You have no idea what Steve Jobs would do

The iOS 6 maps kerfuffle has the Steve Jobs prognosticators out in force, all crying the same old song: “Steve would have never let this happen!”

Really, folks? Really?

Very few people — less than I can count on one hand — ever demonstrated any ability to understand what was going on inside Steve Jobs head. The vast majority of the tech punditry flat out disagreed with him. Most common geeks foamed at the mouth in rage over some of Steve Jobs’ actual decisions. Remember the whole “no native apps” on the original iPhone? How about the time Steve Jobs went all Jules Winnfield on Adobe Flash?

The only person who demonstrated any ability to understand Steve Jobs’ reasoning on anything more than a superficial level was John Gruber, and the community over at Hacker News (a place full of really smart geeks) waits with baited breath to tear his articles apart.

The truth is, none of us have any clue whether Steve Jobs would have released iOS 6 Maps in this state. What we do know was that he was hoppin’ mad over Android, and put the wheels in motion on the Apple/Google separation long before his passing.

This whole thing really has nothing to do with anything. It’s just a plea. A plea to stop invoking the name of a man who’s time was cut short in an effort to add credibility to your argument. Yes, iOS Maps suck, but they suck regardless of what Steve Jobs might, or might not, have done.

Windows Phone is failing because the seeds were planted elsewhere

Update: Excellent discussion over at HackerNews.

Toronto Standard has an interesting analysis of why Windows Phone is failing. Spoiler alert: they say it’s failing because it’s too good. And by “too good” they mean “too constrained”. It’s an extended analogy; a cross-pollination of attribution stemming from the notion that Apple’s iOS devices are good because Apple exerts tight control over the user experience. Not a bad point, but I think there’s more to it.

Alternate title: Why I don’t have a Windows phone. My account is, of course, a single point of data, but I do fit some stereotypes pretty well, so take this for what it’s worth. Apple users, bear with me. I’m going to give up a lot of ground here so that, hopefully, Windows users will hear me out.

In recent years, Apple’s desktop market share has grown at the expense of Microsoft’s. Microsoft is not at any immediate risk of losing the desktop market to Apple, but the trend is evidence of some underlying consumer currents.

While any particular individual may not own an Apple desktop, there’s a much better chance that they know someone who does than, say, 10 years ago. Go to a coffee shop today, and there’s a very good chance that you’ll see someone toting an Apple laptop. More consumers have seen Apple devices in the wild, and have been — for better or worse — exposed to the typical Apple user. This presence, along with the continued refinement of their product and excellent marketing, has created a brand image that reflects quality, refinement, and yes, a little snobbery. I’ll stop here, because I can hear you lurching over your trash can.

What does this have to do with Windows Phone? Apple’s brand direction has stripped away (from Windows) a specific type of consumer. Consumers seeking a (at least perceived) high-end product that exhibits quality and refinement bought an iPhone. Stop and consider that for a moment. This isn’t a claim that iPhone is better; it’s a claim that Apple has cultivated an image of quality and refinement. Regardless of what you think of Apple’s products, consider what Apple fans think of the brand. More moaning; time to move on!

I used to be a die hard Windows user. I don’t “hate” Windows like some Mac users. I dislike using Windows in the way that someone who perfers Martin guitars might dislike playing a Taylor. I’ve grown accustomed to using a Mac, and I don’t like it when I can’t use the tools I prefer. So when it came time to buy a phone, I bought an iPhone. The seeds were planted when I bought a used eMac back in 2004. My roots are now deep, and I can’t see myself going back.

The problem for Microsoft is that they built the kind of product that I would probably buy. Consumers like me would also probably buy it, but there aren’t that many of us. There are millions of iPhone buyers, but we’re not all the same. Some people buy an iPhone because they have a Mac. Some people buy an iPhone because they want to reflect the image that Apple portrays. Some people buy an iPhone because their “friend who knows about computers” told them too. Some people buy an iPhone because they tried it at the store and it really does work just like they show in the commercials. Microsoft built the phone that we would probably like, but we already bought in to something else, and we’re not unhappy.

