A good year at work

I’ve been working at PBS (the US public television network) since March 2012, as head of product management for PBS LearningMedia, an on-demand streaming media service for elementary and secondary educators. I led the effort to rebuild the site and content repository from the ground up in 2012, which we completed in time to launch the new version in January 2013.

To celebrate a year of the new LearningMedia, here’s a quick summary of what we’ve accomplished (thanks to Rachel and Michael from our station relations team for most of the data):

  • The new PBS LearningMedia site serves 500,000 registered users and attracts over 2 million page views per month, nearly 5 times the traffic of the old site
  • 134 PBS member stations in 51 states and territories are now offering a localized PBS LearningMedia Service to educators in their communities.
  • 35,000+ digital resources make up the PBS LearningMedia content library, with over 66% contributed by local stations. 
  • 10 states have school districts that are implementing the Custom Service, offered in partnership by local PBS stations, including WGVU, KET, WNET, SCETV, WTJX, WGBH and WHRO. The PBS LearningMedia Custom Service launched last spring and offers access to state educational standards, additional content and account management features, and enhanced reporting and analytics
  • Two CODiE Awards for excellence in education where bestowed on PBS LearningMedia in 2013. This is one of the highest accolades available in the digital education space – Best K-12 Solution.

2013 was a very productive and successful year for our team and for PBS in general, and I’m looking forward to a new round of activity and achievements in 2014.

Best wishes for a happy and successful 2014!

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Adventures in product management: healthcare.gov

As product manager for a public web site at PBS, I’m following the news about the development of healthcare.gov closely. From my perspective this looks like an extreme product management challenge, as illustrated in an in-depth report in the Washington Post.

Like many product managers, I’ve certainly dealt with difficult customers and stakeholders, and had to manage unclear requirements and unreasonable expectations. Those experiences, however, look like child’s play compared to the toxic mix of politics and partisanship that were the main concerns of the customers of the healthcare site. It’s easy to say that more or better developers (or product managers) could have avoided the serious start-up problems of the site, but the Post report shows that the real problems came from the people creating the requirements, not the team implementing them.

As John Dickerson writes in his summary of the Post report in Slate:

Apple and Google would never have allowed the problems that Cutler outlines in his memo to fester. But then again, Apple and Google would not have had to deal with an environment where their rivals were plotting to remove all the equipment from their product laboratories every night.

In other words, if the customers and their business are crazy, there’s only so much that the technical team can do.

Mobile diary: the new Flickr: missing the mobile boat?

My favorite online photo service, flickr, recently released a radical new design for its desktop site, which has attracted mostly positive reviews (particularly about the terabyte of free storage) but also much grumbling from long-time flickr users about the design and usability of the new site.

I still haven’t made up my mind about whether the new design is a net plus or minus, but I do think that it’s perhaps a bit behind the times. Flickr has released a rich, bandwidth-intensive desktop interface at a time when Internet usage is rapidly shifting to tablets and smaller mobile devices. Right move at the wrong time?

From Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report: http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2013-internet-trends

The rise and fall of the magazine app

Technology Review built an iPad app, and now regrets it. Editor in Chief Jason Pontin tells the story, from great expectations to sad disappointment, and predicts that other publishers will follow the lead of the Financial Times (and Boston Globe) and embrace the web. He concludes that the “paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead.”

Key quote:

We sold 353 subscriptions through the iPad. We never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing both landscape and portrait versions of the magazine for the app. We wasted $124,000 on outsourced software development. We fought amongst ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense of spirit. I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital.

This appears to be mostly a failure of the app business model, and to a lesser extent the limitations of native app development. On the business side, the revenues never made up for the cost of development, especially with Apple taking 30% off the top. On the technology side, what’s interesting is that TR readers appear to value what Jason calls “the linky-ness of the Web” over the prettiness of the app. In other words, looks are, apparently, not everything, even on the iPad.

Web apps are growing up

Every week, there are new articles in the tech press describing how another company is turning to the web to deliver its content and brand across multiple platforms. The latest one I read, from the Guardian, describes how Bloomberg is devoting equal resources to web and native apps, looking to their mobile web site to deliver “content across every device.” The folks at CCS heard this same story from many developers at this year’s Mobile World Congress.

The technical advantages of web on mobile are clear, and the tools to deliver the tech keep getting better, as the latest news from Adobe and Sencha demonstrate. For app developers and even enterprises, there’s still a gap in the web application ecosystem when it comes to distribution, discovery, and payment. If you’re a consumer with a smart (or not-so-smart) phone, it’s still easier to download an app from an app store than to find and install a pure web application. It’s these “commercial” parts of the value chain that turn a development technology into an application ecosystem.

That’s why the recent announcements from Mozilla and Facebook at MWC, and AT&T earlier at CES, are exciting. Here is evidence that major mobile players are putting at least some effort into building out the business side of web on mobile, and starting to roll out solutions for app distribution (AT&T) and in-app payment (Facebook) for web apps.

I don’t think any of these will provide much competition for the App Store or Android Market (oops, I mean Google Play), but it’s a start. I’d like to hear what you think; are web apps really growing up into a “real” ecosystem? Does the web on mobile really need these app-like distribution and payment channels in order to succeed (whatever that means)?

Photo by mozillaeu from flickr

Does every network need to be a social network?

Alicia Eler at ReadWriteWeb reviews the upcoming redesign of flickr, my favorite online photo site. She concludes that flickr needs to be more like Instagram in order to succeed in a world where smartphone cameras outnumber traditional ones.

I don’t agree. As I wrote in a comment to that article, I value flickr because its primary focus is on the images, not the “social.” The groups and contacts are of course critical parts of the experience, but those social components of the service, I think, mostly serve to focus attention back on the pictures. On flickr, I don’t really want to know that much about the other photographers in my contact list or groups. I’m mostly interested in their work.

I want to believe that there’s still a place on the Internet for a service like this (which, by the way, is also one of the few that maintains a large community of paid subscribers like me). Not every network on the Internet needs to be a social network, does it?

The article suggests that flickr needs to provide “a product that’s even more gimmicky fun than Instagram’s tinted filters.” I hope not. It’s true that more people shoot pictures with smartphones than traditional cameras, but that doesn’t mean that all of those people want “gimmicks,” or that smartphone cameras threaten the photo-centric nature of flickr. As most photographers know, a good photographer can create great images with any camera.

(note: the pictures in this post are mine, shot with various smartphones. I’m no André Kertész, but I think they’re not bad)