About six years and $20,000 ago, I made the switch to Apple products after a 20-year love affair with Microsoft. That love affair started with the humble PCjr and ended with an IBM ThinkPad. From DOS to the first version of Windows (the run-time version that only loaded one program), and on to Windows 95 and XP, I dealt with the viruses, driver incompatibilities and other assorted quirks of Microsoft’s wildly open ecosystem.
It sucked to have to buy anti-virus software and reinstall Windows every 12 months, so moving to Apple’s rock-solid and virus-free OS was, in a word, delightful.
Sure, everything on the Mac platform costs twice as much, but considering the fact that my entire career centers around a desktop connected to the Internet, it really doesn’t matter if I spend $2 a day or $20 a day for my hardware. I replace everything at about a two-year pace (i.e. phone, MP3 player, desktop and laptop). So, at $10 a day, what some folks spend on Starbucks, I have a two year budget of $7,500 for my gear. In fact, the only things I don’t replace every two years are my 30″ and 24″ Dell Monitors, which I tend to keep for five years.
Over the last 12-18 months, my love affair with Apple has waned. Steve Jobs’ peculiar, rigidly closed, and severe worldview have started to cramp my style. It’s not entirely Steve’s fault, as Apple’s style and grace are a large part of what drew me to the platform initially. My collection of Mac products now includes seven iPods ($1,500), four Mac laptops ($8,000), two Airports ($500), a Time Capsule ($500), two Mac towers ($4,000), a Mac Mini ($600), two iMacs ($4,000) and all three iPhones ($1,500).
The cost of these items is just over $20,000, or about $3,300 a year. That’s almost exactly $10 a day–what I budget for technology in my life. Half of that is personal, half of that is probably business. While I know I am a high-end consumer, since I do this for a living, I think there are many folks putting $5-10 a day toward hardware. Blogger Robert Scoble of RackSpace must spend $20 a day and Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech must spend $40 a day!
Key Point 1: For the past six years, if Steve makes something, I buy it. Sometimes, I buy two (one for my wife).
Key Point 2: I over-pay for Apple products because I perceive them to be better (i.e. Windows-based hardware is 30-50% less–but at 38 years old I don’t care).
The Love Affair Ends
Steve’s a great guy, and the love affair has been wonderful, but I’m starting to look past him and back to Microsoft for a more healthy relationship that is less–wait for it–anti-competitive in nature.
Years and years after Microsoft’s antitrust headlines, Apple is now the anti-competitive monster that Jobs rallied us against in the infamous 1984 commercial. Steve Jobs is the oppressive man on the jumbotron and the Olympian carrying the hammer is the open-source movement
For folks in the tech industry, this is not a new discussion. Another radical visionary, Steve Gillmor, has been hosting this discussion since Apple’s draconian iTunes updates led smart people to *downgrade* their software. Think about that mind bomb for a second: people downgrading their software to maintain their freedoms–is this a William Gibson novel?
Steve Jobs is on the cusp of devolving from the visionary radical we all love to a sad, old hypocrite and control freak–a sellout of epic proportions.*
[ * Important Note: I've written this piece three times over the past year and never released it. It felt like releasing something like this about a personal hero when they were, according to all counts, dying was too harsh. With Steve back to work and healthy for what will probably be his last five to ten years of full-time work (based on when most folks retire), I feel obligated to let this out. I know many folks in the industry are saddened to see our LSD-taking, radical free-thinking and fight the power hero, turning to the Dark Side. This note is written from a place of admiration and love. ]
The Case, The Five Parts
I’d like to discuss four major issues around Apple’s current product line that I believe are stifling the industry, consumer choice and pricing. Instead of just giving a simple solution to the problem, I thought long and hard about the opportunities for Apple to be less controlling and more open. For example, if the iPhone was available on more carriers, Apple would sell many, many more units, which would inevitably lead to people switching from Windows desktops to Macs (which is what happened with the iPod).
