If you subject yourself to as many RSS feeds as I do every morning, then you might be wise to the fact that there’s a bit of mutiny percolating in parts of the blogosphere—a mutiny against tech darlings Apple and Google. Yes, Microsoft is, has always been and will for the foreseeable future continue to be the big bad wolf of the tech world. But as each new version of Windows comes out antiquated or broken before it ever goes on sale, and the company comes up short in the search, advertising and online services sectors, it seems as though the wolf may be losing its bite. Of course, Microsoft isn’t going away anytime soon, but its days as the most hated evil techdom may be numbered.
When Microsoft trips up we snicker. When it does something wrong we’re insulted. When it finds success we get angry. Such is the cost of power. I’m not suggesting Microsoft hasn’t earned the public’s scorn, but as Redmond loses ground in various areas to different competitors, we need to keep our eyes open and prepare for life under the iron fist of tech’s next evil empire. Fortunately, Apple and Google are already giving us a glimpse of what that life might be like.
Now, before you shout “Heretic!” and flame me back to the analog age, I think we should define just what an evil empire is. In the world of business, an evil empire is a company that has amassed so much power it can act with impunity. Quality can slip, consumers can be screwed and products can be intentionally hobbled, but the customer will keep coming back whether through misguided loyalty or sheer lack of options.
If we can agree on that definition, then let’s have a look at Apple. The iPod and iTunes have no real competition to speak of, but that’s not where Apple’s power is derived from. Apple’s life force is its fan base. And, I’m not just referring to the rabid fanboyism that surrounds the company and its charismatic leader, Steve Jobs. Apple also receives an incredible amount of good will from the press. The company can do no wrong by consumers and the media, but if it does, all is very quickly forgiven.
The iPod, for instance, comes at a high price and with almost no guarantee. Its batteries die earlier than they should, and replacing them requires complicated surgery. The iPhone’s battery is similarly inaccessible—something that would be utterly unacceptable in any other cell phone. And how about the fact that the most advanced phone in the world was initially launched on AT&T’s decrepit EDGE network, or that to this day the phone is completely incapable of MMS? Apple has gotten off fairly easy for these infractions: a testament to the company’s clout. I could go on an on about defective first-gen product launches, botched OS upgrades and punch-you-in-the gut price drops, but you get the idea: Apple is no longer behaving like the lovable underdog we all want it to be. It’s beginning to act a lot like Microsoft. A reader of The Unofficial Apple Weblog put it best in a recent comment on Apple’s bungling of the MobileMe rollout. He asked: “Doesn’t this feel like an M$ launch?” Indeed. Isn’t it time we started holding Apple to the same brutal standards we hold Microsoft?
As for that other formally loveable mega-corporation? Well, so far, Google’s crimes have really only affected its own employees and the developer community.
Meanwhile, developers aren’t happy with the company because it’s suddenly forcing them to use Google protocols and servers for some functions within Android, Google’s supposedly “open-source” mobile platform. Again, none of this has affected John Q Public yet, but if this is how Google is beginning to conduct itself, we may be in for some trouble.
Like Apple, Google benefits from a lot of public good will. To many people, Google is the light side of the force to Microsoft’s Darth Gates. By delivering insanely great products for absolutely free, some might even say that Google is the exact opposite of Microsoft. But, unlike Apple, Google actually has a real shot at becoming the biggest technology company in the world. Once that happens, we’ll have no choice but to buy into Google products. If the company has already set a precedent for treating its employees and developers poorly, then I hate to see what’s in store for consumers.
The point to all of this? Apple and Google have been given a free pass for far too long, but our goodwill isn’t without limits. If these two companies continue to act, well, Microsoft-ish, then a backlash is inevitable and perhaps well deserved.
If any of this tastes like sour grapes, you’ve got me. I’m a huge fan of both Apple and Google, but I’m saddened by what’s happening to them. You root for these underdogs and become personally invested in their success, then they turn around and bite you. I wish I could blame their recent actions on newly hired CEOs who came in and took control out of the original founders’ hands, but that’s not the case. Jobs is still commanding Apple; Larry and Sergey are still milking the Google cow. The same guys we wanted so badly to win are now finally winning—but they’re abandoning the fans.
Am I wrong about Apple and Google or do you agree? Was I too easy on Microsoft or too hard? Are there other tech companies we need to be wary of? Let 'er rip!
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