Irrational Consumption and You: Apple Edition

Having watched some 2021 WWDC (Apple developer conference), I wanna talk about irrational consumption. Specifically, the irrational consumption of many computational products. A lot of this has been stewing in my mind for many months, so I’ve decided to take a moment and spill them out as quickly as I can. If you’re not interested in reading all this and you’re already convinced that Apple is bad, skip to the >>> mark lower down.

Some of you may know that I’ve been an Apple user since 2006. Over the years I’ve heard many fair criticisms of the company, but honestly, despite their crappiness, Apple computers have just worked better for me than others. This has primarily been because macOS is simply better than Windows (I’ll talk about Linux in a minute, ya nerds). During this time, I’ve seen three primary things that really turn me off about Apple. Taken together, they are a method of creating irrational consumption, and I want to focus on three specific issues: patronizing, planned obsolescence, and an entrapping ecosystem.

Apple is patronizing. Apple claims it builds its products to be user friendly, but, in the end, user friendliness is accomplished by assuming user stupidity. This is a minor annoyance on macOS that shows up from time to time, but with iOS and iPadOS, it’s much more obvious. On these platforms, the user is forced through a narrow experience where Apple mediates all software on the device and prevents the user from accessing the operating system as much as possible. In many ways, the device does not belong to the user, as the user is unable to access many of its capabilities, but Apple can. If, for example, you wanted to do my line of work on an iPad, it would be nearly impossible. You might be able to find some productivity here or there, but for the most part they just can’t do it because of Apple’s restrictions on the device (and I’m aware that they claim “now you can build apps on iPad,” but from what I saw, they’ll be limited to fairly simple apps and I’m very skeptical about debugging support). The newest iMacs and iPad Pros use the exact same hardware, so there’s no hardware reason for this difference. It is purely because Apple decided that iPad and iPhone users are too stupid to handle a full operating system and free access to the machine.

The next huge problem is planned obsolescence. For the unaware, this basically means that Apple makes its devices with the intention (not just assumption) that they will stop working within a certain number of years (usually 6 to 8). With some devices, like iPhones, they accomplish this by making repairs very hard. Any battery powered device will need a new battery after a few years (about 5 in my experience), and Apple makes it very hard to replace batteries in any of its machines. In my first MacBook Pro back in 2006, there was a simple battery door that you could pop off to slap a new battery in there. iPhones, iPads, and new Macs do not have this feature. They’re built in such a way that major deconstruction is required to service simple things, and most people are not able or are scared to do something like that.

For devices that don’t break down so quickly, such as iMacs, Apple uses software to force obsolescence. I bought a 2013 model iMac, and I over specced it so that I could keep it for many years. It still runs quite well today, and I can accomplish many tasks on it. However, Apple dropped support for it when macOS 11 was released. I no longer received software updates for Apple apps, and I don’t receive new OS features (which is a major reason for using a Mac). Eventually, my iMac won’t be able to function as software usually keeps up with current OS versions. This is already happening with Xcode, the Apple development suite, which allows me to build iOS apps. After the next version of macOS is released, I won’t have access to the latest version of Xcode, which will mean that I won’t be able to build apps using the latest build tools, which will eventually prevent me from being able to publish apps to the app store. A similar story happened with Safari, Apple’s web browser, but it will also eventually happen with 3rd party software as well, as they stop supporting older versions of macOS in order to focus resources on the newest versions. Eventually, the browsers, games, and development tools that are the reason I own a computer will cease to work on my iMac because Apple chose to bar my device from installing macOS 11 despite the fact that it could very easily run it.

Lastly, I want to talk about ecosystem, and I’ll try to keep this brief as it’s not very complicated. When you use Apple, you end up being exposed to a bunch of products that are designed to keep you using Apple forever. iTunes and Apple music make sure taking your music library to a different system is as annoying as possible. Photos uses a proprietary cloud storage system (iCloud) that means that moving your (probably) many many photos to a different solution is super annoying. Then there’s also the hardware ecosystem. Got an Apple Watch? You need an iPhone to pair it with. You wanna use new features to connect your iPad and Mac together? You’ll need the newer models of each of these. You want to be able to have the full range of functionality available on computing devices? You’ll need to buy many devices! (contrast this with, say, a Surface where it functions as both a tablet and a laptop at the same time). Apple’s whole game plan is to trap you in a situation where you spend as much money as Apple products as possible, and once you do, to make it as hard as possible to stop.

So, to use a much used phrase; what is to be done? If you turn to the market, the solution seems obvious: use a machine that runs Microsoft, but Microsoft has the same profit incentives as Apple. They have a little less power to accomplish them, as they don’t have a vertical that unifies hardware, software, and online services, but they’re trying to get there. If you buy a Surface, it’s basically the same as buying an MacBook with all the same problems (admittedly with a cool touch screen). To me, this is not the solution.

