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Dec. 21, 2011, 6 p.m.

Tim Carmody: Next year, Kindles, iPhones, and tablets will truly grow up

In 2012, we’re due for a great leap forward in mobile reading.

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Tim Carmody, an occasional Lab contributor who writes about transformations in media and technology for Wired magazine and the Epicenter blog at Wired.com.

In consumer technology, five year cycles are really interesting. For instance, if you look at Apple, it’s about five years between when Steve Jobs returns to the company and when Apple introduces Mac OS X, the iPod, and its first retail stores. You can talk about the first iMac and a few other things, but it’s really in 2001 that Apple becomes the company we recognize today. That’s when the company really becomes profitable again, too. (They actually lost money in 2001, can you believe it?) Then in another five years, you get the first Intel Macs and the iPhone. And another five years gets you to today.

It’s not just Apple; you see the same five year pattern with Microsoft. Five years between their first GUI stuff (which isn’t very good) and Windows 3/MS Office (which is), another five to Windows 95, which really takes the whole concept mainstream. In another five years, they’re officially a monopoly, and then they come out with two of their best products, Windows XP and the Xbox. (Seriously, 2001 was really a banner year in tech history.) Then it’s five years-plus to Vista (which shipped late) and another five to Windows 8, which is in beta now and will be shipping next year.

And you can do this with Google, you can do this with a lot of other companies, products, and subfields. Sometimes, it works so well that you feel like you’re cherry-picking or inventing the pattern. But I think you can also argue that it takes about five years for a breakthrough product to mature, for companies and designers and partners to see its potential, and for users to not just be ready for a big leap forward, but to really want and demand that leap.

Why does this matter for 2012? Well, besides five years of iPhone, we’re also looking at five years of Kindle. That’s two five-year anniversaries that really signal the point when mobile reading became mainstream. You could also call it the five-year anniversary of the tablet as a media device, because really, that’s what the Kindle is, form factor-wise. The first version of it was laid out like a janky, old-school smartphone, but you can see that incremental evolution over the last five years.

In 2012, I think we’re going to see new devices that really raise the bar for reading, whether it’s books or blogs or magazines or newspapers, and whether they’re e-readers or tablets or smartphones. We’ll almost definitely see the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 next year from Apple, and in either late 2012 or early 2013 I think we’ll see the next generation of Amazon readers. We may also see a Google-branded tablet, plenty of competitive Android smartphones and most likely some very good new international e-readers from Kobo and Barnes & Noble.

It’s going to be a big leap.

Now wait, you might say: Wasn’t 2011 a big leap? I mean, with e-readers alone you’ve got a whole mess of new touchscreen E Ink devices, new tablets, and huge price drops that put the devices in sub-$100 iPod Shuffle territory.

But actually, I think the 2011 devices are a little disappointing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re better, and they’re definitely cheaper. But apart from price, they don’t really change the field that much. The iPad 2 is an incremental improvement over the first iPad (ditto iPhone 4S over iPhone 4); Nook Tablet’s an incremental improvement over the Color; the Kindle Fire isn’t really finished yet.

With e-readers, in general, I don’t think we’ve really figured out how touchscreen reading devices are supposed to work, how to blend what we’ve learned from tablets with what we’ve learned from e-readers. Even things like how many buttons should you have (specialized page-turn buttons and home-back-search buttons are actually really nice), or how you develop non-book software for a black-and-white screen, or how you blend text and hypertext. It’s not until next year that we’ll see new HTML5-based specs for EPUB 3 and Kindle Format 8 really take off, and I’m willing to make a bet that those will force gadget-makers and publishers to really rethink how they approach this space.

So it’s not just my superstition about five-year-intervals. The lifecycle for both the devices and the publishing formats really suggests that next year will show us some big changes. We’re not just going to say, “wow, there’s a cheaper version of this other thing that I wanted.” We’re actually going to want new things.

If I could make an analogy, 2011 for reading devices was like the first color/video iPod. 2012 will be the iPhone year. It seems like we made big leaps forward only because we don’t actually know what the real leap forward looks like yet.

POSTED     Dec. 21, 2011, 6 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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