As ad dollars erode, tech investments point the way forward for networks

There’s no doubt that linear advertising revenues are going to decline in the coming years for big networks.

Squeezed by Facebook and Google on one side, and impossible consumer expectations created by Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services on the other, the idea of an ad-supported entertainment business is under siege.

This chart from the analyst firm Moffet Nathanson shows just how grim the situation is for companies not named Google or Facebook.

But in a wide-ranging conversation at the Code Media conference in Huntington Beach, Calif., the top executives of Turner and A+E Networks elaborated on how their app businesses and investments in startups are driving new growth.

While it’s not a revelation that apps are a great way to make money and build a deeper relationship with consumers, and that technology is the future for networks (frankly the tech companies that have overrun Hollywood in the past few years are a stark example of this new reality), the success of Turner’s Boomerang service and the investments that A+E have made in companies like Atlas Obscura and Vice highlight alternative ways to make money (I’m also looking at you, Vox and Recode).

Turner launched Boomerang last year as a subscription service for cartoons in a joint venture between Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers. The app now counts roughly 150,000 subscribers, according to Turner chief executive John Martin. Martin also said the company was seeing success with its Filmstruck service, which leverages the Turner Classic Movies brand to offer a curated slate of movies to watch.

Martin said Filmstruck “provides a learning experience into what the future of this business is going to be which is tapping into fandom.” 

For Martin, the idea of curation is going to be increasingly important as the amount of available distractions and stories explodes across different media properties. If the future of Turner is, as Martin says, “being responsible for controlling the consumer experience from start to finish,” then guiding people to apps where Turner can control that experience just makes sense.

Meanwhile, A+E has leveraged its investments in Atlas Obscura and Vice to provide new types of marketing dollars and open the network to an entirely new audience, according to chief executive Nancy Dubuc.

Dubuc pointed to the company’s investment in Atlas Obscura as being a great way to move its audience from television at the History Channel, through Atlas Obscura to experiential marketing campaigns for a credit card company like American Express that would give benefits to new applicants.

Dubuc also said that Vice Media has been a success for the company. “Vice came to be around converting a channel so that you can reach a millennial audience,” Dubuc said of the A+E decision to convert its H2 channel over to Viceland.

“They have the second most upscale audience to Bravo,” Dubuc says of the Viceland channel. While the channel hasn’t seen tremendous subscriber growth, it’s reaching an audience of 18-34-year-old males with household incomes over $60,000, she said.

Those numbers will appeal to any marketer.

Nor are the two networks alone in looking to technology for returns. According to people with knowledge of the situation, that’s one of the reasons why Fox bought TrueX four years ago — to improve the experience for consumers watching ads online.

“Putting aside the investments in other companies, it’s about having deep relationships with consumers however you get there,” says one technology exec at a major studio. “Having an app on somebody’s phone is perhaps the best way to get there… There’s a fundamental thesis there. In today’s world you not only have to think about being broad you have to think about being deep too.”

Featured Image: kentoh/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

Inside Amazon’s Spheres

Amazon’s long-awaited Spheres are finally open to the public — kind of, anyway. The bulbous buildings are a workspace meant for Amazon employees to use and the public to admire mostly from outside, unless you’re part of an Amazon HQ tour group or on a field trip from a local school.

Like most adventurous design the Spheres are divisive: some will call them an eyesore or attention-seeking behavior by Amazon, but others will admire their originality and generous use of space. Seattle is no stranger to odd architecture, and the Spheres seem to meld the mind-bending MoPop (formerly the EMP) with the multifaceted complexity of the Central Library.

Click on for many, many slides showing off the Spheres, their design, their plant life, and the opening ceremony.

‘Substitute Phone’ artfully satisfies your compulsion to swipe and scroll

Smartphones are inarguably an addictive class of devices, and not just because they put an endless font of information at your fingertips. The very experience of holding the phone and touching it is itself associated with that pleasure — so much so that you might wish you were doing it even when you don’t want to actually use the phone. That’s when you need one of Klemens Schillinger’s “Substitute Phones.”

The devices, if you can really call them that, are inert pieces of heavy, high-quality plastic in which are embedded stone beads that let you run your fingers along them to simulate various gestures. The beads roll in place, giving a similar frictionless feel but (I presume) also a pleasant little finger massage.

Whether you’re a compulsive swiper, scroller, or zoomer, there’s a model just for you.

“The object, which some of us describe as a prosthesis, is reduced to nothing but the motions,” explains Schillinger’s description of the… object. “This calming limitation offers help for smartphone addicts to cope with withdrawal symptoms. The object as a therapeutic approach.”

Speaking to Dezeen, Schillinger added that he was inspired not only by the disturbing frequency with which he and others tend to consult their smart devices (and for no particular reason, usually), but also the writer Umberto Eco, who when attempting to stop smoking his pipe, substituted a simple stick.

“It was the same thing,” he said, “but without the nicotine, just the physical stimulation. I remembered this and thought to make phones that would provide the physical stimulation but not the connectivity.

