Apple's latest creation, widely expected to be a multitouch tablet PC, will make its debut in San Francisco on Jan. 27. Apple has never confirmed that such a device is in the works, despite months of rumors and analyst speculation. But multiple sources seem to agree that, no matter what form it finally takes, an Apple tablet is likely to have a drastic impact on the media world.
There have long been whispers of ties between Apple's vaporware and publishers. In late October 2009, Bill Keller, the executive editor at The New York Times, made an allusion in a closed-door speech to "the impending Apple slate." But did he mean "Slate," the proper noun, or "slate," as in an upcoming slate of products? The blogosphere saw fit to debate that particular grammatical point for a number of days, even as other reports emerged that Apple was in talks with publishing companies to port their content onto an Apple device.
Around that time, reports emerged from Australia that Apple had approached publishing houses there to discuss porting their content onto a device as well. In a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, executives hinted that they had been in some sort of talks with Apple officials.
That was on the periodical side of the publishing world. On the books side of the equation, The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 18 that HarperCollins Publishers has been negotiating with Apple to make e-books available on the tablet, quoting as its source unnamed people close to the supposed negotiations. HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray had previously suggested that publishers could squeeze out higher margins in the e-reader business through multimedia-enhanced e-books.
The Journal has also suggested that Conde Nast Publications and News Corp. were approached by Apple for content-related discussions, along with television networks. Textbooks could also be another focus of the tablet, according to a Jan. 21 article entitled, "Apple Sees New Money in Old Media."
But the biggest hint that Apple is preparing to storm the world of traditional publishing could be found in recent moves by its possible future competitors, notably online retailer Amazon.com. On Jan. 21, Amazon.com announced a Kindle Development Kit, or KDK, which will allow software developers to build and upload content for the Kindle Store that will make use of the Kindle's 3G wireless connection and high-resolution e-ink display.
One of Amazon.com's partners, EA Mobile, issued a statement about the KDK, which will be released as a limited beta in February.
"As the leading worldwide publisher of mobile games, EA Mobile has had the privilege of collaborating with many dynamic and innovative companies in bringing exciting gaming experiences to new platforms," Adam Sussman, vice president of worldwide publishing at EA Mobile, said in that statement. "Working with Amazon, we look forward to [bringing] some of the world's most popular and fun games to Kindle and their users."
If Amazon.com's updating of its Kindle line were meant to directly counter its current competitors in the e-reader space, it would have likely focused on integrating a Web browser or adding elements such as video to its e-books, features that were present in many rival offerings at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier in January.
But in announcing the KDK and demonstrating that it can be used for a broad range of applications from an active Zagat guide to puzzle games, Amazon.com seems to be preparing the Kindle to be more competitive against a device that not only displays e-books but also runs mobile apps. That describes the iPhone and the iPod Touch (both of which feature a Kindle App), but it also matches analysts' recent guesses about the not-yet-formally-announced Apple tablet. And then there's the matter of timing on Amazon.com's part, in its choice to announce the KDK six days before Apple's San Francisco presentation.
Tablet PCs of all stripes also made an appearance at CES, as various manufacturers attempted to both introduce the form factor into the mainstream and push their own devices ahead of an Apple announcement. During his Jan. 6 keynote address, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled an as-yet-unnamed Hewlett-Packard tablet PC that will apparently serve as both an e-reader and a multimedia display.
Whether an Apple tablet will revive traditional publishing-which has been hard hit by the global recession-while pressuring Amazon.com and other manufacturers is unclear. A recent survey indicated that users may shy away from an Apple tablet offered for more than $700, while current rumors suggest that the device that Steve Jobs holds aloft Jan. 17 will be priced at anywhere from $600 to just under $1,000.
Too high a price point for the general public, combined with a heightened competitiveness from the likes of Amazon.com, may further the general penetration of tablets but retard an Apple attempt to dominate the market. However, in that scenario traditional publishers still stand to benefit, as rival e-reader manufacturers also offer e-books and e-periodicals on a subscription basis.