The other, and very large, group of Windows users are the ones that reject Apple’s platform because of the rules that come with it. Some people don’t buy the image that Apple is selling. Some people don’t like the fact that they can’t install their own software, gain access to the source code, change the color of the menu bar, load another web browser… you name it! Those people are buying Android phones in droves. Microsoft has built the phone that this group of people don’t want.

So, one way of putting it would be that Windows Phone is “too good”. I don’t really see it like that. This concedes that the iPhone is the best phone for everyone. I think the reality for Microsoft is even worse than that.

It takes a lot to unsettle consumers, but Microsoft’s jarring offenses are pretty well known. Vista was a train wreck, and Windows Mobile was a non-starter. Couple this with some great timing on Apple’s part, as well as a quality product that appeals very strongly to a specific market segment, and you’ve got a perfect storm on your hands. “Apple consumers” exited Microsoft’s product stream a couple of years ago. On the other flank, Android is delivering a product that goes above and beyond the flexibility that tinkerers and customizers expect, which strikes at Windows’ core demographic. In between Apple’s loyal users, and Android’s flexibility-minded consumer, there’s very little room for Windows Phone. The most probable Windows Phone users planted their seeds elsewhere.

When Apple IDs attack

This blog post was originally going to chronicle the saga of my attempts to recover my primary email address as my Apple ID (ok, so it still kinda does), but this morning, I finally received a definitive answer as to why I cannot use my primary email address – the one I’ve been using for the last 11 years – as any email associated with my Apple ID or iCloud. This sounds like my problem, but it’s not just me. Unfortunately for most, they don’t have a blog or any place to talk about this other than the Apple discussion forums, where many will assume the complainers just don’t know what they’re doing. Well I do know what I’m doing, and gosh-darnit I’m going to tell you about it.

This isn’t going to be short. Unfortunately, Apple IDs are complex, and my adventure had lots of twists and turns. I’ve tried to simplify it, but it’s still pretty long and boring. Skip ahead to the “tl;dr start here” if you want to cut to the chase.

First, some housekeeping. Rather than put my email out here for all the spammers to pick up, let’s just say that my primary email is: [email protected]

I’ve been using [email protected]me.com as my Apple ID for as long as I can remember. The email [email protected] pre-dates my switch to a Mac as my primary computer some time back in 2003. This means that all my music was purchased under [email protected], as well as all the apps I bought when I bought the very first iPhone… On launch day, I might add.

I’m also a MobileMe user. When I signed up for MobileMe, Apple requested an “alternate email” where I could be reached in case I was unable to access my MobileMe account. No problem! I have an email address, and I know how to use it. I provided [email protected] as my alternate email. This was at least two years ago; I’ve renewed MobileMe twice. MobileMe accepted this email – my primary Apple ID email – without so much as a hiccup.

Fast-forward a couple of years to when iOS 5 came out. I waited a day or two for the iOS 5 dust to settle and upgraded my phone on Friday, October 14th. The upgrade went smoothly up until the point where I downloaded the Find My Friends app, and my MobileMe email popped up in the authentication box. You see, Apple assumes that because you have a MobileMe address, that you’ll want to use this email as your primary email for everything Apple. This includes your Apple ID that is used to purchase items from iTunes, iBooks, Newsstand, etc. That’s a big assumption.

Any time I purchase something with a specific Apple ID, I’m married to that Apple ID for the life of the product; be it music, apps, or any other product sold through Apple. Any time in the future, you’ll need to provide the specific Apple ID and password used to purchase the item in order to “Authorize” your device to play back or read media. Your Apple ID is relevant to your Mac and iOS devices too! When you want support, you have to provide an Apple ID. My point is that your Apple ID is not an insignificant part of your relationship with Apple.

With the introduction of iCloud, your Apple ID takes on a new role. Truthfully, this started back with Game Center. With Game Center, you search for other users by email. The same principle is applied to iCloud. There’s a good write-up over at TiPb on how iMessage works. Basically, your iCloud email is important if you own devices that aren’t an iPhone, and I do. I own an iPad, which I am (well, was) really looking forward to using iMessage on.

tl;dr start here – This is still longer than you’ll enjoy. Sorry.

