In the few brief moments of respite we get from the constant flurry of Apple rumors, sometimes it seems worth something to think about the broader effects a company like Apple has.
After all, though there is always much debate about the gang from Cupertino, it tends to be about technology or features or interfaces. And in this, I’d argue Apple excel. The iPad is vastly superior to any other tablet on the market. The iPhone became a platform rather than a product, and in doing so totally revolutionized mobile. And the Macbook Air and iMac are certainly very pretty, practical machines.
But does all this come at a kind of ‘social cost’? And is there something a bit off about Apple culture that makes it… well, elitist?
What is an elitist company?
If elitism is loosely about unfairly favoring people who are already lucky, then isn’t it a bit crazy to call a company elitist? After all, a company simply makes products and then pitches them to a certain market. How can simply at aiming at a particular demographic be elitist?
But sometimes, though a company’s intentions may be noble – such as “make the best product you can” – the effects of those of those intentions can have negative consequences. No-one necessarily believes Steve Jobs is sitting in a tower somewhere plotting the destruction of the poor. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth critiquing how Apple acts. An elitist company is simply one that looks after the privileged at the expense of others – whether they mean to or not, or even whether it’s good business to do so.
The flash issue
Keeping that in mind, Apple’s approach to Adobe Flash is deeply symbolic of the company’s mentality.
Now, Flash is awful. If the world could be filled with clean, universal HTML5, it’d be much better. But a simple fact of the matter of the much of world’s music, animation and video still functions on Flash. More the point, a lot of that media is from geographic areas, subcultures and people who are less wealthy, fortunate and privileged than others.
As a business and design decision, no Flash is a smart one. It maintains a consistent usability, and preserves battery life and web performance. But the point is that Apple’s devices aren’t terribly useful to those who exist away from mainstream media or Western culture. And given how usable and beautiful Apple’s products are, that’s a shame.
The app conundrum and the concentration effect
But that singular vision has knock on effects, too.
The iPad, for example, has apps like Flipboard, Zite and Instapaper that make it incredibly useful. But because those apps are only available on the iPad, they make it increasingly desirable. In doing so, they act as encouragement for more and more people to live in an iOS world – one which, as argued above, tend to leave behind the weird, the different, the non-mainstream and the less privileged.
It produces what you might call a concentration effect: those who want to access the best tech find that the sites and service they use don’t work perfectly with iOS. This means that more and more, Apple is not only a company that caters to a ‘normal’ mainstream, it’s a company that fosters mainstream ideas of normalness.
Is Apple elitist? Probably. They don’t mean to be of course. Their commitment to a vision of usability and performance is commendable.
So in a way, Apple is elitist because it’s just how markets work. You cater to the middle and the people who don’t fit get left behind.
So the big challenge from companies who are socially responsible is this: can they find a way to make their tech accessible and great without leaving the less privileged behind?