HP loses the tablet battle, Apple victorious?
The CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Leo Apotheker, has announced they are killing off their tablet offering (the TouchPad) and their WebOS based product lines in general. From his statement: “The tablet effect is real and sales of the TouchPad are not meeting our expectations.”
TechCrunch sum the announcement up like this:
But wait, then why is he exiting the tablet space after only a matter of weeks? Because when Apotheker says “the tablet effect”, he really means “the iPad effect”.
Put another way, “Apple, you win.”
And not just in the tablet space. Again, the largest PC-maker in the world is exiting the space. Think about how crazy that is for a second.
It is crazy, for a few reasons. The TechCrunch article goes on to detail internal wrangling at HP and their position in the tech market, and asks the question “does this make HP look foolish, cowardly, or smart?”
Fair enough. But what about the impact on the tablet space, and the effect on Apple? I own an iPad and I’m generally an Apple fan, so I don’t say this out of an aversion to Cupertino. No, my concern is that a near monopoly on tablet devices isn’t a good thing. The power that Apple now wields with it’s phenomenally popular mobile devices and software (iPhone, iPad, iOS) is becoming scary, and lack of competition is surely bad in the long term. If a big hitter like HP doesn’t have the stomach to take on Apple, who will?
The Amazon Kindle and the future of the web
Something on the cover of The Guardian recently caught my eye: the hook for an article on the Amazon Kindle, soon to be available here in the UK for the first time. ‘Why the Kindle will never kill the book’ it said, apparently the opinion of Nicholson Baker, a writer I’ve heard good things about but haven’t quite gotten around to reading. I shuddered. Always a bit of a let-down when a newspaper I like, and a writer I was hoping to like, wander lazily down the Luddite path. I took my time getting to the article, anticipating the cringing and teeth-gnashing I would soon endure.
Turns out it’s a damn good article. Yes, Baker is certainly uncomfortable with the Kindle and is strongly in favour of the printed book. But to be honest, so am I, as a personal choice. As a personal choice, I will continue to enjoy my traditional book collection, built up over more than 25 years, and will continue to enjoy print as long as it is around. (Ah, that new book smell.) But I recognise that this is an indulgence: things are changing, and should change, if only for the sake of the environment. And while I can’t see myself reading many novels on an e-reader, I think they would make an ideal replacement for magazines and newspapers, especially since the latter make a much larger environmental impact.
Baker recognises all this and (sigh of relief) turns out to be surprisingly tech-savvy. Much of the article is in fact a review of the Kindle 2, along with a fascinating history of Vizplex, the “epaper” that makes up the Kindle’s display. Needless to say, although he gives it a good effort, he can’t enjoy the Kindle, although he comes out with a surprise recommendation: get the Kindle software for the iPhone instead. It’s much cheaper, works better, is more flexible, and fills a convenience niche the way other e-readers don’t.
Most interesting – and relevant to this blog – were his observations of the Kindle as a proprietary tool to sell Amazon-specific content.
‘The company uses an encoding format called Topaz. There are other ebook software formats – Adobe Acrobat, for instance, and Microsoft Reader, and an open format called ePub – but Amazon went its own way. Nobody else’s hardware can handle Topaz without Amazon’s permission. That means you can’t read your Kindle books on your computer, or on an ebook reader that competes with the Kindle.’
Users are locked in to using Topaz even though it would presumably have been a trivial matter to support PDF and other formats. Revolutionary is the Kindle’s inclusion of an always-on data connection with no monthly subscription charge, but this of course is cobbled to the Amazon network for the purpose of constant book buying. Truly revolutionary would be the ability to access live internet content – blogs, news sites, etc – but this of course would conflict with their bu siness model. This makes the Kindle a ‘closed’ device. The genius of the thing is its ability to appear as if it’s on the cutting edge of tech trends, but the truth is this closed network model goes completely against the spirit of openness that the personal computer and the internet were founded on. I’m thinking here of Jonathan Zittrain’s observations in his book ‘The Future of the Internet’. Zittrain speaks of the PC and the internet as ‘generative’ technologies: open, expandable, and encouraging of the user to feel like a participant rather than merely a consumer.
But recently we see more and more devices and websites moving towards the closed, locked-in model. The iPhone is a good example (although it pains me to say so as I’m an iPhone enthusiast). According to Zittrain:
‘The iPhone … is sterile. … It’s functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. … The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted.’
Since this was written, the iPhone has ‘opened up’ enough to allow tens of thousands of third-party applications to be made available for the iPhone. But, crucially, they are only available through Apple’s own online store, and each app must be approved by Apple before release.
Think also of other increasingly closed devices and websites: Facebook, games consoles, pay-on-demand films and TV, etc. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to see the free and open internet shrink as more and more communities and content become locked in to proprietary formats and specialist devices and websites. It might seem unlikely, but the internet as we know it could disappear altogether. After all, that’s what we had before the internet: locked in communities like AOL and Compuserve.
This is a huge subject and one that I will return to on this blog. For now it’s enough to note that, while there has been a Sony ebook reader for some time, supporting PDF and a number formats, and while more ebook readers continue to be launched, it is Amazon’s Kindle that dominates. As with Apple, it uses it’s leverage founded on open, ‘generative’ technologies, to create new technologies based on closed systems and tight control. If the internet were to disappear, and the Kindle continue to grow, Amazon would be safe: they would no longer need their website because the platform for their sales could be handled solely by the Kindle. For the moment, I will continue to buy my books in paper form. Partly because I like them that way, but also because the Kindle, despite it’s friendly-faced convenience and eco-credentials, makes me deeply uneasy.