Mac missionary to mutineer

As a 90’s Mac die-hard I’m well aware of Apple’s software and hardware brilliance. At work in 1992 we had an enclave of 3 IIci’s all linked up by Appletalk. Flaunting an Apple laptop which docked, I was a Mac missionary. Believe it or not, that was when I worked for a little district council. The competition was a finance department mainframe. It took up half the basement, talked in Dos prompts – no contest.

I’ve often heard it said once you go to Mac you never leave. While the anti-obsolescent in me likes seeing ancient Macs matching the performance of much newer PCs, when I sold my beige G3 I was only momentarily wistful. I had found myself in a compatibility ghetto. A filesharing twilight zone built on a software island. I fled to Windows where I’ve been ever since. In over a decade of using Windows PCs for office tasks I haven’t missed Macs.

When I bought a new machine a couple of years ago I thought about returning to the fold. I use the PC for  multimedia editing; a Mac might be better. I like a good cameraphone & the iphone is certainly that. Well-built good-looking hardware, rock solid OS, security advantages, seamless integration with iphone, great multimedia capabilities, all this warranting the premium price. In the end though I stayed with Windows. When replacing my phone I chose Android.

My reticence to spend with Apple began with its long avoidance of philanthropic giving. Steve Jobs launched a charitable trust in 1986 but closed it 15 months later. Since new CEO Tim Cook took over the company has donated  £50m to Bono’s Product Red campaign and £50m to Stanford University Hospital and matching employee donations. However as discussed by Wired and CNN, this still leaves Apple short of other corporate givers and hardly makes up for nearly 30 years without documented charitable contributions.

In defence, Apple & its fans say that Mac products, not philanthropy, are its legacy. Though that doesn’t convince me as an excuse for decades lacking in corporate social and global responsibility. Especially for a company & shareholders perhaps comprising, and certainly pitching to the worlds’ leaders & trendsetters.

In April 2012 The Guardian pointed out that an iphone 4 costs around $178 to make under questionable labour conditions in Foxconn’s Chinese factories. Sold at  $630,  a whopping 72% profit was being made on each unit. Today the BBC reports the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ finding that of Apple’s $145bn (£95bn) cash stockpile, $102bn is held offshore to minimise exposure to US tax.

Quoting from another article today by the BBC’s  business editor Robert Peston, first a couple of snippets from the Senate committee report: “Apple Inc established an offshore subsidiary, Apple Operations International, which from 2009 to 2012 reported net income of $30bn, but declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” 

And then, about an Apple sales subsidiaries in the Republic of Ireland which generated $74bn (£48.5bn) in profits but: “may have paid little or no income taxes to any national government on the vast bulk of those funds”. To put these cash figures into perspective, The Guardian points out that $50bn is the yearly cost of realising the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving the  number of people living in poverty globally by 2015.

Tax avoidance is standard corporate behaviour. Why should Apple be any different? I would argue precisely because of the company’s exalted status across the globe. Early adopting trendsetters, creatives, world leaders and people from all walks of society aspire to own products from this most successful of corporates. As pointed out in Peston’s article, globalisation has let corporates minimise their national tax liabilities even as governments struggle to meet their rising national debts. It doesn’t really seem fair.

The absence of corporate social responsibility to date hasn’t damaged Apple’s reputation, but certainly represents a missed opportunity for the the global south and the poor, ill and oppressed wherever they might be. Robert Peston: “Surely the essence of Apple’s brand is that its products make all of us more productive, in play or work. So for Apple to be seen as the world’s greatest accumulator of cash that seemingly has little productive use may not be adding lustre to its image”.

A PC can be bought, sold, fixed and networked in virtually every corner of the world. It is the IT tool of choice for the masses. A 2010 market tracking estimate put the installed base of Mac vs PC machines at 54 million vs 1.4 billion.  Even with iphones and ipads making inroads on the mass market and  iphone 4 being pushed in India, it’s unlikely that sales figures will overtake equipment built to run Windows and Android anytime soon. The exclusivity and price of Apple products restricts their use in affordable, accessible IT & comms solutions, especially in countries of the global south.

Then take the merits of open vs closed software systems. Apple runs a closed or proprietary operating system, whereas other hardware manufacturers use  standard, published Open Systems Computing (OSC) protocols and Application Programming  Interfaces (APIs). This open approach allows developers to produce and engineer software solutions to meet market needs –  keeping costs to consumers down. Closed systems lock buyers into bespoke and potentially more costly options.

When it comes to ‘interoperability’ or the ability of hardware and software systems to work together, again the open approach and design for interoperability adopted by PC software ecosystems allows and encourages tailoring as needed. With hardware it’s not so crucial, since recent machines of either camp can often run their rivals’ software.

As a Mac mutineer I take comfort in the thought that I inhabit a relatively non-exclusive, global system of people and machines, dedicated to free and open access, to creative development, competitive prices, and to sharing and participating in the progress of that system if I so wish. It’s perhaps ironic that Apple, for so long darling of the creative sector and troll of the PC, may in  terms of freedom and aspiration be the antihero of the modern IT piece.