Blog Post

Apple Has Some Important Lessons to Learn

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We love Apple (s aapl). We love its style. We love its vision. We love its marketing and PR. A generation of the world’s best designers cut their teeth on Apple computers, much as they might dislike admitting their sense of taste was shaped by a consumer electronics company.

In business, too, Apple has proven to be a visionary. Entrepreneurs often look to Apple for inspiration. Software startups the world-over are compelled to study Apple so as to learn how best to “do it” — whatever “it” may be.

I don’t know — do entrepreneurs look to Microsoft (s msft) for inspiration? Arguably one of the greatest speakers on entrepreneurship and startups, Guy Kawasaki, was Apple’s first Macintosh evangelist and still praises the company today. Kawasaki picks winners — after all, that’s his job — and he chooses Apple every time.

In the bad old days, back when Microsoft was “The Borg” and Apple hadn’t released an iPod yet, a big part of the reason for loving Apple was our affinity with the underdog. After all, people root for the underdog, and, back in the nineties, a waning Apple couldn’t hope to compete with Wintel dominance.

Today, despite Microsoft’s monopoly continuing to grow in the last decade, Apple has risen from the proverbial ashes. It might be in Microsoft’s shadow (where all software companies can be found) but this Apple shines. (Sorry — terrible pun, I know.)

This is a company that sweeps in to well-established markets (MP3 players, online music, mobile phones) and fundamentally changes them. It establishes itself as the Porsche of a laptop market otherwise saturated with Fords; it launches an operating system so advanced that, eight years and (nearly) six updates later, makes Microsoft’s latest-and-greatest efforts still look like Redmond is playing catch-up. And don’t forget the stores. Every expert, analyst and critic said they wouldn’t work. Yet in the midst of a global recession, Apple’s retail stores are seeing increased profits.

Apple today is a different company to the limping, broken one in which Microsoft invested $150 million 12 years ago. At Boston’s Macworld in 1997, Steve Jobs said that Apple had to change its (then) dominant mentality; that is, “…for Apple to win, Microsoft must lose. We have to embrace the notion that, for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job.”

And what a fine job it has done despite what it was up against. So when it starts behaving unscrupulously (or if that’s too strong a word for you, try “questionably”) we get concerned, even angry. Pundits like Calacanis publish diatribes on everything they think is wrong with the company. The Arrington’s of this world declare they are “quitting” the iPhone in protest (but really, does anyone care all that much if Arrington uses an iPhone?)

Apple has, for a long time, apparently subscribed to the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” school of thought, doling out products and services that are just what we need, just when we need them. Jobs has referenced Henry Ford’s statement about customers’ desire for a “faster horse.” In short, Jobs is saying we have no imagination, no inspired vision of what we really need to improve our lives. Oh yeah, and we have absolutely no style.

It seems we agree, judging by how eagerly we embrace the solution — buying what Apple tells us we want, when we want it because, if we own the latest iMac, iPhone and plastic white earbuds, we’re automatically imbued with impeccable taste, right? Well, I don’t know about you, but I know I am. I have two Apple Cinema displays, several Macs and an iPhone 3GS and I feel positively groovy, thank you very much. (Of course, I also live in fear, anticipating the time Apple updates its hardware, at which point I will automatically be not quite so groovy.)

We don’t want to see Apple turn into the Borg we used to despise but, for all its sexy unibody curves, funny commercials and Simpsons episodes, that’s precisely what has happened. Apple is today the megalithic entity it once derided. But even that would be tolerable if only it didn’t do stupid things, like inconsistently approve/reject/pull apps from the store and then deliver wishy-washy statements when taken to task for it. (I say wishy-washy, some people would call them lies.)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Baron Acton so eloquently put it. Apple might not be as big as the Microsoft’s of this world, but it arguably has power. An awful lot of power. Apple sells more digital music than anyone else by a wide margin. It has arguably the most important (and fastest selling) mobile platform in the world. It’s deeply-established inroads into the education and entertainment industries establishes it firmly in the minds of countless young and creative minds in the western world.

So Apple must tread carefully. It’s bigger now than it has ever been, with fingers in more pies than ever before. It’s growing and, paradoxically, proving profitable in markets where far-cheaper alternatives are widely available.

Let’s hope Google Voicegate teaches Apple a sobering, but not too damaging, lesson about the importance of transparency and honesty. We don’t expect to know Apple’s deepest darkest secrets (I’d rather not), but these days a degree of openness is not only preferred by customers, it’s expected.

