I’ve had a half dozen or so longer posts about Apple brewing in my head the past couple of weeks. There is no shortage of controversy surrounding the company right now thanks largely to the hugely popular and hugely unpopular aspects of the iPhone. But Jason Calacanis’ post yesterday entitled “The Case Against Apple-in Five Parts” serves as a great springboard for bringing up a lot of it.
While my story with computers doesn’t go back quite as far as Calacanis’, our stories are pretty similar. He said that 6 years ago he made the switch to Apple products after a 20-year affair with Microsoft. I made the same switch 5 years ago after a roughly 15-year affair with Microsoft.
Regular readers may have heard this already, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but in the 1990s I loved Microsoft products and hated Apple stuff. I grew up on DOS, installed Windows For Workgroups because I thought it was cooler than regular Windows 3.1, bought Windows Bob, made my dad take me to the midnight launch of Windows 95, bought Windows 98 the day it came out, actually bought and used Windows ME, and bought Windows XP the day it came out. I could fill that timeline in with many other pro-Microsoft details, but let’s just say I was hooked.
It’s not like I loved Microsoft because I didn’t know anything else. Our high school was Mac-only. I hated it. The systems were slow, I hated their UI and I just found them generally frustrating to work with. And I used them everyday for years. Throughout all of high school and college I only bought PCs even after many viruses and a few complete system failures.
So what changed? For me, two things. First, the iPod. Second, OS X.
After I finished college in 2004, I bought my first iPod. Prior to that I had been using several other MP3 players (one of which I got for free when I bought Windows XP). But I needed a new device with a lot of storage for my long drive out to California. Obviously, I had heard great things about the iPod, and despite its high price tag, I decided to get one.
The fact that it was so much better than every other MP3 player I had used to that point said nothing specifically about Apple’s other products, but it did plant the thought in my head that if Apple was able to make such a nice experience for its portable music players, maybe its computer experience had also evolved from the poor one I remembered from high school. Still, I was a broke just-out-of-college kid, and Macs were yes, expensive. So my curiosity remained a curiosity for the time-being.
But a few months later, I was living in LA and working in Hollywood. Everyone there was using Macs, and as such, I had to use one at my job. Less than a week into using one on a regular basis, I realized something: I liked OS X a lot. Since it was released after my time in high school, and I still generally avoided Macs in college, I hadn’t really ever used the OS before. But in Hollywood, I was forced to, and I really liked it.
If the iPod had planted the Apple seed in my head, using OS X watered it. The conclusion soon blossomed: Apple now made great products.
Within a couple of months I had bought my own Mac (the cheapest white MacBook I could find) to serve as a back up to my PC. A couple months after that I basically stopped using my PC. A couple months after that I shipped the PC home as a present for my dad. I have never bought another PC since. During that time, I have bought 5 Macs.
Okay, that is a lot of set up to get to an opening point, and one that is actually the most important point. I made the switch from the PC world to the Mac world because of one thing: I believed that Apple started making better products than the other guys.
It’s a simple point, one that is certainly subjective, but I really believed it, and that’s why I switched. And it’s why I remain an Apple-user despite some of the headaches, which I’ll get to. If you make a great product, you can get away with a lot — which again, Apple has. But it is my belief that it will continue to, because at the end of the day all that really matters is the product.
That’s despite Calacanis’ belief that there’s a brewing backlash against Apple. Sure, there is a small one among tech journalists and some in the mobile developer community. And I do believe it is warranted. But the fact remains that Apple’s business is stronger than it has ever been, and that’s because more people are Apple users — whether that be Mac computers, iPods or iPhones.
The easiest way to continue on at this point will be to look at and address each of Calacanis’ 5 points.
1. Destroying MP3 player innovation through anti-competitive practices
Calacanis argues that Apple should open iTunes to any MP3 players on the market. He says that if that occurred, other MP3 players not necessarily made by Apple would flourish. I think he has it backwards.
