Will Publishing Survive in a World of 100,000 iPad apps?

Subjective analysis can be dangerous.

Even a trained, skilled observer has to be aware of built-in demographic blind spots. Likes and dislikes intrude, preventing you from being entirely objective. But at some level, we’re all consumers. Often I ask clients to get in touch with their inner consumer by remembering those times they are all by themselves in front of a TV with the remote. No bosses to impress, no project to support, just you, the TV, and the hammer.

You’re the boss. And you’re brutal. If you’re even the slightest bit bored, you change channels and keep changing channels, until you find something that captures your attention, even if you have to surf through all 500 channels. It’s a fiercely competitive environment.

Then there’s the iPad, where 500 channels is nothing. As of July 1, 2011, the number of apps specifically developed for iPads cracked the 100,000 barrier. Not bad, considering the device was launch just over a year ago, on April 3, 2010, just 454 days if you’re keeping score at home. (For a comparison, the New York Times could recently find only 232 Android apps for tablet devices.)

Obviously, if you want the full tablet experience, you go to the iPad. And sales reflect that: Since its launch, Apple has sold 21 million iPads including the one I’m writing this piece on. After waiting and waiting, I could resist no longer and finally bought one.

And now it’s me, the iPad, and 100,000 apps. Go ahead, make my day.

Of course, this is the device that was so eagerly anticipated by the publishing industry mainly because no squinting is required. The smart phone is good for a lot of things, but as a reader, it’s barely adequate even for text messages. The iPad, on the other hand, could finally be the device that puts the final nail in the print coffin, yet – paradoxically – saves the publishing industry.

There are now numbers to support the coffin contention. According to the latest Forrester research, people with tablets don’t read as many print newspapers, books and magazines than they used to – 32 per cent of tablet owners read fewer newspapers and 23 per cent reading magazines less often. And an Online Publishers Association (OPA) survey released in June shows that tablet owners prefer their tablet to all other media, including newspapers and magazines, by 58 and 57 per cent respectively.

There are other equally disturbing numbers, especially if you cling to print. Tablet owners skew young – nearly 50 per cent are between 18-34; male – 60 per cent; and affluent – more than 40 per cent have incomes above $50,000 a year. And women are the next wave of tablet users: 45 per cent of those surveyed who expect to buy a tablet in the next 12 months are women.

Finally, the number one activity for tablet owners? 87 per cent responded that they access content and information.

Those are the numbers. But as a focus group of one, all I can say is that the iPad has changed my life. And I really didn’t expect it to. How different could it be from my lightweight, rugged Panasonic laptop? Or my big, fast Dell desktop? Throughout all those turns of the wheel, I kept buying newspapers, magazines and books. Now, I have to admit, I’m not so sure.

When I bought an iPod, making the change to iTunes for music was easy and exciting. If there were record stores in heaven, they’d look like iTunes. Every tune ever recorded is available wherever you are. I don’t mind paying 99 cents to get exactly what I want. Gone are the days when you had to buy the entire CD (cassette, 8-track, vinyl) album to get the one song worth listening to. Single-handedly, Apple saved the music industry.

Now, with the iPad, iBooks and various apps, I can duplicate that experience with books. I can even borrow books at the library. Also, the iPad has finally made the mobile viewing of movies and other long-form videos bearable, and for the first time in my life, I have downloaded a movie.

Because newspaper and magazine articles have been free on the Internet for such a long time, they constitute a special case. Why would I pay for Wired or the New York Times, for example, when I can almost always get the same content on the Internet for free, and even read it on the iPad?

It gets more complicated. With 100,000 apps to choose from – PLUS the Internet – it’s almost impossible to get through the buffet lineup. With that much on my plate, how will I choose? Will I even get to newspapers or magazines?

My electronic information-gathering is to some degree based on the time of day and state of mind. I’m in front of a desktop most of the day and get most information in the form of e-lerts. But if I want to kick back and read, I find that more and more, and without willing it to be so, I read using the iPad. Books pile up in the corners. Newspapers go into the recycling bin without being cracked. And iPad magazines are just as fun to read by the fire or in bed as they are in print.

There are challenges. I don’t recommend reading your iPad in the bathtub. Or at the beach, as Apple still hasn’t figured out how to handle glare, which is one reason why dedicated e-readers are popular, even though they deliver a limited experience.

When you remember, however, that the iPad is a pioneer device and it already does everything better, it’s just common sense to anticipate the day when iPad 4.0 or 5.0 renders all other reading media obsolete. How long will it be before you can roll up your tablet, drop it in the tub, or use it to make a perfect cup of coffee every time?

Don’t just take my word (or Forresters or the OPA). Get one and try it out yourself. After using it for a while, you will probably agree it’s a game changer. It will be trickier, however, to predict exactly how the game will change.

For the first time, publishers are able to deliver the complete experience to a mobile device. People who are used to print formats and like them will download and use apps or new versions of HTML that simulate a high-quality print experience. But it’s clear that the next generation of publishers isn’t satisfied with just duplicating the print experience.

Khoi Vinh could be the face of that next generation. He was art director of the New York Times for four and half years, and resigned to figure out what’s next for magazines. His answer to the question: “So is there a bigger solution for magazines, one that will bring in significant revenue along the lines of what they saw in the pre-digital world?” is “I don’t know” or “Probably not.”

Vinh worries that publishers will waste too many cycles on “this chimerical vision of resuscitating lost glories.” And while they’re doing that, iPad owners will turn to apps like Flipboard –“that are more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de sac of denial.” Add the ever-present issue/challenge/opportunity of social media, and, he says “I can’t see how the 20th Century concept of a magazine can survive, even if it does look great on a tablet.”

Flipboard, for want of a better word, is a mash-up of various magazines, newspapers, video and social media, but unlike a straight portal, there’s an editorial consciousness at work, compiling, sorting, organizing, presenting, and melding.  It’s fascinating, although like any surfing experience, it’s impossible ever to get to the end or wrap it up in a satisfying way. You just stop, in mid-experience, and go on to something else. One of the great things about print, that cul-de-sac of denial, is that, in whatever form, it has a beginning, middle and end. Flipboard starts well, but talk about a never-ending story.

After a month with my iPad, one thing is clear, to me at least. We have the device. We just have to figure out what to do with it. And I have faith in the innovative ingenuity of publishers. Now that they have a target device, even if it is the pioneer version, they’ll find the optimum format. And once they do, the money will follow.