This evening I made the switch from Read It Later to Instapaper. The latter is by far the more popular service. On the surface, it might be hard to choose one over the other. Their iPhone apps both cost $4.99 (Read It Later, Instapaper), they both have free-to-use websites, they both suck the text out of a web article you’re too busy to read at the moment of encounter, and store it online for later enjoyment. Well, at least that’s the idea.
A Japanese magician performs a multimedia (and multi-prop) presentation with an iPad, out on the street by Ginza’s iconic Apple store. It’s a pretty impressive string of visual effects, one after another in under three minutes.
Edit: Inserted an extra paragraph before the last one, 20 minutes after hitting Publish. Sorry about that.
I couldn’t believe my girlfriend was oblivious to the huge row between Amazon and the publishing houses of Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Hachette. Until I remembered that, unlike me, she has a real job, and that the whole thing only blew up one week ago.
“The iPad was announced only last week? No way, it feels like two weeks at least!” I said, not realizing that the constant reading of similar news stories can cause a retardation of time (amongst other things).
If you haven’t caught up on Amazon’s ebook troubles, this post by John Scalzi will serve as an excellent primer.
Short summary: Amazon used to sell ebooks at a near-standard price of $9.99, reportedly at a loss on what they paid the publishers, to help sell more Kindles.
Monkey wrench: Apple’s iPad bookstore will reportedly let publishers set their own prices, which will be $14.99 for most new books.
Result: Publishers have started to push Amazon to raise its prices, obliterating the Kindle’s price advantage.
There are reasons to be upset about all this, of course. Do I think the publishing industry is being extremely greedy, short-sighted, self-important, and ignorant of how much their situation mirrors the mistakes of the record industry not so long ago? Yes, I do.
According to multiple sources, selling ebooks at $14.99 will net publishers the exact same profit as having Amazon sell them at $9.99, because Amazon sold them at a loss. This price increase to the consumer is being sold as a solution to what Rupert Murdoch has called the ‘devaluation of books’ (at the $9.99 price point), and the competition that ebooks pose to hardcover sales.
Linking price to value is a pretty poor argument when it comes to books. Take anything else, say clothing – if Armani shirts were being sold for what they really cost to make, as opposed to the price commanded by the brand, sure, you’d see those suits being devalued real quick as everyone started wearing them to the supermarket – but books are a special case in media because of the public domain.
Not too many audio recordings or films exist in the public domain, but being an older medium, lots of books do. Great Expectations and Moby Dick are completely free downloads from Project Gutenberg. I wouldn’t call them devoid of ‘value’ in any sense of the word. Their being freely available doesn’t hurt sales of physical printings either. This Penguin Classics edition has a retail price of $15 (discounted to $10.20 by Amazon). These are some of the best books ever written, available free for reading on nearly any digital device, and still millions of copies are moved each year.
One aside: imagine if MacMillan started to dictate the prices at which Amazon and other bookstores could sell their physical books too. It would mean the end of discounts. Also consider that if one wanted to boycott the modern publishing industry completely, it would not be to the detriment of his reading. At last count, over 20,000 books in English reside on Project Gutenberg. Refusing to pay for music and movies, however, would leave one largely at the mercy of free-to-air radio and television programming; quite the inverse experience from book-reading in terms of quality.
Given that they enjoy no increase in profits, it can hardly be argued that these publishers are seeking to cover the increasingly high costs of producing and editing new material, or to subsidize a supposedly shrinking physical books market with ebook sales. My guess is that a sense of wild fear and uncertainty drives these decisions, and artificially pricing these ebooks high is the only way they think they can convince an uninterested public of their worth. But that’s not true at all. People buy books, at the right price.
$14.99 is not the right price.
Apple knew something the music industry didn’t when it launched the iTunes Music Store: the right price. As the store grew more popular than any of the labels expected, their despicable instinct was to milk these new customers. They began to demand variable pricing schemes in place of Apple’s fixed price of 99 cents a track. Variable pricing sounded like a nice idea; new songs would cost more than old songs. What they really wanted was for most desirable songs to cost more than 99 cents, and have a few old crap songs nobody wanted at bargain bin prices. Steve Jobs held them off for six years until the industry agreed to sacrifice DRM in exchange.
