Rupert Murdoch, according to many observers, looked rather sprightly last week at the launch of his latest revolutionary venture, The Daily. It was, for some, a rather sobering revelation.
A couple of days before, one of his former employees, Andrew Neil, was drawn into mischievous speculation that he - Murdoch - was being worn down by worries about the fall-out from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
Well, he needn't have worried. You risk offering hostages to fortune when you write this sort of thing in a weekly - but there seems to be life yet in the 79-year-old.
And, remarkably, the launch is, arguably, evidence that he is as radical now as he ever was. No-one has a better record than Murdoch when it comes to seeing around corners - or of having the uncompromising determination to back his hunches.
Murdoch is the man who pioneered the use of digital technologies in the UK media industry back in the 80s. The digital economy's revolutionary guard sometimes forgets that when he introduced desktop computers at his newspapers, there really were bloody riots on the streets of London as a consequence.
He was instrumental in bringing multi-channel TV to the UK - and was lampooned for crass idiocy in doing so. But, with Sky, he pioneered pay-TV and was influential in evolving it into a digital platform with interactive functionality. More recently, he has done more than anyone to put a rocket up the backside of BT in ensuring non-cable customers have internet access that is both fast and cheap.
Now he's leading the industry's development of ways to charge for online news content - and this latest iPad app is an important adjunct to that.
The anti-Murdoch brigade - a large but waspishly vocal minority in the UK - will point out that the iPad is, as yet, a somewhat peripheral platform; and they will add that, in the week that he admitted he has failed utterly with MySpace, which is now up for sale, his digital innovation credentials remain somewhat debatable.
And yet, history will almost certainly be far kinder to Murdoch than seems possible now - and The Daily could yet turn out to be his most feted legacy project.
If it is successful, even his bitterest enemies (conservative-minded media owners and left-leaning agitators alike) will ultimately find themselves embracing it in some form or another.
1. The iPad was launched in a blizzard of hype by Apple Inc in April 2010. A tablet computer (basically, in the words of one commentator, an "iPhone on steroids"), it connects to the digital data cloud (formerly known as the internet) via wi-fi and 3G. By the end of 2010, Apple had shifted around 15 million units worldwide; and industry analysts reckon the company could sell upwards of 30 million more during 2011.
So the numbers remain relatively modest. For instance, there are more than 1 billion (probably more than 1.5 billion) personal computers operational around the globe and the number is currently increasing by around 300 million a year. For the foreseeable future, the audience for individual iPad apps will remain negligible.
2. But this is currently digital media's cause celebre - and, of course, as other manufacturers bring me-too models to the market, the tablet phenomenon will continue to build momentum. The iPad is the first digital device ever to deliver mobile content in a compelling, user-friendly in all conceivable environments (except the bath) and aesthetically pleasing manner. Thus, the creative community has taken it to its hearts.
3. There are 240 news media iPad apps listed on the iTunes site but The Daily claims to be the first one designed specifically for the platform rather than being a crude repackaging job on existing digital content. Each day, it will publish up to 100 pages in six content areas: news, sport, celebrity gossip, opinion, arts and games. It will be aimed at US readers, with news bureau operations in New York and Los Angeles. It is available on subscription at a cost of $39.99 a year.
4. It claims it will change the way that "advertising is consumed within a news publication". As the blurb has it: "Full-page ad units are completely interactive, customisable, and offer a rich mix of branding and direct response opportunities." Launch advertisers included HBO, Paramount, Pepsi, Range Rover and Virgin Atlantic.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
RIVAL MEDIA OWNERS
- One more giant and deserved kick up the derriere. If Rupert Murdoch has been guilty of anything down the years, it is of making his rivals seem spineless, lazy and generally rather feckless. As in previous decades, they will not forgive him for that - even when they go on to share the rewards.
- He's currently proving a point that almost every other sector of the economy grasped with alacrity ten years ago - if you have creative flair and the courage of your convictions, you can happily sell your wares using datacoms distribution technologies.
- For a decade or more, media owners and digital advertising agencies alike have been shockingly complacent when it comes to the development of attractive display advertising formats in the digital domain.
- They acted (or failed to act) out of some misguided notion that interactive functionality had somehow superseded the need to communicate with rhetorical persuasiveness.
- Now, with the arrival of media apps designed specifically for tablet computers, there is at last some slender hope that we may see a renaissance in the art of advertising - sumptuous images and telling words in the pursuit of big ideas.
- "They've raised the bar," Hamish McLennan, the global chief executive of Y&R, several of whose clients, including Virgin Atlantic, are launch advertisers, says. "I think the challenge will be to make ads that are as complex and multi-faceted as the editorial. The interactivity and video will have to be strategically smart and integrated in a purposeful way."