Sunday, August 24, 2008

The two faces of Apple

I would like to extend a heartfelt "thank you" to all of my new readers from Urban Thought Collective! I am sincerely proud and humbled to be a part of this community. Now, on to the tech!

Last week, I gave you an overview of the major players in the coming mobile-phone slugfest that's about to hit the market. Apple vs. Google vs. the handset manufacturers (Motorola, Samsung, et al). If I were to portray this market conflict in terms of a boxing analogy, I would invite you to recall the Tyson vs. Spinks fight circa 1988. I was all of 14-years-old and I vividly recall watching the pay-per-view event at a friends' house. We were glued to the screen as my buddy's mother got up to fix herself a drink in the kitchen about 30 seconds into Round 1. When she returned ONE MINUTE later, the fight was OVER!!! Iron Mike had knocked Michael Spinks into dreamland at 1:30 in the first round. I remember seeing Spinks' eyes roll up into his head and thinking, " Damn Tyson hits hard!" while listening to my buddy's mother say, "You're KIDDING me! The fight is OVER??? And I missed it???"

In this case, Apple is Mike Tyson, and the rest of the industry is Spinks. When the iPhone hit the market in June of 2007, it literally knocked the industry on it's collective ass. It had an intuitive touchscreen that would respond to finger touches as opposed to random other knocks and jostles. The applications included a shockingly cool webbrowser! (check it)



For the first time, a phone could display regular (as opposed to mobile-formatted) websites, either portrait or landscape, and with touch-driven zoom options! And that was just the tip of the iceberg. ITunes was seamlessly integrated making this a truly multimedia phone. There was GPS, wi-fi, instant messaging, video, and more all driven through a miniature version of Mac's much-lauded operating system. There were even select 3rd party applications you could buy (more on this later).

But even as the early-adopter segment cleaned AT&T and Apple stores out of their inventory, there was a growing discontent among some of the fanboi's. To give you some perspective on the origins of this anti-Apple angst, I invite you to take a trip with me back to the year 2001. Steve Jobs was in the 4th year of his second go-round as CEO at Apple, Pixar Studios (Jobs' baby) was still riding high on Toy Story, and a new digital audio player called the iPod had just debuted to the general public. The iPod, although slow to pick up steam, proved to be a gadget juggernaut and within three years it was a pop-cultural darling. Uber-trendy Apple was revered for creating a device that "just worked" for the average consumer. The iPod was simple and intuitive; a stark contrast to Microsoft and the Windows gauntlet. However, the blissful Apple experience came with a hefty price tag: thirty percent more $$ on average than it's competitors. And then there was the dreaded vendor lock-in.

(SIGH) This is where things get complicated. Although Apple's iPod was revolutionary in the digital music player market, many a consumer had no idea that upon purchasing it, the music they purchased via the iTunes music store was largely playable ONLY on the iPod. The actual songs were copy-protected and encoded in a format NOT playable by other MP3 players! Many consumers were shocked to find out that they could not share their iTunes music with a friend, or even back it up to another computer. Apple kept tight control over every aspect of purchasing and playback, all in the name of "stability and usability" for the consumer. It was like buying a car that comes with a driver. But that driver will only take you to destinations he deems appropriate or safe.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the iPhone is attracting the same criticism as it's iPod brethren. Only this time, the lockdown is positively stifling. Although consumers have the power of a portable computer in the palm of their hands, only "Apple approved" applications can be sold via the iPhone application store.
Hackers ultimately produced a "jailbreak" application to open the iPhone so that consumers could use features the way *they* wanted, not necessarily the way Apple wanted. Observe. So easy, a caveman can do it:



In under 60 seconds, a plethora of non-Apple approved applications became available to iPhone owners. Thus began the war between Apple and the Hackers. You see, the one constant about Apple, Inc. is that they *MUST* be in control at all times. Hackers jailbreak the iPod, Apple updates and overrrides the jailbreak, Hackers patch the override, and so on ad nauseum. It is a never-ending war to either keep the iPhone locked down or open it for all.

And that is the real decision that potential iPhone consumers must ultimately make. Do you want Apple to drive? Or would you like to be in the driver's seat, constantly vigilant for Apple updates or killswitches that will replace you at the helm? Do you trust Apple to always accept the "best of breed" applications into their store? Or would you rather "roll the dice" and figure out what works for you while dodging sniper shots from Apple?

Next time, I'll be discussing Google's new Android operating systems and the first phones running on that platform. There is so much COOL innovation happening with cell phones right now, I can't stand it!!!
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