Tech Tyranny, Part 1: This Is Your Grandmother’s Cellphone Provider

Posted: May 15, 2010 by RA in Technology
Tags: , ,

So, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple months, you’re acutely aware of two stories heating up the tech world. That doesn’t happen too often, now does it — mainstream audiences giving a damn about tech-industry happenings. I am, of course, talking about Apple’s war with Adobe and Facebook harvesting your likes, allergies, and phobias for eventual sale to our future alien insect overlords. In this, the first of a two-part series, we’ll look at how Apple went from edgy, fashionable outsider to Tech Goliath (MechaGodzilla, I guess).

See, I’ve always been fervently anti-Apple (despite having Macs at work and buying 12 iPods in six years), but I’ve had to respect their marketing gangsta. They were the first tech brand to truly harness the power of image. No, I don’t mean like Sony jumping on the 90s-era obsession with the letter X (full disclosure, I still drink with some of the folks behind that campaign), or trying to impress the kids (no Slick Rick) with their “Street Style.” And the less said about the abortion that was “All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP,” the better.

No, I’m talking about Apple cultivating the image of the tech renegade (a techegade, if you will) — the underdog to Microsoft’s stodgy oppressor. The sexy revolutionary in red shorts, here to free us from the Orwellian power of that heartless Tech powerhouse. 

To boot, they were the first tech brand to adopt the fashion-industry approach to pitching their products. When introducing the iPod, rather than bore you with boring details about capacity and sound quality, they let you know what it meant to be seen rocking the white headphones on the train. And their SoHo store, conceived by award-winning firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, rivaled the flagship locations of many high-end fashion brands. It was a kind of Populist Prada, letting you spend a mint on an item that let everyone know you spent a mint — and you didn’t have to worry about your pricy new shit being designed for someone taller and more attractive than you. Of course, as with all semi-luxury items, knockoffs began appearing everywhere — white earbuds targeted at consumers seeking the social currency the iPod offered, without spending too much real currency on it. And so, a multi-billion dollar lifestyle brand was born.

But the continued survival of the luxury goods industry is dependent on repeat business — tricky to pull off, because if you spend a couple thousand on a purse, the shit had better last longer than this season. The trick is to make you proud to be seen with it this spring, but ashamed of it by fall. Apple had become associated with a hybrid of luxe-appeal and in-the-know cool. With this newfound influence, iPods would soon become the new harem pants, dictating to the masses as authoritatively as any fashion editor.

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Like the savviest of fashion houses, Apple spaced out its style-backtracks just enough to ensure by the time they decided a style was cool again, you had already gotten rid of the one you had that was just like that. It worked perfectly well, but the new one was just so… cool. It was like getting tech tips from The Plastics. Just remember, on Wednesdays, we wear pink.

Soon enough, every major release had people camping outside (or making their assistants camp outside) Apple stores in every major metropolitan area. Sure, the schlubby die-hards camping out in lawn chairs cost them major snob-appeal; but what they lost in exclusivity, they made up for in market dominance. The iPhone launch was like Beatlemania of the 2000s, and the iPad release, though not as near-apocalyptic as the iPhone, far exceeded the appropriate response to what was essentially a gigantism-afflicted iPod Touch.

But here’s the thing — all that would’ve been fine if they’d at least kept their original tech-visionary approach through their metamorphosis. Apple was totally Patrick Dempsey-Lohan in “Can’t Buy Mean Girls” — smart and likeable in his own nerdy way, until he becomes wildly popular and starts dressing all slutty and showing cleavage and making out with Regina George’s boyfriend ’cause OMG he’s such a hottie and suddenly stops caring about math and mowing his dad’s lawn and oh fuck there’s totally gonna be a major showdown at The Big Dance and OMG I cant breathe!!!

So yeah, declining quality aside, Apple slowly began to morph into a Nanny tech company, but with a decidedly “establishment” hint of hypocrisy. No sex in the Chappagne Room… unless you’ve got a Time Inc.-size budget. But they took the wrong message from the ensuing criticism and went in a more uniformly puritannical route, prompting Dazed & Confused to dub their inaugural iPad issue the “Iran Edition.”

And of course, Jobs’ long-running opposition to Flash just got personal. After years of teasing users with the possibility of one day warming to Flash, Jobs removed all doubt in a lengthy anti-Flash manifesto (rumor has it he also called Adobe’s momma a ho). By his logic, Flash is a buggy, ill-executed technology that keeps developers tied down to their proprietary software in order to develop, and he thinks that’s wrong — the web should be all about “openness.”

See, this is what I don’t get about Jobs. Valid or not, his problems with Flash should remain his problems. If you swear it’s a bad experience for your users, give them the option and let them see the light for themselves after a few system crashes. But of course, none of this has anything to do with the users.

A couple weeks ago, I paid a visit to Dave Warren, the mind behind some of my favorite Absolut ads of all time. It was during our lunchtime conversation that it hit me: Steve Jobs has become the overlord he warned us about in the iconic ‘1984’ spot (of course, a quick Google search shows that I’m far from the only one who’s made that connection). Apple has become a major player in the mobile market, and now stands as the potential savior on which the future of the publishing industry seems to rest. Even if his claims about Flash were factual, there’s something disturbingly draconian about his refusal to support the publishing industry on any terms other than his own — like telling a dying man he can only drink the antidote if he can learn to lift the vial with his toes. Then again, this is a company that orchestrated a police raid on a blogger’s home for writing an exclusive preview of the iPhone 4G prototype.

And for the record, Jobs’ anti-Flash arguments are complete bullshit. The fact is, he’s anti-Flash because it’s bad for him. The platform on which Flash performs worst is the Mac OS — an actual “it’s not you, it’s me” case if I ever saw one. Then there’s the fact that if iPhones and iPads allowed Flash, users could watch videos for free on sites like Hulu, and not be forced to spend 3 bucks on a TV episode they’ll only watch once.

And yes, Flash is indeed proprietary. But to develop Apps for the iPhone OS, you need to work in Objective C/Objective C++, not exactly the most open girl at the dance. Oh, and the iPhone Developer SDK is only available for Mac OS — when I wanted to develop for iPhone last year, I had to borrow (and consider buying) a MacBook. Sure, Flash developers had figured out a way to work around existing restrictions, but then Apple updated the terms of service agreement on its SDK to prohibit this. This led to Apple, once the anti-Microsoft, facing antitrust investigations from the FTC and/or the DOJ. And then there’s the fact that they’re pushihng the H.264 video codec as the only viable alternative to Flash video. Ain’t nothin open-source about H.264, and MPEG-LA, the body overseeing H.264, makes no bones about its readiness to sue non-licensed users. And who gets a share of the profits every time a user licenses H.264? That one.

I could go on and on, here, but there’s really no point. “Protecting” your mostly-adult public from mental corruption by bikini-clad women. Restricting the public’s access to your rival’s output because you believe it to be “bad for them.” Ordering police raids on the homes of parties who flout your information dissemination policy. These are all markers of a dictatorship.

And trust me, I know dictatorships.

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