Monday, March 28, 2011

"We had a reason..."

A few years ago, I was working on the roll out of a big project (think lots of zeros) for a company which will remain nameless for obvious reasons. Though impressive in many ways, the initial launch was set up in a way that seemed to preclude us from using most of the data that we had spent a tremendous amount of time and money acquiring.

One day, toward the end of the project, I was having a few beers with one of the chief architects and I asked him point blank why they chose to set things up this way. His answer was (and I'm giving you this verbatim) "I remember we had a reason but I don't remember what it was."

I've been flashing back on that conversation quite a bit recently as the details of the NYT paywall emerge. Of course, the resemblance could be the result of incomplete information. If I had access to all of the data and analyses, I might be loading up on their stock instead of mocking their corporate strategy (I would continue to mock Maureen Dowd regardless), but being limited to an outsider's view, I have to wonder what would happen if you downed a couple of beers with Sulzberger then asked him about this post from Philip Greenspun: the NY Times spent a reported $40-50 million writing the code (Bloomberg; other sources are consistent). Google was financed with $25 million. The New York Times already had a credit card processing system for selling home delivery. It already had a database management system for keeping track of Web site registrants. What did they spend the $40-50 million on? A monster database server to keep track of which readers downloaded how many articles? They should already have been tracking some of that for ad targeting. In any case, a rack of database servers shouldn’t cost $40 million.

What am I missing?

[I built a pay wall back in 1995 for the MIT Press, restricting access to some of their journals, e.g., Cell, to individual subscribers and people whose IP addresses indicated that they were at institutions with site-wide subscriptions. I can't remember exactly what I charged the Press, but it was only a few days of work and I think the invoice worked out to approximately $40 million less than $40 million.]

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