An Open Letter to Steve Jobs

Dear Mr. Jobs:

I’ve read the email exchange that purportedly took place between yourself and Gawker’s Ryan Tate. Although it seems atypical for you to engage in this sort of dialog, I am assuming the messages are the real thing. 

That said, I was quite disappointed with what you wrote.

I have been a critic of Apple’s position regarding the restricted access to the iPhone OS — and I have been especially vocal in arguing against Apple’s policies regarding App Store rejections. However, I readily admit that this is not a black-or-white matter. There are numerous shades of gray, situations where one could make a reasonable case for either side of a debate.

However, there are some arguments that are too frequently made that I find to have little merit. When I see them, as I often do in reader comments, I occasionally reply. More often, rather than keep repeating myself, I ignore the comments. Most days, I’m okay with this. However, when I saw these same arguments appear in one of your emails, giving them the implied approval of Apple itself, I felt compelled to respond yet again.

You wrote: “There are almost 200,000 apps in the App Store, so something must be going alright.”

There is certainly truth to this assertion. The same could be said about the phenomenal sales of the iPhone and iPad. Clearly, you don’t achieve such numbers if you aren’t making a lot of people happy. 

My problem is when the argument is used as a club to fend off criticism. The general popularity or lack of popularity of a device is not, by itself, an argument for or against a specific criticism of one aspect of the device. It may not even be a sure indicator of the overall merits of a device (unless you want to argue that the Mac sales in the 1990’s were proof of the Mac’s inferiority to Windows PCs).

More to the point, suppose there was a car that offered excellent reliability and 100 MPG. With these admirable characteristics, the car becomes very popular, deservedly so. But suppose people complained that the car had practically no trunk space or that visibility from the rear view mirror was very poor. What if the company’s only response to such complaints was: “Our car is the number seller in its class. We must be doing something right.” Would you consider this an appropriate and sufficient response? I hope not.

No matter how many cars are sold, it doesn’t change the fact that the rear view mirror visibility is poor and that the car would be better if this was fixed. Doing so might even improve sales. If the company wanted to argue that the rear view mirror visibility wasn’t not as bad as critics claimed, or that the mirror actually enhances driver safety in some way not readily apparent, that’s fine. But to dismiss criticism simply based on the car’s overall popularity is fallacious.

Yet, that is exactly what you do when you assert that 200,000 apps in the App Store prove that there are no problems with the App Store and that users are better off having a system where a few Apple employees, using rules entirely determined by Apple, are the sole arbiters of what we can or cannot install on our iPhones. Some argue that having the current App Store system is a positive: Among other things, it protects against unreliable or outright dangerous apps and makes the iPhone overall easier to use. That’s an argument that has merit and can be debated. I have a different view, and would prefer at least the option to install apps without going through the App Store. I don’t see how such an option would harm anyone who decides to stay within the protective embrace of the App Store. But this sort of discussion never gets started if you simply say: “We’re popular and therefore you criticism is irrelevant. End of story.”

This inevitably leads to your second, more pernicious argument: “Users, developers, and publishers can do whatever they like - they don’t have to buy or develop or publish on iPads if they don’t want to.

Again, there is an initial appeal to this argument. If you don’t like the taste of Pepsi, you can always buy Coke. That’s the nature of our free market system. The iPhone is not the only smartphone out there. If you don’t like it, get an Android or a Blackberry.

As attractive as it may sound on the surface, there is an ominous aspect to this appeal. First, it is once again a blunt instrument that is used more to deflect criticism than to reply to it.

Imagine if you worked for a company for 10 years (perhaps Apple). Further, imagine that you overall liked working for this company. But you do have a few criticisms or at least things you would like to see changed. Perhaps, you would like to see onsite daycare or more personal leave days or different criteria for determining promotions. Whatever. Perhaps, at an appropriate time, you make your position on these matters known. Now suppose the only reply you receive is: “If you don’t like the way we do things here, you can quit. There are other companies you could work for.” Would you consider that a reasonable reply? I hope not.

Similarly, if I don’t like the rear view mirror on that very popular car, I could always buy a different car. True. But so what? Does that mean I don’t have a valid criticism that is worth addressing?

And if I don’t like the way the government is using my taxes, I could always move to Europe — or as the right wing used to say “America, love it or leave it.” Is this how you want us to view Apple? Either we must approve of everything you do or we can get lost? I hope not.

The truth is that, in most of these situations, it is not a matter as simple as buying Coke vs. Pepsi. Rather we are talking about situations where the person has a large prior investment (such as 10 years on the job or 20 years of buying only Apple products), and where the pluses of remaining with the current choice generally outweigh the minuses of change. In particular, many users (myself included) prefer to stay with an iPhone, despite its flaws, rather than switch to a competitor. Does this mean that it’s good customer relations to tell such users: “No one is forcing you to buy an iPhone”? Again, I hope that’s not truly your view.

I am more than happy to engage in a debate on these issues. I am even amenable to having my views changed as a result. For example, as a result of reading your impressive “Thoughts on Flash,” I shifted my positions on this issue. That’s how it should be. And it’s very different from what you did in your email.

I hope you will at least consider all of this before you next decide to comment on these matters.


Ted Landau