Bottom line: Of all the companies in the United States that could possibly be considered for anti-trust action, Apple is the lead candidate. The US Government, however, seems to be obsessed with Microsoft for legacy reasons and Google for privacy reasons.
The truth is, Google has absolutely no lock-in, collusion or choice issues like Apple’s, and the Internet taught Microsoft long ago that open is better than closed.
Let’s look at the case against, and the opportunities for, Apple:
1. Destroying MP3 player innovation through anti-competitive practices
There is no technical reason why the iTunes ecosystem shouldn’t allow the ability to sync with any MP3 player (in fact, iTunes did support other players once upon a time), save furthering Apple’s dominance with their own over-priced players. Quickly answer the following question: who are the number two and three MP3 players in the market? Exactly. Most folks can’t name one, let alone two, brands of MP3 players.
On my trips to Japan, China and Korea over the past couple of years, I made it a point to visit the consumer electronics marketplaces like Akihabira. They are filled with not dozens, but hundreds, of MP3 players. They are cheap, feature-rich and open in nature. They have TV tuners, high-end audio recorders, radio tuners, dual-headphone jacks built-in and any number of innovations that the iPod does not. You simply will not see those here because of Apple’s inexcusable lack of openness.
Not only does Apple not build in a simple API to attach devices to iTunes, they actually fight technically and legally block people from building tools to make iTunes more compatible.
Think for a moment about what your reaction would be if Microsoft made the Zune the only MP3 player compatible with Windows. There would be 4chan riots, denial of service attacks and Digg’s front page would be plastered with pundit editorials claiming Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were Borg.
Why, then, does Steve Jobs get a pass?
Steve Jobs gets a pass because we are all enabling him to be a jerk. We buy the products and we say nothing when our rights are stripped away. We’ve been seduced by Steve Jobs: he lifts another shiny object over his head with a new eco-friendly feature and we all melt like screaming schoolgirls at Shea Stadium in ’65.
Simple solution and opportunity: An iTunes API which allows the attachment of any mass storage device,not just a short list of players that jumped through Apple’s hoops. If need be, perhaps consumers pay a simple licensing fee of $1-5 a unit to attach a non-Apple MP3 player to iTunes (i.e. pure profit for Apple).
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 monoply in the ’70s and ’80s. We broke up the Bell Phone only to have it put back together by the iPhone. Telecommunications choice is gone for Apple users. If you buy an Apple and want to have a seemless experience with your iPhone, you must get in bed with AT&T, and as we like to say in the technology space, “AT&T is the suck.”
Simple solution and opportunity: Not only let the iPhone work on any carrier, but put *two* SIM card slots on the iPhone and let users set which applications use which services. (Your phone could be Verizon and your browser Sprint!) Imagine having two SIM cards with 3G that were able to bond together to perform superfast uploads and downloads to YouTube.
3. Draconian App Store policies that are, frankly, insulting
Like lemmings, we fell for your bar charts extolling the openness of the iPhone App platform and its massive array of applications. We over-paid for your phone–which you render obsolete every 13 months, like clockwork–and then signed our lives away to AT&T. The way you pay us back is by becoming the thought police, deciding what applications we can consume on the device we over-paid for!
Yes, every application on the phone has to approved by Apple, and if you were interested in something adult in nature…well…you can’t do that.
Apple’s justification for this nonsense is that they have to protect AT&T’s network. Oh really? Aren’t there dozens and dozen of open phones on everyone’s network? The network hasn’t crashed yet, and even if someone did create a malicious iPhone application, you would know EXACTLY who was running the application and be able to block and/or turn off their phone. The network was MADE to deal with these issues on a NETWORK level. To say you have to control people down to the application level defies all logic. A second year CS student understands this.
Who in their right mind feels the need to control the application-level anyway? It’s absurd.
