Mad Dog 21/21: When iCarus Is Bliss
April 19, 2010 Hesh Wiener
Most people think Apple is terrific. It not only invents machines but also invents markets for its machines. But Apple isn’t quite as well loved within the high-tech world. Some outfits that make a big effort to be on customers’ A lists, including Adobe and Amazon, lack warm and fuzzy feelings when they think about Apple. Apple’s adversaries want Apple to become iCarus, who crashed and burned, not in that order, because he didn’t listen to his dad, Daedalus. Apple can be a poor listener, too. But Apple has been soaring.
Envious rivals want Apple to soar too high, with fatal consequences. They are thinking about a story set in the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete, where Daedalus was the architect of a fabulous maze. Within the maze lived a creature called the Minotaur, half man and half bull, like a politician. Daedalus and his son iCarus wanted outta there, and their plan was, using feathers and wax, to make artificial wings and fly away. They built the wings and took off but iCarus, despite his father’s warning, was having too much fun and flew higher and higher. As iCarus got closer to the sun his wings softened and then melted. Daedalus’ beloved child plunged to his death.
Apple has been flying high lately because it launched a device that is a bit like an Amazon Kindle ebook reader and a bit like a netbook and it uses software that makes it behave like an iPhone. Nobody has even settled on a name for this category of gadget. Basically, an iPad is a slow computer with a nice touch-sensitive display and wireless connectivity. It doesn’t have a real keyboard or mouse. It doesn’t have a lot of stuff that is found inside an ordinary laptop computer. What it does have is the Apple charisma and a place in the software development culture that has made the iPhone such a hit.
The developers who want to build programs for the iPad have to work within a framework defined by Apple. The main characteristic of this framework is that it is controlled by Apple and has a set of rules that are going to make it difficult if not impossible for other companies to gain control of the setting. Developers can shape the way an iPad is used, but they can’t change the way code is created for the platform. If you want to write a program for an iPad, you use the tools Apple tells you to use. You don’t, for instance, use tools and techniques developed by Adobe, the way you might if you were creating an application for a Windows PC or even an Apple Mac. For example, if you want to show a little movie on an iPad, you can’t use Adobe Flash. That’s one reason Adobe wants Apple to be iCarus. And Adobe has plenty of others, one for every one of the software development products that it sells and Apple bans on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod.
Amazon likes Apple about as much as Adobe does, but for somewhat different reasons. Amazon created an ebook reader called the Kindle that became the leader in its field. Even before Apple unleashed the iPad, the Kindle was under attack. The ebook market is very competitive. But Amazon’s rivals have not taken the Kindle’s lead; the most they can do is diminish it by picking up relatively small slices of the ebook market. By contrast, the iPad just might give the Kindle a real race. Apple has a content distribution system, its iTunes operation, that can compete with the Amazon ebook marketing endeavor. The Kindle, like every other ebook reader, uses a monochrome display that comes from eink. The iPad, like the iPhone, uses a full color screen. The main advantage of eink stuff is that it doesn’t use a lot of power, so an ebook with an eink screen can be lighter and go for a long time between battery charges. That’s not the case with the iPad, and it remains to be seen how this plays out in the marketplace.
Where the iPad beats an ebook reader is in Web surfing. The Internet makes extensive use of color not only for decorative purposes but also to help signal functionality as surfers mouse around on or point their fingers at web pages. Developers don’t build Web pages for ebooks or even for colorblind computer users. So, when it comes to using Internet services, the iPad has an edge on the Kindle and its cousins. Amazon could offer a color Kindle if it could find a screen that used a lot less power than the one on the iPad. Alternatively, Amazon might be able to offer a color Kindle with a relatively short life (or heavier battery) and pitch it at customers who prefer that trade-off. But to do so Amazon would have to risk losing the tight focus that got the Kindle to the front of the ebook reader race in the first place.
But if Adobe is frustrated and Amazon is concerned about Kindle’s future, their angst is nothing compared to the hysteria building inside Google. Google is the giant in Internet advertising, so powerful that Microsoft is in awe and Yahoo is in a permanent state of anxiety. Google has succeeded because its ideas can be made to show up on any computer screen, or at least any computer screen outside China. Google has been able to extend its reach to smartphones because, so far at least, smartphones, event the Apple iPhone, show people the same Internet computers display (or the same Internet expressed in a visual patois tailored to a small screen).
With the iPad, however, Apple has started thinking about how it could monetize users’ activities, much the way Google monetizes searches or the way Microsoft (along with Google and Yahoo) gets revenue from email that is free to users, where free means free in monetary terms but not free from intrusions.
If Apple can do to Web advertising what it has done to the mobile phone business, which basically is to reinvent a huge global industry, Google may end up playing second fiddle, something it surely does not want.
That’s why a lot of the rich and famous of Silicon Gulch, including many more luminaries than the few we’ve already mentioned, are reminding themselves of the Newton.
The Newton was one of Apple’s great failures. It was a handheld gadget that did, unsuccessfully, what the Palm PDA gizmos did so well for so long. A Newton was a weak iPhone without a phone in it, because in 1993, when Apple began selling the products formally known as MessagePad the mobile phone business was still in its childhood, and its youth culture had not yet emerged as a defining aspect of childhood in the post-industrial Petri dish of decadence.
The Newton got great press when it first came out, but that didn’t keep it from becoming a big flop. And even though it was a flop, the Newton had many fans and probably still does. Its software did a pretty good job of handwriting recognition, spurring a lot of work on touch screen technology, research that ultimately led to the excellent touch screens that are used on the iPhone, the iPad, and their many iMitators.
It might be, in retrospect, that the Newton could have been a winner if it had been able to phone home and reach a server. Communications technology or the lack of it seems to be a major factor in the ultimate decline of the Palm and the rise of the Blackberry. Google is trying, with its Android phones and related technologies, to raise mobile monetization to a higher level. Google’s vision, not entirely different from that of Apple, is that the monetization of content is only part of the opportunity. It is also possible to monetize the very act of seeking content and not only in the basic way it’s one on searches that turn up pages with ads in them. Once the client device goes mobile, the way an Android, iPhone, iPad, and Kindle move around, one of its most valuable attributes is its location. So Google not only wants to make everyone use the Android for navigation but also get used to having Google intercede in the process of getting local information. GPS plus searching, Google believes, is they key to its next stage of growth. And that, it turns out, is more or less what Apple is thinking about, too. It is also what Amazon would like to bring into its Kindle, to turn the Kindle from a lifestyle accessory into a centerpiece.
Nobody knows how this adventure will play out. Apple thinks it is going to be a high flier. And its competitors not only hope the iPad will be another Newton but that Apple itself will, like iCarus under the influence of what Newton aided by an apple understood, experience some gravity.