20121221

To dick or not to dick ?


Apple has never been known to be a nice company to be around, and is very much alike its iconic co-founder in this regard : fanatically vision driven, frequently bright, proven right against the common wisdom of its detractors (and supporters) more often than its turn, but also certifiably  sociopathic …and it's alright to be all those things, really — as long as it serves a greater purpose, and works. 

In Apple's case, this manic drive has been a key factor not just in the company's survival (if barely, at times) but also in its changing and shaping the landscape of personal computing, and how we live with our gadgets on a day-to-day basis, whether you use Apple products or not.



When Jeebus was still a mere serial-baby-seal-clubber.

I believe it is no longer the case, and that Apple has jumped the shark from cruel to be kind to drunk on its own kool-aid
To wit, pretty much everything newsworthy on the Apple front over the past two years has been about it displaying the stupendous amounts of incompetence and dickishness we're more accustomed to expect from the likes of SONY or Microsoft, without much in the way of redeeming flashes in innovative marketing brilliance that are supposed to distract us from the Cult of Steve's abusive relationship with its followers.

[Full disclosure : I've been using, fixing, hacking and doing mundane and weird stuff with Macs for over 20 years, professionally at times. I'm also familiar with Microsoft platforms since the DOS era, and have ran a few other OSes as daily workhorses, including BSD variants and BeOS. I'm currently sharing my computing time between MacOSX 10.6 (~65%), Android ICS/JB (~20%), WinXP (~5%) and Win7 (~10%). My browsers of choice are Chrome and Firefox (desktop), Opera Mobile and Dolphin (mobile). I don't really fancy long walks on the beach, but I'll happily meet you at the bar afterwards. Market shares % and other figures in this article, unless explictely linked, result from the conflation of various sources, smoothed with my thumb.]



His Jobiness, speaking the truth to his followers.

Of course, much of what can be held against Apple isn't exactly new : the Cupertino firm has always treated its devoted flock like crap, failing to acknowledge the debt it owns to its peculiar ecosystem of loyal customers, employees and third party developers. Only now, it starts to look like the harem of battered wives it has built for itself may think about seeing other people.

For all the self-entitled abuse it imposes upon its users and partners, Apple used to offer a few things no other company did : a comparatively reliable, trustworthy hardware and software environments, access to high-value niche products/customers, plus a strong, if screwed-up brand culture, and enough gems of genuine vision to infuse the whole thing with its unique love-it-or-hate-it flavor. Oh, and also the Mac's cool GUI and (relatively) painless learning curve.
In short, embracing the Apple platform meant paying a steeper price upfront, compensated in uniqueness and consistency (and arguably lower CoO in the mid-term).

It doesn't hurt that Microsoft used to do such a good job of RP'ing the ebil empire, either : going the Mac way was sexy and edgy on a cultural/political level, back when it meant doing the chic rebellious thing (as opposed to the then-loony rebellious thing of running a ghetto OS like Amiga or Linux).
Things have changed quite a bit since, however, and Apple making a killing both in the desktop and mobile markets means it no longer gets to play the underdog card. APPL isn't just valued sky-high, it's also the largest, most profitable single vendor of tablets, smartphones, multimedia handhelds and laptop computers today, which is hardly grounds for anyone to cry over MacOS X still-marginal share of the PC market.

But that's not how Apple sees it, apparently : the with us or against us mentality is still in full force at Cupertino, and it is examplified by the campaign of bullyish lawsuits they've been waging lately, and their generally anti-competitive, gun-crazy stance, all of which have not proven successful enough to vindicate their views in  the public eye. Add to that the Foxconn mess, and the down in perceived value of the Apple platform, thanks to SONY-grade horror stories about Apple's declining Quality Insurance and customer service & support practices, and it's no mystery why aftermarket logo-covering shells for MacBooks are selling so well.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been regaining some ground in public perception, with Windows 7 proving a usable product, and now Windows 8, for the first time ever, possibly putting MS ahead of the Apple curve in GUI evolution... just when Apple is having its own Vista moment. Thanks to many users stubbornly sticking to MacOS 10.6, because the 10.7-10.8 iOS-inspired releases do nothing for them, the supposedly obsolete OS earned a reprieve.



Apple employees, hard at work to improve the customer experience.

The most glaring example of Apple's worldview drifting towards the pointlessly dickish is probably the 2012 launch of the Lightning power/bus connector : not only does it not add any significative value in terms of features and functionalities over the preceding 30-pin connectors, but it introduces an incompatibility with existing peripherals and accessories (both Apple's and third-party's) that can only be (somewhat) solved by buying overpriced adapters from Apple*.

Much like the Lions-class OSes, Lightning fails to justify its existence to anyone but Apple itself, as it doesn't bring enough extra value relative to the restrictions it imposes to many users and developers to warrant the upgrade, and instead hinges on the certainty that people simply won't have a choice but to go the Apple way. The company is not half-assing it, either, going out of its way to try and stop users and third-party vendors from bridging the compatibility gaps and jump over the garden walls inasmuch as it can.

This walled garden mentality, seemingly vindicated by the success of the iPod/Phone/Pad lines and the iOS Appstore, may turn out to be problematic however, if Apple finds itself facing serious competition on the fronts where it traditionally dominates : ease of use, reliability, and brand prestige.
It's not so much that Apple has been losing its marketing edge, although the overhyped Cult of Steve thingie may be backfiring since the demise of Jobs**, and more about the likes of Google, Samsung or ASUS relentless efforts to best Apple at its own game. Android smartphones and tablets offerings cover a much wider range than Apple's, and no longer fall short in the high-end tier, often matching or exceeding Apple's products in features, looks, polish and ease of use, usually for cheaper.
Meanwhile, the prevalent attitude among Android vendors towards open standards, multiple appstores and interoperability with foreign environments is one of comparative openness : many Android-based hardware makers have opted to no longer interfere with rooting / jailbreaking, and some even go so far as releasing source and documentation to facilitate better support of their devices by third-party devs and the hacker community.

