Is Apple's iPad the saviour of print media?

Apple's iPad may be the "most amazing browsing experience you've ever had", but is that enough to help the beleaguered newspaper industry turn readers into paying customers?

Is Apple's iPad the saviour of print media?
Is Apple's iPad the saviour of print media?

First it was Moses. Then it was Steve Jobs. Each brought a tablet into the world, and judging by the hype surrounding the latter, the iPad is about to deliver salvation of its own.

Embattled newspaper and magazine owners certainly hope the emergence of a high-quality e-reader, even at the less-than-bargain-basement expected $499, will finally allow the media industry to wean readers off free online content.

Jobs, however, wasn't quite so helpful in return. The focus of yesterday's launch was to "open the floodgates" for the sales of e-books - and Apple's talismanic chief executive signed up five of the world's biggest publishers to sell books via the new iBooks application. His real target was clear - the Amazon Kindle, the leading e-reader, which Mr Jobs name-checked before promising that Apple "would stand on their shoulders and go a bit farther".

News and magazine owners had far less of a look in. No magazine publishers were invited onto the launch stage in San Francisco, prompting complaints from Hearst, the owners of NatMags in the UK. Martin Nisenholtz, a senior vice-president from the New York Times, was able to demonstrate an iPad version of the Gray Lady, but his team were only given three weeks to come up with their trial application, with no clear sense as to how much it might cost.

Nevertheless, Nisenholtz, saying "this is just the beginning", was able to show off a newspaper that could play video, flip photos, and alter the size of its text. The visual possibilities of the iPad, if it takes off, were abundantly clear - an attractive, full-colour device that can upload content onto pages in real time via WiFi or, in the case of the more expensive models, via a third-generation mobile phone connection. No wonder, then, that many in London, as well as in San Francisco, believe the iPad will change publishing forever.

Simon Waldman, who heads up digital publishing at Guardian Media Group, says that Apple has made "a significant effort to improve the digital viewing experience", which means publishers will now have to go "above and beyond" their existing website strategy.

He says: "We have to think like they did in business-to-business publishing. If you are publishing a journal for radiographers, you can't just put the content online, you have to add in all sorts of real-time information, to make it 1,000 times more useful".

That creates a dilemma for publishers. On YouTube there is a compelling demonstration of the Sports Illustrated of the near future, with content a reader can manipulate with a movement of their fingers, and sports videos built in.

However, Waldman warns the effort of designing a product of such quality - for what will remain for a long time a niche-platform - will be expensive and complex. "We also have to decide how far to support each platform, whether it is the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, or the public web," he adds.

At a time when advertising revenues are so weak, and online revenues still modest, the prospect of several expensive development programmes running at any one time is not so attractive for any publishing group.

More cautious voices warn that it will be expensive to acquire and embed video - particularly if it is sports-related - and for all the appeal of video advertising, it brings newspaper groups directly into competition with broadcasters who in most cases have far greater reach.

Apple's limited engagement with newspaper and magazine executives has also held back development efforts for now. Earlier today, Trinity Mirror executives were meeting Apple, in part to discuss the iPad for the first time, as the publisher of the Mirror gears up to launch iPhone apps for its Mirror Football service and 3AM gossip pages.

News International, weighed down by a complex effort to redesign many of its sites, has little to say on the subject at the moment, beyond that it is "delighted that companies like Apple are developing innovative ways of delivering content to consumers".

Significantly, Apple failed to offer the news business any overt help in implementing a paywall strategy, with the absence of an iNews or iMagazine service. Guardian Media Group's Waldman says that "where Apple is concerned, payments are embedded into the system", and highlights the fact that more than 70,000 people have downloaded the Guardian's £2.39 iPhone app as evidence that once consumers are brought into the Apple system, they are willing to pay for content.

The generalised statement, though, illustrates how far publishers are hoping the iPad phenomenon will help them charge online, without any specifics to work on.

Few doubt the iPad heralds the prospect of a revolution for the news and magazine business. But with higher development costs and future business models so uncertain, there is no evidence it represents the kind of break that will improve the underlying economics for publishers decisively.

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