The Substitute Phone is the second in a series Schillinger is working on relating to our relationships with our devices. The first is the Offline Lamp, which only turns on when you put a smartphone-size object inside its drawer. Both were created for Vienna’s Design Week earlier this year.

How the Kindle was designed through 10 years and 15 generations

The Kindle has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of specialty electronics in the world since it launched ten years ago today, but the device has changed so much since its debut that one can hardly believe the oldest and newest models are meant to do the same thing.

Amazon’s Chris Green, VP of Design at its Lab126 hardware arm, talked with me for a retrospective of the design choices that have defined and redefined the device, and the reasoning behind them. Green has been at Lab126 for a long time, but not quite for the entire Kindle project, as he explained to me.

We can never be better than paper, but we can be as compelling.

“My first day at Amazon was the day the Kindle launched – November 19, 2007. I walked into the office and everyone was going crazy. I thought that’s what it was going to be like every day,” he recalled. “Then the next morning I went in, they had sold all the Kindles in one day and everybody was panicking. so that was an interesting first 24 hours.”

For the next decade he’d work on getting the Kindle closer to what he called the “gold standard”: paper.

“We can never be better than paper, but we can be as compelling,” he said. “We really didn’t want any bezel or bling or even page turn buttons — everything we’ve done over 15 generations has been to reduce it to basically a piece of paper.”

That may come as a surprise to those who remember the first Kindle, which with its chunky angles, slab-like buttons, and aggressively ergonomic keyboard, seems almost brutalist. I’ve always thought it would look at home on the set of Alien.

Although he didn’t help create the first generation, Green is plenty familiar with its design language. Turns out there’s a very simple reason behind the angles.

“If you have one of those around, you’ll notice that the cross section is actually that of a paperback book — the pages go at that angle,” Green said. “The dimensions are even a standard paperback’s. They were trying their hardest even at that early stage to represent a paperback book.”

That consideration more or less went out the window with the second generation Kindle, which did away with the sloping pages visual metaphor and walked back many of the other bold but unusual choices.

“All the pitch points of the original Kindle — the little chiclets, and the fact that the keyboard was split — those were very logical. It’s very ergonomic,” said Gren. “So everything is very logical — but when you take a deep breath, and take your head out of the bucket, you’re like, wait, there’s an easier way to do this. There’s no reason for those keys to actually be shaped like that.”

The redesign was aimed at making it approachable and attractive to a wider demographic — one that might not appreciate the severity of the original. In my opinion, it worked: the clean lines and carefully designed proportions made the Kindle 2 a real looker, and years later it still holds its own.

After this Amazon introduced the short-lived Kindle DX, a large-format e-reader that didn’t catch on, partly because the market for larger format reading (articles, journals) wasn’t as large or ready to spend money than the paperback buying contingent.

One particularly high-end feature got nixed before the DX even hit the market:

“In the first version of the Kindle DX, the back had a fully quilted surface — originally it was actually fabric, but that was too expensive,” Green said. But more importantly, he said, “the highs and lows get wear and tear. We don’t want people to be on the treadmill of upgrading, so we put a lot of effort into durability.”

Green also mentioned the attention paid to features that are less easy to define — basically, all the tiny things that make a device better or worse to read on.

“Over the first few generations we spent a lot of time with customers — we went everywhere with them,” he said. “We had a really cool reading lab in our building where we would watch people read and see how quickly people’s eyes got bored as they scan a line of text.” (“When people read,” he added, “they fidget like crazy. It’s uncomfortable to watch.”

They determined the best spacing, kerning, line length and so on, making sure that the device improved in readability even as they changed other aspects of it.

Going dark

The third generation made a few small changes and one big one. The physical interface continued to shrink relative to the screen, moving slowly towards that gold standard. But more importantly, the device’s main color went from off-white to off-black (“graphite”).

Was this a response to black smartphones? Fingerprint complains? Material shortages? Nope: as some have suggested, it’s meant to trick the eye.

See, e-paper isn’t really white, it’s really a shade of grey, and not even a particularly light one. So when you give it a white bezel, the white plastic shows it up and makes it look even more grey. But with a black bezel, it works in the opposite direction: it makes the grey look lighter, and as a consequence, the “black” letters, actually just a darker grey, look even darker.

“That’s exactly the reason,” Green said. “We moved over the graphite to help with the contrast ratio. We wanted the black text to pop more on the display.”

Combined with a new Pearl display from E Ink, it made for a major jump in contrast. And they’d need that before moving on to the next generation.

The fourth-generation Kindle was the first to do away with the keyboard, producing a notably smaller device. It seems to me to have lost something of its soul with this change, though; the Kindle 4 and its successors reminded me more of budget tablets of years past rather than a brand new device.

It was the Kindle Touch, however, which signaled the future of the device — although at the time, I wasn’t very impressed with it or its competitors.

