Airplanes as storefronts
5 important questions about content reuse

What if digital preceded print?

As the saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I believe that’s the state of the digital content industry and it’s all because print preceded digital.

When you look at a digital newspaper, magazine or book what do you see? My favorite expression for this is “print under glass.” What you see is a replica of the print edition on the digital device. Many of these apps even go to the trouble of simulating the flip of the page. Meanwhile, the same apps ignore the power of the device and offer lame solutions to problems like search.

Tossing in another analogy, our industry is at the same stage TV was in the early days. The first TV shows were nothing more than radio programs in front of a camera. They didn’t take advantage of the visual medium just like we’re not taking advantage of the digital device medium.

We’ve all been using the same hammer for so long that everything we create looks like a print product. Startups are typically in a better position to overcome this bias but they too are still affected by it. They key is to eliminate all thoughts of print and print presentation when reimagining digital. That’s a tall order and I think it forces us all to conjure up our inner Steve Jobs.

Jobs was a magician at making products consumers didn’t know they wanted but immediately fell in love with. He was his own focus group, partly because he realized focus groups can lead to New Coke and oftentimes they just tell you what you think you want to hear.

Rather than thinking of the product and the history of its category, I believe Jobs was able to focus on dramatically improving the user experience. He didn’t care that mobile phones didn’t have an app ecosystem prior to the iPhone. He didn’t care that the pundits mocked the thought of an oversized iPhone as tablet.

We too need to put aside all the print history and tendencies and focus instead on how to create dramatically improved user experiences. I don’t believe the solution here is simply print under glass. We need to get past the current “radio program in front of a camera” stage. We also need to be bolder with our experimentation. As this wonderful video pokes fun at, the transition from scrolls to bound books wasn’t that hard, so why are we so reluctant to abandon the print UI and move on to a dramatically better digital UI? 




I can't help feeling that the barrier to this is the fact that what you call "a" dramatically better digital UI doesn't exist. There are lots of different ones. The advantage that paper and pdfs/print under glass have is that they're largely device independent. As a publisher I'm less likely to commit to the added expense of interactive and multimedia content when I can't sell it easily across all platforms.

So until Amazon and Apple and Google and others agree to a standard format (EPUB3 anyone), they're actually a barrier to increased content innovation though they surely think of themselves as enablers.

To take your TV analogy further, I'd venture to suggest that TV only really became a success after broadcasters, and TV manufacturers agreed technological standards like resolution, refresh rate etc that allowed all programmes to be played on all TVs regardless of broadcaster or manufacturer. Its time the publishers (cf broadcasters) and the device makers came to similar agreements over digital content standards.

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