Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

What I Hope Apple Unleashes Tomorrow

Tomorrow Apple’s having an event here in San Francisco and everyone’s expecting them to launch some sort of tablet computer. The specifics are still unclear, but people are expecting something that looks like an iPhone but bigger, with an interface that can handle more complicated tasks.

I have no inside information, but I do have a unique perspective. I’ve spent my professional career doing basically two things: making websites and making print media. It’s my hope that what Apple unleashes tomorrow is the device that finally bridges the two. Let me explain.

Every content website I’ve ever worked on has proclaimed the death of print, but the truth is, they’ve all been secretly jealous of old media. Why? Consumers pay for print. Advertisers pay more for print. Print, for all its ink stains and dead trees still makes money.

Meanwhile, every print organization I’ve ever worked with has been head-to-toe freaked about the web. The web is the hot, new thing that all the kids are excited about. And it really is better at moving information from one point to another (a sentence so obvious it feels stupid typing it, but believe me when I say it’s taken a decade for some print organizations to admit it).

The problem for the web ventures has always been how to pay for it. And as someone who’s designed site after site hoping to get consumers to open their wallets, I can tell you: It’s not easy. Print still has a tangible, innate value. The web does not. That’s why I publish Fray on paper – because people won’t pay for it any other way.

Some traditional print organizations are trying to get media consumers to pay for online content. The NY Times tried it and failed before. Now they’re talking about attempting it again, but the plan is so convoluted I can’t imagine it in practice. Newsday had a go at it and signed up a total of 35 people in three months. Bad sign.

Others have attempted to graft the magazine/newspaper/page metaphor to online content. I can’t tell you how many pitches I’ve heard about how some new company is going to bring magazines online, complete with page curls and flip animations. As if “turning a page” with a mouse click is what everyone secretly wants to do.

I’m getting to the Apple device, I swear.

Meanwhile, e-ink technology has been “just around the corner” for a decade or two. It’s now finally here – you can see it in use in the Kindle or other digital readers. But its “as good as paper” and low-cost promise still goes unfulfilled. And after all that hype, my guess is that it’s not going to be used in the Apple device. It’s still not ready for prime time – the refresh rate is not good enough for video, and that’s a deal-breaker for a company like Apple that sells movies and TV.

I’ve been thinking about how to make money from online content since I launched Fray in 1996. Really, I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat up, obsessed with it. It’s been my white whale. And here’s what I’ve come up with: a little bit of advertising works, so long as it’s classy, and sell some paper if you can. But any plan that includes walling off your content from the rest of the web is destined to fail, unless it’s porn of some kind (financial data is a kind of porn).

Why? It’s not because everyone online is a cheapskate. It’s because consuming content offline is still a much better experience. Leafing through a glossy magazine is simply sexier than clicking through a PDF.

But I’m hoping that all changes tomorrow.

Tomorrow, if the stars align, Apple could unleash a device that’s sexier than reading a magazine. A glossy screen like the iPhone, quality content in the iTunes store for a (hopefully) reasonable price, major publishers on board and independent publishers like me able to join in.

Apple already has all the pieces in place. The iTunes music store, right now, has magazines in it. You probably didn’t know that. They’re using the podcast framework to distribute PDFs. But that falls back into the old problem of reading PDFs on a computer (it sucks) and charging for content (you can’t).

But an Apple device that leverages the power of the iTunes store, that makes it easy to buy and read digital content, that opens up for participation from all kinds of publishers, that puts books and magazines on the same level as movies and TV … it could be the missing piece of the puzzle.

It’s the same hole they filled with the iPod. When it came out, there were CDs on one side (physical media for sale) and file-sharing on the other (free but dodgy). The iPod filled the media experience gap, and the iTunes store filled the payment side. Many pundits said it wouldn’t work. It worked.

The same could happen here. Apple could release a device that makes consuming media fun, is able to show any PDF beautifully (just like the iPod would play any MP3), and offers new media for sale in the iTunes store. If they did it right, publishers like me might finally be able to sell something digital that people would actually buy.

I’ve got my fingers crossed.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.