New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (of “and I think you’re a slime bucket” Steve Jobs phone call fame) devoted his weekend column to Apple. He describes a company already in decline, several times citing Yukari Iwatani Kane’s widely-panned Haunted Empire:
The only real way to stave off further decline is to come out with a product that establishes a whole new category — the way the iPad did in 2010. But that seems unlikely. “Outside the echo chamber of Apple’s headquarters, the notion of the company’s exceptionalism has been shattered,” Kane writes.
That’s the extent of Nocera’s argument that iPad-like new products from Apple “seem unlikely”: Yukari Kane’s having written so in her book. Really.
As I’ve written repeatedly, these Apple bears who believe Steve Jobs was indispensable may well be right. We don’t know yet. Only time will tell. But (again, as I’ve written repeatedly) the evidence so far doesn’t back that theory up, and the “new category” breakthrough products were in fact few and far between under Steve Jobs, too, and often dismissed by critics upon their unveiling. In between those rare new products, the company’s life blood has always been incremental improvements to existing products.
Which brings me back to the litigation with Samsung — the company that is coming to market with products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot. This never-ending litigation is yet another sign that Apple is becoming a spent force. Suing each other “is not what innovative companies do,” said Robin Feldman, a patent law expert at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
I’d argue with both aspects of the “products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot” clause (unlocked 16 GB Galaxy S5’s cost over $700 on Amazon; unlocked 16 GB iPhone 5S’s cost $649), but let’s leave that aside. The primary thrust of the “Haunted Empire” theory on Apple is that Steve Jobs was indispensable, and that the company entered an inevitable decline as soon as he left. But Steve Jobs is the man who told his own biographer:
Our lawsuit is saying, “Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.” Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google’s products — Android, Google Docs — are shit.
Much like how Kane, in her piece back in February for The New Yorker’s website, tried to have it both ways regarding Scott Forstall — arguing that Apple Maps was “a fiasco” in the very next paragraph after arguing that Tim Cook should not have fired Forstall, the executive who was responsible for Apple Maps in iOS 6 — Nocera here has painted Apple into a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t scenario. He spends most of his column arguing that Apple is screwed because they’re lost without Jobs. But now he’s saying they’re screwed because they’re doing exactly what Jobs expressly told his biographer he wanted to do: fight Android handset makers — and by proxy, Google — tooth and nail in court.
“Suing each other ‘is not what innovative companies do’”, Nocera quotes a patent law expert. But Apple sued, and threatened to sue, companies all the time while Steve Jobs was CEO. Jobs joked about having patented every aspect of the iPhone on stage during its unveiling. Under Jobs, Apple sued and eventually put out of business an Apple rumor site run by a teenager.
I think there’s nothing Apple could have done in the last three years that would have kept Nocera from writing this column. Likewise with Kane and her book. The company is lost without Steve Jobs and nothing will convince them otherwise.
My gut feeling is that 2014 is going to play out poorly for the “Haunted Empire” crowd. If Tim Cook is willing to tell The Wall Street Journal, “We’re really working on some really great stuff. I think no one reasonable would say they’re not a new category,” I’ll take his word for it.
I have no knowledge regarding what products Cook was referring to. But if history repeats itself, the odds are good that the announcement of these new products — along with annual new versions of iPhones and iPads and MacBooks — will do nothing to quell the doomed-without-Jobs critics.
The iPad was “just a big iPhone” when it was unveiled in 2010; today it’s hailed as Apple’s last great new product. My guess is we’ll see the same reaction to whatever Apple releases this year. It takes years for even the most amazing of new products — the iPhone, for example — to prove themselves on the market. It’s a long game.
Even then — come, say, 2017, when Apple is reaping billions in profits from some product first introduced this year — the doomed-without-Jobs crowd could (and I bet will) just argue that the product succeeded only because it had been conceived while Steve Jobs was alive. It’ll never stop. ★
Ina Fried, reporting for Recode on the ongoing Apple-Samsung court case, “Top Android Executive Says Google Didn’t Copy Apple’s iPhone”:
Lockheimer testified that Android, too, was the product of long hours and hard work.
“The hours were pretty grueling,” Lockheimer said, speaking of the early days of Android as the operating system was being developed in 2006 and 2007. “They continue to be grueling, by the way. … We work really hard.”
Later in the article:
One thing that was not initially contemplated for the first Android device — at least initially — was any sort of touchscreen.
Weird use of initially in that sentence. As shown below, touchscreens probably were “contemplated” for the first Android devices (they expressly mentioned the potential to support them eventually) but they were explicitly rejected in the specification for Android 1.0.
“Touchscreens will not be supported,” Google said in a 2006 specification for Android devices. “The product was designed with the presence of discrete physical buttons as an assumption. However, there is nothing fundamental in the products [sic] architecture that prevents the support of touch screens [sic] in the future.”
Obviously, Google later changed course and a touchscreen became mandatory. Lockheimer said the vision evolved as the company learned what it heard screen manufacturers tell it what was coming down the pipeline.
This testimony defies credulity. Consider the timeline. As Daniel Dilger documents in a report today for AppleInsider looking at Android design documents entered as evidence in the trial, in August 2006, the draft Android 1.0 design document mandated up/down/left/right/select hardware buttons and explicitly stated that touchscreens would not be supported. Then, the very next revision of the specification, in April 2007 — a draft described as a “major update” — multitouch touchscreens became mandatory. In August 2006 Android was planned as a BlackBerry/Windows Mobile style hardware-button platform with no initial support for touchscreens. In April 2007 it became a platform where multitouch touchscreens were mandatory. The only way one could believe that this change was driven by what Google heard from screen manufacturers is if what the screen manufacturers told Google was, “Holy shit, what are we going to do about the iPhone?”