I actually think iTunes is not a great piece of software, and that Apple could do a much better job with it (iTunes 9 might help out with that). And I believe Apple may actually know that, as I have heard whispers that they’ve been trying to completely revamp it for some time now, with no luck so far.
The key ingredient in the iTunes/iPod universe is the full ecosystem aspect of it. iTunes isn’t great for the straightforward managing of music, but it is brilliant for buying music through iTunes and having it sync automatically with your iPod (and now your iPhone).
Even if Apple opened iTunes up for use with other MP3 players, I have a hard time believing the market would flow towards other players. Having used quite a few of the MP3 players that are available in the U.S., I think it’s pretty clear that the iPod (all its different flavors) is still the best of breed. There may be better ones in Asian countries, but some of the features that Calacanis talks about like TV-tuners would not fly here. (This is something I’ll hit on again later when we get into the iPhone.)
But the key here is that with iTunes open to other MP3 players, Apple would have less control over the user experience, something which is very important to them. Adding non-Apple devices which Apple would have little or no control over from a hardware perspective would be a headache for them and in turn, for some users. It might be worth it if they made significant money from music sales on iTunes, but they don’t.
Sure, some people do not want or like that level of control, and there is somewhat of an argument that it is in some ways anti-competitive, but the majority of users of iPods benefit from the ease of use that a contained ecosystem provides.
And the bigger picture is that this really doesn’t matter that much anyway, because the iPod and all other MP3 players as we know them are currently in the process of a slow death. And as devices connected to the web take over, eventually much of the media consumption and management on these devices will occur on the device itself.
2. Monopolistic practices in telecommunications
“Apple’s iPhone is a revolutionary product that has devolved almost all of the progress made in cracking–wait for it–AT&T’s monopoly in the ’70s and ’80s,” Calacanis writes. On one hand that is a very interesting statement, in so much as it relates to AT&T specifically. On the other, it’s pretty ridiculous.
I absolutely agree that Apple and AT&T’s exclusive partnership is a problem. It’s a big problem. And I think for both consumers and Apple it needs to end when the deal is up next year. But I believe that Apple realizes that too, and will open the device to other networks (or at least announce the intention to do so) at some point next year. It simply makes no sense not to. Not only is AT&T performing poorly under the strain of so many iPhones, but for Apple to keep expanding its user base, it simply needs to be on other carriers in the U.S.
At the same time, it’s all-too-easy to forget that the iPhone has absolutely changed the mobile landscape in the U.S. for the better. We complain about not being able to browse the web on AT&T’s crappy network, but think back not even 5 years ago when the idea of browsing the mobile web at all, was absurd.
I remember being very excited to get the Motorola RAZR when it finally came to Verizon. I still have that phone; it’s laughable compared to just about every phone on the market right now. And a lot of that is thanks to the iPhone. I’m not saying there would not have been innovation without it, but I am saying that Apple’s product made its competitors get their heads out of their asses, and we’re starting to see the fruits of that with nice devices from Palm, RIM and some of the newer Android phones. Ones that don’t have to use the shitty carrier-built operating systems.
Yes, it sucks that the iPhone is tied to AT&T right now. But my CDMA RAZR was tied to Verizon, and I was stuck using their hideous operating system which offered me next to nothing. My point is just that in some ways, many of us have been spoiled this past 2+ years with the iPhone. It’s easy to forget what it was like before it existed. Which is to say, awful.
And just to hop back to the Asian marketplace, which I mentioned earlier, it is true that they have had some amazing phones with amazing capabilities for a while. But the point is that here in America, the carriers had us completely under siege with horrible phones and even worse plans until very recently. When Apple cut its deal with AT&T for the iPhone, the same deal we all now bitch about (maybe none more than me), it changed the landscape — for the better.
I’m not going to get into Calacanis’ two SIM card idea, which sounds nice, but would be a complicated nightmare that hardly anyone would pay for.
