Why magazines won’t be digital in ten years

Well, if you have this device that will provide you access to all the video, audio and digital content there is, will you be using it to flip through a souped up PDF? … As I’m sure there are some who will stumble onto this post and who will be convinced I’m out of my mind, I’ll restate several things that are known by those who read this blog with some regularity (all 12 of you): I own an iPhone and use it all day, everyday.

As usual, Chris Anderson is a voice of reason when he answers a question that implies magazines will be replaced in a decade or so by something digital that is distributed via a new device. Will it happen in a decade? he is asked. “No,” says Chris, “Technology adoption happens slowly. This is the editor of Wired telling you no. Obviously, newspapers are going to be changing dramatically over the next few years, but magazines are not newspapers. And I think magazines 10 years from now are going to look something like they do now.”

I’ll go further: magazines (like Chris, I won’t extend the following prediction to newspapers) will never be “replaced” by any digital device, especially the device hypothesized in the article:

“…you’ll walk onto a plane, or a subway, or a soon-to-be-invented mode of transport, and you’ll tuck a little electronic book under your arm. Inside that little book, which will be very expensive at first but soon will cost $150, there’ll be a series of mylar “pages,” and there will be small buttons off to the side, and once you hit one of them, whoooosh, words and photos from Vanity Fair will suddenly appear.

The problem with this future-scape is this: The technology/delivery channel being described is not a magazine. It may use the metaphors associated with a print magazine, but it’s not a magazine. It’s another media platform. It’s another distribution channel. And frankly, whenever the device being described breaks the $200 barrier, the last thing people will be doing with it is flipping through a souped-up PDF of Vanity Fair.

Moreover, the media platform being described in the scenario is more likely to replace whatever you’re reading this blog post with than replace the print magazine format.

You see, the device being described is already here — it’s just not the right size yet. For years, I’ve been writing about the device I now call the iPod Touch Book (or Rumor #3). Last year, I even comp’d up an illustration of what it would look like.

The device could be widely available 1-3 years from now. Indeed, today’s announcement about a new Intel chip could have a direct bearing on this new device.

So why won’t this incredible device replace magazines? Well, if you have this device that will provide you access to all the video, audio and digital content there is, will you be using it to flip through a souped up PDF? There’s an easy answer to this question that anyone who has used the Internet can answer: No. You’ll be using it to do the kinds of things you do with your computer. You’ll access all the content published by magazine companies in the form you’re now accessing it via the device you’re using to read this.

When it comes to magazines, you’ll be reading them on paper.

Addendum for those who aren’t familiar with this blog:

As I’m sure there are some who will stumble onto this post and who will be convinced I’m out of my mind, I’ll restate several things that are known by those who read this blog with some regularity (all 12 of you): I own an iPhone and use it all day, everyday. I’m fairly comfortable with my understanding of the incredible potential with that device. I own a Kindle and download and read about 2-3 eBooks a month using it, so I’m fairly comfortable with my understanding of that device. Indeed, I’m a huge fan of the potential of eBook readers — especially if Apple creates the iPod Touch Book.

However, my enthusiasm for such devices does not overwhelm my understanding of the history of media, technology and user adoption. As I’ve said every time I head into one of these magazine apologist rants, the magazine format is not a business model. Business models that depend on magazines — newsstand distributed mass-consumer magazines, for example, or transaction-oriented trade magazines — could one day slide into a Smithsonian Exhibit. However, magazines that support a business model (university development, for example) will likely grow as online strategies strengthen the communities who will want to expand their story-telling to print.

I also refuse to accept the notion that advertisers will leave magazines — or broadcast TV, for that matter. Why? Well, for one thing, the world’s best brand spends only a fraction of its advertising budget online: the majority goes to TV and, wow, magazines, along with a healthy chunk of outdoor spending. If you want to follow the leading brand (that’s what marketers do), you’ll hesitate before shifting all your advertising dollars online — even if it’s distributed on devices created by the world’s best brand.

Later: As often happens, when I write things during flights and that are responding to something that causes me to rant, I write in a way that confuses even me — when I read it later. My point is not to dismiss the appropriateness of digital magazines in certain circumstances. And if you enjoy reading or publishing digital magazines, I am not suggesting you’re wrong — as mentioned, I am currently working on projects that have digital publications as a component and I enjoy reading books on my Kindle. In these rants, I’m merely emphasizing my belief that the roles of print magazines and so-called “digital magazines” are not the same — and that digital magazines may grow in importance and acceptance, but they will not replace print magazines as a medium, even if certain titles “convert” some or all of their circulation to digital products. My second, and perhaps more passionate argument is focused on those who believe the highest and best usage of hand held digital devices is replicating a physical product. My argument is this (and has always been this): New technology enables new experiences and new media — rarely (if ever) is new technology’s ultimate use in replicating old media.

  • Rex: I am one of your gang of 12. Meaning, that I come to your site on a regular basis. I don’t agree with all that you have postulated, but I love your thinking anyway. I am platform indifferent, to the delivery of words written correctly so that they have meaning, information and interest. But the page format of a magazine I think can/and will maintain it integrity over the years. Something that is edited, niched, designed, paginated has worth to the reader. It also has a beginning, a middle and an end. Your description of the future reading experience does not contain that formula. A magazine is as it was originally designed . . . a storehouse. In this case an organized and edited storehouse.

  • Michael Subasic

    Have a look at Zinio reader. It doesn’t have all the magazines yet, but I’m hoping it soon will. This is how I read my mags, not in paper, but electronically on my laptop (which is always with me by the way). Why would I buy a separate device when I can read it on my laptop, a device I already own.

    The graphics are magazine quality, I can access the links directly off the pages, make notes on the pages, and lessen the impact on the environment.

    If magazine publishers think about it, they can change slightly less to deliver electronically, and save big on printing and publishing costs, delivery costs. The only paper magazines I read are at the airport while I’m waiting, and I don’t buy those.

  • Rex Hammock

    @Bo – I appreciate what you’ve written here and what you’ve said and written on this topic over the years. I’ve become agnostic about platforms and delivery methods. If readers/clients/viewers/members want content delivered via smoke signals, I’m all on board.

    @Michael – I am familiar with Zinio, Nxtbook, Texterity, etc. and believe there is a role for digital magazines. However, I do not see them “replacing” magazines. They may augment magazines. Or they may compliment magazines. Or they may archive magazines. But the technology that enables me to read a digital magazine can do so much more, to use it as a mere eBook reader is like shooting a fly with a bazooka.

    That said, I have a few projects where we are actively using digital magazine formats to enhance the product.

  • I’m a digital native since the age of 6, but called me old fashioned but I really like the user experience of print. Don’t get me wrong, my laptop cafe experience at Fido or Panera still beats the periodical section at Vanderbilt for keeping up to date with the latest breaking news.

    In an age where DSL and satellite TV can be 100% wiped out by a storm, digital still has a long way to go.

    Further, the switch to 100% digital or even 75% represents too big a shift in culture. I wonder if a further downward shift in prices triggered by Google Scholar or Amazon would cause a bit more of a shift.