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TidBITS Turns 26: Thoughts on Apple’s Evolution

This 26th anniversary of TidBITS snuck up on me, mostly because I spent the last four days sick in bed with a horrible case of a flu-like illness (in a nod to “The Princess Bride,” I call it the Dread Virus Roberts). I’m at least conscious today, if not vertical, but that’s what the MacBook Air is for. So bear with my fevered musings.

I won’t reiterate any of TidBITS’s history because many of you have seen it before, but I encourage anyone interested in a stroll down SIMM street (aka memory lane) to read through the book-length collection of articles we’ve written over the years to commemorate our anniversaries. Those pieces recall so many people, products, and companies.

When I think back across our history, though, the biggest changes have been at Apple. For much of that time, Apple was defined by its competition — PC-compatible hardware running Microsoft Windows. Apple’s switch to Intel-based CPUs and the rise of virtualization software was the beginning of the end of that era. But it was the creation of the iPod, followed by the iPhone, and then the iPad, that marked Apple’s transformation into one of the preeminent companies of all time. Those three products all came under Steve Jobs’s leadership, and when Tim Cook replaced Jobs as CEO, some were concerned that Apple would lose its magic touch. And indeed, neither the Apple Watch nor the fourth-generation Apple TV has been an obvious hit.

But that’s missing the point. At Apple’s scale, it’s almost inconceivable that a product could compare to the iPhone’s success unless it were to take over for the iPhone, much as the iPhone did with the iPod. What’s interesting about Apple’s products under Tim Cook is that they’re highly integrated platforms upon which others can build. They’re not about changing the world, they’re about extending Apple’s reach into your world, from your wrist to your wall. If the much-rumored Apple Car ever makes it into widespread production, it will likely fit into Apple’s product ecosystem similarly, rather than disrupt the market.

(Why? Cars are replaced much less frequently than even computers, with the average age of cars on the road being over 11 years. Plus, not that many cars are sold. The best-selling car in the United States last year, the Toyota Camry, sold only 429,335 units, and it’s estimated that the Tesla Model S managed only about 26,400 sales. None of this is to imply that Apple shouldn’t make a car, or might not make a boatload of money if it were to do so, but merely to note that an Apple Car probably won’t immediately change the world either.)

What I find more interesting about Tim Cook’s Apple is the company’s recent high-profile dustup with the FBI over unlocking an iPhone. It’s a tremendously difficult situation, of course, since no one would ever want a locked iPhone to stand in the way of solving a heinous crime or preventing a terrorist attack. But, unlike many in government, Apple understands both the danger and futility of compromising on encryption. Danger because breakable encryption is the very definition of false security, and futility because it’s trivially easy to create and use apps that offer unbreakable encryption.

In essence, Apple has encapsulated our right to privacy in every iPhone. It’s far from complete or perfect, of course, but in a world where intelligence agencies have been discovered to be violating that right wholesale, it’s fascinating — and a little distressing — to see more protection coming from a corporation than from the government itself. Perhaps this has come to pass because Apple is now so rich and so dominant that it can operate at almost the level of a government. Evil mega-corporations are a trope of dystopian science fiction, but I’ve never seen a fictionalization of a powerful but flawed megacorp on the principled side of a standoff with a theoretically democratic government. Regardless, it’s a long way from the “beleaguered Apple Computer” of yesteryear.

Or perhaps that’s just the Dread Virus Roberts talking. As TidBITS heads into our 27th year of continuous Internet publication, rest assured that we have no plans to stop anytime soon, budget willing. If anything, Tonya and I, and all the rest of the TidBITS crew, have been more energized since hearing from you in our reader survey at the end of last year (see “TidBITS 2015 Reader Survey Results,” 7 December 2015), thanks to having a better idea of what you want to read. Do keep letting us know when you find an article particularly helpful or interesting, and of course, if you’re not already a TidBITS member, becoming one is the best way to ensure that we’ll continue publishing for as long as you want to read.


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Comments about TidBITS Turns 26: Thoughts on Apple’s Evolution
(Comments are closed.)

Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-18 15:30
If only the Apple ecosystem made it possible for you to download chicken soup! Feel better, Adam!!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-18 16:16
Thanks—it took me several hours longer than it should have to write the article, and when I finished, I literally collapsed into bed (ran out of power and had to finish writing on the iMac for 20 minutes) and slept for 3 hours. Do not cross the Dread Virus Roberts!
Tommy Weir  2016-04-18 18:07
Be well Adam.

It's also interesting to see a corporation embrace philosophically the extension of human identity into the devices it creates. A redrafting of the borders within which we flow. It was striking that Cook was up for the fight, which indicated that their presumably adept legal team thought there was law to be made here. Which in turn makes it interesting that the government found a way to keep it out of the courts. These are early days and the issues are evolving, but it was heartening nonetheless that at least one powerful vested interest understood what was at stake and took a principled stand. Government these days, sadly, seems to be more about firefighting than principle. An immediate need driving decisions which have far reaching effects. It's easy to get the impression that they simply didn't get the wider picture, but I am concerned that they did and proceeded regardless.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2016-04-19 04:50
You are mistaken on one point: Governments have always been about firefighting rather than principle. Every forceful government action has only ever been in response to a crisis of one kind or another, whether we're talking about going to war or legislating on behalf of civil rights. As for principle, what today's politics show us, if nothing else, is that one man's principle is another man's hogwash. While I think Tim Cook was on the side of the angels in Apple's dispute with the FBI, the counter argument is almost equally persuasive.
Rebecca Wilson  2016-04-18 22:46
Happy 26th, Tidbits! Hard to believe you're that old already, I remember when you were just a sparkle in Adam & Tonya's minds. I suspect the FBI knew how to break into the phone all along but thought this was a perfect set-up to turn public opinion against that kind of privacy. Perhaps they backed off because the other tech giants backed Apple up and they were losing the public opinion battle -- the techies came off as heroic defenders of individual liberty against an intrusive government. But I'm guessing that won't be the end of it, just the first round. Hope you feel better soon, Adam. The bug that made the rounds here a few months ago took awhile to shake off.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2016-04-19 04:58
Actually, the polls showed that public opinion was largely on the side of the FBI. They backed off, in my opinion, because their legal standing was losing ground as the courts turned against them. And as their bungling of the case became more widely known, their credibility was failing too. It turned out not to be as good a case as they originally thought on which to base an argument against personal security and privacy.

Even as they withdrew their legal offensive in the San Bernardino case, other law enforcement jurisdictions continue to press the issue. Apple won round one, but the bout is far from over.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-19 11:06
The polls were all over the place. Initially, it looked as though public opinion was on the side of the FBI. Later polls showed public opinion in favor of Apple, while some showed it leaning toward the FBI.
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-19 12:03
Hi Becky! Of course, helping out with Ithaca's MUGWUMP Mac user group and watching your fingers fly across the keyboard as you issued keyboard shortcuts to make PageMaker do its magic was one of several important influences on the genesis of TidBITS.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-19 13:28
Becky! So nice to hear from you - it has been a long time since we were all doing MUGWUMP stuff. I've actually been doing more in InDesign recently, so Tonya's comment about watching you "play" PageMaker really brought that memory home.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2016-04-19 05:15
Adam, I think the meme of an Apple car is overblown. Apple, like Google and others, is working on the artificial intelligence that will be driving smart cars. Like Google, Apple will rely on extant auto makers to build the cars that use their software.

Tesla is the exception. They make both the cars and the automatic driving technologies. But Apple is not Tesla nor, I think, do they aspire to be. And, frankly, they do not need to be. Ai is hard enough, thank you very much.

That said, congratulations on your 26th birthday. Many Mac centric publications, both in print and on the web, have come and gone in that time. That you survive where so many others have fallen is something to be proud of.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-19 13:30
I do think Apple has found working with the carmakers frustrating with CarPlay, which would seem to be an easier sell than a fully Apple-driven car.
Patrick Snook  2016-04-19 07:23
Hi Adam,

Happy Birthday!

It's a trivial pedantic thing: if this is the Tidbits 26th anniversary, you're heading into your *27th* year (not 26, as you wrote).

Get well and keep going!


Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-04-19 13:33
Hah! If that's the worst mistake I made when writing while sick, I'm happy. It's also a mistake we've made on more than one occasion in these articles in the past - date-related text is my personal demon.