I love mobile devices. I bought my first PDA, a Cassiopeia, back in the late ’90s. It was a Windows CE device, had a large, color touch screen, and ran scaled-down versions of Microsoft Office applications. I worked for Windows IT Pro at the time, and believe it or not, we actually launched a mobile version of our website specifically designed for mobile devices using a platform called AvantGo. That was 12 years ago, and we were able to aggregate enough of an audience to actually sell sponsorships.
Obviously mobile devices and mobile publishing have evolved significantly since then. I now own a BlackBerry Bold, an iPod Touch and an iPad. While I love these devices and believe they are indeed the future, I have a difficult time swallowing the hype about how these devices—especially the iPad—represent the saving grace of the publishing business as a whole.
Let’s get real for a minute. From a pure Web-browsing perspective, mobile devices simply aren’t a very big piece of the pie. They accounted for only 1.26 percent of all Web consumption in North America as of December 2009, and after an initial surge of early adopters, even the iPad has leveled off and represents only 0.8 percent of all Web consumption in North America. To be fair, these numbers only represent Web browsing and not application usage, which is a big part of the equation, especially for Apple devices. Thus, audio, video, digital magazine and e-book sales aren’t reflected in general Web market-share numbers.
So how do we separate mobile publishing hype from opportunity?
HYPE. Mobile Web browsing has not reached any kind of critical mass. In part, this is because of the limitations of devices and network capabilities, but also in part because mobile is an afterthought for most publishers. It is simply not enough to worry about right now, but that will change over time.
OPPORTUNITY. E-mail usage on mobile devices continues to grow and, in some markets, exceeds desktop e-mail use. Yet many publishers still do not optimize their e-mail newsletters or marketing messages for mobile devices. Look at your e-mail on multiple devices and make the necessary changes.
OPPORTUNITY. Book publishers have much to be optimistic about. Amazon predicts that in May, 26 percent of the books it sells will be for the Kindle. And as of the end of April, more than 1.5 million e-books were sold for the iPad. Books work well on mobile devices of all sizes and are a sweet spot for many publishers.
HYPE AND OPPORTUNITY. Digital magazines are terrible on most mobile devices because of the need to zoom in and out to read articles and navigate through pages. The Kindle is a bit better, but lacks color. The iPad changes all of this, but is not yet pervasive enough. Custom magazine apps help get around these problems, but are expensive to create and difficult to sustain. However, there may be a bright spot on the horizon. Zinio’s Jeanniey Mullen recently told me that Zinio expects to sell as many magazine issues for mobile as for desktop once the initial iPad surge levels off. So there are some positive signs, but we are still a way from digital magazines being a meaningful part of the business for most publishers.
Mobile Internet Access to Eclipse Desktop Access
Of course all of this is transitory. Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley research recently predicted that the number of mobile Internet users will eclipse desktop Internet users within five years. By then, the lines between desktop, laptop and mobile devices will be blurred even more, and it will be hard to classify what is a mobile device and what is a computer. They will likely be one and the same.
My best advice to publishers: Take advantage of what mobile devices do well right now, set aside resources to experiment with other mobile opportunities, but don’t bet the farm quite yet that mobile will be the saving grace of your company in the immediate future.
A follow up note: After I submitted this article to Publishing Executive magazine a few weeks ago, Wired announced that they sold 73,000 copies of their iPad application in just nine days putting it on-pace to sell more than their normal 80,000 newsstand copies. Of course this still pales in comparison to Wired’s total paid circulation of 750,000 … and you would figure that Wired, which is specifically written for early tech adopters, would do well. But still, this bodes well for the future of magazine publishing on mobile devices. I just think it will be a while before there is enough market penetration and diversification to other market sectors before it becomes a major part of most publishers’ strategies.