The Web is the center? Maybe just one of the centers

If the world unfolded as predicted by Bill Gates, printed newspapers would be dead in the next four years. While he may turn out to have been directionally correct and merely wrong about the timing, it's been interesting to watch the world change around Microsoft and slowly render the software giant impotent at a time when newspapers continue to hang around and even start new print publications.

While it is surely premature to pronounce dead a company with a 263.2 billion USD market capitalization, the writing is on the wall: the era of the PC has ended. The Web is the center of the universe and the PC is just one of many peripherals.

Now Microsoft is saying that openly. After a series of high-profile failures (PlaysForSure, Zune, and now Vista) from Redmond, it needs to change its way of thinking from top to bottom to embrace Web services. (This is why it wants to buy Yahoo, an effort that I think will fail even if it succeeds.)

The problem is that MS has no particular advantage as a service provider -- other than mountains of available cash to fund development, which often is not the advantage you might expect. On the minus side, it has a demonstrated track record of incompetency and inability to stick with an idea long enough to make it work.

Just this week Microsoft told people who made purchases from its failed MSN Music online store that "as of August 31, 2008, we will no longer be able to support the retrieval of license keys for the songs you purchased from MSN Music or the authorization of additional computers."

Microsoft is surrounded by smart, more agile competitors, many of which have nothing to lose. As we move from desktop to mobile-centric Internet access, free Linux -- especially in the form of the Google-financed Android project -- will be the dominant platform. This will lead to an explosion of small-scale disruptive, innovative development, overwhelming Microsoft like an attack of fire ants.

Is there any value to newspapers in studying this, other than misery loving company?

I think it illuminates two options for newspaper companies, which are in many ways in the same trap as Microsoft.

One path is to embrace and leverage processes modeled on the principles of "open source" development, as Google is doing. This requires abandoning the arrogant hostility toward the reader that you find in many newsrooms, banning the language "unwashed masses" from thought as well as conversation. The Founding Fathers referred to "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," a concept disturbingly absent among many journalists who are eager to latch onto other concepts expressed in that era, such as freedom of the press.

The other path is suggested by a line generally attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The cleverly expressed opposite of any generally accepted idea is worth a fortune to somebody." This essentially is Apple's path, the closed system where value is created through enforced simplicity and clarity. But can newspapers cleverly express anything? The quality of writing, and the quality of thought, in most of America's 1,400 or so newspapers is not encouraging.

My rule of thumb is a simple one: Use the right tool for the right job. The Internet's strength is collaborative interaction; print's strengths are linearity, focus and serendipitous discovery.

So in my world newspapers should use the Internet to execute a Google-like, open-source-inspired, conversational approach to journalism, while remaking print around focus, quality, depth and thought-provoking discovery. I'm troubled when I see newspapers trying to badly copy the Web's strengths into print (i.e. those awful Page 2 summaries of news you already know about) and failing to invest in journalism worth reading.

So in my vision of the future, the Web is not exactly the center of the media universe. It's one of the centers, and it's optimized for open interaction and community-driven conversation. Print should focus on our need for periodic escape from the cacophony of the bazaar. If we do that, perhaps newspapers will still be around for awhile. Maybe even longer than Microsoft. Who knows?