Apple loses its cool

By WEN STEPHENSON  |  May 14, 2010

Dark and creepy
If you’ve followed the Apple coverage closely, you may have detected two distinct story lines. In the first and dominant one, emanating largely (though not exclusively) from mainstream media types, Apple is a breathlessly watched media-business story, on which rides the fate of the very media covering it. In the second, coming mainly from the blogosphere’s techno-intelligentsia, it’s a more profound story of technology and ideology — on which rides nothing less than the freedom of the Internet and the very meaning and future of the digital revolution.

Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons may have best captured the, um, conventional wisdom in an April 30 online column, “Apple vs. Everybody.” Bottom line, it’s all about perceptions. Observing that “the company works hard to cultivate a counterculture image” (a pretty prim counterculture, one wants to add), he went on to write, “lately Apple has started to look like the big bully of the tech industry.” In the long run, he concluded, “Apple’s brand could suffer” — and he quoted a West Coast brand consultant, who said, “I think there’s going to be a backlash. It’s all just dark and creepy.” Indeed. And what’s bad for the Apple brand could be bad for media companies developing iPad apps.

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Over at Slate (Newsweek’s corporate sibling), “Pressbox” columnist Jack Shafer painted the Apple story in even darker, creepier hues (“Welcome to our velvet prison, say the boys and girls of Cupertino” ran the subhead on his April 15 column). Here, the second story line comes into focus: Shafer usefully outlined the dissent boiling up in the blogosphere and among the digerati, citing the likes of Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow, O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill, and the Harvard Berkman Center’s Jonathan Zittrain. They and others make the case against the iPad/iPhone as a “closed” platform, a “rapacious tollbooth” (Shafer’s phrase) under Apple’s total control, its App Store akin to Wal-Mart shelves. “I don’t want my universe of apps constrained to the stuff that the Cupertino Politburo decides to allow for its platform,” Doctorow wrote in a much-cited blog broadside on April 2, adding that “everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff.” (Ouch!)

Zittrain, in his 2009 book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It, warned of the shift away from the openness of the Web and toward proprietary Internet appliances, like the iPhone and iPad, that are under corporate and potentially government control (a point he reprised in the Financial Times on February 3). In a similar vein, writing in Slate on April 6, Columbia’s Tim Wu leveled perhaps the most damning attack against Jobs’s triumphant vision, calling it the final rejection of the “open computing” model that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, father of the personal computer, stood for: “a distrust of centralized power and a belief, embedded in silicon, that computers should be tools of freedom.” The iPad, in stark contrast, “is meant for consumers not users,” wrote Wu, “and as such has far more in common with television than the personal computer.” Television! — bête noire of the digital revolutionaries. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

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