Once again, Apple, or, getting to the point, Steve Jobs defies common wisdom. This time it’s about communication, positioning, propaganda. Never let others take control of the story, don’t let anything go unanswered, ever. (Well, almost anything, there is the ‘When did you stop beating your wife’ exception.) The recent and still on-going –raging might be a better word – public discussion of the iPad makes the received wisdom point: Apple lost control of its story, the Great Helmsman is leaving others steer the discourse.
I was tempted to agree. But a friend stopped me in my tracks as I was starting to point communication rules violations such as bragging statements better left to third parties. As the French like to say: Don’t make claims about your performance, leave it to grateful third parties. (You guessed it, the French are a tad more specific, but this is a family oriented newsletter.) ‘Look, said the friend, you’re in Steve’s office. Among the papers on his desk, you see his bank statement. Being an experienced businessman, you know how to look without looking and how to read numbers upside down. On that bank statement, do you see a line saying: Steve, you’re screwing up? No? See: there is no reality feedback telling him how wrong he is and how right you are.’
Skipping over rare exceptions, yes, my friend is right. This got me to take another look to the on-going “iPad conversation”. Using a different perspective, I come to a different conclusion. Conscious design, luck, instinct or, more likely, thanks to a retroactive, reverse order combination of all three, it looks like Apple is crowdsourcing its propaganda, its promotion of key iPad issues, its product positioning.
But, first, what is crowdsourcing?
For us, non-native English speakers, it is yet another manifestation of the great creativity, plasticity of American English, of its ability to constantly invent very practical, very compact words and phrases. Behold astroturf: it designates not artificial turf, the original definition, but fake grassroots political movements. We have outsourcing for the practice of moving the making of goods or services outside, to have someone else make those for you. We’ve all encountered the outsourcing hell of customer support. We also read the label on an iPod: Made in China, Designed in California.
Moving one more step in the continuous deformation of language: using the Web, we’ve come to see the crowd as a source of ideas and, in some cases, services such as answers to questions, guidance, directions. Wikipedia is one good example. Actually, it offers a good definition for crowdsourcing. A direct quote from the crowdsourced encyclopedia: “a neologistic compound of Crowd and Outsourcing for the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group of people or community.”
Back to the iPad stories, what do we see? Or what do I choose to see?
First, an amazing feat of PR buzz, especially when compared to the dollars invested in its creation. Pre-launch rumors didn’t cost much and the January 27th announcement, done in the customary sober luxury fashion, can’t have cost more than a few million dollars. Now, less than three weeks later, Google iPad: over 18 million hits. (Strangely, Microsoft’s Bing, their ‘we’ve got it right this time search engine’, returns a mere 415,000 hits.)
Success. At least on the quantity scale.
But what about quality? Does so much debate take the tiller out of Steve’s hands?
Actually, it looks like the brownian motion of ideas of ideas allows questions to receive answers of progressively increasing clarity. Experts, ankle-biters, kibitzers, kremlinologists and ayatollahs of 720 degrees of persuasion move ideas, factoids and opinions in every possible direction. Natural selection works and the better ones last the others out, get to the muddy pond’s surface and stay there for us to see.
(Lasting conspiracy theories could contradict my point, see 9/11legends or Obama’s birth certificate. But consider who and how many cling to those delusions.)
For example, see this neat blog post, titled The Failure of Empathy. There, the author, Mike Monteiro, takes on the iPad critics fixated on the (apparent) length its feature list. On the other side of the debate we have my dear friend Lee Gomes at Forbes, whose sharp mental scalpel helps us dissect high-tech culture tissue. In his latest piece, Lee argues: “The iPad has fewer capabilities than a netbook, in a similar size. Not a good start.” To which Mike Monteiro replies, in effect: “This is a geek’s view. Normal users, who (will) outnumber geeks, have different knowledge and appetites”. Monteiro says the iPad and netbooks address different people, different cognitive styles.
Going back to the iPhone’s history, if we can say this for a product that’s barely 3 years old, Apple sold more than 50 million devices in spite of “shortcomings” such as the lack of Flash rendering or the absence of multitasking, to name but a few of the more popular limitations. The crowd voted against the geeks. (Actually, I should write some of the geeks.)
Which gets us to another crowdsourcing item: Flash. At issue: can the iPad succeed in spite of its inability to play Flash, to connect to Web sites using Adobe’s Flash?
A blogger, Sarah Perez of the noted ReadWriteWeb is republished by the New York Times here. This is both helpful and unfortunate. The latter because the Grey Lady didn’t bother fact-check the piece, therefore hurting its credibility. For example, Ms. Perez claims “video websites like YouTube don’t work on the iPad”. Well, another blogger, John Gruber, in his February 2nd Daring Fireball piece, tears into the Fist Draft of History, as the NY Times likes to call itself: “Why in the world would The New York Times re-run this tripe? The iPad is “closed” because it has a web browser and the App Store, and Chrome OS is “open” because it has a web browser and no native apps whatsoever? And why compare the actual, real, soon-to-ship iPad to a not-at-all-like-the-Chrome-OS-we’ve-seen concept video rather than to the actual, real, soon-to-ship Chrome OS? And it’s premised on glaring factual mistakes, like that the iPad doesn’t support YouTube.”
Our blogger isn’t done with the establishment, in another post, on February 10th, he turns to the Wall Street Journal’s and to his arch-conservative columnist. Holman W. Jenkins Jr.: “So his argument is that no matter how bad Flash is technically and experience-wise, Apple should add it to the iPad so people can watch Hulu.”
The fact is the iPhone runs YouTube, and so will the iPad, as can be seen on the iPad’s screen. Go to apple.com and see the YouTube icon on the screen, or in the video.
There is more: news come out Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, is excited about the iPad and its ability to foster “essentially new forms of content,” since it has a high-quality display while being distinct from a TV or a normal desktop computer.
Regarding Hulu, another noted blog, TechCrunch, seems to think there’ll be a Hulu app ready for the iPad launch.
Technically, this isn’t as surprising or even as important as one might think. Consider the following: YouTube is a Flash-based site; how come it “runs” on the iPhone in spite of its lacking Flash? Two answers to this, one “geopolitical”, one technical. The former stems from Google’s decision to free itself from Adobe’s standard-but-proprietary Flash technology. There are some technical problems with Flash but, essentially, Google and Apple agree on open source technologies such as webkit and HTML 5 for the future of Web browsing.
The technical side is simple. Flash, in many ways, is a document description language, not unlike HTML. The latter says things like: Put this character on this position on the page, with font Lucida 12. The former composes rich documents including videos. Adobe sells the composition tools and makes the rendering one available for free.
Rendering? Once you composed the rich Web page, you need to send it to the user’s browser and the browser needs to render, that is to play the rich document as composed. To do this the server sends a Flash “language” description and the browser, using the free Flash plug-in, interprets the language and re-creates the intended document on your screen and loudspeakers.
With this in mind, what Google does with you YouTube is simple: they do the rendering “at home”, that is in their servers. Then, instead of shipping Flash “text”, they send H.264 (another standard) data to the iPhone. The iPhone does render H.264 data very easily as the “heavy-lifting” has already been done inside Google’s servers. The same, obviously, applies to the iPad.
Moving to Hulu, or Disney, it’s a rather simple matter for them to do for their content what Google did for YouTube’s. The WSJ and the NYT could have seen this by looking at what Google did three years ago.
Now, you’ll say I’m becoming part of the crowdsourcing process. You’re right. We’ll see if today’s view survive the natural selection process.