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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8 Responses to “Apple’s Iron Fist”

  1. dfs says:

    “But where Apple’s iron fist is most evident is the App Store” I disagree. Control of apps on the Apple Store arguably hurts developers much more than consumers. For the rest of us, I think it’s most evident in Apple’s rigid and remarkably successful control of the price of its products at the retail level. It’s faily common for corporations to do this at the wholesale level but not at the retail. And Apple was doing this for some time before such price control became legal.

  2. DaveD says:

    Great piece.

    I look at the bigger picture. Freedom of choice.

    Without a police force, it would be the wild, wild west. A police force cannot stop the bad, ugly incidents. It hopes to curtail some, especially in a public venue. If the police force began breaking doors down and hauling the innocents to jail, we would have a totally different situation.

    Apple owns the iPhone App store. I don’t see any issues with Apple setting or changing their policies. Apple should be able to police their store.

    A grocery store may longer carry the brand you like. You can either buy a substitute or walk away to another store.

    I don’t have an iPhone. The last time I installed Mac OS X, Apple did not ask for a registration key.

    In the automobile market, each manufacturers set a price. Some set a higher price than others.

    If the government mandated that I can only buy Apple’s products, that would be wrong, so wrong. However if the government said to buy American-made products only, it made feel wrong if you don’t see the benefits. The freedom of choice is curtailed, but the money is no longer flowing out of the country.

    Without money, it would revert back to the wild, wild west.

  3. Karl says:

    I don’t understand why people are arguing about this. It’s Apple’s store. They decide what gets sold and what doesn’t. Same thing happens at every brick-and-mortar store. Someone controls what is sold and what isn’t.

    I worked for a company that was trying to get their product into Walmart. You should of seen the hoops they [the company I worked for] had to jump through. It’s basically the same thing that Apple is doing here.

    Who does it hurt? Developers? Consumers? Well if you want a porn (soft/hard/or even just risky) app on your iPhone, looks like the best you are going to get is Playboy and Sports Illustrated. Apple doesn’t have to sell every app just because it was submitted and may or may not meet Apple’s guide lines.

    If you are a developer and want to be in the App store… I guess your content will have to meet Apple’s moving measuring stick. Does it hurt if it doesn’t get accepted? sure but in the end only the developer can decide if the risk/reward is worth it. Just like the company I used to work for decided if jumping through Walmart’s hoops was worth it.

    On a side note, I think Apple should just use the “clean”/”explicit” type of rating so people are aware of the content of the app before downloading and or to help with parent controls.

  4. Al says:

    What a lot of developers lose sight of is that they are not Apple’s final customer. Apple knows that ultimately, the best way to please developers is by giving them a healthy flow of sales revenue.

    Happy customers –> more device sales –> more app sales –> happy developers.

    If they start catering to developers ahead of their customers:

    Happy developers but unhappy customers –> less device sales –> less app sales –> unhappy developers.

  5. robinson says:

    There is a big issue because there is an absolute double-standard on what’s accepted and what isn’t. Apple arbitrarily, without warning, removes thousands of apps, virtually of them from small developers–on the grounds of being salacious or crossing some arbitrary line–yet KEEPS those from Playboy, Victoria’s Secret, and Sports Illustrated. That’s patently unfair, hypocritical, biased, and inconsistent.

    We need to call them on it–especially when they are supposedly doing this to be family friendly and avoid sexism, yet they are, at the same, purveying other forms of similar or worse material.

    • @robinson, Apple is under no obligation to have a single standard, double standard, or any standard. It’s their playground and they make the rules. In saying that, their official decision is that parents, particularly moms, complained. I agree there might have been a better way to accomplish the same result, but at the end of the day, we don’t have any vote in what they do, other than to stop buying their products.


      • Karl says:

        @Gene Steinberg,

        I agree with Gene on this. Apple’s rules, double standard or not. Developers can choose to stop developing for the platform and consumers can choose to stop buying the products if they don’t agree to those rules.

        With that said, could it be handled better. Depends on where you are sitting. Most of the people who complained are probably happy. Most of the developers who got their apps pulled probably wish it was handled “better”.

        With all that said, it looks like Apple is conceding and putting an “explicit” category in the app store. At least that has been reported on a couple of other Mac news sites.

  6. The average person on the street doesn’t care and accepts Apple’s way. What is the iPhone and iPod touch “would recommend to a friend” rating? Something like 90 and 88 percent. Not too shabby!

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