Why Apple isn't the new Microsoft

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On Friday, we republished an article from our sibling publication Computerworld in which that publication’s Mike Elgan laid out the reasons he feels Apple is today’s Microsoft and the industry’s new “biggest bully.” If you made it all the way to the end of the piece, you’d have read the author’s claim that he was actually writing in support of Apple, not to criticize it. But it sure didn’t come across that way to Macworld readers, who flocked to the discussion thread for the article in our forums.

And I can’t say that I blame them. Although I got the point the article was trying to make, I found many of its supporting arguments to be either unpersuasive or just plain wrong.

Apple the monopolist?

Elgan started by equating Microsoft’s forced bundling of Internet Explorer (IE) on Windows PCs back in the ’90s with Apple’s requirement that you install iTunes to use an iPod. The obvious difference here is that the iPod is a computer peripheral ; like many peripherals, you need to install software on your computer to use it. If you don’t like that software, you have a choice whether or not to purchase that peripheral. Don’t like iTunes? Don’t buy an iPod; there are a number of other good players—seriously—out there. That’s a far cry from Microsoft telling PC vendors that if they wanted to sell their computers with Windows—in other words, back then, if they wanted to actually sell their computers—they had to bundle IE. And let’s not forget that the big issue with IE was that Microsoft was using its OS monopoly to muscle the (much better and more popular at the time) Netscape browser out of the market. I’m sure there are at least half a dozen other ways in which this analogy falls on its face.

Elgan’s related argument, that Apple including Safari on its own products is analogous to Microsoft forcing other vendors to include Microsoft’s browser if they wanted to offer Windows, is simply nonsensical.

While we’re on the “forced to use” topic, the author’s third bit of evidence is that Apple doesn’t let you “reformat [your] iPod and install something else.” Ignoring for the moment that there’s a dedicated group of people who’ve developed a version of Linux for the iPod, what other portable media player—let alone any other consumer electronics device—lets you reformat it and install your own OS? The Zune? The Yep? Creative players? Sansa products? No, but perhaps there’s a toaster out there somewhere that lets you install BeOS. (And responding to the argument that the iPod, its software, and iTunes are three components of a single product with “that’s what Microsoft said about Windows and IE” is equally silly.)

Sorry, dad?

Elgan then moves on to the the old tech-pundit crutch that gets dusted off whenever someone wants to criticize iTunes and the iPod: If you buy a non-iPod player, any music you purchased through iTunes won’t play on that player.

It’s true. But it’s also true that if you own a Zune and then purchase a player from Apple, any music you purchased through the Zune Marketplace won’t play on the iPod. And if you own a Plays For Sure (ha!) player and then buy a Zune or an iPod, any music you purchased for the former won’t play on the latter. The problem is DRM, not the iPod or iTunes or Apple. (And, in fact, Apple offers DRM-free music, that works with any player, from any label that lets them—and the company is pushing for more labels to do so. Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to lure the entertainment industry by touting more-restrictive DRM.)

Sticker shock?

The article then turns to Apple’s recent announcement that iTunes will let you make ringtones out of purchased music for $0.99 (plus the cost of the full song; in other words, you get the song and your customized ringtone for $1.98). Elgan poses the following question: “How on Earth can Apple seriously charge the same amount again for the ability to hear just 30 seconds of the song — the same length as the free iTunes samples?"

Now, I personally think it’s ridiculous to have to pay to make a ringtone out of music you’ve previously purchased. Ridiculous . But given that paying for ringtones is The Way Things Work, according to the music industry, it’s only fair to consider that context when judging Apple’s announcement. The simple retort here can be phrased as, “How on Earth can the carriers seriously charge $2.49 for just the ringtone—and not even the portion of the track that you choose—even if you’ve already purchased that music?” Yep, the least you’ll pay with most carriers is $2.49; if you’ve already purchased the song online or on a CD, and we assume you paid, say, $0.99, you end up paying a total of $3.48. In that context, Apple doesn’t look so bad, does it?

Again, the real problem here is the music industry, not Apple. As for the iPhone and ringtones, some people say Apple should just let you copy standard music files over as ringtones the way some phone manufacturers do; for example, the several Sony-Ericsson phones I’ve owned have all let me do this. The difference here is that Sony-Ericsson isn’t a music retailer and doesn’t have to maintain a good relationship with the music labels.

Elgan then brings up the iPhone’s $200 price drop; this has been debated to death online, in the news, and (especially) in the Macworld forums ; I don’t think it needs to be revisited here. In any case, I’m not sure what it has to do with Apple being a “bully."

Apple the copycat?

The rest of Mr. Elgan’s support for his thesis consists of a series of examples of how Apple has “copied” other innovators rather than innovating itself—the gist of this argument being that the company is simply doing what Microsoft has done so many times by “imitating” Apple’s OS innovations.

The examples he gives? LG’s KE850 and its “full-screen, touch-screen, on-screen keyboard” that was around before the iPhone was even announced. The fact that multi-touch, gesture-based interfaces have been around in various labs for over a decade. And the Zune’s WiFi, available since last year.

Well, sure. And there were computers before the Apple II, graphical UIs before the Mac, and music players before the iPod. Apple’s products aren’t innovative because no one’s seen the technology before. Apple’s products are innovative because no one’s made such technology usable and widely available before.

To wit: You don’t buy an iPhone because it has a touchscreen. You buy an iPhone because its touchscreen, its hardware, and its technology work together the way no other phone ever has. Because its interface is head and shoulders better than any other phone on the market. Because it’s functional where similar products aren’t. Because it’s so damned cool.

I don’t think anyone will argue that there aren’t several examples over the past decade of Apple taking existing ideas or technologies and refining them or packaging them in ways that make them far more appealing and useful than they had been previously; the company has become quite good at doing just that. But the key here is that when Apple adopts technologies, or uses them in new ways, the result is almost always better ; Apple still innovates . How many times have you heard someone say, “You know, Apple had this OS innovation years ago, but it never worked well; Microsoft really got it right...”?

He supports Apple?

I could spend time picking apart some of the other statements in the article, but the biggest problem I had with Elgan’s piece is that after getting so many things Just Plain Wrong, he then goes on to talk about how he actually supports Apple, despite all of the Bad Things he recited. Although I’m sure Apple welcomes support from (almost) any source, after reading the article I felt as if I’d just watched someone tell me what they thought of a political candidate’s positions based on his opponent’s attack ads—and then said, “But I’m voting for him anyway.”

The valiant justification for this position is that the author feels the “evil monopoly hype, court cases and public posturing directed for so long at Microsoft drained energy and resources from the entire industry.” In other words, there’s nothing wrong with Apple being, in his words, a monopolist, copycat and bully; it’s how things work, and trying to make it otherwise is counterproductive.

Maybe he’s right. The irony here is that the underlying idea behind the article—that Apple has grown, in several industries, to the point where it wields considerable power—isn’t unreasonable. It’s possible to make just such an argument and include a balanced discussion of Apple’s growing influence and how the company uses it (and may use it in the future). Unfortunately, this wasn’t that article, and equating Apple to the Microsoft of the ’90s through poor analogies isn’t the way to go about it.

UPDATE 9/14/2007: Clarified Zune Marketplace compatibility with Plays For Sure players.

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