Why McLuhan would have loved Apple’s iPad presentation

…..because he could have written the script.

The video of the event is here. It was a fascinating presentation and convinces me that Apple still has a considerable lead over its potential rivals. The iPad is already an extraordinary product with a remarkable impact on the way we work and think. The presentation gave some clues as to how this impact could yet become even greater.

Here are a few of the things that Marshall McLuhan would have chuckled over. And then probably swooned over.

The first thing that struck me as McLuhan-ish was the way in which this live performance does play a key role in the launch of Apple products. It is not just the product but the iOS myth which is introduced and generated through these performances.  If McLuhan had been watching he would have approved the way in which Tim Cook plays the bardic role — organising the other speakers to play their lesser parts and introducing elements of video or canned presentation to provide vivid evidence for the theme of the day. The role of the central speaker is key, and his role is not just the product of Steve Jobs’s genius. Whilst Tim Cook may not quite match the master he does a darn good job, as the central bard around which the elements of the story unfold. Its arguable that both Jobs and Cook are performing their role in the way that they do because this story-telling function is just what the overall Apple eco-system requires. The audience needs to be reminded of past glories (amazing sales), about the floundering competition (only Homer/Jobs/Cook is allowed to take these pot-shots at the enemy) and the leader and his helpers introduce glimpses of the promising future. All this is done in a carefully rehearsed way but with scope for nudges of spontaneity and illustrative spots from allies. Especially striking is the way that Jobs/Cook pump formulaic language in a manner which is both repetitive, familiar and incrementally innovative. A few events back we first heard about ‘the retina display’ and it came back strongly this time. There is a cumulative effect with each new event introducing new linguistic elements that are then worked through in successive waves of PR and presentation: ‘post PC world’, ‘amazingly thin and amazingly light’, ‘whole new level’, ‘redefining the category’, ‘breakthrough retina display’, ‘next generation wireless’, etc.

McLuhan (and his disciple Walter Ong) would have been amazed and delighted at the way in which Apple is showing us, graphically in this presentation, how the new electronic media universe is recapitulating, absorbing and reinventing the modalities of earlier communications technology. McLuhan and Ong discerned the way that the electronic era (contrast the oral, writing/chirographic, print worlds) would lead to a type of secondary orality. We now see this all around us, the ‘global village’ with its mobile phones and universal access has generated enormous ‘secondary orality’, with evanescent but instant gossip one of its defining features. It is natural and universal appeal of gossip that has helped to drive the rapid and multi-lingual adoption of Facebook and Twitter. All a natural part of the global village. Taken to a new level with the voice technologies Siri that Apple is now baking into iOS alongside Twitter. McLuhan would certainly have seen instant and inevitable possibilities here. When will Twitter be Siri-fied?

Wednesday’s presentation with its stunning presentation of computer games, Autodesk’s new Sketchbook for the iPad and Apple’s own new apps: iMovie, Garageband, iPhoto and iWorks. All these apps show us a new type of ‘secondary chirality’, as the fingers, hand and our sense of touch become critical shapers of the digital object. Secondary chirality (Greek) for ‘handedness’ allows us in an electronic world to create media objects in the most natural way with our fingers and hands, as handwriting 3,000 years ago allowed us to replace the arduous and slow business of writing with a chisel or a scraper. As these demos showed all our main media streams will now be susceptible to mixing, melding, copying and remaking with personal finger-tip tools. I am pretty sure that neither McLuhan or Ong anticipated ‘secondary chirality’ in the way in which they spotted and predicted ‘secondary orality’ but its now here with a vengeance and Apple is making the multi-media pie out of it.

t Editions we recommend 30 day subs to our magazine partners, and the 30 day sub can be priced in such a

way that it does not undermine the value of a full annual subscription. We have been learning two very significant facts from the pattern of sales in iTunes:

  1. Subscribers do renew their 30 day subscriptions in large numbers. It varies from magazine to magazine, but 75%+ renewal rates for monthly subscriptions are normal.
  2. Annual or higher-priced quarterly subscriptions are also being chosen by consumers in surprisingly large numbers, even when the prices are very high by iTunes standards. Some of the magazines that are selling cost over $100 for an annual subscription, and that is a very high price when compared to other areas of iTunes (games, books, video). This suggests that a subscription that is perceived to be good value in iTunes — perhaps because the print sub is higher — can sell well.

If the publishers of Purple or the Burlington Magazine can produce a top quality iPad app of their magazine I reckon that they will be able to sell annual subscriptions for prices in the range of 50% of their print subscriptions — that might still be over £50 for an annual sub, and they will also be able to offer 30 day taster subscriptions at prices in the sub £10 ball park, perhaps even sub £5 without ‘cheapening’ their brand. These are not ‘cheap’ prices by iTunes standards (or by anyone’s standards) but I think they will be seen as very good value, especially if the 30 day subscription provides the taster with access to a substantial archive. The advantage of the iPad version is that it not only does not undermine the value of the print publication, both parties to the transaction know that there is not a ‘manufacturing’ cost for a digital magazine however gorgeous its production values, but the stunning appearance on a very high quality device also does justice to the aims and aesthetics of the publication and what it stands for. Stunning quality may justify a fairly high price in the consumer’s eyes even though its clear that the actual cost of shipping the digital version is nothing compared to the cost of the print original.

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