Sharing the Ecosystem

Tim Cook got a lot of attention back in February when he was challenged at a shareholder meeting to explain Apple’s commitment to green energy initiatives. A conservative group of shareholders had put forward a proposal asking Apple to focus only on initiatives that had a clear ROI (return on investment). According to a report in Mac Observer, Tim Cook grew visibly angry at the suggestion:

When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind. I don’t consider the bloody ROI….If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.

Cook underlined his commitment to the environment again this past week by providing the voiceover for Apple’s promotional video Better, about Apple’s use of solar and wind energy, among other environmentally friendly practices. But it’s worth noting the difference in the message. At the shareholder meeting, Cook seemed to be saying that he doesn’t care about return on investment – doesn’t care about profits – when it comes to doing things that are just right. But in the video he keeps repeating the word “better” in reference both to Apple’s products and Apple’s commitment to the environment. It’s not that he doesn’t care about return on investment; it’s that he’s enlarging the very meaning of the term.

Better. It’s a powerful word and a powerful ideal. It makes us look at the world and want more than anything to change it for the better, to innovate, improve, to reinvent, to make it better. It’s in our DNA. And better can’t be better if it doesn’t consider everything. Our products. Our values.

If Tim Cook hadn’t gotten so angry at that guy at the shareholder meeting, he might have explained that profits are only one return on the investment. If you’re the most valuable company in the world, and you’re not concerned about the impact of your company on the environment, you’re not playing the long game. We all share the same ecosystem. Investing in that ecosystem is investing in the future. It might not look like a profitable investment, but it could yield immeasurable returns.

So I’m heartened by Apple’s apparent commitment to the environmental ecosystem, but I wish they had the same attitude toward their software ecosystem.

I know the history of that ecosystem from my vantage point as a user. I switched to a Mac in 2007, and as much as I loved the hardware, I discovered pretty quickly that the real advantage was the software, and not just the software made by Apple. Independent developers who cared about design, who wanted to make software for individuals rather than the enterprise, had been using Macs and writing Mac software for years. Using those applications for the first time, I began to see software as a kind of art form in and of itself.

The iPhone and the App Store brought that art form to the masses. By creating a place where customers could easily, and without fear, download any number of apps, Apple made software mainstream. Before that, most customers only bought software when they bought their computers, preloaded with an office suite and maybe one or two more apps. The iPhone, and later the iPad, provided both the perfect delivery and the perfect medium for software, because the entire device itself changed based on whatever software had just been launched.

The result was that Apple managed to cultivate what I’d argue was the richest software ecosystem in the history of computing. Which is why it’s so strange that Apple now seems to be on the cusp of letting that ecosystem wither. It’s no secret that the App Store is broken, that developers are having a harder and harder time making good money. Marco Arment has been talking about this for a long time, most clearly when he made his case this past fall that paid-upfront apps are dead. Ben Thomson wrote a series of blog posts around the same time at Stretechery, laying out the reason why Apple is motivated to drive down the cost of apps (and why it's a big picture mistake).

Apple makes money on hardware. It’s in their interest that said hardware be sold for as much of a premium as the market will bear. However, it’s equally in their interest that the complements to that hardware are sold as cheaply as possible, and are preferably free….In the case of apps, the current app store, full of a wide variety of inexpensive apps, is perfect from Apple’s perspective. It’s a reason to buy Apple hardware, and that’s all that matters. Anything that on the surface makes the store less desirable for hardware buyers – such as more expensive apps – is not in Apple’s interest.

This is bloody ROI thinking. In its latest commercials, with iPads on mountain tops and iPhones on motorcycles, Apple wants to trade on the power of its devices to do amazing things. But software is what gives those devices their power. And Apple is doing very little to help sustain the people who create that software, let alone give them the respect and the gratitude they deserve. As Justin Williams recently said about his trip to the Microsoft developer’s conference:

What’s different though is that it feels like Microsoft is more interested in working with us as a partner whereas Apple has always given off a vibe of just sort of dealing with us because they have to.

I find it fitting that the number one request on most people’s lists for iOS 8 is better sharing of information between apps. What Apple needs is better sharing, period. Healthy ecosystems are all about sharing. “Better can’t be better if it doesn’t consider everything.” Just as Tim Cook sees the value in sustaining the world’s ecosystem, he needs to see the value in sustaining the developer ecosystem. It’s those developers who can provide the real return on investment, making both his products, and the world, better.