Pluralistic: The Cult of Mac (12 Jan 2024)

Today's links

  • The Cult of Mac: You cannot reason a person out of a position they did not reason themself into in the first place.
  • Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.
  • This day in history: 2014, 2019, 2023
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading

A 19th century posed photo of a campus secret society at the University of Illinois. A collection of middle-aged men and women in formal dress stand in two ranks, holding tall spears and wearing elaborate fezzes emblazoned with five-pointed stars. They are framed by a proscenium. The photo has been modified to put an Apple 'Think Different' wordmark behind them.

The Cult of Mac (permalink)

Apple's most valuable intangible asset isn't its patents or copyrights – it's an army of people who believe that using products from a $2.89 trillion multinational makes them members of an oppressed religious minority whose identity is coterminal with the interests of Apple's shareholders.

Take the App Store. Apple blocks third parties from offering rival app stores for its iOS platform, which means you can only install apps that have been blessed by Apple. That blessing is contingent on the software authors involved giving $0.30 out of every dollar you spend in their apps to Apple.

This has two effects: first, it makes certain products impossible to offer. The gross margin on an audiobook is 20%. Apple takes a 30% cut of sales. Try to sell audiobooks in an app, and you'll lose money on every sale. That's why non-Apple audiobook stores like and Downpour require you to buy your books in a browser, which hamstrings them and gives Apple an unbeatable advantage (Apple doesn't charge itself 30% on every transaction, obviously).

But at least you can buy audiobooks on Apple Books. There are plenty of services whose gross margins are lower than 30%. Apple's 30% App Tax renders these unviable, and if Apple doesn't deign to offer its own in-house monopoly version, the service is simply unavailable as an iPhone app.

But that's not the only bad outcome. Some lucky service providers are able to pay the Apple Tax by gouging Apple's customers, raising prices to pay the danegeld. That's the second effect.

This is obviously bad for industry. Take the news media: some people think the thing that Big Tech steals from the news is the news itself. That's a frankly bizarre argument: including the news in a search index or providing a forum where people can talk about the news is not bad for the news. News you're not allowed to find or talk about isn't news, it's a secret.

But Big Tech most assuredly steals from the news: it steals money. The ad-tech duopoly takes 51% out of every ad dollar. Social media holds news subscribers to ransom and requires "boosting" payment to reach the people who've asked to see their articles. And the mobile duopoly takes 30% out of every in-app subscription dollar:

The mobile duopoly likes to talk about the "mobile ecosystem," but it's no ecosystem – it's a pair of walled gardens:

It's a planned economy run by a pair of corporate executives who deliberate in secret and are accountable only to their shareholders. Thankfully, some regulators are alive to the hazards of this technofeudal arrangement and are taking firm measures:

These regulators couch their enforcement action in terms of defending an open market, but the benefits to app makers is only incidental. The real beneficiaries of an open app world is Apple customers. After all, it's Apple customers who bear the 30% app tax when it's priced into the apps they buy and the things they buy in those apps. It's Apple customers who lose access to apps that can't be viably offered because the app tax makes them money-losing propositions. It's Apple customers who lose out on the ability to get apps that Apple decides are unsuitable for inclusion in its App Store.

That's where the Cult Of Mac steps in to cape for the $3 trillion behemoth. The minority of Apple customers for whom their brand loyalty is a form of religious devotion insist that "no Apple customer wants these things."

This is such obvious nonsense that it can only be described as an article of faith, not a reasoned position. If rival app stores – ones that had different editorial standards and different payment policies – existed, the only people who could possibly use them are Apple customers. Android users won't be using an alternative iOS store. Symbian users aren't going to be installing apps from an iOS store offered by someone other than Apple.

If it's true that "Apple customers don't want non-Apple app stores," then Apple wouldn't need to use technological countermeasures and legal threats to prevent them from coming into existence. These non-Apple app stores would fail on their own terms.

