Apple Has Some Important Lessons to Learn

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We love Apple. 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 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.

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