Commentary

Now Things Get Complicated

When the hype around Apple iPad subsides, and the top apps have been reviewed, the big question staring the Internet publishing industry in the face will become apparent: How do we profitably reach the people who don't have an iPad?

Apple has never shown an inclination to market its products in a "for everyone" way. Yet, media companies and advertisers need to be able to reach everyone. Reaching everyone -- or nearly -- is why the Internet, viewed through a browser, became so important, and print, radio and television before it. How will media as important as the New York Times, or the thousands of magazines now salivating over the prospect of displaying a colorful and rich version of their produce on the new iPad platform, reach EVERYONE?

It is not criticism of Steve Jobs or Apple to say the iPhone or the iPad isn't more than a minor part of the media distribution picture. From the point of view of what is right for Apple and its shareholders, or even what is good for its customers, Apple's high-value, high-price approach makes sense. Apple has been successful for years, across Macintosh desktop and laptop computers, the iPods, and more recently the iPhones with a strategy of being somewhat exclusive -- higher priced -- with the sacrifice of being available to less people. We can fully expect that approach with the iPad, too. Apple has good reasons for this. By controlling both the hardware and software of its devices, it can more tightly link them while enhancing their performance for those who can afford them. And by keeping its prices up, it can afford the extra R&D to innovate while it has created an aspirational brand that supports profitability.

Almost three years after its launch, the iPhone has 40% market share among AT&T users (impressive), but it is available only on one phone system, which brings down its actual market penetration to only about 14% share of cell phone users (not so impressive). If iPad has similar success, then in 2013 magazine publishers distributing iPad app versions of their content would still be unable to reach more than 85% of their potential market using that channel. Being iPad- or iPhone-dedicated as a distribution channel is like selling your magazine on the newsstand, but only in Safeway: big, but not big enough.

The future of media distribution has many flavors

So when the iPad's "reality distortion field" dies down, publishers will see the future is epublishing to diverse platforms.

Innovation is not coasting to a stop now that the iPad has been launched. New platforms are multiplying like rabbits. Sony's Reader and Kindle came first; now there is Barnes & Noble Nook, Astak EZReader; Bookeen Cybook, Ectaco jetBook, Samsung Papyrus, iRex iLiad. All are poised to compete in the e-reader category. Some of these share aspects of software format, content distribution plans, and even display technology. Then there is the mobile sector; different operating systems (and different apps) for BlackBerry, Symbian OS, Windows Mobile, Goggle's Android, Palm OS etc. This diversity of media delivery opportunity is far wider then you are thinking right now. It includes mobile's opposite, place-based media -- which is emerging as well as a new delivery platform that is easier to deploy and to distribute to than ever before.

It should be clear, then, that if reaching the maximum number of readers and customers - and customers for advertisers -- remains a key strategy for media companies, they'll be doing that on a wider and wider range of devices and platforms. Analog media companies have struggled to adapt to one important new distribution platform in the last 15 years: the browser-based Internet. Over the next 15 years there will be dozens of new opportunities to deliver media company content and services. It's time to begin the education process in earnest; not with highly specific training on particular platforms anointed by management, but with conceptual thinking that provides a framework for taking in each new delivery form. It's time for publishing companies to begin to re-invest in their staffs at all levels. Companies that do so with thrive. New opportunities are emerging every day that their staffs will recognize and exploit. Companies that don't will see the future pass them by.

3 comments about "Now Things Get Complicated".
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  1. Steve Levy from Hype Circle Ad Collective, April 15, 2010 at 9 p.m.

    Totally agree. The hype around the iPad being the future of online publishing is ridiculous. The future has been with us for many years--the web browser. As a former magazine publisher we experimented with the rich media emag formats and the reality was people weren't that interested even though we were delivering our print in a similar format online. Plus our advertisers couldn't get their heads around full page ads being delivered online. Browser-based websites and blogs are perfectly capable of delivering media and advertising with plenty of bells and whistles. And they do so in a format that can be read by the widest userbase, including the iPad (unless Flash is involved of course). Quite frankly having seen a couple of the major publishers iPad "apps" I think their delivery of content is a step back compared to their web pages that have clearly benefitted from years of development to optimize the onscreen experience. Yes, the design and presentation of online media will progress, but it won't be Apple or its iPad that sets the standard. And BTW I'm a MacBook/iPhone user.

  2. Mark McLaughlin, April 15, 2010 at 11:13 p.m.

    Excellent perspective, as always, Dan.

    Publishers have struggled with the advice you are giving for a very basic reason. In the analog era, smart professionals decided how the audience would get the content distributed to them. The role of the content has stayed pretty stable but now the audience is in charge of the decision about the method of distribution.

    The way to get ahead of the curve is to fundamentally buy into the idea that your content will be available to each individual consumer via the channel that is best for them and the exact moment they want your content.

    Publishing executives look at all of these new distribution channels and they get frustrated because they don't know which ones to pick. They get paralyzed because they think that they are still the ones who pick the channel of distribution. They are looking at the challenge through the wrong end of the telescope.

  3. Daniel Ambrose from ambro.com, corp., April 16, 2010 at 1:36 p.m.

    Thank you Mark. You hit the nail on the head. The execs a the top have been like deer in headlights. Fear of making the wrong decision has held them back. I say; let the market speak.

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