Hopes, Fears for Apple’s Tablet Launch

Technophiles are aroused. Advertisers are fantasizing. And battered, skeptical publishers are hopeful but trying to stay grounded as everyone awaits digital Christmas, scheduled for Jan. 27, when Apple is expected to introduce its long-rumored tablet device.

In classic form, Apple isn’t saying much, but rumors have the company releasing some sort of aesthetically gorgeous, paper-sized tablet device that combines computing, Web browsing, e-reading and multimedia. The last time Apple released a product this shrouded and hyped—the iPhone-—it pretty much singlehandedly elevated the entire mobile medium.

The excitement has some advertisers swooning over the possibilities of communicating via the tablet—envisioning a beautiful new canvas and maybe even a complete rethinking of what Web pages look like. “Advertising is, at its core, about storytelling. And since the advent of interactive media, we have had to make compromises in how we tell those stories: character limits, file sizes, small and odd dimensions,” explained Eric Bader, managing partner, BrandinHand. “This tablet is the next step in vastly improving the experiences.”

Buyers also foresee the tablet as a channel for better targeting data. But its personal, portable nature may also make it tougher to make an impact. “How do I insert my brand in an era where it’s increasingly impossible to disrupt somebody?” asked Greg March, digital group director at Wieden+Kennedy. “That doesn’t change with a tablet.”

Most expect Apple’s tablet, like Amazon’s Kindle, to sell magazine and newspaper subscriptions. But publishing experts cautioned against viewing the device as a lifesaver. Sean Reily, Los Angeles Times director of editorial business and planning, said that Apple’s brand should lift the profile of e-reading overall and provide an attractive distribution outlet.
“But the business of publishing is a whole other ballgame,” he said.

Given print’s inherent problems, it’s a question whether “those industries can even be saved,” said Josh Martin, senior analyst, Strategy Analytics. “The problem with a tablet is the same problem with print—it’s an older way of distributing content”—meaning that a digital version of a newspaper is instantly old by the time it publishes. And if, as expected, the tablet serves as a superior portable Web browsing tool, won’t most users opt to view free news sites rather than pay for subscriptions? That’s one reason there’s a rush to incorporate pay walls on many sites.

However, according to Roger Fidler, program director/digital publishing at the University of Missouri, research on e-readers has shown that there are “print-centric people who prefer editorial packaging” and don’t want Web distractions like links, e-mail and instant messaging when reading. Surprisingly, that even includes some student-aged users. Then there are “Web-centric people who say, ‘no one’s ever going to buy an e-reader.’ There are such absolutist views. Apple needs to find the middle ground.”

Apple also needs to come down in price fast to appeal to mainstream consumers, say many observers. The Tablet is rumored to cost around $1,000. “That’s a crucial factor,” said Fidler.

Another major factor to watch for, said Reily, is whether Apple demands a cut of ad sales—something that is unheard of in publishing. “That would be like Barnes & Noble and Walmart getting a percentage of our print ad sales,” he said.

Plus, many fear that Apple will launch some kind of restrictive iTunes-esque print store that dictates costs for the industry—similar to what happened with music. As Matt Buchanan, contributing editor at Gizmodo (which has been ground zero for tablet rumors of late), puts it, “The music industry says that Apple basically raped and murdered its children. If Apple becomes a gatekeeper of publishing, that’s scary for some people.”

Consumers might argue that they came out winners when iPods arrived, which helps explain the anticipation over Apple’s tablet.

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