Sunday, April 2, 2006

News vs. Blogs: Mobile Distinctions

The primary way I read news is via my Treo 650 PDA phone. By “news,” I mean traditional news a la The New York Times, BusinessWeek, or wire services. That’s different from blogs, which I read on a computer via an RSS reader. It’s interesting to consider how these distinct use scenarios evolved, because they tell a story about what works and why, at least for me, with mobile content.

First, why read news on a phone? For me, it’s about idle moments: waiting in line somewhere, holding my baby daughter while she sleeps, whatever. These are not situations where a computer is at hand, yet my phone is. Compared to carrying a particular magazine or newspaper, the phone gives me up-to-the-minute access to many news sources.

Okay, how do you read news on a phone? I’ve tried AvantGo (a free but proprietary gateway to content for mobile devices) and mobile RSS reading. They didn’t work for me as well as simply bookmarking a small number of news sites that have mobile versions and hitting those with the Treo’s built-in Web browser.

What’s wrong with using RSS on a phone to read news? Three issues:

  • Whereas most blogs have full-text RSS feeds, most traditional news sources have teaser feeds that require you to follow a link to the original story. Unless you have a special mobile RSS feed for your news source (you probably don’t), the links will take you to the normal news Web site, which probably won’t display well on your phone.
  • Yesterday’s news has relatively little value. If I didn’t get the chance to read any news yesterday, no big deal; I’ll just read today’s news, thanks, as opposed to using RSS to go back through the stuff I missed. I say this from experience: Back when I subscribed to the New York Times via RSS on the desktop, I often found myself needing to “mark all read” after a few days of RSS neglect. Besides, if something really interesting was in yesterday’s news, it’ll likely be followed-up in today’s news or referenced in the blogosphere, which I do track via RSS.
  • With traditional news sources, you know their update frequency, which removes one of the main reasons RSS is valuable: relieving you of needing to check when a site is updated.

Well then why not read blogs on a phone? A few reasons:

  • Most traditional news stories are self-contained, so when you view one on your phone, you read it, and you’re done. By contrast, blog entries often link to other content on the Web. The chance the linked-to content will work well on your mobile phone is low, which means you will likely be stuck doing something ridiculous like using your phone to email the link to yourself so you can view the page when you get back to your computer.
  • Unlike yesterday’s news, yesterday’s blog entries are worth going back for, at least with the bloggers I read. That makes me want to use RSS, but my preferred method of reading RSS is to visually scan through a long page of full-text entries (e.g., all unread entries from blogs in my “tech” folder). It works great on a big monitor; it does not work great on a tiny screen. Thus, the mobile versions of RSS readers like Bloglines don’t do it for me.

Of course, there are obstacles to reading news on your phone. You need a phone with a reasonably sized display and a high-speed wireless service, but both are commonly available today. More important, you need news sites that are formatted for the limited screen sizes of phones. Because it’s hard to squeeze advertising into such a small space, news providers have not stampeded to the wireless world, although some of the biggies are there anyway.

As suitable phones become more common, I expect to see more people divide their media like I have. Following the logic that drove traditional news providers to have Web sites in the first place, those that don’t have wireless versions will get them, employing whatever advertising or other revenue-generating schemes they can conjure. And just to blur the lines, traditional news providers—actually, particular people within news providers—will have blogs that I’ll read via RSS on the desktop.

All that said, a few disclaimers: Although I think there will be many people with similar needs to mine, I’m not claiming anything universal. For example, because I have a short walk to work, I don’t have a commuter’s idle time that might be well suited to getting news via podcast, which I could play on my phone’s MP3 software. And I’m usually around a computer, so my mobile phone is a minor supplement as a media platform. By contrast, if I had a job that kept me moving around town all day (like a real estate agent does), my mobile phone would likely become a primary platform for media as well as communication. And so on.

Exceptions aside, my point is that mobile content has ended up filling a specific niche in my world, in effect segmenting my media consumption. And it’s not that I’m reading more news. If anything, the displacement of news into my idle moments has opened up more time at the computer for blog reading (or writing). So perhaps the mobile-content revolution’s hidden opportunity is growth in non-mobile media. After all, something needs to fills the vacuum on the desktop caused by the shift of news (or music videos or whatever you’d like to predict) to the mobile platform.

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