasbro.

The discussion began with the panel reflecting on the ways that the mobile gaming industry has fallen short of where it was initially expected to be by the year 2007. Ten years ago, when the concept of games on mobile devices was still in its infancy, many people expected it to be a viable and significant piece of the gaming industry by now. As this has yet to come to pass, the panel voiced why they thought mobile gaming has been bogged down.

They focused primarily on two hurdles that have inhibited the expected advancement of the industry. The first was the hardware. Programming for cell phones is exponentially more difficult than programming for any other gaming platform because there is no consistency to the devices or to their operating systems. Everyone has different phones with different buttons and different programs. Because of this, there is no standard upon which these developers can begin to build their games. Creating a piece of software that works the exact same on a Razr as it does on a Sidekick is no easy task. The medium has “unlimited fragmentation” Bellows said.

The second hurdle mentioned was the carriers. At this point in time, when cell phones are still working their way up to true functionality with the internet, all of the data acquisitions have to go through Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or whomever provides a cell phone with its service. This means that for a company like Floodgate to distribute their games, they have to do so through a carrier and carriers will cut into their profits. If a game costs six dollars to download, and the carrier takes 50% of that total as a distributors fee, there is only three dollars going to the company to pay every hand that was involved with the development of the game, which is simply not enough given how many of these games are actually sold.

While Bellows and Marcus were optimistic throughout about the future of the mobile gaming industry, Burden was much more realistic about the possibilities. As a former employee of Nokia, who was involved in the creation of the N-Gage, (left) he was very aware of the challenges and potential of the medium, yet as a VP in a corporate giant he is now very aware of just how difficult a road these developers have in front of them.

Bellows claimed that technology is nearing the point where the games we see on consoles and computers can finally be mimicked on a cell phone. Strategy games, shooters and more complex sports titles that dominate sales in other markets will be portable to mobile devices. The obvious question to ask was asked by an audience member: “Why would I want to play these games on a phone when I can play them on a TV or a PSP (below)?” Bellows responded by explaining that his goal was not to mimic these games but instead to create games that are innovative and unique to mobile gaming. Games that incorporate the device’s location, the time of day and especially other mobile device users in the vicinity.

While this seemed interesting, Burdeen was quick to chime back in with his sobering realism and say that the games people want to play on their phones are games that can be played with one hand and that don’t require any learning curve. Games like poker, Tetris, Pac-man and pong are the games that thrive on these systems because they are simple and easy. In other countries, specifically Japan, workers commute up to two hours each way and therefore have time to invest in more complex mobile gaming, but here in America, this is rarely the case and the demand for a more in depth experience may be lacking.

Another question posed was by a woman who wanted to know how this panel planned on marketing to Baby Boomers, who still make up the greatest population demographic. Bellows explained that puzzle games and programs focused on brain stimulation (such as Nintendo’s Brain Age (left) which has sold 5-6 million copies in the first months of its existence) will have a large part in selling this industry.

In the end it was very clear that the mobile gaming industry has a lot of challenges looming in front of it as it battles to become a thriving endeavor. Bellows and Marcus were very impressive with their talent and ambitiousness, but it was hard to ignore Burdeen’s all too realistic assessment that developed out of so many frustrating years with Nokia. The one hopeful tidbit Burdeen was willing to leave with the audience was that with a technological development like the iPhone, it is becoming clear that technology can reach previously unthinkable heights very quickly and this technology has the ability to allow for a previously unheard of intersection between wireless and the internet. This being the case, mobile gaming will have many more distribution channels and creative avenues through which they can attempt to finally put their ambitious ideas into code.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Do You Have a Right to Blog?

At the end of October, I had the pleasure of attending the New Media and the Marketplace of Ideas conference at Boston University. This conference brought together both lawyers and communications professionals to discuss how new media affects both of our fields.

One session I found particularly interesting was on the blogosphere.

Sherrese Smith, deputy general counsel for The Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive, spoke first. Ms. Smith spoke about the various legal issues involved in blogging. One of the topics touched on is if companies have a legal right to keep their employees from blogging. “You always have the right to say whatever you want but you may not have a right to a job,” said Smith.

Moderator Joseph Steinfield, Partner at Prince, Lobel, Glovsky, and Tye joked in reply, “As long as there are lawyers, bloggers will be at risk.”

Yet, despite the warning, Ms. Smith views blogs in a favorable light. She believes blogs offer a place to engage the reader and defends her company bloggers rights to have comments sections. Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act protects bloggers from being liable for content that they do not create themselves -- guest bloggers, user comments, and RSS feeds, for example.

Lisa Williams, who runs H2otown, a community and news site for Watertown, MA, and, an aggregator and searchable directory of independent local blogs, offered a personal perspective on blogging. Williams blogged anonymously for years. “The net is not erasable,” says Williams. “Some day we will elect a president who did something stupid on MySpace when he or she was 16.” She believes the culture of transparency that blogs create will be forgiving.

