Apple and the Heresy of Control

In an episode of the podcast Clockwise this week, the panel offered their opinions as to what Apple as a company should be wary of that might threaten its titanic dominance of the consumer tech space. The answers were fine, mostly dealing with how Apple needed to be careful about letting too many things die on the vine, or letting hubris cloud its ability to maintain its level of quality. But I couldn’t help but feel like the distillation of the responses could be summed up as, “Apple might get too awesome.” Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s what I took away from it.
What is it like for a religious fundamentalist who walks away from the ultra-conservative wing of their sect, but still retains a more liberal form of their former belief, say, becoming a “progressive Christian” or a reform or secular Jew, perhaps? Not to overplay the metaphor, but that’s sort of how I’ve felt in recent months.

While my “religious” devotion to Apple and “The Steve” has always been tongue-in-cheek, it was amusing (to me at least) because it was based on the truth. Though not a fundamentalist, per se, I was definitely an Evangelical. The products and services and overall decisions of other competing companies struck me as, most of the time, misguided and bizarre.

Today, I carry a big-ass Android phone, I’ve taken more advantage of the services offered by Google, and slowly I’ve come to recognize shortcomings in Apple I’d never really acknowledged, or that are themselves new. I’ve also started recognizing the good and often brilliant things being done by other companies in other areas.

With a little bit of distance, it’s clear that the hubris some fear might overtake Apple is not imagined, but a present reality. Read how Tim Cook dismissed the Android Wear smartwatch space in favor of Apple’s as-yet-unreleased product. He didn’t simply assert his product’s superiority (which of course he is supposed to do), he mocked the very idea of their existence, as though these rather well-regarded products are jokes, and that Apple’s watch will be of such a high caliber as to change the world to the same degree the Mac or the iPhone did.

Come on, Tim. It’s a watch that lets a phone project some of its software over to it. I’m sure it’s going to be lovely and novel and fun, but it’s not a world-changer. And from what’s been shown so far, it’s not even materially different from a Moto 360.

Or take Jony Ive’s utter dismissal of Motorola’s decision to allow customers to configure the look of their phone before it’s shipped to them. Yes, Apple makes gorgeous hardware, probably the best-designed overall, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best for everybody, or that people shouldn’t want to have more input into the look of a device they’re spending hundreds of dollars on, and will spend hundreds of hours using. It’s fine to say your idea is better, but it’s another thing to characterize all ideas that didn’t happen to come from you as junk.

From this same Clockwise episode (which I feel compelled to say I really like overall, though less so now that it’s becomes so Apple-centric after Jason Snell’s departure from IDG), in discussing an apparent controversy over privacy regarding speech recognition in Samsung TVs, one panelist actually defended Samsung as not actually having done any wrong in this case, which was good, but also prefaced her defense with, “as much as it pains me to say this.” Why? Why would it “pain” you to clear up a technological misunderstanding?

Because Samsung competes directly with Apple.

(Okay, and Samsung is kind of run, by all accounts, by a bunch of sketchy creeps. Gotta grant that.)

I would still recommend iPhones and other Apple products to most general consumers. (There’s as yet no way I’m using anything other than a Mac as my computer.) This is because Apple’s philosophy of making as many of the decisions as possible for the user is a good one for the general public. Most people don’t want to have to think about any of the stuff going on behind the glass of their screens, and nor should they. For them, Apple is most often the best way to go. But it’s not universal, and for those who want a little more control, there are other options, and those options are plentiful, and these days, really damn good. The iPhone 6 is probably the phone on the market best suited for the most people, but the Galaxy Note 4 is probably the best phone overall in terms of all it offers and all it can do.

And when I talk about control, I’m not talking about a geeky level of control (“I can make it run Linux” or whatever). I’m talking about some basic level of control over how you share a link or where you store a document or photo, or how you want to secure your lock screen. Apple hides almost all of this from the user, and for very good reason, but I think more users than is generally presumed would like a little more ability to make a few choices themselves. And those people shouldn’t be mocked for thinking differently.

I don’t think this segment of the phone-buying population is a majority by any stretch of the imagination, though. And I think Android and Windows Phone and any other mobile system would do well to aspire to get closer to Apple’s way of keeping things simple, and make their systems as easy to use out of the box as possible. Have a degree of choice and control available, but make it optional. Android is getting there, but it’s not there yet.

But whether it ever does get there is beside the point. I guess I’m simply weary of a pose that I used to strike myself, in which it is taken on faith that while Apple may make mistakes, even their screw-ups are somehow morally superior to the best of what anyone else had to offer. There exists an attitude that no matter what Apple does wrong, there’s nowhere else to go, and to use another company’s products or services is a kind of heresy, somehow personally tainting. I’m glad to say I’m very much over that. But it also means I need to abandon a few of my once-favorite podcasts.


 

Related: “Shaking Off Some of the Apple Fussiness”

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