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Hey Apple: Sometimes It's Best Not To Be In Control

There's been buzz aplenty over the Jason Calacanis rant called The Case Against Apple. Apparently his six-year-long love affair with all things Steve Jobs recently ended, with Calacanis planning to give up what he calls over-paying for his perception of Apple product quality and moving back into the PC camp. When you boil down all his reasons, you can state them simply: Apple wants to control everything. But being in control is over-rated.

Sure, you want to be in control over the quality and design of your own products. And maybe Apple's approach is over-the-top because it actually outsources a lot of the design and engineering of its products. (Sorry to break it to fanbois who didn't realize.) But there is a lot to be said for strategically letting go:

  • Control can get you into trouble. ISPs cheered when they knew they could get out of trouble over what people posted on web pages and sent over the Internet by simply not trying to control it. Courts have found that when you exercise more control, you are generally opting for more responsibility. In fact, Apple is starting to learn the hard way that when you want to control all sales of third-party software for a platform like the iPhone, you start getting beaucoup attention from regulators like the Federal Trade Commission. In business, being singled out by the authorities is generally considered undesirable.
  • Losing control can be a great growth strategy. Microsoft let go decades in the past by providing a platform and software, but leaving lots of room for others to create their own products. Had Microsoft wanted to exercise as much control as Apple does, it never would have become Microsoft. You can make the reasonable argument that Apple prefers a business model of higher margins and fewer sales. But its prices are dropping while its volume in consumer electronic devices is ballooning. The company is moving into being a high-end, well-branded provider of commodity products that are sold in Wal-Mart. That calls for a different approach to business.
  • Giving up control can mean getting help. What? Apple need help? Sure. Remember what mama told you: Everyone needs help sometimes, and when you let others control part of a relationship, you can also let them take responsibility, which gets things off your back and mind. Actually, Apple already gets help. I wasn't joking when I mentioned that the company has third parties do a lot of its design and engineering work. For example, the first iPod was based completely on a music player reference design made available by the group of companies whose products appeared on said design, and in said iPod. I'm not suggesting that Apple did nothing. The industrial engineering and user interface were important. (Though even the industrial design may have been done by a third party. Ah, well, never mind.) But you'll never generally hear about any of this because Apple has the most notorious non-disclosure in the tech industry. They don't want anyone to see that they get help, or know how they do anything. But that can eventually put you in a bad position, because people not giving credit are by circumstances mercenaries. And when you need help, and you will, it's gonna cost.
  • Being a myth through control gets tiring. Ever see someone trying hard to maintain an image? It's exhausting and eventually the person gets too tired to maintain the front. It makes me think of a discussion I was having with some other writers about doing ghosting work, and how the clients of the writing services often want to pretend that they did it all, which can lead to amusing situations like being unable to answer questions about the ideas in the book because they were created by someone else. The public face of Apple has already begun to slip badly, whether it's a Calacanis questioning the value and ethics of the company, or a Warren Buffet questioning its governance given the misdirection over the health of Jobs that investors received. The question is not whether it will slip more, but how far it will.
  • Image via stock.xchng user lusi, site standard license.