In the past 25+ years, there have basically been three types of electronic legal publishing. First there was the “terminal” publishing, where the print material was transcribed into a vendor locked format that could only be accessed through a specific machine that you purchased directly from the publisher. Next, the vendor “program” publishing where the resource was no longer locked into a specific machine, but rather ran on your personal computer through a vendor supplied program and accessed the information through an Internet connection or through locally based CD-ROM resources. Finally came what we know refer to as the “Cloud” computing model, which is simply the latest buzz word for accessing the information with a standard Internet browser through a secured connection. Many of us think that the first two methods of publishing have gone away, but if you think about it, both seem to be finding a resurgence in popularity, and publishers are wondering if they can exclusively move some of their products away from print and survive solely on a vendor locked format like the iPad.

Like it or not, it does seem that the idea e-publishing finally reached a tipping point with the Amazon Kindle where people (including myself) finally bought into the idea that they could actually read an entire book in electronic format. In my opinion, there were three or four reasons behind the Kindle succeeding where other e-publishing formats failed.

  1. E-ink made the text readable
  2. Having the support and backing of Amazon made me comfortable
  3. Downloading books wirelessly made it easy
  4. No monthly fees to maintain the Kindle satisfied my ‘cheap’ side
Let’s face it, the Kindle represents a paradigm shift in how readers view the traditional publishing world, but it was simply the first transition in what will probably be a decade’s long shift.
The biggest complaints I’ve heard about the Kindle is the fact that there is no backlighting, the e-ink is black and white only, the size is too small (Kindle I and II) or too bulky (Kindle DX), and that although the text looks like the print in a book, the “look and feel” of the book is just not there. Now with the iPad, it seems that all of those issues are answered. So was the Kindle simply an opening act, simply warming up the crowd so that Steve Jobs could swoop in with his iPad and wow the crowd with what they really paid to see? Probably… but it is too early in the game to know for sure.
How about on the publisher’s side of the issue? Does the iPad give them something that the Kindle, or PDF, or other forms of electronic publishing not offer? If you think about it, most legal publishers completely ignored the Kindle publishing phenomenon. Why was that?? What exactly does a legal publisher need from an e-publishing format in order to be comfortable putting their material out there? My basic knowledge tells me that they want the following things.
  1. E-publishing should be cheaper than print publishing.
  2. The publisher must be able to set the price.
  3. E-publishing should allow me to protect the Intellectual Property of the publisher’s work.
  4. There has to be a public acceptance of the e-publishing format.
  5. There has to be a de facto publishing standard that all legal publishers adopt.
For legal publishing, the Kindle probably came up short in all of these topics; maybe with the exception of number one (cheaper to publish). How many of these do the iPad answer?? Perhaps all of them… although it may be too early to tell on number four’s public acceptance issue and number five’s vendor format adoption.
The biggest problem with legal publishers relying on the iPad as their platform for electronic publishing is that they are really locking themselves into a partnership with a company that is extremely proprietary —closed systems vs. open. There is also such a cult of personality surrounding Steve Jobs, which you have to wonder what will happen to it once he is no longer around to guide it. Legal publishers also have to consider what to do when the next big product is released… say the HP Slate. Pretty much all of that work that was put into making the publication work in the iPad format will have to be done all over again to make it work in the ‘next big thing.’ Same as with all those companies that created iPhone apps who then wanted to make it available in other formats. They basically had to start from scratch to make it work for a Blackberry or Android or Palm. Most didn’t even bother to convert it, thus locked themselves into a single vendor format with a small but vocal user base. If legal publishers go with the iPad, will they find themselves locked into a closed format and simply not port their product over to other formats simply because doing so creates tips the scale of issue number one above? It’s definitely something they’ll need to think about. The e-publishing revolution has definitely begun… it will be interesting to see which side the legal publishing world decides to join.