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A big turtle-necked gorilla

Why all of us believers in the inclusive power of technology should be worried about Apple.

Written by Mihir S. Sharma |
March 4, 2011 1:37:16 am

When Steve Jobs,dressed as ever in a black turtleneck,appeared on stage at the release of Apple’s new iPad2,the fevered techies in the audience responded with the ecstasy of millenarian cultists witnessing a visitation from their prophet. Partly because this was,indeed,something of a second coming from a man who specialises in them: Jobs was on medical leave,and a fortnight ago an American tabloid had declared,based on a couple of photographs,that he had six weeks to live. But partly it was because the metaphor is a little too real; Apple does indeed inspire cultish fanaticism,and Jobs cultivates a prophet-like mystique.

There is much truth,these chosen gadgeteers will tell us,to the Apple legend. Are not their devices radically imaginative? Is not their style coolly original,their corporation warm and soulful,their standing in the tech and business world well-earned and,indeed,divinely ordained? Are they not hipster outsiders,their virtue encapsulated in the first Mac ad from 1984,where a blonde runner sprints through a room of drab PC clones?

The answer to all these questions is: No. In fact,I will go further; in my estimation,Apple is evil.

Partly this is merely a distaste for their fabled aesthetic. You see the stripped-down glossy curves of an iThing and sigh with desire. I look at it and see black-and-brushed-titanium fascism. Sensible people can differ about this,although in this case you may not be being sensible,desire does that to people.

Yet there is more to the company’s design sensibility than meets the eye. Their sleek,uniform hardware,from which everything they have deemed inessential has been ruthlessly excised,runs software which reflects a similar customisation-is-for-dummies approach. Hardware and software alike are control-freakish,requiring you to do everything through iTunes,making it impossible to bypass Apple’s control of every programme without hacking into the system,refusing to give you an

extra button on your mouse — that right-button that every PC user,whether Windows or Linux,knows can double your productivity. There’s a good chance that this reflects Jobs’ own sensibilities; he has a near-obsessive fear and loathing of buttons among other things. (Better known to all of us by its medical name,koumpounophobia.) This plays into how Apple does things in surprising ways — lifts in most Apple stores don’t have buttons,stopping automatically at all floors,for example. And,of course,it explains why Jobs is always in a black turtleneck.

For some reason,it isn’t obvious to everyone how this totally upends the Apple-is-cool marketing strategy. It’s hardly cool and grown-up to trust your phone and your books and your online life to a bunch of programmes and devices that control-freakishly treat you like a kid. (Even those iPhone icons,cutesey and big and colourful,look like things you can distract babies with.)

For Apple,while the nanny-state act might be born of their corporate culture,it is sustained because paternalism makes cold business sense. Not just in any touchy-feely way,in that we wind up trusting Apple to ensure we never install anything that crashes our Mac or our iPad. Though there’s something of that,too,the main reason is because if Apple controls the hardware and the operating system,they control your online behaviour. If they control your online behaviour,they control what you buy — and if they control what you buy,they can name the cut they’ll take.

The buzzword for this that you need to know is “ecosystem”. What every tech company wants — Microsoft,Amazon,Google,Nokia,even BlackBerry makers RIM — is a system where everything plugs into everything. Their operating systems only work with tailor-made applications. Users want more applications. So developers have to write for their operating system to get money from users — and thus users have to buy their devices. Apple,however,takes it to another level as compared to the others,especially poor old don’t-be-evil Google,which tries to keep as much as possible open-source and accessible,and whose Android ecosystem is thus hopelessly muddled. Apple ensures that the prices that you pay for content have to be paid through them,which means that a company that makes the hardware winds up profiting off those who create the content.

In the lead-up to the iPad2 launch,this strategy was again made explicit. On February 15,Apple announced that Apple would take 30 per cent of the subscription fee if you subscribe to anything on the iPhone,iPod or iPad — newspapers,for example,or TV shows. Bad enough — except that the company made it worse,typically,by adding that if any developer or content provider sold,on his own website,a cheaper alternative subscription,their iWhatever access would be withdrawn. Ouch. Nor can you try anything before you buy it — Jobs doesn’t do “shareware”. Unsurprisingly,newspapers and publishers are whimpering,terrified that in Jobs’ brave new world,whatever profits Western content creators have been able to retain in the digital age will vanish into Apple’s capacious balance sheet.

They are right to fear. After all,that balance sheet is bloated,already,at the expense of the music industry. A report from European trade unions last year predicted a million creative jobs would vanish in the music industry in five years,thanks to the digital music-iPod era,in which once you fork out an enormous amount for an iPod,you feel you never have to pay for music again. (Unless it’s off iTunes,where a big chunk of the profit goes to Apple anyway.) And the rest of us should worry,too: a system in which only hardware-makers profit off creative content is simply not sustainable.

Which is why I find it easy to resist the lures of an iWhatsit,no matter how enticingly the bitten-into

Apple logo glows at me. If I take another bite off the Apple,I’m just asking for eternal damnation.

Yes,they’re evil. But it isn’t that which will end their reign of shiny terror. No,what will is this: popularity. For a brand which is driven on an image of cooler-than-thou snobbery,Jobs took totally the wrong tack at the iPad2 launch,stressing its dominance of the segment. Dude: one day Bill Gates will remake your “1984” ad,but this time with a bunch of hypnotised apple-eyed people in a big room staring at a screen which features you releasing another

self-congratulatory marginal update. Twenty-six years on,Apple is the big turtlenecked gorilla,all the others are plucky outsiders. And,unless you’re Roger Federer,you can’t be cool when you’re number one.

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