Saturday, December 29, 2007

When geeks get it wrong..

A common feature when you attend any meeting where geeks, quasi-geeks, wannabe-geeks or people that understand about computing, is that you see a lot of illuminated apples in the middle of the top of their laptops. The reasons are varied, but, leaving apart the coolness factor, they can be summarized into the belief that everything made by the company located in Cupertino, CA, is better than everything else (especially if made in Redmond, WA) and that those using Apple products make an statement against the evil empire, AKA Microsoft (there is even a Japanese animé depicting Bill Gates as an evil merchant trying to take over the world) .

The being better or not is a matter of fact (if we can agree in a definition of what is good) and there is some sort of agreement that Apple computers tend to be more stable and secure than PCs, although my experience has not been good with them. Just as an example, I don’t write many serious scholarly work due to time constrains but I do have some ideas, so I try to present them in conferences as much as I can, and the form of presentation is important (in one of my classes the way students look during the presentations is part of their mark and when they complain about that I remind them that if Einstein had written his theories in a piece of toilet paper we would still be believing that Newton was right). Accordingly, without the finesse and almost perfection of Larry Lessig, I try my presentations to be original and very dynamic, for which a proper remote control is imperative and I have several that work very well, except when in the conference an Apple is being used…of course, it is the world’s fault that doesn’t prepare things to work with Apple and nobody in its right mind would tamper with Apple’s perfection by installing a non-Apple driver, but the fact is that when I go to places were PCs are used, there nothing to be installed…the remote controls simply work (I have several brands and there are no drivers to be installed). But it could be an isolated example…like the issues that arose when the new Leopard OS was released earlier this year. According to the PC World Magazine

Within days of its release last October, Mac users reported dozens of problems with the new OS, some more serious than others.

Among the many: Wireless connections that slowly petered away, administrative logins that mysteriously disappeared, and a disturbing tendency to nuke data when moving it between two drives if the connection is interrupted.

Worse, a security bug that was fixed in OS 10.4 in March 2006 resurfaced in Leopard, according to Symantec. The Apple Mail vulnerability allows malicious attachments to execute code. German security researchers discovered that Leopard came with its firewall turned off, leaving users vulnerable to attack. Adding insult to injury, some upgraders even reported a Windows-like Blue Screen of Death when upgrading from previous Mac OSs.

But where some geeks (or anyone in the related family) got it really wrong is with the belief, taken to axiomatic level, that Microsoft is the evil empire (probably is) and Apple is not. What they miss is the fact that the reason for Apple not to have behaved in the way that we all accuse Microsoft of doing, rests only in Apple loosing the initial battle for the dominance of the personal computer market, mainly due to its own bad business strategies and not due to, in Google terms, doing no evil. If you want to know somebody true character give that person power, or in this case market share and that is what we have now (which relates to the claim that is technically superior: Apples are almost virus free because geeks don’t write viruses for them and the truly evil minds don’t write them either due to the small market impact that they would have, and by comparison with the early decision of keeping Apples, then were Mackintosh, “closed” we could have a perfectly safe, spam free, virus free Internet, but just few would be able to connect to it and freedom would be reduced to zero) .

Since hitting the right button with iPod and getting ahead of the competition in the portable music gadgets Apple has shown and used all the tactics that represent the antipodes of what a no-evil company is supposed to do. The creation of a proprietary non-interoperable format for the music sold through iTunes cannot be explained in any other way that a clear policy to abuse a dominant position, which should have been subject to close scrutiny by the competition authorities but, very strangely, received the unusual, diplomatically wrong support from the same that were supposed to control them when in this side of the Atlantic somebody thought that something was wrong (I hope that someday in the future we will get an explanation about that and lets hope that the person that made the strange defence does not suddenly decide to join the private sector working directly or indirectly for the company in question). Then to add insult to injury, the intelligence-insulting explanation linking the DRM (like not being able to listen to your music in more than five devices or copying it) with the proprietary non-interoperable format, and all to a request (imposition) by the music industry: if the music industry were calling the shots iPod would not accept “illegal” music from CDs without DRM, and the proprietary format only benefits Apple…Then, in a textbook example of using money and power to quench the competition we had the situation where Apple sued twice Creative Labs in the same week in two different jurisdictions (non related to the location of the companies but using the quite broad choice of venue decided in VE Holding Corp. v. Johnson Gas Appliance Co., 917 F.2d 1574, 16 USPQ2d 1614 (Fed. Cir. 1990), for patent infringement lawsuits), with the obvious aim to tell Creative Labs that the plaintiff had more money and that the merits of the claims were irrelevant to the lawsuits…

Then you have the release of iPhone…there is already too much written about the way that Apple treated the market and its costumers (check what happened to my friend Pablo) and not by coincidence was dubbed as number 5th in the list of the 15 Biggest Tech Disappointments of 2007, but I have had one in my hands and I don’t get it: if coolness is the deciding factor, yes, is a must have, but it doesn’t do much more things that many others phones in the market, and even the tactile screen is not unique or new (and the problems with it are always reported as temporary, when problems with other systems are presented as set in stone).

The success of the Apple Stores deserves another chapter, but lets briefly say that, although very good for the companies profits, it doesn’t seem too much of a nice thing to do to put out of business most, if not all, the independent retailers that kept the Apple Mackintosh flame burning when the market was not so favourable to the company (and the four times I went there they didn’t have the Apple part that the person I was with was looking for, once in St Louis, MO and three times in London). However, their reviews put them a places close to nirvana and make a point of saying unflattering things about the competition...

So, it seems that what clearly characterizes Apple is the opposite to what some want to believe, that is a “nice” company opposing the evil Microsoft. It is just another profit-seeking company and there is nothing bad with that, but this one gives the impression of having no problem to use any mean in order to maximize its profits and having some control issues (even the corporate information is not easily accessible from their website), while at the same time managing to convince the press and the geeks that they are the ones that represent the ideals of innovation, quality and freedom that we all would like to see…

I just hope that Google starts producing all this gadgets because until now is one of the few companies that tries to do less-evil while delivering as much profit as the market allows...

1 comment:

Pablo Hinojosa said...

A happy new year to you and all your readers! Yes, my iPhone experience really sucks. But it is basically because of at&t and the terms of their bad service. The gadget is very nice ("cool" you may say) and has worked out for me really well (I still don't have international features, though, but again this is because of at&t and my non-existent credit history in the US).

I think geeks are usually bad consumers (in the "right" sense, because obviously we seem to be very profitable for companies). The curiosity to have the latest technology (to test it, to prove it wrong, to explode all of its possibilities) usually is bigger than the pride to fight for your rights; and this in turn result in excess prices payed. Consumer pressure, I think, is more effective on massively accepted low/old technologies than on state of the art with innovative (yet very questionable) business models.