There is a fascinating confusion now reigning in the higher reaches of the Microsoft empire.
Steve Balmer and his team are convinced that tablets should be viewed as PCs, and that there is no need to put a mobile operating system on Windows tablets (“iPads and tablets are just a different form factor of PC”). They appear to have completely misread the reasons for the success of Apple’s iOS and its iPhone and iPad devices. As Horace Dediu notes:
Summed up, the real challenge for Microsoft is whether they can keep their business model (selling OS licenses to hardware vendors) as PCs become more device-like. Not only is iOS setting the benchmark for performance but Android is potentially ready to take share if the market turns slightly more modular. Microsoft’s differentiation looks to be primarily its legacy of PC software. Asymco: is the tablet computer a new PC or Post PC?
Horace Dediu clearly thinks that Microsoft are completely missing the point of the shift to a Post PC model of computing: deep integrated development from hardware through system software to applications; a new model for developer engagement; and novel challenges for manufacturing and distribution in which incredibly high levels of device standardisation and reliability have to be met. All of this Apple gets, and Microsoft apparently does not get it. They are stuck with an outmoded paradigm and it is preventing them from engineering a competitive challenge. Microsoft will not build a competitor to the iPhone or the iPad because Microsoft thinks that its future lies, as its past successes have lain, in licensing its desktop operating system (and a separate mobile operating system) to manufacturers. Microsoft will not be competitive because Balmer does not want to be in that competition to build an integrated device that works across all device formats and layers media on applications, on transaction engine, on operating system and finely engineered and integrated device. And it may already be too late.
These shifting paradigms, are everywhere in the technological landscape. The shift from a PC oriented workstation to tablet and sundry mobile computing devices is just a particularly extreme and decisive example. I think we can see another disruptive paradigm shift working its way through the British newspaper industry this last week. The abrupt closure of the News Of the World was an extraordinary and rather shocking event. But as the ongoing fallout shows the real damage that is being done to the newspaper business is self-inflicted. The News of the World was paying bent investigators and cosying up to policemen because the business managers believed that it was only by delivering a stream of edgy/dodgy stories that they could persuade people to buy the paper. As the (mostly digital) competition got fiercer the methods became dodgier. Newspapers are hoping that their old business model can be replicated digitally, and they are not confronting the deeper problem which is that the package of business strategies and features that supported newspapers 10/15 years ago is no longer going to work (exclusives, classifieds, daily editions, ABC audits, bulk deals, tombstone ads, stock price listings).
Some magazine publishers are also desperate to hang on to the old business model in the hope that it will continue to work. Jan Wenner the founder, owner and publisher of Rolling Stone is such and had an alarming interview with AdAge a few weeks ago.
Ad Age: What’s your take on selling magazines on the iPad and other tablets?
Mr. Wenner: It’s the same pretty much as I’ve said about the web. The tablet itself is a really fun device. Some people are going to enjoy it a lot and use it. Some people aren’t. On this plane one person’s traveling with a tablet, one’s not. There’s a certain trendiness to the thing. And it’s a great thing. But is it a good magazine thing?
It’s a good magazine reading device, absolutely. And where it becomes more convenient to read the magazine on that, that’s got the advantage. But that’s more convenient only if you’re traveling, if you’re away from home. Otherwise it’s still easier to read the physical magazine, which is widely available on newsstands, at airports, and everywhere. You can still subscribe to get it and get it on time. You still get all the value of the magazine.
I don’t think that gives you much advantage as a magazine reader to read it on the tablet — in fact less so. It’s a little more difficult.
From the publisher’s point of view I would think they’re crazy to encourage it. They’re going to get less money for it from advertisers. Right now it costs a fortune to convert your magazine, to program it, to get all the things you have to do on there. And they’re not selling. You know, 5,000 copies there, 3,000 copies here, it’s not worth it. You haven’t put a dent in your R&D costs.
So I think that they’re prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they’ve really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity. It’s a small additive; it’s not the new business. (Jan Wenner interview with Nat Ives in AdAge, May 30)
Wenner is a smart publisher but he is too much like Steve Ballmer and he is failing to grasp the opportunity that a new paradigm will give him. He wants to carry on selling double page spreads for $60,000+ dollars to big brands (“They’re going to get less money for it from advertisers.”), as Ballmer wants to keep on selling $40 Windows licenses to laptop makers. But that may not be a feasible opportunity for a digital magazine. The iPad at least is shaping up to be a good proposition for selling subscriptions to magazines, but there is no guarantee that it will be as attractive to high-spending consumer brands and their advertising budgets.
I hope that Jann Wenner takes a closer look at the way iPad subs are working. Some magazines are making real progress on the iPad, and the simple truth is that you need to sell 3,000 copies, and then 5,000 copies before you can sell 50,000 and then 100,000 subscriptions. But selling copies is not the point, gathering iPad eye-balls is not really the point either, selling subscriptions is. Subscriptions can be and will be repeat business on the iPad. They will be a phenomenal business, outstandingly profitable for Apple and also a very good business for magazine publishers who have lots of advantages when it comes to selling subscriptions. Their product is a periodical (so repeat business is ‘built in’), their product appeals to highly identifiable consumer niches, they already know how to sell direct to consumers (contrast with book publishers, music publishers and TV producers), their product can be delivered through multiple channels (including print). Consumer magazines are finding one part of their business (advertising) sorely disrupted by the internet and digital devices, but another strand to their business (subscriptions) appears to be ideally placed to work through the iPad and other tablets. Go for it!