Tablet News:
Livin’ the future
Oct 06 2010

by tmartin on October 6, 2010

BACK IN THE DAWN OF TIME – well, OK, in 1994 – I was the executive producer of an exciting bit of movie making called “The Tablet Newspaper: A Vision for the Future.”

(Check it out on Vimeo at

For that video, we created a tablet out of plastic and molding materials. And then — through the power of FX — it magically had a working pen-touch interface. You could see an animated map of conflict in Bosnia, watch a short clip of a college ballplayer with a sports story, and place an order for take out food.

The table was sleek and black and had a clever logo proclaiming it “The Tablet.” I don’t think we were going to win any awards for naming creativity.

In this video vision, the daily newspaper (the mythical Knight-Ridder Current) somehow got to your tablet every day.

This was back when downloading a single low res photo into a web browser was a really big deal and 1 K = 1 second was a design guideline. But no matter, through FX we again cheerfully skipped over that detail too.

In the video, you started out the morning over coffee, tablet in hand, newspaper on tablet. Family and kids were in the background and the Tablet was just part of your daily routine.

This was the FUTURE. (cue inspirational and vaguely futuristic electronic music…)

I think that future is here.

Weird, but true.

Last week, the most hardcore of all paper magazines, the text of all text – The New Yorker – announced its iPad edition.

It joins The Wall St. Journal, Esquire, PC World, Car & Driver, and literally thousands more … all making the leap since the iPad was introduced just a few short months ago, this past January.

Some of these publications are directly developing and designing for the iPad. That’s what The New Yorker is doing. It has an animated cover, extra digital material, and the like.

Conde Nast, the publishing giant that owns The New Yorker, as well at GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair, Glamour, and others, is committed to exploring a digital reader initiative. However, that’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

The roadblock isn’t getting interesting editions of core content to the reader. Nope, as you might guess, the roadblock is the revenue model.

It is easy to create cool tools … not so easy to figure out how to make them pay and to keep the business of publishing in business.

Back in that dawn of digital time, newspaper companies were anxious (understatement!) about the chain of ownership of readers. The telcos were the potential rival, since they were seen as the channel through which this “new media” would be delivered.

If they were the channel, the logic went, they would “own” the customer relationship. Badness!

You see, single sales are nice, but the bread and butter of publishing is a) subscriptions that go on over years and b) advertising. Both these require a primary relationship between publication and reader.

Apple and publishers have been wrangling with the ownership issues fast and furious. Right now, iPads can’t support subscriptions – subscriptions would, after all, directly connect reader to publisher.

Over in Kindleland, Amazon and book publishers are wrangling over pricing and packaging models. Again, these set up a dynamic by which the reader relationship lies with the hardware developer rather than the content owner.

There are also companies like Zinio ( Zinio launched in 2001 and defines itself as a digital newsstand. It works with publishers as a sort of digital distribution middleman to sell and deliver magazines in a variety of digital formats.

“Zinio works closely with publishers worldwide to reinvent reading,” is how the company modestly describes itself. It claims to offer more than 50,000 titles in 15 languages around the world.

Another effort is coming from the Associated Press, a not-for-profit news cooperative of some 7,000 newspaper and broadcast outlets around the world.

The AP was set up by five newspapers in New York City in 1846 to solve a business-technology problem: how to manage the cost of transmitting news of the Mexican War by boat, horse express, and telegraph.

Last February the AP announced a project called AP Gateway to solve the current hot business-technology problem: the business model between news content and a variety of digital platforms.

In the early and mid-90s I spent a lot of time on the road, logging road warrior level frequent flier miles and doing endless presentations to media, technology, and community groups about the Future of Newspapers.

At conferences and presentations, we would show the ‘vision’ video and people would chuckle.

They would point out that there was NO WAY to get something like that delivered.

People would never give up paper.

That tablet thing wasn’t portable and no one was going to read while tethered to a modem!

Hah hah hah. Hah!

The funny thing is – now that we are in it – future doesn’t look all that different from our FX heavy video. Like I said, it is kinda weird.

But pretty cool too. We are creating the future as we go. Things that so many of us care about – reporting, writing, editing, photography, videography, and validated news – still matter.

They aren’t used the same way. The delivery format has changed. The creation technologies are in flux. The form factor is different. But the need is still there and people are finding a way to meet it.

Weird — but cool. And I have my fingers crossed that there’s a real iPad in my future … along with a subscription to The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, and all kinds of other great reads and interesting views of the world.

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