Even if Apple approved Google Voice in the coming weeks, would it make practical, useful and obvious changes to its app store approval process as a result? I like that Apple doesn’t have its collective minds fixed unimaginatively, like the rest of us, on faster horses — but just because we don’t share its vision doesn’t mean we are owed anything less than respect and honesty.

23 Responses to “Apple Has Some Important Lessons to Learn”

  1. …it’s sobering to remember that a single device by a company with zero experience in the industry and against all odds caused such a tidal wave of change. Change didn’t come because of Nokia, Microsoft, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, RIM or any other player in the market for the past 15 years bet their company on it. Android and webOS weren’t there before the iPhone. But it’s convenient to forget all this when the meme demands Apple to be smeared with the evil brush.

    Yes, “Apple’s evil”…except for all the others.

    Before Apple introduced the iPhone…

  2. “it launches an operating system so advanced that, eight years and (nearly) six updates later, makes Microsoft’s latest-and-greatest efforts still look like Redmond is playing catch-up.”

    Please. OS X was not a great OS when first released. And it wasn’t until Tiger that a credible claim of superiority over Windows could be made. Even then it was a matter of opinion. It still is. As far as catching up, MS has had 64-bit since XP. OS X finally gets most of that with SL, although even then it boots in 32-bit by default.

    • “although even then it boots in 32-bit by default.”

      I believe this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how 64bit works in Snow Leopard. 32 bit kernel, or 64 bit kernel, the 64 bit apps can still take advantage of the 64 bit goodness. It makes no difference to the apps. The one thing keeping the kernel in 32 bit mode does at this time is allows us to still use 32 bit drivers since most drivers (printer drivers for instance) are still 32 bit only. Having the kernel in 32 bit really doesn’t affect system performance. That’s the beauty of Snow Leopard’s 64 bit implementation.

  3. I’ve read most of the “Apple is/isn’t evil” commentary and I enjoyed this article. (My own contribution: “Apple to FCC: Drop dead”.)

    Please master the use of its vs. it’s and half of the criticism of your writing will go away, then you can work on the other half. But do keep writing.



  4. Bart Hanson

    Yes, I’m a long time Mac user, all through the nineties in fact, still am. I always thought that as Apple got more successful, I would become less important (as an individual user) and it’s come about. An old Mac of mine used to have a complete telephone answering system included with voice mailboxes for each member of the family. Now QTVR is no more. Oh and GTA may be coming for the iPhone but there seems to be some quaint rules around any iPhone apps being seen as even slightly sexual getting banned?
    I am just grateful the tool Apple has given me, but I’m not an idiot. It is becoming as closed a system as any. How do I clear all those thumbnails cluttering up my system in Snow Leapard? Private Browsing? the new oxymoron!

  5. Scott B.

    Liam is still on this Google Voice Rejection kick, For good sake get over it Liam. You just had to add it in there….

    I swear ever thing you have written Liam is so biased and further from plain contempt for Apple it’s old and plain idiotic.

    Get off your soap box, and learn how to write a comprehensive non biased report with facts and not Personal Feelings.

    This is more about “You & Your” Personal Friends App rejections and not about Apple.

    I am done with this site, Having losers like this blogging just shows they need to do a little weeding, get some better writers, and proofread before submitting any article’s of there contributors.

    In this case, Negative Propaganda as this is, Should NOT be Submitted Without PROOF OF SUCH & in any shape or form Is contemptible and shouldn’t be floated as News.

    This is a personal Rant “Personal” Not News.

  6. I love how Apple is this great villain now. Honestly, the amount of drama that’s being poured into “journalism” lately, regarding Apple, is just silly. Once again, Apple has build a product (the App Store) far better than anything anyone else could come up with, and because they can’t get *every single decision* right, while the product is still extremely young, people want to burn them down. …And by “people”, I mean tech journalists, because no one else cares. I realize that it’s your job to report on tech issues, but tech journalism is nothing but a soap opera these days. Keep on enlightening us with stories of this great injustice.

  7. Because Apple’s iPhone is essentially a handheld computer. Can you imagine if they started treating the full grown OS X and their Macintosh computers the way they treat the iPhone? Can you imagine if an Apple controlled app store were the only way to get apps onto OS X?

    • Teslanaut

      And the PSP, DS, Zune HD, and consoles can’t be counted as a Computer either? What do you define a portable computer as? Something to watch videos? Listen to music? Internet enabled? All that I’ve mentioned are completely capable of those. If Apple does control OS X in the future, what would people do?

