You're Taking Ballmer Too Literally

There's a discussion on a listserv (remember those?) I'm on as well as some Internet discussion about Microsoft leader Steve Ballmer's remarks that paper media will go away in 10 years. Only he doesn't say that, exactly. He says it's immaterial whether it's 8 or 10 or 14 years. The exact timing isn't his point.

He also doesn't literally mean, I would guess, that all ink on paper production will cease in toto, full stop. Horse and buggy still exists, as do books made by hand, despite the invention of the press and moveable type. But his point in a larger strategic sense is, I think, well-founded. That the lion's share of media -- media that matters in a larger, societal and business sense -- will be delivered over an IP network, at least in the industrialized world. Who can refute that, honestly? Newsprint and fuel costs rise, we're choking on garbage and need to recycle, our forests are becoming denuded. Meanwhile, the technology of the next next next generation Kindle and Sony reader and iPhone and e-paper and tablet computer will all be better better better, and eventually get good enough that people will be comfortable opening their flexible, reaable (and listenable and watchable and networked) thin, bendable screen (or goggles or mini-projector or who-all knows what?) as they do a newspaper or book today.

People love books and magazines and newspapers not because they're ink on paper, but because they're right now the best technology around: quick, easy, never need rebooting, easy to fold, put in a bag, read in nearly all conditions, don't need power, etc, etc. If the IP device technology approaches those attributes, it will be immaterial on what surface people read, and the cost- and other pressures I mention above will move folks to digital (or IP, if you prefer).

Sure, some glossy magazines will still give a "luxury" experience that won't be well-approximated by the screens. And some may get news on paper -- those at the bottom rung who can't afford digital or at the very top who CAN afford good apper -- but the mass will probably be digital. So, yes you'd win the bet if you said there will be print around in 10 years. But if it's 14 or more, you might lose if you say it will have primacy above digital.

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1 comment:

Rusty said...

Balmer' dreaming. There's no real prospect of paper dissapearing - it is simply too good a medium.

That said, there are great reasons to have everything also available in digital form.

There is a vast amount of human knowledge locked-up in paper form that has only been available if you go to a library or buy the physical artifact. The various mass digitization projects going on at libraries and universities around the world is going to be of real benefit to the world - and only possible because we now know how to store, search, and disseminate books online.