Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Apple's Mega Newsstand

At its World Wide Developer Conference at the beginning of the month, Apple introduced iOS5, a close integration with Twitter and its plans for a Newsstand within iTunes. There was a brief overview of the Newsstand service in the presentation and this mention in the Press Release:

Newsstand is a beautiful, easy-to-organize bookshelf displaying the covers of all your newspaper and magazine subscriptions in one place. A new section of the App Store™ features just subscription titles, and allows users to quickly find the most popular newspapers and magazines in the world. If subscribed to, new issues appear in the Newsstand and are updated automatically in the background so you always have the latest issue and the most recent cover art. Apple Press Release, June 6, 2011
There is quite a lot yet to be decided about the precise shape and operation of the Newsstand but what we know looks promising. We know that its coming in the fall, which means that it must be near completion; we know that it will enable background downloading; and that it will present the front pages, front covers, of newspapers and magazines in a more topical and attractive way. We know that Twitter will be available as an omni-present system-call in the new iOS. We also know that Apple's newly introduced in-app subscription process, with automatic iTunes renewals is working well, many mainstream publishers have announced that they will support it. This is a separate but important development. We also know that Apple has relaxed its previously announced, but over-restrictive policies on pricing of subscriptions "outside" the App store. Apple will not be 'leaning over' and requiring publishers to charge no more for digital subscriptions on the web or on Android than they charge within iTunes. Apple is loosening up a bit.

This really could be the very best news for the digital magazine and newspaper industry. Here is why:

  1. Apple sold nearly 20 million iPads in the year to April 2011. We do not know how many they will sell in the second year, but it seems reasonable to expect a very large number. Another 50+ million units seems probable. Three years after its launch the iPad could certainly have a 200/300 million installed base. That is scale.
  2. Apple has decided to bring some marketing and retailing focus to periodicals within iTunes. This is what the Newsstand announcement really amounts to. Apple will arrange focus and in-store presentation and highlighting. It is as though Tescos or WalMart announced that they were going to have a big newsstand kiosk in a prominent place within all of their retail outlets. The Newsstand will be a sales focus and it will attract masses of titles. Since periodicals have never been aggregated and retailed at remotely comparable scale, it is quite hard to envisage the potential for a newsstand which has tens of thousands of titles in all the main languages. Apple would only be doing this if it considered that newspapers and magazines could be a big category. Apple is building a platform from which it can sell billions of news and magazine subscriptions.
  3. It would appear that Apple will be going for a very 'format' neutral Newsstand. Apple has not said that all magazines and newspapers should have a specific file format, as happens with iBooks. It has not said that newspapers and magazines should or should not be 'interactive', though it seems certain that interactivity will be there (see most newspaper apps). This is ingenious because it allows/encourages publishers and developers to experiment with different sorts of delivery format. Apple is offering a sales platform, a payment platform, a cloud-based delivery and access platform. But it is not dictating the format or precise implementation of magazine services. This is ingenious in two directions. It encourages publishers with the advantages of a genuine platform (scale in distribution, and simplicity in payment and licensing for customers) but does not constrain publishers or developers in the services that they may offer. The platform does not appear to constrain the potential for innovation and diversity, except perhaps that these periodicals will of necessity have issues and front pages (even that limitation may be negotiable). Since magazines and newspapers have extraordinary diversity in their appeal and in their production processes, this is a masterstroke for Apple. And it is also clever in a second way since it enables Apple to be quite agnostic about how magazines and newspapers should be delivered. Apple does not have the heavy responsibility of managing content and dragging timely editions from publishers' workflow. Apple allows innovation within the iOS guidelines and will benefit (to the tune of 30%) from not having to do the experimentation or day to day content management on their publisher's behalf. Apple does not even expect to host the titles (as it does for iBooks).
  4. Publishers will complain about Apple's 30%, and although I have some sympathy for the complaint, one notes that Apple's recent loosening of its pricing rules, has given publishers an enormous opportunity. Magazine publishers especially. Magazines know how to sell subscriptions to consumers. They have been doing that for years. Magazines have a business model which encourages them to sell direct and they should certainly use that to build direct relationships with their subscriber base. But they should also welcome Apple as the cornerstone of their digital promotion. Apple is not telling its book publisher partners or its music industry partners that they should sell direct. Furthermore, there is little chance that Jeff Bezos will echo Steve Jobs when he said: “Our philosophy is simple—when Apple brings a new subscriber to the app, Apple earns a 30 percent share; when the publisher brings an existing or new subscriber to the app, the publisher keeps 100 percent and Apple earns nothing.” (Apple Press Release, February 15, 2011) Replace 'Apple' by 'Amazon' in that sentence -- and I am not sure that Jeff Bezos would even recognise it as grammatical, he would certainly stumble if it were included in the Kindroid press release.
There is only one thing clearly wrong with the Apple, iTunes, Newsstand as far as I am concerned. Do you think there is any chance that they could move away from that rather corny idea of presenting magazines on a pine bookcase? Would it not be better if the Newsstand felt more like an Apple retail store? Not pine, but steel, marble and clean, abstract lines. Putting tens of thousands on pine book cases makes no sense at all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Now that Apple Owns the Tablet Space .....

