Explaining the enigma of Apple

Mike Elgan outlines why Apple is unlike other technology vendors

All big companies have their critics. But what's interesting about Apple's detractors is universal surprise. Their disappointment often stems from finding out that Apple isn't the company they thought it was. So I'm going to explain some fundamental aspects of Apple's culture. Next time, you won't be blindsided and confused.

Here are four things that Apple believes that explain the unexplainable:

1. Everything Apple sells is an Apple product

Developer Paul Graham wrote an impassioned post recently called "Apple's Mistake", where he expressed his shock and disappointment at Apple's heavy hand with iPhone developers. Graham said the "App Store approval process is broken";"Apple doesn't "understand software"; and "They treat iPhone apps the way they treat the music they sell through iTunes".

That last statement is truer than Graham realises. Everything Apple offers on iTunes is viewed by Apple in the same way they view music: They're all Apple products. When you drop 99 cents for Lady Gaga's newish single, "Paparazzi", you're buying an Apple product, according to Apple. In fact, Ms. Gaga's only function in life is to make a marginal contribution to the overall Apple experience.

Graham thinks his product is his, and that Apple simply makes the hardware and software it runs on. But Apple views all of it as part of the Apple experience. If you want to sell an iPhone app, Apple will dictate the shape, size and look and feel of the buttons, windows, typeface, and how most of the user settings will appear. They will reject and ban it if it competes with another of their products, or even with possible product directions. If it offends Apple in some way — either because of sex, politics or religion or some other banned topic — Apple will simply deny it. And they'll take their sweet time deciding, too. As a developer, you have two options: love it or leave it.

This would make no sense if your assumption is that Apple is just another hardware and software maker cultivating an applications ecosystem. But it makes perfect sense if you realise that Apple views app developers as employees or contractors who have been allowed to work for Apple as long as they follow the rules.

Another bit of evidence for Apple's world view emerged recently. Long story short: A software company called The Little App Factory was put on notice by Apple's legal department to change the name of their product, iPodRip, because it contained the word "iPod". The owner wrote an impassioned letter to Jobs practically begging him to intervene and allow the product to keep its name. The man professed his undying loyalty to Apple, and pointed out how he even dropped out of school to devote his life to creating software for Apple products. He said he has six million customers, and the product has been recommended by Apple itself.

Jobs' reply was simply, "Change your apps name. Not that big of a deal. Steve"

This peon wasn't even worth the hassle of an apostrophe. You see the disparity in how each party views the relationship? The developer's attitude was: "Hey, I've devoted my life to your brand, and I have good reasons why I should be given special consideration as a loyal partner and friend of the company. We can work this out." Apple's attitude is: Get in line or you're fired."

This isn't now how CEOs talk to software partners. This is how CEOs talk to low-level employees or unimportant contractors.

That, in a nutshell, is Jobs' view of the relationship between Apple and its developer community.

2. Apple products are disposable

Apple makes high-quality, durable gadgets. I've dropped my iPhone many times, and it hasn't got a scratch on it. But don't let that fool you into thinking Apple wants those products to enjoy years and years of use.

Apple expects you to dump your old product and buy the new one just as soon as it comes out. And they don't expect you to sell the old one to someone else. There's no such thing as an old Apple product. There is only the current Apple product, and trash.

Phones similar in size to the iPhone, for example, typically have a removable battery. A battery that can be replaced is just common sense, given that batteries rapidly lose their ability to hold a charge after a few hundred charges. But iPhones are not designed to last. They're designed to be used until the new one comes out, then discarded. The same goes for iPods.

iPhone and iPod batteries don't make sense, unless you understand that these are disposable products. They look like fine china, but they're sold like paper plates.

3. Nothing exists unless Apple sells it

Steve Jobs famously said that "People don't read anymore." This comment (which you're reading, by the way), was made in response to a question about the Amazon Kindle. In Steve Jobs' world view, nothing exists outside the Appleverse. People don't read because Apple doesn't sell a reader.

Mark my words, when Apple ships its tablet or some other device that can be used for the serious reading of books, people will read again.

4. Apple doesn't want to be a successful business

Tech watchers love the horse race aspect of technology industry competition. Apple competes with Microsoft. Apple competes with Google. Apple competes with companies like HP. But Apple doesn't see it that way.

Industry titans like Microsoft, Google and HP instinctively "fill out" their product lines to dominate huge areas of technology. Microsoft, for example, wants Microsoft software running on wristwatches, supercomputers and everything in between. Google wants to offer every conceivable service that can be squeezed through an internet connection. HP's massive product line runs the gamut from consumer digital cameras sold at Best Buy to entire datacenters filled with enterprise systems.

Apple doesn't want to dominate like this. It has no interest in this kind of imperialist expansion. Apple is interested only in surgical strikes into this business or that product category, where they can solve design problems others have failed to solve.

Understanding this about Apple helps explain otherwise inexplicable decisions, such as why Apple got into the mobile phone handset business, and why the company is so ambivalent about business products.

To Apple, the mobile phone industry proved clueless at how to offer a compelling user experience with a phone, with its history of cramped buttons and claustrophobic user interfaces. They believed, correctly it turns out, that their designers could drop a game-changing phone into the market and "change the world" again. But when Apple casts its gaze at the enterprise space, it doesn't see sufficiently compelling design problems that will emotionally affect users. So why bother?

Apple's choices in markets it gets into make no sense, unless you understand that they don't want to dominate industries, or even maximise revenues. They just want to design and sell better products that will affect user experience in markets where that's an achievable goal.

Of course, business success is great. But Apple sees that as only a means to the end of shipping thrilling designs.

Steve Jobs was recently named CEO of the Decade by Fortune Magazine. I'm sure Jobs' ego was pleased by the designation. But ultimately, he doesn't care about this sort of thing as much as you might expect. Jobs doesn't want to be viewed by history as a Lee Iacocca or a Henry Ford. He wants posterity to look at him as a Mozart or a Da Vinci. He wants to be seen as a builder of beautiful things, not a builder of business empires.

Next time Apple does something that infuriates you, or makes you go "huh?", remember that Apple has its own unique world view. And only by understanding that perspective can you understand why Apple does what it does.

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