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Jan. 28, 2010, 9:06 a.m.

So it’s called the iPad: Five thoughts on how it will (and won’t) change the game for news organizations

So, it’s official: There is an Apple tablet, and it’s called the iPad. And, at least to these Apple-friendly eyes, it looks really, really nice. I can feel my credit card getting warm already.

But for future-of-journalism junkies, the question was never whether or not Apple could come up with a sexy new device. The question was whether it could have an impact on the news business. Phrases like “save the news business” and “alter the economics and consumer attitudes of the digital era” have been tossed around an awful lot in the last few months.

So what did we learn today about how the iPad will impact journalism? Here are my first thoughts:

It will have a real impact on consumer behavior. This thing’s going to be popular — I suspect it’ll sell at multiples of the Kindle (assuming Amazon ever decides to tell us how many Kindles they sell). And the form factor will be attractive in a lot of contexts, and that’ll likely increase the amount of news and information that people consume. Anyone who loved the Kindle will love this (unless they’re e-Ink junkies), and the iPad will also appeal to big crowds who would have never thought of a Kindle — gamers, mobile workers, YouTube addicts, and more.

I don’t think the iPad changes the paid-content equation. The dream of the news business is that a device will come along that will convince people to pay for digital news. That was the dream of the Kindle — people will pay $10 a month to “subscribe” to all the news we give away for free on the web! And while that dream has dimmed on the Kindle, the same ideas kept popping up on the road to the iPad. As Brad Stone and Stephanie Clifford wrote in the Times:

People who have seen the tablet say Apple will market it not just as a way to read news, books and other material, but also a way for companies to charge for all that content. By marrying its famously slick software and slender designs with the iTunes payment system, Apple could help create a way for media companies to alter the economics and consumer attitudes of the digital era.

Or as a Wired headline writer put it: “Apple Event to Focus on Reinventing Content, Not Tablets.”

But the iPad, as we know it today, doesn’t change any of the fundamental economics of news commerce. On the iPhone, you can sell news apps through the App Store; you can upsell specific pieces of content to people within your apps; and you can sell advertising within those applications. (Apple takes chunks of the revenue from those first two options.)

On the iPad, you can…do those same three things. The only thing that has changed is the size, and that big beautiful screen. Will people who weren’t willing to buy news on an iPhone be sold on the idea just because the text is bigger and the photos are prettier? I’d be surprised. The commerce proposition hasn’t changed.

It was telling that the first website Steve Jobs used to show off the iPad’s web browser was The New York Times. (Apple and the Times have a longstanding mutual appreciation.) Showing nytimes.com before showing off the Times’ iPad app illustrated the big problem device-as-savior advocates face: As long as a device is a great web browsing machine, and websites remain free, it’ll be difficult to push people into the walled garden of an application. Not impossible — difficult. And If you’re willing to put up a paywall on your website, then you have issues to consider much larger than the iPad.

I didn’t see anything today that made me change my opinion that device-based dreams of a news deus ex machina are wishful thinking, and that the difficult revenue decisions will have to be made pan-platform.

The iPhone app ecosystem isn’t changing radically. There are a lot of news organizations that have invested in building nice iPhone apps. That investment will also have value on the iPad, because native iPhone apps should work fine on the iPad — particularly relatively simple ones like news apps. And revising apps to be sized to the iPad’s screen likely won’t be difficult, given how previous changes to the SDK have gone.

One thing that the iPad does do is give user-interface designers many more pixels to deal with, and among newspapers’ core skills remains the ability to display organized text and information in a pleasing and useful way. On the iPhone, the limited real estate meant you were stuck with a rigid world of user-interface possibilities, which is why nearly every newspaper iPhone app looks roughly interchangeable with another. But as the New York Times iPad app showed, with its Times Reader-esque interface, there’ll be a lot more room for experimentation, and that should be fruitful.

One big winner: advertising. Mobile advertising has been deemed the next big thing for a long time now, and while it’s seen plenty of growth, it’s been living a confined existence. Ads in iPhone apps have mostly been locked into small banner ads secured to the bottom of articles and lists of articles. And the web has shown that banner ads stuck in the same place over time are extraordinarily easy for consumers to ignore. Nobody makes much money in that scenario.

But the iPad’s screen opens up a world of new possibilities — from sensible text ads to site takeovers (app takeovers?) to interstitials to more. Will consumers love all of those? No, probably not. (I won’t.) But they sell for a good deal more than banner ads, and that could generate additional revenue for news organizations.

Surprisingly little on magazines. A lot of the talk in tablet land focused on magazines — several mag companies have been working on their own tablet concepts, and the design flexibility of the magazine page seems like a natural match for a bigger-than-a-phone screen and form factor. The magazine subscription model even seems like a natural match for something like the Season Pass you can buy for TV shows in iTunes. But magazines weren’t mentioned at all. Several magazines have moved in the one-iPhone-app-per-issue direction, and those apps will be much more impressive on the big screen, but magazines are in the same boat as newspapers: waiting for the iPad ecommerce revolution to arrive.

It’s important to remember we’re seeing the first iteration of the iPad, which won’t even ship for two months. It took a year for the iPhone to get its App Store; when the phone debuted in 2007, everyone thought it was awfully nice, but it wasn’t sending news organization scurrying to hire Cocoa Touch developers. It took two years for the iPod to get its iTunes Store; the iPod’s impact on the music business only took off when the store arrived in 2003. So there could easily be an announcement in six months or a year that makes the iPad’s impact real.

But until then, the iPad looks like a great product that will please consumers more than it’ll change the game for news organizations.

POSTED     Jan. 28, 2010, 9:06 a.m.
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