Monday, January 25, 2010

Another Game-Changer from Apple?

If there is one company that stands at the summit of marketing, it is Apple. Not Microsoft, not Google, not IBM or HP or Amazon. It is Apple, led by Steve Jobs.

Consider the anticipation and the excitement building up for the Apple Tablet. The company has not disclosed a word about it, other than to announce a media event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on January 27, at 10 A.M. Pacific time. Yet the buzz has reached crescendo level. Go to any Website with even a cursory connection to technology or open the technology section of any newspaper or magazine and the leading story you will now see is speculation about this product. Google’s recently launched Nexus One phone didn’t garner even a fraction of the free press Apple is getting.

There is, of course, a reason for it. It’s what the visionary Jobs has accomplished by transforming the music and the phone businesses with the iPod and the iPhone. His magical understanding of what excites and resonates with customers is unparalleled. He has made Apple synonymous with cool products and that’s something that, like love or happiness, money cannot buy.

But returning to the tablet (perhaps to be called iSlate?): Will it be another iPod/iPhone type of gadget that customers will be lining up to buy in the wee hours of the morning? Will this particular computer be used mostly for reading, surfing, playing games and watching videos? But the iPhone and similar products already do that. Will it become everyone’s favorite e-reader, displacing Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers that are beginning to flood the market? Will it be a general-purpose machine, a jack of all trade but also the master of perhaps a niche? Rumors abound but the last word will belong to Apple’s master impresario.

What intrigues me is Jobs’ attitude toward reading. In comments made last year, he said that the Amazon Kindle was dead on arrival because Americans have, for all practical purposes, stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product (Kindle) is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

If that is the case, will Jobs be trying to get Americans to do more reading with his tablet, presumably one that is more powerful and intuitive and friendlier than Kindle? Or has he sensed yet another cultural shift that the Tablet will capitalize on, one that will fundamentally change our approach to books, booksellers, publishers, agents and payments, the entire ecosystem of ink on paper?

Undoubtedly, the tablet will offer audio and video and three-dimensional graphics on at least a 10-inch touch-screen. If it becomes integrated into our lives, how will it change how and what we read? How will it reshape the distribution and consumption of content? What will be the future of literature?

I do not share Jobs’ pessimism about the reading habits of Americans. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of reading has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, I believe that after people have had their fill with e-readers and tablets, they will return to the traditional form of reading in greater numbers than ever.

But tablets and e-readers will make books cheaper. Self-publishing will become the norm, and even if lack of rigorous editing initially brings down quality of published materials a notch or two, market demand will weed out the pretenders and eventually raise the level of quality to what we are used to expecting.

Tablets are likely to have another salutary effect: articles, stories and books are likely to become shorter and thinner. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Michael Kinsey observes that “newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point. Newspaper writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news.”

What is true of newspaper is also true of many books. If readers begin to vote with their thumbs and tablets, perhaps wordiness by authors will disappear. And if wordiness in print can become a thing of the past, can the verbosity of politicians, teachers and scholars, both secular and religious, be far behind?

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