“We always wanted touch,” explained Green; the keyboard and other buttons on early models were largely necessitated by the low refresh rate of e-paper displays. “The thing is, those touch displays aren’t optically clear. When there wasn’t a frontlight, and you put this yellowing, sepia layer on it, it really made the contrast ratio worse.”

The solution, a network of infrared blasters and sensors that could only tell roughly where you put your finger, was a stopgap measure.

“If you have to take your thumb off the bezel, and put it over the display and put it down, that’s cognitive load right there,” Green said. We used that IR window until we got the frontlight working, because that would burn away that sepia layer.”

Let there be frontlight

The frontlight was already well under way, and would be announced in the form of the Kindle Paperwhite. I saw a prototype several months before that, and it turns out Amazon had quietly acquired a company in 2010 called Oy Modilis that specialized in light-guiding films like those used in the Paperwhite.

At the time, having taken care of even lighting, the designers were mostly worried about color temperature. The warmth of a tungsten bulb or flame illuminating a creamy page and ink-black (naturally) text is very difficult to replicate, and at the time they had to settle for something quite a bit colder, color-wise.

“White LEDs are binned into 3 different temperatures: warm, blue, and neutral,” Green explained. “And by mixing those bins you can get a nice blend. So we’ve played with those blends to get where we are now – but there’s always room for improvement.”

Although a frontlight makes for a vastly more convenient reading device, the color cast isn’t for everyone. But Kindle has never gone the way Kobo did, adding a user-selectable color temperature setting. The team opted to keep things simple, Green said.

In 2014 the Kindle line split again, adding the waterproof Voyage to the mix. In service of streamlining the device further it was decided to add an invisible alternative to tapping the screen to advance the page. PagePress used sensors inside the body of the device to tell when a user gave the edge a little squeeze, allowing them to advance the page even more intuitively. To Green’s surprise, the feature wasn’t particularly popular.

“The page turn buttons on the Voyage were expensive and very cool, but there’s something about the button snap that’s very satisfying,” he said. “I was so surprised that people didn’t like the page press tech, because it was silent, and a dome switch is noisy. People complained that the noise kept people up.” A lot of research had gone into it, but ultimately PagePress didn’t become a staple of Kindle design.

Some six months later, the third generation Paperwhite appeared; its chief improvement was a new high-resolution display, but what can’t be ignored is what that improvement allowed typographically. Amazon commissioned a completely new font built from the ground up for the Kindle’s display and type engine: Bookerly.

Bookerly wasn’t a huge advance in typography or anything, but it’s an important philosophical shift — acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the type environment and designing for them, rather than attempting to ape paper. An e-paper display needs its own font and styling just as a newspaper does, or a textbook, or a logotype. Custom e-reader fonts had appeared elsewhere, so it was well past time Amazon did its own or risk looking lax in its dedication to the platform.

Farewell to symmetry

The Oasis represented the largest change to the design of the Kindle perhaps since the loss of the keyboard. It also signaled further commitment to the e-reader as its own entity that only needs to replicate the printed page in some ways. Green said that the departure from the old style was a refreshing one for him.

“There are certain things in the world that humans consider beautiful: the Golden Ratio, Fibonacci sequences, and of course symmetry,” he said. “We got in a tight spot with the symmetrical design in that we couldn’t take it any further — so we took a bold shot with the Oasis.”

“When you see people using these devices,” he explained, “it becomes very clear that they want the center of gravity in their hand and the button under their thumb. But having physical buttons on both sides would be prohibitive [in terms of space]. An e-ink device today is basically a stack of display components and a stack of battery components, and those technologies are progressing at very different rates.”

So they isolated the battery on one side, making it asymmetric (at least, in its normal orientation) but also solving the center of gravity, handedness, and page-turn problems.

The new Oasis is actually a major departure from its predecessor in that its screen has expanded to fill more of the device: it’s the first Kindle with a 7-inch display, yet it’s no larger than before. That takes us closer to the “gold standard.”

It also brings us up to the present, though the design is sure to evolve in the future.

The one you’ve not seen

I asked Green if among the many, many Kindles there was one he’d call his baby, a sentimental favorite.

“My answer’s a cop-out,” he said, truthfully, “but it’s the one you’ve not seen yet.”

The difference between a hammer and a Swiss army knife

“You know where we’re going, and we’re getting really close to it,” he continued mysteriously. He said that he hasn’t upgraded regularly, but that he’s had both Oasis models and “the next one is going to be even better.”

He was extremely optimistic as to the future of e-readers in general. It’s a great example of how a device with a single purpose is often the right tool for the job.

“It’s the difference between a hammer and a Swiss army knife, isn’t it? If you want to go on a vacation or commute, you want a hammer — you want a real e-reader, so you don’t fall down a rabbit hole of your phone.”

And the Kindle business, he pointed out, is booming: “The last Prime Day was the best sales day ever in the U.S. — and the market is just growing. It’s taking off,” he said.

“We’re going to be here for a long time.”

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch