Apple's (And Soon Microsoft's) Big Threats to Choice

UPDATE: Since I posted this entry, Microsoft has decided to change the Metro-only restriction on their free development tools. A smart move on their part.

I make no secret of the fact that while there are many cool things Apple does, I am not a fan of many of the company’s practices nor the lazy, fanboy driven press that salivates and gives free PR to everything they do, usually free of criticism. The innovations made by Apple products in recent years are undeniable and they are finally pushing an otherwise stagnant tech industry forward with new ideas that involve more than just bumped specs. However, not all of these ideas are good ones and the success Apple is meeting with some are driving others like Microsoft towards similar models that while they are beneficial in some ways, also serve to greatly hurt consumers and the power we have to self-determine our experiences with technology. The biggest threat that Apple (and soon Microsoft) represent is the restriction and constriction of user choice.

I’ve said for a while now that Apple’s biggest failing as a company (from a consumer perspective, clearly not yet a financial one) is that their products are designed around limiting consumer options. You can only buy Mac and iOS hardware from one place, you have a very limited number of options for that hardware, it’s largely not upgradable (or in the case of iOS devices, not at all) and it’s purpose-designed to be a treadmill of forced obsolescence that requires users to upgrade their products on Apple’s desired schedule instead of theirs, creating huge amount of technological and monetary waste. With the App Store, they’ve taken this a step further by ensuring that all iOS devices only have one place where you can buy software for them. This is a place Apple controls in every way from approval of what software you can see to how add-ons for it can be purchased to how updates are delivered. They also get a 30% cut of every penny spent on this software, a fairly respectable number given how little they really offer developers beyond permission to list there.

Compare that to the PC landscape where you have dozens of vendors selling pre-built PCs with hundreds of options, you can custom build a system in just about any configuration you can fathom, you have multiple operating system choices and within those, hundreds of different ways to acquire both free and paid software. Many have criticised the PC as being the “wild west” and all the complexity and risks that come with that but I see that as its greatest trait. If you are a new user who needs to be guided by the hand, there are options for that. If you’re a power user like myself who likes to poke, prod and tweak every aspect of your computing experience, you can do that too. If your budget for a computer is $400 or $4,000, there’s options to suit what you want. This has never been the case with Apple and I find their furthering that to greater and greater extremes each year to be a dangerous precedent. For all of the failings of Windows (and there are many), it’s still my preferred OS because of the freedom it offers me while also giving me access to the widest array of software and tools available. When I use a Mac, I’m always feeling as if it’s trying to make me use it the way Apple feels is ideal as opposed to the way I feel is ideal which is how computing is supposed to be.

My biggest worry for the future of technology today is how Apple and now Microsoft with Windows 8 are aggressively pushing the vision of having stricter control over what you do with your computing devices. They are both heavily pushing native software stores that they control (and get a cut from), Apple is planning to make it much more frustrating to install non-App Store delivered content, Microsoft is pushing the new Metro app-driven Start Screen down people’s throats whether they want it or not, they tried to force PC manufacturers to lock out alternative operating systems (they backed off from that but only on the desktop side) and they’re restricting the free versions of development tools to Metro app development only. Much like iOS apps, Metro apps will only be deliverable through Microsoft’s proprietary store. To be fair, Microsoft isn’t trying to restrict or curtail traditional software development and delivery the way Apple seems to be but given the ability these two companies can have to get a piece of every piece of software sold for their respective systems, it stands to reason that they’ll continue to try to squeeze alternatives out more moving forward.

As someone who gets my free and paid software from a wide variety of different places (often depending on who is offering the best deal), this prospect terrifies me and it should terrify every other computer user as well. Both of these companies were already making a ton of money and will continue to without cornering the software delivery market. They are trying to change the value in what they offer us from being the platform on which a variety of things can run to create an experience ideal for each user to one where they are in charge of what we get to consume, how we get to consume it and all the while, taking their percentage from the software authors for the privilege of getting to play in their walled garden. This isn’t the way computers are supposed to be and there’s no need for it beyond enriching the platform holders at the expense of consumer interests.

They claim this is done under the guise of keeping things easy to use and secure but that’s frankly bollocks. Yes, there are a lot of stupid computer users out there and many security problems which largely result from that stupidity. Nonetheless, we’ve been managing fine up to this point and forcing us to get our software from your store where you can shove competition aside for any reason you choose and confine innovation only to that which doesn’t impeded your business interests is not going to improve that. Is iOS only easy to use and secure because the users don’t have access to third party app stores? To claim that position to me says that Apple doesn’t think very highly of their average user’s intelligence. And given that every iOS release gets jailbroken almost immediately, I would say the security claims have already been disproved repeatedly. But then, convincing people that Apple loves and respects its users while actively working against their interests has been among the company’s greatest achievements. I’ve embraced PCs and Windows, faults and all, because I never got the impression from Microsoft that they wanted things to act in a similar, at least not until now. They are a company that’s out to make money but they were already making lots and growing amounts of it and seemed fine with that. Now, having seen Apple’s insane (and unsustainable) profits made on the backs of monopolising the software delivery business as well, they’ve realised there’s a huge slice of the pie they could be getting and want it no matter what.

This greedy mindset represents one of the biggest threats to innovation and consumer freedom when it comes to technology in my opinion. The greatest thing technology has permitted is larger democratization, making it easier for people to create and express both in terms of what they make and do with their tools and how they are able to tailor those tools to their needs. When the two biggest players start locking the doors to their kingdoms and start to limit who gets keys to it based not on the needs and desires of their customers but of their own business interests, technology moves away from a democratic model to a totalitarian one. What if an app offends their corporate standards of taste that may not line up with yours or what if an app does something better than one of theirs which they are trying to sell for more? There are many examples of software that was denied by Apple for both of these reasons. Call my position hyperbolic if you want but when Apple and Microsoft are allowed to decide what gets to be installed on what is supposed to be your computer,  your tablet and your phone, who really owns that device you paid for?

I don’t know what the best solution is to this problem. I’m not normally a fan of governments telling businesses how to run themselves but ultimately, consumer interests are greater and these companies enjoy positions that don’t simply give people the ability to just “speak with their wallets”. When the platform holders are already making record profits, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to tell them that they need to keep improving their products to entice people to keep buying them, not start sapping away secondary revenue sources and forcing people to use them so they can keep making money after they’ve already made their money. If the only way you can keep making money for your business is by sticking your nose into other people’s, then your leadership is failing and you need fresh thinking. Keeping technology open and free for choices and the innovation that comes from them should be paramount and this is a vision that Apple and Microsoft no longer share. Consumers need and deserve a better solution that what we’re proposing, I just wonder if we’re too blinded by the new shiny to demand it.

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3 Responses to Apple's (And Soon Microsoft's) Big Threats to Choice

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