May 28, 2015 Last Updated 9:29 am

PC makers continue to push their cheap tablets into a market that has long since moved on

Remembering the brief moment when the attention of all media executives were squarely on tablets and how to get them into the hands of their readers

I just received an email solicitation from Toshiba to buy a tablet. I can’t remember the last time I received an email soliciting a tablet purchase that wasn’t from Apple – and even those seemed half-hearted, you know, buy your mother an iPad for Mother’s Day and the like.

Toshiba tablets seem like tablets from every other PC maker not named Samsung: desperate attempts to sell into the market the same way they sold into the PC market. Maybe that is not fair, but that’s the way it feels.

As for the tablet, it costs $79.

Toshibatab$79! How do you build a business model around selling $79 tablets?

The tablet comes loaded with Android, of course. Android 4.4 KitKat. That version of Android was released at the end of October in 2013, making it not only outdated, but badly outdated. The tablet also comes with 1 gig of RAM and 8 gigs of storage.

Guess $79 is actually too high a price.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that, for a very brief moment, many media companies saw their digital media future tied to tablets. On several occasions I received emails from the Chicago Tribune promoting their digital subscriptions and giving away a tablet as part of the deal.

February of 2013 was the last time I wrote about the promotion:

“You must commit to a new 2-year subscription to qualify for this offer,” the promotion states. “This subscription will cost $11.96 every 4 weeks and will be billed automatically to your credit card. There is a $60 fee for early cancellation, but this fee will decrease by $2.30 for each full 4 weeks of completed service under the subscription. For example, if you cancel after 52 weeks, the early cancellation fee will be $30 charged to the credit card on file. WiFi service not included.”

The tablet was so worthless that I failed to mention the specs of the thing in my report but the Trib still has a page up that offers that tablet with a subscription (see here) – and the tablet, it turns out, had 4GB of storage, barely enough to hold the mobile operating system, and certainly not enough to hold any media content.

The idea behind the promotion, of course, was to get as many tablets into the hands of subscribers as possible in order to shift readers to digital – resulting in cost savings down the road, it was hoped. Businesses were set up that solicited newspapers with these cheap tablets – and newspapers executives, who didn’t own iPads themselves, were in no position to understand that this was all a very bad idea. They discovered that the day the first complaints came in from readers saying their tablets didn’t work as advertised, and oh by the way, how do you turn the day thing on?

The person behind the effort was Eddy Hartenstein, who is currently Tribune Publishing’s Non-executive Chairman of the Board. “It’s Eddy’s baby,” someone told CNN back in 2011. Another person told CNN “I would be shocked if it was successful.” It wasn’t.

Unfortunately, many print media executives were more than happy to see any digital media initiatives, including video, fail. One newspaper ad executive at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when discussing video news content with me a few years ago, was incredulous: “why would anyone come to a newspaper website to see videos? That’s for TV.” (The parent company of that newspaper recently traded its broadcast properties to Scripps in exchange for Scripp’s print newspapers.)

But it is likely that the Trib was serious about its effort, not just setting up the experiment to fail. At the time there was real confusion in the minds of many media executives about how seriously to experiment with the new digital platforms.

At least the Trib tried. Most other companies punted, outsourced their digital edition apps to third parties, and then pretended to be digital-first. One of those companies, ironically named Digital First Media, recently tried to sell itself off, but found no buyers willing to pay its price. I’d like to think that its lame effort to paint itself as digitally savvy is one of the reasons for the failure to sell (though, honestly, I doubt it).

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