Apple Tablet

It seems everyone has an opinion on what Apple will unveil tomorrow. I know it’s a bit late to wade into the conversation but a few items have surfaced in the past couple of days that speak to what I’ve been speculating about. John Gruber at Daringfireball quotes a New York Times article that compares the impact the tablet will have on the publishing industry to what Steve Jobs did to the music industry. I agree with Gruber that Jobs is not the villainous puppeteer that the music industry makes him out to be. That the music industry1 failed to anticipate the death of their 20th century business model is not Jobs’ fault. He merely positioned Apple to be the solution when that model began crumbling under its own weight.

As speculation runs wild about Apple’s new device, most theories about its function point to the tablet targeting an audience similar to the audience for Amazon’s Kindle. I think that’s a pretty safe bet. What I think Apple may be doing, though, is subtly different than what the Kindle does. Right now you can use a Kindle to buy a book (I think the Apple tablet device will allow this too) and subscribe to a newspaper or magazine. I may be missing something, but on my Kindle I don’t see an easy way to pick up today’s New York Times or this month’s GQ. I think the Apple tablet may offer a way for us to consume published media a’ la carte. I don’t subscribe to a print edition of the NYT any more, but I occasionally pick up a copy from the newsstand. I can, of course read the NYT for free on my computer or my iPhone, but those interfaces have some limitations. I’m not going to open my laptop on BART to read the paper, and while it’s nice to get a 30,000 foot level view of the news on my iPhone, I don’t find that form factor ideal for really reading the paper. I haven’t gotten into the habit of reading the NYT on my Kindle because I don’t want to read it on that device all the time. While the convenience of having it always available might be nice, the Kindle UI is clunky and graphically low fidelity, even compared to my iPhone.

I think a subtle difference in Apple’s strategy will be to optimize around the sale of single copies of newspapers and magazines. Sure, you may pay a slight premium for those copies compared to a subscription model, but you (the consumer) will have ultimate flexibility about how much or how often you buy such content. I suspect you’ll also be able to buy subscriptions, but the single copy will be the featured unit. It may also be possible to further subdivide the publication into sections. Only interested in business news? Get the NYT business pages for half the single copy price.

Like the music industry, the newspaper and magazine publishing industries are tied to an antiquated business model. In the old model, the reader paid for the ink, paper, trucking, and front porch delivery. Advertisers paid for the content. The old model has economies of scale that don’t apply to the new paradigm. Smarter people than I have been grappling with this problem for years and no one has yet come up with a solution that preserves the old publishing establishment but still effectively serves the public benefit that is embedded in the ideals of a free press. Why? Because the publishing “industry” has economic incentives that are not aligned with the interests of consumers, and under the old model, the publisher has all the power. Technology has been chipping away at this paradigm, but no reasonable alternative to the paper, ink, trucking, front porch model has emerged.

Will an Apple tablet finally tilt the scale in favor of the consumer? Maybe so. Will it forever change the way news is reported and consumed? Possibly. Will it happen tomorrow? Definitely not. The music industry has managed to dangle in its noose for several years. It’s dying, but it continues to gasp for air. The iPod may be contributing to the demise of industry’s antiquated business model, but it hasn’t killed it yet. The news industry will hang on to its old model for a while, too. Apple will deliver a new consumer oriented device that will put pressure on the industry. Publishing industry executives will whine about it, and complain that Steve Jobs is trying to dictate the terms of their business. But they, like the music industry executives will be wrong. It’s the consumer who is dictating. The Apple device will just be a small part of empowering consumers. There are other factors (ubiquitous network access, miniaturized video capture and editing tools, better publishing tools, etc.) but until tomorrow, the promise of a ubiquitous platform for consumption of published media has been hampered by serious compromises in usability and desirability.

What makes Steve Jobs successful is that he seems to have a keen understanding of human nature. He sees patterns in human behavior and then he pushes Apple to design products that address those patterns. Human beings want to know what’s going on around them. I suspect that Steve Jobs knows that humans want news, and they want it fresh. They don’t expect to pay a huge ransom for this information, but they will gladly pay a small fee. A newspaper machine on the corner delivers relatively stale news for about a buck. Would readers pay a buck for the same content, slightly fresher, and delivered directly to a device sitting on their coffee table? I think so. Will they buy that content every day. Likely not. If they could subscribe for $10-15 bucks a month, would they? Maybe. If the content is rich (includes some video, audio) would the reader value it more than she values the paper and ink she buys at the corner? Yep.

Jobs also knows how to manage products for optimal desirability and usability. He doesn’t actually make these devices, of course, but his vision for how to create products that people want to own and want to use is keen. And he has surrounded himself with people who can deliver hardware and software to meet his expectations. No doubt he is also a powerfully skilled marketer. His product announcement presentations are pure art. Like a skilled and creative songwriter, he blends the notes into a song that has a tune that gets under your skin.

1 Referring to the “Music Industry” is evidence of how fully art, music, literature, etc. have been co-opted by commercial interests. For instance, selling single songs rather than albums (an oft quoted shortcoming of the online music purchasing model) may not suit the industry, but apparently it suits consumers. One might argue that some albums are conceptually whole, that to appreciate the artist’s message one must listen to the whole album in a single session. That may be, but I would argue that for most albums produced by popular musical acts today the concept album is a marketing designation. It honors the viability of commerce rather than the viability of art. In a non-commercial view of music, the song is transactional unit. I’ve never heard anyone self identify as an albumwriter — creative musical artists typically refer to themselves as songwriters. I met a few musicians during my stint at Daytrotter. One thing they shared was a love for the song, and a willingness to share their art without first insisting on compensation. They might want you to purchase and listen to their whole album, but they know that the responsibility for creating a compelling experience that draws you in as a listener is on their shoulders. Relying on a mechanism that forces you to buy a whole album rather than just the single song you want is coercion. It’s business, not art. Art is when you hear the songs and just have to have the whole album.

Posted 26 January 2010 by Mark ·

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