Why so Many Tech Columnists are Down on Apple

“You're miserable, edgy and tired. You're in the perfect mood for journalism.” -- Warren Ellis

As one travels around the Internet, one can find many, many articles that are suddenly anti-Apple. It's not that Apple didn't have its detractors before, rather, a new outcropping of negative writing has appeared. Let's look at why this is happening.

Once upon a time, Apple was a beleaguered company. In the late 1990s, Apple almost went out of business. Then, miraculously, Steve Jobs made his comeback and he drove the company to new heights.

In that historic journey, Apple started building terrific products. The elegance and style of Macs appealed to younger people, the iPhone was a sensation and completely changed the way smartphones are designed. The iPad set the stage for a whole new Post-PC era. Apple became a wealthy company.

During that critical period of upheaval, from 1998 to 2011, Apple shook the foundations of the consumer electronics industry. Not only did it sell highly desirable products to millions, build stores that were always packed shoulder to shoulder, but  Apple also called into question the management of every other high tech company on the planet. The comparisons were often blunt, critical and outright embarrassing.

Technical Evolution

As a long time observer of this company, my feeling is that companies got tired of being compared to Apple in an unfavorable light. Other executive teams sat down and started really thinking about the new economy, the new customer mentality, their own business practices and products. And with Steve Jobs gone, they started to look at any possible weakness exhibited by Apple.

The first realization was that the tablet era was here to stay, the PC as a mass market product rather than a niche tool was doomed, and that they should get serious about tablets. The next realization was that early tablets failed because they had no supporting ecosystem. Amazon developed the Kindle Fire series to exploit its marketplace and Google built a marketplace to support its Android ambitions (called Google Play). Finally, Android evolved into a decent tablet and smartphone OS and manufacturing techniques evolved to provide a pretty good feel, fit and finish.

Today, thanks to technical development and clever marketing, it's not clear to the average buyer why an iPad is so overwhelmingly superior to some Android tablets that they should be dismissed out of hand. It's not about what Apple has done wrong; it's about what other companies are doing right for a change. That's cause for celebration by all, not a predictor of Apple armageddon.

There are many reasons why Apple remains in favor. Without getting into a book-length treatise, Apple products retain a certain sense of style, balance and design. They pull us forward into the future, relentlessly. Apple has great customer service and hundreds of local stores. Apple still integrates hardware and software better than anyone.

But, in time, the vast gulf between early tablets and the iPad has closed, and this is alarming many technical columnists. A look at some of those reasons for alarm is worthwhile as well as some of the other factors, seductions, that are causing this negative turn in some writing circles.

Constant Dazzle

Apple's product cycles used to be on an annual basis. Recently, Apple looks to be changing that to a six month cycle. But publications need something new to write about every day. Internet readers, deluged by digital publications and blogs have to prioritize, and the Big Story gets their attention. So it appears that Apple's innovation is dying when, in fact, it's not. It's just not subject to a frenetic feeding cycle of Internet buzz. Good hardware takes time, time that writers and readers aren't willing to grant.

Apple: Love and Fear

Apple is a large, successful, glamorous company. We love their products. Millions of customer proudly carry their iPhone and iPads everywhere. So if something is wrong with Apple, we tend to get concerned. We're news junkies. Is Apple running out of gas? Is there a scandal? Has its run come to an end? Are new companies outperforming Apple? Will Apple's patents be slowly whittled away, leaving the company defenseless? With journalistic drama, publications want to have readers clinging to their every word. As an added plus, it makes the publication look important and valuable.

Celebrity Leadership

Tim Cook is an effective spokesperson for Apple as a company. He is clearly passionate about Apple's products. However, no one believes that he alone is the driving force behind Apple's new products. As a result, Apple currently has no highly visible spokesperson who can speak articulately about his personal passion for design and take ownership of the products. Only Jonathan Ive can do that, and he's not very visible as an Apple persona except at Apple keynotes. And even then, not in person but on video.

Without that kind of visible person, taking responsibility for Apple products and also engaging the public (and writers) as Steve Jobs did, writers have no grounding, no compass. Steve Jobs told us what we should be thinking, and it crystalized why Apple was the choice. We are a celebrity culture. Now, Apple's public image no longer has a shinning star, hanging in the east. Many writers have lost (or never had) focus on the basics of Apple. Call it writer's drift.

PC Era Curmudgeons

Those publications and writers who were solidly in the Microsoft camp in the 1990s have been forced to admit, lately, that Apple's products have been a sensation. They are nicely built and designed, wildly popular. It created doubts in their minds about the wisdom of Apple's competitors.

Accordingly, whenever there's a perceived chink in Apple's armor, hope springs anew that their old thinking can be dusted off and have a fresh face. By golly, that's something to write about.

Technical Insight

Technical stories are boring. Digging into the details, and there's always more behind the scenes to tell, is hard work and not always wildly popular. Worse, our own Internet bandwidth is akin to the psyche of many executives.

In a technical company, there are the guru engineers and the chief scientist. They know all the ins and outs in detail. They can publish technical papers. Executives at the top, on the other hand, have broader responsibilities and don't have the required technical training. So they can only absorb tidbits. They create simple mental models that they can digest to explain events they encounter. Call it elevator-speech intellect.

Many writers and their readers, pressed for time, use the same techniques. A single juicy tidbit of information, even rumors, can be enough to sway people who think of themselves as smart and seasoned. Call it quick-trigger thinking. It affects Apple stock and it permeates Internet writing.

But Wait! Nothing's Really Changed

Meanwhile, not much has changed at Apple. The core executive team has been there for over a decade. Some senior executives have come and gone, but the leadership and spirit of Apple remains as strong as it ever has been.

What's changed is that some writers have found that there's money to be made by waxing sensational about Apple, feeding our fears, posting silly, juicy rumors, avoiding essential nuances, glossing over the important technical details, seizing opportunities to appear to be our knight in shining armor, and generally blasting our visual field with lurid headlines.

That's not to say that Apple is a perfect company. Occasionally it makes mistakes and needs to be called out, calmly and professionally.

The recent wave of negativism has many causes. I cited the notable ones above. But the essential thing to remember is that Apple is building great products. It's good to be in the Apple ecosystem, and one can be amazingly productive with Apple's offerings.

It's not about what troubles Apple from day to day, real or imagined. It's what we as customers can achieve with those products, our own passion, that's really important and can make a difference. Still, more than most other companies, Apple understands that. Not a step has been lost there.

As Steve Jobs used to say when he savored a particular product on stage: "This is why we do what we do."


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