If iPad Wants to Be All the E-Reader It Can Be ...
As exemplified by the Sports Illustrated debacle, even relatively well-funded, national publications can't justify the cost to make their content really shine a platform like the iPad and take advantage of all the device can do. Apple needs to deliver a publishing framework that will let magazines and newspapers easily publish their content on this new distribution model.
There's one thing that Apple's iPad needs more than a camera for FaceTime video calling, and that's a real solution for old-school magazine and newspaper publishers. The iPad is a do-it-all device -- Web, email, e-books, games, video, music -- but it still has a few problems.
For instance, for active book readers, it's hard to argue that the iPad is the best solution. The iPad is heavy, and its screen isn't so great in broad daylight. At US$139, the new Amazon Kindle is more flexible. It's lighter, which means it's easier to hold for hours on end, and as Amazon gleefully pointed out in a recent television ad, you can read a Kindle outside (1.6 million views on YouTube, btw). And did I say $139?
The iPad is just too expensive to risk getting sand from a beach into its innards or scratching up the pretty screen. And if you're at a pool, the iPad is a big target to steal when you leave it under your towel and dive into the water for a dip. (For the record, I'm a big fan of reading e-books on my tiny iPhone 4 screen, but that has more to do with mobility everywhere than the screen being perfect for books.)
But iPads for the outside world is not a big deal, really. Most people read indoors most of the time. If the light from the iPad screen actually delivered a nice dose of Vitamin D, now that would be innovation. The beach and poolside are nice ways to promote the Kindle, not spank the iPad. I mean, who is using Amazon's ads as a decision factor for buying one over the other? Hardly anybody. It's not a slap, nor is it competitive. It's just good solid product differentiation. Nothing to see here people. Move on.
What is a big deal is making sure the magical iPad can live up to its promise as being the best device for reading more than just the Web -- for reading the publications that we really care about in a format that marries the best of App Store apps with the best of the Web. In my mind, this requires two things: an easy-to-understand and use subscription model, and perhaps even more importantly, an easy-to-use content publishing platform for iOS. If Apple can figure this out, I'll be far more likely to buy an iPad.
Enter Sports Illustrated
As it's been widely reported, the latest iPad issue of Sports Illustrated can only be viewed in landscape mode. Why? Apparently Sports Illustrated looked at the business economics of producing both horizontal and vertical layouts for any given issue and realized that doing so isn't cost-effective. It takes too many designers to do the work. It doesn't hurt that producing only one option -- horizontal in this case -- gives the designers a more predictable landscape to create on. And offering only one option reduces the file size, too, letting customers download it more quickly.
This speaks to the publishing platform itself -- basically, it doesn't matter if publishers can use current Apple tools to build magical magazines if it costs the publishers too much money to produce their wares. So Apple needs to deliver a publishing framework that will let magazines and newspapers easily publish their content on this new distribution model. Readability is a great start, but easy tools for leveraging the touch interface is what will make it shine, particularly for cash and resource-strapped local newspaper publishers.
If you look at the Web sites of many smaller-market newspapers, they are really just basic sites that don't take advantage of all the cool things you can do on the Web. It's too had to do it quickly, and it's hard to justify the cost and time-on-task effort.
So let's get a little more personal, since I'm not a Sports Illustrated reader. Publishers need an easy subscription model ... they only want to convince a reader to buy once a year, not every time they have an issue available. For instance, I sort of enjoy GQ magazine. I've been a subscriber in the past, and I buy a few issues on the newsstand, usually when I'm traveling. Why don't I subscribe again? Too many freaking cologne ads on hard-stock paper in the print edition. Seriously. I know these are important to some young men who just aren't sure what they should be smelling like these days, but for me, I've got it dialed in.
So you would think a digital edition would pique my interest, right? Sort of. Right now, GQ has to sell me on each month -- I have to look at the content and decide if it's worth a $4.99 App Store download. At the newsstand, I can hold the magazine in my hand, see the cover lines and quickly browse through the content. Plus, I'm hard-wired to make a quick decision at the newsstand -- if I'm looking to buy a magazine, I'm going to judge it by its cover, maybe open it, but ultimately make the decision in a minute or two. I don't think this action is so easily replicated electronically, and this is where the ability to sell me on a subscription comes into the play.
I only subscribe to a magazine if I'm willing to buy the brand. And then I either turn into a loyal reader ... or move on. Magazine and newspapers want and need loyal readers. Most of them live and die by their subscriber base. Sure, People magazine might live and die by the hot Hollywood stars it puts on its covers at the newsstands, but most mags can't count on newsstand sales to pay all the bills.
Right now, in the case of GQ, I'm asked to make a buying decision that includes factors far beyond the brand, and even beyond the content: I'm asking to consider the delivery mechanism and the app itself. Will I like the navigation? Will it load all the content easily? Will it be readable? Usually, for me, this means I pass and go rent a movie or TV show instead.
The net result of this consumer confusion is a cloudy and risky sales model for publishers. If Apple can reduce risk and break up the clouds surrounding electronic publishing, the company can take the iPad to an entirely new level of product.
Take me, for example. I'm the kind of guy who gets most of my daily news information electronically. I do not subscribe to my local newspaper. I want to, I really do, but what I see far too often is a lot of stories that are irrelevant to me, even though I would like my local news. The cost of the paper doesn't justify the time it takes to mess with it. And I waste precious seconds of my life identifying ads for ceramic figurines or dinner plates with images of wildlife painted on them that I'll need to recycle. I could subscribe to the online Web versions, but the delivery of the content is generally clunky -- and I'd be reading it at my desk, in front of my computer, which is where I'm sitting far too often all day anyway.
Now, with an iPad, I could get my newspaper fix in the morning, before work, like a proper adult. And I could read magazines on the couch or in big comfy chairs, sprawled out with my legs over the arms. There's a reason Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a couch on the stage when he introduced the iPad. Now I want the iPad to live up to the couch, and that means nailing down the a subscription model with publishers, who admittedly may not be the easiest people to do business with. Still, I want it. If Apple can figure that out, I can see myself buying an iPad -- as long as they add a camera for FaceTime, of course.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.