Apple is supposedly working on a tablet computer, and though it doesn't even exist yet, it has already enjoyed more reviews than most products that actually do. Rumor has it that the "iTablet" (my name for it, not Apple's) will be announced in January and released in June. Just as with the company's iPhone a few years ago, blogs have been buzzing about the still-unveiled iTablet for months, featuring pictures of what the iTablet might look like, arguments over the features that the iTablet will have, leaks from partners that Apple has supposedly approached to develop content for the iTablet—you get the idea. It's nuts.
Nevertheless, this device may actually warrant the hype. Not because of the tablet itself but because of what it and others like it could do to the way we tell stories. Veteran editor Tina Brown, who now runs The Daily Beast, says we are about to enter "a golden age of journalism." I agree, and I think tablet devices will hurry that along. (Click here to follow Dan Lyons.)
These devices will play video and music and, of course, display text; they will let you navigate by touching your fingers to the screen; and—this is most important—they will be connected to the Internet at all times. For those of us who carry iPhones, this shift to a persistent Internet has already happened, and it's really profound. The Internet is no longer a destination, someplace you "go to." You don't "get on the Internet." You're always on it. It's just there, like the air you breathe.
Now imagine a larger form factor, with a screen big enough to hold multiple panes of information. It has no lag time and lasts many hours on a battery charge. Here, then, is your new morning newspaper, with videos next to stories and the ability to customize the panes to deliver what you want and leave out what you don't. This device is also your TV, your stereo, and probably your telephone too.
For people like me, who produce content, this change is both great and scary. Great because the techies in Silicon Valley are giving us powerful new tools for telling stories. Scary because the old ways of telling stories are about to become obsolete, and if we cling to them, we'll be washed away. In the past we've all worked in silos. "Print people" had one way of describing the world. "Video people" had another. But the silos are getting crunched together. It's as if for most of your life you could get by speaking only English, but now you need to learn a bunch of other old languages, and, what's more, you must then master a new language that is evolving out of the DNA of all the old ones.
This is phase two of media on the Internet. Until now, in phase one, we've used this new platform to do the same old thing. We take stories from newspapers and magazines and put them on Web sites. We publish books on Kindle. We put TV shows and movies on Hulu or YouTube. This is what happens when a new medium emerges. When TV first came out, the networks hired radio stars like Milton Berle and produced variety shows—radio with a camera. Over time, people like Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law), David Chase (The Sopranos), and Larry David (Seinfeld) came along and created a new way of telling stories. Oddly enough, those three guys were born within a few years of each other, in the 1940s, just as TV was getting started.
The Internet today is a lot like TV circa 1950. But we are about to take an evolution-ary leap. That's why all this hand-wringing over the dying newspaper business is so misplaced. In 10 years the print newspapers we have today will seem as quaint and primitive as those old Uncle Miltie shows. Heck, the Internet we have today will seem quaint and primitive too. Chances are the cool stuff won't come from people my age (I'm nearly 50) but from the kids who are growing up with these digital tools the way Bochco, Chase, and David grew up with Uncle Miltie.
I have no idea what the "new news" will look like, but I know it will arrive. Look at how people have turned their creativity loose on the iPhone. In just 16 months, thousands of developers have created 85,000 applications for that device. The same will happen with tablets. These powerful devices with constant Internet access will enable us (and force us) to rethink media. What is a newspaper? What is a book? What is a movie? What is entertainment? Somewhere out there, the Orson Welles of the digital age is in grade school, or maybe high school. Soon he or she will be inventing a new language for telling stories. I can't wait to see what it looks like.