But what caught my attention is the “hard work” angle in Lockheimer’s testimony. Long hours of hard work don’t disprove that Android copied the iPhone. In fact, copying the iPhone would imply more work. They effectively designed the Android platform twice: first as a BlackBerry/Windows Mobile style hardware button platform, and then as an iPhone-style touchscreen platform.
The word copying is pejorative, so let’s just call it following. Of course Android followed the iPhone’s lead. But what else was Google to do? It took genius to conceive and create the original iPhone. But once it was revealed — and especially once it hit the market — anyone with a lick of sense could see that this was how all such devices should work. If Google had stuck to its original design for Android, it wouldn’t have succeeded in a post-iPhone world — it would have been Windows Mobile without the existing market share.
The first successful implementation of a radical idea is usually and correctly lauded as the innovator. The second is derided as an imitator. But by the time you get to the third and fourth, the idea becomes a category.
It was inevitable that competitors would follow the iPhone’s lead, and it was inevitable that Apple would feel wronged when it happened. What I wonder about is whether it was inevitable that Apple would sue. Are they pursuing Samsung in court because Samsung is so clearly their most successful rival in the handset industry, or is it because Samsung so clearly copied — not merely followed but gratuitously copied — so much from Apple? I suspect it’s both — that it was the combination of Samsung’s blatant copying and mimicry of the iPhone’s trade dress, combined with their success, that has compelled Apple to fight them tooth-and-nail in court.1
I suspect Apple’s goal is not so much about procuring redress for Samsung’s past actions, but rather to send a message. I doubt Apple will be awarded enough money from this Samsung lawsuit to have made the effort worthwhile directly. But indirectly, if the message gets through to competitors that Apple is willing to pursue lawsuits like this with a seemingly irrational fervor, and it makes them (the competitors) gun-shy to copy future Apple products, to follow Apple too closely — it may not be so irrational after all.2 ★
I also believe that Apple’s executives — Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Eddy Cue, all of them — truly believe that suing Samsung, fighting the case until the bitter end, is the morally right thing to do. Remember what Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson about his willingness to spend “every penny” of Apple’s cash and “go thermonuclear war on this”. I believe Apple’s current leadership feels exactly the same way. The fact that this is not entirely rational, that it’s driven in part by emotion, anger, and a sense of justice, serves Apple’s interests by disincentivizing would-be future copiers. A crazy opponent is a dangerous opponent. ↩
People are spending more time on mobile vs desktop. And more of their mobile time using apps, not the web.
This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.
I think Dixon has it all wrong. We shouldn’t think of the “web” as only what renders inside a web browser. The web is HTTP, and the open Internet. What exactly are people doing with these mobile apps? Largely, using the same services, which, on the desktop, they use in a web browser. Plus, on mobile, the difference between “apps” and “the web” is easily conflated. When I’m using Tweetbot, for example, much of my time in the app is spent reading web pages rendered in a web browser. Surely that’s true of mobile Facebook users, as well. What should that count as, “app” or “web”?
I publish a website, but tens of thousands of my most loyal readers consume it using RSS apps. What should they count as, “app” or “web”?
I say: who cares? It’s all the web.
We shouldn’t think of “the web” as only what renders in web browsers. We should think of the web as anything transmitted using HTTP and HTTPS. Apps and websites are peers, not competitors. They’re all just clients to the same services.
Consider Facebook, the single biggest winner in Flurry’s “time spent” statistics. On the desktop, all Facebook usage takes place in browser windows. On mobile, most of it takes place in a native app. Same with YouTube and Twitter: on the desktop, they’re in the browser; on mobile, they’re in apps. It’s not about the politics of open-vs.-closed platforms. It’s simply about providing the best possible experience for users.
The single biggest slice in Flurry’s statistics is “gaming”, at 32 percent. Does anyone really think that mobile games would be better off written to run in web browser tabs? Lamenting today the falling share of time people spend in web browsers at the expense of mobile apps is no different from those who a decade ago lamented the falling share of time spent reading paper newspapers and magazines at the expense of websites.
Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues.
Most worrisome: they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin). The open architecture of the web led to an incredible era of experimentation. Many startups are controversial when they are first founded. What if AOL or some other central gatekeeper had controlled the web, and developers had to ask permission to create Google, YouTube, eBay, Paypal, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sadly, this is where we’re headed on mobile.
Yes, Apple and Google (and Amazon, and Microsoft) control their respective app stores. But the difference from Dixon’s AOL analogy is that they don’t control the internet — and they don’t control each other. Apple doesn’t want cool new apps launching Android-only, and it surely bothers Google that so many cool new apps launch iOS-first. Apple’s stance on Bitcoin hasn’t exactly kept Bitcoin from growing explosively. App Stores are walled gardens, but the apps themselves are just clients to the open web/internet.1
What we’ve gained, though, is a wide range of interaction capabilities that never could have existed in a web browser-centric world. That to me is cause for celebration. ★
Note too, for example, that Twitter itself has imposed far more limitations on mobile Twitter client apps than any app store has. Or consider the spat between Google and Microsoft regarding Microsoft’s YouTube app for Windows Phone. The jostling for control is not limited to the app stores themselves. ↩