So what’s the problem, Brad!? Cut to the chase already!

After I installed iOS 5, Apple automagically used my MobileMe email for iCloud. This is not what I want. I want to use my email. When I tried to change the iCloud login to [email protected] on my phone, I received some cryptic message along the lines of “Verification required”. Ok, off to the Google machine for some answers! My searching revealed that I need to verify my Apple ID email.

Wow, that’s strange. I’ve been using this Apple ID for years. How is it possible that I haven’t verified? So I log in at the Apple ID website and attempt to verify my email, but this is where things really begin to go off the rails. I’m not going to go in to the gory details, because you’re already half-comatose, but suffice it to say the Apple ID website did not perform as expected. Button-links didn’t work, data wasn’t saved properly, and at one point, I thought I was permanently locked out of my Apple ID.

After phone and email support sessions spanning ten days and over 15 emails back and forth, iTunes support arrived at this conclusion:

If you provide an email address as an alternate email for a MobileMe account, that email cannot be used as an Apple ID primary email address or alternate.

Yes, we know you’ve actually been using this as your Apple ID for years, but that’s irrelevant. You can’t verify for iCloud with that email, and you can’t change your MobileMe alternate email now because we’re shuttering the product. Sorry bub, you’re out of luck.

So in the process of troubleshooting, the Apple representatives had me change my primary Apple ID email to [email protected], instead of [email protected] I cannot change it back. No one at Apple can change it back. Their suggestion? To submit feedback to MobileMe.

As of today, if you look for me on iCloud or Game Center with the email you have in your address book for me, [email protected], you won’t find me. You have to use [email protected] My Apple ID is the only service on the web where I cannot use my primary email address that has been my home for the last 11 years.

In the words of the internet: Apple, I am disappoint.

Stop thinking iPad killer

Amazon announced their new tablet product today, the Kindle Fire. In my last post, I outlined how I thought Amazon was going to “pull an Apple“. Today, I’m feeling even more confident in that assertion, but not in the way I thought I would. Initially I thought that the Kindle Fire would be a direct strike at the iPad. I don’t get that feeling from the product Amazon launched today.

Apple has more media savvy than many of their hardware competitors like Samsung and HTC. Neither of these competitors have meaningful media marketplaces in consumers’ hands. Apple has the iTMS, iBooks, and App Store, which cumulatively offer consumers access to a wide variety of content. Interestingly, some media bleeds over to and from places you wouldn’t expect it. For example, I get my magazine subscriptions through Zinio, which is downloaded through the App Store, and in turn, my content is downloaded in-app. I expected magazines to be available through iBooks, and speculation on the internet makes it seem that others do too. To further complicate matters, some magazines are available as an “app” in the App Store.

If I knew nothing about Apple’s distribution channels, that discovery would require a not-insignificant amount of exploration. Yet thus far, Apple has actually lead the pack in terms of application quality and discoverability. I attribute much of the iPad’s success to its simplicity and the draw of its many apps.

Step back and look at Amazon’s offering. Simplicity is taken to the next level. All content comes from Amazon and is logically categorized. Movies, TV shows, magazines, books; they’re all right where you’d expect them. There’s no interstitial abstraction of a store, with the exception of apps. Even there, the naming is about as straight forward as you can get. Content is front and center on the Kindle Fire.

So how exactly is this different than the “Apple” maneuver I thought they were going to pull. When you compare the Kindle Fire to the iPad… Well, you can’t. The Kindle Fire isn’t an iPad. It doesn’t try to be. With the iPad, you’re aware of the platform you’re using. There are elements that make you aware that you’re using an Apple iOS device. All iOS devices come with a suite of apps for general productivity. Compared to the Kindle Fire, the iPad is a generalist device. The Kindle Fire is laser focused on consumers that want a device to access content. Amazon has commoditized the platform. They don’t call this device an Android tablet, because they don’t want people thinking about the OS. They want them focused on the 18 million (HELLO!) pieces of content they have access to.

