- 10 March 2012
- By John Howell
I have a confession to make. I'm not proud of it, but there's no use trying to hide it any longer, the damage has already been done. I was an Apple fanatic. Hard core. Completely obsessed. I'm not proud of my behaviour. I have no real excuses. All I can say in my defense is that I have always been a gadget fan, so naturally I was ripe for the plucking. My psyche was compromised, wide open to the fruit filled fantasy land that Apple's army of marketers, lawyers and PR evangelists keeps running in the public's virtual mind-scape. If anyone was going to be drawn into the cult of Apple, if anyone was going to be hypnotised by shiny aluminum cases, promises of technological perfection and claims of primal invention and innovation it was going to be me. For years after buying my first iMac in 2006, I was a card carrying member of the Apple cult. I had consumed the propaganda, given up my Microsoft ways and bought every iDevice my budget could cope with. Months before iPhone and iPad launch events I would annoy friends and family with the rumours and possibilities. What feature would they reinvent under the Apple brand to startle and astound? What would Steve say? How many people would line up? I visited forums on Apple obsessed websites, worshiped at the glossy Apple stores on Sundays and prayed to their leader as if he was the second coming of Christ.
To give you an idea of how far and fast I fell, in 2004 I bought the flagship Sony Ericsson smart phone the P910 (note this was 3 years before Apple released the iPhone). It was a touch screen device with a big screen. You could use your fingers or the included stylus to touch buttons and make things happen. Expandable memory, a detachable keypad: I loved this phone. Sony Ericsson followed it up with the even more impressive P990 in 2006. This version had video calling, something Apple would reinvent years later and call "FaceTime".
Somewhere along the way though Apple became the center of my gadget universe, somewhere along the way I lost all sense of proportion, somewhere along the way I became what is known as an "Apple fanboy". So what the hell happened? How did I suddenly reach a point where I believed every other technology company except Apple was rubbish?
I think the rot set in late 2008. When the second iPhone was about to hit, the public frenzy was intense and I was swept up with the rest. I quickly forgot the P910. I forgot everything in fact. Logic. Sense. It all went out the window. Apple's marketing was and is phenomenal. Had they paid every journalist to keep writing iPhone articles? It certainly appeared that way. Every day there were multiple new articles based on nothing but pure speculation. Someone told me that someone else told him that a factory worker's mother mentioned that the new iPhone would include a holographic display. The media would spend the next week publishing articles on whether or not the iPhone would have a holographic display. Most of the time the new phone featured nothing of the kind - but no one cared. The iPhone news would go on. The lines grew. All of these things are as true today as they were back then.
People refer to Apple's ability to make everyone believe what they want them to as Apple's "reality distortion field". Personally I like to call it Apple's "complete and utter bullshit field", as it's usually not a distortion of reality but akin to being thrust naked into an alternative universe. There's about as much truth in Apple's claims and marketing as you would find in a weight loss commercial.
With a potent combination of stage craft, exaggeration, iconic marketing, persistence, and an army of lawyers to suppress decent and keep the Apple brand pure, the technological truth has become almost impossible for most people to detect. If you read a lot of gadget related news sites perhaps you'll slowly get a sense of the hypocrisy of it all, but for those who don't, it's harder and harder to see through the slick commercials and endless frenzied headlines. Advertising and hype win hands down. For a company that buys a lot of their core components from competitors, links them all together and then claims them as their own - bizarrely right before suing some of them - the high regard the Apple brand holds is astounding. You may not know this but Apple did not invent the touch screen (or multi-touch for that matter). Apple didn't invent video calling or mobile telephones. Apple didn't invent hyperlinks or spell checking. Apple didn't invent speech recognition. They didn't invent square tablets or "thin" electronic devices. They didn't invent industrial design or smooth uncluttered surfaces either.Yet at one point or another Apple has claimed, using some insane patent, that these abilities and features are something they alone have the right to sell on a phone or tablet. Clicking a telephone number to make a call, spellchecking a document, these are just two of the absurd patents Apple has abused to attempt to retain their dominant position in the market place.
