Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blogs as Apps



For the first time I am actively considering the possibility that this blog could migrate to a different publishing platform. Google’s Blogger platform – although it is incrementally much improved – has not been fundamentally reconfigured in the nine years that I have been using it. The online publishing environment has evolved significantly over that time. Blogger is a stable and dependable product. However, whether it still remains the best platform for this particular blog is now an open question. Specifically I am thinking now about a potential future where I could publish this blog within a stand-alone iOS app. A line of thinking directly inspired by Craig Mod’s ‘Subcompact Publishing’ article from November 2012.

Mod’s key points are that online publishing today needs simple tools wrapped in minimal containers. Readers need to be able to subscribe to an author’s writing in the most simple efficient manner. RSS never made much sense for consumers. So creating a better kind of consumer-facing RSS is a useful first step. Then, given the devices people read on today there is need for optimal clarity and precision in the presentation of content within a minimal UI. He states that any novel subcompact publishing is future-facing, as its customers are most likely to be emergent content producers rather then incumbents, who by definition are embedded within an existing publishing system.

The conversations coalescing around the desire for a potential “Moveable Type For Mobile Publishing” suggest an idea whose time may have arrived. The quality and breadth of discussion inspired by Mod’s article suggests this idea occupies the notional space that VCs refer to as the ‘Adjacent Possible’. Although I can clearly see why the subcompact idea is a compelling Adjacent Possible, I do have to ask then, why has no-one disrupted the mature blogging platforms with such a mobile-first replacement? We are now more than five years into the ascent of the smartphone ecosystems and I do not yet see a viable champion of mobile-first blog publishing.

To clarify my thinking at this point I need to make one critical distinction between the class of novel standalone Blog-Delivery apps which would provide a subcompact container for a blog’s readers and the class of established Blog-Enabling apps (think WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, SquareSpace and the like) which give authors smartphone access into their chosen blogging platform’s CMS.

Today’s primary blogging platforms are still all desktop-first. Yes, they do all have their own mobile Blog-Enabling apps, and are addressing the new mobile reality by implementing responsive design and other tactics. Both their history and the foundations of their platforms were all built upon the desktop Internet.

  • A chronology of major blogging platforms
  • Blogger (Pyra Labs) founded in 1999.
  • Moveable Type (Six Apart) founded in 2001.
  • WordPress founded in 2003.
  • SquareSpace founded in 2003.
  • Tumblr founded in 2007.
  • LiveJournal, Typepad, and Posterous were other credible blogging platforms, but did they not achieve longevity within this timespan. 

I am specifically concerned with thinking through the issues for single-author blogs here, rather than addressing the needs of the larger publication-scale blogs with multiple authors, (think TechCrunch, The Verge, Engadget and ReadWriteWeb). That class of news aggregation blogs have already embraced delivery via their own dedicated apps in support of their page-view driven advertising revenue models. If app-based delivery can work for that blogging model, then some adapted variant could be useful for the smaller single-author blogging model.

It is surprising how few bloggers have released their own apps. One pessimistic hypothesis could be that the heyday of blogging is past. The existing cohort of bloggers are all wedded to their chosen platforms. Perhaps the majority of nascent proto-bloggers are now writing on social media platforms and see decreasing value in the effort required to maintain a dedicated blog. If the significant addressable market for blogs-as-apps is too small then the products will not be developed. That said one or two of such apps do already exist.

I installed the app version of Seth Godin’s blog when it was released in December 2012. While his app offers some moderately useful functions, such as creating an archive of favourite posts and cloud sync across all of your devices, using it never become a habit of mine. I did not discover sufficient additional utility from having his blog’s content available within a stand-alone app. (Now in my particular case, that may be because it is the only blog on my daily reading list which I do not read via RSS. My email subscription to Godin’s blog predating my adoption of Bloglines as my first feed reader some time in 2002. So perhaps more than ten years of an email-based reading habit is simply too difficult to break.) Another factor which may be limiting my adoption of his app is that Godin’s blog is very much a one-way publishing channel. He does not support comments to his posts. So any conversations around his ideas must necessarily take place off-site.

So where a dedicated blog app may potentially prove more useful would be for the class of blog which delivers as much of its significant value from the conversations taking place within the comments as from the posts. Trying to follow longer and more involved comment threads within mobile browsers is still a sub-optimal experience: one with many opportunities for improvements and for potential innovations.

One appropriate example which I have in mind is Horace Dediu’s essential Asymco blog. Most of his posts seem intended as starting points for discussion with his audience. He actively seeks their collective knowledge and insight to improve and expand upon his initial thesis. Reading Asymco within an RSS Reader merely delivers his original inciting arguments; without the depth of any broader discussions which follow.

However, as a lot of my own available recreational reading time tends to be when I am limited to mobile access, I find that I do not follow those conversations in as much detail as I would like to. I find that following the debates on a desktop browser is far more effective than on a mobile browser, mostly because of the way that the user experience has been configured and presented on each platform. Asymco’s interface in the desktop browser is a very effective at delivering the site’s content. The corresponding mobile interface uses a standard WordPress mobile theme. Which I find problematic as once comments are nested more than three indents deep their legibility is significantly impaired. I end up trying to read paragraphs set with only one or two words per line.

So to appropriate the key investigative tool from Dediu’s own methodology – what would be the ideal job-to-be-done that would be solved by delivering that blog packaged within its own dedicated app? Could a notional Asymco app further enhance the user experience of reading the comment threads? And what additional, novel, and superior functionality, such as increased levels of valid participation within the Asymco community, could such an app version afford? A line of thinking worth exploring further.

I think that Ev William’s new Medium project is one interesting response to some – yet not all – of the issues I have been ruminating on here. As a contemporary web product, its authoring tools and CMS incorporate the latest technology in a thoughtful and considered manner. Yet it seems to me that its essential business model is not to become an underlying publishing platform. (I doubt that you will see ‘Powered By Medium’.) Rather than being able to build and establish my own blog on top of their platform, the affordance provided is more for me to write within their framework. It is a subtle distinction – but a critical one. I worry that, if say I adopted that platform, my writing would ultimately end up building the Medium master-brand, rather than my own personal brand. (Although my initial analysis may prove incorrect, as while I was drafting this post, the online magazine Epic has launched using Medium as its delivery mechanism.)

This has turned out to be a post where I have asked a lot of questions without a clear idea about what the answers may be. It just indicates that there is still a lot left to think about the topic of blogging and that there is plenty of scope for innovation and new ideas in this area.

Innovations in technology will always create new affordances that open up new opportunities around the acts of writing and publishing. Opportunities for collaboration, critique, debate and conversation. Opportunities for distributing ideas and connecting with audiences.

I am convinced of the benefits that accrue from writing consistently in public. It is a practice to which I remain committed. Over the long term, whether my writing is delivered by an evolved blogging platform or via some as-yet-to-be-created novel technology is less significant then the act of publishing the work and making is available for debate and discussion.

The writing is what is important.

Update

My opinions about reading the Asymco blog in a mobile browser were formed back when that site just used the most common mobile Wordpress theme. After just checking Asymco, it would be remiss of me not to note that blog now uses the mobile Basic Maths theme by Khoi Vinh and Allan Cole which has a superior smartphone UI. Although not addressing all of the commenting issues that I discussed, it definitely makes reading the comment threads a much more feasible endeavour.