Tablets? It's the Content, Stupid

I have watched, with various shades of envy, the reports from my friends and colleagues about their experiences with their new iPads. It is a bit uncomfortable for me, because of my normal geek acquisitive nature, to watch others play with their new toys while I (figuratively) stand by and watch.

I share this with you in an effort to be honest: the rest of this missive will seem to have the distinct taste of unripe Vitis Labrusca, however my frustrated desire for an iPad is not a significant reason why I don't really want one.

The plain truth is, I want something else.

To be sure, there's nothing really wrong with the iPad. I recently messed around with one in an Apple Store, and I was very impressed with the look, feel, and interface of the device. So much so, my wife almost had to physically drag me out of the store as I was reaching for my wallet with a trembling hand.

But, after calming me down, my wife asked me the critical question: what would I use it for? And if there was a ever a counter to rampant American consumerism, that was it. What, indeed, would I use it for?

Devices Do the Job

After all, I have a laptop, with which I can travel to coffee shops and airports around the world to surf for my daily comic strips. It even has an on-board CDMA modem, so if I were willing to cough up the bucks, it could tap into the Net without WiFi. I have a smartphone with a camera, a decent browser, and a Gmail client, so I can handle work and personal communications, as well as tweeting pics of my blooming crabapple tree.

In fact, my BlackBerry really encompasses all I would want in a device: phone, Internet, e-mail. The camera's a great bonus, and toss in a decent e-reader client, and we're good. Except, of course, it's really too small to do more than cursory work. So, get me a tablet device with a bigger screen that does all of that. The iPad, for now, falls short of this criteria. No camera seems forthcoming, though 3G is coming later this month, and I hear the iPhone Skype client is working okay on the iPad.

So, ultimately, the iPad does not meet what I want from a personal device: absolute convergence.

And even if it does meet the hardware requirements, there is another more significant reason for me not to get the iPad: the sheer amount of content control that Apple has on the thing is enough to scare any freedom-loving surfer away. Multimedia comes from Apple's iTunes. The books come from iBooks, though (thank goodness) you can get the Kindle reader, which would let you read purchased e-books on other platforms. The iAd feature that's coming for the iPhone OS 4 release is a bit offputing, because I'm sure that will find it's way to the iPad soon.

But I'm still not buying, because the price tag may be getting too big--for the iPad and any other device like it.

Changing Access

Even if the perfect device comes along, all the cool hardware in the world doesn't make up for the fact that I want choices in my content providers, and I would like to have as much free content as I can get. Right now, I get that through the Internet via my PC. These mobile Internet devices (MIDs) are about to change that game very quickly.

Apple developers have to ultimately sign their collective souls away just to get on the iPhone and iPad platforms, which raises some concerns. It tells me that Apple is not just trying to make money--like every other capitalist company on the planet--but they're trying to squeeze as many pennies out of the end user as they possibly can. And the profit motive won't stop with the hardware makers.

While MIDs herald a new era of personal mobility and productivity, they also signal the end of the wile Internet. Very soon, I think, the days when you could find just about anything on the Internet free of charge (legally or otherwise) will be drawing to a close. And it won't be through government intervention or law enforcement, but rather consumerism.

Photograph: Marc Simon
Instead of trying to control the content on the Internet (an impossible task), hardware providers are providing slick new devices that will control how consumers access the Internet instead. With computers, users can basically still roam the Internet (for now). But if consumers are not careful, they will find themselves using devices that will block content altogether or--more likely--start charging you for content that used to be free.

If you think this is a bit far-fetched, recall the recent decision by Rupert Murdoch to put the digital content of his News International newspapers behind paywalls. At first, people--including me--thought Murdoch was crazy. Pay for content, when readers could surf over to the competition's news site and get the same news for free? Yeah, that'll work.

But the increasing popularity of smartphones, tablets, and netbooks means that a lot of people are shifting to a mindset where they will not only be charged for content--they will actually expect to pay for it. Users have come to expect that wireless content will cost extra, because the cell phone companies have made it routinely part of their payment plans. So it will be an easy conceptual leap for MID users to get "premium" content for a small fee--never mind that they could get the same content for free just months before.

In fact, here's what Murdoch specifically said about the iPad in a recent interview with Marvin Kalb (transcript) at the National Press Club, as he demoed the Wall Street Journal site on the device:

"MARVIN KALB: So what you're saying is that [news content on the iPad] is, in effect, your vision of the future of newspapers? And what I'm trying to understand is--

"RUPERT MURDOCH: I think it's a possibility, which I have to provide for. And it may be the saving of newspapers because it'll be--

"MARVIN KALB: How the saving?

"RUPERT MURDOCH: Well, you don't have the costs of paper, ink, printing, trucks.

"MARVIN KALB: No, but that's the end of the newspaper that you pick up?

"RUPERT MURDOCH: That's when you come to the end of the road, yes. But if you have less newspapers and more of these, that's okay. You're going to have-- it'll be more economic. It may well be the saving of the newspaper industry..."

Murdoch sees that road of his very clearly: put decent, branded content like the WSJ on a MID like the iPad behind a $4/week paywall, and people will snap it right up, and gladly. And why wouldn't they, since it's far below the nearly $16/week newsstand price? Even better for News International is $4/week is exactly the same rate of the "professional discount" offer I recently got in the mail from the same publication.

This tells me that $4/week is very likely what it costs the WSJ to pay for the "paper, ink, printing, trucks" Murdoch mentioned. In the newspaper business, that's what you want the subscription price to cover at a bare minimum. The real money is in the ads. With electronic delivery, the WSJ will save big on the printing costs, while still keeping the subscription price in place and selling the ads. Murdoch may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox.

And that, by the way, is for a paper that's already pretty much behind a paywall. Imagine the same model being applied to The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Boston Globe? You don't have to imagine, I used to work in newspapers: I guarantee you this conversation is taking place at these and a whole lot of other publications--not just newspapers--right now.

So are MIDs just going to be a direct channel into our wallets, sucking out our money? They don't have to be, and I hope once the hype around the iPad dies down, consumers will take a good, hard look at how open are their choices in content, and how much money they really need to spend.

I am also hoping that the upcoming, more open MID platforms with Android and MeeGo will help end-users make better choices on content. But I am not suffering any illusions that just because they're Linux-based, these MIDs will be free from paid-content channels. They'll be more secure and stable, granted, but time will tell how free the Internet will be when viewed from even these MIDs.

Caveat emptor.

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