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Ballmer's too quick to kill off print

By Paul McNamara on Fri, 06/06/08 - 9:32am.

In this interview with the Washington Post, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer continues his tap-dancing about Yahoo and takes his obligatory shot at Google. He also opines that all print media -- every newspaper, every magazine -- will be delivered only electronically within 10 years.

He's wrong.

Might that happen someday? Maybe, but I'll see his 10 years and raise him 10: There's no way anything approaching such an extinction happens within the next 20 years. No, let's make that 30 years; no way. (Remember, he's talking about all of them joining the dinosaurs.)

Yes, I have an obvious bias (not to mention financial self-interest) coloring my point of view. But I've also spent 32 work years with ink of one sort or another on my hands, which at least buys me a ticket to the debate.

I'm not blind. Countless print publications have already gone away and many, many more are sure to follow -- maybe, someday, including the one for which I work.

But all print? No, not any time soon and certainly not within Ballmer's scant 10 years.

The reason is quite simple: Too many people prefer reading print -- simply prefer it -- for publishers to abandon that delivery medium altogether. Ballmer knows that a bedrock principle of commerce in the Internet age -- or any age, for that matter -- is that consumers will decide and dictate what and how they consume.

In other words, the same principle that has made the Internet will save print from extinction.

The two print publications I read most regularly are The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated. The former arrives every morning on my driveway and the latter once a week in my snail-mailbox. It's difficult to imagine the day when I'll want that to change, despite the fact that I spend an appalling percentage of my waking hours online and could get much of the same content there -- for free.

I like the form factor of print; I like the portability, including, yes, when I'm on the throne ... and I'm by no means anywhere near alone.

Ah, I hear Ballmer saying, but the cost of producing print trumps your preference; too bad. Moreover, he says, electronic reading devices have advanced dramatically in recent years and they will undoubtedly evolve to the point where even an ink-stained wretch such as you will find little reason to continue killing trees.

Finally, he'll add, you're a 50-year-old curmudgeon, McNamara; no one under 30 would be caught dead holding a newspaper.

Guilty and he's right about the younger set.

He's still wrong about the lifespan of print. This extinction, if it happens, is going to take a lot more time.