I’m not one to generally succumb to the hype machine, but 2010 seems to finally be the year that the tablet is realized. Despite whatever analogies the typically curmudgeonly Jack Shafer might make, even if the tablet only lives up to only a portion of its promise, it will be a game changing device.
The back and forth of the rumors and premature reactions have been flooding the tech blogs leading up to the new year, and whether or not Apple leads the charge – and by all accounts, it it appears they will – even the very prospect of the devices has spurred the publishing industry to finally begin thinking in new ways. To put it simply, the tablet is already precipitating a change for publishing that can pull the industry from its slow print death, and here are five reasons why it will actually work.
1. Publishers are involved in the platform
There seem to more tablets on the horizon than the market can even pretend to sustain. Apple, of course, has gotten the most attention, but we’ve also seen potential releases from Microsoft, Google, and HP, to name but a few of the larger players.
Most interesting, however, is the announcement of publishers actually producing their own devices. Time Inc showed off their impressive vision for a magazine platform in the Publishing 2.0 world, and Hearst is currently showcasing its Skiff at CES. These tablets will likely be backseat to anything Apple, Google, or Microsoft produces, but the significance is that publishers are attempting to control their own destiny in regard to the coming Great Tabulation.
The spectacular failure of the music industry to heed the digital coming, effectively respond and adjust, and then being forced to enter the game on iTunes’ terms is the ultimate lesson for media companies facing digital Darwinism. Publishing’s play into the tablet market is smart because it allows them to get in on the ground floor (after having pretty squarely squelched the initial opportunities of being on the forefront of their Web transition) and establish their own principles for what the space should look like for the descendents of print.
2. Publishers Are Finally Showing an Understanding of Digital Content
This point follows from the first. The past decade was absolutely embarrassing for print publishers as they transitioned to the Web. Even simply recognizing the value and implementing blogs was a struggle for print publications, so to expect them to propel their own industry within the possibilities of a new medium was even more fantastic.
As we leave the Naughts, however, publishers seem to finally be on the offensive. Recent projects like the New York Times’ Skimmer, and the NYT and Washington Post’s Google labs partnership with the Living Stories project are both simple examples of news outlets finally publishing with the capabilities and possibilities of Web in mind rather simply trying to transcribe their print copy to a digital format.
Looking at the demo of the Time Inc. tablet shows a clear effort to re-conceptualize what magazines can be, distilling the essentials of the print content while finally exploding its bound limitations. The new models seem to retain a sense of self-containment of content, but also an understanding of linking out to broader content and context.
Hopefully we’ll begin to see more of mega-publishers like Conde Nast begin to leverage the collective value of their assets for content (ie, an article in Wired feeding an article in the New Yorker, not in the sense of actual shared content, but rather overlapping perspectives from different publications around the same items). Such inter-linking facilitates valuable cross-contextualization, and should be easily incorporated into the digital/tablet framework.
3: The Mainstreaming of E-Readers
My mother has a Kindle. She is a 60-something retired school teacher, avid reader, lives in a fairly rural area, and is the furthest person from an early-adopter that can exist and still use a computer. I mention this only as anecdotal evidence to the heralded trend, however much weight you want to give it, that e-readers have finally caught on.
For all of the love that the general public seems to have for the Kindle, it’s fairly limited in what it can do. That is part of its point, of course, but it opens the space for a more versatile type of device. Especially now that the nut of dual e-ink/LCD display seems to finally be being cracked, a more vibrant and expansive e-Reading device is due, one that can accommodate the goals of digital magazines, and even textbooks.
4. The Tablet is an Undefined Medium
E-Readers have demonstrated an adequate demand, but the beauty of the tablet is that its uses are not yet defined. This is an often overlooked asset of a new technology, especially one that is almost guaranteed to be successful.
The rumors and expectations currently have the device, in general, operating as a bigger and better iPhone. The bigger screen and processing power, however, will likely make the device ideal for entertainment, operating not simply as an e-Reader, but also capable of streaming television, videos, music, etc, as well as offering some of the functionality of a typical laptop. If the tablet can actually establish itself as a primary portable universal entertainment device, it can finally bring publishing back into the fold with digital music and online video. The opportunity for publishers to define the space – and everyone seems willing to let publishers lay their claims to the tablet’s ideal functionality – is something they won’t likely have again anytime soon.
5. Subscription Based Packages and Better Advertising
All of the above points tie into why publishing will actually work well on the tablet, but none address the actual problem that is facing the industry – the plummeting revenue from advertising and subscriptions. For the tablet to truly serve as the savior of the publishing world, it needs to generate money for the publications.
While some new ideas for novel revenue streams will no doubt emerge with the tablet, there are several aspects of the projected device that make it already more viable for new takes on traditional models than other devices have been.
The first is simply that is can better accommodate advertising. With more screen-space than a smart phone, and its ability to accommodate a layout more conducive to magazine and newspaper content than our expectations of current websites, advertising will once again have a meaningful presence, providing the publishers are smart enough to incorporate it into their initial offerings.
With the advent of more location-based and personalized advertising technologies, the tablet could be the perfect model for harnessing preferenced ad capability with familiar print-based frameworks.
The other returned revenue possibility lies in subscriptions, which could be handled in any number of ways. From the single magazine/newspaper subscription for a nominal price, to individual “newsstand” issue payments, to a more likely package deal that resembles something of the current cable TV bundles, readers will actually pay to receive these publications digitally and have access to their archives.
The partnership between News Corp., Time Warner Inc.’s Time Inc., Condé Nast Publications Inc., Hearst Corp. and Meredith Corp. already suggests that publishers are thinking along these lines, and that the content subscriptions may not be limited to only magazines or newspapers.
Whatever becomes of the slew of promised tablets this year, and whether or not it will actually “save” the publishing industry, the opportunity is finally available for publishers to control their own digital future, define the space for Publishing 2.0, and reinvent their products and relationships with their consumers.