Comments on

The Quick Read

Original entry posted: Wed Feb 4 16:50:58 2009

John @ Wed Feb 4 23:36:01 2009 EST

"One wonders why?" Apple's entry into the market would be a boon because it's the best equipped to grow the market--to convince the world that this is something they might like doing, and to make the experience easy enough that people can succeed at doing it. Apple did it with the iPod (the first digital audio player my mom could put music on and use without help), the iPhone (the first phone with a web browser people actually want to use), and arguably, they did it with the GUI on the PC as well (albeit indirectly, through MS and Windows which were "inspired by" the Mac).

As for "censorship," Apple's attitude towards applications in the App Store is very different than its policies when it's in the role of a retailer for "data" (for lack of a better term) content. Right or wrong, Apple feels that it's shaping the future of its iPhone platform with the choices it makes in the App Store. When it comes to selling music, movies and other content that is not vital to the success of a budding Apple-owned development platform, Apple seems open to pretty much everything short of porn (though some movies for sale likely come close).

Thomas @ Thu Feb 5 06:54:44 2009 EST

On the former, you're certainly entitled to your opinion. I don't think the experience is necessarily difficult, or that even Apple could market reading to the public. But we can agree to disagree.

On the latter, I'm less convinced: what about the novel sold in the app store, where the author found himself forced to remove language in order to get it published?

To me, that doesn't have anything to do with growing the development platform. It has to do with Apple's sometimes excessive control tendencies. Granted, they're better about that kind of thing when it comes to the music store, which obviously stocks explicit materials. But at the same time, who's to say which approach they'd take with books? You'll just have to excuse me if I'm not comfortable with that.

While I'm not always a huge fan of Amazon's decision with Kindle to throw the doors open for self-publishing and free store access, you have to admit that it's an approach Apple would have never taken. Does it have anything to do with the success of the store? Probably not. Does it make me feel a lot better about shopping there? Absolutely.

John @ Thu Feb 5 08:23:43 2009 EST

"what about the novel sold in the app store, where the author found himself forced to remove language in order to get it published?"

That's because the App Store is for selling (wait for it...) applications, not books! If a rapper uploaded a profanity-filled song to the App Store in the form of a single-use application for the iPhone, it'd probably get rejected too, even if that same song is already for sale in the iTunes music store (with an "explicit" label, naturally). Same Apple making the decisions on what to sell, different contexts for selling things.

IMO, all single-book apps should be rejected from the App Store. It's just the wrong place and the wrong way to sell e-books. (E-book *readers* (i.e., *applications* for reading books) are appropriate for sale in the App Store.) I'm baffled as to why Apple allows single-app books at all, but clearly the rules for applications are being applied to them (imagine an application with profanity or nudity in the user interface) rather than the rules for content, which apply in the iTunes music and movie stores.

Thomas @ Thu Feb 5 08:50:28 2009 EST

You're making a distinction between application data and content that I simply don't think exists, except in Apple's arbitrary rules.

Say an e-book application, one that's capable of loading books over the air, goes up for sale in the store, and someone puts a "profanity-laced" book on it. (I think it's unclear that the book was actually that obscene, which is in itself worrying. It's not like it was the Kama Sutra, or Atlas Shrugged, after all. Who says what's "obscene?")

What's the difference between these two situations? In both cases, a program was used to load and display material that some people would consider offensive. One of them simply comes with its text preloaded. If the text had been one of several choices available to the reader, is it still obscene? Where do you draw the line?

You can't say that Apple leaves content alone, and then act like the content loaded by applications is somehow different. It's not. Moreover, that content has nothing to do with the strength of the iPhone as a development platform, which is the excuse you've given above for their actions. You had a Palm. Remember the number of sleazy applications available for it? But no-one would ever say that was an unhealthy software ecosystem.

Regardless, my wider point would be that books--or "texts," if you insist--have a very different context when it comes to banning and censorship in this country. The ALA got 420 challenges this year, a number which they estimate is possibly one-fifth of the total number of actual challenges filed with schools and libraries. How does a retailer deal with that?

Amazon's approach is to abdicate the entire role of content gatekeeper--there's a hell of a lot of "offensive" material being published via Kindle, although I don't know what kind of success it's having. Apple, I have to imagine, would not be willing to do that. And while you may have a great deal of trust in their integrity, that's simply not true for everyone, and it's definitely not true for me.

I liked your article, John (assuming that this is Siracusa who's commenting here). But you spent two out of seven pages on Apple, for an article titled the "once and future e-book." You're strongly making the case that the iPhone is the future of those e-books--or at least, it's one aspect of that future. I'm not averse to that, although I don't think it's really necessary either. But given their recent behavior, I don't think it's inappropriate to raise concerns about their ability to serve as a neutral literary gateway.

John @ Thu Feb 5 10:35:53 2009 EST

"You're making a distinction between application data and content that I simply don't think exists, except in Apple's arbitrary rules."

That's exactly where it exists, and exactly where it's relevant in this context. You fear Apple will unduly "censor" (I dislike the use of that word here for many reasons, but that's another story) content. I'm saying I do not share your fear, given Apple's history of selling content and the (yes, seemingly arbitrary) rules it's chosen to enforce in that context, vs. the App Store context.

To rephrase and summarize the issue: "Why would you want Apple to become an e-book retailer? Won't they limit the content available in ways that you disagree with, just as they've done with books in the App Store." My answer: "I don't think Apple will use the same rules when retailing e-books as they do when selling applications." (...with the corollary that, for the most part, I don't disagree with their content policies in their existing media retail stores.)

