Anthony Doesburg: iPad promises new chapter for news business

By Anthony Doesburg

When Apple's iPad eventually gets to New Zealand, it's going to be the saviour of the newspaper industry. Each time I hear that - and lots of people are saying it - I sigh with relief, since it's the papers and magazines for which the iPad will supposedly be a lifeline that pay my keep.

Then I sigh again, this time in disbelief. How will a device that can make no claim to technological breakthroughs convert the hordes who follow the news on the web for free into paying digital subscribers, finally giving publishers a return on the money they've been pouring online from their dwindling print sales?

Maybe having to ask is just a failure of imagination. But imagination is all I have to go on, since no iPad has yet fallen into my hands.

So I'll defer to people who have toyed with one, such as Julian Biddle, head of mobile software development at TechnologyOne in Australia, where the iPad has been available since April.

At about 25 per cent smaller than A4 size, the iPad is a tablet computer, a class of machine Microsoft can claim to have invented, says Biddle, in Auckland last week to talk at a Microsoft-hosted event on the future of mobile computing.

"Microsoft invested so much in R&D in the hard [tablet] problems such as speech and handwriting recognition, and if anyone bothers to use those features in Windows, they go, 'gosh, that's really good'." But with the iPad, Apple has stolen Microsoft's lunch, he reckons. "Apple comes along and the best it provides for text entry is a fricking on-screen keyboard. But it works, because Apple has invested in the basics, the things that really matter."

In a word, Biddle says, the iPad wins on speed. He doesn't mean speed of typing, but of response to commands delivered via its touchscreen, illustrated to great effect with a newspaper reader application.

"For my part - and maybe this is impolitic, talking to the media - I like to get my news from free web sources like news.google.com, and I thought it was very amusing that the first guy to get an iPad at TechnologyOne signed up for a A$5 ($6.20) a month newspaper reading application.

"I thought it was ridiculous - having to pay for news. But seeing this newspaper application was profound. It was so fast and so natural to use. Scrolling up and down the page was seamless."

Everyone from News Corp's Rupert Murdoch to Vodafone NZ spokesman Paul Brislen see the iPad's potential for pulling newspapers back from the brink. In April, Britain's Guardian reported Murdoch as saying the iPad was "a wonderful thing".

"If you have less newspapers and more of these ... it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry."

The TechnologyOne employee who is paying to read News Corp's Australian paper on the iPad has about 4500 companions, according to figures given by Murdoch this month, and a similar number were paying to read his Times in Britain for £9.99 ($20.90) a month.

Brislen, a former journalist, says the iPad's newspaper rescuing role is the "only thing I've ever agreed with bloody Rupert Murdoch about".

"It looks like a newspaper - you get all the editorial decision-making, you can see whether a story is important or not."

Vodafone, which is honoured with exclusive rights to sell Apple's iPhone in New Zealand, remains in the dark over whether it will have the same access to the iPad. Although not a phone, models of the iPad can connect to 3G cellular data networks where there is no Wi-Fi coverage.

Brislen says Apple has given Vodafone no indication of whether it will be the chosen carrier for the iPad and, if it is, he doesn't know what data plans might be offered.

How does Apple succeed where others fail at creating new must-have products? The company is the undisputed leader at user-interface design, says Leong Yap, professor of design at AUT University. He says Apple boss Steve Jobs is also a clever brand strategist who "tells good stories".

"He has a group of devoted customers who are willing to tattoo the Apple brand on their bottom. Thousands of them have done that."

New Zealand's tattooed bottom brigade will get their deliverance next month when the iPad is released here.

Best Seller

April 3: iPad launched in the US
May 3: Apple says it has sold 1 million iPads
May 31: Sales pass 2 million
June 22: 3 million sold

- NZ Herald

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