An American Editor

June 10, 2010

There’s No Apple in My Eye!

I am probably an anomaly in the digital age. I do not own any Apple products (except the free version of QuickTime that has been forced on me) and have no plans to acquire any Apple products. I am not particularly impressed by the iPad or the iPod, and see the iPhone as just a money sinkhole.

I used to think how great it would be to be able to build a computer to my own specifications and use the MacOS, but that never occurred because Apple doesn’t permit it. Of course, that was also in the days when I believed the hype about how much better Macs were than PCs.

Something else I never do is buy from Amazon. I occasionally buy from independent sellers who are using the Amazon platform, but not from Amazon itself. A very long time ago I did buy a few things from Amazon, but the last time I did so, was so many years ago, I can’t even remember when it last happened.

As I was drinking my morning tea and reading the newspaper press release about the new iPhone, it occurred to me that the only two consumer companies I intentionally avoid patronizing are Amazon and Apple, which got me thinking about why I avoid them. In the final analysis, it was because each company is the flip-side of the same coin and neither is different from the other — in both instances the company leaders are people who I do not admire and do not trust and both companies want to control too much of me.

In Amazon’s case, I simply do not approve of Bezos’ naked attempts to mold the publishing industry to his view. I think this is ultimately anticonsumer and only good for Bezos. The deception is that Bezos presents himself and his company to the consumer as if they are their champion because they want lower pricing. Unfortunately, lower pricing is not a panacea for all of mankind’s ills — just look at how rock bottom pricing from China has affected us, or how BP’s cost-cutting attempts in the Gulf of Mexico will affect us — and cost us — for decades. Similarly, having been on all sides of the publishing equation except that of author during my quarter century in publishing, I can see how concentration of market power and pricing power in the hands of a single person like Bezos could be devastating to readers — perhaps not today or tomorrow, but not so far down the line. It also irks me that Amazon insists on a closed system for its ebooks, refusing to adopt the ePUB standard and a common DRM scheme. Consequently, I have chosen not to support Bezos’ quest to dominate publishing and do not buy from Amazon.

Apple, however, presents a slightly different problem. In some market segments it is dominant and has set the ground rules, but that really doesn’t bother me because there are any number of powerful competitors to Apple who could bounce Apple from its perch. The problem with Apple is Jobs and his insistence on closed systems and his arbitrariness (for a recent take on the arbitrariness theme, see the Ars Technica column “Apple’s ‘Evil/Genius’ Plan to Punk the Web and Gild the iPad”).

Maybe Adobe’s Flash is problematic; maybe that political video is insulting; maybe that book uses too many 4-letter words. Maybe, maybe, maybe — except in Jobs’ world where it is definitely, absolutely, and without question. I fundamentally object to Jobs telling me what I can and cannot do. Why should every application for the iPad or iPhone require Jobs’ approval? I bought the hardware not a nanny — or did I? (And the SDK kit for application developers is as controlling as Jobs can make it.)

Jobs assumes that the experience that I want to get from an Apple product is the experience that he wants me to get; that I have no idea of what is a good experience or a bad experience. I do not want to encourage the control mania that Jobs seeks to exert; consequently, I do not buy Apple products. If I want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, I do not want to first check whether it is on Jobs’ approved list — I just want to read it, 4-letter words and all.

I also do not want to encourage Jobs to think that I acquiesce to his power grab over hardware and applications I buy. Today, Jobs permits Barnes & Noble and Amazon to have iPad applications, but will he permit them tomorrow if he discovers that they are making 90% of the ebook sales that are being made to iPad owners? It would be more true to form for him to find some reason why the applications need to be banned or for him to revise the operating system to make the applications incompatible.

I know that Apple devotees believe that when you buy an Apple-built computer or other Apple product you are buying the best; but that isn’t really true. You are buying the best that Apple has and the various components do work well together, but the individual pieces are not necessarily the best available for what I want to do. For example, few video gamers would put an Apple at the top of their wishlist to play games. More importantly, at least for me, is that Jobs has decided this is how the hardware will be configured and who can write applications for his operating system and I will buy it whether it truly meets my needs or not. Jobs wants me to adapt to him, yet one would think that in the consumer age the seller would adapt to the buyer.

