Last year about this time, I was talking with an executive from Apple Inc. about e-readers and print at a conference we were both attending, much of it in the context of the mainstream media’s original sin of giving away content if people happened to be reading it in digital form.
As we chatted casually over drinks—he wasn’t on the record and wouldn’t be even if it would end world hunger, because he works at Apple—I told him that a workable tablet that featured content that could be priced and sold as an app would fix some of what ailed print.
“What the world is waiting for,” I keened, “is a lightweight device that has a backlit, four-colour screen big enough to comfortably read on with touch navigation and a wireless connection.”
“What you are talking about is a computer, not an e-reader,” the executive said soberly. ”And it would be more expensive, probably closer to $1,000 (Rs46,500) than $200.”
“Good,” I said. “Where can I get one?”
Later this month, we all might get a glimpse of that future. According to the Financial Times, Apple has rented a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and is expected to make a major product announcement on 26 January, where many have speculated that some version of the Apple tablet will be unveiled. The website Gizmodo guessed that the device was likely to be called the iSlate, will cost around $800, and won’t hit store shelves until March or possibly April.
And it’s not just Apple: A leak of a colour tablet device called Courier from Microsoft Corp. made a big splash on the site as well, and a company called HTC Corp. reportedly has one in the works that uses the Google Chrome operating system. And there are others.
So, is the Apple tablet a figment of so much Web-borne pixie dust or is it the second coming of the iPhone, a so-called Jesus tablet that can do anything, including saving some embattled print providers from doom? I’m an optimist, so I will pick door No. 2.
There hasn’t been this much hype about a tablet since Moses came down from the mountain, but in order for a product to have significant value, it has to solve a problem or be very useful, or both. Conventional wisdom suggests that computers do a fine job of allowing people to read digitized content, but the act of clicking a mouse actually has little in common with flipping a page: users are scrolling vertically down into text when what they really want is to scan across as they have for hundreds of years. One reason that the Kindle has done well in spite of its limitations is that computers are made for drilling into data, not reading.
The tablet represents an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and the consumer. Think of sitting in your living room, in your bed or on a plane with a publication you really adore nestled into your lap. Since print was first conceived, people have had an intimate relationship with the text, touching, flipping and paging back and forth.
The tablet, properly executed, will be an iPhone on steroids, and anybody who has spent any time with that device knows that much of its magic lies in replicating that intimate offline navigation. It is a very human, almost innate, urge—readers want to touch what they are seeking to learn.
There are many practical problems to be solved, including making the device lightweight enough to hold while still packing enough battery to feed a power-sucking screen. And the cost is a significant issue. Although a well-executed tablet will play videos and do other magic an e-reader can’t, will it be worth three times as much? It will to me, and perhaps a mass-niche of readers. Estimates of first-year sales of such a device have ranged from one million to 10 million, but Apple doesn’t play small ball.
Jack Shafer, writing in Slate on 22 December, says that even if technical questions are solved, the tablet will not help print. He reminds readers that a lot of hype surrounded the introduction of the CD-ROM back in the 1990s, and that fizzled out quickly. “Can the tablet version of SI (Sports Illustrated) really compete with the dozen channels of ESPN, Versus and regional sports on my cable channel?” he wrote.
Yes. Magazines and newspapers have competed with television for years and done just fine because they offer qualitatively different media experiences. Readers are not passive viewers; they navigate their way through content at their own pace and whim. And CD-ROMs were a clunky adaptation to an existing device, not a next-gen device built to make reading a deeper pleasure.
But even if I am right, what good does that do print providers? Well, it helps magazines and newspapers enter a world where they can measure consumer engagement with ads, which is pretty much the only game in town going forward. But even so, why would people suddenly be compelled to pay for something that they’ve gotten for free?
That’s where Apple comes in. A simple, reliable interface to gain access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there.
I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was eight years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book. Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year/new decade thing, a boy can dream, right?
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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