Earlier this week the web was abuzz with Apple’s latest clear strike against freedom: they refused the newest issue of the independent comic Saga to be distributed through ComiXology due to “postage-stamp sized” images of gay sex. Even though ComiXology is a third-party application, it uses Apple’s in-app purchase system—as it must, due to Apple’s iron fist of doom—and thus is subject to Apple’s doomy iron fisted policies. And this did seem pretty outrageous—and possibly homophobic, given that previous issues of the very same comic had explicit images of straight sex.
Of course, the web was abuzz a day later—in subdued fashion—with ComiXology’s admission that, actually, they just didn’t submit Saga #12 to Apple because they interpreted Apple’s rules as prohibiting it. When they actually asked Apple, turns out they didn’t have a problem with it after all.
I’m curious how widespread the second report is compared to the first; my suspicion is that it hasn’t traveled as far, for much the same reason that ComiXology made the mistake in the first place. “Apple is Big Brother” has become a default narrative about the company. Apple stands for closed systems, proprietary everything, and a level of control over the way their customers use their products that would send us all fleeing for the hills if we had any common sense.
At first glance this is a baffling take. If there’s something I could do with OS X 10.6 that I can’t do with OS X 10.8, I haven’t found it yet. My software all still works. The Unix shell is still there. AppleScript is still there. I can still use utilities like LaunchBar and Keyboard Maestro that are so absurdly powerful that I giggle like a Japanese schoolgirl when some yoyo spouts off with the old “Macs are just toys” trope. While iOS is locked down by comparison—and there are some things that definitely do need to be opened up with respect to inter-application communication—an iOS device is an application console. We don’t complain (much) about a PlayStation 3 being “locked down” because it’s a game console. That’s what they do.
Yet it’s a take even long-time Apple users fall into. Ted Landau comes across this way at times. Leo Laporte is positively cranky about it. The “iOSification” of OS X surely leads to OS X either becoming just as locked down as iOS or simply merging with iOS in a few years! Again, no real evidence supports this—the iOS elements that have been migrated to OS X have not resulted in OS X becoming more locked down. And there’s no reason to think that more OS X technologies won’t move to iOS, making it less locked down.
No reason, except that wouldn’t fit the default narrative.
Apple isn’t the first company to be saddled with this—most companies of any consequence do. Microsoft’s default narrative for about a decade, starting in the late ’90s, was that they were slow, stodgy and frankly kind of thuggish: you dealt with them because you had to. Before them, IBM had the slow and stodgy reputation, although less thug than “man in the dark blue business suit.” And, of course, Apple’s default narrative in the late ’90s can be summed up in one word: “beleaguered.”
These narratives aren’t pure nonsense. Apple was on the verge of going under for about a decade, and Microsoft and IBM really were eight thousand pound gorillas that weren’t, by most measures, very good winners. Microsoft’s contract with OEMs, for instance, disallowed shipping machines with Windows pre-installed that could “dual boot” into another operating system, effectively ensuring that only tech heads would ever see BeOS, OS/2 or Linux.
So how much of the default narrative they’re stuck with now is Apple’s fault, and how much of it is fair? Apple is interested in controlling everything they possibly can, sometimes to their obvious detriment (see: anything that involves a server-side component ever). But no market Apple competes in, with the possible exception of the dwindling MP3 player market, affords them a position comparable to Microsoft’s in 1999. Apple’s market share of smartphones can’t smother Android (or vice-versa; unlike PCs, that market simply doesn’t work that way). And frankly, no one’s ecosystem is as closed as it once was—data portability is king. Mac users are often happy Android users; Windows users are often happy iOS users.
There’s a temptation for those of us who generally like Apple to ascribe the default narrative to Tall Poppy Syndrome, which is, in Wikipedia’s words, “a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.” The Apple of 15 years ago was just as controlling, arrogant, and likely to overuse the word “magical” in advertising as the Apple of today, but now, they’re claiming they effectively reinvented the smartphone market and the tablet market. This is infuriating not because it’s transparent bullshit, but because it isn’t: they have a pretty good case for those claims.
That isn’t to say that Apple should be controlling and arrogant, and that their choices don’t create genuine problems worth bitching about. Nobody should pretend it’s good for consumers that Apple doesn’t let Nuance make Swype for iOS and doesn’t let us set Chrome to be our default iPhone browser and that it’s to my benefit that iCloud makes it impossible to use Byword on the Mac and iA Writer on the iPad to edit the same plain text documents. Apple definitely contributes to their own reputation.
But if Apple did “open up” everything, would the default narrative change? At this point, I don’t think so. Look at how persistent bits of the previous Apple narrative have been: that their operating system isn’t powerful enough, that their hardware is massively overpriced, that their main audience is technically illiterate fashionistas. It doesn’t matter what facts are marshaled against this. People hate Apple because Apple. As Marco Arment wrote, Apple “could release a revolutionary 60-inch 4K TV for $99 with built-in nanobots to assemble and dispense free smartwatches, and people would complain that it should cost $49 and the nanobots aren’t open enough.”
And, at least when I ran the Google search now for news on Apple’s Saga saga, the first hit is from the Guardian: “Apple didn’t ban Saga comic, but censorship questions remain.”
Apple does make content decisions that at various points have seemed anti-competitive, puritanical, politically correct, strangely prissy or just plain baffling. So does Google, and if people buy Windows Phone in enough numbers for it to matter, so will Microsoft. And in cases involving content rather than applications, at the least, it won’t matter that much, because Apple, Google and Microsoft won’t be your exclusive content providers. (On iOS, I can buy from ComiXology directly, I can load DRM-Free EPUBs into iBooks by merely clicking on a link in Safari, and so on.)
Apple is neither alone in making weird “curation” decisions, nor are they the inescapable arbiter of what data you load up your iPad with. But most reports, for the foreseeable future, will be written from the perspective that both of those facts are false or, at best, irrelevant. After all, you gotta stick to the narrative.