Simple and not-so-simple answer to future of newspapers

My dad was in town for a conference last week and so we went down to New Haven to see my sister for a few hours, where most of the conversation that we had (when not playing games on the Wii) was about the Kindle 2. Now my sister is a digital native, my dad is an elderly gadget whore, but both are voracious consumers of a range of multimedia (from text to audio and video), so it was interesting to listen to their thoughts about the Kindle.

Having been in the print industry for several years and being currently involved in a case where the recording industry is suing a student for downloading files via p2p, I worry about the future of the Internet. I disagree with Jonathan Zittrain because I don’t think that people will want tethered devices because they want more security (so you could say I’m a fan for all the wrong reasons). As far as I see it, people are pretty simple; as long as someone else takes care of the security, they’ll be fine– so it doesn’t matter whether or not the device is tethered or open; the thing that does matter is whether or not there is a good A/S system that can shoulder all responsibilities and an interface that is easy to navigate.

However, I agree with JZ that tethered devices are dangerous; and I think it will be the content vendors that push for tethered devices, because those devices allow the content vendor to monetize their content (take a look at iphone apps for example… you also probably know the argument about how the nyt can save money buying their readers kindles. Newspapers and record companies could continue to make money if they could control content through tethered devices. It would be different from DRM because people could be allowed to share via blutooth, which still has enough physical constraints that it is not as damaging as p2p. It’s great that content developers have a way to monetize but the model can be abused. Look at the iTunes store– apple is in a god-like position to control the prices of the songs Had it not been for competitors like Amazon, Apple may have raised all prices of its songs instead of lowering some and raising some.

You may argue that in a DRM-free environment, people could always download songs on their PC and transfer it to their phones, or ipods, or whatever. But what happens in a world where the majority of people don’t have separate computers? We’ve been talking about convergence for such a long time, but convergence has mainly happened between mobile gadgets. For instance, now the iphone is an ipod, phone, multimedia player, and mobile game console rolled into one. But we are soon looking at an age of mobile computing– where there will be no need to have a separate computer and a smartphone.

Of course, developers, graphic designers, and people who use the computer for professional purposes may still need desktop computers, but the bulk of the population won’t.When on the go, they will use their mobile devices; at home, they can then plug in that device to a large screen that can double as a TV. What with the falling prices of flat screens, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, all classrooms were equipped with flat screens at every desk and all rooms at home have flat screens.

I’ve strayed to a completely different topic. Let me go back to the Kindle.

Before we kill ourselves with pessimism, we can be excited about the fact that people are willing to pay for quality content on these tethered devices. (I know my father and sister are not a fair representation of the rest of the world, but still.) How do we apply this to the general Internet? Why is someone willing to pay for the NYT on the Kindle but not on the Internet? Well, for one thing, everything’s for free on the Internet, so duh, why would you pay for it? But the NYT tried the premium model and even that didn’t work out, right?

In the end, I think it’s about financial transactions. People are willing to pay for content as long as it’s super-easy. (I’d love to do some experiments on this) So this changes the questions we should be asking. How do we make online payment easier? Does this mean we should let ISPs be the middlemen for all online transactions? How will we maintain security of financial transactions when everything is virtual?


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