Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House. “If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.
In this NYT piece about Apple and why, as much as we love tech companies, they are not the economic drivers in the United States that their industrial brethren are/were. A telling paragraph from the same article:
Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the over 400,000 American workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products. But almost none of them work in the United States. Instead, they work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, at factories that almost every electronics designer relies upon to build their wares.
Here’s something that I don’t think a lot of people working in what are euphemistically referred to as “content industries” — books, movies and television of all kinds, and more specifically the delivery of those said items to consumers — are aware of:
Customers don’t care about your excuses.
They don’t want to have to understand what an mpeg4 file is, or that there are two different book formats out there and which one the kindle supports and which one nook does and where do those free books Google has work, or even want to contemplate the intricacies of taking a movie they “own” (on DVD) and watching it on their Kindle Fire.
“I was told it reads books. Why don’t the books my friend gets from the library work?”
“I thought this could play movies. How come I can’t watch my DVDs on it? Don’t I own them?”
If your answer is not something along the lines of “put the media *here* and press a button,” you are failing your customers. They don’t want to be told that books bought on one device don’t work on another device that you support, as is sometimes the case with children’s books or magazines on the actual nook devices versus the phone apps. They don’t care if it won’t look all that good; they just want the option. (Well, they want it to look good, too. But even if it doesn’t, they want to know that it’s possible.)
Shockingly, music has nearly reached this fluid state, at least in the mp3 form. Everything reads mp3s, they’re easy to make from physical media, and they’re sold from many places unencumbered by DRM. This is not what most people a decade ago would have predicted for music on computers. (Notably, easy access to mp3s has done little to curb interest in streaming services, which have the walled-garden problem in an entirely different way.) For this, we probably have Apple and Amazon to thank above all others — iTunes for making mp3 purchasing commonplace, and then Amazon for forcing the issue with regard to DRM, or more specifically the lack of it.
The fundamental disconnect here is two different ideas of what goes into delivering content to a consumer. Someone who works as a publisher looks at media and sees a complex web of rights, payment, distribution, and technical limitations, with a dozen players and phalanxes of lawyers. A user sees “a thing that I paid someone for, and now it’s mine to do whatever I want with.” Rental v. ownership. One of the most common questions I get about ebooks is about the incomplete mapping of the metaphor of ‘book’ onto the ‘e’ part of ebooks — “Why can’t I give this to someone else, like I can a real book?” Nothing I say at this point — nothing! — is a good answer. If I say something about rights management, the response is “well, I paid for it, didn’t I?” If I wax sympathetic, it just feeds their desire to treat the ebook file exactly the same as a printed copy. (The limitations applied to ebooks in this case are perfectly legal, just not logical to the average reader.)
iBooks Author, and its limiting EULA, are a perfect example of the conflict between the tech and the traditional. Ebook creators want to create one file and make it available to anyone who wants to pay for it — if they have to distribute it through seven different digital storefronts, fine, that’s a hurdle most are willing to clear. But those storefronts, each operated by a separate tech company (and yes, Barnes and Noble’s nook business definitely falls into that category) want to differentiate in how they offer ebooks — to compete on breadth of content, not just quality of service. So the neat ebooks that iBooks Author can create are only allowed to be distributed (for cost) through Apple, for iPads and iPhones. And Apple is perfectly within their rights to require this. But now users have yet more fragmentation to deal with in the ebooks space — iBooks only work on Apple devices. While publishers squabble, the experience for the end user suffers.
The magic solution for this, of course, is probably impossible for now: One format for books (analogous to mp3, it doesn’t have to be the most technically accomplished format, just the one that everyone decides upon), access to the files in an unencumbered format (the actual digital file — a single blob of .epub or whatever), and readers that will read that format on any screen, even across manufacture lines (there is software read an .epub on a PC, an eInk screen, an LCD tablet). Modify the various technologies and formats in there for the applicable media, and you have a recipe for happy consumers, who can choose between technical platforms on their own merits, and not feel locked in to their respective media libraries.