Are iPad apps green and culture-friendly?

Todd Woody has written an interesting piece for the Grist magazine about the “iPad’s potential as a green machine”. In “iPadding into the future” Todd explains why and how, besides being very good for the environment, reading newspapers and magazines on an iPad also is a much more pleasurable experience than reading their paper versions. Todd then concludes that this isn’t going to happen until a digital (i.e. “/immaterial”) subscription costs five times more than the print subscription.

Indeed, subscription models are one of the things that many current publishers often get wrong when they try to go digital (another, possibly more serious is dumb, counterproductive DRM schemes). Regardless of this, there are a couple of interrelated and not-so-minor points in “iPadding into the future” that deserve highlighting, because they are about a very important issue that is much more general than the iPad.

At a certain point, speaking of paper or digital books, Todd asks: “If I had been somehow able to download the book in the ’70s, would it still have been accessible 30 years later?" The answer is “of course YES if that book had been in an open file format”. The fact that many current experiences with digital documents tell us the contrary only proves that we’ve all been really dumb in these first decades of the computer revolution (including environmentalists, of course: just look at WWF, who recently embarassed itself with the eco-UNFRIENDLY WWF file format!). It does not mean at all that it has to be that way.

Hardware and software are pens, file formats are alphabets. Ebooks are not ebook readers, that is physical objects like an iPad, a standard PC or any other hardware: they are just files. If their format is open they can be read on any electronic device, even thousands of years later, that is longer than paper books. I have already explained this, with all details, in another article about intellectuals that don’t (want to) get ebooks right.

Buying an ebook or a digital subscription in a proprietary file format or other technology is an effective way to NOT have them accessible after 30 or much less years later. Which brings us to the second point. Todd finishes his article by saying “I eagerly await the Grist iPad app”, that is an iPad specific software program and/or Grist version that allows reading the articles of the Grist magazine in a really easy and entertaining way on an iPad.

Such a statement makes just as much sense as saying “since I’ve bought a pair of XYZK glasses that are wonderful, really great on my eyes and really comfortable to wear… I eagerly await the Grist XYZK app”. Would you buy a pair of glasses that can only read some magazines, or a paper magazine that was readable only with a specific brand of glasses? An iPad app is just like an iPad sitsim: sure, it’s a pleasure to use, but you risk to lose its content in a few years if you aren’t careful. Even if you were the author, not just a user, of that content.

Electronic hardware has a huge environmental footprint and most of it is before you buy it. The World Wide Web allows us to write documents once, in one open format and publish them worldwide but without any need to specify which brand of hardware and software should be used to read them. This may be green, because it can minimize the total quantity of raw materials, energy and waste we all need to communicate and enjoy culture. In practice, this happens only if content is never tied to any specific hardware. All you need to read this web page is any software able to read the HTML format, on whatever hardware will run it (including iPads!).

The conclusions? First, only get an iPad or any other gadget to use electronic content if you plan and do need to use it a lot and can replace a lot of paper with it. Second, and much more important: please always avoid like the plague, both as an author and as a user, any digital content that requires a specific brand and model of device in order to be usable. Doing the contrary may look and feel much better, but it isn’t really smart nor green. 1000 ebooks or digital magazine subscriptions are greener (and more durable) than 1000 paper books and print subscriptions only if you can use all of them in one format on one hardware reader that you are free to choose and use until it physically breaks.