In the end, it boils down to arrogance. Both Jobs and Bezos arrogantly believe that they know what is best for me and either I agree or they will take home their ball so no one can play. In Apple’s case, I wonder how many people look beyond the shiny new toy; in Amazon’s case, I wonder how many people look beyond the price; in both cases, I wonder how many people have read George Orwell’s 1984 and recognized that it might apply to something other than nations.

January 22, 2010

From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Amazon to Apple

Let me begin by saying this: I just don’t get it. What hallucinogen are publishers imbibing? The music industry would love to trump Apple and the publishing industry would love to trump Amazon; but only the movie industry is thinking the matter through.

There are lots of problems with publishing’s looking to Apple for salvation; here are a few: First, if there is a bigger control freak in the media industry than Jeff Bezos, it is Steve Jobs. Have publishers forgotten that the music industry was unhappy with iTunes pricing but couldn’t budge Jobs? Publishers can’t budge Amazon’s $9.99 pricing, what are they going to do when Jobs demands $6.99 pricing?

Second, if rumors are right and that what Apple is bringing to the table is a tablet and not a dedicated reading device, what makes publishers think tablet buyers will suddenly become book buyers? Why do publishers think the tablet will be the Damocletian sword over Amazon’s head? Or do publishers plan to simply cut out Amazon altogether even though it commands 20% or more of the book-buying market?

And what about the expected premium price for the Apple tablet? If book buyers are complaining now about what a Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle costs, what makes publishers think they’ll jump at Apple’s pricing?

In addition, studies show that when a multimedia device, which the tablet will be, is used, the user’s time is spent listening to or watching audio and video media or playing games, not reading books. All a publisher needs to do is read the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of children and teens ages 8 to 18 years and how they use their multimedia devices for the publishers to know they are barking up the wrong tree.

Third, are publishers so lacking in imagination that they have to give up control of their industry to not one player but two? What are they going to do when Google starts throwing its weight around? Close their doors?

Yes, there has been drooling by some ebookers for the Apple tablet, with pundits assuming its arrival will cure whatever ails all media businesses. But what ails publishers is not curable by any device. It’s like having a fever and assuming that a thermometer will cure it — it isn’t going to happen. If anything, publishers are setting themselves up to fail and fail mightily, especially if there is an initial but unsustained burst in book sales concurrent with Apple tablet sales.

Let’s assume that publishers get very favorable terms from Apple. How long do publishers think that honeymoon will last? My guess: until Jobs decides that people really do read books and realizes that he needs to do to publishers what he did to the music companies. This may be a win for consumers, but not for publishers.

As each day goes by, I worry more about the world of publishing. Publishers have been important to the spread of quality literature and of knowledge, but they are rapidly marching to their funeral pyres. Publishers need to recognize that their salvation lies in their own hands, not in the hands of the Bezos’ and Jobs’ of the world.

If publishers need a role model to emulate, look to the video industry. The Economist reported that 5 of the 6 big studios (Disney is working on a similar solution by itself) want to join, along with some other firms and retailers — but not Apple — to create a single download video format and a single firm to track purchases. They are looking to create what I called a repository in an earlier Modest Proposal. The consumer will buy the video online at a partnering retailer who will then link the buyer to the repository. According to The Economist, “Consumers will be able to buy a film once and then play it on different gadgets….[The] initiative aims to stop a company doing to film what Apple has done to music and Amazon threatens to do to electronic books.” At least the movie industry is thinking with its brains and not sitting on them. Shouldn’t publishers be doing this?

Publishers need to grapple with their problems themselves and not look to external fixes by companies and persons that they ultimately can neither influence nor control. Trying to use Apple to thwart Amazon is jumping from the frying pan of to the fire — it is the tolling of the death bells for the big publishers.

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