Are Google and Apple the New Bad Guys?

With the tech giants’ products now playing a major role in many peoples’ lives, the two companies could stand some extra scrutiny.
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“Think different.” “Don’t be evil.” Everyone recognizes the mottos of two of the most successful and influential companies in all of technology.

So why are Apple and Google now being eyed by some with such cynicism and suspicion?

Full disclosure: I’m one of the suspicious and cynical myself. There’s a lot I like about what both companies have to offer, but it’s hard for me to not feel troubled by the directions both of them have taken.

It’s easy to say that the life cycle of any large company will, over time, travel an arc from idealism to cynicism -- either on the part of the company itself, or its supporters. This goes double for any company that tries to do something genuinely new and innovative.

The sheer size of an outfit, the raw scope of its ambitions, and the very nature of what they do make a path from Good Guy to Bad Guy seem all but inevitable. When you’re that successful, it’s all too easy to eventually become too smart, or powerful, or just plain too big for your own good.

It sounds like a handy explanation, doesn’t it? But the problem is, it explains little. For one, it’s too deterministic: it implies that anyone who shoots for the stars is going to land in the gutter at least once. It absolves Google and Apple -- and anyone else who might be named in the same breath -- of any real responsibility for what they do.

There are few entities that wield as much power as they do. Google and Apple are, to some degree, aware of that. But in my eyes they’re not veering toward “bad guy” status merely because they’re big. It’s also because they’re not compensating enough for their overweening power. For too long, both of them have not thoroughly examined the consequences of their actions. The results raise questions in various quarters, including among some of their biggest fans.

The Big Apple

As hard as it is to believe, there was a time (1997 or so) when Apple had become a veritable joke, a rudderless outfit that only shared a name with any previous glory it had. Its computers were overpriced and underpowered; its experiments in set-top box technology had come to naught.

Then Steve Jobs came back in and reinvented the company -- not all at once, but in stages. The end result was that Apple went from being a computer company to a technology lifestyle company -- and, as a convenient by-product of that, being master of (nearly) all media. Small wonder that investors were rightfully nervous about what might happen to the company if Jobs were to leave that much sooner. When your company’s identified that closely with its CEO, is there even a company as you know it without him?

Online TV and music in all its forms owes debts of both concept and execution to iTunes, the iTunes store, the iPod, and all the rest. Failures like the Pippin are long behind them. People line up to either buy their products or copy them in some form. Imitation, patent and trademark suits aside, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery. What tablet or smartphone being produced now doesn’t have at least some iPhone or iPad in its blood?

Small wonder Apple started to feel that the world revolved around them. Their command of the desktop market was and continues to be a small portion of what’s owned by Microsoft, but Apple realized quickly they had clout that reached far beyond that space. People, even if they weren’t Mac users, wanted the iPod and the iPhone. And so Apple came to see themselves not as technologically unimpeachable, but culturally so.

Apple’s confidence in their position has translated into arrogance, and what’s worse is they’re not being disciplined in any significant way for it. Most of how this arrogance shows up is as policy -- the often-arbitrary content rules regarding apps in the iTunes store, for instance, or the way Flash has long been portrayed as an absolute anathema on iOS for a whole bevy of not-terribly-convincing reasons.

The usual reason floated for this behavior is that Apple has a right to keep fine-grained control over their product as a way of guaranteeing the consistency of its quality. In the abstract, that’s not bad -- but the way it manifests in specific actions comes off as a heavy-handed sop to the idea of consistency.

Instead of giving users the native option to run Flash, at their own risk, they block it entirely. Instead of creating a tiered app store with content for all ages and mature audiences, all allegedly controversial content is screened, often in arbitrary ways. They don’t seem to think anyone will really want to leave Apple behind because of this -- because, well, they’re Apple.

In the short run, they may be right. Apple has always been able to fall back on being a lifestyle company, rather than an IT company, as an escape hatch. They’re confident -- quite rightly so -- that their stuff will show up in enterprises because users demand it, as opposed to them needing to sell themselves all the more aggressively in those spaces. They have a lucrative and comfortable niche, and they plan on defending it.


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Tags: Google, iphone apps, iPad apps, Apple, Google Docs


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