Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Future Is Almost Here

It’s a big deal in Florida: this fall Clearwater High School is eliminating all textbooks, for all 21 hundred students, and will instead make the content available on iPads or Kindles. It’s going to cost around 600 grand, according to the St. Petersburg Times newspaper (where you can still read their stuff online free). The paper claims Clearwater High will be the first school in the nation to go paperless.

That’s THIS fall, as in just about a month away.

Another sign that these portable devices like the iPad and Kindle are becoming more and more “mainstream”: Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines is launching an iPad-only inflight magazine, and the first edition will be on flights in October. Content for iPhones and Android devices should follow in a few months.

Branson’s a real maverick, but he says it’s vital to target his upscale clientele and international customer base with exclusive mobile-smart-device-only content on travel, technology, and entrepreneurism. He’s put his daughter Holly in charge of the project. Both of them believe they have to provide this content to planeloads of passengers with electronic devices in their hands or on their lap, to stay ahead of the competition.

Hearst Corporation, with roots in both the print and broadcast industry, sold 12 thousand downloads of the Popular Mechanics app since it came out earlier this month. The popular techie publication, “Wired”, is now digital-only. At the top right of the front page of “Wired”, you’ll see a tab marked “Wired on iPad”.

More national newspapers are going to “paywalls” – cough up the dough if you want the content. News Corp’s Times and Sunday Times are said to be close to charging for content, and they’ve got a paywall that even Google’s powerful web spiders can’t surmount. The New York Times is tinkering with its metering system and will supposedly introduce a revised model next year.

The future’s getting closer every day.


  1. Colonel,

    Are you, as one of the more voracious readers I know, close to acquiring one o' them thar ee-lectronic reading thingamajigs? I've seen a Kindle and the screen (using "E Ink", I think they call it) is quite legible and easy on the eyebones.

    My main objection to the Kindle had been that the access to free books seemed to be limited. I see now that the on-line Gutenberg Project has thousands of books available in Kindle format at no charge.

    I think what I'm thinking is (thanks and a hat tip to Bea Teichmueller for that felicitous phrase) that I'll get Janet a Kindle for Christmas. She has an iPod Touch, but that's a bit small for reading large amounts of text.

    I'm leery of subscriptions to newspapers delivered to the Kindle. Too easy to load yourself up with oodles of charges for stuff that would normally make great fish wrap.

    The Town Crank

  2. So-called paywalls actually seem to work for some niche publications such as the Wall Street Journal, so owner Rupert Murdoch likes them. He recently tried harnessing his Times of London with one, and nothing short of 90 percent of the paper's online traffic promptly vanished. Here's a link to that story:

    Newsday, which Murdoch coveted but lost to real-estate big shot and Murdoch wannabe Marty Zuckerman, put up a paywall a while back. After three months it had attracted (count 'em) 35 subscribers.

    The Great Gray New York Times tried pay models, first for its archives, then for "premium" content, such as columnists. The archives went utterly unexplored. The columnists racked up weekly page views in the dozens. It turned out there was a lot more money to be made by simply selling ads around the content instead of walling it off and demanding credit card numbers.

    Paywalls that fail cause a cascade of collateral damage when they collapse. Page views go down, so ad clicks go down. The sites are ignored by the search engines (keeping Google out is as simple as putting a "no index" file on the root level of the Web site), so there's no alternative way for people to find the unique walled-off content.

    Meanwhile, much of the content on any news site, including that of the haplessly led Newsday, can readily be found in some satisfactory form elsewhere.

    Subscription payments will never carry a web site, any more than they ever carried any other media. Advertising generates the money, and online ad rates are based on traffic. No traffic = No revenue. Talk about a zero-sum game.

    Recovering from such a blunder is likely to be expensive and could take a long time.

    What we once thought of as the newspaper industry has proven itself as incapable of dealing with its changed new world as was the brontosaurus. (The latter even lost its name, long after it went extinct.) If you'd like to see how egos and indecision can make a terrible situation so much worse, search Wikipedia for New Century Media. As you read the story, and perhaps follow some of the additional links, know that this scheme - conceived way back in 1995 (Pre-Cambrian, in the Internet time line) - might have had a shot at working.

    For any who really give a ratz about the subject, I commend to your attention.

    Some day people will pay for content. (Did you hear it here first?) They will do it via some sort of micropayment scheme. But the remnants of the fast-fading dead-tree news business (where most of the reporting still comes from) are even now not ready to embrace such a change. The tipping point was reached long ago. It is just a matter of time before the "newspaper" as we knew it is on display in the Smithsonian, somewhere near the buggy whip.