This is the third in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of a new Apple tablet many expect to be introduced next week–whether called the iSlate, iPad, or something else–is a new publication wrapper that will allow publishers to create varied, compelling multimedia experiences for their content.
By wrapper, I mean a format for a publisher’s core content so that it can be displayed on the device alongside whatever additional digital content the publisher chooses to include. Apple already has two such wrappers. The first, iTunes Extras, is designed to allow movie studios to create DVD-like experiences for movies downloaded from iTunes to display in iTunes or on an Apple TV. iTunes LP allows bands and music labels to publish albums with related content like bonus tracks, videos, liner notes, lyrics, photos, and more.
iTunes Extras and LP Technologies
The solution is quite simple and rather elegant. In many ways, these wrappers are nothing more than little mini websites that run inside of iTunes and Apple TV, whose user interfaces are WebKit browsers just like Safari, Mobile Safari, Chrome and Android. But to the end user, they appear to be custom little applications full of interesting and engaging content. An entire bundle of files–or package–that can include several directories, subdirectories and files–appears instead to be a single file and is downloaded and managed by end users as such. This is exactly how most applications and many file types work on the Mac today. The key difference between the iTunes wrappers and Mac application bundles is the types of contained filed in their respective packages. The iTunes wrappers are mostly standard web technologies, whereas the Mac apps contain more native code objects which are not as common and familiar.
The true beauty of the iTunes Extra and LP formats is that publishers essentially only have to know web programming to create a great experience. Because they most likely already have a lot of assets for their websites, they can simply reuse those assets for iTunes. In fact, its possible to write code that identifies the device the content is to be displayed on and render it appropriate for the device, just as you can optimize websites for different browsers. Because these wrappers are based on common standards and familiar technologies, they are incredibly easy and inexpensive to create. Likewise in using the iTunes Store for distribution.
Getting Written Word Content Onto the Tablet
Because of their openness and portability, the iTunes Extras and LP content should very easily translate to Apple’s new tablet computer expected to be announced on the 27th. In fact, the tablet might very easily already support existing Extras and LP packages by rendering the Apple TV version. Some design tweaks might be necessary to optimize the experience for touch input, but everything else should essentially “just work.” Every indication is that Apple is working hard to support a wide variety of traditional written word formats with the tablet, including books, magazines and newspapers. Expectations are that the iSlate will support reading long-form content, which typically means black text on a white background with little distraction. Both Extras and LP are more akin to DVD and multimedia CD-ROM experiences, and neither lends themselves to lengthy reading sessions.
But simply putting books on screen likely falls far short of Apple’s ambitions. Colorful, graphics-intensive magazine spreads will probably be part of the Apple tablet experience, as will newspapers with charts and graphs like those from the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, or video content like that featured regularly on The New York Times website. Fiction, non-fiction, and textbooks will likely be supplemented with multimedia content and features to engage with other readers, peer groups, or even authors. In short, Apple is likely attempting to completely reinvent what today we think of as books, newspapers and magazines.
The Extras and LP format aren’t likely robust enough to fulfill this grand vision. But they serve as an excellent foundation, and as with movie studios and music labels, publishers can quickly and cost-effectively migrate their content to the device.
Predictions for a New Content Wrapper
When Apple introduces the world to its new tablet on the 27th, and more broadly speaks to consuming digital content, I expect them to announce not a new publication wrapper, but a new Content Wrapper instead. I expect them to do away with the distinctions between Extras and LP, and launch a new, single version of the solution that also supports books, newspapers, and magazines. This publishing engine will be to Apple’s products what WordPress is to web publishers: an open, core publishing engine based on simplicity and standards that can efficiently support a wide array of content and easily be extended through a form of plugin architecture. Plugins will support all sorts of functionality, from news feeds from sources like Lexis-Nexis, reader discussion forums, and educational solutions like Blackboard, McGraw-Hill Connect, and Prazas Live.
This new content wrapper will also have some features specific to the tablet. For example, if you are reading a book in portrait mode, perhaps it will work much like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Barnes and Noble Nook. Rotate it into landscape mode, however, and the book may take up half the screen, with multimedia widgets on the other half. In either view, the text itself will support gestures for accessing the dictionary or adding audio, video or text annotations. And the wrapper will support many iTunes App features, like notifications, and importantly, in-app purchases.
The growth of the iTunes App Store will pale in comparison to the explosion in titles that will appear in Apple’s new content format. There are a tremendous amount of publishers thirsting for a solution, and the Apple tablet will deliver.