Apple understood the psychological appeal of a low, fixed price. The music guys couldn’t even understand the meaning of the money that came in from Apple each month. It amazes me that people who essentially failed to sell their own product could presume to meddle with a successful strategy someone else had come up with. Would you know it, that’s exactly what the book industry is doing right now to the people who sold a shitload of ebooks for them. And they’re succeeding.*
Everyone knows the argument: ebooks cost almost nothing to copy and distribute, whereas pulp, ink, and an entire mechanism of printers, transporters, and physical stores exist to put books in our hands. That’s what gives a book value for most people, exchanging $14.99 for a piece of work in front of them, not an artificial price on a digital file they can neither keep forever not share with friends and family. People expect ebooks to cost less, the same way they expect a pizza to cost less if they drive up to the outlet and pick it up themselves instead of having it delivered. Instead, we’re getting a flavor pill that only tastes like pizza, delivered to our homes for the same price as a real pie sold down the street.
That the publishing guys are able to ignore the threat of piracy is even more worrying. Once a book is scanned and processed into raw text (a trivial task these days), it’s even easier to distribute than an MP3 or movie. It literally takes seconds to shoot a novel of a few hundred kilobytes across the net; paste it into the body of an email, and it can’t be stopped. It seems to me that people are more likely to illegally download an overpriced book than a 99c song. Especially since almost half of all books bought are never finished.
Now, it may appear that consumers took to the idea of buying and listening to digital music fairly quickly, which no doubt gives publishers the same hope for switching people over to a higher-profit digital medium. But the transition to digital music didn’t start with MP3s, it happened over a period of 20 years with the audio CD. Hungry to earn repeat sales on records they already sold once or twice, the industry weaned us off turntables, vacuum tubes, and cassettes. They got us used to the idea of digital reproduction, and even convinced most of its superiority. By the time MP3s arrived, an entire generation that never knew the warm sounds of analog reproduction was ready to embrace them, and eventually even pay for quite a lot of it.
The fraction of music lovers who clung onto vinyl will look like nothing compared to the majority who will continue to prefer real paper. A lot of us read off screens every day, but it seems most don’t want the same experience when curling up with a novel. Even if we were to get used to it, there’s still the problem that reading is more prevalent in the older generations, who won’t jump to pay a couple hundred bucks for a fancy reader.
For those reasons, I don’t believe real books face any significant cannibalization from ebooks in the near future. If anything, the number of actual readers will increase with ebook sales. And the more people read, the more they make recommendations to those around them. Invariably, some of those whispers will result in the sale of real books.
Should this hold true, the initial cost of producing the content will continue to be shouldered by the process that creates paper books, as it always has. Real books can continue to be sold at their traditional price points. This leaves the sale of every ebook to be counted as pure profit. The day when major publishers put out new ebooks by noted authors without physical counterparts on store shelves, we’ll reevaluate.
Pricing ebooks prohibitively high does nothing for readers in general. If successful, the industry will associate the numbers $14.99 with the idea of reading a book on a device like a Kindle or iPad, the same way we now think of songs on an iPod as costing 99 cents, only less attractive. When digital music went mainstream, it was with Napster. Legal alternatives came later. Because it’s the opposite for digital books, assuming the whole thing even takes off, how many will know to venture past the virtual display shelves and over to the free public domain section?
Ebooks should be seen as alternatives, for those who don’t need or possess the means to house a large library of battery-free, device-independent books that may someday be passed on. We will buy these digital editions on impulse, out of fleeting interest, on the insistence of friends, from the comfort of our Sunday beds, or in the midst of long journeys, perhaps as other books are closed and some aching gap remains, or when we can no longer wait for a final installment, and consequently we will as a species read more, and our society will be the richer for it. In exchange for acknowledging their impermanence, we will hopefully be charged a fee more like a rental, and less like a scalping.
* As to why Apple would play a curveball with the book guys and give them miles of rope to hang themselves, see Matt Buchanan’s post over at Gizmodo: Why (and How) Apple Killed the $9.99 Ebook.
There’s a phrase that tends to pop up in conversations about the latest divisive move from Cupertino: “the new Apple”. There’s always a new Apple that threatens the way things have been, or turns its back on a loyal segment; doing something other than what we, presumably desirable, tech-savvy customers want for our money.
Lately, it’s been the iPad and its being in bed with the iPhone OS when we’d already arranged for a marriage to Mac OSX. It’s a computer for grandparents that will have severe implications for their grandchildren’s ability to grow up into the kind of curious, tinkering hackers who poke their noses where they don’t belong and thereby discover new and better ways to write software and build hardware and renew the flattened spirit of progress, thus we are destroying the circle itself!, the naysayers charge, gasping for air.
