x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Apple in a garden of good and evil

The new tablet computer has features that seem to be about protecting its market rather than serving users. Is the company losing its cool?

Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National

As Apple launched its new iPad to great global fanfare, some of the company's long-term fans made a less rapturous realisation. What if Apple were turning evil? As a lifelong lover of all things Apple, this hurts. I remember clearly my parents bringing home an Apple Macintosh in 1985: as a four-year-old nerd, I was already dissatisfied with the Commodore 64 in my classroom. The Mac made me care about computers.

And like true love, I stayed faithful even when logic told me otherwise, through the dark ages of the 1990s, when Apple was code word for underpowered, overpriced and incompatible. The company's return to form, beginning at the turn of the century, was an emotional victory as much as a technical one - we'd always known they would come good in the end, supported by our faith and love. But now, after the best decade of our relationship, I'm having second thoughts for the first time. It may not be rotten and it still looks delicious, but the Apple we see today is withering. There was a time in the not too distant past when Microsoft and its founder, Bill Gates, were also considered revolutionaries, fighting an insurgency against the old guard.

Mr Gates, who still looks boyish today in his 50s, graced the covers of 1980s magazines as an infant visionary, and Microsoft embodied the youthful energy and genius of American entrepreneurship. Within a decade, he was the richest man in the world and Microsoft was rapidly shifting to a new role as a corporate behemoth, squashing competitors like bugs. Its dominance of the personal computer operating system allowed it to swallow entire markets, from word processing to web browsers and business software. The pattern repeated itself with Google, which in less than a decade has grown from an impossibly charming, don't-be-evil start-up to a US$170 billion (Dh624.49bn) corporation getting into bed with Chinese state censors and flexing serious lobbying muscle in Washington. (Yes, I know that they are threatening to pull out of China, but I suspect that is more to do with their lack of success in a difficult market than suddenly growing a conscience.)

There is a certain inevitability about the transition. A 100-person upstart picking away at the competitors faces a completely different set of challenges than a multibillion-dollar public company with tens of thousands of employees and products that form the core of a vast global market. But things have always been different at Apple, a perpetual underdog that for most of its 30-year history has been admired primarily by a clique of enthusiasts, graphic designers and digital publishers.

Even when its iPod, which brought the company squarely into the mainstream, held an incredible 70 per cent of the market for MP3 players, Apple's products retained a revolutionary cool. No one, even the most determinedly independent hipsters, wanted to conceal the iconic white earphones. The same goes for the iPad, which will be embraced with pride by millions of Apple lovers. But the launch of the product is a tipping point for Apple.

With the unquestionable superiority of its products, Apple now dominates the market for high-end smartphones, music players, digital entertainment downloads and mobile phone applications. Its strength in each of these markets helps it consolidate its position in the others. The market for tablet computers is likely to become an Apple-owned one. It is worth reiterating that this market strength is based on excellent products, hard work and relentless innovation, not through bad business practice. Apple was not granted this position by a government, and it does not enjoy state-enforced barriers to entry in its markets. The same can be said for Microsoft, and its near monopoly of the operating system came from making excellent software available to the open market faster than anyone else. The company made the right decisions at the right time, and reaped the rewards.

But what Microsoft did with that monopoly is what matters, and the same can be said for Apple. In launching the iPad, it revealed two features that show an open hostility to the choices of its customers, and a clear intention to use its market position to destroy a popular competitor. Like the iPhone, the iPad connects to a mobile network for web browsing. Mobile operators around the world offer special packages for internet access, and the market is becoming increasingly competitive, even in the cosy duopoly of the UAE.

But Apple has decided not to allow its customers to choose from the plans available in their market. The iPad does not accept the standard SIM card used in every GSM mobile phone in the world, instead using a new format that is half the size of the regular cards. This means a typical mobile SIM cannot fit in an iPad, and vice versa. The end result is that if you want to connect your iPad to a mobile network, you will need to ask your telecommunications provider for the new, iPad-only SIM card. The operator can decide to attach whatever pricing and package they want to that SIM card, knowing that there is no competition. Apple has effectively created a parallel, competition-free market.

The reasoning behind Apple choosing to use this anti-consumer SIM format is unclear. The feature was only mentioned in passing during the iPad launch, and has not been discussed by the company since. But it is certainly a favour to the mobile operators, an industry that benefits from close friendships with Apple. It is difficult to imagine a technical justification for the micro-SIM format, which was originally designed for smaller, mobile-enabled devices like watches and toys. That Apple is putting it in a device more than three times the size of the iPhone - which fits a regular SIM just fine - shows the company is beginning to make decisions based on factors other than what is best for its customers.

The same can be said for the decision not to allow the iPad's web browser to display content in the Flash format, effectively making most online video and web-based applications unavailable on the device. Apple's official reasoning for blocking Flash content is that it is processor-intensive and unreliable, draining batteries and crashing browsers. If that is true, one wonders why Apple allows its laptop and desktop computers to accept such an unreliable format. And if battery life is a concern, why not give users the option to switch Flash on and off when needed?

More likely is that Apple does not want Flash-based games and applications, accessible though the web browser, to compete with its own lucrative monopoly on the distribution of mobile applications. The decision makes business sense, but is bad for consumers and bad for competition. One might even call it evil, if one were so inclined. @Email:tgara@thenational.ae