Apple’s Next Revolutionary Product: iTunes

Apple announced the iPad Wednesday, and with it added e-books to the menu of content it’s selling via iTunes.

But I can’t believe that Steve Jobs is going to stop there.

Brian X. Chen and I predicted on Tuesday evening that Apple’s big announcement would go beyond the iPad, and include the announcement of a major, multi-platform content store centered on iTunes.

We were wrong. Wednesday’s announcement was all about the iPad, and nothing else.

But the door is still open for Apple to make a broader content play, and here’s why it makes sense — and why it may be inevitable.

Apple already sells apps, music, video and podcasts through iTunes. Already, iTunes includes fairly robust support for sharing the content you download with other computers on your home network, and of course you can play music, video and podcast on your iPhone or iPod touch as well as your computer. In other words, iTunes is a pretty good media delivery system. In many ways, it’s broken, and it needs to be fixed, but it works.

Apple will shortly begin selling e-books. They’re in the EPUB format, which is fairly rudimentary and doesn’t include much support for formatting or layout, but it’s a start. Also, it’s unclear whether those books will be readable on anything except the iPad. Let’s assume that even if they are iPad-only to start, Apple quickly comes up with some way of reading those books via iTunes on your computer and on your iPhone, because it needs to do that to remain competitive with Amazon’s Kindle.

Apart from those formats — AAC/MP3, Quicktime video, EPUB books and iPhone/iPad apps — iTunes doesn’t offer much support to content producers.

But there’s an end-run around iTunes, for app developers who are frustrated with Apple’s slow and arbitrary-seeming approval process. It’s call web development, and it’s why Apple will soon have to expand the iTunes menu.

Ambitious web developers are discovering that they can create web-centric apps using HTML5 and JavaScript that have surprising speed and interactivity. Check out the Google Voice web app for a clear illustration of this principle. It looks and feels more like a native app than anything I’ve seen recently.

The more developers start going this route, the more money Apple is going to be leaving on the table, because those web apps won’t be sold through iTunes. They’ll be given away or sold through a variety of other payment mechanisms, none of which give a cut to Apple.

Eventually, Apple’s going to offer a way for web app developers to sell subscriptions or one-off access to their web apps via iTunes.

It won’t be mandatory, because there’s no way for Apple to close off the independent web developers completely without messing with the web standards they seem clearly to be supporting. But there will be a powerful incentive for developers, which is that they can take advantage of a built-in micropayment system and the installed base of 125 million iTunes users.

When that happens, it will be a subtle but powerful shift in the economics of the web. App producers will then have the option of creating iPad/iPhone native apps in Objective C, or of producing web apps using HTML5, JavaScript and H.264.

If they go the latter route, they’ll have the option of deploying content on the public web, and collecting money however they can.

Or they will be able to deploy HTML content and web apps via iTunes, letting Apple take care of billing and settlement in return for a 30% cut.

There will be cries that Apple is creating a walled garden, or splitting the web into pieces. And they’ll be right, to a point. But the fact is, there’s no reason that all web content has to be delivered via HTTP from a public, free web server. It could be delivered, page by page and web app by web app, via iTunes.

If I were a web developer or a content producer, I’d be looking at ways of creating rich, immersive experiences using web technologies. Because even if my prediction is wrong and you can’t at some point sell those through iTunes, the iPad is going to make experiences like that compelling enough that you will be able to sell them, through one channel or another.

This article also subsequently appeared on wired.com.

Apple’s Next Revolutionary Product: iTunes
  • http://www.google.com/search?q=juha+saarinen Juha

    It’s interesting and instructive to compare Apple’s iTunes with Microsoft’s Windows Media Player – namely how the former succeeded without being the default app for millions and millions of customers, and how the latter doesn’t get much of a look-in.

  • http://dylan.tweney.com Dylan Tweney

    A friend, Chris Gondek, writes:

    Nice article, and I can tell you I have always made two feeds for each show I produce: one for iTunes and one for everyone else. I did this because I used to make enhanced podcasts for my own show, and even though I stopped, I was always thinking that I might go back/my clients might want to do richer content on iTunes. So the article really hit home.

    Best,

    Chris
    Chris Gondek
    Heron and Crane Productions

  • http://khakionion.blogspot.com Michael Herring

    What’s stopping a developer from creating a web app and distribute it via the App Store right now?

    • http://dylan.tweney.com Dylan Tweney

      Michael, I don’t think the app store currently supports apps built purely in HTML et al — you’d need to package it in some kind of wrapper that was app store-compatible.

      • http://khakionion.blogspot.com Michael Herring

        I understand that, but the wrapper would be minimal. Use a web view that simply accesses a protected URL, something akin to the way Mailplane works on Mac OS X, although it doesn’t even need to be that sophisticated.

        • http://dylan.tweney.com Dylan Tweney

          The wrapper idea is great. I don’t know of any apps that work like this. Would love to know if there were any examples!

          In fact, that would probably be a pretty good product: A wrapper that lets you turn your web app into an iPhone app.

  • Vla

    Good article, good points.