iPad, Wired App, ecosystem. Or not.


Igor and the iPad

I’m a big fan of Wired. I read it online all the time, I used to have a Wired US subscription (that didn’t work out that well both in terms of shipping times and price, at about 10 times US subscription prices with shipping). These days, I have a subscription to Wired UK that I’m very happy with. So I was really curious about the next steps for the digital version of Wired. The iPad app promised to be just that. So while my Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about the first batch of iPads arriving in Germany, I took the time to read up a bit.

And ended up writing a rant on the iPad’s product philosophy. Please note that I don’t own an iPad, I’ve only ever played around with one on a few occasions.

The Wired iPad ap is like a CD-ROM from the 1990’s

Interfacelab has a great rant analysis of the much-hyped Wired iPad app. The Wired app doesn’t get the best review here. I’d like to quote the whole thing, it’s that good. But I’ll try to stick to the most important parts:

I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin. However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990’s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem… ( …) There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990’s.

It’s not interactive, it’s a slide show

This is very true – I’m told the whole magazine doesn’t only not feel all that interactive: it just isn’t. It’s just a slide show. Which explains the huge size of the Wired app. Just to do some quick & dirty math: If you own the smallest iPad with its 16GB of memory and pack it with 20 movies (say 500MB each) and 10 magazines (Wired: 500MB), it’s full. You couldn’t even fit any music on then. Just saying.

A side note: The iPad’s main line of defense usually is it’s supposedly inspiring and groundbreaking design. But look at it – is it really that amazing? As Cory Doctorow points out (TWIT #249), it’s really only a “moderately well-assembled piece of south-Chinese electronics.” It’s a classic effect of glossy, fullscreen video that we go “aaaah, ooooh”, but does it really live up to the expectations?

What Apple is building is not an ecosystem, but a zoo

What’s more, of course, is that the iPad is built to be a part of the iTunes ecosystem – if you want to use that term in this context. An ecosystem is a living, breathing thing that can sustain itself; it’s has by definition an element of chaos, of not being controlled. The iTunes system is the opposite. The more appropriate metaphor might thus be: a zoo. You can look, but you can’t touch. (Ok, you can point.) You certainly can’t really interact with the animals except for shooing them back and forth within their cages.

If you buy an iPad, you don’t really buy a device. You most importantly buy into a system of software, services and contracts. The iPad is built around iTunes, which most certainly is an only moderately well-assembled piece of software. You must know, buying content through iTunes, that you will never be able to leave iTunes/Apple and take the stuff you bought with you. You will either always have to depend on Apple, or you will need to leave behind whatever you bought – every song, every book, the Wired app – if you move on to the next new system. Apple won’t be around forever. But maybe you appreciate a fresh, clean plate every now and then.

Maybe you also like burning down your house with all your belongings in them whenever you move.

The points above apply, by the way, equally to consumers and developers.

Jeff Jarvis, never short of a good quote, summarizes it graphically as always (sorry, no penis quote here):

I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

The question is: Can large corporations compete with amateurs?

So what’s at the core of all this this? Why do these “multimedia” (is that term still around?) apps feel so… stale? Maybe economics, pure and simple. As Danny O’Brien points out, technology often makes production of digital goods much cheaper – for amateurs. At the same time, production costs for professional products often skyrockets:

But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche? Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts. But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

The announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to be building a $75 Android-powered tablet for developing countries might just be a point in case. (Their first model wasn’t all that great and not very successful, but arguably has contributed strongly to the mainstream development of netbooks.)

So why does everybody (or rather: journalists) look so enviously at the iPad? Is it really the big hope, or are journalists (sorry for the generalization) really just too desperate to think clearly? In Cory Doctorow‘s words:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of “content” isn’t just that they can get it for free, though: it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

Or as the Information Architects put it, referring to the iPad edition of Wired:

The future of journalism is definitely not a stack of banners spiced with videos, exported from a paper layout program. You need to try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. By now I’m all infected with the excitement about the form factor of a tablet. I never thought I’d say it, but I do see a niche in my life where the tablet fits in. But it has to be more open. If I use a device to store all my content, if it is my direct way of accessing culture in all its forms, I have to really own it. And I’m not even talking about taking apart (I think it’s important that’s possible, but I hardly dare doing that) or installing Android on an iPhone. But I like a world where that is possible. I mean you should be able to install what you like, and take your music along to the next device you get.

I just can’t have a company being able to pull the plug on me with a software update anytime they choose to do so.

Image: Igor, who doesn’t like iPads the least bit, in the tempting glow of an iPad, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph’s photostream

If Murdoch endorses the iPad, it’s bad


In the Guardian, soon-to-be-ex media mogul Rupert Murdoch continues to claim Google steals Murdoch’s journalistic content, while the iPad might save journalism. Faced with the statement that consumers are used to getting their news for free, he reacts as follows:

Murdoch dismissed this fear, saying consumers could be forced to change their habits. “When they have got nowhere else to go they will start paying. If it is reasonable. No one is going to ask for a lot of money,” he said.

