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Legal content on iPad and tablets : What's the business model for publishers and law firms?

January 4, 2011

There’s been wide discussion of late that although publication sales on the iPad took off at first, sales are now in decline. What’s that mean for legal publishers? What’s that mean for lawyers and law firms looking to distribute their blog content in mobile.

From a legal publisher’s standpoint, ALM (American Lawyer Media) CEO Bill Pollak addressed the issue in a blog post yesterday.

There have been a number of articles and blog posts over the past two weeks about the failure of consumer magazines to do very well with their iPad apps. Although launched to much fanfare, sales of magazine apps by Wired, The New Yorker and others have been slow, and it looks like they are failing to gain traction among readers.

Since we are now beginning to design apps for our publications, I hope we’ll learn from the experience of those who have been in this game for awhile. For one thing, an iPad app that is simply a replication of a print magazine won’t serve the market. For another, existing subscribers are none too happy about paying an added fee for iPad access to the same content — they want one subscription price to cover access to all of the brand’s versions.

Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist and principal of Union Square Ventures, believes Web economics dictates. Publishing business models that have worked on the Web will dictate what’s going to work when it comes to mobile.

I’ve been saying for a while now that I think mobile economics will trend toward web economics as the mobile web goes mainstream. In other words, the business models that work best on the web will ultimately work best in mobile.The corollary to that is that the business models that don’t work well on the web will not work well in mobile in the long run.

And that includes tablets. There is some discussion in the tech blogs today about why iPad magazine sales have been disappointing. I don’t understand why anyone would ever think that adding a presentation layer on top of web based content would make it something people would want to purchase when they are not willing to purchase the same content directly on the web.

Why would anyone pay for information and commentary they expect to get for free on the Web, asks Wilson.

A central issue with the Internet, no matter what device and presentation layer you use to access it, is that there is an unlimited amount of content available. Evan Williams calls it “a web of infinite information” in this chat with Om Malik. What is valuable is filtering and curation. Restricting access to content doesn’t work. Someone else’s content will get filtered and curated instead of yours. Scarcity is not a viable business model on the Internet.

Scary stuff for publishers of existing print based newspapers and magazines such as The Economist, The New Yorker, and ALM legal periodicals. Rather than people paying for easy access to your magazine and newspaper content on mobile, they’ll be looking for other’s content that’s filtered and curated for free.

Apple’s model of controlling distribution of content (magazines & newspapers) works for the indefinite future. But, as Wilson points out, Apple’s period of being “the mobile platform” is ending and it’s important to understand what that may mean.

I think it means the mobile is slowly but surely moving to a web model. And as that happens, it is important to think of it as one big web and lots of devices and software accessing it. Lots of devices means billions of devices accessing largely free content and applications with advertising and freemium and commerce and virtual goods and many other business models generating trillions of dollars for developers. Just like the web, but even bigger and more exciting.

What’s that mean for lawyers and law firms?

You’re in the media business in that you share your intellectual capital via blogs. You’ve led with content for client development for years, and that will become increasingly important with the iPad, and tablets.

If you think you’ve seen wide distribution of your content via the Web and blogs, you haven’t seen anything close to what iPad, tablet, and other mobile devices are going to enable you to do as far as content delivery and distribution.

Your target audience of clients and influencers will expect to see the type of content you share on blogs for free. Properly filtered and curated, your audience’s demand for free content may surprisingly put you ahead of traditional legal publishers, whether they be Thomson-West, LexisNexis, or ALM who are looking to be paid for their content.

As Wilson says, the onus is on developers and publishers like us at LexBlog to filter and curate the best in legal blog content and to build business models that support that. For you as lawyers and law firms, that’s great – you get wide spread distribution to your targeted audience.

Exciting times ahead.