Are iFanatics shaping the future of the Web?

iPad 2 display in the Apple Store

The iPad 2 display at Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, N.Y. Even more than a week after its release, customers line up by the dozens outside the store every day hoping to get their hands on one. Photo by Wasim Ahmad.

Imagine it is the pre-iPad era, sometime circa 2009. Are you there? Good.

Say Dell announces a new tablet-based device. It will be a “magical and revolutionary product.” But it doesn’t support Flash. Most of the web won’t work on it as a result. Flash support isn’t and won’t be coming.

Sounds like a dud of a product, right?

Replace the word “Dell” with “Apple” and you have what actually happened. Except that Apple’s tablet, the iPad, didn’t fail. That particular “magical and revolutionary” product, to quote Apple’s Steve Jobs, was a success, selling more than 300,000 units at its launch and more than 15 million in its entire run. People still line up at Apple stores across the country every day to buy its successor, the iPad 2, even two weeks after its release. I saw this just the other day at 8:30 in the morning at the Smith Haven Mall, a small shopping center in Long Island, and again just the day before at the Apple Store in New York City.

What’s going on here? Apple makes it a point to kill a competitor’s product, Flash, and everyone rushes to help in its demise. Most major sites on the Web changed their coding (witness YouTube, Vimeo) to use the iPad-friendly HTML5 standard, further relegating Flash to the dustbin of history.

Would the industry be as accommodating if HP, Dell, Sony or Microsoft decided to pursue the same course of action in their tablet strategy? It’s doubtful.

So why does Apple succeed? It’s the iFanatics.

The iFanatic effect

The iFanatics are the ones lining up outside the stores, waiting to buy the latest iGadget before ever even hearing a single specification or actually handling a product. They’ll scoff at every PC, Android phone and Zune MP3 player they see and tell you why Apple’s versions are better. Though to be fair, even Microsoft didn’t like its Zune player very much.

These are the folks that propel Apple’s sales to meteoric heights.

But let’s take a look at why this is dangerous. Specifically, let’s look at how every iOS device sold (the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod Touch, etc.) is going to slowly result in the death of the open Web.

The Walled Garden

Remember America Online? Before it went by its new moniker, Aol, it used to be known as the most popular way most people got onto the Internet in the 1990s. You couldn’t go anywhere without encountering CDs touting the service.

The quick history lesson here: AOL essentially split the Internet into two zones: the “open Web” and its “walled garden” of content. You couldn’t even leave that walled garden until AOL introduced its own Web browser into its software in 1994. AOL users could finally see the Internet as the rest of the world saw it.

Content was essentially duplicated in two places – on the Web and on AOL‘s service. AOL was the gateway to the content that appeared on its service, which you could access via “keywords” such as “New York Times” or “NBC.”

What you saw on AOL was not the company’s website but instead an AOL version of its content that it used in partnership with the company, highlighting the fragile alliances in the early days of media on the Web.

When AOL, which used to charge by the hour, switched to an unlimited service in 1996, its dial-up servers were flooded and often choked completely. Users (this one included – I went to AT&T’s WorldNet service) flocked to services that allowed them to simply use (or in some cases, first discover) the Internet at large, otherwise known as the world wide web. Accessing the world wide web outside of AOL’s proprietary service was like being unplugged from the Matrix. Sure, it felt safe and warm inside AOL, but that was more because you didn’t know what you were missing.

The iOS on the iPhones, iPads and iPods are much the same way. Want to just plug in like a flash drive and load your Microsoft Word files, MP3 music, and videos? Nope, not without a lot of steps in the way. You have to go through Apple’s bloated iTunes software (which I originally thought was designed for playing MP3s – since when is it handling complex system updates?). What about installing your own software on the iPad? You’re out of luck on that, unless your software happens to be on the only-through-Apple app store. You’re locked in.

But the iOS and App Store won’t fail – even with these limitations

Apple is clever. With products that are as seductive-looking as a Maserati, at a price that the everyman can afford, they’ve created a “gotta-have-it” mentality amongst the iFanatics (and some of the rest of us). And it goes beyond the looks – using Apple‘s products are a slick, seamless experience.

In the name of full disclosure, it’s probably a good point to mention that I am typing this entire post on an iPad 2 that I purchased in the name of science, much like I did an Android device (a Motorola Droid). My weapons of choice when it comes to computing have always been a mix of Mac Pros and PCs. I try to be as platform agnostic as I can possibly be.

