Apple (AAPL) put on a fun show yesterday, revealing a bunch of slick new products and updates and generally getting its fans hot and bothered about what's coming next.
The conference, for example, kicked off with Apple's deeply-flawed "Siri" voice-assistant making fun of the names Google calls its operating systems, suggesting they must have been created by "Ben and Jerry." Then Siri took a shot at Samsung and Microsoft, by likening the new Samsung phone to a refrigerator. (Earlier, CEO Tim Cook had ridiculed Microsoft's forthcoming one-size-fits-all desktop-tablet operating system by saying that you could fuse a refrigerator with a toaster but that wouldn't make either good.) (SEE: Samsung Launches iPhone-Killer In Europe and Now Facebook Wants To Make One)
These jokes are funny and aggressive, in keeping with the role Apple has played for decades--that of a feisty underdog.
But the problem is that Apple is no longer a feisty underdog.
It's now a feisty overlord.
And, consequently, these digs come off as the gloating of a cocky, graceless winner instead of the admirable pluck of small competitor.
In other words, over the past five years, in the David vs. Goliath story that forever plays out in big tech, Apple has switched roles. But its rhetoric and attitude still match that of when it was playing the far more sympathetic role of David.
This attitude, moreover, is now combined with business practices that are aggressively competitive--to the point where Apple is now doing exactly the same thing Microsoft was doing when Microsoft got dragged into court for anti-trust violations.
Specifically, as at least one Wall Street analyst noted this morning, Apple is now "tying" its own apps into the guts of its operating system, elbowing out competitors in the process.
In the most egregious example of this, Apple has now replaced Google as the source of the "maps" used in the forthcoming version of the Apple mobile operating system. Some analysts, including Business Insider's Jay Yarow, think that Apple's maps are worse than Google's maps, which means that Apple is, at least initially, making the overall user experience on its mobile devices worse than it would be if Apple weren't trying to use its market power to elbow a competitor out of the way.
To be sure, Apple has every right to do this. Google is plenty powerful on its own, and Google is competing head-to-head with Apple with its Android phones.
Apple's shareholders and employees should also be thrilled that Apple is not resting on its laurels but is instead responding quickly and aggressively to competitors' attempts to eat into its business.
And, most importantly, although Apple is now employing the exact same competitive tactics that Microsoft used to devastating effect in the 1990s to destroy Netscape ("tying"), Apple's market share of the mobile platform is nowhere near the monopoly that Microsoft enjoyed.
(Apple has about 30% platform share in the US, versus more than 50% for Google's Android. Microsoft had about 90% share of the PC operating system market in the 1990s.)
So, as much as Apple's rhetoric and practices will infuriate competitors and users who hate to have their worlds controlled by a single company, Apple isn't anywhere close to a "monopoly" yet.
But the company's attitude is important to how it is perceived--by both users and regulators. And that attitude has now become grating. People don't like winners who gloat and rub losers' faces in it. And that's exactly what Apple is doing.
To be fair to Apple, the fact that it does not yet appreciate how this attitude "plays" in light of its changed circumstances is likely the result of the speed with which Apple has moved from near-dead also-ran to world domination.
In the 1990s, Microsoft had the same problem, which was part of why so many people grew to hate the company. Microsoft succeeded in large part because of the intensely competitive attitude it developed when it was a tiny startup. Like other great companies, Microsoft internalized this attitude into its DNA, until it became an embodiment of Intel founder Andy Grove's famous maxim that "only the paranoid survive." But then, over the course of a decade, Microsoft's wealth and market power became utterly dominant. And, suddenly, Microsoft's attitude began to get it in trouble.
Apple has undergone the same transition. And to his credit, CEO Tim Cook appears to be every bit as competitive and feisty as Steve Jobs was. That's great news for Apple shareholders and customers.
But Apple's role in the world has now changed forever. So the rhetoric and style Apple uses to convey this intensity now seems grace-less and arrogant, rather than funny and inspiring. So unless Apple wants to turn regulators and the public against it, the way the company communicates needs to change.
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