Monday, April 5, 2010

Come on Over to My Pad: Balancing iPad Frenzy with Long-Term Media Needs

Unless you were under a rock in a far-flung desert it was hard to miss the launch of Apple's iPad tablet computer over the weekend, an event which, while generating impressive coverage and good first-wave sales, seems to have raised as many concerns among publishers as it has raised lavish praise and attention. Clearly the era of touchpad tablets is now officially upon us, with Apple using its now-customary combination of brilliant engineering and proprietary gatekeeping to tip the playing field in its favor in another neglected market segment. The iPad is well-timed from Apple's perspective in that it managed to swoop on to the scene ahead of other rival touchpad devices from Hewlett Packard and other providers, albeit with a stripped-down feature set and relatively few options for software and premium content.

No worries there from Apple's standpoint, for the moment of inflection that they are shooting for has a lot more to do with seizing momentum amongst confused and disorganized media companies that are beginning to realize that their underfunding of effective Web publishing strategies is beginning to come home to roost in a big way. The parallel that Apple is drawing on is not so much the iPhone as the iPod, the portable music player which came along at just the right time to herd panicked music industry executives into yet another attractive, convenient solution for digital music distribution that required relatively little thinking on their behalf and plenty of hopes for secure revenues. Several years later, the iTunes music store captures about 69 percent of online digital music sales, disintermediating not only music publishers but the Web in general from the lion's share of premium music revenues.

Flash forward to 2010, when this time it's print and television media producers that are struggling to come up with premium Web strategies. Remarkably, many of these publishers are willing to pretend to themselves that it's worth jumping through hoops for the iPad launch, because, as noted in a Wall Street Journal article, it really doesn't matter if you get only a trickle of data and relationship equity from the "handful" of early iPad adopters. Oh, really. It's another way of saying that publishers are afraid of Apple's power in the digital content industry and not willing to chance that they will be on the outs with trend-setting audiences. In the meantime they enable yet another disintermediating proprietary partner.

One key difference between the iPod launch and the iPad's is that the publishers in print and video have many more well-developed channel alternatives than were available to the music industry when the iPad launched. Book and magazine publishers have Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook and Sony's ereaders for monochrome content, while a broad galaxy of mobile phones offer color reading experiences for both ebooks and Web content. In the short run book publishers have even been able to leverage the iPad to get Amazon to push up ebook prices to levels more comparable to iPad pricing. But looking at this broken terrain of content ecommerce and packaging, it's a discontinuous mess for the most part, with platform fragmentation that plays into the hands of major Web outlets and device marketers that can muscle in on publishers' value propositions.

All of this argues ever stronger for cross-platform packaging and ecommerce for premium content, of course, a theme that should be familiar to readers of ContentBlogger. Since people are willing to pay for premium content experiences, it makes sense to have an appealing way for publishers to manage this concept via standardized premium Web ecommerce without having to lock into a labyrinth of platform providers that will increase their costs of delivery while slowing down their ability to respond faster than the Web does to deliver interesting content. Yes, it's appealing to limit your channel partners to create some type of limitation that creates the impression of artificial scarcity, but the Web is not radio or television, where the public have access to a tiny fringe of the delivery medium. By frittering away effort on proprietary ecommerce of all kinds, publishers continue to empower acceptable substitutes from all-Web sources that can tap their markets more rapidly and more effectively. The iPad is only one of many new devices that distracts publishers from this fundamental economic reality.

Large media companies will continue to love Apple, and vice versa, as they help to kid one another about the youthfulness of their vision. The people who I saw toying with the iPad in stores were mostly middle-aged or older, or small children with their parents. It makes for an appealing "Family Computing" story line for reporters looking for a new angle, conjuring up pictures of families guffawing together over an iPad game the way that they used to play Parchesi or some other board game. Well, it's a sentimental image, to be sure, but probably not a very realistic one. Most of the kids who I saw toying with the iPad in a local store went immediately to the Web; they know where their content lives, and they're not likely to want substitutes.

So as the Touchable Web begins to unfold, let's not confuse attractive features with the fundamental economic realities that the Web has introduced to publishing. The iPad will be with us for quite some time to come, but the Web is not likely to disappear as an economic issue for publishers just because a good weekend of PR helps launch yet another almost-Web-enabled device. Once the sweet taste of iPod eye-candy wears off, we will be facing the same sour realities that there are a lot of interesting sources of content that it and other devices deliver that have nothing to do with the hopes of major media companies.
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