I sat down to write a glowing note on the Digital Science conference at London’s glorious Royal Institution last night. “Inventing the Future” was a huge success and underlined the creative quality of the debate on the digital future in this city. As I stared ruminatively at my blank screen, an alert crossed it: Emap have decided to split themselves into three parts, to be called (no, I am not kidding) Top Right Group (something to do with graphs?) for the whole outfit, i2i Events for the (you guessed it!) events division, 4C Group for the information division (“Fore-see”, geddit?), and, triumphantly, EMAP Publishing for the magazines. Given that they did not waste any of that expensive rebranding budget on the magazines we can guess that this lot are for sale first (though a rumour today also gives that honour to the CAP automotive data unit). The best guess is that everything is for sale, and some reports are already citing advisory appointments in a variety of places.

Meanwhile, the philosophers of the night before had been talking of the very nature of the digital, networked society. Their threnody was “Open”. JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce.com (I have heard this man twice in a week and would be happy to go again for more tomorrow) set the tone. We have to realize that the network has turned our media picture on its head. Now we have to understand the ways in which consumers are re-using and reshaping content. The social networks are ways of amplifying and diminishing those responses, filtering and distilling them. The publisher’s role is to get out of the way – this is not a push world anymore, but act as a distributor and reproducer of excellence without doing harm or trying to outbid the creativity of endusers. Stian Westlake of NESTA, looking at this from a policy viewpoint, saw the need to rebalance the investment, to innovate in areas of strength like the UK financial services markets, and to make education fit the requirement of a networked economy. As JP said, re-quoting Stewart Brand “information wants to be free”. We have it in abundance, while we have scarce resources for shaping and forming it as users want it, and enabling them to do that in their own contexts.

It turns out, of course, that some of the data we want is held by government. The third speaker was Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of AI at Southampton, Director of the new Open data Institute, and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s vice-gerent and apostolic delegate to the UK government’s Open Data programme here on earth. He mercifully skated across the difficulties of getting governments to do what they have said they will do, while pointing out that despite the fad of Big Data, linked data was now a vital component at all levels, big and small, in delivering the liberating effect of making compatible data available for remixing. With these three speakers we were in the magic territory of platform publishing. Here it was unthinkable not to promulgate your APIs. Here was a collaborative world of licensing and data sharing. Here was a vision of many of the things we shall be doing to to create a data-driven world in the networks for the net benefit of all of us.

And then I read the EMAP announcement, and it brings home the way in which the present and the future are pulling apart radically at the moment. No one looked at the EMAP holdings through the eyes of customers, buyers, or users. Channel and format, the classifications of the past, are the only way that current managers can see their businesses. So we divide into three channels what needed to be seen as a platform environment, created by ripping out all the formats and making all of the data neutral and remixable in any context. So the building and construction marketplace at EMAP, which has magazines, data and events (events – the greatest source of data yet discovered on earth), becomes a way of shaping and customizing content for users large and small, directed by them and driven by their requirements. But the advisors cannot understand anything but ongoing businesses, the strategy has no place in the IM, the McGraw-Hill failure to do this at Dodds and Sweets is not encouraging, so we divide the stuff into parcels that can be sold, and sell it off at small portion of its worth, while blaming the technology that could save it for “disrupting” it to death.

Maybe this is right. Maybe the old world has to be purged before the new one takes over. Maybe we have to go through the waste of redundancies, the dissipation of content, the loss of continuity with users/readers/customers before they are able to show us once again what we really should be doing. But now, when we know so much about “inventing the future” this seems a very rum way of proceeding. Incidentally, last night’s conference host, Digital Science, is a very exciting Macmillan start-up whose business it is to invest in software developed by users in science research to support their work. Truly then a new player with more than a whiff of the zeitgeist of this conference in its nostrils. Those of us with long memories remember an older Macmillan, however. One that owned the Healthcare and nursing magazine market, and lapped up the jobs advertising cream in the days when users (or the NHS), could not use the web as an advertising environment. So Macmillan sold its magazine division before the advertising crash – to EMAP. It is people, decisions and the choices made by users that change things. It is hardly new to note that lack of a tide table can create serious risk of drowning, but it could be true.

