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October 25, 2014

Nine Questions: On Tablet Dreams, Schemes and Screens of Hope

Not since a guy named Moses received a tablet have we seen such enthusiasm for the form.

The tablet dream — with its inevitable Apple intrigue and drumbeat of Amazon/Apple war — has rekindled interest in digital publishing, providing hope for magazine and news industries pummeled mercilessly over the last decade. MOSES AND THE TABLET Already Forrester's Sarah Epps is estimating 10 million tablets to be sold within a year, which may be an ambitious number given inevitable customer BluRay/HD-DVD, VHS/Betamax confusion.

Next Issue Media, the new magazine consortium of Hearst, Meredith, Time Inc., News Corp and Conde Nast, could be a serious player to come. It could become a leader in the business and product development for tablets, or it could be just another industry gabfest, advocating for open standards and common ad formats.  Lots of questions here as we approach the year and decade, as news and features suss out whether out the tablet really enables a a fresh start (Content Bridges "Digital Do-Over Time," Dec. 8, 2009) . Here are my first Nine Questions. What's yours?

1. How does the tablet blur our notion of what's a book, what's a magazine and what's a newspaper? The web atomized everything, and the tablet is one form of reordering. Each device though — a Sony Reader, a Kindle, a Nook, a JooJoo, an Adam, an Ultra, whatever — will have a singular interface, regardless of the source of the content. That eliminates the historic difference in page size among newspapers, magazines and books, which is in fact one of the key ways we've long differentiated them. Another differentiator –  paper stock — of course, becomes a dead (tree) issue.  

2. If Apple is willing to pay video/TV production companies like Disney and CBS per channel/program to break into the TV business, is it willing to pay news content providers of any size or scale in a similar way? TV is starting to experience the same break-down that newspapers have endured, being consumed piecemeal (segment by segment, program by program) just as whole newspaper products have been sliced and diced by the web search engines and aggregators. Now, sensing an opportunity to take chunks of Comcast's and other cable providers' business, Apple is moving on to the next generation of Apple TV. And it paying providers for programming.

Is news content, in text or video or tabletized form, of sufficient value to Apple that it might pay for it, on a per subscriber per month basis, opening up a potential new revenue stream for content creators?

3) Of course, each of the early tablet notions — Sports Illustrated, Conde Nast's Wired, Hearst's Skiff – apparently focuses only on a single title, but what about the ability of the tablet to become a new aggregated wonder? While the tablet offers lots of new audience-pleasing abilities, we needn't think of them only in that old Twentieth Century way of cozying up in an armchair, timelessly enjoyed the just-delivered issue of our favorite periodical. In fact, everything that the tablet can do for a single title, it can do for an aggregated product — allowing advertisers and readers to tap into multi-title wonders. Are publishers planning for this multi-title tablet world, or just focusing anachronistically on title-by-title publishing? If they're not planning a twin (single title + aggregator) strategy, just think of the list of companies who may be: Google, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, for starters.

4) Doesn't the tablet given whole new meaning to the Illustrated in SI? An old term, digitally remastered.

5) How much of a disadvantage are newspaper publishers at as the visual-forward tablet goes mainstream? It's no accident that it's the magazine arms — Advance's Conde Nast, Hearst's magazine division — of the print companies that have dived into the tablet pond. It's cultural for magazine editors (and ad sellers) to think visually, and they've seen what the tablet dream might mean for what they do well and best. Newspaper people — from editors and reporters to ad salespeople selling price-and-item space — think text. Certainly, they have long used photos, but not as well as magazine people. Here's a skills gap that newspaper publishers would have to solve quickly to take full advantage of what the tablet does best.

6) What about archives? In the demos, we can see what the tablet does visually and in terms of relationship, neatly allowing us to use touch and cover flow to connect up current parts of the publication. How about moving in time — a forte of newspaper and magazine companies — as archival content is related to current news and features?

7) How ready is publisher technology to take advantage of the tablet? Next Issue's John Squires has noted that one of the four principles of the magazine consortium is "open standards." There is a lot in those two words. There's the question of how well, how easily and how dynamically publishers can pull diverse content types (text, photo, graphics, video, audio) from their content management systems and relate them appropriately. Then there's the question of how much formatting will have to be done for each of the separate devices. Will they grab content in the same way; render it in the same way? Look at how slow many publishers have been in going mobile, in part because of formatting issues.

8)  Isn't the coming battle for sports on the tablet a battle of multi-platform titans, more than individual companies? Yes, Sports Illustrated may find a nice niche with the tablet, but I look to ESPN, MLB and rising cable regional sports providers — Comcast and Fox — going digital to make big moves with the device.

9) Is the Apple iSlate or iReader a name for things to come? It's funny how we've struggled to name digital things. It took the iPhone to create a new class of little computers, though the name is oxymoronic to what it does best, computer stuff, and what it does worst, phoning. Tablets have started as "e-readers," book readers really. Amazon hoped for iPhone status with its megapromotion of the Kindle, christened by Michael Cronan. Will this coming decade be the time of the personalized digital, i-Readers following iMacs and iPhones, or will we be introduced to a new vision?

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