paidContent founder Rafat Ali on touchscreens and the future of media

After selling digital news site paidContent for $30 million to Guardian Media in 2008, Rafat Ali in July left The Guardian and is now planning his next entrepreneurial journey.

The future of media, says Ali, will revolve around touchscreen devices. We recently connected with Ali at the Online News Association Conference in Washington D.C. to get his thoughts on the “unbundling” of media into mobile devices, and to learn why his next venture will be in the travel industry.

Appolicious Advisor: After spending the last decade chronicling and pioneering new methods of information delivery, explain why you believe future media consumption will revolve around touchscreen devices.

Rafat Ali: As the deluge of media and information has become overwhelming and we are in a state of persistent media stimuli, the tactile nature of touchscreens allow us, for the first time in the digital age, to “get a handle” on this flow, this stream, this river, this flood. It becomes a lot more personal, a lot more immersive, just by the sheer fact that we are touching it.

Also, despite the somewhat shiny-object nature of the apps revolution, what it has shown us is that people are yearning for simpler, faster, more utilitarian and more contained experiences. Touch is the underpinning that enables that thinking.

Further, what that means is that we move away from the click frenzied nature of the web, and the scroll. I think these are among the worst things to be invented from a human-centered design perspective. We will move from a vertical model of digital media consumption to a hybrid-horizontal model, which by its nature is immersive. You can already see it in iPad apps such as Flipboard, which I think are just the 0.1 versions of what is to come.

It is also a matter of time before these devices become a lot cheaper, and mainstream across all societies worldwide. Hence my belief.

AA: How can publishers take advantage of properties that exist on touchscreen devices that were not commercially viable only a few years ago?

RA: I think it requires a lot more than publishers can grasp at this point. It means re-architecting your company around this evolving mode of media consumption. It means bringing design thinking around every piece of content being created within a media company. It may also mean that the start of your media strategy going ahead could be based around portability and mobility, not just another device your content has to be ported to, the dominant media thinking currently.

It also leads you to thinking about packaging, bundling AND even unbundling in a lot of different ways than couldn’t have been imagined just two to three years ago. Consider the example of a children’s books publisher. Imagine the future of the company’s assets, as it gets reimagined for these portable touch platforms. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination, and implementation.

Then in terms of revenues/payments, the upsell becomes a seamless possibility like never before. Virtual goods is the most cliched but clearly viable example of this. Lots more to come there, both from start-ups and big established players.

AA: Of all the vertical markets in play for reinvention, why are you choosing the travel space to go after?

RA: Well, like almost everyone who enters the travel industry, it is borne out of my own love for travel, which I suppose is a dangerously lazy way to look at it. But hey, it is *only* the biggest sector in the world, with 10 percent of world GDP going to it.

Then, I think travel is the perfect crucible for every new innovation coming into the digital space, including mobile, social and local.

I am specifically looking at the travel guidebook sector, and how the book can be reimagined for these portable touch-based devices. The use-case is a no-brainer: why carry the heavy book on your travels, when you can carry it all in the one device you will always carry with you.

I think the current crop of travel publishers, most of them owned by book publishing companies, aren’t exactly the bastion of digital innovation. There is an opportunity — beyond the fractured and crowded web — to leapfrog them in portable platforms.

AA: How would you assess the current crop of mobile applications put out by traditional travel publishers?

RA: The answer is obvious from my indictments above. For most of them, it starts with the table of contents, which is exactly the wrong way of looking at this. Most of them have also focused on city guides, only because they are the most profitable and also easiest to manage resource-wise. But beyond a certain point, that is commodity.

Some interesting stuff is just starting to come up, and I think Lonely Planet is among the smartest of the old crop, which by the way, still isn’t anywhere near where it should be. Then, some of the new players like CityMyWay are trying interesting bundling and display mechanisms.

AA: Consumers have different reasons for accessing information via smartphones as opposed to tablets and traditional computing devices. How should publishers in the travel space configure their offerings to accommodate all of these different use cases?

RA: Publishers have to be willing to unbundle and bundle their existing content locked in those books, in a lot of different ways. Then, layering social layers on top of them, which among other uses allows for easier updating of these guides, would make for a more efficient development process. Figuring out that process is key, as the end product is an amorphous, continually updating and context-aware living animal of sorts. Beyond that, I’ll keep some of the more specific ideas to myself!

AA: Beyond the travel space, what markets are ripe for reinvention via touch-screen media?

RA: I think education is the biggest sector that will be completely changed by touch and portable devices. Again the use case is so obvious, it needs no genius to figure that out. A sub-sector within that that I am curiously interested in is the medical textbooks arena, where traditionally all teaching has been illustration/images heavy. With touch, it becomes live in all senses of the word, creating a hugely superior learning experience.

AA: Can you highlight any particular application or mobile media property that is already doing it right?

RA: I mentioned Flipboard before. I think NPR’s app on iPad is a good example too, where they are taking advantage of the touch and immersive nature of the medium. Netflix, also on iPad, is a great example of purely video experiences. Then Instapaper on iPhone has been a great gift for me, for that web-to-mobile convergence. Amazon’s Kindle app also offers a seamless experience which is simple but brilliant.

AA: When do you intend to announce your future plans in this space?

RA: Sometime likely in the first quarter of next year.

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