At this writing, Apple keeps the upper hand both on the mobile hardware and OS fronts, and still leads in prestige and brand popularity. Largely because of the plethoric hardware offer on the Android side of things, hardware vendors are reluctant to coordinate and invest in cultivating the Android  brand and customer loyalty, which are likely to benefit their competitors just as much as their own product line.
On the other hand, Google — as the standard-bearer of the Android forces — is doing a fairly good job of addressing the brand dilution issue by presenting a simple, easily grasped hardware lineup in its NEXUS series (lately of LG, Samsung and ASUS making) and is having a field day making Apple look like a sourpuss has-been, despite Apple commanding over half of the entire tablet and smartphone market all by itself.

On the desktop/laptop front, Apple success is relative to where it's coming back from : at roughly 12% of the total PC OS market, vs about 85% for all Windows variants, it's not exactly in a dominant position, even though it's certainly one of the most profitable hardware vendors, thanks to the top-tier position and higher than average margins of its products line (prices range from $1,000 to $4,000). That leaves Apple way behind the HP-Dell duo in market shares (each controls about 22% of the market), but still growing while the others decline, thanks to a much more loyal customer base and to the gateway drug effect of its tablets, smartphones and handhelds, to end up  just as profitable as the leaders — if not more.


Apple products are for thinkers, of thoughts.

Apple's core edge lies in the branding and functional synergy between its PC, OS and mobile offers, which currently can't be matched by Android or Windows competitors. 
Microsoft efforts in the mobile OS market are doomed to fail, as MS simply lacks the chops to compete with an established leader (MS expertise and culture is all about destroying and co-opting smaller competitors, not besting heavyweights in fighting shape at their own game), and conversely, Android lacks a desktop OS counterpart for seamless integration, something neither Apple nor MS is eager to facilitate on their respective OSes.
That's something Apple is banking on, too, and the convergence between recent Mac OSX iterations and iOS, interface-wise, owes nothing to chance or lazyness, and everything to Apple's dedication to persuade customers they should forever remain inside Apple's controlled ecosystem.

This could turn out to be a limiting factor, however, as the distinction between mobile platforms and serious hardware gets blurrier : the tablet market, which Apple singlehandedly brought to what it is today, is well on its way to eat the subnotebook, then laptop, lunches. 
With the desktop (as a consumer product) limping towards extinction, and mobile gizmos crossing some significant thresholds in performance (3D capability, full HD display, HDD-sized storage capacity), the platform war for the mobile-friendliest desktop OS may be over before it really begins, as the very notion of host OS may soon become obsolete, and the next generations of formerly mobile OSes become able to do everything we expect from a desktop computer, by hooking up to compatible peripherals.

And this is where the Apple model may hit a pothole, and its hostility to third party vendors and developers could backfire, from the first moment its marketshare in the mobile market significantly falls below the 50% mark — and it will, inevitably. 
Developers and hardware makers, if faced with the choice of supporting iOSX vs Android, with Apple at equal or lesser potential marketspace, may decide to focus on the platform that's less likely to leave their products dead in the water overnight, be it by revoking their access to the Appstore or changing the standard of a critical physical interface.

*

I'm certainly not predicting Apple's demise here, but a cascade failure of spectacular proportions may lie just around the corner for Cupertino if it doesn't wake up soon to the reality we're no longer in the age of Bondi vs Beige, or iPod vs Zune : Apple can no longer count on the competition's terrible suckiness to make its products shine and look cool in comparison. From anecdotal evidence, I hear from more and more people switching between iOS and Android in the wrong direction (for Apple), and not many the other way around. 

Apple is reaping considerable profits from its mobile/handheld platforms, and the PC business isn't bad, either, especially considering Apple premium-priced, integrated model ensures a comparatively high profit per customer/sale. iOS customers are also spending more on average than their Android counterparts, both in the company Appstore and on Apple and third party accessories. Indeed, Android has a lot of ground to cover before it threatens Apple's lead in revenue, and no individual mobile device vendor can dream of touching Apple as of yet.
Thus, the future looks good for Apple — just not as good as it was before serious competition. Apple still owns the iOS market, but it's simply no longer all the market, and as the iOS expansion slows, it may get closer to saturation, especially if customer loyalty can't be taken for granted anymore.

As Apple has proven numerous times before, it can build great hardware, and software worth paying a premium to run. Now would be the time to get back to that approach, because there's no room left for an iPad Nano to follow the disappointing iPad Mini …it's called an iPhone and everybody who wanted one got one, already.

*

For largely different takes on the issue, I suggest this and this.

~

*[That is, until it got worked around by enterprising aftermarketers, about 5' after release.]
**[If everything good about Apple was of Steve's doing, how good is an Apple without Steve ?]

1 comment:

Armchair Designer said...

Followup: it's always worth keeping in mind there is no single, unified market for mobile-OS devices, and although the early adopter parts of the world make for juicy targets with highly profitable customers, most of the headcount is elsewhere in the world, and the dynamics may differ radically, depending on local tagprices, broadband/cellular data availability, and the actual needs and wants of users.
FWIW: http://www.wired.com/insights/2012/12/the-commoditization-of-the-smartphone/