30 Years of [Freedom from] Apple
Friday, March 31, 2006
In honor of Apple Computer's 30th birthday, I would like to present myself as a target for flaming and write about why I am glad that Microsoft won the great PC war. And in case you are wondering if this is an early April Fool's joke, I assure you, I am dead serious.
To Apple's credit, their products are very well designed--even sexy--and that OS X's marriage of UNIX geekiness with slick interface is far better than any attempt made by the Linux people. But that is the extent of my love for the company. Yet, most geeks, Slashdot readers, and computer scientists all love Apple, so why not me?
Hail the Apple Monopoly
Let us consider an alternate universe where Apple triumphed over Microsoft. What would such a universe really look like? First, Apple will be a monopoly just as Microsoft is now. Microsoft's Windows monopoly is like a natural monopoly because most of the world's software was designed for Windows. If Apple's platform triumphed over Microsoft's, then these same forces would necessitate an Apple platform monopoly. Of course, that does not necessarily translate into a monopoly with market forces: Linux is an open platform and as a result, many companies produce different flavors of Linux and all Linux applications are compatible with all of these flavors--at least theoretically (it gets messy in practice). Would Apple support such an open platform? No. By all accounts, Apple is just as tight-fisted as Microsoft when it comes to such things. Don't believe me? Look at the emerging iTunes monopoly for online music sales. Apple has resisted all calls to open up the iTunes/iPod standard (much to the detriment of Linux users, who for some reason, still root for Apple), claiming that this is their prerogative. Gee, doesn't that sound an awful lot like Microsoft? But what about Darwin (the OS X core), you ask? While Apple's Darwin is nominally open-source (probably because Apple adapted it from FreeBSD), it is almost entirely internal to Apple and with the recent move to Intel chips, Apple is planning to close it off. As long as Apple ran on its own architecture, it could control the hardware and so it does not need to worry so much about the software, but as soon as Apple lost control of the hardware architecture by moving to Intel, it showed its true colors and clamped down. What about bundling? Let us not forget that Apple bundles just as many (if not more) toys in its operating system, from a web browser to a media player to calendaring software, etc. In the end, this alternate universe would still be dominated by a large monopolist with the same tight, closed grip, except that instead of people comparing Bill Gates to Darth Vader or the Borg, Steve Jobs will be the target of such mockery.
Emperor Jobs vs. Darth Gates
Unfortunately, Jobs would probably be less tolerant of such comparisons than Gates. When iCon, a biography of Jobs that he did not like, was written, Steve stirred controversy by personally banned the sale of all books by that publisher in Apple stores. Despite the large number of books written about Gates, he has not been known go ballistic like that (on the other hand, if it was Steve Ballmer...). It comes as no surprise that most biographies describe Gates as a relatively quiet thoughtful person who is fairly easy to get along with while most biographies describe Jobs as an overbearing control freak who alienated many of the people who have worked with him (I mean, how many people get ousted from their own company?). And while many people dismiss it as just an expensive marketing campaign, it's hard to ignore the fact that Gates is by far the most philanthropic person. It may be worth noting that, long before the anti-trust case, Gates had promised to donate almost everything.
So who would you rather have as the overlord of personal computing, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? If the decision is between Steve the megalomaniac or Bill the guy who pulled all-nighters playing bridge, I'd pick the latter.
Apple is also very trigger-happy when it comes to lawsuits, much more so than Microsoft. Are you a Mac enthusiast who posts about the latest rumored Apple product? We'll see you in court! Are you trying to get OS X to run on a regular Intel PC? Oh look, a pretty cease-and-desist letter. In contrast, Microsoft does not oppose Wine and makes no effort to silence people who talk about the myriad of ways to bypass Windows XP's anti-piracy features. Perhaps most telling of all is the long Apple-Microsoft lawsuit of the 90's in which Apple unsuccessfully tried to sue Microsoft for stealing the look and feel of the Macintosh. Fortunately, Microsoft won the case; if they had lost, the legal precedent that would have been set would be far worse than that of today's innovation-stifling software patents. It is ironic that the geek community's love affair with Apple seems to turn a blind eye to this long-forgotten case. Perhaps the greatest--and most chilling--irony, however, is that the Macintosh was itself not entirely original and that it was more or less "copied" from work done by Xerox PARC much in the same way Windows was "copied" from the Mac.
