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Commentary on the media and the business of content.

Mobile Breathes New Life Into Media

kress report, a leading German trade magazine for the media industry, interviewed frog’s Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston on tablet PC’s, the future of journalism, and how the computer will change human behavior and further increase the importance of content.

The complete interview by kress report’s Christian Meier has been reproduced below:

Mark Rolston reluctantly calls himself and his colleagues designers. “This is like voluntarily putting yourself into a limited box,” says frog design’s creative head. Established in 1969 by legendary German designer Hartmut Esslinger in the Black Forest and now headquartered in San Francisco, the company recently opened an office in Munich. Rolston has taken up quarters in the city for six weeks and enjoys meeting his clients downtown. “We’ll leave our footprint here,” promises Rolston.

kress: frog design recently relocated its German office to Munich. Why there?
Mark Rolston: frog was originally based in Altensteig in the Black Forest. Later on, we moved to Herrenburg, which is just outside Stuttgart – but regions like this one ultimately lack creative potential. We checked out several possible locations: Dusseldorf, Cologne, Berlin, and Munich. In the end, we settled for Munich. It was a tough call though.

kress: Your company advises brand companies. What role does the media play in your client list?
Rolston: We advise several media companies such as Condé Nast or MTV. But to be honest: This is not our main client base. Classic media enterprises still focus on the creation and consumption of contents rather than on the dissemination of media. We’re essentially out for distribution innovations. If we develop better tablet computers, then the media will profit from that.

kress: Which leads to the question: Are tablets, like the iPad, good for the media industry?
Rolston: The iPad continues the computing development that began 30 years ago – on the one hand. On the other hand, the iPad means a fundamental shift that the media has to make use of. By the way, they could have seen that development coming long ago. The tablet is the most consistent and simplest type of computer, as it resembles a sheet of paper.

kress: How can the industry take advantage of this new class of devices?
Rolston: For the first time, people can make use of the strengths of a computer in a super, easy way. I can see that myself. You’re at home with that thing and you’re in an open-minded, inquisitive mood, asking yourself: What can I read? You start looking for something you could read – which is much like turning on your TV and looking for a channel. Still, it’s different from using a computer that you only turn on if you have a specific problem or task. Media companies need to get familiar with this medium and learn to speak its language.

kress: How do you learn to speak the tablet language?
Rolston: All the different platforms that will exist in the future have to be brought to a common standard to reduce development costs. This will happen. Moreover, producing a digital magazine is becoming easier every month. But the media will also have to take some risks. From “Wired” to “Time”, everyone is experimenting. All of us have to become passionate students. When new tools are created, the winners of the development are always those who deal with the new tools the most. They separate good ideas from ideas that don’t work – same old story.

kress: How can media companies foster innovation?
Rolston: There are two approaches: The first one is to attach more importance to information and to make it available across different media. Apple didn’t do it much differently than other companies that want to sell music and movies as well, but Apple made all those contents available across a large number of sites. Access itself acquired a positive value. The media can do it pretty much the same way.

kress: What about the second approach?
Rolston: Attach more importance to the experience itself and combine media contents with options to display these contents. Even standard websites look much better and more valuable on the iPad. This is also because you can sit more comfortably while reading than with your desktop computer. The same applies to Amazon’s Kindle. Creating access options to content and enhancing the experience that users have with content – this is what media companies need help with.

kress: You need more than journalists to do that, right?
Rolston: Right. There will be more participants at the table – not only journalists.

kress: Media companies will have to hire more software specialists and developers.
Rolston: Yes, even if they might distract journalists from their actual work at first, but that’s just the way it is. Media companies themselves have to become a part of the software.

kress: In a speech that you delivered this spring, you said that people are on their way to becoming computers themselves. Can you explain that?
Rolston: Sure, this is really fascinating. Using computers has always been connected to a number of sensual affordances. The user experience is determined by the means that we generate this experience with. In other words: What we do with computers and how we experience them is determined by our abilities to use the keyboard, the mouse, and the monitor. The contents that we want to deal with – including media contents – are initially hidden behind these control devices. In order to get to the contents, you first have to bash your way through. The Internet has already been very helpful in this respect. The contents-versus-prompts ratio has become much better.

