So the iPad 3 was announced yesterday (yes I know it’s just called the iPad but it’s the 3rd one so it’s the iPad 3) and as usual, the press tripped over themselves to give them free PR.
The mainstream news media which wouldn’t give any other tech launch more than a cursory mention practically live blogged the event and well, the fanboy driven tech press did what it always does with Apple launches, gush like teen girls at a boy band concert, much like the legion of practically religious level Apple enthusiasts who clogged my Twitter feed during the reveal. It’s still gross and in the press’ case, the opposite of journalism but it’s also par for the course now and my getting mad about it is pointless. Truthfully, I was paying closer attention than I usually would because my girlfriend and I were strongly considering splitting the purchase of an iPad 3. She wants it to surf and do e-mail easily when she travels for work and I want it to see if it’s possible for iOS games to hook me in (which they haven’t to this point). Something unexpected happened after work that may result in us moving soon and thus delaying that money being spent for a while but we’ll see.
Among all the gushing comes the usual talking points about the “post-PC world” tablets are supposedly ushering in, points Apple themselves trumpet whenever they can. They are quick to point out that the term doesn’t mean the end of traditional computers (an area where they still make a lot of money) but it does mean a reversal of the current roles where the desktop or laptop is a person’s primary means of computing and the tablet complements that. Tablets don’t really fit in with how I do my day-to-day computing, mostly because I am usually either at home or the office, type at a blistering speed an on-screen keyboard simply can’t keep up with and I’m used to a heavy multitasking environment where I can do and monitor several things at once. You put two copies of myself on a couch with stuff to do and the version of me using my HP ProBook will leave the tablet version of me in the dust. However, I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which I use a computer now is not at all mainstream and this is most certainly a vision based around the mainstream. If my girlfriend and my Mom found themselves using a tablet first and foremost, that’s cool by me as long as I can still have my laptop and gaming desktop too.
Tablets require less material to make, can arguably be priced to be much more accessible than traditional computers (though Apple is trying their damndest to avoid this), can be carried around as easily as a pad of paper and can do most day-to-day computing tasks without even breaking a sweat. I’m not denying the benefits of the “post-PC” world and many elements of it I will welcome. What I do have many concerns with is Apple being the leaders of this world. The original iPad kind of came from nowhere and virtually everyone trying to compete with it has been stumbling over themselves to catch up, while also thinking they can charge similar prices for devices that are simply inferior. As tablets go the iPad is virtually unchallenged and barring some major missteps by Apple or a roaring comeback into the space from Microsoft (whose missteps with Windows 8 will be the subject of a future post), it stands to be that way for the foreseeable future. And this is not good for anyone.
Having a single dominant player in any market is a bad thing because it discourages innovation and leads to higher prices because of reduced competition. One need look no further than when Microsoft Windows was basically your only real choice for a desktop operating system. Poor performance, gaping security flaws, massive product delays, tiny incremental updates and bullying of OEMs were all the orders of the day back then. Apple is still a distant minority in the traditional computing space but they gain ground on Windows every day and the iPad led post-PC world could put the writing on the wall for Microsoft’s key rainmaker. When Apple put their feet to the fire, what we ended up with was Windows 7, arguably the most polished and solid version of Windows ever and a product which I happily use every day and firmly believe is superior to Mac OS. However, even when Microsoft Windows was at its flattest and most stationary, there were a number of key differences of PCs compared to Macs which Microsoft embraced and still does to this day. Apple does not share these values and should they become the dominant player in the market, their continued adherence to them doesn’t do good for the future advancement of computing. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Apple likes closed platforms: The original incarnation of iOS didn’t allow third party applications of any kind. This was the way Steve Jobs wanted it because he believed these external influences destabilised the user’s experience and he was right, they do. But after screaming demand from users (and Android right around the corner who embraced third party software), he relented and it was arguably the smartest thing Apple ever did. Apple nonetheless still holds the keys to the kingdom and while they’ll let anyone write apps for iOS, you have to get their permission to make it available and they can refuse you for any reason, including for things like making an app that’s better than one of their stock ones or making a game that raises awareness of their supplier’s factory conditions. The biggest innovations have come from people breaking the mould and disrupting trends with new things. You know, exactly like iOS did. On Windows, you could write any program you wanted and put it out there with permission from no one. In an Apple post-PC world, only one entity has control of what you get access to and they have an agenda that doesn’t always favour innovation. That only benefits them, not the innovators and not the users.
