The 2010 CES featured a notable proliferation in slate/tablet/oversized handheld devices, with media attention to match. Consumers now await the unveiling of Apple’s iThing, now scheduled (in an unfortunate collision with Obama’s State of the Union address) for January 27.
With several false starts in the past dozen years, never have expectations for a new category of device risen so high.
Whether made by Apple or someone else, tablets are going to happen, and they will be a very big deal. Improved battery life (and/or reduced power consumption), high-resolution touch-sensitive screens, the amazing look and feel of modern manufacturing and the ever-more pervasive reach of broadband will beckon consumers towards a new kind of relationship with their “personal computers” (a term soon to be redefined).
The Meek Shall Inherit
The impact of tablets on content producers will be profound, but perhaps the greatest opportunity is for small publishers.
The tablet offers a fresh lease on life for traditional print-publishing concepts and skills. The coming tablet economy will allow the smallest of content developers to present their material with professional flair.
Tablet publishers will not need server infrastructure, Flex/Flash expertise and streaming video feeds in order to succeed. Content producers and (yes) individuals will be able to generate attractive, professional and effective tablet content using nothing more than PDF files. Expensive animations and other eye-candy, while you’ll see them heavily featured in the days to come, are entirely optional. For quality content, the absence of movies and animated control-panels won’t be a barrier to entry. The cost of electronic publishing is about to fall through the floor.
For today’s (remaining) large publishers, tablets are the last, best chance to resurrect their moribund industry. The new format will soon be essential to publishing survival, and to thriving the day after tomorrow. Why is this so?
It’s Back to the Future with Page-Oriented Design
Advertising had become harder and harder to place on web-pages while retaining both eyeballs and a feeling of quality. The tablet form-factor (essentially a combination of screen shape, size and resolution) facilitates print-style display advertising with minimal impact on reader acceptance. Part of what’s so great about the tablet is precisely that it facilitates a combination of old-school design skills with the laser-like targeting of the modern web.
As the great magazine and newspaper publishers of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s knew, in a properly laid-out page, good display advertising need not offend the typical eye. Most modern websites, replete with generic templates and soulless style-sheets, don’t come close in terms of making advertising appear as part of the editorial presentation.
The advertising in the (printed) New York Times fills a heavy proportion of the page area, certainly compared to a quality information-oriented website. Even full-page ads (the paper equivalent of a screen-grabbing pop-up) are part of the mental territory, which is why many still-successful magazines include 30-50% (or more) ad pages. This “content” is accepted, even associated, with the publication in which it appears; the entire package has value.
Layout can accomplish that, and that’s why layout and graphic design are skills to watch in the tablet era. Publishers are (or used to be) familiar with graphic design. Having largely failed to understand and benefit from the seismic changes since Netscape went public 16 years ago, publishers have an entirely new opportunity to reclaim the eyeballs and revenues that have gone astray since. Reconsider and adapt your CMS-driven link farms! With a re-awakening of page–by-page layout and design, the modern era of human-aided design is at hand!
How to Prepare for the Tablet Economy
Here’s my advice to my publishing and periodical clients who’ve asked for a road map to the forthcoming tablet economy.
- Announce “tablet editions” in your near future. Over time, publishers should expect and plan for these editions to take over from existing print-based distribution.
- Start believing that by 2015 or so, younger consumers will own tablets (whatever they are called) more-or-less as they own cell-phones today. Print readership in a wide range of categories will probably fall by 40-60% or more in the same or similar timeframe. Better start moving.
- Recalibrate the print advertising model for “electronic page” advertising. The tablet means the return of page-oriented layout; the page qua page is back! PDF, of course, is the perfect platform technology, and publishers have known PDF for years. Time to wake up to what PDF files can do.
- Hire and retain the best graphic design folks. Don’t worry so much about the multimedia and wizz-bang. Get the good old fashioned basics right first, add the movies once you’ve re-learned the basics.
Periodical and book publishers aren’t the only ones interested in the tablet. Businesses have been wondering about the alleged paperless office for a while, but letting go of the printed page isn’t easy or obvious in many cases. Could tablets be the solution? More about that in an article to follow Apple’s announcement of the iPad (or whatever they call it) on January 27.
By Duff Johnson