We're not out of the woods yet, but Web publishing is starting to hit its stride. Product offerings are getting smarter, prices are getting better and, most importantly, the content is getting more interesting. We might not even be half way to the future of publishing yet, but the industry is picking up steam.
There are new ways to read, new ways to write and new ways to advertise. Publishing is a rapidly changing high-tech business now, so the tools change the content and vice versa. Established publishers have lots of inertia, so the changes won't sweep the world overnight, but here in the blogosphere, there's a palpable sense of excitement. Here's a tour of Web publishing's next level.
New Ways of Reading
Reading was the first thing that had to change before the business of Web publishing could change. Hardware, specifically smartphones and tablets, set the ball rolling. The tablet form factor has been on our minds for a while, but it wasn't until the iPad's capacitive touchscreen that tablets took off with consumers.
BBC.com conducted an interesting study of tablet users this year, which showed that the hands-on interface provides users with a sense of control. That's the key to making engaging tablet content.
Ten-inch tablets are a fine way to view a website, but new kinds of interfaces can better take advantage of the touchscreen (and lack of physical keyboard). That's why software companies have gotten out ahead of publishers in providing reading apps that can turn any content into tablet content.
Flipboard is a celebrated example, and it also just launched an iPhone version. It can pull any Web content into its pleasant, touch-controlled layout, and it also offers publishers enhanced options for Flipboard-optimized content. Many other Web companies have aped this model, the latest of which is Google. None of these apps has emerged as the answer, but the new Google Currents has some interesting advantages for publishers.
The other vision of tablet reading is the "content-shifting" model, best exemplified by Instapaper. Instead of simply viewing Web content through a new layout, Instapaper saves clean versions of Web pages on demand. When you click the Instapaper bookmarklet on an article, that article is synced to your Instapaper in a cleaned-up version containing only plain text and embedded media.
Unlike Flipboard and the like, there's no value-add for publishers here. Rather, Instapaper is, in a way, a competitor. If publishers want to make money off the content they host themselves, they have to make their own reading experience that's better.
New Ways of Writing
To match this new way of reading, publishers have to be bold. The iPad and the Kindle Fire both offer newsstands for publication apps, inviting media organizations to make in-depth tablet experiences, not just paperless magazines.
One of the best examples we've seen so far is The Guardian iPad Edition, which launched the same day as Apple's iOS 5 Newsstand. It sneaks the Web view in here and there, and it streams in some content, but much of the experience is native, giving the reader that sense of control that matters so much on the tablet.
But the new rules in publishing are empowering independent content creators, too. Social media have created a new class of publishing, in which content created by everyone gets stitched together into a narrative. But Storify has blurred the line again, turning social media into a full-fledged sense-making platform that can power a news site more like the ones we're used to.
The do-it-yourself publishing platforms have also become more powerful. It's a great time to be a WordPress publisher, because it's creating revenue streams for independent content creators and developers alike. And then there are next-generation tools like Jux, which has blown the notion of the blog wide open. Now anyone can make an eye-popping, full-screen, multimedia periodical that's fully touch-enabled and reformats to fit the desktop, the tablet or the smartphone as needed.
New Ways of Advertising
New publishing tools are great, but what publishing really needs is new business models. Yes, some legacy media companies are beginning to see real revenue from digital content, but the fact is that Web users have gotten comfortable with content being free. That means more ads.
Fortunately, things are looking up on that front, too. For one thing, thanks to WordPress and its partnership with Federated Media, ad revenue streams are now available to independent bloggers, not just mainstream sites. But there is also a whole new kind of advertisement on the horizon, one that takes advantage of the new hardware and the touchscreen sense of control. As devices get increasingly powerful, the limits on Web publishing fall away.
Disclosure: Federated Media is also RWW's advertising partner.