10 January 2011

The Mac App Store, iBookstore and the one-click wonder

Yesterday Apple launched the much-awaited Mac App Store. People are buying Angry Birds all over again and a range of other applications that they don’t actually need.

Having downloaded the OSX (Apple’s operating system) update and entered the Mac App Store for the first time myself, I was struck by something I hadn’t previously thought about or expected. One click. Hello apps.

That’s interesting, I pondered.

The iTunes way

Until now, every addition to what was originally the iTunes music store, from apps to the more recent iBookstore, has appeared in iTunes itself. That’s how it’s worked.

To buy and download digital media, be it music, movies or books, we’ve had to fire up iTunes and navigate our way to what we’re looking for. It’s not an especially taxing process, but it can take a few clicks and up to 30 seconds – iTunes is notoriously sluggish.

But the new Mac App Store is different. It exists as a standalone application quite separate from iTunes altogether. The store itself looks and feels very similar, but the way you access it is not the same.

More speed, less waste

The result is a quicker, more streamlined experience. Assuming you keep the Mac App Store icon in the dock (where Apple automatically places it for you), you are always one click and a few seconds away from the store’s homepage – its wallet-teasing shop window.

The contrast between this new gateway and the comparatively bloated iTunes is significant. Over at 52 Tiger, Dave Caolo puts it perfectly:

…the [Mac App Store] is only doing one thing, like a quaint boutique. Meanwhile, its sibling iTunes has morphed into The Mall of America on Black Friday.

Anyway, all this got me thinking. Specifically, believe it or not, it got me thinking about ebooks and ereaders. Even more specifically, it got me thinking about Apple’s iBookstore and why, apart from the gaping holes in its library, it remains relatively underused.

No increments

Everyone will buy and read ebooks at some point in the future. But it’s an industry still trying to work out what the hell it’s supposed to be doing.

Like Paula Abdul’s oversized cartoon cat, for every step forward, publishing’s powers that be will inevitably then take two steps back.

But whatever. Though readers are slowly catching on to the digital revolution, let’s assume that, in one way or another, everyone still buys books in their traditional printed form. People love books. People love reading. Just like everyone buys music and movies. The market is massive, infinite even.

So why hasn’t the iBookstore store caught on in the way that the iTunes Store’s digital music and movies have? Well, it’s probably because the iPad (the best way to read in Appleland) is new, sort of expensive for the average Joe, and those who don’t have one generally don’t want to read a novel-length book on their iPhone or iPod. All perfectly good, practical reasons.

But there’s also something else, and it’s why I think it will take quite a bit longer for ebooks to become mainstream. There has been no incremental shift towards digital. First there was paper. Now there are screens.

Back to the future

No one was surprised when the world started downloading music and movies in earnest. We were ready for it. There was a period of transition from real-life physical objects to digital, intangible files.

For music we bought vinyl, tapes, CDs and eventually mp3s. For movies, we bought Betamax, VHS, DVDs and eventually mp4s et al.

That transition period – the incremental shift – meant that music and movie fans had all the digital tools they needed to download and consume. For example, by the time we came to buying mp3s on a regular basis, we already knew how to rip CDs to our hard drive. The market was technologically equipped.

And by we and the market I don’t mean the digitally savvy. I’m talking about my mum and dad. Your average, not that bothered but it looks quite nice and if everyone else is doing it type of person.

A little help from Uncle Steve

What’s more, we had our hand held along the way. We bought and consumed in the same place, right there in our media player of choice, more often than not, iTunes. Apple was helping us make the transition. It all made sense.

Video and audio content can be experienced as well on a computer as on a portable device. You might prefer to listen on a mobile device, but the listening experience is essentially unchanged. This can’t be said for ebooks. No one reads novels on their desktop computer.

So, with no logical progression from print to digital reading, and with our ebook purchasing treated much the same as other digital media, despite the methods of consumption being different, it seems to me that the average reader, the newcomer to buying digital, is on the back foot from the kick off.

