star trek borg docking station
star trek borg docking station (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, the title of this post is tongue in cheek. What I want to do is to  share some thoughts not on where publishing is going but where it will go after it gets there. The point of this exercise is to caution us from thinking that we have somehow or other figured out the future of publishing and that we can invest in future scenarios with confidence. Invest we must, but with teeth-chattering anxiety, for the only thing we can count on is that the Internet never ceases to surprise us.

These ruminations were prompted by a declaration I overheard at a conference recently, where a publisher asserted that he had figured out his organization’s tablet strategy. No, you haven’t, I said to myself. You are skating toward the puck, where a publishing model is emerging for paid content on iPads and Android tablets. The problem is that the tablet is a moving target; you have to skate to where the puck is going. It’s just over two years since Apple first blessed us with the iPad and we don’t really know where tablet computing will take us in five years, not to mention ten.  It’s probable that the screen size of the tablet will be with us for some time–bigger than a smartphone, smaller than a laptop — but beyond that there are too many unanswerable questions.  Will we still be dealing with the Walled Garden approach promulgated by Apple or will standards take over, with applications, including textual content, moving easily from one device to another? Will the device manufacturers, Amazon in particular, continue to torture their content vendors? Will a white label strategy emerge, whereby every publisher of size will have its own suite of branded apps and devices?

So we have the apocalypse — the sharp move away from print and the emergence of mobile reading devices, from tablets to smartphones — but after that, what?

One scenario is for the ongoing atomization of the devices that characterize mobile computing. Now, thanks largely to Apple, we tend to think of processors and speakers and displays as all part of one elegantly designed package. But a case can be made, on the basis of cost if nothing else, for the breaking up of the tablet and the smartphone into their constituent parts and then tying those pieces back together with software.  We are in the area of what is known as the personal area network (PAN), a new platform where the disruptive fellows of the IT world are leading us. The personal area network is kin to the body area network, but for this post I am talking about them as though they are one and the same.

Think for a moment about the network you have in your own home (a LAN, or local area network). I am typing this post on a Mac desktop computer that is linked through WiFi wireless technology to a 2Wire router. (A terrible device, by the way. It was provided by AT&T. I should have known better.) That router includes a built in modem and is in turn connected to the wall jack, the port for a DSL Internet connection — provided by the never-reliable AT&T. My computer is not the only device that is connected to that router. There are four other computers linked to it plus four smartphones, which are set to pick up the WiFi signal. Oh, and let’s not forget the Roku box, which enables us to stream Netflix videos directly to our TV.  Now that I think of it, there are also a couple iPads and a Kindle Touch. Have I missed anything? Does the refrigerator have a WiFi chip in it as well? As I get older, will my doctor embed a chip in me and monitor my vital signs from miles away with her iPhone?

I imagine that this scenario is more or less true — more or fewer devices — for most of the people reading this.  Now think about this home LAN and imagine a similar network that surrounds you and only you. This is the PAN. Like the home LAN, it includes a connection to the Internet. While in the home, that connection comes from the home LAN, but step outside and that connection is to a mobile phone service, just as you have now with your smartphone. You carry your PAN with you wherever you go. You have a personal router that is dynamically assigning IP addresses to your various devices: your microphone, speakers, small screen, large screen, and perhaps vital signs monitors. There are thus networks within networks: the PAN surrounds and connects the individual; the LAN connects the household or office; and the data networks of the mobile phone operators and the various Internet service providers connect smaller networks to other networks.

In this scenario, there really is no such thing as an iPad or smartphone. The iPad is now just a tablet-sized screen hanging off the PAN. On that network you have various other shared devices such as a microphone or, say, a microprinter. For some functions, you use a large screen; for others you use a small one, one that is phone-sized; and you may occasionally use an even larger one, which we would anachronistically call a personal computer. There is no device per se but rather a collection of hardware that is strung together by network software.

Of course, the most intriguing devices are the ones that have not yet been invented. Medical monitors are one category, but even today there are tests of Internet-enabled glasses. Now, is that cool or what? What will it mean for your personal network to include all kinds of sensors and to upload that data to a Cloud service that incorporates that data into larger systems of information? 

With a picture of a PAN before you, how does that tablet publishing strategy look now? When you hear that some publishers are investing in development houses that specialize in building apps, you have to shake your head and ask, Why don’t you skate to where the puck is going? Content has to flow to any and every interface seamlessly. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a rich future for app developers but that to take advantage of that future, it will be necessary to continually adapt to a changing landscape. Paradoxically, content has to be both independent of containers (don’t build content specifically for an iPad, for example) and seemingly native to specific containers (make sure your content displays well on a tablet).

The PAN is an approaching platform that will change the way we develop and market content-based products.  What will the rules, the poetics, as it were, of this new platform be? To some extent we cannot know the answer to that question until these networks are in place and we can study them in the wild. There are some characteristics of these networks and the products made with them in mind, however, that are already clear. For example, it is likely that content will have to be viewable on a multitude of screens, screens that may vary in size, and content may need to present multiple views for users who work with more than one kind of display at the same time, a practice we already see in embryo when we sit in front of a television watching a football game, all the while browsing with our smartphone for information about the players. It is probable that the cost of devices will plummet as their computing “guts” are moved onto the PAN as software, which means that widespread adoption of such devices could come quickly.

But the fact is that we don’t know what kind of business these new platforms will make possible. The mistake would be to wait until they mature to find out–that is the classic way publishers take to new platforms, after they are established and a tech company has staked out the territory. A better strategy would be to assign someone to work with these emerging companies now and experiment with new products for these platforms. This would be pure R&D money, a hard thing for many publishers to budget, but taking this path will give a publisher an inside track of new developments and the business opportunities that derive from them.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


4 Thoughts on "The Post-Apocalyptic Publishing Platform"

Would it be simplistic to suggest that scholarly/academic publishers, now suddenly “global” ebook publishers, are thrust into a potential and confusing world of trade publishing-type markets?

Most publishers here are global already. If anything trade publishers are ‘more local’ due to rights sales and world partitioning. The fact that many North American scholarly/academic publishers ignore the ‘international market’ or publish local materials does not negate the fact that the academic presses have been at the forefront of this change all along. Many directors have chosen to ignore (or just not had the time to accept) the fact that makes it appear that they are being ‘thrust’ into this new world. It has been a gradual process for well over a decade, it has just accelerated recently.

Insightful as always, Joe, but let me pick on your metaphor of the puck. Skating to where the puck is going is fine in hockey, but the puck doesn’t magically slide across the ice–it moves due to contact with a stick, a stick held in the hands by folks like you and me. And where exactly are we aiming the puck? For those of us obsessed with providing resources to help teachers teach, we are aiming at where we think teachers want the puck to be. And we know this only by working closely with these teachers, by immersing ourselves in communities of practice, by proposing platforms or multimedia enhancements–for instance, book-specific websites that provide course management tools–that help them do their jobs more effectively. Yes, capital is a problem for university presses like mine, though it’s amazing how much you can do with educational website developers. We are focusing not on particular devices, but on the needs of teachers.

I think taking a measure of the institutional market and its drivers is very much part of the hockey game. Few markets move as cleanly as consumer markets; libraries and classrooms introduce their own factors to the evolution of media. The question I have about institutional markets is where they are going to be in 5 or 10 years. They will still be there, but libraries will likely be proportionately smaller and classroom instruction will begin a migration to online venues (a la Coursera and Udacity). So thinking about those issues is part of the publisher’s role as well. As for the absence of capital to explore and innovate, yes, this is truly a terrible problem for not-for-profit publishers, for which there is no easy solution.

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