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Apple – The Homeland Security of Tech Companies August 21, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.

It’s been a month or so since I’ve darkened these pages, mainly out of an extreme paid workload, but in part because I didn’t have anything truly compelling to say.

That may have changed.

First, I was in the market for a new MP3 player recently (the old one got doused with water at a hotel fitness center).  Everyone has iPods, at around $160 and up.  At the other end, there is a proliferation of $20-$50 devices that play music (and play videos and even take photos), but in almost all cases with a more difficult user interface.

I understand that the simple usability of iPods, the iTunes store, and other Apple products is worth something.  But is it worth $130+ more than a generic product?  Well, I voted with my wallet.  Other people may vote other ways.

Second, I read an op-ed by Wayne Rash in eWeek on Apple’s lawsuit.  He compares Apple’s willingness to go to court with that of Ashton-Tate in the 1980s.  Ashton-Tate, one of the largest and most powerful tech companies at the time, ultimately discovered that its so-called innovations predated its patents, and failed in rather spectacular fashion.

But worse, Ashton-Tate came to rely on litigation, rather than innovation, for its future.

I don’t understand the invective that passes for rational discourse whenever the conversation turns to Apple.  There seem to be “Apple apologists” and “Apple haters”, rather than any sort of mutual respect for opinions and an eventual coming to a compromise, or even to agree to disagree.

I will confess to one bias.  I believe that intellectual property lawsuits are ill-suited in an industry where rapid innovation depends on the cross-fertilization of ideas.  That may color my opinion here, but should not reflect upon Wayne’s more specific points.

Wayne has been doing this as long, or longer, than I have.  To color him with either label would be grossly unfair and inaccurate.  His comparison may or may not hold water under closer scrutiny, but deserves consideration on its merits.

Wayne points out the dangers in the course Apple is taking.  I’ll take it a step further, and say that Apple has become a lightning rod for both praise and criticism in this and other strategies.

So what makes Apple the Homeland Security of tech companies?  In our lives, we as a society have largely accepted greater restrictions in personal liberty in the name of safety and security.  CCTVs blanket public areas and commercial establishments, we endure inconveniences in air travel so as not to repeat the events of more than a decade ago, and find that we can never again be as anonymous as we were twenty or more years ago.  We hope that these restrictions make us safer.

Likewise, we have largely accepted the use restrictions put upon us by Apple, in exchange for a more pleasant user experience.

Is this a bad thing?  Many people have decided it is not.

I recall, circa 1991, doing a review of PC video capture cards, which was emerging technology at the time.  The PC cards were enormously difficult to set up and use, in large part because they had to take into account a range of different PC I/O standards, displays, and interrupts.  In contrast, the Mac cards I used were ridiculously easy, because there was one approved approach for interface, hardware setup, and display.

Sounds good, and through this approach Apple made technology accessible and even fun for far more people.  But in accepting that approach, I ceded control over my own environment and use.

I do believe that to some extent the tradeoff between usability and flexibility is an either-or proposition.  But I think that Apple can become less of a Homeland Security while still retaining its compelling advantages over alternatives.



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