What Is a Console?

Is a console…?

I was recently listening to John Gruber and Rene Ritchie speaking on an episode of The Talk Show. They both make the argument that by calling an iOS device a console, it somehow justifies Apple’s position that the only way to load software onto it should be via their App Store. Have a listen. While I have a huge amount of respect for both John and Rene, I think this is a poor take. John even admitted that this was probably his most controversial take of 2020, and I’m not surprised.

Let’s have a look at the definition of the word “console” from the Oxford American English Dictionary, courtesy of Apple’s own dictionary app:

As you can see, none of these definitions bring to mind a device that anyone could sincerely claim encapsulates an iPad or an iPhone. The definition of a console is not “A locked-down computing device.”

Definitions aside, there is a point to be made that many people seem to find it acceptable that games consoles are closed ecosystems but have a problem when it comes to smartphones and tablets.

I believe this disparity is for two reasons:

  1. Games console hardware is subsidised by charging more for software. There’s a reason games consoles are more popular than gaming PCs, yet PC games have traditionally been sold at cheaper prices than their console counterparts. Many more people can afford to buy the latest Xbox because it is likely sold at cost, or even as a loss-lead. The manufacturer will hope to make up for lost profit by selling games later on. (See razor-blade economics.) While this method of selling a product is frustrating in the case of printers and ink cartridges, it turns out that many people don’t mind when they get a high performance gaming computer as part of the bargain. My bet is that because buying games is something you opt into, rather than being forced into, you don’t feel so cheated by having to pay a premium for the software. (Unlike razors and ink cartridges, you never feel like you need to buy a new game to keep your games console working.) Apple on the other hand makes enormous amounts of margin on each device sale and takes a cut of all software sold through the store. It may be legal and it may be in the spirit of capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it won’t rub customers the wrong way.
  2. Apple has long marketed iOS devices as being more than mere handsets or consoles. As long ago as 2016, Apple’s then marketing chief Phil Schiller noted that there was a huge market for the iPad in people switching from old Windows PCs. In a 2017 iPad advertisement they used the slogan “What is a computer?”. Inferring that the iPad, while not looking like a traditional laptop, is in fact a powerful computer. In one scene a boy is sat outside on his iPad when his mum asks What are you doing on your computer? The boy replies by asking What’s a computer? He does not say Actually Mum it’s a console, not a computer. Even The Verge wrote the headline in 2018 Apple really wants you to think the iPad Pro is a computer. More recent commercials have used wordplay such as Your next computer is not a computer. When introducing the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs noted that it ran OS X with “desktop class” software and that Safari could show the full web, not the “baby Internet”. Contrary to what Ritchie said on The Talk Show, Steve Jobs absolutely did not introduce the iPhone as a console. (A search of 2007 iPhone keynote transcript for the word returns zero results*.) Over the years, Apple has set the expectation that iOS devices should be on par with real computers, and for many, that means freedom to install software from any source you want.

While I’m not advocating Apple open up their devices to software from anywhere, I do think it’s right that the pros and cons are properly framed. There are benefits just as there are drawbacks. My view is that for the iPad in particular to evolve, it must be a device in which you can not only play the latest chart topping game, but also make the next one.

* Update 11/01/2021: My mistake. Steve Jobs did actually mention games consoles during the 2007 iPhone keynote alongside digital cameras, MP3 Players and PCs. He talks about their comparative worldwide unit sales. What’s interesting is that all of the product categories in the chart he shows (below) have in 2021 either been entirely replaced, or replaced in-part by iOS devices, except arguably the PC. Regardless, it’s clear he is in no way calling the iPhone a console.

One response to “What Is a Console?”

  1. Maybe this is why they separated iOS into iPadOS. Perhaps the iPad will have looser restrictions before the iPhone. Makes sense, as you say it’s been marketed as a computer and not a console.


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