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All Paid for iPad

April 13, 2010

The iPad has had more than enough media attention in the last week or two to justify a diagnosis that the question of whether Apple has released “the next big thing” is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.  One related question of particular interest has been making headlines (literally) all over just about every medium: “Is The iPad Going To Save The Publishing Industry?”  The consensus seems to think so–perhaps in a bout of delirious optimism–but either way, there are too many voices in this cacophony of speculation to add much of a meaningful personal contribution to the debate of what the net effect of the iPad will be, but there are a few salient points of analysis that deserve to rise above the din.

Though it’s been observed by savvier technologists before, one must start with the understanding that the iPad will only generate profits by creating artificial scarcity in a digital world.  Namely, the iPad must restrict the channels of free speech that would otherwise freely flow on any internet-enabled device.  Users will not be free to customize and rearrange the flow of bits, media, and information that comes through the iPad, and because Apple will control a very popular choke point, it can use its leverage on that platform to create profits for upstream content providers.  Viewed in that light, one wonders why an iPad would create any profits whatsoever.  The software and interaction with the media certainly isn’t an advancement over current technologies; it’s the hardware that makes reading a joy, and Apple has always excelled at creating hardware with the salivary experience in mind.  The problem is that the content providers haven’t changed their business model; it’s still just digital content plus ads.  In the end, if the iPad still has access to an unfettered internet (which might yet be a bold assumption), Apple is going to have to crack down and control the flow of information to prevent free (as in beer) content from taking over.

Apple may happily help to remit some readers’ and free riders’ money and consumer surplus back into the hands of the publishers and content producers who had gotten the shorter end of the digital stick.  In a way, the defiance of those market forces is probably good for the overall content ecosystem; keeping artificially more producers in the game than the digital market would provide is like correcting an externality.  Of course, when Apple does it in a way that reserves total censorial control and discretion, that should require a consumer base with a faith peculiar to that Apple-cultivated cult of infallibility.  However, these days, it seems as though consumers don’t even question the structure behind the device that’s being shoved into their hands; they just accept it because “it’s cool.”  It’s packaging.  I personally can’t help but think of the Orwellian maxim that Apple, in a poetic inversion reminiscent of Google’s own promise to not “be evil,” has contradicted in its ripe old age of monopoly and profitability: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”  In the case of Apple, that’s not the people anymore.

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