30,000 Free Books for the iPad

Yesterday on the radio I heard a segment about the magazine and newspaper business’ excitement about the iPad platform, and what it means for their (ailing) business. Let me just say I’m skeptical. It sounds like the primary innovation they’re planning is rich-media, interactive advertisements. Because if there’s one thing that’s wrong with the publishing industry, it’s that their ads aren’t intrusive enough. At the end of the radio segment, they announced that virtual “issues” of popular magazines on the iPad will cost $3. Let me predict now that this will end in tears. On the other hand, Apple’s decision to pre-populate their bookstore with 30K books from Project Gutenberg is a great idea, and will do more for the iPad platform than $3 magazines and Auto ads disguised as VR racing games.It’s funny, because I’m usually the one overcome by the Reality Distortion Field. I’m certainly about as big a fan of the iPhone as a person can be (though a major non-fan of Apple’s refusal to allow iPhone users to install their own apps without jailbreaking). Nevertheless, I’m finding myself a merely a spectator to the iPad hype. I think it’s going to be a neat gadget, and I may eventually even buy one. My major objection to the iPad is mostly a political one: I’m reluctant to adopt a platform that threatens to fundamentally alter the relationship between a user and a personal computer by injecting the vendor as an unwelcome middleman with no opt-out mechanism. I actually think that the App Store is a great thing, and for many people, a walled garden is just the right place for them. But until iPad (and iPhone) owners have the right to waive their expectation of safety and officially install their own apps, PC-style, I’m going to be wary.

But here’s where the uncomfortable truth comes in: $3 iPad magazines will fail because we have become too accustomed to digital goods being cheaper than physical goods, if not outright free. People will pay money for digital goods, but only if they have the right combination of convenience and economy. For another reference point The Wall Street Journal plans to charge US$17.99 a month. The Kindle has been a modest success (a big success for Amazon, perhaps, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to physical book sales) because it made it very easy and somewhat cheaper to buy an ebook. Newspapers and magazines are a different story because they have to compete with the other time-sensitive, ephemeral information elsewhere on the web. But with publishers agitating to be able to charge more for eBooks, and delaying eBook releases in order to encourage hardcover sales, and magazine publishers entertaining unrealistic expectations about iPad sales, I’m afraid that they’re going to be too greedy to facilitate the transition to digital, and thus risk becoming Napstered.

And here we get at the root of my gripes with Apple. Why won’t Apple let people install their own apps on the iPhone/iPad? Because the more open these platforms become, the less necessary it is to purchase content legitimately through the app store. The entertainment and publishing industries have shifted from seeing Apple as a villain to revering Apple as a savior. The idea of popular computing platforms shepherding their users toward official distribution channels and away from The Pirate Bay is the best news these industries have heard in a long time.

But back to Project Gutenberg: Even people who are willing to buy their content through proper channels have become accustomed to free stuff, and some of the best books ever written are now in the public domain. One of the main problems with Project Gutenberg in the past has been that it’s been relatively inconvenient to read on an electronic device and the quality of presentation has been pretty uneven. I don’t know if anyone from Apple will be taking the time to clean up the free eBooks and bring them up to Apple’s standards, but it would be cool if they did.

So free books will be a boon to iPad adoption, I believe. But will Apple’s desire to be the savior of the publishing industry ensure that the iPad will remain a closed platform? I fear it will. But let me make another prediction: if the publishing industry falters in its love affair with Apple, and the iPad doesn’t catch on as the next big media consumption device, it would only make it more likely that we’d see the platform open up and become a true personal computing device.


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