1. History, the iPod.
I watched the first iPod key note after Jobs died, and it was the first time I got the model. It wasn’t ‘do differently’ but much simpler – “all you have to do is do it better” – or words to that effect. The first iPod, not 100 songs but a 1000. Not the size of a small paperback but a deck of cards. Not 2 minutes of skip protection but something crazy like an hour, easier to use, and better sound. Cost a packet, way more than every other mp3 player on the market. The difference? Design of course, not just industrial design but experience design and what today is known as service design. This was not just the iPod but also importantly iTunes, a free bit of software that let you manage your music. Then your iPod, and then it became the front end to the music store.
Notice the important bits. iTunes is free, it is software, we think of it as the ‘front end’ but from Apple’s point of view it is really the back end into their music retail empire and a bit of service orientated hardware. It is software + hardware + media. It relies upon existing things (we like music, we pay for it, it is really easy to carry with you and listen to while doing other things), and just makes it easier, and better to do.
2. A digital lifestyle ecology
So this shifted Apple out of being a hardware or a software company. It is now a digital lifestyle service design company that controls, designs, owns, and manages all parts of its systems. So they no longer design a thing like a computer but instead an experience, it is about what you can do with it, and they make sure that that ‘doing’ is as simple and easy to do so that anyone can pretty much get the gist of it (watch a 3 or 4 year old with an iPad). They make sure there is content of some sort, as well as the opportunity to make, share and play. Each of these is important, and easy to do.
3. The app store change (low friction service)
Now once they worked out that the music model works – enough people will pay for the music if you make it easy and cheap enough to do so to make it worth Apple and the music industry’s time – they replicated it with the iPhone and apps. They invented a market for generally low cost bits of software that did little things, hopefully very well. They needed hardware that had enough grunt and smarts (location awareness, a camera, and so on), but because they control the hardware it means if the app complies, it will work. You can only do this if you control the hardware. But the shift in the app store from the music store is that Apple now defined themselves as a publisher. They did this without any of the publishers actually noticing – inventing in the process possibly the only current viable publishing model for our digital economy, and it worked. This is why they will refuse some apps, because they are a publisher, for exactly the same reason that a book publisher will not publish anything that is submitted – for reasons of quality, taste, business, politics, legals (and so on). Apple have been quite explicit about this (Jobs again with his declaration that they will not publish porn).
This causes friction, because those of us on the software side of the fence think if I write a program then it is only up to the user whether or not it gets used. Not some intermediary taking a cut. Except they are no longer a software or hardware company, they aren’t thinking like one, but we still are. On the other hand the ecology of iTunes to iPhone and iPod, and iTunes to the music and app store, via your account, is very low friction (I impulse shop there, and at Amazon for Kindle titles, all the time).
On the other hand because they control the platform it makes writing and publishing easier if you’re a developer. You know what the video format is, the required data rate and pixel dimensions, if you match that, it will play. It is (not quite) pretty close to publish once, run always, which from the user point of view is a god send (how often do you have to troubleshoot an app on an idevice?). This really does matter (we are nerds so think it doesn’t but imagine if you had to tinker with your car on nearly every trip to town, personally I’d give up pretty quickly and rely on my bike).
4. iTunes U, iBooks 2, and that new free app
Same scenario, and the uproar (this is a good sample) about the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) is misreading what Apple have done. (This is not arguing that what they’ve done is right or good, but that we are looking at it from the wrong point of view.) We see the free software, and what it can do, and we think it is about the software. We think the software is the ‘front end’. From Apple’s point of view it is the back end. The front is the new iTunes U and their move into the education market. Like music (and now apps), there is an existing market. A large industry with resources. An audience. They have a platform and now a format that is possibly highly compelling (the Kindle solved buying and reading books finally on a device, but they are still very much books, iBooks 2 are illuminated interactive knowledge manuscripts, they’re so far away from what you do on a Kindle to be a different species all together and for education they are very much what we should be doing). The app is a way to seed that market, but here they are playing a role that falls precisely in between the music and the app store. There are publishers with content so Apple can be their shopfront to the iPad (that’s the music model) But with the app anyone can now make stuff, and give it away or sell it, via their shop front (that’s the app store model).
The thing we are missing is that it isn’t about the app, it’s about the shop and Apple is in the media publishing industry (this is the sort of thing Murdoch and their sort should have done years ago if they actually didn’t have their collective heads so far up their heritage media business models). The app is just like any other self publishing print on demand site out there on the web that lets you upload stuff to be templated into their boilerplate and sold through their site (with a cut to them). But way sexier, smarter and useful (it ain’t print for starters).
So, they can insist on that EULA because they aren’t a software company (but we are still treating them like they are, they’ve moved way past that and we’re the ones left behind here) but a publisher, and the app is just a bit of service software that feeds into the larger system. Without even thinking the agreement is a good idea (I personally don’t agree with it) I don’t know of anyone who thinks a publisher should a) give away what they print for free, or b) let anyone use their hardware/IP (in Apple’s case basically iTunes and the iPad) to sell stuff for free. This is pretty much the same strategy that Amazon have tried to do with their new Kindle Fire, where the biggest and best feature consistently noted by reviewers is how well integrated into the Amazon retail system it is. Same deal, the software nerds are becoming not the tool makers, but the publishers.