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iPad Re-energizes Publishing

The heartland of technology innovation…Silicon Valley…was home for almost 20 years. I not only worked inside publishing companies that covered the technology sector, but I also went onto the other side and ran a major technology company, as well as a venture capital-backed pre-YouTube streaming media company that was just ahead of its time.

Through all those years, and my subsequent time here in Phoenix and Scottsdale media businesses, I keep coming back to the allure of what I enjoyed the most about Silicon Valley – the sheer excitement of game-changing innovation that destroys old business models while creating new ones. Standing still serves no good purpose.

I once had a really smart executive mentor who told me that one of the secrets to success in business is to “grow or die.” His three-word mantra is backed by a pretty good thesis — growing the business generates return on invested capital, and that in turn can help fund new investments in products or services to further accelerate the rate of growth. That cycle of success starts with a couple of keys:

  • healthy dose of confidence in your product or service
  • an intense desire to build strong, defensible competitive barriers
  • an incredible vision to understand what users need today and what they may want tomorrow (even if they don’t know it yet)
  • a willingness to hire the smartest, ablest and savviest people you can
  • no fear of failure

What Has Apple Wrought?

Traditional, analog media platforms have borne the brunt of the recent economic recession in advertising. If the newspaper business used to make all its profit on classified, career and automotive advertising sections, you can imagine their respective fates in the media sector when those business categories migrated to digital media outlets. Think Monster, CareerBuilder, TheLadders or even LinkedIn as the collective fuse that helped blow up the career/jobs newspaper advertising business model. These are examples of online media companies that have moved faster, proven more flexible and remained unbound by conventional ways of building an advertising base. There’s hardly an advertising category that hasn’t exploded in digital category growth at the expense of print ad dollars.

In my early media days, we’d launch a brand new magazine with the typical success cocktail: advertising would be built on contracts from cigarettes, automotive, liquor and financial services companies. Yes…Conde Nast, Hearst and Time, Inc. rode those horses early on and did pretty well if their corporate headquarters buildings can be symbols of that success. But, none were really prepared for the impact of digital technology. In fact, few even saw it coming.

When our team at InfoWorld launched InfoWorld Electric in 1995, our early Internet experience was about alternative news distribution (online vs. print)…advertising was hardly mentioned back then. Today, as I look back, I think we saw “something” about digital distribution that was intriguing and game-changing, but even our smartest tech editors could not really grasp all the moving parts that would be necessary to kick-start this growth engine…cheap bandwidth into the home; web browsers to render higher quality images on the page; content management and page layout software that would make page creation and publishing relatively painless and fast; higher pixel density on computer monitors to faithfully render text, images and illustrations that would reduce eye strain…well, the list can go on and on. Oh, and then there was the need for advertising dollars to support it all.

What Apple did with the original iPad, and the subsequent iPads 2 and 3, was to create a portable consumer device that encouraged consumer content consumption…not because it’s there, but because it is fun to find the content, easy to read it and easier still to engage with it. The mouse gives way to using your fingers (and now your voice) to manipulate screens, push-to-start applications and interactive content. Keen image resolution has now given way to Retina Display technology (super keen?)…lifelike HD quality rendered on a thin, light-weight pad held on your lap or in your hands.

iPad Publishing — What’s the Big Deal?

My pre-digital life was built on the premise that a two-dimensional, static page in a newspaper or magazine would attract subscribers and newsstand buyers in droves: content attracts the right readers, the right readers have disposable income and advertisers want to target what we are/were selling. Everyone’s happy, right? Well, for awhile that accurately portrayed the publishing world. Mad Men is all about the advertising business in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but that world no longer exists. Four-, five- or even six-section daily newspapers don’t exist today either. Subscriptions and newsstand sales have dwindled, and advertising dollars have migrated to digital distribution platforms. Outdated printing technology, rough-and-tumble distribution controlled by third-parties and the “headline news” consumer mentality has thrown a wrench into those glorious print days of yore.

The iPad has exploded onto the scene, and competitive products from other pad developers will only further erode the last vestige of mindshare that print has for some consumers. Content Management Systems enable publishers to create dynamic content, to push alerts and content refreshes as often as necessary throughout the day. No need to wait until tomorrow’s early edition, or next week’s news magazine, or worse…next month’s feature-rich magazine that can take 2-3 months to produce, layout, print and distribute.

Every time I pick up an iPad and think about the ways I can interact with the content from publishers all over the world, I look back on my early print days with a certain level of fondness. Something like going back to your old homestead only to find your parents left your room EXACTLY as you left it. Emotional, true. But, sad.

More important, I really look forward to the next generation of portable, hi-res, on-demand devices that will make even the iPad look like yesterday’s yellowed newsprint. You can’t hold back the tidal wave of new technology that will supersede today’s platforms. All you can do is embrace it, get smart about it fast and learn to create and distribute content for it that will forever alter consumer patterns of content consumption.

The iPad is part of that next-gen revolution. I’m fully on board with it, and I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow to see what Apple, or some other company, has created. Is there anything more intriguing than that?