Capital 2010 Almanac: The year of the iPad

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An entry in Engadget's reader contest to prototype Apples' next big launch ... in 2006. ()
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For the next four weeks, we'll be publishing a 2010 mini-Almanac in periodic installments. Like the almanac published yearly by The New York World an age ago (which survives today as the World Almanac), it's a way of pulling together a selection of the most important stuff that happened over the last year, and reminding us what we were thinking about these things before we knew what was happening to us.

Today, 2010: the first year of iPad.

In November 2009, a report from CNN.com referred to "a technological unicorn—a mythical beast whose beauty, elegance and singularity we can only imagine," caged in the halls of Apple's headquarters at One Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California.

This beast was of the genus "tablet." The species: iSlate, iTab, iTablet, iGuide or whatever it was going to be called. It was going to be a digital reader with touchscreen capabilities that did—well, did what a smartphone did, but on a bigger screen. Still, the screen size would be a big deal. All that aspect-ration nonsense aside, creatives, who chafed at making graphics for a tiny phone screen, would be inspired, and advertisers, for whom size matters, would be impressed.

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In some early visualizations of the Cupertino beast, the screen projected a hologram of a keyboard onto your work surface—a hologram you could type on. This wonder-device would cost about $1,000. It would, in some tellings, cement the legacy of Steve Jobs (whose mysterious illness was its own tech boomlet in 2009), bring back the "full album" concept to the music industry, create new digital pricing models for everything from television shows to glossy fashion magazines to the novel. In short, it was the messianic hope of all those industries that publish.

In other, more graphic imaginings, it would do even more: it would break all these distinctions down and build something unthought of, like Gutenberg's "book," something new that we could only daydream about the way children do.

Like those children, we were stuck imagining something that, for all its mythological beyondness, looked like a combination of familiar elements: like the unicorn, which is just a horse with a spiral horn and a ton of really good P.R.

It was the iPad. And from the beginning, the limits of the creative class's imagination are the main limits of the device.

For years, as magazines crumbled, newsrooms were pillaged, and bottom lines shrunk against Googles and Gawkers, media executives pined for the beautiful, color-screen Apple product. It would enamor the next generation of readers to magazine-like digital goods. Advertisers would ditch online Adsense and come barrelling back through print magazines' glass doors, demanding flashy, gorgeous spots in applications.

Countless blog posts and internal memos fawned over its possibilities before anyone had anything to look at. Wistful lunches and boozy happy hour chatter were filled with hope and waiting, which grew only more frenzied around Christmas when The Financial Times reported that Apple had rented a theater at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for Jan. 27. The Apple tablet was coming.

The Times' David Carr, in his first column of 2010 (admitting to optimism), predicted a "Jesus tablet that can do anything, including saving some embattled print providers from doom."

In fact, while Carr tried in vain to pry details about the coming tablet from an Apple executive, his colleagues from the digital side were heading to Cupertino to create one of the first media applications for the product, the one that would be a part of Jobs' demonstration on the 27th.

Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations for the New York Times, appeared on stage next to Jobs, demonstrating the Times' customized application: The Editors' Choice app.

“We’re incredibly psyched to pioneer the next generation of digital journalism,” Nisenholtz said on stage. But the demonstration was boring, revealing a rather unimpressive paper-to-digital product. It looked so much like the Times Reader application, which was, frankly, old news. Said Jennifer Brook, an information architect and user experience designer for the Times: “It’s everything you love about the paper, everything you love about the Web and everything you expect from the Times." But we expected more. So did Steve Jobs, reportedly. (The Times later replaced Choice with an improved application.)

Soon after Jobs demoed the iPad (oh, remember the uproar about the icky name?), talk about whether it would "save" the media became shrill. It was discussed here and there, among a million other places.

But it was not long before panic set in. The iPad introduced by Mr. Jobs did not support Flash, the software many publisher sites depended upon to deliver multimedia. Asserting that the software crashed his Macs and killed mobile media, he'd banned Flash. And a miniscandal erupted when it became clear that publisher sites displayed on the stage at Yerba Buena were in fact a lie: those beautiful data visualizations and advertising spots, when the iPad hit the market in the Spring, would all be broken unless something was done, quickly.

At Conde Nast, Wired was one of the publishers that had already drafted an application in anticipation of the iPad's coming, and Flash had been the star. They had to start from scratch.

By May, the magazine had rallied with a digital magazine experience for the iPad with Adobe, using Creative Suite 5 and new Adobe Digital Publishing technologies. It was beautifuland one of the first truly creative uses of the iPad for a magazine.

The pundits had had one thing right all along: Whether Apple could "save" anything was, as much as anything else, a function of how much they might want to. The iPad could certainly deliver a new kind of magazine experience, but who would reap the profits? The key to publishers controlling their own revenue is publishers controlling their own relationships with advertisers and with consumers. But Apple was taking a 30 percent cut from publishers each time they sold an issue of, say, GQ in iTunes. 

Grumbling publishers are keeping their magazines available in iTunes for now. But according to Peter Kafka at MediaMemo, publishers are hoping to get what they want from Google and Android tablet products "and assume Apple will come around eventually.”

AS WITH ALL SUCH REVOLUTIONS IN MEDIA, THE MEDIA itself is anxious to get out ahead of the trend and tell us what's going to happen here, regardless of our terrible past track record.