Some of you are screaming at your computer right now, because when the iPad initially launched, geeks everywhere cried out in desperation over the fact that it wasn’t able to run desktop applications like Photoshop and their favorite code editor. The Kindle Fire takes this focus one step further, and you can expect every geek who is just now adjusting to the iPad to scream about what’s lacking in the Kindle Fire. The iPad has taught us that sometimes it’s a worthwhile exercise to ignore the “experts” and see what the consumer has to say.

I don’t know if the Kindle Fire will match the iPad in sales numbers. I don’t even know that it will work well. The hardware could be a let down, resulting in a laggy, uncomfortable user experience. What I do know is that Amazon just pulled an Apple. Rather than go after an existing market, they just created their own.

Amazon is about to pull an Apple

So, MG Siegler says an Amazon tablet is coming, and that he’s used it. Meanwhile, HackerNews is caught up in a lengthy discussion as to whether tablets are consumption devices, and whether or not that’s good for society… or something. Elsewhere in the discussion, the tablet is being doomed to failure because Amazon chose to fork Android, risking app compatibility with the plethora of high-quality applications available on the wonderfully organized and widely praised Android Marketplace. Pardon my condescending sarcasm.

Way to miss the point, folks.

I feel like history is repeating itself. I have a feeling that Amazon is about to pull an Apple here, and one of the only communities of people I know who are supposed to be dedicated to looking forward are stuck on a backward-facing philosophical discussion of consumption versus creation. That ship has sailed! Others are failing to see that creating “yet another Android tablet” isn’t the way to distinguish yourself in the market.

Amazon is a unique company. Have a look at the existing players in the tablet market:

Apple

  • At their core, a computing device company
  • Has content distribution relationships (iTunes content partners) for music, movies, and books
  • Powerful infrastructure support (data centers, iCloud)
  • Makes money on the hardware sale, as well as the sale of content

Google

  • A search company
  • Builds a tablet OS, but doesn’t actually sell a tablet
  • Wants customers to spend a lot of time in Google web properties
  • Wants to expand in to media (Google Music) and shopping search to sell more ads

Samsung

  • A consumer electronics company
  • Makes a wide variety of devices, including several tablets
  • Doesn’t have their own tablet OS (relies on Android)

Amazon

  • World’s largest online retailer
  • Has 137 million active customers [1]
  • Has quality content distribution relations for music, movies, books, clothing, electronics, lawn mowers… anything else you can think of
  • Knows how to build a successful hardware platform (Kindle)
  • Highest rated in customer satisfaction [2]

Amazon is unique in their online retail scope and experience with hardware products. Only Apple can come compare, and the focuses are flipped. Apple’s primary focus is hardware, with a strong media distribution backing. Amazon’s primary focus is online retailing, with a strong hardware product. Arguably, their converse efforts are disproportionate. That is to say, I don’t think the Kindle is as strong a corollary to Amazon’s retail business as Apple’s iTunes Store (apps, music, and movies) is to their hardware. Still I don’t think Amazon’s diverse strengths can be easily dismissed. They’re in a better position than both Google and Samsung to challenge the iPad as the dominant product in the tablet space.

If I were on Amazon’s tablet team, I’d try to make the device the center of the mass market consumer’s consumption lifestyle. People clearly love to shop Amazon, so make it easy for them. An Amazon tablet could fulfill the dreams of 1970s futurists who believed that housewives would purchase household products from a screen in their kitchens and living rooms. Amazon is in a unique position to provide a customer experience that spans everything from digital music to purchasing a new lawn chair on a single device through software that is smart and intuitive. This could be the device that actually makes people want to do these things. If they deliver on that, they’ll be in the game.

Footnotes

  1. Google cached page: Inside Amazon
  2. Amazon replaces Netflix at the top of a customer satisfaction survey

Apple: Commies!

Wired is running a piece on a bit of drama surrounding the release of iCloud that probably hasn’t appeared on the consumer radar. I don’t expect that it ever will, and for good reason. This is like a janitor feud at the YMCA (sorry janitors). No one cares. The accusation is that the new WiFi sync feature available as part of iCloud is a feature that was “ripped off” from a jailbreak app developer who sells a WiFi sync product in Cydia, the jailbreak web store. Holy cow, I don’t even understand what I just wrote.

Right now, you’re scratching your head wondering if “jailbreak” is some sort of game. Jailbreaking is something you do to your iPhone so you can, among other things, load software that isn’t available (or allowed) in the Apple App Store. You also may not know, and probably don’t care, that Apple takes 30% of every app sale that is sold through the App Store, kind of like Best Buy makes a margin on every product they sell. Some developers are opposed to this kind of thing, so they set out to build their own methods of distributing and installing software. Ironically, this is all coordinated through an “app store” called Cydia, which also takes a cut from developers and has rules for inclusion.

Still awake?

I know this is enough to put any normal person to sleep, but this is all new stuff for app developers. Under the old PC/Mac model developers were responsible for marketing your own software, and providing a means to download, install, and update it. Apple’s vision for iOS (iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, etc) is that the software available on their platform should conform to a certain standard and should deliver a uniform user experience. Along those lines, there should be a single, simple mechanism for loading software. This mechanism is the App Store. You use it every time you download a hot new game for $0.99.

Alright, alright, alright, so where’s the drama I promised? Well, there’s an app developer that, long ago, set out to build a piece of software that would allow you to sync your music to your iOS device over WiFi instead of a cable. Yeah, pretty cool idea. I’m sure Apple didn’t really want that as a feature, right? Hrm.

I haven’t used the app in question, so I can’t speak to it’s speed or quality, but when Apple doesn’t deliver a feature, there’s usually a reason for it. Amongst software developers, Apple is known for a development philosophy that spends as much time thinking about what shouldn’t go in to a piece of software, as what should. Apple rejected this WiFi sync app when it was originally submitted to the Apple App Store. This was Apple’s way of saying, “You shouldn’t develop that app.” Probably because they were developing one of their own, but had very specific ideas about how it should work.

For what it’s worth, Apple’s version of “WiFi sync” works a lot differently than the one available for jailbroken devices. Apple’s sync works in conjunction with their free iCloud service, which requires several data centers. Oh, and they cost around $500 million a piece to build. I’m no construction expert, but I’m guessing you don’t drop $500 million data centers over a weekend.

The developer didn’t listen when Apple told him no. He continued to develop the app and started selling it on the unsanctioned Cydia app store, which requires the jailbreaking procedure I mentioned earlier. Bully for him. I hope he made a few bucks. There were certainly enough people who wanted that feature, and wanted it right away, but this whole mess of being surprised when Apple implements WiFi sync is just ridiculous. Apple hasn’t taken any action to shut down the Cydia app store. The jailbreak community is thriving, and outside of locking the device down as best they can, Apple hasn’t taken any direct action to stop it.

The only open question for me was the logo, which Apple also allegedly ripped off from his app. I was a little put out at first, but then I opened my eyes and saw something that should be blindingly obvious to any sighted individual. A good comparison is pictured in the Wired article. Go have a look at it, then check this out.

This is my menu bar. It appears in the upper-right of every computer running OS X, just like the clock and task bar in the lower-right corner of every Windows PC. The two icons that I labeled are relevant here.

Now here’s my menu bar with some hot Photoshop action.

OMG those lazy asses at Apple just mashed up two existing icons rather than creating something new. How dare they!? Oh, wait, they obviously ripped it off from that Cydia-WiFi-Sync-App-guy. Forgot about that.

This whole post was inspired by my reaction to a post over at Hacker News:

But why did they ban them then? Just so they don’t have competition when they do launch it? think Apple’s thought process is a bit like a communist’s. Why allow 3rd parties to build something when we can build it ourselves?

Yes, Apple are communists. Despite the fact that they are A) not a government, and B) no one has ever bought an iPod as a result of coercion. Unless of course you count whining children…

Wait, maybe kids are commies!

The Apple Hater Continuum

Ever notice that if you mention how much you love an Apple product, someone will inevitably come along and point out that you could have bought product X that does task Y just as well as your Apple product, plus task Z as well. Oh, and it costs less too!

Yeah, I can hear you groaning from here.

