One week ago, I picked up my new prescription for eye glasses. I have astigmatism and, truth be told, I haven't had a serious checkup in 20 years. Apparently there was a severe change over those two decades. The doctor who conducted my checkup babbled on about whether I could handle the new prescriptions which — in guy talk — is pretty much the equivalent of challenging my manhood.
I put the glasses on for the first time, my vision was horribly distorted, the floor magically rose up, and the pit of my stomach did a turn reserved for astronauts and roller-coaster freaks. As I walked home, I didn't quite make it 50 meters before re-introducing the City of Dallas to that day's breakfast and lunch.
Similarly distorting for me was my introduction to the iPad this weekend: no doubt a spark to a revolution for publishers, but not a revolution unto itself.
Like my new prescription glasses, I'm going to need time to adjust to the iPad.
The iPad is a hybrid of functionality, which is great if you're a technology geek. So many of the early reviews trip over themselves in praise of the technological achievement in this gorgeous device.
The reviews don't answer whether people will shell out their own money and shift/augment their media consumption habits on other platforms to make room for the iPad in their lives. Is the functionality that it provides going to be that disruptive?
For example, I don't reach for the device for any one thing specifically:
Listening to music?
Watching TV shows?
Surfing the web?
If you find yourself using the iPad for 5+ of these tasks to the exclusion of platforms that did these tasks for you in the past, then it will inevitably be the immersive experience the Utopiasts dreamed of.
Its best features, so far, are reading e-books and viewing movies. Its best feature likely will become the Application Boom that will redefine content.
And the early app news for media companies is mixed — though it's very early.
The initial apps by media companies vary greatly from a content perspective:
Basics: Time magazine and the New York Times' “Editors' Choice” simply transferred the print experience to the iPad with a few digital navigational tweaks. Hopefully, just first efforts.
Radical: The Associated Press (AP) displays articles in a non-linear way — kudos for trying something different yet the change analogy set in (see eye glasses, above). National Public Radio walks the fine line between narratives and audio in a horizontal view of content that produces more vertigo than satisfaction.
Clunky: The Wall Street Journal and USA Today apps put a new spin on their print platforms, yet the first versions are slow and not intuitive. Similarly, Thomson Reuters was nearly inspired, but came across as too slow.
My inspired first choices combined the basics with new information architecture without putting me in the equivalent situation of a radical change in eye glasses prescriptions. I'm open to new ways of consuming news, but not such a radical shift that the information design gets in the way of the content.
These inspired first efforts came from:
Bloomberg: A gorgeous app that takes a lot of content, simplifies it, makes it sexy, and integrates advertising.
BBC News: There's something bold about this app that uses visuals as a horizontal navigational bar: simplicity yet with a sense of urgency.
As for advertising, the default format appears to be the banner at the bottom of the vertical page — not original but in a fixed position on the screen similar to iPhone advertising.
Yet turn the iPad horizontally (landscape view), and publishers provide different options. For example, the New York Times' Chase Sapphire ad appears at the bottom of the screen in both views with no scrolling necessary. USA Today's Courtyard by Marriott banner at the bottom of the vertical screen sveltely becomes a square ad at the top right in landscape view. Click-throughs to both ads provide sophisticated overlay advertising.
By contrast, the Wall Street Journal's ad for the new Buick Lacrosse is almost lost on the page, with a small “sponsored by” bug at the bottom left of both page views. Clicking on the bug generates an overlay banner ad which, clicked on, serves up a Buick advertisement contained on GM's web site.
Price and Business Model
I'm going to withhold too much commentary on pricing as there isn't much to go by. The early outliers are the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.
As a consumer, I did a double-take when I realised that I wasn't downloading Time magazine's app for US$4.99 (presumably, this means US$259.48 for 52 weekly editions) — but the entire April 12 edition. I can't quite yet mentally process this. It's an iPad version of a print magazine. To me, this was tougher to navigate, and I'm not sure how I archive this or whether I should just delete it from my iPad desktop after it's been sufficiently consumed.
By contrast, the Wall Street Journal is selling me a bundle of services for the iPad — the last seven days, unique content, and saving/sharing tools — for US$17.29 per month (US$207.48 per year or US$0.57 per day). They're doing this, after a trial period, whether you are a subscriber to their print newspaper or web site.
Time magazine appears to be going after the single-copy, transient consumer, while the Wall Street Journal appears to be locking in the subscriber relationship.
The iPad isn't a “must-have” for a mass market of consumers. It's a product for a niche populated by the highly engaged. And that's an important niche for newspaper publishers learning how to serve a rainbow of audiences.
To move beyond this niche, tablets have to drop in price, and tablet experiences must differ from their branded cousins in print, the PC-based web, and the smartphone.
Is it worth the US$30,000 to US$100,000 that an iPad app would cost a typical publisher to develop for such a niche audience? Is there sufficient advertiser demand? Is there sufficient reader demand? Can the perception of your news brand as being a first-mover on a device like the iPad be worth charging incrementally more on other platforms?
Meanwhile, the issues that confound me upon the iPad's launch are:
How does Apple, and other tablet makers, market the bundle of functionality without diluting the device's core competencies? If you had introduced a car 30 years ago that would have a digital map, cellular phone capabilities built-in, heated seats, and be a computer on wheels, it would have been a product without a market. By introducing features one by one over the years, how could we drive without this bundle?
How can publishers generate profitable incremental revenue in a seamless way that builds on the existing subscriber relationship instead of re-selling the news brand's value proposition platform by platform? If the Wall Street Journal model works, good for them. Yet looking at app feedback in iTunes, one of the quirks this weekend was iPad customers livid over paying for apps that already existed with, say, the iPhone — with no discernable value except the screen was bigger. Some of the blueprints publishers have put forth, notably the Journal, fall into this category. Why can't we have a “newspaper everywhere” model bundled into the subscription (membership?) price?
Like my new eye glasses, the dizziness, nausea, and vertigo of a radical new device are slowly dissipating. While I don't think the iPad is the revolution, I hold out hope that it's a spark for a new era of creativity and business models that didn't exist before the latest Apple hype.
Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @earljwilkinson. This post is part of The Earl Blog at INMA.org.
Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. In his interactions with INMA members worldwide, Earl has one of the broadest views of newspapers of anyone serving our industry today. He is a trendspotter and a leading advocate for cultural change, transformation, and innovation. This blog represents his unique view of the emerging global newsmedia industry.