There’s a story about Tenali Rama, poet and jester at the court of Vijaynagar, no doubt put out by the old fox himself. He was a lazy young layabout, until he successfully sued a local deity to grant him a boon. “You may choose only one of these two cups,” she said, “Drink of the milk and be wise; of the curd, and be wealthy.” Quick as a flash, T. Rama thulped down both cups of prasad. Using his newfound wit, he proceeded to mollify the angry deity, saying that either one without the other was quite useless. And went on to amass fame, fortune and the undying hatred of his peers, who might have withstood a smartass, but simply couldn’t stand a rich smartass.
One can only speculate what multi-armed deity Cupertino Steve summoned, and what cups he was offered. But you can bet he scarfed down every last one of them.
I’ve long been puzzled at the indecent glee that a certain set of people exhibit at the lightest missteps of Apple. Now I think I know why there are so many who absolutely hate Apple in general – without ever having used their products – and C. Steve in particular. It’s because Apple has violated a fundamental law: they operate outside the Pareto envelope of technology-esthetics-business.
You’ve heard the usual pick-any-x lists:
- Features, quality, time: pick any two
- Beauty, intelligence: pick any one
- Popularity, critical acclaim: pick any one
The tradeoffs they represent are held to be almost universal laws, feeding the very strong human tendency to make excuses for the virtues and successes of others. “Oh, he bribed the Government, that’s how they made their billions”, “She may be hot, but she’s dumb as a brick”, and so on. Even the silliest reason will do, but a reason is necessary. It fills a need.
People dislike Microsoft, but they don’t hate them the way they hate Apple. Redmond Bill craftily maintains a mild-mannered Clark Kent look, just so people can think, “He may be the richest man on earth, but what a dorky haircut!” One pie did more for R. Bill’s popular image than all the billions he’s spent on philanthropy.
Someone who makes it all work is violating a sacred no-free-lunch law, leaving the rest of us looking bad, lazy or stupid. Apple – like Be Inc. and Jean-Louis Gassée – might have been remembered with fond nostalgia and regret, if they’d had the decency to fail. Or at best, been content with the scraps available to a marginal player. Instead, they created beautiful, highly usable amalgams of hardware and software, invaded multiple markets (iPod, iPhone), created new business models (iTunes) and product categories (iPad) and most unforgivably, became a roaring commercial success.
What is everyone else supposed to do now? How can we keep saying people won’t pay for good design, that a f*$#@ing ugly user interface is fine, it’s the thought that counts? How can we half-heartedly mould some plastic and stick two prongs in it, shamed by an Apple plug gleaming at us from a nearby socket? How do you keep throwing crap at the cheap end of the market, when the $50 iPod Shuffle docks with a Lego-like snick into its base?
Pundits and naysayers have been trying, of course. “Reality distortion field”, “Form over function”, “It’s all marketing, they could sell those fanboys turds covered in white plastic”, reaching its nadir in Charlie Brooker’s masochistic “Beat me, whip me, make me use Windows.” Sorry, folks, that stuff won’t stick any more. Metrics talk, bullshit walks. Apple has eclipsed even Microsoft in market cap, their user base extends far beyond a fanatic hipster core, they’ve started from scratch and made huge inroads into mature markets with established dominant players. If it’s so easy, why doesn’t everyone hire suave, turtlenecked hucksters and make billions?
There are many reasons to criticize specific Apple policies and products, but if you hate them in toto, as a sort of ideological stance, then I have to reluctantly conclude that you are either technologically or esthetically naïve, unable to appreciate just how goddamn hard it is to create an Apple-level experience, or…
Envy. Sorry. The word is not mentioned in polite company, but there you are.
Envy isn’t all bad, it drives a lot of human behaviour, provoking imitation and competition. Apple’s severest critics would have to admit that it’s raised the bar and influenced other players to produce far better user experiences than before. With luck, consumer expectations will be raised and Apple DNA disseminated widely enough that it survives Apple itself. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the Malthusian trap where poorly designed and written software consistently outstrips hardware gains to deliver a mediocre user experience.
And Steve – the next time you have an Antennagate? Get that chap to throw a pie at you. R. Bill will be happy to give you his number.