It's hard to ignore the strong force of digital distributors on the open web. In a previous post, I focused on three different scenarios for the future of the open web. In two of the three scenarios, the digital distributors are the primary way for people to discover news, giving them an extraordinary amount of control.
When a small number of intermediary distributors get between producers and consumers, history shows us we have to worry -- and brace ourselves for big industry-wide changes. A similar supply chain disruption has happened in the food industry, where distributors (supermarkets) changed the balance of power and control for producers (farmers). There are a few key lessons we can take from the food industry's history and apply them to the world of the web.
Historical lessons from the food industry
When food producers and farmers learned that selling directly to consumers had limited reach, trading posts emerged and began selling farmers' products more than their own. As early as the 14th century, these trading posts turned into general stores, and in the 18th century, supermarkets and large-scale grocery stores continued that trend in retailing. The adoption of supermarkets was customer-driven; customers benefit from being able to buy all their food and household products in a single store. Today, it is certainly hard to imagine going to a dozen different speciality stores to buy everything for your day-to-day needs.
But as a result, very few farmers sell straight to consumers, and a relatively small amount of supermarkets stand between thousands of suppliers and millions of consumers. The supermarkets have most of the power; they control how products are displayed, and which ones gain prominent placement on shelves. They have been accused of squeezing prices to farmers, forcing many out of business. Supermarkets can also sell products at lower prices than traditional corner shops, leading to smaller grocery stores closing.
In the web's case, digital distributors are the grocery stores and farmers are content producers. Just like supermarket consumers, web users are flocking to the convenience and relevance of digital distributors.
This graph illustrates the market power of supermarkets / digital distributors. A handful of supermarkets / digital distributors stand between thousands of farmers / publishers and millions of consumers.
Control of experience
Web developers and designers devote a tremendous amount of time and attention to creating beautiful experiences on their websites. One of my favorites was the Sochi Olympics interactive stories that The New York Times created.
That type of experience is currently lost on digital distributors where everything looks the same. Much like a food distributor's products are branded on the shelves of a supermarket to stand out, publishers need clear ways to distinguish their brands on the “shelves” of various digital distribution platforms.
While standards like RSS and Atom have been extended to include more functionality (e.g. Flipboard feeds), there is still a long way to go to support rich, interactive experiences within digital distributors. As an industry, we have to develop and deploy richer standards to "transport" our brand identity and user experience from the producer to digital distributor. I suspect that when Apple unveils its Apple News Format, it will come with more advanced features, forcing others like Flipboard to follow suit.
Control of access / competition
In China, WeChat is a digital distributor of different services with more than 0.5 billion active users. Recently, WeChat blocked the use of Uber. The blocking comes shortly after Tencent, WeChat's parent company, invested in rival domestic car services provider Didi Kuaidi. The shutdown of Uber is an example of how digital distributors can use their market power to favor their own businesses and undermine competitors. In the food industry, supermarkets have realized that it is more profitable to exclude independent brands in favor of launching their own launching grocery brands.
Control of curation
Digital distributors have an enormous amount of power through their ability to manipulate curation algorithms. This type of control is not only bad for the content producers, but could be bad for society as a whole. A recent study found that the effects of search engine manipulation could pose a threat to democracy. In fact, Google rankings may have been a deciding factor in the 2014 elections in India, one of the largest elections in the world. To quote the study's author: "search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent -- more than 60 percent in some demographic groups". By manipulating its search results, Google could decide the U.S. presidential election. Given that Google keeps its curation algorithms secret, we don't know if we are being manipulated or not.
Control of monetization
Finally, a last major fear is control of monetization. Like supermarkets, digital distributors have a lot of control over pricing. Individual web publishers must maintain their high quality standards to keep consumers demanding their work. Then, there is some degree of leverage to work into the business model negotiation with digital distributors. For example, perhaps The New York Times could offer a limited-run exclusive within a distribution platform like Facebook's Instant Articles or Flipboard.
I'm also interested to see what shapes up with Apple's content blocking in iOS9. I believe that as an unexpected consequence, content blocking will place even more power and control over monetization into the hands of digital distributors, as publishers become less capable of monetizing their own sites.
It's not easy to build an Open Source software company.
Canonical recently has made a change to its intellectual property policy. The new policy prevents developers from distributing altered binary versions of Ubuntu. Users are still allowed to distribute unaltered Ubuntu freely, but if they make changes to Ubuntu, Canonical wants developers to either go through a review process or remove all references to Canonical trademarks, Canonical logos, and proprietary software and recompile the Ubuntu archive without any of those.
This change has caused friction with the Open Source community; many are not happy with these restrictions as it goes against the culture of Open Source sharing and collaboration. After all, Ubuntu itself is built on top of the work of hundreds of thousands of Open Source developers, and now Ubuntu is making it difficult for others to do the same.
