Time to see past the Steve Jobs delusion

Whatever Apple throws at its customers, they come back more evangelical than ever

It's hardly surprising there was a great deal of hype around the launch of the Apple iPhone 3G S. After all, it ushered in a brave new ingredient to the tried-and-tested iPhone recipe: the ability to cut and paste. The 'S' in 3G S apparently stands for 'speed'. Presumably that's because you can cut and paste, fast.

But if Apple made no discernible improvements to an iPhone or iPod, it would still have its army of loyal fans singing their praises, such is the blind loyalty that they feel for the Apple brand.

When it comes to Apple, buyers of its products are often more than mere customers. They are usually brand ambassadors too: talking passionately about their latest gadget or gizmo to anyone who will listen, or flooding the internet with positive blogs and comments about Apple and its products. Such is the success of Apple's marketing.

Apple's brand is so strong that it hardly needs to spend money on advertising campaigns. It invites a lot of people to a big convention centre to make its announcements, and it lets the world's press, bloggers and its own customers tell its story.

Rotten Apple?

Apple believes its products are always the best, its strategy always spot on, its rivals fools. That strategy has worked for the company in recent years, with only a few bumps in the road to give it pause for thought.

A while back it was forced to settle federal charges in the US that it broke its promise to offer customers free technical support. It was found by the Federal Trade Commission to have been charging customers $35 each time they needed help, despite having promised those customers guaranteed free access to technical support staff for as long as they owned their products. Apple declined to comment on the settlement.

Apple again showed just how much it valued the loyalty of its customers, this time iPhone early adopters, when it dropped the price of the first iPhone from $599 to $399 within weeks of it going on sale.

Those who had paid the $599 price tag were understandably livid about the fact they appeared to have paid the price of simply being first in line to buy the device. Apple eventually did a major U-turn, offering rebates to many of those customers but even then only offering a $100 credit to many, which had to be spent in an Apple Store or an Apple Online Store.

In an open letter to customers, Apple CEO Steve Jobs apologised, but found it hard to do so unconditionally. He told disgruntled early adopters they would realise if they had been "In technology for 30+ years", like him, that the "technology road is bumpy".

"This is life in the technology lane," Jobs said.

Apple has been acting in a similarly discourteous manner over faulty power adapters. It was forced to settle a class action in May 2008 which alleged that Apple had covered up wide-spread problems with MacBook and MacBookPro adapters, and thereby forced yet more disgruntled users to have to buy replacements at the full cost of between $25 and $79. A similar suit, again related to faulty power adapters, was brought in May this year in Federal Court in California and is ongoing.

It's a shame that consumers must turn to the courts for their concerns to be recognised. It makes it even more surprising that the firm's loyal followers appear to remain just as loyal despite its apparent disregard for customers who feel they have a genuine complaint.

Just last month, Apple was asked to amend its terms and conditions by the UK's Office of Fair Trading. It affects those who buy from Apple or iTunes stores or download software from the Web. Following discussions with the OFT, Apple has agreed to revise its standard conditions to ensure, for instance, that they no longer exclude liability for faulty or mis-described goods, and do not potentially allow changes to be made to products and prices after an agreement is made.

Apple, needless to say, didn't comment.

Media malaise

Such is Apple's iconic image that it appears able to turn seasoned commentators into cogs in the Apple marketing machine. The technology blogger Matt Asay's article a while back is just one example. "The Mac owns the US. Windows owns the world," read his headline, to a story about desktop computer market share statistics.

The facts? Analyst firm Gartner had said that in the second quarter of 2008 Apple had just 8.5 per cent market share in the US, compared to Dell with 31.9 per cent and HP with 25.3 per cent.

Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph's technology correspondent Matt Warman, discussing the launch of the iPhone 3G S in an article that was fairly damning of the new version, wrote: "That's the problem with Apple - it just keeps on pretending it always knows best. It's fine while the iPod remains the world's best MP3 player, but in the age of Google and its Android operating system, all phones are becoming computers. That may be an idea Apple invented, but the collective wisdom of the millions of people who use and develop applications for Google technology means that a battle is now on."

