Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Is Apple Opening Up?

Apple has been accused of building a 'walled garden' in the iPad. That is not a metaphor that I trust too much; first, because Apple's garden seems to be rather subtler than that: it is more like a 'hedged' garden because the iPad has always and will always have a web browser, one that allows you to see any web page and you can't get much wilder and freer than that; second, because, unlike most publisher 'walled gardens', a large part of the Apple garden is 'free to access', and developers and publishers do not have to pay to offer stuff for free through apps running on the Apple systems. So using the 'walled garden' metaphor as a weapon to beat Apple with, seems to be both inaccurate and a touch unfair to Apple, which is really creating a hedged 'pay for access' inner garden with a large fringe of 'free' public park access. Good for Apple, Amazon and even more Sony, should have thought of this first: provide the space in which other ebook systems can be viewed and read, even the opposition. Apple does not get the credit it deserves for this third-party openness. We did not see Amazon creating the space for developers to produce third party apps to run on the Kindle until the on-rushing iPad chariot made this belated 'openness' a reactive move.

Furthermore it is at least arguable that Apple, in creating the e-commerce environment for the iPhone and the iPad (the app store) has the obligation to vet these products. Some of this is about making sure that malicious programs do not pollute the environment (there is so far no sign of viruses or malware on the iPhone platform), but also a matter of civic duty -- Apple no doubt sees itself in the role of a Walmart, or at least of the landlord of retail properties. So it may feel a need to regulate the type of services and products that can be offered through its pay-platform.

In a thoughtful piece at GigaOm Kevin Kelleher writes that Apple is already "losing control--and that's a good thing"

I’m willing to accept that Apple is trying doing the right thing for its customers. In one sense, Apple is like Walmart, or any retailer that excludes magazines and books with content it deems too sexual or politically controversial. But Apple is more than just a retailer — it’s the provider of a platform, and a wildly successful one. Apple can control its platform on a small scale, but as success expands that platform domain, the company’s control inevitably breaks down as it starts to create more problems than it solves.

The problems affect developers, content partners and consumers. To avoid having to explain its capricious approval system, Apple has retreated into an opaque cloud of inscrutability, making telepathy a vital skill for successful developers. As publishers large and small bring their content to the iPad, Apple’s murky morality may give them pause — or worse, lead to self-censorship. And curating controversial content in a way that leaves all parties unhappy is hardly a savvy way to market a hot new product to consumers.

So the company is likely to reassess its control-freak tendencies as well. It has three choices: One, hold to the status quo; two, curate its platform, but add a set of clear guidelines as to what’s allowed and what isn’t, or maybe a curtained-off section for controversial apps; or three, adopt an open environment where apps are rejected only on technical considerations. The first will only add to confusion. The second might work if the guidelines are explicit enough. The third is the simplest, but involves giving up a lot of control.

My guess is Apple will go for option No. 3. Not right away, but in increments.....

I am not sure that Apple yet sees things this way but I reckon that they will soon have to do so. The second option (issuing clear guidelines as to what is or is not allowed) is going to be much trickier than one might suppose. Let us take the Walmart analogy seriously. Walmart operates supermarkets in the USA and the UK and it naturally sells different magazines and newspapers in those different chains. There is no doubt that the magazines and newspapers that pass as normal in the UK (or in Sweden or in the Netherlands) would be quite unacceptable in the USA. Is Apple going to develop different product ranges for these different markets? Is Apple willing to make the Sun available in the UK (its the biggest selling news tabloid, but with more nudity than is acceptable to Apple, or the US popular newspaper market)? But to ban it in the US? Will Apple really wish to maintain different cultural offerings for each regional market in which it operates? What about expatriates, will the Sun be purchasable by the Cupertino resident who has a UK iTunes account and credit card? Will there be a Saudi option as well as a mid-Western option, perhaps a Californian level of permissibility a bit lower (higher) than that for Arkansas? Once Apple starts looking at the detail of the discriminations that would be needed to service cultural and religious sensitivities in different parts of the world, I suspect that they will hastily withdraw to the high-ground of technical neutrality. "We are only a platform provider. Not an arbiter of morality."

But there is an even trickier problem for Apple to think about if they maintain this detailed control and vetting of content. Apple to its credit supports Kindle and Kobo and other generic ebook reader apps for free. Apple is most unlikely to withdraw its support for these rival ebook systems (and it would attract a great deal of hostile attention, perhaps from regulators, were it now to do so). These apps are freely available from the Apple iTunes store (perhaps with an age-related warning) but they can of course be used any ebooks from Amazon or Kobo (was Shortcovers) that the user cares to purchase direct from those suppliers. If the best, but steamy, edition of the The Perfumed Garden is available as an ebook to the Amazon Kindle user, it can be read on the iPad and the iPhone. These Amazon-sponsored ebooks are not being sold through the iPad or the iTunes store, but they are being read on the device. Is it conceivable that Apple is going to prevent Signet from selling its edition of The Perfumed Garden through iTunes whilst the very same translation by Sir Richard Burton can be purchased from Amazon? If Apple were to be seen to be banning books from the iBooks store which are widely available from other ebook retailers it would be grievously undermining its position as a book retailer. Its not taking a commission from the Perfumed Garden, but it is close to encouraging its loyal customers to shop elsewhere. The more books that will not be stocked the more customers will think to shop elsewhere. This reluctance is also damaging the publisher who is, on all the other titles sold through iTunes, paying Apple a 30% royalty (or agency commission). So far from being a 'walled garden' the iPad/iTunes system that enables users to deploy banned ebooks purchased from other suppliers is on the way to becoming a tunnel to the rival plantation. I reckon that Kevin Kelleher hits the nail on the head when he says "Apple can control its platform on a small scale, but as success expands that platform domain, the company’s control inevitably breaks down as it starts to create more problems than it solves." (GigaOm) These are problems for Apple itself.

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