Monday, 5 April 2010

Hello iPad, Goodbye Internet As We Know It

Cheers to Richard from the excellent Third Estate blog for alerting me to this fab piece. He promises he's going to write more in the Internet, and from an Arendtian position (?!) - is that a sort of post-Heideggarian technology/nature stance then? Anyway, totally looking forward to it.

The US launch of the iPad marks a historic moment. Not ‘the end of books’ as some doomsayers would have it, or the even the start of the great Books vs Internet wars. No, today Apple has reversed the flow of their business model. And with it, the internet.

Some explanation. Ever wondered why most people have PCs, even though Apple Macs look nicer, work better and are more cutting edge technologically? There’s a very simple answer. It’s because when Microsoft and Apple were starting up, they used two different business models. Microsoft franchised: they’d produce the software, and would actively help anyone else build the hardware. Apple, on the other hand, was to always make the software and the hardware together, and allow no sharing or copying of either part of the design. This is exemplified by the iPod and iTunes.

This started to change a few years ago with the release of the MacBook (bear with me here, all will be revealed). The switch from Motorola to Intel microchips means that any Mac can run Microsoft Windows as well as Apple’s own software. Today, the iPad is released on the US market – and expressly enables other companies to develop their own software (‘Apps’) for the iPad. While Apple has got its own ‘iBooks’ (yes, really), there’s also going to be Apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, when the iPad gets released in Britain later this month, undoubtedly iWaterstones and eFoyles will make appearances as well.

All those best sellers just lining up to be best sold

As you can tell, the big plus about the iPad is that it supports ebooks like never before. Even though Amazon released the Kindle last year, whose screen is actually seen by many as superior to the iPad’s, the book über-emporiorum stated that they “look forward to making Kindle available for iPad very soon.”

What? ‘But Kindle’s a piece of hardware!’ I hear you say. ‘How can a piece of hardware be made available on another piece of hardware?’ A very good question indeed. What Amazon means by this enigmatic little nugget is that they’re going to be releasing software called something naff like iKindle, to be used on iPads to buy eBooks. This burgeoning market of small letter software is about two main things: adverts and publishers.

What the Times sees as a great deal for consumers, in which a price war makes ebooks cheaper and cheaper, is actually a really good method for ensuring that big publishing houses increase their control in the market, not just be being able to offer ebooks at a price that cuts below that needed by any publisher to support writers and researchers. I don’t want to give an impression here that this is about starving novellists, poets writing in the garret by the light of the moon and the glow of the screen. This is about journals, newspapers, magazines. It’s about high quality independent research and cutting comment.

Already we’ve seen over the past 6 months alone all sorts of clamp downs on the unadulterated free content promised by the internet. From the Digital Economy Bill to Google Books, from Sky News to the New Yorker, the days of free online content are coming to an end. ‘Hey, there are always ways to get round these things!’ I hear you interject again. ‘I mean Napster and Pirate Bay might be hounded by big governments and corporations, but we’ll find a way, right?’

Wrong. Because, just like with big book stores, most people aren’t going to be using the small independent software on their iPad – their going to be relying on big business to give them access to the world of words. But this time it’s all digital, which means its a lot, lot easier to control and manipulate.

When I read history essays or NEF reports online, no one interferes with my experience at the moment. But just as we’ve seen that change with music, so it might well change with books. Youtube videos now come with pop up adverts and dollar signs; Spotify seems to be increasing its advert to music ratio each day. All these new ebook reading applications are going to support these kinds of tie-ins: buy three volumes of Freud and get a pop-up ad for Lady GaGa.

The Communist Manifesto ebook: now with added rotation!

But most importantly, the technological control of information allows for the clawing away of that access in a state of emergency. This doesn’t just mean the effective banning of radical texts, something which, remember, we’ve seen in the last few years both on the left and on the right. It can also be for the smallest, most ridiculous-seeming reasons: it’s worth recalling that the first call for state monopoly of the printing presses came from an Italian humanist to the Pope in 1471 (a mere ten years after Gutenberg’s invention), complaining that the quality of the Latin texts produced were so poor that the Vatican should legislate all printing activity immediately.

While the rest of the world is Pope bashing, maybe we should stop and examine the activities of our own growing church of ideas – all hail the Corporations of the Text! Maybe to elucidate a bit more where I’m coming from on this, here’s the excellent James Boyle:

“I care about the Web not because I want to live my life there, but because of what it has allowed us to achieve, what it represents for the potential of open science and culture… In place of what we have today, I think…we are trying to reinvent a tamer, more controlled Web and to change the nature of the underlying networks on which it operates. We would restrict openness of access, decrease anonymity, and limit the number of actions that a network participant could perform.

“The benefits would be undeniable. It would cut down on spam, viruses, and illicit peer-to-peer file sharing. At the same time, it would undercut the iconoclastic technological, cultural and political potential the Web offer, the ability of a new technology, a new service to build on open networks and open protocols, without needing approval from regulators or entrenched market players, or even the owner of the Web pages to which you link.”

I’m not saying there’s anything in particular we can do about all this: at least, no one’s told me a course of grass-roots action we could take yet. I’m certainly not about to go on a bout of boycotting. But at the least we should be aware of this almost inevitable drive towards the restriction of the free information age.


Timothy Baldwin said...

There is also the technical measures made by Apple to stop one running programs on ipads without Apple's permission. The capitalists want to control our computers.

John Q Wagonwheel said...

Or rather, Apple wants to control your computer.

There's a fundamental contradiction in your logic here (other than the whole Marxist thing, that could take a while to explain).

To put it simply, Apple's monopolistic building style is not underpinned by superior quality. PCs have always been more powerful, better at graphics and more easily adaptible and interchangeable, with components that last as long as you need them and which are designed to be changed by the end user when better becomes available, not by an expensive repair service.

So what happens with an Apple the day after the warranty expires? It dies, but luckily you have a choice - spend the same amount you did buying it originally on repairing it or buy the new, slightly cheaper model with a slightly shorter life expectancy.

Where PCs have you keeping the bits that work and gradually moving along from the false capitalism of inbuilt obsolescence (most of the time), Apple is the most insidiuous peddler of the dirtiest form of built-to-break junk. They give computing a bad name.