Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March 25th, 2019

Some Brief Thoughts on Services, Generally, and Apple’s Announcements Today, More Specifically

It’s striking how much of our media — and I use that term very generously — is moving towards a system of monthly payments. In a sense, it’s more honest: most software, for example, is merely licensed to users; you don’t actually own your copy of Photoshop, for example. And the terms of a software license can be limiting. Educational terms typically forbid using the software to create commercial work. It’s also possible that the software-as-a-service model encourages more frequent updates from developers; and, even outside of software, can be reflective of ongoing service value. Netflix works as a subscription because you can pay a flat monthly fee and watch whatever you want. It’s easy to understand.

But moving to a monthly payment strategy has its own downsides. There are circumstances where paying all the time feels like a decision made less by the people who make the products, and more like decisions made by the people who count the money. It can also be a form of lock-in. Photoshop, for instance, creates files in a proprietary format that can require a specific version of Photoshop to open correctly. There used to be a time that, if I want to open any of the Photoshop files I have on my Mac, it was solely dependent on whether the version of Photoshop I use worked on the latest version of MacOS; and, for the past eight years, it has. But now, I can’t just drop another few hundred dollars on a new version that will secure me for another eight years; I must pay twenty American dollars every month from now until the end of time. That’s an absurd argument.

But news? That’s something that has been subscription-based for ages because it’s regularly updated. The reason for an ongoing payment is obvious. The new Apple News Plus service is, on its surface level, very easy to understand: pay ten dollars a month — or thirteen, in Canada; it isn’t available anywhere else yet — and you get access to a whole bunch of magazines and newspapers that, on their own, would each charge more than ten dollars a month for a subscription. The sources available are remarkable: the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Walrus, and Rolling Stone are all available as magazines; a subscription to News Plus apparently also includes the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, but I haven’t been able to find either of those. Normally I’d chalk that up to it being a Canadian availability problem, except the Journal and the Times are mentioned in Apple’s Canadian press release and their marketing webpage.

That seems too good to be true and, indeed, there are caveats. For one, the Journal is only offered in a stripped-down version; no other publications were announced as having similar limitations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s one of the incentives Apple would use to try to get other publishers on board. It’s also not quite living up to their marketing copy, which promotes Apple News Plus as allowing “full access to hundreds of magazines and leading newspapers”. Also, while many of the magazines use Apple’s own format, about half are simply presented as PDFs. I don’t know whether the blame for that should be shouldered more by Apple or publishers, but it makes for a crappy reading experience on the iPad and worse on the iPhone.

Overall, Apple News Plus is the service that fits most neatly into an existing paradigm of subscription services.

A close second is Apple’s redesigned Apple TV app, which will allow purchasing subscriptions to channels like HBO and Showtime, as well as a new Apple TV Plus service with original programming. It’s confusing that Apple’s television boxes are called Apple TVs, the app is the Apple TV App — which, by the way, is available on smart televisions and third-party platforms — and their original programming is called Apple TV Plus.

You can watch Apple TV using Apple TV on your Apple TV.

Cool.

Then there was Apple Arcade, their subscription for games that somehow managed to avoid the Apple Games Plus moniker. A very cool thing about this service is that Apple is promising that games will have no ads and no in-app purchases; the subscription rate is the price you pay.

That’s sort of the end of the specific features of services that Apple announced today. And you’ll notice that my descriptions of their non-News services are much shorter — they simply didn’t provide many concrete details, nor pricing, nor specific availability.

I want to zoom back out here and return to the biggest question of all: why? Apple is now a full steam ahead services company — at least, for Apple customers, primarily — and they introduced a credit card today. Why are they doing this?

The best explanation is that these are the services Apple’s employees and leadership team actually want to use. They want a Netflix-but-for-news; they want an all-you-can-play virtual arcade; they want to make TV shows; they want a credit card with less bullshit. Those are fine enough goals. The iPhone started in a similar way: people at Apple realized that cellphones sucked, so they made one that they would actually use. It’s the same with the iTunes Music Store, too, and the iPod. All of these great inventions were the product of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and an idea of what would be better.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the path Apple is chasing. But I am also fighting an inner voice that wonders if this is driven by bean counters in search of recurring revenue. Apple is obviously chasing services as their next big product category; Tim Cook has been completely transparent about that in earnings calls and public appearances. Assuming — generously — that Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus are each ten dollars per month, it’s easy to think that there are customers who will be spending fifty dollars a month in optional extras: the aforementioned two services, Apple News Plus, Apple Music, and two terabytes of iCloud storage because five gigabytes is basically mockery in 2019. That’s six hundred dollars a year just to Apple and just for services; that doesn’t include the iPhone Upgrade Program, or the cost of channels purchased through Apple TV, or Netflix or Hulu or any other more full-featured streaming platform.

And it still feels gross that Apple is partnering with, of all companies, Goldman fucking Sachs.

Setting aside my ever-present worries about five companies based on the west coast of the United States becoming dominant over our digital lives — though not to the same capacity and not for the same worries — there’s little wrong with Apple wanting a slice of the services pie. But I truly hope that it’s driven by passion for news, games, and television; it would be shameful and worrying if this was a financial decision first and foremost. To paraphrase Walt Disney, they shouldn’t create services to make money; they should make money to create more great products and services.