      They move on. Move on to another OS. Maybe Linux.

      People may not know it, but there are alternatives out there. There’s —-Competition—- Out there.

  8. Teslanaut

    I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again.

    What about Microsoft with the Xbox 360 and soon, the Zune? What about Sony with the PSP and PS3? What about Nintendo with the Wii and DS? All of these products, you get all the apps/games all from their respective companies that designed the console/handheld. Isn’t that kind of the same control displayed by Apple? Those companies gave developers an SDK. Apple gave developers an SDK. Those companies gave them platforms to work on. Apple gave developers platforms to work on. Those companies manages what games, what software go into the platforms they create. Apple does the same.

    So why is it that Apple is getting all the attention?

  9. Gazoobee

    What a horrible article! Please learn to write.

    Specifically, your thesis here is that Apple is now evil or something, but you not only fail to prove it, you fail to even advance arguments that suggest it. You talk about how great Apple was in the beginning and then just flatly state that they are now “behaving unscrupulously” without any support at all. two paragraphs later we get:

    “We don’t want to see Apple turn into the Borg we used to despise but, for all its sexy unibody curves, funny commercials and Simpsons episodes, that’s precisely what has happened. Apple is today the megalithic entity it once derided. ”

    Again, damning words but without any support whatsoever. You then end up with a lot of blurry prose about how maybe recent events might have “taught Apple a lesson.” WTF?

    This entire article is nothing more than fuzzy-worded navel gazing without a point. Try to think back to your grade 8 English class and remember what a good article or thesis paper needs to start with. You guessed it … an actual thesis or argument that you are trying to make.

    All these words just to say the equivalent of “everyone thinks Apple is evil now, eh?” is just a waste of everyone’s time. At least if you made an argument, people could then agree or disagree. This is just nothing at all.

    • A bit harsh. The author has a point of view. He’s clearly upset about voicegate. More, he’s doing his job — writing to provoke and, in this, he succeeds, as the comments prove. I am no expert on Apple, nor on tech, but a few thoughts occurred to me.

      1. Most of the recent complaints center on the app store. Apple broke ground with this and, arguably, have become a victim of its runaway success. I sincerely doubt they expected 1.5 billion downloads in little more than a year. Without some form of approval/rejection, anarchy would prevail (though many would argue that is precisely what we have now). Have they got it right? No. Will they? Probably. They need more people working on the process. They need clearer guidelines. They need to be more transparent. Will it happen? Likely yes. Will it take time? For sure. This is still very new. Give them a break. They had the foresight and courage to do something no other company of similar size would risk.

      2) Voicegate. Google’s decision to file to seal the records of their FCC response is interesting. Why did they do that? Could it be that the company may, just possibly, have made a mistake somewhere? Apple’s decision to post their response on the front page of their website is groundbreaking. They realized the seriousness of the issue. They dealt with it and, seemingly, they have been frank in their comments. Google Voice is still very new. Expect a voice app sooner than later.

      3) Snow Leopard. Compared to Leopard vs Tiger, the upgrade seems light. Look at the price. It says a lot. Look at the name. Snow Leopard — clearly a migration, and always pitched as such. SL is more about what is under the hood and, also, getting OS X ready for the next wave of software and hardware innovation. No conspiracy here, just good business for Apple as Microsoft prepares to release what many claim will be it’s first competitive OS in 10 years.

      Is Apple secretive? Yes. Is Jobs an obsessive maniac, albeit brilliant, visionary and, mostly, just plain darn right? Maybe. He’s also smart. No way will Jobs and the rest of the Apple management team prejudice what has made Apple so successful — innovation, delivery, customer focus, widening the boundaries, quality.

  10. andrew choi

    apple’s recent behavior has been troubling. in regards to apps, it’s become too big for them to lack transparency on the approval process. They’re charging developers for the right to develop and then not being open about the approval process.

    also, the products that have come out in the past year: snow leopard, 3gs have been quite incremental. the midyear macbook pro update was bizarre. less htan a year after they introduce the unibodies, they update it and add an SD card reader… when did they suddenly start listening to their customers? imacs still haven’t gotten sd card reader built in.

    but who knows, maybe they’ll introduce something huge soon.

  11. Well written. I’ve been an Apple guy (arguably by some an Apple Fan Boy) for quite a while now and I am very nervous about many directions taken by Apple. The app store is a big gripe of mine right now, and trying to make jailbreaking illegal? Please! And that is just one example among many many where, it feels as though Apple is getting entirely too big for it’s britches!