Friday, January 15, 2010

Here Come the Tablets: More Reason to Love the Web?

This year's International Consumer Electronics Show was awash in more tablets than a local pharmacy, with both actual models being shown and overarching buzz from Apple's anticipated iSlate tablet offering expected later this year. While many of the new tablet models were largely warmed-over versions of netbooks or smartbooks, some were oriented towards executives and (presumably) wealthy students who would be willing to pay close to a thousand dollars for a tablet that "acted" like a paper document. Two key models making their debut at CES in this column were the Hearst-sponsored Skiff newspaper and magazine reader and the Que document and e-book reader from Plastic Logic.

The Skiff initiative from Hearst is far more than a tablet gizmo, encompassing distribution on a number of platforms including smart/super phones, PCs and other devices on which their clients would presumably want to view content laid out in traditional print format - and pay presumably premium print prices for it. The reader itself has a display almost as large as a typical notebook PC, with wafer-thin construction, eInk-like resolution and touch-screen activation. The Que reader is a similarly "thin is in" device, but the content that it can manage is oriented towards both traditional media and enterprise document management. The idea behind both devices is that you can have the convenience of digital storage and display without the hassle of dealing with Web-oriented content formats.

The real rationale behind these initiatives, of course, is more of a regressive approach to content than a progressive approach. The Skiff screams at its audience, "Print formats are still relevant, darn it!" while the Que burbles out, "Web sites for collaboration? Nevah hoid of it." And in common to these devices both traditional publisher and enterprise document management business models hope to thrive by locking in support for bright and shiny new high-tech toys that amuse people enough to let them forget that they are paying not just for a pricey device but for outmoded ways of looking at content aggregation, integration and contextualization. The Web site for Skiff tells people first that it's a "publisher-friendly" device, meaning that publishers can obtain revenues from lock-in via proprietary formats while changing as little of its outlook on its revenue streams as possible.

I am hard-pressed to think of an army of executives who have to already juggle laptop PCs, smartphones and other gizmos who will find their world to be truly simplified by this emerging world of proprietary devices. There's little doubt that the tablet format for devices will begin to pick up steam this year, especially those that are touch-enabled devices that help to eliminate the need for physical keyboards. But much of the tablet buzz is smoke and mirrors for journalists, hiding the broader reality that most major publishers are faced with a world in which their revenue streams are drying up and unlikely to be propped up for very long by proprietary tablet plays. None of these devices seem to address the primary issue facing their operations: namely that the Web as a whole is far more interesting and engaging to its readers than any given publication.

Publishers do need to focus on quality editorial operations, to be sure, to ensure that they have a product that's worth the premium prices that they hope to extract on their tablet devices. But their real competition is not bloggers or online aggregators, but other Web formats. The ease with which video can be displayed both on PC and mobile devices and the rapidly accelerating integration of voice services into Web services is creating an environment in which an enormous amount of information is being created and shared with people around the world well before it ever gets into words. The prevalence of status posting services such as Facebook and Twitter make people aware of the first and best news coverage of an event to the point that follow-up reports are as redundant to the general public as they are to stock traders equipped with real-time news feeds.

Yes, the experience of print is engaging, and, often, seductive. But in an online world built around relationships, context and collaboration, investing heavily on keeping up the appearance of the seductiveness and power of print seems to make about as much sense as an 80 year-old investing in a fifteenth round of cosmetic surgery. Premium publishing models are important, but investing in outdated business models to drive premium revenues again and again is a non-starter. It will help to stem the tide of the Web no more than 3-D television or other diverting forms of repackaging. The movie "Avatar" succeeded not because of 3-D images but because it appealed to generations young and old who are moving into new forms of relationships with information and experiences via the Web, enveloped in them constantly to the point that publishing is becoming part of who they are, as I infer in Chapter 10 of Content Nation.

With this in mind, I think that the most important "tablets" are already in many people's pockets - Web-enabled smart/super phones that provide touch-activated access to content and applications that free people from heavy and expensive PCs. Most of these devices cost a fraction of the price of the premium tablet units being promoted for sale. When touch-sensitive tablet devices based on Google's open-source Chrome OS debut later this year, the need for price-sensitive access to full-display content will be underscored yet again. The publishing industry will never grow, much less survive, if it insists on locking its hopes into the most expensive delivery mechanisms available when cost-effective alternatives abound.

What publishers should be focusing on is enabling their content for cross-platform distribution as effectively as possible, demanding premium price points where warranted based on the contextual value of their communities, features and services, not on the fleeting value of a handful of specific devices. If we are headed towards a world in which people will be able to wave an RFID-enabled phone at an item to purchase it, or similarly to execute a business agreement, then publishers need to jump off yesteryear's bandwagon and tool content to be valuable where organizations generating products and services will be thrusting their marketing investments. Gimmicky tablets will prevent this no more than Cinerama-produced films stemmed the rise of television in the 1950s and 1960s. So congratulations to the tablet producers for sucking money out of publishers who should be investing elsewhere. Hopefully next year's CES will see some more sensible solutions to content display and distribution that will be true boosts to publishers.
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