Monday, October 1, 2007

Caveat Emptor

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 owners of the iPhone that Apple would protect their considerable investment. Don’t get me wrong, I understand where these people are coming from. I mean, if I drop $500 on a phone then it’s mine, dammit, I’ll do with it as I please. But then again, I probably wouldn’t spend $500 dollars on a phone, even one that is supposed to do all the nifty things the iPhone is supposed to do – at least not yet. My motto, if I had a motto, would have to be: Never buy version 1 of anything. And therein lies the crux of the matter, the current iPhone, like the iMac and iPod, is all flash and dazzle. It is creative, and innovative, and it is artistry – but sometimes you just need to do business like everybody else. Sometimes you want options. The iPhone’s limitations are many: no Bluetooth capability; limited wireless broadband support; no Flash support and limited Javascript and poor frame handling capability; a 10MB limit on Web pages; only Apple Quicktime support for video and audio; no resizing or scrolling controls, the iPhone automatically resizes display images to default, no matter what the user wants; no way to cut, copy, or paste text; can’t choose or load your own ringtones; no video record capability; and the biggest limitation of all – you’re stuck on the shitty AT&T network.

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?”


  1. "Apple has never allowed anyone else to build the Macintosh hardware platform"

    Actually, back in the 90s Apple did liscense the Mac. Three companies built clones, but instead of expanding the market, they cannibalized Apple's sales. So when Jobs came back he shut down that operation.

    And I've never had a problem getting software for the mac. Sure, I don't have as many games to choose from, and there are some small programs (shareware) I'd really like to use (for blogging), but I can get a lot of work down with my Mac. As for Apple software, well, yeah, I don't like paying $300 for a word processor. SO Apple rolled their own. There's also several video software vendors (Avid for example) that are sorely pissed Apple rolled their own.

    As for the iTunes "restriction" drum, I have almost a months worth of listening on my iTunes (more if I restore some of my offline backup), I've only bought 2 (two) songs from iTunes.

    As for the iBrick curfluffle, well, they violated warrantee and went against the specific advice from the vendor. Things break. Other phone providers have done the same and worse. Same thing happened back when people were overclocking, there was a warning, and then the upgrades wouldn't work on the machines. Also, for people who could afford $500 for a phone and $60 a month for service, I'm not inclined to listen to whinging when they broke it.

  2. Steve, yeah after I posted this, I remember that Apple had licensed the Mac somewhere in the mid 90's. I also remembered, like you said, that it didn't last long.

    And I'm not really bashing Apple here. What kills me, are the people who act like Apple is some Hippy Commune. These people honestly thought that they could hack the iPhone, and Apple wouldn't do anything about it. And then when Apple did, the iPhone Phrekers where just outraged. That bit about the class-action lawsuit cracks me right up - can you see that in court, "well, yes, Your Honor, we did violate the licensing agreement, but, but, it's not fair!"

    I have to agree with you though, anybody who can afford $500 for a phone doesn't get much sympathy from me.

  3. Steve, I suppose I ought to come clean and tell you that I used to use Macs pretty extensively at one of the commands I was attached to. They were pretty good machines, but they weren't compatible with the rest of the Navy and this caused me no end of aggravation.

    But out that experience, one of the best pieces of software I've ever used was Claris Filemaker Pro. I really, really liked that database manager. I'm certified by Microsoft as an Access database programmer, which is an incredibly powerful relational database, but I found that I preferred Filemaker for most things, and I used the PC port of the program for years.

  4. I didn't respond to this earlier because it felt very much like an attack - the same kind of "Macintrash" screed that causes people to be so rabidly defensive about their Macs in the first place. Glad to hear it wasn't actually intended that way - I'd stopped reading right after you forgot about the mid-90s clones.

    When it comes to personal computing, the ONLY reason Windows is superior is because of games. That's it. That's all. But it's enough.

    When it comes to various businesses/government/whatnot, yes, there are going to be operating-system-specific arcane software that are geared for highly specific tasks. We have that same problem with some of the stuff that runs the oceanographic equipment, especially the older software. But that's due to the choices the programmers made, not inherent superiority/inferiority of the platforms. Some of the newer stuff is more available in a wider variety of platforms, as Linux and OSX become more acknowledged as viable systems.

    And I love Filemaker Pro. :)

  5. MWT, Really, I don't have anything against Apple or the Mac. Or the iPhone for that matter.

    I use mostly PC's these days, but to be perfectly honest about it, I really have no loyalty to any particular brand. I've used everything from MPX mainframes to PDP mini-mainframes (yeah, I'm dating myself) to DEC FIDI clusters, and of course Macs and PCs. If somebody builds a machine that does what I need it to do, does it well, and costs me less - then I buy it. Macs just don't work for me at the moment, but that may change in the future.

    What I find amusing (and the point of the screed, which I'm realizing just pissed everybody off and didn't convey what I intended) was that there is a certain segment of Apple users who seem to believe that Apple is some kind of hippy, dope smoking organization of long hairs who listen to Bob Dillon music all day, when in reality they are just as much a corporation as Microsoft or IBM. Apple had every right to do what they did with the iPhone update. What I find amusing are people who hacked the hardware and are now screaming foul. The article I linked to in the original post contained a paragraph about a women who intended to write a book on hacking the iPhone, until the update came out, then her publisher canceled the project. And she was pissed, as if Apple somehow owed her something because they wouldn't sit still while she told people how to hack Apple's platform.

    However, to be perfectly fair, Apple has cultivated this attitude in their customers. They've spent years doing it - and then they were pissed when their customers actually showed innovation - even if it did violate the licensing agreement.

    I'm just meant to say, nobody, neither Apple or the Customers, should have been surprised by what the other was doing. And what I think Apple is missing is that those innovations are what their customers want. I can't understand why Apple doesn't update the iPhone to do those things, only better, without the customer resorting to hacks.

    Apologies for pissing off all the apple folks (including those of you who emailed and overloaded my exchange server this morning.) I wasn't trying to insult you, really. I swear, I won't post about Apple, Macs, iPods, iTunes, or the dammed iPhone again. At least for a while :)

  6. Hey Jim, I did take it as a sort of attack, but I know you're working on the curmudgeon thing, so I didn't take it personally.

    Yeah, Apple did promote that concept of being "different." However, that ended with the "Think Different" campaign. That was right when Jobs took over the reigns of Apple, cancelled liscensing (as we knew it), killed the Newton (which was working well, finally, and getting past the first impressions everybody had), and most of all, told all of us evangelists that had keep the company afloat to go home. That was when Apple became a corporate entity.

    I also use a wide variety of systems, my day job and freelance is visual communications (graphic design, etc), so the Mac works best for me. I still think the RISC architechture of PowerPC is superior, but that Moto and Big Blue dropped the ball and attemped to keep other business areas more profitable instead of making the chip the best they could.

    Like I said, I remember a lot of other mods to Apple equipment that the company warned against, and then an upgrade would disable (overclockers, dual processor rigs, etc). So I don't hold Apple as the whole hippy thing.


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