The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

The Trouble with Triblets: Why Tribune's proprietary tablet is a bad idea

I don't know how I missed this, but I did. One of the things I learned after Russ Stanton stepped down as editor of the Los Angeles Times is that the paper's parent company, Tribune Co., is developing its own tablet — not a new and special app for the tablet market, but an actual proprietary tablet — and, from what I gather, it intends to give it away to subscribers. Presumably, the glorious Tribune content on this tablet won't be paywalled, although to Web users the paper will. Who knows, there may even be be content that's exclusive to the tablet.

The Tribune tablet — the Triblet? — is not a good business idea. It's worse than New Coke. Worse that Qwikster. Worse the the DeLorean. Worse than the Edsel. I'd have to stretch to find a more foolhardy concept, far back beyond the meager parameters of my own lifetime. Napoleon's invasion of Russia leaps to mind...

First off, if Tribune truly plans to go through with this, it's obvious that management has no understanding of the tablet market. Because there is no tablet market. There's an iPad market. No one else — not even Amazon with the Kindle Fire, which is coming on strong but hasn't arrived without glitches — has established that they can sell tablets like Apple sells iPads.

The Triblet will certainly not be an iPad. More likely, it will be an inexpensive Android tablet, optimized to do one thing: consume content aggregated from across the Tribune papers.

It would probably (Certainly?) have to include both wifi and wireless capability, assuming the paper wants to maximize its investment. That means selling it with a partner who can provide the wireless service — and split the proceeds with Tribune.

Also, the tablet would be something that would have to be replaced every few years, to keep up with technological advances. It would become, for Tribune, a sort of recurrent, semi-fixed cost, in an era when newspapers are shedding their fixed costs — paper, printing presses, ink — by going digital.

Tribune can certainly make the argument that, like Amazon, it owns the content and can treat the tablet as a loss-leader. But even Amazon is charging for the Kindle Fire, reasoning perhaps that a device worth having isn't a free device. There's a certain crotchety appeal to whipping out your Kindle when everyone else is gawking at an iPad. The devices are mutually exclusive. But brandishing a Samsung Galaxy Tab is another story.

Tribune, a company with pretty much zero technology in its DNA, is also headed into a battle that has already claimed several prominent tech warriors. Hewlett Packard tried with the Touchpad. It was last seen in a fire sale at Best Buy for $99. Research in Motion brought out the BlackBerry PlayBook. You can now get one for $250 at some outlets. Various Android tablets continue to skirmish. But all anyone really seems to want for Christmas is an iPad.

Perhaps the Tribune brass figures there's an iPad market and cheap tablet market: give me an iPad or a $99 alternative. But it's one thing to see other-than-iPad sales boom when a tablet that was designed to compete with the iPad on features gets marked down, big time. Building a tablet to a low price point invariably means compromise. And that's something that consumers don't seem willing to do, tabletwise. They don't want a cheap tablet. They want a cheap iPad.

Then there's the inconvenient truth that on the Triblet, the LA Times and other papers may not be the main event. This is from the Wrap, via Reuters:

For the tablet plan to succeed, L.A. Times newspaper executives need to swallow the unwelcome truth that their customers want the tablet more than they want the newspaper. Cost and flexibility will be the determining factors: offering a free tablet to anyone who signs up for a one or two year newspaper subscription might well persuade many cost-conscious people to sign up. The tablet — probably some generic knockoff — would also have to offer music, TV watching, movies and other things consumers have come to expect.

So unlike Apple, Tribune can't dictate terms based on ownership of superior tech. As far as a sales pitch goes, it's worrisomely counting on being able to deliver a declining subscriber base to a wireless partner, if it expects to make money by splitting the revenue on data plans. Even then, its partner will have it over a barrel. Tribune will need, say, AT&T more than AT&T needs it. A 50-50 deal could rapidly turn into a 90-10 deal, with Tribune on the short end.

Rumor has it that Tribune CEO Eddy Hartenstein is enthusiastic about this project. Maybe he sees some affinity with the business that he founded before coming to Tribune, DirecTV. Perhaps he's been bewitched by fever dreams in which Tribune becomes a sort of tech/wireless facilitator, connecting a tablet-craving audience to hardware makers and service providers. 

There's an extremely outside chance that the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal could make something like this work. But a bankrupt company that's spent the past few years cutting its content operations to the bone, especially in LA? The retreat from Moscow has begun. And the snow is starting to fall...

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.