Why You Shouldn’t Buy an iPad

I’ve already voiced my belief that the iPad will ultimately be a disappointment. It’s certain that Apple will sell millions of the devices to technophile early adopters but the prospects for the broader market are mixed and considering that Jobs has declared the iPad the “most important thing I’ve ever done” well I can’t help but recall that pride cometh before the fall.

I admit to having mixed feelings about this myself, thinking that having a giant iPod Touch would actually be really cool in spite of the cost of acquisition and cost of operating it (assuming you believe 3G is essential for a portable device like this). Then there are the add-on charges that app developers believe they are entitled to… some are certainly justified but for publishers charging 2 and 3x for iPad apps vs their iPhone apps, I feel repulsed.

Publishers are approaching the iPad like a holy grail that gives them the superpowers to avoid having to reinvent their businesses. It won’t do that and if Time Magazine really believes their iPad version is worth $5 an issue then the only explanation is that they are taking all their leftover print mags and rolling something up in them and smoking it.

The whole notion of having “an issue” really underscores how publishers still don’t understand what is going on with digital content. I, like most of the market, don’t want to read a compilation of content like I had to do with print. I want digitally connected content that brings together many sources topically or theme

Cory Doctorow wrote something today that goes far beyond the iPad specific issues and speaks to the broader trends with devices like this (and the iPhone and the Kindle and many more) that ultimately prove themselves to be hostile to consumers. Take for example the proliferation of DRM that prevents legitimate sharing of content:

And let’s look at the iStore. For a company whose CEO professes a hatred of DRM, Apple sure has made DRM its alpha and omega. Having gotten into business with the two industries that most believe that you shouldn’t be able to modify your hardware, load your own software on it, write software for it, override instructions given to it by the mothership (the entertainment industry and the phone companies), Apple has defined its business around these principles. It uses DRM to control what can run on your devices, which means that Apple’s customers can’t take their “iContent” with them to competing devices, and Apple developers can’t sell on their own terms.

[From Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing]

Not only are we passively accepting the locking down of content that otherwise could be legally shared but publishers are using this pacifism to pressure channels to mimic physical goods pricing with digital products that have nowhere near the cost of production and distribution that physical goods have.

The arrival of the iPad, another locked down device, resulted in an unwelcome surprise from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, which is that publishers will now set pricing on these digital content networks rather than risk having valuable content held back in favor of Apple. It is somewhat ironic that Apple is the catalyst for this move having launched the iPod with a controversial one size fits all pricing model that content owners, then and still now, gripe about but the arrival of the iPad and another dedicated content network highlights how when interoperability of content is not allowed the content owners end up being the ones with real power because they can play the devices off each other.

Doctorow also goes on to criticize Apple, and everyone else if you accept his argument, for offering a sealed hardware device that can only be extended via software applications that the very access to is controlled by Apple. There is a valid point here that abstracting the hardware layer and making it physically inaccessible gives great power to the manufacturer.

Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

This trend was not started by Apple, it has pervaded consumer goods for decades as our society has embraced disposability over repair and durability. I doubt it will change and in many ways cannot fault Apple for sealing the device but I still cringe when my iPhone battery is on red and I can’t swap in a freshly charged battery… this is where convenience for Apple results in inconvenience for the consumer.

BTW, if we could do away with the tired “even my mother could do it” metaphor we would all be better off… not only is it sexist but it rarely holds up these days… moms are not genetically disadvantaged when it comes to tech.

Like I said at the top of this post, Apple will sell millions of these devices but I don’t believe it will achieve the lofty dreams of the hardcore apple fanboys. It’s not a laptop replacement… and you still need a computer to interact with it so it’s not a new computing model. It’s not even a new computing paradigm because tablets have existed for years and we’ll all been having fun with the iPod and iPhone for a while now. App developers and publishers are wildly enthusiastic about this device but jeez what do you expect them to be… downbeat?

It’s not a phone and it should not be one either… why would you want another number and another service (like Google Voice) to manage the call routing with? I’m reminded of Zoolander with the micro cell phone, only in this picture it’s a supersized iPhone that still doesn’t have the benefits of integrated voice telephony and data… because the carriers aren’t doing that. Maybe Apple (and AT&T) will allow for the tethering of iPads and iPhones… but maybe not… either way it’s not something they talk about now so even though it’s an obvious benefit for users why should we believe they will do it?

This gets to the last point, which is the one that I believe Doctorow is trying to make, which is that you, as a company, have to decide what side you are going to fight for, consumers or partners. You can’t have it both ways and in Apple’s case they went from standing up for clear benefits for customers with the original iPod to now benefiting telcos and content owners, as well as themselves. Amazon is guilty of this as well, rarely has a business been more pro-consumer than Amazon yet by caving to publishers they are saying that their growth aspirations for their Kindle business are more important than standing up for consumers.

Relying on incumbents to produce your revolutions is not a good strategy. They’re apt to take all the stuff that makes their products great and try to use technology to charge you extra for it, or prohibit it altogether.

The Market for E-Readers

I agree with this statement:

But industry executives believe the time has come for consumers to begin embracing dedicated readers, especially as the prices fall into a comfortable range.

“There were readers who were perhaps unable to join the digital reading environment because our prior products might have been cost prohibitive,” said Brennan Mullin, vice president of the audio and digital reading divisions at Sony. “These latest products are breaking that barrier.”

[From Market for e-readers may be turning a page]

However, I think the hardware vendors miss the point that it ain’t about the device anymore… it’s about the content. Amazon, like Apple with iTunes, was able to translate an engineering achievement into mass market success because they made it drop dead easy to enjoy content on the device and they lined up a huge inventory of content that could be enjoyed.

The Sony e-reader is a superior device to the Kindle in many ways, but like Sony’s failures with digital music services their e-reader has lagged because Sony does not have anything comparable to Amazon’s service integration for content.

The Plastic Logic device is one to watch because they have the wireless deal in place as well as a relationship with Barnes & Noble to integrate content merchandising and fulfillment. This is smart but in many ways they are set up to always be “Avis to Hertz”… as in we’re number 2 but we try harder. It remains to be seen whether a competitor to Amazon that is simply a lot like Amazon can achieve the market momentum necessary to carry them forward in the U.S. market, which for reasons I can’t explain, operates as a zero sum outcome for digital services, as in a winner and a bunch of losers.

That Sony could fumble their clear multi-year advantage in e-readers is mind boggling, right up their with whiffing digital music and screwing up the goose that laid their golden eggs… the PS3. At this point I think it is beyond debate that this company is incapable of asserting leadership in any digital services market, the preferred outcome for Sony shareholders should be to break up the company and sell it off piecemeal.

Cloud Computing and the Morning After

I just read a very interesting op-ed about the opportunities and hazards of cloud computing and it resonated with me on several levels.

Some are in plain view. If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service. Last week Amazon apparently conveyed a publisher’s change-of-heart to owners of its Kindle e-book reader: some purchasers of Orwell’s “1984” found it removed from their devices, with nothing to show for their purchase other than a refund. (Orwell would be amused.)

Worse, data stored online has less privacy protection both in practice and under the law. A hacker recently guessed the password to the personal e-mail account of a Twitter employee, and was thus able to extract the employee’s Google password. That in turn compromised a trove of Twitter’s corporate documents stored too conveniently in the cloud. Before, the bad guys usually needed to get their hands on people’s computers to see their secrets; in today’s cloud all you need is a password.

Thanks in part to the Patriot Act, the federal government has been able to demand some details of your online activities from service providers — and not to tell you about it. There have been thousands of such requests lodged since the law was passed, and the F.B.I.’s own audits have shown that there can be plenty of overreach — perhaps wholly inadvertent — in requests like these.

[From Op-Ed Contributor - Lost in the Cloud - NYTimes.com]

In recent weeks we have seen the downside of relying on third party hosted application services and having devices tethered to a remote service provider, but these recent incidents are really nothing new. Apple has over the years faced some pretty intense criticism for the control they exert over iTunes and the lengths to which they will go to restrict access by third parties, whether it be the restrictive DRM on iTunes content or their continued skirmishes with iPhone jailbreakers.

The recent case of Amazon deleting books their customers purchased that they were not authorized to sell is particularly egregious and despite their mea culpa and promise to never do it again, consumers are right to be concerned about intrusions onto their personal property by remote service providers. It is something I am increasingly concerned about, not because of bad intentions but simply because this new frontier is increasingly hostile to something that forms the very foundation of the American way of life, property rights.

Imagine the consequences if Best Buy broke into your home to search for pirated DVDs that you were playing on a device you purchased from them, these consequences would be criminal and beyond debate. Now imagine what would happen if Amazon deleted ebooks that were not authorized for digital distribution and hacked onto a Kindle (because you can’t get Kindle content legitimately anywhere but Amazon, indeed their DRM scheme is proprietary) or Apple deleted songs that were not downloaded from iTunes or Google cancelled your Gmail account because of a terms of service violation and didn’t give you your email? What would happen… bubkus because the only consequence would be public outcry and some bad PR.

Meanwhile, the Federal government wants to be a repository for my personal medical records, while also aspiring to be my insurance providers, several states are considering a vehicle tax tied to actual mileage that would be recorded through an in-vehicle transmitter, California is pushing to mandate pay-as-you-go insurance and registration fees which would again rely on forced transmitting of miles driven, and utilities are mandating smart-grid meters for electricity and gas usage that monitor in real time what you are consuming.

All of this is more than a little unsettling and while we are seeing tremendous innovations I can’t help but feel that we are getting ahead of our ability to adjust our regulatory and law enforcement framework to deal with the universal issue of my data, who can see it, and under what protocols. The privacy pendulum has in recent years swung wide in one direction as consumers increasingly express little concern about companies having our data and accessing our devices, the question remains whether that pendulum will swing back violently in the other direction or simply adjust periodically.

Kindle 2 Far

When the Kindle achieves the size of a netbook computer at the same price point but does just one thing… a legitimate question to ask is “what’s the point?”.

The device, called the Kindle DX (for Deluxe), has a screen that is two and a half times the size of the screens on the two older versions of the Kindle, which were primarily aimed at displaying books. The price tag is also larger: the DX will sell for $489, or $130 more than the previous model, the Kindle 2, and will go on sale this summer.

[From Amazon Introduces Big-Screen Kindle - NYTimes.com]

The Kindle 2 is brilliant, my wife is a true addict, but making it bigger is not an improvement. What would make the Kindle 2 better?

1) color screen

2) ability to handle video

3) a workaround for the DRM so you can share content

4) an improved battery technology so that color and video processing doesn’t result in a 2 hour device.

Electronic Device Stirs Unease at BookExpo

The Kindle has publishers worried that Amazon will use the popularity of the device to drive down prices. I, on the other hand, don’t share that concern. Also, good data in this article pointing to real growth in the electronic book segment of the industry.

Nearly all publishers say their sales of electronic books are growing exponentially. Carolyn K. Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, said its sales of electronic books will more than double this year compared to last year, after growing 40 percent in 2007 from 2006. David Shanks, the chief executive of Penguin Group USA, said his company sold more electronic books in the first four months of 2008 than in all of last year.

[From Electronic Device Stirs Unease at BookExpo - NYTimes.com]

Amazon Kindle or Bezos’ Windmill?

Amazon is highlighting the fact that Kindles are available for immediate shipment following long delays following unprecedented early demand. That Amazon is devoting the choicest real estate on their site to the Kindle, as well as publishing their shareholder letter, underscore the commitment that Amazon is making to this device.

I’ve been watching the Kindle with a high degree of curiosity, fully aware that no electronic book reader has ever gone mass market despite some impressive technology achievements. It has not been lost on me that the reason why the Kindle is different is that Amazon is not a consumer electronics company, they are a retailer that has an enormous amount of clout in the content side of publishing and that is exactly what is required to drive success in electronic books.

It’s clear that Bezos sees a day when any and all content can be delivered to a Kindle and not only won’t Amazon have to store inventory, they also won’t have to ship anything but the Kindle itself to support their book business. In that light, the Kindle totally fits and is an impressive disruptive strategy to boot. Having said that, we have 550 years of mechanical printing to overcome and in terms of simplicity and cost, it’s hard to beat a hardcopy book.

I’m still skeptical that in the next 10 years we will be able to displace print but in many categories not only will this be success but it could be transformative as well. Can you imagine the capabilities that would be made available in classrooms if textbooks were available electronically for the Kindle and then integrated with social network capabilities? Take magazines and other periodicals as another example of a category that could be transformed with electronic delivery.

Still, even though I’ve had one on backorder for my wife, I think I’ll hold out for a little while.

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