Men nervous about spaghetti

Addressed three hundred German news publishers and editors this morning at the “Zeitung Online 2010” conference in Dusseldorf and spoke on themes that I’m almost getting bored of hearing myself say. (Presentation slides here).

At the start of the huge changes driven by digital technology…Companies that expect uncertainty and surprise will fare better…experiment frequently, fail often…don’t assume that internet advertising will match or replicate print income…the iPad probably isn’t the white knight that you hope it is…your once captive audience has escaped. OK the bit about the iPad is a recent addition, but the rest isn’t new and not even completely original (even if true and important). I mentioned the importance of throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall.

It wasn’t that the audience was shocked or surprised by any of this. The reaction of the room was more sullen disappointment. Before I spoke they had been treated to a snazzy presentation from a designer, Lukas Kirchner, happily plunging into iPad design projects. Kirchner’s slides included a set of five American magazines on the iPad and the homepages looked remarkably like the magazine covers in print. This sight was greeted with an almost audible sigh of relief and happiness. “At last,”  that sound seemed to say, “along comes a device which makes the future look like the past.” German publishers – and they’re hardly alone – can register with their heads talks which stress unpredictability of the changes driven by new media; but in their hearts they yearn for the familiar.

I told them that the first version of the iPad doesn’t have the openess and connectedness of the iPhone (bookmarking, linking and blogging all made difficult) and that this might turn out to be a problem, however popular the device was to begin with. I wasn’t making much impact.

I tried making the point that some of the most successful platforms and editorial products on the web major on friction-free simplicity (or, as Silicon Valley people have it, “ease of do”). Newspapers tend to be very complex on the web, even if there’s current design trend towards spacious simplifying. This also wasn’t getting much traction. The Axel Springer group has launched a quarterly lifestyle magazine for the iPad, The Iconist, which takes 40 minutes (you read that right) to download.

A group of German publishers have recently launched a campaign asking Facebook to pay them revenue for their ads when they appear on pages linked in Facebook. All in all, the publishers in Dusseldorf think the present defective. The past was better.

Update 10/6/10: I only discovered a possible reason for the audience’s disappointment after I got home and unpacked a bag in which I found a copy of an earlier version of the conference programme, which I was only recruited to about a month ago. I had replaced a speaker from Apple whose talk was to be entitled “The iPad – Stairway to Heaven”.

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