iPad – the newspaper industry’s false messiah

May 26, 2010

Personally, I blame the iPad. Its imminent launch here seems to have stimulated a bout of weltschmerz among newspaper proprietors, who are now outdoing each other in the gloominess of their predictions about the end of the Gutenberg era (c1453-2015, RIP).

Latest to join the swelling chorus is Pearson, owner of the Financial Times. Pearson’s director of global content standards Madi Solomon has come up with the rather snappy phrase “the sunset of print”, which FT executives expect to happen in about 5 years’ time. If anything, the 5-year estimate is a tad on the optimistic side. It could have been sooner but the financial crisis, and people’s avid interest in it, has artificially prolonged the time horizon.

Rusbridger: Prophet of gloom

Put it this way, the FT won’t be investing in any more printing presses. And nor will the Guardian or Times Newspapers (as it is still quaintly called). Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has long claimed he felt “in his bones” that new printing presses installed at the time of the Berliner relaunch (2005) would be the last. But he originally scoped in 20 more years of production. Now he reckons that was vastly optimistic. John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, also predicts that his presses, installed in 2008, will be the newspaper’s last. For a fuller litany of pessimism, consult this page in PaidContent.

I hesitate to voice dissent, particularly when the consensus is so eminent, but isn’t all this pessimism a little overdone? An old adage about “cart” and “horse” comes to mind. The cart I have in mind is the so-called electronic reader, of which Kindle, the Sony Reader and iPad are the most successful examples to date.

First though, let’s go back to a fundamental issue: why do people read newspapers, as opposed to glean their information from the internet? Granted age and social conditioning may have something to do with it. But is not also true that newspapers, and for that matter most magazines, are a more enjoyable, tactile medium? The internet is excellent for any kind of search-based activity, but it can scarcely be described as a “great read”. Ah, you say, but that’s where this new, reader-friendly technology provided by iPad and its like comes in. It will make electronic browsing fun – once little glitches like flicker, eye-strain and inadequate battery life have been ironed out (as they inevitably will be in a few years’ time). No one, it seems, is subscribing more enthusiastically to this techno-salvation than newspaper proprietors themselves. In it they discern a form of commercial lifeline – a means of making internet joyriders pay for the colossal, but legitimately-engendered, costs of newsgathering – via licensed apps. A means, in short, of ditching the enormous financial burden of print and building a new and more viable commercial model.

I’d like to believe them right, but can’t bring myself to do so. There have been many annunciations over the past few years of the Coming One – the technical application that will enable us to transfer our loyalties effortlessly from paper to the electronic screen. Of those so far, the iPad holds the most promise. But, though ingenious and popular, it is likely to prove a false messiah – so far as the newspaper industry is concerned. For a start, the revenue stream from licensed products cannot possibly compete with those extracted from traditional newspapers (especially after Apple has taken its 30% cut), even if we allow for a reduced industry overhead. More importantly, what is the iPad for? Newspaper proprietors may read into it a form of salvation, but that matters little if punters don’t see it the same way. And the early indications from America are that they don’t.

Put another way, reading a newspaper via iPad is near the bottom of their user priorities. Printers, don’t despair: the press will be stuck with chopped-down trees for a good few years yet. Certainly more than five.

POSTSCRIPT. Such has been the momentum of Apple, which has just overtaken Microsoft as the world’s biggest technology company by market capitalisation, and such the success of its latest ‘tablet’ product, the iPad, that some experts are now writing the obituary of Google.

One such is Richard Holway who, in a recent presentation, claimed that a combination of Apple-sponsored apps and Facebook will “block out” Google’s sponsored search model by allowing consumers to go directly to brands and media owners.

Not so fast, says one reader of the article in which this vaulting claim appears. Sam Rothstein points out that a) nearly every phone will soon be a type of smartphone – most probably powered by a Google product, Android; b) Apple’s domination of its latest niche, the tablet, will face a similar challenge. A number of netbooks/tablets running Android are launching imminently.


Holy Moses and the patience of Jobs

February 2, 2010

Last week, I imagine Apple supremo Steve Jobs must have felt a bit like Moses when he descended Mount Sinai armed with a top-secret new rule book for life in the Promised Land only to discover that the idolotrous Israelites were going to have none of it.

Jobs’ own version of the Mosaic Tablets, iPad, seems to have been greeted with irreverent scepticism. When so much hype, based on so little verifiable fact, has preceded a launch – even an Apple launch – disappointment is the inevitable result. Nerds carped about the lack of a camera and a less-than-revolutionary departure from the technology of the iPhone. Analysts, noting the high price points and the low number of announced deals with content owners, quickly marked down the Apple share price.

What a difference the perspective of a few days can make, however. With the iPad not yet rolled out, Apple has already won a famous victory against the world’s greatest e-tailer Amazon in the field of virtual books.

Briefly, Amazon has been attempting to establish primacy for its own Kindle product in the growing land-grab for ebook readers by heavily discounting book downloads, much to the consternation of publishers and authors alike. Once there was some credible competition in the field, things changed almost overnight. Macmillan, publisher of among other things Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Wolf Hall, has said it will have no truck with Amazon’s bargain $9.99 and has gone for Apple’s recommended $12.99 upwards per download instead. Presumably other book publishers also signed up with Apple – Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette – have been adopting the same kind of brinksmanship. Whatever, it’s been enough pressure to make the mighty Amazon climb down with humiliating alacrity.

Here we come to the nub of the matter with Apple’s product launch. In itself, the iPad is not all that remarkable. For sure, it’s likely to do its job well, looks beautiful and is easy to use; but technically superior e-readers-cum-netbook-computers are no doubt in the offing. And yet, in this respect iPad is no different to other recent turn-key Apple launches. Neither the iPhone nor the iPod which preceded it were technically cutting edge. What made them truly disruptive products is their relationship with iTunes, the software platform that, in various ways, underpins them. Pulling the focus back a little, one way of looking at Apple over the past decade is as a brand that has metamorphosed from computer-maker into provider of mobile entertainment – the bridge being a software platform.

iBooks, the e-book reading software that dovetails into that platform, is streets ahead of Kindle and Sony’s Reader technology (or so the experts say). Thus the debate about the iPad being no more than a glorified iPod Touch is ultimately sterile since what really matters is whether Apple, through this device or its successors, will come to dominate the burgeoning market in electronic books and newspapers.

And we’re not going to know that until consumers have had a chance to sample it. For some time to come we’re also going to be in the dark about just how much of an appetite exists for the e-reading phenomenon. There are many more boulders strewing the way to market success than inadequate e-reader battery power and unsatisfactory legibility. Here’s Richard Wray of The Guardian on why iPad won’t be iPod II:

“The book industry has a couple of advantages over businesses in other areas which have seen the internet wipe out their profits. The companies trying to sell ebook hardware need the involvement of publishers. When Apple launched the iPod, buyers could take their existing CD library and digitise it. Downloading music from the web came later – the iTunes store was launched two years after the first iPod appeared.

But readers cannot easily digitise their books for a Kindle or iPad. To sell their devices, the likes of Apple and Amazon need publishing firms to agree to make digital versions of bestselling titles available on the same day as the printed work is published. The technology firms recognise that demand for ebook readers will be limited if readers have to wait months to get the latest books.”

This is going to be a longer haul for Steve Jobs. I hope he’s got the patience for it.


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