And that’s one heck of a long sentence.

From the top

Okay. So. The Mac App Store is here, it’s not part of iTunes and it’s all the better for it. One click. Hello apps.

I have a question. Why not do that with the iBookstore? One click. Hello books.

Instead of throwing it in with everything else and asking this new breed of readers to fight their way through iTunes, why not treat it differently, make things easier, provide a simpler, more Apple-like user experience?

Of course, the Mac App Store is Mac-only, while the iTunes store is cross-platform – it needs to work on Windows too. But so what? Make a standalone windows app too if that will be better for users and likely to generate more sales.

One click. Books?

My one point in all of this is that readers – all those people who’ve bought iPads in the last eight to ten months, or are planning to buy one in 2011 with the intention of going digital – could easily be put off by the iTunes store, packed as it is with unrelated media and countless distractions.

Sometimes readers just want to read. One click. Books. Not one click. Wait for iTunes to load. Click on iTunes store. Edge carefully past Rhianna. Resist the lure of Cut the Rope. Steer well clear of Mel Gibson. Notice books tab. Click on books tab. Books.

I realise there are problems. A standalone app like the Mac App Store might not be the solution. But I wonder, if Apple started treating ebooks differently to its other digital media, made efforts to reduce the number of clicks it takes for people to find what they want, they might convert more readers to the iBookstore.

9 Comments

  1. I, too, feel that iTunes would benefit from segregation — separate apps for books, movies, music, and apps would be most welcome for me. Indeed, iOS already splits apps, music, books, video, and audio players into separate apps. It works well, and ensures each dedicated app is lightweight, fast, and fit for purpose.

    Interesting too to see Amazon’s Kindle app make it into the Mac App Store on launch day: an instant download for me. Amazon have beaten Apple to the cross-platform synced reading experience and, while I tend to read on the iPad and iPhone more often, being able to continue reading on the Mac makes purchasing from Amazon’s book store over Apple’s one all the more tempting as things stand.

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      Agree completely about the Kindle app. As for splitting things up, I wonder if the OSX revamp when Lion comes along and makes it more iOS-like might be the opportune time to start shaking things up? It will be mighty difficult, though.

  2. Spider Griffin

    An excellent article, Iain. Enjoyed reading that, and agree that the iBookstore as a stand-alone app would be the way to go. Whether or not it’ll ever happen remains to be seen: one quote from Steve Jobs, a couple of years ago, was along the lines of “Nobody reads anymore.”

    • Ian

      That is exactly the problem, Spider. As Steve said, “Nobody reads anymore”. Those of us who do want the electronic book experience to get better, but it’s slow to change. I would love it if Apple removed the iBooks experience from iTunes and made it a standalone app. As it is, I despise even opening iTunes to sync my iPhone. iTunes has become some hideous bloatware. Here’s hoping for a change soon.

      • Iain Broome (Author)

        Unfortunately, the bloat is here to stay until Apple give us a brand new version of iTunes, which might take a while. I don’t really mind the bloat when looking for music and movies, as that’s the most obvious place to buy, store and play those things. But books? I’m not so sure. It’s the syncing that’s the problem, you know?

  3. Iain,

    One teensy little thing: I NEED Angry Birds! I MUST HAVE Angry Birds!

    Great article though.v Full of just the kind of information that I need. I had no idea the mac store could replace the thunky, clunky, bunky, skunky iTunes!

    George

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      Everyone needs Angry Birds. I have three-starred every single level up to the latest update. I am such a loser. Game Center tag: igb (what?).

      Anyway, glad the article was useful. Just to be clear though, the Mac App Store doesn’t and can’t replace iTunes. iTunes is still iTunes, but this new store, which is for apps that run on OSX, is its own entity. I’m suggesting that’s the way forward for iBookstore too.

      Thanks for stopping by, George. Always nice to have you in the thread.

  4. Iain looks at the new Apple Mac App Store and compares its speed and ease of use to the iBookstore, tucked away in the depths of iTunes.

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