But getting back to the point, you pay in blood for that slick end-user experience. You give up a little bit of computing freedom when you plug into that iOS device.

There’s a quote from Benjamin Franklin that says “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Perhaps it’s crass to twist this around to an iOS debate, but here I go anyway – when you use iOS, you’re slowly eroding the Web and giving in to Apple’s walled garden.

Instead of paying money directly to the distributor of the software, you’re instead spending it through the App Store, giving Apple 30 percent of the profit along the way (The developer gets the other 70 percent). While it can be argued that this model helps smaller developers compete on the same playing field as larger developers, it’s pretty hard to find those smaller developers in the App Store amongst the larger, more prominent companies’ apps. And let’s not forget – it costs $99 per year to be a developer in the App Store in the first place. Most developers aren’t going to make bank on this – but Apple is.

Magazine publishers are facing this issue on two fronts now – Apple is insisting that they run subscriptions through Apple‘s system and not their own circulation departments, thus netting Apple the same 30 percent of the profits here. But more troubling for the publishers is that they lose key information about their subscriber base, something that would be a sea-change for the way the industry conducts its business. As if there already wasn’t enough of that.

Painted in this light, the iPad, once looked to as the industry’s savior is starting to look like its nemesis.

Sure, there are some experiments that are buying into this new publishing model (Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily comes to mind – read more about it in my earlier post), but why should they? Why should any publisher support Apple‘s bid to plant a foothold into an industry that doesn’t need another front in the price wars?

The answer? The iFanatics.

The iFanatics own enough of these devices, and they are all voting with their dollars, through the App Store. And most of them don’t even realize the damage they are doing to the creative community that is forced to kowtow to Apple’s pricing schemes as a result. It’s a 30/70 split now, but will this always be the case?

The next generation Mac OS and iOS will be one and the same

Apple launched the Mac App Store in January. In a nutshell, think of it as a desktop version of the iOS App Store, allowing users to download apps from it while still allowing them to do things the “old-fashioned” way – installing software (you know, what we used to call apps) themselves.

This is a huge boon to the user – easier installation, one-stop shopping for software. But then there’s the 70/30 revenue split again, and the $99-per-year fee to be a developer. Why would the large software developers – Adobe and Microsoft come to mind – agree to give Apple, a direct competitor, a share of their profits when users can just buy the software directly from them and install it themselves?

Because the iFanatics will make them.

The Mac App Store could be the opening salvo in a bid to create a locked-down hardware-software architecture, a proprietary “walled garden” outside of mobile devices and tablets.

It could very well be that in the future, the only way to get software for your Mac desktop or laptop will be through the Mac App Store, and that you’ll have to use the same convoluted workarounds to get files into and out of your computer. And along the way, iFanatics will be dragged along as pawns in the process, since most are already plugged in to the iOS ecosystem and have a lot of money tied up in apps for their iPads and iPhones. They will buy their Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, and every other piece of critical software through the Mac App Store simply because there will be no other way.

It could be a revolution in the simplification of the desktop computer. My mom would love it. I might even love it, too, since it means I won’t have to drive over and figure out how she moved files out of a system folder.

But will the creative community love it?

Creating passive consumers of content

As much as Apple‘s desktops and laptops are excellent tools in the hands of creatives, the opposite is true for its iOS devices. By the very nature of their closed file system structure and the ability to freely move around files and formats, you gain stability at the price of creativity. (I tried some out-there experiments in content creation on the iPad 2, and let’s just say that for anything more than the basics, it just won’t work – more in a later post).

Sure, you can type up a blog post on an iPad, but would you be able to edit your photos on Adobe Photoshop with any amount of ease? And even then, would you be able to get it in or out of your iPad without the hassle of syncing in iTunes? In short, to produce work on the iPad is much harder than to consume.

I could be panicking here, in the same way Chicken Little did when he thought the sky was falling. Apple has a track record of being right on a lot of things – the elimination of the floppy disk, the adoption of USB, its declining reliance on iffy mediums such as optical discs.

But it’s also been wrong before – especially on tablets. Witness the Apple Newton Messagepad or its original USB Mouse.

For now, while I love my iPad 2, I’m still keeping a wary eye on it.

Talk back to me!

Do you care if the App Store (or something like it) becomes the de facto way to get software? Would you like to see iOS on a desktop? Let me know in the comments section below. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.