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The iPad and the future of paper

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A little more than two years ago I wrote a piece on my blog entitled “iPad and Beyond“, which celebrated the launch of the first iPad. In the post I argued that we should not view iPad v.1 as the final destination, but rather “a trail of breadcrumbs along a path to the future of media.” What I meant and still believe is that industry analysts have a tendency to look at a product – the iPad, the world wide web, cable television – and draw sweeping conclusions concerning the “future of media” or “the death of newspapers” based on a static product snapshot. To me this is akin to valuing an ongoing business on the basis of a balance sheet but not an income statement and forecast. Thus, only an analysis which captures the dynamic progression of technology should be used to support such grand conclusions.

While in my original post I accurately (but none too bravely) predicted future versions of the iPad would have 3G/wifi connectivity, a longer battery life and a better screen, we have not yet seen my bolder prediction of lightweight digital plastic sheets becoming the new print medium. This will come. As has often been noted, technology appears to evolve slowly in the near-term and then very rapidly over longer timespans as we consistently underestimate the compounding effects of incremental development.

While the iPad3 I use today is an impressive and enjoyable machine, it is but a hint of things to come.  Many await Apple’s entry into full screen home television – likely with a further evolved Siri voice control; however, I am still waiting for the re-invention of paper.  That’s right, paper. What we call paper today has evolved over centuries from stretched animal skins to papyrus to wood paper pulp. It is lightweight, foldable, easily transportable, readable in bright light and relatively cheap. However, in its current “wooden” form, it is not immediately reusable, not searchable and comes with an environmental cost.

While there have been several attempts to date to create high quality digital paper (e.g., Plastic Logic), none has yet delivered a user experience as good as the iPad with the benefits of the traditional paper form factor.  Imagine the simplicity of having your weekly subscription to The Economist or your daily newspaper downloaded overnight to your “digital paper.” Crowded train? No worries, simply swipe a finger to turn the page.  Loss of classified advertising threatening traditional newspaper dynamics?  How about an integrated voice-controlled search box to query the contents of today’s paper, the archives or the broader internet.

These useful features are not only possible, they are likely. With them our notions of what is “paper,” what is a book, what is television will also change. Many traditional newspapers have begun featuring video on their web sites and mobile apps – why not on the front page of their eventual digital paper? Color photographs in newspapers were also once unthinkable – even after they were technically possible.

One market in which we can see these changes unfolding is book publishing. New electronic publishers such as Byliner are not only publishing traditional books and short stories, they are pioneering new mid-length serious writing by authors including Margaret Atwood, Laurence Lessig and Buzz Bissinger (full disclosure: I thought so highly of Byliner, I bought a small equity stake in it). Technology continues to evolve making new devices possible; artists, journalists and novelists experiment with these new form factors and create original works; and entrepreneurs challenge traditional economic models and build entirely new businesses.

The iPad3 is only the beginning. The story of digital content is a fast moving river, replete with dangerous eddies and currents for the conservative paddler. Wooden paddles may give way to fiberglass and later carbon fiber, but life on the river remains good.