Weisberg: Publishers Should Beware Apple's iPad

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During the pre-Internet era, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco explained the difference between Apple and Microsoft in terms of the divide between Catholics and Protestants. In the DOS-based universe, he noted, there are many alternative paths to salvation. The One True Church of Macintosh, by contrast, “tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step.”

With the ascendance of the iPad, a.k.a. “The Jesus Tablet,” Apple’s Lateran tendencies have grown ever more baroque. The arrival of the new device was shrouded in something better described as religious mystery than mere corporate secrecy. The spiritual leader celebrated the birth of his “magical and revolutionary” gadget at a ceremony akin to a high mass, beneath the glowing Apple icon, which must be approaching the crucifix as a universally recognized symbol.

In this metaphor, content publishers might be described as the halt and the lame flocking to Lourdes in search of a miraculous cure. The pilgrims’ desperate hope is that Steve Jobs will restore their businesses to health by blessing them with “apps”—a new way for them to charge readers for content and revive full-page advertisements in electronic form. Burn me for saying so, but they’re dreaming.

The first problem with the publishers’ fantasy, which I realized only when I spent some time with my iPad over the past week, is that you don’t need those cute little apps to read newspapers and magazines. On the tiny iPhone screen, apps bring real advantages. The iPad display, by contrast, is big, bright, and beautiful. The Safari browser is a great way to read any publication on the device, as long as you have a good Wi-Fi connection.

Those exorbitantly priced first-gen iPad apps offered by magazines like Vanity Fair and Time are attempts to revive the anachronism of turning pages. They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: commenting, the integration of social media, or even the most basic links to other sources. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, brutally describes them as “a step back to the era of CD-ROMs.”

The bigger mistake some publishers seem eager to make is embracing an Apple-controlled marketplace. The deal Amazon originally offered on the Kindle was so awful that it made anything look good by comparison. But Jobs is an even more ornery gatekeeper than Jeff Bezos. If you want to play in Apple’s playground, the company decides what apps are acceptable, then takes a 30 percent cut. It collects the data about users and decides what it is willing to share with publishers (so far, none). It intends to sell the advertising, controlling the standards and taking what sounds to be a 40 percent cut. Such domination of the relationship with readers would be no less a disaster for publishers than it was for the music industry.

But the most alarming aspect of Apple’s vision is its censorious instinct. Where Google operates from a deep commitment to free expression—as evidenced by its heroic decision to challenge China’s Great Firewall—Jobs detests an open orifice. There couldn’t be a starker incident than Apple denying the editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore permission to launch an app on the grounds that it violated section 3.3.14 of Apple’s (secret) iPhone developer program-license agreement, which prohibits “content that ridicules public figures.”

Apple reversed itself after Fiore fortuitously won a Pulitzer, but the company doesn’t deign to defend its policies and remains closed to legitimate media inquiry. It is notoriously vindictive about those who ridicule Steve Jobs. And Cupertino is more puritanical about nudity than the Vatican itself. Editors at one edgy fashion magazine reportedly refer to their iPad app in development as “the Iran edition.”

Just because Jobs’s beautiful closed system was crushed by Microsoft’s more open model in the 1990s doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again. The iPad is a gorgeous appliance and I wouldn’t bet against it, or be without one, in the short term. But content creators ought not to delude themselves about Jobs’s efforts to replace the chaos of the Web with his own velvet prison. The Catholic Church wins on aesthetics every time. Where it loses is on innovation and independent thought. And it’s not very good about sharing the wealth, either.

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