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How Apple's story is like 'Breaking Bad'

"Breaking Bad's" Walter White innovates to survive and leave a legacy but then goes on to create an empire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Apple's dramatic history is like watching the show "Breaking Bad"
  • Steve Jobs, like character Walter White, fought cancer while working to leave a legacy
  • With a rise comes hubris, as displayed by White and Apple
  • In both, time will tell whether empires continue to rise or fall

Editor's note: Editor's note: Omar L. Gallaga is a tech-culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and a technology contributor to CNN.com, NPR and Kirkus Reviews.

(CNN) -- There's a reason why we tech writers are so endlessly fascinated by the story of Apple. The rise, fall and stunning rise again of the tech company has, over several decades, been like watching a really good, long-running cable TV drama -- in particular, a relentlessly tense and engrossing one called "Breaking Bad."

In fact, Apple's relationship with its rivals, the creation and adoption of its popular products, and the company's own attitudes and actions closely parallel television's best current show.

If you want to know how Apple's epic run turns out or how its ongoing battle with longtime rival Microsoft is resolved, you can watch the series, which ends its current half-season of eight episodes with a finale Sunday night.

Most obviously, Apple's story mirrors that of "Breaking Bad" in the way the TV show began: Walter White, a chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to use his science skills to cook methamphetamine. He takes shocking, out-of-character risks but reinvents himself as a brilliant, feared meth chemist who grows more ambitious, ruthless and cocky with each victory.

It's hard not to think of Apple co-founder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs, who fought pancreatic cancer from 2003 until his death last year. It was during this period that Jobs rebuilt Apple from a struggling also-ran into the most influential and profitable tech company in history, releasing a string of industry-changing products from the iPhone to the MacBook Air to the iPad.

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Like Steve Jobs, Walter White's cancer awakens a panic in him to hurry up and leave a legacy through his work. In Walter's case, it's a nest egg for his wife, teenage son and unborn daughter. But let's leave aside the cancer theme, which has in more recent seasons of the show been on the back burner as Walt has been in remission.

What makes Apple so successful? Like Walter White, it has mixed the proper elements at just the right amounts to create highly pure, addictive products. The products have been made within secretive working conditions. The skill employed to design and manufacture them tends to make what competitors put out seem like cheaper, cloudier, less effective imitations.

Walt has Heisenberg Blue as his signature product color. Apple favors brilliant white, black or aluminum in its palette for major products.

Both Jobs and Walt believed they were the best at what they do and infused that belief into perfecting the exacting, precise formulas for what they make. But like Jobs, and Apple as a company, Walt's ego sometimes prompts him to make damaging mistakes.

When Apple's iPhone 4 was found to have an external antenna problem, the company pretended there was no issue and then claimed that other cell phones had the same problem. It was finally forced to admit that the metal in its design might have something to do with it. It launched an ambitious music social network called Ping that nobody used. And for years, Apple allowed poor labor conditions to continue in China in the manufacture of its products before bad publicity finally forced the company to begin taking steps to address the crisis.

While it was easy to feel sympathy for a dying teacher trying to provide for his family, Walt's nature on "Breaking Bad" has changed over five seasons. These days, he's clearly the villain of the story, and it's no longer fun or tasteful to root for his increasingly selfish actions.

In the case of Apple, the company's underdog status in its PC-era war against Microsoft created a cult of users who continue to evangelize Apple products. But now that it's on top, the company is more likely to be harshly criticized.

When a recent lawsuit battle with Samsung over patents ended in Apple's favor last week, the reaction online was largely negative toward Apple. Android developers and casual observers alike claim that Apple may be stifling competition and fighting its battles in court instead of in the marketplace.

Apple also recently earned more criticism over mistakes it's made running retail stores. Its TV ads this year, including a campaign for Siri and one that aired during the Olympics featuring an Apple Genius Bar character, have been more mocked than admired.

This season, Walt's cohort Jesse Pinkman asked whether he's in the meth or the money business. "Neither. I'm in the empire business," Walt replied. Apple, with its huge cash reserves and continued plans for expansion, certainly feels like an empire.

But nobody thinks any empire lasts forever. When companies end up on top, their eventual complacency and slowing innovation make them vulnerable. Any single poor decision or missed opportunity can snowball.

It was not so long ago that Microsoft was considered the all-consuming, all-powerful evil empire on the tech scene, having taken the crown from IBM.

In "Breaking Bad," Walt's most dangerous adversary was Gustavo Fring, a calm, cool, extremely intelligent businessman played by Giancarlo Esposito. Gus let his guard down, always underestimating Walt and declining to eliminate him when he had the chance.

There were times when Microsoft could have decimated Apple by pulling its Office software from the Mac platform or choosing not to invest $150 million in the company, as it did back in the '90s. Instead, Microsoft let Apple continue and, in refusing to see Apple as a serious threat, lost the mobile phone, portable music, online video and tablet markets to Apple. It's increasingly ceding ground in computer software as well.

Will Apple's turn as ruler of the roost last so long, or will the ultimate business comeback story turn into the tale of an empire that too quickly fell victim to its own hubris?

Next summer, we'll find out how the final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" will play out. It's hard to tell how bad things will get, but the show's smart, dark take on human nature, hard choices and karma could be instructive for Apple watchers.

Things will probably turn out much rosier for Apple than they will for doomed, damned lost soul Walter White. But if "Breaking Bad" has taught us anything, it's that a world of hurt and unforeseen consequences is just a few bad decisions away.

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