The tablets come down the mountain

John
John Gushue
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If what we saw at the CES show this month is any indication, we can expect to see a great many more tablets tucked under the arms of consumers in the months to come, and not just among the tech-savvy and the first adopters.

CES — the Consumer Electronics Show, although no one seems to call it that anymore — is the key event of the tech year, and a reliable indicator of the gadgets, toys and devices we’re likely to see at retailers in 12 months to come. (Heads-up, Santa.)

Actually, we’ll be seeing these things at more than just retailers. They’ll be in our living rooms, our offices, our cars, outdoors … pretty much everywhere.

I noticed that CES counted more than 5,000 separate news stories from this year’s convention in Las Vegas. The gadget blogs had their fill, but the coverage I kept my eye on was about the tablets — the devices that aim to compete with Apple’s industry-changing iPad. (Apple doesn’t bother showing up, officially anyway, at CES, preferring instead to generate its own buzz on its own terms.)

The list of competitors getting into the tablet market is daunting, with well-known brands like Panasonic, Motorola and, yep, Microsoft involved. Expect to hear a lot more about Android’s Honeycomb operating system as product launches come rushing toward us.

But here’s the thing. Just as I’ve been reading about the pending arrivals of iPad competitors, it seems like the tablet party is a whole lot more complicated than we might think.

First, magazine publishers like Conde Nast have been having a far from easy time of it so far. The independent Audit Bureau of Circulation shows that downloads of the magazine’s paid apps have been declining after a splashy start earlier in 2010.  The magazines themselves are among those to note why that’s the case, and the finger is being pointed squarely at Apple. Why? Well, you can buy a magazine from Apple’s almighty store, but you can only get one copy at a time (subscriptions are, for now, not available), and the price that Apple is asking is only about $1 off the newsstand price.

Last fall, I downloaded an edition of Vanity Fair, and it looks fantastic on an iPad: bright, crisp colours, easy on the eyes, and the reader gets the full edition (including pages of advertising to thumb through before the articles start). But I was put off that I didn’t get the option of a digital subscription, and the presumed savings that would come with it.

Another element. This week, Advertising Age reported that — no surprise, really — consumers would prefer to have advertising in what they read on their tablets, rather than a subscription-based system. The marketplace is not primed for premium download prices.

Small wonder, then, that magazine publishers themselves have their fingers crossed about the coming tablet competitors. In addition to dictating the terms of single-issue sales at rather high prices, Apple will not even turn over data to publishers on who their customers are, where they live, etc. I would imagine the competition will be considerably more flexible when they launch with basic market research data, among other things.

But as much as we can expect some much-needed competition in the digital marketplace, it looks like it could be a really messy fight, too. Blogger Richard Shim put it this way in a post that was widely picked up: “For the next year or two, we expect there to be a lot of false starts, failed attempts and disasters.”

Ouch.

All the same, I have a strong feeling that tablets, from the iPad to devices that exist only now on blueprints, will go mainstream, and that consumers will flock to devices and providers that can deliver the content at reasonable prices. As much as I like Apple and I love the iPad, I want healthy competition in the marketplace.

Elsewhere this week

Steve Outing

steveouting.com

I have a couple of suggestions about digital news for you. The first is U.S. journalist Steve Outing, who for 15 years wrote an appropriately titled column on “new” media called Stop The Presses for Editor & Publisher magazine. Outing still has a keen eye on where digital news is going and you can keep up with him (and the industry) here.

PDA

www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda

From the ever-expanding site of London’s Guardian newspaper is PDA, a daily roundup of news on digital content. The summary posts — filed under Newsbucket — have become part of my reading routine.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s.

Twitter: @johngushue. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: Apple, CES, Panasonic Motorola Microsoft Audit Bureau of Circulation Vanity Fair CBC News

Geographic location: Las Vegas, U.S., London

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