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Apple: I love to hate, and hate to love thee

Rebel, patent wrangler, aggressive litigator

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Open ... and Shut I want to hate Apple. The company takes the most egregious of Microsoft's monopolistic practices and raises them to an art form.

It's aggressive litigiousness threatens to impede innovation in the mobile industry for years to come: innovation that isn't Apple's, that is. And Apple's lust for control makes it a very poor centre for the rising mobile ecosystem: Apple takes virtually all the profits, very unlike Microsoft in the desktop era, which spread lots of wealth around.

And yet... I love Apple. As much as I love the idea of Android and open source, I find myself buying Apple products over and over again. For the seamless computing experience. For the beautiful industrial design. For the exceptional customer service.

Saturday my daughter came to me with a crack on the face of her iPhone 4S. I was still seething from Apple's court victory over Samsung (I really hate litigation of any form, and particularly this litigation that seemed designed to protect Apple's high-margin business model, as Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard argues, and not to protect Apple from evil copycats). I knew my odds of getting Apple to replace the phone were roughly nil, but I decided to try.

The experience was extraordinary. The Apple Genius Bar representative surveyed the phone, finding no evidence of trauma to the phone (ie, my daughter hadn't dropped it). Within five minutes she had set me up with a new phone and was exceptionally pleasant throughout. I felt like I had just walked into retailer Nordstrom, also renowned for its customer service.

This was very similar to an experience I had this past winter with my son's iPhone 3GS. He had dropped it in water, and in an attempt to revive it I had melted the poor thing with a hairdryer. I went down to the Apple Store knowing full well that we were doubly at fault for the mostly destroyed iPhone. And they replaced it, anyway. "Merry Christmas!" the Genius Bar employee told me.

Wow.

I know not everyone has this experience. But I've had it twice, and I'm not anyone special to those Apple Store employees. Or maybe I am: I am an Apple customer. They treated me like that made me special.

Using Apple products doesn't make me cool. If anything, it makes me poor. At last count, we have six Apple laptops scattered around the house, five iPhones, a few iPods of various vintages, an Airport Extreme, and a few Apple t-shirts. We are an Apple family, through and through.

And yet, as I said at the start, I dearly wish this weren't the case. Apple is toxic to the computing industry, sucking up all profits for itself. It is a "sector unto itself", as was noted in a previous post, which is the exact opposite effect Microsoft had on desktop computing. It wraps itself in the flag of innovation, even while borrowing heavily from others and now threatening to cut off industry innovation at the knees with its patent portfolio.

It's unclear why Apple's voracious appetite for money needs to be bolstered by such suits, as Iain Thomson argues in The Register:

Apple is now the most valuable company on the planet... dominates the tablet market, and has the high-end of the smartphone sector locked down. It has also got the most lucrative apps market and reaps 30 per cent on everything sold. Is this not enough?

When IBM made the x86 PC platform popular and Compaq made it affordable, sensible minds decided neither could charge a tax on the development of the platform. Apple tried to gain the rights on the GUI system and lost that battle, but now it seems it will be doing this for tablet and smartphones. Not even Bill Gates stooped that low.

I have long raged against the Microsoft machine for its greedy saber rattling against Linux and open source, designed to protect its business model more than its intellectual property. If anything, Apple is worse. It wants an entire nascent industry to be comprised of one company: Apple.

And no, I don't buy the argument that "Apple is just playing by the rules of the patent regime." I went to law school. I passed the bar. I understand the "rules" of patent law. But Silicon Valley went decades without the aggressive litigiousness crippling it the way patent suits are now hobbling the mobile industry. This is the place that thrived in the absence of non-competes and other restrictions on competition and innovation. It has been a very competitive industry, but not one prone to patent lawsuits, including for significant examples of copying, like when Apple ripped off Xerox Parc.

Apple could have chosen to continue this somewhat collegial approach. It hasn't. And in its attempts to protect itself from being "Microsofted" again - that is, to protect its business model against innovation under the guise of protecting its products - Apple has set off an atmosphere of litigation that will embroil technology for years.

Which I hate.

And yet... and yet... I can't stop buying into the Apple experience. Not everything (I use Google to sync because Apple's sync is terrible), but enough that I feel conflicted. The problem is that while Apple is great for consumers like me, it is terrible for the industry as a whole. One side of my brain loves Apple, while the other despises it.

Perhaps Arpit Mathur, software engineer at Comcast, is right when he told me, referring to Apple: "Basically if you do enough right, you can get away with a lot of wrong." He may be right.

Apple, after all, does a phenomenal amount of good for its customers, myself included. Whatever I may feel about its business practices, it's hard to resist the allure of the exceptional customer experience it fosters, from device to store to software and everything in between. End to end. I love it. And hate it. Is this how a drug addict feels? ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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