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  • Apple’s Iron Fist

    February 23rd, 2010

    All right you know that Apple Inc. is brilliant when it comes to spin control. They have managed to control their corporate message far better than any other company and, in fact, probably better than many governments. Whether it’s all due to the iron fist of Steve Jobs, or it’s a cooperative approach formulated by a number of executives, you have to expect that they will make sure things are done their way as much as possible.

    When it comes to the products themselves, the situation varies. Mac users have a pretty good amount of freedom to run what they want, even if it screws up their computers. As much as Mac OS X is perceived as a proprietary operating system, it’s actually built upon a core consisting of loads of open source apps.

    WebKit, the rendering engine for Safari, is open source and thus amenable to contributions from loads of smart programmers. It’s also used in Google Chrome, various mobile platforms in addition to the iphone 4 and previous models and, in fact, by any developer who feels they have a better idea for a browser.

    But where Apple’s iron fist is most evident is the App Store, where they are the gatekeepers. While they are fairly generous about which apps get posted, they can also be extremely arbitrary. That explains why some software companies complain that they feel they have followed the rules, but Apple won’t post their apps. Every so often, Apple trots out VP Phil Schiller to explain what a great job they’re doing, while still conceding they aren’t perfect.

    While I understand that some iPhone and iPod touch owners might not like having to go to a single source for all their legal apps, there are some benefits to this sort of setup, the most obvious of which are improved software stability and security. When you download and install an app for your Mac or PC, you trust that the download repository or software publisher is doing the right thing and isn’t trucking in infected or extremely bug-ridden software. If you click on a link that takes you to a phishing site and your bank account gets hacked, well, an innocent error can become catastrophic. Then again, that can happen on the iPhone too, as it did when my wife clicked on a bogus email link and mistakenly logged in while just playing around with the thing the other day. We’re still fighting the bank to get our money back.

    Update: It appears that this episode was more in the form of a generic hacker attack than the result of phishing. We hope to have things restored once the “investigation” is over, whenever that is.

    In any case, as a vendor, Apple has the perfect right to make a final decision about what merchandise to stock. The same is true whether it’s a local retail store or a national or multinational chain. They might take suggestions about which products to carry, but at the end of the day, they can’t be forced to select one product over another. Would you really want it to be otherwise?

    While you may object to the fact that Apple maintains the only legal source for their mobile platform, nobody forces you to buy those gadgets. When it comes to smartphones, there are loads of choices, with the most compelling competitive offerings coming from RIM with their BlackBerry and the various devices that support the Google Android platform. Again, you have to weigh the positives and negatives, and that includes the freedom to buy the software and accessories you want.

    As I said the other day, you only have to compare the way Apple does things to the approach taken by Google, where they track everything you do in order to serve up targeted ads. That’s often the price to pay for free, but even if you use the Google Apps version of Gmail, and upgrade to the professional version that carries an annual fee for every single user, the last time I checked you still had to turn off the option to display ads. They get you wherever you go.

    In contrast, Apple may exert strict control over their various platforms, but they aren’t watching what you’re doing. Sure, they keep your credit card information on file so you can be billed for the stuff you buy from their online stores, but that’s no different from any online vendor. None of that extends to how you use their products, or what you do with them. When you pay $99 a year for a MobileMe subscription, you can rest assured that the contents of your email won’t be tracked in order to send you targeted ads. There are no ads, and the only mailings you might receive from Apple, should you agree to accept them, relate to the company’s products and services — and, of course, when your membership will expire.

    Now I realize that many of you might chafe at the way Apple controls the medium, the message and the products. However, there is also a fairly decent amount of adherence to international standards rather than proprietary ones, particularly in OS X, and the technologies supported on all their devices. The good, to my way of thinking, far outweighs the bad.

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