Tablets must evolve to survive

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The launch of the latest iPad was widely greeted with a great yawn from the collected tech community. It’s thinner! It’s faster! The screen has more pixels! But…why do I need any of these things? Last year’s iPad was already insanely thin, fast and with a beautiful screen. iPad sales have leveled off, and even Apple seemed to just want this launch to be over with, rushing through it quickly.

I still love my iPad, and for me, it does fill a unique use case in which I can read NYT, FT, Pocket and RSS feeds when I’m away from my laptop. But I agree that iPads, and tablets as a whole, must start innovating if people are going to continue to buy them and be excited by them.

One option is haptic technology. This article describes some fascinating options for what the integration of haptic technology could mean for tablets. It would create a “neo-sensory” experience, where we would get feedback from our inputs through touch, sound, instead of just vision as now. Imagine feeling real, changing texture when you touch the iPad, and you can see how this really opens up new possibilities.

Another, related option is to use the space in front of the iPad. Osmo is an example of a gaming device that does this. This is somewhat similar to what the Leap motion controller does for computers. This would bring tablets to new audiences and new possibilities.

Finally, another interesting option is outlined in this Quartz piece, which envisions a future where the tablet melds with the computers. Many have said that the iPad will eventually merge with the MacBook Air, but the Quartz article also suggests a future where the table becomes a continuation of the computer, where you seamlessly move things between the two. That would create more extremely useful use cases, both for work and play.

Sadly, none of these seem to be directly on the horizon, but if the iPad Air 3 is the same device again, the future of tablets will start to look bleak.

The future of the book

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I recently wrote a post questioning why books are still necessary in the digital age (here). I wondered why we hadn’t seen the rise of a new publishing format that would be more suitable to our digital world.

Thankfully, the Economist heard my plea, and just published an essay called “the future of the book” (here). It’s a wonderful essay, which is well worth the read. But it seems that they are mostly as confused as the rest of us – yes, books are wonderful, yes, there are lots of digital solutions that we could use, such as audiobooks and speedreading, but there is no obvious reason why we are still obsessed with a 2000-year old technology meant for slow reading.

I attended a recent launch of a compilation of the best articles from the first 100 years of the The New Republic. It is a wonderful book, containing pieces by everyone from Keynes to Roth. But given how we are moving away from opinion journalism in the age of internet superficiality, the likelihood that we’ll see a similar volume in another 100 years seem slim.

Inequality sign of the times: David Plotz’s new podcast series on Slate

Slate is launching new podcasts left, right and center these days, which is of course a great thing. First we had Felix Salmon’s awesome finance podcast Money, then Mike Pesca’s inimitable, loquacious and erudite The Gist, and now recently, even a SCOTUS-themed podcast, Dahlia Lithwick’s Amicus. These are all great and you should check them out (I’m speaking like the card-carrying Slate Plus member that I am).

The latest addition to the roster caught my attention for a different reason, however. David Plotz, former editor (now head of Atlas Obscura, which is also great), has started a series of interviewing podcasts called Working. He was interviewed about the show in a separate podcast segment, and he described how he had been influenced to do the show by Studs Terkel’s 1970’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They DoThe interesting thing was that Plotz himself realized, and acknowledged, that his selection of people was starkly different than Terkel’s.

Where Terkel had interviewed people from all segments of society, Plotz had stuck mostly to the creative classes (that is according to himself, since there have only been two installments so far). As mentioned, Plotz noted this himself, but he didn’t seem apologetic about it, or finding it a shortcoming, but rather he presented it as an intuitive and normal choice.

The fact that this feels normal seems very much in line with the rest of the current media debate, in line with the lack of debate and solutions about inequality that we can see in all media. There are much more stories on increasing productivity and how to squeeze a few extra minutes of valuable time into our days rather than how to create new levels of productivity for the masses.

Granted, podcasts are mostly an “elitist” media (an interesting discussion about the audience of podcasts can be found on a recent Mediatwits podcast), but it is largely the same in most other mainstream media outlets, except a few outlets that are clearly on the left, such as Mother Jones.

Given the potentially massive impact that inequality is bound to have globally, both in developed and developing countries in the coming decades, it seems like a vast hole in our media debate.

From neanderthals to cyborgs

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Listening to a Guardian Science podcast recently, I came across a fascinating interview with Yuval Noah Harari. His recently released book is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, which is a whirlwind tour through the entire history of our species.

In the book, he offers an fascinating thought experiment: what if other pre-human species, such as neanderthals, had survived alongside Homo Sapiens? Instead of dying out as Homo Sapiens developed, neanderthals could be living side by side with us, like the various species of animals. How would we in that case relate to those pre-human species? Would they be the targets of racism and colonization? What rights would they have?

I was reminded of this idea when attending an event at Brookings the other week – The Future of Civilian Robotics. At the event, moderator Benjamin Wittes took the discussion past the more standard fare of the responsibility for actions committed by driverless cars, and onto the less explored area of humans and cyborgs as a spectrum of existence. His argument that it is not a binary choice between humans and cyborgs, but rather a spectrum that we find ourselves on, raises several interesting implications. The immediate implication that he highlighted is that we are already a bit down this spectrum, i.e. we are no longer just humans, given the prosthetics that we already use, be they metal body parts or digital extensions such as Google Glass.

A second interesting question arising from this is the question of cyborg rights. If this is indeed the beginning of a new species (wherever on the spectrum you see the new species commencing), we need to already now start looking at cyborg rights, and not just regulations.

Event economics in the digital age

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Yesterday, I read Simon Kuper’s piece in the FT, on “Author Economics”, where he laments how little authors earn these days on the books they sell. He draws the conclusion that you need to have rich parents or a rich spouse these days in order to survive as an author.

However, he also touches in passing on the one area where writers can still make money – speaking engagements. This is the same that we’re seeing in the music industry. With Spotify having taken over the torch from iTunes, the amount of revenue musicians earn from the sale of music is now decreasing rapidly. However, they earn more and more on live events, and related sales, such as merchandise. As mentioned in this article, it’s not just the Rolling Stones, even newer artists such as Justin Timberlake, get away with charging ticket prices up to $1,500, for special packages and VIP arrangements.

Very few authors are testing out new ways to make money, although there are many interesting opportunities. Live events is one, another is podcasting. Authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen Dubner and Tim Ferriss are all creating very interesting podcasts, which generate some advertising revenue, or at least points listeners to merchandise.

The book industry should give up its fruitless fight against Amazon in trying to keep the ebook price at $10.99 instead of $8.99, which won’t create a living wage for authors any time soon, and instead embrace these kinds of new revenue models.

Proliferation of apps part II – NYT shutters Op-Ed app

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Following up from the earlier post on the proliferation of apps, especially by Facebook and New York Times, I recently read that NYT is shuttering the Op-Ed app, along with a new range of job cuts.

Matthew Ingram wrote a good post about this on Gigaom. As I argued in the earlier post, I think this goes to show that you can’t create apps out of thin air. NYT’s Op-Ed content, as good as it is, is not enough to justify a stand-alone app.

There are clearly more innovative ways to monetize. A recent example was this story about Esquire putting a single story behind a paywall. NYT has huge advantages that most media outlets don’t have (for example, they’re probably the only media outfit that still has an editor dedicated only to corrections, and they sometimes run corrections 50 years later, like with the invention of spaceflight). They should monetize that trust and offer a full package, not try to break up content that is equally provided elsewhere, in smaller and smaller pieces.