SAN JOSE, Calif. - Silicon Valley blogger Ryan Tate was settling into a quiet night at home - a little "30 Rock" on the DVR, a few sips into his Hennessy and creme de menthe - when Steve Jobs threw a wrench in the works.
"A commercial for iPad came on, and it contained the word 'revolution,' " said Tate, who has blogged recently on Valleywag about Apple's aggressive response to an iPhone theft involving colleagues at Gawker Media. "That word struck a sour chord for me. Apple's been acting in many ways to suppress creativity and expression in the content it allows on the iPhone, including political cartoons. Jobs is admirable in some ways, but there've been so many cases where Apple seems to be going over to the darker side."
So he e-mailed the Apple CEO. At 1 a.m., Jobs e-mailed back. And for thirty minutes, through a heated discussion of Bob Dylan, smart-phone porn and even child-raising tips, they butted heads. In an often defensive and sarcastic tone, Jobs defended Apple, telling Tate in one reply: "we're just doing what we can to try and make (and preserve) the user experience we envision. You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure."
Apple, which had banned then allowed an application from Pulitzer Prize winning editorial columnist Mark Fiore, wouldn't comment for this story. But Tate said he received 300 e-mails after posting the exchange, "and a lot of them were from Mac users who felt the company was getting too controlling. They buy these products to feel free, but they get upset when Apple acts like Big Brother."
This may have just been two Valley guys feeling feisty in the wee small hours. Yet that same conversation is unfolding elsewhere. Last week, The New Yorker's editor David Remnick upbraided Apple for essentially censoring its iPad app content. And from Jon Stewart to Ellen DeGeneres to app developers to the New York Times, a lot of people are wondering: Has Apple, even as its sales and share price go through the roof, grown so big and so controlling that it risks driving developers and the people buying their apps into the arms of competitors like Google?
"One of the biggest issues facing Apple today and one that's helped changed its image is its app-selection process," said securities analyst Charles Wolf with Needham & Company. "There's a great concern in the developers' community about the uncertainty surrounding the rules. If I don't know whether my app's going to be accepted, why invest time on it? Why don't I just go to Android?"
That review process is tightly controlled by Apple, which for a non-refundable fee offers developers a software development kit, or SDK, that walks them through the steps and even allows them to test them out in an "iPhone simulator." Developers have complained about rigid standards, a lack of clarity on where their submissions stand (or why they were rejected), and of having to wait for weeks to hear back from Apple, giving competitors a chance to jump ahead of them in line.
There's also a concern among some Apple fanboys, if not mainstream consumers, that the company has betrayed that seductive underdog legacy launched on April Fool's Day, 1976.
"The contrast between the company's image today and when it first started is pretty dramatic," said Roger Kay, the Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst who two years ago in a BusinessWeek column warned that corporate hubris could spell Apple's eventual fall from grace. "They really did represent the hip outsider. But Apple's no longer the outsider - it's been elevated to the pinnacle. My thesis back then was that they were flying high and they should watch out, and they weren't even flying as high as they are now. So my timing may be off, but my thesis still holds."
Some critics might see Apple's extra-large footprint over online music and smart-phone content as a mockery of Jobs' 1983 speech when he ranted against "an IBM-dominated and controlled future."
But most observers say it really doesn't matter - Apple's doing just great, thank you, and last week surpassed Microsoft as the world's most valuable tech company by market value. Just look at the way PC users keep vaulting the aisle to buy iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads.
Branding expert Robert Passikoff attributes Apple's initial success "to the fact that they recognized the emotional connection between a consumer and a product. Now," he said, "Apple has become the status quo and everyone else is shifting around them. It's not that they've lost their cool - they've become the king of cool, and everyone else is trying to replicate it.
"They may have lost some of that emotionality from the early days," he said, "but they're laughing all the way to the bank."
That path, though, is showing a few potholes. Some developers are upset with what they see as the arbitrary and even moralistic way Apple's gatekeepers accept or reject apps for the iPhone and now the iPad. And Apple's move to eighty-six the highly popular Flash technology from the iPad angered critics, including its maker Adobe, which took out full-page newspaper ads across the country to give Apple a piece of its mind.
"We love creativity," it began. "We love innovation. We love apps. What we don't love is anybody taking away your freedom to choose what you create, how you create it, and what you experience on the Web."
And then on March 18, Apple engineer Gray Powell accidentally left a next-generation iPhone at a Redwood City beer hall, and all hell broke loose. The phone was sold to Gizmodo, where editor Jason Chen gave the device what "The Daily's Show" star Stewart called "the whole video tech prostate exam," exposing it for all the world to see - and reportedly causing Jobs to see red. Apple lawyers came unleashed. Jobs personally appealed to Gizmodo to give the phone back. Cops raided Chen's house. And in some quarters, Apple antipathy bloomed.
"I'm sorry," Stewart told his television audience in late April, elevating the iPhone follies into a national gripe session. "But this whole thing is out of control," he said, before addressing Jobs directly: "You were the rebels, the underdogs. People believed in you. But now you're becoming" - pausing for effect - " ... the man!"
Stewart may be guilty of piling on, unable to resist what one analyst called the "red meat" of commandos from a law-enforcement task-force bashing in Chen's front door. On the other hand, the fact that Apple sits on the task force's steering committee was not lost on its detractors. "How's it feel," one critic vented on the task force website, "to be Apple's secret police?"
L'Affaire Chen was salt in the wounded egos of developers already upset with Apple for what author and app developer Erica Sadun calls its "controlling and top-down" corporate culture that can sometimes leave developers in the dark.
"I don't believe there's malice on anyone's part; the app reviewers are doing a great job," said Sadun, who's had apps rejected for what she says were minor technicalities that could have been easily resolved. "But Apple doesn't empower its lower-level employees to make common-sense decisions, so everything gets kicked upstairs for approval more than it needs to be."
Still, says Sadun, even disgruntled developers who flee Apple often come back "because they're addicted to the audience and the technology Apple provides them.
"I joke that Apple's my abusive boyfriend," she said. "He looks so good; I love him; but he treats me so bad. It's that kind of relationship - you want to leave, but you keep coming back for more."
(c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
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