With the iPhone model, software developers leave Apple a cut of every sale on the sides of their plates, while suffering the indignity of letting the publisher have final veto rights. Tinkering and sales aside, the goddamned thing wants to be a computer but has no multitasking! – This is the work of the new Apple.
When new MacBook Pros were released with the same glossy, reflective screens as consumer MacBooks, pissing off graphics professionals who needed color accuracy and glare-free visibility in daylight, that too was the new Apple. The new Apple ditched PowerPC chips for Intel’s, after trumpeting the former’s superiority for a decade; the new Apple said no removable batteries for any portable device, too bad if you have a 20-hour flight; the new Apple also developed an odd nippled mouse that stopped scrolling after just months of use, ironically named after an unstoppable cartoon character; the new Apple resembles the Orwellian state in the old Apple’s ‘1984’ ad, year after year.
The truth is, of course, that there is no new Apple. The ones who talk about it, imagine it, are mostly from a core of computing enthusiasts and creative professionals who have had love affairs with their Macs from before the second coming of Jobs. When consumers flocked en masse to cheaper PCs, they stayed with the ship and played music like nothing was happening. And edited video. And designed layouts. And touched up photos. The creative industry stayed with the Mac because it had the best software for their needs. Over time, they made the platform their own.
Theorists might point to Jobs’ return and subsequent introduction of colorful, family-friendly iMacs as the day when new Apple began, but only because of how long it had been since Apple last produced anything of interest to the public. If anything, the new Apple was born right after the Apple II.
Designed to be a computer for the everyman, the first Macintosh was built on the the same fundamental principles as the iPad 26 years later. Intuitive to use above all else, thanks to new technologies: a mouse then, multi-touch now. Resistant to tinkering: both are sealed with limited options for expansion. The inexplicable absence of features that might have been trivial to add: a color screen and hard drive on the Mac, a camera and multitasking on the iPad. Both were doubtlessly shaped by the idiosyncratic tastes and insights of Steve Jobs, whose involvement and personality defines Apple to the point that the idea of a ‘new’ direction seems flawed. It has always been Steve’s way.
Professionals need to believe that because they kept the company going for much of the 80s and 90s, their needs are still important to it. But the Mac Pro is the last remaining concession to this group of customers. It’s the only Mac that can be upgraded, and to which more than one non-glossy display can be connected for serious graphics work. Ever since the explosion of Mac use in the home, with the help of iLife and iWork as key selling points, the face of Apple has changed. If I’d asked you ten years ago to describe the Mac for me, you’d have said “used by video editors and designers”. Chances are, that’s not your first thought today.
I don’t suggest that Apple is leaving professionals out to dry, obviously the segment is still extremely important for the brand’s prestige and these customers are useful for pushing engineering efforts into things like octo-core and 64-bit computing, all of which eventually trickle down to the consumer products, but there have been bumps in the road to show that the company’s attention is slipping now that it’s gained the widespread consumer adoration it has courted all along. Case in point: the recent debacle over the MacBook Pro’s downgraded SATA interface. By the way, we’ve reached a point where the Pro products are bought by regular consumers just because they look cooler or carry more status. It was a recognizable trend by the time MacBooks sold out at a premium price just for being painted black, and it made a sort of poetic sense when the unibody aluminum consumer MacBooks morphed overnight into 13″ MacBook Pros earlier last year.
With the help of pundits and analysts who, at best, bat a little over 50%, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know the game plan, which is how all ‘new Apple’ complaints begin. If you want to know what the new Apple is liable to do, just ask if it’s something the common man will understand, notice is missing or broken, and still buy the hell out of anyway. Just like the first floppy drive-less Macs, less-space-than-a-Nomad iPods, and 2G-only iPhones.
There’s been a certain reaction to the iPad from some quarters of the tech-inclined community, inspired by the belief that the device signals a shift towards a new form of computing that old people can finally understand. That reaction has been fear and apprehension.
It begins by looking at the iPad as a better personal computer for the majority of people. After all, it surfs the web, does email, plays games, and that’s what most people do with their computers most of the time, right? Better yet, it does all of those things without a long boot-up sequence, viruses, and confusing computery concepts like a filesystem, administrator rights, directories (recently renamed ‘Folders’ for these same users), registries, multi-step installation procedures, and the list goes on. Parents will finally stop calling us for help with strange error messages, and we will forget that it was ever hard.
But if people start to prefer the iPad and its descendants to ‘real’ computers, so the argument goes, then we will have robbed the next generation of a basic foundational understanding of computers. Because there will be no tinkering in Apple’s clinical workshop, they will never see the crucial workings of a program beneath its simplified user interface, and we will not have people to build the next Google, YouTube, or Bittorrent. The iPad/iPhone were built to enable end-users to consume content, and so it must be that creativity stands to suffer.
