Francis Sedgemore, Friday 20 January 2012 at 12:11 UTC

Apple uniculture replaces Microsoft technology monoculture

Before anyone excoriates Apple Inc. for locking consumers into the company’s postpostmodern product line and pixel-perfect aesthetic, let us not forget that Microsoft before it had commanded a virtual monopoly in most sectors of the educational and corporate worlds. What we are seeing now is a protracted regime change, albeit in a more diverse market in which consumers have greater freedom of choice. That they may choose not to exercise that choice is another matter.

Still, the above picture is one that I find profoundly depressing, and not only due to the corporate monoculture displayed in this university lecture hall. On a pedagogical level it is potentially harmful. If I were a teacher, I would ban electronic devices such as laptops and tablets, and discourage the use of pen and paper for anything more than taking brief notes. Lecturers should distribute paper or electronic handouts listing the salient points of their presentations, to which the students should pay close attention, free from technological distractions.

Talking of tablets, I see that Apple has yet again upped the ante by launching an electronic textbook platform based on the iPad and a book authoring tool that runs on Mac computers only. Apple’s updated iBooks format is apparently a forked and extended version of the open EPUB 3 format for ebook readers. Another Microsoft trick that Apple has exploited to lock in the masses: Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

Apple can get away with this as the market is new, and Apple pretty much the only creative innovator operating within it. The publishing industry has for years been talking about moving to electronic textbooks, but talk is as far as it goes. Apple acts, and unsurprisingly reaps the rewards while others whinge. Apple’s iPad virtually owns the market for fondleslabs, and users are said to love it as a media consumption device. Again, this is something I find depressing, as Apple succeeds by appealing to our universal inner idiot and penchant for shallow shininess.

How Apple’s competitors will respond is anyone’s guess, and there is no shortage of market analysts with an opinion on the matter. Amazon’s reaction will be key to the development of the electronic textbook market. If Amazon can push its Kindle Fire tablet cheaply and in large volumes, Apple will face real competition, and could be forced to move to a more open business model. But do not count on the corporate world as a whole moving to open technology standards. Lock-in is a boon for technology providers, as it secures their revenue stream for significant periods of time, thereby allowing for forward planning backed up by vast cash reserves.

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