Even though it's technically just a rumor, many are speculating that a new tablet computer from Apple could act as a savior to the newspaper and magazine industries. The tablet computer concept has been around for a long time, but with an Apple announcement expected at the end of the month, digital media consultant Mark Potts says it's for real this time.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The Consumer Electronics Show was held in Las Vegas this week. The annual meeting is a Mecca for electronics companies, tech writers and gadget geeks, and with some 20,000 new products on display they had plenty to geek out over. Auto companies showed off new Internet-ready cars, appliance companies showed off new Internet-ready appliances and one company unveiled a quadruple-bladed helicopter drone that you can control with your iPhone - seriously. But as far as game-changing devices for the media are concerned well, there were new e-readers that will supposedly be bigger and better than Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Nobles’ Nook and there was quite a fuss over 3-D television. Television manufacturers unveiled all sort of 3-D-ready screens, and ESPN, Discovery Channel and DIRECTV announced 3-D programming. But the electronic device the industry is most eager to get its hands on might just be the tablet computer, which, depending on how you look at it, is either a laptop without a keyboard or an oversized touch screen phone, without the phone. Several tablet computers were on display at the show, but no one got too excited because everyone’s waiting for the much-rumored tablet from - Apple. All we know for sure is that Apple has a big announcement planned for the end of the month, and it hasn't denied the existence of a tablet. Most people covering the industry are absolutely certain that the Apple tablet is coming. Some say it will be called the iSlate and that the screen will be about 10 inches top to bottom, but nobody is sure about anything because we've kind of heard these rumors before. This piece of tape is from 1994:
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: The tablet newspaper extends communication beyond the written word. Touch the map and it comes alive, using the tools of sound and animation to tell the story.
BOB GARFIELD: That magic tablet never did come to pass but Mark Potts, a digital media consultant and CEO of the company GrowthSpur, says this time it’s for real.
MARK POTTS: What we've got going for us now is, is not just the technology is ready for primetime but there’s also an ecosystem around it that Apple can make work to do some very interesting things.
BOB GARFIELD: By ecosystem you mean cooperating partners at magazines and newspapers and app development houses, and so forth?
MARK POTTS: Well, not just that but the Apple iTunes Store, which gives you a way to buy content for it. Apple TV may play a very interesting role, which is a product that’s kind of a newfangled cable box with a television that allows you to bring Internet content onto your TV. There may be some interesting ways the tablet, if not immediately but fairly soon, interacts with that.
BOB GARFIELD: So, of course, this has not actually been introduced to anybody yet. But as you understand it, what will the capabilities of the iSlate, if it is called the iSlate - what will those capabilities be?
MARK POTTS: Well, I think it’s going to combine a bunch of different things. I think you’re going to be able to read newspapers and books and magazines on it. You’re going to be able to surf the Web on it. You'll be able to look at television shows on it, either that you download or that are streamed to it somehow. You may be able to use it to interact with your television set and watch a show for a while on the Slate and then say, you know, I want to see this on the big screen and push a button and it goes over there. You'll be able to download music onto it. It may even work as a telephone if you want it to. In fact, there are some interesting possibilities of videoconferencing on it.
BOB GARFIELD: David Carr of The New York Times just went on and on raving about this technology because he believes that it is going to save magazines and newspapers. He said he hasn't been so excited since he was 8 years old and bought seahorses from the back [LAUGHING] of a, of a comic book. One hastens to add those seahorses were a disappointment to everyone who bought them.
MARK POTTS: They always died.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yeah. So, are you as gung-ho as David Carr is that this is transformational?
MARK POTTS: I'm gung-ho in a somewhat different way. I think he’s trying to save his industry. I'm, I’m gung-ho ‘cause I think this could transform a lot of industries. You know, we've talked about this mythical convergence, for the last 15 or 20 years, of the television and the computer, and it may be that it’s about to happen on a device that’s neither a television or a computer. It’s about to happen on this strange new thing that’s not a phone, it’s not a computer, it’s not a television. It’s this piece of plastic that’s 10 or 11 inches across and a quarter inch, half an inch thick, we don't know, but that has our whole life.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, but will people pay a la carte the way music downloaders pay Apple iTunes for songs? We are all now used to getting online content for free. Are we going to pony up on our iSlates?
MARK POTTS: They might, but I think what we're finding is that people will pay for stuff that’s really great or really unique or fills a niche. The Wall Street Journal kind of has found that, as has Consumer Reports and ESPN.com. We've also found that there is the system now of people buying apps for their phone, and, and, you know, some of them are free but a lot of them are 99 cents or $2.99 or $9.99, and that seems to be agreeable to people, that this is something that makes my iPhone better, so I'm willing to pay a couple of bucks for it. If they feel that this is something that’s going to make their Slate better and their life better, then they'll pay a couple of bucks.
BOB GARFIELD: Once upon a time there was a kind of proto-personal digital-everything called the Newton that Apple introduced, I guess about 20 years ago, and was ahead of its time and didn't work very well and failed. Is there any reason to worry that the iSlate will just really not be quite ready for primetime?
MARK POTTS: It’s possible. The Newton looks remarkably prescient in, in retrospect. What really it failed at was handwriting recognition. The other things it did, it did really remarkably well. It also was done at Apple while Steve Jobs was not there. It wasn't a Steve Jobs product; it was the interim administration, which lacked a lot of the verve that Jobs has brought to the company in the last few years. But yes, absolutely, it could – this thing could flop. It’s entirely possible.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re not betting on that, though, are you?
MARK POTTS: No, I don't think so. I haven't sold my stock.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Mark. As always, thanks so much.
MARK POTTS: Bob, good to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Digital Media Consultant Mark Potts is CEO of GrowthSpur.com and, yes, is a quote, “very small shareholder” of Apple.