Essay–The Monopoly of Lemons
I was part of an enraged discussion on facebook this morning. Someone pointed to an article claiming that Apple, the prize darling of fanboys, stock markets, and tech-savvy folk, knew about an ssl vulnerability in their operating system(s) for months or even years. Instead of admitting to the problem, fixing it, or alerting their customers, they simply sat on it and did nothing.
Apple is not unique in this. Microsoft has been doing it for decades. Don’t believe me? Go google the stuff. I’ll wait.
Oracle, Apple, Microsoft…nearly any software vendor, and OS vendor, you can think of practices the art of security by obfuscation. Their philosophy is that if they HIDE the vulnerability, the malevolent computer marauders won’t find it. If the company doesn’t send out a security bulletin outlining the dangers, suggesting work-arounds, or release patches for the problem, then no one knows it exists and no one can take advantage of customers who refuse to patch their systems.
This is a serious issue. Back in the days when computer networks were in their infancy and hardly ever exposed to the internet, you could get away with this. It’s like actuarials for automotive companies or the medical industry. If a company discovers a problem with their product, say a computer chip that fails to control the brakes in certain situations, or an implant that “fails” in a low percentage of patients, the execs have some math wizard crunch numbers. The actuarial compares what it costs to fix the problem and issue recalls versus how much money the company will lose via lawsuits or settlements.
In the past two decades, there have been a TON of these instances. Most of the ones you hear about resulted in a number of deaths or near-fatal accidents in the case of machinery. The actuarial model is about protecting stock price. It has nothing to do with ethics or even good old fashioned values. It is about greed. Pure and simple.
Technology companies, like Apple and Microsoft, are more or less practicing the same game of financial chicken. The difference? Well, when you unwrap that shiny new operating system, you have a EULA you have to agree to. The EULA more or less absolves the company of any security issues, data loss, or privacy invasion a bug a pernicious program may cause the user.
Microsoft was famous for putting the EULA INSIDE THE BOX where you couldn’t even read it. The box had a big sticker on it that said by even OPENING the package, you had agreed to the EULA. This was with XP, 95, and 98. Not sure if they’re still doing this with 7 or 8. And frankly, I don’t give a shit.
Apple has moved to digital-only downloads at this point. By and large, folks do NOT purchase a box with a DVD inside to load their systems. In other words–you have to download the software and install before reading the license. Unless, of course, you jump through several links to find the damned thing before you download it. That kind of practice hijacks consumer intelligence because let’s face it: most consumers don’t understand what they’re getting into.
The majority of the sheeple out there simply want a freakin’ web browser to look at cat pictures, an email client to troll through their spam, a platform to play brain-dead games on, and a useless text editor sold to them for upwards of a hundred dollars when they could get one for free. I’m being rather nasty about this, but it’s absolutely true.
“Why don’t you just switch operating systems?” This is the cry of the ignorant and let me tell you why: users are by and large comfortable with whatever OS they learned on. Moving them to a new software paradigm is a nightmare. They have years of information that was created on their present OS and the idea of learning a new operating system and a new way of doing things is tough for them. I’m mostly speaking about people over 40 here and yeah, I’m making generalizations based on experience. Sue me.
So when their preferred software company is putting out shit products (looking at you Microsoft), most consumers believe they have little choice. If MacOS or Windows is the only environment they know, it’s nearly impossible to get them to switch.
I say nearly. I used to get tech support calls from my parents at least once a week. They were on Windows XP. This is several years ago. I finally explained to them that I don’t use Windows and will never do so again. Therefore they had two choices–find someone else to do tech support, or switch to something I was using. My father immediately purchased an iMac.
Once my parents had the thing for a few days and learned how to use it, the tech support calls dropped to almost nothing. When they purchased iPhones and iPads, there was another learning curve and I had to help them through that. But again, those calls for support have evaporated. They know how to do what they want do and they’re very happy.
The best thing about them purchasing a Mac was the fact I knew the hardware was going to last a long time and they wouldn’t have to upgrade every two years to keep up with Microsoft’s never-ending push to profit their hardware partners by making you purchase a new machine to run their latest and greatest.
Say what you want, you can hate on my conclusions, but I remember the days when I had to reinstall an operating system every 6 months because Microsoft’s shit was just that–shit. I remember having to constantly upgrade to play games or when Microsoft put out some new and improved hardware acceleration that the cards I’d just purchased could no longer run. More ram. More harddrive. It was endless. Yes, I knew how to do it and yes, I did it. For a long time.
But I ditched the lemon monopoly for years by switching EVERYTHING to Linux. I ran Linux for years without a problem. I couldn’t play the games my friends were. That was okay–I had programming to do and since I use so much opensource, I didn’t have to purchase some fucking thing from Microsoft just to develop those programs. In other words, all it cost me was time. And I had plenty of that, much more than money.
But let’s go back to the lemon monopoly. If I purchase a car, it’s purchased. I can’t just send it back if something goes wrong with it. I’m stuck. There’s no refund. There are required recalls because of shoddy manufacturing, substandard designs, or just plain breakage and you live with them. Until you can afford another vehicle, you’re stuck.
There are so-called “lemon” laws that allow you to return said vehicle if it keeps misbehaving and is finally deemed unfixable. Luckily for the consumer, you rarely get a lemon. That’s the only saving grace. And when you’re purchasing “durable” goods, you expect that to be the case.
Car buyers, like computer consumers, are by and large a loyal lot. Or at least they were. “My father bought Ford, I bought Ford, and you’ll buy Ford.” That seemed to be the mantra for the longest time. It’s the same now. I, for instance, will probably purchase another Toyota product that’s built here in Texas. Because that’s important to me. I won’t touch GM, Ford, or Chrysler because their vehicles are only assembled here, if they even have any American hands in them. Go look at how many of their parts are manufactured in Mexico and you’ll see what I mean.
So the Lemon monopoly exists because once you have a good experience with a product, you become much less sensitive to problems with another. Microsoft users are stuck with Microsoft. There is no alternative for them if they don’t truly believe it’s time to abandon ship. Same can be said of Apple users–there is no competing MacOS. So unless you want to dive into Linux, purchase shit boxes from shit companies that are guaranteed 100% compatible with the open-source operating system, you’re fucking stuck. And that hardware? Yeah, in two years it’s more than likely to become a doorstop.
There are those of you that read this blog and listen to my stories, who build your own machines. Guess what? You are the few, the proud, the tinkerers, the folks who love tech and are going to assemble your own stuff. It’s what you do. It’s a hobby. It’s a passion. Shit, maybe it’s even a career. But YOU are the minority. While you’re purchasing your a la carte cards and etc, the vast majority of consumers are buying those shit boxes from Wal-Mart or Best Buy and getting exactly what they pay for–crap.
I’ve had bad experiences with Dell, HP, Acer, and the like. I’ve never had a bad experience with Apple hardware. If Apple hadn’t ditched their old OS and used the Debian kernel for their OS (based on NeXT), I wouldn’t have switched to them either. But the bottom line is that at least they’re built on something that’s been produced by the open-source community. That hardly means they’re infallible nor off the hook when it comes to irresponsible behavior.
So the lemon monopoly continues. I am a focus group of one. I have very specific needs and requirements that few have. I’m a programmer. I’m a podcaster. I produce the occasional video. I do a lot of audio-editing. I create and I need an operating system that’s focused on those things and I just want shit to work. Because I have things to do and don’t have the energy nor leisure to hack together something that will work or spend countless hours retraining myself on new software, no matter how good it might be.
I’m stuck, for now. And yet I use a Linux workstation at my dayjob. I’m very comfortable with it and it allows me to do everything I need. Microsoft’s crap? No so much. Once I had my workstation set up, I didn’t boot up my Dell corporate plastic piece of shit laptop for 8 months. They finally got so fed up, they gave me a macbook so I could run the corporate software.
You use what you know. I’m too goddamned old and tired to keep up with the latest hardware advances. I’m too overscheduled to spend hours searching for Linux compatible hardware or work to solve driver issues. I just don’t give a shit. I don’t have to have the fastest hardware. Like I said, I just want shit to work.
So I’m stuck in the Lemon monopoly too. They’ve got me for a very long time. Until they don’t. If Apple continues its bullshit, then at some point, I’ll be forced to switch to Linux full time. I can do it. It’ll be painful, but I can do it. Can you?
Hold your lemon overlords responsible. Make noise when they act irresponsible. Do the same for your car manufacturer, the company that makes your microwave, your refrigerator, your stove, A/C system, etc. Don’t be the silent majority that simply feels run over. It’s a trap. It’s the same thing the government does–make things too complex for the average person to even understand they’re being fucked.
Be a smart consumer. Break free of ignorance and apathy. Hold those accountable that the stock market won’t. And maybe we’ll see a change.