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“Information wants to be free..” or so said Marshall McLuhan. Steve Jobs should heed this as a warning, rather than just using McLuhan’s image as a marketing shill as Apple did during its “Think Different” campaign.

Apple’s customers, embracing the simplicity of its products, want to move their music and movies around (particularly ones they actually pay for) unfettered by DRM: Apple says no. With its market clout, Apple has the opportunity to take a stand against the music insultry and the movie biz. It has consciously chosen not to.

Apple’s customers want to buy its slick new iPhone and use it anywhere in the world, on the network of their choosing. Apple says no. With its brand power, Apple could have created and released an unlocked phone (like, say, Palm) and allowed the market to embrace it as a platform. And as users and hackers have developed workarounds to get what they want, Apple is attempting to punish them by frying infringing iPhone firmware.

In the case of iTunes, the market has been free to work around Apple’s ignorance as there has long been a thriving DIVX and MP3 bazaar thanks to a number of file sharing networks over which to exchange them, and with some effort those are playable in iTunes and transferable to iPod. In the case of the iPhone, though, Apple has inadvertently catalyzed a real revolution. From the web site today:

“…for our customers who have no immediate need to use alternate providers and are still using their AT&T card, you are welcome to update your phone. For the rest please be patient, as the jailbreak issue is something that affects much more than just the unlocking. The thousands of open source developers who have put a cumulative 10s of thousands of man hours into various apps and tools now have no way to get them onto the phone as well. We are all looking into the jailbreak issue as it affects us all, and we will keep updating our site as well as the open source community at large with any information we can about this.”

In both operating modes, Apple has partnered with a cabal and taken their side, rather than the market’s side. They’ve thoroughly misjudged the ingenuity of the mob and the ill will that has been built up over decades between the market and the companies that service them. And by sitting at the wrong side of the table in the ongoing war, Apple has not only passed over a perfect opportunity to affect positive change, shift the lumbering elephants of industry, and stimulate growth, but it has jeopardized its credibility and brand equity.

Apple doesn’t just need to “Think Different” … it needs to “Act Different”. People will not forget their behaviour through this era, just as Mac enthusiasts still vilify John Sculley for rejecting numerous fundamentals that made the original Mac (even in its time) as successful as it was.

Thinking Different was supposed to be Apple’s raison-d’etre. Here’s the text from the icon above, originally penned by Jack Kerouac, which is the TextEdit icon in OS X Leopard:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes – the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing that you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.”

This was the cornerstone of Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” campaign, and it’s unsurprising that it lives on as an Easter Egg nestled within a core application of their operating system. Since the 1980s, Apple has leveraged its entire brand identity on rebelliousness. Every campaign, up to and including the smug, polarizing “I’m a Mac” series have extended this equity, largely with products that truly were “different”.

In dancing with the devil by partnering with the Movie, Music, and Wireless industries, Apple has achieved things that few other companies could have and to a limited extent has torn down some walls.  But the compromises, such as its revenue sharing arrangement with wireless carriers, are downright faustian.  And as Apple has been attempting to “evolve” these arrangements to greater customer-friendliness and openness, they are learning the price one pays when one’s business (and quarterly reporting) becomes enmeshed with the whims of a dinosaur.

The iPhone takes this the furthest at both extremes: It’s the most limited platform Apple has created, and it’s also the one with the most potential to be revolutionary. Like a date with Ann Coulter, buying and using an iPhone begins all shiny and pretty and ends up on the rocks amid a boil of hostility, frustration and creative limitations. That the source of all of that negativity is the smoldering heap of what used to be Cingular wireless is not something that the market will acknowledge or forgive.

With these two bubbling issues, Apple is quickly approaching a brand crisis. It has drawn to its corner just the sort of people who are revolutionaries, who affect change, and who decry cronyism. These people have actively laboured to help Apple to continue to push the envelope there, but at the same time they are prone to fickleness.

Miller Brooks, an ad firm, points out that a Brand Crisis can hit any company, no matter how well-entrenched — and quickly. They recommend starting to manage the situation by finding your ethical compass, and then rapidly thereafter accepting reality. Apple is fortunate in that it need only look to its users to find its ethical compass. Many of them are bloggers. All of them are vociferous. 🙂

Apple needs to listen to the wisdom of the crowd. I believe they are at a critical fork in the road. “Brand Crisis” and “Apple” are not terms usually read in the same paragraph, but perhaps this is a sign of things to come.

When the Fake Steve Jobs is more in touch with the market than the Real Steve Jobs, Apple may have officially jumped the shark.

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