Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Of all the good technological innovations that were supposedly going to rescue the news business from the bad technological innovations that had laid it low, perhaps none was more highly touted than Apple’s iPad.
Portable, beautiful, and cheaper than a laptop (though not cheap), the iPad would re-create the closed media environment that had prevailed before the rise of the internet. Instead of the web, you’d have apps. Instead of free access, you’d have subscriptions. Instead of frenetic multitasking, you’ve have the relative calm of one-task-at-a-time concentration. It was Steve Jobs’ final creation — the fulfillment of his dreams, according to Walter Isaacson, his biographer. Among those who let their enthusiasm get the better of them was David Carr, The New York Times’ late media columnist, who wrote several weeks before the device’s 2010 debut: “I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was 8 years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book.”
Unfortunately, the iPad has proved to be a huge disappointment for news publishers. The reason, according to Shira Ovide of Bloomberg Businessweek, is that though people like their iPads, they love their smartphones. Sales of the iPad peaked at 71 million in 2013 and slid to about 44 million last year. Meanwhile, about 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017. Against that backdrop, iPad sales are barely a rounding error.
Ovide attributes the iPad’s disappointing performance to the utter failure of Apple’s iBooks to challenge the Amazon Kindle and its library of electronic books. No doubt there’s something to that. I’m sure that the lack of real technological advancement has held back sales, too. I have a third-generation iPad from 2012. Although I’d like a newer, faster model, the improvement would probably not be worth the cost. New phones, on the other hand, generally offer real advances, and we’ve all gotten into the habit of upgrading every two or three years.
How has this affected the news business? We are, of course, consuming lots of news on our phones. But the iPad and other tablets were supposed to offer something different — a “lean back” experience that would mimic reading a newspaper or a magazine.
As Ovide notes, the early days of the iPad saw ambitious experiments like Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily. Moreover, our two leading national papers, the Times and The Washington Post, went all in. The Times offered an attractive iPad-only edition that was a pleasure to use. The Post several years ago unveiled a “national digital edition,” a low-cost, magazine-like product that was updated just twice a day — at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. — for people who wanted to sit down and read rather than bouncing around their phone looking for something to occupy themselves for a few minutes.
Unfortunately, the Times’ iPad edition is no more. Last year it released a universal iOS app for both the iPhone and the iPad that looks and works much better on a phone than on a tablet. The Post’s national digital edition still exists. These days, though, there is far more emphasis on mobile than on leaning back.
“In hindsight, it was a waste, and Jobs led them all on a costly detour,” Ovide writes. “The iPad is important, but it never became the ubiquitous, world-changing computer that Jobs pitched in 2010. Instead, the smartphone — including Apple’s own iPhone — changed the world.”
I should point out that there was skepticism at the time regarding the iPad’s world-changing properties. David Carr himself qualified his enthusiasm by appending this to his seahorse analogy: “Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year thing, a boy can dream, right?” I also expressed reservations about the iPad ahead of its release, writing in The Guardian:
The problem is that the iSlate [as many of us thought the device would be called], rather than making our technological lives simpler, instead amounts to one more object — one more thing — that we have to lug around. It won’t replace our smartphone. And the virtual keyboard ensures that it won’t replace our laptop, either. Do we really need a third internet device to carry with us wherever we go?
Even though I later broke down and bought one, I think that assessment has held up rather well. So here’s another prediction: Technology will not save the news business. In fact, no one thing will save it — but many things might. The iPad is a fine platform on which to consume media. But it was always unrealistic to think that it would save us from the long, hard slog of developing new economic underpinnings for the journalism on which democracy depends.