Bad Apples

When George Monbiot popped up in my feed asking Why is Apple so shifty about how it makes the iPhone? I was expeciting to see another case of someone blaming a single company for the sins of an industry. It’s often a tempting strategy for activists to focus on the most visible part of an industry and this approach certainly gains attention. However, in doing so, they tend to let everyone else off the hook. As such, I am always a little wary of attempts to lay all problems at the feet of a single company.

It turns out, however, that in this case my assumption was wrong and my wariness unfounded:

So [Friends of the Earth] approached the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturers, asking whether they are using tin from Bangka. All but one of the big brands fessed up. Samsung, Philips, Nokia, Sony, BlackBerry, Motorola and LG admit to buying (or probably buying) tin from the island through intermediaries, and have pledged to help address the mess. One company refuses to talk.

According to Monbiot, almost half of global tin supplies are used to make solder for electronics and about 30% of the world’s tin comes from Bangka and Belitung islands in Indonesia. Obviously, this industry supports many people on the islands but the lack of visibility, regulation or interest has led to economically and socially catastophic results.

[R]educing a rich and complex system of rainforests and gardens to a post-holocaust landscape of sand and acid subsoil. Tin dredgers in the coastal waters are also wiping out the coral, the giant clams, the local fisheries, the endangered Napoleon wrasse, the mangrove forests and the beaches used by breeding turtles.

Children are employed in shocking conditions. On average, one miner dies in an accident every week. Clean water is disappearing, malaria is spreading as mosquitoes breed in abandoned workings, and small farmers are being driven from their land. Those paragons of modernity – electronics manufacturers – rely for their supplies on some distinctly old-fashioned practices.

Friends of the Earth are seeking greater transparency on the part of the companies buying the tin extracted there. With greater transparency, so the thinking goes, comes greater accountability and the possibility of improvement. This approach is showing some success and Samsung are leading the way towards finding an industry-wide solution to end the damage. Apple, on the other hand, are trying to pretend that there isn’t a problem and – if there is – it’s nothing to do with them.

Friends of the Earth are calling on people to email Apple and ask them to get their act together.

George Monbiot is also calling on people to not buy Apple products until the company starts to display the transparency that Tim Cook has promised but failed to deliver.

As someone who has never bought an Apple product, and has no intention of ever owning an iGadget, this would be a disingenuously easy commitment for me to make. So I shall take a step further. As of now, I will never knowingly use an Apple product. I will never borrow an iPad and, if the only device on which I can check my email happens to be an iMac then I will just have to check my mail later.

Coincidentally, this post was written on a Samsung laptop. Less coincidentally, I will be treating myself to a Fairphone for my birthday Christmas.


A hash tag I have seen cropping up a lot on Google+ recently is #BoycottApple. This is a reaction to Apple’s increasingly aggressive tactic of using patents (often patents for ideas that are so obvious that they should never have been patented in the first place) to force its competitors out of the market. This final straw, and the trigger for #BoycottApple, came when Apple managed to convince a US judge to ban sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab… because it’s a rectangle.

While I agree that Apple’s behaviour is abusive, bullying and a brake on innovation, I haven’t really been able to get behind #BoycottApple because I think that the fundamental problem is with a patent system that encourages this sort of behaviour. Feeling good about not buying an overpriced Android rip-off is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem, which is that the patent system is broken and in many cases works counter to its original intent. Muktware, however, makes a good point:

No doubt that our patent system is broken. But Apple went global beyond ‘our system’ and started suing Android players in every potential market around the world. [Apple lost two major design related cases in The Netherlands and UK, which is great news.]

But not everyone is abusing the loopholes in our system. When was the last time Samsung sued LG, Sony, Sharp, or Panasonic because their TVs, laptops, and BluRay players look similar? Did they claim design patent on a rectangular device which can be used to watch movies? Never! These companies believe in their products, they innovate and move on to the next product.

Apple is taking advantage of a system which is painfully open to abuse and then blames the system for allowing it, not themselves for committing it.

