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Apple is one of those companies that you either love or you love to hate. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground; either you’re an Apple fanatic or you’re part of the loyal opposition.
What is it about Apple that encourages such extreme emotions?
Enter the Reality Distortion Field
One of the primary things that non-believers find terribly annoying about Apple is the way the company constantly convinces people that its products are the latest, greatest things. It doesn’t matter what the company is selling, their version of it is way cooler than anything done previously — even if it has been previously.
Skeptics call this Apple’s “reality distortion field,” and it was particularly persuasive during the reign of the company’s late founder, Steve Jobs. Steve was the ultimate snake oil salesman; he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, as the saying goes, especially if those refrigerators had smoothly curving edges and a shiny surface.
Jobs was a hell of a salesman, really. I remember seeing Jobs present the NeXT computer during his forced sabbatical from Apple in 1988. Now, there was really no practical use for the NeXT cube back then, it was kind of a solution in search of a problem, but everybody left that room wanting one. I wanted one. If it wasn’t so damned expensive, I would have pulled out my credit card and bought one on the spot. (Fortunately, the reality distortion field fades over time and distance, and I ended up with my bank account intact and no NeXT on my desk.)
My point is that Apple (and Jobs, especially), does a great job putting perfume on the pig. To many, that qualifies them as ultimate con men, putting one over on unsuspecting (but willing) consumers. It’s all about the image, or the marketing, or the whatever, and underneath all that glitz is a line of rather ordinary products. The “sheeple,” as Apple converts are sometimes known, are buying stuff only because of the way it’s presented, not because of how it works.
While I recognize and understand Apple’s reality distortion field, I think critics may be missing something with this criticism. Yes, Apple’s products often do what other product have done before, but they typically do it much better than did the previous competition. Apple really does create products that work better, and that’s what attracts a large number of the faithful.
Take, for example, the iPod. There were MP3 players before, lots of them, but none of them made playing music near as easy as the iPod did. The introduction of the scroll wheel was a stroke of genius that elevated the iPod above ordinary MP3 players; Apple’s (later) addition of the iTunes ecosystem only enhanced the experience. The iPod became a hit not because of clever marketing (although it had that, too), but because it truly was a category-changing product.
Same thing with the iPhone and iPad. Sure, there were smartphones and tablets before, but these two products redefined their markets. No other smartphone was as easy to use or came with as many useful applications as did Apple’s; likewise, the iPad took a moribund market for tablet computing and completely reinvented it, in terms of both interface and application. That’s not a distortion of reality, it’s a redefinition of a product category. Anybody who has a beef with that is operating in their own anti-Apple distortion field.
The Products are Overpriced
Let’s admit that Apple has created some really Earth-shaking products; it’s hard to imagine today’s society without iPods and iPhones, after all. So the products are good — but are they good values?
Look, Apple stuff is expensive. All of it. Whether you’re talking Mac computers that are priced 50% or more higher than their Windows counterparts, the iPhone that comes in a few hundred dollars more than a comparable Samsung Galaxy, or the iPad that’s almost twice as expensive as a Kindle Fire, Apple’s products are priced at the high end of what one might expect.
That doesn’t necessarily make Apple’s products a bad bargain, especially when millions of consumers continue to choose them over lower-priced competition. But you’re really not getting a good bang for your buck when you play the Apple way.
Of course, there are lots of other brands out there that command a premium price. Think of BMW or Mercedes in the automobile market, Bang & Olufsen or NAD in the audio market, or Armani or Versasce in fashion clothing. But none of these brands appeal to the mainstream like Apple does; Apple is that rare brand that has a large base of average consumers who are willing to pay elevated prices.
Is Apple gear worth the additional bucks? Consumers must think so, or they wouldn’t pay the price. But no one is arguing that Apple products present a good value; you’re paying for the brand and the image, as much as you are the functionality.
It’s a Cult
Here’s the thing about loyal Apple customers: they tend to blindly support everything company does. To the faithful, Apple is a magic company that can do no wrong. It’s as if they’ve been indoctrinated into a religious cult, say the critics. And there’s some evidence of that.
Not that Apple is an any way non-secular. But the way its most devout fans behave, it’s easy to see why people compare the company to a cult.
Think about it. Devotees regard all the company’s products with an almost religious reverence. Steve Jobs is viewed in heroic terms, the savior of the company (and the tech industry and western civilization as we know it), almost a God figure. There’s a sense of community among the faithful not unlike that found in a church; if you’re not part of that community, you’re a Godless heathen and treated as such.
That may be overdoing it, but not by much. I’ll tell you, the Apple cult really makes its presence known when anyone dares to criticize the great God company. (Like I’m doing now; I look forward to your flame emails.) It’s not unlike when a civilian writes something nasty about the Church of Scientology; the responses are vitriolic, to say the least. (Oh wait — now I went and insulted the Scientologists. I’m going to get a lot of hate mail on this one.)
Now, we all know that Apple really isn’t a cult, despite the fervent nature of some of the company’s followers. But don’t you think it’s odd just how devoted some of Apple’s faithful really are? Kind of creeps me out, to be honest. It’s just a damned company, after all.
They’re Not All Winners
If there is a cult of Apple, it has to ignore the fact that the company is not infallible. That’s right, the great God Apple sometimes makes mistakes.
To present an unblemished image, however, those mistakes have to be swept under the rug — or, more appropriately, wiped from the history books. Does anyone remember the Apple Newton PDA? Or the eWorld online service? Or even the original Apple failure, the Lisa computer from the mid-1980s? And what about Apple TV, which Apple continues to push, however subtly, despite almost non-existent sales figures?
