Early tomorrow morning Australian time, another fancy and doubtless devastatingly clever collection of chips and plastic will be launched by Apple. I am talking, of course, about what is variously tipped to be called the Canvas, the iPad or the iSlate — a new tablet e- reader on which you can access books, newspapers and periodicals.

The most comprehensive collection of gossip and rumours about the i-thingy can be found here. (Thanks to Stilgherrian for the link) Click through to page nine for the largely non-specific stuff on media. Apple has promised to transform the reading of newspapers and periodicals, but exactly how remains under wraps.

So it is with some trepidation that I make some predictions. As the recent acquirer of an i-phone, I can testify  that Apple understands how to insert its gadgets into every aspect of life, making itself indispensable.

And for this reason, there can be little doubt that this will be the year in which e-readers of some kind or other become mainstream. The technology now fulfils its promise, being easy to use, readable and handy. For the first time reading long material on screen is about to become something that large numbers of us will be prepared to do.

But are e-readers game changers  for media and media business models? I suspect not.

There are two ways in which the impact might be felt. The first, I think, is a difference of degree rather than kind. The mainstreaming of e-readers will continue and intensify the trend towards niche publications, and away from mass media.

Once e-readers become widely available, all kinds of texts of interest to only small numbers of people — everything from poetry to political analysis to hobby publications and academic texts — can be served up at negligible cost.

But this will be a difference of degree, not kind. We have already seen the impact of reduced publication and distribution costs on the media industry. Getting in to media is no longer a problem. It is making money — being sustainable — that is the challenge.

And this is the second way in which the i-thingy and its competitors will be relevant. Rupert Murdoch has announced he wants to put content behind pay walls. Some months ago, it became clear that these plans include a “cool new toy” —  generally assumed to be an e-reader together with subscription-based packages of content tightly targeted to niche audiences.

There is a stream of thought that since people are prepared to pay for applications that bring them information on mobile phones —  even if that information is available for free elsewhere — they might be prepared to pay for news and lifestyle packages on an e-reader.

Perhaps. But in this context it is worth reading this landmark speech given on Monday by the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, a man who has had more farsighted things to say on journalistic  futures than any other editor I can think of.

Rusbridger nicely defines the two issues embodied in the paywall debate. The first is about business models, but the other is about what journalism is, and what it isn’t. Can a healthy journalism exist in a walled garden, he asks?

“If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

Rusbridger talks about how the Guardian sees the equation. It has modelled six different paywall proposals, and is “currently unpersuaded” that the amounts earned would justify choking off the growth in audience numbers. His colleagues, Rusbridger says: “don’t rule anything out. But they don’t think it’s right for us now.”

Some would pitch against this the New York Times’ decision to introduce paywalls, but note that they will do so only from 2011. It is, as has been suggested elsewhere,  more an aspiration than a plan.

So will the i-thingy and its competitors change the game? Rusbridger gives a nod in the direction, of that possibility, but he clearly doesn’t think that it will.

I am inclined to agree. The e-readers will bring changes of degree, intensifying existing trends. I have no doubt that in the near future much of our day-to-day reading will be on such devices.

But the i-thingy is a new means of access, not in itself a new medium, nor a new answer.

Peter Fray

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