Jobs has thrived by owning the user experience – but rivals hope he’s going too far
Remember when Apple was the tech industry’s underdog?
It’s not anymore. As rival device makers seek ways to dethrone Apple’s iPod and derail the iPhone, they’re increasingly casting Apple (AAPL) as a selfish mega-company that plays by its own digital rules, manhandling software developers and and alienating a helpless Hollywood.
Apple has done plenty on its own to act the part. At a time when the rest of Silicon Valley, led by Google (GOOG) and Facebook, is building “open” technology playgrounds that encourage outsiders to invent new business models, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has not really played along.
Instead, by Jobs’ decree, the iPhone will be closed to outside developers until February, when Apple has promised to welcome new software on somewhat limited terms. And besides some deals to offer MP3 downloads on iTunes, Apple has not moved to make the bulk of its products compatible with competing devices or services.
So it’s no surprise that the anti-Apple rhetoric continued to simmer this week. Sony Electronics (SNE) President Stan Glasgow alluded to Apple’s strong-willed reputation earlier on Monday, when in a conversation with reporters he contrasted Apple’s tactics with Sony’s recent openness with its Walkman media players. Of course, Sony itself has long pushed its own proprietary technology and it was only after the failure of its Connect online music store that it moved to embrace openness.
“Apple’s fully proprietary in almost everything they do – they get away with it because they have some great stuff going on,” Glasgow said. “So you can be successful proprietary, but I think the better wave is being open and allowing consumers to make their choice.”
It wasn’t the first time Apple has faced accusations that it’s too closed. Earlier this fall, Nokia (NOK) ran ads that pointed out that its N-series handsets are more open to new software than the iPhone.
There’s a strong case that all this talk about a closed Apple amounts to little more than barbs from jealous competitors. After all, Jobs & Co. have almost single-handedly created a multi-billion-dollar market for sleek, pocketable computers that double as music players and phones. (Before the iPod and today’s iPhone hype, such gadgets were hardly objects of mainstream lust.)
And to drive those markets as quickly as he has, Jobs clearly needed to exercise some control. Tapping Apple’s expertise in designing both elegant hardware and intuitive software, he was able to create a delightful experience that has helped Apple sell more than 120 million iPods, and maintain better than 70 percent market share in the category.
Even software giant Microsoft (MSFT), a company known for breaking into markets by forming powerful technology partnerships, is taking more of a go-it-alone attitude on the technical end as it chases the iPod with its fledgling Zune media player. Zune marketing director Jason Reindorp says that, in the short-term, Microsoft has decided to sacrifice openness for elegance.
“Looking at who we were up against, and how they got to their success, we made the decision to go the sort of closed route,” Reindorp said of Microsoft’s decision to make its Zune music store link specifically to its player. “That is kind of against Microsoft’s DNA, because we tend to be more of a platform and partner-type company. That said, we needed to make sure we could guarantee a certain quality of experience from beginning to end.”
But there’s one area where Apple’s control-freak tendencies are beginning to truly work against the company: Content.