For the media biz, iPad 2010 = CDROM 1994

I’m having flashbacks these days, and they’re not from drugs, they’re from the rising chorus of media-industry froth about how Apple’s forthcoming iPad is going to save the business of selling content.

Let me be clear: I love what I’ve seen of the iPad and I’ll probably end up with one. It’s a likely game-changer for the device market, a rethinking of the lightweight mobile platform that makes sense in many ways. I think it will be a big hit. In the realm of hardware design, interface design and hardware -software integration, Apple remains unmatched today. (The company’s single-point-of-failure approach to content and application distribution is another story — and this problem that will only grow more acute the more successful the iPad becomes.)

But these flashbacks I’m getting as I read about the media business’s iPad excitement — man, they’re intense. Stories like this and this, about the magazine industry’s excitement over the iPad, or videos like these Wired iPad demos, take me back to the early ’90s — when media companies saw their future on a shiny aluminum disc.

If you weren’t following the tech news back then, let me offer you a quick recap. CD-ROMS were going to serve as the media industry’s digital lifeboat. A whole “multimedia industry” emerged around them, complete with high-end niche publishers and mass-market plays. In this world, “interactivity” meant the ability to click on hyperlinks and hybridize your information intake with text, images, sound and video. Yow!

There were, it’s true, a few problems. People weren’t actually that keen on buying CD-ROMs in any quantity. Partly this was because they didn’t work that well. But mostly it was because neither users nor producers ever had a solid handle on what the form was for. They plowed everything from encyclopedias to games to magazines onto the little discs, in a desperate effort to figure it out. They consoled themselves by reminding the world that every new medium goes through an infancy during which nobody really knows what they’re doing and everyone just reproduces the shape and style of existing media forms on the new platform.

You can hear exactly the same excuses in these iPad observations by Time editor Richard Stengel. Stengel says we’re still in the point-the-movie-camera-at-the-proscenium stage. We’re waiting for the new form’s Orson Welles. But we’re charging forward anyway! This future is too bright to be missed.

But it turned out the digital future didn’t need CD-ROM’s Orson Welles. It needed something else, something no disc could offer: an easy way for everyone to contribute their own voices. The moment the Web browser showed up on people’s desktops, somewhing weird happened: people just stopped talking about CD-ROMs. An entire next-big-thing industry vanished with little trace. Today we recall the CD-ROM publishing era as at best a fascinating dead-end, a sandbox in which some talented people began to wrestle with digital change before moving on to the Internet.

It’s easy to see this today, but at the time it was very hard to accept. (My first personal Web project, in January 1995, was an online magazine to, er, review CD-ROMs.)

The Web triumphed over CD-ROM for a slew of reasons, not least its openness. But the central lesson of this most central media transition of our era, one whose implications we’re still digesting, is this: People like to interact with one another more than they like to engage with static information. Every step in the Web’s evolution demonstrates that connecting people with other people trumps giving them flashy, showy interfaces to flat data.

It’s no mystery why so many publishing companies are revved up about the iPad: they’re hoping the new gizmo will turn back the clock on their business model, allowing them to make consumers pay while delivering their eyeballs directly to advertisers via costly, eye-catching displays. Here’s consultant Ken Doctor, speaking on Marketplace yesterday:

DOCTOR: Essentially, it’s a do-over. With a new platform and a new way of thinking about it. Can you charge advertisers in a different way and can you say to readers, we’re going to need you to pay for it?

Many of the industry executives who are hyping iPad publishing are in the camp that views the decision publishers made in the early days of the Web not to charge for their publications as an original sin. The iPad, they imagine, will restore prelapsarian profit margins.

Good luck with that! The reason it’s tough to charge for content today is that there’s just too much of it. People are having a blast talking with each other online. And as long as the iPad has a good Web browser, it’s hard to imagine how gated content and costly content apps will beat that.

You ask, “What about the example of iPhone apps? Don’t they prove people will pay for convenience on a mobile device?” Maybe. To me they prove that the iPhone’s screen is still too small to really enjoy a standard browser experience. So users pay to avoid the navigation tax that browser use on the iPhone incurs. This is the chief value of the iPad: it brings the ease and power of the iPhone OS’s touch interface to a full-size Web-browser window.

I can’t wait to play around with this. But I don’t see myself rushing to pay for repurposed paper magazines and newspapers sprinkled with a few audio-visual doodads. That didn’t fly with CD-ROMs and it won’t fly on the iPad.

