Up the creek without an iPaddle

In response to Dave‘s Reading tea leaves in advance of Apple’s announcements, I added this comment:

Steve loves to uncork constipated categories with the world’s slickest laxative. So I’m guessing this new box will expand Apple’s retail shelf space to include newspapers, journals and books as well as sound recordings, movies and TV shows. It will be the best showcase “content” ever had, and will be a wholly owned proprietary channel. A year from now, half the people on planes will be watching these things.

It would be cool if it also helped any of us to become movie producers, and to share and mash up our own HD creations. But I think Steve is more interested in hacking Hollywood (entertainment) and New York (publishing).

I’ve thought for years that Apple’s real enemy is Sony. Or vice versa. But Sony got lame, becoming a Hollywood company with an equipment maker on the side. So think instead of the old Sony — the inventive one that owned the high-gloss/high-margin end of the entertainment gear business, the Sony of Walkmen and Trinitrons. That’s the vacuum Apple’s filling. Only, unlike Sony, Apple won’t have 50,000 SKUs to throw like spaghetti at the market’s wall. They’ll have the fewest number of SKUs possible. And will continue to invent or expand whole new categories with each.

And there will be something missing to piss people off too. Maybe it’ll be absent ports (like you said). Maybe it’s no multi-tasking, or skimpy memory, or bad battery life, or an unholy deal with some “partner.”

Whatever it is, the verities persist. Meaning items 1 through 6 from this 1997 document still apply:


At that last link I wrote,

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.
  2. It will be innovative.
  3. It will be exclusive.
  4. It will be expensive.
  5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

So now the iPad has been announced, Steve has left the building, and the commentariat is weighing in.

The absence of multi-tasking might be the biggest bummer. (Makes me wonder if mono-tasking is a Jobsian “feature”, kinda like the one-button mouse.) Adam Frucci of Gizmodo lists mono-tasking among eight things that suck” about the iPad, including no cameras, no HDMI out, no Flash, 3×4 (rather than wide) screen and a “Big, Ugly Bezel”. (That last one is off base, methinks. You need the wide bezel so you can hold the device without your hot fingertips doing wrong things with the touchscreen.)

Elswehere at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson says “PCs will be around as expert devices for the long haul, but it’s clear that Apple, coasting on the deserved success of the iPhone, sees simple, closed internet devices as the future of computing. (Or at the very least, portable computing.) And for the average consumer, it could be.”

The Engadgeteers mostly panned it. Unimaginative… underwhelming… one of Apple’s biggest misses.

MG Sigler at Techcrunch says, “The thing is beautiful and fast. Really fast. If you’ll excuse my hyperbole, it felt like I was holding the future. But is it a must-have?” Then answers,

Most people won’t yet, but as long as Apple has its base that will buy and use the iPad, they have plenty of time for either themselves or third-party developers to create the killer uses that make the iPad a must-have product for a broader range of people. We already saw that happen with the App Store and the iPhone/iPod touch. And at $499 (for the low-end version), there will be no shortage of people willing to splurge on the device just to see what all the fuss is about. They’ll get hooked too.

That’s getting close, but it’s not quite there.

First, the base Apple wants is consumers. Literally. We’re talking newspaper and magazine readers, buyers and users of cameras and camcorders, and (especially) TV and movie watchers. To some degree these people produce (mostly home video and photos), but to a greater degree they are still potatoes that metablolize “content”. This thing is priced like a television, with many improvements on the original. Call it Apple’s Trinitron. They are, like I said, after Sony’s abandoned position here, without the burden of a zillion SKUs.

Second, there will be a mountain of apps for this thing, and more than a few killer ones.

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

What you have to appreciate, even admire, is how well Apple plays the vertical game. It’s really amazing.

What you also have to appreciate is how much we also need the horizontal one. The iPad needs an open alternative, soon. There should be for the iPad what Google’s Nexus One is for the iPhone.

I got a ride home tonight from Bob Frankston, who was guided by a Nexus One, serving as a better GPS than my dashboard’s Garmin. Earlier in the evening Bob used the Nexus One to do a bunch of other stuff the iPhone doesn’t do as well, if at all. More importantly, he didn’t need to get his apps only from Google’s (or anybody’s) “store”. And if somebody else wants to make a better Android phone than this one, they can. And Google, I’m sure, hopes they do. That’s because Google is playing a horizontal game here, broadening the new market that Apple pioneered with its highly vertical iPhone.

So a big lesson here is that the market’s ecosystem includes both the vertical silos and the horizontal landscapes on which those silos stand, and where all kinds of other things can grow. Joel may be right that “the average consumer” will have no trouble being locked inside Apple’s silo of “simple, closed Internet devices”. But there are plenty of other people who are neither average nor content with that prospect. There are also plenty of developers who prefer independence to dependence, and a free market to a captive one.

Captivity has its charms, and an argument can be made that tech categories are best pioneered by companies like Apple and Sony, which succeed both by inventing new stuff that primes the pump of demand, and by locking both developers and customers inside their silos. But truly free markets are not restricted to choices among silos, no matter how cushy the accomodations may be. Nor are they restricted to the non-choice of just one silo, as is currently the case with the iPad. Free markets are wide open spaces where anybody can make — and buy — anything.

There’s more to fear from heights than widths.

Bonus link: Dave weighs in. This is just a jumbo Oreo cookie.

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  1. David

    I’ve said for a good while that Apple is so closed an environment as to make Microsoft look like the “Summer of Code”… Good column, Doc.

  2. PXLated’s avatar

    I’m betting against you Doc – The “just make it simple”, “just make it work”, “don’t care if it’s silo’d” crowd will always be far bigger than those of us that don’t use apps like iPhoto. I’m more convinced every time I watch a friend, relative, client use their computers/devices.

  3. PXLated’s avatar

    Ooops, meant to add – I’m not sure “open” can win in the consumer electronics (appliance) space. It’s no longer geekville.

  4. Buzz’s avatar

    Watching the video at Apple.com, I found the iPad to be fairly dazzling. Arguably a great single purpose device, e.g. for reading. The $200 delta from the Kindle is something i can easily dismiss, as amortized over time and my aging eyes. The rest of the apps, nice to have, not gotta have. The iPad is not where I would get work done.

    One more thing, watch Phil Schiller on the video, he almost chokes up when talking about the iPad. Is it my imagination, the real thing, or just iHype?

  5. Flip’s avatar

    The target audience isn’t for geeks.

    It’s for regular people who don’t care about all the stuff you are complaining about.

  6. KD’s avatar

    Regular people don’t care about all that stuff initially. Will they remain satisfied, long-term? I suppose if the Apple silo is all they ever have to choose from, then yes, most, at least, will remain satisfied with it. But if an open alternative appears and exhibits some advantages (I don’t specify what advantages, in particular) but is less polished and a little harder to use, will they switch? I don’t know, but I hope I get to see some alternatives.

  7. Ian Betteridge’s avatar

    I think there’s a contradiction in what you’re saying when you talk about “simple, closed Internet devices”. An Internet device with a non-crippled browser is, by definition, not closed. Don’t like Apple’s Calendar? Use Google Calendar in the browser. When Google’s calendars shifts to HTML 5 (as it surely will), the iPhone/iPad browser will already include offline support. No Apple involvement required.

    The only thing that’s missing from the browser on the iPad compared to the one on your Mac or Windows is Flash – and there’s nothing open (or “internet-friendly”) about Flash.

  8. Frank McPherson’s avatar

    While older consumers (like Steve Jobs) may just want devices that work, I think the millennials who have known computers all their lives will naturally resist the type of lock-in that Apple sells. The longer that Apple continues to design devices just for Steve, the worse it is going to be because Steve is soon no longer going to be the the target market.

    See http://scobleizer.com/2010/01/28/a-16-year-olds-view-of-apples-ipad-ifail/

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ian, agreed about Flash. But using a browser as an OS-like work-around for apps excluded from running natively by the controlling silo-owner is not open enough for me. Or, in the long run, for the market. IMHO, of course.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Flip, I think the larger market here is much bigger than the geeks (including myself) currently complaining about the iPad/iPhone’s silo’d restrictions. We are not canaries in a coal mine, but beasts wandering in the wide open fields surrounding the silo, pointing at the horizons.