Canonical's stated intention is to protect its trademarks and reputation; they don't want anyone to call something "Ubuntu" when it's not actually "Ubuntu". I understand that. That aside, many understand that the unstated goal is to make money from licensing deals. The changes affect organizations that base their custom distributions on Ubuntu; it's easier to buy a license from Canonical than to figure how to remove all the trademarks, proprietary software, logos, etc.
Jono Bacon, Canonical's former community manager, wrote a balanced post about the situation.
My thoughts? I understand Canonical has to find ways to make money. Most companies are downright greedy, but not Canonical or Mark Shuttleworth. I find the Open Source community "penny wise and pound foolish" about the situation.
I can relate because Canonical, like Acquia, is among a small group of Open Source companies that try to do good and do well at scale. We invest millions of dollars each year contributing to Open Source: from engineering, to marketing, to sponsoring community events and initiatives. It is not easy to build a software company on Open Source, and we all struggle to find the right balance between giving back and making money. This is further complicated when competitors choose to give back less or don't give back at all. Companies like Canonical and Acquia are good for Open Source, and helping them find that balance is key. Don't forget to support those that give back.
I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to win back the Open Web, but in the case of digital distributors (e.g. closed aggregators like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Flipboard) superior, push-based user experiences have won the hearts and minds of end users, and enabled them to attract and retain audience in ways that individual publishers on the Open Web currently can't.
In today's world, there is a clear role for both digital distributors and Open Web publishers. Each needs the other to thrive. The Open Web provides distributors content to aggregate, curate and deliver to its users, and distributors provide the Open Web reach in return. The user benefits from this symbiosis, because it's easier to discover relevant content.
As I see it, there are two important observations. First, digital distributors have out-innovated the Open Web in terms of conveniently delivering relevant content; the usability gap between these closed distributors and the Open Web is wide, and won't be overcome without a new disruptive technology. Second, the digital distributors haven't provided the pure profit motives for individual publishers to divest their websites and fully embrace distributors.
However, it begs some interesting questions for the future of the web. What does the rise of digital distributors mean for the Open Web? If distributors become successful in enabling publishers to monetize their content, is there a point at which distributors create enough value for publishers to stop having their own websites? If distributors are capturing market share because of a superior user experience, is there a future technology that could disrupt them? And the ultimate question: who will win, digital distributors or the Open Web?
I see three distinct scenarios that could play out over the next few years, which I'll explore in this post.
This image summarizes different scenarios for the future of the web. Each scenario has a label in the top-left corner which I'll refer to in this blog post. A larger version of this image can be found at http://buytaert.net/sites/buytaert.net/files/images/blog/digital-distrib....
Scenario 1: Digital distributors provide commercial value to publishers (A1 → A3/B3)
Digital distributors provide publishers reach, but without tangible commercial benefits, they risk being perceived as diluting or even destroying value for publishers rather than adding it. Right now, digital distributors are in early, experimental phases of enabling publishers to monetize their content. Facebook's Instant Articles currently lets publishers retain 100 percent of revenue from the ad inventory they sell. Flipboard, in efforts to stave off rivals like Apple News, has experimented with everything from publisher paywalls to native advertising as revenue models. Expect much more experimentation with different monetization models and dealmaking between the publishers and digital distributors.
If digital distributors like Facebook succeed in delivering substantial commercial value to the publisher they may fully embrace the distributor model and even divest their own websites' front-end, especially if the publishers could make the vast majority of their revenue from Facebook rather than from their own websites. I'd be interested to see someone model out a business case for that tipping point. I can imagine a future upstart media company either divesting its website completely or starting from scratch to serve content directly to distributors (and being profitable in the process). This would be unfortunate news for the Open Web and would mean that content management systems need to focus primarily on multi-channel publishing, and less on their own presentation layer.
As we have seen from other industries, decoupling production from consumption in the supply-chain can redefine industries. We also know that introduces major risks as it puts a lot of power and control in the hands of a few.
Scenario 2: The Open Web's disruptive innovation happens (A1 → C1/C2)
For the Open Web to win, the next disruptive innovation must focus on narrowing the usability gap with distributors. I've written about a concept called a Personal Information Broker (PIM) in a past post, which could serve as a way to responsibly use customer data to engineer similar personal, contextually relevant experiences on the Open Web. Think of this as unbundling Facebook where you separate the personal information management system from their content aggregation and curation platform, and make that available for everyone on the web to use. First, it would help us to close the user experience gap because you could broker your personal information with every website you visit, and every website could instantly provide you a contextual experience regardless of prior knowledge about you. Second, it would enable the creation of more distributors. I like the idea of a PIM making the era of handful of closed distributors as short as possible. In fact, it's hard to imagine the future of the web without some sort of PIM. In a future post, I'll explore in more detail why the web needs a PIM, and what it may look like.
