My fellow Macleans.ca tech blogger Peter Nowak is a fine journalist and a compelling writer. His ideas and opinions are always interesting, and always worth reading. But he’s off his nut when it comes to Apple.
Yesterday, after news of Steve Jobs’ resignation hit, Peter wrote:
“No company—probably not even Google—and certainly no individual has made as much of a difference or changed the way things work over the past 10 years as Apple has under Jobs”.
Apple’s gargantuan success over the past decade is inarguable. Jobs is clearly a genius of form and function, an incredible leader, a brilliant marketer. He has an uncanny sense of what we will want, and then he creates it. As a businessman, he’s a titan.
But has he made a bigger difference to the world than any other individual of the past decade? Osama Bin Laden must be spinning in his grave.
And Apple has “changed the way things work” more than any other company? The comeback to that one is so obvious that Peter name-checks it in his assertion—Google is very clearly the revolutionary company of our age.
Before I back that up, let’s deal with Peter’s argument. What, exactly, has Apple done to “make a difference” and “change the way things work”? Well…
“The iPod has changed how we buy music.”
Okay, sure. And Zappos has changed the way we buy shoes. So what? Apple brought meaningful evolution to the music industry, but wasn’t it kind of inevitable? We figured out how to digitize and download music all by ourselves. Apple’s innovation was in seamlessly integrating a snazzy device with a convenient online store that sold music at a perfect price point. If the iPod and iTunes never existed, online music sales might have taken years longer to develop from the ashes of Napster. But it still would have happened. And it still wouldn’t have been that big a deal—at least not in a grand-scale-of-human-history sense.
“The iPhone changed the world of telecommunications” by “prying the phone itself and its data capabilities away from the greedy, clammy hands of wireless operators.”
True. But who really cares how their pie is cut? So now you’re stuck in a three-year contract because you got an iPhone, as opposed to 2004, when you were stuck in a three-year contract because you got a Razr. The power balance between hardware companies and telecom outfits is only relevant to you if you’re a hardware company or a telecom outfit.
But let’s set aside the power-shift the iPhone brought within the mobile industry and focus instead on the device itself. It’s a marvel, I agree. The impact of apps is wildly overblown, but mobile email, mobile web, and GPS are things that smartphone owners use every day. They have indeed changed our lives. And they would have anyhow. Blackberry addicts, largely corporate customers, were already hooked before the iPhone. But Jobs consolidated existing technologies into a wonderfully elegant and (almost) affordable device. He may have jumpstarted the popularization of the mobile Internet by a year or so. Hats off.
Finally, the iPad, which is:
“doing much to drive computing toward a post-PC reality.”
Just what does that mean? I’ve questioned the iPad’s “magical” properties before (and faced the inevitable onslaught). It’s some months later, and I’ve yet to notice any real impact of the gadget. I know folks love their glowy pads; I know they surf around on them from the couch and enjoy how they feel in their hands. But what difference does the iPad actually make in our lives? If your iPad went away tomorrow, what would you be unable to do? Tablets are not the written word’s savior or the future of the digital age. They’re just a different kind of computer that adds comfort while subtracting control. I’m glad we have them and I look forward to them getting cheaper. It’s not unlike how I felt about USB keys when they came out.
Add it all up, and Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic. Their products look great and have changed the way lots of other things look. But that’s just it—Apple is all about things. It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone. This has already happened to the iPod. You probably have a three-old version in a drawer somewhere.
Google re-invented advertising, the economic engine that powers television and newspapers (or used to). Google solved the central problem of the Internet by organizing the biggest-ever library of content into an easily searchable resource that, more often than not, finds exactly what you were after. Google popularized cloud computing, which will bring the influence of the Internet into our physical lives in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.
More than anything, Google has been an accelerator of the greater ambitions of the Internet. Ten years ago, techno-utopians spoke of a future where anyone could be a publisher. Google made random blogs findable and made reader visits bankable. Ten years ago, we heard starry-eyed predictions that any kid could soon have the tools to become a pop star or a filmmaker from their own basement. Now, thanks to Google’s acquisition of YouTube, we take it for granted that this is so. Google preaches “openness,” not because it sounds good, but because the more open and accessible the Internet is to us all, the more money Google makes.
Google is surely imperfect, prone to the odd mistake or bad policy. But while Apple spent the past decade perfecting the work of the previous century, the mass-production and mass-marketing of unnecessary objects, Google was pioneering something new: a data-driven economy fueled by the input of individuals you wouldn’t dream of describing as “consumers.”
Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown