They Dropped The Other Shoe

[Disclaimer: I’m not necessarily an Apple fanboy but I have been an enthusiastic Mac user since 1987 and have owned several Apple products, from an iPod to a QuickTake camera. I also think that technology is having a big impact on arts, media, and entertainment.]

Just watched Apple’s "Showtime" Special Event. Didn’t really read or even listen to anything much about it yet. During that event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced new versions of all the iPod models, a new version of iTunes, and the addition of movies to the iTunes store. In addition, Jobs gave a sneak peak of an upcoming box to link iTunes with televisions and stereo systems.

People are likely to have been disappointed by the announcements. They’re probably saying that Steve Jobs’s famous "Reality Distortion Field" isn’t working, or that he lost his "mojo." They might even wonder about his health. Again…

Not that the new products are really boring, but there tend to be high expectations surrounding Apple announcements. This one is no different as people expected wireless capabilities on iPods and recording capabilities on the new "media centre" box, which was in fact part of the expected new products from Apple.

But this event is significant in another way. Through it, Apple explained their strategy, revealed a number of years ago as the Digital Hub. What some have called "convergence," quite a few years ago. Nothing really new. It’s just coming into full focus.

Though we may never know how much of it unfolded as planned, Apple’s media/tech strategy may appear rather prescient in retrospect. IIRC, it started in 1996, during Gil Amelio’s tenure. Or, more probably, in 1997 during the switch between Amelio and Jobs. Even by, say, 1999, that strategy was still considered a bold move. That was before the first iPod which, itself, was before iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and most other current media-centric technologies at Apple. It was also at a time when user-generated content was relatively unimportant. In other ways, that was during the "Web 1.0" Internet bubble, before the "Web 2.0" craze for blogs, podcasts, and "social networking."

Apple isn’t the only corporation involved in the changes in the convergence between technology and the world of "content" (arts, media, entertainment). But it has played a key role. Whatever his success as a CEO, Steve Jobs has influenced the direction of change and, to an extent, shape a part of digital life to his own liking. While he’s clearly not clueless, his vision of the link between "content" and technology is quite specific. It does integrate user-generated content of "varying degrees of professionalism" (which he joked about during his presentation) but it gives precedence to the "content industry" (involving such powerful groups and lobbies as WIPO, NAB, MPAA, RIAA, etc.). Jobs’s position at Pixar makes him a part of that industry. Which is quite different from what arts and expressive culture can be.

Jobs invites musicians on stage with him (John Mayer, Wynton Marsalis, John Legend). He respects musicians and he might even appreciate their work. But his view of their work is that they produce content to consumed. For Jobs, music tracks, audiobooks, television episodes, movies, and music videos are all "contents" to be enjoyed by consumers. Now, the consumer can enjoy content "anywhere" as Apple is "in your den, in your living-room, in your car, and in your pocket." But what about public spaces? Concert halls, churches, coffee shops, parks, public libraries, classrooms, etc.? Oh! Apple can be there too! Yeah, of course. But those are not part of the primary vision. In Apple’s view, consumers all have their own iTunes accounts, media libraries, preferences, and content-consuming habits. A nuclear family may count as a unit to a certain extent (as Bob Iger pointed out in his "cameo appearance" during Jobs’s event). But the default mode is private consumption.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Even the coolest things online are often based on the same model. It’s just that it’s not the only way to do things. Music, for instance, can be performed in public. In fact, it can be a collaborative process. The performers themselves need not be professionals. There’s no need for an audience, even. And there’s no need to see it as "intellectual property." Music is not a product. It’s a process by which human beings organize sound.

Ah, well…

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5 thoughts on “They Dropped The Other Shoe”

  1. Your mention of Jobs’ investment in Pixar, and closeness with various industrial organizations, reminds me of the suprising timing of Apple’s announcements to sell respectively DRM’d music and movies: the first right as music filesharing software makers were in their last legal throws, and when torrent sites were booming with video content.

    I think Jobs’ (or Apple’s) closeness with the media content industry has been essential for them to implement their “media hub” master plan, without invoking a legal fury of Biblical proportions from said industry. Granted that they were busy trying to swing back from their lagging 1990s role up to the boom they enjoy today, I expect that such litigation would have seriously stunted their business.

    Aside from my opinions of how I’d like to see intellectual property defined/viewed by people, and of how I’d like to see technology companies exploring and implementing alternative profit models, and Apple certainly NOT fitting into this picture, I still have to give Apple some credit of having read their needs quite practically by courting the cooperation of the above industry and designing their products to be profitable for it.

  2. Jay,

    Thanks a lot for your very insightful comment. As I wrote this entry, I came to pretty much the same conclusions as you did.
    In fact, much of this was discussed by pundits a while ago, before people started to focus on the iPod. But we then lost focus of the big game.

    Apple did succeed with the iPod. But a very important part of all of this is much beyond the iPod. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the iPod is a Trojan horse for FairPlay DRM, AAC, H.264, QuickTime, iTunes, and the iTunes Store.
    In a way, it’s so obvious that we have to wonder why people aren’t talking about it more.

    Actually, I’d be interested in your thoughts about alternative profit models for knowledge goods. We probably agree here. But, then, how can those models compete with Apple?

    Thanks again!

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