Apple’s new device may well prove an interesting market for a new generation of full-length creative works — books, movies, music, mashups of all of the above — works that people are likely to want to consume more than once. But for anything with a shelf-life half-life — news and information and commentary — the iPad is unlikely to serve as a savior. For anyone who thinks otherwise, can I interest you in a carton of unopened CD-ROM magazines?

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  1. Arthur Greenwald

    I certainly agree that “shovelware” repurposing of magazine content won’t be any more compelling on an iPad than on CD Rom. But the analogy stops cold right there. The iPad/iTunes platform can and will be quickly refined to incorporate whatever ancillary, social features the market demands. And unlike CDs, the content is distributed digitally. Sure, some graphic formats will fizzle, but this gives publishers unprecedented speed of delivery tied to substantial cost reduction. If nothing else, I’ll be happy to dispense with the clutter of paper magazines I only read once.

  2. Exactly right — but don’t assume history will repeat itself blindly.

    In 1994, we at Eastgate were looking ahead to explore what new media could do that old media couldn’t. We published terrific original fiction and nonfiction that was born digital while lots of traditional publishers fiddled around with image-laden CDs.

    Those CDs are dust now, and the VCs and VPs who funded them have moved on. But _afternoon_ (Michael Joyce) and _Victory Garden_ (Stuart Moulthrop) and _Patchwork Girl_ (Shelley Jackson) are still required reading in colleges and universities all over the world.

    What’s different this time? We know a lot more about writing hypertext, and we know enough not to be excessively distracted by shiny but unimportant features.

  3. I still have Voyager CDROMs of Poetry in Motion 2 (the second of two Voyager CDROMs based on a film by Ron Mann.) and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The media is still readable – however, it is not playable on current computers because it’s dependent on now-unsupported software like Hypercard. Someone even wrote a paper (Google Voyager CDROMs for the pdf) about the challenges of preserving Voyager titles.

    These are works I would like to view again, but I can’t unless I dig up an equally old computer that can still play them.

  4. Scott Rosenberg

    Mark — I think Eastgate, some of Voyager’s titles, a handful of other efforts represent the exception to the rule. The rule was, how do we make money from this new form by shoveling in all the old stuff in our vaults? The exception was genuinely creative people trying to understand what the form was all about.

    I’ll be excited to see what the creative people do with the iPad. It’s the delirious excitement about shoveling old forms onto the iPad, charging for them and loading them down with ads that I’m rolling my eyes at. As you probably know!

  5. John Whitehead

    Video killed the radio star, but it wasn’t the web that killed the CD-ROM. It was born dead, sadly. I was involved with the organisation (name long forgotten) that started in 1983 (not 1993) to build out CD-ROMs as the alternative to books (I was in tertiary education publishing at the time).

    Consider this: back in the late 1970s, when the 5.25″ floppy disk was the hi-tech medium, we were planning for disk-based publishing to replace the book. The floppy disk evolved to the point where it was no longer floppy and had (was it?) six times the capacity. Then the CD-ROM burst on the scene with something like a 240x increment in capacity and we all thought we were off to the races. But they simply didn’t work commercially.

    Sure, the take-up of the hardware was slow (it only speeded up when Apple Macs had them as standard). But the CD-ROMs we made were beautiful objects that could deliver much more functionality than a book and should have had a role in evangelising the hardware. But every single one, in my recollection, was a flop and a pitiful drain on revenue (when the world economy was not doing well…).

    I still can’t offer an explanation for this disappointment, so I can’t really say whether the iPad will suffer the same fate. I think much had to do with the quality of the visual image (monitors twenty seven years ago weren’t a patch on what we enjoy now and what the iPad will deliver to your couch). But the wholesale failure of a medium that seemed primed for success is still a sorry memory.

    Just don’t blame the internet which didn’t get widespread adoption until a decade later…

  6. This is so good, agree!

    1. Commenters above argue that iPad form factor is different b/c of digital distribution/connectivity. Agree…but the publishers’ revenue model still doesn’t work b/c as you note it’s really about P2P communication

    2. Even more similar than CDROM analogy (which is good), many people played the “iTunes + iPod will save record label revenue model” song years ago. Oops!!!!!

