Apple Could Bring Order to a Messy Mediascape
Apple's reportedly lining up for a media-focused event in New York later this month, and there's potential for big improvements to many of its media sales channels. iAds could definitely use a boost. iCloud could benefit from ease-of-use improvements. And while iBookstore is off the ground, it's within striking distance of a market that's practically begging for an overhaul: School textbooks.
I thought for sure that Apple's next big media splash without Steve Jobs would be all about an Apple iPad 3. So I was surprised to hear about an upcoming media-focused event slated for the end of this month in New York. There's a smattering of reports that don't actually directly cite anyone on the record, but the nature of the reports and event lead me to believe they're basically true.
Of course, the question -- as it always is with Apple -- is, what the heck is big enough to warrant an actual press/media event?
Since the event is in New York, the location immediately creates a reasonable assumption: New York is a major hub for book and magazine publishing, along with advertising. Add in a report from AllThingsD that Apple Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue has a hand in the event, and it seems e-related content deserves the speculation. (Cue runs areas like the iTunes Store, App Store, iBookstore, iCloud, and iAd.)
All of These Areas Have Room for Improvement
While each of these major ecosystem hub elements have room for improvement -- and room for innovation -- iBookstore, iCloud and iAd are the weakest links.
iCloud is ripe for improvement because I don't think most users know how to really put it to work for themselves. Plus it doesn't yet work with iBooks in a way that rivals Amazon's Kindle readers. For instance, if it's even possible to lend an iBook to another Apple iOS user, I don't know how to do it. One of the features I enjoy with Kindle ebooks is seeing the passages in novels that other readers have highlighted -- usually a well-turned sentence or something true and powerful. It's sort of a reinforcement from the crowd, which I was surprised to usually enjoy. (You can turn it off if you want, though.)
Plus, a buddy just showed off a feature in a Kindle Touch that uses a decent (though not sexy or amazing) electronic voice to read his books to him aloud. On the drive up for some holiday visits, he was able to plug the Kindle into his car speaker system and listen as he drove. I'm vaguely aware of some audio book rights associated with publishers and the well-paid guys who read books aloud for this market, and they've prevented some of these features from seeing the light of day. But here's the deal: I'll never buy an audiobook, but I find e-books that let me read or listen worthwhile, making me a much happier and frequent consumer of e-books.
Loyalty Only Goes So Far
At the same time, I'm about to buy a new novel in e-book format, and I'm on a tipping point: Do I buy the Kindle version from Amazon.com, which I can use on my nicely sized Kindle Fire (and on my iPhone via the Kindle app), or do I stick with my Apple loyalty (and iBookstore's underdog stature against Amazon.com)? I don't have an answer. My iPad sometimes seems a bit large for novels, particularly in the dark of a bedroom, but for non-fiction and magazines, it's awesome.
And that brings up another woefully underserved area: textbooks. Despite both Amazon.com and Apple poking at the textbook market in rudimentary ways, I still see kids packing around huge backpacks full of books. A guy can hardly make it to the coffee shop without shouting in impatience as back-heavy kids struggle across crosswalks. A sophomore in college I talked to just shelled about US$1,200 in old-school print textbooks this past semester, and once he's done with them, he'll get just a fraction of that back in resale value as they become less and less valuable to new students.
It's not hard to imagine Apple creating an entire textbook publishing program, both in the creation of textbooks and in the delivery and sales of textbooks on iPads. Apple probably doesn't want to alienate the textbook industry, but then again, maybe (hopefully) it does: Why not let teachers and professors compile (and update) their own textbooks each year? Not only could they structure the appropriate content in the order it should be consumed and taught to students, but they could pick out the stuff that's accurate and relevant. I could go on and on about the possibilities here, but the main point is that the textbook market is ripe for a massive electronic (iOS-based) overhaul. Maybe Apple has managed to create the platform and secure allegiances from some notoriously difficult-to-convince publishers, too.
As for iAds, I must be missing the amazing new advertising experiences promoted by Steve Jobs when it launched. It could also be that the mass-market companies that have the big budgets to pull off great iAds are also the companies that tend to sell stuff I don't care about. Meanwhile, I think the iAd world is also on a tipping point: I hear that some developers who produce both paid and free, ad-supported versions of their apps actually prefer people to buy those ad-laden versions than the for-purchase, non-ad versions. Why? More profit and a recurring revenue stream. Relevance is always a challenge, but delivery and cost-effectiveness is too. Apple has millions upon millions of iOS devices out there, and when you take all of them into account, the iAd ecosystem appears to me to be ready for massive growth.
All in all, while I first wrote off this newly rumored event as just another minor blip, like the launch of The Daily last year, I'm seeing some big areas that, while completely lacking in the sex appeal of shiny new hardware lines, nonetheless have the potential to make our iOS devices more useful than ever before.