Apple Computer, Inc. at Stalingrad
Those who follow the computer industry probably allowed themselves a grin over Apple Computer's announcement last week that it would be henceforth manufacturing machines based on Intel's pentium processors. While the hypnotized zombies who believe every word of Apple's press releases continue to insist otherwise, this is the death knell for Apple as a hardware manufacturer. It may take years, or even decades, but Apple is now on the slippery slope of gradually eroding market share and will soon be known for selling iPods and software.
The reasons for this are not as straightforward as they would seem. It is not that Apple will now be in the clutches of the evil Windows-Intel hierarchy, nor that Apple will now be forced to bring its machines down to the supposedly mediocre standards of PCs. Like most modern dilemmas, this one is simple once one strips away the layers of dogma and socially-reinforced assumptions: Apple will cease to exist as a computer hardware maker because there is no longer any reason to buy Apples.
For the last twenty-one years, Apple has marketed itself as the alternative to corporate dominance of computing. Don't let the suits take over, warned the Apple ads, buy the machine that creative people love. With this assumption comes a raft of other ideas which cluster around the concept of buying a machine as an identity, "creative person," instead of for sheerly technical reasons. The mythos goes as such: creative people don't have time for technical annoyances, not being those dead-in-the-forebrain suited types, and thus they prefer a more dramatic, emotional, social computer maker.
This identity remains popular with certain segments of the world because it allows them to think of themselves as not-evil, where evil is the grey suited ones, and thus to build a self-image around their choice of machine. Once one makes that association, it becomes necessary to defend it, often by bending logic. Windows machines are only faster when you use the fascist-approved industry standard benchmarks, and Windows machines are only cheaper because they're part of the great Intel conspiracy. If you don't like this corporate fascism, you can always buy Apple, which is the great alternative.
Apple did well, until it reversed itself in several fundamental ways. First, it did go corporate, and left behind the idea of the happy friendly creative computer, marketing itself instead in terms of raw speed and power. This put it on an equal footing to the corporates, and changed its audience from the computer-savvy who were sick of tedious interfaces, to the computer-alienated whose main outlook was one of fear, and needing an excuse ("I'm a creative person, not a grey suited technical type") to justify that isolation. Then, after years of claiming its software was superior, Apple switched to that ancient and archaic system of UNIX, installing its interface into it.
These two moves essentially left Apple as a corporate company whose marketing was different, not its practices or products. While its internal neurosis - the CEOs who fought, the business plan that changed five times a year, the fractious divisions that could rarely cooperate - had always been a downside, now it had been brought into Apple's public face. Add to this the customers who got tired of years of fancy-looking equipment that often worked poorly, or required parts so nonstandard the expense and rarity of them created as much downtime as the arcana of CP/M had in its day, not to mention those $1500 upgrades after a year of machine ownership to keep it "current," and the grounds for a palpable shift in userbase could be felt.
Now comes the latest, where Apple, after years of calling Intel and Windows a conspiracy by stodgy corporate types to make computing obscure, has decided to use Intel chips. At this point, for a consumer to use Apple, they have to decide that a technically identical but far cheaper Windows machine bundled with the rock-solid and user-friendly Windows XP OS is too difficult, and must also decide that installing increasingly user-friendly UNIX and UNIX-like operating systems is not worth saving a thousand or more on hardware costs (note that where Apple was most competitive was in its laptop machines, in which the gap between comparable Windows boxes was narrower).
In short, at this point, Apple stands revealed as (1) a pretty interface and (2) a pretty pretense of being something "progressive" and "creative" where really, it's the same old neurotic corporate committee-driven lack of vision dressed up in anything other than a suit. It's like a banker in a Hawaiian shirt, or a cop wearing a jogging suit and bling-bling: another subterfuge, in a nation that is increasingly accustomed to and sick to death of such things. Further, Apple has revealed itself much as Communism slowly revealed itself to be, in the guise of "empowering the people," the exact opposite, and in fact more dangerous than the alternative, because unlike the other empires of the world it did seek world domination and a single central authority whose inefficiency would bleed the people dry.
