January 21, 2010

The Tablet and reading the future

Despite the inadvisability of beating so dead a horse upon so nascent a blog, despite the inevitability that within a week all speculation will be proven laughably wrong, I can’t avoid writing what you are about to seriously consider not reading.

So, yes, I think I figured out the e-reader part of The Tablet. Me and approximately 47% of the Internet, I know. This isn’t anything new. But I do believe I have found a pattern.

The web as an iTunes Store

Apple is making an iTunes store for web content. Yes, you know this already, but hear me out: This is where the magazine and newspaper negotiations, the HarperCollins negotiations, the Quattro Wireless acquisition, iTunes LP, the podcast directory, the App Store, and iWeb all meet. The publishing deals aren’t the only part of Apple’s “e-reader strategy” because Apple isn’t going into the e-reader business any more than they went into the minidisc player business with the iPod.

E-readers strive to simulate paperbound books. The Tablet doesn’t bother. Apple has left it all behind for interactive text with animation, multimedia, maybe social networking. Which sounds a lot like the web as it currently exists. But you know how Apple hates to stop at how things currently exist.

The web is a huge mess of things. Which is great. But it’s not so great for some things, especially the monetization of editorial content, as we are reminded time and again as various major print publications make plans to charge for online content only to be heckled back to the ad-supported model. But if there’s one platform that has successfully induced people to pay for things this past decade, it’s the iTunes store.

On the design side: As powerful as the art of CSS is, the diversity of end-user contexts means web versions of print magazines rarely have the character of their paperbound counterparts. Look at the cover story in Wired on the newsstand and then look at it online—one is like seeing a play, the other like reading the script. Paginated HTML5 in a controlled, predictable environment, however, can make these both look archaic in the hands of a good designer. Look at iTunes LP. That’s how you do it.

Everybody now

So yes, you know all this and the above four paragraphs weren’t necessary. But there’s much more to it than just the media incumbents. Just like with the podcast directory, Apple is inviting everyone to the party. Just like with the App Store, Apple is giving everyone a chance to monetize. Just like with iTunes LP, it’s a content experience based on HTML5 and a controlled browser environment. And this is where the new iWeb comes in. Everyone will have the opportunity to build their content into this new HTML5-based format and container; the bundled iWeb will come with a bundle of themes and preset grids to guide non-designers; iWeb Pro will become the de facto InDesign of this new field. Adobe will build support into CS5.

And of course, the hub for this will be the iTunes Newsstand. Buy a multimedia-packed issue of a magazine for $1.99. Subscribe to a free newsletter supported by Quattro ads placed painlessly through iTunes Connect. Publish your own free newsletter and throw a party when it reaches 10 downloads, as I will. It’s a content platform based on existing web technology but all packaged seamlessly in Apple’s domain.

A body of standards

This is not to say that everyone will be locked in. The major publishers will produce content compatible with anything packing a WebKit browser and the right size frame. The Tablet’s resolution will become the new 320 x 480, and similarly-specced, competing devices will soon filter out from most of the major manufacturers. But content on those will have to either be free or use a competing store to the iTunes Newsstand, and Apple’s counting on theirs being the best experience for both consumer and producer. And, unfortunately, there’s the issue of DRM: iTunes Newsstand will offer FairPlay wrappers to piracy-paranoid content producers, making the alternatives a tougher sell.

Everything I’ve written above is almost certainly wrong. I will regret using the future tense instead of conditional, making this post look even more silly in a week’s time, though on the upside, I greatly doubt anyone has actually read this far. But there you have it. Apple reinvents the web as its own sequel to print.

I apologize if you have actually finished reading this, and will return to actually writing about design and usability next week.