The iPad as Publishing Messiah: Rightsizing the Hype


If the media business' economics aren't utterly transformed within hours of the iPad's release on Saturday, it won't be for want of sufficient hype. If the iPhone was the Jesus Phone, as tech snobs call it in semi-ironic admiration, then publishers are hoping the e-reader from Apple (AAPL) will prove to be the Second Coming. Every major company is racing to develop applications hoping the iPad will motivate readers to start paying for digital content and entice advertisers to pay premium rates.

But that doesn't mean everyone's sold on the iPad's promise. There are those who think it will prove to be yet another disappointment like the CD-ROM or any number of other technologies that were supposed to revolutionize print publishing and journalism.

Which outlook will be borne out? I'm on record as predicting the iPad and other e-readers will benefit old-school publishers less than they would like, even as they create vast new opportunities for nontraditional media creators. But you hear from me all the time. For a more diverse, balanced assessment of the iPad's true potential, I polled some folks who devote their considerable gray matter primarily to the intersection of media and technology. Here's what they had to say.

Michael Rogers, a.k.a. The Practical Futurist:

The iPad is neither a silver bullet nor the CD-ROM: It is an interesting content opportunity, but with a high bar for real financial success. There are many cautions ahead. Print publishers are always happy when they see a format that looks like it will let them continue doing what they used to do (see: PDF replica editions). So they'll have to resist pasting pages with a few links into their iPad apps, thereby creating a product that combines the worst of print and the Web.

They must also avoid getting fenced onto Mr. Jobs' plantation: the myriad Android and Win 7 tablets on the horizon should also be target platforms. But now we're talking about cross-platform apps that begin to sound an awful lot like, uh, websites -- with paywalls renamed "subscriptions." If tablets are to be a savior, publishers need to invest in a truly new vision of the magazine that will attract both advertising and circulation dollars. It's not clear to me that at this late stage of the game, the pockets remain deep enough to pull it off. But: here's hoping!

Jim Gaines, founder, StoryRiver Media:

I don't think the iPad is the transformative device, but I do think broadband is transformative technology. Will it save print publishers' business models? No, any more than the car saved horse-drawn carriages. Publishers will have to figure out how to start over, to reimagine their brands for a new medium and give up on the notion of simply repurposing their products for a new channel of distribution. This will be too hard for most of them to do, and the iPad won't save them.

But there will be new products, created for descendants of the iPad and all the other upcoming tablets, which in a few years will be lighter, more flexible and more ubiquitous as broadband proliferates and speed increases, and the products created for that world will prevail. I think it's too early to know exactly what those products will be. We're still in the early stage of this revolution -- a point at which, as Sam Goldwyn once said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything.

Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics:

Let's not confuse Apple's hardware and software with our own. Our own are afflicted with RSI (repetitively stupefying immobility) built up over 15 years of saluting our desktops and laptops. The iPad will be a game changer because it fits us better as humans (we like to lean and move) and presents fresh, welcoming ways to read and to sell stuff. For news publishers, it offers big opportunity -- but only if they scale product and ad solutions that fit the features of the iPad, not if they just try to repurpose the Web, which itself was repurposed from print.

Lewis Dvorkin, founder and CEO,

The iPad IS another CD-ROM. It's desperate hope. I have lots to say about this. The experience will require expensive production talent that users will never pay for. It will require a new kind of hyphenate talent -- content creator, programmer and producer all in one -- to be cost-efficient.

Jeff Jarvis,

Although I await being wowed by Apple -- I am a fanboy -- I fear that editors and publishers are lusting after the iPad as the magical device they think will return control to them: control of the experience, the brand, the business model. Advertisers are following the same old dream. Sorry, people, but the link has broken that control. The brand is no longer the magnet to which we go for all content. The iPad will be fun but not a savior.

John Yemma, editor, The Christian Science Monitor (the first major newspaper to go all-digital)

To me, everything depends on the adoption rate by consumers. I'm sure Apple will produce a beautiful product. Will people want it as they have wanted the iPhone? The iPhone was simply a classy replacement for the standard cellphone/BlackBerry/whatever that people were carrying. The iPad is a new product altogether -- not cellphone, not laptop, and maybe more than an e-reader needs to be. I'm imagining the adoption rate will be much slower than with the iPhone and that it will be fighting for the high end of the e-reader market .

It feels like a transition technology for laptops (though hampered by a virtual keyboard and a lack of multi-tasking ) than the new, new thing that everybody will want. I've seen the Wired and Zinio demos of cool interactive magazine applications for the iPad. Everything they demonstrate is fablulous if you are thinking in the print paradigm -- a still image that morphs into a video, for instance. But you can see that sort of treatment anywhere on the full-service, wireless Internet. Why download a file to read/watch like that?

Meanwhile, the Kindle and Nook's stripped-down, just-the-text-ma'am interface works fairly well for book reading, which is just about type and words.

That leaves magazines. For many people, the user experience there is often happily offline and in the tub or at the beach and therefore disposable. No problem if you've paged through a New Yorker and left it behind on the plane. Weekly and monthly magazines are not the same sort of physical imposition as a bulky, oversized newspaper. They have already been optimized to be friendly and handsome. Is there sufficient incentive for magazine readers to leap to the iPad? Despite my admiration for Apple's products, I have my doubts.