The Great Apple Apartheid

In days gone by boarding houses and shops had notices saying “Irish and Blacks not welcome“.  These days are happily long past, but today Apple effectively says “poor and rural users not welcome“.

This is a story about Apple and the way its delivery policies exacerbate the digital divide and make the poor poorer.  To be fair, similar stories can be told about other software vendors, and it is hardly news that success in business is often at the expense of the weak and vulnerable.  However, Apple’s decision to deliver Lion predominantly via App store is an iconic example of a growing problem.

I had been using Lion for a little over a week, not downloaded from App Store, but pre-installed on a brand new MacBook Air.  However, whenever I plugged in my iPhone and tried to sync a message appeared saying the iTunes library was created with a newer version of iTunes and so iTunes needed to be updated.  Each time I tried to initiate the update as requested, it started  a long slow download dialogue, but some time later told me that the update had failed.

This at first seemed all a little odd on a brand new machine, but I think the reason is as follows:

  1. When I first initialised the new Air I chose to have it sync data with a Time Machine backup from my previous machine.
  2. The iTunes on the old machine was totally up-to-date due to regular updates.
  3. Apple dealers do not bother to update machines before they are delivered.
  4. The hotel WiFi connection did not have sufficient throughput for a successful update.

From an engineering point of view, the fragility of the iTunes library format is worrying; many will recall the way HyperCard was able to transfer stacks back and forth between versions without loss.  Anyway the paucity of engineering in recent software is a different story!

It is the fact that the hotel WiFi was in sufficient for the update that concerns me here.  It was fast enough to browse the web, without apparent delay, to check email etc.  Part of the problem was that the hotel did offer two levels of service, one (more expensive!) aimed more at heavy multimedia use, so maybe that would have been sufficient.  The essential update for the brand new machine consisted of 1.46 gigabytes of data, so perhaps not surprising the poor connection faltered.

I have been concerned for several years at the ever increasing size of regular software updates, which have increased from 100 Mbytes to now often several Gbytes1.  Usually these happen in the background and I have reasonable broadband at home, so they don’t cause me any problems personally, but I wonder about those with less good broadband, or those whose telephone exchanges do not support broadband at all.  In the UK, this is mainly those outside major urban areas, who are out of reach of cable and fibre super-broadband and reliant on old BT copper lines.  Thinking more broadly across the world, how many in less developed countries or regions will be able to regularly update software?

Of course old versions may well run better on old computers, but without updates it is not just that users cannot benefit from new features, but more critically they are missing essential security updates leaving the vulnerable to attack.

And this is not just a problem for those directly affected, but for us all, as it creates a fertile ground for bot armies to launch denial of service attacks and other forms of cybercrime or cyberterrorism.   Each compromised machine is a future cyberwarrior or cybergangster.

However, the decision of Apple to launch Lion predominantly via App Store has significantly upped the stakes.   Those with slower broadband connections may be able to manage updates, but the full operating system is an order of magnitude larger.  Of course those with slower connections tend to be the poorer, more vulnerable, more marginalised; those without jobs, in rural areas, the elderly.  It is as if Apple has put up a big notice:

To the poor and weak
we don’t want you

To be fair, Lion is (one feels grudgingly) also made available on USB drives, but at more than twice the price of the direct download2.  So this is not entirely shutting the door on the poor, but only letting them in if they pay extra.  A tax on poverty.

Of course, this is not a deliberate act of aggression against the weak, just the normal course of business.  The cheapest and easiest way to deliver software, and one that incidentally ensures that all revenue goes to Apple, is through direct online sales.  The USB option adds complexity and cost to the distribution systems and Apple seem to be pricing to discourage use.  This, like so many other ways in which the poor pay more, is just an ‘accident’ of the market economy.

But for a company that prides itself in design, surely things could be done more creatively?

One way would be to split software into two parts.  One small part would be the ‘key’, essential to run it, but very small,  The second part would constitute the bulk of the software, but be unusable without the ‘key’.   The ‘key’ would then be sold solely on the App store, but would be small enough for anyone to download.  The rest would be also made available online, but for free download and with a licence that allows third party distribution (and of course be suitably signed/encrypted to prevent tampering).  Institutions or cybercafes could download it to local networks, entrepreneurs could sell copies on DVD or USB, but competition would mean this would be likely to end up far cheaper than Apple’s USB premium, close to the cost of the medium, with a small margin.

Of course the same method could be used for any software, not just Lion, and indeed even for software updates.

I’m sure Apple could think of alternative, maybe better, solutions.  The problem is just that Apple’s designers, despite inordinate consideration for the appearance and appeal of their products, have simply not thought beyond the kind of users they meet in the malls of Cupertino.

