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George Orwell once made a very important comparison between the rival merits of books and cigarettes, in an effort to prove that the cost of…

George Orwell once made a very important comparison between the rival merits of books and cigarettes, in an effort to prove that the cost of reading was not much greater than the cost of a few fags.

Not much has changed since, judging by the amount of gold coins the machine requires – although Orwell’s point was that reading was a pretty inexpensive business if you put your mind to it.

It was just, unfortunately, that people didn’t because reading was “a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub”.

Move forward in time to the era of the iPad and the Kindle, starting with the slim Amazonian device first. Kindles, of course, are designed for the reading of ebooks, and sometimes there is somebody on the train armed with one. But give people something else to do on their Kindle, and suddenly there is a whole lot more fun to be had – which is what Electronic Arts (NSDQ: ERTS), the games company behind Medal of Honor and other virtual shooting-type activity, found when it released Scrabble on the Kindle earlier this year.

Scrabble was the number one selling app/game/anything on the Kindle when it was launched in the US in September, outselling all the books that week, which EA has since followed with Solitaire (also a No 1) and a bunch of other games. Conceived as a serious device for serious people, it may turn out, as Orwell might have predicted, that Kindle owners rather enjoy playing games too. Who knows where this will end up, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Kindle ends up being rather more than a mere book reader.

Consider also the iPad. The coming weeks will see umpteen iPad newspaper and magazine launches, as serious brands chase what they believe to be a serious demographic of buyers. On the plus side, the early signs are that there is a meaningful audience to chase. Over at Screen Digest, one of the better research firms, they reckon that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) will sell 1 million iPads by the end of the year – and that iPad penetration will reach about 10-11 percent (6 to 6.5 million) of the British population by 2014, which is about as far as anybody can reasonably forecast.

This is a seductive looking number – as long, that is, as people spend their time using their iPads for reading. It’s well in excess, say, of the combined average daily sale of the upmarket press – just over 2 million Monday to Saturday. But the problem is – for those who dare take their iPad out on the way to work – is that an iPad is not newspaper with moving words. Screen Digest, again, reckon that the average owner downloads about 60 apps a year, of which all but six are free. That certainly leaves room to buy an iPad newspaper, but will it leave time to read it when there is all that other stuff to play with?

The problem for anybody wanting to believe that the iPad is a newspaper or magazine replacement is that it is not. It’s a digital device, which means people will get easily distracted and start playing Scrabble, or listening to music or whatever else one can get up to on a crowded carriage.

It’s also still too easy to jump from one news source to another, because digital has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with printed news sources. Once, a newspaper was not just a source of information, but a statement of identity, where most buyers would not dream of picking up a competing title. Now, in a era where identities are altogether more protean, and when any app can disappear from view at a single touch, it is not obvious that people will simply sit down and spend 20 minutes engaged in silent contemplation over a single title. It’s not how the modern mind works.

George Orwell might be disappointed with that, but he long ago recognised the problem. Those in the media business pinning too much hope on the iPad, though, might be in for a bit of a surprise.

This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.

  1. All media is engaging but some media is just more engaging than others.

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