- Apple hates user choice: Want an iPad? There’s three different memory sizes and you can have it with cellular capability or not. Want an iPhone? There’s 3 of them and they aren’t expandable. Want an iMac? There’s 4 of them. A MacBook? 8. Want a gaming system? Sorry, there isn’t one. Don’t care so much about having a lot of disk space but want a faster CPU? Can’t do that, you pick a template. Want a desktop PC but also use your own monitor setup? You can only do that with a Mac Pro that starts at $2,600. And since the Mac and iOS aren’t open platforms where you have different manufacturers offering different products and competing on price (someone tried to do this with Mac OS and Apple destroyed them for it), you either go with their options at their prices or stay out. For your average mainstream end user, this probably isn’t a big deal but the enthusiast and professional markets are massive and growing and Apple doesn’t care about those. With Windows PCs, you have all the choice you could ever want from a bare bones netbook to an $8,000 gaming rig that will dim the lights on your whole block. There’s something for everyone and it’s easy to find something that will do what you want for the price you’re willing to pay. Which brings me to the next point.
- Apple products are purposefully overpriced: This is less of a problem than it used to be but it is simple fact that at least when it comes to desktop and laptop computers, Apple products cost substantially more relative to the technical capabilities you’re getting. You show me an iMac and I will show you a PC with similar specs that costs way less. Apple makes something like $200+ on every iPad sold from day one, an utterly obscene profit margin by modern tech industry standards. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a company charging what the market will pay and at least right now, Apple has managed to convince many people that paying hundreds more than a similarly speced competitor’s product makes economic sense. However, the only reason they’re able to do this is again because they have no competition in their space. Yes, we do still have Windows PCs that are fiercely competing on price but remember, we’re talking in the context of a post-PC world where tablets are the de facto standard. Right now, inferior Android tablets are going on sale for the same $500 price as the iPad because Apple has wrongly got it into the heads of the mainstream public that any tablet under that price isn’t worth considering. If we enter a post-PC world that Apple largely controls, the cost of computing will go up substantially, making it harder for less wealthy people to get into and thus, reducing the number of people using what is now a fundamental part of everyday life. Competition is key to lower prices, innovation and accessibility and with Apple running things, there would be no such competition.
- Apple believes they still own the products you buy: If you have an iPad, iPhone or iPod and want to load media or apps on it, you do it through iTunes. Period. A Mac App Store is already available and many believe software on Mac OS will eventually go the same way. On Android, there are multiple app stores that compete to offer the best products and prices and on Windows, you can get software in literally thousands of different ways to suit your preference. On iOS, there is no such thing unless you jailbreak your device (which of course voids the warranty and locks you out of future updates). Apple claims this is in the interest of making sure the user experience is always seamless and reliable but that’s a thin smokescreen. In reality, it’s structured this way to make sure anything you do with that device has to be approved by and more importantly, purchased through them. Apple takes a substantial cut of every single thing sold through iTunes and as with hardware, it’s not in their interest to let you shop elsewhere where they can’t control the experience and more importantly, their slice of the action. So after paying a minimum of $500 for your new iPad, Apple still believes they have the right to tell you how to use it and if you don’t agree, you don’t get to play in their sandbox. This is incredibly arrogant and despite what their carefully curated marketing tells you, this isn’t about ensuring a great experience for you but about how much they steer you into exclusively giving them more money, even after you’ve already given them a lot of it. In other words, they still believe they have a right to control your device, even after you’ve paid for it. As anyone who has used Windows 7 on a capable PC will say, you can have an open platform with choice and still have a rock solid, pleasing experience. You don’t have to wall it up for things to work well.