3. Draconian App Store policies that are, frankly, insulting
I agree with a lot of this, and have expressed why numerous times in the past. It is ridiculous that we can rent movies on our iPhones that have nudity and graphic violence, but can’t have apps that offer the same. Actually no, it’s not just ridiculous, it’s hypocritical. I understand why that was the case before there were parental controls, but now they’re in place and Apple is still banning applications that it has no business banning left and right when it offers movies with the same stuff.
Yes, it’s Apple’s store and they can do what they want. And if they don’t want hardcore porn apps, that’s fine — they also don’t sell hardcore porn movies. They do sell plenty of rated-R movies though, yet restrict many apps that would obtain a similar (or possibly even lighter) rating.
That being said, I think Calacanis’ point about how ridiculous it would be if Microsoft approved every app for Windows is a bad one. It’s not like Apple restricts applications for OS X on its Macs; doing that would cause an uproar just like it would on Windows. But the mobile space is different because it’s so new when it comes to apps. Microsoft is going to restrict apps that can be on Windows Phones. They won’t be as strict as Apple, but they will still have restrictions, just as Android does.
The mobile app world is new and still evolving. A number of Apple’s App Store rejections are ridiculous. Hell, I cover a lot of them and say as much. But I think it’s wrong to think that Apple is doing this with malicious intent. Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with people to varying degrees in the know about Apple’s App Store, I would argue that they simply were not ready for what it has become.
I’ve heard that when it launched, there were just a handful of people who would check every single app that was submitted. Undoubtedly, the team has expanded quite a bit since then, but it still very much seems like they have no comprehensive strategy when it comes to app approvals and rejections. Many seem arbitrary, and at the whim of the reviewers, because I believe they are.
When Apple VP Phil Schiller wrote to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber last week about one app rejection, his last line was the most telling:
Apple’s goals remain aligned with customers and developers — to create an innovative applications platform on the iPhone and iPod touch and to assist many developers in making as much great software as possible for the iPhone App Store. While we may not always be perfect in our execution of that goal, our efforts are always made with the best intentions, and if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve.
Of that, I would change “if we err” to “when we err”, but it seems pretty clear that Schiller and Apple know there have been real problems with the system, and they’re attempting to correct them. I don’t think they’re doing a good enough job of that, but I have no doubt that is hard to change things on the fly with a entity that is exploding in popularity as quickly as the App Store is.
It’s not an excuse for some of Apple’s poor decisions, but it is unfortunately, the reality.
Calacanis’ solution is to give users the option to install unapproved apps as an option. That would just be a slightly easier way of jailbreaking your phone, something which is already extremely easy to do. The reason why Apple won’t do this is the same reason why it won’t open iTunes to other MP3 players. When it controls the ecosystem, it can ensure the customer experience. Something which, again, is very important to Apple.
That may not be what some people want to hear, but the fact is that it works well for the majority of users who have no idea about the app approval process.
4. Being a horrible hypocrite by banning other browsers on the iPhone
Again, this to me is just as much about the mobile landscape being a completely different one than the desktop landscape, even though they are merging. When the iPhone launched, the idea of a mobile browser was basically a joke. Sure, Opera may have been decent on Windows Mobile devices, but let’s be honest, hardly anyone was browsing the web on their phones.
I wonder if what Calacanis is really getting at is that he wants a browser that can run Flash? I think we all want that, but Apple has decided that for whatever reason it is not going to do that. Maybe it’s waiting for the HTML 5 video capabilities to make Flash less necessary (which still seems a long ways off)? Maybe it really believes the performance is simply not up to par? Who knows. But even with another browser on the iPhone, Apple would still have to allow for plug-ins to be installed, which probably wouldn’t happen.
As the mobile web and devices continue to mature, there undoubtedly will be a lot to be said for having other browsers on the phone. I just don’t see that as such a big issue right now.
