Apple's iPad has wow factor but is no rescue act for newspapers
Peter Preston, The Observer, Sunday 31 January 2010
There are two ways of wondering about the wonder of the iPad. One exalts Steve Jobs the creative core of Apple, and swoons a little over his "magical and revolutionary product". It looks great; it dances to the touch of your finger; it simulates the print-reading experience better than anything on the market. .
My second wondering way is much more
personal, and a bit shaming to boot …
Can the iPad rescue newspapers from "oblivion" (in the editor of the Guardian's own chilling word)? Just look around at the two decades' worth of digital detritus piled around me from desk to desk and answer for yourself.
Back there near the wall is the Power Macintosh, circa 1997, that I wrote two novels on. It might still be serviceable in a clunky way, except that small grandchildren have wedged a teaspoon in the floppy disc slot and nobody knows how to get it out. Over here on desk one is an early iMac circa 1999 – gathering dust. There's a Toshiba laptop I never used under the desk; a Psion that time passed by in the desk, along with an iPod (2004) I can't fit into my ear with my one good hand, and a Samsung netbook (2009) I'd like to love but haven't managed to yet.
Oh, and on the desk, to the right, is that first edition iPhone some kind soul gave me for my birthday two years ago, the one that isn't the BlackBerry I do use and cherish. Did I mention the PowerBook (2003) the Guardian Trust handed me as a retirement present or the MacBook (2007) I'm writing this piece on?
You get the shame part, I'm perfectly sure. But do you also get why the iPad – which I'll probably buy in the end – is just a small step or two along a very long and winding road?
Look around my study again. Newspapers are heavy industry: a critical mass of logging companies, paper mills, printing presses at £100 million a hall. Most of the production end hasn't changed in essence for centuries. That, in a sense, is the current curse. But the web worldwide has a curse of its own: that of constant change.
Fine for Apple, probably; great for Steve Jobs's bottom line. But newspapers don't get "rescued" that way. Extrapolate newspaper US subscription and advertising revenue across all existing e-readers and, at a mighty optimistic stretch, you can see new circulation funds of $325 million a year, plus $150 million in ads flowing in. And how much revenue did the whole industry lose just last year? Say $10 billion.
This isn't a revolution, let alone salvation. The iPad may be a miracle of design ingenuity, the next Christmas present of first request for rich kids: but it's also a work in eternal progress; a plethora of models, not a business model; a challenge, not a safe haven.
Does any such snug haven exist? The number of unique users piles higher (the Guardian had a record 37m last month) but there's no sign of advertising alone paying the bill to keep them afloat. Display ads can't do it. "Apple may be trying to kill the laptop but for now it seems you'll still need a laptop, camera and cellphone to be a competent digital journalist," says Dylan Stableford of thewrap.com.
What, no magic after all? Now, let me try and clear and bit of desk space – and start thinking again.