As I wrote yesterday, I currently see the iPad as a great way to access information and interact with media, freed from the physical contraints of an iPhone’s smaller screen and shorter battery life. Apple sees it, quite necessarily, as something more*. Which is why they built iWork productivity apps and demonstrated Brushes, an application that lets the large screen be used as a drawing surface for artists.
Offering a new breed of computer to an older person and seeing them take to it with joy and wonderment, as opposed to frustration and confusion, is a wonderful image and what the industry should work towards, but just because a filesystem is obscured doesn’t mean the curious can’t get to it. One might argue that jailbreaking an iPad is no different from the things people did to their computers in the past. There will always be unauthorized tools for messing around, and one day you may even be able to write, compile, and test code for an iPad on the thing itself. I wouldn’t worry about the younger generation of hackers.
My parents online
I want to talk about two tasks I’ve observed my parents and people their age doing on their computers.
1 – My mother mainly works with email. She receives documents relating to her church activities, which she must save locally before editing and sending them out again to other members of her group. She organizes these files in folders, which are really good metaphors that she understands, and often keeps multiple dated versions.
Of course, the iPad of today can’t save email attachments for working on in the Pages word processor. One day it will. But that sort of management is bound to increase the level of complexity. Lists of documents, tags or folders, deleting and renaming, and so on. I thought of introducing her to Google Docs, which would let her work with live documents in the cloud, and even collaborate in real-time with her friends. When changes are made, instead of emailing a copy of a document to other people, she would only have to send invites to view the document online. The iPad would work well with that approach – no local storage necessary. The responsibility and blame for any complexity is passed off onto the web service provider, in this case Google, leaving the iPad’s reputation to remain spotless.
2 – My father (and other fathers I hear about) likes to download videos off YouTube for later viewing, both on the desktop and on his iPhone. These are usually music videos and funny but horrifying accidents. This requires using a program or website like KeepVid to save them locally, and then often another program to re-encode the clips for use on the iPhone.
I believe saving videos off Youtube is a copyright gray area that Apple will never touch by sanctioning an app that exists to do it. Music videos are often removed from Youtube when found to be unauthorized uploads, which might explain the compulsion to save them. But even if they stayed online, is streaming instead of saving an ideal solution? That’s a lot of wasted bandwidth, and what if they want a Taylor Swift video or two while traveling by air? Apple will never allow the Youtube app to save video and compete with iTunes sales.
Both of these scenarios and their cloud-based natures highlight the need for increased openness and cooperation on the web. If we can’t have open computing systems, then we need an open internet to take its place. My mother’s friends shouldn’t all have to have Google accounts to access her shared documents, and Youtube shouldn’t have a monopoly on streaming video just because the iPad comes with an app built-in. The widespread adoption of HTML5 video in lieu of Flash would be fantastic, and remove the need for a native Youtube viewer. Likewise, online storage accounts like the ones offered by Dropbox and Microsoft Live Mesh should be able to trade files and work together. Productivity and content creation services should have a way of talking to each other across networks.
I like Google Wave’s implementation of federated servers. You can run your own private Wave system, really make it your own for whatever purposes, but the underlying protocol can communicate with every other Wave server if/when you need it to.
If that kind of openness were applied to all other services, companies would stand to lose their ‘stickiness’, but they’d surely find other ways to retain users. Should a landscape of interoperability and sharing ever come to pass in every corner of the web, it would be to the benefit of us all. How fitting, then, if we were steered in that direction by the threat of having to work on oversimplified computers.
With apologies to Public Enemy for the title.
* When Nintendo first launched the DS in 2004, they called it a “third pillar” to allay fears that the company was going mad and replacing its popular and very profitable Game Boy Advance series with a risky touchscreen experiment. The DS went on to become a huge hit, accelerating the GBA’s demise and eventually becoming their main handheld product. You may wish to see Apple’s positioning of the iPad as a similar play: someday it may overtake the MacBook completely.
Alex Payne, in a widely-linked article, wrote today that:
The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.
As far as I can tell, Apple never intended for young Alex Payne to access the Mac’s startup sound any more than they intend for a future programmer to hack an iPad’s filesystem and do some tinkering of his own tomorrow. Sure it’s harder with DRM and encryption, but we’re united by the internet these days, and breaking those walls down has become a group effort. No young hacker today has to learn alone. We change with the territory and so nothing has really changed at all.