Sneaker phone

The myth of the free Apple iPad

February 3, 2010: 6:31 AM ET

Can Steve Jobs' tablet do for magazines what the sneaker phone did for Sports Illustrated?

Image: Time Inc.

Joe Zeff, who ran Time Magazine's graphics department for a few years while I was there, is getting some attention for an idea he floated on his new Design Blog: publishers, he suggests, should lure readers to their struggling magazines by giving away free Apple (AAPL) iPads in return for paid subscriptions.

It's a variation on the old Sports Illustrated sneaker-phone gimmick (see video below the fold), which worked 20 years ago because the phones were pretty cheap and the subscribers they attracted tended to become loyal readers.

But loyal readers are a dying breed in these of days of Google (GOOG) News and information overload, and publishers are desperately seeking new ideas that can resurrect their aging business models -- including re-casting their print publications as iPad apps. (See the Sports Illustrated demo, also below the fold.)

A free iPad would certainly attract subscribers, but can magazines really afford to give away a tablet computer the way SI gave away sneaker phones? We ran the numbers, and the news is not good.

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