Steve Jobs unveils his palace of Big Media dreams

And lo, the Jesus tablet came among us.

Predictably, the fan boy sites are focusing on the form factor and tech specs. It’s a 1GHz computer with a touchscreen interface. Apple will be making its own CPU (the technology involved is challenging, to say the least). Physically, it looks like an outsized iPhone, or an iPhone on steroids, as Mike Harvey suggests at the Times.

All of which (especially the latter) is somewhat beside the point.

The fascinating thing about the iPad, I suspect, is that it’s a completely new thing. (Bear with me while I explain this, and do try to try to ignore depressing precedents like the Newton and Bill Gates’ misadventures in tabletland.)

The iPod redefined an existing market that no-one had quite gotten right. The iPhone did the same for smartphones.

And the iPad? For Apple, it represents an attempt to carve out an entirely new market. . . for devices whose primary purpose is the consumption of content produced by Big Media.

Yes, you can prop it up on a stand and attach a keyboard, but no-one is pretending that the iPod is really a PC-style workhorse for tapping out emails and text documents.

Look at it, with its rather big 9.5’screen, and envisage its uses: gaming (without Flash as yet), watching streamed and downloaded films, surfing the web, reading e-books, playing music, reading the newspaper, reading beautifully-produced interactive magazines. . . Oh, and if we can get the iPlayer or Hulu or Project Canvas going inside it, and we’ve got TV, too.

The iPad isn’t a computer. It isn’t a mingy single-purpose mono-screen e-reader that looks like it was designed by a team of visionaries from British Leyland circa 1974. It’s a personal media centre, networked.

The iPad is built for immersive use while sitting on a sofa or lying in bed, rather than the hurly-burly of commuting. Apple will sell fewer of the expensive 3G models and more of the cheaper wi-fi efforts. Bad news, I suspect, for the mobile operators.

Oddly, Apple seems to be hiding its intentions, at least in part, when it describes the iPad – rather boringly — as ‘the best way to experience email, photos and video.’Better, perhaps, to downplay expectations.

Remember when cinemas were palaces of dreams? The iPad, I fancy, represents Steve Jobs’ effort to build something similar for media consumption in the 21st century.

Think of it that way, and it becomes obvious why Big Media so loves the prospect of this device succeeding. Display content inside a palace of dreams, and the content itself takes on the air of a dream. And dreams, as any fule no, are valuable things.

Steve Jobs has set himself up as proprietor of the cinema at the end of the digital rainbow. Happily, when Big Media looks at the iPad, it sees the opposite of the brutal commoditization and disaggregation that occurs on the web.

Price of admission? In 1937, it cost 10d to get into the average Odeon. The iPad’s palace of dreams will cost you $599. And don’t forget the additional cash you’ll be spending on the side to read journalism – like popcorn and ice cream — during the intermission. Everything you consume in the palace of dreams has a price tag, and the mark-up is usually significant.

The big question surrounding the iPad isn’t whether people will buy it. They will, by the millions. Apple’s costs are already covered.

The really big question is whether, in three years’ time, when the price of an iPad falls to $250/£250, Big Media will have a high-volume audience for paid content on its hands.

PS: It was inevitable, but it’s still astonishing to watch: the coverage is exploding. In the hour or so it took to write this, the iPad story count on Google News has gone from 25 to 5,993. What are the chances, I wonder, of Private Eye running a cover story with Steve Jobs as Jesus feeding 5,000 media executives?

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