This Does Not Compute

Technology, gaming, music and things that just don't compute

Apple needs to lose in order to win

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big fan of Apple. All of my computers at home are Macs, I have an iPhone and have had more iPods than I can remember. I bought an iPad on launch day. I even collect rare vintage Macs, including the Color Classic and PowerBook 2400.

These days, though, Apple is losing me.

Over the last 10 years Apple has grown a ludicrous amount. It’s gone from almost failing completely to almost surpassing Microsoft in market value. I read somewhere that these days, something like one out of eight households in the USA owns at least one Apple product. And most amazingly, it now has billions-with-a-B dollars in the bank.

Here’s the thing, though. While Apple news and rumors circulate at a frenzied pace, and tech blogs are even willing to break the law in order to cover a prototype Apple product (more on that in a future post), there’s a growing resentment among Apple users and developers. This resentment, as I see it, stems from the one thing that Apple has always been known for, but is becoming absolutely frenetic about:

Control.

Apple wants complete, unequivocal, all-encompassing control over every aspect of its product, including the people who buy it, and the very people — the developers — who cause people to want to buy it. Apple wants to control the experience to this degree so that it can continue its mantras of it just works and technology for the masses. There is, to a limited degree, a technical legitimacy to this approach; if you know exactly what goes into your product, the only things that could cause a failure would be physical component malfunction or misuse by the user himself.

The problem with the above approach is that, not only does it stifle innovation (the Macintosh spurred Adobe Photoshop, after all), but it limits the value of the product. Take, for example, the iPad. Apple and everyone else says it’s not just a big iPod, but that’s really all it is. Do I like my iPad? Yeah, it’s convenient for surfing the Web before going to bed, or sitting out on the patio while watching my steaks cook on the grill. Is the iPad worth $500? Nope, it’s not, it really should be priced at $250. The iPad is so locked-down by Apple that I consider it a content consumption device, rather than the Mac, which is also a content creation device. (More on that in a future post too.)

Yet the masses are willing to gobble up the iPad at $500 to fulfill its content consumption needs, rather than buy a netbook for half that price and be able to create content while they’re at it. Steve Jobs says netbooks suck; that they’re slow and get bad battery life, and hence the iPad’s reason for being. (I had a Dell Inspiron Mini 10v for a few months, purchased refurbished from the Dell Outlet for $225. Yeah, it was slow, but that’s only because it had Windows installed on it. I tried the Ubuntu Netbook Remix on it, and it screamed. And the 6-cell battery was good for 8 hours of life.) And it’s magical, he said. It’s so easy to use.

Is that what Apple is going to boil itself down to? Magical and easy to use? Apparently so, and it’s willing to throw everything it once stood for — being unique and creative — out in order to pursue it. Apple has decided to become so mass-market that it’s becoming diluted as a brand. 10 years ago, could you buy an Apple product of any sort at Target? Wal-Mart? Nope, you couldn’t. Back then, Apple didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator of society; if you were a Mac user, it’s because you were either creative or involved in education (including buying one for the kids to use since that’s what they had in school). Apple now caters to the mobile device market, iPod-toting teens who just want something to listen to Ke$ha on.

To sell as many iPods, iPhones and iPads as Apple has, to appeal to the mass market and make those items commodities, Apple has to make them not seem like computers (which they really are). They’re handheld mixers now, or toasters, or blenders. Plug it in, push a button, listen to music. Tap your finger and check Facebook. And it has to always work. Toasters and hand mixers don’t crash. Making its mobile devices so simple makes the public less afraid of them. And to make the device simple, it has to be locked-down. And thus, the ire of the power users and developers.

So what spurred this whole desire? Apple was doing well with just the Mac and the iPod line; they hadn’t lost their spark, the Mac was just as cool as ever (possibly even cooler, with machines like the G4 Cube) and the iPod was just a peripheral. Macs had real, homegrown Apple engineering in them. Look at the current Mac lineup’s innards, they’re all the same: They’re PCs now. Moving to Intel was a smart move for performance reasons, but also for cost savings, since Macs could be made with off-the-shelf PC components, including complete chipsets. Slap it all into a minimalistic case and mark it up 100% (or more) over the competition. The Intel switch, the iPhone, the iPad, all of it I think has been done as an act of cocky revenge on Steve Jobs’ part. Revenge for getting kicked out of Apple back in the 80s, revenge for Microsoft copying the Mac (his baby) and running away with the market, revenge for everyone who called it a “Macintrash”.

Jobs has gone so far off the cliff with trying to push Apple into ubiquity that he’s even willing to cannibalize the thing that turned Apple around, the Mac. Apple is pushing the whole market towards using mobile devices over computers, which, coincidentally, is the one market space that Microsoft utterly, completely sucks at. Think about it — if Apple can’t beat Microsoft by ruling the roost with a desktop operating system, the next best way to beat Microsoft is to get everyone to just plain stop using desktop operating systems in general and switch to something else.

The problem is that bit about ubiquity. Microsoft is so big that it has no corporate identity other than “bleh.” No spark, no individuality. Apple, in its sudden desire to be big, is heading the same way. Last year, when my wife and I bought iPhones, we spent the whole afternoon after we brought them home just screwing around, playing with them, downloading apps. Compared to my crappy BlackBerry 8100 (and not much better BlackBerry 8900 that I replaced it with), the iPhone was amazing. Just last month when I bought the iPad, though, not so much. Playing with one in the Apple Store on launch day was cool, and I impulse-purhased one (the 16GB model, thankfully). 2 hours later after we brought it home, I was bored already. It’s just a bigger iPod.

What Apple needs is a kick in the pants. It actually needs to lose for a change, to feel defeat. In doing so, it’ll be reminded that it can’t just put out any product it wants and expect people to gobble it up. It’ll be reminded that it has to truly innovate, to go back to the garage and think up some really, really new shit that nobody else can see coming. The iPod was the last time Apple did this; there really was no competition for the iPod when it first came out. The iPhone is just a better BlackBerry, though, and the iPad is just a touchscreen netbook. Apple needs another Apple II, another Macintosh, another iPod. Only after Apple has lost and re-found itself — the engineers who develop an entire product from scratch, who go not just one generation but dozens of generations beyond the tech that’s available today — will it truly win.

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