My Tablet Prediction

The Tablet — or whatever Apple chooses to call is — is upon us. As I write these words, we’re 4.5 hours away from the unveiling. So in the finest spirit of pundits everywhere, I thought I’d share my own small opinion on what this product is, and what it will mean.

Apple has done an amazing job managing the secrecy. While not a drop of information has come out of the company through official channels, teh Interwebz are abuzz with rumours and speculation on this device. It’s an empty vessel, into which all the nerds are pouring their hopes and dreams. Consider this simply my own drop.

I remember clearly this moment I had about ten years ago. I was doing something utterly banal, like making my bed in the morning. And it hit me: there should be an electronic device for reading books! And it should be like the paper version of your newspaper! And it would handle all your reading: your magazines, your paperbacks! All on one device! It would be a revolution!

No doubt others had had this idea before I did back in 2000 or so. But they all came to a halt before the next problem: this device, done right, would be incredibly expensive.

In fact, that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the last few years. Electronics makers have had the same idea, but when it came to building the device, they did the stupidest thing they could think of: they made it cost less by sacrificing the reading experience. Sure, people talk about how e-Ink is like paper, but they wave their hands when you bring up the slow refresh rate, or the lack of colour. Take this from someone who actually bought a Sony Reader: this is not where the future of e-reading is going.

When it became clear that Apple was going to enter this space, I had only one thought: my God, they’re going to do this right!

What does that mean? Clearly, they would only get into the printed word business if they could utterly dominate it. That means the best hardware combined with the best software — this seems obvious. But how the hell are you going to afford it?

With the iPhone, Apple was able to team up with wireless carriers. AT&T and others bought the iPhone from Apple for $600-plus, and sold it to you for $199. The carriers make back the loss by tying you up for two or three years, paying a monthly toll to access the Internet and voice network.

With a tablet, there is consensus that there’ll at least be a mobile networking option. But I don’t think Apple can expect us to continue going back to the well: will every gadget we buy now come with a $50/month connectivity price tag? I don’t think so.

Instead, Apple may look for other companies to provide the subsidy. This was my idea ten years ago. Publishers of all stripes today have to contend with two massive expenses: printing and distribution. That’s actually what separates publishers from you and me; they can afford it, and we can’t.

The New York Times is one of the largest papers, and they have a commensurate printing bill: it’s at least $500 million per year, and probably more. In fact, that article suggests the costs are so high, the NYT could afford to give a Kindle to every subscriber. Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this!

Of course it’s ridiculous to give a Kindle to every subscriber: it’s a completely sub-par experience. What they have to give is something at least as good as the paper it’s replacing. They have to give the tablet, complete with a vibrant colour touch screen, full-page viewing capability, and access to a full media experience: video, audio and interactivity. Look folks, if you haven’t seen the Sports Illustrated tablet demo, then you haven’t seen the bare minimum that’s possible.

My thinking is that Apple should offer non-exclusive deals to major newspapers and magazines. They buy the Tablet at the full cost, and they are free to offer it to their subscribers at a reduced rate. Consider paying $199 for a tablet, and you’ll get the Times for two years. Or Sports Illustrated. Or Macleans. I’d love to have Macleans on my tablet.

Or O’Reilly’s Safari Bookshelf? I would tear down cities to go to there.

What Apple has to show today needs to be a game-changer. It needs to get into as many hands as possible. It needs to put the publishers back in the driver’s seat. And it can only do that if it’s subsidized for the end user. With Apple’s experience dealing with wireless carriers, I think they have a perfect storm of a business model to present to publishers.

Think about the sell to us, the consumer. For too long, the wireless carriers have been in charge of content. Now we’re moving it back to where it belongs: the publishers and the writers. The dumb pipes will take their proper place as the conduit for the information, and the publishers will reassert their role as the gate keepers. And the bloggers will continue howling that they are the real journalists. We’ll see.

I look forward to that future. And if I’m right, it starts today.