- Apple is becoming a patent troll: There’s no denying that at least right now, Android based tablet competitors can’t hold a candle to the iPad. Frankly, Google and their partners need to get their act together and fast because every month they don’t bring out an iPad killer, more Android loyalists get fed up with waiting and go to the Apple camp. Windows 8 is also a long way off and we have no idea how that’s going to go. Beyond that though, there is another darker reason for this. Apple has been on a patent bender for the last several years, locking down everything they can and threatening Android partners with potentially bank-breaking lawsuits. They are already locked in many such fights across Europe. One of the main reasons Google bought Motorola Mobility for billions of dollars a while back was just to lock up their patent portfolio in order to use it to stare down Apple. Yes, lots of companies are doing this and yes, much of this is a result of an American patent system that’s broken to the point of absurdity. I don’t deny that but one also can’t deny that Apple is a company with $100 billion in cash with no end in sight, they don’t need the money and patents aren’t like trademarks, you don’t lose them if you just sit on them and don’t sue everyone. They’re doing this to bleed their competitors dry and trying to stop other, potentially better devices from entering the market alongside theirs. This isn’t an innovating marketplace of ideas, this is Apple trying to use their massive cash reserves to bully out anyone who can mount a threat to them. If they truly stand behind their products, then they should be able to stand on their own and if someone uses a slightly similar case design or the magnetic charging connector, they should have nothing to worry about if their stuff is still better. Using the courts to stop competition is manipulating the market and that doesn’t serve consumers.
You’ll notice one common theme in all those points: Choice or in Apple’s case, lack thereof. Everything Apple has built their impressive and continuing success on is based around restraining user choices which keeps prices high and ultimately, limits innovation only to their own and the ones they permit. So far this strategy seems to be working for them and probably will as long as they can string out the fashion trend that’s fuelling their current growth. But competition is what made the PC strong and it was a need to compete in new and creative ways that made Apple invent iOS and all its associated devices in the first place. Now that they are ruling the roost (at least as far as tablets go), their objective is about shrinking the scope of choice down and that’s something that only benefits them, not the customers and not the high-tech industry as a whole. Microsoft was accused, tried and heavily fined and regulated in Europe and almost in the US for doing far less nefarious things than that what I listed above. They were considered an evil predator but Apple does the same and in some cases worse and is considered a pioneering innovator.
Is a company who does all of what I’ve written and more the one you want having dominance of the post-PC world? I don’t know if I am. If you’re a hardcore Apple fan, you’ve likely blown off what I’ve written as me just being another hater who dislikes the top dog and that’s not what I am. Keep in mind, I almost bought an iPad 3 today and the only reason I didn’t was because of an unexpected event that should it not pan out, will have me considering the purchase again. I don’t want to see Apple fail, I just don’t want to see them being the only ones who have a say in the post-PC future.
Apple has done one thing exceedingly well: They took a very bloated, arrogant and stagnant high-tech industry and shoved a massive wad of humble pie in its face, almost overnight. That’s damn impressive and the shake up is exactly what the industry needed. I thank them for bringing about that change. However, I believe the tides have changed too quickly and even when they were almost down and out, Apple and their devoted fans were still incredibly arrogant. If they control the post-PC world, the same problems we faced before could be faced again, only with a different company at the top and no one in a position to challenge them. That’s bad for the industry, bad for consumers and bad for innovation. I truly hope that some of Apple’s competitors who are still scrambling to find their feet manage to do so and mount a proper fight. And I really hope that as consumers get more tech savvy, that they start to realise that Apple is supposed to work for them, not the other way around.
The post-PC world has the potential to be awesome and revolutionary but for it to realise its full potential, user choice must be at the forefront of it. In their current form, that’s not what Apple wants.