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Why The Tablet Matters

As we approach Wednesday’s unveiling of the most anticipated tablet since the pair that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, carefully read and dutifully heed: Thou shalt not underestimate its ability to transform our world. The tablet is not just an oversized iPhone or undersized laptop. It is something entirely new, fusing communication and content in a user-friendly portable device like never before. For the first time, consumers will experience the portability of a mobile phone combined with the ease of use of a personal computer. Whether this is the product that Apple introduces Wednesday or someone else rolls out five years from now, hold on tight because things are about to change.

The publishing industry will drive this change, determined to undo the self-inflicted damage of the dot-com boom. Not only did they give away their riches for nothing, they did so in a form that bore little resemblance to the original product. The words were there, but stripped of the distinctive look and feel that made up their brand identity. Even today, there is little difference between the home pages of GQ, Popular Science and Newsweek, clinging to the vestigial formats that prioritized download speed over user experience to ensure smooth flow through a 9600 baud modem.

Watch closely as newspaper and magazine publishers bet their last nickels — not an exaggeration, in some cases — on this new medium. It provides the 50-somethings who run these companies a chance to captivate subscribers and advertisers by returning to their roots — producing and selling the terrific newspapers and magazines that made these brands valuable in the first place. But even better than the original, with up-to-the-minute content that can be individualized for every reader — and advertiser. Happy days are here again, along with the ubiquity, relevance and brand loyalty that has been absent from the publishing world for the past 15 years.

It doesn’t stop there. Advertising agencies will embrace new models, abandoning fractured campaigns with separate processes for print, web and television for a new integrated workflow. As if you hadn’t noticed, billboards are quickly going the way of Burma Shave signs, replaced by giant monitors powered by the same software as the tablets. Agencies will be able to streamline efforts by producing the same dynamic content for tablet newspapers and magazines as they do for outdoor advertising. And the same ads can be produced in longer form for higher-bandwidth television commercials. Until, of course, television comes to the tablet and true convergence arrives.

Soon enough, you’ll be able to sit in any restaurant and summon the menu on your tablet. The menu will emphasize your favorite foods, with discounts on whatever dishes are moving slowly that day or being underwritten by opportunistic soft drink companies. Can’t get the waiter’s attention? Why bother, as your order goes directly to the kitchen and you pay your bill right from your tablet. After dinner, you’ll return to your car and dock the tablet into the dashboard, where it serves as your voice-activated GPS, backup camera, movie player, television and phone. Again, more opportunities for advertisers — half-off hoagies at the Circle K a quarter-mile up the road! — and more ways to offset the cost of the tablet so that it quickly moves toward everyone’s favorite pricepoint: free.

The death throes of print accelerate Wednesday, but the afterlife promises to be glorious. Over time the tablet will do print better than print ever did, adding convenience and immediacy to a time-tested user experience that leverages page after page of compelling photography, typography, illustration and graphic design. The tablet will introduce newspapers to a generation that has never wandered out to the curb in their bathrobes to fish a wet newspaper out of the bushes, and it will leverage tools like Facebook and Twitter to create a virtual town square, just like the old days.

It won’t happen overnight. Few are saying what’s coming from Apple, but it will likely need several iterations — and even a few competitors — before it is foldable, self-powered, instantaneous, secure and free. But it’s coming. Fast. Powered by a publishing industry that desperately needs it to succeed, not to mention the slew of advertisers that will quickly jump on the bandwagon upon seeing the long lines in front of every Apple Store when the iTablet/iSlate/iPad/iHaveNoIdea is offered for sale.

For the good of the economy, desperately needing an infusion of enthusiasm and innovation, let us all say Amen.

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