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The Post-Apocalyptic Publishing Platform

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Yes, the title is tongue in cheek. What I’m about to do is share some thoughts not on where publishing is going but on where it will go after it gets there. The point of this exercise is to caution us about thinking that we have somehow or other figured out the future of publishing and that we can invest in future scenarios with confidence.

Invest we must, but with teeth-chattering anxiety, for the only thing we can count on is that the Internet never ceases to surprise us.

These ruminations were prompted by a declaration I overheard at a conference recently, where a publisher asserted that he had figured out his organization’s tablet strategy. No, you haven’t, I said to myself. You are skating toward the puck, where a publishing model is emerging for paid content on iPads and Android tablets. The problem is that the tablet is a moving target; you have to skate to where the puck is going.

It’s just over two years since Apple first blessed us with the iPad, and we don’t really know where tablet computing will take us in five years, not to mention ten. It’s probable that the screen size of the tablet will be with us for some time—bigger than a smartphone, smaller than a laptop—but beyond that there are too many unanswerable questions.

Will we still be dealing with the walled-garden promulgated by Apple, or will standards take over, so that applications, including textual content, can move easily from one device to another?

Will the device manufacturers, Amazon in particular, continue to torture their content vendors?

Will a white-label strategy emerge, whereby every publisher of size will have its own suite of branded apps and devices?

We have the apocalypse—the sharp move away from print and the emergence of mobile reading devices, from tablets to smartphones—but after that, what?

Toward the Land of PANs

One scenario features the ongoing atomization of the devices that characterize mobile computing.

Now, thanks largely to Apple, we tend to think of processors and speakers and displays as all part of one elegantly designed package. But a case can be made, on the basis of cost if nothing else, for breaking the tablet and the smartphone into their constituent parts and then tying those pieces back together with software.

This puts us into the area of what is known as the personal area network or PAN, a new platform where the disruptive fellows of the IT world are leading us (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_area_network), and of its kin the body area network (BAN) (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_area_network), and I will talk here as though they are one and the same.

Think for a moment about the network you have in your own home (a LAN, or local area network). I am typing this on a Mac desktop computer that is linked through WiFi wireless technology to a 2Wire router. That router includes a built-in modem and is in turn connected to the wall jack, the port for a DSL Internet connection provided by AT&T.

My computer is not the only device that is connected to that router. Four other computers are linked to it, and so are four smartphones, which are set to pick up the WiFi signal. Oh, and let’s not forget the Roku box, which lets us stream Netflix videos directly to our TV. Now that I think of it, a couple of iPads and a Kindle Touch are connected too. Have I missed anything? Does the refrigerator have a WiFi chip in it as well? As I get older, will my doctor embed a chip in me and monitor my vital signs from miles away with her iPhone?

I imagine that this scenario is more or less true—more or fewer devices—for most of you who are reading this.

Now think about this home LAN and imagine a similar network that surrounds you and only you. This is the PAN. Like the home LAN, it includes a connection to the Internet. While you’re at home, that connection comes from the home LAN, but step outside and that connection is to a mobile phone service, just like the one you have now with your smartphone.

You carry your PAN with you wherever you go. You have a personal router that is dynamically assigning IP addresses to your various devices: your microphone, speakers, small screen, large screen, and perhaps vital signs monitors. There are thus networks within networks: the PAN surrounds and connects the individual; the LAN connects the household or office; and the data networks of the mobile phone operators and the various Internet service providers connect smaller networks to other networks.

In this scenario, there really is no such thing as an iPad or smartphone. The iPad is now just a tablet-sized screen hanging off the PAN. On that network you have various other shared devices such as a microphone or, say, a microprinter. For some functions, you use a large screen; for others you use a small one, one that is phone-sized; and you may occasionally use an even larger one, which we would anachronistically call a personal computer.

There is no device per se. Instead, there is a collection of hardware that is strung together by network software.

PAN Predictions

Of course, the most intriguing elements of that collection are the ones that have not yet been invented. Medical monitors constitute one category, but even today there are tests of Internet-enabled glasses. What will it mean for your personal network to include all kinds of sensors and to upload that data to a Cloud service that incorporates the data into larger systems of information?

With a picture of a PAN before you, how does that publisher’s tablet publishing strategy look now? When you hear that some publishers are investing in development houses that specialize in building apps, you have to shake your head and ask, Why don’t you skate to where the puck is going?

Content has to flow to any and every interface seamlessly. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a rich future for app developers. But it does mean that taking advantage of that future will necessitate continually adapting to a changing landscape.

Paradoxically, content has to be both independent of containers (don’t build content specifically for an iPad, for example) and seemingly native to specific containers (make sure your content displays well on a tablet).

The PAN is an approaching platform that will change the way we develop and market content-based products. What will the rules—the poetics, as it were—of this new platform be? To some extent we cannot know the answer to that question until these networks are in place and we can study them in the wild. But some characteristics of the networks and the products made with them in mind are already clear.

For example, it is likely that content will have to be viewable on a multitude of screens, screens that may vary in size, and content may need to present multiple views for users who work with more than one kind of display at the same time, a practice we already see in embryo when we sit in front of a television watching a football game, all the while browsing with a smartphone for information about the players.

It is probable that the cost of devices will plummet as their computing guts are moved onto the PAN as software, which means that widespread adoption of such devices could come quickly.

But we don’t know what kind of business these new platforms will make possible. The mistake would be to wait until they mature to find out—that is the classic way publishers take to new platforms, after they are established and a tech company has staked out the territory. A better strategy would be to assign someone to work with emerging companies now and experiment with new products for these platforms. This would be pure R&D money, a hard thing for many publishers to budget, but taking this path will give a publisher an inside track with new developments and the business opportunities that derive from them.

Joseph J. Esposito is an independent management consultant, The Portable CEO, providing strategic advice, operating analysis, and interim management in the area of digital media to publishing and software companies in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. He writes extensively on digital media and has been awarded research grants from the Hewlett, MacArthur, and Mellon Foundations.

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