kress: However, you still have to use a keyboard and a mouse to navigate through the Net.
Rolston: True. Well, the two of us are having a conversation at the moment and there’s no computer between us. If one of us wanted to use a computer right now, he would have to step out of the current situation. He would have to switch between his actual life and his computer life. Imagine you’re having dinner with some friends. You talk about an actor, asking yourselves: What films was he in again? Everybody tries to find answers. You use your smartphone under the table and tell your friends all the films he was in. To do this, you had to step out of the conversation for a couple of minutes. The nice thing about smartphones is that they make this possible. Nevertheless, while using them, we’re still in a different mode.

kress: And the goal is that there is no different mode anymore?
Rolston: We’re heading for a world in which the exchange with computers will increasingly become a part of everyday life – a life that resembles life in the 1970s when computers didn’t play a role for us. The magic of computing will be its availability to us in the respective situation that we’re in. The result will be that people will share much more information with each other, developing a kind of shared brain.

kress: What does this mean for the media?
Rolston: Computers and their processing power will take a complete back seat. Media will become interactive, dynamic, multimedia and query-based without obstacles between the user and the device. We won’t even think about computers anymore, in the same way we don’t think about the pages of a newspaper today. Again, we will be able to focus entirely on content. Access to digital media content is still completely entangled with other things: How long does the battery last? Does this smartphone have UMTS or not? Do I know how to execute a Google query properly?

kress: Is that development really inevitable? Actually, mobile media isn’t big business yet and advertising revenues are still moderate…
Rolston: (takes a deep breath) You’re mixing up two different thoughts now. Mobile is the new life for media and computers. There is no difference between the development of computers and both the future of computing and the idea of mobility. Using computers that are bound to fixed locations will become less relevant. That’s why the media industry will move into that direction as well. Now, when it comes to advertising revenues, we’re talking about people in the industry who think that “mobile” basically means “small phones”. The media business needs to understand that “mobility” increasingly means “high fidelity of content”. The iPad shows us what direction this will take. Mobile phones are great for “information snacking”. If you need a higher fidelity, you have to develop better devices. Once you’ve achieved a higher fidelity, people will understand why they have to pay higher prices for it, either by having more advertising on their devices or by having to pay directly for such content.

kress: Do you think that the media industry will succeed in taking that direction?
Rolston: The media industry needs to look outside first. It will have to take some risks. After all, how long do you wait until you start fighting for survival? There is no guarantee that their business models will survive. Some companies will disappear. The optimist in me tells me that, in the end, good journalism will prevail. Should I give an example?

kress: Sure.
Rolston: With the advent of desktop publishing in the late 1980s, it initially seemed as if graphic design was on the ropes. Until then, it had been a job for well-educated designers. You could make good money with it. Then came desktop publishing and, all of a sudden, everyone with a computer was able to create something that looked like high-quality graphic design at first glance. However, the truth is that designers didn’t die out as there was indeed a lot of crap out there. What we needed was more quality. In times of the Internet, journalism might develop in a similar way. There will be fewer journalists, but their work will be much respected.

kress: Yes – things might go that way.
Rolston: Unfortunately, the current discussion is only about fixing damaged business models. In 1997, big music label invited us to help them cope with “the whole digital thing”. The truth was that they were only looking for a way to sell more CDs. They wanted us to help them defend their old business model. Every suggestion we made was contrary to what they wanted. However, you can’t wait out such a development. Music didn’t disappear – the whole world is listening to it. But companies and persons might disappear. This is what media companies need to understand. They must not be afraid of developments.

kress: This is easy to say for an adviser.
Rolston: Our advantage is that we can outline a future for our clients that isn’t restricted by the need to look good for them. We are independent observers.

kress: Besides, you take possible disruptions and flaws of the system into account.
Rolston: We project disruptions. We always integrate several possible flaws into the existing system. For example, what if a very good Android-based tablet became available on the market for 100 dollars? What if this turned tablets from devices for media freaks and businessmen into something that you could find on every living room table? What would the world be like then? These are questions that we have to ask ourselves.


Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.