For a large part, the Apple tablet was seen as a potential solution for the media industry problem: a digital infrastructure for delivery and transactions encompassing a vast array of media products -- instantiated in a device destined to become a de facto standard.
Many blame the media industry for not being able to come up with such an ecosystem. This is an unfair criticism. Building a universal payment system for the web, even at the limited scale of a single country is already complicated. Let alone an interconnected system allowing users to jump from one country to another. Even the music industry — can't we think of more global product? – couldn’t do it. As for agreeing on a set of specifications for a device, it would have been impossible. Too many views, ideas, concepts, priorities to unify. To say nothing of egos.
Hence the reliance on Steve Jobs' vision. As the media industry kept unraveling, such reliance mutated into a desperate hope. Can he save us? Can he do for the media business what he did to the music industry with the iPod + iTunes magic combination?
In this respect, the January 27th release of the iPad fell below expectations. The device is great, it has all the attributes of an Apple product: a sleek design and a gorgeous interface. But Steve Job's presentation was short on contents. We had a glimpse of the New York Times reader apparently crash-coded in three weeks, but no magazine, nor mind-blowing hybrid content (I'll come to that notion later). Given the hype, maybe Apple could have waited until May or September to roll-out its magic slate fully loaded with ready-to-purchase news contents. Evidently, Apple is hampered by its obsession with secrecy and its habit of making deals on its own terms – a "here-is- our-device-now-here-is-the-deal " posture.
Granted, the product won't ship for two or three months, depending on the version (wifi or 3G). Then, let's give Apple and its partners the benefit of the doubt and let's move the clock forward to spring 2011 to see what a true news media game changer could look like.
Here is the general backdrop. In 2011, the typical news site largely remains freely accessible. For the most part, publishers see their sites as mass audience products. These are built on a basic design, relatively light features and supported by all possible forms of advertising. These free sites are targeted at occasional readers who come from search engines or various referrals, and see one, two or four pages once in a while. It's delusional to expect them pay for anything. If they hit a paywall, they'll simply go elsewhere to find the news they want. For them, information is just a commodity that can be found more or less in the same form all over the web. They have no brand loyalty.
Most publishers don't want to conceal their product behind a paywall. As the Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger explains in his brilliant Hugh Cudipp lecture (an absolute must-read):
"If you erect a universal pay wall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world".
But as pragmatism finds its way to the P&L, paywalls have started to show up on the web. They are targeted to the 10 or 20% fraction of heaviest users, those who are willing to pay for slightly more content, perhaps, and, definitely, for a better user experience.
A great mobile one, for instance.
Enter the iPad application. In this spring 2011, all major news brands have one. I've got many on my brand new device. Here are some of the common features I enjoy.
1 / Triple play access to my favorite news brands. I can access them on a dedicated version of their web site when I'm at the office, on my iPhone in the subway and on my iPad when on the couch at home, or waiting at the airport, or in a bar. One transaction (subscription, metered account), three ways to access my news.
2 / The iNews Store. Let's see: in 2010, I was paying online for:
- The Wall Street Journal
- The Economist
- Le Monde
- Les Echos (#1 French business paper)
- The MIT Technology Review
I happened to buy a pass for a specialized publication for a specific project I'm working on: mostly business, scientific, or higher education stuff.
In the physical world, I regularly pick-up Vanity Fair, Wired, Digital Photo Pro, Fortune Architectural Digest and Wallpaper. I occasionally get (yes) the Economist, Business Week, The Atlantic, The New Republic, etc. Question you might ask: why the hell paying for stuff that is freely available on the internet? a) because I can afford it, b) because of the incomparable user experience of a magazine: glossy pictures, layout, reading and browsing comfort, even the ad pages are attractive. Which leads us to….
3 / ...My iPad Applications. As I pay now for most of those publications, I get roughly the same content as everyone else, but in a much better package. First of all, my iPad updates itself automagically. It detects when a known wifi is available (I don't use 3G, even in France, it sucks) and it gets the contents in a timely manner. I get Wired before it hits the stands in NYC, the New Yorker every Monday and my newspapers contents gets regular updates. If the connection is good, I keep the magic of the web within my app: I'm able to post a comment for instance or to get a live streaming of an event.
Needless to say, I'm spending more since I decided to get the apps for most of the contents I was used to view for free: I've got the one for Le Figaro, The Guardian, and a couple of others - mostly because the reading experience is hundred times better.
It's worth it: unlimited access, a fantastic and intuitive search engine, a recommendation system that learns the way I read thanks to its statistical algorithm, intelligent folders, all sorts of alerts, endless catalogs of topics, rich multimedia contents, a readers community, etc.
I no longer carry the glossies I used to pick up at the newsstand. Vanity Fair and the likes are loaded in my iPad. I subscribe to most them — or I get some by the copy, depending on the offers and the contents. I even enjoy particularly creative but not invasive ads: in VF, I just clicked on a Paul Smith teaser which took me to their shoes and accessories catalog. Serious spending in sight, I'm afraid.
4/ A new breed of contents. In 2011, new book formats began to show up. The hybrid type. A year earlier when the device was introduced, I was reading Too Big to Fail a remarkable account of Wall Street's rescue. Great book by New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin: 600 pages, 700 grams. With the public debt global crisis hit back the world economy, Penguin Books decided to publish a sequel — with an iPad version. Instead of yesterday’s “official” players' black and white photographs extracted from the first paper version, now the iPad-format book comes with 16 video clips of decisive moments -- provided by Bloomberg and Reuters. In addition, I'm getting 12 interactive graphics from the New York Times. It didn't cross my mind to orders the books from Amazon as I did 18 months earlier. I've got my enhanced electronic version for the same price as the physical book (for the publisher, the extra cost of multimedia content was offset by savings on print and distribution).
A new kind of publications called "Books+" turned out to be a great success in the iBooks Store: compact books, 80-150 pages of text, greatly enhanced by rich multimedia contents. These new Books+ percolate into every segments of the publishing industry: current affairs books are released much faster than before (therefore increasing their value for the reader); all sorts of guides, how-to's, do-it-yourself manuals have switched to hybrid publications, all updated as needed.
New device. New transaction system. New business models. New editorial products integrating multimedia contents. The iPad is loaded with all these hopes. But we are not there yet. It is an expensive product, impossible to subsidize by an ailing news industry, the iPad won't be the swift economic miracle many are hoping for. At most, by squeezing cash from a marginal portion of heavy users, it will limit the inexorable deflation that plagues the information business. Even such a limiting achievement will require a great deal of imagination and boldness on the part of editors and publishers. Given the state of the media sector, it better happen fast.