Don’t Be Apple

There is so much to admire about Apple. They make superb, beautiful products. Their amazing comeback story is unparalleled in corporate history. Steve Jobs has become something akin to a modern-day patron saint of the tech industry. Tim Cook is, rightly, enormously respected.

So why do I think they represent so much of what’s wrong with the tech world?

It’s because they have, I think, an almost Shakespearean tragic flaw: their obsession with centralized corporate control of the devices they sell. Apple sells fantastic hardware, and excellent software … and tries to maintain an iron-fisted grip on both, throughout their lifespan. Even its defenders tend to admit: “Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.”

You are only permitted to download and install software that has been officially approved by Apple onto your iOS device. This isn’t true of OS X, yet, but that’s clearly only because user control is grandfathered in … and arguably being slowly boiled like the proverbial frog.

Let me hasten to admit that this seems like no bad thing for the end user. It acts as a bulwark against malware. And Apple has been admirably pro-privacy, especially of late, despite the skepticism of industry analysts.

Now, this is partly because Apple is not particularly good at advertising or cloud services in general, compared to, say, Google — but also because their implicit bargain is “your personal information is safe with us, because we make our money from selling things to you rather than you to other companies” vs. Google’s “your personal information is safe with us because our advertising division is extremely careful about anonymizing and securing it when we use it to make money.”

(Despite being an occasional equal-opportunity Google-basher, I actually believe that latter claim to be true. I also believe Google’s cloud services are probably more secure than Apple’s. But I can see how people would still feel more uneasy about their implicit bargain with Google.)

All the same, though, this is short-term gain that risks long-term pain. Apple, for all their glory and their genius, is the apotheosis of a philosophy of technology which is fundamentally different from mine: technology as a centrally controlled hegemony unsullied by tinkerers who want to go outside of their sandbox, a walled garden of an ecosystem that is only permitted to evolve when Cupertino initiates the evolution. Only Apple is allowed to think outside the box in which its users live.

It’s a safe, clean, disinfected, and aesthetically beautiful box; but it comes with serious consequences, some hypothetical, some very real. Conflicts of interest inevitably arise between Apple’s interest and its users’. Consider Apple’s complex, conflicted relationship with Bitcoin apps … and the implicit threat Bitcoin poses to Apple’s inexorable demand for a 30% cut of all in-app purchases. You don’t have to be a Bitcoin believer to see that as a potential innovation roadblock.

More worryingly, governments around the world are raising their voices with increasing fury, demanding that companies rat out their users’ privacy to governments. Apple, to their credit, is strongly resisting. But at the same time, their hegemonic model would make them the perfect complement to any surveillance state.

Put another way, Apple may be more benevolent than Amazon, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft — but it is also more dictatorial than any of those. Benevolent dictators are wonderful until suddenly they aren’t. You may trust Apple not to abuse the power it wields (and if you think that power is trivial or meaningless, consider just how much of our lives are orchestrated by and through our pocket supercomputers nowadays, and how they could be used against us.)

Heck, despite my criticisms, I trust today’s Apple not to abuse that power. But I would vastly prefer that they didn’t have it at all — or that they at least gave users the option to sever the tether to Cupertino. “Trust, but verify,” as Ronald Reagan once said.

What could go wrong? Well, let’s get dystopically speculative for a moment. Can you remember some of the most hyperbolic overreactions to the fall of the World Trade Center, and how they were welcomed by large swathes of the American public? Can you imagine a future in which, following a similar tragedy, Apple rolls over and becomes a de facto arm of surveillance states? I sure can — and Apple’s centralized-command-and-control ecosystem would make it worryingly easy to turn every iOS device into an eye and ear of the panopticon, more or less overnight.

More generally, Apple’s runaway success sets a tone for the rest of the industry, and breeds cultures of jealous secrecy, centralized control, and tools/software that may only be used in carefully circumscribed ways. Technology concentrates power. Again, this may look like a good thing in the short run, especially when that concentration of power seems to represent both beauty and security — but there’s a huge implicit risk taken when we simply accept that as the status quo.

You can aim similar criticisms at Android, too, but they would miss the mark. Love it or hate it, Android is not near as centralized as iOS, and Google is not nearly as controlling as Apple. It’s open-source, and major organizations can–and do–fork it to create their own independent versions. Apple fights an ongoing war with iOS jailbreakers, claiming that their work is “potentially catastrophic“; Google makes it especially easy to root Nexus devices.

I want to believe in a world where individuals, rather than companies, own their own data, maintain control over their own online existence, and choose who (if anyone) is allowed to advertise to them. I realize that sounds hopelessly idealistic. It is, today. But I believe such a decentralized world is (slowly) becoming increasingly plausible–and I cannot help but note that its tenets are, fundamentally, the polar opposites of Apple’s entire software philosophy.

It may seem silly to criticize a fantastic company that makes superb products and delights its users on the basis of an abstract philosophical dispute. But I have a sneaking suspicion that over the next year this dispute will grow more and more concrete. Maybe, as this contrast heightens, Apple will see the light; maybe instead of fighting jailbreakers, they will offer jailbreaking and sideloading as an option for power users out of the box, just as Android does. That alone would be a huge seismic shift.

But I’m not holding my breath. And until and unless that happens, I find it hard to recommend the iOS ecosystem in good conscience, despite its power and beauty, because Apple refuses to return any of the trust it demands from its users.