Apple’s e-reader marketing people are in real trouble. Currently there are only 1.3 million Google hits on the phrase “apple tablet” — so they need more speculation from publishing analysts like me. (Bing results are much better — over 38 million — but who uses Bing anyway.) Clearly, Apple needs our help.
The viral buzz surrounding Apple’s upcoming device is so extraordinary that existing e-reader hardware vendors are probably in panic mode. Justifiably so. In the music player and smartphone categories, Apple is the brand to fear, in spite of huge problems with AT&T bandwidth and the devices’ unfortunate environmental foo0tprint. Perception is reality, and the Apple tablet is the new black.
For publishers — particularly magazines, but also books and newspapers — the device represents a unique opportunity. It may offer a more ergonomically satisfying reading experience, or a host of other conveniences and benefits that e-reader evangelists have been touting for years. All that is irrelevant. Printed magazines have provided satisfying, convenient experiences for years, and you won’t have a coronary if your printed magazine gets dropped in the tub. The real key is engagement. The proliferation of iPhone applications — both significant and trivial — has proven that a small screen device can scratch the itch that magazines have historically done: engaging the reader/viewer with a personal experience — one that he or she “owns” or controls. To be sure, one’s control over a printed magazine article is limited, but it is real. Readers control when and where they engage with the story. That is why a digital edition must offer more than just reading convenience.
So, what does this mean for publishers? First, they must become true e-media professionals, with a practical grasp of cross-media (or perhaps more accurately “output-agnostic” media) technology and standards. More importantly, however, they must become developers of engaging applications for the Apple tablet and other e-reader and smartphone devices. Telling a good story is still vital, but we must learn to do it in the language of the new medium. That means new business models and new alliances. Welcome to the brave new world.