He Rode In On A Pale Horse And His Name Was Death. And He Carried An iSlate

The web is all abuzz with thoughts, dreams and excitement about Apple’s soon-to-be-unveiled tablet, the iSlate (or iTablet, or whatever the hell Steve Jobs wants to call the thing.)  Newspaper Death Watch has a nice starting point and roundup of some of the action surrounding Apple’s planned Jan. 26 press announcement.  More than one person seems to believe that the new tablet might be a game-changing event for not just publishing, but for media in general.  While I’m not quite that optimistic, primarily due to the sure-to-be exorbitant price that will keep these devices from being household items for quite a while yet, Apple does makes some pretty cool stuff that has had a sizable impact on their respective markets.

The computers themselves are far, far superior to anything else out there.  Whether that’s due to the hardware, the software or some combintion thereof, I’m not sure.  Of course, when compared to Windows, it’s kind of difficult not to be far, far superior.  The iPod revolutionized how the music consumer goes about acquiring, listening and storing music.  The iPhone changed the expectations we all had for the uses of a cell phone and communication in general.  The iPod Touch is a damned cool little device.  I’m certain that whatever this new entry might be, it’ll alter the landscape for technology and what we expect as consumers from that point forward.  But will this be the savior for publishing?

Yes and no.  And to explain that, let’s look at the iPod and what it has done for the music industry.  The iPod unquestionably has helped usher in an age of digital music free from the hindrances of cassettes, vinyl or CDs.  It has helped open the channels of distribution of music far beyond the controls of the few major industry players.  This age allows far more musicians to earn a comfortable living from their music without relying on the corporate bohemoths, something that generally wasn’t possible in earlier times.  So, yes, for musicians and the industry on the whole, the iPod and resulting upheavel has been a good thing.  But if you are one of the previous dominant, monopolistic players, it has been anything but.  In fact, if you recall, they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to allow their catalogs to be sold on the iTunes music store in the first place.  And with good reason.  For them, these changes have signaled a loss of control over the channels of distribution, the means by which they made their profits.  So the iPod was good for consumers, good for musicians, good for smaller, more innovative companies, and not so good for monoplistic superpowers.  Think there’s a parallel here?

The Publishing industry, at least the monopolistic legacy superpowers, have traditionally made their exorbitanat profits through capitalizing on their dominance over information distribution.  As that dominance has flagged over the past few years, their profits have dried up.  If the iSlate has an impact anywhere close to that of the iPod on the muisc industry, these legacy players may be taking their last breaths.  That’s not to say that money can’t be made; it undoubtedly can.  But the legacy players have been virtual monopolies for so long now that I doubt they even know how to compete anymore.  Plus, as the iPod has made it more difficult to make big bucks from lousy music, this new iSlate could possibly put all the emphasis on top qaulity content.  How much top quality content do you see coming out of legacy media these days?  And how, exactly, will they develop some having already gutted their content creation employee base and devalued their own products through cost-cutting?

Personally, I’m excited to check  out this new venture from Apple.  I think it may be the opening salvo in rejuvenating the fading publishing industry, and it could be a driving force to opening up doors for people like me.  But if I were a legacy media executive, I’d be very afraid.

Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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With Friends Like These…

Here’s more on the coming effort, particularly by magazine publishers, to make use of the soon-to-be useful and affordable for all e-readers (if we’re lucky).  I’ve been on record for being all for this effort as it, to me, makes far more sense for packaging and potentially getting people to pay for material formerly done best in print.  Adobe, the makers of the ever-popular Photoshop, Acrobat and InDesign graphic software that publishers rely on to produce their print products, is currently working on software to design products for these readers, as it appears that the locked down, device-specific controls like the Amazon Kindle’s days are numbered, thankfully.  Freedom, flexibility, and inexpensive are three words that the industry would do well to heed with this effort, lest they fall into the same trap that virtually destroyed the music industry, not just in sales but in reputation.

Which makes this guy’s comments appropriately interesting.   Steve Haber is the president of Sony’s Digital Reader Division, and came up with these gems in trying to explain why it is that his company, despite beating Amazon to the punch with its own digital reader years earlier, has been unable to capitalize like the online retailer has, even with their exorbitant revenue grab from publishers:  On the cost of e-books:  “The $9.99 price point is not a money maker.”  And, more interestingly, beating on the drum that broke the music industry’s back, copy protection software:  “You need an orderly process for selling books and DRM makes that possible.”

Okay, one at a time.  First, the price.  Yes, I think a one-size-fits-every-e-book pricing structure is pretty short-sighted.  But you can’t make money at $10 a copy?  For something that costs you virtually nothing to replicate?  Really?  Apparently, no one’s bothered to mention to this guy that there are bunches and bunches of publishers out there selling physical printed copies of books for less than $10 per copy, and they’re making money just fine.  And those copies actually involve putting out some greenbacks to print.  An e-book is an electronic copy that costs nothing more than the time it takes to duplicate to generate additional copies.  So, to review, with real books, a publisher pays for creating the original and then pays more for each additional copy, and they can make money at $10 or less per copy.  For an e-book, the publisher pays to create the original and then absolutely nothing for each additional copy up to infinity, but they can’t make money at $10?  Let’s remember, these are the same people who are still selling new CDs for up to $16 when its apparent to everyone on the planet that they’re worth nowhere near that.  Could be why sales are down, maybe?

