Thursday, January 28, 2010

For the time being, it is Apple that needs media more than the media industry needs Apple, but that will change

Almost 24 hours after the launch of Steve Jobs' next big thing, and the dust is starting to settle. Those in the tech area were either skeptical or down right negative, while those in the media industry, having underestimated the importance of Apple's last big thing (iPhone) were willing to wait and see.

But noticeably absent from the product introduction was much in the way of new content. Jobs gave us a quick look at the current web version of the NYT, a demo of the revamped Times app, and a snapshot of a copy of the Kennedy bio which looked pretty much as it would on any other reader with the exception of some nice pictures.

Move along folks, no media revolution here.
Was this Apple's fault? or the media's? Most likely this was simply the way things were going to break: giving the Times a few weeks to play with the new SDK, all they could come up with was some revised specs to make the graphics look better on the bigger display, and a few tweaks to the basic design. Maybe Apple blew it by making the Times the centerpiece of the introduction, after all, its a paper that is 90% black and white text. In order to show what the iPad can really produce, the Times designers would have had to reinvent their look.

Instead, Martin Nisenholtz said the Times app "captured the essence of reading a newspaper." NO! NOT THAT! This is the exact opposite of what should be on the tablet. Is the Times vision of tablet publishing simply reproduce print? I hope not because that won't be good for either Apple or their media content partners.

Stating that their app captured the essence of reading a newspaper is like FOX introducing a new television show bragging that the new show captured the essence of old time radio. Who wants that?  If people want to read a physical newspaper they still can, why do they need an iPad?

They need an iPad to view the new media products that will incorporate multimedia, new design theories, etc.

So, yes, in retrospect, I was underwhelmed by the iPad introduction.

When Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld in 2007 he proudly proclaimed "today, Apple reinvents the phone!".

The Jobs asked a very important question: "what is the killer app (on a cell phone)? The killer app is making calls!"  This in a nutshell is the secret to the iPhone's early success and to the weakness inherent in the iPad.

Every two years millions of consumers are at the end of their cell phone contracts. They then decide to either stay with their carrier and get a new subsidized phone, or they move to another carrier -- and get a new phone. iPhone entered a market where consumers already knew the product and thought it was essential to their lifestyle. So Apple reinvented (to use their words) the cell phone by introducing new things to the medium: syncing with iTunes in order to bring in contacts, e-mail and media, a revolutionary interface that included multi-touch, applications that gave you Google Maps and other features, etc.

So what is the killer app on the iPad? Apple implies that it is media. But what did Apple bring to media that wasn't already there with the iPhone? Nothing that I could see.

Instead, and here is the danger for the company, Apple is looking to the media world to provide revolutionary content. Let me rephrase that so that the danger is clear: Apple, a very creative and brilliant company, wants Dean Singleton, Rupert Murdoch and fellow media execs to provide the content that will make Apple's iPad a winner. I think you can see the danger here.

Is this possible? Thank God the answer is yes.

When the iPhone was first introduced sales were good. Since Apple started at zero, their sales announcements sounded impressive. But sales really jumped with the introduction of iPhone 3G. Along with the new model came OS 2.0 which allowed developers to create apps for the device. But the genius here was in the marketing of iPhone. With the introduction of apps, companies other than Apple had a vested interest in promoting the phone. "We have a new app for the iPhone!" companies screamed -- and by promoting their app they were indirectly promoting the iPhone.

Eventually, the killer app on the iPhone stopped being cell phone calls and became whatever the user thought most important: Pandora, Google Maps, Fandango, AIM, the New York Times, etc.

Fast forward to March of this year when the iPad hits the shelves. There is sure to be a surge of sales initially as those that must have the latest gadget line up to be first. But the iPad has no natural sales booster the way the iPhone did; no one needs a new reader every two years the way they need a new cell phone. I don't own a reader now, and am really not interested in either a Kindle or the Sony Reader. Books look just fine to me, in comparison to a reader, and I really don't see that a reader is more portable than a book. Do you? 

Will this change when publishers begin to port their content to the iPad? (Author scratches his head searching for an answer.)

If the Times app is the norm then the iPad is doomed. Sure the app is nice, probably better than the iPhone version, but is it better than the print version? Right now the answer is no.

But what might a Wired app look like? Or what if Sports Illustrated makes their tablet demo video come to life? What if Bonnier, who seems to get the potential of tablet publishing better than anyone launches iPad versions of many of their magazines? Then the revolution is on.

So, in the end, I am somewhat optimistic about the future of the iPad and of tablet publishing. I think, however, that Apple actually set things back with their introduction. It did not seem as if they were really ready to launch the iPad. Maybe they should have waited until Wired was ready with a custom iPad edition to demonstrate, or a textbook publisher who had embedded their history book with audio and video. Then Apple could have proclaimed "today, Apple has reinvented media!"