Ballmer on papers: Wrong, as usual

There’s lots of buzz out there about how Microsoft supremo Steve Ballmer figures the newspaper will be dead in 10 years — oh yes, and magazines too (Erick Schonfeld has just added his two cents over at TechCrunch). Here’s what Ballmer said to the Washington Post:

“Here are the premises I have. Number one, there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form.”

The former basketball coach and Peter Boyle (as Young Frankenstein) lookalike immediately qualified his comments, of course, saying that “If it’s 14 or if it’s 8, it’s immaterial to my fundamental point.” So there you have it. The end of the newspaper, as foretold by the guy whose company completely missed the importance of the Internet, not to mention the importance of Web-search, and about a dozen other things I don’t have time to go into. No doubt Microsoft will help out with Newspaper 2.0, a piece of shrink-wrapped software that only costs $350 and takes a Pentium Quad Core and 3GB of memory to run.

Seriously though, this is the kind of thing people say to get attention — and I’m not just saying that because I happen to be employed by a newspaper. If anything, I am even more convinced of the digital revolution that Steve is. But will newspapers as we know them disappear in 10 years? No. And not in 14 years either — or 20 for that matter. Will a lot fewer people be reading a printed paper than read one daily now? Undoubtedly. I got asked about the future of papers as part of a panel discussion on recommendation engines at mesh 2008 a few weeks ago, and I said what I always say: I think lots of people will continue reading papers — just not as many as are reading now.

People still listen to the radio, don’t they? Many of them listen to talk shows, and “radio plays” that consist of actors in a studio somewhere reading their lines. Lots of people still go to live theatre, and to the opera for that matter — heck, people still read books, and that technology is hundreds of years old. But not as many people do those things as used to do them when those forms of entertainment were at their peak. I think it will be exactly the same with newspapers — I fully expect to see people reading them for the remainder of my lifetime; they will just be fewer in number, and younger folk will see them as quaint.

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