Will Apple’s own Moses unveil a tablet inscribed with rules for newspapers’ survival?

PREDICTING what Apple will unveil next in its technological armoury is as difficult as guessing what gadget Q will deliver to James Bond.

One of the most secretive companies, Apple has proved very adept at keeping information about its new product releases tightly wrapped until the big, set-piece announcement.

Three-years-ago, Steve Jobs stood up and transformed the mobile phone market when he revealed the iPhone. Before that, he did the same with the iPod for the music industry.

And it is widely expected Jobs and Apple will again attempt a third revolution with the launch of a tablet computer later this month. Speculation has intensified in the past month, with technology commentators speculating about where the launch will take place, who will manufacture the tablet components, will it have a 3D interface and even predicting how many tablets it will sell in its first year.

Apple tablet mockup (left) iPhone (right)

It has been known Steve Jobs has wanted to develop a tablet computer for over a decade. In 2004, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference, Jobs revealed one of the products Apple had decided not to ship was “an Apple PDA”.

The new tablet is said to have been his priority since returning to work last June after six-months on medical leave. The Wall Street Journal reports it will “be a multimedia device that will let people watch movies and television shows, play games, surf the Internet and read electronic books and newspapers.”

But, while the iPod revolutionised the way we listen to music, and the iPhone shook-up the mobile phone market, will the tablet (rumoured to be named the iPad, iGuide, or iSlate) revolutionise the print industry? Can we expect to be able to read the WSJ or any UK nationals within a few months on an Apple tablet?

Apple execs are said to be less than enthused by a newspaper market which has an “unattractive industry structure”. Though commentators say this would not stop Apple from proposing and negotiating with their own business model.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, told Gregg Keizer of ComputerWorld he believes Apple will have already formalised and signed deals with newspaper publishers, along with book and magazine publishers, movie studios and television networks.

Gizmodo reported in September that Apple are “aiming to redefine print” and had updated iTunes to manage sales of print items. The consumer electronics and technology weblog said:

“Two people related to the NYTimes have separately told me that in June, paper was approached by Apple to talk about putting the paper on a ‘new device’.”

Bill Keller, executive editor of NYTimes.com

Bill Keller, the executive editor of NYTimes.com, told a gathering of his digital staff in an internal, and supposed to be off the record, speech about his plans to best integrate their print and digital operations. Towards the end of his speech, he revealed that they would intend to use the “impending Apple slate” as one of the new forms for which they would have to produce the “right journalistic product”.

Rupert Murdoch has said he expects News International titles to introduce paywalls by next summer. So if the New York Times is working towards the tablet, why not at The Times? Might we be able to subscribe to The Times or The Sun through the iTunes Store? And what is Will Lewis doing at The Telegraph‘s new “entrepreneurial unit” in Euston? Producing visually sleek, stunning, interactive versions of the newspaper ready for a tablet-style product?

I’m just speculating. I have no inside knowledge about their work. However, the Sydney Morning Herald did report in October that Apple had approached Australian media companies about putting their content on the tablet. If Apple have been Down Under to do business, wouldn’t they also have come across the pond?

Surely it would make commercial sense for newspapers to be lobbying for a deal with Apple. They could do worse than knock on Jobs’ door and ask for him to sell their papers via iTunes. Apple design cool products – the Macbook, iPod, iPhone. They are commercially successful, particularly with the younger generations, largely because of their cool factor, and not just for the technology they offer. One commentator has described Apple’s new venture as the “Jesus Tablet“. For newspapers to tag themselves to the next big thing could be the lifeline they need.

iPod, Macbook Air, iPhone (Left to Right)

Newspapers would have to come up with designs and a product that was compatible with the Apple image. New ways of incorporating social media, expanding on television-style news reports which already appear on news sites, simple navigation and usability, and tailored services to each subscriber’s preferences are just a few ideas. A radical redesign would be needed if newspapers are to encourage people to pay. But, at the start of a new decade when commentators have written about the final demise of newspaper, it is needed.

Apple isn’t the only company developing hand-held tablet computers. Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, is expected to launch a new HP tablet later today, and here’s the Voltron from Lenova. But, even if newspapers move to the tablet or the like, it will not be an instant panacea to the problems afflicting the industry. Several factors still need to be considered. Not least the subject that dominated much of 2009. That of paywalls.

Rupert Murdoch announced last summer that News International titles would be introducing paywalls from this year. The question of whether this will turn around falling revenues is not known. No one really knows whether people would be willing to pay for content they have been able to access freely for the last few years once the paywalls go up.

Signs coming from those charged with this task are not good. Here are the iPhone Apps launched by the Telegraph and Guardian. The Telegraph’s is free, and the Guardian markets its “Pay Once. Browse online. Browse offline.” It is perhaps an indicator they wont be heading in the direction of paywalls – indeed, the Guardian has said its online content will remain free. But, if they have worked with Apple on the iPhone, have they already/would they negotiate(d) a deal for the tablet?

If the Apple tablet is to play a role, what will it cost? The WSJ says sources have told them it will be priced at $1,000 – around £625. Quite a hefty price tag for newspapers to count on its readers going out to buy. But, like the iPod and Macbooks before, within a year or two it will become a much more reasonable buy. Though add to that the cost of any newspaper subscriptions (and any other music, television, magazine subs that will be offered on it) and it could stay an elite media tool.

The hyperbole surrounding the rumoured tablet will stop once three days pass at the end of this month. The Financial Times reported last month Apple will occupy the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco between 25-27 January. If, as widely expected, Jobs takes to the stage and unveils a tablet computer, the media hippies will start to blog about its brilliance. If not, those same bloggers will stop (just for a week maybe to lament the time they have wasted anticipating a product dead before its arrival), and then begin demanding Apple do produce one.

With the help of an Apple tablet or not, there will be a very real battle for newspapers’ survival over the coming years. And hopefully, I will have found a job in the industry to be reporting on who, if anyone, emerges the victor.

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