Of tablets & printing

Not too long ago the word “tablet” likely conjured up an image of Charlton Heston in a scene from “The Ten Commandments.” This seems natural enough for graphic arts people, given that written communication—including modern printing processes—have their origin in ancient clay tablet writing that began 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Thanks to Apple, however, the “tablet” has a new connotation; i.e. the iPad and other slate-type mobile computing devices. As with previous digital and online technologies, the modern-day tablet has major implications for print media. What is different this time is the pace of the tablet’s impact, especially on various forms of publishing.

By any measure, the iPad has been a huge success. Nearly 15 million iPads were sold in the eight months since Apple launched it, more than twice the most optimistic analyst predictions. To be fair, the excitement about tablets is also driven by Amazon’s Kindle—with some four million units sold since 2007—and the Google Android, Microsoft Windows Mobile and HP/Palm based systems coming online presently.

The success of tablet devices—along with smartphones—is due to several critical technologies:

  • Powerful and low-energy mobile processors
  • Faster and accessible wireless broadband
  • High resolution, multi-touch display

The third of these is the most recent and most important. The replacement of the physical keyboard and mouse with a high-resolution touch display is a major step forward in human/computer interface design; all you need to operate the system is your fingers!

But as interesting as technological innovation is, the true value of these changes is as much about content and media consumption as it is about the popularity of the platform.

This brings me to printing and publishing. In the past month, two significant things happened:

  • On January 27, Amazon announced it had sold more ebooks than paperbacks for the first time. For every 100 paperbacks it sold in the last quarter of 2010, Amazon sold 115 Kindle books. In their press statement, Amazon said, “Last July we announced that Kindle books had passed hardcovers and predicted that Kindle would surpass paperbacks in the second quarter of this year, so this milestone has come even sooner than we expected; and it’s on top of continued growth in paperback sales.”
  • On February 2, The Daily was launched by News Corp. as “the industry’s first national daily news publication created from the ground up for iPad” with a “unique mix of text, photography, audio, video, information graphics, touch interactivity and real-time data and social feeds.” During the press conference News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch said , “No paper. No multi-million dollar presses. No trucks. … We’re passing on these savings to the reader, which is why we can offer The Daily for just 14 cents a day.”

This shows the growing thirst of the public for reading on tablet devices. It also reveals how publishers are using mobile technologies as platforms for new business models. Clearly, printed books and newspapers will continue to exist. But I think we can all agree that the role of print within the publishing spectrum is being shifted and encroached upon by its electronic and multimedia cousins.

It is this new reality that both the providers of print products and services and the creators and publishers of content must adapt their businesses. The quicker we find our way to the unique role and value of the ink-on-paper component of content delivery, the better we will be at taking advantage of the opportunities emerging out of the new, cross-media landscape.

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