TalkingNewMedia is a not a tech site so I won't waste much home page space on this, but I think the tablet wars may be the most important development in publishing this year, so here is an update.
Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, gave the keynote address last night at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Engadget, a great place to get updates on the show, blogged the event live last night. When it was over, surprised at the lack of big news, they wrote: "8:11PM "Thank you very much." And Robbie is gone. And... that's it? Wow. Incredibly boring. Incredibly incredibly boring. Really." Brutal.
Going into last night, the rumor was that Ballmer would introduce a new "slate" computer from HP. Hopes were high, and not just because there are those who truly hate Apple and want to see Microsoft lead in this area. A demonstration video of a product, supposedly called Courier, was posted on the Gizmodo site, and videos drawn from that original one have proliferated on YouTube. The reaction was a definite "wow".
But last night Ballmer ran through a laundry list of Microsoft initiatives, XBox, Windows 7, and the rest, before finally, and very briefly, mentioning a "slate" from HP. Ballmer proceeded to play a game on the device and moved on. This was not what publishers were waiting for.
No doubt the new HP product will be nice. According to Ballmer, the new slate will use Kindle's application for reading. Not a giant leap forward, but useful, nonetheless.
Maybe expectations were too high. But publishers, busy with the day-to-day work of producing a publication, may not know that there are a huge number of consumers out there who are waiting for the revolution. To them, we are "this" close to ending print forever. They want to download and transport their media wherever they want. They are used to reading on screens, even small screens, and knowingly shake their heads when told that "print is still the best reading experience available" (I still feel that way myself, but I understand the views of those that disagree).
The short video released by HP may be slick, but it is painfully short of awe inspiring.
Compare it to this concept video of what the Courier device would look like and you can see why so many people were disappointed in Microsoft CEO's keynote last night:
Courier, as you can see, is not a "tablet" -- but more like a double-screened booklet. Nonetheless, it has captured the imagination of those who are rooting for a tablet reader on the Windows platform.
Few can match Steve Jobs for giving keynotes. Even his critics marvel at the Apple PR machine. And poor Mr. Ballmer, try as best he might at appearing like Everyman, is still the CEO of the most powerful technology company on the fact of the Earth. What publishers want is not cool, they want answers.
Eventually HP, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and other companies may provide the kinds of products that will move publishing in a new direction. For now, we await Apple's presentation, set for January 27th.
Update: If you've made it this far, maybe you'll allow me one final thought. There is too much emphasis being place on "the device". It is as though the device itself -- the tablet, the reader -- is what will create the new market for publishing. It won't.
A better, thinner, computer would be nice: the Skiff Reader, after all, is plenty damn cool. But the answer to tablet publishing lies in software, not hardware.
The iPhone's innovation may appear to be its all-screen look. But multi-touch, using OS X, and other software innovations are what has made possible the iPhone. Sure, there were technology advances -- I'm not saying advancing hardware innovations are to be ignored -- but software will be the key. When Steve Jobs introduced the phone back in 2007, he had a Powerpoint (actually Keynote) slide that tried to show that other smartphones, while fairly smart, were hard to use. He claimed, with some basis, that the new iPhone would not only be very, very smart, but incredibly easy to use. Complexity behind the screen, simplicity on the front of the screen.
This explains, I believe, publisher's love affair with flip books: it is easy for a publisher to hand off their PDFs to a vendor who converts them to a Flash-based flip book. The solution is easy, seamless, and not terribly costly.
What tablet publishing will need, beyond simply the tablet itself, will be a publishing platform -- an easy to use, web-centric, standardized platform. Make it easy for a publisher, or a citizen publisher, to create and distribute their content for mobile devices and you have a winner.
Update 2: Right on time, a post that assumes to know information about the Apple tablet OS , calling it "pretty" and the "UI has a good bit of new sexy to it" (whatever that is supposed to mean). As I mentioned above, it is possible that too much emphasis has been placed on the device, and not enough on the interface.
Another part of that iPhone introduction by Steve Jobs that I referenced above was where the Apple CEO stopped and said "you know, one of the pioneers of our industry, Alan Kay, has had a lot of great quotes throughout the years, and I ran across one of them recently that explains how we look at this, that explains why we go about doing things the way we do, because we love software. And here's the quote: "People who are really serious about software should build their own hardware."
So if Apple does, in fact, introduce a tablet device come January 27, expect that it will be built around software. In the end, the success of the product will, like all other computer products, will revolve around what you can do with it, not with how thin it is, or how cool it looks.