Live from the Apple Store, Part 1: Parasites

Every few weeks, I go and check out a few retail Apple Stores just to see what’s happening away from my desk – most of the time, it’s on the weekends, but today, I set aside the afternoon for MacBook Pro repairs, so I’m writing from the local mall on our spare MacBook. This week, what’s going on outside the Apple Stores has actually been more newsworthy than what’s inside.

In New York, Greenpeace was protesting at an Apple Store to make Apple more environmentally friendly, and in London, some group or another tried to convince people to sing songs to each other rather than buying iPods. Orange County’s stores aren’t quite so – uh – political. Here, the most eye-catching things outside of Apple Stores are the little vendors that have recently set up adjacent iPod accessory kiosks designed to catch people right before or after they’re leaving the “official” stores.

This weekend, we spotted one of these shops in Mission Viejo, and some of the items on sale were actually stunning. We could have predicted that they’d be pushing the cheapest of the cheap silicone cases, but not that they’d be openly trying to sell the same knockoffs of Apple’s nano armbands we saw last year in stores overseas. These items were shelved alongside inexpensive speakers from Logic3, plus a surprising number of ABT accessories, though nothing else from the bigger U.S. iPod vendors.

 

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Today, at the Irvine Spectrum store, a kiosk’s placement is even more brazen: it’s a different store, but literally right outside the Apple Store’s front door. Though it’s billed as a gadget-agnostic kiosk, the vast majority of the Gizmobies stand is covered in packaged iPod stickers; whatever other gadgets it’s there for, it’s not trying hard to promote. A few other low-end add-ons (cables, car mounts, and car chargers) – none from major companies – are also there for sale, just in case you don’t like the ones in Apple’s shop.

Is there anything wrong with these sorts of satellite shops? Technically, no: it’s great that people have so many different iPod accessory options at different prices, and on some level, it’s amazing that those different options can be found at two stores literally right next to each other at major shopping malls. But because of the stuff they’re selling, these kiosks remind me of the somewhat famous Steve Jobs story about Mac computer clone makers having their licenses abruptly terminated: according to the story, Jobs saw the clone makers as “parasites,” profiting off the company’s marketing dollars and hard development work with minimal effort, just by offering cheaper alternatives.

 

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Now I like affordable accessories and the growth of the iPod add-on market at least as much as the next guy – maybe a little more so – but I’ll also be the first person to tell you that there are points at which the iPod ecosystem has felt a little out of control. A few years ago, that point was when untested iPod batteries and car chargers started to show up and fry iPods on contact. Today, as every day sees the release of another three nothing-special accessories, I spend a lot of time thinking about that Steve Jobs story, wondering who the parasites are today, and who are Apple’s true supporters – the people who make its computers and iPods better through their actions.

It can be hard to draw the line fairly, and Apple’s corporate interests aren’t the only ones at stake here. Even if Greenpeace isn’t serving Apple’s goals, it may be doing the environment – and thereby, the world – some service. But as I walk past kiosks full of stickers and low-end cables – or worse yet, knockoffs of Apple products – so close to Apple Stores, I’m not entirely sure that anyone other than the kiosks’ owners are better for their presence. Readers, what do you think?

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