By Harry McCracken | Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 11:16 am
[NOTE: I wrote this last week as a guest post for FOLIO, the magazine industry’s trade magazine and Web site.]
In the weeks leading up to Apple’s launch of its tablet device Wednesday, a strange fairy tale started to gain currency. It cast the publishing business as a hapless Sleeping Beauty—and Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a Prince Charming who’d kiss the industry out of its slumber with a combination of hardware, software, and services that would instantly restore consumers’ willingness to pay for quality content.
As I sat in the audience at the event, I slowly figured out that it wouldn’t provide a ready-made happy ending for magazine publishers. Apple did reveal that the gizmo includes an e-book reader, iBooks—but as the name suggests, that software is meant for books, not periodicals. It also let the New York Times show off a handsome app for reading that paper. But the only magazine that came up during the event was TIME—and that was when Jobs showed how good its Web site looked in the iPad’s Safari browser. It mostly served as a reminder that it’s not entirely clear why many consumers would choose to pay for digital magazines when the same content is available on the Web for free.
Despite everything, the great unveiling left me feeling optimistic about the the iPad’s impact on magazine publishing, as did the hands-on experience I got with a unit after the presentation. The PC has never been a very satisfactory device for reading magazine-style content—even the landscape orientation of desktop and laptop displays is all wrong. And for all the things that are right about the Kindle and its competitors, their sluggish monochrome E-Ink screens are a massive compromise that leaves vibrant print (and online) content feeling lifeless.
The iPad, by contrast, is the first device that packs all the visual punch and interactivity of the Web into a form factor designed with reading in mind. The 9.7-inch color screen may suck far more power than the Kindle’s E-Ink, but it does crisp photos and smooth video and elegant typography, making it an upgrade over print’s visuals rather than the Kindle’s downgrade. And Apple took everything it learned about touch interfaces, added some potent hardware components, and came up with a breathtakingly fluid, intuitive user interface. (Trust me on this one: You need to touch an iPad before you render a verdict on it.)
What Apple didn’t do this week is to solve most of the magazine business’s problems for it. The iPad doesn’t come with e-reader software designed with magazines in mind, so it’s neutral on the subject of what a print periodical should look like in iPad form. Apple also said nothing about selling periodicals through its iTunes Store, a move which would have helped kickstart new paid-content initiatives.
In time, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the iPad added magazine-ready software and services. For now, though, the gadget is a fascinating container for the ideas of any magazine publisher that chooses to support the platform. “Here’s an amazing piece of hardware,” Jobs seemed to be saying, by not saying anything about magazines. “You figure out how to make magazines make sense on it.”
My guess is that the publishers who take up the challenge won’t realize any immediate financial windfall. But they’ll get something better out of the deal: A chance to reimagine their content and their business on a device that offers infinitely intriguing possibilities for both.
That’s no fairytale. But wouldn’t it be more magical if our industry wound up solving its own problems rather than complying with Steve Jobs’ vision of its future?