Two days were enough this week to encompass an industry in the making and in transition. Many participants at the London Web Summit on Monday, as well as at the IXXUS Future of Publishing meeting on Tuesday, would describe themselves as being in the Information Industry (aka media, publishing, information services and solutions etc). I went to both, and as I staggered home on Tuesday night I could only reflect that this is not one industry but a hundred, and the cultural differences between the pieces are now profound. In fact, this industry is a Lilleputian version of the whole world around it, which sounds the way it should sound. But doing the breadth in two days? Very frightening.

For a start there were 1000 delegates in the Old Brewery in Chiswell Street on Monday. Our ebullient hosts, Paddy Cosgrave  and Mike Butcher (TechCrunch), compered it with the energy of a variety show in the Edwardian music halls. And they had a band that provided a 10 bar intro/exit for every speaker. It had something of everything, and, at King Paddy’s command, no ties were allowed (Yes, this is the sort of thing you do have to tell the English). And like a variety show (vaudeville) it was good in parts and not in other parts. The panels, despite some good appearances, were often   so hurried and poorly moderated that it was hard to extract meaning at all. And the audience was very mixed – investors networked less easily here with a vast crowd of start-up hopefuls than they did at last year’s similarly sized NOAH show, but the same messgae was available. The energy is back in the London market, just as it is in Berlin and Barcelona, but London is the place to get the finance and finger the future. My Investor of the Day award goes to Niklas Zennstrom of Atomica: despite the questions from his moderator he came across as someone who had learnt real lessons from Skype and Joost, and knew how to listen to the next crazy and apply the right degree of enthusism, tolerance and sophisticated discouragement. And my Thinker of the Day would have to be J P Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce.com. His observation that we would at last overcome the entrapment of the Qwerty keyboard, and that the future of work was only understandable if we saw it as as massively integrated multi player videogame was delightful, as was his insistence that knowledge work on the network was “bursty” – so we invented the need for meetings to fill the gaps between activities.

Also high quality was the discussion on the future of money. We had two credit card -based services ranged against two chip-based money transfer services. I give the latter my vote, but questions like cost-free money transfer, the death of cash and the removal of some of the key roles of banks played very well, as did the notion that with digital money comes the end of money-handling privacy. Gareth Williams did a great job of persuading us that the Edinburgh – based, Scottish Equity Partners-backed online travel service SkyScanner would break into the Expedia /Kayak marketplace, but in truth its revenues of £2.5-3.0 m per month on a lead gen/referral business model, from 20 million unique monthly users, shows that it is well on the way. Offices in Singapore and now Hong Kong emphasize where the growth is, and 7 million apps testify to the mobile nature of the challenge. But is Google waiting to pounce on all of this?

So what else did I learn? That YAiA stands for “Yet another iPad App”. That 50% of Turkish shopping for consumer goods is now online. That Google only has 20% of the Russian search market, and Facebook is only the fourth most popular online service. That FAB has 3 million members (50% social network, 40% mobile) and sold 111,111 products last month on the way to revenues of $110m this year. So some of the players in the hall were definably big already. But you could not say that of Nick D’Aloisio, aged 16, funded to the tune of £350k , and launching his service (www.summly.com) to provide artificial intelligence support to people doing research online who needed to summarize what they had read. When he said that he was going to take two years off to do his A level school exams, there was a palpable sigh of relief from the 20 year old entrepreneurs in the audience.

It didn’t matter to me , proudly sporting the only grey beard in the room. But I have to admit that I felt relief amongst my peers in the IXXUS event, held in sunshine on the Kensington roof garden, which is improably furnished with ducks and flamingos (live). An audience of technocrats from all of the leading information services players  were looking at the issues surrounding what seems to me the key question of the hour – how do we effectively re-platform in ways that add to our asset value, increase our ability to act fast to change our service dimensions in times of torrential market change and still stay within a broad avenue of standards now established and extending from XML  right through to RDF and SPARQL. We can now discuss these things in London – they are of the present and I was delighted to hear John Powell of Alfresco (a real ornament to the Open Source model) and the IXXUS team under Steve Odart providing practical advice and guidance to real and urgent questions from the audience. Three years ago I would not have been allowed vocabulary like “ontologies” or “triples” in a publishing context: today this is coinage of the conversation and I rejoice in it.

And one last observation. Go to a conference of 1000 web developers and investors and what happens: from breakfast to dinner I never arrived at a boxed food table in time to find a box left to consume. Good for your figure, you may observe. Yes, but I made up for it the next day. They may have their drawbacks but publishers do know how to eat, and IXXUs responded to their proclivities very well indeed.

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