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Beware of turtle-necked strangers bearing gifts, or: The iPad is a many-edged device

Rarely have I been so conflicted as while trying to evaluate Apple’s much-hyped iPad.
On the one hand I can see the real potential in an instant-on, beautifully-engineered, letter-sized touch screen device that plays videos and music, that replaces books, magazines and newspapers, and offers print publishers the same simple digital storefront that music and video folks have had for years with iTunes
Simply put — I want it.SteveiPad.jpg
On the other hand, I look at Steve Jobs, loose and lanky on that Moscone Centre stage, smiling lightly and offering the world his latest shiny steel and plastic fetish object – the iPad – and I can’t help but see the Pied Piper of Hamelin softly playing an irresistible melody on his flute, luring our children to a watery grave.
The iPad lives in a locked-down world, an artificial universe and marketplace tightly controlled by Apple. Everything and anything allowed on the device will sink or swim according to Steve’s wishes. That includes YOU and your content. To get on the iPad – and you will want to get on it – you will have to cede control to Steve: your price, the form of your content, perhaps even the content itself; all will have to meet with Steve’s approval.
Yet.
Yet, it’s a really cool device. I’ve carried an iPod Touch around every single day since shortly after they came out. The interface is intuitive and a delight to use: pinching and spreading my fingers to zoom out or in; scrolling up and down with a simple finger flick; swiping through image after image or screen after screen — it all just works and works very, very well. The thought of a magazine-sized version has me salivating.
Take a look at the two very different touch screen magazine prototypes linked to at the end of this column (Sports Illustrated and a generic magazine prototype from a brilliant design firm) and you too will be drooling.
But.
But, most of the people who are talking about the iPad as the “newspaper saviour” are focusing on the built-in subscription possibilities, on how easy it will be to charge people subscription fees to get our newspaper on this marvellous device. Most of that Technicolor (TM) dreaming imagines a touch-based newspaper interface that allows you to browse a newspaper on the device just as if it were paper! And that’s where, to badly mix my metaphors, the swelling triumphant music is interrupted by the harsh screeching scratch of a phonograph needle being dragged off the record.
Why are we so anxious to duplicate the print experience digitally?
Why are we imagining that people will continue to want to pay for this tired, old, bindle-staff bundle of ads and local and wire content that has been the newspaper’s formula for over a century, when the majority of that content is available for free elsewhere? As is a whole universe of other free and engaging information?
Why do we imagine that the same readers who have deserted us in waves, in tsunamis of fleeing readers, will suddenly return because – look! “It makes a paper-crinkling sound when I turn the page!”
They won’t.
Our current, loyal, subscribers however, will.
And our print circulation and advertising will decline accordingly.
It’s the loyal newspaper lover who will swoon for the new, interactive, imitative digital tablet newspaper; that relatively well-to-do swath of 50 + year olds. The same ones who are currently in the habit of paying us $20, $30, $40 each month to have us cut down trees, pulp them, print the news on their flattened remains, fold it and truck it to their doorstep each morning. They’ll pay and pay happily for the cool new version they can skim while sitting on the couch. And god love them for it. But still.
This is a very old sin for companies being disrupted by innovation and change — catering to their core while a whole new market sprouts all around, and eventually overruns, them.
I keep remembering that the smart ‘phone’ is on track to replace the desktop computer (it already has in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere). That geo-location, tagging, voice recognition and augmented reality are swiftly moving us into an always-connected world where we will be able to query objects and people around us, simply by looking through a view finder, and get returned the hard won wisdom of a crowd that wants us to know what they know.
I keep looking at that gorgeous iPad, a seductive consumption device, and see people sitting in easy chairs and sofa, leaning back and watching stuff. And then I look around the subway car and see the dozens of kids and cultures interacting with their little screens – sending texts and tweets, reading reviews and posting pics. And I don’t have to wonder where the future lies.

Worth Reading:

Pew Project for Excellence In Journalism, Newspapers summary essay by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute at (Some sobering statistics on American newspapers)

Worth Watching:
Sports Illustrated (sort of) viral demo on You Tube
Mag+ an exercise in imagination by Bonnier R&D

(Cross posted from Shift Lock, my news and technology column in The Publisher)

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