Josh Mack blogging at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, and occasionally on; bicycles, politics, Brooklyn, parenting, crafts, and good reading. Currently helping to build a new NYC neighborhood news site - nearsay.com, that celebrates the voices that make our city. Subscribe to the daily newsletter it gives you what you need to know.
I’m having flashbacks these days, and they’re not from drugs, they’re from the rising chorus of media-industry froth about how Apple’s forthcoming iPad is going to save the business of selling content.
Let me be clear: I love what I’ve seen of the iPad and I’ll probably end up with one. It’s a likely game-changer for the device market, a rethinking of the lightweight mobile platform that makes sense in many ways. I think it will be a big hit. In the realm of hardware design, interface design and hardware -software integration, Apple remains unmatched today. (The company’s single-point-of-failure approach to content and application distribution is another story — and this problem that will only grow more acute the more successful the iPad becomes.)
But these flashbacks I’m getting as I read about the media business’s iPad excitement — man, they’re intense. Stories like this and this, about the magazine industry’s excitement over the iPad, or videos like these Wired iPad demos, take me back to the early ’90s — when media companies saw their future on a shiny aluminum disc.
Most of you have seen many of the ones listed on the site and frankly I'm not finding them that impressive, or even thought provoking but I do think the voiceover on this one is awesome in a 1950's industrial kind of way, "What will digital publications of the future look like?..."
Although we date the "age of print" from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the "novel" emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
Twenty-five years ago, when I founded the Criterion Collection and Voyager, my imagination reached only as far as multi-media enabling authors to express ideas with a more complex palette that included audio, video, text and graphics. The CD-ROMs of the early nineties hinted at these possibilities. However, with the advent of the internet, particularly the web browser, it's now clear that locating works in a dynamic digital network promises even more fundamental changes.
Although we grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in her garret, the most important thing my colleagues and I have learned s from a series of experiments with networked books is that as discourse moves off the page onto the networked screen, the social aspects of reading and writing move from background to foreground. This transition has profound implications for readers, writers, and publishers, as traditional hierarchies flatten and online communities proliferate. A book is on its way to becoming a "place" where readers congregate, sometimes with authors. Lest this sound far-fetched, Motoko Rich, who covers the book industry for the New York Times, took note of this trend on January 24th, writing that "Reading might well have been among the last remaining private activities, but it is now a relentlessly social pursuit."
The arrival of the Apple, Android and Nokia tablets ups the ante for publishers. Simply moving printed texts to the tablets (as they have with the Kindle) will be of value, but within five to ten years the most successful publishers will have enthusiastically embraced new multimedia-based forms. More importantly, they will have figured out how to structure these works as vibrant communities of interest.
My sense is that this time around it's not going to take humanity two hundred years to come up with the equivalent of the novel, i.e. a dominant new form. Not only do digital hardware and software combine into an endlessly flexible shapeshifter, but now we have gaming culture which, unlike publishing, has no legacy product or thinking to hold it back. Multimedia is already its language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will jump on the immense promise of these shiny, intimate, networked devices.
Although some of the barriers that stopped ebooks in 2000 have been reduced, most of them are still in place. So I think the market isn’t likely to grow as quickly as many optimists are predicting. However, the economics of traditional publishing are very vulnerable to a paradigm change. That change is likely to happen later than most people expect, but once it happens it’ll probably move very quickly indeed. So stay out of the avalanche zone.
More than half of today's top 15 most trafficked websites today did not exist back in 1999. That is not a surprise, as Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, Myspace, Blogger, Live.com and Twitter are all new -- and are representative of the massive amount of innovation and disruption that has occurred in the last decade.
Yet, of the top 15 most trafficked eCommerce websites today, just one of them did not exist back in 1999 (NewEgg - which launched in 2001). Which means that over 90% of the top eCommerce websites are over 12 years old! That is pretty remarkable to me -- and reflects an amazing lack of external innovation (and disruption).
Technology predictions can come back to haunt you, but this one I’m sure about: The fate of non-HTML formats has been sealed by HTML5 and the iPad. People are finally noticing what was staring them in the face all along—HTML is great for expressing words. The web is mostly about expressing words, and HTML works well for it. The same holds true for electronic books.