I realise there is a chance I may come to regret this post – the Apple Wars are something that sensible bloggers steer well clear of, because of the strong feelings on both sides – but I am curious about this, and asking in a spirit of genuine inquisitiveness, not accusation. I hope that mention of certain key phrases in this post won’t bring hosts of trigger-happy RSS-watchers along, or that if it does, they come ready for a gentle chat, not an all-out blog fight.
I should start by saying that I am pretty ignorant about Apple. I’ve never owned any Apple kit (whether MP3 players, phones, computers – whatever), not because I hate Apple, but purely on grounds of cost. I’ve always been in a position of having no option but to go for a cheaper alternative. The fact I haven’t been able to afford Apple hasn’t made me bitter or jealous, though, it’s just one of those things. (Or, at least, I don’t think it has, but I guess that’s really something other people will have to judge.) The closest I have ever come to Apple kit when I was at my 6th form college, back in the distant days of the late 80s/ early 90s.
I spent quite a lot of time when I was at the college as a kind of honorary geek, basically because I was too scared to go into the common room in case one of the Goths who lived in there growled at me, and so hung around in the computer department instead. I didn’t qualify as a full-blown geek – I wasn’t doing Computer Studies A-level, and I didn’t have a computer at home (well, I had a ZX81, but I knew enough to know that wasn’t something to boast about) – but I did find the kind of things that geeks did cool, I could hold my own in a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy conversation, and would, on occasion, Talk To Girls, which the proper geeks found impressive. (Of course they didn’t know that I got on with girls because I didn’t fancy them, and was as tongue-tied as any of them in the presence of…let’s call him Antoninus (he had pretentious parents who had named him for a Roman emperor, but a different one), who was the most beautiful human being I’d ever seen – and, having just googled him, apparently still is…)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes that’s right – lovelorn honorary geek hanging around the computer rooms and getting involved in various Geek Projects, such as programming a BBC Master to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and using a new and exciting thing called a ‘Modem’ to connect via a command-line interface to equally-impressed Computer Studies students elsewhere in the country. So, there were two rooms of networked computers in the department – one of Archimedes, and another of Apple MacIntosh Plus. The Macs were the prized toy of the teachers – and to be fair had I think represented a huge investment on the part of the college – and so we didn’t often get to play with them. But I did spend a small amount of time with them. I remember disliking the concept of a mouse (the first time I’d ever used one – and, no, I didn’t pick it up and try and talk into it…) and thinking that it would never catch on, and being especially irritated by a little animation of a comedy boot stamping on something. I can’t remember what it was for – deleting something possibly? – but I remember finding it impossibly twee and winsome and annoying. Insofar as I have an opinion on Apple that is founded in actual experience, that’s it – being irritated by a wannabe-cute animation, and thinking that the curved plastic design was kind of naff.
So, as I say, I’m pretty ignorant about Apple kit, although obviously I don’t live in a bubble, and so have become pretty aware of the company’s offerings. I’ve noted with interest that Apple seem to have become almost a hybrid between a technology company and a fashion house, with quite a lot of their marketing budget (especially for the iPod, less so for the iPhone) focussed on the idea that their various products are ‘must-have’ accessories. As someone who’s more or less allergic to the idea of fashion, and especially to the idea of branding myself by association with corporate logos, that approach was always going to leave me pretty cold. I also have to say that, on a purely aesthetic level, I’m not a fan of Jonathan Ives’ designs – I can see what he’s aiming for (elegant minimalism – a great thing to aim for), but he often seems to fall short, partly as a result of specifying sub-standard materials (the tacky translucent plastic on the iMac was a particularly bad error, I thought) – which can make falling in love with Apple products something of a chore for me.
But, of course, all of this is fluff – what matters is how well the various products do their job. This is where Apple kit seems to pick up very good reviews from its aficionados, with virtually everyone who loves Apple citing ease of use and smoothness of operation as the stand-out reason why they love Apple products. Now, of course, one of the main ways they achieve this is by operating a closed shop, where they are fully in control of both technology and software, and so can minimise the kind of compatibility issues which are often the cause of problems. Those who are not Apple fans often emphasise the flipside of this: namely that you can only use an Apple device (especially the more tightly controlled mobile devices) in ways that Apple approve of, and that there is the potential for Apple, if they were to choose to do so, to use their role of gatekeeper to hold back the development of interesting ideas and applications by third parties, even if those ideas and applications would be welcomed by their customers.