John Wilpers, former editor-in-chief of Boston Now rounded out the session. He spoke of trying to involve bloggers in the traditional media. While at Boston Now, Wilpers hired bloggers to have their writing published in both the paper and online. Readers commented that they liked the local color they got from reading the local blogs.

As traditional media struggles to compete with blogs, some tension has arisen. Smart companies are working with bloggers, rather than fighting them, and reaping the benefits.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

WebInno Serves Main Dishes, Sides and Now Nibbles

Last night marked the 15th Web Innovators Group gathering. In honor of the occasion, host David Beisel noted that 85 companies have presented so far at these events. Eight have been acquired or have secured VC funding. Impressive!

Per the usual format, three companies were selected to present as Main Dishes, meriting a coveted six minutes to demo their wares. Six Side Dishes did brief intros to their firms without demos. In keeping with the theme, David introduced a new segment: Nibbles. Chris Jackson had the honor of cooking up the historic first Nibble, noting he's looking for passionate developers to work on a great concept he's got. (Most Nibbles were used in this manner to announce a job opening.)

The Hearty Entrées

At most of the WebInno events, one company wins my heart. Last time it was DesignMyRoom. This time it was Lemonade, which sports the tagline, "e-commerce for everyone." I failed to catch the name of the founder who presented, but he made us all smile with his opener: "David limits us to six minutes, and as an incentive, he promises us a term sheet at the end of this."

Lemonade is based on the concept of a lemonade stand - the vehicle that introduced most of us to entrepreneurship. You can set up a virtual stand at and stock it with items you recommend to your pals. (Or, if you prefer, you can attach your stand to your Facebook page.)

Here's where life gets interesting. Lemonade works with more than 250 retailers, so your pals can actually buy the stuff. Even better, you get a commission if they do. The New York Times does a great job of explaining this here.

FlipKey, currently in beta, was another noteworthy Main Dish. It's centralizing reputation management for the vacation home rental market in a trusted, transparent environment. A few summers ago, my brother-in-law was considering a Cape rental that allowed dogs. Luckily, we were in the 'hood before he sealed the deal, and we drove by the rental property. Based on the shabby exterior, we gave it two thumbs down, and he was spared what I believe would have been an unhappy vacation experience. FlipKey has set out to present properties based on reputation analysis and verified guest reviews. Cool!

Last but far from least: Investment Instruments Corporation, which is geared for real estate managers and their tenants. Small owners control a shocking 90% of the inventory in the residential real estate market. IIC offers iiProperty, with tools for self-managing properties -- advertising properties, sending tenant notices, etc. A related site, Rentometer, lets renters determine if they're paying a fair price for a unit at their address. IIC offered a sneak peek at a brand new site, Rentomatic. (Sorry - not yet generally available.) This new site, slated for a December launch, will reveal where the happy renters are.

Six Sides to Savor

Winning my eco-friendly heart in this category: Carbon Challenge. The site publishes periodic challenges that describe small CO2-reducing actions members can take. It tracks members accepting the challenges and displays the total impact on a national map. Members can form teams at schools, companies, etc. and compete for the highest CO2 reduction! Cool.

Other notable sides included:

Untravel Media -- Developing immersive travel narratives on mobile devices.

MixandMeet -- Brings together unacquainted folks by coordinating spontaneous, same-day, small group mixers.

360Gadget -- A tool for personalizing your Facebook page with news/RSS feeds, Google map searches, notes, etc.

StudentConcourse -- Another first! Presented by a high school student, it's a Web-based organizer for students in middle or high school

Panospin Studios -- Creating 360 degree virtual tours, useful for schools, museums, rental properties, stores, etc. Beautiful and useful.

Next WebInno: January 29, 2008. Mark your calendar.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Few things are as regularly reported as death, taxes -- and the relationship between PR people and the media.

The most recent log on the fire is the battle between Chris Anderson of Wired and Longtail fame and PR contacts who've apparently pitched Anderson on topics about which he could care less.

Or careless is more like it.

According to Anderson, the pitches were so far a field from what would be of interest to him and his staff that he's retaliating by sending some 300 PR folks to the "Do Not Call Wired" doghouse.

This post is not to discuss the specifics of this situation. I hope all works out for the best for those involved, since that result would bode well for reporters, readers, PR firms and companies looking to get the word out.

Rather, at the risk of putting to fine a point to it, the fact is that there are great editors and reporters and great PR people. And there are some really lousy ones, too.

Always has been. Probably always will be.

So, it's like any other relationship. Add value. Don't take things for granted. Do what you say you're gonna do. When you say you're gonna do it. Push when that's what the situation calls for. Step back when it doesn't. If someone screws up, address it quickly, professionally and proactively. Say please and thank you. Be respectful.

In the end, the caravan moves on. Now, let's all get back to work, shall we?

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