Strong opinions, weakly held

Apple vs my preconceived notions

i-want-to-believe.jpgGo read Anil Dash’s letter to Apple explaining why the company must abandon its obsession with secrecy. It’s brilliantly written and compellingly argued, and I wish that Apple would take heed and change their practices tomorrow.

Anil argues that Apple’s current practices are unethical, and I could not agree more. Apple’s relationship with iPhone developers is completely dysfunctional. The ground rules for what sorts of applications will be accepted are secret and are subject to change at any time, without notice. To be honest, I don’t see how Apple’s treatment of iPhone developers is even legal.

Anil also argues that Apple’s attempts to exercise total control over its messaging are antiquated and unsustainable. The larger trend across nearly every industry has certainly been in the opposite direction. As he points out, both Google and Barack Obama have built their brands by taking almost entirely the opposite course. And companies that were once thought of as the most monolithic in the computer industry are now in important ways the most transparent. Employees at IBM and Microsoft blog about their work and engage with the public on Twitter and in other places.

Apple violates every theory of communication that I believe in, but I can’t ignore the fact that what Apple is doing is working. Embracing transparency may work far better for them, but Apple has been incredibly successful over the past decade. Geeks (like me) who hate the company’s public persona absolutely love their products. The features of the iPhone and the opportunity to make buckets of money in a short time draw developers to the platform even though Apple treats them like crap.

In one scenario, this is a bubble of sorts. Apple may be doing OK now, but they’re headed for a big crash when people get sick of their behavior. In another scenario — one that I think is, sadly, more likely, Apple continues as they are, adjusting when it must to address reality, but only in the most minimal way.

Apple will have to become more transparent in its review policy for iPhone applications soon. They’re facing a revolt among developers — Apple crossed the Rubicon when it refused to take questions after a session on publishing on the app store at WWDC this summer. And unceremoniously booting every application that works with Google Voice from the application store, ostensibly because they duplicate built-in iPhone functionality, has been too much.

As Anil points out, there have been other cases where Apple has opened the curtain a bit in order to placate its critics, but none of them have yet led to a fundamental rethinking of its relationship with its customers and the public.

I’m reminded of the predictions that were made about China in particular and authoritarian governments in general during the rapid rise of the Web. I certainly believed that given the huge array of information available on the Internet and the difficulty in censoring it, these types of states would be forced to radically change in the face of protests from a better-informed public. I thought that the liberating tendency of the Internet would not be suppressed. Turns out I was wrong. China’s government has changed over the years, but certainly not in the ways or to the degree that I wished for and expected.

In my ideal world, Apple would take heed of arguments like Anil’s and do the right thing. The way they operate now is a massive blemish on a company that produces really great products. Failing that, I’d hope that Apple will be forced to radically change in order to make it in the modern world. But experience tells me that’s not the case. Apple may well be done in at some point, but probably not because it’s the Burma of US corporations.


  1. Extreme secrecy is a feature not a bug. The premise of Anil’s argument is wrong. He fails to justify why it’s in their interest to change their ways. There is plenty of room in the marketplace for lots of approaches. Saying they should take marketing advice from Barack Obama is clearly absurd.

    And besides, John Gruber says it’s not even Apple’s fault that they removed Google Voice from the App store and he has “inside sources”. It’s big nasty AT&T’s fault. Apple’s hands are tied. Never mind that Google Voice is available for Blackberries.

    It’s very simple. If you don’t agree with the company’s philosophy, don’t buy their products. It really sounds like you will continue to buy their products, but you just don’t want to feel guilty about it because of some of their atrocious business practices.

    People complain about celebrity gossip all the time, then turn on TMZ or read trashy tabloids. Apple has done well in their niche of high priced computers and electronics so why should they change? And if you have a problem with that there are lots of of options out there, many of them better than Apple’s.

    Full disclosure: I say this as someone who thinks paying over $1000 dollars for a computer is, in most cases, a waste of money and has never owned an Apple product.

  2. I don’t think Anil fails to explain why it’s in Apple’s interest to become more transparent. You may not agree with his explanation, but he definitely explains.

  3. I must admit I don’t agree with Anil, either. What Apple is doing appears to be totally legal. It’s not like the developers are Apple employees, after all. As dismissive as it sounds, it really does come down to “if you don’t want to support it, don’t buy it and don’t develop for it.”

    And this is coming from someone who buys Apple products for family, simply because it’s the least awful of the available choices (even taking the above into consideration).

  4. Anil Dash cites Google as an example of openness but I can’t help but feel that, when it comes to product launches, AAPL and GOOG are not that different. Google is doing “surprise” product launches all the time. Knol was a secret project until it reached beta status. The existence of Chrome, a project that has been under way for several years, has been denied by Google when rumors surfaced. Just as Apple, Google gets a lot of free press from the element of surprise. In fact, most companies seem to keep their cards close to the vest. The Pre was unveiled during Palm’s keynote at CES. Maybe this one doesn’t count because Rubinstein worked at Apple. Okay, were Microsoft’s bloggers talking about Project Natal before the official launch? RIM has launched the Inside BlackBerry blog but “this isn’t the place to discuss topics like unreleased products.” What a let down! Dell recently teased its new Adamo laptop but tightly controlled the message. The rumor surfaced at the New York Times’ Bits blog but all information was kept under wraps in order to generate hype. At first Dell presented a prototype, specifications and pricing were announced months later. Etc. A lot of different companies are playing this game.

