Re-ranting: Let me try again, real slowly: the Apple iPad is neither a “tablet” nor merely an e-publication reader


First off, if you are a reporter and you want to write about the coming digital devices that are going to be whatever Apple is going to come out with next year, stop calling it a tablet. Here’s a Wikipedia article about tablet computers. What you’ll read there is a device that has only one thing in common with the mythological Apple device — it is rectangular. So listen up: When it comes to anything that’s like a computer, the word “tablet” means something completely different than what is about to hit the world. Apple (and, those who attempt to enter the fray after seeing the Apple device) won’t call it a tablet. I believe Apple will call it an iPad (a name I credit Chris Messina with using first.). And we will all be talking about pad media in six months as if it had been around for longer than, well, I haven’t heard it called “pad media” before, so, now. Tablet is a word that describes fully functional computers that geeks have loved, but the only people who use them are doctors, some industrial process people and actors playing FBI and CSI agents on TV.


An “iPad” device
(concept: Isamu Sanada)

A pad device won’t be a fully functional computer — like a notebook computer. But you’ll be able to run “apps” on it and surf the Internet. It will be like an iPod Touch, only with a bigger screen.

Okay, that’s out of the way. Let’s get on to what this re-rant is really about:

If you’ve read this blog for ten days or ten years, you know one thing: I don’t believe the best use of a new medium is to attempt replicating an old one. So I cringe just a bit when I read a story like the one in Wednesday’s NY Times about the way in which (as has been discussed on this blog many times) magazine publishers are getting ready for the magical appearance of the mythological Apple iPad “and other such devices.”

The article includes a key point that most of the publishers quoted seem to miss (as typical):

The new approaches depend on two assumptions: that consumers will finally embrace the tablet computers that manufacturers have promised for years, and that they will want to read magazine-style content on them. Publishers are creating magazine like products for these devices, but different mediums lend themselves to different reading styles, as the Web showed.

(Sidenote: Can someone remind me who those manufacturers are who have been promising tablet computers for years? Manufacturers have been manufacturing tablet computers for years. What they haven’t been manufacturing, they haven’t been promising. I follow this stuff pretty closely and I’ve heard pundits and bloggers and fan-boys and Michael Arrington promise the devices, but “manufacturers”? No. But back to the main point.)

So, first important thing to note: The devices that are going to be coming out are, I’m sorry to disappoint the publishers, not going to be marketed as “magazine reading devices.” And despite all of the “getting ready for the tablets” activity, people aren’t going to be running out to buy them so they can replicate the magazine reading experience. No more than they purchase computers or videogame platforms to replicate the magazine reading experience.

People replace old media with new — they don’t replicate old media with new. (Well, at first they do, but not in the long run.)

Even the Kindle, perhaps the only gadget I have that seems most to replicate a preceding medium (the book), is not a success for the “replication” reason. How do I know that? Well, about a month before the Kindle was announced, I purchased a book called Print is Dead and chapter 7 of that book, page 115 in the ironically printed version of the book, is the author’s ill-timed explanation of why the eBook was such a flop — to that point.

How “FAIL” was that? To come out with a book about the end of print — but feeling the need to write a chapter on why the eBook was a failure at precisely the point in time when it suddenly became a success.

But I’m glad the author wrote that chapter because it allows me to echo what the author was saying at the time: eBook readers have been around since the 90s — and they flopped.

So it was not the technology that made the Kindle a success. But if it wasn’t the technology, why did Amazon succeed where others had failed?

Amazon got two things right:

1. The Kindle Store

As a reading platform, the Kindle device was not really that much of an advancement over the decade of attempts that came before it. Where they succeeded was in the way the digital books were delivered. For all of Amazon’s lack of learning from Apple’s mastery of product design, Amazon learned one thing from watching Apple capture the digital media download market — at the correct price point, digital media will sell if you get the “store” part and “storage” part and the “playing” parts all working together — and drop-dead simple for non-technical people to understand and use.

So, like the iTunes Store and the iTunes desktop software and the iPod/iPhone, Amazon set up the Kindle store so that a user could seamlessly find, buy, organize and read a book all on the same device. They even out-did Apple: they made it where nothing about the Kindle had to be plugged into a computer to be used. I’ve had a Kindle for almost two years and I’ve never plugged it into my computer — never.

I’m still amazed with the ability I have to hear about a book on NPR and have it purchased and loaded into my Kindle within 60 seconds. That is what is revolutionary about the Kindle — the ability to turn book purchasing into an impulse market among people who don’t hang out at bookstores.

2. Pricing

Listen up publishing industry who is licking its chops about all the money they’ll be able to make from publishing magazines on the mythological Apple iPad that may or may not be appearing next year. The Kindle dropped the price of reading a newly published book by half — and more, in many cases. I can now read first novels or dense biographies for $10 instead of $25 and up.

In other words, it was “dropping the price of books” that made the Kindle a success.

Every article I’ve read about magazine publishers and new devices has focused on how the publishers believe they can increase the price of digital media by packaging it in a magazine format (perhaps spiced up with video) that is displayed on a rectangular thin hunk of plastic instead of on a computer screen.

No doubt, some people will line up to purchase some content — and some of that content will be packaged like a magazine, but the notion that integrating video into print and offering on a pad media device is going to suddenly convince people to whip out their squares, well, I’m sorry to be the barer of bad tidings.

Bottomline: I love magazines. And I will love creating magazine-like content for iPads. I will love creating e-magazines and ebooks and e-you-name-it. But reading a magazine is going to get only a tiny, tiny segment of the time I spend using an iPad. It’s a device that will connect me to the world — with everyone I know or have known or will know. I will be able to help run a business on it. I will be able to talk — probably video conference — with co-workers, clients, friends and family using it. I will be able to listen to every song ever recorded and watch every TV show and movie ever produced on it.

It will be a place where people live.

To think the iPad’s highest and best use will be reading content presented via a magazine-metaphor interface is, well, missing a rather big point.