There’s been a lot of fuss about this lately, of course, with all the back-and-forth about using Flash on the iPhone. I’ll be honest, I can see both sides to this one. I can see Apple’s point about the stability problems with Flash – whenever my browser crashes, it’s almost always after an unsuccessful struggle with a page containing lots of flash content – but I also think I’d be pretty frustrated if I was an iPhone user and couldn’t access Flash video. I’m a grown up, after all, and would pretty much like, I think, to be trusted to come to my own conclusion about whether the upsides of installing Flash outweighed the downsides, rather than having Nanny Apple decide that for me. What I find rather more interesting is a case I read about today on Rory Cellan-Jones’ technology blog at the BBC website.
Greg Hughes is a 19-year-old computer-science student at Birmingham University. Software development has been a hobby for a while, and he works for a web design firm when he’s not studying.
A while back, he came up with a way of synchronising his iPhone to his computer over a wireless network; as things currently stand, you have to plug the phone in.
After paying the £60 fee for Apple’s iPhone software development kit, he turned his idea into an app and submitted it for approval.
Apple rejected the app, which is not in itself surprising – the whole point of having an approvals process, after all, is to make it possible to reject sub-standard apps. What’s a little more surprising is that Mr Hughes was subsequently contacted by Apple who told him (in the process of offering him the possibility of future employment with the company, so impressed were they with the app on a technical level) that there was nothing he could do which would get it approved. In other words, the app was not turned down on the basis that it was poorly executed, or would conflict with other apps; instead, it was the whole idea of wirelessly syncing an iPhone that was rejected. Mr Hughes went on to make his app unofficially available for people who have jail-broken their iPhones, and it has proved very popular, which means that, presumably, the ability to wirelessly sync their iPhone with their computer is one that many ‘legitimate’ iPhone users would also welcome.
To me, this seems like a fairly terrible set of circumstances in a number of ways.
I think, for example, that it’s pretty bad that Apple are attempting to stifle entrepreneurship in this way. It strikes me that most of the big-name players in the tech field got to where they are by figuring out a way to do something that people wanted to do and then marketing it, and it’s pretty clear that’s what Greg Hughes has done, albeit in a smaller way than, say, Mark Zuckerberg. As it happens, the rejection by Apple wasn’t the end of the story for Mr Hughes, but if Apple had their way there would be no jail-broken iPhones his app could be installed on – Apple intended their rejection to be the end of the line. It’s true that they offered him a job (or rather offered him the possibility of an offer of a job in the future), but that’s not really the point, I think, just as it wouldn’t have been the point if IBM had blocked the development of a 3rd party OS for the PC, but offered Bill Gates a job in-house working full-time on OS/2. From a commercial standpoint, preventing someone from working for themselves and then offering them a job to come and work for you is a fairly strong-arm tactic (and presumably only legal because, far from having a monopoly, Apple are pretty small players in the mobile phone market), but it’s also troubling in a less legalistic sense, I think. In recent times, technological progress has come down to a really quite remarkable extent to individuals with clever ideas – as opposed to large companies with big R&D departments – and if those clever ideas are blocked before they can be fully developed then that’s likely, in the long term, to have a chilling effect on technological progress.
I also think it’s pretty bad that Apple have treated their customers in this way. It seems fairly clear from the success of the app among jail-broken phones that iPhone users would really welcome the opportunity to sync their phones wirelessly. It seems more than a little disappointing for them, therefore, that Apple have decided that they can’t, even though there would appear to be no technical reasons why – at least, if there were technical problems with the app then it’s surprising that Apple offered its creator a job, and that people with jail-broken phones don’t seem to have reported any problems. I think, if I was an Apple customer, I’d be pretty annoyed by this – that Apple seem to be using their gatekeeper role not just to keep out buggy software that would trash my phone, but also to stop third party developers from helping me to do something with my phone that I want to be able to do.
But, of course, I’m not an Apple customer, which is why I would be very interested to hear from people who are. What do you make of the whole thing? Have I got hold of the wrong end of the stick in my criticisms? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Like I said in the beginning, I’m genuinely curious about this, and really don’t feel like I’m motivated by hatred of, or love for, Apple (but I’d also like to hear from you if you think I am). I’ve decided to set up a poll so that people who don’t feel like commenting can venture an opinion, but I’m also very interested to hear from anyone and everyone directly – please comment if you’d like to.