>>> The real solution is Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) running an open hardware ecosystem. The reason you need FLOSS is because it removes the profit incentive from software while simultaneously decoupling it from hardware, which allows users to avoid the kinds of entrapping schemes employed by corporate computer suppliers. How would technology get improved without the profit motive, you may wonder, well it’s really not that complicated: while FLOSS software is not allowed to be sold for profit, hardware that runs it and servicing those devices can. In fact, FLOSS allows people to create new hardware more quickly, as they don’t need to create new software at the same time. FLOSS prevents locking people into hardware ecosystems like Apple does, because the hardware manufacturer can’t tell the software developers to lock features away. Many FLOSS distributions even have what is called LTS (long term support) for specific versions of software even if hardware can’t upgrade to a newer version for whatever reason.

Maybe you’re more interested in what you can do right now to escape the corporate clutches bogging down your computational cavorting. If you’re using a PC or laptop, install Linux Mint. There are many different varieties of Linux, but Mint is designed specifically for people who are used to Windows or macOS. If you primarily use your computer to run a web browser, there’s basically no reason to use Windows/Mac, so switching to Linux will make almost no difference. If you frequently use office tools, that’s fine, as you can convince basically any Windows app to run on Linux, but even if you couldn’t, there an excellent FREE office suite called Libre Office that will meet the needs of all except the most specific Excel power users. If you use your PC for games, well, I just built a gaming PC and installed Linux on it and have found no game I want to play that doesn’t run on it. Steam works VERY WELL with Linux, and DosBox reaches its ultimate form on Linux (if you’re into vintage PC games like I am). There are other solutions, like Lutris or PlayOnLinux, which make it possible to easily install may games that are not on Steam as well. If you’re looking to up your phone game, look into Ubuntu touch (but be aware that this needs lots of work) or LineageOS (Android minus Google). The mobile world isn’t as well developed as the PC/Laptop world though, so be prepared to do some lifting on your own if you go this route. A phone I can suggest is the Pro1 X if you want a suggestion.

But what kind of world could this sort of computational ecosystem create if taken to its full extent? Well, lots, and pretty much any that are possible, but here is my dream:

I imagine a world where computational power and the physical expression of that power are decoupled. There are two ways I imagine doing this, which would exist at the same time. The way that would probably be the simplest to understand is this: imagine that rather than buying “a phone,” you buy a “mobile computing module” which kind of looks like a smaller version of an old game cartridge. This module is a full computer, minus any input or output devices. It’s basically a minified version of a PC desktop tower. Then, you can get a “phone” which is a device that has everything that is specific to a phone: a touch screen, a radio receiver, fit in your pocket form factor, etc. You insert the compute module into the phone, there you go, now you have a phone. If you want more computation power, you replace the module, if you want a different form factor replace the phone chassis. This would be cool just for phones, but I imagine that the compute module is a full computer, which allows a couple things. You could take it out and slide it into a “laptop” form factor device, and now you have a laptop. You could leave it in your phone and plug it into a hub that’s connected to monitors, keyboard, and mouse, and now you have a desktop environment. All of this would be accomplished with a SINGLE computer. Different ways of interacting with the computer would be modular.

The other decoupling is by making access to remote computing power seamless from the user perspective. Yes, we currently have “cloud” computing, but that mostly just amounts to having large consolidated data centers for various internet servers. The seamless remote computing power I’m imagining would mean that when you run a process on your computer, you don’t have to know if it’s running on local hardware or hardware somewhere else (unless you want to know, of course). The only thing you would care about is bandwidth to available computing modules. So, let’s say you have your own computer, but it doesn’t have the processing power to render the coolest new game you want to play. With this system you could view remote resources that are available, assess the bandwidth by which you could connect to them, and then use those resources to render your game. This is kind of like game streaming today, except that all the IP would reside on your own machine, you control the software that is available to you, and you have the power to decide how that software is run.

If you read all the way to the end of this, you are a trooper and I appreciate you taking the time to read my ramblings. Feel free to share how you feel, even if it’s “Apple/Microsoft is awesome,” because, who knows, maybe I just don’t get it. If you wanna share an alternative vision for computing, I’d love to see that too, because creativity is born in the exposure to many ideas.

tl;dr: Apple can manipulate you into buying Apple forever. There is a better way by using FLOSS/Linux. I can imagine a cooler computational landscape where computer power and the hardware peripheral interface to that power are decoupled, and I think that would be super cool. Install Linux Mint on your PC or Laptop, especially if you only use your computer to run a web browser.

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