Apple Is Missing Out On A Powerful Weapon
September 20th, 1999

Something has been brewing in the background for too long now and those of us who have had to deal with it have been quite puzzled. At this point I should thank Dave Hamilton, Business Manager at The Mac Observer, for mentioning this in an editorial he recently wrote. This prodding was enough to get me to finally write this piece. Thanks Dave!

Here's the deal. Apple is missing out on one of the most powerful weapons it has had in its arsenal since Guy Kawasaki last donned a 6-colored badge. I am talking about the online Mac web community of which you are a part if you are reading this column. The people who run the web sites and read the content are among the most dedicated and fanatical Mac users in the world.

So how does this mean that Apple is blowing an opportunity? After all these sites are all fighting the good fight. Right? Well we are, or most of us are, but we do it without Apple's help. In fact, Apple wishes that most, if not all, of us would go away.

In all honestly, a part of me can't blame Apple for this. Many of the Mac web sites are out to release anything that will land eyeballs on their site, some of it long before Apple wishes it to be out. In addition, many stories are printed without any traditional due diligence, and this can make any company tense. Before you start thinking I am somehow excluding The Mac Observer, I am not. We too have printed information about things that Apple has not released yet, but it wasn't always the case, more on that in a bit.

The Internet has made the free-flow of information easier than it has ever been in the history of the world, and this includes company secrets. Sometimes this information comes from disgruntled employees, ex-employees, employees of companies that Apple has subcontracted, people who have heard something at a party, and friends or family of anyone in the above categories. This information isn't always about new products either, sometimes it is information relating to problems Apple is having delivering product, bugs in software, or hardware flaws that Apple stupidly wants to sit on instead of fixing like they should.

Sometimes, this information is also false. I know firsthand about a story printed by one of the main rumor sites about Dell Computer buying Apple about 2 years ago. That rumor was sent in as a joke by high ranking employees of one of Apple's former licensees who were bored and wanted to see if it would be printed. It was. Ouch.

There are other reasons for Apple being tense with the web community, but the bottom line is that Apple can't control us and Apple does not like what it can not control. Take for instance the merger between Macworld and MacUser magazine when IDG and Mac Publishing started running scared. Apple's reaction was something along the lines that the merger was good because they preferred to have one major Mac print publication. I am not sure about you, but I think this is lunacy. The more publications you have talking about your products the better. However, from Apple's stand point there was one less voice spewing forth information and one less source to worry about. Most importantly, there was one less place for Apple to have to spend their money.

This has nothing to do with MacAddict, which has had their own run ins with Apple, or Mac Today, MacJournal, and other print magazines that are around today. At that time, MacUser and Macworld were the two largest print magazines, and it can be argued that the demise of MacUser helped MacAddict, in some part, rise to its current prominence.

Understand one thing above all. Advertising dollars are very important to print magazines. This was why during the age of Cloning, and then the more tumultuous Clone Wars, Mac magazines were much more free to release information about Apple and be more critical of them at the same time. Find a review from that time that resulted in Apple having the fastest Mac on the market (hint: you won't, because they didn't). Most of the major advertising dollars were coming from the cloners. Eliminating them put Apple back into a much more important role with the mags. I am NOT suggesting that anyone sold their editorial content, but I am saying that the reality is that business people are not anxious to make the main source of their bread and butter angry. That's a fact of life, even if it works below the surface.

Enter the proliferation of Mac web sites, including the first one: Ric Ford's MacInTouch. Many Mac web sites are just as dependent upon advertising dollars as are the print mags, but with budgets a mere fraction of the print mags, those needs can mostly be supplied by the companies that make Mac software, hardware, and peripherals.

This is a good thing for us too because Apple won't deal with Mac web sites. They won't advertise with most of us and they will not usually deal with any of us in an official capacity. I was told very politely and professionally by Russell Brady, Apple's head PR person, that Apple does not work with "rumor sites like The Mac Observer, MacOS Rumors, and MacInTouch." We don't mind in the least being included in the company of MacInTouch, but neither Mr. Ford's site, nor we, are rumor sites. We are Mac news sites. We also print rumors when our sources are deemed reliable. Interestingly enough, Mr. Brady told us this when I was trying to confirm a piece of legitimate news with him. It's hard to perform due diligence when the confirming sources won't work with you in the first place. In addition, we used to sit on information that we felt might impact Apple when we knew it was correct. With Apple stating they would not work with us, we decided to follow the path of journalism and print information that came to us as long as we believed it to be legitimate.

And that's what Apple does not seem to understand. The Internet is here to stay. Just like the very Desktop Publishing revolution that Apple helped to create, the Internet makes it easier for people with far fewer resources to publish. When Aldus Pagemaker was released, it made it possible for anyone with a Mac to design a newsletter or a small company to publish a full-blown magazine. The Internet makes it possible for anyone with HTML experience and the ability to hack out a few sentences to launch their own web site. Many of these sites are advertising free and most only have to pay part time wages to one or two people at the most. Even the larger Mac sites can exist with budgets that are a fraction of those of a print magazine.

This means we don't need Apple's advertising dollars and this means that Apple can't punish us when we print things they don't like. I don't mean to make Apple seem petty with that statement. It is a very understandable reaction for a company not to advertise with a publication that is printing information they deem vital or contrary to their business interests! That's the way business works.

For this reason, they choose not to deal with us, and this is where I think they are making a big mistake. Instead of pretending we are not here, Apple should Think Different and pursue a policy of engagement with the online Mac community.

Instead of trading in money, Apple's new policy of engagement would instead trade in information. Apple should work with the most professional sites by supplying review units and other information before it hits the PR trail. The caveat is that it not be published before Apple's predetermined date through official non-disclosure agreements and the like. In this way, we get treated like news outlets and Apple has recourse should someone renege on their agreements. That recourse is to no longer supply review units or advance news. In effect, sites can choose to play by the rules or not. This may be a tough choice for many, and some may feel like they are selling their souls, but as long as Apple does not try and wield their threat club at any infraction, everyone, including Apple, Mac sites, and their legions of readers, would be much happier. This means that Apple has to understand that there is a difference between printing every single rumor that comes along, no matter how ridiculous it may be, and printing a legitimate piece of news before it generally becomes available. This is a fine line to walk, to be sure, but it is a vital one for Apple to move their press relationships into the new millennium.

The web is not going to go away and, as time marches on, Mac web sites will exert an increasing amount of influence. Witness the recent purchase of MacCentral by Mac Publishing LLC in an attempt by Mac Publishing to sneak its way into the grass roots movement. Instead of wishing that away, which will not work, Apple needs to turn the online Mac community into another marketing arm and work with it. If Apple were to do so, those sites that worked with Apple would publish in a much more professional manner or risk being ostracized. A site that receives regular review units is much more likely to think twice about printing the specs for the upcoming iMac.

Please don't get me wrong here. We're not just some site crying over the treatment we've received from Apple. We're doing great at The Mac Observer with the Status Quo. We think that, by treating online sites this way (which is very similar to how Apple used to treat developers) will only stand to weaken Apple's position in the marketplace. By supporting Mac-based web sites in the ways I've mentioned, they can capitalize on a marketing force that could very well propel them forward.

If Apple can balance the fact that journalists are bound to print legitimate news, even if it harmful to Apple, with the ability to control some aspects of that coverage by cooperating with web outlets, they could have a powerful army of online Evangelists at their disposal. As it is, most Mac sites have an Us vs. Apple mindset, even while trying to promote the very thing that Apple wants promoted.

Your comments and hate mail can be sent to [email protected].

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