Again, though the distinction between these two contexts (App Store vs. media retailing) seems arbitrary, they're obviously significant to Apple, which alters its policies based on them. And that's the issue here: "What will Apple do?" Not "are these contexts really meaningfully distinct." It doesn't matter. It only matters how Apple views them and acts upon them.

"Moreover, that content has nothing to do with the strength of the iPhone as a development platform, which is the excuse you've given above for their actions."

It's not an "excuse," it's an explanation of what I believe to be their reasoning behind the decision. New platforms are a delicate thing. Nurturing them has less to do with technology and more to do with this kind of touchy-feely stuff. For example, imagine if Apple allowed porn apps. They'd quickly multiply and the iPhone would get an unfavorable reputation in the eyes of many consumers as as device that they do not want to be associated with. That'd hurt the platform's mass-market potential.

"you spent two out of seven pages on Apple, for an article titled the "once and future e-book." You're strongly making the case that the iPhone is the future of those e-books--or at least, it's one aspect of that future."

The case was that Apple was best positioned to dominate the market, and is still best positioned to grow it the fastest. Whether this will actually happen or not is another issue. If anything, the article comes down on the opposite side, suggesting that Apple will not even enter this market because it's just not interested. That's far from "making the case that the iPhone is the future of those e-books" :)

As for whether I want Apple to enter the market, I do, but mostly because (again) I believe Apple to be best positioned to finally grow the market past critical mass, and because I want the e-book market to (finally) do so, after all these years.

Thomas @ Thu Feb 5 11:13:20 2009 EST

Fair enough. I see your point that it's Apple's perception of their rules, and not their internal consistency, that matters. That said, drawing that distinction doesn't make me any more comfortable with it.

I still, however, disagree that they're best positioned to grow the market. It still strikes me as wishful thinking, because you know who was really in a good position to enter the e-book market? A big, online-only book retailer. And they did.

I don't know that I'd call the Kindle the iPod of e-books. I'd actually go further. I'd say it's the iPhone of e-books: a platform for deployment that has parallels to the App Store as much as to iTunes. Wishing for the iPhone--or something like it--to come in and radically shift the market seems, to me at least, to be missing the point. That's already happened, which is the point I was trying to make in the main body of the post.

John @ Thu Feb 5 14:20:18 2009 EST

"you know who was really in a good position to enter the e-book market? A big, online-only book retailer. And they did."

Amazon's a strong #2, but they didn't have a device to deploy on, so they had to make one. Making such a thing is not one of Amazon's core strengths, and I think it shows. Apple has the most successful digital media store and is also a great device maker and has an excellent track record dragging content owners into the digital world.

"Wishing for the iPhone--or something like it--to come in and radically shift the market seems, to me at least, to be missing the point. That's already happened, which is the point I was trying to make in the main body of the post."

It's the distinction between asking people to buy a new device just for reading and asking people to read on a device they already purchased for other reasons. Dedicated readers are a necessary part of a mature reader market, but you can grow faster if you don't have to ask new customers to buy an expensive device just for reading. It's much easier (though still not "easy" :) to get them to download a free app for a device they already own and then sell them their first book for $10.

Again, I'm not saying Amazon can't or won't do it, just that it'd be a faster ramp-up targeting existing devices that are already out there in much greater numbers (currently, say, 1 million Kindles in the market vs. 13 million iPhones alone (dunno how many iPod Touches)).

Thomas @ Thu Feb 5 15:09:49 2009 EST


It's the distinction between asking people to buy a new device just for reading and asking people to read on a device they already purchased for other reasons.


You know Amazon owns MobiPocket, which provides just such a service, right? And sells many of the same books that are available on Kindle? Supports a broad range of smartphones, including Blackberry, PalmOS, Windows Mobile, S60 (my personal favorite), and a variety of eBook readers? Using a free application, no less.

Hell, a few Perl scripts, and you can even buy books for your Kindle there. If you feel like giving up the speed/wireless connection that makes a Kindle better in the first place, that is. And since it's based on the ancient .prc format, you could probably throw them on your iPhone, too, if someone made a client or you unlocked them.

But you already know this, since you've worked for something similar, and you covered that in your article. Which is why I don't understand the outsized focus on Apple, gatekeeper issues or not.

I guess it just doesn't make any sense to me to call Amazon a "strong #2" to Apple. They own an existing cross-platform distribution system. They're strongly associated with books. They have extensive experience with delivering online applications. I don't even think they're that bad at design--I don't know what your experience with Kindle is (didn't the other John write the review for Ars), but the comment thread for your own article is full of people saying "I thought this was kind of silly, and then I got a Kindle and I can't imagine living without it."

Again, it just seems more like you want an official Apple e-book reader, and less that anyone actually needs them to swoop in and save the industry.

John @ Thu Feb 5 16:27:25 2009 EST

Mobi is not getting anything near the traction that the Kindle is--inside or outside Amazon. I don't mean to dismiss them, but like Peanut, they've been around forever and just have not broken through, for a variety of reasons. The Kindle is starting to.

My assumption is that any Apple effort in this area would be backed by an iPod/iTunes/iPhone-like marketing push. You know, the magic that makes people think Apple is the first company to do X, where X really existed for some time before, but was not well-known or not provided in such a nice, convenient package.

Furthermore, I do think there's an advantage to being truly end-to-end. The only way Amazon can do that is with its dedicated reader. Apple has "the device that people already own for other reasons" threefold: iPod, iPhone, and Mac. Given that I think targeting such a device is the best strategy for growth to critical mass, it's not surprising that I put Apple at #1. Amazon, even allowing for the optimistic notion that Mobi will ever get the attention that the Kindle currently gets, simply does not have this last piece of the puzzle under its umbrella.



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