A story of rather uncool corporate behaviour. It’s akin to cartels, which tend to also be outlawed in countries (as part of oligopoly-related legislation).
Companies making agreements that result in an anti-competitive environment is just not on. Interesting to see how corporations and people who profess to be all for free markets actually engage in this kind of behaviour, and the only thing that might stop them is getting caught. Not the best example of decent corporate principles and best practise, is it.
And then there’s the whole corporate extortion thing using patent portfolios and cash reserves which was also uncovered as part of the case. Yuck.
Swedish media production company Day4 recently conducted an experiment on Internet media and the Apple community. They drew a screw with a special-patterned head and posted it anonymously via Reddit. It spread like wildfire.
Just some odd sites, you reckon? No. Try a search on “apple screw” and see for yourself which big names picked this up like almost everybody else. Since no further information existed, all of the commentary in the articles is extrapolated from thin air, with presumptions based on Apple’s actual past actions.
A phrase like “Apple May Be Working On A Top Secret Asymmetric Screw To Lock You Out Of Your Devices Forever” doesn’t even hold up to very basic scrutiny. Disregarding the simplified misuse of the word asymmetrical, it’s not that hard to make/copy a tool for almost any screw head design, from scratch (either from plastic or a metal). Even if the whole thing were true, tools would have been produced very swiftly – regardless of any legalities (which would be a valid topic, considering the US DMCA legislation).
The group at Day4 created the following chart plotting the distance from the source versus the perceived level of truth. Nothing new there either from a psychological perspective, but it’s good to have these things pointed out every once in a while:
- don’t just believe everything you read/see (don’t just disbelieve either, that’s almost as invalid);
- journalists, and people pretending to be journalists, can be (and often are) very lazy;
- if you are a proper journalist, always do your job thoroughly (as others may not);
- and last but not least, building an image (as Apple has) of being seen to be capable of initiating this kind of idea is not super. Choices have consequences, always (often delayed) and the people making such decisions may not consider the long term.
Apple has pulled its products off a U.S. government-backed registration of environmentally friendly electronics, see http://www.epeat.net/2012/07/news/wsj-cio-journal-apple-removes-green-electronics-certification-from-products/. EPEAT (created through funding by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and manufacturers, and Apple was one of its designers!), awards products a seal to certify they are recyclable and designed to maximise energy efficiency and minimise environmental harm.
Apple stated that its product design needs have diverged. Apple creates tightly integrated products (iPhone, iPad) so one could think that that might be a reason. For instance, the new Retina MacBook Pro has its batteries glued into its case. Naturally, that makes replacing as well as recycling more complicated if not impossible. So in that light, does Apple’s move make sense? I don’t think so.
Tight integration is a phase in the product cycle, suitable when separate components put together would not achieve a satisfactory whole. Certainly this approach made sense for some new products, but considering the market now of phones, tablets and laptops, the ones from Apple are not that far removed in specifications or engineering. Basically, others have caught up and at that point the tight integration works out more expensive.
For Apple, tight integration has always been a bit of a habit. Products have often been not particularly extensible. You’d buy a model and stick with it as-is, until you were ready for a new one. A similar story applies to its external interfaces. Some decisions made brilliant sense such as dropping disk drives (original iMac), a move which later enabled the magnetic lid and magnetic power plug. But apple also had digital DVI plugs while most monitors still used VGA, then for some laptops it went to MiniDVI, and most recently it’s shifted to a new media port. This is a nuisance for owners of such equipment even when they upgrade, as now they’ve also had to buy new adaptor cables which are not exactly cheap. Many owners do put up with it, even though the set of equipment turns out quite a bit more expensive while the specifications are in fact very similar to other brands.
The latter is no surprise of course, we’ve analysed before what people actually buy, and it’s generally not “a computer”. They can purchase convenience, efficiency, even lifestyle and status. If you fit within the toolset (of equipment and apps) that the Apple environment provides, it’s indeed convenient and efficient. It’s a niche, but actually a fairly large one.
