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Could an iTablet Rewrite the Book on Publishing?

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 2, 2009 4:00 AM PT

The latest Apple tablet rumor isn't about the hardware specifications of the so-called iTablet; it's about the notion that Apple has been having secret talks with newspaper and textbook publishers. The talk has sparked a new question: Might an Apple iTablet change publishing forever?

Could an iTablet Rewrite the Book on Publishing?

Yes. Yes, it will.

That's the short answer. But there's more to it, of course.

Back Up the Truck

Apple has been in talks with publishers to negotiate content for a "new device," according to anonymous sources cited by gadget blog Gizmodo. Plus, Apple apparently invited several executives from a large magazine groups down to Cupertino to get their take on the future of magazine publishing. Filling in the blanks, Gizmodo's Brian Lam writes, "They're aiming to redefine print."

What's that new definition? Basically, multimedia books instead of simple text-based e-books, multimedia magazines instead of print mags, lush and rich electronic content rather than the cramped and stripped-down content you can currently get on an iPhone or iPod touch. Whatever. This is obvious stuff. Any possible iTablet will also work with Apple's iPhone developer ecosystem, so wherever there's an interest in content or content-related apps, someone will build something.

One of the early offerings out of the gate in the evolution of the iPhone is Stephen King's excellent "N." animated short story. Apple's iTunes calls it a "TV Show," but it's not really a TV show. Even though it has audio and graphic and comes in episodes, it's really a short story, at its heart. The point: Five years ago, King's "N." would have simply been published in print somewhere, maybe a magazine, maybe online, and probably in some compilation book. Entirely text-based. Today, it's a whole 'nother experience, and "N." is more than a year old.

More recently, this sort of thing has evolved from a TV show video production on iTunes to apps in the App Store on iTunes. We've got "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," which brings the story to life. It's released as a "Book" with a new trademark for "Moving Audio," which appears to be what the publisher is calling its new animated storybook style.

Here's another example: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is offered as an audiobook as well as a novel in the form of a app on the iTunes store. You can use the app to read the book, search the text, make notations, etc. Not exactly groundbreaking, either. The point: The book is available in several different formats. Just a few years ago it would have been audio and print only. A few years before that, just print.

Publishing is already evolving, and it's only going to become more rapid when there's powerful devices to deliver the content.

Like an iTablet.

The Amazon.com Kindle is already successful, but why? Is it the special electronic ink that looks like regular print ink? No way. It's successful because it has two things: Content and easy, fast distribution. A Kindle owner can find and buy many books quickly, without leaving their spot on the beach.

What's Apple have?

Apple has the best content generation and distribution model already built. Millions of iPhone and iPod touch owners are already using it, and using it frequently.

If you add a superb multi-purpose device that's powerful and flexible, publishers will find ways to build content for it. We've already seen traditional publishers bring special apps to the App Store: The New York Times has a dedicated reader app, as does The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. All are quite handy. In fact, I much prefer using these three readers on my iPhone than I do on my MacBook when I'm at my desk with my big 24-inch monitor. Why? Easy access no matter where I'm at.

What About Newspapers?

Part of the joy of the newspaper is the big paper print. Spreading it around on the floor on Sunday morning, holding it up and crinkling the pages. Very nice. But inefficient. If I could get newspaper content on a handy portable iTablet like device, I might like that. Wouldn't matter if it was raining, snowing, or if the paperboy was running late.

The fact is, newspapers have been flopping and gasping like fish in a shallow stream for years. Will an iTablet save them? No way. Change how we access newspapers? You bet -- it's just another new avenue.

The Textbook Wild Card

Cost is a problem. Consumers will shell out for a smartphone, but what about an iTablet? That's the big question. Still, how about college students? High school students? Elementary students? They all have textbooks in common, and textbooks are freakishly expensive, heavy, and obsolete all too quickly. Schools could provide electronic versions via a killer iTablet device for a fraction of the cost -- as long as publishers would be willing to play ball. Right now, book publishers get shafted in the used textbook market. With a new distribution model based on iTunes and the App Store, book publishers could offer textbooks at a lower price (cutting out distribution costs), and wipe out the pesky used book issue at the same time. They could easily end up with more sales.

Meanwhile, students would have something more useful -- searchable text, handy-cut-and-paste snippet tools, multimedia, and up-to-date information. Not to mention lighter backpacks.

If elementary schools are already shelling out for MacBooks, might not iTablets be a better idea?

How about travelers on planes? Yeah, I like buying magazines, but when I fly, I'm limited to packing just a few -- too many, and my bag is too heavy. An iTablet solves that problem, too. Plus, I'd have ready archives. And might they not also be searchable? Heck, isn't this what Apple's Cover Flow and latest Spotlight search functions are all about?

When Apple gets around to figuring out the hardware and all the logistics for an iTablet, it'll definitely have an effect on the publishing industry. There won't be overnight shifts, but take what is sure to be a gorgeous device, add usability features that Apple is known for, then toss in the iTunes distribution model, if not a publisher's kit and program modeled after Apple's current iPhone developer program, and yeah, we're going to see new ways to publish take off.

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