  11. pip’s avatar

    Thinking this is closed is simply wrong. Open, standards compliant browser. Open standards compliant email, (pop&IMAP) plus MS Exchange. Open, standards compliant media playback, calendar and address formats. Get your content from anywhere. Signed apps monitored by Apple, protecting you from malware. Apple is barely restricting the apps on the store. But sign up as a developer for $100 and you can put apps on it without going through any Apple approval.

    True there’s Fairplay for content owners that won’t publish without DRM, but they can also publish media without.

    Building a Disneyworld you never need to leave, but leaving the gates open is very different from Microsoft’s attempt to lock the customers in and extort payment for everything they consume.

    It’s open to anyone else to build the same setup, and you will be able to move your digital assets between the platforms (apart from compiled apps, but you can’t move them to/from Windows either)

  12. PXLated’s avatar

    Frank – The millennials (non-geeks) I know have flocked to the iPhone & iPod-Touch, love the simplicity. Not sure that just because they grew up with computers means they want open and the ability to tinker.

  13. nancy White’s avatar

    Spot on. Best iPad blog post – you nailed it, Doc. Thank you.

  14. Brett Glass’s avatar

    It’s an iPlod.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Pip, if I want to run a non-Apple browser, email client, calendar, contact manager, photo manager or media playback app — natively, and not inside a browser — can I?

  16. Brian’s avatar

    So is the problem that it’s not 100% Open?

  17. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brian, I’d rather not look at anything here as a “problem,” but rather as an example of a strategy. My main point is that, while Apple uses a vertical strategy to open a marketplace, we also need a horizontal strategy — and that the latter will be far more productive in the long run.

    It’s another way of looking at how markets grow, that appreciates what Apple and everybody else bring to the market’s table. Its not about who does what, or what anybody does right or wrong. That stuff is interesting, but the picture — especially long term — is much bigger than that.

  18. Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)’s avatar

    Doc, I think you will find these to be interesting views on the iPad paradigm:

    http://bit.ly/bt1j9n (by @diveintomark)
    http://bit.ly/9xJXnV (by @stevenf)
    http://bit.ly/aNe7nJ (by @migueldeicaza (Mono))
    http://bit.ly/dvEEnl (by @joehewitt (FB))


  19. Brian’s avatar

    Thanks Doc. I guess that ‘bigger picture’ and ‘markets’ stuff are what I’m missing. There sure is plenty of doom and gloom around the internet about the demise of ‘free’ computing… And I’ve heard it said that within 5 years Apple will sell no macs with ‘root access’. It seems to me the iPad (will buy) and iPhone (not until cellular business models change significantly) are just new, limited case devices for accessing my and others’ data. I’d much rather use them than a laptop or a desktop to read mail and surf the web – those machines seem like overkill for such low intensity computing. Do these new devices really spell the end of what for lack of a better term we know as ‘traditional’ desktop computing? That’s changed quite a bit, too, in the 35 years I’ve been doing it. Mostly it’s become more useful for something other than tinkering.

    I’m curious. Are there any examples of people out there doing it better? (as opposed to Apple’s ‘vertical’ strategy) I take your main point – that a horizontal strategy is more productive in the long run. I guess I’m just looking for examples, either real or hypothetical, of how. How would you have Apple do this, if it were your call to make?

  20. quixote’s avatar

    Just to add yet another link to the list: Why the iPad is crap futurism:

    Apple is marketing the iPad as a computer, when really it’s nothing more than a media-consumption device – a convergence television, if you will.

    I don’t even own a television, which may explain why I don’t get this new device at all. But my initial “whatsit good for?” is gradually giving way to the dawning realization that a lot of people do own televisions.

    The future ain’t what it used to be.

  21. jeff’s avatar

    I am also quite curious about what sort of “nexus one” type open alternatives are around the corner. anything apple makes me cringe. If I need to buy an overpriced proprietary cable and open up some bloated crapware like itunes just to transfer files rather than just drag and drop within the OS using any old inexpensive industry-standard usb cable i would feel like a sucker. sorry icult. and no SD/Memory stick slot WTF? This is what is meant by open. It is also called not having a cynical contempt for your customers.

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