DBW Weekly Roundup, 6/9/11: It’s All About Apple

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Courtesy of Apple

I guess I should start off with a confession: I just can’t help but smile a little as I write this special edition of the Weekly Roundup. After all, Steve Jobs’ authorized biography, iSteve: The Book of Jobs, set to be published by Simon & Schuster in March 2012, is already an Amazon bestseller, and everyone seems to be at least a little amused by the “mothership” design of Apple’s new headquarters.

But this week, and every year around the Worldwide Developers Conference, the long reach of Apple’s influence is unavoidably felt in multiple industries. Of course, excellent comprehensive summaries of WWDC abound from the usual suspects, such as this one from Macgasm, while Jason Boog over at eBookNewser has a useful time-coded summary of Jobs’ presentation, which you can follow along with the official video and audio already available for direct scrutiny.

With such impact, this special edition of the weekly roundup will focus on the key announcements that affect digital publishing landscape, from a very broad perspective.

Our Heads in the iCloud

The underlying concept under all of Apple’s announcements this week, iCloud replaces MobileMe, Apple’s earlier cloud-based personal information and file management system, and promises to sync all your devices regardless of operating system. Offering 5 gigabytes of storage in addition to extra space through iTunes and iBooks, iCloud is free to anyone running iOS 5, which is a nice departure from the paid-subscription model of MobileMe.

From Apple’s press release:

“Today it is a real hassle and very frustrating to keep all your information and content up-to-date across all your devices,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “iCloud keeps your important information and content up to date across all your devices. All of this happens automatically and wirelessly, and because it’s integrated into our apps you don’t even need to think about it—it all just works.”

But how does iCloud compare to the other cloud-based giants, Amazon and Google? NetworkWorld’s Brad Reed points out three key things you need to know about the service, while TechCrunch’s MG Siegler summarizes iCloud’s “magic” quite well:

With iCloud, Apple is transforming the cloud from an almost tangible place that you visit to find your stuff, to a place that only exists in the background. It’s never seen. You never interact with it, your apps do — and you never realize it. It’s magic.

Compare this to Google, the company perhaps most associated with the cloud. Google’s approach has been to make the cloud more accessible to existing PC users. They’re doing this by extending familiar concepts. Google Docs is Microsoft Office, but in the cloud. Your main point of interaction is a file system, but in the cloud. Gmail is Outlook, but in the cloud. Etc.

Meanwhile, another company now largely associated with the cloud, Amazon, has essentially turned it into one giant server/hard drive that anyone can use for a fee. But it takes developers to build something on top of it to give users a product to use. Some are great. But many again just extend the idea of the cloud as a remote hard drive.

While the fundamentals are the same, Apple’s approach to the concept of the cloud is the opposite of their competitors. Apple’s belief is clearly that users will not and should not care how the cloud actually works. When Jobs gave a brief glimpse of their new North Carolina datacenter that is the centerpiece of iCloud, he only noted that it was full of “stuff” — “expensive stuff,” he quipped.

However, the iCloud on the horizon may not be all “silver lining”: many point out potential privacy issues, including PBS NewsHour, while others expect that all this cloud-based activity will bring about a wave of copyright-trolling lawsuits.

On the piracy front, with iTunes in the iCloud and especially the $25-per-year iTunes Match service, Apple may very well have broken the mold, as founder of the UK-based online games company Six to Start Adrian Hon explains at The Telegraph:

[Apple] struck a rather clever deal with the big record companies, and the result is iTunes Match, a $25 per year, US-only service. iTunes Match looks at your entire music library and compares it with the 18 million songs in its database. If it finds a match, it automatically upgrades that song and makes it available across all of your Apple devices. There’s no need to upload the songs since it already has copies of them; and for the rare songs you own that Apple doesn’t recognise, you can still upload them manually.

Most importantly, iTunes Match does not and cannot check whether your music is pirated; for all it knows, it’s all pirated. But what the record companies seem finally to have recognised is that if piracy can’t be extinguished, they might as well try to make some money out of it. In effect, it’s a $25 per year amnesty. As music goes, so will every other piece of media.

