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Jim Klein :: Weblog :: Apple, Corporate Greed and a Culture of Ownership

January 25, 2012

ipadAh, yes, here we go again. Yet another corporate shill (or Schill, in this case) stands before the populus with a somber look, declaring that the U.S. education system ranks whatever-th globally (in test-taking on an uneven playing field constructed to bolster the careers of politicians who lack the temerity to take on real issues - but that's another post). Next, a few heart-warming videos play, followed by a wonderful - dare I say "magical" solution to the problem devised by said corporation, which, as they desperately hope you will believe, truly cares about education. Who are we to doubt their sincerity? This must be true, right?

But wait a minute - are we perhaps being sold? Are we giving Apple a pass because we love their products so? Are we giving up too much just because the solution seems so simple? Or worse, do we really believe that better textbooks are the answer to all of education's woes? Rather than just hoping for the best and assuming Apple's intentions are pure, let's instead take a step back and try to understand a few key truths about corporations.

  1. Corporations don't care about you or your cause - they are fundamentally profit making machines. Anything they can do to sell you something, they will do, including pretending to care about your needs; even building solutions that might meet them. But the truth is, if it doesn't have the potential to positively impact their bottom line, they aren't going to do it. Think about it: if Apple really cared about kids or education or any of the things they wanted you to believe they care about (based on their presentation), then they would be using some of the $100 billion surplus they are sitting on to buy every kid in America an iPad (which they could easily do). Or how about a more nuanced example: notice that the recent Apple announcement didn't talk about solving the still colossally painful problem of managing all the devices they propose, let alone any of this magical new content at school-scale - a well-known issue that has gone largely unaddressed for a nearly two years. Sure, they have offered hacky solutions which were obviously developed internally by low-level engineers with no clear guidance or strategy from their leadership (or they would work better). Why? It's quite simple really. They know, based on the current conditions, that extracting additional money from schools for such features is unlikely. And besides that, there's no real competition out there anyway, so why invest in it? Think about it: do you really believe Apple couldn't have solved the problem long ago?

  2. Corporations are fundamentally monopolistic. Corporations always have and always will look for ways to lock you in to their products and to prevent you from looking at others - it's just common sense. But they won't say this outright, of course. Instead they'll offer the illusion of openness and compatibility, in the hope you will be fooled into believing there might be a way out, should you choose to exit. Remember when Apple declared that their iTunes audio codec was an "open-standard that anyone can use"? Problem is no one did (of course - why would they? See #1), so it's not a standard, rather it's a hurdle to overcome should you foolishly attempt to depart the Apple ecosystem. As related to the recent announcement, iBooks are apparently "just a modified version of ePub". Oh, OK, so it's *like* an open standard. Only it's not. It's something that you'll have to buy Apple products to use. This is simply an extension of their brilliant, yet fundamentally toxic app/content strategy that locks you in to their hardware, pre-determines what you can and can't do/have, and ensures that they get a cut of anything created *on* their devices *for* their devices. All roads to Apple products lead through Apple, so they always get their cut. A brilliant corporate strategy for profit-making (see #1), lock-in, and control.

  3. When a corporation says something is "free", they don't really mean it. Consider the iBook creator app. It's pretty, easy-to-use, and "free". Only it isn't. The content you create *requires* an Apple product to use. To make matters worse, Apple has shown their hand with the largely unprecedented requirement that any content created with the tool for a cost *must* be sold through the Apple store. Which only works with Apple devices. In other words, see numbers 1 and 2, and think about whether what you are getting is truly "free".


So knowing this, let's take a look at recent events from a more corporate perspective. Apple knows that funding for education, while shrinking, is still one of the biggest pots of money out there. They also understand that due to a number of factors - from tech-rich Common Core Standards, to an increase in auxiliary digital content associated with textbooks, to a desire to bring "21st century skills/tools" (don't get me started) to the classroom - all schools are hurtling toward some form of 1:1 device-to-student ratio, yet most have not yet achieved it. Of course, they also know that competition will only continue to increase, and that the spotlight only shines for so long any one product. So how can they ensure that their devices become the de-facto standard for 1:1 deployments? How do they make a decision for their products so dead simple that people don't think twice about choosing them, even at their own peril?

Enter the textbook publishers, who provide an easy entry point to the market segment, due to their small numbers and relative ubiquity (read monopolistic behavior - see above). Based on their recent efforts, textbook publishers clearly have no idea how to adapt to the new, digital frontier and are already running scared, as they can clearly see the rise of open content/textbooks on the horizon. They know they must adapt, but they have no idea what to do, so they are blindly flailing about from one bad idea to the next. Add to that worries about unlawful copying and an overall fear of losing control, and you have a potent combination of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in an industry ripe for the picking.

So Apple swoops in and becomes savior to the dying industry - much as they did for music - by providing an easy vehicle by which publishers can maintain ownership, control, and the rest of their outdated business models; for a small fee per transaction, of course. But better yet, Apple not only gets in the door, but also becomes that de-facto standard product, thereby guaranteeing millions in device sales and more in content fees. And if they can muscle in and set pricing, they might just be able to make their device even more of a no-brainer by enabling schools to pick them up through textbook funds, with no increase in school textbook budgets (but no decrease either, of course). 

Now all they have to do is sell it - ie distract you from the fact that they are a corporation that wants your money - which is fine exercise in marketing 101. With a somber look, you share a sense of hopelessness and need. You then talk about your already beloved products using words like "revolutionary" and "the future". Next, you trot out your new partners to attest to your caring and quality, and boom! Peace, love, and new markets to own.

And everybody wins, right? That is until something better comes along. But luckily for Apple, schools will have already given up their freedom to choose. 

Think about it.

Posted by Jim Klein | Share This


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