Warman makes some good points. But to suggest that Apple invented the idea of a phone that has computing capability is a big mistake. Although there is no industry standard definition of a 'smartphone', IBM and Bellsouth launched a phone with computing abilities way back in 1994, called Simon. It featured a mobile phone, a pager, a PDA, and a fax machine. It included a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad, email, and games. It even had a touch-screen, just like the iPhone.

The Simon was followed by similar 'smartphones' from Motorola, Sony and others. Fast-forward 13 years to 2007, and Apple launched the iPhone. Smartphone inventor? About as accurate as the infamous misquote that led to the urban myth that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

It's inarguable that the first iPhone ushered in major advances in usability over its smartphone predecessors, in a form factor that still attracts admiring glances. As Apple's British designer Jonathan Ive said at the launch, "It's not too shabby, is it?" Pleasing design has always been one of Apple's greatest strengths.

Yet in other areas it still trails the competition. The iPhone is not designed to enable third-party applications multi-tasking, limiting users to accessing only one application at a time. Palm, Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry) and even Windows Mobile devices have the edge here.

As the Telegraph's Matt Warman argues, the iPhone 3G S did not move the game forward dramatically. But thanks to the passion of Apple users for the Apple experience, the iPhone is unlikely to be anything other than a continued success for Apple. It's one of those inexplicable truisms of the technology industry that whatever Apple throws at its customers, they come back even more evangelical than before. Why?

It's time to rethink the Jobs delusion.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review. This is the first in a series of weekly posts for The Staggers

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Under Trump, American democracy will change – with the whole world at stake

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Is this the collapse of the pluralist order?

In the weeks since 8 November, when Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by three million, the culture of informed, participatory, representative democracy has taken one hit after another.

Before our eyes, the American republic, that most durable of representative democratic experiments, is morphing into something unrecognisable. At the federal level, the mediating, moderating institutions are withering away, leaving an abyss in the centre of US politics that Trump threatens to fill with a toxic appeal to race and religion baiting. Day after day, one reads reports of hate crimes and a surge in incivility – of Muslim women attacked in the streets, of swastikas painted on buildings, of Latino kids in schools being taunted about the wall that Trump has promised to build on the Mexican border. The Ku Klux Klan has rallied in several cities. “Alt-right” groups – some of which share members with neo-Nazi organisations – have held triumphalist events in Washington, DC.

Through it all, Trump has spent his time not trying to show that he will be a unifying president, not condemning this wave of violence, but instead holding his own rolling series of triumphalist rallies designed to shore up his personality cult.

Trump is only nominally a Grand Old Party Republican. His power derives not from understanding the ins and outs of party politics, playing by the long-established rules of a two-party system, nor from having studied the workings of the constitution, nor from any specialised legal or diplomatic knowledge. Rather, it stems from direct appeals to “the people”. Though a billionaire, Trump has fashioned himself as a far-right populist, a leader who speaks to the sensibilities of the mob with no time or patience for nuance.

He has enthusiastically endorsed “the torture” against terrorism suspects; collective punishment and executions; religious tests of entry for would-be immigrants; registries of Muslims; the jailing of his political opponents; clampdowns on free speech and on the functioning of investigative media outlets; stop-and-frisk policing strategies against minorities; wholesale deportation policies; and many other noxious ideas. He has deliberately coarsened America’s political language – systematically humiliating opponents and bringing his crowds down with him into the political sewers in which he thrives. His project is that of the classic totalitarian: make everyone and every major institution of state so grubby, so complicit, that, over time, they come to feel that they have no choice but to collaborate with an agenda of oppression.

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Totalitarian projects garner support until they throw entire populations into disaster – into economic calamity, into spiralling conflicts and wars, into civil strife. Trump, as he makes policy on the hoof and hires a cabinet that seems to be made up of equal parts fanatics, conspiracy theorists, incompetents and generals, shows no sign of understanding this. He is a leader without internal limits.

Using his Twitter platform, in particular, Trump spent the weeks between election day and his inauguration wielding a wrecking ball against everything from environmental policy to gender equality regulations; from the “one China” policy carefully respected by leaders of both parties for more than 40 years to policies against expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Three days before Christmas, he suggested that the US would be expanding its nuclear arsenal under his leadership.