To put it in other terms, Apple's business model is as follows. The one true computer company, surrounded by droids, will forge ahead and sell you the only possible deliverance from droid-dom, but you must return to the mothership in order to get your fix and be validated as a creative type and not a droid. Further, only they decide who is or isn't a droid, and therefore you must play exclusively by their rules. Finally, they've instilled a political outlook to the functional process of computing, where you no longer seek the best but the most dogma-compatible outcome. Where Hitler wanted Germany, and Mussolini wanted Italy, Apple like the Soviet Union wants all of Europe, and wants to bend it all to a single "enlightened" standard.
But this standard, no matter how "progressive" it seems, requires absolute obedience and a limiting rather than proliferation of choices. Think how the PC industry works: you can buy a $50 motherboard or a $250 one, with a corresponding range of function to each. Your standard cheap-ass Dell or HP might be a piece of junk, but if you have the foresight to squeeze a few more months out of the old machine, you can pony up an additional $500 and get a far better unit that will not only last longer but work better. Alienware, for example, has made a solid business out of selling high performance machines designed for gamers to a corporate audience. Interestingly, this model is closest to the old Apple theory: build a better unit and you spend less time fiddling with the recalcitrant computer, and more time using it to do great things.
Where the Wintel world was like a coral reef, or a basic superstructure onto which many companies and different grades of computing power could grow, Apple was like Jesus Christ: all salvation must be had through me, and please be sure to ignore reality, because salvation in the next world ("creative" heaven) is more important than function in this one. The PC world allowed natural growth, where Apple insisted - all with good intentions, of course, of course - on allegiance to a single path. As a result, PCs developed in parallel and outpaced Apple radically, forcing Apple to compromise its basic vision by becoming another corporation with an expensive logo. It's as if Ralph Lauren suddenly contrast Hanes Beefy T to make its shirts, and used silk-screening for the famous "gay Englishman on horse" logo.
The example of Apple Computer is important because it mirrors the political growth of the West in the last 2,000 years. Nature was seen as the big corporate enemy, because it was only function devoid of convenience of a morality of saving each and every sorry little ass out there; nature was red in truth and claw, and often incovenient, involving bowel movements and slow deaths from gruesome disease. The "progressive" mindset alleged an imminent utopia if we just began thinking of individual humans as more holy than any collective task, and most of all, more divine than nature itself; it created a fantasy world where only the progressive ideology led to the one narrow path to spiritual victory.
As a consequence, the world spilled out in great initial growth, expanding recklessly by empowering every individual to be "creative" through the innovation of not applying any standard of reality to their desires. Wish to be wasteful, or live a degenerate life? Well, it's your right, God bless you. We won't judge. This populist vision pitted the drama queen in each of us against the corporate stodge of conservatism, or doing things as they've been proven to work for the generalized best, and made each who took it on feel special, almost holy, for bringing that one point of light into a dark world. It's a feel-good, us-versus-the-ignorance viewpoint that's hard to argue down, since it bases itself on personal choice and not any kind of practicality.
However, much as the computer market has changed, the political situation has changed, and with the rise of Political Correctness, the softened leftism of wealthy countries in North America and Europe was seen for what it really was: the same obsessive desire for power, for justification ("I'm a creative person, not one of those boring grey-suited conservative types") and for revenge that Communism was, with the same disastrous results awaiting, albeit on a longer scale as leftism is less dynamically violent than Communism. But disaster waits none the less. Leftism shows us one path that will only be happy with world domination, and then will turn on itself; while modern "conservatism" is basically conservative-flavored leftism (as Apple is now creative-flavored corporate stodge), the systems of organizing civilization that existed before this split were more like PCs: there was no equality among motherboards, but sensible choices were rewarded, moving the best people up in rank.
Apple's Stalingrad has been one of those seemingly happy stories about the little guy who somehow held out against the evil empire. If you listen to Apple propaganda, Apple is something we should all try to emulate, a beacon of individualism and creativity standing up bravely against the drudgery and authoritarian power. It is not dissimilar to the rhetoric of the Democratic party, which portrays itself as a champion of the little guy, the lone individual, against the encroaching power of Republic Christian dogma (while not noting, of course, that Christian dogma and liberal dogma are terrifyingly similar).
While clearly this metaphor seems strained, it's interesting to note how accurate it is on the whole. As we watch Apple slowly sink into becoming yet another Intel computer manufactuer, it will be gratifying to watch leftism (including conservatism) descend to the same autumnal state, the threshold before the door to oblivion. In this basic division between the one right path away from nature, and the natural path applied as rightly as each can see, there's a lesson for our future, should we choose to heed it.
June 19, 2005