Last week, I imagine Apple supremo Steve Jobs must have felt a bit like Moses when he descended Mount Sinai armed with a top-secret new rule book for life in the Promised Land only to discover that the idolotrous Israelites were going to have none of it.
Jobs’ own version of the Mosaic Tablets, iPad, seems to have been greeted with irreverent scepticism. When so much hype, based on so little verifiable fact, has preceded a launch – even an Apple launch – disappointment is the inevitable result. Nerds carped about the lack of a camera and a less-than-revolutionary departure from the technology of the iPhone. Analysts, noting the high price points and the low number of announced deals with content owners, quickly marked down the Apple share price.
What a difference the perspective of a few days can make, however. With the iPad not yet rolled out, Apple has already won a famous victory against the world’s greatest e-tailer Amazon in the field of virtual books.
Briefly, Amazon has been attempting to establish primacy for its own Kindle product in the growing land-grab for ebook readers by heavily discounting book downloads, much to the consternation of publishers and authors alike. Once there was some credible competition in the field, things changed almost overnight. Macmillan, publisher of among other things Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Wolf Hall, has said it will have no truck with Amazon’s bargain $9.99 and has gone for Apple’s recommended $12.99 upwards per download instead. Presumably other book publishers also signed up with Apple – Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette – have been adopting the same kind of brinksmanship. Whatever, it’s been enough pressure to make the mighty Amazon climb down with humiliating alacrity.
Here we come to the nub of the matter with Apple’s product launch. In itself, the iPad is not all that remarkable. For sure, it’s likely to do its job well, looks beautiful and is easy to use; but technically superior e-readers-cum-netbook-computers are no doubt in the offing. And yet, in this respect iPad is no different to other recent turn-key Apple launches. Neither the iPhone nor the iPod which preceded it were technically cutting edge. What made them truly disruptive products is their relationship with iTunes, the software platform that, in various ways, underpins them. Pulling the focus back a little, one way of looking at Apple over the past decade is as a brand that has metamorphosed from computer-maker into provider of mobile entertainment – the bridge being a software platform.
iBooks, the e-book reading software that dovetails into that platform, is streets ahead of Kindle and Sony’s Reader technology (or so the experts say). Thus the debate about the iPad being no more than a glorified iPod Touch is ultimately sterile since what really matters is whether Apple, through this device or its successors, will come to dominate the burgeoning market in electronic books and newspapers.
And we’re not going to know that until consumers have had a chance to sample it. For some time to come we’re also going to be in the dark about just how much of an appetite exists for the e-reading phenomenon. There are many more boulders strewing the way to market success than inadequate e-reader battery power and unsatisfactory legibility. Here’s Richard Wray of The Guardian on why iPad won’t be iPod II:
“The book industry has a couple of advantages over businesses in other areas which have seen the internet wipe out their profits. The companies trying to sell ebook hardware need the involvement of publishers. When Apple launched the iPod, buyers could take their existing CD library and digitise it. Downloading music from the web came later – the iTunes store was launched two years after the first iPod appeared.
But readers cannot easily digitise their books for a Kindle or iPad. To sell their devices, the likes of Apple and Amazon need publishing firms to agree to make digital versions of bestselling titles available on the same day as the printed work is published. The technology firms recognise that demand for ebook readers will be limited if readers have to wait months to get the latest books.”
This is going to be a longer haul for Steve Jobs. I hope he’s got the patience for it.