Why the iPad Won't Save the World (and why it might)

Fifteen years ago I sat in the World Room at the Columbia Journalism School and watched as a digital expert from Knight Ridder showed off a piece of cardboard.

Really, it was a mockup of a type of digital content delivery device (video below). The hope, he said, was that the device would have a touch screen and use a form of electronic ink. People would receive their "newspaper" overnight via telephone line and have it in the morning. The pictures would come to life as videos at a touch and it would save the newspaper industry.

Though, he admitted, the technology just wasn't there to make the vision possible.

I don't need to tell you that iPad achieves that vision. Only, there's one problem: it isn't cheap enough. Well, that's not really a problem, but let me get to that.

Back in the World Room my classmates went nuts. They were terrified of the digital divide, that the device would be expensive and that because of it newspapers would be available only to those with means and not to the majority of Americans.

No, the Knight Ridder people assured us, the only way this would work is if the device was cheap enough to be almost a giveaway item, like one of those cheap calculators you get at the local bank.

Obviously the iPad isn't going to be that cheap. And on one level that's a problem. But on another, not really.

The history of communications is littered with haves and have nots. In fact, it relies on it. The 1950s is often called the "Golden Age of Television" because the shows tended to be written for a more literate audience. Well, that makes sense when you consider that TVs were expensive, so only people who were wealthier (and more educated) tended to purchase them.

Flash forward to the 1970s and 80s and you see the same thing happen with cable television. Move into the early 90s and it's the Internet. All along the way advertisers tout the next media as having a "more educated demographic" and the fact that they have a higher disposable income.

As a particular medium becomes more saturated and reaches a broader audience, it's more difficult to find the desired demographic. Not to fear, another communications for (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) comes along to save the day.

So yes, iPad will have its adopters, and copies. People will design content for this class of devices, just as they design content for smart phones, in order to reach the desired demographic. Over time, the price will come down and the audience will expand.

Though, I doubt my bank will give me one any time soon.

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