Now we have this weird situation: users reading their news for free; the iPad trying to cater to publishers more than consumers by making ads hard to circumvent; and Murdoch protecting burying his own content behind a paywall.

So far, Murdoch has done pretty much everything wrong that could be done wrong online. Blocking out search engines and users is just one of the more obvious mistakes that prove just how little he understands the new paradigms of a digital world. It also shows he doesn’t remember that readers never really paid for news, but for all the rest in a newspaper:

In a notional town with two perfectly balanced newspapers, one paper would eventually generate some small advantage — a breaking story, a key interview — at which point both advertisers and readers would come to prefer it, however slightly. That paper would in turn find it easier to capture the next dollar of advertising, at lower expense, than the competition. (…) For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.

Now when he endorses the iPad, that’s almost certainly a bad sign. It’s a sign that he, as a publisher is catered to. The same guy who wants to force consumers to change their behavior. The same guy who is willing to practically kill his newspapers by hiding the content from the eyes of the world.

Let’s hope that the iPad won’t empower the likes of Murdoch & Co too much. I’d rather see a device saving the industry by making the content more appealing, or easy to consume, or some third way of monetizing content. Something that makes empowers and delights consumers, not makes them slaves to archaic media moguls like Murdoch. Let’s see which device that’s going to be.

iPad, so what?



So Apple announced the tablet after all. Going by the name iPad it’s just that – a tablet computer, or maybe rather a tablet phone as it runs on the iPhone operating system. A quick recap: the iPad does have wireless, a browser, multi-touch, motion sensors for gaming and many ways of purchasing content through Apple (by ways of iTunes store and a book store). It does not have a camers (so no video chat), not phone capabilities (no calls), no real ways of customizing anything.

It is, in other words, a media consumption device.

I’ll let this sink in for a minute since I think it’s profound. Both Apple laptops and iPhones are clearly devices to communicate and create. The iPad is more like the iPod in that it doesn’t enable you to input anything but text. (Which is fine for email, potentially a blog post and some Facebook status updates, but not much more than that.)

Some pundits claim that the iPad will revolutionize online content consumption, others say that it’s closed-system-approach will be the end of hacking & tinkering. (Johannes Kleske listed a number of articles with much more profound analyses than mine. Go read them!) I don’t think any of those are really true, nothing will change as profoundly as these articles suggest.

Instead, I do see some ups and downs being triggered through the iPad. My take in random order:

First, eventually ebook readers will make progress tremendously faster than they have done so far. The iPad really pushes this genre, which overall is great. It’s the kind of competition the ebook reader market really needed. (Let’s hope the competition will actually come up with great alternatives and not just give up like in the mp3 player market, where there’s still mostly crap because the iPod captured the largest market share.) So: thumb up for ebooks.

Second, if the iBook store (is it called that?) is implemented anything as well as iTunes, it’ll be interesting to see Amazon and Apple clash over a potentially huge market. I certainly hope that Amazon will be driven to switch of DRM in ebooks like with their mp3 downloads, and thus do everybody in the industry (and the consumers) a huge favor and beat Apple that way. Again, thumb up for ebooks.

Third, it was about time for a new category of device that’s slightly less ugly than a laptop to keep near your couch for random email & facebook checking. However, I wouldn’t bet a $500-900 device fills that niche for me. A tablet? Sure, why not. But it’s one of those $199 max things.

Fourth, I don’t think the iPad will stop anyone from tinkering. However, if you’re interested in how UIs disconnect us from the technology we’re using, please do read (or re-read) Neal Stephenson’s classic “In the beginning… was the command line“.

Fifth, Apple is trying to push their pay services down our throats. They’ve been doing this for a long time, of course. And the way iTunes demonstrated that you could actually sell music online was great – practically everybody profited from this. However, it feels like the iPad takes this to a whole new level. “Here’s your shiny new tablet”, Apple seems to say, “but you won’t be able to do anything with it unless you buy your music, your books, your games in our stores. Any maybe we won’t change our terms of services ever, in which case you might be able to consume all the stuff you bought for awhile.” After all, it’s important to keep in mind that every dollar you spend within the Apple ecosystem stays there, and dies with Apple – you can’t take your (paid) content outside this system. It’s total lock in, and it sucks like there is no tomorrow.

Sixth, the iPad might actually really help the struggling newspapers sell their content online. I’m really torn on this one. On one hand, this is great news since many newspapers and magazines have been fighting for survival for awhile now, and here’s a potential savior. On the other hand, I could go crazy thinking that the less experimental, more conservative, no: more lazy and old-school newspapers, those who just never got a hang of how to work the internet, could actually profit most from this. It’s quite possible that all the laggards in this field are better off than the risk takers and innovators, by just leaning back and blocking and complaining and waiting for Apple to come along and invent a gadget that allows them to keep doing what they had been doing for decades. I really hope the net savvy competitors in the field will win over those fighting the web. But Apple might have just awarded the technophobes. We’ll see.

That’s my two cent. What’s your take?

Image: by mattbuchanan, some rights reserved.