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Admit It: You Really Want To be Controlled

Earnings calls are often your best bet to fall asleep. Margins, inventory concerns, and debates about possible supply issues are topics that I have listened to for more than 15 years, but will never get excited about. Personally, I much more enjoy the notes that are made on the side, between the lines. You know, the types of notes that distinguish a dry Intel earnings call (sorry, guys) from the earnings press release and a 10Q filing. Those phone conferences are very characteristic for each company and you learn over the years what information you can expect to come out of a call.

Apple, for example, is enjoyable because of its flowery vocabulary. You can expect phrases such as "gorgeous" or "magical" - words that you may only hear in an American Girl doll shop otherwise. When Steve Jobs was on those calls, you knew that where was a good chance you could get information that would go beyond the actual earnings results, even if that information was always based on passionate speeches that often appeared to have deviated from scripts. His passion and direct answers made those calls a great investment in your time if you were interested in Apple's products and philosophy. Of course, Jobs isn't on those calls at this time and the general tone delivered by CFO Peter Oppenheimer and interim-CEO Tim Cook is much more business-like, with a slight Steve Jobs slant. However, during this week's call Cook also directly responded to some challenging questions. There was one answer in particular that caught my attention and I have to admit that I almost fell off the chair that Apple would officially say something like this publicly. In response to a question whether Apple was concerned about Android's growth, Cook responded (partial answer):

“I think the user appreciates that Apple can take full responsibility for their experience, whereas the fragmented approach turns the customer into a systems integrator and few customers that I know want to be a systems integrator.”

All right. Nothing unusual here at first sight. However, if you translate the rather euphemistic sentence, you would be coming to the conclusion that Apple believes that its users (I'll be a bit dramatic here) are too lazy to define the way how they use their iPhone and iPads and really want to be controlled by Apple. There is a certain positive spin to Cook's quote, which implies that Apple is protecting its users from harm they otherwise could not avoid, but I'd claim that the quote also implies that Apple is generally deciding what is good for you and what not. In my opinion, this is a level of control that has reached dangerous proportions and threatens the very basic concept of democracy, at least as far as the Apple user base is concerned. A good friend of mine commented on Apple's quote with another quote - from Devo's song Freedom of Choice: "Freedom of choice is what you got, Freedom from choice is what you want". Makes you think, doesn't it?   

Another good friend and a dedicated Apple advocate responded with the question what choices you may want and Apple denies anyway. In the end, it has a fantastic phone and the biggest app store with the greatest number of apps. True, but shouldn’t you be allowed to consume pornographic content if you want to or is it appropriate that Steve Jobs tells you should not? Jobs told a user that the iPhone offers "freedom from porn", which could be interpreted as a form of 1984's Newspeak, if we think about the fact that the user initially complained about a lack of "freedom". Jobs' answer may have been Newspeak unintentionally, but the trend to reinterpret common words into new meanings is undoubtedly there.

How about all those cases of software that was removed from the App Store as soon as there was an obvious Apple concern that it was better than a competing Apple product? Why is the development platform limited to the degree that it is impossible for Mozilla to offer a full version of Firefox for the iPhone? In aggregate, is this a limitation of choice or are we talking about a freedom from choice?

Cook's quote made me think about Apple's business model and walled garden again. There are those clear advantages of Apple's approach, such as the fact that you have apps that simply work and there are no security concerns (at least not from the perspective of viruses (yet). The claim of higher quality apps is strange as I have no idea how you would define a "better app" and you generally assume that crappy apps are dropped by the market over time anyway. The App Store may give developers higher earnings potential since iPhone/iPad users were raised to know that they have to pay for apps. However, hitting it big on the App Store as a small developer is about as likely as hitting the Megaball these days. If your app shoots to the top of more than 374,000 apps that are currently available in Apple's App Store, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.   

Cook's systems integration explanation does not make that much sense from the view of a traditional computer user, unless the desires of our society have changed. In the past, we have always defined our own experience and decided what runs and what does not run on our computers. That freedom was something we took for granted and, of course, it brought problems as well: How often do you deal with parental controls to limit the information on your PC and how often are you informed that some nasty trojan has found a home on your PC. The iPhone is, conceivably, a safe environment for everyone - safe, at least, in the way Apple defines it.

However, I am concerned that the opportunity of choice is disappearing, simply because we have become too lazy to care about choices we should make ourselves. Should Apple allow users to make their own choices without punishing them? Of course they should. The alternative choice would be to allow Apple to make the choices for you. If you think about the basic pillars a democratic society is built upon, it is stunning to see that Apple was able to establish its business model and convince us that Apple's choices are the best choices for everyone. Imagine Microsoft would have made that pitch ten years ago: Would you have agreed then?

The problem right now is not so much which choices you do not have, but where Apple's business model of censorship will lead us to. How could Apple use the tracking features in your iPhone, which offer a full view on your life? I have heard so many times that people don't care whether Apple or someone else knows where you are and a radio show host here in Chicago even mentioned this week that she is proud that Apple or someone else would be interested in her location. Seriously? I am sure that tone will change once she is in a legal battle and iPhone records are subpoenaed and her every move is revealed. There is also the silly example that a burglar may want to know when you are not at home. I may be wrong, but I believe that we generally may have become too lazy to understand the implications of loss of choice and our tendency to trust others to make essential choices for us. Remember: Apple says we "appreciate" that the company defining our experience.            

Of course, choice has not entirely disappeared yet: You can choose not to use an iPhone, even if we have no clear idea how Google is exactly using our data (especially since the company mentioned during its conference call that it is very interested in user data and potential future applications), and what Microsoft may be doing with Windows Phone 7.

If you write a comment below, let me ask you this: If you have an iPhone, do you agree with Apple making choices for you? What is the boundary line Apple cannot cross and you would drop your iPhone for something else?