It’s been my experience that these critiques usually come from users who know quite a bit about computers. Often, it’s the kind of person that friends call to fix their computer when it breaks. This type of user might even build their own PCs. In short form: they know more about computers than the average person.

It seems that as someone learns more about computers, the less they like Apple products, but there’s this cross over. Many of the really, really stupidly bright, mega-rockstar type technology people I know use Apple products. There’s an apparent majority amongst the Silicon Valley community who, at a minimum, recognize that Apple builds great products, even if they use something else. Have a look at photos taken at your favorite conference and you’ll see a lot of Apple logos staring back at you.

When plotted on a graph, this pattern looks strangely similar to the uncanny valley graph.

My probably wrong view of Apple haters

Before you get too excited, let me explain why this is a horrible graph that I probably should have abandoned early on:

  • This graph doesn’t work in reverse. E.g., I’m pretty sure John Gruber (and his ilk) isn’t the smartest guy in Silicon Valley. Hell, he lives in Philadelphia. I also don’t think the guy over at the Verizon store is dumb. He’s usually pretty helpful, and I certainly can’t understand Verizon’s product offerings as well as him, so he’s got one up on me.
  • Not everyone conforms to this graph; nor do I think that’s a problem. For example, there are a ton of brilliant engineers at Google (and elsewhere) who are more knowledgable about computers than I could ever hope to be. I’m generalizing here. This is my blog. I get to do that. Feel free to yell at me if it makes you feel better.

Joel Spoolsky expressed (far better than I have here) a reason why more savvy users might not recognize the value of Apple products.

Your typical architecture astronaut will take a fact like “Napster is a peer-to-peer service for downloading music” and ignore everything but the architecture, thinking it’s interesting because it’s peer to peer, completely missing the point that it’s interesting because you can type the name of a song and listen to it right away.

As a user becomes more familiar with the computer, all of the arcane settings and components that frustrate normal users become a source of mastery. Like a talented guitar soloist, they revel in their own ability to wield their device. I know the feeling. Sometimes I feel like a real badass when I try some new bash hack that I picked up somewhere on the internet, and bash is about as terse and arcane as it gets1.

This leads us to the rightmost portion of the graph. As you move furthest to the right, you get in to groups of people for whom computers are their livelihood. They probably work in the industry, and many of them are developers and technology business entrepreneurs. For this group, tasks like setting up customized notification applications have become minutia. These people play a computer like Chopin played the piano.

Even though some in this group still rabidly dislike Apple products, the appreciation by many reaches a new level. Once you’ve tried to replicate Apple-like simplicity, you recognize how difficult it is. However, if your at this point and you still like the minutia of building a computer, you’re probably not going to be an Apple fan.

I think I just had an epiphany. Time to make some more flame-bait graphs.

[1] – Calm down, I love bash, but imagine your mom trying to use it. Yes, I also realize that there are far more arcane technologies. Can we go back to watching the movie now?

Hey cool – OS X Terminal Help Searches Manpages

Nothing ground breaking here, but this is kind of nice. I often forget to check the correct manpage section when researching a command. You’ll notice the manpage listing returned by help shows the manpage with section. Handy visual reminder.

It’s not greed, it’s narcissism

The folks over at Readability published an open letter to Apple today, explaining their dissatisfaction with the rejection of the Readability app for reasons related to Apple’s new subscription content policy. I’ll leave aside for a moment the interesting study of whether or not Readability is a content app or a utility and focus on something more abstract. In their letter, Readability accuses Apple of being greedy. I believe it’s far more insidious than that. Apple has stepped beyond greed and wholly in to corporate narcissism.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at iOS apps and the iTunes App Store business structure. If I decide to develop an iOS app, I know that Apple is going to want a 30% cut. I structure my business around this model, and it works out well for a few reasons. Many iOS developers are independent developers that would normally have to rely on typical publisher distribution channels, which actually makes Apple’s 30% plan look attractive. Big players have been forced to re-adjust a little bit. For example, in the game market, EA has been forced to lower their price, but you’ll notice that many EA titles only dip in to the indie price-point realm of $0.99 when they’re on sale. Traditional big-name titles retain their higher price point. The distinguishing factor is that Apple has not placed any price constraints on app publishers’ price points outside iOS and the App Store. The developers of Angry Birds are able to offer their app on Android for free. The contrasts are less apparent in other app categories, because iOS software has a natural tendency to be iOS exclusive. This is owed to other constraints, such as the requirement that apps remain authored in Objective-C and Cocoa Touch from their inception. Apple has written their rules in such a way that cross-platform apps are discouraged. This is by design, and arguably, developers and users have benefited by having access to well-written applications at a reasonable price.

