Apple Evil/Genius - Image from Wired Magazine
Image from Wired Magazine

I was interviewed by MacNews last week for their article The iPhone and Social Networks: Fast Friends?

Read it and you might think I’m an Apple fanboy.

I’m not.

Apple has introduced some game-changing, highly usable, extremely cool products. But the company has a less than sterling reputation regarding the way they treat their employees, partners, customers and the environment.

Wired Magazine tackled the Apple conundrum in Evil/Genius: How Apple Got Everything Right by Doing Everything Wrong:

Everybody is familiar with Google’s famous catchphrase, “Don’t be evil.” It has become a shorthand mission statement for Silicon Valley, encompassing a variety of ideals that — proponents say — are good for business and good for the world: Embrace open platforms. Trust decisions to the wisdom of crowds. Treat your employees like gods.

It’s ironic, then, that one of the Valley’s most successful companies ignored all of these tenets. Google and Apple may have a friendly relationship — Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board, after all — but by Google’s definition, Apple is irredeemably evil, behaving more like an old-fashioned industrial titan than a different-thinking business of the future. Apple operates with a level of secrecy that makes Thomas Pynchon look like Paris Hilton. It locks consumers into a proprietary ecosystem. And as for treating employees like gods? Yeah, Apple doesn’t do that either.

Wired torched the company for some of its business practices, but gives Apple some credit for making hard decisions and doing what’s necessary to create highly usable products that create loyal users and, ultimately, a highly profitable company.

Apple is among the most message responsible companies around. Their marketing is smart and respectful. Since they build the hardware and software, everything just plain works and their products are easier to use.

Apple’s Greener Apple initiative touts their environmentally responsible business practices. But the fact is, the company lagged HP and Dell for years and the change only came after significant pressure from environmental groups.

And yet, Apple continues to thrive:

For all the protests, consumers don’t seem to mind Apple’s walled garden. In fact, they’re clamoring to get in. Yes, the iPod hardware and the iTunes software are inextricably linked — that’s why they work so well together. And now, PC-based iPod users, impressed with the experience, have started converting to Macs, further investing themselves in the Apple ecosystem.

So many good things. So many bad. Apple raises questions aplenty:

Does might make right?

Apple has avid fans. Would they have more if their Apple was greener?

Will their business practices bite them in the ass as consumer confidence continues to wane?

Ultimately, is Apple responsible or not?

Weigh in by commenting below.

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Apple is a decidedly mixed bag. When they get it right, they get it very right. In my sixth book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, I cite a brilliant win-win-win example that Apple initiated. But they also get it wrong–a lot.

  • Ryan Dancey says:

    I think you & I read two different articles. Or we proceed from such different biases that we ended up reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.

    I read the article to say: “You may not like it, but something about the way Steve Jobs runs Apple computer just plain works.”

    It delivers high value to its customers consistently. I don’t think it is any better, or any worse, than any other major global manufacturer when it comes to the economy, no do I really expect it to be. I’ll worry about how Apple recycles iPods after Chevron & BP figure out how to stop global warming. If anything, I get the sense that Apple has me at the center of their planning, and they want me to be happy when I use their products; which is a long way from say, Microsoft’s perceived emphasis lies.

    Maybe working for a company run by a virtual dictator, rather than a committee of the whole isn’t some people’s idea of nirvana. But I doubt Apple has any problem filling open job positions.

    RSD

  • Ryan Dancey says:

    That should of course be “comes to ecology”, not “the economy”.

  • “We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay people off, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place – the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”- Steve Jobs

  • Wind in the Dust says:

    What does secrecy have to do with good and evil? This is just good business for cutting edge R & D inventions. This is part of why they make great products.

    Treatment of employees? Why does Apple have great employee retention? It’s certainly not because they have a gun to their heads. In this regard, I wonder what you would consider a good parent… one that lets their kids do whatever they want? Or one that requires responsibility and expects greatness?

    Evil is Satan, Sadaam Husien, & Adolf Hitler, etc. Your analogy of good vs. evil is deeply flawed in it’s application.

  • Thanks for the great comments here. Love the feedback, especially the Jobs quote regarding how Apple will respond to the downturn.

    To be clear, I haven’t called Apple evil. Give Wired credit for that.

    I find Apple an interesting Responsible Marketing case study.

    So many companies could never get away with the things Apple does — resist environmental responsibility (their record was abysmal), sue a teenager for sharing IP when they blog regarding upcoming products, use draconian management methods, etc.)

    Apple does some thing MORE responsibly than just about anyone. They DO know their customers wants, wishes, needs and desires–seemingly before their customers know.

    They do terrific, respectful marketing.

    My key takeaway is that all forms of Responsible Marketing don’t carry the same weight with consumers.

    And Apple seems to have chosen the right places to put their energies.

  • John says:

    I agree with the general theme of the Wired article. Apple does some fantastic things in the areas of technology, marketing and basic business accumen. On the other hand I’m less than happy with some decisions they make. They could be a bit more open with their roadmap. They could be a bit more open with allowing connectivity to other devices.

    I will add that it seems that even when Apple performs in a less than stellar way that they are susceptible to pressure to do the right thing. Certainly there are some anecdotes of people treated badly by Apple but overall they treat most customers well. I think most of their employees get treated well, not over-the-top fantastic, but well.

    The pattern seems to be that when an issue is raised Apple refuses to discuss it but six months later or so they change their ways or come out with a fix for the problem.

  • JPW says:

    I would say Apple has NOT been as good as they could or should be. My biggest problem with them is that that should take back any of their products, any time, whether I buy a new one from them or not. But then—SO SHOULD EVERY COMPANY—it should be a law. (seems obvious to me)

    HOWEVER, I don’t buy the “Apple’s environmental record has been abysmal,” “lagging Dell and HP” argument. In what way? (I think you need to take a closer look at Greenpeace (bless their hearts.) They made a mess of their rating system by counting company’s promises and PR information as being more important than than actions, reality, and more obscure (but still obtainable) information.

    Greenpeace should have given grades on what companies DO. Not what they say they are GOING TO DO. They should have given a single grade on transparency and communication rather than mark Apple down in all areas for lack of stated policy. The much vaunted Greening Apple initiative is basically Apple speaking up about what they were already doing. Apple was already well on the way to eliminating harmful materials in their products before Greenpeace spoke up.

    Greenpeace sounds like the rooster that thinks the sun rises because he cocked.

    It appears that Greenpeace did not notice that Apple has been making fewer, high quality products with extended life-spans while Dell, HP, Lenovo, and others make commodity products— essentially disposables that overwhelm the landfills.
    Apple products have been, and presently are, far more easily disassembled and recycled than most others.
    They use high quality recyclable materials that are less likely to go into the landfills.
    They had already committed to stop producing CRTs a year ago while others still produce them.
    etc. etc.
    This lack of subtle understanding on the part of Greenpeace is disturbing to me. Essentially their ratings seem to be more emotion and indignation and less analysis and thoughtfulness. I counted on them to get it right, but now I think they just wanted my attention along with any donations, but not necessarily a good rating system that provides illumination and insight.
    Come On Greenpeace!

  • Apple largely outsources their advertising to an ad agency. It would be great to know what percentage of their messaging and PR is developed in house versus by their agency(ies).

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