In my latest for the Guardian, I finally admit that I get a thrill up my leg every time I visit the Apple store and hold an iPad.
The idea that Apple’s iPad would save newspapers and magazines, always dubious, is so far not even getting a decent tryout. Evangelists for the iPad put forth a vision of users switching from free websites to paid apps.
Since a very good Web browser is built in to the iPad, it was never clear why any more than a handful would pay. And, so far, there are few apps. Among the better-known is the New York Times’ “Editor’s Choice,” a free, experimental app that doesn’t include the full content of the paper. (The Globe is reportedly working on an iPad app, but I have no details.)
PressReader offers some 1,500 papers around the world (neither the Times nor the Boston Globe is available, though the Boston Herald is). But it’s based on a PDF-like representation of the actual pages in the paper, which is no way to read online.
Meanwhile, because Apple has been slow in implementing subscriptions, we have absurdities like Time magazine’s paid app, which costs approximately 650 percent more than a print subscription.
If I had an iPad, here’s what I would want: a simple way to subscribe to the papers I read every day at a much-lower-than-print price. Since I wouldn’t pay $30 a month for an always-on 3G connection, I’d want to download the entire paper via WiFi, and then be able to read it whether I was in a hot spot or not.
It’s not as though what I’m looking for is particularly exotic. In fact, two very good alternatives already exist — yet neither one of them will work with the iPad.
First, the Times and the Globe are both available in low-cost “Reader” editions, built on top of the Adobe Air platform. The Reader, based on flipping pages, is seemingly made for the iPad. But because of Apple’s ongoing battle with Adobe, you can’t run Air on an iPad. (The forthcoming Google tablet, running Air, would be a great way to access Reader content.)
Second, many papers are available on the Amazon Kindle. But though Kindle software runs on a variety of devices, including the iPad, Amazon has restricted newspapers and magazines to its proprietary Kindle devices. If you’re running Kindle software on your laptop or smartphone, you can only use it to download and read books.
So far, it seems, the iPad has been very good for Apple, but not so good for newspaper and magazine publishers. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is that there are no good options even for people who are willing to pay.
Imagine you are trying to start a news site in your community. Your competitor, part of a national chain, offers instant-on, full-screen HD video and a host of other data-intensive features that load the moment you hit “click.” But though you have a broadband connection, even simple videos that you’ve posted load slowly and play in fits and starts.
So you call your Internet provider — most likely Verizon and Comcast — and ask what’s going on. A sales person explains to you that if you want your readers to enjoy the same rich multimedia content as you competitor, then all you have to do is pay another $1,000 a month.
You can’t. You struggle on. And, within six months, you shut down.
That is a likely scenario if we move away from net neutrality — a vitally important principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same. The FCC has been trying to mandate net neutrality, only to be shot down in the federal courts. And today the New York Times reports that Google and Verizon have been involved in negotiations to come up with a multi-tiered Internet with different levels of service and different levels of pricing. [Update: Or perhaps not. See below.]
“It’s like the end of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table,” tweeted new-media strategist Steve Yelvington. In fact, Google at one time had been a leader in pushing for net neturality.
Please understand what net neutrality is not. There is nothing wrong with charging consumers more for better Internet service. Broadband costs more than dial-up, and fast broadband costs more than slow broadband. That’s life.
Rather, this involves the other end of the pipe, to fees that content-providers would pay in order to receive preferential service. It would make it far more difficult for start-ups, low-budget projects and non-profits to compete with big media sites. You might say that’s the whole idea.
Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.
Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.
Josh Silver, president of the advocacy organization Free Press, calls the pending Google-Verizon deal “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, offers some further thoughts.
For more information, including what you can do, check out Save the Internet.
*Update: Sharp-eyed reader Nick Mendez found a tweet from Google Public Policy claiming that the Times got the story wrong. According to @googlepubpolicy: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”
Wow. This bears watching. Will the Times retract the story?
Back in February, we paid $20 for an 18-month subscription to the print edition of Time magazine. All right, it was a “professional” rate, available to us because I’m a journalism professor. But no one pays the full $4.95-per-issue cover price. If you sign up for a subscription online, for instance, you’ll be charged just $19.95 for six months.
So count Time Warner executives among those who have been sucked into Steve Jobs’ famed “reality-distortion zone.” Because they are groping their way toward a paid-content strategy for Time that makes little or no sense. As explained by the Nieman Journalism Lab here and here, it includes these elements:
- The magazine is now available as an iPad app costing a flat $4.99 per issue — no discounts, thank you very much. The same folks who understand fully that you won’t pay some $250 a year for the print edition think you’ll gladly fork over the money so that you’ll have something to read on your new toy.
