03
Dec
10

The FT’s John Gapper on the merits of iPad-only publishing.

Why the iPad should rival the web

By John Gapper

Published (Financial Times) : December 1 2010 20:14 | Last updated: December 1 2010 20:14

Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are entrepreneurs with an admirable record of ignoring conventional wisdom, so it is worth watching when they do the same thing at once.

In this case, they are launching iPad-only publications. Sir Richard bowled into New York on Tuesday to unveil a £1.79 or $2.99 monthly magazine called Project, while Mr Murdoch is about to launch a “newspaper” called The Daily, for which he hopes 800,000 people will pay $1 a week. Both will charge readers in an era when most internet publications are free.

The fact that Mr Murdoch will separate his new daily publication from “the open web” by publishing on the iPad has provoked scepticism and hostility in digital media circles. “Murdoch keeps fighting the internet and the internet keeps on winning,” wrote Mathew Ingram, of the GigaOm technology blog.

This fits into a bigger debate about whether companies are balkanising the web to gain economic leverage. Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist who invented the World Wide Web, complained in Scientific American about Facebook’s private accumulation of data, and of print publishers’ “disturbing” wish to create closed worlds.

Yet, even leaving business models aside, it is hard to blame them. The truth is that, two decades after Sir Tim pioneered it, the internet has proven a poor medium for publishers who originate a lot of news and information. It has gone further than levelling the playing field between old-style publishers and start-ups – it has given the advantage to low-cost information providers.

This was less clear before the iPad and other tablets came along, but it stares you in the face when you compare the experience of reading a publication with a lot of content on a desktop and a tablet. A regular browser on a computer is good for skimming (“surfing”) among many different news sources, but poor at immersing you in one.

In his book The Shallows, the technology writer Nicholas Carr talked of the internet’s “uniquely rapid-fire mode of collecting and dispersing information” and argued that he was becoming accustomed “to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles”.

It goes without saying that the internet has great benefits in terms of the amount of information that can now be accessed directly, rather than being mediated by a newspaper or television news show. The idea that anyone could (if he or she chose) read the 250,000 US diplomatic cables soon to be made available by WikiLeaks would have been inconceivable two decades ago.

But there is no such thing as a neutral medium. Just as newspapers, radio and television offered different methods of presenting news and information, with varying degrees of depth, the internet favours some forms of content over others. People tend to skim the home pages of sites rather than delving deeply because browsers work that way.

If you try to dig far into a web publication, the pages often load slowly and it is hard to find your way out again, or even to know where you are within it. ‘The web is an infinite experience. You never have a feeling for what the whole is,” says John Rose, a partner of Boston Consulting Group.

This tends to favour shallow (I mean that technically, rather than as a value judgment) sites with a lot of aggregated material and links, such as Gawker and the Huffington Post, over those weighted towards deep stacks of original content. The line is blurring as upstarts shift towards producing more original material, but the point stands.

The iPad, with its full-screen apps containing a single game or information source changes that, as does the fact that an entire edition can be downloaded at once. This makes it easier to navigate in depth and to know where you are – an experience akin to print.

On a tablet, an edited, in-depth publication has a better chance of competing with the atomised, open-source information flow of the open web. That is what Sir Richard and Mr Murdoch have bet on – that a tablet restores the advantage of depth over breadth.

That may not be enough – many people are happy to live in the world of free, distributed information and will prefer it. “If you think that the day of the editor deciding what you read today is dead then these apps will fall apart,” says Benedict Evans, of Enders Analysis.

My bet is that the two will co-exist, just as new forms of media have always done with existing ones in the past. There is evidence that people are willing to spend far longer – up to 45 minutes in the case of some magazines – with an iPad publication than its website.

Sir Tim would prefer publishers to stick to the rules, and the embedded biases, of the medium he pioneered. But, despite all of the public good the web has brought, that argument has no more moral force than if a print baron insisted on everyone producing newspapers.

If Sir Richard and Mr Murdoch want to offer products in a new medium rather than the old one, let them. It is not as if they have some iron grip over digital distribution. The iPad has a browser and they will be up against many thousands of other apps.

Who knows if either of them will succeed, but someone will find a way to get users and advertisers to pay for in-depth digital content delivered as an edited whole to the iPad. They will be competing with the browser, not fighting the internet. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

john.gapper@ft.com

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1 Response to “The FT’s John Gapper on the merits of iPad-only publishing.”


  1. December 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    For me, the big things here are choice, transparency and presentation. Before the net, there was no choice. Publishers could charge what they wanted, and did: You and I (or our parents) had nowhere (else) to go. And the format was one size fits all. Now, you have unlimited choice. You get what you want to pay for (or not), and there are millions of users out there keeping publishers (and businesses and governments) honest (as in fair). Added to this, the presentation of that information is in any flavour you like. All of which are good things – and good things for the first time for the consumer, who is now king – a king who also likes to think of him or herself as a publisher too (add one final thing to this: these new kings aren’t into ads, scared to use credit cards, and have been Google reared to expect free). This is a huge role reversal, and the business model of publishing isn’t coping.

    For me, Branson and Murdoch are still applying the same principles as before – we the publisher, you the consumer – even if they are lowering costs and jacking up the dazzle. People will use them because of their names, and because it’s on the iPad. The problem is they still believe that they have something people will still pay for, a scarcity amidst the abundance that if they get all down with the kids the kids will fork out for. I doubt it. Not long term. Unless there is an intrinsic value in what they’re presenting to us – over and above an idea or view that I can get free everywhere else I look – I for one won’t pay for it. It’s now in my 2.0 DNA not to. That is unless what you’re offering I can justify missing out on.


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