Imagine for a moment if every application on Windows Mobile or Windows XP had to be approved by Microsoft–how would you react? Exactly. Once again we’ve enabled Steve Jobs’ insane control freak tendencies. This relationship is beyond disfunctional–we are co-dependent.
Simple solution: Apple could have a basic system setting that says “Allow Non-Approved Applications.” When you click this setting, a popup could come on warning that, if you click this setting, you are waiving your previously-understood customer service arrangement (i.e. only people with approved applications can hand over their money at the Genius bar).
4. Being a horrible hypocrite by banning other browsers on the iPhone
Opera is a fantastic browser built by a company in Oslo, Norway. In fact, a decade ago, I had a speaking gig there and got to interview the CEO of the company for Silicon Alley Reporter. (Sidebar: Man, do I miss being a journalist. I wish I could split 50% of my time being a journalist and 50% of my time being a CEO.) For over a decade, Opera has been making lighting-fast, lightweight and quirky browsers. Long before Apple launched Safari, with the goal of designing the fastest browswer on the Web, Opera was already there.
Opera’s mobile browsers are “full of WIN,” as the kids like to say these days. If you’re a Windows Mobile or Blackberry user, you’ve probably downloaded them and enjoyed their WINness. The company started an iPhone browser project but gave up when faced with Apple’s absurd and unclear mandate to developers: Don’t create services which duplicate the functionality of Apple’s own software. In other words: “Don’t compete with us or we will not let you in the game.”
The irony of this is not lost on anyone who had a computer before they had an Internet connection. Apple was more than willing to pile on after Microsoft’s disasterous inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows. In fact, what Apple is doing is 100x worse than what Microsoft did. You see, Microsoft simply included their browser in Windows, still allowing other browsers to be installed. In Apple’s case, they are not only bundling their browser with the iPhone, but they are BLOCKING other browsers from being installed.
Simple solution and opportunity: Don’t be a control freak and hypocrite. Allow people to pick their browser; the competition to make a better browser will increase the overall use of iPhones and mobile data services.
5. Blocking the Google Voice Application on the iPhone
Apple took Google’s innovative and absurdly priced phone offering, Google Voice, out of the App Store and is currently being investigated by the FCC for this action. This point is similar to the browser issue, in that Apple wants to own almost every extension of the iPhone platform. How long before Apple decides to ban a Twitter client in favor of an Apple Twitter-like product? Seems crazy, I know, but by following Apple’s logic you should not be able to use Firefox or Google Chrome on your desktop.
Simple solution and opportunity: Let people have three or four phone services coming in to their iPhones and perhaps charge a modest licensing fee for those types of service. Or, just simply stop being jerks and let the free market decide how to use the data services they’ve BOUGHT AND PAID FOR. That’s the joke of this: you’re paying for the data services that Apple is blocking. You pay for the bandwidth and Apple doesn’t let you use it because, you know, they know better than you how you should consume your data minutes.
I’m not a huge fan of government involvement in business, so I would rather see Apple resolve these issues for themselves.
In fact, I believe many forces are already at work, with Michael Arrington of TechCrunch and Peter Rojas of GDGT.com (and founder of Engadget) coming out publicly against these very issues. Neither of these two individuals will use an iPhone *specifically* because it is incompatible with their lives.
Apple will face a user revolt in the coming years based upon Microsoft, Google and other yet-to-be-formed companies, undercutting their core markets with cheap, stable and open devices. Apple’s legendary comeback ability will be for naught if they don’t deeply examine their anti-competitive nature.
Making great products does not absolve you from technology’s cardinal rule: Don’t be evil.
It also doesn’t save you from Scarface’s cardinal rule: Never get high on your own supply.
1. Do you think Apple would be more, or less, successful if they adopted a more open strategy (i.e. allowing other MP3 players in iTunes)?
2. Do you think Apple should face serious antitrust action?
3. Do you think Apple’s dexterity and competence forgive their bad behavior?
all the best,
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