When the history of Apple is written, co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs will rightfully be credited as the driving force behind the company's spectacular success, but he may also prove to be the cause of the company's ultimate failure.
Few other technology brands are as closely associated with its creator as Apple is. The world is as much enamored with its products as they are with the man behind them. Last year, the value of the Apple stock plummeted when Jobs took a medical leave of absence; when he returned to the scene, the stock resumed its heady climb. He is considered a brilliant and visionary inventor and business leader, indispensable to the Apple brand.
But what began as grumblings over Jobs' refusal to offer the iPhone to a more reliable wireless network and, more recently, criticisms of the iPad's technical shortcomings, are turning into criticisms of Jobs himself. And Jobs' temperamental response to his growing number of critics threatens to undermine all that he has achieved for Apple.
Master of His Domain
The phenomenal success of the Apple iPod and iPhone has powered the company past Google and Microsoft to make it the most valuable technology company in the world. Meanwhile, just as the iPod and iTunes revolutionized the music industry, and the iPhone revolutionized communication, early signs already point to the iPad's potential for revolutionizing the publishing industry, creating an ideal platform for moving the industry into the digital age.
Yet, while consumers snap up Apple products in record numbers, grumblings over Jobs' business strategies are growing louder - and they could soon begin to impact company sales.
Losing Their Religion
For years, iPhone users practically considered it a badge of honor to suffer the notoriously spotty service provided by the AT&T network, which has an exclusive contract for the popular phone. But their patience is now wearing thin. When a glitch developed during Jobs' recent introduction of the latest generation iPhone, the audience booed his request for them to disconnect their phones to free up bandwidth so that he could continue his presentation. Such disrespect was unheard of a year ago, and illustrates the growing unrest among once-fanatical supporters of the company's CEO.
Technophiles are also grumbling about skimpy features in the basic - and already pricey - iPad model that severely limit its flexibility and connectivity. They resent the need to spend hundreds of dollars more to get those features, when they are practically offered free on other, much cheaper netbook and notebook computers.
Critics also question Jobs' decision not to allow the iPad to run Adobe Flash, a programming code required to view content on a majority of Websites. The iPhone doesn't run Flash either, but before the introduction of the iPad, when Jobs still had the critics' unconditional love, it was almost accepted as an endearing quirk.
The "I" of the Storm
Everything might have been business as usual for Apple, until the recent controversy over a lost iPhone prototype, which reached the hands of tech website Gizmodo. Apple's threat of lawsuit came across as overly aggressive and set the stage for questions about Jobs' fanatical demand for secrecy. It then led to questions about Jobs' iron-fisted control over which companies and which technologies are granted the privilege of running their apps on his operating system. Critics quickly noted that, in addition to his anti-Flash stance, Jobs' recent modifications of Apple apps policies appear to pointedly disqualify his major competitor, Google, from running on his platform, while allowing ads from smaller networks that don't post a threat. The policy changes also appear to exclude an analytics firm which Jobs has criticized in the past. This is raising the ugly specter of possible anti-trust actions against the company, with reports surfacing that the Federal Trade Commission has taken an "interest" in the matter.
You Talkin' to Me?
This "turning on their master" has not sat well with Jobs and, like British Petroleum's CEO Tony Hayward, he has insisted on personally attacking his critics - making matters worse in every instance. In the process, he has set himself up as more than the company CEO, but also society's moral gatekeeper and disciplinary parental figure, who knows what's best for his children and will force it upon them whether they like it or not - on the assertion that someday, they will thank him for it.
To the questions regarding his decision to reject apps for the iPhone and iPad that feature adult content, he responded, "If you want porn, get an Android (smartphone)." When Ryan Tate at Gawker.com took exception with Jobs' calling the iPad "nothing less than a revolutionary," Jobs personally fired back an email asserting that it is a "true revolution" because the iPad would provide "freedom from programs that steal your private data...freedom from porn..."
It was a bizarre assertion reminiscent of the legendary Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye," who wanted to prevented children from growing up and being corrupted by the evils of the adult world.
To questions about his stances toward Adobe Flash, Jobs derided the technology as third-party software that "results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the (iPhone Operating System) platform." He further complained, "By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system."
Surprisingly, it is precisely the arguments that are increasingly leveled against Jobs' own, proprietary iPhone system. His blocking of certain developers from the use of his new iAd platform; his refusal to accept apps promoting adult content; and the banning of Adobe Flash - all make the Apple platform a closed system.
For these reasons, critics see Jobs' many arguments for his business practices as somewhat disingenuous. They are questioning whether his decisions are motivated more by greed than a true interest in maintaining the quality of the customers' experience.
And there lies the rub. Questions about Jobs' motivations have been percolating for year. While supporters were willing to take their lumps over the hefty premium they paid for Apple products and deal with its restrictions, Jobs' recent rants have begun to cause a backlash that is slowly disillusioning his once blindly loyal followers - and drawing government scrutiny.
At the same time, the competition may be catching up. While surveys find that, after Blackberry, the Apple iPhone dominates the smartphone market worldwide by almost three to one over Google Android; other surveys, like that of MocoSpace, find Android smartphones taking the lead in sales in the United States. At the same time, industry reaction to the new iPhone 4G was so low keyed that tech bloggers at the Wall Street Journal wondered if the phone was losing its "wow" factor. And, with so many smartphones rapidly offering similar music playing and other multimedia features, it could soon seem redundant to buy an iPod or iTouch.
Meanwhile, a number of manufacturers are poised to introduced tablet PCs that appear to offer genuine competition to the iPad, by providing more features and flexibility and, more importantly, by costing less.
Windows on the World
Young people today would be flabbergasted to learn that Microsoft was once a sleek and beautiful creature that captivated the hearts of millions. After a while, however, consumers got turned off by Bill Gates' hard-line business practices that annihilated competition and stifled innovation. By the time the government ruled the company was guilty of anti-trust violations, the love affair was already waning.
In the same way, Apple is the belle of the tech ball today, but suitors are discovering that she is a very demanding, high maintenance beauty, who insists on nothing less than their unconditional love - and they are less willing to fill her dance card. The fact that her voice, in the form of Steve Jobs, is grating to their ears is not helping matters.
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