This is a point I first raised in The Guardian in 2015, with a satirical piece called "If Dishwashers Were iPhones" – a letter from a charismatic smart dishwasher company called Absterge, explaining why it's unreasonable for customers to expect to their dishes from third-party dish vendors:

The comments on that article are wild. It's just a litany of people saying, "If you want to choose where you buy your apps, you shouldn't buy an iPhone." That this is exactly the same argument the fictional Absterge CEO makes about his dishwasher ("People who don’t want to go the Absterge way don’t have to") is lost on them. As far as they're concerned, any Apple customer who wants have the final say over how their $1,000 pocket computer works isn't a true Apple customer.

This is a very weird idea. But weirder still is how it captured lawmakers, like the former Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore. In 2010, Moore and his colleague, the disgraced sex pest Tony Clement, tabled a bill that would make it illegal for Canadians to modify their iPhones (and other gadgets) to work in ways that benefited them at the expense of corporate shareholders.

They ran a consultation on this measure, and the responses overwhelmingly rejected it (6138 submissions opposed to the measure, 54 in support!). They pressed ahead anyway:

When the public demanded an explanation for this, Moore said that opponents of the measure were "radical extremists":

This was a bridge too far. I am a bestselling Canadian author whose copyright-related income comes from royalties, not industry campaign contributions. The idea that the Heritage Minister would brand me a "radical extremist" got my goat, so I picked a fight with him on Twitter, where he unwisely took the bait:

Moore's responses were straight out of the comments from "If iPhones Were Dishwashers." Quoth the Minister: "Don't use Mac. There are other options out there."

Remember: the only people who could use an alternative iOS store are Apple customers. Moore – a Minister from the Conservative Party – went on record saying that if you want to use your private, personal property in ways that the corporation that manufactured it objects to you, the government should step in to defend the corporation from you.

This is not the property-worshiping, market-based ideology the Conservative Party claims to support. The only way to square that circle is if somehow, the people who want to install apps on their phones without the manufacturer's approval are not really customers. They're pretenders. Apostates. They're holding it wrong:

These religious apologetics for Apple's business practices are a devastatingly effective defense against the public outcry that would accrue to any other business that abused its customers in similar fashion. Every time Apple finds a new way to rip off its customers, the cult is there to insist that those aren't true Apple customers at all!

Think of Apple's years-long war on repair. When Apple gets a veto over where you fix the small, slippery, glass object you carry everywhere and hence break a lot, they can get up to all kinds of mischief. They can gouge you on parts and service charges, sure. But they can also simply rule out fixing your device at all, declaring it beyond repair.

This prompts you to buy another gadget from them, and they get to offer you a trade-in. That means that your old gadget gets "recycled" by Apple, who – uniquely among electronics manufacturers – drops all its "recycled" gadgets in giant shredders, ensuring that parts from old phones don't find their way into the secondary market for use by independent repair:

Apple isn't coy about all this! Tim Apple's 2019 shareholders letter spelled it out explicitly: Apple's revenues are falling because its customers are fixing their phones rather than replacing them:

Apple led the coalition that killed dozens of state right-to-repair bills for years. When repair advocates pointed out that this was creating mountains of immortal ewaste that included tons of conflict minerals, Apple's religious adherents stepped into insist that Apple customers preferred to get their iPhone fixed by Apple and its approved depots.

Again, this is obvious nonsense. If it were the case that No True Apple Customer would patronize a third-party repair depot, then Apple could simply step out of the way of right-to-repair campaigns and those independent phone fixit places would sink without a trace. People who own Android devices don't get their phones fixed with unauthorized iPhone parts.

The chorus of credulous, faithful shouters gives Apple enormous cover to get up to the worst behavior. Apple keeps making announcements about its commitment to repair that get trumpeted to the heavens, even though these announcements barely bother to cover up how Apple will continue to block repair in practice:

This reality-distortion field is remarkably durable. It remains intact even when rivals take the exact opposite position and demonstrate exactly what a real, non-pretextual pro-repair policy looks like:

A key tenet of the Cult Of Mac is that Apple's sins are actually virtues, because all its monopolistic conduct is in service to its users' privacy and security. After all, this is the company that faced down the FBI when the US government tried to force it to weaken its encryption:

And it's true, they did! They also added anti-tracking features that shut down Facebook's ability to spy on iOS users, a move that Facebook claims cost it $10b in the first year alone (you love to see it):

