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.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type tablet in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to firstname.lastname@example.org.