The iPad as Disneyland

I’m biased since he’s my advisor, but Ed Felten’s post about the iPad as Disneyland is probably the best critique of the iPad I’ve seen:

There’s a reason the restaurants in Disneyland are bland and stodgy. It’s not just that centralized decision processes like Disney’s have trouble coping with creative, nimble, and edgy ideas. It’s also that customers know who’s in charge, so any bad dining experience will be blamed on Disney, making Disney wary of culinary innovation. In Disneyland the trains run on time, but they take you to a station just like the one you left.

I like living in a place where anybody can open a restaurant or store. I like living in a place where anybody can open a bookstore and sell whatever books they want. Here in New Jersey, the trains don’t always run on time, but they take you to lots of interesting places.

Ed argues that the Disneyland comparison gives us reason to doubt that the iPad model will ever dominate the technology industry:

What makes Disneyland different is that it is an island of central planning, embedded in a free society. This means that Disneyland can seek its suppliers, employees, and customers in a free economy, even while it centrally plans its internal operations. This can work well, as long as Disneyland doesn’t get too big — as long as it doesn’t try to absorb the free society around it.

The same is true of Apple and the iPad. The whole iPad ecosystem, from the hardware to Apple’s software to the third-party app software, is only possible because of the robust free-market structures that create and organize knowledge, and mobilize workers, in the technology industry. If Apple somehow managed to absorb the tech industry into its centrally planned model, the result would be akin to Disneyland absorbing all of America. That would be enough to frighten even the most rabid fanboy, but fortunately it’s not at all likely. The iPad, like Disneyland, will continue to be an island of central planning in a sea of decentralized innovation.

I think part of the reason you’ve seen such a divergent reaction to the iPad between geeks and non-geeks is that geeks have a much better idea of what’s going on “behind the scenes” in the software development process. We know enough about how software gets made to have a pretty good idea of the preconditions for a really vibrant software platform. We know that a platform that’s structured like Disneyland is likely to suffer from Disneyland-like sterility.

But this isn’t something that’s directly observable to ordinary users, for whom software (to say nothing of the processes and communities that behind it) is a black box. So if we iPad skeptics turn out to be right, there won’t be a “eureka” moment where ordinary users realize that the iPad sucks because of its centrally-planned app store. They’ll just notice that some other platform seems to have more cool stuff than the iPad, and gradually switch to the new platform.

This is exactly what happened in the late 1990s when people began abandoning AOL in favor of the open Internet. Very few of those users could have explained the technical or business model differences between AOL’s network and the Internet. All they knew was that for some reason most of the cool stuff was available on websites, not via AOL keywords.

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5 Responses to The iPad as Disneyland

  1. Brian Moore says:

    Does this make me lame if I really like the international restaurants at Epcot?

  2. Adam Thierer says:

    What exactly do you mean by “Disneyland-like sterility”? Have you ever been to Disneyland? I think “sterility” is about the last word that would come to your lips if you did (especially if you had kids).

    And this Zittrainian concern about the “centrally-planned app store” denies the reality of the incredible creativity that happens within it. Seriously, stack the Apple app store up against the Android market. Apple’s is more tightly controlled but still produces some wonderful innovations.

    Finally, all this hand wringing — about both Apple and Disneyland — strikes me as insanely silly when you have choices. If you don’t like Apple and Disneyland, don’t visit. Personally, I prefer Android to Apple and Universal Studios to Disneyland. And there are other options, too. But millions upon millions of people absolutely do love Apple & Disney and value their services even if some techno-snobs or cultural-snobs (like you and me!) don’t value them as much. I think our world is better for having options like Apple and Disneyland in it even if I personally don’t appreciate them as much as everyone else.

  3. Adam, thanks for commenting. If you read Ed’s whole post, you’ll see him making exactly the same point: the iPad, like Disneyland, works because it’s embedded in a larger ecosystem that’s not centrally planned.

    As far as “all this hand-wringing” goes, I’ll repeat the point I’ve made to you before: criticism of consumer products is how the free market works. Consumers need information to make educated decision. As a person who’s knowledgeable about the software development process, I’m trying to help my readers understand why a lot of programmers dislike Apple’s business model.

    It sounds like you actually agree with my critique, so I don’t understand what you’re complaining about. Do you leave comments complaining about “insanely silly hand-wringing” when people write reviews complaining about the limitations of the latest big-screen TV?

  4. Sean L. says:

    The idea that Apple will be blamed for bad apps, and Disney will be blamed for bad food is spot on. However, that’s where the validity of this piece ends.

    The reason Disneyland food is bland is the same reason 95% of domestic beer is so bad — they must cater to the widest possible group of people. Disneyland also has a very limited number of physical places for its food services, therefore it has little room for items that would appeal to small audiences.

    If Apple only had room on its servers for 20 apps, they would probably be much like Disneyland food. They would be the 20 apps that would suit most people for most activities.

    If, however, Disneyland had kiosks where you could choose from 10,000 food vendors, no one would be making the argument that the food was bland, even if Disney needed to hand-taste each vendor for approval. To continue the analogy, one might say hungry customers would be better off having access to 100,000 un-tasted food vendors. I think for >99.99% of patrons, 10,000 options are quite enough, and the fact that they’re missing out on 90% of their potential choices — the vast majority no doubt repeats of others — is just fine considering someone has actually tasted the 10% and not gotten ill. The fact that there would be a group of snotty cooks out there complaining they can’t get their own flavor of spaghetti and meatballs on the menu wouldn’t enter into anyone’s mind (and rightfully so.)

    If the comparison between iPads and Disneyland is carried to price (after all, we are talking about their existence in a real marketplace) Apple should be so lucky. In thirty years, will the iPad cost seven times what it does now?

    To say their top-down approaches ONLY work because they are self-contained environments that live within a larger free market is a bit silly. EVERY company exists as an island in a free market. The real reason these companies are successful is because there is something about them their customers LOVE. With Disney you might attribute it to childhood nostalgia. In the case of Apple, perhaps its more of a religious following. How then, would you explain Microsoft’s utterly complete dominance of the operating system market? Certainly, Microsoft is a top-down organization. I would agree their innovations are far less than what a wide open, bottom-up market would produce. But people LOVE compatibility, and have obviously been willing to give up those innovations on the OS side to ensure they can run the same software their business partners do.

    If this is the best critique of the iPad you’ve seen, I’d keep looking.

  5. Peter says:

    I’ve never been to Disneyland, but the food in Walt Disney World can be quite good, really. The stereotype of it being bland and uninspired is way out-of-date; about as out-of-date as that of Macs being unserious toys. Just the other week, we had a quite delicious East African/Indian meal at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and the Epcot International Food Festival is seriously one of the best anywhere.

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