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04.07.10

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Writ Large

Will Apple's new iPad save print's sorry ass?

By Daedalus Howell


There will come a time when the sleek, electronic tablet device known to all as the Apple iPad will look as quaint and anachronistic as an abacus. Until then, we cannot help but marvel at its glory as we once did over squares ping-ponging across the dark void of a cathode ray tube.

The iPad has been heralded as a prospective savior of the ailing publishing industry with particular emphasis put on how it will reel magazines back from the brink and escort institutions like the Gray Lady across the digital divide and into the 21st century. As is oft reported with Nietzschean succinctness, "Print is dead." However, that does not mean that the New York Times is penning its own obit. On the contrary, it and its brethren are on the eve of a renaissance.

What the arrival of a multimedia device such as the iPad really means to publishing is the emancipation of written content, which, heretofore, has been distributed via ink and paper and, to a lesser degree, cut and pasted onto the web. If the iPad proves as virulent a market maker as the other devices in its gene pool, we will soon consume our media diets with our fingers, pinching and swiping at apps from a radiant touch-screen.

There was a time when the medium and the message were the same, but, alas, Marshall Mcluhan is dead, too. The iPad seeks to make the message the message, and the message is, in the words of Sausalito-based tech visionary Stewart Brand, that "information wants to be free." Mind you, that's not "free" in the pecuniary sense but rather in the running-naked-and-bat-shit-crazy-down-the-Infinite-Loop sense of the word.

The connective tissue that links analog and the digital media has always been the information it contained. It's as if content has gone from a solid (analog media like books and vinyl LPs) to a liquid (the malleable digital media of CDs and DVDs) to a gas (content literally stowed in the "cloud" and downloaded in digital drops). Or how about: books, magazines and newspapers are to rolling papers what the iPad is to a bong. And by "bong," we mean the kind sold as kits from the nether reaches of the internet and assembled in garages into bubbling, wheezing edifices that outshine their purpose.

Indeed, the iPad's relationship to content is akin to how the tobacco industry once referred to cigarettes as a "nicotine delivery device." The quiet hope among media moguls is that we will become addicted to content as never before in its flashy new digs. Of course, Apple is not without its missteps. In its Jurassic period, circa 1993, it rolled out its first tablet device, the Newton. A clunky, chunky so-called personal digital assistant, the Newton cost the equivalent in today's dollars of $1.5 billion to develop, and its deficiencies relative to its abilities resulted in a product that did little more than function as a pricey paperweight.

Of course, this all went down before Apple's in-house messiah Steve Jobs returned, bringing with him the era of the lowercase i appended to everything (surely the iBong is being beta-tested in some Silicon Valley bedroom). But what's in a name?

The Long Tail retail concept, as popularized by Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson in his 2006 tome The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, found expression of sorts when Apple finally revealed the name of its tablet to general derision a few months ago. Somehow, unbeknownst to its marketing department, MadTV had produced a sketch parodying the iPod by linking it to the feminine hygiene aisle, the "iPad," back in 2005.

The five-year-old sketch enjoyed a brief surge on the YouTube charts (nearly as fast as the rapidly trending Twitter topic "iTampon") and snagged CNN coverage for its star and lead writer along the way. Who'da thunk Apple would fail to Google its prospective product name? Who cares. It beats sliding beads along a wooden frame.

Daedalus Howell uses a capital 'I' and a lowercase 'd' at dhowell.com.


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