This isn’t just dangerous; it’s beyond idiotic – a man who will soon wield unholy power over the lives of everyone on this planet intervening in the most delicate of policy areas with the bluntest of cudgels. The idea of making nuclear policy through 140-character tweets is insane, the stuff of bad late-night comedy rather than serious international diplomacy. And yet, intellectually, this is where America’s incoming leadership now resides.

Trump’s actions over these past weeks indicate that he is a person of staggering hubris, of thoughtlessness, of impulsiveness – and that, as he presented himself time and again during the election season, he is a boy-man, with the sensibilities of a teenager rather than a mature adult. He comes across as someone megalomaniacally confident that he can think and do no wrong; who wants to listen only to sycophants; and who is convinced that his brand of instinctual politics (the kind that has no need for dreary, real-world interventions such as daily security briefings) will triumph over all.

On the night of the election, the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, wrote an impassioned essay about what he identified as an “American tragedy”. But this doesn’t do full justice to the catastrophe that Trump’s election represents. His is a triumph of the will, as surely as was Hitler’s rise to power in 1932-33. He has ridden and will continue to try to ride roughshod over his opponents – both within the craven GOP, which has sacrificed all semblance of democratic credibility in pursuit of power, and in the Democratic Party and beyond.

Because he enters the White House as a conqueror rather than a product of years of politicking within the existing governing structures, he knows that he can appeal to “the people” – not all of the people but those white, conservative, mainly rural and suburban residents who make up the core of his support – to get his way.

Will Trump succeed in this mad re-imagining of what the United States is? There will be large opposition – on the streets, on university campuses, in the courts and in the state houses of liberal states up and down both coasts. In wealthy and large states such as California, where the cities, state legislatures and the governor’s offices are united in opposition to huge parts of Trump’s agenda, it is likely that on a day-to-day basis residents will avoid the brunt of the impact.

It is entirely possible that there will be a flowering of radical politics in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York and Boston, as well as inward migration from the heartlands of large numbers of political progressives and members of racial and religious minorities. Yet in more conservative parts of the country – in Texas, say, or Oklahoma, Mississippi or Alabama, or a host of other states dominated by reactionary political leaders – life for immigrants, the working poor, single mothers and Muslims (just to take a few examples) will become harsher. In many states, it is not at all clear that the political leadership will be willing or able to stand up to Trump’s mob.

It’s also far from certain that local police forces or county sheriffs will be able, or even particularly inclined, to stop the unleashing of pogroms. After all, these are places where law enforcement long turned a blind eye to lynch mobs directed against black residents and black-run businesses. It is not such a stretch to imagine a similar passivity in the face of anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican violence today.

Nor, on the international stage, is it likely that this troupe of political novices will be able to control the forces of resentment they are unleashing. Trump’s cabinet is full of Islamophobes who believe that the entire Muslim world is now America’s enemy. It is dominated by China-haters and climate change deniers. By the time Trump assumes the presidency, he will have done an almighty job of pissing off swaths of the world’s population.

The optimistic scenario is that the world turns its back on an inward-looking America, getting on with the serious business of international affairs while the pre-eminent superpower throws a four-to-eight-year tantrum. It is more likely, however, that there will be a scramble for influence as US soft power wanes and other powerful countries and non-state organisations seek to fill a vacuum created by the dearth of sensible American voices and policies. Such players could range from economic powerhouses such as China and Germany, seeking, or being forced to accept, a bigger military and geopolitical role, to resurgent powers such as Russia – as well as non-state actors ranging from terrorist entities such as Isis to techno-anarchist groups such as WikiLeaks.

As America’s image mutates, they will have a growing opportunity either to sow instability or to reshape regions of the world in their own image. The nightmare scenario is that Trump, relying on his instincts in place of the counsel of experts, seeks to shore up America’s declining influence through spasmodic demonstrations of military power – bullying and threatening one country after another, much as fascist regimes did in the 1930s. The consequences could be disastrous: US nationalism unleashed could plunge the world into conflict.

Thus we hover on the edge of a catastrophe: a great democracy that has come to be controlled by demagogues, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation, itching for an excuse to implement emergency measures against Muslims and others, convinced that its military might will cow the rest of the world into toeing the Trumpian line.

Sasha Abramsky writes for the Nation magazine and is the author of “The American Way of Poverty” (Nation Books)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era