The loser now will be later to win

(or: “Why I fell out of love with Apple”)

You could chalk it up to a preference for the underdog — and you’d probably be right — but even that considered, you’d have to admit, Apple is not the company it once was. And if you’re an Apple fan/user/cult-member now, it’s not likely for the same reasons that us faithful few were 10 years ago.

The original Macintosh was a dream — or rather it was the combination of dreams seized by one charismatic, but arrogantly demanding young leader, then shaped into something he saw as perfect (even in the spots it wasn’t.) It was a rag tag group of creative engineers and code poets, flying a pirate flag, working insane hours, and pouring parts of their soul into a little computer that changed everything… even while it was scorned by the industry it would re-create.

Steve Jobs was that imperfect perfectionist, and the team he assembled were some of the brightest ever to put a product together. Their names were engraved inside the case of every Mac that shipped in its first few iterations — something only the privileged would see, because Mac’s weren’t designed to be opened by their users. (Why would you need to open it? It was already perfect. Never mind that the first version barely had enough RAM to boot!)

Although it never got the respect it deserved, and although the CEO Steve brought into to run the company that grew so fast he couldn’t control it had him ousted fairly quickly, throughout the 80s and 90s, the Mac remained different. And different is good. It stood as a challenge to beige, boring and impersonal. It made technology beautiful, and delightful to use. Even in their darkest years in the mid-90s, when vision drift, product confusion, leadership paralysis and technology stagnation all added up to some less-than-stellar computers baring the Macintosh name and the aging Mac OS, a Macintosh computer still had an intrinsic value — magic, even — that no other piece of technology, save maybe for the Walkman upon its introduction, could evoke.

When Steve slowly but triumphantly took back the reigns of Apple Computer, following the acquisition of his follow-up act, the revolutionary but under-appreciated NeXT Computer company, and its impressive technology portfolio, we Apple faithful sat on the edge of our seats waiting to see what would happen. His next moves: enabling the talented in-house designer Jonathan Ive to build the first iMac, the re-purposing of the entirely object-oriented OpenStep OS from NeXT as the long-awaited re-creation of the Mac OS, shocking the world (and eventually the music and media industries) with an MP3 player and music store that people actually loved to use, and finally changing I.T. irrevocably with the iPhone, made us all cheer as the company we loved finally took its rightful place as an admired and chased-after leader in technology.

But for me, that’s when it all went downhill. I can only imagine Apple is now what Steve always dreamt it would be. Certainly his exacting and demanding pursuit of perfection, from chassis design to software stack, although infamously making him simultaneously terrifying and inspiring to work for, has lent itself to the creation of some truly beautiful and usable products. But success has put them in the position he so sharply criticized throughout his younger, more idealistic years as a passionate, egotistical, but often-right visionary. Now Apple is “Big Brother” dictating what users can and cannot do with their gadgets they’ve purchased. The friendly Mac face is gone, replaced by the App Store, where Apple takes a 30% cut of every piece of software (and content) that runs on their gear — a brash, monopolistic and cloyingly controlling move that even Bill Gates at the height of his career wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to foist upon an industry.

Steve’s top-to-bottom approach that created that imperfect but perfectly lovable Mac, with all its eccentricities that could be tolerated only because so few of us used them that all of us could share the work-arounds and unofficial upgrades that voided our warranties but kept our Macs ticking long after we were supposed to have purchased a new one, has now created generation after generation of disposable gadgets that are really only supposed to be useful until the next shiny Cupertino-produced iToy comes out to make last year’s purchase seem foolish and out-of-date. Love may still go into their design and manufacture, but its a fickle love who’s expiry date is looming almost as soon as the product ships.

I confess, I work for the other side now, and maybe this new perspective has tainted my outlook. There was a time, though, that I wouldn’t have dreamt of working for the other side. Apple was something to believe in and cheer for, and everyone else was the lumbering, uncreative, bureaucratic evil empire of technology, trying to lock individuals into corporate I.T. guidelines and scheduled maintenance plans. Now Windows is actually a pretty “insanely great” product, and Bill Gates is working to cure malaria and finally rid the world of polio, while the underpowered iPad continues its short march to planned obsolescence in the face of next year’s model (which will have the built-in webcam that they pulled at the last minute from the first generation device to give them something to sell the drooling, mesmerized iPublic in 12 months.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still proud to have been a faithful Mac user for the nearly 20 years I spent nursing those eccentric but intrinsically wonderful old Macs along, while cheering for each success my favorite computer company claimed in the face of overwhelming odds. I still love seeing Steve’s first keynote (and many of the following ones!) as iCEO, and those “Think Different” ads still tug at my creative side. But its been a long time since Apple was that company, and although they’ve found the success we always hoped for them, I think they’ve lost their soul in doing so.

For those of you who are “new to Mac” and think you’ve bought into something special, I won’t begrudge you the feeling you get when you open that beautifully designed box — just know that what you’re experiencing is a fraction of what it might have been, had you had the guts to buy an Apple product before they were the latest fad.
For those of you who have been loyal all this time: here’s to the Crazy Ones! I was going link to the “Think Different” page on Apple’s website, but all it says now is “Page Not Found…”

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