Apple appears poised to introduce a much-anticipated product: the once seemingly-mythical “iSlate” or “iTablet,” its first tablet-style touch-screen computer.

Though the potential of an Apple tablet thrills many fans of the company, it’s also piqued the interest of magazine publishers, who — long before the device’s rumored introduction — foresaw its possibilities for their industry. The announcement in early December of a so-called “iTunes for magazines” digital storefront that would be well-suited to this new device, among others, seemed a bit hasty, given that the device’s development hasn’t even been publicly confirmed by Apple.

The coverage of the “iTunes for magazines” concept, and its connection to new tablet computers under development, has been a little confusing. Here, we’ll sort through some of the highlights, and explore what it might mean for the beleaguered print magazine industry.

iTunes or Hulu for Magazines?

Most of the news stories about this new project have suggested it’s modeled after iTunes, but others have invoked comparisons to Hulu, the (currently) free streaming TV and movie site.

Though it might seem like a minor difference, iTunes and Hulu have very different business models. iTunes offers small pieces of content (such as a song or a TV episode) for a small charge, and also sells season passes to TV shows, and movie downloads. Hulu, however, doesn’t charge for any of its content at the moment. It’s supported by ads.

In an interview with the New York Observer, John Squires, a Time Inc. executive vice president who will soon leave Time to head up this new venture, did not specify how users would pay for content. He said individual publishers involved in the venture would set their own fees for content, a statement that doesn’t rule out the possibility of free and advertising-supported content.

But more than likely, some content will probably be free and paid for solely by ads, and some will be available only by paid subscription (and could still contain advertising). Publishers could also separately sell individual items, such as magazine articles or related multimedia.

Who’s Involved in This Project?

Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and News Corporation are the five publishers involved in the joint venture. The first four are the four largest magazine publishers in the U.S. by revenue, according to the State of the News Media 2009 report, while News Corporation owns numerous magazines in Australia as well as many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

These publishers own some of the best-known magazines in the country, including Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Glamour, Wired, the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, O: The Oprah Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Family Circle. In short, this digital joint venture is very likely to impact at least one magazine found in the average American home.

What Will a Tablet Magazine Look Like?

A couple of video demonstrations of tablet-formatted magazines from this joint venture are available online. The one below shows a tablet version of Sports Illustrated, which is presumably similar to what readers would buy from the new iTunes-like service. The digital version includes video, photo galleries, customizable content and — yes — a video swimsuit edition. (There’s also a real-world demo of the same edition given to TechCrunch.)

Wired has also been reconfigured for the digital venture. The video below shows its new layout in the tablet edition. Both the Sports Illustrated and Wired demos show the tablet-based e-reading application using vertical and horizontal layout options. They also highlight interactive advertising.

How Will Publishers Make Money?

Publishers will probably make money the same way they do in print: with subscription fees and advertising. One advantage of electronic editions for publishers, however, is that they can track exactly how readers interact with advertising: for example, how long readers look at an ad, or whether they pursue more information about a product at that moment.

Publishers have long argued that magazine readers savor advertising as part of their reading experience. The Magazine Publishers of America handbook (PDF) states that 54 percent of magazine readers have a very positive or somewhat positive attitude toward magazine advertising. However, skeptical and increasingly frugal advertisers may need a bit more convincing. The data that digital magazine publishers can provide about readers’ viewing and reading habits will allow advertisers to better target specific audiences, and determine cost-effective advertising methods.

What Formats Will Be Sold?

The publishers in the joint venture say that their “digital storefront” will use open standards, presumably so other publishers and other device makers can join in. Microsoft is reportedly developing Courier, a touchpad device in a booklet format rather than a tablet. HTC, a company known for its cell phones, is also said to be unveiling its own touchscreen device based on the Google Android operating system within the next few months.

The Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook e-readers may not be invited to this joint venture party, however, because their current technology can’t show color or video, and because their downloadable files use proprietary formats.

Is This Really So New and Different?

The real challenge for magazine publishers in this joint venture may be to find ways to truly innovate. Though the “iTunes for magazines” concept and its primary use on state-of-the-art tablet devices might seem innovative enough, the fundamental question is whether this new distribution and business model fully utilizes the advantages of the digital format in exciting, engaging and creative ways.

The video demos linked above don’t really appear to add much more to the magazine experience than what readers might already access on a well-designed magazine website. On the web, a reader can already access content in any order, see supplemental multimedia, and interact with other readers and social media. And in most cases, those sites are free of charge.

So far, the tablet format and iTunes-style business model may not be fundamentally changing the nature of magazine content and reading, at least based on the video demos. As of now, it appears to be primarily a new distribution method, not a change in the essential magazine experience. The tablet editions might be shinier and prettier, but they still offer mostly the same content in a new layout. Readers will have to determine if those qualities outweigh the advantages of paper magazines in cost and convenience.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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