As Apple continues to build a higher and higher wall around its app garden, readers on romance blogs occasionally wonder why Apple retains its indie cred when it’s such a dominant force in the mobile device world. And then a couple of weeks ago, a blog post on a Big Romance Review Site which prides itself on its editorial process hauled out all the old Apple fan arguments about why it’s stupid to question Apple in this way. The post pretty much encapsulated the unthinking Apple fanperson’s creed in a spectacularly ignorant set of statements.
As someone who grew up in Silicon Valley in the days when HP was the big innovative company (yes! it was once true!), and has been using Apple products for years and years, I forget that younger consumers and people who don’t have tech blogs taking up half their RSS feed may not know Apple’s history. If you got to know their products through iPods or the iPhone, then you know a very different Apple than the personal computer company which almost went under in the 1990s and was saved by the Return of Steve. The overmatched challenger of the 1980s and 1990s, which attracted such fierce loyalty because it seemed to be the creative and open alternative to Microsoft, is almost unrecognizable in the highly successful, extremely cash-rich and profitable business we see today.
A simple way of thinking about the difference between (old) Apple and Microsoft is that Apple made its money from hardware and Microsoft made its money from software. Because of this, Apple used an open architecture and anyone who wanted to write programs for its machines could do so. Microsoft, on the other hand, bought up small innovative software companies and incorporated their ideas into their own increasingly bloated programs, and all too frequently without giving the original inventors credit. Even today, Apple is endearingly cavalier about protecting its own software. You can install the OS and programs such as iWord across multiple computers without a problem; just try and do that with Microsoft Office or Windows 7.
Apple’s integration of the GUI with the operating system from the beginning made for an easier and cleaner user experience (Windows, by contrast, began as a shell on top of an operating system and has been correspondingly clunkier). Its traditional disinterest in the software end of the business meant that a cottage industry of software developers created free or inexpensive programs, most designed to do one thing and do it well. Apple’s dominance (through subsidy pricing) in the educational market led to widespread adoption by schools and academic types, and the development of software targeted to small but highly appreciative audiences resulted in excellent programs for users in creative fields such as graphic design, music, and mathematics.
If you were in business or the applied sciences, though, and especially if you used statistical packages, Apple didn’t work for you because programs weren’t written for that OS and you couldn’t transfer files across the two systems. And, if you wanted or needed a laptop, Apple’s Powerbook was more expensive. So there were large groups of potential customers whom Apple ignored.
It is worth remembering that the first big innovation after the Return of Steve was the introduction of the iBook and the iMac. Not the sleek white laptops and desktops we see today, but these:
The clamshell iBooks were clunky and brightly colored (and they came with a built-in handle). They were cute but highly un-businesslike, which was fine, because they were still aimed at schools and the youth market. And although they weren’t expensive by Apple standards, they were still not good value compared to computers and laptops running Windows. And of course they had the software limitations of previous Apple computers. The candy-colored iBooks only lasted two years, at which point Apple redesigned them to be all white. And then, later that year, they introduced the iPod.
The original iPod was was a small white brick which held 5G of audio. Its promise to put “1000 songs in your pocket” far exceeded the audio capacity of the personal audio devices people were using at the time: cassette players (30 minutes per side) or Mini Disc players (80 minutes per disc). And you managed your iPod from your computer. They didn’t have the best sound, and they were extremely expensive. But they became popular quickly, perhaps because they were indeed “the ultimate fashion accessory for the chic and famous,” or at least for those who wished to be.
Apple’s success with the iPod came as a relief to Appleheads, because it finally gave the company a popular consumer item which could make up for the niche appeal of its computers. In the years that followed, the iPod got smaller in size but more capacious in the number of songs it could hold, and the iTunes store showed record companies and artists that people were willing to pay for music as long as it was priced decently and easy to acquire. You couldn’t play iTunes music on anything but an iPod, you couldn’t plug a non-iPod device into iTunes, and you couldn’t transfer music from your iPod to another computer. But most people accepted these limitations without too much complaint. The success of the iPod led both consumers and software developers to Apple products and software, especially after OS X was released. And since PCs were dropping in price, the price premium of an Apple computer was easier to absorb, especially as the designs became more elegant and distinctive.
iTunes was an acceptable compromise for many consumers who were willing to put up with DRM in exchange for reasonable pricing on single songs and albums. But the iPhone took the white picket fence of the garden and turned it into a six-foot brick wall. No programs could be added to the iPhone other than through iTunes and the new App Store. The iPhone was a runaway hit, and soon there was an App for almost everything (how long did it take for “there’s an app for that” to become a punchline?). This restriction was usually fine with new smartphone users, but for those of us who were veterans of Palm and other DIY platforms, or who found that occasionally, there wasn’t in fact An App for That, it was infuriating.
Over time, despite the growth of competing smartphone platforms, the App Store has become more restrictive, not less. And now there is even a Mac App Store. Programs that used to be available at individual websites are now only found at the App Store, and they don’t cost less money there. Of course, since the developers have to give 30 percent to Apple, we can’t expect them to. And now Apple has decided to raise the walls even higher by insisting that apps cannot link to out-of-app purchase options because then Apple loses its 30 percent in-app purchase share. How they will reconcile their 3000-3500 limit with bookstores that have tens of thousands of books available for purchase, they haven’t yet informed us.
With iTunes and especially the App Store, Apple finally found a way to make money off of software rather than just from hardware. Given that the software ensures that the hardware keeps being produced, I’m glad that Apple is profitable. But for those of us who prize open-source software development and thought that Apple was one of the good guys, Apple’s attitude is hard to swallow. The hardware is still wonderful, and there are still some terrific programs being made that work best on Apple. But the price we pay to use them is starting to feel prohibitive.
With this history, it’s clear that agency pricing of books and the restrictions on competitors to the iBook program are just the most recent blows, not systematic changes in Apple’s strategy and approach.
And that’s where I think we Appleheads went wrong. Apple wasn’t supporting small-scale software development because it was ideologically oriented toward the open-source movement. It was just crappy at making money off of software. Once it realized that it could monetize purchases through iTunes and then software through the app store, it went about doing so with a vengeance. It’s like the scorpion in the parable of the scorpion and the frog. Apple is a profit-making company, and it’s just doing what it’s supposed to do. But let’s stop giving them a pass because once upon a time they were warm and hospitable toward geeks, nerds, and other people with off-the-equilibrium-path interests.
And I find it exquisitely ironic that a company whose CEO famously said that “people don’t read anymore” is taking the lead in making ebooks more expensive and harder to acquire.