Apple's sway is so powerful and the message so on target that they no longer even have to release different devices, they can just change a name, make the most minute modifications (a slight increase in speed, a bit more memory, absorb someone else's app into the operating system and claim they invented it in the first place) and then easily sell another 2 billion devices overnight. Did no one notice that the iPhone 4S is almost identical to the iPhone 4? So why the bloody hell did they line up for it then? Why are people so gullible and easily swayed? And why did I have to be one of those people? We'll be queueing up for toasters and vacuum cleaners next. Features that other phones have had for years are suddenly wonderful just because they've been added to an Apple product.
Besides slick marketing, one of the keys it seems is to keep everything secret, lock it all down, let speculation invade the public media space like a plague until people are groveling for news. At the same time make anyone involved in the manufacture of a device - and the media contacts desperate for information - sign endless non-disclosure agreements and sue them into the dark ages if they leak anything in the wrong way. This way, just a scrap of information can send the starving Apple hordes into a gadget frenzy, like zombies newly reanimated and desperate for a taste of human flesh. The pent up media frenzy reaches such a fever pitch everyone starts to believe it's normal or sane to line up for a device which is pretty much identical to something you bought a year before. After consuming the latest propaganda and carefully unwrapping their shiny devices, the blood thirsty gadget horde will quickly line up once again for whatever comes next. Apple actively suppresses dissent, exaggerates repeatedly and always stay on message. Their propaganda machine is all powerful and speaks with one voice. And this is only a very small part of Apple's quest for dominance and total world gadget domination.
As Apple's marketing prowess destroys all who stand before it, as they are praised repeatedly as the greatest innovator since sliced electronic bread, they attack on a completely different front: in this case using lawyers and the legal system, the second powerful weapon in their fruity arsenal.
If your company or product has an "i" in it they will sue. If your logo is in any way apple shaped, they will sue. If you name something that they've decided to name they sue (or buy you out if that doesn't work). If you publish images of their secret products they sue (or send the boys round with the police in tow - or did I dream that?). If your blog or newspaper posts something against them, they will blacklist you from all future media events. Ironically, it was this blacklisting that may have caused the Gizmodo website to publish details about one of Apple's prototypes. Apple no longer let them attend media events, so what better way to retaliate? Even big companies can fall victim to Apple's media lock outs. The New York Times recently ran a series of investigative stories on factories in China, the extreme conditions that workers toil under to build western electronics, Apple's iPhone and iPad included. Their "iEconomy" series detailed employees' excessive overtime (in some cases seven days a week), workers jammed into crowded dorms, under-age labour, hazardous waste and falsified records - just the kind of reports we should hear about if they are indeed in any way true. Unsanctioned reporting of course will get you blacklisted - the truth, like faulty antennas or iMac malware is not something Apple is prepared to deal with, at least not until they're pushed into a corner.
If you attempt to burst the product fantasy bubble Apple constructs so carefully, drip feeding news to its own ends, their anger is palpable. When Apple recently announced its Mountain Lion OSX update, giving exclusive access to their normal media sycophants, the New York Times was no longer on the list. A Washington Post article quoted an anonymous source at the New York Times who said: "They are playing access journalism...I've heard it from people inside Apple: They said, look, you guys are going to get less access based on the iEconomy series."
If you dare to make a product that looks like any of Apple's products (a square tablet perhaps?) they will sue. If your software looks slightly like their software they will sue. I wouldn't be surprised if one day they accidentally sue themselves. It doesn't matter if other phones have been using the same features for years. At the same time they are suing the world they are patenting everything they can to give themselves an opportunity to sue yet more people and companies in the future. They also buy up patents from other technology companies who have had nothing to do with Apple and then sue their competition with them. In their ever growing war against Android manufactures like Samsung and Motorola, the stupidity of it all is growing. Of course the competition retaliates in kind, but Apple is easily the biggest patent buyer and one of the most aggressive litigants on the planet.