Scenario 3: Coexistence (A1 → A2/B1/B2)
Finally, in a third combined scenario, neither publishers nor distributors dominate, and both continue to coexist. The Open Web serves as both a content hub for distributors, and successfully uses contextualization to improve the user experience on individual websites.
Right now, since distributors are out-innovating on relevance and discovery, publishers are somewhat at their mercy for traffic. However, a significant enough profit motive to divest websites completely remains to be seen. I can imagine that we'll continue in a coexistence phase for some time, since it's unreasonable to expect either the Open Web or digital distributors to fail. If we work on the next disruptive technology for the Open Web, it's possible that we can shift the pendulum in favor of “open” and narrow the usability gap that exists today. If I were to guess, I'd say that we'll see a move from A1 to B2 in the next 5 years, followed by a move from B2 to C2 over the next 5 to 10 years. Time will tell!
I'm excited to announce that starting today, Acquia is announcing we're ready to fully support our customers with Drupal 8. This means our professional services, our support, our product engineering, our cloud services … the entire company is ready to help anyone with Drupal 8 starting today.
While Drupal 8 is not yet released (as it has always been said, Drupal 8 will be "ready when it's ready"), the list of release blockers is dwindling ever closer to zero, and a beta-to-beta upgrade path will soon be provided in core. These factors, along with Acquia's amazing team of more than 150 Drupal experts (including a dedicated Drupal 8 engineering team that has contributed to fixing more than 1,200 Drupal 8 issues), gives us full confidence that we can make our customers successful with Drupal 8 starting today.
In the process of working with customers on their Drupal 8 projects, we will contribute Drupal 8 core patches, port modules, help improve Drupal 8's performance and more.
I'm excited about this milestone, as Drupal 8 will be a truly ground-breaking release. I'm most excited about the architectural enhancements that strongly position Drupal 8 for what I've called the Big reverse of the Web. For the web to reach its full potential, it will go through a massive re-platforming. From Flipboard to the upcoming release of Apple News, it's clear that the web is advancing into the “post-browser” era, where more and more content is "pushed" to you by smart aggregators. In this world, the traditional end-point of the browser and website become less relevant, requiring a new approach that increases the importance of structured content, metadata and advanced caching. With Drupal 8, we've built an API-driven architecture that is well suited to this new “content as a service” approach, and Drupal 8 is ahead of competitive offerings that still treat content as pages. Check out my DrupalCon Los Angeles keynote for more details.
A little over a year ago we launched the Acquia Certification Program for Drupal. We ended up the first year with close to 1,000 exams taken, which exceeded our goal of 300-600. Today, I'm pleased to announce that the Acquia Certification Program passed another major milestone with over 1,000 exams passed (not just taken).
People have debated the pros and cons of software certifications for years (including myself) so I want to give an update on our certification program and some of the lessons learned.
Acquia's certification program has been a big success. A lot of Drupal users require Acquia Certification; from the Australian government to Johnson & Johnson. We also see many of our agency partners use the program as a tool in the hiring process. While a certification exam can not guarantee someone will be great at their job (e.g. we only test for technical expertise, not for attitude), it does give a frame of reference to work from. The feedback we have heard time and again is how the Acquia Certification Program is tough, but fair; validating skills and knowledge that are important to both customers and partners.
We also made the Certification Magazine Salary Survey as having one of the most desired credentials to obtain. To be a first year program identified among certification leaders like Cisco and Red Hat speaks volumes on the respect our program has established.
Creating a global certification program is resource intensive. We've learned that it requires the commitment of a team of Drupal experts to work on each and every exam. We now have four different exams: developer, front-end specialist, backend specialist and site builder. It roughly takes 40 work days for the initial development of one exam, and about 12 to 18 work days for each exam update. We update all four of our exams several times per year. In addition to creating and maintaining the certification programs, there is also the day-to-day operations for running the program, which includes providing support to participants and ensuring the exams are in place for testing around the globe, both on-line and at test centers. However, we believe that effort is worth it, given the overall positive effect on our community.
We also learned that benefits are an important part to participants and that we need to raise the profile of someone who achieves these credentials, especially those with the new Acquia Certified Grand Master credential (those who passed all three developer exams). We have a special Grand Master Registry and look to create a platform for these Grand Masters to help share their expertise and thoughts. We do believe that if you have a Grand Master working on a project, you have a tremendous asset working in your favor.
At DrupalCon LA, the Acquia Certification Program offered a test center at the event, and we ended up having 12 new Grand Masters by the end of the conference. We saw several companies stepping up to challenge their best people to achieve Grand Master status. We plan to offer the testing at DrupalCon Barcelona, so take advantage of the convenience of the on-site test center and the opportunity to meet and talk with Peter Manijak, who developed and leads our certification efforts, myself and an Acquia Certified Grand Master or two about Acquia Certification and how it can help you in your career!