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It’s folly to underestimate Apple’s contributions

29 Aug

I’m back from my short vacation and what’s the first thing I see? A character assassination attempt by my fellow Macleans blogger Jesse Brown.

Just kidding. I have nothing but respect for Jesse and love his stuff (his interview a few years back with Jim Prentice, where the industry minister hung up on him, is one of my all-time favourites). He messaged me while I was gone to ask if I was okay with him rebutting my blog post the other day about Steve Jobs and Apple’s importance to technology over the past decade. Of course I was, so he had at it.

To summarize, Jesse challenged my assertions that Apple changed everything with a slew of products that included the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. He went on to say that Google has been the far more important technology company over the past 10 years.

Just as he thought I was “off my nut,” I think he’s similarly out to lunch, not so much for his conclusion but for how he got there.

First, a mea culpa of sorts. Jesse says I was wrong to say that Jobs himself has been the most important person of the decade, that “Osama Bin Laden must be spinning in his grave.”

No argument there. I’m a technology journalist and commentator and don’t necessarily consider myself qualified to discuss who the most important and influential person overall might be. I thought it was a given that I was limiting myself to the world of tech, but perhaps not. If so, my bad.

As far as which company has been more important, it wouldn’t be as straightforward an argument as Jesse suggests. While I’d probably also favour Google in that debate, it wouldn’t be without reservations, which is where we differ. Jesse asserts that Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic – that all it has done is perfected the work of the previous century and only changed the way things look:

It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone.

Google, meanwhile, is the company that has reinvented advertising, organized all the information on the internet in a meaningful way, driven cloud computing and created “a data-driven economy fueled by the input of individuals.”

Again, I don’t disagree with the arguments for Google, but I do take umbrage with the serious undervaluing of Apple – and every other hardware maker, for that matter. Such a position completely discounts a full half of the internet because without the things that actually connect to it, there is no internet. It’s just an electronic ether that doesn’t really exist, much like heaven (as far as science can prove). Until we can connect our brains directly to this virtual miasma of data that Google has done such a good job organizing, we’re going to be reliant on companies to make hardware that acts as the intermediary.

There are many hardware companies that are important to the internet, from Cisco and network equipment manufacturers to HP and other server makers. Apple and other consumer-facing companies, however, are the ones that decide how every-day people access and use that miraculous internet.

Apple is just one of many makers of this sort of stuff, but its impact has been far more than aesthetic. It hasn’t just made things look nice, it has led the market and invented entire categories of products, all of which exploit, expand and bring value to the internet that we treasure so much. And before the Apple haters jump down my throat, there is a big difference between inventing a “product” and a “category.” Apple may not have invented the tablet computer, for example, but it sure did motivate the section for them at Best Buy. Apple didn’t invent smartphones either, but it absolutely kickstarted demand for them.

That said, isn’t a company that has expanded the ways and means in which people access all that information and data on the internet just as valuable as the company that organized it and did nifty things with it? I think so.

Jesse also argues that much of what Apple has done was inevitable:

If the iPod and iTunes never existed, online music sales might have taken years longer to develop from the ashes of Napster. But it still would have happened… [With the iPhone Jobs] may have jumpstarted the popularization of the mobile Internet by a year or so.

Couldn’t the same be said of Google? There were search engines before it – all Sergey Brin and Larry Page did was come up with a particularly effective algorithm that eliminated human labour from the equation. While Yahoo had employees manually surfing the web and inputting search results, Google had computers doing the same, which gave it a huge efficiency advantage that ultimately crushed all competitors. Google Maps is similarly a fine tool, but isn’t it just a shinier version of Mapquest? Gmail is also great, but isn’t it just a better Hotmail?

Google’s real innovation was in figuring out how to apply ads to all of this stuff and make piles of money from them, which in turn enables everything else it does. In a way, all Google did was get to that now-logical conclusion before anyone else.

The point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s Apple or Google – it’s wrong to disparage a company just because it thought of a better way to do something that somebody else did before. That’s the essence of innovation.

Getting back to the iPhone, it’s hard to overstate just how big an impact it has had. Prior to its release, when corporate users were busy punching emails into their BlackBerrys, mobile data was unbelievably expensive. Here in Canada, a single gigabyte cost somewhere in the realm of $2,500. If Jobs’ biggest accomplishment over the past 10 years could be pinpointed, my vote would go to his convincing AT&T to offer unlimited data on the iPhone for less than $100. From his perspective, there was no point in releasing a handy data- and web-enabled device if people weren’t going to use it because of its prohibitive cost, so he somehow forced AT&T to play ball. Carriers across North America had no choice but to follow suit, which is why we now have a smartphone and mobile internet boom – one that Google is coincidentally profiting from.

The smartphone originators – BlackBerry, Nokia or Microsoft – could have tried to do that, and for that matter so too could have Google, but they didn’t. It was Apple that dragged the internet off of computers and into the mobile light of day. That’s a huge accomplishment.

