Magazines, Newspapers, E-Readers And Device Fatigue

Last Updated Oct 16, 2009 12:27 PM EDT

One of the tidbits of news to come out of this week's Magazine Publishers Association Innovation Summit was confirmation by John Squires, executive vp of Time Inc., that the company was indeed pushing a joint venture with other major magazine publishers to create a digital storefront to sell the industry's content. This has been talked about for some time, with very sketchy details, but the basic outlines are as follows: major publishers would create an iTunes-like venue where people could buy e-reader friendly magazine content.

But importantly, the store would not reside on iTunes, or on Amazon, for that matter. The industry is trying to learn from the sorry experience of the music industry -- which has abdicated the customer relationship to iTunes -- by making sure it sells the content itself, instead of through an intermediary. For now, at least according to AllThingsD, newspapers are not part of the plan.

The decision to build the storefront outside of Apple and Amazon is sort of a good idea because it grants the industry control, and sort of not. The reason is that Amazon controls a major platform with the Kindle, and Apple is allegedly supposedly planning an e-reader, but in typical fashion isn't saying anything about it. Though there are other e-reader providers out there, that cuts off this initiative from two major pieces of hardware this content could run on.

There's a lot to juggle with setting up an initiative like this, including what exactly the publishers would sell that is so compelling people would pay for it. But even in this nascent stage, there are two major mistakes that could be made:
  • Building a proprietary e-reader to serve the content and
  • Not building the initiative so that newspapers could be part of it down the line, assuming that they, too, want to build an e-reader biz.
The reason is the potential for device fatigue among consumers, or to put it in another way: how many devices can one person carry around? It wasn't too long ago that being fully wired and in sync with one's daily digital life required a laptop, an iPod, a cell phone, and a personal digital assistant like the old Palm PDA. One day a few years ago, I was walking down the street and realized that I had at least $700 of device on my person spread among multiple platforms, which could have been combined. One of the great things about the evolution of platforms over the years is that, to a degree, that's happening. The iPhone is one example.

So imagine now if the magazine industry were to go out on its own from a hardware perspective, and then the newspaper industry too. What are people to do? Carry around e-readers for each? And maybe then a Kindle? A netbook? And a cell phone? People would never do that. In that scenario, the idea that you could sell content for a proprietary device would be a non-starter.

You may read this and think the industry isn't considering making its content work across multiple devices. It is. But the thought of a special e-reader is still out there, perhaps, in part because in building its own storefront, the industry may effectively cut off its content from Kindle and Apple's e-reader-to-come. The fact that this would be a venture supported by many magazine publishers does give the industry some leverage. Therefore, it could eventually use that leverage to build a different relationship with Amazon and Apple than what's gone before with other industries whose content is sold through their stores. However, I think that's an eventuality; it's not clear there's even a consumer market for this content.

The one thing I do know is that the split-second someone decides to build a proprietary device for magazine-indusry content is the day this whole idea dies.

Previous coverage of e-readers at BNET Media: