These days it’s pretty fashionable to discuss the iPad, and indeed the other evening Jerome, (the other co-founder of Ars Aperta) and I were talking about the iPad when he made a comment that is I think the key to understand Apple’s strategy. Just after Steve Jobs had made the statement that there is a market for paid digital content on the D8 stage, something that he is essentially right about, Cory Doctorow had written an article which I find essential as it phrases what the problem is with the iPad. But let’s go back to Jerome’s comment: Ever since the return of Steve Jobs at Apple through the acquisition of his former company NeXT, the perception that Macs are for creative people is still around, but has proven to be very much wrong. In fact, Macs are fantastic computers designed for consumers of digital content. Let’s never forget that Steve Jobs used to buy what would become Pixar from the LucasFilm company and that he sold it back to Disney, becoming one of its shareholders in the process.
Steve Jobs is therefore a many of the “entertainment industry” as much as he’s an IT genius. Too many people forget it. Because of the focus on developing and selling machines for digital content consumers who are supposed to pay for it, one can come to see the iPad as one other device to consume paid content. The point, unfortunately, is that the lines are very much blurred at this stage between pundits taking on the angle of the tablet metaphor and the ones focusing on the business model instigated by Apple on the iPad (and the iPhone, indirectly).
The fact that the iPad is not capable of multitasking might have come as a disappointment to mostly IT people, but it’s beside the point: We will see multitasking iPads, make no mistake about it. The problem, and the one that Cory Doctorow does in fact properly discuss in his article, is not the hardware. The hardware is very nice, somewhat weak, but it will improve anyway. The problem lies in the economic model of the iPad: Digital content publishers adapt to one particular sales channel for one or two specific devices with a revenue sharing model that does not seem to satisfy them for the most part, and by doing this they essentially relinquish control to one player (Apple) controlling both the delivery channel and the device. That does not end there. The device itself, be it an iPhone or an iPad, is not meant as something you can create anything with. Sure, there’s IWorks, but that hardly counts as a truly creative software. Anyone can get an office suite. On the iPad… you can only have this one. So because of the tablet metaphor, which in itself is not bad at all, the content delivery channel and the inherent limitation of the software platform, the iPad turns its “owners”‘ as passive consumers of digital content.
Now, there is surely a market for paid digital content. It would be better if this paid content was in the form of non-DRM riddled open standards and if you could actually have the tools to freely collaborate, share and create. That’s not what the iPad is intended to do. And that’s where Cory’s article hits the target. But there is more: the civilization in which the solely accepted way to use software and digital content is to be a passive consumer is over. It may perhaps never have really existed. The reasons for this are complex, and relate directly to the very end of the mass consumerism era as we know it, with its environmental and social damages (see the Story of Stuff for instance) it induces.
The iPad essentially is perhaps a beautiful tool, but it litteraly frames us in an environment where the only accepted form of creative creation comes from the established entertainment industry. It’s the television that everyone can take in his/her hands, and that dream already existed for 3G phones 10 years ago. But today, in the age of social networks, collaborative platforms, free and open source software, this model looks strangely outdated. As the famous sociologist Bernard Stiegler puts it, people have become sick of mass consumerism and eerie marketing strategies that tend to frame people as objects. Entertainment consumerism is no different. And the irony of all this is that we still perceive macs as being computers for the creative bunch. It’s actually quite the contrary. And that’s why, by the way, my next laptop will not be a mac, inasmuch as I love its hardware. Macs, iPads, iPhone will continue to generate enormous revenue, but they have it backwards and will have to be reinvented (again): Apples never fall far from the tree…