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Apple as an obsessive-compulsive case study


By: Scott Bradner


Regular readers of this column will know that I'm a fan of Apple products (hardware and software) but they might not realize just how much Apple the itself company frustrates me.


Apple has had more " insanely great" (to use Steve Jobs's phrase) industry changing products than just about any other company -- along with a number of products that were insanely not-so-great (or at least were too far ahead of the state of the art to have a measurable effect.  For example the Lisa is in the second category while the Macintosh is in the former.  Apple was not always the first to market with a concept but has, rather often, been the company that caused a ling term shift in how people thought about a part of the technical world.


Apple has defined (or redefined) the personal computer (multiple times), person computer user interfaces, Super Bowl advertising, laptop computers, portable music players and the music industry, and smart phones.  There are likely new industry changers in the pipeline.  Apple was less successful defining the digital camera with the 1984 QuickTake or defining the PDA with the Newton.  But, all in all, quite a record.


 Apple has done this being the most obsessive-compulsive companies around.  Apple's culture of secrecy is legend but so is the quality of their understanding of user interfaces.  Often Apple does things that are almost universally considered by industry watchers to be fatal only to have Apple be proven right - the lack of a real keyboard on iPhone, the price of the original iPod and the price and lack of interfaces on the Mackbook Air are examples.  

Apple just can't seem to be open about anything.  I am sure there are quite specific guidelines underlying the apparent total capriciousness of the acceptance process for the Apple App Store -- if so, I've not seen them, nor, apparently have a lot of App Store developers.  Apple has not been all that hurt by this attitude (if you don't count having to chat with the FCC (see The birth of an activist FCC? - - Apple recently announced that the number of applications has now passed 100,000.  That does not decrease the frustration of quite a few developers, if the complaints reported in the press are any indication.

Apple's take-it-like-we-serve-it attitude has recently struck close to home for me and it is frustrating. 

As I'm sure you have noticed, smart phones are computers.  One of the areas on most promise for smartphones is that of interfacing medical devices - for example, using the smartphone to control a medical sensor of some kind, analyze the readings and even report the results back to a doctor or hospital.  But you need information from Apple to be able to, for example, use the Bluetooth radio to talk to a bathroom scale. 

The information is there but you cannot get at it unless you are going to commit to build a bunch of products.  That is all well and good but what if you want to do the research, as a friend of mine in another university wants to do, to figure out how to best design medial systems like this.  Apple has told him that he cannot have access to the information.  In this case it means that he will do the research using an Android phone instead.  Stiffing the people doing the basic research that will lead to advances in medicine would not seem like a smart thing for Apple to do -- but maybe they have a better way to get the research done -- or maybe they are just being arrogant and dismissive.

disclaimer: Arrogant and dismissive - hardly words in Harvard's vocabulary  - in any case the above psychoanalysis is mine not Harvard's.