Author’s note: Unlike my other posts so far, this is not going to be a technical article. So you can skip it if you like. 🙂
Or if you are an Apple fan with a weak heart….

For some reason, half the world seems to have gone mad over Apple products. Ever since Apple introduced the idea of gimmicky design features (ranging from wheel-controlled MP3 players to processor-powered toilet seats), Apple seems to be the be-all and end-all of consumer electronics. And I don’t get it. Perhaps somebody could explain… ?

Apple computers has always been a company on the leading edge of Human Computer Interaction. Back in the 1980’s they were among the first computer builders to start putting the lessons from Xerox PARC into practice. They were one of the first companies to use Engelbart‘s mouse commercially, being the second to combine it commercially with a GUI in the Apple LISA (the first being Xerox with its Star system). This line of development continued with the Apple Macintosh which quickly grabbed the high-end graphical market in the second half of the 1980’s while IBM-compatible machines dominated the non-graphical business market. This split lasted until Microsoft Windows popularized the GUI on the lower-end IBM-compatible hardware and opened the door for graphical applications on that platform. At that moment the market mechanism started to kill off Apple’s position: Apple machines moved from being dedicated graphical heavyweights to being overpriced nothing-special computers.

As we all know, Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple for a while and went on to do great things in the HCI and graphical arenas (founding Next and creating NextStep and later founding Pixar). Eventually he returned to Apple to save the sinking ship. Which he did, continuing the combination of technical innovation and design (and leading to such widespread successes as QuickTime).

Lately however, Apple seems to have gone off the rail when it comes to technological innovation, focussing instead on the design aspect and coming up with one gimmick after another. It all sounds nice and it lead to some commercial success stories, but the spectre of being overpriced nothing-special is once again looming in the background. You see, Apple is (if you ask me) repeating all its past mistakes.

It is widely acknowledged that what killed Apple the first time round was the total lack of licensed production. IBM did it differently, back in 1983: they developed the PC, then licensed the technology to everybody who wanted to build compatible PCs. By comparison, Apple insisted on full control: Apples were built by Apple and no one else and so was hardware you could plug into your Apple. As a result IBM-compatible machines devoured the available market share overnight, relegating Apple to the niche market where their high-end and expensive equipment was absolutely necessary. Until, of course, IBM-compatible followed into that niche as well.

This is a pattern that you see repeated over and over, by the way. In the early 1980’s several systems vied for public popularity in the home entertainment sector: LaserDisc, Betamax, VHS (which overpowered the other two) and the system that ended up destroying all the others in the end: the CD and its decendants (like the DVD). Both winners (first VHS and later the CD) had in common that the owners of the patents were very liberal in licensing others to produce machines and media. Something similar happened to make GSM the mobile phone standard: European Union standardization mandated aherence to the system, widespread accessibility to the specifications and complete compatibility in all adhering systems. This is also why all cars use the same type of gasoline or diesel and why PAL is the European television standard. And of course the same principle of the Cathedral and the Bazaar applies to open source software and open standards (driving todays software industry) versus proprietary software.

So, back to Apple. What is the state of affairs with that company? To find out, I went online and compared two of their most popular products to similar offerings from others, using a comparison site: the MacBook and the vaunted iPhone 3G.

Starting with a the MacBook, I looked for laptop offerings from Apple, Asus and HP, with certain similar features (Intel Core 2 Duo processor at 2+ GHz, 2+ GB of memory, 200+ GB of harddrive). Ran it through the feature search and I ended up with a MacBook Pro going head to head with an Asus A7SV-7S086C and an HP Pavilion dv9890ed. Or actually I should say, I ended up with an Asus going steel-toed boot-to-head with the MacBook: most of their specs are similar (memory, video mem, similar clock); but the Asus comes with a bigger harddrive, built-in cardreader and a 17 inch screen against the MacBooks 15,4 — and it starts at €1073, whereas the lowest price for the MacBook is €1735. This despite the MacBook’s lithium polymer cells, which are supposed to be cheaper that the Asus’ classic lithium ion batteries. And if you think the Asus kills the MacBook, the HP actually pisses on its grave: it’s a 17-incher with DVD writer and BlueRay player with 512 MB DDR3 video and a standard 4GB main memory. Starting at €1199.

Of course, with a Mac you still get OSX, Apple’s hyper-modern OS with snazzy graphical doo-dads. And you don’t have to download Linux or FreeBSD yourself (for free), nor do you have to install Enlightenment all by yourself (BTW, why does this Enlightenment screenshot from 2004 look so familiar?).

If possible, the comparison between Apple’s iPhone 3G and some offerings from Nokia (N96 and E90) seems to be even more disastrous. Rather than just being overpriced, Apple actually seems to be behind in many of the features in this area. Which is caused, of course, by Apple being a new player in the telephone field: their first offering is what you would expect from a new player, a mid-level quality phone. It’s just that Apple shoots itself in the foot twice here by being overpriced and underfeatured and trying to make exclusive deals with certain telecom providers that limit consumer choice. Don’t get me wrong on the overpriced, mind: you have to be totally whacked to spend €600 or more on any phone. But €992 for an iPhone???

So, in short, I’m afraid that Apple has fallen from the straight and narrow again and is back to demanding ridiculous prices for mediocre hardware and software they borrowed from others. Luckily sales of the iPhone haven’t been what Apple hoped and hopefully the economic slowdown of this year around the world will knock some sense into them. And teach them that innovation is more than just a hefty price on a pretty piece of plastic. Bunch of MacCrooks.