Every year, we see scores of innovations trickle onto the web — everything from new browser features to cool web apps to entire programming languages. Some completely blow our minds with their utility and ingenuity — and become must-haves.
As luck would have it, in January 1993, a convergence of technology and talent forged the first consumer magazine that would define—and in essence, become—the voice of the digital revolution.
Elon Musk looks like a kid who just walked into a toy factory. The 39-year-old CEO of upstart car company Tesla Motors stands on the main floor of the New United Motor Manufacturing plant and looks with awe from one giant piece of machinery to the next. The car factory, known as Nummi, is located in Fremont, California, but it’s an industrial city unto itself. It encompasses 5.5 million square feet and contains a plastics molding factory, two paint facilities, 1.5 miles of assembly lines, and a 50-megawatt power plant. Since 1984, Toyota and General Motors had run Nummi together, producing as many as 450,000 cars a year here until it was shuttered in April. Now, in a remarkable turn of events, Musk owns the place.
In 1900, an American man could on average expect to live until he was 45 years old. By 1940, that life-expectancy number had jumped to 62 years, while for women the average number increased from 51 years to 66 years. That unprecedented advance in public health was largely the result of the spread of disease-fighting technologies like vaccines, antibiotics and improved sanitation. A similar “very auspicious moment” is at hand in public health, according to Thomas Goetz, executive editor of Wired and author of a new book, “The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine” (Rodale, 2010). This time, the potential revolution in public health, Mr. Goetz said in an interview on Friday, will be led by digital technologies that enable people to live healthier lives and make better treatment decisions.
Wired is one of the few magazines I read cover to cover. It consistently exposes me to new ideas and topics. For that, I'm grateful (and a longtime subscriber). But when it comes to the iPad, I really don't understand what the Wired crew is doing. Yet, reading over this analysis piece by Reuters' Felix Salmon, I'm dismayed to see a return to the days of silos and closed content. Here's how Salmon puts it.
Magazine publishers are taking a mulligan. After letting the Internet slip away from them and watching electronic readers like the Kindle from Amazon develop without their input, publishers are trying again with Apple iPhones and, especially, tablet computers. Although publishers have not exactly been on the cutting edge of technology, two magazines — Esquire and GQ — have developed iPhone versions, while Wired and Sports Illustrated have made mockups of tablet versions of their print editions, months before any such tablets come to market. Publishers are using the opportunity to fix their business model, too.
Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson is now speaking at Y Combinator’s Startup School about Freemium Business Models. Anderson likened freemium to handing out muffins on the street to entice people to start eating your muffins. But with muffins there’s a significant cost to giving away each muffin. With digital goods, you can give away 90% of your product for free, without any cost for those goods. He says ‘free users’ aren’t free loaders, and that it’s okay to let the minority (paid users) subsidize the majority. Because the free users will recommend to friends, it’s a great form of marketing. And for those paid users, many of them are very strong customers — they may be price insensitive, with very little churn.
In 2001, Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein noticed a quirk in the camera market. All the growth was in expensive digital cameras, but the best-selling units by far were still cheap, disposable film models. That year, a whopping 181 million disposables were sold in the US, compared with around 7 million digital cameras. Spotting an opportunity, Kaplan and Braunstein formed a company called Pure Digital Technologies and set out to see if they could mix the rich chocolate of digital imaging with the mass-market peanut butter of throwaway point-and-shoots. They called their brainchild the Single Use Digital Camera and cobranded it with retailers, mostly pharmacies like CVS.
It's ugly. It's not proactive. It turns a deaf ear, a blind eye, and a snubby nose to investors. And it looks upon advertising as if it were as appropriate as an anchor tattoo on the Pope's forehead. In sum, suggests Gary Wolf in the latest issue of Wired, Craigslist is a mess. A horrible mess. An embarrassing mess. A willful mess in which its principals rake in money while its principles seem to revolve around some weirdly benign view of human goodness.
By giving away products to lots of people, you can make money. Free is the greatest marketing tool there is. It allows you to expose the biggest audience to what you do, and then the question is: Who’s going to pay? Google is the poster child of free. It’s one of the most profitable companies in America, but it doesn’t show up on your credit-card statement.
Condé Nast folds Portfolio even as it starts Wired in print in the U.K. So which are we to take as the harbinger for the future of magazines?
A few nights ago Steven Bevacqua, a postproduction supervisor for the television series “Life,” was flipping through the May issue of Wired magazine when he thought he started seeing secret messages. Yes, he’d just come home from a long day at work, but then again, the issue was guest-edited by J. J. Abrams, a creator of enigmatic television shows like “Lost” and “Fringe.”
It's a recurring pipe dream for technophiles and luddites alike: computers that not only listen but understand our every command. And each year, like clockwork, someone claims this day is upon us—that we can toss out our keyboards and warm up our larynges for a new relationship with our machines.