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Apple + Tech

OK, I’ll bite

A good friend of mine sent me a link to this Fairfax article “Steve Jobs’s Apple legacy may not be so sweet at the core“. While most articles about Jobs stepping down as Apple CEO are full of praise for Jobs I was intrigued by the subterfuge suggested by this article’s headline. Is there something sinister lurking in the details?

But alas, this article was pure link-bait. Factually incorrect, lazy and as evidenced by the 100’s of comments the article received on the Fairfax website a very successful attempt at stirring the pot to drive pageviews.

A quick look at the author’s previous articles suggests he should know what he’s talking about: tourism, advertising and marketing seem to be his areas of expertise. Apple’s a marketing leader, so he should have some interesting insights. Maybe he’s kept such insights to himself.

So I’ve channeled my best Harry Marks to look deeper into this article.

No sooner had Steve Jobs resigned than the process of his canonisation began. Genius, visionary, even revolutionary were some of the epithets used to describe the man who took Apple from the brink to the world’s most valuable company.

OK, that seems pretty accurate. I’d add great leader and manager.

Yet, once the hyperbole is stripped away, it may be that he was merely the man who made us fall in love with pretty gadgets, and made Apple shareholders immensely rich in the process.

I guess the author doesn’t have any AAPL shares.

Jobs made computing sexy and packaged music players, phones and portable screens to make them the must-have item for millions. But he is guilty, among other things, of bequeathing to us a worldwide cult of technological onanism from which we are unlikely to recover any time soon.

Those among us who have an iPod, Macbook, iTouch, iPhone or iPad have surrendered our powers of concentration and free time to this cult, not to mention our personal data. An entire generation will only be able to walk into its future so long as Apple holds its hand. They will only be able to commune with each other via their devices and a shared experience will only be truly shared through Facebook or Digg. Who talks with strangers on the buses today? You can’t flirt with someone on a train if they are plugged into a two-hour shuffle of easy listening.

And it’s the food companies who are making us overweight, the beverage companies who are making us alcoholics and the car companies who are causing car accidents? I don’t have any problem with the observation that society is changing, but that’s the nature of society. Were we talking to strangers on the bus 10 years ago? No, we were consuming media – newspapers, magazines and books – the same as we do today. The only thing that’s changed is the platform. But talking to strangers is still talking to strangers.

… yada, yada, yada …

Yep, I’ve cut some of the article out.

But there is nothing very cool about the culture of the company Jobs has presided over since he returned as CEO in 1997, after being ousted some years earlier in a boardroom coup. Its ”my way or the highway” approach to business has earned it few friends. Apple is one of the few technology companies in the world that has succeeded despite having a closed ecosystem that does not work with any other technology. This protectionist approach extends to Apple’s aggressive policy towards patents and trademarks. Any company, be it large or small, that dares use the ”i” or anything resembling an apple in its brand, invites the wrath of Apple’s corporate lawyers.

I’m not going to argue against the notion that intellectual property law is broken. In fact I think there’s a lot to be debated. But Apple is no different from any company who needs to protect their brand and their products.

Apple’s environmental record of managing the toxic fallout from its products is less than exemplary …

Greenpeace currently ranks Apple 9th of the top 18 manufacturers of personal technology.

… and the pricing for its products and services is based on what it can get away with rather than what is fair. Australian consumers still pay $1.69 a track on its iTunes store compared to the US69¢ Americans pay, despite the strength of the Aussie dollar.

Um, no. In early 2009, the author’s own newspaper reported the commencement of variable pricing on the iTunes store. The current situation is that music prices vary in each country depending upon the agreement Apple has with record companies in each country. Apps are tied to exchange rates, but music is priced in each local market. If the author investigated further he would find that Apps are close to parity once you recognise that quoted US prices don’t include taxes, whereas quoted Australian prices include GST.

Jobs cut the company’s philanthropic donations shortly after returning. But try as he might, the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, who has bankrolled his own foundation to the tune of millions, fails to command the same levels of adulation as Jobs. And yet Apple has brilliantly managed to defy all those nasty corporate stereotypes that have attached themselves to Microsoft, and to a lesser extent to Google and Facebook.

On the surface this argument sounds quite reasonable – Apple is not philanthropic. But since when has it been up to companies to be philanthropic with their funds – shareholders funds? In my opinion companies have an obligation to maximise shareholder value and this means that philanthropy is appropriate only if it increases shareholder value. If philanthropy doesn’t do that then the company should not be philanthropic – companies should maximise shareholder value and let the shareholders decide what they want to do with their funds – if the shareholder wants to be philanthropic then that is up to the shareholder!

Bill Gates has taken the same approach. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was established with their own money, not Microsoft shareholder funds. When Microsoft is philanthropic there is always a sound commercial reason for such philanthropy.

In spite of all the facts – that Apple is a ruthless corporate machine that exploits consumers at will and gives little back (it doesn’t even pay its shareholders a dividend)

Very few tech companies pay dividends. From the International Business Times:

Moreover, paying dividends represents a sea-change in the perception of a company – namely, that it has “matured” and will not grow much anymore (think of the tired old utility companies).

But let’s not stop the Fairfax author using non-payment of dividends as a jibe at Apple!

Back to Fairfax:

– we love this brand and the avuncular evangelist Jobs who is slowly but surely being raised to the pantheon of ”greats” alongside Nobel prize winners, mighty philanthropists and, dare I say it, even religious leaders. In the end I suspect Jobs will be remembered chiefly as one of, if not the, best marketers the world has ever known.

And there’s something bad about being a successful marketer?

It’s easy to pick apart a linkbait article like this one, but it’s not so easy to write an original article in the first place. Especially for a journalist under deadline and resource constraints – let’s face it, Fairfax journalists do it tough. So good on Julian Lee for having a go, but there’s nothing to see here. So move along people.



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