Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Printed Word

There have been many articles about Apple’s new iPad. Everyone has his opinion regarding its novelty, redundancy, and even its subtlety. I will try not to burden the internet with yet another opinion on the iPad, though I believe it will open to great hype, fizzle with the first reality check, and rise again with the third generation model. One of the lesser advertised capabilities of the iPad is its ability to display ebooks. Many have taken notice of this function, since there are already prophets predicting the demise of Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook readers. But while I do not believe the iPad will be able to destroy the Kindle and Nook, I do wonder what it might do to the rest of the printed word. In fact, this is the basis of the iPad. By putting the web in a just large enough sized screen, it is rivaling all printed word. The web, after all, is predominately reading material with video and audio mixed in, but mostly it is reading material. So the greatest draw of the iPad is its ability to bring together the two things that people want when getting information—the web or the digitized word, and convenient portability.

Let us look at the printed word. It has dominated the world of information until the last decade. You could read the articles and look at the pictures on paper. And you could carry it around with you in a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. You were limited in how much information you could carry due to the weight of paper. But then came the web. It essentially took the information as printed word and digitized it. Suddenly the quantity of information you could carry relative to weight was astronomical—you could carry all of Shakespeare’s plays on a very cheap SD card. Imagine carrying all those books! In the beginning of the web, however, you could not read this digitized word without a computer. You needed to be at a monitor or at least a laptop to read. And given the way laptops are still, to many it is not obviously more convenient than carrying around the printed word version.

Then came the PDA and smartphones. Certainly a much more compact screen, and for many it became easier to read with these devices. They were still limited by their very small screens, unfortunately. And then netbooks came out. Much better in terms of size, but still lacking in terms of battery life and ease of reading—the screen is turned the wrong way. So when the Kindle debuted, it seemed to have hit all the marks. It was light, it was easy to read, and it carried a lot of books and newspapers. It had people talking about the end of the printed word. But alas, it was also expensive, did not have color, and many people simply still liked the feels of an actual book in their hand. And so the printed word would live on to fight another day.

During this time the printed word was losing another battle to the web. More and more content was showing up on the web. It was also legal to recap and reuse someone’s content as long as you maintained the same heading. Thus paid content could drift into free content. And why would you pay for content when you could find it for free on the web? So many newspapers began offering the web versions of their print for free, thinking they would make money from ads. This turned out not to work because web ads pay very little. Because content could drift so easily, you needed a look and feel of a website that people wanted along with content that was robust. Few newspapers have this combination. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have it. They are able to require subscriptions to view full articles on the web.

The question then, is why is some content worth more than others? And the answer, I believe, is that it was also what is coupled with the content that makes the difference. Branded content, like the look and feel of the NYT, makes the already quality content more desirable. If the price is not too steep, I would pay to read the NYT on my computer as I would if I had its newspaper subscription. But charge too much and I would decide it is not too bad reading free drifted NYT content on Joe Schmoe’s blog or free similar content on Yahoo. This is the big question with a device like the iPad that can both browse the web and display the printed word as it looks on paper along with the portability of the printed word. Many believe that the iPad will kill the printed word because people will just surf the web for free content that is drifted or similar. Others believe the printed word will be reborn to appear on the iPad, and new life will be given to newspapers, magazines (no color on the Kindle!), and books.

Sadly, despite all this discussion regarding the digitization of the printed word and the different ways to sell and view content, I believe that the printed word’s days are numbered. It will be transitioned into the digital word, because future generations will see less and less printed word. It is just like digital cameras. Children born today will have no concept of developing film. Future generations will eventually have little concept of the printed word. I do not believe that the iPad will change the fate of the printed word. It only serves to spotlight what has already begun to happen. The battle between information on the web and subscribed digital content is no different than free printed information and subscribed printed information. The battle has simply gone high tech, but the conflict remains the same—you must decide on your balance between quality of information and cost of information.