Some compared the misguided frenzy to build media applications to the CD-ROM explosion, the mid-eighties’ next grand frontier in digital media that never was. Publishers created entire teams to build CD-ROMs packages with all kinds of extra contentinterviews, slideshows and mini-movies. But they were too expensive to produceand there was never a way to keep up with the economics while sustaining creativity and innovation.

Danny O’Brien, the British technology journalist wrote, “my suspicion is that what they’re aiming for is a product which exudes credibility, status—an aura of a professional media product. And when you’re spending the kind of money that a professional application requires, solely to improve your status in the world, you’re not selling a product, you’re buying the love of your audience. That may be an investment in credibility, but it’s not an incoming revenue stream.

There was also the matter of applications creating a "walled garden" in the reading and revenue experiencethere was no outside linking, no multitasking, hardly many social media functions on many of the early iPad applications. Developers and publishers would have to suffer through a grueling screening process to get their applications available on the device.

In August, Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, the new head of Adweek Media Group, called it the “End of the Web.” The iPad created an online world experienced only through applicationsmovies on Netflix, friendship on Facebook, news on a Times’ iPad app. We would be free of Google’s crawling bots, ugly design and endless content in our facesbut we would have to pay for it.

“Openness is a wonderful thing in the nonmonetary economy of peer production," Anderson wrote. "But eventually our tolerance for the delirious chaos of infinite competition finds its limits. Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well, that increasingly seems OK. Have you looked at your cell phone or cable bill lately?”

Their concept has yet to be proved. Many of the most popular media applications are offered for free, and advertisers are hesitant to give more than a demo fee for iPad spots.

But there was some concrete evidence of magazines being "saved" by the iPad. Gourmet, for example, Conde Nast's classic food title, was revived through the iPad in application form as “Gourmet Live.” But this wasn't Ruth Reichl's inky dream.

Under the editorial direction of Elizabeth Spiers, one of Gawker’s founding editors, and overseen by Six Apart co-founder Anil Dash at Activate, the app borrowed elements of other successful applications and weaved them into a media application. It’s one of the smartest concepts for a magazine on the iPad. “For me, the apps that take up my time on my iPhone or iPad are Foursquare and Words With Friends and Scrabble,” Dash wrote on his blog. “They've got really interesting social aspects and gameplay, but most importantly, they're fun, and engaging, and keep me more connected with my friends.”

Gourmet Live users get location-aware, carefully curated restaurant reviews and features, social media sharing features, and even “rewards” for reading stories or watching videos, like extra in-depth content. The app is available for free on iTunes.

THE BIGGEST EGOS IN THE BUSINESS DON'T CARE for cautious contemplation or waiting out the market; it's a matter of getting in the game. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, launched a men's magazine called Project; News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch is investing $30 million in a tablet-only national newspaper he's calling The Daily. There has been so much speculation about what The Daily will mean for News Corp., and the media world, it’s hard to keep up or even stay interested until the thing is actually launched. When The Daily finally debuts next year, it will be the buzziest launch since Talk, for all the good that did Tina Brown. In Murdochian terms, the press means the project is already a success.

Publishers will also have to bet on putting all their faith, and money, into iPad applications, while a slew of No. 2 tablets hit the market. Last month, Acer unveiled a lineup of three tablet computerstwo of which based on Google’s Android operating system and one on Microsoft’s Windows suitestarting at $299, a lower price point than the iPad. They’ll start shipping in April 2011.

Meanwhile, Samsung's $399 Galaxy Tab was recently called the “first real challenger to the iPad” by Barron’s (and got a rave from the Times’ tech reviewer David Pogue). It’s a 7-incher to Jobs’ 9.7-inch screen and also has cameras in the front and back, a sorely missing feature in the iPad. (How after all can you have a video chat with a camera that's broadcasting your lap?) The Galaxy debuted on the market in October and has sold 1 million of them so far (according to Samsung). That's not bad: Apple’s iPad hit the 1-million-sold mark one month after going on sale in April. Analysts have estimated that more than 8 million iPads had been sold overall prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

All this competition will be really tested in 2011. Some reports peg iPad's share of the market, at about three quarters now, to drop to 48 percent in 2011. For the publishers who are hoping that Apple will be forced to strike a better deal with them on customer relationships and the size of their cut, that's not far off from a plausible bargaining point with Jobs.

OUR BET FOR 2011: WHILE SOME OF THE APPLICATIONS MEDIA COMPANIES have built are gorgeous, it'll take some time for advertisers to catch on and pay for a very niche audience. With all the ideas out there about advertisers moving away from volume and toward audience demographics in their decisions, the bulk of the market is still catching up, and they are very far behind the hivemind.

But the scramble is understandable: Bringing something to market for the iPad now is a bet, not just on Apple but on the tablet format; the question is whether it's a bet small publishers can afford not to make, and whether it's a bet large publishers can afford not to. Everyone will want to be on the ground already when the final judgment on app-based reading comes.

In the meantime, most publishers should still be wrestling with their browser strategies and the smartphone. No Apple gadget will “save” the news. But, with a few years under its belt, the iPhone is still the most interesting gadget for everythingincluding the newssimply because it is more affordable, more ubiquitious, and more mobile than the iPad. If Apple and Verizon would finally get in bed with each other, 2010 would really be the year of the iPhone, again. Call it the horse without the horn.