Which brings me to DRM.     Seeing an exec from Sony touting the value of DRM threw me into a little time warp.  Do you all remember this debacle, you know, quite possibly the one event that did more to wreck the recording industry than all of the supposedly illegal downloading in the world?  If you’ve forgotten, back in 2005, Sony spearheaded an effort to covertly place DRM programs on new CD releases that would install software on any Windows machines the CD was placed in without the user’s knowledge.  This software not only affected how the machine played CDs, but it also opened the computer up to malicious attacks from outside entities.  This was so bad that Sony ended up being sued by numerous parties and wound up recalling all of the CDs with that software on it.  Needless to say, when Sony starts talking about DRM being a good thing, be very afraid.  Before this, the music industry actually had some credibility when discussing copy protection, but this scheme unmasked their priorities completely.  There were no longer any illusions that these companies cared at all about their customers’ rights, private property or anything other than keeping a stranglehold on their falling profits.  In the end, in an ironic twist, this DRM software turned out to have been developed using code that violated someone else’s licensing rights.  There may have never been a clearer case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

The publishing industry today is heading toward a situation like the music industry was in 5 or 10 years ago.  We need to be certain not to make the same mistakes they did.  Publisher’s need this guy and Sony’s help like they need a hole in the head.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Publishing Links For Today: E-Tablets and Maybe Rupert Has A Point

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the direction I felt that publishing would ultimately head for the future. To me, it’s always been about packaging.  Dumping raw information on a website isn’t really very effective packaging, as the industry has discovered with its overall inability to get anyone to pay for their material that way.  The problem I see is that the technology and devices that are needed to properly package information electronically haven’t quite been invented yet.  Sure, there are options out there, but none of them serve the purpose very well.  Here is an interesting take on the progress toward what we need to rejuvenate the industry and make an actual migration from print to digital economically feasible.  And, no, paying Amazon 75% of your revenue isn’t a model that works or one that I would even consider.

In fact, it appears as though some major publishers agree. A big part of this united front is to challenge the Kindle and its locked-down mode of distribution, not to mention its extortionist-level charges to publishers for making content available.  In addition, in a rare bout of good sense for an industry that’s been fighting reality for quite a while now, this new collection of publishers is seeking to make the content available to these devices essentially platform-neutral, meaning they can be read and accessed on just about any device, and sold through an iTunes-like storefront for digital publications.  Now, if only the devices can get down under the $100 barrier, we may be on to something.

This next part may come as a surprise to you, but after I read this piece by Rupert Murdoch in the Wall Street Journal the other day, I didn’t find myself in total disagreement with the media mogul.  Many people have, however, and here is one such piece that accuses Murdoch of being purposefully disingenuous. I still disagree with his take on the paywall issue, or its potential success, but he did seem to have a little different approach, one I can actually respect.  People will pay, he said, if we give them something worth paying for.  That’s a step in the right direction for an industry that, largely, has been somewhat oblivious to the fact that their material simply isn’t valuable enough to attract a significant number of buyers.

I also was in complete agreement with his statements about government bailouts, and the point that we shouldn’t be propping up businesses that make products no one wants.  Here, here Rupert.  He went on to state that government bailouts for the media shouldn’t come to be, and that government interference should be kept very far from a free press.  I couldn’t agree more.  Now, if he would just lay off the aggregators are thieves spiel, or the self-righteous dismissals of fair use, we might actually get somewhere.

I even somewhat agreed with his take on the FCC’s cross-ownership rules.  Now, I am no fan of corporate consolidation, but in this increasingly altered atmosphere, it really does make little sense from preventing an entity from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market.  The real concern should be preventing those who own the broadcast stations, newspapers and web portals from owning the cable companies or internet service providers.  That is one reason why I think the recent Comcast-NBC deal should be shot down before it is ever allowed to happen.  And net neutrality needs to be enshrined in the law as quickly as we can.  If the government wants to help content industries, and the economy as a whole, it should be limited to a modern-day version of FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration during the Great Depression that brought electricity to many in rural areas where market forces weren’t strong enough to reach, only with broadband internet access.  Government action like that I can get behind.  Bailouts for a failing industry in flux, absolutely not.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Future

There’s a lot of talk around publishing circles, particularly online, that’s of the “woe is me, we’re screwed” variety.  I’m no stranger to that myself.  But despite the dark currents of the conversation, and the miserable financial numbers supporting the cause that seem only to get worse, there is hope of a sort.  For years, I’ve had the rumblings in the back of my head about digital readers of some type.  Nothing remotely like the tablets and Kindles and such that exist, but far more practical and concise creatures that hadn’t quite been invented yet.  I wanted that tablet they had on Star Trek, you know, the the small, thin hand-held thing that was a complete library and wireless connection to the computer banks rolled into one handy package?  That’s the thing that I imagined.

If “publishing” was to have a future, it was going to have to be in a less physical, digitized sense.  It was obvious.  All things around us, informationally, were moving away from hard physical things to the electronic.  It was naive to think that paper and ink alone would weather the storm.  We had to find a way to digitize.  One small problem, though.  The preferred means of presenting this transition didn’t quite exist.  And it still doesn’t, but we’re getting closer.  Here is a very nice description of where we stand in terms of the development of a useful electronic reader.

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Published in: on November 28, 2009 at 6:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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