After the Web: Pervasive Portable Media (2002)

Originally published on February 01, 2002, by the American Press Institute.

[American Press Institute Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of an essay started in our January edition about the business failure of Web publishing and what might follow — WILL follow, according to the author — as a financially viable successor to Web publishing.]

We’re now in the Web wave’s backwash, a turbulent period of apparent chaos and eroding resources. The Internet has changed the publishing scene, but most publishers aren’t yet sure exactly how. Experienced surfers, however, know the frequency of waves, that not all waves are equal and that each wave can build upon the previous.

The Web was the second wave of electronic publishing, following the emergence of online services like Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A third, even greater wave is about to strike the publishing industry. It will:

  • burst upon us sooner than thought
  • build its power atop the force of the preceding waves
  • forever change the landscape of publishing
  • potently avoid the problems I discussed in Part 1 that make the Web a difficult medium for commercial periodical publishers.

Third wave online newspapers will wirelessly and automatically deliver into portable devices interactive, intact, and individualized newspaper editions with sophisticated graphic layouts featuring finite amounts of display-quality advertising space.

Most online publishers today of course think that’s too tall an order, too far in the future. But they are wrong, still caught in the disorientating backwash of the Web.

Convergence devices

The original prescription that newspapers should be delivered into wireless, portable devices was written by Roger Fidler of the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in the early 1990s. Fidler, now at Kent State University’s Institute for CyberInformation, reached the right conclusion but might have had the formula wrong. He thought the newspaper industry should create and distribute devices that would be used to read newspapers. But the newspaper industry isn’t in the electronic device business and consumers won’t realistically use an online device that functions for only one type of media (a lesson that the book industry is only now learning from eBooks).

Business experts ranging from Intel CEO Andy Grove to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen have long noted that radical changes to an industry almost always comes from outside that industry. Just as online services and the Web weren’t created by the newspaper industry and the industry was surprised by consumers’ demand for them, the next online publishing medium isn’t being created by that industry and too many publishers already are oblivious to consumers’ demand for the rise in the imminent third wave of electronic publishing.

Do you carry a cell phone, PDA, Blackberry, laptop PC, Walkman, MP3 player, eBook, or at least a few of those devices? Device manufacturers have realized that most consumers don’t want to carry multiple devices that each performs only a single function or medium. The manufacturers also know that selling a multifunction device gives them the broadest market and revenues. Pursuing that consumer demand and that profit motive, device manufacturers — such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Nokia, Siemens, Palm, Handspring — have begun manufacturing and selling truly converged media devices, the first of which are already appearing on retail shelves.

For example, Samsung and Kyocera each now sell Palm phones. Palm itself, which plans to offer content on its PDAs and so has been buying up electronic book software companies, last month announced the i705, a model with wireless e-mail and SMS messaging capacities. HandSpring’s new Treo combines PDA, cell phone, and those ‘Blackberry’-like e-mail capabilities. Nokia’s new 5510 adds an MP3 player, AM/FM radio, and text chat to a cell phone. Compaq is testing iPaqs that have live wireless background connectivity at 128Kbps. And Siemen’s new SimPad is an easel PC that does all of those things (except AM/FM) with wireless networking and Internet connectivity through GSM, GPRS, 802.11b and Bluetooth.

Although most of these initial (on sale now) third wave devices handle only two or three forms of media, as consumers demand increasing functionalities and more media and more memory in devices, the manufacturers tell me they plan to produce and sell single devices for all media by Christmas of 2005, less than 36 months from now.

We’re moving from today’s wireless cell phone to a device that can do everything. It will have larger screens than a PDA but overall be small enough that a man can fit it into his jacket pocket or a woman into her purse.

And, later this decade, the liquid crystal display (LCD) screens and rigid tablets of these devices will be replaced by sheaves of electronic paper bound together by a CPU and battery binding, making devices even more flexible and portable. Electronic paper, already a reality, will certainly replace LCDs simply because e-paper uses one hundredth of the electric current that LCDs do, extending battery life one hundred times as long.

Will the consumers who use these devices to communicate, listen to music, watch videos and read magazines and books, also want to read newspapers on them? You already know the answer.

So, if the newspaper industry is smart, it will plan now to automatically deliver editions into these wireless devices. The consumer subscribes and the edition automatically appears in the device’s daily in-box, via background wireless downloads so that subscribers don’t have to remember to retrieve each edition. (Discloser: The author is chairman of PublishMail, a company that offers e-mail delivery services to Web publishers).

Each intact edition will appear in tabloid-format print layout (broadsheets shall have to adapt), but with hyperlinked texts and screen-mapped graphics. Click the story about the speech to hear that speech, click the still photo to see the video of that event, all available through the always-on wireless connectivity of these devices.

Because these editions use print layouts, notably display advertising and not banner ads, there is no need for a publication to employ a separate advertising sales staff for online. The print ads and online ads are the same, only these are hyperlinked and screen-mapped online. And because each edition contains a finite number of these ads, the publishers can return to selling scarce space rather than unlimited ad space inventory per edition. This means they will be able to increase their online ad rates as their circulation increases, as they have done in print but can’t do on the Web.

The newspaper industry unfortunately maintains tremendous institutional momentum and is indisposed to changes. Too many newspapers confined their online efforts to the proprietary online services well into the mid-1990s, years after Web publishing made those efforts moot. Characteristically, most newspapers will now probably focus their online efforts on the Web rather than the tsunami that will overwhelm that medium.

Handheld devices won’t totally replace the Web as an online medium, but beginning in the second half of this decade will make the Web the lesser online medium for commercial periodicals.

Every news publisher should operate a Web site both for archival purposes, including for retrieval of real-time news, and as the digital foundation for the great third wave that is about to strike and that will remake the landscape of publishing for the rest of the 21st Century.

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