Yesterday I wrote a long blog post on the rtfm blog about installing Ubuntu linux on a Mac. I am unashamedly an Apple fan boy but sometimes it is a good thing to flagellate oneself so one does not loose context. The flagellation turned out to be less of whipping then expected. As a matter of fact the experience of installing Ubuntu on an old Mac was pretty smooth. Recently Apple has begun sliding down a slippery slope with the management of their application store. Developers do not want to risk a development budget on the whimsical ways of Apple’s approval process to get their programs into the store and once they are in there they can not be certain of a smooth sales experience.
This particular issue concentrates on the app store and does not affect the still smooth experience of using Apple products but it does reflect badly on Apple’s ability to notice and respond to real world problems and may be a symptom of an underlying problem: Apple’s inability to cope with their rapid growth. In other words: they suffer from scalabili-itus.
So I decided to try out a different OS on my Mac just in case the mother ship were sank and I were left with just a paddle but no canoe. You see, I am not able to run out to the store and buy myself a different computer to upgrade my digital life. Not because I live a long way away from a computer store but because I suffer from a different affliction than Apple: zeromoney-itus. So what happens when my hardware still works but my software is too old to cope with the demands of online publishing? Enter free as in free Linux. But would a recent version work on my Mac? Read the full story on the rtfm blog but the short answer, as I already indicated, is yes.
An alternative found I began to think further about our digital life and Apple’s recent success in it. The Internet has become a big part of our daily lives. Although much of our needs are still met in the analogue world, the Internet is beginning to take over. Especially in the provision of entertainment. The computer is still the de-facto way of accessing the Internet for most people. But this default is shifting. The smart phone is no longer the tool of the executive with an Armani suit. The line between smart phone and ordinary phone is blurring. Before long everyone who owns a phone will be able to access the Internet. Apple realised this and developed a mobile Internet tool that was many steps ahead of the competiton: the iPhone coupled to the iTunes store. Strict control by Apple meant that the experience of using an iPhone was a smooth experience.
Combine these two lines of thought: Apple’s strict control over every aspect of their product line and ubiquitous Internet access. Total control on one side, total freedom on the other. There does not necessarily need to be a conflict there, the former can exist within the universe of the latter. However, there seems to me to be a gravitational force that pulls users towards a standardised way of doing things. Windows is the best proof that the standard way of doing things does not always have to be the most comfortable way. For Apple to be able to exploit big platforms like the iTunes store there needs to be a large enough user base to make it economically viable. To sustain the iPhone, the iPod and the iTunes store, Apple needs to be in the race to become or actually be the standard bearer. Drop the ball to often and the user base will turn their backs and head for greener pastures.
With the iPhone Apple has entered a market where every year or every two years, the customer can choose a new platform due to expiration of the contract with the telco. Development in the mobile communication market (I hesitate to call the current devices telephones) is very rapid indeed. And can take unexpected turns. Motorola has been dead in the water for some years after the success of their Razr phones. Suddenly they are back. The Motorola Droid is getting rave reviews everywhere and it has become a serious competitor for the iPhone. Its Linux underpinnings ensure an easy and open development platform. As a matter of fact as the Droid is running Android 2.0 there already is a barge load of apps available for the Droid.
The speed with which the iPhone has conquered the smart phone market has been dramatic but Apple seems to have difficulty with supporting the decisions they made when they launched the platform. They had two choices: give free rein to developers and let any app onto the app store or strictly control which apps were allowed. They chose the latter option which committed them to a very large amount of work: the screening of thousands upon thousands of apps. Judging by the way they have handled it, they were not ready for this task and they should have been. They can not hide behind the ‘we did not know it would take off’ attitude. The iPod showed them that this sort of thing can take off and take off very quickly and I can not believe that Steve Jobs gave the go ahead for a project on the scale of entering the mobile phone market if he did not fully believe it would take off.
So Apple made an error and a costly one. The customer is a fickle being. The developer is as well. Loose one or both of these and the platform Apple launched may fall as quickly as it rose. Apple has had a small but very loyal following for many years before they became popular. They have now stepped outside that fold and entered the arena of a hotly contested global market and it is a lot colder out there. Ubuntu on my old G4 Mac is just an illustration of the fact that the tool does not matter much in the big, bad world outside. I want to be able to do my job, which involves me being on the Internet a lot. When one of the links in the chain starts acting up my loyalty is to my job, not to the tool. I can write with any pen on any piece of paper, hell I can write with a sharp stick in the sand. I can get onto the Internet with any phone and with any computer. As long as Apple provides me with the best tool in the box I will keep using Apple products but as soon as they drop the ball I’m off to some one else’s toolbox. And judging by the many grumblings I read on the net these last few months ranging from app store woes to broken iMacs I am not alone in this.
Apple still makes the best computer out of the box in my opinion. There still is no real alternative to an Apple computer if you want to be productive the moment you have unpacked. But these symptoms of Apple loosing sight of the ball need to be addressed. If they want to stay the Rolls Royce of (consumer) computers, they need to keep developers on their side and they need to keep the buying public on their side. Wake up Apple, the competition has!