Apple iPad - The content revolution that wasn't

The iPad could have played a major part in the shift towards a more democratised, read-write culture. But it hasn’t happened: why not?

The hype leading up to the launch of Apple's new iPad was, even if exciting for a few of Apple's most die-hard fans, alarming to the more reflexive among us.

Apple does have an irrefutable history of launching industry-changing products, starting with the Apple II in 1977, and featuring most importantly, not the iPad or the iPhone or the iPod, but the Macintosh in 1984. This was and still is the only one (apart from possibly the Apple II) that can seriously be called a "tool" because, unlike all the others, you can use it to create as well as consume content.

Lawrence Lessig, a Law professor at Stanford University, and a convincing voice on the relatively recent transformation of the "ownership" of intellectual property that has resulted from the internet, has spoken passionately on the transition of our culture from being one that is "Read-Write" - one that people contribute to as well as consume - to being "Read-Only" - one that people just buy into, where what becomes popular is decided by a few large corporates.

It may not be a popular view, and it doesn't mean that there hasn't been independent creativity taking place in large quantities, just that this activity has been confined to the "underground"; the erudite; the relative fringes; the people who think of themselves as "cultured". 

What iPad could have been

Wildly optimistic though it may seem, the reason the iPad had potential was because it could have played a major part in continuing what some see as a shift in the digital media, back towards a more democratised, read-write culture. It could have done this in two complimentary ways.

Firstly, what we needed from the iPad, which has user-interface revolutionising "multi-touch" technology, was a lightweight but powerful tool that independent content creators could use to develop new and interesting work, as they march into battle for an open, more diversified digital culture: the next step in a 21-year history of portable computing from Apple.

As a musician friend of mine remarked, "Try putting a MacBook Pro on a music stand".

Secondly, after hearing rumours of deals with the New York Times and other embattled content producers in journalism and book-selling, and that Steve Jobs had been reported to have said that the iPad (and, we assumed, its accompanying software) was the most important thing he/Apple had ever done, it seemed reasonable to hope for something massive, figuratively speaking at least.

My own hopes, which seem absurd now that gravity has kicked in, the hype has subsided, and Apple's stock value has fallen considerably, despite a record-breaking quarter, were for a sort of ‘media interchange’ for Apple's core market: people who are, or think they are, creative; a legitimate peer-to-peer network, with a state-of-the-art user interface.

Imagine a giant, multimedia version of Apple's existing App Store, where software for the iPhone and iPod Touch can already be purchased either at ultra-low prices or even given away free, but crucially, in potentially enormous volume - which is a game-changing business model for content producers large and small.

Executing ideas is what people have been using a Macintosh to do since the 80s, and that, plus an open marketplace for those ideas (and a show-stopping user-interface) is what many hoped the impending iPad might deliver.

The old moribund model

But the rumours appear to have culminated only in yet another tightly controlled marketplace for the same large corporates to go back their old, moribund, business model: selling digital content to the masses.

Steve Jobs is right: democracy does depend on a free press, and hence one that can sustain itself, and there will always be a demand for good journalism, books, and music.

However the business models for this future will come from innovation. The line between the so-called ‘professional’ and the citizen is being rightfully re-blurred, and this innovation comes mostly from the grey area in between. Most music lovers will tell you that this blurring has been a good thing for the music industry. All but the most progressive record executives will disagree.

People in the journalism industry mostly haven't come round yet, and other than the ‘twitterature’ trend, self-publishing your own literature is still prohibitively expensive because of the material production costs - just as producing your own album would have been before the MP3 format, standardised in 1991, changed everything.

This type of innovation, in both technology and business, is sorely-needed, because the content itself and the appropriate legal devices and precedents to regulate its ownership already exist. Human creativity is a perpetually flooding tide.

Interesting things

Mac OS X - Apple's primary operating system, and the preferred platform for creatives for a long time because it is versatile and continues Apple's history of producing software for creative people - partly represents the innovative technology that is so badly needed.

Unfortunately however, instead of running OS X - the iPad runs a modified version of iPhone OS, which is the locked-down system software that is used by the iPhone and the iPod touch.

Technically the iPhone OS contains a large proportion of the same underlying technologies found in OS X, such as a version of the easy-to-learn "Cocoa" programming framework that has been responsible for the explosion of forcibly closed-source, proprietary software available for the platform. The system's marketing too claims a link with the Mac OS.

However, the user experience is both aesthetically and philosophically very different. Other than these pragmatically borrowed technologies, the system is built from the ground up around strict controls that are intended mostly to prevent "piracy"; in other words to stem the amazing ingenuity of people round the world who whether they think of it as such or not, have decided that old-fashioned copyright laws have no place in a networked, digital world.

These restrictions, while they have eventually been circumvented with every release of the iPhone OS, prevent users directly accessing or sharing their own files and instead limit user activity to the use of "apps", which are almost entirely focused either on playing games, or on the downloading of material from the internet.

There are a few exceptions of course. I know from experience that it is possible to at least attempt interesting things with an (unlocked) iPhone, but the apps that allow this type of work do not come from Apple and will have no presence on the iPad anytime soon, rendering it a disappointing media consumption device.

About the author

Marcus Gilroy-Ware is a writer and academic in the field of digital media politics and law, and convenes the online journalism curriculum for the Masters in International Journalism at City University London. He runs digital creative firm VSC Creative and is founder of Smartest, an open-source web-publishing platform. Marcus also holds a masters in law from Birkbeck, University of London.