When we are talking about technology, gadgets, software, it is both inevitable and reasonable that any new feature will be copied, improved upon, refined and reused. Progress happens when people see a good idea and realise that they can make it better. Apple is just as keen on reusing other people’s ideas as anyone else. But when other people see a (rare) good idea coming out of Cupertino, the Foxconn rebrander immediately descends into hypocrisy.

I’ve never owned an Apple product and can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that I never will.

On the value of standards

I didn’t blog about it at the time but last week Apple announced that it was going to sting a bunch of European publishers for a cut of their profits. In short, Apple is demanding that if these publishers want to continue publishing into iPad apps, the subscriptions have to go through iTunes so that Apple can cream their traditional 30% off the top.

Not surprisingly, the publishers are none too happy about this. Neither, it turns out, are the Belgian authorities and competition minister Vincent van Quickborne has launched a “rapid” competition investigation into the issue.

In the article linked to, above, Andrew Orlowski makes a very valid point:

But the publishers have only themselves to blame – by failing to develop a common industry “news stand” payment platform. This would have made paying for stuff much easier, and lowered transaction costs for all concerned.

And this is exactly why News Corp’s Project Alesia was created – with the intention of licensing it to all comers on equitable terms. But the print industry didn’t have the brains to join in. The 100-man project was dismantled last autumn.

As a result publishers now have a choice of getting reamed by Apple, reamed by Amazon or (perhaps) getting reamed by Google.

As long as people rely on proprietary standards they will continue to be at the the mercy of whoever owns those standards. And if a proprietary standard becomes dominant, the temptation will always exist for the owner of that standard to engage in monopolistic practices.

Open standards – that is, standards that are publicly available and free (gratis) to use – avoid this. Open standards can be used and implemented by anyone and, because of this, they ensure that you are not vulnerable to the price gouging activity of a single company.

Apple: Privatising the internet, one app at a time

Writing in Scientific American recently, Tim Berners-Lee highlighted the threat that various walled gardens pose to the Web. He mentioned social networks walling off information posted by their users as well as Apple’s preference for proprietary protocols and the emergence of smartphone apps.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

Today, Apple decided to give us all a quick taste of where walled gardens can lead:

Apple has apparently banned an iPad-based magazine from its online store – because the titled focuses on Google’s Android platform.

Walled gardens are shady things indeed.

Mac App Store and the end of innovation on Apple

The Register has a long and well-researched article on the implications of Apple’s soon-to-arrive Mac App Store and what it means for the Mac ecosystem.

Up until the day the Mac App Store opens, Mac apps will be able to jostle for advantage on a level playing field where developers wrestle to out-innovate one another, and where — more importantly — the arbiters of success are folks who buy Mac software, and not folks who are employed as Apple’s App Store police.

That’s called the free market, and it has been a cauldron of innovation since Adam Smith stirred the pot with his timeless invisible hand.

The day that the Mac App Store opens for business, however, buyers of Mac software might feel as if they’re free to choose which apps to install on their iMacs and MacBooks, but in reality their choices will be “curated,” to use Jobs’ deceptively kindhearted term.

As has been true with the iPhone/Pod/Pad App Store since its inception, Apple will decide the universe of apps from which consumer-level Mac users will be allowed to choose.

We’ll quickly admit that Jobs, when introducing the Mac App Store, noted that “It won’t be the only place [to buy Mac apps], but we think it’ll be the best place.” Unlike iPhone/Pod/Pad users locked into the current iOS App Store, Mac users will still be able to load non–App Store apps onto their Cupertinian desktops and notebooks.

But let’s be realistic: most won’t.

The article goes in to some detail about several of the restrictions imposed by the Mac App Store and the implications of their enforcement. The full article is well worth a read but the shorter version is this: The Mac is fast becoming a rather expensive toy and one that any serious users will soon find themselves having to abandon.

Quote of the day: A sales strategy that never fails

But for some reason, he didn’t think twice about upgrading his second-generation iPhone to the latest operating system release, OS 4. Big mistake. Although his phone is technically functional after the upgrade, it offers the performance of a brick. He’s so very, very disappointed—mostly with himself. On the other hand, that didn’t stop him from ordering a new iPhone 4 to address the situation!

Sean Chandler’s dog.