Two pieces of seemingly unrelated news hit the online world about 24 hours apart. However, the first may weigh heavily on the second.
Number one was the announcement yesterday (June 2) from AT&T signaling the end, for now at least, of unlimited wireless broadband. As of June 7 most 3G iPad users and all buyers of iPhones and other AT&T connected smartphones will have to pay for data based on usage. Unless grandfathered, from now on it will all be metered.
According to most reports (the New York Times’ David Pogue among them), most smartphone users should come out ahead by under either of the two plans. AT&T itself calculated that 65% of its subscribers use less than 200 mb of the lower price option (half the cost of the current unlimited plan they have) and altogether 98% use under the 2 gb limit of the higher price plan. But for the newer iPad, optimized for streaming video and more accommodating for watching You Tube, will these parameters stunt their use?
The matters if we probe the implications of the second news item, an AP story under the headline “Publishers see signs the iPad can restore ad money.” It began: “Good news for the news business: Companies are paying newspapers and magazines up to five times as much to place ads in their iPad applications as what similar advertising costs on regular websites.”
The story noted that “early evidence suggests the iPad is at least offering publishers a way to get more money out of advertisers.” Perhaps prophetically, though, author Andrew Vanacore hedged his bets, adding two graphs later: “Still, a lot will need to go right for publishers before the iPad and imitator tablet computers become a significant source of income.”
The seeds of what may not go right comes soon enough. Describing why iPad applications such as USA Today’s can justify higher ad rates than the standard online ad, Vanacore replays this scenario: “A reader can click on Courtyard by Marriott's USA Today ad and then with a flick of a finger scroll through images of the hotels' updated lobby design. Another tap and a high-definition video appears, full of happy hotel guests.”
But wait. With AT&T’s new data limited plans, this simple “tap” will generate perhaps megabytes of “high definition” video. Will tablet users want to eat up precious data usage on a Marriott ad. When the pool was bottomless, well, so what. With the pool is emptying fast, then perhaps not. At least, not as spontaneously.
AT&T’s new data plans are likely to be mimicked by other carriers eventually. Some or all might hold off initially so as to gain a short term competitive advantage. But they know AT&T is right. The spectrum for data is finite and when any commodity is free it get overused. Some mechanism is needed to ration it.
Every decision has consequences. It’s not unusual for some to be unintended. Matt Richtel, in his report describing AT&T’s data plan announcement, closed his piece with this anecdote:
“Mike Lapchick, an AT&T customer in Chicago, said that he tended to use his iPhone mostly for e-mail, and that he would probably see his data bill drop in half to $15.
“But Mr. Lapchick, who is the chief executive of a company that makes software used by Internet retailers to allow consumers to zoom in on product images, has another concern. As unlimited data plans go away, it could prompt cellphone users to watch their intake.”
He may not have realized it, but Lapchick could have been describing every media business that has hope that iPad and its competitors' forthcoming tablets may just have been blindsided by AT&T without being aware of what hit them. At least not yet.