Looking beyond the numbers: the worm in the Apple

This is a long overdue post about Apple and what exactly they mean for the future of computing freedom. I’ve touched on several of Apple’s dubious stances on computing freedom in the past, but this recent Fast Company article has provided new inspiration (and to be fair, it is not the only such article of its type).

Most telling is this particular quote from the article (around the third page):

For Apple, the ideas of closed and free aren’t in conflict. “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision,” [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs emailed Gawker blogger Ryan Tate, who had baited the CEO in the wake of Apple’s decision to ban Flash from the iPhone and iPad. “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure.” The App Store, Jobs wrote Tate, offers “freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.”

Let’s look at this closely, particularly the Steve Jobs quote, “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision.” Taken on its face it doesn’t seem evil. However, rephrasing and reading between the lines gives us something more like “We’re just trying to keep total control over what we (Apple) give the user, because we know what’s best for the user.” In other words, buy Apple’s gear, forget your freedom, because Apple hates it.

The next quote, “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure” is pure ego food. And the evidence is within the next quote, “[The App Store offers] freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.” This abuse of the word “freedom” is something I object to vehemently, as it is a use of the word to mean what is in fact the exact opposite. “Freedom from programs that trash your battery” means “Apple will not let you run this program on your iPhone or iPad if Apple in its sole judgement feels the battery use is excessive.” “Freedom from porn” means “Apple does not care whether or not you want to view porn on your iPhone, Apple is going to step in like a big nanny and say you can’t have it there.” “Freedom from programs that steal your private data” means “Apple will never let you look at the source code for an iPhone or iPad app and will make it well-nigh impossible to release an app under the GPL or a free software license. Trust us, we’re Apple, we’re bigger than Microsoft now, and that means we’re smarter than you, even if you have an IQ high enough to get into Mensa.”

Mr. Jobs has no idea what true freedom is. Freedom means the user, not Apple, is in charge. Specifically, quoting from the FSF’s free software definition:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Apple’s DRM on the iPhone and iPad squashes freedoms 2 and 3. Lack of access to source code means Apple’s customers don’t have freedom 1 either. Apple can step in and erase programs off your iPhone or iPad, so technically its customers don’t necessarily always have freedom 0, either. Indeed, Cory Doctorow sums it up nicely in this quote:

“If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.”

But this is not the only evil of Apple. From further in the Fast Company article:

It’s not just Jobs’s consistent aversion to complexity that prompts him to say no. Apple thrives on high profit margins, and having the willpower to say no keeps production costs down. Eliminating features also helps build buzz. “The great thing about omitting a feature that people want is that then they start clamoring for it,” says [Glenn] Reid, the former Apple engineer. “When you give it to them in the next version, they’re even happier somehow.” Apple has pulled off this trick time and again, most recently with the iPhone OS 4. It includes multitasking, a feature that customers began asking for in 2007, intensifying their pleas after Palm debuted multitasking in its WebOS last year.

To be fair about it, this is similar to what other companies have done for years. It’s bad business to knowingly withhold functionality today, then release it years later under the guise of making it look “updated.” Indeed, this is why I’m glad we have companies like Palm around. Competition is a good thing, and despite the near ubiquity of the iPhone, it’s good to know choices still exist, otherwise Apple may well try to get away with evolution of phone features on its terms, not those of its customers.

Another tactic that definitely tests the boundaries, even if it isn’t outright over-the-top:

One example: Apple buys up all the bus-stop ad space near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Francisco venue where it has held its recent events. It then switches its posters while Jobs is speaking. So this past January 27, when I walked into Apple’s iPad debut, the street ads depicted something old; when I left, there’s the iPad everywhere you look.

Do I have a thing against aggressive marketing? No, not at all. But there comes a point where aggressive crosses the line. This smacks of something Apple can do because of their sheer size, especially in their hometown. It also makes me wonder, with this kind of brute-force aggressiveness in marketing, how much of the retail price of an iPhone, iPad, or iMac goes to marketing and advertising expenses. Or in other words, if Apple cut back marketing and advertising to a more reasonable level, how much would the price of their products drop?

Moving on:

Apple disregards the entire concept of backward compatibility, which is both a blessing and a curse for rivals such as Microsoft. Over its history, Apple has adopted new operating systems and underlying chip architectures several times — decisions that rendered its installed base instantly obsolete. Jobs killed the floppy disk in the iMac, and he claimed that optical drives were on their way out with the MacBook Air. Now, with the company’s embrace of touch screens, Apple seems to be gunning for the mouse, a technology that it helped bring into wide use in the 1980s. Does this relentless eye toward the future always work? No. Jobs killed the arrow keys on the first Mac; Apple was forced to add them back in a later version, and it has kept them in all its Macs ever since.

While the 1.44 megabyte 3.5″ floppy disk has been doomed for years, with 2.88 megabyte floppies never really catching on, and even technologies like the 20 megabyte “floptical” or LS-120 failing to gain traction, it smacks of Apple playing nanny to decide to arbitrarily kill technologies. I don’t know what Apple was thinking when it got rid of arrow keys. (My original Atari did not have separate arrow keys, the cursor movements were on punctuation keys where one had to hold down Control to access cursor movement. Today, the arrow keys are a feature I could not live without on my PC.)

With regard to touch screens: while Apple may be in love with them, they are not for everyone. I can’t imagine playing a first-person shooter game with a touch screen, for example; the mouse has been firmly entrenched as a part of gaming ever since the original Quake in 1996, and almost a decade and a half later, it’s hard to imagine an FPS without it.

There are many parts of the original article I did not comment on in an attempt to keep this somewhat short. And this is far from the only article of its type. I am not distracted from the truth by Apple’s scant few contributions to free software projects; I am disturbed, not reassured, by the fact CUPS was taken over by Apple almost three years ago. I am grateful for the decision by Michael Sweet to license CUPS under the GNU GPL, a decision which protects user freedoms and, quite likely, annoys Apple to no end.

Apple is a liability, not an asset, to the future of computing and technology, even more so than Microsoft now. I’m not sure how to right the ship; all I know is it’s sinking further with every new Apple device (particularly iPhone and iPad) sold.