The rules of the “app” game are set up in Apple’s favor, but native apps were Apple’s first step in to the broader development pool. Moving in to more current events, we can see how Apple is taking the lessons learned — well, some of them anyway — and applying them to their new “content” fee scheme. I use the word content, rather than subscription, explicitly because of the Readability case. Readability is not a publisher. They’re strictly a facilitator. I was called a little bit crazy for bringing up Flipboard in my last example, but I believe it is now more relevant than ever. Flipboard may not have any plans to build a subscription model, but anyone eyeballing their platform as a possible candidate for subscription content now has to accommodate Apple’s 30% cut.

Back on topic, I posit that Apple doesn’t really care about traditional media at large. A lot of the outcry is centered around the fact that Apple’s rules make it hard to structure a business that crosses boundaries. If I build a subscription content model that sells to iOS users, as well as the internet and traditional print media, I have to account for Apple’s 30% cut of my subscriptions that sell through the iOS ecosystem. This dilutes my margins outside the iOS world, effectively forcing me to “subsidize” my iOS users at the expense of everyone else. In simple terms, I will be forced to charge everyone more, because I can’t pass the Apple content tax on to iOS users alone thanks to Apple’s price consistency stipulations. Apple doesn’t care about that because they’re not in the business of helping you sell content. They’re in the business of building the iOS ecosystem

Apple’s goal is to fill their App Store with exclusive content; content designed specifically for iOS, and available nowhere else. “The Daily” is a prime example. “The Daily” is a new media property. Take in to account that Rupert Murdoch’s company, News Corp, is the third-largest media conglomerate in the world, yet they did not select an existing property to bring to the iPad. This is not a coincidence. Apple wanted an exclusive property, and News Corp is willing to try anything to save their struggling model. Don’t get me wrong, there are good reasons to make this a new property. By doing so, News Corp side-steps any pre-conceived notions users might have about what the content should cost, how it should be purchased, and with what frequency it should arrive. When you make something new, you get to set the rules. Sound familiar? Yes, News Corp took a page right out of Apple’s playbook, and I’d be willing to bet that Steve Jobs handed them an annotated copy.

As the picture forms, you realize a couple of things. First is that Apple is acting without regard for the larger market. That’s pretty typical for Apple. When given the opportunity, most companies target a small slice of the bigger pie. Something about “capturing just 2% of the market” makes the job sound easier, even if 2% represents millions of users. Apple eschews this thinking and attacks the small pie viciously. Have a look at Apple’s laptop strategy. Apple doesn’t sell to the low-end laptop market, but they dominate the high-end. Small pie, huge chunk. Based on that business philosophy, it would stand to reason that Apple doesn’t place a high priority on enabling apps like Readability, because they offer no iOS exclusivity. Apple would rather incentivize content like “The Daily”.

What’s striking about all of this is that there is only one benefactor in this strategy: Apple. There is one other possible benefit: that indie content creators will be empowered, much like indie app developers. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the same rules apply. Apps and games often go deep, but rarely wide. For example, look at Delicious Library. An excellent app developed by an independent developer. The problem of cataloging and organizing your personal media was thought about very deeply by its author, but where the problem gets wide, Delicious goes elsewhere. It relies on Amazon.com to provide details about the content. App developers have no problem going deep because they can simply work on the problem linearly, but going wide is difficult to serialize. Media is a “wide” problem. You can build a fantastic content publishing system that thinks of every conceivable angle and still have a commercial flop if you lack content that is high quality and diverse in interest. You need a lot of good content to make a media publication work, and that content needs to be current. Tools for creating content have never been more within reach, but there is still the question of editorial talent. Blogging, for example, still occupies a different space in my media view than a publication like The Economist. One is unfiltered, while the other is streamlined and concise. The latter takes far more resources.

