August 26, 2015 Last Updated 9:49 am

Comcast updates XFINITY Connect app to add video calling; stock markets settle down a bit

Morning Brief: Stock markets, the economy, and the presence of consultants in the office, have publishing pros nervous about the future of ad budgets, magazine titles and their jobs

The cable company Comcast understands that unless it moves swiftly to offer more services more and more of its customers will choose to cut the cord and use alternatives to cable TV. But understanding that and implementing decent new age services may be two separate things.

Xfinityapp-iPhone6-380Today the company updated its XFINITY Connect mobile app, adding the ability to make video calls. Or so it says. I was never able to figure out the service and its instructions inside the app do not match up with anything on its website or inside the app. Worse, like most things from Comcast, one thing does not seem to work with another. Inside the app, for instance, one is given instruction as you how to have your phone assigned to the app. This is absurd as the app already manages your phone calls, so why is this necessary. Worse, there are no simply instructions that say “do this, go here” with a link that actually takes you anywhere useful.

Customer reviews for the app are, predictably, very bad. Complaints include that one cannot make calls over WiFi, that the app makes you sign in every time, that it makes you complete the agreement all the time, and the like.

I recently spend four hours out of my day trying to get a new modem to work. Comcast had recently sent the modem to me as part on an equipment upgrade program, promising higher speed Internet. On this day the customer support person constantly sent refresh signals to the modem expecting different results each time. Eventually she hung up on me, most likely by accident. After another hour the service was resumed, it was not a problem with the modem at all but an outage at Comcast. I suggested that the problem might be on their end, but the customer service rep would not hear of it and continued to send refresh signals to the device.

The new modem is working now, but not delivering the promised increase in speed. We will soon be leaving Comcast due to their poor customer service and outrageous prices. Another Comcast customer eager to cut the cord.

Few other app updates appeared this morning as we are nearing the release of iOS 9 in September (about four weeks away).

AppleiTunesstoreOne question I have, not answered by Apple’s email to developers, is what the new Magazines & Newspapers category will look like live. That is, is Apple going to make any changes to its iTunes store to make it easier to find new apps?

Here is a screenshot of the Newsstand for iPhone as seen on a desktop version of iTunes. The version as seen on an iPhone is the same, but it is a bit easier to see it on a desktop. The home page has one promotional area: Magazines. There is a “See All” button which, of course, does not show you “All” the apps, only the 47 now being promoted by Apple. The situation does not improve when you go to the categories where there is a “New” category which is not where new apps reside at all, but simply all the apps listed in alphabetical order. While this area does, in fact, contain all the apps, it is not sortable by release day. The mechanism says it is sortable by name and featured, but it is broken, and has been broken for two years now.

Think about it: Apple has an area of its iTunes store that has been broken for two years and done nothing about it. That is mind boggling.

Because Apple doesn’t seem to get databases, one has to be concerned about its new Apple News app. First, those who have been approved to be inside the content aggregation app have still not heard from the company as to when they will have access to the Apple News Format. Second, who is to say that the search mechanism will be any better than it was for the Newsstand?

Stock markets in China sank in the final hours of trading, but they did not collapse. I suppose that is pretty good news and may signal that markets in the US will be a tad bit less volatile.

Yesterday, the markets opened sharply higher, at one point up over 400 points. But all the gains and more were lost in the final hour of trading and the Dow fell over 200 points

Dow futures are currently showing the market will open up over 200 points. I really look forward to being able to say that the markets closed “unchanged”.

Update: the markets have opened and the Dow immediately gained over 300 points. We’ll see if it holds.

So why care about the stock markets, what does this have to do to with digital publishing?

A lot. Most media remains dependent on either customer spending or brand spending. Advertising, in other words. We are at the end of summer and approaching what used to be called the fall planning season, when advertisers set their marketing budgets for the new year and make ad buying decisions. Fall planning isn’t what it once was, with many companies making ad buying decision throughout the year, and many companies on fiscal calendars other than January to December. Nonetheless, volatility, combined with a drop on optimism in the economy will effect media buys considerably. In this regard, steady-as-she-goes is a good thing. Big fluctuations in the market are not.

This was on the mind of Ken Doctor who writes now for Politico Media. He is worried, as well, about how things are stacking up for media.

“While we can hope that stability returns soon, the week’s shock should send a little chill down the spines of many in the business,” Doctor wrote. “After all, this is a time of profound transition and transformation in all legacy media, and still a time of proving out the new digital-only news, information and entertainment business.”

“So, things will get tougher, that’s assured. The big question: who will feel the pain most? If and when the economic music slows, who may lose at an unplanned game of musical chairs? And who might use a slowing to better position themselves for the next recovery?”

SelfMag-300Another story that ran in Politico Media involves Condé Nast. Joe Pompeo wrote that the publisher has brought in a group of consultants – never a good sign – to speak to employees and assess editorial workflow, processes and productivity, according to the report.

Last year in October Condé Nast was hit with layoffs, this year the expectations are that there will be more cutbacks, and possibly a trimming of its portfolio of magazines, with Self, Details and Teen Vogue being looked at.

Other major publishers may also take the fall budgeting cycle as an opportunity to look at their line-up of magazines and see where they may cutback. At most of the big magazine publishing houses, it is only a few titles that actually drive most of their profits. Other books add revenue to the bottom line and help pay for G&A.

But shuttering titles has consequences that may discourage execs from pulling the trigger. There are the costs of layoffs, of course. But the real downside to trimming back titles involves the overall value of the company. This is especially important if the CEO of a publisher is looking long term at the prospect of a sale – of titles or the entire company – and any number of publishers could fall into that category.

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