June 19, 2006

Open Apples and Rotten iPods

Is the iPod rotting Apple at the core? If the recent stories about the atrocious working conditions in the Chinese factories making iPods are true, than there is a simple and obvious answer. Yes. Apple to my knowledge has until recently maintained very close ties to it's factories, and if working conditions were an issue, I certainly have never been aware of it. But with the success of the iPod, as well as the Chinese tech explosion, Apple is now just another company shopping for cheap Chinese labor, and it's subcontracted out to companies that make whatever electronics device you pay them for. Apple is well funded and I'm sure their design team is more involved in production issues than many companies, but they are no long in charge of the end production the way they once were, and the result is sweatshop labor. Labor I might add, that if my shipped straight from Suzhou BlackBook is any indication, appears to be hard at work on the new Intel Macs as well.

That's the simple answer, yes the iPod and its mass appeal is rotting Apple's ethics away. Fortunately that has a relatively simple answer too, one that Apple's massive brand investment gives leverage too, Apple can demand better labor conditions. The brand comes in because Apple needs to defend it, and that means it can't afford to have people start thinking of iPods as sweatPods. Then again if the recent iPod/Nike collab is an indicator, perhaps that's not a great assumption. For now though this is the first news on the Apple exploitation front, it's a strike against them for sure, but they aren't out of the game yet. Plenty of time for them to make amends.

It's the complicated answer that really worries me. It's an answer that stems from a long, twisted and ubergeeky series of blog posts, starting with Mark Pilgrim announcing he's switching from Mac to Linux and including an epic response from John Gruber and
Mark's incredibly insightful reply. It's that last one that is the killer, detailing an old school Mac hacker's constant frustration with digital data decay. What is scary is it's culmination, detailing how Apple's Mail.app program moved from an open data format to a closed proprietary one, without bothering to warn anyone. As an isolated case it's an annoyance, but it's not an isolated case and Tom Yager's detailing of Apple's attempt to shut him up, makes that very clear.

Now Apple's never been known as an open company, so in many regards none of this should be surprising. In fact it's only newsworthy in that it marks the end of what history might see as Apple's golden open era. In it's very early $666 computer days Apple was of course part of an open source culture that didn't even have a name yet. But from the Macintosh era onward they were very much an instrumental force in the closed source computing that dedicated up the eyes of the idealistic programmers and birthed the free software and open source movements. Despite it's brief experiment licensing it's operating system the Apple of the 80's and 90's was all about close proprietary hardware running a closed proprietary operating system and for the most part closed proprietary software. And in this exact time period Apple developed into an awkward and bloated company that stayed alive mainly on the inertia of innovations dating back to 1984.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple and began to turn the company around, he essentially stripped the company down to it's core competency. In order to survive and thrive Apple had to be about making great computers. It's widespread commercial success depended selling lots of computers in the mass market of course, but in order to do that it relied upon a core of dedicated power users, designers, programers, and other digital geeks. Apple could only thrive by making great (or at least greater than the competition) computers, and with that as a foundation is was able to sell tons of good computers in form of iMacs and iBooks. But with the entry of the iPod suddenly that story has changed.

In that one little window, the post Steve Jobs return, pre iPod era* of Apple history, the company became increasingly tied to the idea of open computing. Plenty was still closed for sure, but with OS X built on the open source Unix core of Darwin, Safari built on the open source KHTML project, and iTunes and earliest iPods driven by the open MP3 format. It was in this golden era when people like Mark Pilgrim were very much part of Apple's core user base, and the fact that Mail.app was designed to use the open mbox format completely reflected this reality. This was also the time of Apple's infamous "Rip, Mix, Burn" advertisements and for a while the MP3 driven iPod was actually part of the company's open wave.

The iPod though was not just successful, it was dominant. Suddenly Apple did not just have another small product in it's line up, it had a cultural icon. An icon that sold by the boatload from China at correspondingly large profit margins. In the iMac era Apple had been a computer company first and a cultural icon second. With the iPod Apple has become first and foremost a brand, with computers relegated to second place, or perhaps even third behind consumer electronics. This doesn't mean Apple is going stop making good computers, but it does mean that making excellent computers is no longer crucial to their success. The core of the Apple is no longer the expert user but instead made cheaply in China.

What exactly this means for the future is of course uncertain, but what is clear is that Apple is already backing away from its short romance with open computing. It probably won't effect the stock price, it might even increase the profit margins, but it just might threaten what was once Apple's key strength, the overall usability of it's technology. The Apple isn't rotten yet, but man there sure are some suspicious marks on that skin...

*I by this I don't really mean the era ended with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, but instead the era slowly faded away as the iPod became a mass pop culture success over the next five years.

Posted by Abe at June 19, 2006 02:39 AM

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