When the iPad was launched, there was a widespread view (and I shared it) that soon, and not more than a year or two later, there would be some highly competitive and lower-priced tablet alternatives for customers to choose from. The iPad had opened a new hardware category, but competitors would quickly crowd into this new opening... there would be lots of choice and most of it would not be for Apple hardware.

Whilst dissecting a review of one of the best Android competitor's to the iPad, Marco Ament notes:

Translation: Android tablets have managed to copy the iPad’s hardware well enough — the easy part — but have failed to provide good software and significant third-party app choice — the hard part. The Android Tablet Problem
For any 'head-to-head' competitor tablet to get into the market for a face off with the iPad there is the possibly insuperable problem that the new tablet lacks a coherent body of developers and of tablet-primed media. Apple has been building its iOS developer community and media resources for four years (arguably more). Apple has huge momentum and capability behind its iOS platform and this cannot be matched by any competitor. I don't think that a 'head to head' competitor to the iPad can emerge in the next five years. The competitive threat if it comes, will be from a completely new approach, an external threat not a mid-size device like the iPad. We should look to a paradigm shift as radical and disruptive as the iPhone/iPad surge that Apple has produced to disrupt the mobile phone and the laptop computer.

Harry McCracken reviews the state of iPad competition and concludes that it is very hard to see why anybody in the market for a tablet would buy something other than an iPad 2.
And yet no Apple competitor has started selling anything that clearly answers a fundamental question: “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” Sure, it’s easy to point at specific things that other devices do better (or at least differently) than the iPad, and some of the people reading this article can explain why they chose another tablet and don’t regret the move. (If you’re one of them, please do!) Still, sales figures for tablets show that when consumers compare the iPad to other choices, an overwhelming percentage conclude that the iPad is the best option. ....Instead of an iPad (Technologizer)
If the 'competitors' to the iPad cannot emerge now, a year after the first iPad was launched, why should it be feasible that the direct competition will be stronger in a year or two's time? The iPad eco-system is getting richer and stronger at an amazing rate and that is the problem any direct tablet competitor faces. The fundamental point about the iPad and the iOS range of devices is that Apple is not really selling a hardware solution; Apple is offering a software and services solution, and it is the whole package that customers are buying into. This is something which no competitor to Apple is plausibly positioned to challenge. Not Microsoft (they don't really do manufacturing), not Google (they don't truly understand selling), not Amazon (who are best placed to have a shot at it, but do not have deep consumer-device engineering DNA).

We will come back to Amazon in a minute. But first let us consider what are the consequences of Apple owning the tablet category for the next three, four years -- by which I mean that Apple has a good chance of being the supplier of most of the tablets bought for the plan-able future.
  1. Apple will sell a lot of iPads and will certainly offer a modicum more choice (high-end, low-end, high-res, medium res). Moore's law says that Apple should be able to produce a sub $200 iPad for Christmas 2012. Apple will do that.
  2. The degree of device choice will be constrained by the requirement that as many apps as possible should run across all iOS devices. So no new aspect ratio, but quad pixel density. The coherence and interoperability of the range of iOS devices is already another source of lock-in. That gets stronger as the differentiation within the range is gently increased.
  3. The lead that Apple has in the deployment of apps for tablets will grow. Enormously, and become even more of an obstacle to 'internal' disruption from iPad-like competitors.
  4. Android, or maybe Windows, phones may well provide very strong competition at the 'low end', at the small format end of the market. There will be plenty of apps for non-Apple phones. These non-Apple phones will also be well-placed to produce competitive applications which are not tablet-sized and which do not necessarily require the full range of touch interface.
  5. Apple's competitors will increasingly throw their weight behind web standards and 'open' technologies.
Amazon already has the Kindle platform and has sufficient strength in books, music, film and periodicals to mount a competitive challenge to Apple with its likely Android tablet -- they need to launch it soon or Apple will own the holiday season device market in 2011. Amazon may be able to launch a somewhat credible Kindroid alternative to the iPad, but I think Apple has played a very clever move here in the last couple of weeks. It relaxed its e-commerce terms so that the soft Kindle can stay on the iPad/iTunes platform. This might have looked like a concession to Amazon (and to the millions of iPad owners who run the Kindle app on their iPad) but it was in fact an astute and decisive blow to the hardware side of Amazon's business. Not having your Kindle library on the iPad would have been a decisive reason for many Amazon customers to switch to the Android tablet that will soon be launched by Jeff Bezos. Now there is no compelling reason to buy the Kindroid, no reason not to buy the iPad which will hold your library. Apple will not be getting 30% from the sale of Amazon ebooks, but those books can be used on iOS and Apple's selection of music, film and apps is so much better than Amazon will be able to offer on the Kindroid. Apple will not be letting Amazon deploy film or music apps within iTunes either. So who has the upper hand in that trade? Apple never actually applied the e-commerce rules that it has just relaxed (they were meant to come in force at the end of this month). Perhaps they were told by lawyers that the proposals would attract monopolies sanctions, but rescinding/withdrawing them now was a stroke of genius and a sign of confidence. When push comes to shove, Apple owns the tablet space and there is not a lot that Amazon or anybody else can do about that.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Is Twitter Becoming the Web's Intentional Layer?

