The iPod moment has arrived for newspapers
Monday October 8, 2007
In these pages, internet parent Vint Cerf wondered when television would reach its iPod moment – that is, the time when we download video more than we sit watching broadcasts. Then TV will face the upheaval music has barely survived. Also here, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has speculated about newspapers’ iPod moment, which he foresees arriving with the emergence of “a relatively mass-market device on which reading a newspaper (and watching it and listening to it) will seem quite normal”. Or as Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams blogged: “When you have a web browser in your pocket, a printed newspaper is redundant.”
Well, I think the iPod moment is here. It arrived with the latest iPod and its off shoot, the iPhone. The momentousness of this event was lost, I think, because Apple made a mistake in its release of the latest iPods in the US. Apple first released the iPhone and then announced the almost identical but phoneless iPod Touch. The problem was that we came to see this new device first and foremost as a phone with a few added features. But if Apple had released the iPod Touch first – as it has done in the UK – we would have seen that this gadget is really a whole computer with wi-fi connectivity, a web browser that has the ability to download and display – and also capture and share – all media: text (I just met an author who’s releasing his novel on the iPod), photos, audio, video, interactivity. The iPhone is then merely the same computer with a telephone added.
These new devices represent the next generation of the computer: small, sleek, powerful, portable. Everything that the computer, the web, and the browser have done to content – enabling it to become infinite but personal; instantaneous yet permanent; unrestricted by medium because it offers all media; and enriched by the conversation around it – is now in the palm of your hand. Everything you can do on the web you can do with media on the iPhone, anywhere, any time.
For decades, I’ve watched newspaper industry thinktanks – the too few that exist – try to invent the next medium for news. This usually takes the mythical form of e-paper, thin as a sheet and just as portable, able to display newspapers like newspapers, very Harry Potter. I have also seen too many newspapers and magazines attempting to use painful PDF technology to display their publications on screens exactly as they appear on paper. Why? Ego, I think, and comfort and fear of change. The New York Times recently did a deal with Microsoft to use its new reader, which looks as attractive, if grey, as the Times itself and enables familiar activities like turning pages, but which loses some of the rich linking and interactivity of the web.
I think that’s all driving the wrong way: backwards. These are attempts to mould technology to old media. What we should be doing instead, of course, is moulding media to new technology. We should be asking what new we can do on this new iPhone.
Sadly, I don’t own an iPhone. My teen son has one, bought with the proceeds of his Facebook application programming. His mother has ruled that if he can teach his dad to write apps, then perhaps I, too, can afford the wondrous gadget. But once in a while, he lets me play with it. And more important, I get to observe him using it. And what I see is quite simple and obvious: he’s on the web. For this is just a browser, always connected constantly with him.
Rusbridger has predicted that if and when the iPod moment arrives, “the world of newspapers will shudder on its axis” and journalists will “have a responsibility to have our editorial offering in a shape that will readily adapt to whatever comes along next (the unnerving bit)”. What’s unnerving is that word, “whatever”, and the implication that we don’t know what’s coming next.
But perhaps we do. If all the iPhone does is clip the wires that constrained the browser, then our first iPod moment came 13 years ago this month when the first commercial browser was released. And the challenges we’ve faced since are the same challenges we face now, only yet more urgent: how do we use this wonderful device to give people the news and links whenever, wherever, and however they want it? How do we do that with incredible efficiency? How do we make it local and relevant? How do we take advantage of the two-way relationship we now have, enabling people with these gadgets to share what they know? And – here’s what everyone really means when they talk about iPod moments – how do we make money doing it?