August 17th, 2010

On the iPad, is Content Still King?

I have blogged a few times lately about attempts publishers are making the price of content on the internet (here and here, if you’re interested). Traditional media sources and content producers have always struggled with creating a profitable online model, and the rise of the smartphone and the tablet both highlights the issues they are facing, and presents new opportunities for a solution.  Two more attempts at this solution have been getting publicity recently. First, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has announced it’s plans for a new, national US publication designed specifically for the iPad. The publication is will feature short, snappy news stories (take this to mean lots of pictures, little in the way of analysis) and has been created with the goal of “having young people read newspapers”.   The second thing which got me thinking about it was a story about a series of new magazines created specifically for tablets, called Nomad Editions. Basically, the idea behind is that they’ll produce 5 “editions” around specific topics (food, movies, surfing, viral video, etc), published weekly, which users will be able to subscribe to. It will be built using an interesting technology called Treesaver , which allows users to view ther same content, using the same addresses, on their desktop or mobile device.

These are both nice ideas, but they both seem inspired by a premise I’m not sure I agree with. Mark Edmiston, CEO of Nomad, claimed that Nomad was borne of that fact that “…people reading on their iPads, they’re reading a different way”. Rupert Murdoch made similar claims about his national newspaper concept. The implication in both cases is that the new technology necessitates new content, as well as new content delivery.

I don’t think this is so? Consider recent history. The dark days of 2000 and 2001 when digital music players, in particular the iPod, entered the market. They made listening to music more simple than ever before. They made buying music more simple than ever before. They made people likely to own more music, and purchase music more often.  But this didn’t translate to more money for the content producers, for tangible reasons  -  file sharing,  their product being sold more cheaply on legitimate digital channels and intangible – the availability of music reducing the premium nature of the product, and that which surrounded it (tours, t-shirts, CD singles, etc). The content didn’t change, the way it was consumed did.

So how do content producers stop this from happening to them? Content producers in some ways start from a more difficult position that music companies and musicians did, because they are already giving their product away for free online. However, they have the advantage of their product (in some cases)being relevant for shorter periods of time, and will only be consumed by the user once, it’s therefore less likely to fall victim victim to file sharing.

The content producers who win in this new environment won’t be the ones with the best new content, but the ones who can repackage their existing content most effectively. One most commonly heard cliches about the internet at the moment is that “content is king” (if you work in digital, count the number of times you hear it this week and let us know). But, somewhat counter-intuitively, I don’t think that will be the case for mobile phones and devices, for these early years at least. The content is already available for them, as they’re web browsers(duh).  But browsing on a page designed for desktop on a mobile device has obivous shortcomings. It’s the solutions that takes into account their visual possibilities and the various contexts and situations in which they’re used. A user looking for a quick news update on a crowded train is not going to tolerate a poor interface; an iPad user who’s into bikini shots will prefer a site which makes use of the full screen. Making the transition of your site to a tablet (or even an app) shouldn’t be the time to reconsider your content anymore than buying a new car should be a reason to change your footwear. If I was News Corp, I wouldn’t be looking to create a new brand for the iPad, I would be making my trusted brands as usable and appealing as possible, so that when my existing readers make the inevitable transition, in weeks or months or years, it is as seamless as possible.

Over to you designers…

EDIT – A great debate in this month’s Wired, which expands on many of the points raised here. Key quote – “the Web has had nearly twenty years to provide a viable business model for content, and so far it has failed to do so”

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OK. Let’s get down to it. So what do you think of that? Agree? Disagree? Don’t really care? Got something to say. Then say it.

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