EVERYBODY KNOWS what to make of the two superheroes of the IT industry: Bill Gates, the captain of the giant Microsoft ‘evil empire’, monopolist and enemy of innovation; and Steve Jobs, the dynamic leader of ‘plucky underdog’, Apple, innovator and champion of all that is good.
These attitudes were reinforced at the start of this year when they both made major announcements. Bill Gates, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, launched a range of new technologies and products, but when all three of his demonstrations bombed, the audience had little sympathy. One week later, at the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco, Steve Jobs also had a demo crash, but he quickly rebooted and got a rousing cheer from his enthusiastic audience.
But while Apple basks in the success of its iPod music player, the business practices of his company are not quite as warm and cuddly as you might imagine.
Apple took on Real Networks, manufacturers of the leading independent media-player package. When Real had the ‘audacity’ to allow its users to download music in a suitable format for playing on an iPod, Apple promptly changed its software so that such downloads would no longer work.
Apple is fiercely protective of its iTunes iPod system and is determined to keep it closed to all outsiders.
Apple even tried to silence one of its most enthusiastic fans, a 19-year-old Harvard student who runs a small website called Think Secret, which specialises in insider news from Apple. When he published accurate predictions of a sub-$500 Apple Mac a few weeks before the official announcement, Steve Jobs threw a hissy fit and called in the lawyers.
But the biggest cause of concern is among Apple’s retailers, many of whom have supported the company for as long as 20 years. Apple is aggressively rolling out its own stores, including a flagship store in Regent Street in London, and existing retailers have complained that the Apple store always seems to have products in stock at times when they have had great difficulties in getting supplies.
Customers, not surprisingly, are going directly to Apple in such circumstances. And if retailers throughout the UK are relatively relaxed about a flagship London store, they will be less relaxed about news that Apple is planning five new stores around the UK, including one in “a university town in Scotland”. Many of the long-time Apple stockists in the USA have seen the value of their businesses destroyed and have given up in disgust.
Steve Jobs is just as aggressive in his other business, Pixar. After making several hit movies such as Toy Story and The Incredibles in a highly successful distribution deal with Walt Disney, he has demanded such outrageous terms that no deal has been agreed for future films. Observers have commented that Jobs was not interested in actually completing a deal with Disney.
Meantime, what has the boss of the ‘evil empire’ been up to? Well, Bill Gates has given $750m towards a child-inoculation programme . in the developing world which will literally save thousands of young lives.
The ‘nasty’ Gates has declared that he intends to give away the vast bulk of his $50bn fortune to good causes during his lifetime. The ‘nice’ Steve Jobs has made no such commitment.
Time for a rethink?