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This Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled this week. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.
Today's subject: Last month, the humor site Cracked.com posted a semiserious article listing five reasons to be scared of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) . The top reason, entertainingly referred to as "The Masterplan," refers to an Oct. 22, 2009, patent in which Apple describes a method for forcing users to pay attention to ads.
You read that right; this is no joke. U.S. Patent Office application 20090265214, co-authored by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, refers to "an operating system [that] presents one or more advertisements to a user and disables one or more functions while the advertisement is being presented."
Sound bad? It gets worse when you dig into the details:
As another example, the system can provide constant or repeated monitoring of whether the system presents the advertisement(s) as scheduled. If non-presentation is detected, the system can invoke one or more enforcement routines to seek compliance with the advertisement presentation schedule. Such enforcement routines can include, but are not limited to, disabling the system in whole or in part, reporting the issue to a responsible party, invoking an alternative way of presenting the advertisement (such as by audio when visual presentation is impeded), or by registering the non-compliance in a log that can later be used in a follow-up process.
Anyone else reading that wonder if Apple TV is about to graduate from homey living room companion to 1950's "and now a word from our sponsor" pitchman? Perhaps we're witnessing the end of Apple TV as hobby and the beginning of the device as a serious, if creepy, rival to TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO ) and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO ) and its set-top boxes.
The iPhone could also be a target for this technology, an enhancement designed to entice big-budget advertisers to its recently acquired Quattro Wireless ad network.
Why you should be indignant: When's the last time we saw Apple talking like this? Technology-induced mind control? It'd be like a really good Hulu ad if this weren't a serious patent filing. Alec Baldwin could reprise his role.
But of course we've never seen Apple act this Orwellian. That's why some Fools don't believe it's real.
"I think this is all a red herring, because we live in an interactive, socially networked world. Apple knows this," wrote our own David Gardner in response to the news. David has twice named Apple to his side of the Motley Fool Stock Advisor scorecard.
I'd love to be as optimistic as David, but recent history shows how seriously Apple takes its patent portfolio. I have a hard time believing Jobs would lend his name to a filing for a technology that he had no intention of developing.
And that has consequences. Already famous for imposing its will on the music industry and software developers, what happens when the company imposes its will on users? When do we reach the line in the sand, the one that consumers won't cross, the one that signals the end to this remarkable growth story?
Perhaps I'm overstating the problem. One of my favorite Fools, T. Allan Regas, known here as TMFBreakerTAllan, wrote this in response to the patent news:
I wouldn't be "scared." I think that the broadcast media model has worked very well for both content producers and consumers for the past 90 years, first with radio and then TV where consumers trade free content for time with ads. I know that because of that model, my choices in available media and content are exponentially increased where the costs are shifted to advertisers and not borne by consumers.
He has a point. The difference is that Apple plans to compel behavior, and consumers rarely take kindly to being compelled to do anything. More often, they revolt. Ask eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) about its experience with raising prices sometime.
If I'm being tough on Apple, it's because I love the company. I grew up with Apple. I wrote geeky little programs on an Apple IIe. I resisted pressure to "become a PC" at work in the early '90s, choosing instead to spend as much as was necessary to configure my PowerMac for remote access to my company's Windows network. I was a turtleneck-wearing member of the Cult of Mac, because that Apple was a lovable loser that loved its small band of loyal users in return.
This patent, this company, isn't the Apple I know. And that's good in one sense. Lovable losers are for baseball, not business. Apple should play to beat Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) . But I wonder if, in chasing victory, the Mac maker has lost its soul. This soul, in particular:
You know, we don't grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved ... I mean, we're constantly taking things. It's a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.
That's Jobs, quoted by writer Steven Levy in the book Insanely Great, a narrative recap of how the Mac came to be, and why Jobs and his team worked so hard to make it: to add to the human experience.
Bludgeoning advertising technology doesn't meet that standard.