Digital Do-Over Time: Consortium Aims to Get Next Generation Right

Includes: AAPL, AMZN, NWS, TWX
by: Ken Doctor

Many of us shared the three-minute Sports Illustrated tablet video over the last week, and now watched at least a quarter million times. It was an ah-ha moment, amid the rat-a-tat-tat of daily digital news, moves and announcements. We could see a different kind of news reading future, one that has long been promised, hinted at, drawn in pencil and on whiteboards for, it seems, like decades. Editor Terry McDonnell's voice-over was matter-of-fact; the product told the story. Real reader choice and interactivity, and our ease ability to go deeper and broader, or pull back and just browse. Glorious, real-world color. Immersive advertising.

I'm hoping the SI demo is the appetizer for the entree announced Tuesday.

Time, Conde Nast, Hearst, Meredith and News Corp (NASDAQ:NWS) made the formal announcement of their new digital consortium Tuesday. It names four basic areas of work (around content management, formats, advertising and a consumer storefront), all of which I think are aimed at fleshing out the reader and advertiser proposition for the new generation of tablets. As importantly, they intend to establish a new business model itself for their digital products. These would include both magazines and, yes, newspapers, if those papers can make the transition to the visual age.

Here's what I think is going on here: the digital do-over for the next decade. With the flurry of year-end activity, it's as if publishers, as they ready their decade-end lists for publication, have made one for themselves.

Top of the list: Get the Next Decade Right.

Web browsing -- desktop and laptop -- has been a quicksand for publishers. Alluring, it drew them in and then got them stuck. Maybe, they hope, this next generation of reading devices -- tablets (and maybe mobile) can re-start the engines, putting them on the curve (if not ahead of it) with readers and advertisers, instead of being sent to the dustbin of history as dowdy, old, dying media.

It makes a lot of theoretical sense, though the payoff is at least 12-18 months away, and the battles over the money in web browsing will continue apace.

That said, standards battles are always tough ones, and it's easy to get on the wrong side of history. This consortium seems aimed, properly, at open standards, which would be the smart play for publishers. It's impossible to call a winner in the coming Tablet Wars. Sony (NYSE:SNE) Reader, Kindle,PlasticLogic, iRex, Hanlin, Cybook and apparently lots more are out there; it's starting to sound like a set of galaxies from Star Trek. All of these may be diversions, though, from the titanic Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) vs. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) battle to come, given the marketplace might of both.

These tablets will take off, I believe. One key reason: they are consumer devices largely, meant for ah-ha pleasure of reading and entertainment, not just multi-purpose "computing" devices, like our first generation digital experience.

For publishers, the basics, here, are longstanding ones:

  • Make sure the products can fully bring to life their current and evolving new and feature content and storytelling.
  • Fully exploit the commercial story-telling, experiential abilities of the new medium, offering much beyond pay-for-space "advertising".
  • Maintain a direct customer relationship, certainly with readers and potentially with advertisers. Rupert Murdoch fairly frothed at the mouth as Jeff Bezos said he'd be the middleman between the Kindle and News Corp customers; that's a proper froth.
  • Build a flexible enough content management support system that can both feed multiple device and formats, and then rock and roll with ongoing build-outs to come.

A storefront? Well, that will be more problematic. How big a garden will it be, and who else will want to step inside its walls? Storefronts may seem like a logical path to "owning" distribution, but that may turn out to be old-world logic. One route to watch here will be Apps. With more than 100,000 in the iTunes store, one way to picture the world world to come is a tablet with apps gone wild. They can easily morph for tablets, and here the Apps stores have an early edge.

Disclosure: none