Is Apple too powerful?

The new iPod nano is a tour de force, the Swiss Army Knife of mobile entertainment. I'm sure there's some obscure gadget from Japan that packs more features per cubic millimeter, but I've never heard of it, and chances are neither have you. This one's a major consumer product, just in time for stimulating the economy this holiday season. Speaking as a technophile, I want one of the new nanos for the same reason I want a Dremel with 300 different bits: just because.

I'm also impressed by the new price point on the iPod Touch. Apple frequently overhypes its announcements, but the $199 price point in the US truly is a milestone that should lead to much higher sales. The improvements to iTunes and the App Store look promising as well, and I'm especially intrigued by Apple's effort to make paid apps more prominent. More on that in a future post.

But the thing that surprised me the most about Apple's announcement wasn't the features of the new products, or the absence of a tablet or an iPhone Lite. It was something Steve Jobs said when he talked about the video camera in the nano:

"We've seen video explode in the last few years," he said, showing a picture of a Flip video camera. "Here's one, a very popular one, four gigabytes of memory, $149, and this market has really exploded, and we want to get in on this."

Think about that for a minute. "There's a big new market, and we want in." Not, "we're creating something new" or "we can vastly improve this category." Just, "we want a cut."

It sounds like something Don Corleone would say. Or Steve Ballmer. But it's not what I expected from Apple.

Now, it's logical for Apple to put video cameras into iPods. A friend of mine worked at one of the companies producing cameras-on-a-chip, and he's passionate about the potential for building vision into every consumer product. It's not just an imaging issue; when the device can see the user, you can create all sorts of interesting gesture-based controls that don't require you to ever even touch the device. Instead of point and click, the interface is just...point.

So it's been inevitable that video cameras would eventually be built into things like the nano. For Pure Digital, the makers of the Flip, this ought to be a tough but normal competitive challenge. The first step is to make sure your camera works better than theirs (check). Next, since music players are becoming cameras, you might want to build a camera that can also play music.

But that's where the situation becomes abnormal. Because even though Pure Digital was recently purchased by Cisco, giving it almost limitless financial resources, it's more or less impossible for its products to become equivalent to the iPods as music players. Not because they can't play music, but because they aren't allowed to seamlessly sync with the iTunes music application.

The issue of access to iTunes has already been simmering in the background between Apple and Palm, with Palm engineering the Pre to access the full functionality of iTunes, Apple blocking that access, and Palm breaking back in. To date I've viewed it as kind of an amusing sideshow, and I didn't really care who won. I figured the folks at Palm had plenty of time in the past to build their own music management ecosystem, but they (including me) didn't bother, so there wasn't any particular moral reason why they should have access to Apple's system.

Apple the predator

The situation with Pure Digital is vastly different, in my opinion. Pure Digital pioneered the market for simple video cameras. It identified an opportunity no one else had seen, and built that market from scratch. In a declining economy, it created new jobs and new wealth, and made millions of consumers happy. It's incredibly difficult to get a new hardware startup funded in Silicon Valley, let alone make it successful. For the good of the economy, we ought to be encouraging more companies like Pure Digital to exist.

But there's no way for a small startup like that to also create a whole music ecosystem equivalent to iTunes. Yes, third party products can access iTunes music. But not as seamlessly as Apple's own products, and as we've seen over and over in the mobile market, small differences in usability can make a big difference in sales. So Apple gets a unique advantage in the video camera market not because it makes a better camera, but because it can connect its camera more easily to a proprietary music ecosystem.

In other words, iTunes is no longer just a tool for Apple to defend its iPod sales; it's now a tool to help Apple take over new markets.

In the legal system they call this sort of thing "tying," and it is sometimes illegal. For decades, Apple complained that Microsoft competed unfairly by tying its products together -- Office works best with Windows, Microsoft's file formats are often proprietary so you can't easily create a substitute for their apps, and so on. I was heavily involved in the Apple-Microsoft lawsuits when I worked at Apple in the 1990s, so I know how passionately we believed that Microsoft's tactics were not just unethical, but also harmful to computer users and the overall economy.

So it's very disappointing to see Apple using tactics it once bitterly denounced, and declaring that it's decided to take over a market because "we want to get in." If Apple can use iTunes as a weapon against Pure Digital and Palm, what's to stop it from rolling up every new category of mobile entertainment product? Where's the incentive for other companies to invest?

I saw first-hand the stifling effect that Microsoft and Intel's duopoly control had on personal computer innovation. PC hardware companies learned not to bother with new features, because Microsoft and Intel would insist that anything new they created be made available to every other cloner. And software investments were restrained by the belief that Microsoft would use its leverage to take over any new application category that was developed.

Good fences make good neighbors

There's a danger that Apple's behavior will have the same chilling effect in mobile electronics. So I believe Apple should allow any device to sync with iTunes content, the same as an iPod. But not because it's morally right or even because it's legally required, but because it's the best thing to do for Apple. Here's why:

The two biggest threats to a very successful company are complacency and consistency. Complacency is more common -- a company that's very successful starts to relax and loses the hunger and drive that made it a winner. I think we can safely assume that won't happen to Apple as long as Steve is around. But the second risk, consistency, is more insidious -- behavior that's appropriate and accepted for a spunky startup gets punished when a big company does it.

This is what tripped up Microsoft. The same aggressiveness that served it well against IBM got it a series of lawsuits and intense government scrutiny a decade later. Even though Microsoft eventually won those suits, its execs were distracted for years, and it was forced to dramatically change its behavior. It has never been the same company since. I think Microsoft would have been much better off had it proactively adjusted its own behavior just enough to pre-empt legal action.

That's where Apple is today. It has to realize that it's no longer the underdog. It's the dominant company in mobile entertainment, and the fastest-growing major firm in mobile phones. It's already under a lot of legal scrutiny for the way it manages the iPhone App Store. If it also leverages iTunes to take out small competitors, and especially if it's dumb enough to say things like "we want in," it will guarantee unfriendly attention from government regulators -- a group of people who actually have more power to hurt Apple than do most of its competitors.

The Obama administration in the US is making noises about enforcing competition law more vigorously, and look at how the EU is picking on details in the Oracle-Sun merger, allegedly to protect local companies (link). If they'll do all that to help SAP and Bull, what will they do to protect Nokia?

Apple, you don't need the special connection with iTunes to keep on winning. You've already proven that you're much better at systems design than almost any other company on Earth. The huge iPhone apps base is exclusive to you, and that won't change. By opening up iTunes, you take away an easy excuse for regulators to pick apart your business, a process that would be distracting, expensive, and could result in much more dramatic restrictions on your actions.

Ease up a little on the gas pedal, Steve. It's the best way to keep moving fast.