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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 9, 2007 at 11:40 AM

Bill Gates on paperless media

At first I was spooked by Bill Gates saying that newspapers are fading quickly as the world goes digital.

Speaking at Microsoft’s advertising schmoozefest in Seattle this week, Gates said “the number of people who actually buy, subscribe to the newspaper and read it has started an inexorable decline.”

But then I remembered that Bill’s been saying the same thing about the workplace — he’s been saying for more than a decade that we’re on the verge of the paperless office.

Digital processes have dramatically changed the way we work, just as the Web has changed the way news is distributed and consumed. But we’re still using plenty of paper.

A few reasons I think Bill may be overstating this one, too (and that print media will probably be around at least until I retire):

1. Print is still a superior format. It doesn’t require electricity to read print media. A hard copy of a newspaper or magazine is always on, it never needs to be recharged and it’s more resistant to impact and transport than any digital reading device now or on the horizon.

2. The “green” advantages of digital vs. print are overstated. Sure it takes trees to make paper, but print media is reusable and recyclable. It also takes a lot of wood fiber and soy ink to match the ecological impact of producing and powering mobile computers that need to be replaced every three to five years.

3. Connectivity isn’t an issue with print. In the physical world, it’s still easier to share and discuss printed media. The only connectivity required is the passing of a document from one person to the next. It’s a universal format that requires no investment in hardware and infrastructure to consume.

4. The tactile experience of print hasn’t been duplicated digitally. For a long time coming, there will be people willing to pay for printed media. It may become a more limited, premium product, but that doesn’t mean it will go away. People still go to the movie theater, even though movies are available online. People also pay for premium products that offer a superior experience — why doesn’t the media industry emphasize the special qualities of their media, instead of being cowed by Tablet PCs and online analytics?

5. The privacy value of print is understated. This is huge.

If you read and clip out an article about dandruff in a newspaper or magazine, nobody will know that you might have a little issue with your scalp. If you do the same thing online, Bill and the Google guys will know immediately and assume you have a dandruff problem. They’ll tag you as a dandruff sufferer and tell their friends — the companies that buy ads on their Web sites, the ones in Seattle this week for Microsoft’s ad summit. The next thing you know ads for dandruff shampoo will be appearing on your computer screen.

That’s why Bill and the other Internet ad barons are so enthusiastic about digital media. The format enables them to track what people read and view online. They gather and store this information, and use it to target people with pinpointed ads.

I’m a little wary of the overture, but Google apparently recognizes the value of print, at least for the near future. At a conference on the other side of the country, it told newspaper types that print is “underappreciated.”

Comments | Topics: Digital media, Microsoft

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