Tablets: The Ministry Has Fallen ... They are Coming, They are Coming
Like many people, I reacted with a blend of anticipation but skepticism (let's call it skeptitation) when the iPad dropped earlier this year. The hype around technology products, and Apple products in particular, can be overwhelming. I rage against this over-hyping as much as I can, but there is no denying that the iPad has made a significant impact on information providers and their strategies.
So much so that—you might want to sit down for this—a whole slew of competitors are joining the fray, or intend to very soon. Now before I come off as trashing technology companies for playing follow-the-leader with Apple, let's be clear that every industry does this. The movie industry: Remember 1998, when we had two movies about an asteroid destroying the earth (Armageddon and Deep Impact). Do you think that was an accident? And how about those penguin movies? Really guys? Everyone from car companies to food product companies engages in the "me too" game. Someone has a successful product, and a competitor immediately comes out with a product that is just like it, only "so much better than the [insert name of previously successful product here]." This is not news.
So it's not like I'm picking on the tech industry. But the response to the iPad has been fast and furious, and even though I find it amusing, in the end analysis, this is a very good thing. Competition, as you know, means that consumers win. If Apple knows it's the only tablet in town, they can charge through the roof for their product, while not feeling compelled by competition to improve the device or add new features. But if they are losing market share from other competitors in a crowded marketplace, the customer wins.
And the game is actually kind of fun to watch. So Apple makes a big splash with the iPad, but pretty soon we start to see whispers from other companies about their coming devices, and then you'll hear that dreaded phrase: It's a potential "iPad Killer" (why are all our business clichés so violent?).
Like I said, it's fun to watch, but it's also a very good thing that the iPad has made such a huge splash, and the competitors are now scrambling to get into the game.
I'm reading wonderful things about the new Samsung Galaxy Tablet, and the new Barnes & Noble NookColor looks very cool. It's interesting that immersive reading- only devices such as the Kindle and the Nook existed before the iPad, and then the iPad came along and did so much more beyond just being a reading device. The NookColor is really the first, or at least the best, response to the iPad from a previous reading-only device. And there's a ton more, such as the HP Slate, Dell Streak, Blackberry Playbook and the to-be-named Google/HTC tablet. Things are happening so fast in this space it makes my head spin.
And don't think for a second that Apple is going to stand pat. Rumors are already circulating about the new features on the iPad 2.0, including a front-facing camera and improved touch display.
There is also the little matter of content for these devices. You know, something to read when you're done playing Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies.
Reading for these devices basically breaks down into a few categories, with some interesting models emerging as well. There are the traditional content reading experiences (books or other content being delivered via the iBookstore or via the Kindle App on the iPad). This content is very similar to reading a book on a printed page, but you're just doing it digitally.
Amazon essentially made the market for these types of titles after many starts and stops by others, and it seems that the eBook market is finally getting some legs under it. Publishers are scrambling to get their titles into ePub format so that they can "be there" in this market, which has a ton of business issues to work out (pricing, DRM, quality control, and did I mention pricing?).
Then there is the matter of content as apps, or applications. Now this is not for everyone, but if a title (a book, a magazine, etc.) has enough popularity to justify it, a content provider can invest in the development of a custom app where the content is available, kept up-to-date and enhanced (with things like videos, games, movie trailers, etc.). This content is usually glitzy and demos really well, but I remain unconvinced of the long-term viability of this model (and I'm not alone).
Remember the early days of eBooks on the web? There were all sorts of models being tried, and I remember one in particular by Stephen King that people pointed to as an example that made my head want to explode. I love Stephen King—he's a great writer and a fellow Red Sox fan—but he can write a shopping list and there are people in this world who will buy it. He's just that good, and that popular. Using him as a model—when his potential audience is anyone with a pulse!—is meaningless to a professional or scholarly publisher who is trying to serve a, shall we say, niche market.
The same thing is happening in the "content as apps" space. Wired Magazine and Sports Illustrated make great demos and can really show off what the iPad can do, but they are popular brands in the offline world, and their success or failure in the tablet space as apps really doesn't translate to other types of content.
And even in the magazine space, it really depends on the type of content. As you might imagine, early iPad adopters tend to favor science-like titles, so titles like Wired and Popular Science have seen significant numbers (the only yardstick they can possibly use is percentage of their print sales) of 12 percent for Popular Science, and 37 percent for Wired. Great article here. But that same article lists non-technical titles selling in the range of 1 percent of their newsstand numbers. Lots of room for growth there.
There are also some new models that have caught my eye. Virgin is launching an "iPad only" magazine, called Project, that takes what I just said and says, "Says you!" Here is a popular brand (Virgin) taking a shot at a completely new venture and just limiting it to the iPad. Seems a little weird, but OK, this will be fun to watch. (How exactly do I get a print subscription?).
And then there is Rupert Murdoch, who is launching a daily iPad newspaper (with Apple) called The Daily, with no website and no print edition, but updated daily for $0.99. Lest you think this is a joke, there is some real juice behind this, as Murdoch has hired 100 journalists and Apple is lending its engineering/product design savvy to the venture. Some folks are using the phrase, "the future of journalism?"—note the question mark.
Whatever the future holds, it is clear that the game is on in the tablet space. Sure, it's going to be over-hyped (heck, it already is). And it is already filled with legitimate products, "me too" devices, and posers (on both the device said and the content side).
But it sure is fun to watch.