From the first time I saw an iMac in my elementary school’s library, I’ve had a tortured relationship with Apple. Although I’m not a coder or a computer science expert, I’ve always felt a connection to the culture of remixing, open-source, free-software, etc. (I think a lot of my attitudes towards the internet were shaped by my introduction to Napster in the late 90s and torrents in the mid-2000s. I love that shit). But in my mind, Apple products always seemed to be one step behind the technology of the times. And even worse, I’d always felt that Apple products inhibited innovation in the field of computing. Computers and the internet developed so quickly in the 20th century partly because the tools of computing were concentrated in universities and among people whose inherent curiosity allowed them to continually push the boundaries of computing. People began using computers for millions of different purposes simply because programmers had the ability and the freedom to tinker around. Over the last 15 years, it always appeared to me that Apple products restricted the freedom of their users, thus restricting the ability of people to innovate and expand the bounds of what is possible in computing. In fact, that constricting nature of Apple products, and the slow release of new technologies, almost seemed to be its defining characteristic.
The iTunes Store
One of Apple’s first major developments in the 21st century was their opening of the iTunes Store. After years of legal battles regarding music downloads and the internet, Apple finally created a location where people could easily buy music for their computers and iPods. But along with this wonderful new store came something called FairPlay, a digital rights management (DRM) technology that restricted how songs from the iTunes store could be played. Among the limitations, the tracks could only be played on three different computers, any iPod could not have music from more than five iTunes accounts, and a playlist containing DRM songs could only be burned to CD seven times. Most notably, songs purchased from the iTunes store could not be played any portable digital music player besides ones made by Apple. Essentially, if you buy music from the iTunes store, you have to buy an iPod. After huge social backlash against DRM music over the years, Apple finally released their music DRM-free starting in 2009.
The MacBook Revolution
Around this same time, MacBook laptops produced by Apple began sweeping the nation. Although dozens of companies were producing laptops in the market at that time, Apple’s laptops had one curious characteristic: proprietary ports. At a time when power cords had the possibility for standardization (as has been occurring lately with micro-USB devices), Apple used a proprietary connection on its power adapters. Additionally, they used a proprietary video out connection so that, if anyone wanted to connect their laptops to a TV or projector, they would have to buy a $30 adapter. These restrictions necessarily made Apple computers much less versatile. The same attitude towards hardware was applied to iPods and iPhones, which charge and sync using a proprietary Apple port.
There’s an app for that…
Apple instantly became one of the most dominant competitors in mobile computing when they released the iPhone. But in doing so, they also charted the path of their mobile operating systems: closed, proprietary, and full of various forms of DRM. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Johnathan Zittrain, and the Free Software Foundation have all publicly commented on the restricting nature of Apple’s mobile operating system. But what exactly was the problem?
First, the iOS operating system itself is completely closed. This means that no ordinary computer enthusiasts would be able to easily tinker around with the way the operating system works or looks. In fact, when jailbreaking became common, Apple immediately went to the courts to attempt to make jailbreaking illegal (a battle they eventually lost). In addition to closed software, the customization ability of iPhones and iPads were surprisingly limited. There are no custom ringtones for receiving text messages. There aren’t any widgets to customize your home screen. Every iPhone looks and feels exactly the same. The code prevents customization.
After the iPhone, Apple eventually released the App Store – the one and only location where iPhone users could go to obtain applications for their device. But Apple decided to retain control over every application that was submitted to the App Store. Eventually, they decided to start rejecting any applications that would conflict with their ability to make money. Want to turn your phone into a wifi router for free? Sorry, you’ll have to pay AT&T or Verizon at least $20 a month for that. Want to access all of your music for free using Google Music? Sorry, you need to buy all your music from the iTunes store and pay for “iCloud” to listen to it wirelessly.
In addition, Apple habitually delays the release of new technologies to make sure they can maximize their profits at every step. One of the most egregious examples of this occurred when they released the “iPod Photo” for $500 and then released the first video iPod just four months later at a much lower price. They released the iPad 2 two months after Christmas 2010 to maximize the number of people who bought the older technology. Even the new iPhone 4GS that came out a few days ago still does not have 4G data (the network of the future) or an NFC chip (a technology of the future). This slow, deliberate release of new technologies impedes development within and beyond the existing frameworks.
So what does this all mean? Does this mean that Apple products have slowed down technological progress over the last 10 years? Would the (technological) world be a better place without Apple?
If Apple devices were the only devices that you could buy, then, I would probably argue that computing and innovation would probably be hindered. But because we have other platforms onto which coders and programmers can develop their ideas, Apple hasn’t slowed down technological progress, they’ve advanced it.
How? Apple’s incredibly simple interface, eye-catching designs, and ridiculously effective marketing have had an unbelievable effect in bringing outsiders into the world of computers. There was a time when the internet was pretty much just for dorks, researchers, gamers, and porn enthusiasts. Although computing for business is one of the main reasons for its growth, Apple has brought computing into homes of everyday Americans that ordinarily would never have become involved with computers.
Apple doesn’t sell products, it sells emotion. Ever since those original dancing silhouette iPod commercials, Apple has been making people believe their identities are tied to the devices they buy. You can’t appreciate literature without an iPad. You can’t preserve family memories without iMovie on a Macbook. And I think that is the greatest legacy of Steve Jobs. He may not have been an innovator from a technical perspective, but he was a visionary from a cultural perspective. For people who ordinarily may never have been able to use computers, Jobs designed products they could easily use. This has brought so many people into the field of computing that it has necessarily advanced the field, albeit in a nontraditional sense. Sure, Apple app developers are much more restricted than Android app developers, but the sheer number of people who have begun developing apps due to the popularity of Apple has absolutely increased people’s interest in mobile computing. They may have been on the wrong side of many legal battles involving DRM, but Steve Jobs will forever be remembered as a cultural icon: someone who created a seemingly magical brand of devices that have come to define how our society interacts with the world around it.