Apple's media strategy: There's an app for that

It’s here. After nearly a year of carefully orchestrated speculation and hype, Apple has finally unveiled: the “iPad,” thus causing millions of women across the blogosphere, in unison, to go, “eewwww.”  (Are there no women in the marketing department at Apple?)

Among the less lunationally sensitive, the verdict has been more mixed, but the rough consensus seems to be that, at this point at least, the iPad is basically an iPod Touch on growth hormones: neat, but not quite overwhelmingly amazing, fantastical and way-cool the way the iPhone seemed when it launched.

Particularly disappointing to some, or at least puzzling, was the relative scarcity of media apps at launch for a device that was billed as revolutionizing the media industry, leading many to wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing.

I have no doubt those apps will come, however, not only because Apple has already released an iPad SDK but because of what it offers media companies.

One of the most striking aspects of the iPad is the extremely limited means of content ingress and egress. The device has no USB ports, no, Compact Flash, SD or microSD port, no HDMI port, no Ethernet, not even a camera. Basically, there’s one way in, through the wireless connection, using either WiFi or 3G, and no way out. This thing is a sealed vault. 

Even through the wireless connection, content acqusition is tightly limited. Yes, you can browse the web with your iPad but you can’t use it to stream most web-based video because the device lacks support for Adobe’s Flash (Hulu) and (natch) Microsoft’s Silverlight (Neflix), the two most popular streaming platforms.  What video it can access, such as iTunes movies and YouTube, must come in through a dedicated app, not the browser.

The operating system does not support multitasking. If you’re running an app, you can’t also be browsing the web or reading emails. Basically, the iPad is a one-way street.

While many commentators have described these limitations as bugs, or design flaws, I suspect they’re features.

Basically, the iPad is a device for running apps, at least as far as media consumption is concerned. It is designed not for discovering content, or searching for it, or even managing it directly yourself using your choice of applications. It’s designed for being served content, through proprietary apps, on the content owner’s terms.

What Steve Jobs is offering media companies with the iPad is, in effect, the anti-Internet: a platform for digital distribution in which all aspects of the user experience and functionality are under their control. Just as importantly, it’s an environment where their content can’t easily be scraped, aggregated, re-published, mashed up or indexed by search engines.

One of the most telling comments to come out of Apple’s event on Wednesday, for instance, came from Martin Nisenholtz of the New York Times, who showed off the Times‘ iPad app from the stage. Asking, rhetorically, why the paper would bother with an app when its  web site looked so good on the iPad’s 10-inch screen, Nisenholtz answered his own question with, “Well, our app for the iPhone has been downloaded three million times, and we wanted to create something that combines the best of print and digital all in one. It captures the essence of reading the paper.”

Call it, search-engine de-optimization. On the anti-Internet, you don’t have to worry about competing with your own content in search rankings. You can create paid business models without having to resort to the crude instrument of the pay wall. You can offer advertisers a carefully controlled environment without distractions or competing applications.

Apps are not new with the iPad, of course. But with its powerful A4 processor and its larger, full-color screen Jobs is offering media companies a rich new palate on which to recreate what digital content looks like and how the business functions.

The problem for Apple is that it needs for content creators to recognize and seize the opportunity it’s offering them by creating compelling new apps that will attract consumers to what is, ultimately, a limited-purpose device.

For the media companies, challenge is a familiar one. For all the problems they have faced in monetizing their content on the Interent, no one owns the Internet. But Apple most certainly owns the iPad’s app-store platform and the music companies can tell you how that’s worked out in the past.

Still, it’s an audacious bid by Jobs. If content owners are able to use the tools he’s giving them to shift the digital media business from the open, search- and browser-dependent web to the closed and more-easily monetized environment of the app store it could, indeed, revolutionize the media business.

2 Comments

  1. This content owner may recognize and seize the opportunity…when the iPad is 16:9. But if this first edition is going to letterbox all our stuff, I don’t see myself buying an SDK for it yet. Surely there MUST be a 16:9 version just around the corner, upgrade priced and somehow better than Joojoo, which will by then already be in the market offering full-screen 16:9 video.

    The biggest mystery is how I could possibly have watched the keynote and made it all the way to today — February 15th — without hearing anyone scream “OMG! The screen is 4:3 – !!”

    I have loved nearly all Apple products I have ever purchased (I didn’t buy a Lisa) and may end up loving iPad, but why would anyone would create an HD video screen at 4:3 in 2010?

  2. Scott–I agree. I find the lack of 16:9 puzzling. I’ve been meaning to write about it but I still can’t come up with a good theory for why Apple went with 4:3. I have to assume there’s a 16:9 version in the wings somewhere. Perhaps they just wanted to emphasize the print-like form factor out of the box and a more video-friendly version is coming? Perhaps they’re waiting for touch-screen OLED displays to get big enough? At any rate, I think the TV guys will be OK with it for now, particularly for stuff that isn’t native 16:9 anyway. But you make a very valid point.

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