The day that Apple died

But February made me shiver, with every paper I delivered…

I have never believed that any but a tiny-but-psychopathic subset of IT executives actually set out to achieve world domination. The majority, whatever their aspirations, are destined to do reasonably well, to achieve good things, to shine for a while before one of the corporate monoliths buys them out, gives them an SVP and a pat on the back. They stay for a while then head down to San Diego, spending the next few years scrubbing the deck on their own yacht before they get bored and try to do it all again.

Every now and then, however, someone gets lucky. The seemingly alchemic combination of timing, functionality, design, cash flow and damn good marketing creates a perfect storm, and the wannabe global corporation suddenly finds itself in the position it had dreamed about, hoped for, even planned for. Cue the champagne, but don’t reach for a second glass as you discover that the even bigger challenge compared to “getting there” is “staying there”.

There’s another phenomenon at play. All those mid-sized IT companies sail as close to the wind as they possibly can when it comes to getting one over on the competition. Sales tactics, marketing games and architectural shackles are perfectly valid tools – if you want to win, you have to do what you can to ensure the competition loses. It’s all very well until, well, until you actually do win. And then, almost before you take your first sip of the Piper Heidseck, you are exhibiting monopolistic behaviour.

At which point, you have a choice. Do you ride it out as long as possible, making hay while the sun still shines, building a cash pile in the knowledge that when the party is over you can, duly chagrined, rebuild your reputation and keep going at the level you will have achieved? Or do you… oh never mind. There is no option B of course – as you quickly discover, with the markets baying for ever-increasing levels of shareholder value. With no other choice you press on, and over time you even start to believe that you’re doing nothing wrong.

We’ve seen it several times before. Microsoft played some fantastically underhand games in the 1990’s, destroying any chances that competitors in the browser, office automation or music spaces would get a look in. They’re still paying for it now – a reputation, once tarnished, is very difficult to scrub clean. It was with some sense of irony that we watched the court cases reach a conclusion, years after the ‘crimes’ were committed. The world had already moved on, and new competitors had changed the landscape to such an extent that the judgements no longer had any relevance.

We could talk about Oracle, which has managed to stay just beneath the radar of corporate scrutiny, despite having systematically erased all but one of its competitors (The only explanation is that the company is just too boring to garner significant media attention, and thus judicial interest). Or Sun Microsystems, which played all the games and did very well for a while, but then bet its core hardware business on the dot-com boom, and was irretrievably brought to its knees when the whole thing imploded. Rough justice again – the company was ten years too early for the cloud “revolution”, and would no doubt have been a major supplier to the acreages of data centres springing up today.

Today however, no company is more in the spotlight than Apple, that darling of the media, the upstart that held onto its vision, with its maverick CEO and oh-so-secretive-but-thrilling image. There is a point in every company’s history that can be seen as “defining” – a point of no return, however well business is doing financially. In Apple’s case it was last week’s news (I fail to find an exact date, but I think it was Thursday… UPDATE: The Readability blog marks it as Friday 18th February) – that the company was implementing a subscription model which took 30% of media companies’ revenues should subscriptions be purchased from within an app.

The outcry has been deserved, and genuine. They f*cked us over, said one exec. Various reports confirm that the powers that be are looking to investigate the legality of the move – and perhaps in 15 years’ time, with intense (and expensive) lobbying from all sides, they might reach a definitive conclusion. But that’s not the point. For all its sexy products, its developer ecosytem or its carefully thought out approach to interface design, Apple has – like the guy in Run Fat Boy Run (in the green) who trips his hapless friend – shown its true face.

It’s not the first time. The arrogance of the response to the iPhone 4 design flaw. The raising of the portcullis against Adobe Flash, rather than a dialogue on how to make it better. The constraints on apps in the App Store, and the lock-in experienced by each and every iTunes/iPod/iPad consumer, taking things to levels way beyond what Microsoft dreamed of, but could never reach.

No doubt people will stick with Apple, at least for a while – from a subscriber perspective, little has changed, and the company does make rather nice devices. Be in no doubt however, about the stranglehold the company now has on a whole segment of the market, not to mention on media reporting in general. The shame, perhaps, is that in the future, the name and cheeky logo will be linked to a company which went out of its way to f*ck its suppliers. Given the growing levels of bad feeling that pervade a company still (financially) on its way up, it’s unlikely there will be too many people rushing in to help as its trajectory starts to tip.

Leaving the last word to Don McLean.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play…

The day that Apple died

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