Microsoft's platform dominance certainly plays a role in maintaining its monopoly, but Apple's pricing helps a lot, too. While many complain about Microsoft's monopoly pricing, few pay attention to the fact that Apple's software prices are comparable to that of Microsoft's, and if you figure in the sorts of small incremental changes to the OS that Apple sells as an upgrade versus what Microsoft offers as a free service pack for XP, Apple could even be considered to be more expensive. Most notably, of course, is the fact that Apple computers themselves have always been more expensive than comparable PCs.
Hardware, Innovation, and Competition
Until the recent move to Intel, Apple's tight control over everything extended to its hardware; even commodity components like DVD drives were subject to the long dictatorial arm of Apple (I know this from experience tinkering with firmwares for such drives for Apple machines). The pace of innovation in computer hardware has far outpaced that of software, resulting in both low prices and very impressive computer hardware. Would PC CPU technology be where it is today without the competition between AMD and Intel? Would graphics card technology be where it is today without the duel between ATi and nVidia? This was all a byproduct of IBM's fateful decision to use proprietary technology for only one chip that was relatively easy to reverse engineer. The PC hardware platform may be dominant much in the same way that Windows is dominant, but unlike Windows or OS X, it is an open and free platform, and the wonders of that are numerous. I hesitate to imagine what the world of computing would be like if the IBM-Microsoft wagon got bumped off the road by the Macintosh. In such a scenario, by tightly controlling the hardware instead of allow the sort of free-for-all that became the PC industry (essentially extended the closedness of the OS platform down to the hardware), Apple dominance would have almost certainly stunted hardware competition and innovation.
Open-Source Lip Service
Just a quick little aside here: As I mentioned above, Apple's commitment to open-source is mostly superficial, at least in the case of Darwin (look at Google if you want to find a company that really supports open-source). This is even true in the case of the Safari web browser (whose rendering engine was built from the Linux KHTML project), when relations with the KHTML people soured after the latter complained that Apple was not very good about sharing the work that they did. The open-source-loving Slashdot crowd loves Apple, yet, what exactly has Apple done for the open-source community beyond the ceremonial nod?
But Microsoft is still Microsoft...
Of course, this is not to say that Microsoft is good. Microsoft has committed many sins of its own and it is by no means saintly. But I am not talking about absolutes, either: I am not comparing Microsoft to an idealized perfect tech company; I am comparing it to Apple. I have shown and argued that in many ways, Apple is just as bad, if not worse, than Microsoft. If anything, Steve Jobs is a much more tight-fisted and scary person than Bill Gates could ever hope to be. As such, to the extent that Microsoft's dominance has saved the world from the spectre of Apple's dominance, I am happy for it, though ideally, a Google-like company would have been preferable. Why, then, does the tech community fawn over Apple so much? Well, as I noted, Apple has a finesse and flair for style coupled with good marketing. Second, Apple is the underdog, and our society loves rooting for the underdog. Finally, most people do not realize that Apple's practices are strikingly similar to that of Microsoft's mostly because, as the underdog, these aspects of Apple do not draw much attention (it's a bit like security through obscurity).
So while the tech community celebrates Apple's 30th birthday, I will quietly thank Microsoft for putting Apple where it is today, take pride in being one of the few remaining iPod holdouts, and cling onto the hope that one day Google will take over the world and free us from Microsoft. :)
This entry was edited on 2006/03/31 at 11:00:12 GMT -0500.