Back To The Past: Is the iPad a new revolution or a return to locked down media control?

Everybody loves the iPad.  The first weekend of availability produced 300,000 units sold and over a millions apps downloaded, according to Apple.  It’s a God-send, and we’ll all benefit infinitely from its arrival, everyone says.  Well, not quite everyone.  There’s a segment of people out there who are voicing a concern, justifiably so, in my opinion, that the iPad is a step backward from open and interactive internet to locked-down, strictly consumer controls of the past.  Here’s media pundit Jeff Jarvis’ take on the matter. He makes some very cogent points, the most important of which is his reasoning that big media is getting behind the iPad because its very nature turns the audience back into strictly consumers under their control again.  And if you don’t believe that there are many people within the media business who would like to put the web genie back in the lamp, and do away with the new-found freedoms everyone has with regards to controlling and creating their own content today, you’re kidding yourself.  Will it work?  In a word, no, but that’s not going to stop them from trying because they’ve had a decade and a half to figure out how to adapt to the changes in the marketplace and still can’t get out of their own out-dated business model thinking.

Here’s a quote:

“So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.”

Now, here’s another similar point of view from writer Cory Doctorow. He, also, makes some very nice points in the same vein, about how the iPad is a device designed to stifle some of the very freedoms that have opened the web to all of us and made it so very useful.  The part I like most is his reference to the Marvel Comics iPad app and how it transitions us away from some of the very behaviors that the comic book business was built on in the first place, namely the ability to share.  With this app, you can buy comics in a digital version, but you can’t transfer them, can’t share them, can’t give them to your fiends, can’t resell them, can’t do anything except the few limited things Marvel allows you to.  He talks a bit about the old days of pouring through comic book stores racks of back issues and used comics, and how that helped not only expand the business to other people, but made it all that much more exciting to its fans.

I’ve often had a similar feeling with regards to digital music and movies.  Over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune buying CDs and DVDs, amassing large collections of each.  The one positive to all this was that, in occasional periods of hard times, I could sell off some of my inventory to pay the  bills.  I did this about a year and a half ago, for instance, parting ways with a sizable number of DVDs because I needed the money.  With these kinds of new digital age products, the entire after market ceases to exist because, even though we actually have paid for these products, we don’t actually own them.  We are allowed to use them, per the terms big media sets, but that is all.  Anything else is deemed infringement and is probably illegal.  This is an enormous step backwards  that takes away much of the power of the consumer, not to mention that it does direct harm to the creators.  Big media companies have never seen the value inherent in the after-market for their products, primarily because they weren’t getting a direct cut of the pie.  But that exposure and availability of used material opened up their products to a wider audience, expanding the pool of fans and product consumers for their next release.  These kinds of limitations destroy that after-market, and with it, a significant portion of the potential business in the future.  But in order to appreciate those affects, you have to be able to see past the immediate point of sale value of today to long-term brand value.  Most media just doesn’t get that.

I often cite The Grateful Dead when I talk about this kind of stuff.  The Dead built their legacy on the open and free distribution of bootleg copies of concert recordings made by their own fans, hauling their own recording equipment into shows, and traded freely in the parking lot.  The Dead didn’t find success because of any great recording industry marketing machine, but from a vast network of fans who spread the word on their own in a network of community that any internet junkie today would be proud of.  With the kinds of restrictions on recordings that are being foisted on us today, that never would have been possible.  And that’s the way Big Media likes it.  After all, total control of distribution is how they make their money.

Here’s a quote from Doctorow:

“So what does Marvel do to “enhance” its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvelous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites.”

In essence, the iPad may be a cool little gadget.  It may be a nice way to consume content, in much the same way you consume content on your television or used to with your CD player, but in that sense, it’s not really progress, but is, in fact, a high-tech means of transitioning back to models that were important two decades ago.  Will it be popular?  Seems like its started out well, but is it something that’s going to forever change us back from an innovative, self-creating culture that the web has propagated to one where we just buy what the media companies see fit to sell us?  I don’t think so.  Besides, as I’ve pointed out before, technology is advancing far faster than most of us can keep up.  Today’s iPad is tomorrow’s coffee table coaster, soon to be replaced by something else that takes the best of what it offers and builds upon it.  And that creation will be specifically in opposition to the controls, not because of them.  That’s as it should be.

As one final note, here is a take by Alan Mutter on what publishers can do to benefit from the iPad. It’s some things I’ve heard before, and he ends with this point:

“Publishers who want to take full advantage of the iPad will have to do better by creating content that is media-rich, interactive, viral, transactional and mobile. In other words, this is no time to cut corners.”

While I agree with much of what he has to say, I can’t help but think that this is the same old song and dance for publishers. It started with websites years ago when publishers just dumped their print material onto their sites to their own detriment and all the pundits said, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

Then it was mobile devices, smart phones, etc., and they created apps that just dumped the same material onto your phones, and the pundits said, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

Now it’s the iPad and the like, and publishers are following the same pattern.  He references the Wall Street Journal’s app, which is little more than an electronic version of the paper, and  I read an article that sited Time Magazine yesterday, who’s iPad app was basically a PDF of the magazine, and so on.  I’ve even seen some people hailing the iPad’s effect of making a page in an eBook actually look like its turning as a good thing rather than a cheap attempt to imitate yesterdays material.  And in many circles, the pundits are already saying, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

As transformative as this new toy may end up being, by this time next year, we’ll be two or three generations beyond it, and I’ll be willing to bet the pundits will still be saying to publishers, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

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