We Never Really Loved You

One of the curious things about romantic breakups is the way that former lovers suddenly turn on one another and seem blind to their former partner's good qualities that, after all, they fell in love with at some point. Something like that is happening in this much-hyped move off of the digital desktop and onto "consumer devices." The breathless enthusiasm for the Apple iPad (2 million sold as of this writing) is only the leading indicator in a much larger trend.

Last year, Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker shook the industry when she declared that mobile in all of its many untethered forms would be the next great computing platform in digital history. The next big move for digital media was off the desktop-from big PCs and browser windows and onto smartphones, in-car GPS systems, tablets, netbooks, and all manner of set-tops and connected appliances.

And slowly but surely, I am hearing the same response from publishers about this promised shift away from the desktop: "Good riddance." As many content providers rush into their iPad and Android apps or try to partner up for moving their short form video onto set-top boxes, all of the pent-up complaints about the web they chased just as doggedly for years gush out like relationship resentment. "It never monetized well with advertisers," they say. "The search economy diffused our brand impact. Nobody wanted to pay for anything there."

Indeed, the early metrics from post-desktop digital media consumption suggests that the web pales by comparison. For instance, the typical visitor to GQ magazine's website spends less than 10 minutes a month with the brand. In print, however, the reader has an engagement level more than five times that of the web. Five times! But the reason newspaper and magazine companies are going gaga over the tablet is that the early numbers show that brand engagement on the first GQ iPhone apps were actually on par with print. Even the folks in the print industry were surprised by that.

All of the evidence is anecdotal right now, but some in the digital magazine world say that the titles they distribute on both the new Apple iPad and on downloadable facsimile issues (usually to laptops and desktops) show the same trend. Users spend more time with the same media when it is removed from the desktop. And let's face it: This comes as no surprise. The desktop and even the laptop keyboard and screen are among the least comfortable ways to consume media ever invented. Online video always wanted to make its way back onto the TV screen or out into people's hands. The cluttered mess of most webpages cried out for some kind of design discipline. I find my smartphone's Facebook app much more friendly and focused than the website. And in so many other ways, resentful publishers are right. The search economy may well have been the engine that drove traffic to many sites, but the mechanisms of search have also had a leveling effect on all media brands. It is hard to distinguish your content on a search results page.

And, of course, the early returns from advertisers are equally encouraging for tablet and smartphone performance. Every ad agency I know wants to align itself with the brand image of Apple, and so the company is boasting that it has booked more than $60 million in business for its iAd format. The presentations I have seen lately from ad agencies pretty much parallel the expectations of publishers. They anticipate that portable devices, especially tablets, will mimic the engagement metrics of TV and print, leaving the web in the dust.

To be sure, no one is ready to turn the lights off on the internet yet. The lion's share of time and marketing money spent will continue to land here for many years to come. And I, for one, am not convinced that the tablet or smartphone in their current forms will be the post-desktop platform that ultimately will evolve. What is becoming clear, however, is that the emergence of the untethered internet will force all publishers to rethink their online investment strategies and reconsider what place the desktop experience has in their suite of distributed media offerings. The unintended consequence of the next platform is that it exposes troubling weaknesses of the last great platform. Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned.