iPad to rescue media from penny-pinching Web surfers?

Magazines and newspapers seeing their revenue imperiled by the Web's freewheeling ways may be finding hope in the iPad, the iPhone and other new media-friendly mobile devices, to judge by a number of panels at the TechCrunch conference, held this week in New York.

"A lot of people have suggested that the iPad is a new and significant inflection point for the publishing industry," said David Carr, a New York Times columnist who moderated one panel on the subject. "I think it's a case of when you are a drowning man, everything looks like a lifesaver."

Whether the optimism is warranted has been hotly debated at the conference. During another panel, Michael Wolf, the founder and managing director of consulting firm Activate, put the iPad in perspective: Apple is expected to sell 5 million of these handheld devices this year, but the Web has an audience of more than 3 billion.

Still, the iPad looks to be only the first in what will be a tsunami of portable media-consumption devices, angel investor Ron Conway noted during Carr's panel. He said we may see "tens of millions" of such devices, if not more, in the years to come.

"This is a device that has a fantastic user interface and publishers will adapt the content for it, just like the music industry gravitated to iTunes. This delivers a lot better user model than 'free,'" Conway said, referring to the perception of many Web surfers that content online should be free.

In other words, selling apps for iPads, the iPhone and other devices may prove to be more profitable than selling ads around free content and shore up declining print .