” Well,” she said, in a determined and slightly defensive tone of voice “the last thing we intend to do is turn ourselves into a software house. We are publishers and cannot be expected to understand software, which is such a terrible distraction.  I took my correction silently and philosophically. After all, this has been a litany I have heard for a decade. And the paradox is that the more that software controls and modulates the way publishers create content, and the more it dominates the way in which users view it, the more permissible it has become for very senior executives in all sorts of places that do “publishing” (rapidly becoming a meaningless term) to proclaim with pride their ignorance of some of the basics. Some tell me “that’s what we have a CTO for”, while others tell me that it is not a creative area (yes, really!!) of their business. The largest decisions a modern information industry CEO will make concern software. The delivery – critical decisions a publisher of romantic novels will mainly concern software. We cannot avoid it – so surely every senior executive should know enough to intelligently quiz the CTO, outside suppliers and potential alliance partners?

You have now been reading for about 60 seconds. During that time, the software that holds us all in place in the network has been mightily engaged. 168 million emails were sent during that time. 694,445 Google searches took place. 320 new Twitter accounts were opened and 58,000 new tweets were posted. 600 new videos were posted – I could go on (courtesy of Go-Globe.com) but I hope you get the message. If people who run businesses they call “publishing” do not understand the platform upon which they stand, as they once understood the possibilities of print, then what hope is there for the traditional end of the market? I meet very many CEOs in the course of a working year, and in every 10 there are three who are brilliant on the bedrock technologies that drive their businesses. There are three more who struggle but know it is important. After that come four who do not really see it at all, and this group is strongest in the areas of greatest current risk – consumer book publishing, magazines and events. I almost feel as if there should be a test: Differentiate and suggest how you would use HTML5 and XML. Distinguish RDBMS databases from NoSQL databases and explain the advantages of the latter over the former. What does Epub3 allow you to do that you could not do before? How would you use the Cloud to support a reduction in Capex in your development programme? What is Open Source and is it cheaper or more expensive than proprietary software? What is entity extraction and how do I use the semantic web to add value? What is SaaS and how does it create scope for your expansion?

Readers here would doubtless have no difficulty with any of this. But still, we all – me especially – need a jolt of recognition of the speed of change at the moment. Venture Capital has a current investment of some $16 billion in SaaS software alone, with about half in business functionality (FactSet). The global software industry will top $1.1 trillion in 2016 (Gartner) – for comparison the current sizing of the publishing and information marketplace is $400 billion today (Outsell). Gartner see media and communications as a key area for the software businesses, with 2012’s spend by the sector of $61 billion rising to $78 billion in 2016. Some $21 billion of this spend ($25 billion in 2016) is for media-specialized applications. This is the top ranked vertical sector for software in 2016. My argument at the moment would be that this sale is resting on the shoulders of a very small, technically-capable group of senior buyers – it is time now for a better informed cadre of senior management to help to bear this burden, and for boards to have a generally better informed decision-making discussion which is capable of putting the view of the CTO and the professional advisers and evaluators into the medium term context of the business.

Finally, lets just look at one section of the information waterfront. This week I noted with interest the acquisition of a company called Edaboard.com by Design World (WTWH Media LLC). This brings together a leading brand which provides information services on design engineering with a community-driven forum focussed on electrical engineering topics. We have seen deals like this, and will see a lot more. But the decisions that come next – one platform or two, in-house or outsource, service integration, Cloud-based services etc will be critical to the success of this investment. I do not know Design World and I have no reason to believe that they are not fully capable of doing the job, but in many corporations of my acquaintance many of these decisions would be taken by a small coterie of tech-savvy operators, with some of the most senior people acting in faith and trust that someone else had made the right tech bets.

In a great allusion, Mike Olson of Cloudera remarked that “We are living through a Cambrian moment in database history”. As the Age of Data morphs into Data Science, we all struggle to keep up. As major data concentrations meet the Cloud, and we have to work with PaaS (Platform as a service) and DaaS (database as a service) it is not going to get slower or easier. But it is clear that the boundaries around “what we need to know to do the job” are radically changed as well. None of us should be frightened about going back to school!

First of all, a (very) old, (very) bad joke. The great Roy Thomson is sitting in an aircraft at Bangkok en route to Australia. “Get me the Bangkok Times”, he snaps to an aide. The young assistant returns in due course and gives the press tycoon his newspaper. “What did it cost us?”, the great man enquires. “10p”, replies the slightly surprized executive. “Cheap at the price if we got the properties as well” growled the newspaper acquisition legend. But this story comes to mind yet again from my 1960s publishing days not just because the price of a newspaper title is falling so rapidly, but because Roy Thomson was the last of a breed: he bought newspapers without any intention of imposing his views on the world, but simply – indeed, “purely” – to make money. Since his time, and I do not exempt Rupert Murdoch from this, newspaper proprietors have bought in to change the world, exercise power, develop a personal following or compensate for something missing elsewhere in life. And this week, as the Boston Globe goes for a pittance to an industrialist and now the Washington Post goes to Jeff Bezos for a mere $250 million we are back on the track created by the Chicago Herald Tribune: very expensive power jewellery for very rich people.

None of this will save a newspaper or make it more relevant to now-lost audiences. Jeff Bezos is an outstanding businessman who has created a singularly powerful ecommerce environment, but he may not have the answer to news in the network. Bob Woodward says on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This isn’t Rupert Murdoch buying The Wall Street Journal, this is somebody who believes in the values that the Post has been prominent in practicing, and so I don’t see any downside,”
(http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/washington-post-sale-jeff-bezos-bob-woodward-rupert-murdoch-95226.html#ixzz2bDFk8ntc”), but for all we know at present, Politico, where I saw this story, is the true successor of political news and comment in newspapers. Jeff Bezos will be an experimenter and a catalyst for change, if we can go by his record, but while we wait it may be more interesting to see how the remaining assets of the Graham family fall. For example, will Kaplan go, and which Pearson competitor will try to offset flagging textbook fortunes by buying it (although even Kaplan is looking a bit past its best).

What would be good is a way of putting together the thinking of the best minds and begin to test and re-iterate models of engagement for networked populations. OK, we have done this before and the answer was Twitter – but I do not despair. The best thing that Jeff Bezos has bought may be a brand that he can transfer elsewhere for credibility and profit. All predecessors in the re-invention stakes have started from the idea that you take content first formulated from print and then re-condition it for online audiences. He doesn’t – or does not have to – think like that. And he will look at the Guardian, with 50 million online users, the voice of global liberalism in English, the place where everyone from Assange to Snowden comes to leak, and he will wonder why such a mighty distribution empire produces such pitiful revenues. And he will, as an online storekeeper, know which buttons to press to get revenues moving, since he survived the derision of the world for having no business model at Amazon – until his business model, once found, brought the consumer book industry to its knees and may yet point to its exit.

The keynote here is experimentation and re-iteration. All of us who work in the network must work this way now. Even in domestic terms, as I realised this morning when my wife said “I think we really need to have a 3D printer”. As is wise, I agreed, and then sought to justify my agreement by looking at the things that we might do in a small village in the Chilterns with such a device. And within moments I had found it! The largest number of installations of 3D printers and allied additive manufacturing technologies in Europe and the US is in so-called Fab Labs, many of them housed in libraries. My nearest Fab Lab, one of around 150 created in the past 5 years, is at Manchester, some 200 miles away. Here is its rationale: “Fab Labs – digital fabrication laboratories – were set up to inspire people and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into new products and prototypes by giving them access to a range of advanced digital manufacturing technology.

The idea was conceived by renowned inventor and scientist Professor Neil Gershenfeld at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His idea was a simple one: to provide the environment, skills, advanced materials and technology to make things cheaply and quickly anywhere in the world, and to make this available on a local basis to entrepreneurs, students, artists, small businesses and, in fact, anyone who wants to create something new or bespoke.” (www.fablabmanchester.org) And here is something about their impact:

“A global network of over 150 Fab Labs now exists, connecting people, communities and businesses across the world and enabling them to collaborate, problem solve and brainstorm ideas.

Shepherds in Norway have used their Fab Lab to create a system for tracking sheep using their mobile phones, while in Ghana, people have made an innovative truck refrigeration system powered by the vehicle’s own exhaust gases.

In Afghanistan, people are fashioning customised prosthetic limbs, while in South Africa a government and business backed project is creating simple internet connected computers that hook up to televisions and cost just ten dollars each.”

Compared to this record of innovation, surely re-inventing what the newspaper means in the network would be easy? And once we are fully functional as the first Village Fab Lab in Britain we may have a go at that too!

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