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.