Jesse is also a self-avowed non-believer in the iPad and, by extension, tablets at large:

I’ve yet to notice any real impact of the gadget… Tablets are not the written word’s savior or the future of the digital age. They’re just a different kind of computer that adds comfort while subtracting control.

That misses the point of what a post-PC world is – it’s a future where computing is made invisible and divided into different devices in different situations (until we get that direct brain-internet connection, that is).

A few years ago, if you wanted to do any sort of computing work – write an article, look up movie showtimes, edit a video or watch a movie – you had to either sit down at your desktop or pull out your laptop. Now, smartphones are cutting into all of that, as are tablets.

I took this tablet hating to task a few months ago in a post where I professed my love for them. That love has only gotten stronger since. I write my stories and blog posts on a computer, but I do everything else – read books, watch movies while on the go, play games, hotel check-ins, social media, mapping, check the weather, you name it – on an iPad. A few weeks ago, I had coffee with an editor who told me about how her elderly parents had taken up computing thanks to the iPad. The former Luddites used it to book a trip out west, then emailed photos once they were there. My old Polish mother has also expressed an interest in tablets. That fact alone, if you knew her, is a major impact.

Businesses are adopting them too. A few months ago, when I was taking a shuttle from the L.A. airport, I couldn’t help but notice the buses all used iPads for route planning and organization. Similarly, The Guardian had an article over the weekend about how airlines are using tablets for their flight plans. These are anecdotal examples, but more and more of them are popping up every day. Add them up and you have the makings of a real impact. The actual numbers, which show that PC sales are sliding because of tablets, are starting to show the same thing.

A post-PC world, therefore, isn’t one where computers are made obsolete – it’s one where the majority of computing is done on mobile devices.

The bottom line to all of this is that it’s easy to like Google and hate Apple, especially if you’re a journalist. One is relatively open and preaches the same while the other jealously guards its secrecy and is otherwise a closed book. Despite that, Apple still manages to get an undue amount of media attention, which rankles many.

By the same token, it’s easy to hate on the top dog – and let’s face it, that’s what Apple is in consumer tech (it has near-monopoly status with iPods, iTunes and iPads; has the top-selling smartphone by far despite Android’s collective market share leadership; and is on the verge of finally conquering Microsoft in computers). While the company amassed an army of fanboy followers over much of its history as the underdog in the epic struggle against the “evil empire” (Microsoft), it’s perhaps understandable that haters are now popping out of the woodwork. It’s poetic justice and all that.

As a neutral observer with no stake in this issue either way, I can’t say I particularly care whether Google or Apple is the more influential and important company of the past decade. Both have been drivers of major change and will likely be vital to the continued evolution of the internet and technology in general, at least for the next few years. To dismiss or discount the accomplishments of either, however, is folly.

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10 Comments

Posted by on August 29, 2011 in apple, Google, internet, ipad, iphone

 

10 responses to “It’s folly to underestimate Apple’s contributions

  1. Marc Venot

    August 29, 2011 at 3:21 am

    To change perspective maybe we can talk about numerization (digitalization) since Canada switch in three days.
    Around two decades ago Europe came with a proposal for analogic HDTV. It looked gorgeous but it was too expansive. North America and Japan decided that it wasn’t the way to go and their arguments winned the day.

    Sony had the market of portable music with their walkman and RCA did build mp3 players before Apple but both are now marginalized in that domain.

    At one time Hypercard and Cyberdog were the hot topics at Apple. It would be interesting to look how those concepts were digested into the web.

     
  2. Russell McOrmond

    August 29, 2011 at 7:16 am

    My critique of your position would be simpler: While I agree that Apple has had massive influence, I’m not convinced the more positive sounding phrase of “contribution” is appropriate.

    Yes, this is from the perspective of a political activist that fights to ensure that owners of technology control the technology they own. My reasons range from it being what I believe is right in a just society, to being a question of “ownership of the means of production” in a knowledge economy. I believe that fighting against private citizens controlling the technology that they own is unjust as well as anti-capitalist.

    Mr. Jobs more than any other individual, and Apple more than any other company, has been the most visible on the other side of this political fight. Yes, there are other political actors such as Sony and to a lesser degree Microsoft, but these other entities haven’t been able to be as politically successful as Jobs/Apple.

    I also disagree with Jesse as I believe that far more than aesthetic, it has been the political influence of Apple that has been their greatest impact. Many people who may otherwise be activists and freedom fighters in other aspects of their lives have been perfectly willing to give up freedom for aesthetic/convenience/whatever as they boot up their Mac or iPadLocked devices.

     
  3. Alexander Trauzzi (@Omega_)

    August 29, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I thought about your post on the ride to work today.

