The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Why Apple Sucks, and the Others, Too

with one comment

I admit that I had a bit of a struggle with my only Mac machine this weekend. It aggravated me and reminded me that the big tech companies are steadily squelching the freedom that the Internet and personal computer revolution promised us 20 years ago.

For me, there’s a special problem because the whole direction of the consumer business is going away from big hardware and innovation in big hardware, which happen to be the tools of my trade. Meanwhile people flock to glitzy new pocket-sized machines that are perfect for social networking, but no good at all for research.

A dried apple doll

A dried apple doll by Moonmaiden at hubpages.com

They even updated an old English word monetize — meaning to create a new currency — to describe what Apple, and Google, and Microsoft, and many others are doing to turn the plastic, silicon, copper and fiber into pure gold. Note that I’m not even mentioning Facebook, whose IPO may well make Groupon look like a smart, cautious, conservative investment.

The occasion of my discontent is my decision to update the OS on my one Mac (among a half dozen machines). This is a necessary evil in our new world of internet criminals. It’s in the nature of software to have flaws and weaknesses. If you’re not a programmer, you have to take my word for it, and if you’re a programmer who claims to write secure software, you’re delusional. It’s an endless loop. Criminal finds flaw; software writer fixes flaw; criminal finds new flaw.

I keep an old Mac Mini, a quiet, low-power machine, around because it almost never gives me any trouble in playing music and watching video on it. In addition, I allow it to accept all sorts of junk that companies like to put on their web pages, but I only visit web pages I know. (That way, I increase my security, privacy and peace of mind on another machine on which I write mail, pay bills, search the web and do my work.)

Don’t give Apple the credit for outstanding multimedia software. It’s not an engineering matter but a legal issue, i.e. a patent issue. Apple has no problem with paying royalties, which they pass along to us anyway, or fighting for or against particular patents. If a Mac plays MP3 files by default, it’s because of Apple’s legal department, and not because of the brilliance of Mac programmers. The Mac’s convenience comes with costs far beyond the higher price tags on the hardware. Apple has built the Mac into a closed system designed to lead only to future Apple products and is wedded to a giant online retailers.

I don’t suppose that Apple is any worse than any other tech company. They all want to lock you into their system, their hardware, their retail network, their social network. They all want to track your every move and build a huge dossier on you. Instead of openness and freedom, we have monarchy and plutocracy. You know that Apple has more cash on hand than the federal government.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman, free software apostle

The great Richard Stallman, the apostle of open source software, warned us about all this. Stallman, cranky, scruffy, writes and speaks continuously about the evils of closed systems like Apple. When he started out, a workstation like the one I use for research might have cost $20,000. Mine cost less than $3,000. People were locked into the hardware and software platforms like Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Silicon Graphics. These are no longer household names, if indeed they ever were, and the only ones still around, have morphed into much different consumer companies.

The personal computer became ubiquitous by chance. The profit margins at the companies above were outrageous, but they disdained the consumer market, and in bits and pieces Intel and Microsoft, mostly, built a new platform that was a good deal cheaper, and that fostered competition among the retailers of systems. Then, the lightweight machines got stronger. All of a sudden — in part because people liked visuals and games — we could buy really powerful machines cheap.

The story is almost good enough to make a devout capitalist of anyone, except for Apple, and Google, and the others that want it all: all the customer for all things. The smart phones and the tablets don’t help. They offer all most people need, take up no desk space, and they look cool. There’s not going to be a mass market for industrial-strength machines, all of which makes it clear to me that without the numbers, the prices are going to drift back to where they were. It wasn’t long ago that gigahertz (processor speed) was a sales pitch. That’s all history. You are now shopping for data plans. It does me no good at all.

The consumer shift to tiny handhelds is reflected in trends in operating systems work. In their latest incarnations, both Windows and Macs are sliding toward a user-interface that looks and acts like a smart phone: less reliance on pull down menus and the keyboard. Just a choice of bizarrely large icons. Even Linux is moving that way, though I have no idea why. The smartphone look is fine for people are only sending messages back and forth, looking at web pages and playing games.

When mathematicians sketched out the idea for a computing machine, they were concerned about machines that could attack a large number of sophisticated problems. They sometimes referred to the task as building a universal machine. The direction of the consumer computer business is toward a universal toy. That’s great, but it’s awfully disappointing to me.

You can understand my complaint, and I understand if it doesn’t move you. But the same dynamic is undermining the flow of information on the web. The ISPs (the phone and cable companies) and the content producers (movie makers, music producers) and the advertising industry (think Google and Facebook) are all making deals to turn us into perfect buying machines, glued to their platforms.

If the Matrix movies scared you, you haven’t seen anything yet. Apple is fixated on the Apple Store, just as Google has its shopping tools. It’s a bizarre world they see, where we sit in automatically controlled moving vehicles and are barraged with ads for all the cool stuff just down the road.

It’s another sad story, for another time, to talk about the Internet and the wealth of chaotic information out there, and about how advertisers and content producers are going to control how you can get to it.

I’m sorry this piece has grown so long, but I suppose I ought to fill in those interested about what happened with my Mac.

The version of the Mac OS I was using reached it’s end of life, meaning that it will no longer be “supported” — i.e. Apple won’t fix newly discovered flaws, and that’s bad for security on it. I had the version Apple calls Leopard; I skipped actually installing its successor, Snow Leopard, and now had to buy the new one, Lion. That’s ok. It took only a little while to get the new OS version on the machine, only to find out machine no longer would fit into my system the way I wanted.

No big deal in any grand scheme. Apple made a small change in networking protocols that made it incompatible with my needs. But that’s the game Microsoft has played for years. Small changes will add up until Apple hardware will not coexist with any other hardware. It’s the phones and tablets that count anyway, and the public will be locked into Apple, or into Android, the Google smartphone OS.

Ironically, Apple built its revival on top of the BSD Unix system, a free and open source version of the unix system from the University of California. Apple’s innovation was to adapt the Mac “look and feel” to the Unix system and make it easier to use for nontechnical people. (Just like Google built Android on Linux.) Apple trumpeted how well their system worked in a unix environment. And now in small ways it doesn’t work at all. My Mini will live out its life plugged into a TV and showing old reruns.

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Written by theunbiasedeye

May 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm

One Response

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  1. Throw ebooks in there, and you have the sufficient conditions for Brave New World. It’s only a matter of time before the Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy app comes out to distract us all into reptilian torpor.

    John Kurman

    May 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm


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