Apple Computer Role Reversal as Big Brother

What delicious irony. The champion of the little guy has become big brother.

Remember the groundbreaking first Macintosh television commercial, in 1984, with the young woman throwing a hammer into the giant video screen on an evil big brother, smashing it into bits? There’s a role reversal going on.

Apple Computer has taken the establishment role in the booming new iPhone application market. First the iPhone, then well-publicized stories of trivial iPhone apps making thousands of dollars daily, and then the application review process got swamped. And now there’s Apple Computer, the gatekeeper, protector of the establishment, standing between all those developers with stars in their eyes, on one had, and admission into the app store, on the other.

The original idea of review was a combination of protecting the software from crashing, and protecting the Apple store from embarrassment. Ever since the stories of iPhone application fortunes first broke — I fear it was with a fart app making $10,000 a day — the software developers are flocking to iPhone apps. Of course I have no special knowledge, but from the outside looking in, it would seem like the crush of applicants makes long waits, unfair rejections, and inconsistencies inevitable. I’m guessing Apple’s private-sector resources to manage the tidal wave are completely overwhelmed. Mobclix, which tracks iPhone applications with analytics, is reporting that there are more than 85,000 applications approved by Apple so far, and the wait has gone from days to weeks, and is rising.

On a Mobclix blog about the iPhone applications market, iPhone app developer Max Zamkow says:

iPhone developers live in constant fear of receiving an email from Apple with what can only be termed the ‘Death Sentence’: “We’ve reviewed your application and we have determined that this application…will not be appropriate for the App Store.”

He’s developed an app called FruitShoot Lite that lets unhappy iPhone developers (or anybody else) vent their anger by mock shooting at mock apples on their iPhones. But the default fruit target is a banana. And it passed the review.

It’s a couple of months ago now that Jason Calacanis, celebrity entrepreneur and blogger with a known taste for controversy, lashed out against Apple in The Case Against Apple–in Five Parts, in which he complained not just about the “draconian policies” of the iPhone app review, but also four other sins including “anti-competitive” practices with MP3 players, “monopolistic” dealings with telecommunications (a reference to AT&T’s lock on the US iPhone), “hypocrisy” of blocking competing browsers on the iPhone, and blocking Google voice on the iPhone.

TechCrunch highlighted a dumb-but-approved “upskirt” app last week, mocking the glaring inconsistencies:

Let me just get this straight: A hilarious satirical app made by the Someecards guys cannot get approved because it contains cards that, for example, mock Hitler. But an upskirt app is just fine? That is so ridiculous.

Yes, ironic indeed. On first glance, I look at the rising tide of complaints and I think they’re all delusional: Apple is a business, not a public service, and it owns the iTunes store, so it can do what it likes. Developers waiting weeks to get into the market, living in fear of rejection after all that work? It’s Apple’s clubhouse, so Apple can admit whoever it wants. However, as the whole thing starts to sink in, I have to add that Apple Computer has made this bed for itself, so it deserves to lie in it.

Not that I don’t like Apple. I’ve been a serious Mac user twice, first for about 10 years from the beginning in 1984 until the middle 90s, and again for the last two years. I like the Mac, love the iPhone, love Apple’s products in general. However, I’ve never quite accepted the odd phenomenon of Macintosh and Apple as crusade. The whole phenomenon of some connection between operating systems and good (Apple) or evil (Windows) has always seemed a bit creepy to me. After all, they’re just products for sale. Apple, IBM, Microsoft … they are all big companies.

Apple Computer, however, has actively catered to this odd canonization of brand throughout its history. It wasn’t for nothing that the Macintosh anti-big-brother image is part of our cultural heritage. It wasn’t for nothing that IBM became “big blue” and Microsoft “the dark side” … Apple spent a lot of thinking time, effort, and money on building that anti-establishment tinge to its brand. And it’s not totally crazy to suggest that Apple managed to change brand to aura, or halo.

Live by the anti-establishment brand, die by the anti-establishment brand. What we’re seeing, I think, with the rising protest of developers against Apple, is something akin to a jilted lover, or the famous Shakespeare epithet about a woman scorned. It seems like the backlash is whipped to a frenzy with Apple in a way that it might not be if it were some other big company, or, say, the US Patent and Trademark Office. Companies move slowly, government agencies move slowly, but not Apple Computer. The woman with the hammer in that 1984 commercial, crashing big brother and all. Say it isn’t so. Disillusion.

(Photo credit:wikipedia)

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