5. Blocking the Google Voice Application on the iPhone
I completely agree that this is ridiculous. And the fact that Google is now implementing a work-around by making Google Voice a web app for the iPhone, shows that banning the native app is also pointless. But I believe this rejection had more to do with AT&T — and certainly more than they’re letting on.
When Calacanis says, “Or, just simply stop being jerks and let the free market decide how to use the data services they’ve BOUGHT AND PAID FOR.” I would again point to that being AT&T’s issue much more than Apple’s. We’ve seen that with the SlingPlayer app, which can only work over WiFi but not on AT&T’s 3G network because they’re concerned about the bandwidth it would use.
We’re all paying near or over $100 a month to use the iPhone on AT&T’s network. If they cannot handle the iPhone any longer — which I’ve made the argument that I don’t think they can — then both Apple and AT&T should agree to remove the exclusivity agreement.
While Calacanis certainly has some valid points, I would argue that some of his points simply reinforce what makes Apple, Apple. By controlling the ecosystem surrounding their products, Apple ensures a great user experience for the majority of users.
And that’s really the key point: The majority of users. We can bitch as much as we want about Apple’s shortcomings, but by and large the public couldn’t care less about any of it, nor do they even know about any of this stuff. Does my sister care that Apple rejected Google Voice? No, she’s never heard of Google Voice. As far as she knows, all is well in the Apple universe because she turns on her iPhone and boots up her Mac and they work, giving her an experience that she finds superior to competitors’ products.
The fact remains that as long as the company continues pumping out high-quality products that offer this great user experience, people will buy them. Calacanis believes that cheap and stable products from Microsoft and Google will undercut Apple, but that seems to be the same thing that people have been saying for years about Apple’s products. Macs are too expensive, iPods are too expensive, the iPhone is too expensive — people are still buying them. And they’re doing so at or near record levels, which is stunning in this economy.
He seems to be suggesting that the premium market will disappear. But again, if it hasn’t in this economic environment, I don’t see it happening. Cheap, stable and open sound great, and they are great, for some people. But others are fine with paying more for what they consider a superior experience, and they will continue to do so.
And while Calacanis may have spent $20,000 on Apple products over the years, everyone that is not Calacanis has spent billions upon billions more. Until those billions stop rolling in, Apple will generally stay on the same path. Despite some of the rhetoric, Apple is not a totalitarian state, it is very much a democracy. It’s just that in this democracy, people vote with their wallets.
None of that is to say that Apple shouldn’t fix any of its aforementioned problems. With regards to AT&T and its App Store policies, it certainly needs to. But it’s humorously short-sighted to think that they won’t.
But Calacanis goes farther, “Making great products does not absolve you from technology’s cardinal rule: Don’t be evil.” That would seem to suggest that he believes Apple is making some of these mistakes with malicious intent. Instead, I would argue that the mistakes stem from the pursuit of making great products. They control the ecosystem because people left to their own devices would make the products less great.
That’s something that will be hard for a lot of people to hear, let alone understand. But I do believe it’s at the core of what Calacanis thinks makes Apple “evil.”
And that’s why much of this isn’t a case against Apple, it’s a case for Apple. Many of the problems Calacanis talks about simply aren’t seen as problems by Apple, and more importantly, by the public at large. Until that changes, there is no real risk to Apple.
In fact, I would argue that the only real risk to Apple goes back to the simple point: Great products. If Apple stops making products that are great, it will start to decline. If someone else comes along with a better product, Apple will decline. It’s that simple.
5 years ago, it was my belief that Apple offered a better product that got me to ditch my PC. And I’ll switch again from Apple if something better comes along. This isn’t some elaborate conspiracy in which Steve Jobs is tricking millions of people into buying his stuff against their will. They’re buying his stuff because it’s good. End of story.
[photos: flickr/kyz, william.hook, declanTM, renatomitra, chris radcliff, the pug father]