Sports Illustrated dazzled the technorati and knuckle-draggers alike earlier this month with a demo of a digital tablet prototype of the magazine promised for 2010. Radiating a wow-factor equal to some of the media gadgets in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, the SI demo promises full-motion video, lightning-quick screen refreshes as you flick from page to page, and the power to customize the device per your preferences.
Time Inc., which owns Sports Illustrated, isn't the only publisher making digital reader noise. Engadget wrote about a similar, though less-polished demo of Condé Nast's Wired; the Hearst Corp. plans to start an online magazine and newspaper service in 2010 called Skiff, which will include a dedicated Skiff e-reader; and other newspaper and magazine companies are jumping into the mix.
Meanwhile, GQ and Esquire are releasing paid iPhone editions, the Kindle has new digital competition from Barnes & Noble's Nook, and folks can't stop talking about the much-rumored but unannounced revolutionary Apple tablet.
As someone who earns his living blasting targets with words, I can't help but applaud the rush of the magazine and newspaper industry to save itself exploiting a new publishing platform. But all the hoopla reminds me of the hype that greeted previous electronic publishing technologies, chronicled so well by Pablo J. Boczkowski in his 2005 book Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers. Publishers spent hundreds of millions of dollars shoveling print content into videotex, audiotex, fax, CD-ROM technologies, and such proprietary online services as America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe, and Ziff Interchange.
Who can forget the excitement that the CD-ROM version of Newsweek generated in November 1992 when it was announced! Well, everybody. But believe me, it caused a stir upon its debut. Called Newsweek Interactive, the quarterly publication was among the first general interest magazines on CD. It featured recorded interviews, video, graphics, and three months' worth of Newsweek, and stories from its sister publication, the Washington Post. Then as now, the industry hadn't agreed on a universal standard, so the first edition of Newsweek Interactive was originally compatible with only a $999 Sony multimedia player, according to the report in the New York Times. Newsweek President Richard M. Smith told the Times that his company's early experience with the CD-ROM product would give it a valuable head-start on the competition.
A head-start to last place, I should add. The CD-ROM and its fellow technologies flopped for a variety of reasons. Too expensive, too cumbersome, too wedded to a propriety platform, and not much fun.
The failure of the CD-ROM demonstrates in miniature the difficulty of translating one media form into another. But it's not the only example. Early TV news was often just a newscaster reading a script into a camera—essentially radio on TV. But even modern attempts to extend a media brand into a new technological form have proven disastrous. The New York Times lost millions trying to create a cable channel—Discovery Times—with the Discovery network. Closer to my corporate home, the Washington Post stumbled in its more modest effort to create Washington Post Radio on an AM station in D.C. (See Marc Fisher's postmortem of that venture.) Attempts to morph People magazine, Wired magazine, and USA Todayinto television shows likewise cratered. Time Warner famously squandered millions on the mistaken belief that its ultimate Web portal should be populated with the magazines it published. The site was called Pathfinder.com. It's obvious to us today that what Time Warner should have done but didn't is start a great search engine.
As Boczkowski writes, even when established media companies attempt to innovate into a new media space, they end up hedging—not throwing enough energy into new media because they're too invested in the legacy media. Hedging isn't stupid. It makes sense to hedge as long as your legacy product remains profitable. But hedge too long and you miss making a profitable and timely transition to the new media form (example: the music business). The book industry, once aroused by the e-market, is now having second thoughts and hedging: Hachette, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, and HarperCollins have all delayed the e-publication of some new titles to better protect their paper versions.
To its credit, the newspaper industry both hedged and aggressively embraced the Web starting in 1996. But inventing the media future has proven more difficult for newspapers. Today, many magazine and newspaper publishers feel like chumps for having given the online product away. They complain that online revenue has never matched predictions, and they blame the Web for destroying print circulation and advertising.
As publishers create tablet formats and iPhone apps, they vow they won't repeat the mistake they made with the Web by giving content away. But is $2.99 for an iPhone-optimized version of Esquire really the deal that you've been looking for? Not to take anything away from Esquire, but doesn't its iPhone app seem as vital as Newsweek on CD-ROM? Likewise, I wish Sports Illustrated's electrified version huge success, but I've got a couple of questions. Can the tablet version of SI really compete with the dozen channels of ESPN, Versus, and regional sports on my cable channel? If SI and Esquire are such hotbeds of tech and design creativity, why haven't I ever seen it on their Web sites? And if I were in the market for another video display (and I am!), would I pop $400 to $600 (or more!) for a battery-operated tablet, or would I buy a second HDTV (cheaper!) for my bedroom? Honey, make room for the new HDTV.
That's not to say that the tablet has no future. It's just if the past is any guide, the future of the tablet won't look like the SI or Wired prototypes—any more than Pathfinder turned out to be the future of the Web. I find it more likely that some young people at a startup will figure out the highest uses of the tablet form before SI or even Slate does. As Newsweek's president ultimately learned from his CD-ROM debacle, not all head-starts turn out to be valuable.
In an interview, Pablo Boczkowski explains why the tabletized magazines may not take off. "A large fraction of the public doesn't read the news online as they did in print," he says. They're more interested in browsing, searching, linking, and interacting than they are in long, sustained intakes of information. "Put differently," he continues, "getting the news online is normally surfing, less often snorkeling, and very rarely scuba diving. Most people need a simple surfboard, rather than the complex—and costly—diving gear."
The equation will change, of course, as Moore's law makes the tablets cheaper. But as the price drops, the number of features offered will increase, and step-by-step they'll start looking less like extraordinary, futuristic devices and more like conventional personal computers only smaller and more powerful. (That's already happening with the iPhone and other smartphones.) Once the various tablet devices and smartphones collapse into super-ultralight PCs, the tablet-optimized publications will find themselves regarded by consumers as just another Web site, and the proprietors who thought they had a new, impregnable platform from which to sluice profits will be right back where they started—one site struggling against many.
Don't forget to watch the demos. Here's Sport Illustrated's slick tablet demo. Note that it doesn't name the device it will run on. Here's Engadget's demo of the prototype with SI's Terry McDonell on a conventional tablet PC and McDonell talking about it with Engadget. Here's the crudely recorded Wired table demo and the Esquire iPhone demo. Seen a good e-magazine demo? Send it to email@example.com. (Addendum, Dec. 23: The folks at Bonnier R&D/Bonnier Magazines have alerted me to the demo for their digital magazine. Check it out.) Help me get back on the path of righteousness by following my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)