The Apple tablet could change everything. That's what people are hoping for - revolution. But revolutions don't actually happen overnight, especially if you're talking about turning around an entire lumbering industry, like publishing.
The medium is the message, supposedly. The iPod was a flaming telegram to the music industry; the iPhone, a glowing billboard about the way we'd consume software. The Apple tablet? Possibly no less than the reinvention of the digital word. If you look very generally at the content that defined the device - or maybe vice versa - the iPod danced with music, the iPhone's slung to apps and, as we were first in reporting a few months ago, the tablet's bailiwick might very well be publishing.
Since then, the number of publishers - of newspapers, magazines and books - reported to be talking to Apple has exploded: NYT, Conde Nast, McGraw Hill, Oberlin, HarperCollins, the "six largest" trade publishers and Time, among many others, are making noise about splaying their content on the tablet. A giant iPod not only for video, photos and music, but for words. That's what they're lining up to make ritual sacrifices for. Publishers want this, whatever it is.
I say "whatever it is", because, for all of the talk and pomp and demos, they haven't seen the Apple tablet. They don't know what it's like. They don't know how to develop for it. As Peter Kafka's reported, neither Conde Nast (publisher of Wired) nor Time will be ready to show anything for the tablet on Wednesday, much less a mindblowing reinvention of the magazine, because Apple's keeping them at arm's length. (Why? Secrecy, which matters far more than launch partners. All the leaks about the tablet have come out of third parties, like the goddamn publishers, so Apple's not telling them much more than they are the rest of us.)
The sole exception, that we know of, is the New York Times. The Grey Lady has a team of three developers embedded in Cupertino. This makes a certain kind of sense, given the content the tablet is framing, and which publisher is currently best suited to delivering that content in a new experience.
When it comes to experimenting with the display and digestion of the digital word, the NYT has aggressively been the most innovative major publication on the web: Just look at the incredible infographics, the recently launched NYT Skimmer and the NYT Reader. Logically, they're the print publication perhaps most able to realise the early potential of a device that's essentially a window for displaying content. And it doesn't hurt that Apple loves the NYT.
The tablet might just be a big iPhone, but the key word is "big". What defines the tablet in opposition to the iPhone is the screen size, less than any kind of steroidal shot to processing muscle. A 10-inch screen will hold 10 times the screen real estate of the iPhone's 3.5-inch display. That's room for 10 fingers to touch, navigate and manipulate, not two. Real estate for full web pages, for content apps that are so much more than news repackaged for a pocket-sized screen. The ability to really "touch what you want to learn about" is an "inflection point for navigation", that is, the potential to truly "navigate serendipitously", as the NYT's media columnist David Carr put it to me.
Think of it as a more tangible version of the force that drives you from a Wikipedia page about gravity to one about the geological history of the planet Vulcan, touching and feeling your way through everything from a taxonomy for Star Wars fanboys to the Victoria's Secret catalogue.
The Wikipedia example might be particularly apt, actually. If we use iPhone history as a guide, given that the tablet is likely to be an evolution of the iPhone software and interface, it's likely these publications will be content "apps" that will be islands unto themselves: So it might be easy to wander all over the NYT's island via the tips of your fingers, but not so easy to float off to the WSJ's abode. At least to start, we assume it'll much like iPhone apps. For all of the very whizzy Minority Report wannabe demos from Sports Illustrated, we don't know what the content apps are actually going to look like, or what they'll be able to do on the tablet. In particular, what is it they'll be able to do that they couldn't do on the web right now, given how powerful the web and web applications have become over the last couple of years? (Look at everything Google's doing, particularly in web apps.) The question, as NYU Journalism professor Mitch Stephens told me, is whether the tablet's capabilities can "actually get the Times and Conde Nast to think beyond print?"
If you think the newspaper and magazine industry is slow, the book industry is prehistoric. As whipped into a fervor as HarperCollins and McGraw Hill may be about jumping aboard the full colour Apple tablet express to carry them into a new age of print with "ebooks enhanced with video, author interviews and social-networking applications", past the Amazon schooner, they take years to move. And they're likely in just as in the dark as everybody else.
There's also the macro issue that it just takes time for people to figure shit out. Think about the best, most polished iPhone apps today. Now try to remember the ones that launched a week after the App Store opened. It's a world of difference. New media, and how people use them, aren't figured out overnight. Or fade back to the internet circa 2006. Broadband wasn't exactly new then, but so much of the stuff we do now, all the time - YouTube, Twitter - wasn't around.
The apparent readiness to yolk the fortunes of the sickly publishing industry to Apple, and its tablet, oozing out of info scraps and whispers, like a publishing executive telling the NYT that, versus Amazon, "Apple has put an offer together that helps publishers and, by extension, authors", is deeply curious. The publishing industry wants the iPod of reading, but they've clearly forgotten the music industry's traumatic experience when they got theirs. Apple basically wrested control of legal digital music, and the music industry got far less than they wanted to make up for it. Hollywood, in turn, played their hand far differently, scattering bits of movies and TV shows across tons of services, so no one had any leverage, especially not Apple. (Hence, Apple's negotiations for a subscription TV service with Disney or CBS always seem delicate at best.) I don't know why Apple would be any more magnanimous with publishers than record labels, given the chance to be gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper matters, because it dictates the answer to publishing's current crisis: "How we gonna get paid?" The NYT is bringing back metering to its website; book publishers weep over the fact Amazon has decided books worth precisely $US9.99. Publishers want to control their financial destiny. Apple wants to control every element of the experience on their devices. (Apparently, they'll get to.) I want to be able to read the NYT, WSJ, The New Yorker, Penthouse and Wired, in all of their dynamic, interactive, multitouch glory easily and cheaply. Ads might be the secret to making that possible. Ultra targeted, innovative ads designed just for the tablet. At least, in the future - Apple's acquisition of mobile ad firm Quattro, and its CEO's ascension to VP, have happened too recently to bear much fruit yet.
Point being, there's a lot of stuff publishers have to figure out, from the big stuff to the little stuff. Apple hasn't exactly sped up the process by giving them much to work with, either, but for one publisher that we know of. and maybe a couple we don't. The tablet might change the digital word the way the iPod changed digital music. But it'll take some time.