Friday, December 11, 2009

Apple: Crying freedom from behind a locked gate

Let's face it: we all love Apple products. Whether we're clinging to our iPods, watching something through our Apple TV's, editing our papers on our Macbook, or connecting with our friends on our iPhone, it's nearly impossible to escape Apple's universal appeal and reach. For years, while in the minority, Apple products have represented style, fashion, and the cutting edge. Why get stuck in the bland world of the PC, stuck in the death grip of Microsoft, when you can truly live life through Apples products.

All lies. Every. Single. Word.

While promoting a culture of freedom, Apple, led by Steve Jobs, has systematically tightened its control over its users in a fashioned that would make Microsoft look like 60's free-love hippies. Everything Apple does is about deepening their market share and locking their users into the Apple platform.

The music you buy from iTunes? Controlled by Apple through DRM.

The computer you buy from Apple? Controlled by Apple through proprietary hardware.

The iPod you bought from Apple? Controlled by Apple through software.

The iPhone you bought from Apple? Controlled by Apple AND AT&T

The four technologies I mentioned above are the companies four core products. Every single one of them is locked in an increasingly tight death grip in which Apple can control what you do and when and where you do it.

Take for example, the iPhone. Apple has been locked in a struggle with independent developers since the launch of the device over what software will be allowed on it. Most smartphones allow you to develop your own software for them or get software from just about anywhere else and put it on your phone. Not the iPhone! To use software not purchased (or given away) through the App Store, you have to go through a risky process called 'Jailbreaking'. This process effectively removes Apple and AT&T's software restrictions from your device allowing you to run software you get from anywhere you choose.

Every update that Apple's released for the iPhone has relocked jailbroken devices. Why would they care what software you use or where you get it from, you ask? It must be because Apple cares about the security of your device or the quality of the software you get. Wrong. It's about numbers and App Store sales. Control. By forcing everyone to go through their App Store, Apple can carefully monitor and create metrics around app sales. They know what software is running where, what software is struggling, and can disable software (if they wanted to) with the flip of a switch.

More importantly, Apple can control what software goes onto the device. Competition? Apple LOVES competition, except when you're competing with them. Do you think you're ever going to see Opera or Google Chrome or even Internet Explorer on the iPhone? Don't hold your breath. Opera has been in talks with Apple for over a year to get their excellent browser on the iPhone. But Apple has Safari and they will not allow any browser that competes with Safari on their device. The same story can be told for countless other 'would be competitor' software vendors who fight an ultimately losing battle every day with Apple to have their software included in the App Store.

The bottom line is that Apple is a hypocritical duality. The very people at the top of the towers screaming 'be free' are the ones with the keys to the gates of the prison. Yet, it can't be denied that Apple and its products have brought computing a new elegance and a new style. For that, we can be thankful.

Lastly, don't think I don't understand market economics. When you're in business, you're in business to make money. You do what you can to raise revenue, increase sales, and make your shareholders happy. You, by necessity, have to be greedy. That greed isn't my problem with Apple. Greed can be a good thing.

What is my problem with Apple is their efforts to show the buying public one thing (freedom) while fully practicing another (lockdown). If you're going to hold your users prisoners, tell them you will and explain why. Don't treat them like idiots or sell them snake oil. This is the same problem I have with companies like Google who have the whole 'Don't be Evil' mantra. It's not realistic to what they do.

Treat your users well, give them compelling products and a good experience, and they will gladly stay loyal. When you're as good as Apple is at what they do, you don't need to hold your users hostage. We want to be in your prison. We're willing to pay the price for all that sexiness.

Just don't lie to us. That is the where we draw the line.

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