The AfterWeb: Digital Distribution Without the URL

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Are Tablets Going Anywhere?
This won't be the first time that Bill Gates pursued an obsession in the face of industry cynicism (anybody recall WebTV, Windows 1.0?), and it probably won't be the last, either. Microsoft's new Tablet PC operating system tries to fulfill Gates' longstanding dream of pen-based, full-featured portable computing. Launched on November 7, 2002, this new version of the Win XP OS uses handwriting recognition and powerful document annotation features to let users manipulate their content in unprecedented ways.

But it will cost you: $1,800 to $2,500 for the large-screen, Wi-Fi-enabled portables from major manufacturers such Hewlett Packard and Viewsonic. Despite a $70 million marketing budget and Gates' feverish faith, market analysts at IDC and Forrester expect rough going for a couple of years with perhaps 300,000 units old in the next year, according to Forrester's Frank E. Gillett.

The one thing Microsoft has learned over the years is that a new platform needs content first and foremost to attract users. Last year, the company courted high-profile brands such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, pitching the Tablet's vertical forma factor and hi-res display as a perfect fit for porting print material. The New Yorker, BusinessWeek, and Forbes were among the less than ten content brands to announce upcoming Tablet versions.

Since this platform is most likely to catch on first in the enterprise, however, business information publishers may be the first providers to take the Tablet seriously. Like the smaller PDAs that preceded it, the tablet may also have legs with mobile sales forces, so it could be a viable spot to push content involved with customer relationship management (CRM) or the sort of industry news that now goes to enterprise portals.

Oddly enough, traditional publishers could embrace the Tablet more for its old content values than for its new digital capabilities. "We feel as if we're reverting back to print," says Cyrus Krohn, publisher of Microsoft-owned Slate, which not surprisingly is one of the inaugural publishers on the Tablet. Krohn and other early adopting publishers work with Microsoft's Advanced Reading Technologies Group to create page templates into which they pour select content. Slate ports itself weekly into Tablet versions that have all of the page design sense, hi-res photography, and typography that most Web-delivery cannot handle. It will have pag- ination, a table of contents, and the familiar print ad formats.

Ironically, Microsoft is pushing these old-school elements to content providers, arguing that the Tablet overcomes many of the Web's proven weaknesses, namely monetizing content with advertising. "It addresses the issue in the interactive agency space, of having to take campaigns and retool them for the Internet," says Krohn, who has a six-month commitment from Volvo as the exclusive automobile advertisers in Slate for the Tablet. "It changes the conversation," he says.

Whether the Tablet will change anything remains to be seen. Even Krohn admits that only about 5% of Slate readers get the zine on any of the available portable devices already in use, yet he is hoping to see his brand appear on about 250,000 tablets in the next year. Ad agencies like Universal McCann are indeed scoping the technology for possibilities, but advertisers, too, are waiting to see if the Tablet is Microsoft's next money machine or just Gates's folly.

Nevertheless, if the explosion of content use on handheld PDAs is any indication of users' desire to bring it with them, then the Tablet may find an audience…eventually. AvantGo (unarguably the central content portal for handhelds) claims over 7 million registered users on the consumer side alone and 2,500 channels of content, according to Erik Kay, director of MyAvantGo. More to the point, publishers are starting to see real revenue possibilities here. Expedia now pushes a full-featured mobile version of itself to user PDAs via AvantGo, letting customers carry their flight schedules and travel itineraries with them. Kay claims that simple ad buttons on downloaded PDA content generate clickthrough rates ten times the industry average. A recent CompUSA digital coupon (bring the PDA in and get a discount) performed better than print coupons, according to Kay. Publishers "are finding revenue out of this, and not just in brand extensions and value adds," he says. While still early in the digital device game, it seems clear that users want to get their content off of the Web. But how? Mobile digital distribution may be a revolution in search of an acceptable platform.

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