Many of these patents are completely stupid and should never have been granted, but the law suits go on. Apple was recently allowed to patent "slide to unlock", even though other phones had similar capability years before. Remember automatic spellchecking, something Microsoft's Word has had for decades? In a recent court case Apple suggested no one could use that in a phone because they hold the rights. The suggestion that you can patent an action on a screen like slide to unlock or, more broadly, spell checking is absurd, but Apple uses every bit of its vast and growing wealth to pay lawyers to sue as widely as possible. Are half the lawyers working in the US now employed by Apple? (it's a distinct possibility). Apple may not give dividends to their shareholders, but they must be paying a fortune for their legal teams to keep all this going. Apple are so litigation happy they took Amazon to court for using the words "App store". They own those words in that order too apparently. With the time and money they've spent on lawyers they could have invented an anti-gravity device and placed a man on Mars (with an iPhone) or perhaps solved world poverty (not that they've ever given anything to charity or cared about the conditions of their workers in the developing world where they outsource their iPhone factories, but that's another story entirely...).
One of the more absurd patent claims was made against Samsung when they released the Galaxy Tablet 10.1 and the Samsung Galaxy S2. An Apple representative told AllThingsD: "It's no coincidence that Samsung's latest products look a lot like the iPhone and iPad, from the shape of the hardware to the user interface and even the packaging," adding that "this kind of blatant copying is wrong, and we need to protect Apple's intellectual property when they steal our ideas."
In section 2-40 and 2-41 of a redacted public legal brief, Apple offered alternative smartphone and tablet designs Samsung could have used instead to avoid litigation. PC World reported that some of the suggestions included:
--- Front surfaces that are not black or clear
--- Front surfaces that are not rectangular, not flat, and without rounded corners
--- Display screens that are more square than rectangular or not rectangular at all
--- Speaker openings that are not horizontal slots with rounded ends and that are not centered above the display screen
--- Front surfaces that contain substantial adornment
--- Phones without bezels at all or very different-looking bezels that are not thin, uniform, and with an inwardly sloping profile
--- Thick frames rather than a thin rim around the front surface
--- Profiles that are not thin
--- A cluttered appearance
So Samsung should build devices that are not as "thin", not as "square" and have more "clutter" (preferably not in black either) and without rounded corners to avoid being sued by Apple? (sharp pointy corners to allow Samsung's customers to stab themselves in the head are fine). How can anyone patent shapes for God's sake?
Perhaps the reason Apple is so litigation happy lately lies with the competition, who rudely keep releasing phones and tablets which are lighter, faster and thinner than Apple's. I've noticed lately that Apple no longer advertises their products as being amazingly thin, light or fast (which is pretty much all they used to do). Asus, Toshiba, Samsung and Motorola all now have better equipped tablets and phones. If you were confident that your products were better, why would you bother suing everyone so repeatedly, publicly and aggressively anyway? Does the entire company have a massive insecurity complex even with all their wild growth and amazing success? Or do they feel compelled to maintain Steve Job's rage against the rebel Android forces? The court cases and the company's attitude are pretty bizarre whichever way you look at them.
Engadget recently reported that Apple is attempting to sue Kodak for patent abuse now too. The lawsuit focuses on technologies that Kodak uses in its line of digital cameras, printers and "digital picture frames." (picture frames are square too I guess). The madness continues. Kodak has just filed for bankruptcy, so I'm not sure what Apple is hoping to achieve - settling old grudges perhaps? Hoping to get some of Kodak's patents as a settlement? Or perhaps they are just working their way through the phone book and got to the letter "K" under electronics.
The fact that the legal systems in places such as Germany and Australia have banned Samsung devices (or delayed them for 6 months or more) is a testament to how fractured the patent system is. Samung's Galaxy Tablet 10.1 only recently went on sale in Australia , 7 months after it was launched elsewhere due to Apple's litigation. In the technology world 7 months can be a lifetime - which I guess is the whole point of suing them in the first place. Killing the competition is easier than having to add and test new features and hardware. In the end though, the public and gadget users lose out as innovation is suppressed and new players in the market are too scared to try anything new out of fear that they will violate some vague, ill defined patent. Instead of battling it out using the best possible products in an open market place, companies tie up the court system with claims and counter claims that can take decades to work through the court systems. I know it's not just Apple, there are other companies that do exactly the same thing, but the frequency and enthusiasm with which Apple litigates are obscene.