130 Million iBooks

Among the iBooks announcements from Jobs was the claim that over 130 million books had been downloaded through the iBookstore, but certain changes to the iBookstore and other parts of the Apple content landscape might signal some ambivalence from Apple when it comes to ebooks. To summarize, iBooks now has a read-aloud function, and the iBookstore has been integrated into iTunes. However, there is still no desktop app for iBooks, which cuts down its usefulness, since according to Forrester survey research cited by ReadWriteWeb, most people still read on computers rather than devices.

But, in reality, the true impact of Apple’s recent announcements and policy changes seem to be coming from the full Apple “suite,” rather than tweaks to iBooks specifically.

For example, there’s the bifurcation between Apple Newsstand and the iBookstore, which as the short “book” format and the long-form “magazine” format conflate, seems to become less meaningful. The belabored 9-month development of Apple Newsstand and its potential impact on publishers is well described by Jemima Kiss at The Guardian, who aptly points out how some magazines like The Financial Times are bypassing both Apple and Android by developing mobile-friendly browser-based web apps:

There are clear benefits for publishers in producing a web app. Avoiding both the Apple and Android stores is one massive advantage; users access the app through the device’s browser, so there’s no need to submit to terms that include, in the case of Apple, handing over 30% of revenues, losing a big chunk of subscriber details and risking being barred if you include a nipple in the wrong place. For Android, the issue is more being lost in a marketplace that is still pretty hard to find the best apps on.

Apple’s In-App Subscription Sleight-of-Hand

And, related to how Apple handles digital magazines, then there’s Apple’s almost surreptitious change in how in-app subscriptions work, a subtle shift broken by MacRumors:

Apple has quietly changed its guidelines on the pricing of In-App Subscriptions on the App Store. There are no longer any requirements that a subscription be the “same price or less than it is offered outside the app”. There are no longer any guidelines about price at all. Apple also removed the requirement that external subscriptions must be also offered as an in-app purchase.

Content providers may offer In-App subscriptions at whatever price they wish and they are not required to offer an in-app subscription simply because they sell a subscription outside the App Store as well.

What does this mean to publishers of content? Maybe not so much, according to Joshua Benton over at Nieman Lab:

Apple’s previous in-app purchase rules were also uniquely tough on Amazon, because they sell more different digital content items than just about anyone. (Amazon would have had to offer all 950,000 of its Kindle ebooks for sale through Apple, with that 30 percent cut, just to make Kindle books readable on Apple products, under the previous rules.)

The new rules make things more clear. Amazon doesn’t have to sell its Kindle books through Apple’s store to make them readable in an iPhone or iPad Kindle app — a requirement that would have been logistically almost impossible to meet and might have pushed the Kindle app off of Apple’s platform altogether. But it can’t have a “Buy Kindle Books” button inside that Kindle app, either.

I suspect that, when this all shakes out, we’ll find that this wasn’t meant as a favor to the news business, a concession, or the beginning of a beautiful new relationship. We’ll find that the new generation of content giants were the real targets.

Taking a broader view at what he calls Apple’s “sleight of hand,” Philip Jones over at FutureBook asks, “What do we learn from this?” and offers five takeaways about Apple’s impact in the overall content and publishing landscape:

1) Apple is not always the friend of the content provider. It is cosying up a bit more now, but this may prove as transitory as Apple’s own ‘guidelines';

2) Despite the pronouncements from Steve Jobs it is seriously worried by Android;

3) Even Apple gets it wrong sometimes: it underestimated publishers’ willingness to draw a line in the sand over customer subscriptions, and their ability to get around the in-app wall;

4) Apple controls the platform, but where content is concerned it is just the mule (and one of the Buckaroo variety);

5) Being an intermediary is still the toughest place to be, as the travails of iFlow indicate.

The jury may still be out on the full impact of all of Apple’s announcements and policy shifts this week, but no doubt publishers of content, whether books, news, music, games, or what-have-you, are going to have to respond to (and sometimes work around) these changes–and whatever else Apple has in store for us next.

That’s just a taste of what you may have missed this week. To stay on top of the most interesting news, commentary and tweets related to publishing, keep in touch via our RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, join your publishing colleagues in our LinkedIn group, and connect with the broader DBW Network.

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