Of all the predictions for 2010 I’ve read—or hope to read (Paul Conley, how about B2B predictions as lullaby lyrics?)—the one that has me most excited is that Apple will come out with a tablet computer. This isn’t just because I’m a serious technophile, but also because an Apple tablet will have the potential to remake magazine publishing.Until earlier this week, I entertained only idle thoughts about Apple’s rumored tablet in development, mostly when experiencing one frustration or another with my Kindle. But after hearing tech journalist Andy Ihnatko talk about the tablet on the Macbreak Weekly podcast yesterday, I’m persuaded not only that the “iPad” is real, but also that it will be revolutionary.
While Ihnatko doubted that Apple’s tablet would “own the e-book marketplace,” he did agree that the device would transform it. “The amount of excitement that it’s going to generate just for e-publishing in general is already phenomenal.” As he noted in his Chicago Sun-Times article last week on a rival tablet computer, the erstwhile “CrunchPad,” computer makers are all preparing for “what happens after Apple releases the Tablet.” He compared their state of mind to that in a year before a world war: “No, it hasn’t been announced, it hasn’t been scheduled, but everybody’s anticipating that the world will be fundamentally different this time next year. They are making arrangements to make sure they are in the best position to survive and thrive in that new landscape.”
Likewise, publishers are making plans “for how they’re going to deal with the fact that there are going to be these really cool, inexpensive color touchscreen tablets to publish things onto.” Next year, he continued, will be “one of the most exciting years in technology, period. I think we’ll look back . . . and say that’s one of those years where everything changed after that.”
Ihnatko bases his expectations for Apple’s tablet on both its likely technology and the probable distribution model Apple will follow.
Most predictions for the tablet foresee, as he puts it in his Sun-Times article, “a color tablet with a large screen, a great video chipset, and a multitouch interface.” These, of course, are precisely the capabilities assumed by Hearst’s Skiff project, the Sports Illustrated concept demo, and the digital magazine consortium. It will be, he said, “a phenomenally cool device, but it’s also going to create the environment in which every single magazine, newspaper, and book publisher is going to be that much more compelled to say ‘we’re going to have a comprehensive digital publishing plan.’ . . . It will create the environment in which everyone starts thinking about publishing everything digitally now.”
But just as important as technology is the distribution opportunity Apple would offer. It would presumably use iTunes or a similar platform, and charge considerably less than Kindle for nonexclusive distribution of paid content. The potential for a revolution in magazine distribution like the one Apple sparked in music is clear. And in contrast to the proprietary and limiting format that music companies initially forced on iTunes, the speculation is that Apple—and more importantly, publishers—will welcome the ePub standard. (Here’s how Ihnatko describes the format in his Sun Times article: “It is an ambitiously flexible ebook format that can act as a standard ‘wrapper’ for just about any type of content you’ve got going. It’s just as good for unlocked public-domain books as it is for current best-sellers controlled by DRM, and ePub can conceivably even support aggressive multimedia, such as interactive audio and video.”)
How would this distribution model work for the predominantly controlled-circulation (i.e., free) magazines from trade publishers? Probably just fine. Since the ePub is an open standard, digital publications could be distributed by a variety of methods for all kinds of devices, not just Apple’s. And if Apple follows the iTunes model of distributing free content like podcasts, it should happily host digital trade pubs. In addition, according to Electronista, Apple would not “preclude advertising, which to date hasn’t been allowed for the Kindle even with magazines and newspapers.”
Before we get too excited about this scenario, it’s important to remember that the Apple tablet rumor is still just that—a rumor. The iPad may never see the light of day. But the signs that it will are increasingly credible, and sufficient to make me believe that 2010 will be a very interesting year indeed.
UPDATE: A couple of items I missed before hitting the publish button: 1. Rex Hammock’s persuasive rant that the iPad (not the “tablet,” blockhead!) should not be reduced to a mere tool for “reading content presented via a magazine-metaphor interface.” Fair point. But I still want to read on it! 2. A New York Times article pointed out by Hammock about magazine publishers preparing to publish on those cringe-inducing tablets. Both worth reading.