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Monday, March 29, 2010

Behold, the uses for the Internet

  When I could contain myself no longer, I went to Apple - QuickTime - Apple Special Event January 2010 and watched the iPad presentation. Then the sky opened up, angels wearing iPods sang (or at least lip-synced), and a Voice pointed out that it is possible to navigate information without having to use a mouse, that interface design is alive and well, and that personal computing devices can actually be a pleasure to use.

[Have you ever watched Star Trek? Have you ever seen people on ST clicking through folder after folder to get to some program they need to launch with some lame pointing device? No. Why? Because the people who design the tech for sci-fi shows are OPTIMISTS. They assume we'll move past the interfaces we have now, just like we switched over from all those cool, light-up analog-style buttons, knobs and sliders. Which I kind of miss, actually.]

One passionate detractor described the iPad to me as "just a big iPhone," which made me laugh: it's not like that's an insult, and it's not like she doesn't own a post-iPhone touchscreen phone that mimics the interface to a point, which seemingly never would have been introduced if not for the iPhone's existence.

But this detractor was missing the point: the iPad isn't as much of an innovation as the infrastructure behind it is. iTunes will now carry apps for the iPad also, plus books, plus everything it has already been carrying for iPhones and iPods and iPodTouches. The apps, the genius of having a clearing house for them, of doing quality control and then making them available cheaply, is incredible. INCREDIBLE! The iToys are shiny and beautiful and thoughtfully designed, yes, but it's iTunes that makes this all so clever.

Fake Steve Jobs ( has gone on some brilliant tirades about the nature of Apple's business. Apple's business isn't the sexy iToys so much as it is Digital Asset Management: the selling of songs, movies, apps, books, and any other media currently in the works. Selling them differently than others sell them.


Software: okay, look: say I'm a programmer, and I want to sell a program that does something on a personal computing device. In the past, this would mean I'd write my program, and then go to a publisher, design packaging, get a manufacturer to burn discs, have the packages shipped to a distributor, work out deals with big box stores to try to get them to carry my product, set up my websites, hire a marketing company... To make this work, considering all of that overhead, I'd have to sell approximately a gazillion copies. If this product wasn't going to be big in all possible markets, it wouldn't be worth making, because it would never pay for itself.

If my program was for an Apple device, I could skip most of the steps after writing it: I could test it, form a little company, hire a designer to design a cool icon and website for me, and Apple basically does the rest. My overhead drops down low enough that this could be a side project. A pet project. Frivolous, even, or serious. But it is both low overhead and low risk.

How many people do you know wrote a major piece of PC software based on their own ideas and got it published for retail sale? How about an iPhone app? I know people who are writing iPhone apps. I read articles about people writing iPhone apps. I hear stories of people taking time off their main jobs to write iPhone apps. Not to go the old route, but because the new route makes so many more things possible. Massive funding up front is no longer the filter for ideas.

Even big media is figuring this out: they only figured out that they could sell DVDs of popular television programs a few years ago. But even that entails risk, and the production costs are high. Now viewers can subscribe to those shows in iTunes - no packaging, no manufacturing forecasts, no shipping, much less risk.

(Yes, on iTunes. Not on their own sites. You did notice this, didn't you?)

iTunes is a digital media platform that major networks and lone programmers can both get their work out through. Its strength lies in its one-stop, comprehensive nature. And that's what other companies have been figuring out in recent years.

Music? This works a lot like software does.

Books? I'm a huge fan of independent bookstores, which is where I do most of my book shopping, but Amazon is now catering to tiny, independent booksellers. If you have ten rare and obscure titles that you collected for sale, it will take a long time for people to find you; but if you sell through Amazon (where huge volumes of people are already looking, and which rates well in search engines), you can be found and can sell under Amazon's umbrella.

Stock photography? You used to have to publish a print catalog of your own images for sale and distribute it to buyers around the world, and the collection would have to be comprehensive to get any attention. Now dozens of heavily consolidated stock agencies use thousands of independent photographers to flesh out their catalogs. There's no way a shipping company in Korea would have found the image they purchased for a calendar from me if I were acting alone, but with my images as part of Alamy's agency database (, I was exactly where they were looking.

Obscure camera equipment? My little neighborhood camera stores have to carry what people are most likely to buy regularly, so a specialist in obscure parts or rare collectibles isn't going to get a lot of mileage out of their storefront. But on eBay, they can reach freaks like me who are actually looking for 8x10 Fidelity film holders, or lenses from decommissioned equipment, or replacement parts for equipment that was last manufactured before I was born. The odds of someone in any particular city needing these things is low; the odds of someone with an Internet connection needing these things... it is completely different.

Handmade paper goods and crafts? I don't think I need to explain Etsy to you.

Many big retailers and media companies are still figuring out how to make money on the Internet, and perhaps they never will. Look how long it took record companies to figure it out - they had to have it explained to them, and they had ideal products to sell digitally - they just couldn't conceptualize it. But there are tools now so that little media - "little" programmers, independent artists and musicians, collectors, makers of obscure specialty equipment - can benefit from retail outlets that have never been available to them before.

The Internet: it's getting interesting.

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