For these reasons, I believe Apple stands alone in reaping the benefits of their business model. This steps across the lines of greed and into corporate narcissism. When it comes to corporations, being narcissistic might not be unethical, but it doesn’t win you a lot of friends, and ultimately hurts you over the long haul. Apple views the value of their platform from one direction only. iOS and the App Store are Apple’s gift to developers, content creators, and users. Nevermind the fact that an iPad devoid of applications is completely interchangeable with products from competitors. No value there. Apple would do well to strike a balance here.

Apple’s 30% vig is bad for innovation

Let me start out by saying that I believe Apple is well within its rights to enforce these policies as they are. This isn’t a question of “right” or “wrong” in my mind. People framing it in this fashion are living in a false dichotomy. Apple’s actions fall on the continuum of incentive, just like everything else. The assertion I’m making is that Apple’s decision to apply a 30% commission across the board for in-app subscriptions is too aggressive and will stifle innovation, ultimately leading to less choice for iOS customers and softening iOS device attractiveness to consumers.

Let’s back up for a moment and address what is probably the most defensible position for Apple’s 30% cut. Apple has hit one out of the park with iOS and all the associated devices. Between the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, Apple has sold over 160 million iOS devices [1]. Even if a large part of that number are users replacing old devices, the number of iOS users remains not insignificant, to say the least. Apple has cultivated an audience who expects a seamless purchasing experience. iOS users expect to click a button and purchase content without going through any checkout procedures or creating new accounts. Along these lines, Apple wants to accomplish two things:

  • Preserve that experience throughout iOS
  • Be compensated for cultivating an engaged and free-spending user base

Stated simply, publishing an app or content on the iOS platform puts you in front of millions of users who buy content frequently. That puts Apple in a position not dissimilar to a publisher with a huge readership. If half of those 160 million devices are still active, that gives Apple 80 million eyes. The NY Times circulation is 1.4 million on a Sunday. That number is less than 1 million on weekdays [2].

So, we clearly have a situation where Apple deserves compensation for what it has built. But what should that number be, and how is a 30% cut bad for innovation?

In the publishing world today, there are content creators who have their own “go to market” (to borrow from Steve Jobs) strategies, and there are content creators who rely on delivery facilitators. These two classes are not mutually exclusive. Popular Mechanics, for example, is available in the iTunes App Store as an app, as well as through Zinio. Popular Mechanics is a publisher, and Zinio is a facilitator. Zinio doesn’t create any of their own content, but they have solved a problem, and publishers (a.k.a. content creators) want to make use of this solution without reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Zinio is a pretty weak example of innovation, but you don’t have to go far to find a much more interesting example. Have a look at Flipboard. Unlike Zinio, who simply converts magazine pages to images and text, Flipboard brings a lot of new ideas to the table, but eventually, they’re going to have to carve out a piece of the compensation model. With Apple in the equation at 30%, that doesn’t leave much room for Flipboard. What about the user base that they have cultivated? What about the value they bring to to iOS as an exclusive application?

By capturing 30% of all subscription revenues, Apple is squeezing companies like Flipboard out of the equation. By consequence, Apple is moving customers “closer” to the creators of content. This sounds like a good thing, but when you look at innovators like Flipboard, you really have to question the value of this closeness. Publishers are frequently monolithic organizations that don’t adapt well to change. Their business is developing content, not mobile technology. If Flipboard is any evidence, pushing the delivery facilitator role out to smaller, more agile companies is a good thing. Apple would clearly prefer to work directly with publishers, as we can see by looking at “The Daily”.

By pursuing 30% of all in-app subscription revenues, Apple is creating a strong disincentive for facilitators. Even if you assume that publishers will hop on board with applications like “The Daily”, consumers still lose when companies like Flipboard never come in to existence, and that is how Apple’s mandatory 30% take stifles innovation.

1 – Apple sells 160 millionth iOS device as average iPhone price grows to $625

2 – Newspaper Circulation Falls Nearly 9%