The Big Idea

Apple’s Way

Why publishers should beware the App Store.

In a brilliant column published 16 years ago, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco explained the difference between Apple and Microsoft in terms of the divide between Catholics and Protestants. In the DOS-based universe, he noted, there are many alternative paths to salvation. The One True Church of Macintosh, by contrast, “tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach—if not the kingdom of Heaven—the moment in which their document is printed.”

With the ascendance of the iPad, aka “The Jesus Tablet,” Apple’s Lateran tendencies have grown ever more baroque. The arrival of the new device was shrouded in something better described as religious mystery than mere corporate secrecy. The spiritual leader, recently returned from near death, celebrated the birth of his “magical and revolutionary” gadget at a ceremony akin to a high mass, beneath a glowing Apple icon that must be approaching the crucifix as a universally recognized symbol.

In this metaphor, content publishers are like the halt and the lame who flock to Lourdes in search of a miraculous cure. The pilgrims’ desperate hope is that Steve Jobs will restore their businesses to health by blessing them with “apps”—a new way for them to charge readers for content and revive full-page advertisements in electronic form. Burn me for saying so, but they’re dreaming.

The first problem with the publishers’ fantasy, which I only realized when I spent some serious time with my new 3G iPad this past week, is that you don’t need those cute little apps to read newspapers and magazines. On the iPhone, apps bring real advantages—it’s no fun navigating a complex Web page through that 3.5-inch window. The iPad, by contrast, has a 9.7-inch display that is big, bright, and beautiful. The Safari browser is a great way to read any publication on the device, so long as you have a good WiFi connection. 

The iPad might not be the boon that publishers had hoped

On the big screen, those exorbitantly priced first-gen iPad apps offered by magazines like Vanity Fair ($4.99 a month) and Time ($4.95 a week!) are attempts to revive the anachronism of … turning pages. They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: the opportunity to comment, the integration of social media, the ability to select text and paste it elsewhere, and finally the most basic function of all: links to other sources. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, brutally describes them as “a step back to the era of CD-ROMS.” A few, like the New York Times Editors’ Choice app, are beautifully designed, and I have high hopes for the iPad app that Slate is working on. But it’s hard to see readers paying much of a premium for pretty, at least so long as these apps do less than the Web versions of the same publications.

The bigger mistake some publishers seem only too eager to make is embracing an Apple-controlled marketplace. The 30 percent revenue share Amazon originally offered newspaper and magazine publishers on the Kindle was so awful that it makes anything else look good by comparison. But Jobs is an even more ornery gatekeeper than Jeff Bezos. If you want to play in Apple’s playground, it decides what apps it deems acceptable and then takes a 30 percent cut. It collects the data about users and decides what it is willing to share with publishers (so far, none of it). It intends to sell the advertising though a platform called iAd, controlling the standards and taking what sounds to be a 40 percent cut. If Apple succeeds in taking over the relationship with their customers, it will be no less of a disaster for print publishers than it was for the music industry.

But the most alarming aspect of Apple’s vision is its censorious instinct when it comes to content. Where Google operates from a deep commitment to free expression—as evidenced by its heroic decision to challenge China’s Great Firewall—Jobs detests an open orifice. There couldn’t be a starker incident than Apple denying permission to the editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore to launch an app on the grounds that it violated section 3.3.14 of Apple’s (private) iPhone Developer Program License Agreement—which lets it block any content it believes “may be found objectionable.” Apple’s specific complaint was that Fiore’s work “ridicules public figures.”

Apple reversed itself after Fiore fortuitously won a Pulitzer Prize, but it doesn’t deign to defend its policies and remains closed to legitimate media inquiry. It is notoriously vindictive about those who … ridicule Steve Jobs. And Cupertino is more puritanical about nudity and mild sexual content than the Vatican itself, banning the display of nipples. Editors at one edgy fashion magazine reportedly refer to their app in development as “the Iran edition.”

I don’t say that all of this spells doom for Apple. Just because Jobs’ beautiful closed system was crushed by Microsoft’s more open model in the 1990s doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again—though it might. The iPad is a gorgeous appliance and I wouldn’t bet against it, or be without one, in the short term. But content creators ought not to delude themselves about Jobs’ efforts to replace the chaos of the Web with his own velvet prison. The Catholic Church wins on aesthetics every time. It loses on innovation and independent thought. And it’s not very good about sharing the wealth, either.

A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.