New toys, new reading habits?

I’ve held off from contributing to the iPad hype, because I wanted to let some of the dust settle, and because its real disappointment is that it doesn’t answer any of the unresolved questions about reading on digital devices, but I’m going to spend some time now thinking about those questions.

The publishing industry is braced for its iPod moment, the technology that will finally tip people over the edge from print to electronic formats. No one has any real doubt that it’s going to happen. It probably won’t obliterate print, but it will change fundamentally how most texts come before people. The Amazon Kindle and the Sony eReader offer one way forward, a discrete reading device designed to address the plain fact that ordinary computer screens are not as comfortable to read as paper. Monochrome e-ink gets around that problem, though neither device seems quite there yet.

I don’t want to give too much attention to the iPad, but the questions it raises are generally illustrative. The iPad presents itself not exactly as a computer, but a new kind of media platform, offering music, film and text reading (its credentials as an internet client are severely compromised by the absence of Flash). But I wonder if you can bring these things together? You need colour for film, and for the kind of sound-and-video-enhanced newspaper and magazine experience that media owners are speculating could offer a way to the future. But the kind of colour screen being used seems likely to have all the same drawbacks as ordinary laptops when it comes to reading continuous text like a book.

To put it another way, it’s hard to see what the iPad offers that you can’t already get for less money in a netbook, and nobody’s expecting netbooks to drive a coach and horses through the publishing industry. Steve Jobs seemed strangely blinkered about this, dismissing netbooks because they didn’t do anything better than anything else. You could argue reasonably that they do data entry better than an iPad or anything else without a keyboard, but they have sold by the bucketload for very simple reasons – they give you just-about-acceptable performance for most computer tasks with good battery life at a very low price. They have the all the characteristics of a disruptive technology so presciently described by Clay Christiansen back in the late 1990s: they recalibrate the balance of price and performance in computing, making it hard for those whose cost structures are built around selling high performance to compete.

The iPad doesn’t look like a disruptive device. Its success depends on the mass market (rather than the gadgerati) moving even more of their media consumption onto a new device. Right now I doubt that’s going to happen.

I’m puzzled by the format of the iPad, too large to be easily portable, but not functional enough to take the place of a laptop. The obvious justification for the size is the display of a digital version of the New York Times, and much of the comment around the device centred on whether the iPad could save the newspaper industry. Here I can’t help thinking that the problem is not with the device – just that newspapers as we know them are dead, and trying to replicate them online with a few multimedia bells and whistles is a doomed enterprise.

Newspapers are dead? I don’t think that our appetite for news or analysis-based features is dead, but the way and places we expect to read are changing. Newspapers have survived disruptive change before, most obviously with the advent of TV news, not trying to compete with breaking stories but morphing into media that combine more reflective comment and entertainment.

It looks increasingly as if younger people in particular just don’t see the point. The BBC offers all the news they need, reported clearly and as far as possible without bias. Blogs in the meantime offer as much comment as most of us can stomach. Many blogs are as well written as anything you’ll find in a newspaper, and many are at least as well informed and intelligent as the outpourings of paid columnists. For niche interests and entertainment reviews the blogosphere is also becoming increasingly sufficient.

Blogs cannot replace good disinterested reporting or the critical role of journalism in holding administrations to account. Journalism as such remains important. We need a media model that will somehow allow these things to continue, without the dross that fills up so much of an average daily paper. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps the Financial Times’ approach of offering free general coverage and then paid-for value-added services to its specialised audience could be replicated for other titles, but perhaps these specialised audiences will prove economically elusive. Meanwhile the general newspaper with an audience defined by class image and political allegiance may be on the skids (and would it really be such a loss?)

But if we don’t need to read large format publications electronically what’s the iPad for? Watching TV and film? Perhaps, but if the real allure is media mobility then smaller form factors may be a better and more compelling compromise.

The iPad may find a customer base among people who want its media richness, coupled with the ability to do occasional work tasks (in this it’s like an inverse mirror of a netbook, which is good for most work tasks and limited multimedia). What it doesn’t do is address the question of whether an electronic reader will replace the printed book. Its offering in this space is exactly the same as a laptop computer with a decent screen. Its only distinction is (perhaps) an iTunes-like buying model, but it does not have this field to itself (and you can be sure that Amazon will prove a fiercer competitor than the rabbit-in-the-headlights music companies).

As I write Amazon has just announced Kindle reading tools that will run on the iPad and other tablet devices. The company is wisely hedging its bets. In the next entry I’ll write some more about the Amazon/Kindle offering, and why I don’t think it will (yet) supplant the printed book.

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