    Related, I wrote a piece last week about how Twitter’s @anywhere further threatens existing publisher/advertiser relationship, curious on your thoughts:

    KILLER piece Scott, will tune in for more. Saw this via Dave Winer



  7. I, too, had dreams of a small CD-ROM barony off in some corner of the market and agree it’s been ‘deja vu’ lately in good and bad ways.
    The planet is re-aligning, in a sense, and the the smell of money in motion is a palpable tide we’ve all felt before. Apple and Android are big plays for the next logical/technical leap into our lives while the publishing world suddenly, finally, truly grapples with the new forms of distro and playback. Our tanked neo-depression economy has goosed them out of complacency and they are all betting with their reserves to make it big _enough_ in the new space. Most of those drawn to this article have had this experience and are well suited to avoid the more obvious pitfalls going forward.
    The landscape is so different today it’s hard to seriously compare, for instance can you imagine the role of Multimedia Evangelist in today’s world? Our XXIst interactive UI signals are firmly established & understood by everyone and the development path a well-worn expressway to an information superhighway/rolling marketplace. Look at how Apple/iTunes has harnessed the music/cinema industry and secured a firm pivot for the greater publishing industry. Those publishing folk are rightly scared silly and ready to make _something_ happen – it’s up us to guide them safely through the pitfalls and why information workers can expect to do well adding our value.
    I’ve been developing software since 1988 with a focus on interactive media and I have never seen the breadth and depth of Apple’s effort from bow to stern: From development application back-end to on-line + physical retail this planet has never had a better environment for so many small developers to make it so big.
    Hooray for our side!

  8. Karim

    Interesting article, but I think your argument is flawed. First, it really wasn’t like the web came along and killed the CD-ROM because the web offered “an easy way for people to contribute their own voices” — this is sort of like saying Geocities killed the CD-ROM. :-) In 1994, given a choice of Blender magazine on CD-ROM, or a bunch of “here are pictures of my cat” home pages loading over a dialup connection, I think most people would have opted for the former.

    Second, some of what came to be the “the web” was possible because of the groundwork that had been established with the CD-ROM: the so-called “Multimedia PC” standards, and release of Quicktime 1.0 on the Mac (both from 1991) paved the way for a WWW that could include audio and video with some reasonable expectation of the client being able to play these formats. So it’s not “X killed Y,” so much as “X built on the foundation established by Y.”

    Finally, the statement, “People like to interact with one another more than they like to engage with static information,” is not really the whole truth. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not “interacting with people” versus “engaging with static information.” When people interact with each other, it’s often about some static information: a magazine article, a movie, a piece of music, a TV episode. (Or a blog post. ;-))

    The “static information” often serves as the seed of the interaction with people.

    The iPad is going to sell a lot of “static information” — books, movies, TV shows, music. And yes, plain old static magazines. Zinio, for one, totally gets it ( their iPad app will be ready next month, so anyone who wants to read Car & Driver, or Wallpaper, or Rolling Stone, or Playboy, or Popular Science, or National Geographic, or Elle, etc. etc. etc. will be able to do so without going to the news stand, without waiting for the mail carrier to show up, without accumulating a stack of dead trees.

    Where I agree with you is when you imply that flashy, interactive multimedia ads and articles won’t “save” magazines and newspapers. I think good content is what saves them. :-) I think people are willing to pay a reasonable price for good content (see iTunes), and maybe that is where the hopes lie: that the iPad may enable more people to get paid for the good content that they are now giving away for free on the web.

  9. Hi Scott, a good read and so true. Btw: the iPhone apps I use have one thing in common: there are about interacting with other people.


  10. I think that if iPad gets the same class of wide-spread use than CD-ROM’s, Apple executives will be dancing over rooftops.

    I even wrote a post around that iPad hype… But as much as I love my iPod Touch, I think the iPad will gather enough “success”. But it is a shame it will. If it was 150€ cheaper, it would crush the market. I would buy one, and probably all iPhone/iPot Touch users would consider it some day. But as the price goes, it is hugely overpriced… as CD’s were. But it took a few years for that trend to break, and hardware is speeding the cycle lately, price levels may not be quick enough to pay for it.


  11. Tim

    You are one of the few people who have a sense of the history of this medium, and it shows. I remember Mutimedia Gulch, of which Macromedia/Adobe is the last remnant. I think you are right on target. Too bad there isn’t a way to sell these media baron’s dreams short and profit from your clear vision. (The other problem of course is that in our hearts, we want them to succeed — we want there to be an economic basis for journalism. But wishing won’t make it so.)


    PS. Thanks for teaching me a new word — prelapsarian. Love it. Best of luck of with MediaBugs.