But Apple's commitment to your privacy and security is always contingent, and when its own profits are on the line, the company will swiftly stuff you and your safety out the airlock. Apple refused to weaken its security for the FBI, but when China threatened its access to cheap manufacturing and hundreds of millions of customers, Apple eviscerated its products:

Apple blocked Facebook from spying on you, but when it wanted to build its own surveillance advertising empire, it switched iOS spying back on, gathering exactly the same data as Facebook had, but for its own sole use, and then lied about it:

And then there's iMessage, Apple's default messaging service – "default" in the sense that there's no way to use other messaging apps without taking additional steps. IMessage has end-to-end encryption – but only when you're communicating with other Apple customers. The instant an Android user is added to a chat or group chat, the entire conversation flips to SMS, an insecure, trivially hacked privacy nightmare that debuted 38 years ago – the year Wayne's World had its first cinematic run.

About 41% of American mobile phone users have an Android phone, which means that any time an Apple customer tries to have a conversation with a colleague, a merchant, a loved one, a friend or a family member, there's a 4 in 10 chance it's going out "in the clear," with zero privacy protections.

This is not good for Apple customers. It exposes them to continuous, serious privacy risks. Our mobile devices are keepers of our most intimate secrets, and when mobile security fails, the consequences are grave, as Apple discovered in the hardest way possible, ten years ago:

Apple's answer to this is grimly hilarious. The company's position is that if you want to have real security in your communications, you should buy your friends iPhones. Presumably, if those friends – or merchants, or colleagues – don't want to change operating systems and throw away their device and all their apps, you should just stop talking to them:

One of the clinical signs that someone is in a cult is that they are encouraged to isolate themselves from people who aren't also in that cult:

But there are billions of Apple customers and only a small (but vocal and obnoxious!) minority of those customers are actual cult members, which means that there are billions of people who'd prefer to have private, secure communications with everyone in their lives, not just their fellow Apple customers.

That's where Beeper Mini comes in: it's a third-party Android version of iMessage that builds on the work of a teenager who reverse-engineered iMessage and found a way to let Android users receive secure messages sent by Apple customers:

This was an immense service to Apple customers, correcting a gaping security vulnerability in Apple's flagship product, that had been deliberately introduced, putting the company's profits ahead of its customers' safety and privacy.

Apple immediately rolled out a series of countermeasures to block Beeper Mini. When The Verge's David Pierce asked them why, Apple said they did it to protect their customers' security (!!):

The company claimed that there was some nonspecific way in which Beeper Mini weakened the security of Apple customers, though they offered no evidence in support of that claim. Remember, the gold standard for security claims is proof-of-concept code, not hand-waving:

For its part, Beeper engaged in a brief but intense cat-and-mouse game with Apple, taking countermeasures and countercountermeasures to preserve Apple customers' access to secure communications with Android users:

Apple used its $3 trillion megaphone to condemn Beeper Mini all the while, even after Beeper published the source code for Beeper Mini so that anyone could verify for themselves that nothing nefarious was going on:

Meanwhile, Apple's cultists rallied behind the company. Not only would No True Apple Customer ever want to have secure communications with an Android user, but it was unfair for Beeper to profit by accessing Apple's messaging infrastructure, which Apple has to pay to maintain.

This is some serious upside-down cult logic. Beeper isn't accessing Apple's infrastructure: Apple's customers are accessing Apple's infrastructure. If there were no Apple customers trying to talk to Android users, there would be no load on Apple's servers.

But those customers don't count. They aren't real Apple customers, because they want to do things that benefit them, not Apple's shareholders. In other words: they're holding it wrong.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Total corruption: Organised crime infiltrated and compromised UK courts, police, HMRC, Crown Prosecution Service, prisons, and juries

#10yrsago What blogging meant

#5yrsago In DHS tests, prototypes of Trump’s chosen barrier posts were easily defeated by hacksaws

#5yrsago A month after the statutory restoration of expat Canadians’ voting rights, Supreme Court says taking those rights away was illegal

#1yrago John Deere's repair fake-out

#1yrago Good riddance to the Open Gaming License

Colophon (permalink)

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