Some Perspective Due on "Intel Sticker Guy"

| Columns and Opinions

Sure, like youive never been in a high-visibility, high-pressure situation and wound up doing something sub-optimal.

This is my gentle response to the maelstrom of crap thatis been focused on "Intel Sticker Guy" over the past few days. Ever since he stood up during the Q&A portion of Appleis big iMac/iLife/iWork press event on Tuesday and asked Steve Jobs why Appleis Intel Macs donit sport "Intel Inside" stickers, this poor, hitherto-anonymous manis been a popular punching bag. Itis starting to become quite unseemly.

It wasnit a stupid question. It just wasnit a very good question, particularly under the circumstances. Believe me, I know the difference. Because Iive been there at press conferences armed with The Perfect Thing To Ask. The question that will help me and my readers fully understand one of the many complexities of this announcement or event. A question that causes me to edge just a bit more forward in my seat every time Iim not called on, one that causes me to javelin my hand into the air with greater and greater urgency as the clock ticks down and I sense that the press conference is about to end; I know that if I get this question answered, I not only will get the answer, but Iill get The Quote that will make this piece into something extra-special.

I know what a truly Stupid Question is because invariably, when the event is over and my silver bullet remains in the gun, unfired, someone with a Stupid Question got to speak their piece instead of me. I curse his or her ancestors ranging all the way back to the good old days when Humanity was nothing more than a puddle of amino acids with a great deal of potential.

I covered the launch of the first private manned flight into space. This was truly big-time stuff. Mike "Spaceman" Melvill, Burt "Doc Emmett Brown" Rutan and Paul "Celestial Checkbook of Most Divine Fury" Allen gathered in a small theater at Mojave Spaceport after an exhilarating and historic day. A clearly-delighted official from the FAA presented Melvill with the very first pair of civilian astronaut wings, and then they started the press conference.

I was fully-credentialed. I even had a little silver star on my press badge, which meant that I was here on actual business. Sure, this wasnit as good as a silver star plus a blue one, which would have meant that I was with electronic media and needed priority seating. But even so, my Seeing Eye Nerd -- a good friend of mine from NASA whom Iid gotten credentialed to explain to me what the hell I was looking at -- had to wait outside like a dog tied to a parking meter.

I wound up in the overflow tent and watched the press conference via a monitor. They offered to find me a spot in the theater, but it was already starting to look like the scrum for a Barry Bonds home-run ball in there. Better to let that spot go to someone whoid be submitting their coverage moments after the press conference, I reckoned; surely these reporters needed immediate answers. Me, I could just as easily send questions via email or phone. My piece wouldnit be running until the Sunday edition.

And so, as I sipped at a complimentary beverage in a tent in the desert, I heard the following question crackle from a PA speaker:

"Mike, did you see any aliens while you were up there?"

Yes. Over the course of the press conference, only a limited number of questions were going to be answered by the principals themselves, a fact of which the press pool was only too well aware. And lo and behold, one of those precious few was Did you see E.T.?

The group immediately turned on the guy.

No, they didnit start beating him with their laptops and tripods...though damn, he sure would have had it coming. I mean that all of the press there on the screen turned in their seats to see just who the holy **** had asked such a fish-slappingly stupid, soup-riding-a-bicycle question. Earlier, someone had asked "Mike, were those M&Mis;you ate in zero-G, or some other kind of color-coated candies?" and at that moment, he suddenly felt a little better about himself.

If we were to compare what Intel Sticker Guy did in terms of murder -- and good heavens, many people seem to be -- heis the meth addict who thought the house was empty and who wouldnit have screamed in surprise like that if heid known the old man with the baseball bat had a heart condition. Whereas "Did You See ET?" Guy was Chairman Mao.

These press conferences are tricky business, anyway. Particularly when you have a chance to ask a question of someone as high-profile as Steve Jobs, whom you otherwise wouldnit get anywhere near. The question wasnit terribly on-topic given the announcements of the day but I bet itis something that had been on his mind for a few months, and he just made a poor guess of how best to exploit the opportunity.

The true challenge of these situations is to figure out just how much you can get away with. Me? I got off easy. I couldnit fly to Cupertino, so Apple gave me a half-hour phone briefing on Thursday. It was out of the public eye, and as an ongoing two-way conversation it was 100% substantive. All the same, Iim sure I asked a question or two that was dumber than Sticker Guyis. Iid rather allow someone from Apple to think "Man, thatis the dumbest question thatis ever been asked" than have a reader think "Man, thatis the dumbest thing thatis ever been written!" If that occasionally means asking "So, WiFi: thatis the thing with the Internet, right?" then so be it.

It would have been a different story if my briefing had taken place in public, oicourse. But in the end, a journalistis obligation is to his or her readers and not to his ego or reputation. If Sticker Guy erred on the side of his readers, then thatis laudable.

Iim not sure what I would have asked there on the Apple campus, to be honest. Iive read all of the questions from that press conference and frankly, most of those people wasted the opportunity. Steve Jobs is twenty feet away from you, and you have a good shot at getting to ask him one and only one question. Yes, youill need to tread carefully, but if he gives you a plain, direct answer...well, damn, man, youive got the lead paragraph and the pull quote for your article right there.

Fantastic. So on that basis, once you were called on and Steve Jobs was looking at you and giving you his attention...you asked him a simple technical question that any Apple employee could have answered just as well, minutes or days after Elvis has left the auditorium?

Honestly: some variant of the Glass Houses encyclical remains in effect here.

But forget about all of that. Thereis a bigger and more important reason why everyone should just lay off of Intel Sticker Guy:

Itis meanspirited and we should be strive to be better than that. Not as Mac users, journalists, or bloggers. As people.

Itis unkind to keep intensifying the spotlight on this guy. Itid be a different story if this was an actual news item, but you know what? It isnit. All of this discussion seems to be motivated by the "Thank God Iim not him" impulse and as I write this, on Day Three of Stickergate, I think we should be digging down deep and letting our actions be informed by the thought "What if it was me?"

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