  1. Note, this is not an inevitable consequence of increasing complexity and (itself lamentable) code bloat.  In the past software updates were often delivered as ‘deltas’, the changes between old and new.  It seems that now an ‘update’ is in fact complete copies of entire major components.[back]
  2. At the tiem of wrting tjis Mac OSX LIon is available for  app store for $29.99, but USB thumb drive version is $69.99[back]

4 thoughts on “The Great Apple Apartheid

  1. Alan,

    This isn’t purely an Apple problem (he typed on his iPad). Windows machines are just as bad at needing updates – my new work laptop spent a couple of days downloading several gigs of updates. And, if you use Linux, then you are downloading a whole operating system – the last Ubuntu I downloaded was 700 MB. As a city dweller I don’t see much of a problem, but I have friends on 3G dongles who may well struggle.

    And the reason updates are delivered in blocks is because some system components require a matched set of files. As such, the files need to come down as a set.

    All we can do is press for better digital access everywhere, as the world is shifting online, and as always we need to make sure that people aren’t disadvantaged.

  2. I know it is being a little unfair on Apple as true also for Microsoft and other kinds of software. However, it is interesting that Ubuntu is 700MB for flu system, Mac OS 1.4 Gb for just an update!

    Although software packages needs to be consistent, this would work fine for two part update packages, as just need to make sure they agree, or that the ‘key’ part can download suitable alternative if necessary. It seems to be the will not the means that are missing.

  3. The demographic that can afford to buy Apple products is the demographic that has a fast internet connection. Apple does not target the poor, at all. Have you ever seen an Apple product priced to compete with cheap products? The only one I can think of is the shuffle, which is a lead-in for getting people to spend money on iTunes.

    Alan, you speak of poverty, but people in actual poverty do not buy Apple products. They do not fit; you need to buy the product, and then pay for all the expensive stuff that goes with it – the fast internet connection, the expensive upgrades, the pay-for iTunes downloads. If you live on $100 a month, when are you going to buy into that kind of expenditure? Even the western poor on state benefits are likely to struggle. No, you buy a cheap PC, second or third hand, ideally with some linux flavour on it which will cost nothing to update bar the net connection, and which permits you to share music for free. Illegally if necessary. If I have a choice between a 5-year old run-of-the-mill car or a 12 year old Merc, I would be foolish to buy the Merc because it will cost far more to fix, far more to fuel etc. Particularly if no-one else around me owns a Merc.

    Apple do not target the poor, because they are poor. They do not have the money that Apple wants, nor do they have the cachet that Apple makes use of. Its products are aspirational, status items. I suspect that any community whose internet connection is slow and/or expensive will share music via mp3s on usb sticks, not by paying a track at a time on iTunes. Just like we used to, when we had slow and expensive connections.

    Apple is an immediate choice in your world, so your problem is the fragility of it. In the world of the poor, Apple is Prada, Gucci, Alienware, Steinway. Hey, Prada have a fashion event on, and the dress code is strings of pearls.

  4. Thanks Phil, you are absolutely right, although as Mauvedeity points out Lion distribution is simply an extreme example of a problem endemic in software distribution. The fact that Apple products are comparatively expensive is partly intrinsic to their marketing position, but some simply lack of insight. Of course this affects not just the extreme poor, but even affluent me in a major hotel chain in the middle of Eindhoven. I live on in the Scottish islands, not poor by world standards, but certainly relatively so in UK terms and often with relatively poor broadband (a key constraint on location when we moved out here). People are often willing to pay more if what they get s quality, but, I would think twice about recommending Apple computers (or Adobe, Microsoft) if I know they will have ongoing problems updating.

    It is interesting how things change. Apple have always been expensive, but used to be like Barbour, usable season after season (both a kind of Macintosh) – costly to buy but potentially better value in the long term than a cheaper alternative. Often when Windows machines were being retired after a year or two, you would see Macs many years old, still in active use. I’m not sure whether this was a deliberate design strategy at Apple or an accident. It didn’t hit their high-value sales (people always want the newest and best), but did help to make it a mainstream product. This was also great from an environmental perspective. Now, this no longer seems to be the case, I guess influenced by the company’s increasing consumer product focus.

    It is interesting that the new Indian Aakash tablet is Android-based rather than even Windows. It may be that the world will sideline Apple, Microsoft, Adobe etc., unless they change their mindset.

    However, if Apple designers, and others, thought about the 9/10 world that is outside their core demographic, then they might end up even helping their 1/10 world customers when on a hotel connection!


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