Intentionality is a philosophical term of art, and it refers to or 'points to' the directedness or aboutness of much of our mental and linguistic activity. Of much of our action. But 'intentionality' has also been used by web commentators, John Battelle, for one, when he considers the extent to which Google is striving to build a method of search which captures the user's intent and which is at the same time harvesting and modeling intentions and desires:

The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data ......... This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. John Battelle The Database of Intentions, 2003 -- [at that time Battelle gave pride of place in his blog to Google, MSN and Yahoo. I think now he would pick Google, Facebook and Twitter, possibly Amazon and Apple].

My intuitive 'internal model' for thinking about the web is of a constellation of HTML, of piles of content; comparable, and yet exceeding, the largest libraries. But the web is also and quite distinctively a constellation of links, hyperlinks, and these links are intents. Every hyperlink is itself an 'intentional act', a referential act that is also digital, an act that annihilates distance and short-circuits context and time, taking us instantaneously, magically, to the target of the link's intention. Every link that our finger points to on an iPad is the shadow of the intentional act of the author of the link, and the harbinger/blueprint for the intentional act of each user who follows the link. Viewing the web not so much as a static docuverse, but as a dynamic aggregation of usage and process, the intentional power of the web comes from the way it charts and shifts the attention, the intention, and the focus of its users. Google is as much an instrument for choice and for cognitive intent as it is also an engine for search. However there is a case for treating Twitter as a special case, as especially pure and nakedly intentional. Tweets are all about links and intentions and Twitter is building a massive intentional superstructure through the discourse and activity of Twitter users. There are at least three sources for Twitter's pervasive intentionality.

  1. Twitter's atomicity. Twitter's brevity hones the sharpness of a tweet's intentional aim. The 140 word limit forces directedness in tweeting. The character limit requires that the user targets with precision and clear reference the subject that is being tweeted. For a medium with such a narrow bandwidth, Twitter has been extraordinarily effective at finding ways of lassooing content with precision. Think twitpic and bit.ly. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you do not need a thousand words to reference a picture in a tweet. It is not possible to say everything in a tweet (Godel's theorem and The Whitsun Weddings are just too subtle and long), but there is no practical limit to the stuff that one can refer to or touch on with a tweet.
  2. Twitter's asymmetry. Twitter in a deep way echoes the topology of the web, with the asymmetry of the follower/followed relationship matching the asymmetry of the hyperlink (that which is linked to often does not link back; just as I am more likely to follow Stephen Fry than he is to follow me). This asymmetry leads to a much more interesting network than the symmetrical relationships that were at the starting point of Facebook and Linkedin. Twitter piggybacks on the topology of the web (any url can be linked to as can any place on a Google map) but we should notice that it also escapes the web, since a good deal of Twitter activity takes place without the web, in apps, on SMS and mobile phones. Twitter's capillary vessels can run through the web, but they also allow us to wander off into digital by-ways that are beyond the web. This gives scope for broader digital intent and for a layer of crisp intentional communication which is not bound to the web, though it uses it.
  3. Twitter's syntactic devices. Twitter has a repertoire of formal devices which allows users to harness and amplify the intentions of others. The 'follow' relationship is a primary mechanism of amplification, since the tweeter with a large audience is like a speaker with a megaphone. Following is certainly not the only basis for collective action in the Twitter domain. Users have plenty of other devices for amplification and message modulation: 'retweeting', recommendations, Twitter lists, locations, and hashtags are all mechanisms that enable and allow the Twitter user to deploy collective intentionality. It might be better to say that these are mechanisms that allow users to participate in collective intentionality in a new and inherently digital way.
We should be careful not to give excessive focus to Twitter -- which is just the epitome of many other social internet technologies that enable us to share and focus desires, perceptions, references and approval. But Twitter's pure and naked intentional quality defines its usefulness and attractiveness. There are rumours that next week will see Apple announce that iOS 5 will support system level calls to Twitter. If that happens we will see less talk about the iPad being merely a lean back device.