I’m not through with the iPad. Actually, I’m just warming up. For today’s column, let’s focus on the perils of a closed system.
I live in a country (France) where censorship is a big deal. It comes mostly from greedy celebrities (sorry for the truism); they use a legal system that largely favors them. Often, they find a compassionate judge when it comes to extracting money as compensation for a supposed privacy violation or for some other unauthorized disclosure. Convictions are frequent and expensive; they can lead to the seizure of a magazine or even of a book. France has a long history of such practices. In the early sixties, the country was waging a colonial war in Algeria. Then, for the most avid news readers, the game was to get the weekly magazine l’Express at the kiosk as early as possible before French authorities seized it. (No such risk with today’s Gallic newsmagazines).
Let me reframe this in the context of an upcoming iPad era. An iPad newsmagazine publishes an investigative piece that triggers a legal injunction: remove that from the publication or face a $10,000 penalty per day. No, says the publisher, who has guts and money (proof this is a fiction), we want to fight in court. The plaintiff then turns to Apple. Same talk: face a huge fine, or remove the offending content. Furthermore, says the plaintiff’s attorneys, thanks to your permanent and unique electronic link to your proprietary devices and the fact that the electronic kiosk now resides on the device – yes we can argue that point, they say– , you must extend the deletion to each user’s tablet. C’mon, you keep pushing updates, and various contents bits to these gizmos, you can push a delete instruction code.
What would Apple do? This is a question of balance of power. If the legal action involves some neuron-challenged celebrity, chances are Apple won’t balk. But what if Nicolas Sarkozy or his whispering-singer wife are the plaintiffs? Truth is, given the pattern of legal actions against the press in France, it is more than certain a French judge will be tempted to request an immediate remote deletion of a presumed infringing content. Then we’ll see a replay of what happened last summer in the 1984 case, when Amazon remotely deleted a copy of George Orwell’s novel in the Kindle of buyers for copyrights issues. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos apologized profusely for the mishap (plus it involved 1984 not Alice in Wonderland, tough luck).
With the iPad structure, Apple is creating the absolute control for product, delivery and even ownership that can be revoked at will. Apple allows or rejects the application (the container), it can remove all or part of any content from its servers, and it could even remotely delete the stuff you purchased. Imagine: you go to a bookstore, spend $25 on a book that a court of law later finds illicit; a bookstore employee then goes to your place, takes the book from the shelf and leave three dollars bills on your kitchen table. Wouldn’t you be slightly uncomfortable with this?
Such kind of mechanism poses no risk for music or entertainment materiel. But it does so for news. As opposed to entertainment, news consists in deploying ways and means to obtain the best and most balanced set of informations collected on things that somehow, someway, somewhere an individual or an organization is willing to conceal. This is the essence of journalism.
Therefore, it requires money to collect the information, edit it, package it. And it requires channels of dissemination that cannot be vulnerable to any kind of leverage. For free (as in free speech, not free beer) content, platforms and networks must be neutral. Any closed, proprietary system contradicts this imperative.
Some will retort: but your content could still be freely available on the internet, therefore in a neutral platform/network environment. Yes and no. Yes, of course, I might be able to post hot stuff on a blog.
But let’s project ourselves five years from now. I’m the publisher of a digital only magazine. The iPad and the iNews Store have become the de facto standard for paid news distribution with a market share of 74%, equivalent of what the iPod had in 2010. Most of the news that’s fit to be pixelized has found refuge under Steve Jobs’ umbrella. One day, we publish a piece that a triggers an irate response from the story’s subjects. Inevitably, a judge finds it objectionable. Since my editors are careful professionals, we know exactly what our writers are holding up their sleeves and we are ready for a legal fight. But if Apple balks, we are screwed. Of course, we have the option to go on the internet, but it is exactly as if, in the sixties, the journalists of L’Express would have mimeographed and distributed their Algerian war stories by hand in the streets of Paris: nice move, but tiny audience, and no money.
That’s why Apple’s choice for a closed system changes slightly the game. In Steve Jobs’ mind, the iPad is meant to become the ultimate personal computer, replacing most of the devices that we currently use to get music and entertainment. And news. And knowledge. For the publishing community, the choice is therefore:
a) go for it with a flurry of applications — and thus contribute to erecting a tightly controlled gated content community; the more publishers will join the fray the better the iPad will fly;
b) put some eggs in other’s baskets (Amazon’s, PlasticLogic’s for instance), which are neither neutral nor philanthropic. In addition, each of them has its own standard. It’ might be economically tricky to design a write-once-publish-everywhere content fitting every platform.
This leaves us with three conclusions:
1 / Undoubtedly, the iPad could be a fantastic publishing platform with a powerful transaction system attached to it. As many do already, I’m personally considering a purely digital magazine built on great content, beautiful layout and supported by a mixture of paid-for and clever and graphically attractive advertising (see previous Monday Note) . But we’d have to bet that Apple will always position itself as a neutral platform. It is likely to be the case, but it’s a bet.
2 / It might not be economically feasible to publish on several platforms just to hedge such a remote risk. The variety of formats, the technologies (LCD display like the iPad or e-Ink like the Kindle) would make such on-the-fly content adaptation far too costly.
3 / Therefore it is a good idea to keep considering web-based paywalls – whatever the forms – and mobile applications on multiple platforms. After all, the internet is the one vehicle that is the most likely to remain open and neutral.