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Apple and open commerce

May 7, 2010
tags: , ,

Occasionally, I write about things other than running. This is one of those times. Steve Jobs has come under fire recently for his comments about Flash. Apple has been getting some flak for its decision to remove apps from its App Store on account of their content. With the iPad due to descend on the UK market in a matter of weeks, excitement is gearing up in the publishing and new media world.

In case you’re out of the media loop, here’s a quick precis of where the publishing world is coming from:

  • Magazines and newspapers are suffering from falling advertising revenues, lower circulation and hemorrhaging content through free websites. Several major papers have now become free rags to increase circulation and bolster their advertising revenues. Some major papers will soon start to charge for access to their websites.
  • Trade publishing has suffered the loss of one of their major high-street retailers in the UK (Borders), while the emergence of bookselling through supermarkets and the online dominance of Amazon has driven steep discounting. In the meantime, a wave of devices (Amazon Kindle, Sony eReader, iPad, etc.) are forcing many publishers to face the prospect of  ebooks.
  • Meanwhile, the definition of publishing is being stretched and reshaped by the proliferation of individuals and start-ups using disruptive technologies and innovation to cheaply gain market share and audience in precisely the same way unweildy media monsters can’t.

Apple’s position on what they will allow to sell through their App Store (the only way you will get your software product to the millions of potential customers who have bought Apple’s mobile hardware) has drawn criticism from developers on two key points:

  1. Developers expect to be able to be able to sell apps regardless of the content of the app. Sure, they expect Apple to have some reasonable standards to prevent shady producers peddling malicious software, but they don’t expect Apple to take a subjective view on what content they are willing to sell through the store.
  2. Apple restricts the tools that developers have available to them in building content for the iPhone or iPad. The devices won’t run Flash – and Apple has said they never will. In Steve Jobs’s announcement on the topic, this is because Flash isn’t designed for multi-touch devices, has a poor security record and ties developers to a proprietary format. Apple bans developers from using Flash conversion software for their devices, so if the developer wants to build a product for an iPhone and, say, an Android phone, they need to build the product twice. This becomes prohibitively expensive.

If you want to read some intelligent, articulate and passionate perspectives on these issues, I suggest you read this and this.

Ideology and dosh

The internet is a funny old place, really. People give away so much content for free – not just blogs, but seriously big businesses who have made content their bread and butter have given away vast amounts of content. In fact, I would say that the proliferation of free content and services on the internet has eroded the value of rich interactive content to the point that when a major media company tries to emulate the innovations of an enthusiast and charge for their content, their customers invariably feel like they are being charged an unfair price.

The unprecedentedly low barriers to publication are allowing people to do much more for themselves. If you’ve got a bit of technical know-how and some ideas, you can quickly design a game and publish it online for little more than the time and energy it took you to build it. Host it on your own website and you can do away with any form of gatekeeper, deal direct with your audience, and unless you do something really radical and controversial you can live as close to the edge as you like without any real repurcussions.

The prevailing ideology of the internet is open and free. And it’s this ideology that’s causing the reactions against Apple’s recently decidedly commercial maneuvers.

Olde worlde commerce

Between 2003 and 2005 I worked for a trade publisher. Publishers back then had little need (perhaps they had need, but little impetus) to worry about the internet or ebooks. They just published and used the trade and any other non-traditional outlet in order to maximise their sales.

If you work in the trade side of the book industry, Christmas is big business. Get a table display in Smiths or Waterstones or in any of the major catalogues and you stand of a good chance of your sales going through the roof. Consequently, appealing to the seller became as important as appealing to the end customer.

Cover of
Cover of Dorian

WH Smiths or Waterstones have a significant role to play in what gets published in the UK, and what the books actually look like. There was more than one instance where a book cover had been fully approved in-house before being completely redesigned after the sales director met with a major trade account. There was even one instance where a book was completely reshaped – from shoe-loving gift book to a self-help title – to secure an extra 5000 sales through a trade account.

There were even some more high-profile events. The video below is of Will Self talking about his book Dorian, which WH Smiths refused to stock because of the cover image. (He’s a fascinating interviewee, but the video’s a tad NSFW. If you’re not interested in his exploration of his own sexuality, you might want to just skip to 3:30.)

The whys and the wherefores

Much as Apple’s restrictive and prescriptive practice grates, it fits a well-established commercial mould. If you can control a sales channel, you can get more out of the market. Businesses talk publicly about how they relish competition from other companies. It makes them more competitive. It forces them to innovate. It pushes them to greater and better things all for you, dear customer. Unfortunately, it’s all PR bullshit.

Amazon want everyone to have a Kindle because then they can control the distribution channel for ebooks in the same way they own the online sales of physical books.

Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher interview Ste...
Image via Wikipedia

Microsoft was reluctant to give their customers a conscious choice of web browser. It took legal action to make the company eat humble pie and promote alternatives.

Apple wants the same. It’s no coincidence that music purchased through iTunes can’t be used with other devices.

Moving away from the idealistic free-for-all of the open internet in order to pursue commercial opportunities, it’s inevitable that developers will need to deal with gatekeepers. Sure, the customer is number one, but to get to the customer you’ve got to satisfy the distributor. By all means, bring your ball to play with the big boys, but they tend to change the rules. Sorry, it’s unpalatable, but that’s the way of big business and I can’t see that changing in the electronic age.

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