    First, I love tablets too. But let’s remember just which OS Apple tends to be implementing the features of lately…

    To say that Apple has contributed is misleading. I’d assert that if anything, their net effect will finally be seen as detrimental.

    To the trained eye, Apple is a fake in the technology landscape, creating feature-incomplete closed platforms, built on open technologies – a concept that they then arrogantly hold their nose to. All for a very steep premium.

    If increasing exposure is all it takes to be considered as “contributing”, then why haven’t we heard as much about Mark Shuttleworth or any of the “geniuses” at Google?

    The answer, is marketing and just as much as it is hip to buy Apple, it is very “in” to give them undue accolades.

     
  4. Simon Cohen

    August 29, 2011 at 10:27 am

    It’s remarkable to me that people who can see the importance of Google’s products and technologies, can only see the superficial element of Apple’s innovations, namely ‘aesthetics’. It’s worth reading some of Steve Jobs’ quotes, especially those that relate to what “good design” is. If people only wanted or needed pleasant aesthetics, we’d all still be toting around Motorola RAZORs – they were largely regarded as beautiful devices. But it turns out we need much more than good looks. We need experiences to be simplified, to be elegant and to be efficient. The more complex our technological lives become, the more critical this is. Apple is one of the few technology companies (Google included!) that is truly successful when it comes to simplifying our interactions. Say what you will about Apple, but you will rarely find an Apple user who finds Macs, iPads, or iPhones “too complicated.”
    If making software and devices as elegant and simple as Apple has done was easy, others would have done it by now. They haven’t. Apple has. Even if they never create another product after the iPad, this success will have a lasting impact.

     
    • Alex T

      August 29, 2011 at 11:00 am

      It’s not a question of “too complicated”. It’s that Apple markets the notion that less functionality is the only way to remove complexity.

      I like Android because it is simple, without limiting me. This is indelibly confirmed by Apple – for the past two iOS releases – implementing major functionality found in Android. Functionality too nerdy and complex for the austere tastes of the Apple-pure. Followed by some parading around spewing “most advanced” and “genius”.

      They know the game, and they play it well because the current conditions reward loud mouthed non-innovators. Apple markets, that is all.

       
      • Simon Cohen

        August 30, 2011 at 5:10 pm

        Hey I can’t argue with you there, I have long felt that Apple’s insistence on clinging to a single-button mouse for the sake of simplicity is ridiculous. But sometimes, when you pursue an ideology as single-mindedly as Jobs has, you go overboard. At least in the case of iOS, they have recognized that they need more features to let users manage their devices more effectively. But I hope that Apple-sans-Steve can still stick to their simple-is-better mantra. I know it doesn’t please “power-users” but for the rest of the world, it’s a sensible approach.

         
  5. Michael Polo

    August 29, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I wouldn’t be too bothered by someone saying Apple success is ‘just’ aesthetics. Useability and branding should never be downplayed and those who do this will be relegated to the sidelines while companies like Apple take in the benefits.

     
  6. Parallax Abstraction

    August 29, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Peter with all due respect, did you actually claim that it’s easy to hate on Apple if you’re a journalist? You must be reading a different tech press than the one I see every day which has essentially become a PR mouthpiece for them, principally because Apple is an easy SEO keyword that drives clicks. I don’t necessarily disagree with most of your other points but to claim that the press is trending towards hating Apple is just disconnected from reality. And on the verge of conquering Microsoft? They have several dozens of percent of market share to go before they even come close. Just as it’s “easy to hate on the top dog”, it’s also very easy to propel the top dog to a status they haven’t come close to achieving. The PC still dominates the computing space and sorry, that’s not going to change any time soon. It might one day but it’s not going to be tomorrow or the day after that.

    I really can’t wait until the current fashion trend of Apple products (and yes, that’s exactly what it is) dies down and their unsustainable growth plateaus and they are simply back to being another strong fish in a big pond. The level of kool aid being guzzled by the press every day is getting out of control.

     
    • petenowak2000

      August 29, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Firstly, you need to make a pretty clear distinction between tech press and journalists. If your job is to drive clicks, then yes, the latest Apple rumors are all you need and who cares if the company talks to you or not. But if you’re a serious journalist who needs to talk to people before you can write, then Apple is a very easy company to dislike. Ask any real journalist. I know I’ve been there on several occasions.

      As for being the top dog, click through on those numbers and you’ll see Apple is on the verge of taking over the top spot in computer sales from HP. That means it is (almost) selling more than any single Windows vendor, similar to how the iPhone sells more than all other Android smartphones. Count your market share however you like, but that’s a pretty good definition of “top dog” to me.

       
  7. mikeeeeee (@mackmic)

    August 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Not your bad about Jesse deliberately ignoring that you were talking about Apple and its influence on tech. You said so in the first sentence of the paragraph. Brown just needed a straw man to set up his disingenuous argument.

     
 
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