It was an argumentative week in New York last week . Not that I found myself arguing with the publishing and information community , of course . As ever they were gentle and sapient beings who could see all three sides of every question . Yet more than on a number of recent trips I found that the relationships of suppliers , intermediaries and hooked users in the info drugs trade were strained , and this was not , and wouldn’t be in this sector , about users being threatened with cold turkey after a reduction of supply . In fact , we are flooded with the stuff and users often beg for less , or better ways of monitoring the flow . And it is about price . And the arguments of last week were being played out against the backdrop of BP’s overflow , the movement of world oil prices , and BP’s share price and dividend decision. Indeed with Presidents and Prime Ministers in phone meetings to ensure that we understood that the raging argument was not  a raging argument , the scene was set for the media classes to fall to bickering on their own .

 

First off the blocks were the New York Times , Apple Inc and Alphonso Labs Inc . Who ? You may be forgiven for not knowing that the last-named are a brand new , boys -in- their- early- twenties -working -in -a-Palo-Alto -garage set-up . We shall no doubt hear more of Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta , not least because their first product , the Pulse News Reader App for the iPad, was specifically mentioned last week in his WWDC speech by Steve Jobs , first in line of great Palo Alto garage graduates , as a great example of how Apps could focus usage and intensify reader experience .

 

So it was a great surprize when Pulse was withdrawn mid-week , apparently at the request of the New York Times . Was it because the Pulse advert featured the NYT in its frame ? Was it because the Pulse application was better than the NYT’s own reader app ( while it was up in its original state the app was downloaded in a few days 35,000 times at £2.39 each ) ? Or was it because , although as yet it has no paywall policy , the NYT objects in principle to being framed by anyone ( are we really going to get back to that tired old internet argument ) ? Or did the NYT simply want a cut of the action and didn’t know whom to ask ?

 

The iPad is the latest ace hookah from which we take our info-drugs . The Pulse App is simply a smarter way of collecting RSS feeds , for which individuals could register for free , and playing them on the new hookah through a software called Safari , which everyone , including NYT , have to use if they are to have access to the new habit . The boys from the garage just gave the NYT 35,000 new subscribers to a service they already offer , and featured the NYT in their advertisements . Seems to me that editors with bouquets should attend their garage doors , not lawyers with writs . And Apple , far from removing the kids ( who won a Stanford Institute of Design award for this ) should give them a job . But Apple , having moved from hardware/software supplier to access controller and owner of the user profile on the Web , must now play a different game with content suppliers . And this one is a dangerous one .Apple , like Google in a similar role , would be too powerful in this position to make life comfortable for either growers or smokers .

( PS I understand that Pulse has now gone back up – with the NYT amputated . Who does that help ? )

 

At the same time in California a noisy spat was taking place between the University of California and Nature Publishing Group . Nature has been renegotiating its deal with the California Digital Library . Talks surrounded the depth of discount that the library should enjoy : Nature says it currently gives California an 88% discount on its list prices , and wants this to be close to the average of 50% that it gives other users , while California stigmatizes this as a 400% price increase .  California wrote an open letter to faculty representatives on its ten campuses , thus “outing ” the argument  in an attempt to put public pressure on Nature . , who point out that they have capped list prices at 7%, and are the major publisher most compliant with the so-called ” green agenda ” of open access .

 

No one is going to win this one either . Nature’s output is  “must-have ” to an outfit of California’s standing , but not beyond price . As a major buyer the university authorities could imagine that by making an example of a medium-sized player they will soften up the negotiations with the larger lists of Elsevier , Wiley-Blackwell or Springer . Both parties are in a recession , and both will plead poverty and the need to guarantee survival . It is however as unthinkable that California will not supply its students and researchers with Nature magazine at an average download price , under Nature’s proposed pricing , of $0.56 per download , as it is that Nature will walk away from an institution where its authors litter every street corner . So who blinks first , and who blows smoke in the faces of addicts and users everywhere ?

 

At the end , these are power plays . Is the University a big enough power block to make its will felt , and can the newspaper use its ownership any more to control how the end-user views its content ? These struggles used to take place behind closed doors . Then the golden rules were – never push your power too far , for in the exercise of using it you are losing it . NYT is clearly some way down that track : if the University of California forces its students to subscribe seperately to Nature then it too begins to lose control of the argument . How much do you need it and can you kick the habit are still powerful questions in the world of commoditized information .

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