  5. Apple should start blogging because it’s what Microsoft does, the trend is in that direction? Microsoft just fell short of earnings by a BILLION dollars, people need to start questioning everything Microsoft is doing and whether they’re playing smart moves. Scratch that, they needed to do that a decade ago.

    And for all of Google’s secrecy, they’re only after mind share. Whether a product is announced and available today with no lead up, or is stuck in beta for half a decade, the vast majority of Google’s products are at no visible cost to the user.

    Apple needs to sell both hardware and services to users who have lower cost alternatives, and to do that they have to make it about the product and not the price tag. Their secrecy captures consumer’s imagination while foiling the ability of their competitors to compete. Each year the iPod competes against other devices who were designed to compete with last year’s iPod, guess what comes out on top.

    Lastly, if the iPhone is Apple minimally pushing the market around, then they’d have to go catatonic show any signs of slowing down. There was practically no mobile applications marketplace a few years ago other than Nintendo’s portable games, and you have the gall to say what Apple has done is minimal?

    Sure the App Store ecosystem might not be perfect yet, but it seems like everyone expects it should be, and expects it should’ve been on day one. This, while defending Microsoft’s complete ineptitude.

    Use your buying power: don’t contribute to something you don’t agree with. If you still have an iPhone, and still buy apps, and if you’re a developer still develop apps, then you agree with the platform. You agree with it’s ease of use, with it’s power, with it’s adoption by consumers. What you have are issues, concerns, opinions on how things can be improved.

    These are good things to have. However, framing them in a do or die “the right thing” sort of mentality makes your valid arguments lose credibility.

  6. I’d agree that not buying Apple products is one way to let them know that you disapprove of their behavior. Another is telling people that you disapprove of their behavior. A lot of the criticism Apple is getting is friendly criticism — the iPhone developers who are complaining about the review process aren’t concern trolls, they’re people who like the platform and want to build businesses around it.

    Certainly Apple has the right to say “love us or leave us” but I’m surprised at the people who defend that option? It’s certainly not to my advantage as an Apple customer when talented developers abandon the platform.

  7. Apple treating the iPhone developers and apps they develop in a clear, reliable, and consistent manner could be done easily without them abandoning the secrecy in other situations.

    It’s not unreasonable to expect the rules for iPhone app approval to be public and well defined so that they can be applied in a consistent and transparent manner.

    This transparency does NOT impare their ability to be successfully secret in other areas – i.e. new product plans/releases/features.

    Witness at least one of the recently shunned iPhone developers contemplating going back to all Mac development – i.e. no one is complaining about Apple’s treatment of Mac developers.

  8. “…but they’re headed for a big crash when people get sick of their behavior”.

    I don’t think there’s a big crash looming on the horizon. The only people who care about this story are already inside the tech/geek echo chamber. Regular consumers couldn’t care less how Apple treats developers or how secretive their actions are. They just want their nice shiny Apple products. It’s a shame. But that’s life.

  9. As Steve Ballmer says: Developers! Developers! Developers!

  10. This will follow the same path as Apple and DRM on music – there was an uproar about it, a few people complained and stopped using iTunes, everyone else continued to buy iPods and music form the iTunes store. Eventually the DRM issue became a non-issue.

    Apple will tightly control the App process (sometimes in ways that seem crazy and unhealthy) as long as they feel it benefits them. At some point, it will start to hurt them (either monetarily or reputation wise), and then they’ll change their behavior.

    Apple has been very successful (from it’s perspective) of walking this risk/reward line with it’s products, why would anyone expect them to do differently this time?

    Hopefully they don’t alienate too much of the developer community before then. “There’s an App for that!” wouldn’t exist without the independent developers.

  11. I don’t care about secrecy. I sure do care about open platforms though, and I don’t believe any platform that only allows approved apps, no matter how slick it is, will prove to be the most profitable (I hesitate to say “survive”) when there are really open platforms out there.

    And that’s if they don’t get busted on antitrust grounds, which I think they should. Although the whole carrier-locked subsidized handset & early-termination-fee system is pretty much the same scam and that has survived so far.

    Accepting Apple’s shakedown of application producers would be a disastrous direction for the industry to go. The consumer/small-scale-commercial software industry has flourished because nobody needs permission to develop a new application. Accepting a gatekeeper role for the OS vendor gives them a license to stifle competition and extort a tax on application developers.

    It has a very direct effect on innovation because of the measures they need to take to protect their gatekeeper situation, and I see that as another reason it will be unsuccessful; modern software is more configurable and more flexible than traditional applications, but those configurable applications are a direct threat to Apple’s control over new applications. For instance, the software I’m working on produces user interfaces from declarative files. Change the file, change the application, no recompile. There is no point in us developing an iPhone version, though, because Apple won’t accept this kind of application. So the first mobile version will be for Android.

    One little thing. But those things add up.

  12. The iPhone attracts developers (businesses) as there is close to no real competitors that allow you to reach such a market.

    Apple can behave how it wants (bad or good) and will have no problem until it meets a real competitor.

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