Thursday, 29 December 2011

On walled gardens...

I am frequently asked by colleagues and friends why it is that I detest both Apple, and anything made by Apple, these days.

It's simple. It's called the "Walled Garden" (Click for definition link on Wikipedia).

Put briefly, my interpretation of the theory goes that if you buy into walled garden tech (such as Apple's iOS as used on their iPhones), you'll never be able to get out of the walled garden again, as you'll have too much invested in it by the time you realise that you actually want out of it, and by that time anyhow, you'll be so institutionalised and indoctrinated into the walled garden, that you'll think existing outside it is worthless and frankly impossible.

In short, the problem is one of control and trust, of which apple exert, in order, all and none in apparently equal measure.

While it may well be an excellent piece of marketing strategy (and I've tried to fault it, really), it's also hideously insidious and horrible, again in equal measure.

It started when Apple released their first iPhone, and became apparent when their batteries started to have problems (see the press reports at the time). All of a sudden, it became very apparent that Apple didn't trust people to be able to change a cell-phone battery, and to control who could do this, they required that only Approved Apple Service Centres could be permitted to change the battery. Since there is no battery hatch on an iPhone, and you cannot remove the back without tools, if you do remove it yourself, and you're not an approved Apple Service Centre employee (with the appropriate training certification to prove it), then you'll void the phone's warranty.

You were also trapped in which networks you could and could not use the phones on - the SIM cards being inside the casing, meant that you couldn't easily change the SIM card and thus the network if you so desired, until someone twigged that a bent paper clip could open the chip tray without opening up the body as well, allowing a customer to swap out the SIM chip - whereupon those self-same customers then found that the phones were SIM locked to the specific cellphone networks that Apple approved only (in the USA, this was AT&T/Singular, as they'd footed the development bills for the iPhone): Another almost subliminal and insidious form of control over the customer.

Simply put, this was the first step in the way Apple were re-inventing an insidious totalitarian control over their customers.

The second step was to ensure that their customers could only get software - "Apps" - from Apple themselves, via their rigidly controlled "App Store". The concept was simple enough: Go to one place online that was easy to find and access, give it a neat-sounding name that was easily memorable, and there you'll find software packages to add to your phone (the 'applications', or "Apps" as they called these software packages).

The problem is that this inhibits a free market. In order to get your App onto the 'App Store', you have to submit it to Apple for approval. This is a frequently long drawn-out process - just follow how difficult Pocket GPS World found it to get their CamerAlert App approved, and re-approved on updating it every so often (for a time, it seemed as if Apple didn't want in on the "App Store", with all the delays they returned), and they're not likely to be the only ones having these problems.

The same control aspect applies to music for these phones. In theory, you should be able to upload your own MP3 music files to an iPhone. Not so, it seems (this, according to colleagues at work who have iPhones). They must come from the Apple-owned supplier, iTunes, or the iPhone won't play them. So, again, Apple exerts totalitarian control over your choices - or lack thereof. Apple do NOT want people being non-dependent on Apple for either software, OR music.

About the ONLY things you can get from third parties are hardware add-ons, such as gel cases, mobile hands-free car adaptors, and so on. And that's because it's bloody impossible for Apple to control this area of free trade. But, as they developed the operating system - the firmware - that runs the iPhone, they can exert massive control over software and music sources. And they do, indeed, exert such control over their customers, as mentioned above.

But it's not just the customers that have a problem, even if the customers currently don't realise it, cavorting as the do in their green and apparently pleasant walled garden. The suppliers, those who write the software that make up the "Apps", and those who produce and sell the music to iTunes, have to pay Apple a slice of their takings to have their wares appear there. I don't know what the slice is for the "Apps" themselves and the music, but it hit the news earlier this year that Apple take a whopping 30% fee for all periodical subscriptions sold on the "App Store".

At the same time this figure came out, it suddenly transpired that if you had a subscription to a news feed application, say, the one for the London Times, Apple not only required the subscriber list to be maintained by - you guessed it, Apple themselves - but they also wanted to keep getting that 30% slice. Caused a massive row with a couple of news magnates that did, and resulted in a fair few column inches slagging off a certain Apple CEO and founder, God rest his now departed soul (I try not to be unkind about the departed).

There's also the privacy aspect of Apple owning these subscriber listings to concern customers, by the way. Do you WANT Apple to know that you subscribe to  - for risqué example - Muppet Fancier Monthly? No? Best not use your iPhone or iPad, then. Or anything else with an "i" at the start of the name and with a partially eaten fruit as a logo on it, come to that.

Also, who controls who gets to see that data - Apple? OK, do they sell it on to other companies? What are the controls like at those other companies? It's a worrying aspect, to be sure, because despite what Apple might say today, come tomorrow, they may very well and very legally change their terms and conditions, to allow themselves the right to sell on that privilaged and very personal information to a marketing company that'll spam you until you bleed from the ears. Don't forget: Apple is a business. They are in it to make money, boys and girls.

So, with all the negative things above, are there any positive things?

Well, maybe a couple, in all honesty. Because it's a walled garden, and Apple takes so much control in things, it's unlikely that a malicious or virus-laden "App" will get very far, if one actually can make it through their approval system (a couple have, and were stamped on ruthlessly and remotely removed from users phones by Apple).

Likewise, because of the controls and approval systems, most applications - excuse me, "Apps" - are pretty rigerously checked before release, so the chances of one accidentally bricking (a word that's come to mean wrecking) your phone is very remote indeed.

But sadly, that's about it.

Compare these issues with Microsoft Windows Phone, or Googles' Android operating systems. These do not require that you join in a walled garden. You can get your "Apps" and music - and videos, come to that - from anywhere you like, so that innovation and free trade are not inhibited. The downside is that you have to pay a lot more attention to not only where you're getting these things, but what permissions are granted to them, and watch out for any news regarding detrimental effects or malware that may be doing the rounds.

Microsoft, for example, almost inevitably required that users invest in anti-malware and anti-virus packages. I was lucky, I never did, and at the time (a couple of years ago, now), the requirement was pretty thin. These days, were I to use an MS phone, I've be getting AV/AM packages first thing after getting the phone. The risk is still pretty small, to be frank, but one still treads carefully. For Android,  there have been a couple of fairly well-documented incidents of malware designed to cause users big bills or other problems, but again, Android had a remote kill-switch that can allow Google to remove offending "Apps", so there is a small level of safety net in place. You still have to watch those permissions on installing an "App", mind you.

Still, I much prefer being treated like an adult by Google, than a child who cannot even be trusted to change a battery properly by Apple.

And that's why I will not buy into the Apple walled garden.

Because Apple will not extend trust to their customers.

And because Google allow their phone users to change batteries - oh, and memory cards and SIM chips too, come to that.

Case closed (sic).

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