When Apple announced the iPad, many executives in the publishing industry voiced high hopes for the tablet device. "This could be the technology that helps us capitalize on digital," they effectively said in one way or another.
Of course, today we know that the iPad isn't a panacea for traditional publishers. That, of course, doesn't mean that tablet devices aren't important to them, or that they should abandon all hope.
But how much hope is too much hope?
It's a question worth asking in the wake of the revelation that the Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News newspapers, is planning to sell Android tablets in an effort to push its content.
According to AdWeek, the company will bundle and discount both the tablet device and the apps for their newspapers, which currently cost $2.99 each per week. The discount may be in the vicinity of 50%. Beyond subscription revenue, PMN "will sell advertising e-commerce units on the home screen."
PMN will start small; 2,000 tablets will be available in late August and more will be made available later in the year.
Greg Osberg, PMN's CEO, expects the launch costs to be in the six-figure range. He tells AdWeek, "No one in the U.S. has bundled the device with content. We want to gain significant market share in this area, and we want to learn about consumer behavior. Our goal is to be the most innovative media company in the United States."
Learning about consumer behavior? That's obviously a must for publishers, many of which seem woefully out of touch with their readers today. At the same time, it's difficult to buy into the notion that PMN is heading down a path of innovation by selling tablets. In fact, there's a good argument to be made that selling hardware will only be a costly distraction for newspapers.
When it comes to hardware, it makes total sense that a company like Amazon.com, which is in the business of distributing and selling large volumes of digital content from multiple producers, would need to get into the hardware game.
But a company that publishes two newspapers and a website getting into hardware sales? That's sort of like an author selling tablets in an effort to get more people to buy his or her books.
At the end of the day, traditional publishers need to understand new channels and platforms, and be capable of creating quality experiences in them when they determine that they can have a meaningful impact on business. But they may hurt themselves when they confuse selling their product with selling their channels and platforms themselves.