So we are left with two questions… does tight integration preclude making components easily replaceable and recyclable? No. It’s a design choice. If you set specific targets, the design will work within those targets. A battery can be fixed by sliding into a casing, or use a sticky gel or other adhesive that’s easily removed (think along the lines of the 3M wall fixtures with their double-sided sticky tape). That’s just one example. When you set a bunch of requirements, you can find suitable ways to resolve the need. Swatch did this years ago by setting a strict limit on the manufacturing cost of its watches. The designers worked out ways to use fewer cogs, and the ones they did put in were made of plastic rather than metal. The objectives were achieved.
Does the target niche market care about the environmental credentials of the products? I reckon they do and increasingly so. Typically reasonably affluent, the demographics of Apple users has a large overlap with the group that care for environmental matters. The procurement processes of many government organisations are also reliant on EPEAT compliance, so there too Apple will lose out.
My rough guess is that Apple is repeating a past behavioural pattern, for dogmatic reasons. Previously the decision would have been made by Steve Jobs with no care for any factors other than the merits at the time. Therefore, merely repeating his past decisions would be unwise: they made sense in the context, which will be different now. Corporations are particularly good at repeating behaviour that was successful in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always the best move now or even good for them (or its customers). And in this case, I reckon it’s going to bite.
“Sorry sir… yes, we sold you this hammer, but we really must insist that you only use brand X nails.
Oh you don’t agree? Well, with regret we render your hammer in-operable. Good day sir.”
Unlikely scenario? You’d think. A hardware vendor cannot expect to get away with that, except when they’re vendor of the kind of hardware that contains software. See http://boingboing.net/2012/07/03/cisco-locks-customers-out-of-t.html where Cory writes:
Owners of Cisco/Linksys home routers got a nasty shock this week, when their devices automatically downloaded a new operating system, which locked out device owners. After the update, the only way to reconfigure your router was to create an account on Cisco’s “cloud” service, signing up to a service agreement that gives Cisco the right to spy on your Internet use and sell its findings, and also gives them the right to disconnect you (and lock you out of your router) whenever they feel like it.
Unfortunately, Cisco is not the only one – I’m not even singling them out, they just happen to be this week’s occurrence. Each case is slightly different, but I presume you’re already at least vaguely aware that Apple can remove apps from your iPhone and also shut down those mobiles remotely, and that Amazon can remove eBooks from your Kindle device, to name a few examples with well-known names. Technically, similar things have been possible for a long time – the recent development is how vendors use this capability. What remains is for the vendor to regard it as justified and use it as a valid business practice, and for you to decide whether to accept it.
It’s even more of a mess when dealing with hardware. While you purchased a physical device, you are now no longer really the owner. That is, you hold the physical casing, but it it’s useless weight unless and only so long as the vendor allows you to.
In the European Union there’s just been a ruling that a vendor must allow a software license to be transferable (see http://www.zdnet.com/oracle-cannot-block-the-resale-of-its-software-in-europe-7000000189/) which of course also affects devices with embedded software and I presume other licensed material such as eBooks as the ruling refers to anything licensed by a copyright holder and not software specifically.
So now you can sell on your device at least, but if you keep it the vendor can make you jump at will. In Cisco’s case they require that you sign up for certain services, and they also reserve the right to shut down your device for uses they find undesirable. A key problem there is that what they find undesirable may be what someone else finds perfectly ok and the latter may be backed by the applicable law of the land – yet that won’t matter.
However, the vendor reserves the right independently from the law. That is, they don’t require a legal ruling in order to take action, they can do so at their discretion. The fact that they technically can is indisputable, but the fact that they now explicitly declare this is a very worrying development.
It’s non-judicial policing, and I believe it to be very wrong. In most countries, we have chosen to outsource such tasks to a criminal justice system (police and courts). These days, posses and vigilantes are generally frowned upon. But now they’re back, in the form of corporations. And so far, they’re getting away with it.