  12. fwiw, CD-ROM interest started dipping before that, just after the first post-hype holiday season, when creatives realized that the final stage of distribution was still constrained — getting shelf-space was the barrier which slowed CDs. The Web rise started soon after and made distribution super-easy, although we had to refactor experiences down to floppy-size again…. ;-)

    Scott, I know you’ve been around for awhile (and hey! it’s Jonathan Gibson! :) but I’m really, super-excited right now at this entire class of new affordable devices that the majority of the world will soon be carrying around, always networked, a full interactive multi-media engine, practical development workflows. We’ve seen how rapidly ordinary people take to mobile telephones — I believe there will be _massive_ consumer demand for a pocket-sized “window to the world”. What an exhilarating time! :D


  13. The failure of CD-ROMs was traditional media companies trying to do software and interactive media and failing pretty badly at it. Of course the flip side is that there are companies that did well from CD-ROMs: These were game companies that understood the medium and went on to own it until this day.

    Traditional publishers will do well on the iPad if they stick to digital versions of their medium by selling books, music and video. If traditional publishers try to make games for the platform most will fail badly. However the companies that will do well on the platform will be game companies once again and folks who make consumer software.

  14. Wow Scott, I think you actually wrote about my Total Distortion CD-ROM game (from Pop Rocket Inc), and called it “The End of an Era” way way back when, 1996? Hello old pals showing up in the comments. CD-ROM games today (or more accurately: retail DVD-Rom games), make more money than number-one top-grossing films. The medium really did find its Orson Welli, and you see it in the top 10 on PlayStation 3, Wii, and so on. It’s a very expensive, years-in-the-making product now, and only a few winners in this top of the market. Much like Hollywood, exactly as we all predicted in the early days, even as John Louis Gasse pooh-poohed us all at the 1988 Interactive Media conference (sponsored by Apple, the only one making a cd-rom drive for the public, at the time: $1200 for a single-speed drive). 3 years later in 1991, I came out with Spaceship Warlock, and Trip Hawkins was knocking at my door, literally. Back then, two guys could create a hit product in 9 months. The same thing is happening now for iPhone aps (two guys make a hit and make some decent money), but it is much harder for that to occur in the giant world of top-level entertainment, just like it is very difficult for an independent director to create a hit movie for the film world. So, I supposed I am saying your premise is not entirely accurate, in that, CD-ROM did not disappear at all, it matured, and is now unrivaled in its ability to make hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the entertainment world. The internet has been rising in parallel to this, and the two are intertwined, as my sons have logged into the PlayStation network through the batman arkham asylum disc, and downloaded over our wireless network, the bonus joker levels (they are playing right now in the living room on the giant flat-screen) demonstrating the total integration of intellectual property, movies, multimedia, digital media, wireless networked internet: the whole dream we were all imaging 20 years ago: its here. And I work for Google now, fyi, inventing advertising’s future.

  15. Ian Rae

    CD-ROMs also failed because hardware issues. Most PCs did not have CD-ROM drives. Displays had crappy graphics. Sound was a joke in the 1990s. And a family gathering around a PC was an uncomfortable experience, very far from sitting with a laptop on your lap.

  16. “Money, it’s a hit
    Don’t give me that
    Do goody good bullshit”

    In 1994 we were all rich and could afford free. “Just give it away and they will come.”

    Free isn’t. Go ask the dragon in the East, swimming in his gold. Ask my neighbors who lost their house to feed that scaly beast.

    Rupert has it right. You get what you pay for.

    The price we all paid for free is standing in the line at the unemployment office.

    Welcome to the future. Got any change to go with that hope? I need it to buy a newspaper.

  17. brisance

    Content *distribution* on media such as optical discs like CD-ROM/DVD-ROM/VCD enjoyed great success due to lack of connectivity/bandwidth back then. The content and the media were tightly coupled so the content producers could make money, it was easier to sell because it was a physical product.

    With better hardware and user sentiments for convenience, it became possible to decouple the content from the media (“ripping”) and since the cost of distribution is now essentially zero, there was no way for content owners to profit. Thus it led to DRM.

    The iPad really is a compromise. The “free”/ad-supported content is still available via the web browser. The “premium” content can be delivered through the App Store. There is also a pay-as-you-go model.

    Because only the iPad runs iPad apps, it *IS* vendor lock-in, and it *IS* CD-ROMs “all over again”. However, as stated earlier, it is a hedged bet because there are 2 other options available for the content owner/producer. Choice is good. The fear-mongering pundits are claiming it’s the end of the world because they know an iPad-optimized app will beat any run-of-the-mill-browser-based one in terms of native features, responsiveness etc. But that is really a fear of their data being held hostage to any particular platform. Guess what… everyone is moving to cloud-based storage and that is the bigger battle with issues of data interchange etc.


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