Has Apple Become What it Once Railed Against?

The above video is Apple’s (in)famous advert announcing the launch of the first Macintosh computer, which would compete with IBM’s latest offerings. At that time, Steve Jobs, ever the drama queen, expressed that being outsold by IBM would lead to a “Dark Ages” of technology, and that Apple – as the tacit technological heroes – must come in and save the day. With the Mac due to launch in January 1984, the advert was portraying the masses blindly going along with other computers, and the individuality expressed by Apple saving the day – and thus saving the world from a technological Dark Ages.

The irony though is that Jobs has always been bent on controlling Apple computers and how the user interacts with them. So intent was he on moving towards point-and-click with a mouse that he instructed the original Macintosh to have no arrow cursor keys on the keyboard, thus forcing users to interact with a mouse even if they didn’t want to. When asked if he wanted to conduct market research into what the public wanted, he responded that he didn’t because the consumers “don’t know what they want until we show them.” Far from being the antidote to the Big Brother of 1984, then, Jobs was shaping his company to be exactly that by controlling how the user interacted with the machine. This control went right down to such levels as designing the computer’s case in such a way that only Apple engineers could open it, removing the possibility for users to open it up to look inside.

Fast-forward to today and Apple’s portable devices – the iPhone, iPod and iPad – still adhere to this philosophy. In some ways it’s beneficial – by controlling the hardware and software Apple is able to produce a seamless user experience. The downside, however, is that the user is severely limited in how they use the devices. This means that, by Jobs’s own acknowledgement, the portable devices all look and act exactly the same. And the focus on simplicity has meant that many features have been stripped from the products. The iPhone, for example, was extremely limited in its first release, to the point that it lacked 3G connectivity, GPS and bluetooth transfer capability. Although it has progressed a lot since 2007, it hasn’t introduced anything revolutionary since its inception and indeed still lacks many features offered in other devices. Its uniqueness now lies mainly in its number of applications available – yet many of these apps are merely making up for the lacking native functionality.

Apple workers were quick to talk of Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion”, which essentially means his ability to twist and distort facts to suit his ideas, and persuade others to believe him. This is something the public has been able to witness in his public keynotes, and it allowed him to sell products that lacked many features as “revolutionary” and “amazing” – buzz words he used for all his products to convince the public that that’s exactly what they were.

While the “1984” advert has gone down in history as one of the greatest advertisements ever made, there is the wondering of whether Apple should have been the company to release it. After all, what’s more Big Brother than restricting something to such a degree that users are forced to adapt how they use it? While cursor keys have made it back to Apple keyboards, the ethos is still present. In iTunes, purchased items can only be played on Apple’s software – forget trying to put the iTunes film you purchased onto any other device than an Apple one. If you have an iPad, thanks to it missing the industry-standard of a micro-USB port, if you want to connect a digital camera to place your photos onto it, you need to spend more money purchasing Apple’s own cables to allow you to do so.

But to what degree does this “walled garden” approach genuinely benefit the user? Certainly, a good experience is given to the user by Apple managing its own hardware and software, so it can ensure that the experience is seamless. But it’s likely a stretch of the truth to suggest that micro-USB ports cannot be included without ruining the user experience, or giving a degree of customisation to the iPhone and iPad will ruin the experience. It seems instead that the ideology was born from Jobs’s desire to control – something that he never tried to hide, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man explains in great detail the lengths to which Jobs would go to ensure control of his products.

With Jobs’s untimely death and a new CEO at the helm of Apple, it will be interesting to see if more flexibility becomes of the iDevices.