Geek Squad Founder: Journalism Start-Ups Must Think Mobile First

Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens says anyone contemplating a journalism start-up should think of getting a mobile presence first and then think of a computer application that plays off the app, not the other way around. Indeed, if he were starting the Geek Squad today, it would not be providing support for computers, it would be all about tablets and mobile devices. See the full Leonard Witt video interview and transcript with Stephens below:

Leonard Witt: Hi. I’m Len Witt, with the Center for Sustainable Journalism, and I’m here with Robert Stephens. He is the founder of Geek Squad. Both of us are here at Minnesota Public Radio for The Future of the News Conference. Robert, any predictions about the future of journalism from your point of view?

Robert Stephens: People always talk about the death of this or the death of that. Nothing ever actually dies. It just transforms or expands. But I think that when anybody can publish, good old-fashioned editing and journalism actually become more valuable than ever. So you think like YouTube would disintermediate journalism, actually it increases its valuable. It raises the bar though for who succeeds in journalism and editing. But I’m optimistic for that.

Witt: Tell me about the four screens you mentioned. I heard you say smartphones and tablets are going to be the real competition as far as the delivery system. Did I get that right?

Stephens: Yeah, I don’t know how much longer they’ll be called phones but that’s really the central device. Because most of us are moving and mobile, on the go. So our mobile device will be the one we interact with the most. But all four screens, the mobile device, the tablet, which will replace the laptop or desktop, the flat screen, which replaced the TV. If you have a car the fourth screen will be the screen in your car. They’ll all be windows into a single information cloud. But the mobile will be the one that’s most often used because walking to a car, standing on line, in traffic, these are the things we use most. So I tell people now if I started the Geek Squad today I wouldn’t start a computer repair company. I’d really develop a mobile development company. If I were to advise a company on what to build going forward: don’t build a website. Build a mobile app or interface first, and then build for the larger screens.

Witt: Wow. That’s really interesting. Tell us a little about the Android tablet. You mentioned that and that news operations might actually give that away as a way of delivering their content.

Stephens: Well in the short term they’re going to be about 3 to 500 dollars, Apple’s will probably be $600. Basically, it’s a 12-inch piece of thin glass, which will have a camera built in. You’ll do everything you can do on a laptop. And it will just be lighter, faster. You know, over time, less and less expensive to the point where, just like opening a bank account, you get a free iron. You subscribe to the Economist and you’ll get another tablet. Because I think you’ll have these scattered around the house. You’ll have one in your car, two on your desk, one in your bedroom, one in the kitchen, one on the coffee table. It’ll become the remote control. The idea is you’ll hop from screen to screen, accessing your stuff wherever you are.

Witt: So let’s just say I’m a start-up, a small start-up operation. What kind of system would you set up if you were a small start-up and you wanted to compete with the big boys? What might you set up as a way of getting your news out?

Stephens: Well you focus on where the audience is going. They might not be there today, but the audience is going mobile first. So making it compatible with mobile. I’m amazed at the number of sites that I go to or I used to go to, that their sites look crappy on a Blackberry. They look crappy on an iPhone. So adapt for that first. Instead of expecting the phone to convert your website into a mobile version, go pure mobile. That’s why Europe did much better in adopting text messaging much faster because their landlines were so crappy. Well our landlines are so good here that we didn’t adopt mobile phones as quickly. And that’s why even in India they’re going straight to mobile, and most people are getting a mobile, never having had a landline. So if you build for mobile first I think then it’s much easier to convert that later into a bigger screen.

Witt: Okay

Stephens: The last thing is that the constraint of the mobile screen is actually really liberating in that when you only have a small set of real estate to design your interface for, you can only put so many buttons. Just think of the Google start page, versus the AOL, the Yahoo start page. Much cleaner. That’s what good design is. Good design is just as much about what you don’t do, as what you do.

Witt: Okay. That’s really great. Anything else you wanted to add?

Stephens: No. Probably just, regarding this conference, all the information’s online. It’s streaming, and I think all the conversations are archived under TFON for The Future of News.

Witt: Perfect. Thank you very much.

Stephens: Thank you.

Learn more about Stephens’ ideas from the Future of News conference at Minnesota Public Radio, where Witt made the interview above. Also be sure to see Witt interviews with Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Lisa George and Michael Schudson here. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Center for Sustainable Journalism alerts as we post future interviews with Penelope Abernathy, Robert Picard, Jeff Jarvis and others who talk with Leonard Witt about the Future of Journalism. The subscription field is in the sidebar to the right.

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4 Responses to Geek Squad Founder: Journalism Start-Ups Must Think Mobile First
  1. Steve Buttry
    January 8, 2010 | 6:11 pm

    Len, excellent interview. I am advocating a mobile-first strategy for news organizations and am delighted to hear Stephens articulate the reasons so clearly. Here is my post on the topic: http://bit.ly/5WCnus

  2. Leonard Witt
    January 8, 2010 | 6:11 pm

    So we have no comments here, but at at Fark.com there is a lively discussion centered on this post. Almost 60 comments at last count. So why there and not here? A puzzle I hope to find out. I’m not arguing because it brought more than an 1,000 viewers to the page, but just interested.

  3. Rex Hammock
    January 9, 2010 | 6:46 pm

    @Leonard Witt – Great interview — To answer your question: Fark.com has millions of page views by boys from middle-school through college. You want to understand online community, hang out on Fark.com a couple of days — but realize it’s NSFW much of the time.

  4. [...] The founder of the Geek Squad says, if he were starting it today, he’d make it a mobile development company and not a computer repair company. (Video) [...]

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