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08.11.09

Is Apple the New Big Brother?

Twenty-five years after tech geeks were liberated from the PC Empire, they started turning on Apple this week for its technological tyranny. Douglas Rushkoff on how David became Goliath.

Has the company that famously satirized the stultifying primacy of IBM-compatible computers in its Orwellian commercial for the 1984 Super Bowl finally emerged as the successor to Big Brother? Jason Calacanis, Web entrepreneur and a longtime Macintosh devotee, this week joined a virtual posse of prominent Internet leaders who now believe Steve Jobs has turned his back on the original promise of Apple to promote creativity and sharing over conformity and restriction. Although they had held off out of respect to Jobs' liver-transplant recovery, now they're out in full force: Jobs is the Devil.

It was supposed to be Bill Gates who turned out to be Satan.

What is being lost on those of us who remember Apple as an alternative to IBM or, better, Bill Gates' Windows evil empire, is that Apple has always been a closed, self-interested, and essentially profit-maximizing enterprise. The point is not that Apple has turned to the dark side. It has not slowly succumbed to the logic of the corporation. It's simply that by becoming a networking company in addition to a computer company, it finally exposed its true core.

Remember, they called themselves Apple—who the heck offered that up in Eden, anyway?

I know. It was supposed to be Bill Gates who turned out to be Satan. Add the letters of his name up in just the right way and you get 666. Ever since Microsoft committed the anticompetitive sin of buying its competitors and bundling a browser with its operating system, cool people everywhere liked to think of them as the technology world's Death Star.

But as Calacanis, TechCrunch, and a growing number of commentators are now noticing, Apple, too, protects its turf in ways that make the networking universe worse, not better. Files on iTunes —and thus iPods—are incompatible with everything else. Applications on iPhones may only be sold and uploaded through the iPhone store—giving Apple control over everything people put on to the devices they thought they owned.

The last straw, however, was Apple's rejection of Google's Voice application for the iPhone, which may have gone just one step too far in protecting the sanctity of its devices from the offerings of competitors. (It’s a big reason Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently left Apple’s board.) It's one thing to reject an application because it breaks copyright, breaks phones, or simply doesn't work. It's another to reject an application because it's great.

Google Voice is an inspired virtual phone-number program (they bought the concept from a company called Grand Central) that lets users have a phone number through which they can do pretty much anything except make calls. Forward it to your phone, your email, your Skype; get voicemail, ping all your phones to find you, get messages online like email, and so on. It's telephony's biggest "killer app" since Skype or even voice-over-IP.

And that's why Apple can't let it live and grow on the iPhone, which—at least for now—is a device dependent on a partnership with the original telecommunications monopoly, AT&T. AT&T subsidizes the iPhone, so that people can spend just a hundred bucks or so and get what amounts to a pocket computer—in return for a cellular contract with an awful carrier.

But it's wrong to see Apple's agreement to boot Google off the iPhone as some new, evil direction for Apple. The company has always prevented unauthorized access to its best resources, and shunned the use of anything from which it could not extract value. In fact, the reason why Apple computers have worked so well over time is that, unlike Microsoft, they don't bend over backward to be compatible with every piece of hardware or software in the digital universe. To code or create for Apple, you follow Apple's rules. If you're even allowed to. No one is allowed to create a browser application for the iPhone except Apple. You can't even use the Apple operating system on a non-Apple computer, for chrissakes. (Well, unless you illegally hack it and put it on a $150 netbook, like I did last month.)

Now that does give Steve the absolute control over hardware and software that makes for an elegant and robust solution to pretty much everything he sets his mind to. One argument against open systems is that they become open to everything, good and bad. Like a Richard Meier skyscraper, the anal retentive, Bauhaus elegance of the Mac does prevent the loose ends and confusion of a less sterile environment. But it also prevents fertility. Apple's development must come from within. As long as they retain the best talent, this will remain a viable solution.

Still, a walled garden is hardly the image that a technology company wants to have in an age characterized by networking and collaboration. And the products that emerge from a walled garden are more luxury goods than they are suitable for the participation in open platforms. As the Net becomes more about cloud computing, customization, and sharing, the Apple-only solutions will start to become more limiting in ways that people can feel.

That's why everyone is noticing Apple's true colors: What makes a great standalone piece of hardware is not he same thing as what makes a great networking device. One can work as an essentially closed system. The other is absolutely dependent on its openness.

Calacanis has certainly received his fair share of heat for turning his back on the Mac. He told me Tuesday night that while 90 percent of the Apple users writing him so far want the company's tools to be more open, "the 10 percent who are 'fan boys' are attacking me personally in a vicious fashion. Luckily their mothers won't let them leave the basement to come to my house to egg my Tesla." As the recent victim of an Internet swarm attack, my heart goes out to him. But he's not feeling any pain: "It's fine.... they are religious and crazy—they actually are fighting for LESS choice. Technologists fighting for less choice is absurd and disappointing.... we're supposed to be the rebels NOT the Empire."

Soon, we'll get the final verdict on whether Apple is simply trying to protect us from bad applications, or protecting itself from competition—and us. By all accounts, the company's first tablet PC—an answer to the netbook explosion—will be released sometime next year. But, as Calacanis asks, which OS will the company use? The traditional Macintosh system, for which people can still write and install software themselves? Or the iPhone-type OS, which forces users and developers to meet one another in Apple's store, and only for the purchase of applications that don't compete with anything Apple or one of its partners may want to do themselves?

Of course, it may just be that they're good enough to pull this off. Steve Jobs may be so terrific at making all the computing, music, and telecommunications products and software and services we need, forever. And in that sense, if the Apple plan actually does work, signing on with the company would be no different than signing a sweet pact with the Devil.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus , and, most recently, Life Inc., released this month by Random House.