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Predicting the Death of Print

Two years ago print was going to soldier on another 10 years. Now it’s five–or fewer.

What a difference two years makes.

In 2008, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, told a reporter for the New York Observer that ten years hence (or sometime around 2018) ink on paper magazines would remain the dominant delivery mechanism for the contents of his publication. When asked whether magazines would be supplanted by then, he answered:

“In a decade time frame?” asked Chris Anderson, editor of Wired. “No. Technology adoption happens slowly. This is the editor of Wired telling you no. Obviously, newspapers are going to be changing dramatically over the next few years, but magazines are not newspapers. And I think magazines 10 years from now are going to look something like they do now.”

Editors for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Us Weekly all said the same thing. Now every single one of them, save Us Weekly, is already on the iPad or has an app in the works.

Changing reading habits brought about by the iPad, the Kindle and the tsunami of other tablet reading devices that will shortly be available inspired Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab and the father of the One Laptop Per Child project, to declare earlier this month that the physical book is dead in 5 years.

“People will say ‘no, no, no’ – of course you like your libraries,” Negroponte said. But he cited the report that sales of books for the Kindle recently surpassed sales of hardcover books.

“It’s happening. It not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years,” he said.

In light of these developments, I emailed Anderson to ask whether or not he’d like to revise his estimate for the death of print.

He said, perhaps not surprisingly, that he now believes that within a decade most reading will be done on e-readers and tablets.

“I still think that ten years from now we’ll still have lots of print magazines, along with lots of print books, and they will be more-or-less like they are now. What I’ve changed my mind about is what fraction of the market they will be. E-readers, from tablets to smart phones, have matured faster than I thought they would back in 2008.”

That predictions for the “death of print” changed so drastically in the span of just two years tells us something about where we are on the hype and/or adoption curve of e-readers and their ilk.

Which is to say: we are coming up on an inflection point, beyond which rates of adoption explode, feedbacks and network effects kick in, and total market penetration becomes inevitable.

How long will it be before it becomes unprofitable to continue to operate huge printing plants when a majority of your customers get your product through the Internet, and for whom your distribution costs are essentially zero? We’re about to find out.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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