Steve Jobs seduced New York's media moguls all too easily, convincing them his iPad would magically keep them in business — and in chauffeured limos. But nothing easy comes free, and the publishers' digital debt is now due.
Apple's CEO is, and has always been, a capricious and controlling leader, and now it is print media's turn to learn how this feels. Like everyone in the Cult of Steve Jobs, the moguls have come under his thumb by their own choice. They've been slashing budgets and firing staff to cope with falling circulation and advertising revenue; meanwhile, they've largely failed to build profitable businesses online, where nimbler rivals are growing quickly.
Against this gloomy backdrop, the iPad seemed an enchanted portal into a much brighter future. Suddenly stale old ideas like paywalls and self-contained e-magazines looked appealing again. Not just appealing: Viable, even trendy. Such was the power of the advance hype around the iPad. Before the device was confirmed to even exist, Time Inc. mocked up a slick demo of a tablet edition of Sports Illustrated; Condé Nast's Wired showed off something even cooler-looking under the title "Wired Magazine on iPad," before the device went on sale.
For the old-line moguls atop companies like Dow Jones, New York Times Company, Condé Nast and Time Inc., the excitement around the iPad must have seemed like a godsend: Suddenly, they could stick to their old business models, with only the slightest of tweaks, and maybe even return to the salad days of long lunches and other perks. The pain of adapting to the cutthroat world of Web publishing could perhaps be avoided, or at least delayed.
And yet the signs keep piling up that this was a false dawn — and that, far from a savior, Apple's CEO is (gasp!) actually a capitalist American business executive, at least as ruthless and calculating as any other. The Pixar chief-turned-Disney-director has been predictably savvy in dealing with the media, using their weakness to grow Apple's control over distribution, creation and even content itself. Here are the most important recent watersheds:
This sounds like a geeky footnote, but was actually a dramatic power grab. It means developers can no longer write apps in languages like C# and Flash and then use tools that automatically convert their code into iPhone-compatible software. This has become common practice, especially among games developers, including Electronic Arts, which links in an unsupported language called Lua. Keep in mind this is a distinct and much more controversial step than Apple's famous ban on Flash in Web pages, since the Flash used to write iPhone and iPad apps is entirely converted to native code, which is then directly reviewed by Apple before anyone can install it.
The backlash to Apple's stringent new rules was fierce among techies. One programmer called it "gut-turning... bullshit." Another said it would be like having to use Apple's GarageBand software in order to sell music on iTunes. A developer at Adobe, which makes Flash, reacted with a blog post titled "Apple Slaps Developers in the Face."
But Apple's purge of impure programmers hurts the media companies too; their programmers tend to be Flash programmers, which is why both Sports Illustrated and Wired built their tablet demos in Adobe Air; although Time Inc. is no longer using Adobe technologies and says it never had long-term plans to, the idea at Condé Nast and other publishers had been to build using Adobe technologies like Flash and then cross compile to native iPhone/iPad code, a path that Apple has now banned.
In other words, now that Jobs has print media companies in his thrall, he's taxing them in order to displace rival Adobe. As former Condé Nast technical lead Alex Norcliffe wrote,
Apple just pulled the rug from under a valuable media partner in Condé Nast US. ... Apple has pitched itself recently as the champion of publishers whose traditions are vested mainly in print... Actually it's Jobs who is King. He may make a few publishers a bit of cash on the side, but in his personal crusade against a lumbering Adobe, he just cost one very important media partner a lot of money in wasted effort.
To be fair, it was possible to see this coming. In fact, we anticipated Apple "banning apps with Flash baked in" in our March 26 post detailing Apple's dogfight with publishers to control news. Jobs certainly made his feelings on Flash clear in a behind-the-scenes meeting at the Wall Street Journal, and Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend was wary of investing too much in Flash weeks ago. The New York Times also steered conspicuously clear of Flash; despite having an existing version of its Times Reader already written in Adobe Air, it proceeded with a native, hand-coded Objective-C version of the app.
None of that changes the fact, however, that Jobs has undone large amounts of work and many existing applications with a single rule change. Nor does it alter the reality that Apple has taken operating system control to a new extreme: Not only does the company insist on approving each and every iPhone and iPad app, it now wants to control exactly how those apps are written.
Apple annexes advertising: Not content with a chokehold on the distribution of iPad and iPhone media, Apple is making its move on advertising, and starting with the hottest, most promising new subsector: Mobile ads. After acquiring mobile ad seller Quattro Wireless earlier this year, Apple just announced it will bake "iAds" technology right into the heart of the iPhone OS, the sort of bundling that Microsoft used to get raked over the coals for.
Analysts believe iAds could make several billion dollars for Apple, and no wonder: Not only is Apple offering to design the ads itself, it just quietly changed the iPhone/iPad rules in such a manner that might cripple its mobile advertising competitors, according to Peter Kafka at All Things D.
In case the pattern isn't clear yet, moguls: Jobs loves control, disdains rivals and plays for keeps.
Apple still controls content: Remember Apple's arbitrary and censorship of iPhone app content? It's carried right through to the iPad; e-magazine distributor Zinio's app (left) has been barred from loading French Vogue, Maxim and Playboy, among other titles. Which means Apple's control will grow, should the iPad take off and revolutionize print media as many publishing honchos hope, encompassing not just distribution but content itself.
Silicon Valley observers have grown accustomed to Steve Jobs' fascist side. This is the man, after all, who 26 years ago was so insistent on keeping memory expansion slots out of the original Macintosh that his own engineers had to sneak them in on fear of firing. He's the man once as famous inside Apple for his firings and withering fury as for his inspiring keynotes, who bragged at the Wall Street Journal about his pride in dispatching the floppy drive, CD ROM and even one of Apple's own FireWire ports.
Speaking of the Journal: In addition to old war stories, Jobs also gave editors there a taste of life in his shadow, when the CEO apparently became enraged over one editor's indiscreet tweet. Now, as then, Jobs' hopeful admirers in the news industry have a choice: They may wage a dark and potentially bloody fight back to a future they've got real control over — or they may subjugate themselves ever-more-completely to the most revered CEO in the world. Given their own track record, as compared to Jobs', that's actually a tough call.
[Photos of Jobs via Getty Images]