- The full content of the print edition has been pulled from Time.com, the magazine’s excellent website. There is still a lot of Web-only content available, much of it more, uh, timely and relevant than what appears in print. But when you try to access most articles from the print product, you get a summary and a plea to buy the magazine or the app.
- The paid app is available only for the iPad, even though it would not be difficult to rewrite it for computers and other devices. (There is a Kindle app for Time that costs a far more reasonable $2.99 per month. Then again, what would Time be without great photography?)
- The Web-only content is not included in the iPad app, which means that Time’s best customers will have to fire up Safari to see what they’re missing. And, of course, if there’s any Flash content on Time.com, they won’t be able to see it unless they switch to their computer. (There is some extra content included in the app.)
The folks at Time started with the right idea. Within the past year or so some pretty smart people have concluded that print and the Web should be used for different things, with the Web being used for breaking news, community and participation. Just as an experiment, it would be interesting to see whether Time could build a successful website without relying on content from the print edition.
But app fever is clouding Time’s judgment. The print edition arrives at Media Nation without fail every Saturday, and we didn’t even have to drop $500 on an iPad to get it. Slick as the app may be, it’s not as slick as glossy paper.
At the moment, Time is not offering a subscription to its app — it’s sold strictly on an issue-by-issue basis. When subscriptions do become available, Time ought to drop the price so that it’s the same as the print edition. Only then will we be able to see if there’s any demand.
The case for Apple’s iPad seems clear enough. Some 700,000 were sold on Saturday, which was double what had been predicted.
The case against the iPad is based on two different but related arguments. First, critics say the iPad is designed mainly for consuming rather than creating content, and that it thus represents a corporate-driven attempt to put the Internet genie back in the bottle and return us to our former status as passive couch potatoes. Second, the iPad is a closed system controlled entirely by Apple, and will therefore stifle the sort of innovation that gave rise to such phenomena as Google and Twitter.
Both propositions are true. Yet they strike me as overblown.
The case against the iPad as a consumption-oriented device is summed up well by Jeff Jarvis, who writes — accurately, I think — that a principal reason the device has been the recipient of so much media buzz is that media executives see this as a chance for a do-over: this time, moguls will control the content and consumers will pay for it. Jarvis writes:
The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them.
Yet the iPad isn’t just a repository for paid apps; it’s also a pretty good machine for browsing the Web. If you are currently reading the New York Times on the Web rather than paying for electronic delivery through Times Reader, for instance, well, the iPad will let you keep right on doing that.
As for participation and conversation, the iPad’s virtual keyboard is pretty lousy (based on my brief encounter with it at the Apple store in Peabody on Saturday), but it’s good enough for posting to Twitter and Facebook, or even for writing short blog posts.
Besides, as Howard Owens notes, “The vast majority of people … are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.”
The tech argument against the iPad strikes me as even more esoteric. The idea is that by requiring developers to write apps within a rigid, closed universe, to get them approved by Apple and to share revenues with Apple, Steve Jobs is stifling the innovation that gave rise to both the personal computer and the Internet.
At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow waxes rhapsodic over the days when the Apple II Plus came with schematics for the circuit boards, and quotes something called the “Maker Manifesto” in writing, “Screws not glue.” Doctorow’s point is that we should be able to rip our devices apart and customize them the way we like. Needless to say, Doctorow is not talking to too many people — just his fellow hackers.
Now, I don’t find either Jarvis’ or Doctorow’s critiques to be entirely without merit. But I’m proceeding on the assumption that the iPad is not going to take over the world. The iPad is an auxiliary device that will not take the place of computers. It’s also only one model for how to make a tablet computer. As Jarvis notes, Google is said to be working on a model, and it’s likely to be far more open than Apple’s. We’ll see if it’s as popular.
Personally, I’m not all that impressed with the iPad. I got to spend about 10 minutes with one on Saturday. Granted, that wasn’t really enough time to put it through its paces. But it was enough to see that the display is no better than that of a good-quality laptop; that the virtual keyboard is fairly unusable (you’ll be able to buy a plug-in keyboard, but wouldn’t you rather have a netbook?); and that it’s too heavy to wield like a magazine or newspaper.
Even for pure media consumption, it’s not necessarily better than a laptop. I’d rather take an iPad into the living room. But a laptop is better for propping up on the kitchen table during breakfast, because you don’t have to hold it up in front of you. I might get a later, presumably lighter, version. But I’m not salivating.
The ridiculous amount of hype that has surrounded the iPad, to which I am now contributing, has made all of us think this is more important than it really is. It’s not going to save the traditional media, however much media executives may wish it, and however much Jarvis and Doctorow may be gnashing their teeth.