Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Apple Tablet Will Not Save Publishing

Sometime later today, a thin man dressed all in black will get up on a stage in front of a horde of journalists and suits to present a new Apple product. Everyone is assuming this product will be the long-rumored Apple tablet computer (first trumpeted as immediately forthcoming back in 2002), and that it will magically "save publishing" by being the super-colossal reading machine for the masses.

Those of us who are particularly cynical will have noted that the people most actively laying down this line of patter are from firms like Forrester Research -- which is probably claiming that Amazon has sold eighty kazillion Kindles by this point -- and various start-ups in the digital reading space. In other words: these are people who are trying to deliberately create hype so that they can shift some of it in their direction.

But let's be honest. Even if this rumored product is the Apple tablet -- and indications are pretty good that it will be -- and even if this device has an iTunes-like book and magazine store built into it, as it probably will, it's not going to radically change the landscape for electronic text readers, let alone the larger world of reading in general.

This device will most likely:
  • be at least twice the price of currently existing dedicated book readers
  • have far less than half the batter life of those readers
  • bulk much larger and heavier than those readers
This device is a computer, not an e-reader. It's really Apple's end-run around the netbook market; an attempt to create something unique instead of trying to compete on price in that very competitive space. It will be used to read text, as all computers are, and some readers may decide to stop carrying a Kindle or Nook if they will already have an iWhateverItIs in their bags. But this fabled new device is not directly competitive with e-book readers in the same way that it's not directly competitive with mobile phones; it's simply a different thing.

And I remain skeptical that millions of people will suddenly rush out to buy a new portable computer. Even with Apple's phenomenal success with the iPhone this decade, the Macintosh's market share has only ticked upward slightly; the new Apple audience has not shown a massive willingness to trade Wintel cheapness and ubiquity for Apple design.

One final thought: the people who claim this device will "save publishing" are crowing about the iTunes model. Has anyone thought to ask the music companies -- so devastatingly reduced in size and profitability this decade -- how well that model "saved" their business?


GordonVG said...

Good post, Andy (as usual).

Re iTunes, it's worth pointing out that music is very different from the written word. When I buy a recorded song, I do so with the expectation that I'll listen to it many times. When I buy a written work, I do so with the expectation that I'll read it once or maybe twice.

---Gordon Van Gelder

Anonymous said...

I disagree, partly. It may not revolutionize the e-book reading arena, but I think the chances are quite good it will have a large, positive impact on newspapers and magazines. Subscription services can run on the iTunes model. Some publications currently offer content free on the web, but I think that will change.

Just my two cents.

Jeff P.

Unknown said...

Re: iTunes, while questioning the music companies, you might want to ask them whether they think that their policies of treating their paying customers like criminals, installing spyware on their machines, suing their customers, and desperately trying to ignore the realities of the digital world; had any impact on their fortunes. You could also ask them whether they think that long standing refusal (pre-iTunes) to sell singles and instead selling full price albums with a singles worth of content was a valid business model, and if that explains why they are so desperate to return to it?

I really do think that iTunes saved the music industry, I'm less convinced that it was worth saving. I should note that I say this as a music lover and avid bibliophile that owns almost 1000 cd's (all paid for by me - but according to the RIAA, the fact that I've made a digital copy, for my own use, means that I'm a pirate) and more books than I care to count - an increasing number of them digital copies. I hope the publishing industry doesn't need saving, but if they continue to pursue a policy of draconian DRM and artificially inflated prices, they may yet.

Dan S.

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