Heck, Apple’s failures continue to this day. Just look at the new Maps app in iOS 6. What you have here is a woefully inadequate substitution for the established and reliable Google Maps, originally included in the operating system. Apple’s Maps app tends to misplace major landmarks, direct users over nonexistent roads, and display major thoroughfares in a kind of Picasso-esque surrealism. The Maps app not only isn’t an improvement over the app it replaced, it’s a major step backwards. Certainly not the type of winning products the cult of Apple likes to believe in.
Although, mark my words, the Apple faithful will find a way to spin this one as a success instead of a failure, because that’s what the Apple faithful do. (I’m already seeing articles that claim the Maps app as a necessary “first step” towards building a world-class mapping application. Glad to be part of the millions of people testing this one for free.)
Have It Their Way
Apple likes to present itself as a benevolent ruler, but a ruler it is. And few rulers are truly benevolent. They like to maintain their rule, by whatever means necessary.
In Apple’s case, that means forcing its customers to play by its rules, no matter what. Want to transfer the iTunes music you purchased to another computer? Only if that computer is authorized, and doesn’t exceed the allowed limit. Want to move your iPhone from one phone carrier to another, or hack your phone to install non-approved apps? Can’t do it. You get the idea; Apple has its way of doing things, and you will like them.
It’s Apple’s way or the highway, and that comes to new “features,” as well. Apple just introduced a new Lightning port for the iPhone 5 that supersedes the larger port used on previous models. Forget that fact that all the iPhone accessories on the market — including the connector in your car — work only with the older port and not with the newer port, Apple has decided that we’re all moving to the new one. Huzzah!
To add insult to injury, Apple could have just adopted the industry-standard mini-USB port, but then it wouldn’t be proprietary — and Apple is all about proprietary. It’s their way of controlling things — and users.
So Sue ‘em
Speaking of control, Apple not only wants to control its users, it wants to control entire industries. No, I’m not talking about dominating industries by releasing great products; that’s not enough for the fruits from Cupertino. No, Apple seeks to control industries through litigation. All hail the Apple lawsuit!
Apple owns a lot of patents on a lot of things, and through them seeks to trample the competition. Witness the recent suit against Samsung; Apple sued its competitor for infringing on various iPhone patens and won a $1 billion judgment.
Look, I’m all for protecting intellectual rights, but this type of litigious behavior not only stifles competition, it stifles innovation. Apple wants to be the only player in town, and it has the legal might to drive competitors out of business. That’s not good for consumers; as good as Apple products are, they can be even better when competitors force more innovation. Bad Apple. Bad, bad Apple.
Then There’s the Slave Labor Thing...
While we’re on the subject of bad Apple, it’s only fair to touch on the subject of slave labor — or how Apple keeps its costs low and generates more profit from its high-priced products.
Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and iPods are all manufactured in factories located in China. That country does not have the same strong labor laws that we have here in the good old U S of A — and, not coincidentally, do not pay near the hourly wages that American factories do. Apple’s quest for cost savings results in their products being made in what one could kindly refer to as substandard conditions. The New York Times reported that
“Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records…”
There’s no way to spin that. It’s an intolerable situation, and Apple is benefiting from it. I’m sure that other big companies are just as bad, but this reliance on near-slave labor is very much at odds with the image of Apple as a company that can do no wrong. This is wrong, and Apple is doing it. There’s no way to defend that.
It’s Not the Same without Steve Jobs
For many, Apple the company is synonymous with Steve Jobs, the man. Jobs was Apple’s co-founder (along with Steve Wozniak — who hasn’t been part of the company for ages), and drove the company and its products as if it were his personal plaything. Jobs decided what products to produce, what features they would contain, how they would be priced, and how they would be sold. To say that Jobs was Apple personified is not an understatement.
To the extent that Jobs had an uncanny knack for knowing what the public wanted, and for promoting that product (via the patented reality distortion field), Apple became a success. If any one man could drive a company to dominance in the market, Jobs was that man.
Unfortunately, Steve Jobs passed away in 2011. There still may be a few Jobs-driven projects in the pipeline, but soon enough we’ll see how Apple functions as a post-Jobs company. We may not like what we see.
Is it coincidental that one of Apple’s biggest foul-ups, the aforementioned Maps app, came after Jobs left the helm? Do critics’ rumbling about the lack of innovation in the iPhone 5 reflect on the lack of Jobs’ leadership? Can the company continue on its rocket ship ride under other peoples’ guidance?
That all remains to be seen. If Apple truly was a one-man-shop, then Apple devotees are bound to be disappointed in the company’s future products. If, on the other hand, Jobs was a leader who built an effective team around him, then we may see the post-Jobs era continue the successes that Jobs himself directed. The jury’s out on this one — for a little while, at least.
So, is Apple a company to be loved or one to be hated? It kind of depends on your viewpoint.
To the Apple faithful, there can be no convincing that the company is anything less than perfect. (Unless, of course, the post-Jobs era disappoints mightily, in which case the cult of Apple will likely turn into the cult of Steve, waiting for the second coming of the messiah.) To those who have not ingested the Kool-Aid, Apple remains an overhyped, overvalued, over controlling purveyor of overpriced, underwhelming, unnecessary tech gadgets.
The reality is somewhere in between, of course; Apple produces great products that are a little on the pricey side, and it does whatever it can to increase its market share and profits. That doesn’t make the company God-like, nor does it make the company evil. Apple is just another corporation peddling products for profit, nothing more and nothing less.