Apple, Adobe, and Consumers

I generally agree with what John Gruber writes. (With the exception of anything he says about the Yankees — misguided fanboy!) He, more than anyone I read regarding technology and user experience (particularly regarding Apple products), just seems to get it. He’s following the Adobe/Apple war of words with respect to Adobe’s Flash platform, and his writing is clear, thoughtful, and enlightening. His recent response to John Nack’s Absolute Power vs. The Pirate Flag is typical of his cool and evenhanded perspective. Detractors might want to label Gruber an Apple fanboy, but they would be wrong. He seems to base his admiration for Apple on solid principles: his appreciation of the company’s design ethic, its commitment to a blending of form and function, and on Apple’s predictability with regard to how it pursues business objectives. (Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I base my admiration of Apple on these traits and I hope that Gruber would agree with me. Whatever.)

In his response to Nack, Gruber observes that tight control is what Apple sees as necessary to its long term success:

I’ve made a similar point myself, as far back as 2008. But it’s folly to pretend there aren’t trade-offs involved — that for however much is lost, squashed by Apple’s control, that different things have not been gained. Apple’s control over the App Store gives it competitive advantages. Users have a system where they can install apps with zero worries about misconfiguration or somehow doing something wrong. That Adobe and other developers benefit least from this new scenario is not Apple’s concern. Apple first, users second, developers last — those are Apple’s priorities.

With regard to the platform generally, I agree with Gruber. Where this begins to break down for me, though, is in the area of content. For the applications which allow users to purchase books, music, and movies, there’s a fourth party in the equation: publishers. I think Apple has put the interests of publishers ahead of consumers, especially when it comes to the iPad. One might argue that Apple privileges publishers out of necessity — without content publishers there’s little compelling reason to buy an iPhone OS device. I think that last sentence in Gruber’s paragraph above should read: Apple first, publishers second, users third, and developers last — those are Apple’s Priorities.

That’s my gripe. I’m a modestly tech savvy person and if it weren’t for the brouhaha that erupted after the iPad was released it wouldn’t have cost me a moment’s thought that the thing ran Flash or not. My biggest frustration with the iPad (and almost all other devices that allow for consuming digital media) is that there are walls around the published content. That’s idiotic. Okay, there are some workarounds — I can read books I buy from Amazon using the iPad’s Kindle app. Barnes and Noble and Borders have announced they’ll support the iPad via apps which tie to their stores. It makes me crazy, though. Imagine I had to have an AT&T app on my phone to talk to friends with AT&T and a different application or service on my phone to call my friends on Sprint. Or that I had to buy an ABC branded TV to watch their programs.

I’m not naive about the problems with digital piracy. But did book publishers learn nothing from watching the music industry? I get it — publishers want to avoid making it easy to steal their products. It’s a gnarly problem, and it’s going to take some effort on the part of the publishing industry to come up with a solution that hits the sweet spot between making content that’s viewable on any device and content that’s easy to steal. But by allowing publisher’s to have this much control, Apple is putting the publishing industry’s interests ahead of mine, and I’m a very invested Apple customer, and I’m unhappy about it.

Apple, it seems to me, is happy to keep the public conversation focused on the issues surrounding whether Flash (or other third-party developer frameworks) should be allowed inside the Apple garden. As long as we’re arguing about Flash, we’re not arguing about whether the ePub books in the Apple store should or shouldn’t be wrapped in the proprietary DRM which prevents them from being read on other devices. To some extent, by engaging in the Flash debates (which I’m using as shorthand for conversation about Apple’s ban on third party developer frameworks), Gruber is helping Apple in this regard. I wish he’d turn his superior intellect to the more relevant problem for consumers: the issue of platform specific, DRM laden digital content.

Posted 13 May 2010 by Mark ·

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