The first press accounts of the Apple iPad have been long on emotional raves about its beauty and ease of use, but have glossed over its competitive characteristics—or rather, its lack thereof. Some have characterized the iPad as an evolution from flexible-but-complicated computers to simple, elegant appliances. But has there ever been an “appliance” with the kind of competitive control Apple now enjoys over the iPad? The iPad's DRM restrictions mean that Apple has absolute dominion over who can run code on the device—and while that thin shellac of DRM will prove useless at things that matter to publishers, like preventing piracy, it is deadly effective in what matters to Apple: preventing competition.
Maybe the iPad will fizzle. After all, that's what has happened to every other tablet device so far. But if you're contemplating a program to sell your books, stories, or other content into the iPad channel with hopes of it becoming a major piece of your publishing business, you should take a step back and ask how your interests are served by Apple's shackling your readers to its hardware. The publishing world chaos that followed the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Group (and subsidiaries like Publishers Group West) showed what can happen when a single distributor locks up too much of the business. Apple isn't just getting big, however; it's also availing itself of a poorly thought-out codicil of copyright law to lock your readers into its platform, limit innovation in the e-book realm, and ultimately reduce the competition to serve your customers.
Here's what most mainstream press reports so far haven't told you. The iPad uses a DRM system called “code-signing” to limit which apps it can run. If the code that you load on your device isn't “signed,” that is, approved by Apple, the iPad will not run it. If the idea of adding this DRM to the iPad is to protect the copyrights of the software authors, we can already declare the system an abject failure—independent developers cracked the system within 24 hours after the first iPad shipped, a very poor showing even in the technically absurd realm of DRM. Code-signing has also completely failed for iPhones, by the way, on which anyone who wants to run an unauthorized app can pretty easily “jailbreak” the phone and load one up.
But DRM isn't just a system for restricting copies. DRM enjoys an extraordinary legal privilege previously unseen in copyright law: the simple act of breaking DRM is illegal, even if you're not violating anyone's copyright. In other words, if you jailbreak your iPad for the purpose of running a perfectly legal app from someone other than Apple, you're still breaking the law. Even if you've never pirated a single app, nor violated a single copyright, if you're found guilty of removing an “effective means of access control,” Apple can sue you into a smoking hole. That means that no one can truly compete with Apple to offer better iStores, or apps, with better terms that are more publisher- and reader-friendly. Needless to say, it is also against the law to distribute tools for the purpose of breaking DRM.
Think about what that kind of control means for the future of your e-books. Does the company that makes your toaster get to tell you whose bread you can buy? Your dishwasher can wash anyone's dishes, not just the ones sold by its manufacturer (who, by the way, takes a 30% cut along the way). What's more, you can invent cool new things to do with your dishwasher. For example, you can cook salmon in it without needing permission from the manufacturer (check out the Surreal Gourmet for how). And you can even sell your dishwasher salmon recipe without violating some obscure law that lets dishwasher manufacturers dictate how you can use your machine.
Some early reviews have compared the iPad to a TV, a more passive medium in contrast to the interactive PC. But even passive old TV benefited greatly from the absence of a DRM-style lockdown on its medium. No one needed a broadcaster's permission, for example, to invent cable TV. No one needed a cable operator's permission to invent the VCR. And, tellingly, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak didn't need a TV manufacturer's permission to invent the Apple II Plus, which plugged into the back of any old TV set. Of course, cable operators were sued by broadcasters, and the VCR was the subject of an eight-year court battle to wipe it off the face of the Earth. But by any measure, TV has greatly benefited from this system of “adversarial innovation.” TiVo and all its imitators and successors, including the Apple TV, are good recent examples.
But this is not what is happening in e-book publishing so far. Devices like the iPad and the Kindle are a wholly new kind of thing—they function like bookshelves that reject all books except those the manufacturer has blessed. Publishers today worry that retailers like Wal-Mart might control too much of their business—and rightly so. But imagine how much more precarious things would be if Wal-Mart sold bookcases that were programmed to do what the iPad and Kindle do—refuse to hold books bought in other stores, and by canceling Wal-Mart's account, your publishing house would lose access to any customer who didn't have the desire to throw out their Wal-Mart bookcases or Wal-Mart—approved books, or room to add another brand of bookcase.
Having too much of your business subject to the whim of a single retailer who is out for its own interests is a scary and precarious thing. Already, Apple's App Store has displayed the warning signs of a less-than-benevolent dictator. Its standard deal with developers was, until recently, a secret—that is, until NASA was forced to reveal the terms of its deal with Apple in the face of a Freedom of Information Act request. Now that we've seen the details of that deal, we see what it means to sell into a marketplace with only one distributor: developers are prohibited from selling their apps in competing stores; consumers are prohibited from “jailbreaking” any Apple product even for legal uses; Apple can kick your app out of its store at any time; and Apple's liability to you is capped at $50, no matter what the circumstances. Apple has also announced a ban on the use of “middleware” programming environments that let you develop simultaneously for multiple platforms, like Google's Android OS, the Nintendo WiiWare marketplace, and so on.
Apple will tell you that it needs its DRM lock-in to preserve the iPad's “elegance.” But if somewhere in the iPad's system settings there was a button that said, “I am a grownup and would like to choose for myself which apps I run,” and clicking on that button would allow you to buy e-books from competing stores, where exactly is the reduction in elegance there?
Apple will also tell you that there's competition for apps—that anyone can write an HTML5 app (the powerful, flexible next generation of the HTML language that Web pages are presently made from). That may be true, but not if developers want their app to access the iPad's sensors, which allow apps to be bought and sold with a single click. It's an enormous competitive setback if your customers have to laboriously tap their credit card details into the screen keyboard every time they buy one of your products. And here's a fun experiment for the code writers among you: write an app and stick a “buy in one click with Google Checkout” button on the screen. Watch how long it takes for Apple to reject it. For bonus fun, send the rejection letter to the FTC's competition bureau. Whaddya Gonna Do?
There's an easy way to change this, of course. Just tell Apple it can't license your copyrights—that is, your books—unless the company gives you the freedom to give your readers the freedom to take their products with them to any vendor's system. You'd never put up with these lockdown shenanigans from a hardcopy retailer or distributor, and you shouldn't take it from Apple, either, and that goes for Amazon and the Kindle, too.
This is exactly what I've done. I won't sell my e-books in any store that locks my users into a vendor's platform. That's true for both my forthcoming self-published collection With a Little Help and the e-book editions that HarperCollins and Tor publish of my books. At the same time, I'm hoping my unlocked readers will come up with great HTML5 remixes of the stories in With a Little Help: interactive, cross-platform net-toys that can actually drive revenue for me, whether through sales of my print editions, donations for the e-books, or downloads of the audio.
I'm planning to be in the publishing business for a good half-century or more. And though I am not exactly sure how the e-publishing book business will mature (hence my experiment With a Little Help), I am keenly aware that locking my readers to a specific device today, whether the iPad or the Kindle, could very well mean a dramatic loss of control for my business tomorrow.