The iPad saved print media by not saving it at all
Thank goodness that when Steve Jobs took the stage to sit in his Le Corbusier chair and show off the iPhone Maxi, er iPad, he didn’t roll out some cockamanie plan to have a digital magazine and newspaper stand with some kind of special pricing program and application store, and trot out, say, Arthur Sulzburger or, well, who else really, would it be but Arthur Sulzburger, to talk about how great the iPad was going to be for the future of news? Thank goodness, and here’s why:
There’s no need. Everything that newspapers and magazines want to be able to do with per-issue pricing, subscriptions, video, automatic delivery, etc., is already enabled by the iPhone app store, which is the same place iPad users will turn to for programs and content. As Apple’s demo employees were telling the geekerati assembled at the play-table after Jobs’ address, ‘if you use an iPhone, you already know how to use this.” There have been a number of disappointed ruminations by media types, and Ryan Tate summarizes the angst ably in Gawker:
But what their demo — the sole non-website newspaper content — lacked in actual pizazz it failed to make up for in hype, either. Nothing from Jobs on a dedicated newspaper (or magazine) store or reader application. Hardly any waxing poetic by Apple on the possibilities and content development path for newspapers and magazines. Which, as we said before, is absolutely Apple’s prerogative — these guys are in the business of making money, not rescuing other industries — but has to give print media execs heartburn.
Exactly, Ryan. It’s ridiculous to think that Jobs is going to hitch his wagon to a bunch of old-time media companies and do their R&D for them. There’s been nothing stopping them from programming subscription-ready value-added content apps for the iPhone ever since OS 3.0 came out in March 2009. Is it Apple’s fault if the content is not compelling enough for readers to want to purchase? Or if the magazines or newspapers can’t figure out how to rework their content to make it compelling? Or build an app that is on a ‘must-have’ level? Right this minute the most successful paid app in the App Store from a media company is ranked #45: CNN Mobile, for $1.99. It has 3 stars, because most of the reviewers complain it’s full of advertising and has a crappy layout. How is that Apple’s fault when so many small developers have figured out to how provide awesome experiences on the platform, and big developers, like Facebook, have singlehandedly redefined what an App can be?
What Jobs has done with the iPad is exactly what made the iPhone successful: he created a pretty spectacular space for app developers to compete over eyeballs for. Some iPad users will only play games or watch video; others will read books and news; a third group may just want to email from the road. A fourth group will inevitably hack into the thing and find ways to multi-task and run background apps and whatever else Apple is banning in its sandbox.
In other words, Apple is not interested in throwing a lifeline to industries that can’t figure out this new world we’re living in. Maybe there’s some karmic reason OS X and the iPhone/iPad OS are based on a core called Darwin. There is a Darwinism at play here; figure out a way to get users to put your app on their device. Then figure out a way to keep them clicking on it, and making you money. If you can’t, you’re toast.
The book publishing industry is not exactly going to be mistaken for a futurists convention any time soon, but when I wrote about e-readers for a couple of publications recently, I talked to some executives who specifically said they don’t care what platform their content is available on, as long as it’s out there and revenue can be collected on it. That’s not just desperation, that’s faith in your product. (I know some publishers are playing cat and mouse with ebook release schedules, but that’s not going to last as more of the audience moves to e-reader platforms. In fact it’s mostly a negotiation tactic with Amazon. Since Apple’s letting publishers set prices, unlike Amazon, they have no reason to deny readers the electronic version of their books on the same day the print copy rolls out, or possibly even earlier.)
In short, the tools are already there for the iPad to become the ’savior’ the print media is looking for. But Steve Jobs is not your new bicycle. He will be happy whether the top paid app on the iPad is the ‘New York Times Daily Subscription’ or ‘Rock Band.’ And to be fair, some media companies are investing heavily in creating online content that finally gives users what they want. Sports Illustrated rolled out a tablet demo in December that looked ridiculously beyond the reach of any extant device–until the iPad came out yesterday. Now, truthfully, for SI or any old-school magazine to produce issues on a weekly frequency that contain anything like the content and multimedia seen in that demo is going to take A LOT of manpower. Far more than those places are staffing right now. The good news is that their are oodles of journalists already trained to use these tools and produce this kind of content. The bad news is they require salaries and expensive equipment and hardware. The better news is that these big magazine companies still have the money to place a bet on multimedia editions of their magazines. The great news is a whole new generation of publishers can start working in this medium today, without all the legacy costs of a print publication.
The race to develop a machine like this has already been lost. It’s over. Not that Apple’s first gen iPad is the end of the road; but no magazine consortium is going to beat Apple at this game down the line. The best thing the magazine companies can do is stop kvetching, stop wasting money on hardware, and give content consumers all they’ve ever wanted all along: an amazing content experience that they’re willing to pay for.
Apple has just created the ultimate sandbox. The newspapers and magazines are the rich kids who can afford the coolest Tyco toys. The question is, can they get over the fact that the sandbox is in Steve Jobs’ backyard? Readers aren’t going to wait around for the print media to get over their sulking; they’ll be happy to play with whoever shows up first at Jobs’ iPad sandbox with their dumptruck or steamshovel, even if it’s made out of plastic and the windshield’s popped out, as long as it’s fun and worthwhile. Readers will grow with those apps as they evolve and build audiences and revenue. If old media doesn’t get its act together, they’ll be playing with their shiny metal front-loaders in their crappy cardboard sandboxes, that wilt in the rain, all by themselves, right around the time Stevie and his friends are graduating to the jungle gym.