Vince Veselosky

Author of Awesome Fantasy

The Tablet Fallacy (or, Old Media is Screwed)

January 19, 2010

"Help me, Obi-wan Tablet. You're my only hope!" says old media. But these are not the droids they are looking for.

There has been so much hand waving in the last month about 2010 being “the year of the tablet”, it boggles the mind. Much of the buzz has centered around the anticipated announcement of a tablet device by Apple, makers of the much-admired iPhone. However, media industry wonks are all abuzz about how the new platform will redefine newspapers, magazines, and other print products.

At the time of this writing, the so-called iSlate is merely speculation and rumor, with any real announcement still more than a week away. I’m not going to waste space talking about a theoretical device. What concerns me is the old media heralding this concept as its salvation.

For you old media geezers, here’s a hint: the problem with your business is not the form factor.

Setting aside whether it is sensible to put so much emphasis on a portable device that won’t fit in your pocket, especially one that is still only a theory, riddle me this: if people won’t pay for your content on the web, why would they pay for it on a specialty device? (And if they will pay for it on the web, why would they need a specialty device?)

I’ve been listening to lots of speculation about the revolution in content presentation that tablet devices enable. My response is two words: horse hockey! I have yet to hear a single thing about the slate that does not already apply to the web. All those capabilities for rich, interconnected content presentation? The web has had that for years, and you have largely ignored it or actively fought against it.

No, it isn’t the presentation that media companies are excited about. It’s the idea of creating a new, closed, expensive product to replace their flagging paper-based distribution. It will be like the old days, they think, when people bought newspapers every day and we commanded premium prices for display ads because we owned all the eyeballs.

Okay, one more time: the old days are over, media people. They are not coming back. “Like a newspaper, but digital” is not a (viable) product. If we wanted newspapers, we know where to get them. We’re sorry about your gravy train going off the tracks, but it is time for you to recognize that you have been disintermediated.

It is time to start thinking about new ways to serve your community, and new business models to go with them. There are plenty of real needs in the marketplace that could be filled by a savvy media company, one willing and able to truly innovate rather than just repainting a burning barn.

All this talk about tablets just underscores the fact that the media industry, and especially the newspaper industry, is stuck in twentieth century thinking (and as a result is stuck with their twentieth century business model). Tablets devices may or may not succeed as a form factor, but media businesses definitely will not succeed without some fresh thinking about what their customers need and how to provide it.