Is Apple on the wrong path?

An ill-defined, nagging something in the back of my brain has been bugging me lately, and until a recent gathering of my wife’s family, I couldn’t bring it into focus. On the fourth day of that clan gathering, it suddenly became clear.

In regard to Apple, we have forgotten the Three-Day Reunion Rule.

The rule is simple and undeniable. It states that no family reunion that hopes to end in anything but tears and recriminations must last more than three days. The reasoning is just as simple.

Human beings are incapable of disguising their true nature (which, for all but the best of us, is the person we were at age five) for more than three days. Come the fourth day, that sister who generally spends her off-hours dashing into burning buildings to save orphans can’t seem to let go of the fact that you were allowed to wear make-up at 14 when she had to wait until her Sweet 16th. Your dog-collared cousin, who is a shining example of piety among the priesthood, brings up, for the hundredth time, that his celibate existence is due solely to your ruining his one chance at a girlfriend when you dumped a toad down the unfortunate girl’s back. And a somewhat boozy father, echoing the twelfth year of your life, thunders, “No, you can’t go see Biff, you’re going to stay right here and finish your damned dinner and be pleasant about it!”

And this applies to Apple how? Just as we tend to forget, on Day 1, that our sister is, at heart, a selfish prig and our cousin a vindictive blowhard, so too are we blinded to the fact, after years of success, that Apple has a self-assured nature that, when unchecked, may not serve its customers (or itself) as well as it might. The “round mouse” that shipped with the original iMac is a prime example. It looked cool but was a terrible ergonomic design. Yet Apple clung to the thing for years because, well, it apparently knew best.

I regret that I’ve seen an increase in this kind of thing lately, and the timing couldn't be poorer. Apple is currently Wall Street’s darling after being the Street’s ugly stepchild for far too many years. While I agree that Apple does some amazing work and deserves every point of its success, much of the world’s view of Apple (and this includes the financial world) is emotional. People are passionate about Apple—for both the good and not so. Regardless of what Apple does in the real world—release great hardware, offer up the finest operating system computerdom has seen, make incredible content deals—if it returns to the days of the Arrogant Apple, it’s going to lose its darling status in a hurry. And this is the path I fear Apple has returned to.

Examples?

The iPhone’s recessed headphone jack: As much as some have tried to explain away the iPhone’s headphone jack —the one that doesn’t accommodate standard miniplug jacks without an adapter—as a design to somehow protect the structural integrity of the jack, the truth is that Apple designed it this way because it liked the look. Forget that countless people have eschewed Apple’s earbuds for others that sound and fit better. It’s all about the iPhone’s lines rather than the convenience of Apple’s customers. If you don’t care to use Apple’s earbuds, you’re welcome to drop a few more dollars on an ungainly adapter.

The new keyboard: Today’s equivalent to the round mouse, the ultra-thin keyboard that ships with the iMac is gorgeous, but impractical for a lot of people. Touch-typists routinely stray from the “home row” (a, s, d, f, j, k, l, and ;) because there’s no indentation in the keys. The “throw” (amount of depression) of the keys is shallow, making it easy to type keys where you meant to simply rest on them. And you can’t adjust the angle of the keyboard, making it less than wrist-friendly.

A laptop requires this kind of keyboard due to space limitations. A desktop computer, no.

Video and the new iPods: The third-generation iPod nano, iPod classic, iPod touch, and, with the 1.1.1 update, the iPhone support video out. With the proper accessory or cable you can jack your iPod or iPhone into a TV. Some previous iPod models did this as well.

The catch is that these new iPods require that cables and accessories carry a special authorization chip made only by Apple. Accessory manufacturers must incorporate these chips into their devices for the accessory to accept video from the iPod (and, presumably, pay Apple for the privilege). Regrettably, because this is a hardware issue rather than software, there’s no way forward for your current accessories that support video-out—they’re useless in regard to video with the new iPods. If you want video-out from your new iPod, the very least you can do is pay Apple $49 for a Composite or Component video cable. The most you can do is buy yet another expensive video accessory to replace the one that Apple has made obsolete.

iMovie: Many feel that the new iMovie deserves a place among Apple’s recent “We Know Best” decisions. Take a perfectly capable video editing application that uses a standard timeline interface, supports third-party effects and transition plug-ins, and plays nice with iDVD and abandon it for a completely new video application that may be easier for some to use, but lacks the power and “tweakability” of the former, doesn’t support plug-ins, and treats iDVD like a stranger. Points for letting iMovie HD live on for those who wish to continue using it, but how about a hint of where iMovie’s future lies?

The upcoming cat: Some have suggested that Apple’s sense of taste has taken a vacation when it comes to certain publicly acknowledged Leopard interface elements. There’s the new Dock shelf, an analogy that completely falls apart when you pin the Dock to the right or left side of the screen. The translucent menu-bar (the translucency of which apparently can’t be adjusted) has been roundly criticized for being hard to read and ugly. And then there are the dull flat gray folders in an OS that supposedly offers the best 3-D and color in the business.

Ringtones: Explain to me one more time why I can play music on my iPhone by tapping in one area of the phone yet not have the iPhone play that exact same music when the phone rings, an SMS message arrives, or an alarm goes off.

Third-parties have tried to address this issue, and Apple has stood in the way every time. Steve Jobs told us long ago that customers like to “own” their music and play it in the devices they possess. What has changed now other than Apple’s desire to charge us twice for the same music?

Bricking the iPhone: I understand the arguments. You knew you were buying a locked phone when you purchased it. You understood that Apple and AT&T’s Terms of Service forbid you hacking your phone. If you wanted a more flexible phone you shouldn’t have purchased the iPhone in the first place.

An exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifically states that you are not in violation of the law when you unlock a phone to use it with another provider. While Apple and AT&T may not like it, regardless of the EULA or TOS, I’m within my rights to unlock my iPhone. If you want to make that difficult to do, fine.

Apple’s warning that the update could render the iPhone inoperable hints that Apple knew the update would brick the phone. After all, every Apple employee has an iPhone and I can’t believe no one thought to test the update with a phone that had been unlocked. Apple doesn’t do that kind of negligence.

Given that, under whose code of ethics is it allowable to knowingly release an update that will assuredly destroy someone’s property? If I install a third-party ink cartridge in my Epson printer against Epson’s wishes, I do not expect an Epson representative to come over to my house and take a sledgehammer to my printer.

Worse yet, this likely could have been avoided. From all appearances the iPhone updater checks the state of the phone’s firmware before proceeding. With the 1.0.1 and 1.0.2 updates the phone would be updated if the firmware appeared to be in its original condition. If it wasn’t (it was hacked to allow third-party applications, for example), the update wiped the firmware and installed a fresh copy.

Rather than destroying the phone (yes, even after warning that it might) why couldn’t the 1.1.1 update have checked the firmware as other updates have done, seen that it was altered in one of a couple of known ways, and then simply thrown up a message that the phone could not be updated? Sure, some people would gripe that they couldn’t have the iPhone’s latest features, but at least they’d still have their phone intact. If Apple wanted them to upgrade to a locked phone, do it the old-fashioned by offering compelling features that you can get only with the new iPhone software.

I’m aware that Apple feels it must do right by AT&T but to offer up an update that it knows will destroy hacked iPhones—and provide no provision for undoing the damage—is a despicable act.

This kind of stunt is bad for customers and, coupled with recent actions by the company that may paint it as less than innovative and customer-friendly, ultimately bad for Apple.

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