There’s a scene in Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s revisit to Dante Alighieri’s classic The Divine Comedy, where the protagonist, Carpentier, is attempting to pass a guardian demon and return to an upper circle of Hell. The demon accuses the dammed-to-hell writer Carpentier of creating his own religion with his books, but Carpentier says, no, it was only a game. The demon nods thoughtfully and replies “Games” then steps forward and slashes Carpentier on his bare chest, leaving two deep parallel cuts from chin to navel. Carpentier stumbles back, bleeding profusely, aghast, staring at his ruined stomach - and then he slowly realizes what the demon intends, and so he steps forward again, saying the classic line, “Once again, Carpentier demonstrates his inability to learn.” The demon slashes two more cuts, perpendicular to the first, a crosshatch, and after a moment you understand. It’s a game, tic-tac-toe. Carpentier beats the demon at the game, by scratching the symbols into his own flesh with his fingernail. As he stumbles away, holding his bloody eviscerated belly together with his bare hands, the demon asks “Best two out of three?”
When I read about the current woes by owners of the Apple iPhone, I am vividly reminded of that scene. Once again, Apple customers demonstrate their inability to learn. Like the dammed souls in The Divine Comedy, they too wail for salvation, but they’ve made their deal with the devil and now they are suffering the consequences.
Apple bills itself as the company that “thinks different.” Apple has, right from the beginning, appeared to represent those that prize creativity, innovation, and artistry. The current “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” advertising campaign is the epitome of this concept, poking fun at the stodgy, confined, business orientated world. iMacs are fun, easy to use, and they will free your soul from the chains of the hell that is the Personal Computer. What doesn’t appear in those ads is that Apple has never allowed anyone else to build the Macintosh hardware platform; you buy it from Apple or you don’t buy it. And it’s the same with Mac software to large extent, which is, of course, why you just can’t find much native Mac software, certainly not to the extent that you can for the PC. Many Mac users have resorted to loading the Microsoft XP operating system, so they can actually, you know, do something other than paint pretty pictures and play with photo layouts.
Then there’s the iPod. “Decisions, decisions. Who needs ’em?” says the Apple iPod webpage. Who indeed? Buy an iPod and you’ve given up your ability to choose; its iTunes software and the iTunes store or nothing. You’ll damn well listen to your music the way Apple says, or not at all.
Neither of the observations regarding the Macintosh computer or the iPod are condemnations. Steve Jobs and Apple have a corporate vision of how they want to do business, and they neither desire nor require any outside input on how that vision should go. It’s their right to do so, of course. And despite the many proclamations over the years sounding the death knell of Apple, the company has managed to hang in there and grow and succeed, so they must be doing something right. But, make no mistake, Apple is not some 1960's California hippy artist commune, they are a business, and they have just as much of a corporate vision as the rest of the stodgy tech industry that they claim to disdain. They have repeatedly and aggressively moved to protect that corporate vision. And it’s about time that their customers realized this.
It shouldn’t have been any surprise to Apple that the users they’ve been exhorting to “Think Different” all these years actually, you know, would. People have come to expect, demand actually, that their portable devices be able to do certain things. It should be no surprise that people who spent considerable sums of money on the iPhone didn’t want to be constrained by the iPhone’s limitations. Almost immediately hacks and software widgets appeared on the Web to get around those limits, making the device more usable and integral to people’s lives. Apple wasn’t having any of that, last week they pushed out an update that either slicked those unauthorized modifications, or rendered modified iPhones permanently inoperable. And iPhone owners are steamed, there’s even talk of a class action lawsuit – though at this point it’s just that, talk. And frankly I don’t think people who now own a very expensive inert iBrick have a pot to piss in. They were warned, Apple stated quite clearly in the upgrade announcement, that this was the likely result if users had modified their phones in a manner not approved by Apple itself. But iPhone users just didn't want to believe it, didn't want to believe that Apple had become "The Man," and so most of them upgraded anyway.
Once again, both Apple customers and Apple itself demonstrate their mutual inability to learn. Apple customers continue to believe, with cult-like devotion, despite all evidence to the contrary that Apple is something other than what it is: a big corporation with big corporation goals. And Apple itself continues to believe that it can shit all over its customers and get away with it. I watch with amusement as iPhone owners stagger away, holding their bleeding guts in their hands – I can almost hear Steve Jobs’ voice saying, “Best two out of three?”