Skipping the web

Why India's Flipkart abandoned its mobile website:

Now, if you tack on a gigantic population with miserable internet connection speeds, the prospect of scaling up your website operations and back end to deal with not only the overload on it, but also the abysmal experience on the consumer end, whether it is mobile or desktop, is even more bleak. An app allows a user to stay logged in while updates and other information are efficiently and constantly downloaded, ready for consumption almost instantly. It is, in fact, perfect for low-bandwidth situations.

People often write of places like India or Africa bypassing landlines or PCs to skip ahead to technologies like wireless or smartphones, but I haven't heard of countries treating the web as one of those intermediate technologies to be hopped over.

Having spent lots of time working out of China, I see the sense in it. Internet connection speeds are really slow there, and loading the web can be painful. Even with an upgraded pipe into the building, when I worked out of Hulu's Beijing office, I found myself browsing the web a lot less simply out of impatience.

Having grown up in the U.S., the web was one of the first and still longest-running touchpoint to the internet. My first was using newsgroups in college, and the web came about towards the end of my undergrad days. I can understand why so many in the U.S. are nostalgic and defensive of the web as a medium. Seeing so much content and online interaction move behind the walls of social networks seems like an epic tragedy to many, and I empathize.

Many people in India, China, and other parts of the world, where bandwidth is low and slow, and where mobile phones are their one and only computer, have no room for such sentimentality. They may never have experienced the same heyday of the web, so they feel no analogous nostalgia for it as a medium. Path dependence matters here, as it does in lots of areas of tech, and one of the best ways to detect it is to widen your geographic scope of study outside the U.S. Asia is a wonderful comparison group, especially for me because I have so many friends and relatives there and because I still interact with them online at a decent frequency.

In the U.S., many tech companies were lauded as pioneers for going mobile first when in Asia companies are already going mobile only. In some ways, Asia feels like it lives in the past as compared to the U.S., especially when one sees so many fast followers of successful U.S. technology companies, but in a surprisingly large number of ways, Asia lives in our near future.


I asked for something like this on Twitter a while back, and the lazyweb gods have answered: a Safari and Chrome extension that takes articles from popular sites that are broken across multiple pages to boost page views and merges them into one page. It saves you the trouble of finding the Print or Single Page link and clicking it yourself which seems like a minor annoyance but becomes a massive one when multiplied across dozens of articles every day. [hat tip to Daring Fireball]

No doubt about it, serious news organizations are in a tough bind trying to monetize. But making the user experience significantly worse to protect display ad revenue is attacking the symptom, not the problem. The problem is that most advertising is lousy and ineffective, and users, given a choice, will try to avoid it. In most news organizations, I'm guessing the journalists sit on a different floor or in a different wing from the ad sales team. It's not in their nature to try to actually improve the effectiveness of the advertising in a meaningful way; advertising has always been the second class citizen that pays the bills.

If you have a product or service that has many close substitutes, and if the core of your revenue model is something you don't spend a large percentage of your mindshare obsessing over, it's not surprising that your entire business is vulnerable. Even successful market leaders consistently fortify potential vulnerabilities. Think about how much Amazon obsesses over logistics, or how far up the supply chain Apple has invested in materials and chipsets. 

Most people think of Google as a search company, but they have some of the smartest people in their company optimizing and improving AdWords, their primary source of revenue. Their ad auction model is continually refined by mathematicians and economists (sometimes those are one and the same). They try to improve their advertising for the entities on both sides of the exchange -- the advertisers and the end users -- by maximizing interaction rates.

When was the last time we heard any journalists or news organizations talking about the effectiveness of their display ads online?