Steve Jobs thought Android was a rip off of the iOS operating system and famously said Apple was "going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this," he said - which is ironic coming from a CEO who once claimed that "good artists invent, great artists steal". It's also ironic when a year later Apple blatantly copied Android's notification system and added it to iOS5. His claims of gadget originality and purity just do not hold water.
As one of the profit leaders in the US technology field, Apple should be a leader in other ways too, but they've managed to rapidly become a technological tyrant (Microsoft looked mild in comparison even when they "owned" the computer industry). Apple should be inspiring others to innovate, providing better working conditions (preferably in the US where they can adequately monitor their workers), giving back to their shareholders and rewarding the companies that help make their products so popular. All technology products have been built upon the work of legions of engineers and designers over decades and Apple is no exception. The foundation stones for all current iDevices come from IBM, Xerox, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Kodak, just to name a few. Apple do not own innovation - and God help us if they own the future.
Surprisingly, nothing has changed since Steve Jobs' death. Apple's Board, which includes such luminaries as the former Vice President Al Gore, has done little to stop the ridiculous war against technology - and fundamentally the user - that Steve Jobs started.
If their marketing power and litigation mania weren't enough, philosophically Apple has developed the most closed operating system in the industry. Apple uses formats and standards to lock users into their iTunes ecosystem and resists hardware and software formats they don't own (such as USB connections or open source video standards) and aggressively uses its preeminence and marketing power to openly ridicule formats that could potentially reduce their control - the most prominent example being Apple's war on Adobe's Flash (never has a software standard made so many headlines!). Burnt by Adobe in the past after Adobe refused to build design software for an early version of the Mac, and fearful that thousands of Flash developers would create apps for the iPhone that run directly from the web without having to go through Apple's storefront, they attacked Adobe with all barrels blazing. Amazingly, Flash runs just fine on the Android tablet and phones I've tried and Apple's claims of battery drain, virus proliferation and operating system chaos do not ring true now that the Adobe bashing has mostly ended.
Apple's "App Store" behaviour is another example of their freakish desire to control and dictate. Their erratic censorship practices, pricing restrictions and App Store developer submission demands have become the stuff of legend. They will happily rewrite their own App Store rules (on a daily basis if need be), changing policies on a whim to increase profit margins or stifle an app that poses a threat to their iTunes' centred universe. No one would have put up with this from Microsoft in the 80s. So why do we do so now? The power of marketing and threat of litigation probably.
We want people to "Think different" Apple have frequently claimed, but it's hard to see any evidence of this. Just as Apple blocks the attempts of users to access the internal components of their products (they've changed the screws on many so that normal tools can't be used to open them) they also want to keep a tight lid on innovations that they don't control or can't profit from - which effectively covers every technology company that isn't Apple.
As I write this article the third iPad launch has just come to an end. Once again Apple displayed their usual mild manner when launching their latest offering - which is in no way arrogant or boastful.
Chief executive Tim Cook took the stage and announced that Apple's new iPad 3 has "redefined once again the category Apple created".
It's hard to work out what exactly was redefined though. They simply increased the screen resolution and the speed and added a half decent camera (it's thicker and heavier too). If these claims were in any way realistic, Samsung would also have "redefined the category" when they released the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 a year before. Compared to the iPad 2, it featured a higher resolution screen, a better camera and was lighter and thinner to top it off. Equally, the Asus Transformer Prime, with its innovative detachable keyboard dock or the recently announced Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with a surface that can be drawn on with a pressure sensitive pen (and handwriting recognition to boot) should also have "redefined" something. Still, there will be massive queues to buy the new iPad I'm sure.
Apple may very well sell another trillion products in the next 15 minutes, they may well be the most popular technology company in the galaxy, but fundamentally, when all is said and done, they don't deserve the respect and adoration they receive, and they don't deserve your money.
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