Independent developer Greg Gardner found the perfect way to streamline iOS 8, Apple’s latest mobile operating system. His new app, Launcher, allows iPhone users to save time by placing shortcuts for frequent actions (e.g. calling a spouse, opening Facebook) in the notification center itself. Or at least it used to. After achieving massive success with “several hundred thousand downloads” in just nine days, Apple summarily pulled Launcher from the App Store, despite Mr. Gardner’s best attempt to revise the app in accordance with Apple’s warning that the app constituted a “misuse” of widgets.
There may have been a time when Apple would have embraced Gardner’s innovation instead of overzealously protecting its own ecosystem at the expense of the creators who populate it. But the Apple of today has become the bully that they believed they were fighting against for so much of their history. Where did Apple go wrong? At what point did Apple become the feared arbiter of the App Store that it is today? For those of us who have been with Apple from the beginning, the company’s journey from underdog to top dog has been particularly agonizing to watch.
I grew up in a household where Apple was not just a brand name but a religion, too. As a child, I learned how to type on our family’s first computer, a boxy but eminently functional Mac Classic. The operating system came packed with a virtual friend to keep me company, a grayscale talking dragon who perched himself in the corner of the screen and occasionally blew smoke out of his nostrils. That Mac Classic has collected a lot of dust over these last two decades but it boots to this day. And Siri has nothing on that dragon.
Our family stayed true to the Apple faith during the Steve Jobs-less Dark Ages of the mid-1990s when Apple’s stock was floundering and the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Microsoft reigned supreme and no one understood why our family refused to move to Windows. We even doubled down and bought the Newton—Apple’s first and only PDA—to prove our devotion, despite the device’s notoriously bad handwriting recognition. It’s hard to think that Apple—now “the largest P.C. maker in the world,” according to the New York Times—was, at one point, in danger of losing everything but it once was. The forced humility of that era has long since faded.
But so many of us, myself included, bought into the narrative of Apple as the underdog. My mother, the chief Apple acolyte in our household, taught us from a young age that the evil billionaire tycoon Bill Gates had allegedly stolen the graphical user interface (GUI) from Steve Jobs and that Microsoft had unfairly monopolized the operating system market. The worldview in our family was simple: Apple was on the side of creativity and innovation, Microsoft was on the side of dirty business.
Things were different after the so-called Second Coming of Steve Jobs. Apple was cool again, and those who had doubted our family’s commitment to Apple during the 90s were forced to recant. And Apple finally learned how to be a business. Everything with an “i” appended to it began printing money for Apple, from the very first bubble-shell iMacs that my siblings took to college to the iPod that carried me through my high school introversion to the iPhone of my own college years. From the turn of the twenty-first century to today, Apple’s stock prices have increased twentyfold and the company now dominates all of the staples of modern technological life: the computer market, the tablet market, and the smartphone market.
But if the 2000s marked Apple’s Second Coming, their vengeful 2010s have been a veritable Book of Revelations. The company has a reputation for wielding its intentionally ambiguous App Store Review Guidelines in hypocritical ways. For instance, as EJ Dickson reports on the Daily Dot, Apple banned a euphemistic sex-positive female masturbation app, while allowing a similar app for men (called Wrists of Steel). In 2012, it was Apple rather than Microsoft who found themselves on the receiving end of an antitrust lawsuit, this time over eBook price fixing. And Apple is currently under investigation for tax avoidance to boot.
I left the Apple faith as an adult for these and other reasons. I stopped looking for meaning in the devices I used. I realized, too, that these high tech toys that I had been playing with my whole life were the product of a globalized labor market that put Chinese factory workers in danger so that I could play Cut the Rope on the bus. I read reams of anecdotes about Steve Jobs’ bullying behavior. I learned that Jobs’ own bullying extended to Apple’s litigation practices. Under his tenure, the company tried to block the sale of competitors’ products through patent infringement lawsuits against Samsung and HTC.
But perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the underestimated nerd that was Apple grew up to become a schoolyard bully. Hasn’t that been the classic trajectory of nerd culture in the twenty-first century? The anti-nerd bullying that once allowed “geek” to pass as an outsider identity has been hypocritically internalized and repeated by a new generation of tech enthusiasts and Silicon Valley bosses, especially Steve Jobs. The margins have long since moved to the center but Apple, like so many companies in the tech space, still acts as if it can punch up instead of down. However, it’s not the Newton era anymore and Apple is no longer the scrappy hero it still pretends to be.
After shutting down an independent developer’s promising app with barely an explanation, perhaps it’s time for Apple to revisit its roots. When I was ten years old, Apple rolled out its famous “Think Different” advertisements, which positioned the company alongside key countercultural figures—Picasso, Joan Baez, Jim Henson, even Martin Luther King, Jr. As an adult, I clearly see the shamelessness of co-opting the image of civil rights activists to sell computers, but as a child, “Think Different” made a lasting impression on me.
I remember the narration for the “Think Different” television commercial:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
In the decade and a half since this ad first aired, Apple has become the square hole that round pegs like Greg Gardner try to fit into. In their role as curators of the App Store, Apple has become more than “fond” of the rules; they make the rules now and their bottom line is the new status quo. Apple has become the very image of the stifling, conservative corporation that they once defined themselves against.
I no longer believe in the toothless message of the “Think Different” ad and I probably never should have. But if you work at Apple, you would do well to watch it again and take a long look in the mirror. You’re Microsoft now. How did you get here?